Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Man Behind the Curtain

    One of the most popular US films for both adults and children is “The Wizard of Oz”.  This 1939 film is an adaption of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) in 1900.  The film is one of the first movies to be filmed in color (a brand new technology in 1939).  The first part of the film was film in black and white, the majority was filmed in color, and the end of the film was filmed in black and white.

    As a children’s story, the premise is very simple.  Kansas farm girl Dorothy Gale lives with her Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and three farm hands, Hickory, Hunk, and Zeke. When Miss Almira Gulch is bitten by Dorothy's pet Cairn Terrier, Toto, she gets a sheriff's order and takes him away to be destroyed. He escapes and returns to Dorothy, who, fearing for his life, runs away with him.

    Dorothy soon encounters a traveling fortune teller named Professor Marvel, who guesses she has run away and tells her fortune. He convinces her to return home by falsely telling her that Aunt Em has fallen ill from grief. With a tornado fast approaching, she rushes back to the farmhouse, but is unable to join her family in the locked storm cellar. Taking shelter inside the house, she is knocked unconscious by a window frame blown in by the twister.

    Dorothy awakens to find the house being carried away by the tornado. After it falls back to earth, she opens the door and finds herself alone in a strange village. Arriving in a floating bubble, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, informs her that her house landed on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East.

     The timid Munchkins come out of hiding to celebrate the Witch's demise by singing "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead". Their celebration is interrupted when the Wicked Witch of the West (Miss Gulch) suddenly appears in a cloud of smoke and tries to claim her dead sister's powerful ruby slippers. However, Glinda magically transfers them onto Dorothy's feet and reminds the Witch of the West that her power does not work in Munchkinland. She promises Dorothy "I'll get you, my pretty...and your little dog, too!" before leaving the same way she arrived. When Dorothy asks how to get back home, Glinda advises her to seek the help of the mysterious Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City, which she can reach by following the Yellow Brick Road, and warns her never to remove the ruby slippers or she will be at the mercy of the Wicked Witch.

    On her way to the city, Dorothy meets a Scarecrow (Hickory), a Tin Man (Hunk), and a Cowardly Lion (Zeke), who lament to her that they respectively lack a brain, a heart, and courage. The three decide to accompany her in hopes that the Wizard will also fulfill their desires, although they demonstrate that they already have the qualities they believe they lack: the Scarecrow has several good ideas, the Tin Man is kind and sympathetic, and the Lion, though terrified, is ready to face danger.

    After Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion nearly succumb to one of the Witch's traps, the quartet enters the Emerald City and is allowed to see the Wizard, who appears amidst smoke and flames as a disembodied, intimidating head. In a booming voice, he states that he will consider granting their wishes if they bring him the Wicked Witch's broomstick.

   They set out for the Witch's castle, but she detects them and dispatches her army of flying monkeys, who carry Dorothy and Toto back to her. When the Witch threatens to drown Toto, Dorothy agrees to give up the ruby slippers, but a shower of sparks prevents their removal. Realizing they can't be removed unless Dorothy dies, the Witch leaves to ponder how to accomplish this.

   Toto escapes and leads Dorothy's companions to the castle. After overpowering some of the Winkie guards and disguising themselves in their uniforms, they find and free her. The Witch and the Winkies corner the group on a parapet, where she sets the Scarecrow's arm ablaze with her broomstick. Dorothy throws water on her friend and accidentally splashes the Witch, causing her to melt. The Winkies are delighted, and their captain gives Dorothy the broomstick.

    Upon their triumphant return to the Wizard's chamber, Toto opens a curtain, revealing him to be an ordinary man (Professor Marvel) operating a console of wheels and levers while speaking into a microphone. Apologetic, he explains that Dorothy's companions already possess what they have been seeking all along, but bestows upon them tokens of esteem in recognition of their respective virtues. Explaining that he too was born in Kansas, and was brought to Oz by a runaway hot air balloon, he offers to take Dorothy home in the same balloon, leaving the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion in charge of the Emerald City.

