The Wizard of Oz at 80: Archive of a Rust Belt Girl — Bright Lights Film Journal

(Making your film list for the period of social isolation? Don’t forget this classic gem.)

Screenshot: Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz

MGM’s The Wizard of Oz has reached 80 years. Yet to borrow freely from an image once given by Michel Foucault, if an archive is made up of elements that shine like stars, some brighter than others, then my bright star — the place/time from which I can best see the Oz constellation — is not 1939, the year of the film’s release, but 1956, the year of its first television broadcast. 1 And in perhaps my first archival fortuity, the 1956 broadcast was hosted by Ford Star Jubilee, a Ford Motor Company-sponsored CBS series. I was born in old Henry’s home town of Dearborn in 1954.

1956: Bright Star of Obsolescence, Anachronism, Nostalgia, Cultural Politics

I have no memory of 1956, the year of the first broadcast, but from that time until 1980 (with the exception of the MGM Children’s Matinees in the early 1970s), Oz belonged to television, where it drew large audiences at every annual showing. 2 We might say that the ascendancy of “television Oz” marked “cinema Oz” with a cumulative (year upon year) obsolescence. What might it mean that my bright star, the inception of my archive, was also a death star, a process of cultural forgetting? For the artist Tacita Dean,

obsolescence is a state of normality. Everything that excites me no longer functions in its own time. The one thing I have noticed is that so often I am attracted to things conceived in the decade of my birth. I court anachronism…. and I wonder if the objects and buildings I seek were ever, in fact, content in their own time, as if obsolescence was invited at their conception. 3

Like Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow pointing this way and that along the yellow brick road, Tacita Dean’s comment suggests a few possible directions. If Oz as television broadcast was “conceived in the decade of my birth” (and like Dean’s stated predilection for all things ’60s, this may partly explain my attraction to it), it was also an anachronism. We baby boomers, cross-legged on the floor beneath our small screens, did not know or think about 1939, the year of the film’s release. (Nor, unsurprisingly, were we aware that the film was not the first adaptation of its original source material, L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I knew nothing of the Oz books until I reached adolescence.) We never thought we were seeing something out of its own time and space. We could not guess that the small-screen Oz of 1956 foretold a success that would soon dim the big-screen Oz of 1939.

Nor could we imagine a yet larger mapping or, to draw from Dean again, the differences in how Oz “function[ed] in its own time” and ours. For example, we were too young to grasp that these two key Oz dates were separated by historical trauma. Our parents first watched the film on the eve of a world war (my father was 14 when the film was released; four years later, he was in France). What did my father think when the film came into our living room in 1956? What were his memories? As I write, I imagine him standing behind me, both of us turned to the small screen. I imagine him saying, “Ah but I saw this film before. I can never again watch this film with the innocence of not knowing what was to come. I can never again allow such innocence.” My father would not have said such things. If he thought such things, I can’t know. Yet over the years, there was evidence that the war (together with the Depression) weighed upon my parents’ decisions and worldview. Nearly every father on our block had been to the war, yet we were oblivious; we were the children busily not thinking about it. In the expected order of things, we were doing what children do — thoughtlessly superseding the generation before us.

Finally, we could not have guessed that within a few decades of our own childhood, the baby boom over, our rampant nostalgia for the birth decade would be interrogated by the first chroniclers of postmodernity, most notably Fredric Jameson, who remarked that “for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana, but also the first naive innocence” of the counterculture. 4 Jameson cited American Graffiti (1973) as the first of a number of “nostalgia films” seeking to “recapture the mesmerizing lost reality” of the postwar period. In this context, if we consider the iconic place in popular culture conferred to The Wizard of Oz by the annual broadcasts, it comes as no surprise that baby boomer writers and filmmakers would later cite the film in their works and commentaries.

