“The Wizard of Oz” (1939) is a Hollywood classic. It’s #6 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list it’s in the Library of Congress, and has more famous lines in it than any movie in American cinema (“I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” is but one of the famous lines). Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, and winning two (it had the unfortunate distinction of having to run against Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Wuthering Heights in what is considered the best year for films ever), the film first aired on TV in 1956 and has been played every year since, often multiple times, broadening its appeal beyond generations. It also launched the career of Judy Garland, at the time a sweet little 16 year old from Grand Rapids, MN to boot! For many of us, it was one of the first movies many of us remember seeing, often as a 4 or 5 year old.
But did you know the story is actually a political allegory? Originally written by L.Frank Baum, it was a thinly veiled political story about agrarian politics at the turn of the 20th Century. Some of the more commonly known aspects of the movie now seem quaint, but in the day, clear signals were being drawn. In many respects, this was like many nursery rhymes and fairy tales, which often hide political meanings. So lets delve deeper.
Young everyperson Dorothy Gale, from that good old farm state of Kansas (dead center of the middle of the country), lives on a poor farm with her family and is whisked away to the land of Oz. There she meets “the little people of Oz,” the “munchkins,” who announce themselves as various guilds, unions and local civic groups. The people of Oz are tormented from sister witches from the east (east coast) and west (west coast) and although she has killed one witch, the other wants her slippers. It should be noted here that in the book, they were “silver slippers,” not ruby. This will come into greater context later.
So Dorothy is told that in order to get home, she has to follow the yellow brick road to the land of Oz and meet the Wizard. The “Yellow Brick Road” is representative of the “gold standard,” which tied the value of money to the price of gold. In the midwestern ag states, where gold was particularly scarce, it’s no surprise why farmers were largely poor. So along the way she comes across a scarecrow without a brain (representing farmers who despite good intentions were perceived as unintelligent), a tin man with no heart (representing industrial interests, which despite mass production and ingenuity, lacked any compassion) and the cowardly lion (representing politicians, particularly the biggest one of the day, Williams Jennings Bryan, who talked big of himself put never demonstrated any political courage). They venture to the Emerald City (Washington D.C.) and meet the Wizard (The President) who at first seems intimidating but in the end is just a small man. Rather than solve the actual problems, he makes the Scarecrow feel smarter, makes the Tin Man seem more endearing, and encourages a blustery confidence to the Cowardly Lion. In short, the “Wizard” is in fact, useless.
Dorothy eventually is told that her way home has been with her all along, which was her silver slippers, representing the free coinage of silver, something of which midwestern states had plenty, particularly the closer to the Rockies you went. In fact, the place they are in (Oz) is the common abbreviation for “ounces” which measures both gold and silver.
To summarize the story is to say that midwestern states should stop supporting the gold standard that sends money elsewhere, and instead adopt a policy of states coining silver on their own to keep their own wealth. They could get it done if politicians, farmers and industry worked together with the common person to get it done, instead of placing their hopes in false promises. All of that from a kid’s tale!
Of course, once the movie came out and gave imagery to the more subtle aspects of the book, it became less obviously political and more fantastical. States coining their own money?– today it would be seen as ludicrous, but at the time when greenbacks were not as common, it was a genuine issue. Over time, people forgot a lot of the political details (ask a high school student who William Jennings Bryan was and you’ll get a glazed over look) and the story stood on its own. Still, its enough to make me want to turn on Turner Classic Movies, make some popcorn and curl up with a blanket to watch Judy Garland sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” one more time.
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