The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was published just before the turn of the twentieth century, and years later was made into the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.

In the introduction to his book, Baum says that while children have always loved fairy tales, “the time has come for a series of newer ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.  Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.”  Therefore, he says this book “aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”

It is not clear that his tale is as much of a break with the past as he imagines.  In place of the dwarf, we have the Munchkins.  The Good Witch of the North and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, would seem to fall into the fairy category.  However, I really have to wonder about his claim to have left out the “heartaches and nightmares.”  The Wicked Witch of the West seems comparable to the one in the story about Hansel and Gretel or Sleeping Beauty.

In both the book and the movie, the moral of the tale is that there is no place like home.  And in both the book and the movie, home is dreadful, though each in its own way.  In the book, Dorothy lives with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em in a pitifully small house of just one room.  Outside the house, things are just as bleak:

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

As for Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, things are even worse:

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

The only friend Dorothy has is her little dog Toto, who makes her laugh and whom she loves.  It is interesting that Baum made Dorothy an orphan, when it would have been just as easy to make her the daughter of Henry and Em.  In a lot of fairy tales, such as the one of Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel, there is a stepmother, with the suggestion that the child or children are unloved and unwanted.  Once again, Baum does not seem to have distanced himself from the traditional fairy tales as much as he imagined.

I don’t know if tornados were called “cyclones” in Kansas in the nineteenth century, but that is how the book refers to them, one of which suddenly starts coming their way.  There is a trap door in the house leading down to a small hole to hide from such cyclones.  Dorothy tries to follow Aunt Em down the hole, but the house is lifted into the air before she and Toto can get down there.  Eventually, it drops the house down into the Land of Oz.

Because the house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her, the Munchkins she ruled over are most grateful.  The Good Witch of the North gives Dorothy the silver shoes that the Wicked Witch used to wear.  Then she tells her that if she wants to go back to Kansas, she will have to follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City where the Wizard of Oz may be able to help her.  Later, after she has met the Scarecrow, who decides to accompany her in hopes that the Wizard will give him a brain, he asks her why she wants to go back to Kansas:

“I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”

“That is because you have no brains” answered the girl. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

The Scarecrow sighed.

“Of course I cannot understand it,” he said. “If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.”

I suppose it makes sense that a little girl like Dorothy would feel that way, for young children are terrified of being separated from their parents.  But if she were a few years older, a teenage Dorothy would probably have said, “Kansas sucks.  I’m never going back.”  In any event, the ultimate moral of many fables and fairy tales is that we should accept our place in life, an agreeable sentiment for most people, inasmuch as they have no choice.

In the end, the Wizard of Oz agrees to take Dorothy back to Kansas, but his hot-air balloon accidentally leaves without her.  Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, tells her that she need only click her silver shoes together, and she can go back to Kansas whenever she wants.  Too bad the Good Witch of the North didn’t know about that, or Dorothy could have gotten back to Kansas that afternoon.

But at least that makes sense.  In the movie, there is only one good witch, Glinda (Billie Burke), the Good Witch of the North.  When the Scarecrow asks her why she didn’t tell Dorothy (Judy Garland) before that she could go back to Kansas any time she wants, Glinda replies, “Because she wouldn’t have believed me.  She had to learn it herself.”  In other words, we are being asked to believe that if Glinda had told Dorothy that she could return to Kansas right away, something like the following conversation would have taken place:

Glinda:  Now that you are wearing the ruby slippers, you can go back to Kansas any time you want by clicking your heels together.

Dorothy:  I don’t believe you.

Glinda:  Just try it.  You’ll see.

Dorothy:  No!

Glinda:  Well, in that case, I guess you’ll have to follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City and ask the Wizard of Oz for help.  He might be able to get you back to Kansas.

Dorothy:  Sounds good to me.

Anyway, in the book, Dorothy clicks her heels and winds up back in Kansas, telling Aunt Em, “I’m so glad to be at home again.”

