Jordan Schwarzenberger on The Wizard of Oz and the American Dream…
“Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
On a warm spring day at school, myself and my English group were ready to begin Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a renowned classic both tragic and truly honest in its inference of American society. Before we began my teacher remarked naturally at its brilliance, before exclaiming to my surprise, that “Miller’s commentary on American society was influenced by The Wizard of Oz – for its subtext, the most important American film ever made.” This got me thinking. What did she mean by subtext and what did she mean by important? From this conversation I was transfixed in thought about the supposed “most important American film”, and was instantly influenced to revisit one of the definitive film classics, from a different perspective.
The film, directed by Victor Fleming in 1939, is an adaptation of Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The book, like the film, is allegorical; a political statement on American consumerism and the desire for prosperity, highlighting fundamentally the American Dream. It’s this dream, this vision, which so many critical writers of the 20th century explored due to its relevance in the society of the time, with films such as Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America and It’s a Wonderful Life to name a few. The American Dream managed to encapsulate America, and left its remnants inked into the foundations of what success in America means today – financial prosperity. For those of you who don’t know, the American Dream is defined as the freedom to succeed, the ideology that in America, all men are created equal, and that even those on the lowest echelons of society can prosper. As we know, an unrealistic fantasy.
But what the American Dream creates in many of its applicants is the chance for some answers – answers to the questions of existence with more material rewards then religion can offer. The Wizard of Oz, in summary, is a quest for these answers. Along this quest, the innocent Dorothy, a symbol for the vulnerable, youthful state of an old America, meets three companions; the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, all of whom are searching for confirmation of their worth. The Scarecrow is looking for a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the Lion courage. When they finally meet the ‘wonderful’ Wizard of Oz, it is uncovered that this supreme answer which so many strive to find is nonexistent in any other form but ourselves – it lies within each of us. This is Baum’s comment on the society which surrounded him, a society based on finding the seemingly unreachable answers without believing in our own capacity for thought.
When the facade of this illusion is drawn back, we meet the wizard, a true mystery from the beginning of the film. He is himself an illusion, as hinted at early on with Professor Marvel, played purposely by Frank Morgan. The wizard is an iconic figure across this dream world of Oz, whose purpose is to to allow the inhabitants of Oz to feel as if they have a figure to follow, and we in today’s world are no different. It is the celebrity culture which mirrors this, as we, like the Emerald citizens, are sheep to those who lead us, be it whomever we empower. The wizard represents the elitist, the idea that there are some of us who are more “great and powerful” than others. However, when the curtain is drawn back and we see he is no more than a man, we are reminded that we are all the same, all human, however much society may divide us. We as a society are driven to find answers, always looking for confirmation, wishing for a guide to drive us along the yellow brick road in search of the oh so idealistic American Dream.
Baum’s characterisation is pivotal to its social portrayal. Each of the four lead characters are significant to the film’s message, and each presents a different aspect of American development. On the journey to the Emerald City we first meet the Scarecrow, stuck in a losing battle to defend his crops from the crows – metaphorical of agriculture in America and its losing battle to remain dominant. This is why the Scarecrow needs the confirmation and answers which the wizard offers, to rediscover his purpose. He is first to meet Dorothy along the yellow brick road of financial success, suggesting that agriculture has fallen to the bottom rung of prosperity. Next along the road we meet the Tin Man, representing industrialisation in America. When first meet he is without movement, needing oil to keep from rusting. This could be representative of the significance of oil in American society, as without it, America would “rust” as well. The significance of meeting the Tin Man further along the road than the Scarecrow suggests industry has overtaken agriculture, true to America still today (at the end of the film when Dorothy is saying her final goodbyes, she says “[She] thinks [she’ll] miss [the scarecrow] the most”, suggesting that America is missing the days when traditions ruled. The Tin Man says that “about a year ago I was chopping that tree, when suddenly it began to rain, and right in the middle of the crop I rusted solid”, metaphorically describing this takeover, and that agriculture ironically “rusted” in the industrial revolution of America). And lastly we meet the Lion, a fighter who lacks any courage when faced with danger, representative of the political figures of America – courageous in policy yet cowardly in the face of threat; ironically not much has changed.
Cinematically, The Wizard of Oz is completely forward thinking, with – for 1939 – some of the most ambitious colouring and set design ever used. What stands out immediately is the use of sepia-tinted black and white, to contrast with the colour of Oz. This in itself represents the American Dream. A family living in near poverty and ruled by a cold government, truly miserable, is displayed in black and white, with the fantasy world of Oz, the Dream, in colour. This was ahead of its time. The vibrancy of Oz was previously unseen, and the transition was truly masterful work by Fleming. It is such an impactful element of the film, and really creates the feeling of living in a dream world. For symbols, the Wicked Witch of the West is another strong representation of American mentality by Baum. She represents the oppressive west, ruling over the subservient munchkins who are scared of her power. In today’s world this is incredibly pertinent, and has been for the last century. As a nation, America has always ruled over the little man, whether it is its own people, or those across the world, and the cruel and evil witch is Baum’s representation of this. The use of the colour green – a colour linked to money – shows furthermore the evils of financial fixation, and ruling with greed rather than humility. This is one of Fleming’s most powerful inputs on the message of the Wizard of Oz, as this set the trend for witches everywhere, who are now almost instantly linked to green and black.
One of the most iconic images of The Wizard of Oz is the Emerald City, presented as the epitome of success. Shining green, tall and striking, very similar in shape to sky scraping office buildings in America, this is the true symbol of success. It depicts a kingdom for the wizard, above the rest of society. Dorothy says “he really must be a wonderful wizard to live in a city like that”, which truly shows that external things can lead to assumptions of power, which turn out to be simply pretence. The Emerald City represents the upper class of America, and shows that behind the curtain of money lies simply a man, like any other.
The Wizard of Oz is the true American cautionary tale, forcing us to question the meaning of life in the western world. Fleming’s adaptation brings to question our own existence and moral values, so we can decide which type of witch we are. I believe my teacher was right with her statement – it is truly a crucial piece of cinema, both cinematically and in its commentary, and its message is as significant today as it was 74 years ago. It is simply this: that we mustn’t follow the yellow brick road, and instead asses what happiness truly is, to think what the end goal means, and to realise that the answers to life can be found in each and everyone one of us. Dorothy realises that there is truly no place like home, however distant from utopia as it may be. Here lies deep rooted, priceless happiness, where family and friendship is more important than money. We have a tendency to search for that reality that lies over the rainbow, when in truth we must stay rooted into the real truth of our existence, and to leave the curtain drawn so that our true selves can prosper.
Jordan Schwarzenberger is a young writer from North London, UK. Follow him on twitter @jordanschwarzuk and visit his personal website at jordanschwarzuk.tumblr.com.