The preceding generation (see, for example, Gore Vidal, Alison Lurie, Ray Bradbury, and Henry M. Littlefield) wrote mainly about the Oz books, exploring L. Frank Baum as author — his storied themes and devoted readers — as well as the series’ subversive possibilities in relation to capitalism, populism, and feminism. 5 John Updike was a crossover here: in a New Yorker piece about Baum written for the centenary of the book’s publication, Updike identified himself as belonging “to the generation more affected by the movie than by the book” under a subheading that claimed “the movie is the main road to Oz.” 6 It is as though the great chronicler of Cold War America had one foot in the year 1900 with Baum, and the other in 1959 with Rabbit Angstrom.

Writing in 2000, Updike noted the appearance of a “sub-genre” of works that would draw on Oz — “the products, presumably, of Oz-besotted children now aged into postmodern creators freed from fear of copyright infringement.” And certainly, writers born later tend to give equal importance to, if not privilege, the film. Geoff Ryman’s Was (1992) and Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (1995) are the works of authors born in 1951 and 1954 respectively. Maguire has described the annual broadcast as a “national ritual when we baby boomers were kids.” 7 Michael Chabon references the film regularly in his fiction. In an essay titled “The Movie That Changed My Life,” author Terry McMillan recalled her identification with Dorothy as year after year, she watched the film in a chaotic household in Port Huron, Michigan. 8 But perhaps the most telling evidence of how television empowered the film version of The Wizard of Oz came from Carol Billman, a children’s literature scholar. In a comparison of film and book published in 1981, her starting point was the realization that her students (having grown up with the broadcasts), came to the book after the film. For Billman, the film “transcends its original in popular culture.” It has become “the authoritative work to which all other tellings of the story, even the original one, must answer.” 9

As for cinema and Oz, there was much publicity given to a 2018 study published by two computer scientists showing The Wizard of Oz to be the film most cited or referenced by other (Western) films. Following an exercise in quantification far removed from film studies, Oz was — in numerous news reports — summarily declared the most influential film ever made. 10 For those of us who grew up with the broadcasts and later watched films made by fellow boomers, this did not seem surprising. From at least the 1970s onwards, Oz-tracking in film and popular culture has been a relatively easy pastime. Joel and Ethan Coen are, together with David Lynch, probably the boldest pilferers, and Joel Coen’s quip that “every movie ever made is an attempt to remake The Wizard of Oz” is well known. Less cited is his remark during a 2009 interview that “We have The Wizard of Oz in every movie we do, but O Brother [ Where Art Thou?] is a full-blown Wizard of Oz movie.” To which, Ethan added, “That one was a remake. I’m surprised we weren’t sued.” 11 In Wild at Heart (1990), Lynch drew on Oz’s influence as surrealist road movie, describing the 1939 film as “a beautiful, emotional, fantastic dream” and recalling that nods to Oz also occurred in Blue Velvet (1986), “Dorothy was a name in Blue Velvet, and we also realized that Dennis Hopper is from Kansas. And I love the red shoes that Dorothy wears. In Wild at Heart, it crept in in a few places, and was there in a big way for the ending.”

Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz (1978) proved a productive reworking of the Oz story for a postwar cultural politics of race. With a score that drew on gospel, blues, and soul, the stage play treated slavery and its more immediate aftermath, whereas the film updated that material to the post-civil rights period. In a piece marking its 40th anniversary, Gerrick D. Kennedy described The Wiz as a “rite of passage” for black viewers, one with “an aesthetic firmly rooted in black culture” and which anticipated recent developments in black American cinema:

“The Wiz” is foremost a story of racial liberation, and an early piece of Afrofuturism — the combination of science fiction, fantasy, magic realism and ancient African tradition that critiques historical events or envisions a black future, inspiring such recent groundbreaking films as “Get Out” and “Black Panther….” 12

The significance of Oz to LGBT culture and politics predated the baby boomers and the film. Both Vidal and Lurie underscored not only the books’ promotion of female empowerment but the signal transgender moment: the revelation that Princess Ozma had been changed into a boy (Tip) by the witch Mombi. Initially alarmed by the news, Tip eventually decides to transition back “just to see how it seems, you know.” As Ozma again, she expresses her hope that “none of you will care less for me than you did before. I’m just the same Tip, you know, only …” “Only you’re different!” said the Pumpkinhead; and everyone thought it was the wisest speech he had ever made.” In current LGBT readings, Oz tropes are sometimes dismissed as a generational fixation associated with the baby boomers. Certainly, there is no denying the persistence of Oz in the discourses of that generation as it came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet even as recently as 2015, Gay Times called it the “quintessential gay film” and dispensed with the synopsis on the grounds that, “Seriously, if you need a plot summary of The Wizard of Oz then you have no business being here” — before providing a detailed look at gay readings of the film (and Judy Garland).

