The Wonderful Paradoxes of 'The Wizard of Oz'

Sebastian Wurzrainer '20


Taking a tour through early American film history can be a decidedly disheartening endeavor. Even the very best films produced during the first half-dozen or so decades can feel a little dated and, in many cases, extremely uncomfortable. This paradigm is made all the more difficult because Hollywood was built on the backs of some downright horrific films; Birth of a Nation (Griffith, US 1915) is a vastly overpraised yet undeniably influential example (Kallgren). Moreover, this film and others like it were not bugs in the system; they were its building blocks, forever shaping the form and aesthetics of mainstream American cinema. What a delightful surprise, then, to discover that The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, US 1939) holds up eighty years later as one of the most charming films ever made.

This is not to suggest that the film is ideologically pure or without flaws; no film – indeed, no work of art – ever is. Nevertheless, the film remains a timeless classic for generation after generation. Thus, while the rest of this piece will attempt to analyze why exactly this is, I felt it was essential to begin with the acknowledgement that The Wizard of Oz remains – in my estimation, at least – about as perfect as a film can be, considering the circumstances at play.


The Wizard of Oz should not work. Or, perhaps more accurately, it should not have worked, given its uniquely nightmarish production. In 1936, MGM's wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg died of pneumonia, resulting in internal chaos at the studio, which had consistently managed to stay at the top of the industry heap throughout the decade. As documented by Thomas Schatz in the book The Genius of the System, head of MGM Louis B. Mayer realized that the company needed another "creative executive" who could handle prestige projects, thus leading to the hiring of Mervyn LeRoy from Warner Brothers (262). His first major project was The Wizard of Oz, a confluence of trying to mimic the scope of David Selznick's still-in-production Gone with the Wind (Fleming, US 1939) and the tone and style of Walt Disney's recently released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Hand et al., US 1937) (Schatz 262).

As the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The production of The Wizard of Oz has become the stuff of industry legend. Although the final film credits one director and three screenwriters, IMDb also lists five additional uncredited directors and fifteen other uncredited contributing writers. More substantively, Buddy Ebsen had to be replaced by Jack Haley as the Tin Man after the former was hospitalized due to his aluminum powder makeup, and Margaret Hamilton suffered from a third-degree burn while playing the Wicked Witch of the West due to the flammable nature of her character's dramatic exits. These two stories are among the most famous, but dozens more circulate around the film. And while this has all contributed to the film's allure, it also forces one to wonder why the film is as good as it is.

Of course, troubled productions are by no means a recipe for failure. Both Star Wars (Lucas, US 1977) and Apocalypse Now (Copolla, US 1979) had immensely troubled productions and are both now widely regarded as among the best films ever made. Yet, for all the behind the scenes turmoil, Apocalypse Now and Star Wars are still undeniably the product of a very singular, cohesive vision. To be clear, I am by no means attempting to valorize the notion of the director as all-powerful auteur. Films are collaborative works. But films also tend to be better when everyone is on the same page about the overarching vision, and it helps when good directors provide that vision; after all, that is their job. At the end of the day, Apocalypse Now works due to what film critic Bob Chipman describes as Coppola's penchant for "sweeping humanism," just as Star Wars works due to George Lucas's experimental idiosyncrasies and starry-eyed idealism (Chipman).

However, as Salman Rushdie notes in his analysis of The Wizard of Oz for BFI Film Classics, "The truth is that this great movie, in which the quarrels, sackings and near-bungles of all concerned produced what seems like pure, effortless and somehow inevitable felicity, is as near as dammit to that will-o'-the-wisp of modern critical theory: the authorless text" (16). Some would dispute Rushdie's claim here. Schatz, for instance, contends that both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind are what might be described as "producer's pictures" (264). And this is true to a point; after all, Thalberg's death was only such a loss to MGM due to the unique creative positions held by producers during that era of the studio system. Nevertheless, there even remains some debate as to which of the producers should be seen more as the "author" of The Wizard of Oz – LeRoy or Arthur Freed, the latter having been heavily involved in the film's artistic origins (Schatz 263). Thus, if the tumultuous production history and uncertain authorship does not help illuminate why this film has endured as a classic, then we need to look elsewhere.


