Returning to Oz

Okay, so I’m a lifelong fan of The Wizard of Oz. It’s one of the earliest films I remember watching – the moment when Dorothy steps out of the door of the farm into the colourful world of Oz is forever imprinted on my memory. The Eighties sequel, Return to Oz, is completely different but just as good – terrifying and disturbing but brilliant. Once I found out that the films were based on a series of books by L. Frank Baum, I got hold of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (surprised to learn that the ruby slippers were originally silver shoes) and later obtained a volume of the entire Oz collection.

Also, I own three pairs of red glitter shoes.

ruby slippers

Just one of my three pairs of red glitter shoes (a.k.a. ‘ruby slippers’), used by my cousin as a table display at her wedding

The Returning to Oz season at the BFI, therefore, was a dream come true for me. Incorporating a number of early black and white films and other movies inspired by the world of Oz, a documentary, and a discussion forum, I booked up for almost everything. Unfortunately Return to Oz (1985) couldn’t be shown as it is no longer available for distribution in the UK, and I didn’t get to see The Wiz (1979) as I was busy on both of the nights it was showing. However, I made the most of everything else.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)
This early adaptation of the first Oz novel was the first movie version, a single-reel programme that compresses the story into a short film. It came about when Baum, trying to settle his debts, sold the rights to his story. Directed by Otis Turner, the film was produced by William Selig and the Selig Polyscope Company. This version departs in several ways from the original story: for instance, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow when she is still in Kansas and the two of them along with Toto the dog and a couple of farm animals (a cow and a horse, played by actors in costume) are blown to Oz. I did like the scene in which Dorothy rescues the Scarecrow from his perch, and the swirling haystack effect is a lot of fun. However, the moment of Dorothy’s melting of the Witch Momba is rushed through and although the Wizard’s escape from Oz in a balloon is shown, Dorothy’s return isn’t portrayed, although she doesn’t seem too worried about this. This film doesn’t strike me as a classic, but it is an entertaining first glimpse at Oz on film.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)
This feature-length Oz story was produced by L. Frank Baum himself, and the Oz Film Company. Directed by J. Farrell MacDonald, it incorporates elements from several different Oz stories. The basic plot involves a young boy and his uncle journeying to the Emerald City in search of food; on the way they meet a wizard who has been brewing a magic potion for six years designed to bring things to life. The wizard’s wife sews a doll and uses the potion on her. In the ensuing chaos, several individuals are turned to stone and the rest of the characters set off on a quest to gather the ingredients for the potion that will restore them to life.

This film is confusing in parts, and isn’t always coherent or understandable. It didn’t do particularly well at the time, possibly because of the reliance on stage conventions, such as the troupe of dancing girls who accompany the characters for no reason at all. It also cost a lot of money to recruit Pierre Couderc, the French acrobat who played Scraps, the Patchwork Girl of the title. However, some of the special effects are pretty impressive, such as the doll assembling itself, the cast members disappearing into a magic wall, and the set of furniture assembling itself. I also loved the character of the Woozy, which was like a cat constructed with numerous cardboard boxes.

The Wizard of Oz (1925)
This Twenties version of the Oz story was adapted by L. Frank Baum Jr. (the author’s son) and produced by Chadwick Pictures Corporation. It was directed by Larry Semon, who also took on the role of the toymaker which bookends the film, and that of the Scarecrow, while his wife Dorothy Dwan plays a young adult Dorothy. This adaptation differs significantly from the original book: in it, Dorothy is a princess from Oz who was left on Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s doorstep as a baby. She is due to find out the truth about who she is on her eighteenth birthday, which proves the catalyst for her return to Oz along with Uncle Henry, a corpulent grump, and three farmhands, with two of whom she is embroiled in a love triangle. The rest of the tale relates how Prime Minister Kruel, aided by Lady Vishus, attempt to stop her taking the throne alongside her true love Prince Kynd. In this version, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are the disguises of the three farmhands who travel to Oz, and the Tin Man is notably played by Oliver Hardy in his pre-Laurel & Hardy days.

This film was entertaining with quite a lot of slapstick, although I felt too much time was spent in Kansas before the group actually got to Oz. I also would have liked to see more of Oz, rather than just the palace and the basement. I wasn’t impressed with the way Dorothy treated the Scarecrow, who went out of his way to help her and didn’t come to the best end! However, I thought the bookend story of the toymaker and his granddaughter was clever and well done.

