After the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz in Film and TV Since 1939

Wiz Posters

 In the first half of this two-part stroll down Hollywood’s Yellow Brick Road, I told you about the various silent and early animated film versions of L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that were made before Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to turn the book into a big-budget musical. Well, after nearly 16 months of pre-production and shooting, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz–based on L. Frank Baum’s beloved novel and starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr–opened nationwide on August 25, 1939, and was a instant critical and financial success…right? Wrong.

Reviews were generally, but by no means exclusively, favorable. And while it was popular at the box office, the predominance of children’s tickets–combined with a loss of foreign revenue due to the start of World War II–meant that the film actually finished its initial theatrical run about $700,000 in the ruby-slipper red. It wasn’t until a 1949 re-release that Wizard showed a profit, and its status as one of America’s most beloved movies was ultimately due to its nearly-annual TV broadcasts, which began in 1956 on CBS. With these factors in mind, it’s not surprising that MGM’s very tentative plans for a sequel in the early 1940s were shelved. That hasn’t deterred other filmmakers and TV producers, though, from paying a visit to the Emerald City over the past seven decades.


The first such visitor was Mr. Family Entertainment himself, Walt Disney. After missing a chance to buy the movie rights to Wizard in the mid- ’30s, Disney purchased the rights to several subsequent Baum books in 1954 and put the studio to work on The Rainbow Road to Oz, a two-part episode of his Disneyland TV series that would star the Mouseketeers. Rainbow was eventually considered for release as a live-action musical–the company’s first–and would even tie into an Oz-themed ride at Walt’s then-new Southern California theme park, but the entire project was abandoned in 1958. Scenes of the Mouseketeers in costume (including Annette Funicello as Princess Ozma, Doreen Tracey as Scraps the Patchwork Girl, and Bobby Burgess as the Scarecrow) and a musical number with Tracey and Burgess were shown on Disneyland’s fourth-season debut episode in 1957, a sort of extended trailer for the film that would never be.

Another TV favorite with a link to Oz’s past was Shirley Temple, whom MGM considered borrowing from 20th Century-Fox to play Dorothy before casting Garland.  An adult Temple was the hostess and sometimes star of her own live-action anthology series, Shirley Temple’s Storybook, from 1958 to 1961, and the show’s 1960 premiere episode adapted the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. Shirley played young hero Tip, supported by Ben Blue as the Scarecrow, Sterling Holloway as Jack Pumpkinhead, a pre-Bewitched Agnes Moorehead as Mombi the Wicked Witch of the North, and Jonathan Winters as the non-Baum villain Lord Nikidik, in a colorful and relatively faithful (down to one character’s sex change at the climax!) retelling.

The following year saw the small-screen debut of Rankin/Bass’s Tales of the Wizard of Oz, a series of poorly animated shorts starring Dorothy and her pals (now known as Socrates the Scarecrow, Rusty the Tin Man, and Dandy the Cowardly Lion).  In 1964 the studio made a feature-length film, Return to Oz, that basically retold the story of the 1939 movie and had the misfortune of airing the night The Beatles made their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. The less said about this Return to Oz the better. Meanwhile, B-movie writer/director/producer Barry Mahon, whose roadhouse oeuvre ranged from children’s matinee fare to softcore nudie flicks, didn’t let a lack of funds keep him from shooting his own version of The Marvelous Land of Oz, retitled The Wonderful Land of Oz, in 1969. Marked by a no-name cast and high school-level sets and make-up, this little-seen curiosity did at least, like Temple’s TV episode, stick to the basic plot of the book.

The next theatrical Oz-travaganza was, like Return, a cartoon entry that reprised Wizard’s plotline, with several links to that film. 1974’s Journey Back to Oz (the dialogue and songs were recorded a decade earlier, but funding held up the animation), follows Dorothy and Toto on…wait for it…a journey back to Oz. Reunited with the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion, plus Jack Pumpkinhead and the living Sawhorse, they must stop Mombi the witch from taking over the Emerald City with an army of, appropriately, green elephants. Relatively well-made by the Filmation company (best known for Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids), Journey boasted a voice ensemble that included Milton Berle, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman and Danny Thomas, but the most interesting performers cast were 1939’s Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, as Aunt Em; Garland’s old MGM partner Mickey Rooney as the Scarecrow; and Liza Minnelli filling her mother’s magic slippers as Dorothy.

