The Wizard of Oz
eBook - ePub

The Wizard of Oz

Salman Rushdie

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Wizard of Oz

Salman Rushdie

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The Wizard of Oz 'was my very first literary influence, ' writes Salman Rushdie in his account of the great MGM children's classic. At the age of ten he had written a story, 'Over the Rainbow', about a colourful fantasy world. But for Rushdie The Wizard of Oz is more than a children's film, and more than a fantasy. It's a story whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, in which 'the weakness of grown-ups forces children to take control of their own destinies'. And Rushdie rejects the conventional view that its fantasy of escape from reality ends with a comforting return to home, sweet home. On the contrary, it is a film that speaks to the exile. The Wizard of Oz shows that imagination can become reality, that there is no such place like home, or rather that the only home is the one we make for ourselves. Rushdie's brilliant insights into a film more often seen than written about are rounded off with his typically scintillating short story, 'At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers, ' about the day when Dorothy's red shoes are knocked down to $15, 000 at a sale of MGM props. In his foreword to this special edition, published to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the BFI Film Classics series, Rushdie looks back to the circumstances in which he wrote the book, when, in the wake of the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses and the issue of a fatwa against him, the idea of home and exile held a particular resonance.

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Jahr
2019
ISBN
9781839020797
1 Out of Kansas
I wrote my first short story in Bombay at the age of ten. Its title was Over the Rainbow. It amounted to a dozen or so pages, was dutifully typed up by my father’s secretary on flimsy paper, and was eventually lost somewhere along my family’s mazy journeyings between India, England and Pakistan. Shortly before my father’s death in 1987, he claimed to have found a copy mouldering in an old file, but despite my pleadings he never produced it. I’ve often wondered about this incident. Maybe he never really found the story, in which case he had succumbed to the lure of fantasy, and this was the last of the many fairytales he told me. Or else he did find it, and hugged it to himself as a talisman and a reminder of simpler times, thinking of it as his treasure, not mine – his pot of nostalgic, parental gold.
I don’t remember much about the story. It was about a ten-year-old Bombay boy who one day happens upon the beginning of a rainbow, a place as elusive as any pot-of-gold end zone, and as rich in promise. The rainbow is broad, as wide as the sidewalk, and constructed like a grand staircase. Naturally, the boy begins to climb. I have forgotten almost everything about his adventures, except for an encounter with a talking pianola whose personality is an improbable hybrid of Judy Garland, Elvis Presley and the ‘playback singers’ of the Hindi movies, many of which made The Wizard of Oz look like kitchen-sink realism.
My bad memory – what my mother would call a ‘forgettery’ – is probably a blessing. Anyway, I remember what matters. I remember that The Wizard of Oz (the film, not the book, which I didn’t read as a child) was my very first literary influence. More than that: I remember that when the possibility of my going to school in England was mentioned, it felt as exciting as any voyage over rainbows. England felt as wonderful a prospect as Oz.
The wizard, however, was right there in Bombay. My father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, was a magical parent of young children, but he was also prone to explosions, thunderous rages, bolts of emotional lightning, puffs of dragon-smoke and other menaces of the type also practised by Oz, the great and terrible, the first Wizard De-luxe. And when the curtain fell away and we, his growing offspring, discovered (like Dorothy) the truth about adult humbug, it was easy for us to think, as she did, that our wizard must be a very bad man indeed. It took me half a lifetime to discover that the Great Oz’s apologia pro vita sua fitted my father equally well; that he too was a good man, but a very bad wizard.
I have begun with these personal reminiscences because The Wizard of Oz is a film whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults. At its beginning, the weaknesses of grown-ups force a child to take control of her own destiny (and her dog’s). Thus, ironically, she begins the process of becoming a grown-up herself. The journey from Kansas to Oz is a rite of passage from a world in which Dorothy’s parent-substitutes, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, are powerless to help her save her dog Toto from the marauding Miss Gulch, into a world where the people are her own size, and in which she is never treated as a child, but as a heroine. She gains this status by accident, it’s true, having played no part in her house’s decision to squash the Wicked Witch of the East; but by the end of her adventure she has certainly grown to fill those shoes – or, rather, those famous ruby slippers. ‘Who’d have thought a girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness,’ laments the Wicked Witch of the West as she melts – an adult becoming smaller than, and giving way to, a child. As the Wicked Witch of the West ‘grows down’, so Dorothy is seen to have grown up. In my view, this is a much more satisfactory explanation for Dorothy’s newfound power over the ruby slippers than the sentimental reasons offered by the ineffably soppy Good Witch Glinda, and then by Dorothy herself, in a cloying ending that I find untrue to the film’s anarchic spirit. (More about this later.)
