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Behind the Curtain

August 15, 2008, 1:09 pm

[Editor's Note: Ben Alpers has returned for another foray into film history. Ben's excellent book can be found here. Ben himself, looking very serious, can be found here. Unless he's still abroad. Regardless, we are, as ever, grateful for his efforts.]

Sixty-nine years ago today, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Capitol Theater in New York. Like many major movie premieres of the day, this was a gala event. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney provided live entertainment. Crowds had begun forming outside the theater at 5:30 in the morning. By the time the box office had opened at 8:00, police estimated that ten-thousand people were waiting to get into the 5,486-seat theater. “Two-hours later,” the New York Times reported, “the street queues, five and six abreast, extended from the box-office at Broadway and Fifty-first Street, west on Fifty-first Street, down Eighth Avenue to Fiftieth Street and east on Fiftieth Street back to Broadway.” About an hour later, the theater sent ticket sellers out into the crowd to help speed sales. Due to the enormous crowds, the Capitol presented five shows each weekday and six on Saturday and Sunday. Garland and Rooney continued to perform for over a week.

Today The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved films from one of Hollywood’s greatest years.(1) Gone with the Wind (which would win the Best Picture Oscar), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, and Young Mr. Lincoln were among the many other significant movies that appeared in 1939. Those of us who grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s remember The Wizard of Oz as an annual television staple. Watching on my family’s small, black-and-white TV, I was totally unaware of the film’s central visual conceit: Kansas appears in sepia-tones, Oz in glorious (and innovative) Technicolor. Nevertheless, the movie captivated me….though as a young child I was scared to death of the flying monkeys!

But how was The Wizard of Oz received at the time of its initial release? Readers of this blog are doubtless aware of Henry Littlefield’s famous 1964 reading of the film’s source material, L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), as a “parable of Populism,” an idea that was later elaborated by a variety of other scholars….until Michael Patrick Hearn pointed out that Baum had actually been a staunch McKinley supporter in 1896.(2) Did critics and audiences in 1939 see any hidden meanings in MGM’s film?

Many things about The Wizard of Oz that we today take for granted were new in 1939, most obviously its lavish use of color. More surprising to us today is how unusual the film’s genre and core audience seemed to critics at the time. The Wizard of Oz was unabashedly a fantasy. And it was primarily aimed at, or at least primarily attracted, kids. Film in 1930s America was seen as a fundamentally realistic medium. Hollywood generally avoided fantasy films. And Hollywood films were generally designed to be enjoyed by as broad an audience as possible. There were of course genres that were designed to have a particular appeal to men (such as Westerns) or women (such as romances), but the U.S. film industry had quite self-consciously chosen a business strategy that avoided segmenting its audience. Unlike the UK, which had long had a ratings system that declared certain films only appropriate for adults, the U.S. had the Production Code, which the industry had designed to insure that all audiences could safely view any Hollywood film. Until the 1940s, Hollywood even avoided employing modern social science to determine the actual composition of its audiences. Movie producers in the 1930s believed (probably incorrectly) that their audience tended to skew female. But making a film, let alone an expensive “A” picture, for children—who after all didn’t have money—was not at all typical for Hollywood.

The one studio that clearly didn’t buy into Hollywood’s suspicion of fantasy and children’s films was Walt Disney, whose first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had also anticipated The Wizard of Oz’s (and Gone with the Wind’s) use of Technicolor. But Disney was sui generis. While most other studios had animation units, devoted to producing shorts that would play alongside features, newsreels, and other parts of theatrical programs, Disney was, in the 1930s, an all-animation studio.

Reading the initial critical response to The Wizard of Oz, one is immediately struck by how peculiar such a film, especially such a live action film, was in the late 1930s. On August 13, a few days before the film’s much anticipated premiere, a long, Freud-inflected meditation on fantasy, myth, and the movies penned by Wizard of Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy appeared in the New York Times. LeRoy’s article presented itself as a kind of apology for fantasy filmmaking, acknowledging how unusual The Wizard of Oz was for Hollywood, but arguing that the film stood in a great tradition going back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the films of Georges Méliès. “The Wizard of Oz (M. G. M.) should settle an old Hollywood controversy,” began Time magazine’s August 21, 1939 review of the film, “whether fantasy can be presented on the screen as successfully with human actors as with cartoons. It can. As long as The Wizard of Oz sticks to whimsey and magic, it floats in the same rare atmosphere of enchantment that distinguished Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The film’s audience was as surprising as its genre. “It is an amazing thing,” noted Jane Cobb in her August 20, 1939 “Living and Leisure” column in the New York Times, “to sit in a theatre with 5,000 seats largely occupied by children under 15.”

