The subversive messages hidden in The Wizard of Oz

The subversive messages hidden in The Wizard of Oz

It’s easy to mistake the 1939 classic as traditional family entertainment – but 80 years on from its release, the musical is more radical and surreal than ever, writes Nicholas Barber.

In December 1937, Walt Disney Productions released its first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It went on to be cinema’s biggest hit of 1938, a success that not only encouraged Disney to make other fairy-tale cartoons for decades to come, but also encouraged another studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to try its own fantasy musical about an orphaned girl and a wicked witch: The Wizard of Oz.

More like this:

–       Will the Cats film be any good?

–       Is When Harry met Sally the greatest romcom ever?

–       The films that defined Generation X

But for all of its similarities to the Disney film, MGM’s version was more of an anti-fairy tale than a fairy tale. Just look at the trio of frightened and feeble misfits that accompanies its heroine along the yellow brick road. None of them is what you’d call a handsome prince. In the clanking of the Tin Man’s rusty limbs, you can hear echoes of Don Quixote’s home-made armour. In the trio’s moaning and blubbing as they prepare to sneak into the witch’s castle, you can see a foreshadowing of Westley, Inigo and Fezzik invading Humperdinck’s castle in The Princess Bride. The pig-tailed Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is so wholesome, the Harburg and Arlen songs are so delightful, and the Technicolor adventures are so exciting that it’s still easy to mistake The Wizard of Oz for traditional family entertainment, 80 years on from its release in August 1939. But it upends the conventions of good-v-evil storytelling in ways that would have had Walt Disney fuming.

The subversive messages hidden in The Wizard of Oz
View image of Ensemble

In the sepia opening scenes, we are warned that the magic we’re about to see might not be wholly magical. Having run away from her home in Kansas to stop her pet dog Toto being put down, Dorothy meets a travelling clairvoyant named Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) – a character who isn’t in L Frank Baum’s source novel, but was created by screenwriters Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf. As kindly as he is, the professor is a con artist who pretends to be psychic by peeking at a photo Dorothy is carrying. Another film might have contrasted this earthbound huckster with the genuine marvels performed by the wonderful Wizard of Oz, but in this one the wizard is played by the same actor as Professor Marvel, and he turns out to be much the same character: a fast-talking fairground showman who hides behind a curtain, waggling levers, and using mechanical trickery to keep his subjects loyal and afraid. He admits that he ended up in the land of Oz when his hot air balloon was blown there – and even that balloon is beyond his control. In a gloriously gonzo final flourish, he floats off into the sky with a cheerful cry of: “I can’t come back. I don’t know how it works!” There aren’t many films that show politicians being quite as brazenly incompetent as that.

The message is that people will march behind any authority figure who makes a splash, however undeserving they may be

Before the Wizard disappears, he hands the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) and the Tin Man (Jack Haley) their suitably gimcrack prizes – a scroll, a medal and a clock – while assuring them that they are as accomplished as anyone “back where I come from”. Academics and philanthropists are derided. War veterans are mocked as people who “take their fortitude out of mothballs and parade it down the main street of the city” once a year, but “have no more courage than you have”. True, we can’t take anything the “humbug” Wizard says too seriously, but these are radical sentiments to hear in any Hollywood film, let alone a Hollywood film aimed at children.

‘A garish parody of the present’

The script scoffs at the idea that power and prosperity come to those who merit them, even when it is dealing with Dorothy herself. She kills one Wicked Witch by crash-landing a house on her, and kills another (Margaret Hamilton) by splashing her with water. In both cases, the killings are accidents, the results of pure chance rather than Dorothy’s bravery or virtue. (Any water-soluble witch who leaves buckets of the stuff sitting around her castle is asking for trouble.) But in both cases, Dorothy is instantly hailed as a conquering heroine, just as the Wizard was when he touched down in Oz. The message is that people will march behind any authority figure who makes a splash, however undeserving they may be. It’s a subversive message in 2019, and it was even more pointed in 1939, when fascist dictators were stomping across Europe.

The subversive messages hidden in The Wizard of Oz
View image of Surreal

Baum’s novel may have been published at the turn of the century, but the film directed by Victor Fleming (along with two uncredited colleagues) is very much a product of the 1930s. It came out three years after a major Surrealism exhibition opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the way its scenario spirals into a frantic fever dream of flying monkeys and green-faced guards is nothing if not surreal. It shares an outline with other key works of Depression-era culture, too. The very same year that Dorothy left her homestead in tornado-blasted Kansas and journeyed to a twinkling metropolis, Tom Joad and his family set out from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl towards California in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And just one year earlier, Clark Kent – who, like Dorothy, was an orphan raised by elderly Kansas farmers – reinvented himself in the big city as Superman. Tom Joad finds that conditions are no better in California, and becomes a labour organiser. Superman, in his earliest comic-book appearances, is an anarchist wrecking ball who doesn’t battle supervillains, but the fat cats responsible for slums and unsafe mines.

The subversive messages hidden in The Wizard of Oz
View image of Oz

Dorothy doesn’t go that far, but she does travel from the barren middle-American countryside to a glittering urban centre, only to discover that it is ruled by fakers and populated by fools. It’s significant, too, that the Emerald City of Oz isn’t the turreted faux-medieval Ruritania where Snow White lives, nor is it the Istanbul-ish collection of domes and spires drawn by WW Denslow in the original book’s illustrations. Instead, it is a modernist mass of neon-striped skyscrapers – and, like almost everything else in the land of Oz, it is blatantly artificial. The film doesn’t send audiences over the rainbow to a mythical past, but to a garish parody of the noisy, industrialised present.

If The Wizard of Oz had come out in the patriotic 1940s or 1950s, it’s hard to imagine that this counter-cultural classic would have got away with making a flying monkey out of contemporary society. But Fleming and his team conjured up the most powerful of children’s movies: a twister that whirls us into a world of hardship and chaos, of useless leaders and their gullible followers, and then reminds us that it’s the very same world we were in already.

Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.