Dorothy sings “Over the Rainbow” immediately after trying to get Aunty Em’s attention, but being rebuffed and told (approximately) “I am too busy. Go find a place where you can’t get into trouble and stay there.” It is explicit that Dorothy is responding to Aunty Em’s instructions, both literally and emotionally.
I need to organize my thoughts about how this iconic song fits into the overall movie. Unsurprisingly, it is integral both in establishing themes and in foreshadowing events. “Over the Rainbow” is the outline of the movie.
|Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high|| In the novel, the description of Kansas and the farm explicitly focuses on how little color is there, insisting that the only color to be seen, even on Aunty Em and Uncle Henry, is gray. The Kansas sections of the film are shot in sepia and white. Although it is tempting to say Kansas is gray to contrast how brightly colored Oz will be, but I believe it is more profitable to say that Oz is brightly colored to highlight how gray Kansas is.
We know there are storms there, though, which means there are rainbows, and Dorothy will have seen them. Probably this is the only source of color in her life.
“Over the rainbow” and “Way up high” inaugurate a bird-related motif that recurs through the song and slyly through the movie.
|There’s a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby||For starters, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is totally a lullaby.
We sing a lullaby for a two-part reason:
The lullaby reference here gets the audience thinking about sleeping, about dreaming pleasant dreams, about Dorothy sleeping and dreaming pleasant dreams, and it tells us what images Dorothy has on her mind if she later should fall asleep and dream. Which she does.
|Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.||Blue skies are not gray. This is obvious, but important – she is dreaming of NOT-Kansas. Furthermore, blue skies function as metonymy indicating fine weather, so NOT a tornado. Fine weather functions metaphorically to indicate No Trouble. “It’s all blue skies from here” as the saying goes.|
|And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.|| Here Dorothy reinforces the idea of dreaming, and makes sure you know – no matter what they say about dreams being trivial and false – that dreams can be true.
Dreams her are also of course being used both as the sleeping phenomenon and as the aspiration. The future probably looks pretty limited to Dorothy on the farm – and in a movie made during the Great Depression, it’s likely that a child (if not Dorothy then a child in the movie’s original audience) would have been used to the idea of dreams not coming true.
|Someday I’ll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.|| There’s a hint of ritual here. To get your wishes (to make your dreams come true) you must follow the correct procedure by wishing on a star.
She will wake up – another reference to sleep and dreaming.
Clouds mean trouble, just as blue skies mean ease.
Clouds are also necessary if you want to see a rainbow. This line makes the rainbow a road to be followed – you follow the rainbow all the way through the clouds/trouble, and you get somewhere wonderful.
|Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops…|| Dorothy’s trouble’s will literally melt when she hits the witch with that bucket of water.
Lemon drops are brightly colored, by way of contrast to Kansas. The flowers in Munchkinland look like they are made of candy.
“Above the chimney tops” is where birds go. This continues the motif of birds, which indicates flight, and freedom/possibility.
|That’s where you’ll find me.||This somewhat ominously hints that Dorothy will be missing. I believe the very next scene has her running away and meeting Professor Marvel.|
|Somewhere, over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.||Not just any birds. Bluebirds. They are blue. They are not gray. Also, they’re flying.
Dorothy’s dress is blue, too. In the novel, blue is the favorite color in Munchkinland.
|If birds fly over the rainbow, why, then, oh, why can’t I?||Here Dorothy connects the birds and their flight directly to herself. By way of “flee” fly can mean “run away”.|
|If happy little bluebirds fly, beyond the rainbow in the sky,||The important new element this line adds is “happy,” which suggests that in her current circumstances Dorothy is not happy, so her dream to be a bird and fly over the rainbow to a place without trouble becomes more meaningful.|
|Why, oh, why can’t I?||This time it’s rhetorical. She is about to do exactly that.|
Lyrics from MetroLyrics.