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“And You Were In My Dream”: We’re Off To Revisit The Wizard…

Images courtesy Turner Entertainment Co.

Did Dorothy Gale really dream Oz? If so, then she probably deserves a MacArthur Genius Grant for it.

MGM’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz contains multitudes. Its musical range leapfrogs from Vaudeville to Great American Songbook to operatic parody. Its humor is both wised-up and unironically sentimental. Depending on who you ask, it’s an allegory for Depression-era America, a Jungian journey of individuation, and the inspiration for countless theme parties. Anything you’re looking for in the movie, you will find. There’s probably a recipe for bread pudding in there somewhere.

Sadly, even some of its biggest fans diminish the movie to the level of kitsch. The original New York Times review proclaimed it “so well-intentioned, so genial and so gay that any reviewer who would look down his nose at the fun-making should be spanked and sent off, supperless, to bed” (not all reviews were so kind: the New Yorker proclaimed it a “stinkeroo”). To say this about a movie that kills off two witches, sets fire to a talking scarecrow, and nearly drowns a dog (twice) suggests a critic who isn’t quite paying attention.

Never mind that The Wizard of Oz is technically a masterpiece. It also happens to be borderline twisted. I daresay it has oversaturated more retinas, sported more dancing little people, and emptied the terrified bladders of more toddlers than any other children’s movie (sorry, Wonka: not even close). The movie is a work of imagination, and not everything we imagine is pretty.

The movie’s deceptive simplicity is partly due to our camp associations with its young heroine, a dimpled redhead in a blue gingham dress. The filmmakers would have us believe that all the Technicolor parts of the movie—the flying monkeys, the apple-flinging trees, the florid flummery of the Wizard, the nerve-biting nastiness of the Witch—all of this is the product of a bump on the noggin of a debatably pubescent girl. If so, then either that was some bump or Dorothy Gale is some kind of midwestern Salvador Dali. Because that dream is apeshit genius.

Let’s start with the farmhands.

As we all know, the trio we meet in the sepiatone part—Dorothy’s Dust-Bowl reality—are played by the same actors who will later bodyguard her to the Emerald City. Hunk (Ray Bolger) drops in as the Scarecrow, Hickory (Jack Haley) is retooled as the Tin Man, and Zeke (Bert Lahr) is reincarnated as the Cowardly Lion. Assuming that Oz really was just some kind of fantasy, this would suggest that Dorothy’s affection for the three farmhands runs quite deep: you will never find better friends than your brain, your heart, or your courage.

You may also notice that the screenplay alludes to the qualities that each companion will eventually seek from the Wizard. Hunk tells Dorothy to be smart and keep Toto out of Almira Gulch’s garden. Zeke tells her to be brave and stand up to Almira. In an exchange of dialogue that sadly hit the cutting room floor, Hickory tells Dorothy to show empathy to her tormentor:

Oh! Oh, it feels like my joints are rusted.
Listen, Dorothy, don’t let Hunk kid you
about Miss Gulch. She’s just a poor
sour-faced old maid that—she ain’t got
no heart left. You know, you should have a
little more heart yourself, and have pity on her.

It’s fascinating that each farmhand is actually the mirror opposite of his Oz counterpart. While the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion all want the Wizard to give them virtues they already have, the farmhands all pretend to have qualities they lack. Hunk preaches cleverness but keeps banging his thumb with a hammer. Zeke is more terrified of the hogs than Dorothy. Hickory only wants to do great things so that the locals will build a statue of him. The film may be set in Kansas, but it seems to take place in a state of Dunning-Kruger delusion.

You can’t say the same for Almira Gulch, whose only flaw—one that she shares with her Oz counterpart, the Wicked Witch of the West—is an unfortunate tendency to leave dog baskets unlocked. As the Witch, she is not only hyper-competent, she’s also eerily comfortable in her green skin. Socrates’s maxim that an evil person cannot be consciously or intentionally evil falls apart in the face of the Witch’s lovely wickedness.