To return to my archival moment of 1956. Of course, neither the past (pre-war cinema Oz) nor the future (the cumulative effects of the television broadcasts and the seeping of Oz tropes into a culture that would soon be called postmodern) were available to the kids of ’56, when we first saw The Wizard of Oz. Such knowledge might come later with the discovery that the experiences and memories of our parents ran fault lines through our postwar families. But it was not only the slow reveal of these pasts that might come to trouble us. Ever so gradually, we would learn that for many Americans growing up during the period, the fifties weren’t all they were cracked up to be. In retrospect, it is the sense of collective naiveté attached to my earliest remembered time and place, most visibly its unquestioned and unquestioning whiteness, that seems most shocking now. For me, perhaps the first questions came in July 1967 as we stood on our suburban porches and watched the yellow sky above Detroit where whole streets were burning. There was a curfew, but my mother said that in our subdivision we were “safe as houses.” And though accurate on the surface of things, this was a telling remark, and not only because “look what happened to Dorothy’s house,” but because there in that not-so-distant yellow sky was the first indication that the safety of the pax Americana was not on offer to everyone. There were estrangements closer to home too, in those beguiling spaces; there were people who one day would need to leave. The streets and playgrounds where I spent so many charmed hours were culpable geographies in ways that I could not yet grasp or articulate. But after the long hot summer of 1967, and rather like Dorothy at her first glimpse behind the curtain, a suspicion began to take hold that important truths had been rendered invisible. The fifties kids were becoming the sixties kids.

And now, finally, there is the aging of my generation to compound the doubts of a lifetime. The resistance to age is acute in baby boomers, perhaps especially those of us who grew up watching Oz and assuming we could reset that experience year upon year without feeling the influence of outward changes. As our powers fade and we sense our own obsolescence, previous certainties fade too, even the certainty of the annual broadcast, now lost in this era of post-network television. We receive small occasional reminders of these cultural shifts. At a party a few months ago, I met a young woman from Kansas. She was generation Y or Z as people born after the early 1980s and into the 2000s are called. “Dorothy!” I said upon hearing of her birthplace. The name sprang without warning, though she was not called Dorothy. She smiled indulgently and said, “I get a lot of that. And the state of Kansas still boasts about its Oz connection, but you know I have only seen the film once or twice and it doesn’t mean much to me.” And there, she pierced my baby boomer heart.

All of these pasts and futures are packed into the bright star of 1956. That is what archives do. They encourage us to swell the moment with knowledge and meanings gathered later and elsewhere. But none of these pasts and futures came to trouble us at the time. We believed Oz was born when we were born. Oz ‘s time was our time and its space was our space, the television screen.

Cars and Roads

Growing up in the rust belt during the peak years of the auto industry, I already inhabited the realm of planned obsolescence (the “annual model change”) without knowing what it meant. I was a Ford brat, born to a father who would work for the company all his life, first as showroom salesman, later as corporate guy at Ford headquarters. Only months before the 1956 broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, my father obtained his first mortgage. For a 30-year term at 4 percent interest, he purchased a newly built brick house priced at $11,950. We moved from Henry Ford’s Dearborn to Garden City, a rapidly growing box house suburb less than 20 miles west of Detroit.