In his essay of the same name, linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson defines the literary concept of "the dominant" thusly: "The dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components. It is the dominant which guarantees the integrity of the structure" (82). We could have a long debate about the validity of this concept, but, for the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that it possesses a degree of value. There is also a secondary debate to be had about what exactly qualifies as "the dominant" in any given text, but I'm also not going to go there. For the sake of this piece, I'm largely going to use the concept of the dominant out of context and rely almost exclusively on Jakobson's above definition. In the case of The Wizard of Oz, I'm curious if we can identify a dominant in the film which defines the external structure of audience reception, rather than the internal structure of the text itself. In short, is there a singular element in The Wizard of Oz that succinctly explains its enduring appeal?

Of course, the answer might be "no." Some films are just exceptionally well-made, full stop. At first glance, The Wizard of Oz feels like it might fall into this category. It is, in a sense, the apotheosis of what the Hollywood studio system had to offer at the time. That having been said, the final product is far from flawless and it's clear that the film never fully escaped its troubled production. Several scenes feel like cinematic non sequiturs, and one imagines this might be the direct result of the various creative upheavals. Yet no one really bothers to point out these random, often incongruent, moments. This would indicate that there is indeed some dominant in the viewing experience that guides the spectator's energies and helps "guarantee the integrity of the structure." But what is it?

Here's an interesting question: What phrase do you most commonly associate with The Wizard of Oz (the film specifically)? The answer is probably "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." After all, the American Film Institute ranked it fourth most memorable movie quotation of all time. Yet I imagine part of the quote's appeal derives from its borderline absurd context in the actual film. The door to the sepia-tone Kansas house swings open and color floods the screen, illuminating a world like none other ever captured on celluloid. You don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Dorothy? I can't imagine why. It's a memorable line, to be sure, but primarily because it's an amusing understatement.

If I had to guess, I'd say that the second and third quotes most commonly associated with The Wizard of Oz are: "Somewhere over the rainbow" and "There's no place like home." These, I contend, are the moral, thematic and philosophical bedrocks upon which the film rests. Yet these quotes represent polar opposites. Dorothy begins the film dissatisfied with her drab life, feeling decidedly out of place in Kansas. She dreams of freedom and adventure "somewhere over the rainbow" and gets her wish when a tornado sweeps her up into the land of Oz. For the rest of the film, Dorothy is torn between her growing love for Oz and her new friends there, and her desire for "home," which she automatically assumes must be Kansas.

This tension is seemingly resolved at the end of the film during the final encounter with the eponymous Wizard. He informs the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion that they each always possessed the thing they most desired; a brain, a heart and courage. Likewise, the film implies that the same is true for Dorothy; "home" is not a place but something she carries with her via her friendships and relationships. Neither Kansas nor Oz are truly her home; but Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and, of course, Toto are. Conceptually, this grants Dorothy an unprecedented sense of autonomy and mobility, the freedom to move between Kansas, Oz and anywhere else her heart desires, pursuing her adventures without fearing the lack or loss of "home."

Thematically, this isn't just a logical conclusion for the film, but possibly the only truly satisfying one. But then the end starts careening out of control. Dorothy returns home, declares, "There's no place like home," and vows never to leave again. In its final moments, The Wizard of Oz becomes uncomfortably conservative and regressive. While re-watching it recently, my friend leaned over and joked, "Wait, is the message that women should basically never leave their backyards?" She's not wrong. Which is made all the more troubling because during the rest of the film, all of the major characters with any real power are women, and the narrative up until this point has been enamored with their decidedly non-domestic lives, both of which are relatively rare features for a film of this era.

My friend and I are certainly not the only ones to notice the dissonance of the ending. Salman Rushdie describes the ending as "cloying" and "untrue to the film's anarchic spirit" (10). He finds it particularly frustrating because he identifies so strongly with the rest of the film as metaphorically a migrant narrative. Discussing the fates of the various characters, Rushdie writes, "It is hard for a migrant like myself not to see in these shifting destinies a parable of the migrant condition" (54). He describes the film as torn between the "dream of leaving" and the "dream of roots." This is precisely why Rushdie insists that "Over the Rainbow" ought to be "the anthem of the world's migrants." He writes: "As the music swells and that big, clean voice flies into the anguished longings of the song, can anyone doubt which message is stronger? In its most potent emotional moment, this is unarguably a film about the joys of going away, of leaving the greyness and entering the colour, of making a new life" (23).

