The Wizard of Oz in Historical Context: Reel Life to Real Life
During the early 20th century, America faced a time of uncertainty and despair during the stock market crash in late 1929. People all over the country were unemployed and many were dying due to starvation and to malnutrition. Also, marriage rates dropped as the divorce rates rose. There was utter chaos and unrest throughout the country since it affected the American class to some extent. Together as a nation they had to learn how to overcome this era of grief. This era which that is now known as the Great Depression. It not only hurt the American people financially, but also emotionally. The moods and spirits of the people had dropped the along with economy. They were in need of an escape that would serve as an outlet in their daily lives. Something they could relate to, something that had the ability to create a sense of comfort and familiarity. They found this outlet in movies. The Wizard of Oz, a classic that first screened in 1939, helped lift the spirits of the Americans during the Great Depression through symbolism and by metaphorically relating the characters to the different divisions of Americans.
Movies were the source of entertainment that served as an outlet during this emotionally challenging time. Many of these movies were comforting to the Americans because the storyline of those movies ran parallel to what the people were facing in their day to day lives (Breitzer). What sets The Wizard of Oz apart from the other movies is that it was able to embody America as a whole. While many movies attracted a certain section of society, The Wizard of Oz was not only able to represent America as a whole, but it also recognized the different divisions within the nation. The movie’s ability to address all Americans in someway makes the film a classic.When the film was first released it instantly won the hearts of many Americans. Many of them were already familiar with the storyline because they had already read the book, that came out in 1900, prior to the release of the movie.The film was so beloved by the critics that one even compared the movie to the biggest of that time, Disney’s Snow White (Nungent). The film had the ability to mesmerize audiences of all ages and gender. The New Times writer states, “They are entertaining conceits all of them, presented with a naive relish for their absurdity and out of an obvious—and thoroughly natural—desire on the part of their fabricators to show what they could do” (Nungent). He talks about the all the characters in the film, both main and supporting characters. It was justified that the people would love and enjoy it so much because of how well the animations and Technicolor was for its time.
Although the movie begins in black and white it later transitions into Technicolor, symbolizing the transition from the dull and gloomy lives of the American people to a life full of color and happiness. Kansas is portrayed as a dull and lifeless gray place, depicting the state of Kansas in the early 1890’s (Langley, The Wizard of Oz). A confluence of events including scorching droughts, severe winters, and an invasion of grasshoppers had turned the rich lands into a wasteland unfit for agriculture. The farmers were rendered helpless after these events because the farms were their only source of bread and butter. This negative impact on the agriculture was one of the causes of the Great Depression as the farmers gave up (Robinson). Besides the farmers, the hit on agriculture took a toll on all of America because this used to be their source of food as well.
America as a whole faced a period of unrest, but the nation had still managed to come together as one and combat their problems. They were able to unite as one nation and emerge from the Great Depression by living a simplistic life and rationing out how much they spent in their day to day lives. In the movie Dorothy marks a strong resemblance of America. In The Wizard of Oz, the main character Dorothy embodies America. She is a young, simplistic, and naive girl from Kansas who is resilient and determined to find her way back home. Even though the Land of Oz seems much more cheerful, colorful, and helps Dorothy escape her current problems, she wishes to return home to her family in Kansas. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live here than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.” (Baum 33). Although it may be tempting to stay in the Land of Oz, she will not be swayed by its luxuries. She recognizes that even if Kansas is in a bad state, that is where all her loved ones are, therefore, that is where she must return. She is able to do so with the help of characters that she meets along the way while she is traveling on the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City. Americans were able to use this as a glimmer of hope, recognizing that they will soon see the light at the end of the tunnel if they chose to never give up. The resilient Americans were both resourceful and determined to emerge from this time of conflict (Lewis 412). The Americans were able to quickly able to adapt to this new way of living and reused many of their items and only bought those that were absolute necessities.. They had to beat the starvation rates that were stooping lower by the day as the unemployment rates rose. The unemployment hit people all over America, from the farmers of the West to the workers of the East.
The division of Americans that suffered the most from the Great Depression were those working in the agricultural industry. The farmers were suffering terrible droughts in the West and with weather that worsened by the day. In The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy encounters the scarecrow he is disoriented and stuck until Dorothy comes by to help him. Similarly, the farmers in the western lands were also rendered helpless at the crash of the stock market (Mintz). No one listened to the scarecrow in the movie and everything he said was ineffective just like the farmers in the West were ignored, silenced, or outspoken. Very few listened to what they had to say or the problems that they were facing in agriculture. They were often considered inferior to the other men that jobs in the industrial factories in the East.
The movie showcases the immobility of the industrial workers who had worked long hours to feed their family, as seen through the tin man. Like the workers, the tin man in the movie is shown as rusty and is unable to move until Dorothy comes along and pours oil on him. Once she pours oil on him, the tin man is now able to move as well as speak. Many factory workers felt immobile when man businesses began to shut down due to the Great Depression. Helpless as they lost their jobs, the workers were often dehumanized. This was shown through the tin man’s characteristics of being hollow and having no heart. Together the tin man and Dorothy continue on their way to the Land of Oz when Dorothy meets her third and final friend on the journey, the cowardly lion.
The cowardly lion is seen as a representation of government officials, but in particular William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was similar to the lion because he had a great talent for public speaking just like the cowardly lion was heard by most when he roared loudly. However, no matter how loud his roar was the lion recognized that he was a coward. The cowardly lion says, “If the elephants, and the tigers and the bears had ever tried to fight me, I should have to run myself-I’m such a coward” (Baum 36). Bryan was unsuccessful during his attempts at presidency, all three of them. Likewise, the lion maintains his role of leadership even if he had lost to his opponents, Bryan had still remained a popular Democratic leader due to his speeches and the lion is still the king of the jungle and beasts. The Land of Oz itself is essentially a representation of the lands of America, Emerald City representing Washington the center of the government.
Americans transitioned from the reel life to real life as the years after the Depression went on. During the Great Depression, the film industry performed as a valuable ideological and psychological, by reassuring and providing hope to a demoralized and divided nation. Sharp cuts in daily spendings and taxes helped the nation emerge out of the financial meltdown known as the Great Depression. America was now on its road to recovering. The unemployment rates started to go down as the economy began to boom once again with the start of World War II as the industry began to prepare for war.
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