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The book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its film adaptation The Wizard of Oz (1939) quickly became a foundational element in American popular culture with countless idiomatic allusions, cultural references, and pervasive merchandizing. Lyman Frank Baum wrote seventeen sequels comprising the Oz series, though none repeated or surpassed the popularity of the first book. The film launched actress Judy Garland’s stardom; she won an Academy Award and made the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” popular and famous, earning it recognition as the number one song of the twentieth century. Since the 1950s, the film has aired continuously on network and cable television. These airings, with few exceptions, became an annual tradition and continued through 2002. Sidney Lumet directed an African American stage version in 1978; The Wiz starred pop-music icons Diana Ross and Michael Jackson as Dorothy and the Scarecrow, respectively. In 1998 The Wizard of Oz ranked sixth out of one hundred in an American Film Institute poll; it was the highest ranked musical in the genre of fantasy and family movies. Through the first half decade of the 2000s, it continued to generate academic and mainstream books, journal articles, CD music releases, videocassette releases, websites, blogs, merchandizing, and a remastered digital DVD release.
Baum was born on May 15, 1856, in Chittenango, New York. He suffered a stroke and died on May 5, 1919. Many biographies exist detailing his life and work. The success of the Oz books prompted a musical adaptation for the stage. Oz (1902) became very popular and toured for nine years. The film The Wizard of Oz was adapted from Baum’s first book, other books in the series, and stage scripts.
The basic storyline details the adventures of a young girl named Dorothy as a tornado transports her and her dog to the magical land of Oz, where she encounters and befriends interesting characters and experiences a range of adventures, some of which are frightening, even gruesome, and others humorous. The characters most remembered are Dorothy; her dog Toto; the Munchkins; the Scarecrow; the Tin Man; the Cowardly Lion; the Wizard of Oz; Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Glinda is from the South in the book); and the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West. The film is mostly true to the original books, though one key difference is that the land of Oz and the Emerald City are real places in the books, but the film indicates that these places are fantasy and only exist in Dorothy’s dream, which occurs as a result of a bump on the head. This notion is portrayed through the contrast of the dual-tone sepia segments, which depict real-life Kansas, and the Technicolor® segments, which depict the land of Oz. Also, the same actors who play the role of the farm hands play the roles of the major land of Oz characters.
The most noted dialogue that has worked its way into American popular culture includes the sayings: “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” “Follow the yellow brick road,” and “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” The first line has appeared in many variations in movies, television sitcoms, and skits. One of the most famous yellow brick road references is pop singer Elton John’s 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. “The man behind the curtain” has been used in reference to conspiracy theories and political scandals, including the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and suspicions of voter fraud in the 2000 U.S. presidential election.
There have been several scholarly interpretations of the story and film, including Daniel Dervin’s 1978 Freudian interpretation, in which Dorothy’s journey is symbolic of a sexual coming of age; Darren John Main’s 2000 Jungian interpretation, in which Dorothy’s journey is emblematic of archetypal spiritual journeys; and Lynette Carpenter’s 1985 analysis, which presents the film as embodying U.S. isolationist tendencies during the dawn of World War II. The most acclaimed interpretation is Henry M. Littlefield’s 1964 view of the story as allegory for the gold versus silver standard debate, political populism, and William Jennings Bryan’s presidential run. For Littlefield, ” The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has provided unknowing generations with a gentle and friendly Midwestern critique of the Populist rationale____ [L]ed by naive innocence [Dorothy] and protected by good will [Glinda], the farmer [Scarecrow], the labourer [Tin Man] and the politician [Bryan in particular] approach the mystic holder of national power [the Wizard] to ask for personal fulfilment” (pp. 57-58).
Another Populist perspective exists between the film and the New Deal. The lyricist for all the songs in the film was E. Y. “Yip” Harburg (1896-1981), who wrote the Great Depression anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” He also helped shape most of the story. Harburg claimed that the Emerald City represented the New Deal. In 1990 Francis MacDonnell extended this interpretation, stating that the Wizard represents New Deal president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the same way that the Wizard shows Dorothy and her friends that they always had the qualities they were in search of, President Roosevelt demonstrated that the American people held the solutions to their problems and restored their self-confidence.
- Carpenter, Lynette. 1985. There’s No Place Like Home: The Wizard of Oz and American Isolationism. Film and History 15 (5): 37–45.
- Dervin, Daniel. 1978. Over the Rainbow and Under the Twister: A Drama of the Girl’s Passage through the Phallic Phase. Bulletin of the Meninger Clinic 42: 51–57.
- Dighe, Ranjit S. 2002. The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Hearn, Michael Patrick. 2000. The Annotated Wizard of Oz: Centennial Edition. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Littlefield, Henry M. 1964. The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism. American Quarterly 16 (Spring): 47–58.
- MacDonnell, Francis. 1990. “The Emerald City was the New Deal”: E. Y. Harburg and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Journal of American Culture 13 (Winter): 71–75.
- Main, Darren John. 2000. Spiritual Journeys along the Yellow Brick Road. Tallahassee, FL: Findhorn Press.
- Nathanson, Paul. 1991. Over the Rainbow : The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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