A New View of, “The Wizard of Oz”
An Analytical Critique
By: J. Marlando
There is no doubt about it “The Wizard of Oz” was my all-time favorite movie when I was a child and remains among my favorite all-time movie as an adult. I am fully aware that I am not alone. The Library of Congress has named it “the most watched movie of all time” and it is often listed in the 10 most popular motion pictures of all times. I first saw the movie as a very small child back in the 1940s. Then sometime after television was popularized, I saw it again as a teenager and I’ve been watching it, just about once a year, after that.
First of all, I love the film as pure entertainment and who doesn’t remember at least a couple of lines from “Somewhere over the Rainbow?” My favorites are the lyrics:
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me
I am convinced that the movie had a great deal with my own entrance into show business since to me the entire experience is a mesmerizing mindscape that no doubt inspired me to find my own yellow brick road. After all, I was a kid raised in mining camps—that’s a very long way from Hollywood! My point, however, is that beyond all else, the Wizard of Oz stays with you as total experience—it is not a show you simply watch, it’s a show that lifts you out of your world and flies you off to the land of Munchkins; a wonderful journey into the mind and heart!
Over so many years of enjoying the motion picture I have had ample opportunity to analyze it and seek for clues of its subtle meanings as a work of serious literature; a modern fairytale packed with symbolism and social comment. L. Frank Baum, the author of the original book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was a deep and mindful human being. And so, it is my belief that it is important to understand as much as we can about him before we can attempt to understand his masterful work.
Interestingly enough—at least for me—while there has been some analysis of Frank Baum’s incredible “children’s” tale the underlying genius of the work has not been more thoroughly explored in terms of it actual literary and symbolic values. I believe that “The Wizard of Oz” is not only one of the most entertaining stories ever told but should be included amidst the most important philosophical works of modernism. I will attempt to justify this theory in the following.
Lyman Frank Baum (he preferred being called Frank) (1856-1919) was born in Chittenango, New York. His father was a successful businessman, a strong willed, determined man we can assume. Unfortunately, amidst the Baum children, little Frank was no doubt the most withdrawn and unassuming. He had the misfortune of being born with a poor heart.
At age thirteen he was enrolled at the Peekskill Military School but the harsh discipline and physical demands proved to be too much for the boy and so he was returned home.
Back at home Frank most surely returned to his shy, isolated life of aloneness. (The reader should note that aloneness is not at all the same as loneliness). Being almost exclusively home educated he read a lot in the family library. And, it is said, that he grew an aversion to the scary and threatening creatures of the fairy tales that he read. How much this influenced his future writing we cannot know but it is safe to assume that while he was reading, he was drifting off into his own fantasies as well. Every writer has experienced this and thus the very creative, young Frank Baum would have too.
Frank’s calling to write must have pleased his parents, however, because not too long after returning home from the military school, Frank’s father purchased a printing press for young Frank and his younger brother Harry Baum. The boys started their own newspaper, “The Rose Lawn Home Journal” which was named after the family’s estate.
Frank wrote the articles for the publication which included editorials, fiction and poetry. And, he would also write about the breeding of chickens which seems to have interested him.
At age 25, Baum studied theater in New York, City and between the years 1881 to 1882 he managed an opera house in Richburg, New York. While there he wrote a play, “The Maid of Arran” and acted in it as well. In that same year, on November the 9th, he married Maud Gage and would have four children of his own.
He quit theater in 1883. He would spend a few years more lost than found after that but moved his family to South Dakota. No doubt that his parents helped financially. He opened a department store in Aberdeen but the store failed. Afterwards he edited the newspaper, “Saturday Pioneer” but that fell by the wayside as well. After that failure, Frank moved his family from Aberdeen, South Dakota to Chicago. There he opened a dry goods store which failed, he endured other failures. Then his mother-in-law suggested that he write down some of the stories he told his children over the years and so he wrote, “Mother Goose in Prose” which ended up to gain rave reviews in 1897. Two years later he would write, “Father Goose,” selling 175,000 copies. He had, if you will, finally “found himself” and in 1900, he wrote his best seller, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
To understand a writer’s work in depth is to understand the writer as much as is possible. Take a writer like Hemingway, for example: His feelings and thinking, the very dynamics of his personality blatantly weaves throughout his stories from one page to the next and so it is with all highly creative people. One immediately recognizes Picasso in a Picasso painting or Bob Fosse in a dance choreographed by him. If you will, their work flows from their souls and lands on the pages, canvases of stage as a blossoming as opposed to an unfolding and certainly this was true of Frank Baum.
