Since it’s the most-watched movie of all time and one of the best films of all time, The Wizard of Oz also probably holds the honor of making the biggest leap from troubled production to quality entertainment. Buddy Ebsen had to be replaced as the Tin Man after an allergic reaction to the metallic makeup landed him in the hospital; Margaret Hamilton was lit on fire trying to leave Munchkinland; and MGM went through directors like candy.
Before George Cukor (its third director) showed up, the studio wanted Judy Garland in a blonde wig and baby-doll clothes, as if Dorothy were a human toy tromping through a cartoon dream. Luckily, he changed that (before being replaced by Victor Fleming). By all accounts the shoot was grueling; yet through all that brutal chaos, a timeless classic with six Oscar nominations (and two wins) was born.
People obsess over this movie, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. With dozens of symbols and a naturally allegorical tale, it lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations and pet theories—some of them more plausible than others.
1. Glinda is the real villain.
What do we really know about Glinda the "Good" Witch? She’s pretty? She’s dressed in soft pink? She speaks in a sweet tone? Our biases let us down again, because Glinda is one of four people in a power struggle for Oz. And by the end of Dorothy’s visit, two of Glinda's adversaries are dead and one leaves in a hot air balloon. The most damning evidence that Glinda is up to something is that she could have told Dorothy that the ruby red slippers she was wearing would send her home right at the beginning, but Dorothy had already offed the Wicked Witch of the East and made enemies with the Wicked Witch of the West, so Glinda chilled with a copy of The 48 Laws of Power and waited to be the last witch standing.
2. Dorothy is the Wicked Witch of the East.
This one is a bit beyond the poppy field, but stick with us for a minute: Every major figure Dorothy meets in Oz is a parallel of someone she knows back home—the field hands and her travel companions, the Wicked Witch of the West and Miss Gulch, and so on. But Dorothy doesn’t have a counterpart. Or does she? There’s someone in Oz that has Dorothy’s exact shoe size, but she’s crushed on arrival. Redditor Primetime2 suggests that the Wicked Witch of the East is Dorothy’s counterpart whose 1) face we never see and 2) might have had to die because her existence while Dorothy is in Oz would have created a paradox. Makes sense.
3. It’s all about a failed presidential candidate and the gold standard.
This is the theory everybody knows about because they’re taught it in high school English class without any context. In 1964, historian/author Henry Littlefield proposed [PDF] that L. Frank Baum’s story—with its silver shoes, golden road, and green city—was a parable about Depression Era populism, represented specifically by failed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan’s thoughts on switching from "the gold standard." The theory claims that Dorothy’s adventure is a defense of farmers taking control of the levers of power as the yellow brick road (representing the gold standard) throws problem after problem at their feet with the Wicked Witch representing the banks and, somehow, the lion representing Bryan himself. Like any good conspiracy theory, every element lines up perfectly if you choose to see it that way. The only problem? Baum wasn’t a populist, so there’s very little reason to believe he would write a story championing that view. Even Littlefield has renounced the theory.
4. It presages Donald Trump’s America.
With that populist slant out of the way, we can really dive into the bonkers stuff. That includes a modern update on politics suggested by British journalist Bidisha. The two major elements are the gilded rot plaguing Oz/America and the bloviating con artist exposed as a fraud without seemingly suffering any repercussions. "The Wizard of Oz is a truly American narrative, and more influential than ever,” Bidisha wrote for The Guardian. "Dorothy goes from wishing to explore all the shades of the rainbow to gratefully embracing black and white, from reaching out to defiant insularity, from exciting new friends to old stalwarts."
5. The Wizard of Oz is Willy Wonka’s father.
If you’ve ever wondered where the red spiral aligned with the yellow brick road in Munchkinland leads, tumblr user screennamemissing has the answer: Willy Wonka’s factory. Imagine that the Wizard flew to Oz in a hot air balloon that got busted, and after securing some success in the candy business, the Wizard’s son Willy goes searching for him in all sorts of strange lands, eventually ending up in Munchkinland himself, where he learns the secrets of candy trees and establishes the Lollipop Guild. He uses those fantastical methods to soar to the top of the candy game, finds comfort in his father’s approval, and installs two roads leading from Munchkinland: One to the Emerald City of his father, and one to the factory he owns. The dates on the full theory are way off, but it’s the most fun, inventive theory going around.
6. The story is a celebration of Christianity.
There are dozens of examinations of The Wizard of Oz—both the movie and the original book on which it's based—in the context of religion, all of which note Baum’s faith. Megan Bailey’s article for Beliefnet likens Dorothy’s journey to the personal journey of Christians searching outside themselves for fulfillment, only to learn from an angelic spirit that power and guidance were with them from the start. In Dorothy's case, her well-intentioned friends nonetheless propel her toward a false idol, and the Wicked Witch of the West represents Satan’s continual temptations to stray from the righteous path.
7. The story is a celebration of atheism.
This is what happens when you have a story filled with a bunch of undefined symbols. The same exact story that was taken as a banner for Christianity was also derided by Christians for being anti-religion, a reading happily adopted by some atheists who view the movie as a journey away from small-minded thinking toward godless enlightenment. In this interpretation, the tornado represents the chaos of leaving the safety of a church tradition, the slippers are Dorothy’s self-reliance, and Oz’s command to kill the Wicked Witch of the West represents the social control of the church—with “God” ultimately revealed to be a silly man controlling a ruse. There are several theories that echo sentiments along those lines, but The Show-Me Skeptic’s is the best because it claims critical thinking itself is represented by Toto. The thing drawing us toward enlightenment is also trashing Miss Gulch’s garden.
8. Dorothy Gale is a feminist icon.
The movie is so ingrained into our thinking that it may be easy to miss how radical it is. Unlike the damsels in distress that plague(d) Western literature, Baum’s book featured a capable heroine with the power to save herself and her three bumbling male companions in a land co-ruled by several women and a grifting man. Naturally, Baum’s books were written before women got the vote in the United States, and women had been voting for less than two decades when the movie came out.
Unlike the populism theory, Dorothy’s status as an icon from what was described as “the earliest, truly feminist American children’s book” matches what we know about the author’s personal politics. His mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, was a suffragist philosopher whose writing Baum published as editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, and it’s popular thinking among biographers that he took the concept of the Good Witch wholesale from Gage. Obviously this theory is a bit less “bizarre” and more “definitely true and totally awesome.”