As an aside, before Dorothy leaves the Land of Oz, each of her three friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, end up ruling over some of the inhabitants of Oz, with the suggestion that this is a happy ending for them and for those that are to be ruled over.  All four witches ruled over some portion of this land, at least until the wicked ones were dispatched.  And, of course, the Wizard ruled over Emerald City before he left.  In short, there is no such thing as democracy in the Land of Oz, nor any hint that having a democratically elected leader would be desirable.  Here, too, we find that Baum is in line with traditional fairy tales, which always seem to take place in a kingdom, not in some democratic republic.  When the traditional fairy tales were first told, kingdoms were the norm.  But as Baum was an American citizen claiming to present a modern fairy tale, one about a girl living in Kansas, we can only assume that his reason for not making the Land of Oz be a democratic republic is that he believed that being ruled over by an absolute monarch is something dreamy and wonderful.  A lot of people seem to feel that way.

In many ways, Dorothy’s home in the movie is a better place than the one in the book.  Uncle Henry and Aunt Em seem nice enough, even if they are too busy saving chicks to listen to Dorothy when she tries to talk to them in the opening scene.  And we get the sense that there is a town nearby, within walking distance, so the farm is not so isolated.

However, there is one sense in which home is worse.  There is a Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) in the movie, whom Toto has bitten.  As a result, she has gotten an order from the sheriff to take possession of Toto and have him “destroyed.”  Toto manages to escape, but Dorothy realizes that Miss Gulch will be back.  As a result, she decides to take Toto and run away from home.  But at the end of the movie, she seems to have forgotten all about that.  She talks as though it was foolish of her to run away from home:

If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any farther than my own backyard.  Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.

But her “heart’s desire” was to save the life of her little dog.  As Dorothy lies there in bed, saying how she is never going to run away again because there’s no place like home, we know that Miss Gulch will be back the next morning with that same court order to take Toto away.

In the book, Dorothy’s adventures in the Land of Oz really happen, but in the movie, it is all a dream.  When the cyclone hits, Dorothy is knocked unconscious, and Oz is just a place she dreams about.  The three hired hands that work on the farm in the movie become the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion; Miss Gulch becomes the Wicked Witch of the West; and Professor Marvel becomes the Wizard of Oz.

Margaret Hamilton said that when her agent told her that MGM wanted her for The Wizard of Oz, she was thrilled, since that was her favorite book as a child.  But when she asked what part she would be playing, he said “The Witch.  What else?”

But maybe the answer to his question, “What else?” should not have been as obvious as he thought it was.  When Dorothy first lands in the Land of Oz, Glinda arrives and asks Dorothy, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”  Dorothy denies being a witch at all, saying, “Witches are old and ugly.”  Glinda laughs, saying that she is a witch.  Dorothy apologizes, saying, “But I’ve never heard of a beautiful witch before.”  Glinda replies, “Only bad witches are ugly.”

Apparently, that is what Margaret Hamilton and her agent assumed as well, otherwise, she might have asked him, “Which witch?”  And that raises the question, why not have Margaret Hamilton play Glinda and let Billie Burke play Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West?  Some might argue that it would be too much to expect a child to understand that someone who is ugly may be good and kind, while someone who is beautiful may be evil and cruel.  But notwithstanding Baum’s remark that children do not need to be taught a moral in a modern fairy tale, would not this be the most important lesson a child could learn?

In any event, some people might suppose that Toto is safe, arguing that Miss Gulch died during the cyclone, because she also corresponds to the Wicked Witch of the East, who died when the farmhouse landed on her. And just for good measure, as the Wicked Witch of the West, she dies again when Dorothy throws a bucket of water on her.  Well, Dorothy may have killed off Miss Gulch as a witch in her wish-fulfilling dream, twice even, but that is no reason to think the real Miss Gulch is dead.  In the dream, the farmhouse had been picked up by the cyclone and had landed on the Witch, crushing her.  But nothing like that happened to the farmhouse in the real world. So there may be no place like home for Dorothy, but it’s the dog pound for Toto, at least for a few days until he is put to death.

As noted above, the sister of the Wicked Witch of the East, the Wicked Witch of the West, threatens Dorothy and her friends until Dorothy accidentally throws water on her, causing her to melt. Once the Witch is gone, her minions, the Winged Monkeys, are quite happy about the situation. It turns out that they were not evil themselves, but only did the Witch’s bidding because they were afraid of her. Now that she is dead, they can be good Winged Monkeys.

