The Good, the Bad, and the Grateful in ‘The Wizard of Oz’

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” These words, spoken by Judy Garland in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, have become one of the most-quoted and often-used lines in film history. Based on the L. Frank Baum book of the same title and published in 1900, Victor Fleming’s film has been seared into the American consciousness since it came to life on the silver screen. For decades it was broadcast on Thanksgiving Day, and families gathered to watch it after a day of good food and gratitude. Yet for me, my recent viewing with my young son was a first.

Garland plays Dorothy Gale, a young girl from Kansas who is swept up in a tornado and ends up in another world, populated by the Munchkins, witches, and one mysterious wizard. Although Dorothy is somewhat curious about this new world in which she has landed, her biggest concern is to find a way to get back home. She has left Auntie Em and dear friends back in Kansas, and although she is fascinated by the things around her and the friends she makes in this strange new place, she feels completely displaced.

What’s worse, the Kansas house that was blown away by the fierce twister ended up falling on the Wicked Witch of the East. This turn of the wind and of events is unfortunate in that it puts the blame squarely on Dorothy’s “meek and good” little shoulders in the mind of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton)—the killed witch’s sister. The Wicked Witch of the West determines Dorothy must be punished.

But Dorothy is saved temporarily by a pair of ruby slippers left behind by the dead witch. The Wicked Witch of the West wants them for herself because they would give her power extending beyond her castle, so she will stop at nothing to get them. Dorothy does not care about the ruby slipper except insofar as they may help her to return home. No matter what, Dorothy wants to go back home and so she sets off to find the person who can help her, the great Wizard of Oz who lives in the Emerald City.

“Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” says the good witch, Glinda, to Dorothy. If she does that, she will arrive in the Emerald City and the great Wizard of Oz will ensure her safe arrival home. On the way, Dorothy meets Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). The Scarecrow needs a brain, Tin Man wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wants courage. The four quickly become friends, and they are “off to see the Wizard” in order that their wishes may come true.

Like so many stories of a hero’s journey, this one includes obstacles along the way. The Wicked Witch of the West creates troubles for Dorothy and her friends, but they persevere despite her evil meddling. The Wizard of Oz turns out to be nothing more than a man who has created an illusion of power, however, and his inability to grant the wishes they all so yearned for yields both anger and disappointment.

Fleming’s film has made an impact on both American cinema and our collective consciousness. Much like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), it is one of the most viewed and beloved American films. It is repeatedly referenced in other films, and has been a subject of many interpretations, both cinematic and philosophical.

At its core, The Wizard of Oz is about reality, self-reliance, and gratitude. Which world is actually real? We are naturally meant to believe and accept that Dorothy’s life in Kansas is her true reality. The difference between the sepia-toned, black and white beginning of the film and brilliant Technicolor display once Dorothy starts her journey on the Yellow Brick Road suggests that.

Yet, there is something otherworldly about that farm in Kansas. The twister, the illusions created by the studio, the utter fear and dread that comes with the strangely realistic tornado—all are an integral part of Dorothy’s path. She is already playing the part of a heroine on a journey, and it begins not with the twister but with her decision to leave the farm in order to save her beloved Toto from the evil clutches of the town’s “Scrooge,” Almira Gulch.

The road is infinite, yet Dorothy has courage to embark on this mission. Nevertheless, she is stopped when she encounters a “fortune teller,” who of course is nothing but a dishonest merchant of false remedies and hogwash. His carriage is equipped with all kinds of “magic” objects, including a crystal ball. Dorothy is completely naïve, while the audience knows that “Professor Marvel” is nothing more than a mere mortal whose powers of prediction are based on a few psychological tricks of probability. Although there are many silly trinkets in his carriage, a skull that sits at the entrance stands out as a memento mori—a reminder of our own mortality and physical limitations.

On her journey, Dorothy is constantly questioning what is real and what is unreal, yet this does not deter her from maintaining her essential goodness. She and her friends have convinced themselves they have no power—the Scarecrow thinks he is in want of a brain, yet it is he who is most responsible for the strategy of getting everyone into the Emerald City; the Tin Man insists he is in want of a heart, yet his very desire for it means that he already knows what it means to have a heart and is capable of love; and the Cowardly Lion’s desire to be courageous grows as they journey because he is propelled by something far bigger than himself—his love for and desire to protect Dorothy.

In fact, the reason why all four of these characters gain an existential meaning of their selves is precisely because their lives become intertwined. They become fully human because they are called to love among friends. In some way, The Wizard of Oz contains Christian allusions, particularly to, John 15:13: “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” These four friends never vocalize this willingness to die for one another, however, there is an implicit understanding that the danger they face is real and they must be willing to accept danger in order to help one another, especially Dorothy, from the clutches of the Wicked Witch of the West. 

Most of all, this film is driven by the notion of good and gratitude. Dorothy is not cynical. In fact, she takes goodness very seriously and when someone fails this test, she calls them out on it. The film may be sentimental in that unique American way, but it is by no means empty or sappy. Goodness should not be laughed at just because the world is full of troubles and most of all, evil. If anything, goodness needs to be elevated even higher so that we may affirm its primacy in the order of things. We see this immediately following the film’s opening credits: “For nearly forty years this story has been given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.” Don’t lose your goodness, the film firmly instructs us! Don’t allow yourself to become too sophisticated to appreciate the importance of this message.

Still, Dorothy is far from perfect. What she realizes at the end is that her frustrations with Auntie Em and Almira Gulch are small potatoes. She was blinded by her need to leave and seek a better place rather than facing up to the challenges she had in front of her. She had to find out for herself that what matters is gratitude for the good people in our lives. Reality sometimes may be upside down, houses may get caught in the cyclone, and wizards usually turn out to be frauds, but our relation to and love for one another—the essence of encounter—is what matters the most of all. There really is no place like home.

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