Wizard of Oz
OVER THE RAINBOW Once upon a time, The Wizard of Oz, was a populist fable By Peter Dreier (A historical background)
winning the Presidency--and the silver standard--in 1896. That election, between Republican Many reviewers have criticized The William McKinley and Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, Wiz for its appropriation of one of America's most treasured fantasies, Congressman from Nebraska, revolved around the issue of gold The Wizard of Oz. Some disapproved of replacing Judy vs. silver. During that campaign Garland's youthful Kansas farm girl Bryan add the speech that concluded: "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." The election proved a disaster for the Populists. McKinley received 271 electoral votes to Bryan's 176, almost all in the Midwest. Bryan opposed McKinley again in 1900 (when Baum penned The Wonderful with Diana Ross' 24-year-old New Wizard of Oz), but by then the York schoolteacher. Newsweek, for Populists' strength had been dissipated. example, lamented turning a story about a "child's magic adventures" into hip ghetto extravaganza about Allegory "grown-up black women learning to put away childish things and 'face Baum viewed these events from life'". up-close in both rural South Dakota and urban Chicago. He mourned the But whether we prefer the 1939 destruction of the fragile alliance actor Fleming's version featuring between the Midwestern farmers "Over the Rainbow" or the 1978 (The Scarecrow) and the urban Sidney Lumet's version with the industrial workers (the Tin-man). song "No Bad New," almost all Along with Bryan (the Cowardly Americans are familiar with the cast Lion with aloud roar but little bit), of characters as originally written in they had been taken down the Lyman Frank Baum's 1900's tale, yellow brick road (the gold The Wonderful Wizard of Oz--the standard) that leads nowhere. Each Tinman, the Lion, the Scarecrow, journeyed to the Emerald (the the Witch, and the Wizard of Oz Capitol) seeking favors from the himself. Wizard of Oz (the President). Even the name Oz is an abbreviation of 1 of 3
and control them. The Wizard--a former ventriloquist and circus balloonist, a common man from Omaha--is disarmed. Dorothy returns to Kansas with the magical help of her Silver Shoes, but when she gets to Kansas she realizes her shoes "had fallen off in her flight through the air, and were lost forever in the desert."
She didn't need the shoes after all to find happiness, safe at home with Aumt Em And Uncle Henry, simple farmers. (Baum even displayed an early sympathy for native Americans of the plains, symolized in the story of the Winged monkeys in the West, whose leader tells Dorothy, "Once..we were a free people, living happily in the great forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master... This was many years ago, before Oz came out of the clouds to rule over this land.") Baum realized perhaps that the
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Wizard of Oz
What most American's don't know is the political allegory to be found in Baum's story, about the Populist period in late 19th century history. Baum was born near Syracuse, N.Y., in 1856 to a wealthy family and enjoyed some success writing plays. In 1887, he moved with his wife and two sons to Aberdeen, S.D., a small prairie town, where he edited the local weekly until it failed in 1891. That year he moved to Chicago, where he continued to write, and where he authored The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900.
the name Oz is an abbreviation of the standard measurement of gold, the ounce. Dorothy, the symbol of Everyman, went along with them, in her silver shoes (changed to ruby in the 1939 movie). She was innocent enough to see the truth before the others.
