The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz is a delightful movie for children. Adults can enjoy it too, provided they don’t spend any time thinking about it.

The first problem that many critics have called attention to is the no-place-like-home theme. Back home, Dorothy (Judy Garland) is basically ignored and neglected, while she has great friends in Oz, which is a pretty nice place once the Witch has been eliminated. Like many Hollywood movies made in those days, this movie says we should just accept our lot in life, however drab and dreary it may be.

This is made all the more outrageous by the reason Dorothy ran away from home in the first place. It’s not that she thought the grass would be greener elsewhere or something frivolous like that. She wanted to save the life of her dog Toto, whom Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) was determined to have destroyed and had a court order to take possession of the dog and bring him to the sheriff. Toto is the only friend she has, and saving his life is not only a good reason for her to leave, but also a good reason for her not to come back. As Dorothy lies there in bed at the end of the movie, I cannot help but think to myself that Miss Gulch will be back the next morning with that same court order and take Toto away.

Some people argue that Miss Gulch died during the tornado, because she corresponds to the Wicked Witch of the East, who died when the farmhouse landed on her. Well, Dorothy may have killed off Miss Gulch as a witch in her wish-fulfilling dream, but there is no reason to think that the real Miss Gulch is dead, especially since in the dream, the farmhouse, having been picked up by the tornado, landed on the Witch and crushed her, but nothing happened to the farmhouse in the real world. So there may be no place like home for Dorothy, but it is the dog pound for Toto, at least for a few days until he is destroyed.

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, 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.

Oddly enough, though the movie seems to subscribe to the Great Man theory in its treatment of the Witch as the sole source of evil in Oz, yet it takes the opposite tack in the scene that follows, in which the message seems to be that no one is better than anyone else. The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) needs a brain; the Tin Man (Jack Haley) needs a heart; and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Larh) needs some courage. They hope to get these things from the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan), which is why they have been accompanying Dorothy to the Emerald City. In the end, however, the Wizard of Oz is just a fraud with no special powers, so he cannot give the Scarecrow a brain, the Tin Man a heart, or the Cowardly Lion some courage. Being a fraud, however, the Wizard knows that the people who supposedly are intelligent, philanthropic, or brave are also frauds themselves. College professors are no smarter than anyone else; they just have a diploma. 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 Lion a medal. And now they are just as smart, generous, or brave as any of those so-called college professors, philanthropists, or heroes.  I suppose this must be reassuring to those who are not all that smart, are not all that charitable, and have never performed a heroic deed in their lives, which would presumably include most of the audience.

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!”  But that is not a theorem of geometry.

It sounds as though he is 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 graduates, 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 the movie.

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