Over Frank’s career, he had an interesting array of pseudonyms—among those names he wrote under were Floyd Akers, Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald and John Estes but also, Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft and Suzanne Metcalf.
When we grasp that the (very) creative spirit is connected to the anima, that is, the feminine component of the male psyche, we can begin to grasp the writer’s softer more delicate, creative side; his shadow self so to speak.
We can sense the heartbeat of the writer’s femininity but before we tackle that topic, the reader is instructed not to confuse the term femininity with effeminacy; there was nothing effeminate about Frank Baum but, it seems, he was in close connectedness with his inner-soul from which all (true) creativity springs. Had he not been, he would have been unable to create the lovely but formative character of Dorothy as to do so, he would have had to connect with her personality.
In regard to this, long before “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” Frank had become a theosophist. Theosophy suggests the transmigration of souls or, in other words, reincarnation; theosophy was an ancient Greek view probably based on Egyptian or far Eastern pantheism or, in other words, the belief that God is in everything. In the United States this is directly related to the transcendentalism of Frank’s times as promoted by such individuals as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. This, however, certainly adds to our insight into the man who was to gift us with the story of the “land of Oz.”
Upon seeing the success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” Frank wrote a number of stories that either focused on some characters from the original story or created new creatures in the circumstances of Oz. At one juncture he called himself the “Royal Historian of Oz.” But regardless of it all in 1911 he was forced to declare bankruptcy but after that he managed to open the Oz Film Manufacturing Company—a venture that also went broke. Frank died of a stroke on May 6 in the year 1919.
In contemplating the man, it is impossible not to recognize him as a philosopher. Yet, in overview, he was, beyond all else, a loving human being who simply wasn’t good at the workings of the world; a typical creator if you will! Yet, he managed to gift the world with insights that are ever as applicable today as they were yesterday and will be in our tomorrows to come. It is those insights that we will be talking about next.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
We can be all but certain that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” began strictly as a fairy tale. The idea that Frank sat down one day and said, I’m going to create a meaningful metaphor in the guise of a children’s story never occurred. The earliest motive for writing the script was to entertain; to produce a real American fantasy that children would adore—every writer who writes for children desires this success. Indeed, even in the books forward, Baum mentions that he wants to create a tale of wonder. Perhaps he had an inclination that he was setting out to write his classic; to pen his masterpiece?
The story begins on a dreaded, hot and barren flatland of Kansas many decades before the Dust Bowl years but in a dust bowl setting. And, as happens, a terrible cyclone hits Dorothy’s one room house and carries her away to places unknown. Upon her landing, the house lands on the wicked Witch of the East and kills her. Suddenly the good Witch of the North arrives and tells Dorothy to take the silver slipper off the dead witch’s feet and put them on as they will serve to guide her to her destination.
With the above in mind let’s get into the movie and unfold the wonderful story of The Wizard of Oz as entertainment.
The Wizard of Oz…The Movie
The movie starring Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, Clara Blandick, as Aunt Em and Charley Grapewin as her Uncle Henry, all live together in the “middle of nowhere” out on the Kansas flat.
There are also three farm hands—Hickory (Jake Haley), Hunk (Ray Bolger) and Zeke (Bert Lahr) who will show up later in the movie as The Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion.
All seems normal enough until a neighbor lady, Miss Almira Gulch gets bitten by Toto, Dorothy’s little, pet, pooch and the sheriff takes him away with him. Escaping, he returns home but Dorothy runs away with him. Soon enough she runs into a kind of fast-talking fortune teller calling himself Professor Marvel, played by Fran Morgan, who will appear later as the Wizard.
The wise old fortune teller quickly guesses that Dorothy has run away from home and convinces Dorothy to return home because, he says, her aunt Em has become sick from the grief her worrying has caused.
The tornado is already stirring by the time she gets home but she enters the house alone because the rest of her family and the farm hands have retreated into the safety of the cellar.
Poor Dorothy is knocked unconscious during the storm and when she awakens she discovers the entire house has been lifted off its foundation and carried into the sky. When it is finally set down, the little girl, still holding on to Toto, discovers herself in a strange land.