Like many of the cast, Margaret Hamilton was a comedian, and she plays the Witch with a comedian’s gleeful sadism. When she mocks Dorothy’s cries of “Auntie Em! Auntie Em!” it’s not just scary, it’s cruel—and she owns the hell out of it:

Fool, that I am!  I should have
Remembered—those slippers will never
come off, as long as you’re alive. But
that’s not what’s worrying me—it’s how
to do it. These things must be done
delicately… or you hurt the spell.

Again: this is a kid’s movie. Keep in mind, the Witch doesn’t have this discussion privately with her flying monkeys—she’s explaining this very technical problem to the person she’s about to murder. This is some very stone-cold witching here. You half expect Dorothy to pull an Edna-Garrett double take: “Well, I can see why that’s a dilemma having to kill me so delicately because whaaaaaAAAA?”

Why’s she got to be so mean?

Probably for the same reason Grendel wanted to destroy the Geats and the Grinch took the last can of Who Hash: that’s just kind of how she came out of the waffle iron. It’s a vision of unapologetic evil that would never fly nowadays. Modern screenwriting demands a backstory. Why did Hannibal become a cannibal? Nazis ate his sister. Vader? Sandpeople got Shmi. Contemporary reboots like Wicked try very hard to convince us that Elphaba isn’t really evil, just the victim of some serious witch-shaming.

Dorothy’s vision—if it is hers—isn’t clouded by backstory. There’s no explaining what does not require an explanation, or to rationalize what is already rational. The Witch’s pure cold logic is untouched by compassion. If she can make a deal with Dorothy for the slippers, she’ll go for it… but if it turns out Dorothy has to die, then that’s only a problem because now the Witch has to consult her technical manuals.

This is not the kind of evil that is apt to self-destruct.

The Winkies might pray for her death, but they’re not about to risk her wrath. Compare that to the relatively loose rein that her late sister kept on her territory: that witch was just praying for something to fall on her. Sure, the Munchkins had plenty to sing about after the Witch of the East met her farmhouse demise, but there’s just not a lot of evidence that they actually suffered under Witchism. Everybody’s well-fed, the fields are full of corn, they’ve even got enough sugar to make comically oversized lollipops. Munchkinland has an elected mayor, an independent judiciary, even its own standing army. The little Munchkins are taking ballet! What the hell are they bitching about?

Meanwhile out West, there is actual North Korea-level suffering.

The Winkie homeland has been reduced to a marshy gray waste. The only animal life is some owls and vultures, and even they’re looking kind of puny. There’s universal military conscription in Winkiedom. The uniforms are heavy and itchy-looking. The Winkies aren’t even allowed to write lyrics for their marching songs. The only building in site is a castle. Any ruler who can do all this isn’t about to stop at dog drowning.

Can this kind of evil be explained? Should it be? Hickory the fieldhand tells Dorothy to have pity on Almira because “she’s just a sour old maid.” Maybe this line was cut for time, but I suspect it also tapped veins that the filmmakers preferred not to open. What would it mean to pity the Witch, even see the world through her eyes?

It would be patronizing. To take away Dorothy’s moment of staring into the abyss would reduce the story to cotton candy—“Sorry, kiddies, you can’t handle the truth.” What makes Dorothy such a powerful character is her ability to face cruelty with compassion. “How about a little fire, Scarecrow?” the Witch says in a voice like a rusted rake. When Dorothy flings that water bucket, she isn’t trying to kill the Witch, she’s trying to stop a psychopath from murdering her friend.

Again, if this is the product of a child’s brain, then we are talking about one amazing child. Maybe this is why we always feel a collective groan of disappointment when Dorothy returns to consciousness and proclaims that she’s never going to look for her heart’s desire any farther away than her own back yard and if she can’t find what she wants in boring old Kansas then she never really lost it to begin with. It feels like a cheat. Whether it’s the poppies that put her to sleep or the “snow” that pepped her up again, she sure as hell has been inhaling something.

