On August 25, 1939 Victor Fleming’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s beloved series The Wizard Oz hit movie theaters to a stunned reception.
The movie starts in the black-and-white humdrum existence of Kansas and soon switches to glorious technicolor when our intrepid heroine Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) gets carried away in a tornado, ending up in the magical Land of Oz. Even now with the advent of high definition screens more than eight decades later, The Wizard of Oz and its incredible effects are just as vibrant as they were back then. In fact, maybe even more so, as digital retouching has allowed for the film’s radiant color palette to shine even brighter.
The Wizard of Oz follows young Dorothy in Kansas where her biggest problems are boredom and the nasty woman Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), who is at war with Dorothy’s dog Toto. After Toto attacks Miss Gulch one more time, Gulch goes to the police and gets permission to seize the dog, who she plans on euthanizing herself, with gusto. Toto escapes, and, thinking she has no other way to save his life, Dorothy packs a suitcase and runs away from home. But while she’s on her journey, a huge tornado makes its way toward her aunt and uncle’s house. In her efforts to find them, Dorothy, Toto, and the house get swept off into the skies to land with a solid thump in an entirely new world.
In Oz, Dorothy learns she accidentally killed the Wicked Witch of the East by dropping her house on her. Big oops. Vowing revenge, the Wicked Witch of the West (also played by Margaret Hamilton) tries to kill Dorothy, but cannot because the Good Witch Glinda (Billie Burke) has bestowed upon Dorothy the enchanted ruby slippers once worn by the Witch of the East. Dorothy must make the arduous journey through hallucinatory Oz in order to ask its highest ruler, the Wizard (Frank Morgan), to get her home. Because as marvelous as Oz might be, Dorothy cannot stop missing the Kansas she once wanted to escape so badly.
On her way down the Yellow Brick Road, she collects a strange coterie of friends: the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who also have requests from the Wizard. After more wild hijinks that include Dorothy killing the Witch of the East, she discovers that the power to get back to Kansas was with her all along. “There’s no place like home,” Dorothy Gale says once she finally returns home after a whirlwind adventure to the Land of Oz. “I’m not going to leave here ever again!” Dorothy promises her family and friends.
While The Wizard of Oz closes with a message of personal empowerment and realizing how much power we have in ourselves if we would access it, it also includes a disturbing nativist lesson of not straying too far from your own back yard — a concept that resonates with the MAGA “America First” crowd — which also continues to hold strong eight decades later. In these years, and in particular, since 2016, we have seen the US government exit historic international treaties such as the Paris Agreement, NAFTA, UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, NATO, and even the G7 in the guise of making America stronger, but this withdrawal has only painfully damaged America’s participation in global politics as well as necessary international oversight, especially with regards to issues of human rights violations and climate change. This nativism has led to increased attacks on immigrants of color where the racist phrase “Go home to your country” is used against even generations of American-born immigrants. For many of those, the only home they have known is the United States. And with these assaults, the idea of “there is no place like home” takes on an even more disturbing spin.
But with the current COVID19 global pandemic 81 years later, The Wizard of Oz’s notion of “there’s no place like home” has certainly taken on a new meaning as quarantine and stay-at-home orders dominate our lives in the battle to stop the exponential contagion of this viral pathogen. For some, the idea of no other place like home in the midst of a global crisis is a positive one that signifies protection, health, and safety. For many others, though, home has become a new prison as domestic violence reports have spiked dramatically since the first stay-at-home orders were announced.
There’s also a tragic irony in the message of “no place like home” today: We have thousands of homeless folks who have no place to shelter. Thanks to the toxic capitalism that drives America, they remain homeless and at risk. The city of Las Vegas drew social distancing markers in an empty parking lot as “temporary shelters” where homeless folks can sleep instead of opening even one of their now-empty hotels for this vulnerable segment of American society. And, just as horrifying, in America 2020 we have concentration camps at the southern border where asylum seekers and refugees are being held with no home to go back or forward to, who are also particularly at risk for coronavirus infection thanks to the degrading conditions they’ve been left in. There’s no place like home indeed.
Home isn’t just a place, as Dorothy finds out in The Wizard of Oz. It is also the social networks that keep that place thriving and supporting everyone who lives in it. Home is also where we feel we belong, whether that be a country, community, or something else entirely that gives us a sense of connection and can even contribute to our identity. At the same time, the physical shelter of a home, literally speaking, is also vital to our survival and good health. For segments of vulnerable Americans across the spectrum of economics, race, gender, and immigration status, unfortunately, the idea of having no place like home has become a messy notion steeped in many levels of uncertainty. Eighty-one years after The Wizard of Oz first enchanted audiences with its escapist fantasy, “there’s no place like home” has become a multilayered statement for our current times.