While moviegoers settled for cartoon Ozs (Ozes? Ozzesses?), Broadway audiences saw a new and lively re-imagaining of Baum’s tale with 1975’s debut of The Wiz, which put an African-American spin on the proceedings and featured a score than included “Ease on Down the Road” and “If You Believe.” The show’s popularity led Motown mogul Berry Gordy to launch plans for a film version that would transfer Oz and its environs to New York City and be shot on location. Gordy had wanted teenager Stephanie Mills to reprise her stage role as Dorothy, but it was a then-33-year-old Diana Ross, however, who aggressively campaigned for and (thanks to a production deal with Universal) landed the part, rewritten to make Dorothy a self-doubting twentysomething teacher. Joining Ross were Motown buddy Michael Jackson, in his film debut, as the Scarecrow; comedian and Match Game fave Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man; Broadway cast member Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion; Lena Horne and Mabel King as good and wicked witches, respectively;  and Richard Pryor in the title role. Directed by Sidney Lumet in released in 1978, The Wiz was a visually dazzling but uneven box-office disappoinment that suffers from a miscast Ross, badly staged dance sequences, and a script filled with  ’70s self-help affirmations (Ross and screenplay writer Joel Schumacher were devotees of EST founder Werner Erhard). There’s something particularly wistful now, though, about seeing the young, pre-nosejob Michael Jackson give a fine performance and watching the plaza of the World Trade Center become the Emerald City.


Two decades after Walt’s death, the Disney studio finally made that long-awaited trip down the Yellow Brick Road with the next–and, to date, final–big-screen Oz adventure, 1985’s Return to Oz. Based on two of  Baum’s books and co-scripted and helmed by Oscar-winning soundman/editor Walter Murch, this Return found Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) unable to convince anyone her trip to Oz was real and about to undergo electro-shock therapy (!) when a storm dumps her and a talking hen named Billina into a ruined fantasyland. Her Oz-dyssey introduces her to new friends like Jack Pumpkinhead and the clockwork man Tik-Tok and new enemies like the subterranean Nome King (Nicol Williamson), who has conquered the kingdom, and Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), who changes more than her expression thanks to 30 interchangeable heads. It’s up to Balk to outwit the villains and free the Emerald City and its reisdents from Williamson’s captivity. Audiences and critics who went to Return expecting light Disney-flavored fare or a musical follow-up to the MGM film were put off by the movie’s dark tone–a tone echoed in many of Baum’s works–and the lack of songs.  What they missed was an imaginative thrill ride marked with wonderful visual effects (including an early use of Claymation for the Nome King) and the closest cinematic depiction of Oz to its literary counterpart since Baum himself co-produced a series of silent films back in the 1910s.

There have also been several films with subtle and not-so-subtle references to The Wizard of Oz, from Sean Connery’s 1974 sci-tale tale Zardoz to 1981’s Time Bandits by Terry Gilliam. And let’s not forget Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, and a hotel full of carousing “Munchkins” in the 1981 comedy Under the Rainbow…no, on second thought, let’s. On the small screen, a radical ravamping of Oz was featured in the 2007 TV mini-series Tin Man, in which a storm sends Kansas waitress DG (Zooey Deschanel into a bizarre and dystopic parallel world known as the Outer Zone (OZ, for short) that only she can save. And The oddly-spelled SyFy cable channel (who gave us 2007’s Tin Man) created another mini-series, 2011’s The Witches of Oz, that starred Paulie Rojas as a grown Dorothy and Christopher Lloyd as the Wizard

Thanks in part to the popularity of the Harry Potter film series–which, ironically, can trace its literary success back by Baum’s original books–a slew of Oz-related projects will be coming to the big screen over the next couple of years (there’s no place like public domain source material). Spider-Man director Sam Raimi will offer his own dark and offbeat take on what took place in the Emerald City before Dorothy’s arrival in Oz the Great and Powerful, starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams,  Also due out is Dorothy of Oz, an animated feature with a voice cast that includes Glee’s Lea Michelle as Dorothy and Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and Kelsey Grammer as the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Woodman, respectively. And Warner Brothers, owners of the MGM film library, have announced plans to convert the 1939 Judy Garland classic to 3D for theatrical showings in late 2013, in anticipation of the film’s 75th birthday the following year. If these projects–and, maybe someday, a big-screen version of the Broadway hit Wicked–come true, one hopes that they’ll add to the story’s ongoing appeal for all ages.