Condensing all the evil into a single person, the Wicked Witch of the West, and then eliminating that person is all right for a fantasy movie, but it is simplistic thinking like that that has serious consequences in the real world. I suspect that George W. Bush and his advisers believed that Saddam Hussein was a “Great Man” like the Wicked Witch, and that all they had to do was get rid of him, and the citizens of Iraq would start singing “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” as they established a Jeffersonian democracy.

In the book, we soon realize that the Scarecrow, who hopes the Wizard of Oz will give him a brain, is actually smart; that the Tin Woodman, who hopes the Wizard can give him a heart, is actually kind; and that the Cowardly Lion, who hopes the Wizard can give him some courage, is actually brave.  They just lack self-confidence.  So, the Wizard gives each of them something that will make them feel better about themselves:  some bran mixed with pins and needles to stuff in the Scarecrow’s head; a heart made of silk and stuffed with sawdust to place in the Tin Woodman’s chest; and a bowl of liquid from a green bottle for the Cowardly Lion to drink.

In the movie, instead of relying on the power of suggestion, the scriptwriters took a slightly different tack, one that contradicts the Great Man theory referred to above, implying instead that no one is any better than anyone else. Because the Wizard of Oz is a fraud with no special powers, he cannot give the Scarecrow a brain, the Tin Man a heart, or the Cowardly Lion some courage. But being a fraud, the Wizard believes that the people who are supposedly intelligent, philanthropic, or brave are also frauds themselves. College professors are no smarter than anyone else; they just have diplomas. Philanthropists are no more generous than anyone else; they just have testimonials. Heroes are no braver than anyone else; they just have medals. So, he gives the Scarecrow a diploma, the Tin Man a testimonial, and the Cowardly Lion a medal. And now they are just as smart, generous, and brave as any of those so-called college professors, philanthropists, or heroes.  I suppose this must be reassuring to those that are not all that smart, charitable, or brave, which would presumably include most of the people that watch this movie.  In a way, this is a piece with the no-place-like-home theme.  Just as the latter is intended to make us accept our lot in life, so too is the depreciation of professors, philanthropists, and heroes intended to make us accept who we are.

Once the Scarecrow gets his diploma, he believes the Wizard and thinks he is just as smart as all those college professors. Suddenly inspired, he enunciates what he takes to be a theorem of geometry: “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh joy, rapture! I’ve got a brain!”

It sounds as though the scriptwriters were thinking of the Pythagorean Theorem, which applies to right-angled triangles, not to isosceles triangles. But even if we allow for that correction, substituting “right-angled” where he says “isosceles,” it is still wrong. It is not the square roots of the sides that are related in that way, but the squares, to wit: The square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.  In fact, it does not matter what kind of triangle we are talking about, there is no triangle that satisfies the condition that the sum of the square roots of two sides will equal the square root of the third.  It is an impossible triangle.

As the Pythagorean Theorem is something known by most high school students, let alone by college professors, maybe a diploma counts for something after all.  Fortunately, even if you do have a brain, you can still enjoy The Wizard of Oz, provided you don’t use it too much while watching this movie.

Addendum

And if you think I’ve been taking this movie way too seriously, now I’m really going to cross the line.

To be proven:  There is no triangle such that the sum of the square roots of two sides is equal to the square root of the third.

Assume there is such a triangle of sides ab, and c:

√a + √b = √c

Square both sides:

(√a + √b)² = (√c)²

Expand the binomial:

a + 2√a•√b + b = c

Now, it is clear that

a + 2√a•√b + b > a + b

And for any triangle, the sum of the lengths of any two sides is greater than the length of the third:

a + b > c

Combining the two, we get the following:

a + 2√a•√b + b > a + b > c

Therefore, by transitivity:

a + 2√a•√b + b > c

But this contradicts the conclusion arrived at above that the two quantities were equal.

a + 2√a•√b + b = c

Therefore, by reductio ad absurdum, there is no such triangle.  Q.E.D.

3 thoughts on “The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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