Ray Kenyon, c1956

The move to Garden City sounded the last of three booms to my archive: baby boom, automotive boom, suburban boom. The GI Bill (1944) had introduced a new form of veterans’ compensation in the provision of long-term, low-interest mortgage loans. The construction industry was the immediate beneficiary and soon began adopting Fordist mass-production strategies. The Levitts, perhaps the best known of the postwar developers (Levittowns), perfected an assembly-line approach to house-building that at its peak meant the completion of 35 houses per day, the equivalent of a new house every 15 minutes. Between 1950 and 1970, America’s suburban population doubled, and the 1970 census showed (for the first time) more suburbanites than city-dwellers or farmers. 13

In the land of the Big Three — Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler — the sprawling suburbs were nothing like the Emerald City; nor did they conjure the Kansas plains. But if the yellow brick road led to the Wizard, we had Ford Road to take us to Dearborn and the Ford Rouge Plant (once the largest integrated factory in the world) as well as the Glass House (Ford corporate headquarters). The Glass House, also a creation of 1956, represented a moment described by columnist George Will as the “peak of American confidence” when “America was at the wheel of the world and even buildings seemed streamlined for speed.” 14 “If ever oh ever a Wiz there was,” his assumed name in those parts was surely Henry Ford.

Ford Headquarters, Dearborn, Michigan, 2007. Photo by Dave Parker. Reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, under GNU Free Documentation License.

If we stayed on Ford Road past Dearborn, it took us to the edge of a buzzing Detroit with its skyscrapers, department stores, movie palaces, and baseball stadium. Part of the Michigan state highway system since 1930, Ford Road (the M-153) runs for some 25 miles. That’s not very long in the scheme of things, but it is Garden City’s main east-west thoroughfare. As a child, I knew our strip of it — the section where we held homecoming parades, the town cinema with its Saturday matinees of Elvis movies, the Big Boy diner where we went on Sundays after church (God was a chocolate milkshake); and the site of Kmart’s first discount department store, which opened in 1962.

I knew those local stops, but Ford Road was more interesting. To be allowed to walk there was the nearest we came to adventure. From a child’s perspective, the road stretched beyond the town lines, ending somewhere unknown near the horizon. I saw the stream of traffic moving east or west away from our town. Nobody looked to be staying. Standing there in my sneakers, too young to drive, perhaps I sensed some relation to the history of the automobile, but I couldn’t yet see how cinema might project its light and shadows onto that relation. I had not, for example, met Joseph Cotten’s early automobile inventor in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), perhaps film’s most bittersweet study of the automobile and social change:

Nor had I discovered the gangster movies of the 1930s where the getaway car, together with the tommy-gun, appeared as the modern technological paraphernalia of crime. Unlike the western (which dealt with the American past), the thirties gangster films spoke to an American present, that is, the period in which they were released. This is what terrified film censors at the time. I had not yet learned about Prohibition, the Depression or bootlegging — ostensibly the social reference points for those films. To take a small but colorful example connecting both real-life gangsters and cinema to my rust belt setting, I had no idea that Clyde Barrow, whose thirties persona would be reshaped by the sixties sensibilities of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), had sent the following note from Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1934:

Mr. Henry Ford, Detroit, Michigan

Dear Sir, While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove [sic] Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever [sic] other car skinned and even if my business hasn’t been strickly [sic] legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.

Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow

Equally, I knew nothing of Hollywood genres, how they could preempt historical reality to operate on the American psyche. It would be years, for example, before I would read Robert Warshow’s early work on the gangster film in which he would argue that the gangster genre was less about the real existence of gangsters than about the evolution of the genre in relation to the ideological project of the American Dream. For Warshow, the classic gangster films delivered rise-and-fall narratives and a critique of American notions of success and individualism that restored tragedy — as an experience of art — to our official culture of cheerfulness and optimism. The gangster was a “tragic hero” because he embodied and expressed “that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and demands of modern life, which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself.” 15

Finally, I didn’t realize that The Wizard of Oz was giving me an early, and annually repeating, exposure to the genre (or subgenre in the view of some scholars) that would come into its own with my generation: the road movie. Oz was not the earliest road movie, and it appeared alongside a prestigious group in the pre-war/wartime period: Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Yet writing of these four films in their recent study of the genre, Jose Duarte and Timothy Corrigan emphasize the rupture of the war and the lasting changes it would bring to the road film:

Although the central trope of “being on the road” characterizes all these films, the extremely restless energy and existential crises that would become a salient part of the genre arise out of the wreckage of the Second World War and its resonances through the 1940s and 1950s. 16

I would add that whereas those other films belong to a particular historical moment in classical Hollywood cinema, television turned The Wizard of Oz over to the road movie’s most formative years. Duarte and Corrigan cite the 1960s-1980s as the period of classic American road movies, including such films as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Two Lane Blacktop (1971), and Badlands (1973). In 1967, television Oz was nearing 10 broadcasts; by 1973, the Oz viewers were heading for college (or film school — as the 1960s saw a number of film schools/departments open in the U.S.). Duarte and Corrigan identify the next period, the 1990s and 2000s, as the road movie’s most prolific one, with an “ironic and self-referential edge” 17 (as well as more diverse characters) emerging in the genre. Here we find Ridley Scott, Gus van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Gregg Araki, Carl Franklin, and of course David Lynch and the Coens, among others. By the 1990s, the Oz viewers had been watching road movies since the 1960s and to a growing extent, making them too.

The road movie consists of a number of recognizable components, most notably narratives that are journeys, quests, escapes, encounters with borders, pursuits of the frontier. On this last point, it is often seen as an extension of the western. For Manohla Dargis, the road itself becomes “the last true frontier.” 18 Leslie Dick suggests that the road film is where the western and film noir intersect. 19 For filmmaker Chris Petit, it combines its protagonist’s voyage of discovery with “the strangeness of the everyday.” 20 Finally, we have only to resurrect the original publicity for Easy Rider — “A man went searching for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere” — to remember that the road movie regularly melds the existential angst of its protagonist with a larger social angst. Colin McArthur once wrote that the western and the gangster genres “represent America talking to itself” about its past and present respectively. 21 Of course, this can be said of all genre films, and it is only part of how genre works, but it remains apt and can certainly be applied to the road movie. 22

Running through all road film themes is the protagonist’s personal crisis or narrative — or as Corrigan and Duarte put it:

At the heart of these films is a distinctive set of questions about subjectivity and identity. No doubt most narratives engage with these kinds of questions, but road movies tend to highlight and distinguish these questions as especially destabilizing in relation to the past, community, gender and home, frequently as encounters with some Other which in turn becomes an encounter with self. 23

They further note the importance of movement, space, and place to these “dramas of identity,” asserting themselves almost as “metaphorical characters” in the road film. Finally, they see an “alignment of the technology of the automobile with the technology of cinematic representation…. Seeing the world through the frames of an automobile as a moving image appears analogous to seeing the world as a movie image.” 24

It goes without saying that Detroit automobiles, together with rampant highway construction in the postwar era, put the “drive” in the road movie. But The Wizard of Oz is a “walking” road film and in that aspect at least, arguably has more in common with Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) or Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild (2014) than, for instance, Thelma and Louise (1991). If there are vehicles in MGM’s hybrid musical/road film, they are the ruby slippers and a spinning house. Instead of a car windscreen, Dorothy’s bedroom window serves as a frame for the tornado, as the drab farmhouse is lifted from sepia-toned Kansas and dropped into Technicolor Oz.

That Dorothy possessed no automobile was part of the appeal to this child of the Motor City. I spent hours in the family car. If we went downtown for a ballgame, we drove. Shopping malls, drive-in eateries and movies, supermarkets — all in the car. The driveways on our street boasted gas-guzzling vehicles that were damn near as big as the houses to which they belonged. In summer, the kids perched on the hoods and bumpers, candy cigarettes dangling from our mouths. We sat on our family cars when we talked about the Cuban missile crisis and the death of Marilyn Monroe. Throughout my childhood, my father brought home Ford model cars for me to roll along the sidewalk in imaginary shopping trips and Barbie and Ken scenarios. When a Christmas morning surprise went awry one year, Dad told us to wait before rushing out to find our presents because Santa’s sleigh had “stalled” down the block and he was waiting for a mechanic. Forget the reindeer. In Michigan, Santa ran on gasoline.

