The Many Variations on the Wizard of Oz

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wizard of oz cakeIn another article I argue that the reboots we're seeing so often in movies are a good thing. Our cultural willingness to explore and re-explore our favourite stories points to those particular stories serving the same function as the myths of ancient Greece or Rome. 


One story I don't mention, but which certainly qualifies in this category is The Wizard of Oz. We're not seeing it rebooted so much as seeing people spin variations on it. Many many many of them, with no sign that we're getting tired of it. 


Indeed, this was already the case when the movie debuted in 1939. It begins with a title screen, saying:


For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion. To those of you who have been faithful to it in return… and to the Young in Heart --- we dedicate this picture. 


futurama wizard of ozIt had already been made as a feature film at that point. In 1925, Oliver Hardy starred as the wizard, and there was much slapstick, and according to one commenter, not much faithfulness to the original novel.


The Judy Garland version actually flopped at the box office, initially. But resurgence from initial failure or indifference is a sure sign to me of a powerful cultural myth, and the story is still watched and referenced today (one of the characters in The Avengers refers to flying monkeys, and Captain America, reawakened after having been frozen in ice since WWII, remarks "I got that reference.")(the list of TV shows and movies that reference it goes on and on and on, if you'd care to have a look). 


L Frank Baum (author of the original Oz novels, of which there were seventeen)'s imdb page lists a whopping 125 credits, almost all of them Oz related. They include:


The Wiz - broadway musical, turned film, with an African-American cast - Diana Ross as Dorothy, elton john's album Goodbye Yellow Brick RoadMichael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Richard Pryor as the Wizard.


Two Russian TV movie versions, twenty years apart, both called "Volshebnik izumrudnogo gored" in which the evil witch Gingemma conjures a cyclone that whisks little Elli and her dog Totoshka (who apparently can speak, and suggests that Elli take the witch's silver shoes) as she traverses the Magic Land to find the wizard Goodwin, along with her companions Strasheela the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and Zhyelyeenee Drovosyek the Rust Iron Wood Chopper, all the while being harrassed by the witch Bastinda, who sends flying monkeys, an ogre and knife wielding tigers. 


A Japanese version: "Ozu no mahotsukai"


Thanksgiving in the land of Oz


Return to Oz - a movie I remember from 1985, which made a friend of the family's youngest child run crying from the room when the disembodied heads of the witch woke up and starting calling out "Dorothy Gale! Dorothy Gale!!" as she attempted to steal a box of life powder. 


the cast of Fame in the Wizard of OzThe Muppets Wizard of Oz


Tin Man - a mini series, with Richard Dreyfuss and Zooey Deschanel.


And I remember being particularly fond of a Wizard of Oz episode of Fame


Sam Raimi's movie of Oz the Great and Powerful will hit the big screen soon, starring James Franco as the wizard, the story exploring his initial entry into the land of Oz. Other cast members include Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Zach Braff. Its budget is estimated at $200 million. This is clearly expected to be a major release. 


Wicked - the musical based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, retelling the story from the Wicked Witch of the West's point of view (Maguire has gone on to write three other books from the points of view of other Oz characters), currently holds box office records for highest weekly gross in sexy wizard of oz costumesLondon and Broadway. The long running London production won the Olivier Award for most popular West End show in 2010. 


Margaret Atwood wrote an essay about the novel and the movie, collected in her book Moving Targets: Writing with Intent.


Salman Rushdie lists the movie as his first literary influence, having written first story at age ten, titled "Over the Rainbow." He wrote an essay about the movie which has been published as The Wizard of Oz, and is collected in his book Step Across This Line: Collected Non-fiction 1992 - 2002


The movie and its characters have been completely embraced by the LGBT community, the term "friend of Dorothy" meaning a gay man. 


marvel heroes as the Wizard of Oz charactersMark Kurlansky opens his book The Last Fish Tale, a non-fiction look at the history of the fishing industry in and around Gloucester, MA, with a description of the annual greasy pole run, in which very macho blue collar men try to run to the end of a phenomenally slippery pole suspended over the ocean as part of a yearly festival. The participants are usually drunk, and costumed, quite often, as Dorothy. 


And many a cloud of pungent green smoke has wafted up in living rooms, basements, and midnight screenings in alternative movie theatres, as the movie is played simultaneously with Dark Side of the Moon


I predict the variations on this story will continue. Some will be inspired, some insipid, and some completely bizarre and unexpected. 

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  • Comment Link Michael Milano Tuesday, 21 August 2012 19:57 posted by Michael Milano

    TJ- I would add the lion is seen by many gays as a "coded" gay character. He describes himself as a "sissy" and has an effeminate voice. He even has the line in the movie "we're friends of Dorothy".. which is where the phrase derives. Dorothy's complete acceptance of this gay character in the film was huge for the gay community. Even if it was coded and metaphorical.

    I would also add that Judy herself was an equal measure to the gay attachment. Gay men could relate to her real life suffering. The pills. The booze. The men. The being treated as if she didn't count as a human being by the studios and the Hollywood machine. Gays could relate.

    In my opinion it was both the role and the actress that combined to form a perfect storm of gay adoration.

    PS My mother (as a young woman) looked very much like a young Judy..

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 21 August 2012 22:57 posted by TJ Dawe

    Michael - this is an excellent illumination of the connection. Thank you so much. I've always wondered how and why those worlds crossed.

