The Wizard of Oz – 80 Years of Social Relevance

Wizard of Oz Retrospective

If you’re an avid follower of The Film Magazine, you will probably be aware that most of the team are nostalgic types. By that, I mean we’re each desperately clinging on to the shreds of our childhoods that we can still remember. Our very own Katie Doyle recently explored ‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’; the new evocative series from Netflix and The Jim Henson Company. In her article, she wrote of how The Dark Crystal and other incredible nostalgia movies “encapsulate the iconic fantasy of the eighties”. In this piece, I’m going to take this nostalgia even further. Let me take you back eighty years to 1939. Social tensions were high, the internet was non-existent, and The Wizard of Oz had just been released. That’s right; 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. Oh my!

Victor Fleming’s ‘technicolour triumph’ soared in popularity through one of the most turbulent times in modern history. At the very beginning of the Second World War, The Wizard of Oz was one of the first Hollywood movies to be filmed in three-strip technicolour; a complex, timely and expensive process. However, the end product triggered a revolution for its studio MGM and the film industry at large. This new technology allowed movies to contain sound and colour, which of course we now realise the dynamic influence of. Looking at the film eighty years on, it is clear to see that colour was used as a medium of message, and that The Wizard of Oz is a prime example of the first hints of coloured symbolism (as we know it today) in cinema.

Colour in Wizard of Oz 1939

After surviving her twister ordeal, Dorothy opens her door to Munchkin Land, an incredibly vibrant world of colour and imagination. Her grey and sepia-toned life becomes rich and bright, her dress turns blue; her skin is white. Colour contrasts and differences are quickly established, with the “baddies” presented as green-skinned and dressed in black. These dissimilarities reflect the racial stereotypes and disputes that occurred in America in the early 1900s after the Civil War. Furthermore, the start of German conflicts in 1939 sustained this difference and extended it to more than just the colour of someone’s skin. In thought, could the whole Munchkin Land scene have in fact been a total mockery? Was it added purely to jest at height, facial features and tone of voice?

The seemingly magnificent Emerald City is another object of grandeur elicited by L. Frank Baum in his original novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, which suggests tensions and difference in social class at the time. Baum believes the citizens of the Emerald City to be “selfish, stingy and false”, associating them with the colour “wealthy green”.  When Dorothy and her friends arrive at the Emerald City, a distinct difference is presented in character behaviour as well as colour. Our four protagonists are stared and pointed at by extravagant individuals all wearing green. We’ve already understood that green is a no-go in this movie, but surely these people can’t be baddies too? They’re all singing a lovely, happy song – so they must be friendly! Well, yes, nothing bad happens… but it is made clear that Dorothy and her friends do not belong. They are groomed and cleaned up to look ‘perfect’ in the eyes of the Emerald City. Buffed, polished and decorated in green ribbons, our characters look ready to sit under the Christmas tree. Underneath all this frivolity is a hidden segregation of rich and poor, and the desire to be of a higher social class. Even the lyrics to Harold Arlen’s “Merry Old Land of Oz” hint at a subtle affluent undertone with, “that’s how we keep you young and fair” and “that certain air of savoir faire”. The colour orientation within this scene and in Munchkin Land allows the audience to understand key relationships among the characters but, more importantly, it crucially influences the audience’s views of the world and society.

Wizard of Oz characters in Emerald City

One important message I’m sure we can all take from The Wizard of Oz is that “there’s no place like home”. While Dorothy’s journey was life-changing and wondrous, and she made new friends, her family came first above all, and home is the only place she wanted to be. It’s an admirable thing to want after a lousy day on the farm before the twister came along. But, reading into the movie’s iconic tagline, it’s not surprising that this gained so much recognition.

1939 was a desperate year. The conflicts between the Axis and Allies in the Second World War sent their citizens into turmoil. Tensions were high; fingers were being pointed left, right and centre. Society was falling apart. The war began in September 1939, one week after the US release of The Wizard of Oz on August 25th. When it was thought that all hope was lost, this magical story soared in and helped to spread a tiny bit of peace, bringing four vital qualities required to get through the war; courage, logic, love and hope. Dorothy’s adventures through Oz were not coincidental – she was the symbol of America. A young farm girl who is desperate to seek new worlds ‘over the rainbow’, finds herself lost and alone in a distant land, but becomes the epitome of true American patriotism. Journeying through the unknown, she becomes the saviour of her three new acquaintances, each of whom are searching for their missing piece; pieces which to her they already have. Upon meeting the real Wizard of Oz, the group find that they already possessed the qualities they believed they lacked. Scarecrow has just as much of a brain as a University scholar, Lion is deemed to be heroically wise and is awarded a medal, Dorothy discovers that her ruby slippers can transport her home, and Tin Man’s heart is proven to exist with The Wizard’s beautiful quote; “a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others”. In a time of doom and gloom, Victor Fleming’s masterpiece was like a war cry; a heartfelt message to those suffering during wartime, and an encouraging push to keep calm and carry on.

In amongst all the chaos between 1939 to 1945, Dorothy and her companions became a small beacon of light in a world of darkness. “Gaiety! Glory! Glamour!” was a slogan that advertised this unforgettable spectacle – three words that took the world away from the hatred and disorder of war, at least for a few moments. Despite its underlying philosophies and meanings, the incredible story from L. Frank Baum was brought to life at a time when society needed it most; when we needed the courage of a cowardly lion, the brains of a stuffed scarecrow, the heart of a rusty tin man, and the hope of a young girl.


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