The Wizard of Oz (1933)
This eight-minute animation, directed by Ted Eshbaugh, wasn’t particularly memorable but is notable for being the first film to portray Kansas in black and white and Oz in colour. I thought the style of characters bore quite a lot of resemblance to Mickey Mouse.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
What can I say about the most famous Oz movie? This is my favourite film of all time; it’s just wonderful. However, The Wizard of Oz as we know it nearly didn’t happen. The role of Dorothy almost went to Shirley Temple; luckily, she couldn’t sing well enough and Judy Garland got the part. The original director Richard Thorpe was temporarily replaced by George Cukor, who got rid of the blonde wig and false nose Garland had been encumbered with in order to make her look more like the Dorothy of the books. The role of the Tin Woodsman was originally played by Ray Bolger, who felt he was miscast and swopped with Buddy Ebsen to take on the role of the Scarecrow, whose acrobatics were more suited to Bolger’s talents. However, Ebsen came down with aluminium poisoning owing to the makeup used to costume him for the role, and while he was recovering he was replaced by Jack Haley. The film’s chief director was Victor Fleming, but he was replaced towards the end by King Vidor, whose direction of the black and white scenes at the beginning of the movie – including the iconic ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ section – made a lasting impact on the film.

This catalogue of near-disasters and major changes makes me wonder if it was fate that the film turned out so brilliant as it did. Would it have been anything like as good as it was under different circumstances? I can’t help thinking that it wouldn’t.

Oz: The Tin Woodman’s Dream (1967)
This short segment is what remains of an unfinished movie co-animated, during the psychedelic Sixties, by Joanne Ziprin and Harry Smith, who also directed. Produced by The Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the movie was abandoned on the death of major backer Arthur Young. This bizarre film drew on a wide range of sources including the drawings of Hieronymous Bosch, Tibetan mandalas and sketchings of microscopic life by biologist Ernst Haeckel.

The beginning of this short film was intriguing, with the Tin Woodman and Toto the dog moving through a bizarre, ever-changing landscape. However, this soon changed into kaleidoscopic images whirling and repeating themselves, and while this was interesting at first, it soon grew tedious. Perhaps it looked better if you were on drugs.

In Search of Oz (1994)
This documentary, directed by Brian Skeet, was shown on the BBC in the early 1990s. It featured writers such as Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, Martha Coolidge, Ray Bradbury and Geoff Ryman, as well as others associated with Oz including relatives of Baum. The documentary featured clips of several Oz films and atmospheric shots of the Kansas skyline; it put forward some interesting theories about the significance of different aspects of the story – Rushdie maintains that the Wizard represents the disappointing parent who is all show and bluster.

The documentary paved the way for the panel discussion The Radical Land of Oz, which took place later that same evening. It was chaired by season curator Rhidian Davis – this man makes some excellent choices, he curated the Hitchcock season last year and is responsible for the forthcoming Gothic season. Guests included the novelist Geoff Ryman, who wrote Was (1992), a book based on the Oz myth; Matthew Beaumont, a senior lecturer at UCL; and Sophie Mayer, an author and contributor to Sight & Sound.

The discussion was really interesting and enlightening, with each of the contributors bringing a different perspective to the Oz world. I particularly liked Sophie Mayer’s insight into Return to Oz, which is one of my favourite Oz films. I have to say that the concept of a lesbian subtext in this film had never crossed my mind!

I thoroughly enjoyed the season, which seemed to coincide with resurgence in interest in the Oz world – just before, a production called Dorothy in Oz opened at the Waterloo East Theatre which I attended (and reviewed here). The production transported Dorothy and her friends to a mental health institution, and bore something of a resemblance to Return to Oz, in which Dorothy is committed to an asylum. Also, the new Disney film Oz: The Great and Powerful has just been released – I saw this on Sunday night and, while it lacked the magic of earlier Oz films, it had several brilliant touches including a great performance from James Franco as the title character, a travelling ‘magician’ who is blown into Oz and hailed as the Wizard who will save the inhabitants from the Wicked Witch. I also loved that they stuck to the black and white=Kansas and colour=Oz formula. I was less impressed by the idea that Glinda needed a man to come and rescue the inhabitants of Oz at all, and Mila Kunis’ character was unfortunately underdeveloped. The film as a whole looked beautiful, though.