In Praise of the Unsung Character, vol. 1, installment 1
When I was young, I looked forward to the yearly presentation of The Wizard of Oz every year. It was scary, yet it was exhilarating. I can’t imagine my childhood without it. Recently, we purchased the DVD. I didn’t really know how they would react, but both of my children absolutely love the movie. They watch it so much that they both know when to exclaim, “Oh!” when Dorothy’s house lands in Munchkin Land. It’s so nice to watch them discover the joy of this movie. It has also given me the opportunity to re-familiarize myself with Auntie Em, this film’s unsung character.
From my childhood perspective, Auntie Em was plain mean and ugly. I didn’t like the way she shoved Dorothy aside and refused to listen to her when she was trying to tell her aunt that Miss Gulch was on the warpath. Dorothy’s obvious affection for her didn’t change that. Believe it or not, I was always glad that she wasn’t my mother or aunt when I watched that movie. Although we learn that her full name is Emily when Professor Marvel questions Dorothy about her, I thought her name was Emma when I was younger. For that reason, I always associated the name Emma with mean, ugly women. In my younger years, I never bothered to read Jane Austen’s Emma because of this association. [Shhh… Don’t tell my Emma that!]
After I got married, the name Emma obviously grew on me. Now, as an adult and as a mother, I see Auntie Em much differently. She may have been a woman, but she kept that house and farm running. Clearly, she was the authority. It wasn’t Uncle Henry who got the farm hands back to work after Dorothy was saved from the hog pen. It was Auntie Em. Uncle promised Dorothy that they wouldn’t let Miss Gulch take Toto, but not without turning to his wife for validation. In the end, she had to tell her husband to put Toto in Miss Gulch’s basket. Uncle Henry is a lovable character, but it seems doubtful that the farm would be nearly as successful if it was left up to him. Although I used to think ugly thoughts about her when she told Uncle Henry to give Toto to Miss Gulch, the whole scene would have been much tougher on everyone involved because Uncle Henry’s wishy-washy-ness would have let it drag out so much longer.
Still, her tough outer coating is just that – the armor she uses to get through life living on the farm. Deep down, she is a warm and loving woman. When I watch the scene in the house where Miss Gulch is demanding Toto be taken to the sheriff, I see how truly upset Auntie Em is. She mentions how gentle Toto is around “gentle people, that is,” but her heart was breaking for her beloved niece. She hated to see the world break Dorothy. As much as she wanted to protect her, she knew that she couldn’t. She knew all too well the reality experienced by her family. As if this weren’t enough, within hours of Miss Gulch leaving, a cyclone developed and she couldn’t find Dorothy anywhere. She was frantic and was the only one to notice the girl’s absence. Had Uncle Henry not forced her into the storm shelter, she alone would have braved the twister to find and protect Dorothy. She never failed Dorothy when she was in danger, whether it be from illness or the weather. No wonder she was Dorothy’s rock – the person to whom she wanted to return. Her home.
As much as I didn’t like Auntie Em as a young person, I have always believed that she has one of the best lines ever in movie history:
“Almira Gulch. Just because you own half the town 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!”
Can you think of a better way to put another person in her place? It instantly places Ms. Gulch outside of salvation. Certainly, if she couldn’t be described by a Christian woman, certainly Miss Gulch herself lives outside the boundaries of Christianity. Most gloriously, it leaves so much to the imagination. To me, this is the Gone with the Wind of all put downs. Just as I always imagine whether Scarlett won Rhett back, I smile every time I try to imagine just what Auntie Em really thought of Miss Gulch. In fact, thinking about those lines makes me a little sad about the abundance of profanity we now have in all forms of media. This is very much like the pot calling the kettle black, but it doesn’t take much creativity at all to call someone one or more curse words. Had Auntie Em simply called Miss Gulch a b*tch, that entire scene would be forgettable. In fact, Miss Gulch could easily have swung back with a slur or three of her own. It’s what Auntie Em – and the fact that she didn’t allow emotion to sway her from her principles – that shut Miss Gulch up. Miss Gulch may have left with Toto, but she lost much more.
I wasn’t the only one who gave Auntie Em short shrift. Clara Blandick, the woman who brought so much life to Auntie Em, was not credited at the beginning of the movie. Even when she was credited, it was at the end of the cast listing at the end of the movie. Unfortunately, CBS, which owned the rights to this movie for so long, didn’t air the closing credits at all. The use of the Internet makes it easier to find the character and her portrayer, but that isn’t saying very much. I spent 20 minutes Googling both Auntie Em and Clara Blandick looking for a good image of her from the movie. There were only three images of her from the movie that I could find – the one I used, a group shot at Dorothy’s bedside from the end of the movie, and an even blurrier image of the blurry image of Auntie Em from the Wicked Witch of the West’s crystal ball.
So, here’s to you, Auntie Em!
You are a strong, warm, beautiful woman. It is a great honor for me to have you as my first Unsung Character.