The Wizard of Oz became a major hit. That fall, Macy’s famous Thanksgiving Day Parade added a group of balloons based on characters from the film. And when Christmas rolled around, department stores promised masks of the Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion. But in the eyes of 1930s critics, the film was unable to quite shake off its air of unseriousness. “The world — the film-going world, that is — is split into hostile camps on the great ‘Wizard of Oz’ question,” noted New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent in his October 1, 1939 retrospective on that year’s crop of summer movies,

One group finds it delightful; the other, with hoots of derision, calls it the crime of the century. It is not as successful a fantasy as Mr. Disney’s “Snow White.” It couldn’t be. As we remarked a few weeks back, any one approaching it with a chip on his shoulder will have it knocked off in the first five minutes. But, taken with a grain of good-nature, as one would take an amateur night at a magicians’ congress, “The Wizard” is—we bravely insist—a most amusing film. And it should be a safe enough place to park the youngsters.

Today it’s easy to see the film, especially its sepia-toned Kansas sequences, as a kind of meditation on America during the Great Depression.(3) But many critics at the time dismissed this aspect of the film. Jane Cobb, in her New York Times piece on the film’s youthful audience, noted that “The more cosmopolitan elements are completely out of sympathy with Dorothy’s grim determination to get back to Kansas. ‘What does she want to go back there for?’ they ask—reasonably.” And Time magazine declared that “When [the film] descends to earth it collapses like a scarecrow in a cloudburst.”

Interestingly, it was conservatives who seemed most interested in turning The Wizard of Oz into a political parable. The New Deal had stalled and war was brewing in Europe as the film premiered. The Nazi-Soviet pact would be signed just a week later. Barely a week after that, German tanks rolled across the Polish border. The Land of Oz, with its phony wizard and wicked, but ultimately weak, witch, provided potential metaphors for both the domestic and foreign situation.

Even before the movie’s premiere, an August 12, 1939, letter to the editor in the New York Times compared FDR to the Wizard:

So many people believed in our President’s ability to solve the depression that he was looked upon as a doctor of economics and philosophy…The President wanted to be popular with the people and granted almost every demand to make the country happy.

It brings to mind that juvenile tale, “The Wizard of Oz.” The Scarecrow wanted brains; the Tin Woodman wanted a heart; the Lion wanted courage. The Wizard gave the Scarecrow brains of bran mixed with pins and needles. The Tin Woodman received a heart made of silk and stuffed with sawdust. The Lion was given a potion which was poured into a beautiful gold dish from a green bottle. Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the three friends exactly what they thought they wanted . . .

It now remains for the next Congress to eliminate all the pins and needles from our private economy so that we can start to pay off some of that 25 billion doctor’s bill and save a little money for the rainy day.

Conservative Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) picked up the same theme two days later. Speaking before the National Fraternal Congress, Vandenberg declared that the Great Depression cannot be ended by “any Wizard of Oz who tries to build a solvent prosperity around an insolvent treasury.”

The following year, in the December 1940 issue of Scribner’s, automaker Henry Ford turned to The Wizard of Oz in his analysis of the situation in Europe, which not surprisingly took the form of an ugly, antisemitic dogwhistle. Arguing that the “real dictators” were “the greedy financial groups, seeking to extend their domination over people and lustful for power in every branch of human endeavor,” Ford concluded that “we see in Europe what amounts to a ‘Wizard of Oz’ performance, in which straw men play the leading roles. Certainly no thinking individual believes that Hitler and Mussolini represent the real aims and desires of their people. They are puppets upon whom somebody is playing a dirty trick.”

Compared to reimagining the Wizard as the Elders of Zion, controlling the Axis Powers from behind a curtain, suggesting that he should be understood as a stand-in for Mark Hanna seems truly benign.

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(1) As well as a visual accompaniment to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

(2) David B. Parker’s fine 1994 historiographical essay on the Oz-as-parable-of-Populism argument can be found here.

(3) The Kansas scenes were actually directed by the uncredited King Vidor, whose earlier films, including The Crowd (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1934), had established him as one of the greatest directors of social-problem films working in Hollywood.

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