They were the most popular children’s books around, with kids eagerly awaiting the release of each new title in the series. Dismissed by many educators and critics as “junk literature” and catching the ire of religious leaders for fostering an interest in magic and fantasy, the writer behind them was nonetheless adored by fans of all ages around the globe. With all this popularity, it was inevitable that some enterprising producer would consider shooting a live-action film version.
Think I’m talking about Harry Potter? (If so, you didn’t read the headline too closely.) No, this all happened about a century ago, and the author in question was L. Frank Baum, creator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who would eventually go J.K. Rowling one better and make his own silent Oz movies. With the release of Sam Raimi’s prequel fantasy Oz the Great and Powerful–starring James Franco as a newly-arrived Wizard and Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams as witches–and the ongoing plans for a big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical Wicked, let’s take a look at the cinematic history of Oz, one that began long before Judy Garland donned a pair of ruby slippers…which, by the way, were silver in Baum’s novel (MGM thought red would look better in Technicolor).
The very first glimpse of Oz in motion picture form came in 1908, just eight years after the first book’s debut. Baum himself penned and financed a stage show entitled “Fairylogue and Radio-Plays,” which mixed a live lecture by him, a slide show, and brief silent film vignettes based on four of his books and featuring a cast of mostly children. The production enjoyed a brief run on the New York stage, but its ultimate failure (which contributed to Baum’s bankruptcy in 1911) allowed the Selig Polyscope Company, makers of the movie segments, to step in and produce four Oz short films without the author’s participation.
Of the four Selig efforts, only 1910’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is known to still exist. The 13-minute story borrows from both Baum’s book and a contemporary Broadway adaptation, the latter of which explains the lines of chorus girls and actors in animal costumes. In it, Dorothy and the Scarecrow are both (!) in Kansas, until a cyclone sends them, Toto, and a cow and mule to the Land of Oz. Searching for the Wizard, the group is joined by the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger, and they clash with the wicked Momba the Witch, whom Dorothy manages to “liquidate” and thus free the kingdom. It’s an interesting, albeit creaky, curio that gives a peek at how stage shows looked at the turn of the last century.
By 1914, Baum had moved to Hollywood, California, just as the movie industry was getting established there, and decided the time was right to set up his own movie production company to bring his visions to on-screen life. Forming the Oz Film Manufacturing Company and serving as its president (but, wisely, not investing his own funds this time), Baum would script three feature-length films based on his works. The movies were well-made and boasted impressive special effects for their time, but ultimately failed to find much audience interest with either children or adults. The first, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, was relatively faithful to its namesake book and offered a lively performance by French acrobat Pierre Coudrec in the title role of Scraps, a human-size doll who comes to life and helps a Munchkin boy named Ojo and his uncle reach the Emerald City. Released in late 1914, Patchwork’s lack of box office success ultimately doomed the comapny’s subsequent entries, The Magic Cloak of Oz (based on the non-Oz tale Queen Zixi of Ix) and His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz (which would finally get a limited release in 1917).
Following the demise of the Oz Film Manufacuting Company, Baum continued to write until his death in 1919. The books’ publishers hired Philadelphia-born Ruth Plumly Thompson to carry on with new stories in the series beginning in 1921, but the movie industry stayed away from the fantasyland for several years, until slapstick comic Larry Semon would direct, co-script (with Baum’s son Frank J.), and star in 1925’s The Wizard of Oz. Once again straying from the original text, this version also starred Dorothy Dwan (who would eventually become Mrs. Semon) as a rather nubile Dorothy who is wooed by a pair of rival farmhands, played by Semon and a pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy. A tornado arrives to sweep the trio and Dorothy’s Uncle Henry (plus a stereotypic black worker, who in surviving prints is named either Rastus or Snowball) up and into Oz, where it’s learned that Dwan is actually the country’s long-lost princess and rightful ruler. The Wizard is a royal court magician, there’s not a wicked witch to be seen, and Semon, Hardy and the black farmhand disguise themselves as a scarecrow, tin man and lion, respectively, to avoid capture. Semon’s very loose adaptation failed at the box office (notice a pattern here?), and is of interest today only for a glimpse of Ollie before Stan.
Aside from a long-missing 1932 short based on the second Baum book, The Land of Oz, the only other pre-1939 cinema release of note was a 1933 animated cartoon from Canada, The Wizard of Oz. It only covers the first parts of the familiar story (Dorothy and Toto travel via twister, meet the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, and visit the Wizard, who shows them some magic tricks), but the interesting concept here is that the Kansas scenes are in black-and-white, with everything turning to color once Dorothy arrives in Oz. Could this independently-made cartoon have been what inspired MGM to use the same trick for their own film six years later? Aslo of note is that the short was co-produced (and possibly co-written) by Baum’s son Frank Joslyn Baum, who had worked for his father’s short-lived studio and tried unsuccessfully to regain the literary rights to the books after the elder Baum’s passing.
In summation, the road to big-screen life for the residents of Oz in the 38 years since L. Frank Baum’s “American fairy tale” first saw print was just as perilous as Dorothy and her friends’ trip down the Yellow Brick Road, filled with several detours from the source material and a surprising lack of financial success. While it was considered Hollywood’s premier film studio at the time, MGM certainly had its work cut for it when, in 1938, it announced plans to turn The Wizard of Oz into a big-budget, Technicolor musical. That film’s final outcome, and cinematic depictions of life in the Emerald City since then, will be discussed in the next installment.