How does the media display and present Great Plains stereotypes/myths via the American movie musical?
Musicals that are analyzed below include the following:
- The Wizard of Oz
- Thoroughly Modern Millie
Each of these musicals is viewed from the perspective of their respective main characters. Thus, the Wizard of Oz analysis focuses upon the character of Dorothy Gale, while the Thoroughly Modern Millie analysis focuses upon the character of Millie Dillmount.
The Wizard of Oz--summaryIMDB movie synopsis
Before OzIn the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (lyrics found here), the "lullably" in line 2 of the first stanza refers to a fantasy land where the scenery is picturesque and dreams become reality. Dorothy's current surroundings are thus assumed to contrast with this description of beauteous potential. An imaginary landscape is created in order to bate the imaginations of individual viewers with an idyllic dream of utopia.
In line 3 of the second stanza, Dorothy visualizes a land in which "troubles melt like lemon drops." Rather than mentioning more-sophisticated sweets/refreshments, she refers to an 18th-century hard candy descended from ancient medicinal losenges. The composer's careful word choice showcases the simple mindedness of the mythic Midwesterner, a person who would chose to favor traditional values/customs, rather than newfangled fads.
Referring to blue birds that supposedly fly "over the rainbow" (stanza 3, line 1), Dorothy hints that copious varieties of wildlife do not exist in the Great Plains. A widespread belief held by many Americans at the time dealt with that of the Midwestern "Great American Desert"; here, it was believed that only hardy creatures were able to withstand the "severe" climate conditions. Thus there is supposedly no room for "fanciful, beautiful" creatures such as the blue bird.
The myth of the simpleminded Midwesterner is illustrated by the following dialogue:
(In this scene, Ms. Gulch begins to confront the Gale family regarding Toto's antics.)
- Ms. Gultch: "I'm all but lame from the bite on my leg."
- Uncle Henry: "You mean, she bit you?"
- Ms. Gultch: "No, her dog."
- Uncle Henry: "Oh, she bit her dog, aye?"
- Ms. Gultch: (exasperatedly) "No."
- Here, Uncle Henry is comically displayed as being unable to understand that Toto bit Ms. Gultch's leg. The use of humor draws the movie audience into the scene and provides an easy vehicle for showcasing the so-called Great Plains simpleton.
The independent spirit of the Midwest and the high regard for Christian values is expressed in the following dialogue:
- (In this scene, Ms. Gulch has just produced a note from the sheriff that permits her to take Toto away.)
- Aunt Em: "Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For twenty-three years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now...well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!"
Although Aunt Em is furious that Ms. Gulch is abusing her wealth in order to control the lives of others, she realizes that name-calling would cause her to sink to the low level of Almira's actions. Aunt Em calls upon her Christian character to find a way to express her views that will not go against her religious beliefs.
Professor Marvel utilizes the myth of the "gullible/innocent" Midwesterner to his financial advantage. The slogan on the side of his traveling cart proclaims that he is "acclaimed by the crowned heads of Europe. Let him read your past, present, and future in his crystal. Also, juggling and sleight-of-hand." When Dorothy (who fervently believes his crystal to be genuine) inquires about the crowned heads of Europe, Marvel's "Do you know any?" reveals to the movie audience that his advertising is indeed deceptive. Marvel's character illustrates a hidden question many East/West Coast individuals silently ask themselves (with regards to thinking about the "gullible/innocent" Midwesterner) : How easy would it be for us to fool people in the Great Plains?
While using the crystal ball, Marvel asks Dorothy to close her eyes in order to "keep in tune with the infinite." He rummages through her basket for clues as to her identity. He finds a picture of Dorothy smiling with Aunt Em. in front of their house; the picture also includes a white picket fence and a barn with a weathervane. Marvel uses his "magic tricks" to persuade Dorothy to return home to her family. The Kansas farmgirl's innocence leads her to believe that the Professor is truly endowed with magical powers. In all actuality, Marvel is a fraud. However, his caring and compassionate nature leads him to use his so-called powers to help Dorothy.
As soon as the house descends from the tornado and lands in Oz, Dorothy immediately opens the door and steps outside. Although no words are spoken, this scene effectively communicates the bravery of the mythic Midwesterner. Dorothy, being unafraid of exploring her surroundings and facing the unknown, takes the initiative to ascertain her whereabouts and begins to discover the beauty of Munchkinland. The figure of the brave heroine provides the audience with role model, a character for whom to cheer, and a journey to experience.
