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Technicolor’s False Promise: L. Frank Baum and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

As the digit counters turned over from the 19th to the 20th centuries, L. Frank Baum penned what he intended as a single foray into fiction: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This terrifically successful piece of juvenile fiction quickly spawned a musical and a silent film. Then, in 1939, MGM produced one of my favorite films from Baum’s novel. Since then, we’ve enjoyed The Wiz, Wicked, and this year’s film, Oz, the Great and Powerful, which, if nothing else, finally brought China Town to the screen. Yes, Baum died long before Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” but his creation has survived well into a new century.

As someone who has spent nearly all of his life within a one-hour drive of Kansas, I have spent plenty of time driving, studying, working, camping, and otherwise enjoying the Sunflower State. My experience with Kansas leaves me wondering when I read the first chapter of the novel with its portrayal of a rural world.

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

Gray? I’ve seen Kansas croplands in various shades of green and of biege/amber, but I haven’t seen the entire landscape gray. MGM’s decision to film the Kansas portions of the 1939 film in black and white seem incredibly appropriate given this description. If anything, the film makes Dorothy’s home far too appealing with loving and wisecracking farmhands, a nomadic fortune teller in the neighborhood, and surrogate parents who have far more personality than those that Baum describes. Beyond a color that doesn’t make a great deal of sense, another aspect of the description above seems odd. “Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of the flat country.” In 1900, the average family farm weighed in at 147 acres. That would be just less than a quarter section, a half mile square. So if Dorothy really could see to the horizon in all directions and the land was indeed flat, shouldn’t she have seen a number of other farmsteads in at least some directions unless Uncle Henry was a tremendous land baron?

The dismal description of Kansas and the hopeless, humorless portrayal of Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, would seem to make Dorothy relish the chance to ride the old house on a cyclone to most anywhere. Having found a very pleasant life in the Emerald City, one can imagine her putting down roots with her intriguing new friends, yet from the beginning to the end, whether in Baum’s book or in the film, Dorothy wants nothing more than to get back home. No, she doesn’t click her heels together and say, “There’s no place like home,” but the sentiment is the same.

Why does Baum dedicate so much energy to making Kansas and its residents seem so terribly bleak and unappealing? Unlike ┬áthe filmmakers, he did not have a flashy new technology in Technicolor to contrast with a sepia Kansas. For all the colors and colorful characters to be found in the land of Oz, Dorothy recognizes her true home in a much more severe place, a place that seems, on the surface, not in the least appealing. Like John Bunyan’s Christian, Dorothy finds herself admonished to journey to a distant city, but unlike the Celestial City, the Emerald City’s charms prove illusory. In the end, Dorothy will spend everything she has–using up her wishes with the Golden Cap and losing her silver slippers–just to make her way back to that forbidding, black and white Kansas.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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