The allegory in 'The Wizard of Oz'

Who knew? "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was a political allegory for early 20th century American politics.

— Seventy-six years ago this month at a quaint, 330-seat theater here called the Cape Cinema, "The Wizard of Oz" — believed to be the most-watched movie in history — premiered.

That's right: Before its official 1939 debuts in Hollywood and New York a few days later, producers screened the colorful saga of the wide-eyed Dorothy and her companions at three, small-market test venues: two in Wisconsin and a third smack dab in the middle of Cape Cod.

It's difficult to imagine a more unlikely place to watch "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time than the Cape Cinema, which still looks nothing like movie theaters do today.

Constructed to resemble a Congregationalist church barn, the cinema's front steps and white, wooden siding continue to humble and invite. Inside, a gorgeous, full-ceiling fresco designed by artist Rockwell Kent — who threatened to boycott the theater's 1930 opening in protest of Massachusetts' execution of Italian anarchists Sacco and Venzetti for murders many historians today believe they didn't commit — draws visitors eyes upward until the house lights dim. The venue boasts the original, wood-and-leather seats designed by Paul Frankl. I've yet to take in a film or musical concert at a more charming venue.

"The Wizard of Oz" is similarly captivating. As kids, my sister and I watched the traditional Thanksgiving weekend network television broadcast, and were spooked every time by Margaret Hamilton's cackling Wicked Witch of the West. An estimated billion people have seen "The Wizard of Oz." As a global American export and cultural commodity, only Coca-Cola rivals it.

What I didn't know as a child — most adults I meet are similarly oblivious — is that L. Frank Baum's book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," upon which the movie is based, was a political allegory for American politics at the dawn of the 20th century.

Dorothy, the Kansas innocent, represents the nobility of middle (and Midwestern) America; the Tin Man is industry, the Scarecrow is agriculture. Mr. Baum depicted the bimetallism argument of the late 19th century waged between Eastern capitalist lenders and Midwestern farmer-borrowers through the use of colorful metaphor. Notice that the city Dorothy and friends seek is emerald green and the fraudulent Oz peers through green shades; the yellow brick road they follow there and Dorothy's silver slippers represent the argument over whether the United States should have a gold-and-silver or gold-only currency standard. (The ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the film version are a departure from the original book.)

The Wizard of Oz may not be the greatest political film of all time, but it's surely the most popular film that most people don't realize is political.

Fast-forward to today's major political debates, and in many ways little has changed during the past century: Although the stage for the working classes first shifted from farms to factories, and later to low-wage service industry locations, we still confront a struggle between haves and have-nots. Keeping with its long tradition, Hollywood lately served up a new bounty of class-themed films.

In the last installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman film trilogy, the villain Bain and his adjutants hold Gotham's economic elites to account for their various crimes against the less fortunate. In "Elysium" and "Snowpiercer," the hoi polloi organize revolutions to overthrow their occupiers and oppressors. In "Divergent" and the wildly popular "Hunger Games" movies, children from different socioeconomic strata battle each other to the death for the entertainment of their bettors. (Despite coming from the lower castes, Katniss Everdeen, the "Hunger Games'" female teen protagonist played by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, of course impresses with her unusual wit and wiles.)

Interestingly, some of these films and the novels that inspired them are targeted at the coveted, under-25 consumer cohort. Perhaps unwittingly, these millennials are devouring thinly-veiled messages about economic stratification. May the forces of social transformation be with them in the decades to come.

For now, I'm excited to see the one-night-only showing of "The Wizard of Oz" on the Cape Cinema's big screen in Dennis to commemorate the 1939 premiere of the planet's most-watched movie. Here's hoping Dorothy still makes it back to Kansas.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC; his most recent book is "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House." His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

 

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