My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

April 27, 2021: Classic FilmStudying: The Wizard of Oz

[May 1st marks the 80th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s release. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some contexts for Kane and other classic films, and I’d love your thoughts on them all and other films you’d AmericanStudy!]

On a couple ways to read the surprisingly celebratory core of the Depression-era film.

First, an excerpt from my new book Of Thee I Sing: “it’s worth noting one additional Depression era expression of [celebratory patriotism]: the period’s numerous cultural celebrations of rural American communities. Some of the most prominent such cultural works were photographs, including John Vachon’s and Walkers Evans’s stunning portrait and landscape photography for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the mid to late 1930s. Evans also worked with journalist and author James Agee on a 1936 project for Fortune magazine that combined Evans’s photographs of rural Alabamans with Agee’s written accounts of their stories; when Fortune opted not to run the story, the men turned it into a book, 1941’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The title refers to a passage from the religious text the Wisdom of Sirach, which includes two lines that together sum up Evans and Agee’s goals in depicting these inspiring yet too easily forgotten Americans: “All these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times./ . . . And some there be which have no memorial; who perished, as though they had never been.” And perhaps the most telling such Depression era cultural celebration is The Wizard of Oz (1939), in which despite the stunningly color­ful and frequently magical wonders Dorothy Gale experiences in Oz, made even more so when compared to the bleak black-and-white landscapes of Dust Bowl Kansas from which she comes, she never changes her mantra that “There’s no place like home.”

Obviously The Wizard of Oz was an adaptation of an earlier work, L. Frank Baum’s deeply strange The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its many sequels (seriously, if you’ve never read Baum’s works, they are quite bizarre, in many ways more in line with the tone of the 1985 film Return to Oz). And it’s true that Baum’s book ends with Dorothy using the power of the slippers to return home to Kansas, and with a very brief scene where she tells her Aunt Em “I’m so glad to be at home again!” But of course the Kansas of 1900 was very different from the Dust Bowl setting of the film, a dreary landscape only exacerbated by the filmmakers’ choice to depict the opening and closing Kansas sections in black and white in such striking contrast to the vibrant (techni-)colors of Oz. So while the film’s closing officially parallels that of the novel (if at greater length and with more emotion), I would nonetheless argue that both it and the “no place like home” mantra comprise far more of a choice and an argument from the film than their role in Baum’s book.

As I noted in the book excerpt, a celebratory patriotic embrace of rural, “heartland” America is one way to read that choice. But another would be to link it to a text that I had the chance to read and teach during my time as a grad student at Temple University: “Acres of Diamonds,” a hugely popular motivational speech by Temple’s founder Russell Conwell (and first delivered in 1900, the same year as the publication of Baum’s first Oz book). Conwell’s speech comprises one of American culture’s most overt arguments for making one’s fortune and life in one’s home; as he puts it in his conclusion, “Let every man or woman here, if you never hear me again, remember this, that if you wish to be great at all, you must begin where you are and what you are.” In The Wizard of Oz, we don’t know what Dorothy’s future will hold, although her courage and leadership during her time in Oz certainly suggests the possibility for greatness. But at the very least, the film seems to offer a clear argument that that future will, and should, play out where she is, rather than somewhere over the rainbow.

Next FilmStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this or other classic films?

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