Exit the Great Depression Through the Yellow Brick Road

Paper by Pauline Cheung.

The “Golden Age of the Musical”1 began in the 1930s. In this analysis, I will examine talkies and sound as a new standard of the time, emergence of musical films, Hollywood and audiences in the Great Depression. In particular, I will specifically focus on The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). The musical adaptation of which is a classic children’s story, the film’s success isn’t in the novel fantasy with songs, but lies in the central message that brought significant uplifting hopes to American adults in hopeless times of the Great Depression. I will examine and reveal the political symbolism and interpretation of The Wizard of Oz, and the film’s connection to the Great Depression.

Talkies and Sound as a New Standard

In the eve of the Roaring Twenties, Hollywood launched a major technological change in film industry. In 1927, Warner Bros. Pictures produced The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) that became a significant film in Hollywood cinema history. This film marked the true beginning of transition from silent films to talkie films in Hollywood, and paved a way for many more talkie films to come. This is “the first feature-length Hollywood ‘talkie’ film in which spoken dialogue was used as part of the dramatic action. It is, however, only part-talkie (25%) with sound-synchronized, vocal musical numbers and accompaniment.”2 Fox’s Movietone sound system was used in the making of The Jazz Singer. At the first Academy Awards ceremony, Warner Bros. won an award “for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.”3

Despite of talkie film’s initial limitations, “sound technology was extremely popular with movie audiences from the beginning.”4 The first all-talking feature, Lights of New York (Bryan Foy, 1928), features a musical scene. “The enthusiasm of audiences was so great that in less than a year all the major studios were making sound pictures exclusively.”5 Within a short time of “just two years after the premiere of sound in movie theaters, silent films vanished completely from American screens.”6 From 1927 to 1929, in two years the transition from silent film to talkie films was completed. Silent films inevitably extinguished and sound became the Hollywood new standard.

Emergence of Musical Films

At the arrival of 1930s, the musical genre came as “a natural development of the stage musical after the emergence of sound film technology.”7 As a result, the exciting “Golden Age of the Musical”8 began. In 1931, Hollywood “released more than 100 musical films”9 in that year alone. In musical films, “songs sung by the characters are interwoven into the narrative, sometimes accompanied by dancing. The songs usually advance the plot or develop the film’s characters, though in some cases they serve merely as breaks in the storyline, often as elaborate ‘production numbers.’ ”10

Musical films such as Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley, 1933) brilliantly uses sound and music to help tell its narrative story. The film features the lovers sing out their thoughts and affections for each other in musical lyrics. Also, the film displays “an extravagant choreographic arrangement”11 of 300 synchronized swimmers that showcase the song “By a Waterfall,” while massive visual impact created by the choreographed swimmers in the scene nicely compliment the song. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) features the famous RKO dance duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers whom sing out their thoughts and communication in musical lyrics.

Hollywood in the Great Depression

In the 1930s, this era is often referred to as “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” 12 Hollywood entered the exciting decade of “the sound and color revolutions and the advance of the ‘talkies.’ ”13 Ironically, it was the Great Depression that left millions of Americans unemployed that helped morph Hollywood into the Golden Age.
The economic prosperity from the previous decade of the Roaring Twenties created a commercialized society in America. “Competition and variety emerged as industries grew and commodities flourished. The film industry was no exception.”14 In 1929, the crashed Wall Street stock market sunken the American economy into the Great Depression that would last for next ten years. The economic crisis was “affecting even the most prominent Hollywood studios, attention to consumer tastes was crucial. As Herbert Gans simply states, ‘The audience is obviously limited by what it is offered but what is offered to it depends a great deal on what it has accepted previously.’ With this increasingly consumer-ized America, as commodes became cultural objects so did each film. Films reflected American desires just as American desires reflected films.”15 Additionally, “whether films offered visions of order restored, affirmations of work-centered values, or celebrations of a culture rooted in the mythic American village, they also held out images of competing worlds that might be entered through mimicry or consumption.”16
From melodrama to screwball comedy to musical to gangster, films during the Great Depression “took on the responsibility of reinstating the mythical American values of individualism, classlessness, and progress. Americans might have come to these films in search of escape from their arduous and hopeless lives.”17 Meanwhile, Hollywood upholds “American institutions such as government and family, also created characters and plot lines that stayed within the realm of possibilities.”18 The film industry “recognized this consumer power and carefully evaluated the types of films people responded to. Hollywood knew that buying a ticket and sitting in a theater among friends and strangers was an independent and self-effacing action. Hollywood understood the shame of standing in breadlines and the helplessness of losing a job.”19