In OzIn introducing herself to Glinda, Dorothy refers to herself as "Dorothy Gale, from Kansas." Taking pride in her roots and heritage, Dorothy identifies herself with the land from which she has traveled. To the viewer from the East/West Coast, such identification with the land may be a foreign concept. Conversing with Glinda, Dorothy says that "I've never heard of a beautiful witch before." This simple statement personifies the myth of the so-called unintelligent Midwesterner. By using such an allusion, the movie encourages the audience to view Dorothy as the Midwesterner whose knowledge will increase during the duration of the film.
Cheered on by the entire population of Munchkin City, Dorothy studiously follows the Yellow Brick Road from its roots in Munchkinland in order to arrive at her desired destination (the Emerald City). In the song "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" (lyrics found here), the first stanza repeats the word "follow" ten times. This syntax represents --through Dorothy-- the quest of the Midwesterner to pursue the spirit of Manifest Destiny. Although Dorothy's journey to the Emerald City will prove to be an arduous ordeal, she continues onward (despite the hardships, peril, and danger) in order to accomplish her goal of meeting the Wizard. By following her heart throughout her journey in Oz, Dorothy hopes to find a way home to Kansas.
Dorothy invites each of her three newfound friends --the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion-- to accompany her along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City so that they all can receive aid from the Wizard (in the respective forms of a brain, a heart, courage, returning home). However, she gives them the option of not accompanying her, stating that "I've got a witch mad at me and you might get into trouble." Dorothy's actions emphasize the friendly, caring, and helpful nature that is stereotypically prized in the Great Plains.
Symbolic of the human spirit of Manifest Destiny, Dorothy is the first of her group of compantions to spot the Emerald City. As she views the splendors of the city from a distance, Dorothy remarks that "he really must be a wonderful wizard to live in a city like that." The naive girl from Kansas has unintentionally fallen into the Wizard's trap. The "Great Oz" has constructed his surroundings in such precise ways as to fool people into believing that he is a mighty, powerful wizard. Movie viewers familiar with Baum's original tale may inwardly chuckle at Dorothy's remark, seeing a classic example of Midwestern gullibility. However, those with no prior knowledge of the story may truly believe that The Emerald City is reflective of the Wizard's power.
When the band of adventurers confronts the floating head in the Wizard's chamber, Dorothy is the one who first introduces herself to the Wizard and announces their reasons for visiting him. The Lion is intimidated so much by the floating head that he faints from terror. Dorothy reproaches the Wizard for frightening him so much; she finds his actions to be shameful. Dorothy's actions --both of introduction and of criticism-- reflect the Great Plains spirit of bravery. In confronting the Wizard for his rudeness, she personifies the Midwestern belief in the values of compassion and respect; said values are assumed to be a normal part of daily existence.
When the Wicked Witch sets the Scarecrow on fire, Dorothy immediately throws a bucket of water on the flames. Trying to provide "typical" Midwestern congenial assistance, she inadvertently spashes some water on the Wicked Witch herself. The Witch yells at Dorothy, calling her a "cursed brat! Look what you've done! I'm melting! melting! Oh, what a world! What a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?" Dorothy admits to the guards that she did not mean to kill the Witch; rather, she was merely trying to save the Scarecrow. In real life, people in a similar situation might be tempted to claim the glory for themselves. However, the movie endeavors to portray the importance of telling the truth.
When Dorothy and her friends discover that the "real" Wizard of Oz is hiding behind a curtain controlling machinery, she is the only one courageous enough to venture over, pull aside the curtain, and confront the man.
Dorothy's bravery and determination reflect the hard-working spirit of the Great Plains. Unafraid of the repercussions of her actions, she takes the initiative to press for the group's rewards and to face the man who has been misleading them thus far.
Leaving OzThe Cowardly Lion asks Dorothy to remain in Oz with her friends, as they love her dearly and would be greatly saddened by her departure. Dorothy responds by saying that "that is very kind of you, but this could never be like Kansas. Auntie Em must have stopped wondering what happened to me by now." Although she has grown close to her new friends, she yearns to return to her life in Kansas. Dorothy's actions illustrate the Midwestern "belief" in caring for family and following one's moral beliefs. Despite the new relationships that she has formed, her ties to her aunt and uncle convince her to leave the "paradise" of Oz and return to the simplicity of Kansas. Such contrast of locales informs the movie audience of the seriousness of Dorothy's intentions.
When Dorothy is asked by the Tin Man what she has learned, she replies that, "if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with." Here, the mythic Great Plains "practice" of simplemindedness reflects Dorothy's desire to stay close to home and value her surroundings.