Along the way they meet the Wicked Witch of the East who, Baum tells us, had kept the little Munchkin people "in bondage for many years, making them slave for her night and day." If we have any doubt as to whom the witch represents, Baum soon tells us. The Tin Woodsman, once an Baum's travels and experiences independent and hard-working man, placed him amidst the whirlpool of had been put under aspell by the Populist agitation of the persecuted. witch so that each time he swung his axe it chopped off a different His brief stay in South Dakota part of his body. Lacking another spanned the period of the formation trade, he "worked harder than ever." of the Populist Party, an attempt by The worker becomes like a Midwestern farmers to use the machine, incapable of love. (Recall ballot to restrain the power of the the Tinman singing: "If I only had a banks, railroads, and other heart.") The Scarecrow (farmer) economic interests that had been wants the Wizard to give him a squeezing farmers through a brain. The Wicked Witch of the combinaton of low prices, high East symbolizes the large industrial freight rates, and continued corporations and eastern finance. indebtedness. The Populists, an alliance of farmers and some urban workers (many affiliated with the Knights of Labor), advocated government ownership and operation of the railroads, telephone and telegraph industries, and Like Coxey's Army, the small group graduated income tax, postal heads toward the Emerald City savings banks, secret ballot where the Wizard, hiding behind a elections, direct election of papier-mache facade, rules. As they senators, and silver coinage. enter the throne room, each member Although their presidential of the group sees something candidate, James B. Weaver of different in the Wizard--like all Iowa, lost to Democrat Grover good politicans, he can be all things Cleveland in 1892, he did receive about 9 percent of the popular vote to all people. and carried Nevada, Idaho, Later, however, they confront the Colorado, North Dakota and Wizard directly. They see he is (significantly of Wizard nothing more than "a little man, aficionados) Kansas, a leading Populist state, and the setting of the with a bald head and a wrinkled face " 2 of 3
Baum realized perhaps that the silver issue had been lost, but that silver was not the crucial issue anyway. The eal question was that of power. With the Wizard of Oz detroned, the Scarecrow (the farmer) rules Emerald City,
the Tin Woodman (the industrial worker) rules in the West and the Lion (Bryan) protects smaller beasts in "a small old forest." In Baum's vision, farm interests gain political power, industry moves West, and Bryan, perhaps, returns to Congress. Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz is at once a children's fantasy and an angry political statement. In both film versions, the story remains intact, but the message is gone. And a 1977 book, The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Adjean Harmetz, spends 329 pages on the history of the film and a psychological portrait of Baum, never mentioning Baum's political sympathies or the social context of the time. Did Ray Bolger realize he represented America' s small farmers? Could Bert Lahr imagine playing William Jennings Bryan? How might Judy Garland have reacted if someone asked her about Populists, nationalized railroads, or silver cionage? The Wizard of Oz was mad in 1939, during the next major depression, when business was once again challenged by farmers, industrial workers, and progressive politicians; but the story's political references were lost. The same pattern holds in the 1978 version Also made during a period
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Wizard of Oz
book's beginning. Baum's move to Chicago coincided with the 1893 depression and the militant stirrings of the labor movement. The depression of the 1890's was the worst in U.S. history up to that time. Farm prices sunk to new lows. Unemployment caused havoc, desperation and union militancy among the urban working class. In 1894 American Railway Union president and soon-to-be socialist Eugenne Debs led the Pullman strike in and around Chicago. The same year Jacob S. Coxey, a lumber dealer from Massillon, Ohio, and a Populist, led a mass march of umemployed workers to Washington to demand a federal public works program.
Populists received 40 percent of the vote in the 1894 congressional elections and looked forward to
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version. Also made during a period of economic hardship. It's ironic that of all people Richard Pryor "I thought Oz was a great Head," should play "the Wiz". Among Dorothy said. "And I thought Oz today's black film stars, Pryor has was a terrible Beast," said the Tin Woodman. "And I though Oz was a avoided the worst black exploitation films to play roles in social Ball of Fire," the Lion said. The "message" films. He has portrayed Scarecrow thinks he sees a an industrial worker (Blue Collar), gossamer fairy. a farmworker (Which Way Is Up?), a Father-Divine-like religion "No, you are all wrong," the man said. "I have been making believe." flim-flam man (Car Wash), and a When Borothy asks him who he is, member of a black worker-owned baseball team trying to survive inthe really, he replies, "I'm just a racist South (Bingo Long and the common man." The Scarecrow Traveling All-Stars). adds, "You're more than that...You're a humbug." The Wizards of Hollywood have led The Wizard admits: "It was a great American film-goers down another mistake my ever letting you into the Yellow Brick Road, cashing in on the fantasy and leaving the political Throne Room. Usually I will not allegory behind. see even my subject, and so they Peter Dreier, sociology professor at believe I am something terrible." Tuft's University, teaches a course Those were the days before presidential candidates campaigned on film and politics. He wishes to acknowledge his reliance on an among the people. They stayed essay by Henry M. Littlefield, "The home and "recieved" delegations. Wizard of Oz, Parable on Bryan broke the tradition in Populism," American Quarterly, 1896--he traveled through the 1964. country and roared. This was Baum's Populist message. The powers-that-be can only remain at the throne through deception, people's ignorance and credulity allow the powerful to manipulate face."
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