Today is the 40th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, based on the 1900 book by L. Frank Baum. . .
Not surprisingly, the book and movie have been subject to many different interpretations.
For Henry M. Littlefield, the book was a parable on William Jennings Bryan and the late-19th-century Populist movement. For example:
The Wicked Witch of the East had kept the little Munchkin people “in bondage for many years, making them slave for her night and day.” Just what this slavery entailed is not immediately clear, but Baum later gives us a specific example. The Tin Woodman, whom Dorothy meets on her way to the Emerald City, had been put under a spell by the Witch of the East. Once an independent and hard working human being, the Woodman found that each time he swung his axe it chopped off a different part of his body. Knowing no other trade he “worked harder than ever,” for luckily in Oz tinsmiths can repair such things. Soon the Woodman was all tin. In this way Eastern witchcraft dehumanized a simple laborer so that the faster and better he worked the more quickly he became a kind of machine. Here is a Populist view of evil Eastern influences on honest labor which could hardly be more pointed.
For Hugh Rockoff, the book is a monetary allegory, replete with references to the monetary debates of the 1890s. For example:
Dorothy is in her home when it is carried by a cyclone (tornado) to the land of Oz. This is Baum’s fantasy counterpart to America, a land in which, especially in the East, the gold standard reigns supreme and in which an ounce (Oz) of gold has almost mystical significance. The cyclone is the free silver movement itself. It came roaring out of the West in 1896, shaking the political establishment to its foundations. A cyclone is an apt metaphor. Bryan was first elected to Congress in 1890 and made his first important speech in Congress on the silver question in 1893. Three years later he was the leader of a national movement. Dorothy’s house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East. The Witch dries up completely, leaving only her silver shoes. These represent the silver component of a bimetallic standard and are given to Dorothy to wear by the Good Witch of the North, who has been summoned to the scene. The silver shoes have a magical power that the Wicked Witch of the East understood but which the Munchkins (citizens of the East) do not.
While Helen M. Kim sees the movie as a parable about mass consumer culture (including the possibility of resisting that culture):
opening in rural, hard-working, plain, and virtuous Kansas, the film grounds Dorothy’s magical adventures in the land of Oz firmly in the context of “real” life. The early scenes of her industrious aunt and uncle and their three farm hands, securing their animals and equipment against an approaching storm, are shot in “realistic” sepia tones. The small, bare, weather-worn Kansas farm and the aged, humble appearance of the adults evoke the harshness of midwestern rural life during the droughts and depression of the 1930s. Significantly, the characters’ anxiety and haste to prepare for the storm create an atmosphere in which work, responsibility, and industry are of the utmost importance to the preservation of their frail subsistence from an unpredictably destructive nature. Such iconography in the year of the film’s release, 1939, strongly enforces a sense of the harsh economic realities of “ordinary,” “everyday” American life. Nature, as represented by the land and the weather, dictates the limits circumscribing human existence. The Kansas setting represents the extreme of the natural and the unmediated, against which Dorothy’s “wild” flight into the fantastic, utopian, and ultimately mass cultural realm of Oz constitutes an entry into the possibilities of the artificial, mediated, or constructed-possibilities, in other words, which provide the necessary means to critique, contest, and demystify the category of “the natural,” which underpins the power of hegemony.
. . .
The drama of Dorothy’s movement between “real” and “utopian” spaces, then, works itself out through the ensuing plot of the film, which immediately reverses itself in the direction of Dorothy’s desire to return home. I would like to read her attempt to do so as the film working through the oppositional possibilities open to consumers: to “get out” of mass culture’s system of power once they have been enticed into it.
Thanks to Baum and Judy Garland, an important story—one that is rich in political, economic, and cultural alternatives—lives on.