Looking about she is greeted by the Good Witch of the North (played by Billy Burke) who tells Dorothy that her house has fallen on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East. The Wicket Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) flies in and tries to take off her dead sisters magical red slippers. (Recall the slippers were silver in Baum’s original story). The Good Witch however has transferred them to Dorothy’s feet. She then reminds the old witch that her powers will not work in Munchkin land. As soon as this is discovered, the Munchkins come out of hiding singing a stirring number, “Ding-Dong! The Witch is dead”. Opening lyrics are as follows:
Ding Dong! The witch is dead. Which old witch? The Wicket Witch!
Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead
Wake up-sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed
Wake up, the Wicket Witch is dead. She gone where the goblins go,
Below, below, below! Yo-ho, let’s open up and sing and ring the bells out
Ding Dong, the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low,
Let them know
The Wicked Witch is dead.
Soon enough Dorothy is asking how to get back home and she is told to seek the help of the Wizard of Oz who lives in Emerald City. She needs only to follow the yellow brick road to get there.
As she follows the yellow brick road she meets Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly lion who join her in her adventure as they desire to see the Wizard too.
There are some close calls along their way because they have to confront the Wicked Witch of the West but at long last they arrive in Emerald City and after being disappointed, remain persistent and finally draw the Wizard’s attention. The Wizard greets them in a booming, all powerful voice and tells them that he will see them…on a condition. They must bring him the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.
Dorothy and her three friends set out for the Wicket Witch’s castle but the Wicked Witch is intuitive and sends out her army of flying monkeys who capture Dorothy and her dog Toto and fly them back to her. The Wicked Witch threatens to drown Toto if Dorothy doesn’t return the ruby red slippers. Realizing that Dorothy must die in order for the “magic” slippers to be taking off of her, the old Witch goes off to decide the best way to accomplish this.
While the Wicked Witch is gone Toto escapes, finds Tin Man, Scarecrow and the lion and manages to lead them to the castle. Dorothy’s three companions manage to overpower some of the guards and disguise themselves in their uniforms. Nevertheless, the Wicket Witch becomes wise to the disguises and she and her guards corner the group. When they don the mean old witch sets fire to Scarecrow’s arm. Dorothy responds quickly, however and throws water onto the blaze. When she does, she accidently splashes water on the Witch causing her to melt.
The Winkie Guards are delighted as, we assume they have been enslaved by the old witch and so they give Dorothy the broom stick. They immediately start on the path back to Emerald City to see the Wizard.
After much hoop rah the Wizard is finally forced to admit that he is but an ordinary man but there is a saving grace. He explains that Dorothy and her companions have already possessed what they have been seeking—the lion has shown courage, the Tin Man has used his brain and most certainly Scarecrow has had heart. As for Dorothy, he tells her that he too was born in Kansas and that he was taken to Oz by a hot air balloon. He volunteers to take her and Toto home in that same balloon.
On the day they are to leave however, Toto leaps out of the balloon and Dorothy chases after him. The Wizard is unable to keep the balloon from flying off and is forced to leave without them. The Good Witch Glinda returns however to tell Dorothy that she has always had the power to go home but she needed to realize that she didn’t have to run away to find what she was seeking. After bidding everyone farewell, she clicks the heels of her red slippers three times repeating the words, “There’s no place like home” and soon enough she is waking up to tell everyone about her adventure. Auntie Em, however, assures her that she was only dreaming but Dorothy insists that it was real while promising never to run away again.
A major change of the story is that Frank Baum, always sympathetic to feminist causes, has Dorothy save her friends while in the Hollywood movie Dorothy plays a girl in distress needing to be rescued. Beside a couple of other differences, however, the rest of the film and book are pretty consistent.
With all this in mind, the question now arises that asks, did Frank Baum have an adult agenda in the writing of the tale or did he simply create an amazing fairy tale? I believe that the answer is yes to both questions.
The Wizard of Oz as a Parable
In order to comprehend Frank Baum’s underlying message and the symbolism of his famous work, we must comprehend Frank Baum’s world: First of all, 1856 (the year of his birth) was when the Industrial Age was virtually at its summit in that Europe as well as the United States had revolutionized production by taking it out of the home and putting it into factories where machines were king, This meant ordinary workers had to leave the sanctuaries of their homes which had always been self-sufficient and be dependent on business to give them work and income. This was positive for the country as it changed America into the urban-industrial state that would grow the country into the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet.