Audiences in the Great Depression

In 1933, during the peak of the Great Depression, millions of Americans “from failed farmers to discouraged businessmen to working mothers to displaced children” experienced the devastating effect of the economic hardship.20 There were “twenty-five percent of the country was unemployed…while even more just barely made ends meet. Despite the excruciating economic hardship faced by nearly all of the country, 60-70 million Americans still packed into theaters each week.”21 For the mass American audiences, “the content of the motion picture still was designed for escape, the majority reflecting the tastes of tired or jaded adults seeking a never-never land of luxury and melodrama, sex and sentiment.”22 Even President Franklin Roosevelt said, “During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”23
Musical films such as Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley, 1933), 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley, 1933), and Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley, 1933) have narratives that directly spoke about the Great Depression. Hollywood used this strategy and “made these three musicals the highest money making ones of the decade…musicals in the 1930’s gave people more realistic visions of aspiration and attainment.”24 Hollywood stars in musicals “became models of strength, courage, charisma, vulnerability, and triumph as they sang and danced their way into the dispirited hearts of the American public.”25 To help get through this tough period, Americans sang and danced their way through the Great Depression.

Family-Musical Film and The Wizard of Oz

In the 1930s, MGM was the leader of Big Five and Little Three film studios in Hollywood. It was the “largest, wealthiest, and most productive of the Hollywood studios,”26 and pride itself having “more stars than there are in heaven!”27 This prestigious film studio had strong financial resources and manpower that was known for extravagant movie sets and fantasy stories, and for many musicals that “looks like a campaign to keep people cheerful”28 when dark times loomed.
The Wizard of Oz is a family-musical film that brought merry joy and hope to both children and adult audiences during the Great Depression. This film combines musical, fantasy, and family genres, which “aims to appeal not only to children, but to a wide range of ages. While the storyline may appeal to a younger audience, there are components of the film that are geared towards adults.”29 The family genre is “particularly associated with Hollywood cinema, whose vast resources and global distribution avenues…demanded universalistic modes of address to appeal to mass audiences”30 and it is “a feature-length production explicitly designed for the joint consumption of adults and children.”31 The family genre “often include a child actor/actress, and/or focus on children’s-related themes that teach a lesson or moral, or show that good can triumph over evil.”32

Technology and The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz was able to effectively convey fairy tale glamour thanks to MGM’s bold use of Technicolor. This technology helped paint many colorful fairy tale settings, which in turn helped made the visual impact come alive. Also, “Over the Rainbow,” the film’s famous ballad, was “an event that changed cinema and introduced a fresh level of belief. It was also a sign of MGM embracing colour and a bold, theatrical quality of production design. The musical might be a world of its own, such as only film could fashion.”33

The narrative takes place in a colorful, visually glamorous, surreal and imaginative fantasy environment that offered temporarily escapism from bleak reality and hard times of the Great Depression. The musical places Dorothy (Judy Garland) in the “unsympathetic environment”34 of a cyclone. She and her beloved dog, Toto, are separated from her family. Her house is uprooted by the cyclone and they arrived in Munchkin Land in the world of Oz. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, appears in a very beautiful and enchanting princess-like gown. She points Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road which leads to the Emerald City, and the great Wizard who lives there may be able to help her get home to Kansas.

