The defining element of The Wizard of Oz (1939), what makes it last and continue to inspire and captivate, is that Dorothy wants to return home. This movie, more than any other, encapsulates childhood in its joys and dangers and fears. Its elemental appeal is so strong, so basic, so simple, and yet can never be outgrown. It is about childhood itself, about both the safety and discontent of the life you know, and the danger and excitement of the mysterious world beyond the rainbow: adulthood.
Why do we respond so strongly to this movie? Why does it occupy such a place in our imagination? The Wizard of Oz is a nearly universal experience, a generational ritual that appeals to both children and adults and may be the one movie that is ubiquitous among all walks of American life. For many, it is the oldest movie they’ve ever seen and they love it, even if they claim to dislike old movies. Why is that? It isn’t the only movie about a young person leaving the safety of the familiar for the snares and threats of knowledge, but it is the greatest at distilling the complexity of that journey into simple terms, making it plain but powerful. It comes as close as any movie in establishing a national mythology, and all myths mask intricacy and ambiguity under a shroud of simplicity. Myths present a colorful world in terms of black and white.
The story of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is the story of us all; her journey to Oz may not seem like your childhood, but it is her vulnerability, her recognition of her limitations and, more important, her recognition of the limitations of others, especially adults, that is familiar to us. The power of the movie on a child is that it gets at our deepest fears and acknowledges the hidden secret we don’t want to confront, which is that one day we will be asked to grow up and that when we are, though we can ask for help, we will ultimately be able to rely only on ourselves. Worst of all, once we are asked, we cannot go back. The yellow brick road leads only onward. The movie works because Dorothy isn’t the one acted upon in someone else’s adventure; she is, as we all must be, the driving force in her own. Though she can’t control the circumstances, she controls her reaction to them and she is able to pass the test without losing anything that is essentially hers. Like the best fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz is a mixture of disturbing and comforting. It assumes it has an intelligent audience and treats them that way.
A child is aware but cannot define the thing that separates him from adulthood. We know that one day we’ll be adults, and we assume that that moment will be accompanied by a milestone or the acquisition of something. Once we turn eighteen, or get a car, or get a brain, or a heart, or courage. The genius of The Wizard of Oz is in its acceptance of adulthood as a puzzle, one that you are born with the pieces to, but you spend your adolescence trying to put them together. It’s no wonder that Dorothy arrives in Oz with plain and childish shoes, is immediately given the key to her return to Kansas in the ruby slippers (the type that one might find in a parent’s closet), but must struggle the rest of the movie before she recognizes they are her deliverers. It’s the same reason that when the Wizard (Frank Morgan) bestows upon Dorothy’s friends their gifts of a brain, a heart and courage, they aren’t gifts at all, only signifiers. You are as adult as you choose to be.
Yet, the movie speaks also to the frustration of being denied those signifiers because of youth. In Kansas, Dorothy is powerless to protect her dog from the vile Mrs. Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), a very childish person who hides behind the guise of maturity to get her immediate way. Dorothy rails in frustration against the injustice laid upon her, but she isn’t listened to, not even by the sympathetic ears of her aunt and uncle, because the law, a mysterious idea that seems to benefit only adults, decrees it so. In Oz, the rules make more sense; the good and the wicked are clearly marked and the law is more simply navigated until, of course, one peeks behind the curtain.
Making all this work is Judy Garland, who gives a remarkable performance of fragility and determination. Her singing of “Over the Rainbow” is as vital a moment as any in the movies because of the dual longing and trepidation her voice is able to express. How much does she really believe that when she gets there the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true? She has a better understanding of the difference between herself and those happy little bluebirds. It’s not a number about something you long for; it’s a number about having something to long for and always having it. Another voice, one without Garland’s timorous but pretty warble, would convey a different message. This vulnerability is never misdiagnosed as weakness, and Garland becomes a commanding presence, growing in confidence as the movie goes on. She’s finding herself on the yellow brick road yet she never loses that longing from the opening scenes. It returns in the movie’s very last line in which she says, in a mixture of joy and sadness, “There’s no place like home.”
Another contributing factor to the movie’s striking resonance is its insistence on the incompetence and untrustworthiness of adults. Often adventure movies with a young protagonist will give him or her a wise guide, a sage chaperone to start the hero on the way. Dorothy never receives that, she only seems to. Glinda the Good Witch (Billie Burke) is the closest to the idea, but she isn’t around very long and only then gives the bare minimum of support. The friends she meets on her journey, the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), all promise to add support, but they really get it only from Dorothy. Even as inhabitants of Oz they seem to be as lost as she is. And, of course, there is the Wizard, the ultimate fraud, who gives platitudes and makes promises he cannot keep. It is Dorothy alone who earns her way to go home.
These are incredibly complex ideas for an audience of any age and yet the movie makes them so palatable, so subtle; really, it’s these elemental and true aspects that are the man behind the curtain. The curtain itself is one of sumptuous art direction, brilliant Technicolor and thrilling songs performed by coruscating showmen in wonderful costumes, brought all together by a number of the best technicians in Hollywood at the time (the credits list Victor Fleming as the director but King Vidor, who directed the Kansas scenes when Fleming was engaged to film Gone With The Wind  should share credit). Bolger, Haley and Lahr were all veterans of the vaudeville stage and their acts are wonderful displays of comic athleticism. Morgan, who plays nearly every speaking character in the Emerald City, is a great mix of desperate exasperation and sly confidence, and Hamilton, as the Wicked Witch, is a wonderfully maniacal bully. If the movie was all deep-rooted psychology, it wouldn’t be the generational touchstone it is. It’s these entertainers, with no small help from Garland, who make this lesson in growing pains so enthralling. Yet, it never pulls punches as a story of great import. Everyone has their favorite moments (mine is the “If I Only Had A Brain” number), but we also all have images that hold a place in the darker regions of the psyche (the Wicked Witch of the East’s lifeless feet curled up under Dorothy’s house has always disturbed me). The Wizard of Oz is a magical experience first, but it’s more than that because of how deeply it penetrates, because of how strongly it brings us back to what we were. It is the movie that comes closes to representing a cinematic home and there is no place like it.