Indeed, the film seems to almost unconsciously agree with Rushdie. Mere seconds after Dorothy declares, "There's no place like home," the credits roll, backed by "Over the Rainbow." Of course, I don't necessarily think this was intentional rebellion against the conservative ending on the part of the filmmakers. There could be any number of reasons why "Over the Rainbow" plays during the end credits, and I'm sure with more time to dig into the film's history I could find out exactly why. I suspect the true answer is quite banal and not subversive in the slightest. Yet it doesn't really matter. We exit the film in the headspace of Dorothy and Rushdie, dreaming of "somewhere over the rainbow." Moreover, the mere act of re-watching the film is a testament to this notion. The fact that this film has remained so immensely popular and has been viewed repeatedly by so many devout fans suggests that the final conservative homily fell on deaf ears. Watching the film is itself an act of asserting that we still pine for "somewhere over the rainbow." That sentiment is the film's true dominant.


Can films ever truly be separated from their context? Film theory and film history have long held a decidedly ambivalent and often antagonistic relationships with mainstream Hollywood cinema. For instance, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue in "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" that cinemaparticularly mainstream cinemais part of an easily digestible pop culture made consumable through mass communication meant to pacify society and distract people from injustice. Adorno and Horkheimer may represent an especially pessimistic perspective, but many of these basic concerns are echoed by even the most optimistic of film scholars. Moreover, there is an added sense of discomfort because Hollywood is so often a gross and exploitative industry; the #MeToo movement should be all the proof you need that some of your favorite films are produced under repulsive circumstances.

The Wizard of Oz is no different, as I documented in Section II. Such a charming film was made under miserable conditions. Is the solution to throw it all out and decry everything ever produced by Hollywood? This solution seems irresponsible to me. Firstly, there is the practical considerationfor better or for worse, Hollywood is not going anywhere anytime soon. Focusing on changing/improving the system will undoubtedly be more effective than burning it all down, as appealing as the latter may often seem. Secondly, there is the artistic considerationeventually, some films manage to transcend their context. This is not to suggest that one shouldn't always view Hollywood filmsand, indeed, all filmswith a necessarily critical eye; our world is in need of radical change and so is the media that reflects and influences that world. Nor do I wish to assert that the circumstances under which a film was made stop mattering with enough distance; no film is worth more than the well-being of those who created it.

That having been said, while films can never escape their context or their content, they can and do transcend them. The Wizard of Oz is one such film. The fact that we still return to the film after eighty years is proof of that fact. The fact that we remember the film as yearning for "somewhere over the rainbow," denying its more regressive final message about staying home, is proof of that fact. The fact that we continue to imbue it with meaning, as Rushdie interprets it as a migrant narrative, is proof of that fact. I feel confident The Wizard of Oz will still hold up in twenty years on its 100th anniversary, when we can again reflect on its enduring power as a flawed but wonderful masterpiece.

Sebastian Wurzrainer '20

September 29, 2019



Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception." Critical Visions in Film Studies: Classical and Contemporary Readings, edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011, pp. 1015-1031.

"AFI's 100 Years… 100 Movies Quotes." AFI American Film Institute, Accessed 25 Sept. 2019.

Chipman, Robert. "Star Wars: George Lucas' Subversive Masterpiece (Really That Good Bonus Preview)." YouTube, uploaded by moviebob, 17 April 2019,

Jakobson, Roman. "The Dominant." Readings in Russian Poetics, edited by Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, The University of Michigan, 1978, pp. 82-87.

Kallgren, Kyle. "Why You Shouldn't Watch The Birth of a Nation (and why you should) | Brows Held High." YouTube, uploaded by KyleKallgrenBHH, 28 Feb. 2019,

Rushdie, Salman. BFI Film Classics: The Wizard of Oz. BFI Publishing, 1992.

Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. Pantheon Books, 1988.

"The Wizard of Oz (1939) Full Cast & Crew" IMDb, Accessed 24 Sept. 2019.