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The Wizard of Oz

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the influence of movies, particularly those from Hollywood, is felt everywhere across America. Lines of dialogue from films regularly become embedded in our everyday speech, and in some cases become a kind of shorthand to express certain ideas to a knowing audience. Perhaps one of the most quoted Hollywood movies is MGM’s The Wizard of Oz from 1939. It was the third film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the most famous, possibly because of the early use of color film, the startling special effects and memorable songs used throughout the movie. Whatever the reason, the movie’s influence continues to be felt, both in common interactions and in the larger popular culture that goes beyond the American borders, circling the wider world. Let’s examine a few famous lines and concepts from the movie and see how they add meaning to everyday conversation, and are used in later works. 

There are so many famous lines in The Wizard of Oz that one hardly knows where to begin when discussing them. However, let’s start with the phrase, “follow the yellow brick road,” which is the advice given to Dorothy by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North and the citizens of Munchkinland when she asks them how to find the Emerald City. This phrase, when used in everyday speech, tends to be used jokingly, often when a person does not know the correct answer. A person could be told to “follow the yellow brick road” in literal cases of someone looking for physical directions, or it could be given as an answer to more philosophical questions like, “how do I find happiness?”

When the word “follow” is removed, the phrase “yellow brick road” is sometimes used to describe the series of efforts a person may make in pursuit of fame and fortune, often in Hollywood itself. This is the meaning Elton John was invoking when he wrote his song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” in which the narrator of the song announces his intention to abandon his pursuit of success and glamor, and instead return to the wholesome environment of his youth.

Another celebrated line is, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This is Dorothy’s comment to her pet when they first step out from her family’s farmhouse, ripped from its foundations and transported to the land of Oz. Over the years, this line has been transformed, much like the children’s game of telephone, to where the line is often misquoted as, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” both with and without Toto’s name attached. In this form, the line is used not only in everyday speech but also in movies such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Avatar, and television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds.

Then, of course, there is the signature song of the movie, “Over the Rainbow,” where Dorothy longs to find an escape from the troubles of her young life in Kansas, and soon gets more than she bargained for when she lands in Oz. The phrase “over the rainbow” is often used conversationally to convey a desire to escape one’s current situation, whether it might be a boring job or an unfulfilling relationship. In fact, just the melody of “Over the Rainbow” can be used to convey this idea, as it was in the Tom and Jerry cartoon, “Springtime for Thomas.” In the cartoon, Tom’s rival, Butch, is first seen lounging in a trash bin in an alleyway, humming the tune of the song, clearly wishing for more comfortable surroundings.

A refrain heard throughout The Wizard of Oz is “We’re off to see the wizard.” Each time Dorothy meets a new companion, beginning with the Scarecrow, continuing with the Tin Man and also with the Cowardly Lion, the company makes this joyful announcement. A person might use this phrase to jokingly refer to an expert they intent to consult, or it could be used sarcastically to indicate that they are pursuing a pointless undertaking.

After the climactic battle with the Wicked Witch, Dorothy and her companions return to the Wizard to receive their reward. The Wizard instead scolds and mocks them, until Toto exposes the rumpled little man who runs the machinery that creates the “Mighty Oz.” 

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” said the floating head in the middle of the room that Dorothy and her company believed was Oz, trying to distract them from the sight of the actual wizard, who turns out to be a carnival performer from Kansas. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” has become a phrase often used in a cynical manner, when discussing, say, news of a political scandal, or the exposure of unscrupulous business practices.

The influence of The Wizard of Oz isn’t limited to quotations. Objects and images from the movie are also often used in conversation. One example of this would be the ruby slippers of the Wicked Witch of the East, which Dorothy wears throughout most of the movie. They are the object of desire for the Wicked Witch of the West, the villain of the story, and they are the means by which Dorothy is able to return to her home in Kansas at the film’s end. As a result, when the ruby slippers are mentioned in conversation, they are often used in two senses. First, someone using the phrase “ruby slippers” may be describing something as a highly desired object or goal, like a job promotion or a new car. A second, more symbolic meaning to be gained from the phrase is that whatever is described as a “pair of ruby slippers” is an unrealistic or fantastical solution to a problem, such as a winning lottery ticket that would solve a person’s financial problems, or expecting the President of the United States to arrive and solve a dispute amongst co-workers. An interesting fact associated with the slippers is that they weren’t originally red! In Baum’s book, the slippers were silver; the color was changed when the film was made because the filmmakers decided that the shoes would be more eye-catching in red, as color film was being used.

Another concept from the film often invoked is that of the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys, which tend to inspire both whimsical and ominous feelings from viewers. This one is often used as a threat, though the threat is usually intended humorously. An office manager, for example, might assign a report with a specific deadline to a worker in the office. The manager might then emphasize the due date by saying something like, “make sure the report is in on time. Don’t make me call out my flying monkeys!”

There are many nonspecific references to The Wizard of Oz in popular culture, as well. The Amercian rock band Toto obviously took its name from Dorothy’s beloved pet dog, and heavy metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne titled his first solo album “Blizzard of Ozz,” a pun on the movie’s title. The pop band Electric Light Orchestra used a photo from the movie as the cover for its album, “Eldorado.” The cover depicts a moment in the beginning of the film, when the Wicked Witch of the West attempted to physically take the ruby slippers from Dorothy’s feet and was repelled by the magic contained within the shoes. 

Of course, this is just a small sampling of the many quotes and images from The Wizard of Oz that arise in everyday American speech and popular culture. There are many more examples that could be discussed, but the preceding should be enough to demonstrate how prevalent the movie has become in American culture, and indeed in the culture of much of the larger world.