As a child, the coming of the holiday season heralded several important events: Thanksgiving dinner with my grandparents, singing in the children’s choir at the Christmas Eve service, and the Christmas day reception at the house of our best friends.
But there was something else very important to me: watching the Wizard of Oz. Starting in 1959, CBS aired the Wizard of Oz every year as part of its holiday programming. To me it was more than appointment television. It was a special event which rivaled opening the presents under the tree.
I loved the movie. But I know that I did not sit glued in front of the television for two hours. At each appearance of the Wicked Witch, I fled out of the house and hid behind a tree. I am not sure how old I was when I first watched without bolting when I saw the flying monkeys.
To me the movie was just a marvelous, and at times frightening, tale of a teenage girl who landed in a fairy tale country after being torn away from her farm in Kansas. To get back home she had to embark on a very dangerous journey whose final destination could only be reached by killing a very powerful wicked witch.
Back then I knew that the movie was made on the eve of World War II because my mother talked about seeing the film as teenager. But I never thought that the movie might be talking about the dark clouds on the horizon. It was only later that I began to see the movie as an expression of Middle America’s desire to stay out of the coming European war.
Some readers might react by saying: The movie was based on a book written by Frank Baum in 1900, 39 years before the movie. The book’s author wasn’t talking about a war in Europe.
Obviously not. But a movie based on a book represents an interpretation of the book. In addition, as film critic Michael Zarowny makes clear, movie makers need to produce films which actually speak to their viewers’ concerns. In this case, the “isolationist” character of the Wizard of Oz becomes obvious for several reasons..
For starters, the movie begins in Kansas, the very heart of Middle America, where opposition to entering the European war was strongest. Dorothy lives on a farm with her loving aunt and uncle. But then a tornado tears her out of Kansas and drops her in the land of Oz.
This land of Oz is easily identifiable as Europe. The little village where she lands looks like a European town. The munchkins come out in colorful dress and uniforms. Dorothy encounters the “Lollypop Guild,” a reference to a kind of medieval European labor union. The mayor wears a chain to represent his office, a very European practice. To any American in 1939, the association with Europe would be obvious.
The introduction of the wicked witches parallels the introduction of the Kaiser and Hitler. When Dorothy’s house lands in Oz, it crushes the Wicked Witch of the East in the same way that the American Army arrived at the end of World War I and crushed the Kaiser. But when the good witch of the North arrives to explain this to Dorothy she says that she will now have to deal with the dead witch’s sister, the wicked witch of the West: “She is worse than the other one.” This can only mean Adolph Hitler. The movie also makes the subtle suggestion that American intervention in World War I might have helped cause the rise of the Second Witch.
Finally, the Wizard of Oz predicts how the boys from Middle America will do the fighting. On her way to Oz, Dorothy finds three companions ready to share the perils of her journey. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are the three hired hands from Dorothy’s farm. After Dorothy has killed the second witch, her three companions remain behind in Oz when Dorothy leaves in the balloon. This alludes to the many soldiers whose permanent residence will be their graves in European soil.
It is easy to forget that in 1939 the vast majority of Americans were opposed to involvement in the war in Europe. Many Americans felt that American intervention in 1917 had been a mistake. The Wizard of Oz, although externally a family holiday classic, articulates the fears of many Americans concerning an entrance into another foreign war and the idea that there is truly "no place like home."
[Image Credit: CBS Television, Public Domain]