Why 'The Wizard of Oz' Is the Most Popular Film of All Time

What 'The Wizard of Oz' reveals about ourselves.

Posted Jun 04, 2010

According to the Library of Congress, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is the most watched film ever. This is due in part to its regular broadcast on network TV beginning in the 1950s. What has made the film so timeless? What does it tell us that we find so appealing?

One interesting collection of insights comes from author Salman Rushdie, who suggests that The Wizard of Oz has been successful because it embodies some of our most enduring values. At the same time, it also raises some provocative ideas.

Power and Powerlessness

One prominent theme revolves around the inadequacy of adults—their inability to live up to expectations and face down the larger forces in life. Adults, especially good adults, are portrayed as powerless.

In the beginning, for example, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are unable to prevent the wicked Miss Gulch from taking Toto away after she gets bitten by him. They're also helpless to protect their farm, or Dorothy, from the tornado. Later, the film's defining moment comes when we learn that the "great and powerful" wizard is in fact powerless. These episodes may be disappointing to younger viewers, but they should hardly surprise older ones, who are well-accustomed to the fallibility of adults. Is the film trying to convey this reality to children, too?

Another theme centers on the relationship between power and gender. The Wizard of Oz veers from the traditional Hollywood storyline of the time in that there's no male hero. In fact, quite the opposite: The only two figures with any real power are women—Glinda the Good Witch and The Wicked Witch of the West. The male leads—the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion—play the classic "common man" roles, with little power to control their own destiny. The only other powerful character to emerge is Dorothy.

In fact, after the struggle over Toto, the tornado can be understood as the clashing forces of Miss Gulch and the headstrong Dorothy. (It's no coincidence that Dorothy's last name is Gale). When we get to Oz, Glinda, Dorothy, and the Witch are the three powerful figures, while the men are weak, including the Wizard. Thus, similar to the mesage about the inadequacy of adults, we're also shown that men's power is illusory, whereas women's power is real.

Were these themes a reaction to the turmoil of the Great Depression, and male-dominated society's inability to protect people from it? Or did the all-male writers and producers of the film have something else in mind? Whatever the reasons, it's intriguing that the most popular movie ever features such a reversal of traditional power roles.

"There's No Place Like Home"

Dorothy's immortal line is considered one of the central messages of the movie: If you ever go looking for your heart's desire, you don't have to look any further than your own backyard. In other words, your roots are important. Although this lesson is played up in the final scene of the film, the bulk of the story is instead about the dream of escaping, the desire to leave the here and now to find a better place.

This desire is stirred early when Auntie Em admonishes Dorothy to go "find yourself a place where you won't get into any trouble." Dorothy wonders whether such a place exists, and her rendition of somewhere "Over the Rainbow" provides an answer.

And is there any real contest between the gray world of Kansas where there's nothing to do and no one to play with, and a place where you're instantly beloved by many, where you have a clear, meaningful goal, and where you find three new friends to help you reach that goal? There's little doubt whether viewers would want to stay in Kansas or escape someplace else. But Dorothy, who's still a child back in Kansas, has little choice but to stay for now. Without any real alternatives, isn't it better to just convince yourself that you're exactly where you want to be?

These contrasting values of escaping vs. embracing your roots broaden the movie's appeal, allowing you to take away whichever message speaks to you more. Or better yet, the two messages can be taken together: Be happy with what you've got, but you can still dream of escaping to a better place.

We get a related message from Glinda, when she tells Dorothy that she's had the power to return herself home all along; she just didn't know it. Similarly, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion discover that what they were seeking—a brain, a heart, and some courage—were actually inside of them all along. The film affirms that you have the ability to get what you want, and that this power comes from within. Other people may be able to offer some moral support, but ultimately it's up to you.

Is there any more predominant message of American individualism than this? We never get tired of hearing that we control our own outcomes: It empowers us and instills us with hope.

Human Nature

One of the more subtle messages of the film is its characterization of human nature: People are depicted as generally good. This theme is best expressed when Dorothy accuses the wizard of being a very bad man for deceiving them, to which he humbly replies, "Oh no, my dear...I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard." (He's powerless, but good.) Instead, all the evil emanates from the Wicked Witch, who can get others to behave badly while under her spell. Her foot soldiers, for example, turn out to be pretty nice guys once the witch is dead.

Thus, our goodness and strength come from within ourselves, while our wickedness originates from the outside—in this case, from a truly evil person. This view of human nature fits with the view held of many psychologists, who perceive people as well-intentioned but capable of behaving badly under harsh conditions or cruel authority figures.

Taken as a whole, you can see how The Wizard of Oz channels much of the optimistic worldview of modern Western culture. Moreover, the film's popularity has made it an efficient means of socializing this worldview to the millions who watch it for the first time. And when you find that this worldview gets shaken, seeing the film again can help restore it.

This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.