Jolly singing and choreographed dancing intersperse through her journey. Dorothy’s “vulnerable innocence and persevering optimism not only pull the lion, tin man, and scarecrow through the obstacles of the yellow brick road,”35 together they must also “fight the ruthless forces of the wicked witch.”36 Dorothy’s journey “engages the audience to envision the hope of reaching a seemingly insurmountable goal.”37 When she poured water to save Scarecrow who is on fire, water accidentally splashed on the wicked witch and evil melts to its death. In the end, “good fortune and determined resolve finally triumph over evil.”38

Political Symbolism and Interpretation

The Wizard of Oz can be viewed as a political parable that represents America. In the film, each character is a symbolism in the big political picture. The cyclone represents “the free silver movement or political upheaval.”39 Dorothy represents “American values or people. She proves to be loyal, resourceful and determined.”40 Toto “reveals what a fraud the Wizard is. It is thought that Toto also represents average Americans.”41 Scarecrow represents “western farmers. He complained about not having a brain but wound up as the most adept problem solver among the four travelers.”42 Tin Woodman represents “industrial workers who often experienced being dehumanized. The Tin Man was immobile and rusted, which is something many factory workers felt when many businesses began to shut down due to a national depression. They felt helpless after they lost their jobs.”43 Cowardly Lion represents “William Jennings Bryan, a politician, was a supporter of the free silver movement. It is said that the Cowardly Lion represents Bryan, who was viewed as someone having a load roar, but no power or bite.”44 Emerald Palace represents “Washington D.C.”45 Emerald City represents “the White House”46 Wizard represents “Mark Hanna, who was the Republican party’s chairman, or perhaps president of the United States.”47
The Wizard of Oz, besides being a children’s story, can also have a political interpretation. “Dorothy—naïve, young and simple—represents the American people. She is Everyman, led astray and seeking the way back home. Moreover, following the road of gold leads eventually only to the Emerald City, which may symbolize the fraudulent world of greenback paper money that only pretends to have value. It is ruled by a scheming politician (the Wizard) who uses publicity devices and tricks to fool the people (and even the Good Witches) into believing he is benevolent, wise, and powerful when really he is a selfish, evil humbug. He sends Dorothy into severe danger hoping she will rid him of his enemy the Wicked Witch of the West. He is powerless and, as he admits to Dorothy, ‘I’m a very bad Wizard.’ ’’48 Moreover, at the Emerald Palace, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion all saw the Wizard differently. “This symbolizes the cynicism that exists in politics due to the fact that politicians tend to change face with different people.”49

The Great Depression and The Wizard of Oz

From 1929-1939, the Great Depression plagued America for a decade. Towards end of the Great Depression, Americans were looking forward to exit the dark era filled with economic and political doubts – to a more hopeful 1940s. MGM cleverly produced a family- musical adaption of the children’s story The Wizard of Oz that brought together families, young and mature, for an uplifted emotional and theatrical experience. In 1939, the studio timely released the film and it became “a moneymaker for MGM”50, and was “nominated for six Academy Awards.”51
The Wizard of Oz’s central message, is that “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”52 The three elements to finding the desire are: a mind, a heart, and courage. The film injected faith and hope into the hearts of millions of Americans. It was an emotional antidote to troubles of the time, and directed many American’s mind, heart, and courage – on a golden path “Over the Rainbow” to a place of no trouble. At the time 9.48 millions53 of Americans were unemployed, one could find can some comfort through the positive message of this film.
Dorothy’s “unending desire to return to Kansas makes viewers realize ‘there’s no place like home.’ Her journey away from her home effectively related to the audience’s own displacement from their familiar ways of life. Subsequently, enabling people to experience a world happier and more hopeful than their own, the Wizard of Oz for 15 cents fed the American people’s hunger for escape and direction.”54

Beyond the Great Depression

In 1939, The Wizard of Oz was premiered to the world at end of the Great Depression, a decade after dark times loomed. The film also gained iconic status in 1956, a decade after dark times of the World War II, and three years after American soldiers fought in the Korean War. MGM released the film on television and the “broadcast was a huge success, drawing 45 million viewers.”55 The film once again promoted hope and touched the hearts of many American audiences. Even in today, the film continues to remind viewer to look for the heart’s desire within oneself, and to believe that one already possess the elements to finding the desire.

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