    As they are about to leave, Toto jumps out of the balloon's basket and Dorothy runs after him. The Wizard, unable to control the balloon, leaves without her. As she despairs of ever getting back home, Glinda appears and tells her that she always had the power to return home, but that she needed to learn for herself that she didn't have to run away to find her heart's desire. She bids her friends goodbye, then follows Glinda's instructions to close her eyes, tap her heels together three times, and keep repeating "There's no place like home".

    Dorothy awakens in her bedroom in Kansas, surrounded by family and friends, and tells them of her journey. Although Auntie Em assures her it was all a dream, Dorothy insists it was real, especially since she saw all the people she knows in the Land of Oz, and promises never to run away from home again.1 

    There are some differences between this film and the original novel.  For example, in the novel, Dorothy’s slippers were silver, not ruby.  Also, Glinda, the good witch, was actually a collection of three characters in the novel.  This film appears on US television annually and has been popular with numerous generations.  In fact, I saw this film several times as a child and my nieces also watched this film when they were children.  They are now 21 and 20. 

    While this novel and film can be understood as being a simple children’s story, there is also another dimension to the novel which is actually a social commentary of the time in the US.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of America's favorite pieces of juvenile literature. Children like it because it is a good story, full of fun characters and exciting adventures. Adults--especially those of us in history and related fields--like it because we can read between L. Frank Baum's lines and see various images of the United States at the turn of the century. That has been true since 1964, when American Quarterly published Henry M. Littlefield's "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism." Littlefield described all sorts of hidden meanings and allusions to Gilded Age society in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: the wicked Witch of the East represented eastern industrialists and bankers who controlled the people (the Munchkins); the Scarecrow was the wise but naive western farmer; the Tin Woodman stood for the dehumanized industrial worker; the Cowardly Lion was William Jennings Bryan, Populist presidential candidate in 1896; the Yellow Brick Road, with all its dangers, was the gold standard; Dorothy's silver slippers (in the film they were ruby red, but Baum originally made them silver) represented the Populists' solution to the nation's economic woes ("the free and unlimited coinage of silver"); Emerald City was Washington, D.C.; the Wizard, "a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of Paper Mache and noise, . . . able to be everything to everybody," was any of the Gilded Age presidents.2 

   The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was no longer an innocent fairy tale. According to Littlefield, Baum, a reform-minded Democrat who supported William Jennings Bryan's pro-silver candidacy, wrote the book as a parable of the Populists, an allegory of their failed efforts to reform the nation in 1896. "Baum never allowed the consistency of the allegory to take precedence over the theme of youthful entertainment," Littlefield hedged at one point; "the allegory always remains in a minor key." Still, he concluded that "the relationships and analogies outlined above . . . are far too consistent to be coincidental."3

   It was an interesting notion, one which scholars could not leave alone, and they soon began to find additional correspondences between Populism and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Richard Jensen, in a 1971 study of Midwestern politics and culture, devoted two pages to Baum's story. He implicitly qualified Littlefield by pointing out that not all pro-Bryan silverites were Populists. But Jensen then proceeded to add two new points to the standard Littlefield interpretation, finding analogies for Toto and Oz itself: Dorothy's faithful dog represented the tee totaling Prohibitionists, an important part of the silverite coalition, and anyone familiar with the silverites' slogan "16 to 1"--that is, the ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold--would have instantly recognized "Oz" as the abbreviation for "ounce."4

   A few years later, literary scholar Brian Attebery wrote that "it is too much to say . . . that The Wizard is a 'Parable on Populism,' but it does share many of the Populist concerns and biases." Like Jensen, Attebery cautioned against an uncritical acceptance of Littlefield; and again like Jensen, he went on to suggest an analogy of his own: "Dorothy, bold, resourceful, leading the men around her toward success, is a juvenile Mary Lease, the Kansas firebrand who told her neighbors to raise less corn and more hell."5  