Manufacturing was the cornerstone to the rapid growth which was grounded in government tariffs to assure that competitive imports did not reduce U.S. production or consumption in any way. The problem was that capital and labor was quickly separated by an extremely wide gap and the country’s money was soon enough in the hands of the few while the many most virtually had to struggle just to eat.
Young Frank Baum had been born into a time of greed, corruption and government nepotisms of all kinds. Indeed, by the time that he was only 15 years old there had been America’s Civil War fought, the Lincoln assassination had occurred, large labor strikes were constantly erupting in industry after industry, the 14th Amendment passed “assuring” equality for black people with race riots and lynching being commonplace in spite of it. And all the while the transcontinental railroad was being built by such egocentrics as J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, Philipp Armor, Jay Gould, James Melon and Andrew Carnegie, the most famous names of America’s new elite.
These men built their success stories ruthlessly—the railroads literally worked a great number of “employees” to death giving them little pay, long hours and extremely dangerous environments not excluding fighting the terrible summer heat and winter cold; sometimes fighting Indians who wanted them off their lands that government had pompously given to the industrialists. *For example, the Central Pacific had spent $200,000 on government bribes to get 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in bonds. This kind of “deal making” was common in Frank Baum’s world and he would have been privy to conversations about the times just as all children overhear adult conversations in their homes. And, while untold suffering was being endured by America’s workers and other poor visible to all, young Baum had been raised by wealthy parents, devoted Methodists, in a large estate.
Benjamin Baum, Frank’s father had been a barrel maker but made his fortune in oil. One of the most corrupt but powerful industries of the times! Frank’s mother, Cynthia, had been born into the Stanton family who helped found Stonington, Connecticut so the Baum’s were in the count of the elite too. Frank, incidentally, was the 7th of 9 Baum children with only 5 surviving into adulthood. Young Frank Baum also lived through a terrible Cholera epidemic which killed 2,000 in New York and 50,000 in other U.S. locations in1866.
We do not want to drift too far into history and away from our subject but it is important to grasp Frank Baum’s world in order to grasp Frank Baum and his most successful and poignant work, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
Baum tasted failure many times during his life but probably never went hungry or through the fears and anxieties of the working and poor people that he would have witnessed along his way—poverty was extremely visible in his times just as wealth was! As a writer, however, as a creator, he would have extreme empathy for those who had to depend on the sweat shops, factories, mines and other enterprises that overworked and underpaid men, women and children treated as poorly as they were paid.
Baum realized that capital and so the society itself was caressing a form of Darwinism in attitude and human action—and, in truth social-Darwinism had become the platform of a large portion of the American spirit. As yet another aside, *a Justice of the Supreme Court, Samuel Miller, said in 1875: “It is vain to contend with Judges who have been at the bar of advocates for forty years of railroad companies, and all sorts of associated capital…”
This was a longshot from being a government as Lincoln has described it; as being of, for and by the people. This was a government of favoritism, nepotism and self-service.
Frank Baum was a lover of life and so of humanity itself. However, his political stance was not nor had it ever been anti-capitalism as many other Americans were during the later 1800s and early 1900s. If Baum was against anything it was capitalism without compassion—the very reason why Unions had such rapid growth in our system! Indeed, had industry and business treated labor fairly and with simple human kindness and concern, our entire history would be different then and so now. Instead greed seeded a western elitism that Baum realized as he had spent a lifetime giving witness to the self-centeredness and hypocrisies of church and state; of the inhumanness of his father’s world.
Because his “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” points out, as some scholars have said the evils of industrial capitalism through the image of the Wicked Witch of the East (the center of power and finance in the U.S.) doesn’t mean Baum favors socialism or even the populist’s viewpoint of his times. What Baum wanted was a more loving humanity in the society; a place where the average person is not condemned by the powers of commerce, industry and government to endure “unnecessary” pain and suffering in their lives.
If indeed the Wicked Witch of the East does represent industrial capitalism, which is clearly Darwinistic capitalism, then Baum wisely begins his tale with her death which immediately gives hope and rejuvenation to the Munchkins, the “little people” of Oz. After all, with the Witch of the East dead and the Wicked Witch of the West rendered powerless, the folks of Munchkin land are at long last freed from oppression; they may, if you will, return to pursuing their own happiness.
After this rather dramatic and thought-provoking opening, Dorothy wants to know how she can find her way home and this is when she is told to follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City and that the Wizard there will be able to help her.
