Among the blogs I visit from time to time is one produced by the British Museum. On my one visit to the actual institution, a section I overlooked was the Citi Money Gallery which apparently deals with the history of money. Sorry I missed it. Anyway, the museum blog informs me that their collection of money-related objects and artifacts includes a copy of L Frank Baum’s 1900 book ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’.
Probably no one would be paying much attention to Mr Baum or his book these days if MGM hadn’t made a Technicolor film of it in 1939 – the company’s most expensive movie to that date. It wasn’t apparently a box-office hit at the time, losing the Oscar-winning race to ‘Gone with the Wind’. Television reruns in the mid-50s introduced it to a new audience, however, earning it a place in the hearts of post-war baby-boomer Americans, and 2014 marks the film’s 75th birthday.
That’s fine and dandy, you may say, but what’s the connection with the world of banking and finance? Well, according to the British Museum blogger, ‘some economists, politicians and historians believe that the story is actually a monetary allegory.’ Not that L Frank ever made such a claim himself. It seems that the theory only surfaced in 1964 when a high school English teacher, in a flight of fanciful literary analysis, claimed a connection between the exploits of Dorothy and her ragtag trio of traveling companions, and a short-lived late-19th century monetary theory known as ‘bimetallism’.
‘Dorothy’s silver shoes walking on a gold road,’ so the story goes, ‘could represent the two metals working together to provide a route towards a stable economy. . . Is the land called ‘Oz’ because this is an abbreviation of ounces, the standard measure for gold? Did farmers (the Scarecrow) need more business sense (a brain) to help them survive during a period of economic instability? Is the all-powerful Wizard really the President, who hides behind a smoke-screen of promises but in fact has very little actual power? Do the different locations of the four witches represent the geographical divides in America? Did advances in industry create automated production lines which reduced the workforce (or created workers with no heart)?’
Can’t you just see the blue-stocking students of that high school English Lit. teacher dutifully writing down all that nonsense, regurgitating it word-for-word in his end-of-semester exam and being rewarded with A+ grades?
Nevertheless, that blog post got me thinking. Maybe those guys in the pre-war MGM studio had some allegorical purpose of their own in mind. The United States and much of the developed world had been suffering through the 1930s the effects of a disastrous economic depression. Many perfectly reasonable people believed that the Great Depression, with its miseries of widespread unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, dispossessions, loss of savings, starvation, suicides and police brutality, had been a totally preventable event caused by the greed and selfishness of ruthless bankers and financial speculators. There was a powerful groundswell of opinion that saw a crying need for controls on the financial sector, and wanted governments to seize back the power to create their nation’s credit.
Now I’m not saying those people at Metro Goldwyn Mayer were actually taking a pot-shot at the banking industry – but to me the idea makes a lot more sense than that stuff about bimetallism and ‘Oz’ ounces. Maybe the all-powerful Wizard represents the international banking system which has the whole world under its control. We poor credulous citizens of the world are the Scarecrows, Tin Woodsmen and Cowardly Lions who pathetically believe in the magic of money and the mystical power of banks to solve all our problems. The Wizard (the bankers) use every trick, threat and weapon at their disposal to prevent anyone from challenging their power – while in fact they are really only sad old men fit for not much else but working in a circus. It is our credulity that gives them their power. Dorothy returns home to Kansas and lives (we assume) happily ever after – but sad to say it’s only another American dream.