This year marks the 70th anniversary (and a rerelease) of MGM's The Wizard of Oz, which is really quite startling. It's one of those films that's absolutely timeless, and it's so ingrained in each one of our childhood memories that it seems like it was made for our childhoods. If that sounds mawkish, I apologize. To be honest, Oz isn't even one of my favorite movies today, but it rocked my world when I was small, most memorably during its 50th Anniversary in 1989. I know that isn't the first time I saw the film, but I was absolutely enthralled with the little collector book and the documentaries and "deleted scenes" featured on the VHS. It's one of the earliest times I can remember finding out there was a "making of" tale behind a movie I adored, and it struck me as absolutely impossible that the movie was 50 years old. I'm not even sure I was aware
Judy Garland was long gone, though there were certainly enough "if we'd only known" hints in those documentaries.

But I digress. As I said, I outgrew the movie and I was never particularly fond of L. Frank Baum's original book or any of the sequels, though I dutifully read them. (I should take that back -- I adore Marvel's 8-issue run. Beautifully illustrated! Buy it!) I've never known much about Baum beyond his history with the Hotel Del Coronado (he stayed there while writing, and designed the light fixtures!), so Meghan O'Rourke's Slate article on Baum was a treat. I'll leave you to read it for yourselves, but what thrilled me was finding out some of the history, myth, and inspiration behind the book.

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One of the most fascinating things (and one of those facts I really wish I'd learned sooner) was that the Oz books were heavily influenced by the suffragette movement. O'Rourke writes, "Notably, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz offered a paean to strong women at a moment when suffragettes were agitating for the vote. The book's hero-protagonist, obviously, is a girl. In Kansas, her lively laugh repeatedly startles her worn-down aunt. In Oz, she effortlessly (and intuitively) kills the evil witches subjugating the natives. Indeed, all of Oz's strongest figures are women - Glinda, the Good Witch of the South; the Good Witch of the North (not in the film); and the two Wicked Witches. Baum, who publicly supported women's right to vote, was deeply affected by his beloved, spirited wife, Maud, and her mother, Matilda, an eminent feminist who collaborated with Susan B. Anthony and publicized the idea that many 'witches' were really freethinking women ahead of their time."

O'Rourke goes on to note that Oz embodied Baum's utopian ideals, and all the heady dreams of the Gilded Age. "In Oz, different races (the Munchkins in the North, the Winkies in the West, and the Quadlings in the South) mingle democratically, and war is the ultimate ill." Regrettably, peace and harmony wasn't something the author always championed, as he once called for the extermination of Native Americans. I don't know if he ever came to regret that stance, but war is certainly a spectre throughout the book. Apparently, the Tin Man was inspired by the Civil War amputees that were still very much alive in Baum's day. Creepy.

By now you're probably wondering why I'm discussing a book and its connection to American history on a movie site. But I find it fascinating that the MGM movie ended up mirroring and making history in its own way. If the suffragettes and Gilded Age are all over the original book, the movie is all about The Great Depression. It served as a mental vacation and inspiration to those Americans still being kicked around by it in 1939. You can't get any more obvious than Dorothy stepping out of Dust Bowl sepia to full-blown color, though they did, with that goofy "You're Out of the Woods" song that plays when they skip to the Emerald City. I'd say the specter of war looms over the film even more than it does the book. Remember, it hadn't been that long since WWI, and there were already rumbles of a rematch from Europe. In retrospect, the film seems like it's desperately clinging to the peace that existed somewhere over the rainbow, and the belief that there was no place like home.

But what I find even more wonderful is that the movie retains its feisty suffragette heroine, Dorothy, and its Good Witch of the North. Though she needs to be rescued once or twice, I think Dorothy's attitude is even more gutsy in the movie than she is in the book, and it's no surprise considering this was the heyday of the mouthy goddesses of the screen. It's the era of Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and so many more. No wonder it's full of good witches and Dorothy finding her own way home. (If you think "Well of course they did it that way, it's the book!", you should read some of the wacky versions they wanted to film!) I wonder if Dorothy would be nearly as awesome if they filmed this today. Would she end up a watered down tween? Probably.

What's also rather striking, especially considering its suffragette heritage, is the way the film and Garland became such an iconic part of the gay movement. I'm not going to pretend that I know very much about the current iconography within the gay and lesbian community, but I know that the film used to represent acceptance and a fervent belief that things could (and would) be better.

Of course, it isn't all bluebirds and lemon drops above the chimney tops. The Oz books and the movie might be the one fairy tale America can lay claim to, but O'Rourke points out that Baum and his Oz series became a cautionary tale of overreaching, and that the series reads like an early America that might have been. The film is the same way. I don't know if MGM really had as much of Baum's dreamy idealism (judging from the Depression references, they kind of did), but if they really believed we were out of the woods, and heading into the merry old land of Oz, things didn't work out so well. WWII, the Cold War, Civil Rights strife, and then back into war and social upheaval. Lots of courage, but brains and hearts in short supply when they were most needed.

But perhaps the most depressing thing about MGM's Oz is the reality behind Dorothy. She may have been a feisty 40s heroine, able to stand on her own two feet, but Garland certainly wasn't. Her abuse at the hands of the studio is legendary, and it's rather sobering to think of the way women were written by the studios, and the way they were so often treated by them. We movie loving girls get very caught up in "Those good old days of Hildy Johnson," especially in these days of Love Happens, but sometimes we have to remember the reality of the old studio system. (I have no illusions that it's roses now, mind you.)

I fully expect the 70th anniversary to go by without much commentary (though there's a lot of Baum biographies coming out) but I'm struck with how timely an examination or revival of The Wizard of Oz would be right now. There's a lot going on in its mythology, and it might be time to follow the yellow brick road again as a history lesson (I mean, suffragettes! How cool is that?) or as a reminder that we could reach a Technicolor Emerald City if we remember those fairy-tale lessons.