    The most extensive treatment of the Littlefield thesis is an article by Hugh Rockoff in the Journal of Political Economy. Rockoff, who saw in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz "a sophisticated commentary on the political and economic debates of the Populist Era," discovered a surprising number of new analogies. The Deadly Poppy Field, where the Cowardly Lion fell asleep and could not move forward, was the anti-imperialism that threatened to make Bryan forget the main issue of silver (note the Oriental connotation of poppies and opium). Once in the Emerald Palace, Dorothy had to pass through seven halls and climb three flights of stairs; seven and three make seventy-three, which stands for the Crime of '73, the congressional act that eliminated the coinage of silver and that proved to all Populists the collusion between congress and bankers. The Wicked Witch of the East was Grover Cleveland; of the West, William McKinley. The enslavement of the yellow Winkies was "a not very well disguised reference to McKinley's decision to deny immediate independence to the Philippines" after the Spanish-American War. The Wizard himself was Mark Hanna, McKinley's campaign manager, although Rockoff noted that "this is one of the few points at which the allegory does not work straightforwardly." About half of Rockoff's article consisted of an economic analysis that justified Bryan and Baum's silver stance.5

     While most people in the US would never consider that a children’s novel would have a secondary theme dealing with political issues, this idea is not limited to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1667- 1745) was also believed to have secondary theme based upon social concerns.

    Jonathan Swift's ultimate satirical masterpiece, Gulliver's Travels, scrutinizes human nature through a misanthropic eye. More directly, it examines the bastardization English society underwent. The brilliant tale depicts the journey of Lemuel Gulliver, an Englishman, and his distorted encounters. Examining the prominent political and social conflicts of England in the eighteenth century, Swift's critical work causes much controversy. Gulliver's travels leads him to places of opposite environments and presents him with different opportunities. Through Gulliver's journey, Swift ridicules Gulliver as an individual character, and also as a product of England's social practices.

    First, Gulliver travels to Lilliput, a land of miniature humans. The culture and society of the Lilliputians is very similar to that of Gulliver's home, England. However, in this undersized environment, Gulliver's outlook is altered.6

    This secondary theme is also present in Russian literature. There are some scholars of classic Russian literature who are convinced that Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) was not only about the relationship between the Master and Margarita, but was also a social commentary about Soviet politics during the time that Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was the Soviet premier.  In my article “Absurdity of Reality”7 I mention that some scholars believe that Woland, the devil in Master and Margarita, was actually a representation of Stalin.  The fact that Bulgakov was unable to leave the Soviet Union by order of Joseph Stalin, even though he was very ill, seems to confirm that there is a connection between Stalin and this masterpiece.  Bulgakov died at the age of fifty-one, but he could have possibly lived quite a bit longer if he had been able to go to Paris where the rest of his family (except for his third wife who remained with her husband).  The medicine that Bulgakov needed was not available in the Soviet Union.

    Whether or not you accept the fact that these novels have a secondary theme, it is an interesting idea to ponder.  This will allow the author to express his opinion regarding very important issues while, at the same time, entertaining his readers with an intriguing or entertaining story.  If you have never read these novels, I recommend that you do so.  If you have read them, this will give you a reason to re-read them and examine them as social commentaries.

                                                                 End Notes

1)    The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)” (accessed 5/12/12)

2)     Henry M. Littlefield "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism," American Quarterly 16 (1964): 47-58 (quotation on 54); L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Chicago, 1900).

3)     Littlefield, "Parable on Populism," 50, 58.

4)     Richard Jensen The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896 (Chicago, 1971), 282-83.

5)     Brian Attebery The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin (Bloomington, 1980), 86-87.

6)     “Gulliver’s Travels: An Altered Perspective” (accessed 5/12/12)

7)     “Absurdity of Reality” (accessed 5/12/12)

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