But one winter not long after the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the snow was so deep that none of the cars left the driveways for three or four days. Our mother gave us a shopping list and we took our sled a few blocks over to one of the main thoroughfares where we crossed to a large supermarket, bought food, and pulled it home on the sled. I felt like Dorothy that winter day, on a mission with only my legs and wits for transport. I loved that Dorothy walked. That she wanted to leave home, then wanted to go back home. Without power in the family, a child understands perhaps better than adults that these longings can exist together. So I loved that Dorothy had to run away, then get swept up by a storm and dropped somewhere terrifying and beautiful, in order to go home. She made friends and discoveries along the way. Unafraid of direct, wide-eyed questions, she asked the Scarecrow how he could talk if he didn’t have a brain. She was fierce with the Lion when he threatened Toto, but then she made him a friend. Determined to take responsibility for herself, she tried to explain things to good witches and bad witches. She faced up to her fears and mistakes. When she returned home, it was not changed; her problems were not solved. But she was changed. It was her movement that intrigued me. In all of these elements, this was a “drama of identity” on the road: Dorothy was, and remains, a classic road film protagonist. And she is a girl. Oz itself is run by powerful women; upon her improbable arrival, Dorothy joins a narrative in which good witches and bad witches are basically running things and making the important decisions. She no sooner arrives than she too is viewed as a witch — from Kansas — who must assert herself and take to the yellow brick road. Judy Garland brought her emotional sincerity and courage to this journey, showing the other girls how the road could teach us to be tough and resourceful, kind and clever at the same time. This was a rare thing for us.

Reprised every year, Dorothy’s story would add to my slowly gathering sense that home was a place to question, long for, and imagine leaving. We learn to live with critical ambivalence toward the places we love, and our box house suburb was such a place. Ford, GM, and Chrysler had bound themselves perfectly to notions of Manifest Destiny and to the idea that if you don’t like a place, you move to a new place. You “light out for the territory,” get in your car, and drive away. Westerns and road movies. If you do like a place, you just drive around it a lot, call it home, distort it, and develop an unhealthy obsession about it. Frank Capra’s small-town movies. American Graffiti. But it was Dorothy who gave me a girl’s version of our peculiarly American restlessness. To live is to constantly wonder whether to stay or go. To live is to feel perpetually torn between Kansas, the Emerald City, and the Yellow Brick Road itself.

Amy Kenyon c1957

Dreams, Lies and Humbugs

The film departs from L. Frank Baum’s book in a number of ways but perhaps most importantly in its final assertion that “there’s no place like home” and that Dorothy’s journey to Oz was a dream. Back in Kansas, she finds no believers when she tells them that Oz was a real place and that “some of it wasn’t very nice, but most of it was beautiful.”

For Salman Rushdie, who cites Oz (film, not book) as his first literary influence, this was an act of “bad faith” by the screenwriters. 25 Certainly, the script ignored the expectations of readers who had grown up with the books, including Baum’s 13 subsequent Oz tales in which not only is Oz real, but Dorothy returns again and again, eventually taking Uncle Henry and Aunt Em (whose farm is about to be repossessed by the bank) along with her.

Rushdie was not the only viewer to sense betrayal. Michael Chabon had this to say about dreams and Oz:

I hate dreams…. I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endless broken promise to amount to something…. Pretty much the only thing I hate more than my own dreams are yours. “I was flying over Lake Michigan in a pink Cessna,” you begin, “only it wasn’t really Lake Michigan…,” and I sink, cobwebbed, beneath a drifting dust of boredom…. Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours … are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz… the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick Baum never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that. 26

Others were more forgiving. John Updike somewhat effortlessly recast Dorothy’s dream as “an alternative reality, an inner depiction of how we grow.” 27 Margaret Atwood, noting that Dorothy has been knocked unconscious during the storm, described Oz as a land of “brain episodes…. The Kingdom of Oz — like Christ’s Kingdom of God, like Milton’s inner Paradise, and like Weber’s reality-as-we-experience-it … is within.” 28