After OzWhen Dorothy awakes in Kansas, she is surrounded by her aunt, uncle, Professor Marvel, Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory (the three farmhands). Aunt Em, although cross with her in the beginning of the movie, lovingly comforts her niece and celebrates her regaining of consciousness. Despite the fact that Professor Marvel is not a part of the close-knit Gale farm life, he nonetheless stops by to make sure that Dorothy is feeling better. Although the Midwestern "custom" in caring for those around you may not be a part of the life of all movie viewers, the atmosphere of fellowship evokes a sense of calm and serenity that many secretly desire to obtain within their own families.
When Dorothy utters the infamous last line of The Wizard of Oz --"Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home!"-- she provides a final example of the prototypical Midesterner; she personifies the desire to stay close to one's roots and to orient one's life around family and friendship.
Thoroughly Modern Millie--summaryMovie synopsis
Before Miss DorothyAs the movie begins (set in the year 1922), the audience is given a visual introduction to Millie Dillmount of Salina, Kansas. Three months after having arrived in New York City, her appearance continues to reflect her Midwestern roots. Millie is shown with long curls, an old-fashioned hat with flowers, a shirt with a Peter Pan collar and brooch, a full-length grey skirt and long-sleeve grey jacket, long gloves, a churchgoing purse, laced-up shoes, and thick stockings; she walks down the street shyly and demurely.
Glancing at those around her, she sees how her physical appearance is in direct contrast to "city" fashion. Giving a sigh of regret as she enters the Mad Cap Beauty Spot, Millie indicates her regret at changing her looks in order to conform to society. However, she nonetheless enters the salon and gets her hair bobbed.
Before entering the Jazz Rags Dress Shoppe, Millie puts a determined look on her face, convincing herself of the necessity of conforming her "uncultured" appearance to society's expectations. She purchases an outfit with a much shorter hemline, buckled high-heeled shoes and nylons, a cloche-shaped hat, and a green bead necklace. Walking down the street, Millie notices people laughing at her attempt to appear "normal." She gives a sigh of despair and then enters The Sillhouette Shop to buy a brassiere. Millie stops at a vendor to buy a package of cigarettes, as the Midwestern girl believes smoking to be a "fashionable" activity of which she must take part. She then has a brassiere "wardrobe malfuction." Despite her embarrassment, she curtsies to the vendor before leaving; her "old-fashioned" small-town habits continue to be a part of her behavior.
The title song "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (lyrics shown here) emphasizes the contrast that exists between Millie's current and former surroundings. The fashions that Kansas finds to be "chic, unique, and quite adorable" are thought of by East Coasters to be "odd and 'Sodom and Gomorrable.' Using this Biblical reference reinforces the religious stereotype of the Midwesterner. Behaviors frowned upon in Salina (such as tango dancing, movie kissing, and "painting lips and pencil-lining your brow") are considered to be permissible and respectable in New York City.
Meeting Miss Dorothy/Falling in Love with JimmySeeing Miss Dorothy in a tearful confrontation with a taxi cab driver (he will not accept a $0.35 check as payment), Millie immediately walks over, ascertains the situation, and pays the man. Although not weathy herself, her Midwestern caring nature compels her to help a complete stranger. When Miss Dorothy neglects to carry her huggage, Millie's kindness leads her to grudgingly bring the three suitcases into the Priscilla Hotel; her ingenuity leads her to find a way to carry all three at once so that she does not have to take trips. After holding the door open for Miss Dorothy, Millie introduces herself to her companion (in the spirit of Midwestern friendliness).
In the elevator with Miss Dorothy, Millie confesses the reasons for her bold career decision:
Millie: "I'm going to be a stenog. Tomorrow, I start interviewing bosses."
- Miss Dorothy: "I thought it was the other way around: bosses interviewing you?"
- Millie: "Oh, I can typewrite forty words a minute; I'm in demand. Besides, I'm going to marry an eligible bachelor. You see, I'm going to marry my boss...whoever he may be."
- Miss Dorothy: "You're a modern!"
- Millie: "Thoroughly!"
Millie has decided that she cannot advance in life unless she forsakes her Midwestern values and embraces the lifestyle favored by cosmopolitanites. However, it takes Millie three months to gain the courage to change her appearance and career aspirations. As many people in the movie audience may view Midwesters as being "backward, uncultured" peoples, they may cheer Millie's newfound outlook on life and champion her progress throughout the movie.