The helplessness of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry in the face of Miss Gulch’s desire to annihilate Toto the dog leads Dorothy to think, childishly, of running away from home – of escape. And that’s why, when the tornado hits, she isn’t with the others in the storm shelter, and as a result is whirled away to an escape beyond her wildest dreams. Later, however, when she is confronted by the weakness of the Wizard of Oz, she doesn’t run away, but goes into battle – first against the Witch and then against the Wizard himself. The Wizard’s ineffectuality is one of the film’s many symmetries, rhyming with the feebleness of Dorothy’s folks; but the difference in the way Dorothy reacts is the point.
The ten-year-old boy who watched The Wizard of Oz in Bombay’s Metro cinema knew very little about foreign parts and even less about growing up. He did, however, know a great deal more about the cinema of the fantastic than any Western child of the same age. In the West, The Wizard of Oz was an oddball, an attempt to make a live-action version of a Disney cartoon feature despite the industry’s received wisdom (how times change!) that fantasy movies usually flopped. There’s little doubt that the excitement engendered by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs accounts for MGM’s decision to give the full, all-stops-out treatment to a 39-year-old book. This was not, however, the first screen version. I haven’t seen the silent film of 1925, but its reputation is poor. It did, however, star Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man.
The Wizard of Oz never really made money until it became a television standard years after its original theatrical release, though it should be said in mitigation that coming out two weeks before the start of World War II can’t have helped its chances. In India, however, it fitted into what was then, and remains today, one of the mainstreams of ‘Bollywood’ film production.
It’s easy to satirise the Indian commercial cinema industry. In James Ivory’s film Bombay Talkie, a journalist (the touching Jennifer Kendal, who died in 1984) visits a studio sound-stage and watches an amazing dance number featuring scantily clad nautch girls prancing on the keys of a giant typewriter. The director explains that this is no less than the Typewriter of Life, and we are all dancing out ‘the story of our Fate’ upon that mighty machine. ‘It’s very symbolic,’ the journalist suggests. The director, simpering, replies: ‘Thank you.’
Typewriters of Life, sex-goddesses in wet saris (the Indian equivalent of wet T-shirts), gods descending from the heavens to meddle in human affairs, magic potions, superheroes, demonic villains and so on have always been the staple diet of the Indian filmgoer. Blonde Glinda arriving in Munchkinland in her magic bubble might cause Dorothy to comment on the high speed and oddity of local transport operating in Oz, but to an Indian audience Glinda was arriving exactly as a god should arrive: ex machina, out of her divine machine. The Wicked Witch of the West’s orange puffs of smoke were equally appropriate to her super-bad status. But in spite of all the similarities there are important differences between the Bombay cinema and a film like The Wizard of Oz. Good fairies and bad witches might superficially resemble the deities and demons of the Hindu pantheon, but in reality one of the most striking aspects of the world-view of The Wizard of Oz is its joyful and almost complete secularism. Religion is only mentioned once in the film. Auntie Em, sputtering with anger at gruesome Miss Gulch, reveals that she’s waited years to tell her what she thinks of her, ‘and now, because I’m a good Christian woman, I can’t do so’. Apart from this moment, in which Christian charity prevents some old-fashioned plain speaking, the film is breezily godless. There’s not a trace of religion in Oz itself. Bad witches are feared, good ones liked, but none are sanctified; and while the Wizard of Oz is thought to be something very close to all-powerful, nobody thinks to worship him. This absence of higher values greatly increases the film’s charm and is an important aspect of its success in creating a world in which nothing is deemed more important than the loves, cares and needs of human beings (and, of course, tin beings, straw beings, lions and dogs).
The nautch girls in Bombay Talkie
The other major difference is harder to define, because it is, finally, a matter of quality. Most Hindi movies were then and are now what can only be called trashy. The pleasure to be had from such films (and some of them are extremely enjoyable) is something like the fun of eating junk food. The classic Bombay talkie uses scripts of dreadful corniness, looks tawdry and garish, and relies on the mass appeal of its star performers and musical numbers to provide a little zing. The Wizard of Oz also has movie stars and musical numbers, but it is also very definitely a Good Film. It takes the fantasy of Bombay and adds high production values and something more. Call it imaginative truth. Call it (reach for your revolvers now) art.
But if The Wizard of Oz is a work of art, it’s extremely difficult to say who the artist was. The birth of Oz itself has already passed into legend: the author, L. Frank Baum, named his magic world after the letters O–Z on the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet. Baum had an odd, roller-coaster life. Born rich, he inherited a string of little theatres from his father and lost them all through mismanagement. He wrote one successful play and several flops. The Oz books made him one of the leading children’s writers of his day, but all his other fantasy novels bombed. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and a musical adaptation of it for the stage, restored Baum’s finances, but a financially disastrous attempt to tour America promoting his books with a ‘fairylogue’ of slides and films led him to file for bankruptcy in 1911. After that, he became a slightly shabby, if still frock-coated, figure living on his wife’s money at ‘Ozcot’ in Hollywood, where he raised chickens and won prizes at flower shows. The small success of ...

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