David Lynch has always seemed at ease with the film’s ending, perhaps understanding — more than most — the notion of Hollywood/cinema as “dream factory” and its probing of the boundaries between real and unreal. Lynch once introduced one of his own films with a line from the Upanishads: “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.” Moreover, should the protagonist/dreamer, like Dorothy, tumble into another world, this holds no problems for Lynch: “You know, films are a world within a world. And maybe it’s a world within a world within a world — within another world. It’s a really beautiful thing how lost we are, and we want to get even more lost sometimes.” 29 Brian Hoyle sees both The Wizard of Oz and Wild at Heart as surrealist road films:

The Wizard of Oz has exerted the most profound influence on filmmakers around the world who refuse to see the cinema as a realist medium, but rather view it as the art form that comes closest to our dreams. 30

Gregory Maguire found an alternative interpretation of the film’s ending by taking up the position of the child-spectator, making all children Dorothy’s allies against the adults who insist that her journey to Oz was a dream:

All the way through the film, Dorothy encounters charlatans and liars. The Wizard has no magic powers. Glinda the Good Witch waits until Dorothy has narrowly averted mortal danger before she reveals the secret of the ruby slippers…. When Dorothy wakes up in the film’s final sequence, and the adults dismiss her insistence that she actually had traveled to Oz, we — the audience — realize that adults are so accustomed to lying … that they can’t recognize the truth when it is spoken…. But we children in the audience know that Dorothy went to Oz. 31

But it is Rushdie who takes this insight to its logical, and perhaps most poignant conclusion. The dream narrative, he reminds us, is not the only adult betrayal of children in the film: “Even the shock of discovering that the Wizard was a humbug was a shock I felt as a child, a shock to the child’s faith in adults.”

But children become adults in turn. And for Rushdie, this effectively removes the film from our childhood grasp of it, altering its meaning irrevocably and making every adult viewing a melancholy one:

Now as I look at the movie again, I have become the fallible adult. Now I am a member of the imperfect parents who cannot listen to their children’s voices. I, who no longer have a father, have become a father instead, and now it is my fate to be unable to satisfy the longings of a child. This is the last and most terrible lesson of the film: that there is one final, unexpected rite of passage. In the end, ceasing to be children, we all become magicians without magic, exposed conjurors, with only our simple humanity to get us through. We are the humbugs now. 32

My first road

We are the humbugs now, but we were true then. In the era of network television, the era of that other Big Three — CBS, NBC, and ABC — Oz came into every house on the block at the same hour, making it both private and collective. During the two hours of the broadcast, I was next to Dorothy. I could be Dorothy. But I had only to look out the picture window to glimpse my first public world, the space of early childhood, a winter scene of box houses illuminated by a single streetlight and the flickering lights of television Oz in all the other picture windows. This was the age of network television: assassinations, moon walks, and The Wizard of Oz viewed simultaneously by all. So if Dorothy was mine, she was also shared: the broadcast would string us together as tightly as the twinkling holiday lights decorating our houses. The next day, in our snowsuits and rubber boots, the kids on our street would gather to talk of the film. In the era of suburban detachment, network television gifted such moments of communality.

Year after year, along with many others, I was rapt through to Dorothy’s final line: “There’s no place like home.” Yet as Rushdie states so well, this may be “the least convincing idea in the film.” The Wizard of Oz was and is far too easy to read against the grain. Not only is Kansas drab, impoverished, and sepia-toned in comparison to Oz, but the film’s key song and moment — Over the Rainbow — is an expression of “the human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots.” 33

Dorothy came to tell me that the place we call home matters. But it is a place we can criticize. A place we might leave. A place we can long for, after we have gone. Dorothy gave me my first road.

Originally published at https://brightlightsfilm.com on October 20, 2019.

A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/

A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see https://amykenyon.net/