Inviting Miss Dorothy to the friendship dance in the evening, Millie begins to integrate her into the social life of the hotel. Miss Dorothy, in turn, considers Millie to be "the first real friend I've ever had." Whereas many East Coast people might have dismissed the wealthy "orphan" without a second thought, the girl from Kansas takes Miss Dorothy in and makes her feel valued and accepted. Unknowingly and unwittingly, Millie saves her friend from drinking Mrs. Meer's poisoned punch at the party; Midwestern ingenuity enables Miss Dorothy to live another day.
At the friendship dance, Millie and Miss Dorothy meets Jimmy Smith, a carefree paperclip salesman. Although reserved at first, Millie helps Jimmy to invent a new dance (the "Tapioca"). Her clever and resourceful nature enables her to kickstart a new fad in such a place as the Priscilla Hotel. Although Miss Dorothy is shy to step on the dance floor, Millie helps her friend --in true Manifest Desinty-esque fashion-- to expand her horizon and to participate in new experiences.
Returning to her room in the hotel, Millie startles Mrs. Meers (who--unbeknownst to her-- was about to attempt to kidnap Miss Dorothy). Mrs. Meers fools her into believing that she is using soy sauce to clean carpet stains. Millie's response? "What do you know? I must write Mum!" Gullably, she takes the manager/owner of the hotel at her word. In Millie's "simpleminded" view, Mrs. Meers has just enlightened her about a new cleaning method that she had otherwise been unknowledgeable about. Her belief --that she must write her mother back in Kansas about this technological innovation-- showcases the Midwestern stereotype of being family-oriented and staying close to one's roots.
A few days later, Jimmy invites Millie and Miss Dorothy on an outing to the Van Hossmere estate. Flying in his "employer's" plane, Millie is immensely excited by the new thrill; Miss Dorothy, in comparison, does not become overly excited. Leaning to the side, Millie excitedly observes the large Van Hossmere estate. Her "newfangled" bead necklace almost causes the plane to crash; however, Jimmy is able to restart the engine in the nick of time. Midwestern unculturedness is apparent in Millie's exuberant joy as she flies through the sky; never before has she flown in an airplane such as this.
After a practical joke by Muzzy causes mascara to run onto Judith Tremaine's fancy dress from Paris, Millie's helpful Midwestern spirit immediately offers to help get the stain out (via the "trick" she learned from Mrs. Meers). Unfortunately, she discovers that soy sauce is not an effective cleaner. In front of the entire party, Judith yells at Millie for her unintelligence, screaming "SOY SAUCE! SOY SAUCE! She covered my Paris gown with soy sauce! Idiot, don't you know anything? Of course not!" Millie's joy of being at the party has been replaced by feelings of humiliation. In front of everyone, she has been labeled as an uncultured, unintelligent Midwesterner. Fortunately for Millie, her friends band together and help her realize that there is nothing wrong with being a kind-hearted working girl.
Reflecting in her room at Muzzy's estate, Millie realizes that she is truly in love with Jimmy; she sets out to let him know her feelings. However, she notices Miss Dorothy going into his room and falsely assumes that the two are romantically involved. Although still upset with her friend for her supposed actions after returning to the Priscilla Hotel, Millie immediately runs to Miss Dorothy's room upon hearing her shrieks of fright upon discovering an asleep Mrs. Meers on her bed. Millie apologizes for her rudeness and invites Miss Dorothy to share her room for the night. Millie's anger --due to the fact that her friend has supposedly violated her "old-fashioned" Midwestern values-- is replaced with feelings of compassion and support; despite what she believes to have transpired, Millie believes in sticking with her friends through thick and thin.
After falling in love with Miss Dorothy at first sight, Mr. Graydon invites her and Millie to an indoor circus event at the city theatre. Millie mistakenly things that this event constitutes her first "date" with Trevor Graydon, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Mr. Graydon and Miss Dorothy only have eyes for each other. Seeing Muzzy shoot out of a cannon onto the main stage, Millie is visibly more startled and excited than the reactions of her companions. The naive girl from Kansas is seemingly unintelligent enough to comprehend the actions of those around her. However, her youthful-like fascination with Muzzy's stage trick reflects her admiration for cleverness, ingenuity, and bravery; all three of these values are extremely important to her Midwestern heritage.
Discovering Jimmy on the ledge outside her office space, Millie immediately helps him into the building. In the process, she falls out the window and barely manages to grasp the flagpole dangling outside. Her selfless actions almost cost her her life; however, all is not lost. After Jimmy helps to save Millie, he invites her to a dinner date on Park Avenue. Washing dishes at the most expensive restaurant in New York City --a result of Jimmy pretending he does not have enough money to pay the dinner bill, testing Millie to see how she reactions to the situation-- causes Millie to become furious with him. She tells Jimmy that he is a lazy man who has immense potential to succeed in life, if only he would take action and personal initiative. Although Millie does not care about wealth, she believes that a person should be honest about what he possesses (or lacks thereof); she feels that Jimmy should not have taken her to the restaurant if he could not afford the cost of their meals.
