I’ve been claiming for years that the film The Wizard of Oz is much quicker to acknowledge its dream frame than the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The end of the novel just depicts Dorothy waking up in the fields and rushing home to discover Uncle Henry rebuilding the farmhouse, while the end of the film features her explicitly stating that she has had a dream, and listing who was – and more importantly who was not present in it.
I think Aunty Em’s absence from Oz is the key to understanding the dream frame, probably in both texts, but certainly in the film.
In both texts, the flying farmhouse contains a bed. In the novel, Dorothy takes a nap on the way to Oz, and in the film, a window hits her on the head and she falls into the bed, enabling the window frame as a screen to show lots of transitional images that set up motifs and themes that will be prominent in Oz. So both texts do set us up for the idea of dreams.
The window as meta-film with its transitional imagery, though, which features images from Kansas morphing into images from Oz – Miss Gulch on her bicycle becoming the Wicked Witch of the West on her broomstick is the most vivid one in my mind – the window inaugurates dream logic in the film in a way that the novel does not.
It recalls the images on the exterior garden wall in the Roman de la Rose and the stained glass images in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, though. In Duchess, a series of images of tragic lovers, lovers who died messy, sets up the issue of grieving lost loves, even when the dreamer insists his real problem is insomnia.
For Dorothy, the images outside the window serve as the first flickerings of her dream. She starts out seeing images of wind on the farm, the fence and the chicken coop. She sees Aunty Em in her rocking chair, waving affectionately. Aunty Em is the key to this film. Dorothy sees the workmen rowing a rowboat, also waving. These are visions of home, waving, but it is unclear at this point whether they wave a greeting or a farewell. Dorothy thinks she is worried about Toto and Miss Gulch, but she is really worried about the nature of home.
The rowboat also suggests flooding on the farm, an extreme possible consequence of severe weather, and a sign of Dorothy’s anxiety about the tornado. But the tornado is Dorothy’s version of Chaucer’s insomnia; it’s a distraction from the real theme, and a vehicle (in her case quite literally) that transports us to the real theme.
The image of Miss Gulch riding her bike turning into a witch on her broom marks the transition into Oz. It teaches us as viewers to look for parallels between Kansas characters and the Oz characters played by the same actors. Before the storm, Dorothy’s immediate concern is that Miss Gulch, who becomes the witch, is a menace to Toto. The workman played by the actor who will be the Scarecrow lectures Dorothy about using her brains to deal with Gulch. The workman played by the actor who will be the Cowardly Lion encourages her to be brave. Setting Kansas parallel to Oz makes the dream frame structurally useful.
After Aunty Em, who is busy preparing for the storm, tells Dorothy to find someplace where she can’t get into trouble, Dorothy sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which reinforces the distinction between Kansas, which is black and white, and Oz, which is Technicolor, and which identifies Oz as a place where dreams are real:
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
The rainbow itself indicates color that isn’t present in the black-and-white world of Kansas, where skies are gray, not just because of the impending storm, but also because of the filming style. In the novel, Oz is not just in color, it is actually color coded. Each region of Oz has its own main color, and the denizens wear that color. For example, Munchkins wear blue in the novel. In the film, a small group of Munchkins may wear the same color, perhaps to indicate membership, but there is no regional uniform. Munchkinland is a floral blast of color, probably to maximize contrast with Kansas.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sets up a number of features for the movie: Aunty Em’s initial instruction to find a place where Dorothy can’t get into trouble is its impetus; however Dorothy’s interpretation is for a place “Where troubles melt like lemon drops,” a wish fulfillment fantasy. Another day, I will analyze the lyrics in full. For now, understand that this song integrates the dream frame into the conflict of the story, and that conflict is between Em’s interpretation and Dorothy’s interpretation of what it means to find a place where you won’t get in trouble.
It also highlights the conflict between their understandings of Em’s instruction. Aunty Em wants Dorothy to be safe, and she wants to be able to prepare the farm for the storm to enable that safety. “Don’t get into trouble” means “be safe.” The same instruction leaves Dorothy feeling dismissed, and worrying that she is a hindrance, and longing for something constructive to do, ideally about the threat to Toto.
When she runs away with Toto, she hopes her absence will lighten the burden she places on Aunty Em, and she hopes to find a place where she can be safe without sacrificing agency, and where the consequences of her efforts “melt away like lemon drops.”
When she meets Professor Marvel (whose benevolent frauds are parallel to those of the Wizard, played by the same actor), he pretends to see Aunty Em in his crystal ball, in order to refocus Dorothy’s mind on how Em will worry about her, how Dorothy’s absence will place a greater burden on Em than her presence. This will become Dorothy’s mantra in Oz. “Em will be worried about me.” or “Aunty Em must have stopped looking for me by now!” etc.
Aunty Em is absent from the dream precisely for this reason. In order to learn that “there’s no place like home,” Dorothy must first learn what “home” is, and Aunty Em – with her gruff need to protect and care for Dorothy, and her multilayered desire that Dorothy avoid trouble – represents home.