The subversive soul of ‘The Wizard of Oz’


T he combination of Irvine Welsh, author of “Trainspotting,” and “The Wizard of Oz,” Hollywood’s quintessential family film, in the stage play “Babylon Heights” may raise some eyebrows. But “The Wizard of Oz” is not innocent entertainment. The significance of the film to gay and lesbian audiences, for whom Judy Garland’s Dorothy has become a mascot, may seem perverse to conservative viewers, but it derives from an awareness that “The Wizard of Oz” is, in fact, a subversive film which challenges American sacred cows.

If “Trainspotting,” Welsh’s account of the lives of drug addicts in urban Scotland, demonstrates that narcotics allow an escape from a drab, disappointing reality, “The Wizard of Oz” shows how a girl in rural America finds solace in fantasies of flight from an unhappy childhood. It is less an escapist film than a film about the need to escape.

No one who has seen the film forgets the scene where Dorothy arrives in Oz. The earlier sequences were set in Kansas, where the cantankerous Miss Gulch has threatened Dorothy’s beloved dog, Toto, and a tornado has carried away her house. All this was in black and white, like 95 of 100 Hollywood features in 1939. But the house has been whipped into another world. Opening the door, she emerges into Oz — and into brilliant Technicolor. From the start, Oz is more beguiling than anything in Kansas.

On the surface, the film is about Dorothy looking for a way home. Any film made by a major Hollywood studio in the late 1930s, when censorship was growing stricter, had to conform superficially to conservative ideals. These ideals are that the family is good, that America is good, that “There’s no place like home” — the words that Dorothy repeats to return to Kansas. “Home” and “America” are equated: It is almost unthinkable for any American in the movies to want to leave the United States. The exceptions are usually criminals who die in the attempt: In Fritz Lang’s 1937 “You Only Live Once,” the doomed hero and heroine are shot crossing into Canada. Given the pressure of American ideals, an innocent girl like Dorothy could only want to go home.

But Oz is in many ways more pleasant than Kansas. Kansas looks drab in black and white; Oz is beautiful in color. In Kansas, Dorothy’s closest companion is her dog. In Oz, she has friends: the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. In Kansas, Miss Gulch threatens to kill Toto, and there is no indication that her malice has been defeated by the end. In Oz, Dorothy does confront and defeat the main forces of evil: the wicked witches of the East and West. Dorothy’s journey to Oz is an escape into fantasy which, like such less socially acceptable escape routes as drug use, creates the illusion that problems have been solved. But the illusion is temporary — Dorothy must return to Kansas in the end.

Kansas was, indeed, no place like home in 1939. The “Wheat State,” traditional bread basket of the USA, faced ruin after the Dust Bowl, a series of storms that simply blew away the overfarmed topsoil of the American plains. With this crisis exacerbated by the effects of the Depression, Kansas was desperately poor. A state that had been a Republican stronghold through the prosperous 1920s voted for Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936.

But the benefits of Roosevelt’s New Deal were slow to reach the rural poor. Through the late ’30s, a stream of economic migrants went west to California. They found nothing as enticing as Oz. Some obtained insecure jobs; many remained unemployed; some lived in squatters’ camps. This was the America chronicled by John Steinbeck in his seminal novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” published in the year that “The Wizard of Oz” was filmed. Viewers in 1939 would have known that Kansas was a place to escape from, not a home to return to.

Beyond the historical context, there is a wider implication. “The Wizard of Oz” is about a child learning that she cannot rely on adult authority to solve problems; its most pervasive theme is that adults cannot be trusted. Among the film’s good characters are the Munchkins, whose stature makes them seem like children, albeit that many of them were drawn from a professional troupe of performing midgets because of their experience in song and dance. The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion have the innocence of children. The adults are ineffectual or villainous. In Kansas, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry lack the strength to save Toto from Miss Gulch; Dorothy must rescue him herself. In Oz, adulthood is personified by the wicked witches of the East and West, and by the unreliable Wizard, a charlatan who cannot give the heroes anything they do not already possess themselves. The only truly benevolent adult in the film is the Good Witch of the North, and she, significantly, has no equivalent in the “real world” of Kansas, unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, who is Miss Gulch’s surrogate, played by the same actress, Margaret Hamilton.

The film’s real message, then, is that home is not good and the adult world is not trustworthy. Thus, it fulfills a key function of fantasy: helping an audience learn to confront unattractive aspects of reality, and allowing viewers to deal with truths that would be unpalatable in a more realistic mode. Escapism is a universal need, and fantasy is a more productive way of escaping than the drug-taking and alcoholism that Irvine Welsh has chronicled. It is perhaps that fact which has ensured the continuing popularity of “The Wizard of Oz,” rather than its mythical wholesomeness.