This is no doubt where Frank Baum’s begins his more obvious symbolism as the “yellow” brick road is representative of following the “yellow lines” of society to get what one needs or desire; of toeing the line, so to speak and so, if you will, of “minding” authority.
I do not believe that Baum was directly political in any of this but rather, philosophical and spiritualistic in his deeper motivations. While he was calling out for reform, it was far more a reform of the human heart, mind and spirit than for some political power play for creating change.
In regard to this, along her way Dorothy meets three strangers seeking exactly these same qualities—a brain (thinking), a heart (feeling) and courage (spirit). For Baum, I believe, these were the very attributes that socio-political reforms called for; the simple humanizing of the system.
The tragic flaw of Dorothy and her companions is that they are all wanting the Wizard (the government of Oz) to supply their needs. This if obviously not a socialistic or a populists comment at all! And, for Baum, not even a political statement as such. His goal seems to be to reveal the fruitlessness of seeking truth or validations outside ourselves and it is here that the parable actually starts.
What they discover once they reach their destination is that the Wizard (the government of Oz) is not about to give anything without reciprocation. In this case, the witch’s broom which is thought to be an impossible task anyway. But this symbolizes Darwinistic-capitalism and so the “what’s-in-it-for-me” syndrome at work.
As it turns out, the four visitors to Emerald City—Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion—accomplish the task and now the Wizard is obliged to deliver on his promises. What is almost immediately discovered however is that he can’t deliver; that he, representing leadership itself, is a mere master of demagoguery.
Civilization began with demagogues in power, the old god/kings that claimed to have a greater knowledge than everyone else. And, this system is the very foundation of historic church and state controls over the people. This, I believe, is Frank Baum’s most vital political message to us; his way of demonstrating the folly of elitism through the very bumbling humanity of the Wizard. He is, in fact, telling us that there are no wizards and there never will be.
In regard to the above, while I am convinced that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is a blatant comment on the terrible morality of the elitism and government nepotisms of Baum’s times (of all times) but I do not believe that this was the writer’s major objective. Baum was too much the fairytale writer to disregard having a strong moral to his story. And, I suspect, it was the “moral” that was foremost in his mind when he sat down to pen his script.
Remembering that Baum was far more the student of spirituality than politics, the moral of his tale is quite simply to look inside ourselves and not outside ourselves for our human qualities; that we already have everything within to succeed in our lives and be whatever we choose to be.
Indeed, it is pretty well established that Frank Baum’s “The wonderful Wizard of Oz” was the forerunner to the “positive thinking” books that would eventually follow. In this sense, Baum is clearly philosophically Socratic in that he teaches that all wisdom and knowing comes from within.
This spiritualistic message becomes blatant when it is discovered that scarecrow always possessed a brain, the Tin Man always had heart and the lion had courage. Dorothy of course demonstrates all three of these human qualities portraying them from the very start of the story; when she strikes out on her own to save Toto. Nevertheless, Baum gives her magic in the slippers she wears which, I believe, simply adds to the fairytale’s enchantment and has no deeper meaning than this.
In view of all the above, I remain convinced that L. Frank Baum’s original motivation in writing his book was to create a wonderful story for children; a fairytale to delight whoever read it, young and old alike. In the doing he exposes the demagoguery that rules through the frail and faulty Wizard of Oz who lives far from the actual citizens of the land, hidden behind the pomp and grandeur of Emerald City. In fact, he proves himself as ruling with a loud and boisterous voice that has no validity or power whatsoever except in the psyche-realities of the people; a demonstration of the basic psychology that permits he who speaks the loudest to win the argument.
The politician’s platform, after all, is always a voicing of rhetoric; the Wizardry of deceptions! And this was, I believe, the foundation for Baum’s morality; the moral of his fairytale: He wanted the child to grasp that there are three essentials for making their way through the challenges we all face in our lifetimes. They would need to think, to put their minds to work. Without, so to speak, using their brains, they would, if you will, stay on the yellow brick road…forever. They would also need heart: The capacity to care about others, to be compassionate and conscientious along their way. And finally, they would have to have courage. Life, after all, is filled with a great many obstacles and rough roads, of many buildups and letdowns and it takes courage to overcome the challenges we all eventually face. And so, the moral of L. Frank Baum’s wonderful fairytale is that we all are endowed with heart, mind and courage, we just need to look inside and discover these human attributes for ourselves.