Some movies defy criticism and, because nothing bugs critics more than their superfluousness toward a film’s general perception, inspire reactive critical insanity. Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz is surely one of those films. That said, boy, the impish character of “prestige” projects has surely corroded since MGM’s heyday. Cultural appropriation still can’t quite mask the fact that Wizard of Oz is absolutely barmy. It’s a multimillion-dollar super-production based on L. Frank Baum’s born-from-poverty series of mundane, Great Plains fantasy books. Its switch from sepia to color cinematography reverses the standard parameters of which hues represent dreams and which represent realism—we’ve been associating sugar plum color wheels with our attainable aspirations ever since. It outdoes George Cukor’s contemporaneous The Women for its depiction of a matriarchal social model in tumult, where bitchliness is next to evenness. It’s both the definitive Hollywood narrative for legions of hopeful starlets and female impersonators (“Come one, come all, your screen test awaits you”) as well as a coded-but-firm post-Dust Bowl message to the throngs of California Oakies: “There’s no place like home, and this place is not within reasonable classification your ’home.’”
Famously unpacked by Salman Rushdie’s BFI monograph as a testament to the resilience of the geographically, politically displaced peoples, The Wizard of Oz stresses the schism between home and not home in a series of vaudeville songs and dances, most revolving around the character’s shamed awareness of their own inadequacies. Usually cited by most people as one of their inaugural exposures to the concept of terror within cinema (it even appeared on the AFI’s list of the top 100 “most thrilling” films, a seemingly valence kids’ film alongside the likes of The Shining and Wait Until Dark), the film’s dread doesn’t merely emerge from burlap tornadoes, flying monkeys, mole-puckered witches, and sassy apple trees. It also reflects children’s subconscious separation anxiety, their knowledge of that distant but defined moment when they will be expected to demonstrate their autonomy. (In Motown’s funky ’70s update The Wiz, that independence had somehow developed into a synonymy with marriage and sexual maturity, which makes Michael Jackson’s casting as the Scarecrow a joke for the ages.)
Rushdie’s essay astutely noted that Oz is “an authorless text.” He was basically referring to the film’s production via committee, a true amalgam of creative forces individually pooling their studio-contract talents like a hive of bees (in tribute to a trio of queens…a quartet if you count Cukor). But his inadvertently anti-auteurist appraisal also encapsulates the nuclear family favorite’s crucial endorsement of personal sovereignty…and, like in that Seinfeld episode, of surrounding yourself with new friends that are essentially doppelgangers of your old ones.