    I wonder if hard core conservatives are reticent to show the movie to their children because of this association. My thought is no, but I really have no idea.

    But it's interesting to me that the glam world of older Hollywood leading ladies, and lavish musicals, none of which were originally presented for anything other than a mainstream audience, have absolutely flourished in gay culture. This deserves further looking into.

    And on the other hand, I wrote this short piece a while ago, looking at how incredibly gay 80s rock stars seem to us now, but weren't perceived as such then.

    Patton Oswalt makes a similar point about heavy metal.

  • Comment Link Michael Milano Wednesday, 22 August 2012 00:02 posted by Michael Milano

    TJ - I think I can explain the leading ladies. It’s similar to Judy in the confluence of the actress and the roles they played on screen. Back in the day there were very few gay characters in film. I And when there were they were played for laughs and were objects of scorn and ridicule. n the 1930’s the production code effectively removed any mention of homosexuality from film. This lasted until the 1960’s.

    But Joan Crawford often played an oppressed woman who had to fight and scrape to achieve success. “The shop girl who makes good.” Gay men could feel a connection to those types of characters, especially since there were no other characters in film to identify with at the time. Add on her personal story of being oppressed by studio heads. Her dismissal as being too old. Being box office poison, etc. She “fought city hall” and freaking won! As did Bette Davis and others. The all played tough broads in film and were equally tough in real life. The didn’t stand for being oppressed or held back. They fought for themselves, for the careers and they won. That is very inspiring to fellow oppressed people.

    I don’t know about the musicals.. I would be very interesting in learning that side of this conversation. It probably started in the early days of theater. Theater people were considered “undesirable” by most people back then (In America anyway). So gays may have been drawn to the theater looking for acceptance from other marginalized people of the age.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Friday, 24 August 2012 06:05 posted by TJ Dawe

    Michael - thanks so much for this meaty answer. That's the best explanation I've ever read. It's interesting that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were top box office draws. The public responded to them, even if the studio heads considered them second class citizens. Which I can only imagine made them even more inspiring figures.

    You're very right about theatre people being considered undesirable. Perhaps this translated to more acceptance of alternative lifestyles within the theatre community. It's certainly been my experience that there's no homophobia within the theatre world - just the reverse, if anything. But I've only been in the theatre world since the 90s. Was this always the case?

    I remember something someone wrote in response to a question Dan Savage posed in his column, looking for advice to help closeted teens. This person suggested they join a community theatre company. If they weren't inclined to perform, they could paint sets, or take tickets, or do all kinds of things. But they'd be in an environment where it was perfectly okay to be gay. In fact, quite probably no one would even notice.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 29 August 2012 22:25 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    TJ, here's another one for ya. Apparently it's believed by many that Wizard of Oz was an allegory for banking and who controls the money system. Just saw someone link to this in my FB feed the other day. I haven't looked into this in any detail, so can't verify anything one way or another, but here's one site that makes the case:

    "What’s the Movie About?

    It is commonly known in economics academia that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 is loaded with powerful symbols of monetary reform which were the core of the Populist movement and the 1896 and 1900 presidental bids of Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

    The yellow brick road (gold standard), the Scarecrow (farmers), the Tin Man (industrial workers), the Wicked Witch of the West (Cleveland banker J.D. Rockefeller) and the Wicked Witch of the East (NY banker J.P.Morgan), the Emerald City of Oz (greenback money), the illusory power of the Wizard in the capitol city (who monopolized power through deceit), even Dorothy’s silver slippers (changed to ruby slippers for the color movie version -symbols of Baum’s and Bryan’s belief that adding silver coin to gold coin would provide much needed money to a depression-strapped, 1890s America). Oz is a virtual forest of monetary reform symbolism, done by someone extremely well versed in the Populist monetary reform goals of the period (Baum was a newspaperman and author) – goals which have never changed - they are still valid today, they are needed now more than then".

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 30 August 2012 04:10 posted by TJ Dawe

    Trevor - thanks for that. Very interesting, and I can't deny, the symbolism fits.

    I stumbled upon another interpretation of the story when hunting for images: apparently the story is firmly grounded in Theosophy. I tried to find this article, and googled the words "Wizard of Oz" and "theosophy" and came up with page after page and page of stuff, but did find the article I'd read before:

    Here's some of the interpretation offered:

    the entire story of the Wizard of Oz is an allegorical tale of the soul’s path to illumination – the Yellow Brick Road. In Buddhism (an important part of Theosophical teachings) the same concept is referred to as the “Golden Path”.

    The story starts with Dorothy Gale living in Kansas, which symbolizes the material world, the physical plane where each one of us starts our spiritual journey. Dorothy feels an urge to “go over the rainbow”, to reach the ethereal realm and follow the path to illumination. She has basically “passed the Nadir” by demonstrating the urge to seek a higher truth.

    Dorothy is then brought to Oz by a giant cyclone spiraling upward, representing the cycles of karma, the cycle of errors and lessons learned. It also represents the theosophical belief in reincarnation, the round of physical births and deaths of a soul until it is fit to become divine. It is also interesting to note that the Yellow Brick Road of Oz begins as an outwardly expanding spiral. In occult symbolism, this spiral represents the evolving self, the soul ascending from matter into the spirit world.


    there's plenty more where that came from, and it's interesting stuff.

    a bit of googling also brought up the Wizard of Oz being rooted in Satanism.

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