But we know that’s not the actual lesson of the movie. That’s just a layer of warm goo somebody poured onto the ending like the Mrs. Butterworth syrup you didn’t ask for at iHop. The lines were tacked on by two writers called in for a dialogue polish who didn’t seem to have paid much attention to what the other writers were doing.

The real journey is elsewhere. Going by classical three-act screenwriting, the movie’s midpoint—the moment when the hero realizes that there’s no going back to the original status quo and it’s time for some kind of irrevocable action—is what reveals Dorothy’s true lesson. Midway through The Godfather, Michael discovers you really can kill a police captain. Midway through Jaws, Brody realizes he really will have to kill a shark. Midway through Dude, Where’s My Car? the dudes realize that they’ll never get their car back unless something, something, I have no idea. Point being, give me a midpoint and I will unlock the secrets of time and space. Much like the Continuum Transfunctioner in Dude, Where’s My Car?

I’d always assumed that the midpoint of The Wizard of Oz was when the Wizard gave Dorothy and company their orders to bring back the Witch’s broomstick. Turns out that’s almost two thirds of the way through. The literal midpoint, fifty-one minutes in, is when Dorothy bops the Cowardly Lion on the nose to stop him from hurting Toto.

It might seem like a throwaway gag—but it does appear that protecting others is what Dorothy is all about.

The girl who sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” longs to go where people like Almira Gulch can’t hurt her dog. At every point in the movie, Dorothy’s not happy unless she knows that Toto is safe. When she meets a bullying lion, it’s the end of a Dorothy who runs from trouble and the beginning of one who fights to protect others. Her whole journey to the Wizard is the search for someone who can magic her problems away. At the end of the story, she discovers that she only needs herself.

Okay, so maybe Glinda could have explained that part about the slippers a little sooner. But it’s still an incredibly grown-up revelation for a kid’s movie, one that “There’s no place like home” can’t quite drown in its puddle of hugs. Modern children’s movies generally push some version of “be yourself.” The Wizard of Oz is more pragmatic. It tells us that if you want to make stuff happen, don’t expect some mullet-headed guy in a balloon to do it for you. Your way home is on your own two feet.

Of course, it’s a safe bet that the screenwriters didn’t consciously expect us to assign all these profound revelations about self-reliance or motiveless evil or the political-economical structure of a Vichy Munchkinland to a child’s delusion. The writers—there were at least a dozen including Ogden Nash, lyricist Yip Harburg, and the great Herman Mankiewicz—were gifted people writing in troubled times. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” might have expressed a child’s simple vision of a place where troubles melt like lemon drops, but it also came from the same pen that wrote such soul-rending Depression-era ballads as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

And yet Dorothy herself—fighting to get out of Kansas, betrayed by foster parents who were helpless to protect her dog—is the vehicle of that wisdom. The secret power of every great children’s story is that it speaks to the adult within the child and the child within the adult. Dorothy—played by Judy Garland with a depth of heartache and fragile vulnerability that few actors of any age could achieve—is a mirror for humans of all ages. She isn’t wise like the Scarecrow or tenderhearted like the Tin Man or brave like the Cowardly Lion. She isn’t a born survivor like Toto. She is a child facing the unlikely mission of all children, which is to make it out of childhood alive.

This is what fundamentally makes The Wizard of Oz so much more than what the New York Times called well-intentioned, genial, and gay. It is all of those things, but it’s also a movie that tells us it’s okay to feel. The movie’s Kansas is a place where it’s dangerous to be vulnerable. Over the course of the story, Judy bares her soul to us—intense joy, rage, ugly tears—and even a mean Witch can’t bottle her up. Under its glittering surface, the movie is a minefield of hard lessons and earned hope.

To butcher an already-butchered line from Chesterton, stories like this don’t convince kids that witches run the world.

Children already know that: stories tell kids how you can defeat witches and still be human.



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