The Man Who Put the Rainbow in “The Wizard of Oz”
Amy Goodman writes:
In the 1930s, Harburg became the lyricist for “The Wizard of Oz.” He also added the rainbow to the story, which doesn’t appear in L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” This led Harburg to write the famous song “Over the Rainbow,” sung by the then-unknown Judy Garland.
While academic debate persists over whether Baum intended the story as a political allegory about the rise of industrial monopolists like John D. Rockefeller and the subsequent populist backlash, there is no doubt that Harburg’s influence made the 1939 film version more political.
The film, says Ernie Harburg, is about common people confronting and defeating seemingly insurmountable and violent oppression: The Scarecrow represented farmers, the Tin Man stood for the factory workers, and the Munchkins of the “Lollipop Guild” were the union members. Ernie recalled: “There was at least 30 percent unemployment at those times. And among blacks and minorities, it was 50, 60 percent. And there were bread lines, and the rich kept living their lifestyle.”
“The Wizard of Oz” was to be “MGM’s answer to [Disney’s] ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ ” Ernie recounts. It was initially a critical success, but a commercial flop. Yip Harburg went on to write “Finian’s Rainbow” for Broadway. It addresses racial bigotry, hatred of immigrants, easy credit and mortgage foreclosures. In 1947, “Finian’s Rainbow” was the first Broadway musical with an integrated cast. It was a hit, running for a year and a half. When Harburg’s unabashed political expression made him a target during the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted, and was banned from TV and film work from 1951 to 1962. Ironically, in the middle of his blacklist period, CBS broadcast “The Wizard of Oz” on television. It broke all viewership records, and has been airing since, gaining global renown and adulation.