Saving Miss DorothyEndeavoring to discover the whereabouts of Miss Dorothy, Millie's actions reflect the dual, conflicting perception regarding Great Plains stereotypes. On one hand, she is perceived as being clever and resourceful --compiling the information that enables the enterprising trio to uncover Mrs. Meer's dastardly, evil actions. However, Millie's simple-minded, innocent nature causes her to have difficulty realizing the evil extent of Mrs. Meer's plans. Nonetheless, she immediately works with Jimmy and Mr. Graydon to come up with a plan to save Miss Dorothy. Thus, the combination of both positive and negative "perceptions" of Great Plains natives creates the myth of the stereotypical Midwesterner as we recognize it today.
Realizing that Miss Dorothy is in grave danger, Dorothy quickly comes up with a plan to save the day (asking Jimmy to go undercover); her actions showcase the clever, resourceful nature of the Midwesterner. When said plan begins to go awry (Jimmy being poisoned), Millie is able to adapt to the situation and avoid detection. Although uneasy at driving the red roadster without assistance, she recalls the knowledge that Jimmy imparted to her and successfully follows the truck. Audiences watching Millie gain a greater respect for Great Plains ingenuity and become champions of the protagonist's quest for justice.
Millie's endeavor to become an invisible part of her surroundings (in Chinatown) illustrates the Great Plains myth of unintelligence. As she is not a smoker, the cigarette causes her to choke uncontrollably and to be perceived as a fool by the Chinese women nearby. Instead of finding a trashcan to dispose of the cigarette, Millie thoughtlessly tosses it into an empty window. However, her obtuse actions lead to the safety of Miss Dorothy and the destruction of Mrs. Meer's white slavery ring. The simple Kansas girl unknowingly-performed actions enable her to save countless lives; although she briefly appears to be dim-witted, her resourceful subconscious successfully guides her actions. After having a technologically-disadvantaged moment starting the roadster, Millie gullably believes that Mrs. Meers will not follow her and her friends to Muzzy's home. Thus, Great Plains gullability endangers the lives of the innocent. However, Millie's actions were made out of ignorance; in her mind, she was following a perfectly-logical course of action.
Defeating Mrs. Meers/Happily Ever AfterWhen Mrs. Meers bursts upon the scene and attempts to kill the group of friends, Trevor Graydon stands numbly on the sidelines (due to being poisoned by another dart) and does nothing. However, Millie --via tricks learned from the Bernini Brothers' circus act -- works with Muzzy, Miss Dorothy, and Jimmy to subdue Mrs. Meer and her two associates. Although Mr. Graydon's incapacitation was not his fault, his actions (or lack thereof) suggest that the stereotypical self-assured East Coast millionaire does not hold the answers/solutions to every problem. The "uncultured" Midwesterner's resourcefulness may prove to be of more value in the long run.
That evening, Millie attempts to express her feelings of love to Jimmy once more. Seeing Miss Dorothy sneak into Jimmy's room, she once again becomes saddened and downtrodden. However, seeing Muzzy enter the room as well empowers Millie to charge in and demand an explanation. She discovers that Jimmy and Miss Dorothy are multi-millionaire siblings, with Muzzy being their kindly stepmother. The naive girl from Kansas has been tricked by her closest friends; Midwestern "gullability" has apparently been exploited for the movie's entirety. However, Millie's determination and strength of mind enable her to get to the bottom of the situation and discover the truth. Great Plains ingenuity is thus able to cut through even the most murky and confusing of circumstances.
Muzzy explains to Millie that she sent the brother and sister out into the world to find spouses who would love them for who they are, rather than for their money. When Tea steps into the room, Jimmy asks the trusted butler for his honest opinion regarding Millie. Tea replies that "I have been watching her most close; I approve. A good old-fashioned girl." The movie audience is shown that a female personification of Midwestern stereotypes has the ability to achieve a fairy-tale ending for herself: Millie and Jimmy get married and live happily ever after. Although a fancy, well-bred, "cultured" girl may appear to be more intriguing at first, the classic ingenue proves to be the one who captures the viewer's heart.
Quantic, Diane Dufa. The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Print
The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. Perf. Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1939. DVD.
Thoroughly Modern Millie. Dir. Ross Huner. Perf. Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing. Universal, 1967. DVD.