The Secret Glamour of the Tin Man

How The Wizard of Oz appeals to "dreams of flight and transformation and escape."

DoubleX (Slate) , September 19, 2009

Old Hollywood glamour is Jean Harlow lounging suggestively in a white satin gown or Fred Astaire sweeping Ginger Rogers across a ballroom floor; Rita Hayworth peeling off long black gloves or Greta Garbo staring mysteriously off to sea. It is decidedly not a gingham-clad, jolie laide farm girl and her scrappy little dog. Dorothy, Toto, and their companions may be beloved—familiar family friends introduced by each generation to the next. In our fond memories, however, they do not qualify as glamorous.

But now that The Wizard of Oz has survived its 70th anniversary and is about to get high-definition release in theaters and on DVD, it is time to reassess. The Wizard of Oz is actually one of the studio era’s most emotionally sophisticated explorations of glamour. It does not offer us a luxuriously attired starlet or languid, sexy scenes. Instead, the movie shows us how glamour works. Glamour offers a lucid glimpse of desire fulfilled—if only life could be like that, if only we could be there, if only we could be like them, if I only had a …

In The Wizard of Oz, the principal characters aren’t the objects of glamour. They’re its audience: the dreamers who imagine their lives transformed and who learn, over the course of the film, that even illusions can reveal inner truths.

Start with the most famous accessories in film history: that glittering pair of ruby slippers. Glamour is more than fashion, and much more than sparkle, but these magical shoes deliver on glamour’s fundamental promise: that by adopting the right look or finding the right setting, we might become the people we most desire to be, living the lives we most desire to live. The ruby slippers do for Dorothy what real-world shoppers dream the right shoes will do for them, transforming who she is, or at least how others regard her. Powerless and ignored in Kansas, Dorothy is revered and capable in Oz. She acts. She speaks. She makes friends, who turn to her for guidance. She has adventures. Dorothy in Oz is an ordinary girl’s dream of what a star’s life must be like, and the slippers are the visible tokens of her special status.

The only clear power the shoes ever possess is the ability to garner the attention and respect Dorothy lacks in Kansas. When she and her companions arrive at the Emerald City, the gatekeeper scoffs at their desire to see the Wizard—“Nobody’s ever seen the Great Oz”—and seems about to refuse them entry, until he’s shown the ruby slippers. Suddenly Dorothy’s story is believable and she is worthy of admission. “The right dress,” said MGM star Norma Shearer in 1934, “can triumph over any situation, build any mood, create any illusion, and make any woman into the sort of person which she most desires to be.” That fantastic claim articulates glamour’s alluring promise, and, in Dorothy’s case, the right pair of shoes delivers.

Toward the end of the movie, her friends, too, get new accessories. In lieu of brains, courage, and a heart, the Wizard hands out talismans: a diploma for the Scarecrow, a medal for the Lion, and an oversized pocket watch (a “testimonial”) for the Tin Man. The Wizard’s satirical presentation makes it clear these objects have no real magic. Like all glamour, they are illusions. But to the characters, they represent the fulfillment of the desire that begins with “If I only had a …”

That desire itself was based on a false premise. Throughout the movie, Dorothy’s companions demonstrate again and again that they have exactly the qualities they think they lack. None of the Wizard’s tokens changes who the recipient really is or has been all along. But all provide a visible sign that transforms their owner’s self-perception. “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side,” the Scarecrow recites upon receiving his diploma. “Oh joy! Rapture! I’ve got a brain. How can I ever thank you enough?”

No matter how useful, a glamorous artifact is never just a tool. It is a promise. An airplane or an automobile offers to take us somewhere else (over the rainbowperhaps), while a change of hairstyle or outfit promises to make us someone else (a genius, a hero, a lover).

All glamour appeals to and intensifies what the novelist Michael Chabon calls “dreams of flight and transformation and escape.” In the glamorous image of a rising jet or a speeding convertible, a runway model or a martial-arts hero, a beachside vista or a big-city skyline, we experience the same dream: that we might soar beyond present constraints, cast off our worries, become better, freer, more accomplished, admired, respected, and desired versions of ourselves. Flight, transformation, and escape are all versions of the same dream: to transcend our circumstances and limitations.

That dream is, of course, central to The Wizard of Oz. Hence Dorothy translates her Aunt Em’s motherly admonishment to “find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble”—her bedroom, perhaps, or a safe corner of the barn—into the utopian longing for “a place where there isn’t trouble.” The glamour of that ideal famously undercuts the movie’s official moral, “There’s no place like home.”

“Listen to the yearning in Judy Garland’s voice as her face tilts up toward the skies," writes Salman Rushdie. “What she expresses here, what she embodies with the purity of an archetype, is the human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots.” The song “is a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the uprooted self, a hymn—the hymn—to Elsewhere.”

Escape is unquestionably essential to the movie’s appeal. “Oz is a land of wonders and of wonder,” says screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar Liar), explaining why The Wizard of Oz is among his favorite films. “Before I wanted to find a "magic coin that gave me half-wishes, before I wanted to go to the Mushroom Planet, before I wanted to go to Narnia, before I wanted to go to Middle-Earth, I wanted to go to Oz.”

Yet Dorothy’s obsession with returning home is equally important to the movie, and to what it says about glamour. The Emerald City should fulfill the longing of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It is a magical place without hardship or struggle. “We get up at 12 and start to work at one, take an hour for lunch and then at two we’re done,” sing the residents as the newly arrived Dorothy and her friends head for their makeovers at the Wash & Brush Up Co. (what we’d nowadays call a day spa). While her friends do look spiffier after their treatments, Dorothy appears unchanged. She is the same girl she was in Kansas, and she still wants to leave Oz. The idea that she can find her true self, or her heart’s desire, elsewhere is an illusion.