Sunday, May 28, 2006

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1933)

It should not be surprising that I love the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. There is not a point in my life where at least one volume of the books (even the later ones by John R. O'Neill or Ruth Plumly Thompson, all still enjoyable) was not at my immediate disposal. For many a year, I had heard about an animated version of The Wizard of Oz that predated the MGM musical version by six years, and that had been suppressed due to copyright conflicts. I had, at various points in my life, thought the film to have been "lost", but how overjoyed I was to find out that MGM was releasing the film on its ultimate Wizard of Oz Collector's Edition last year, along with a host of silent adaptations (some of which I already owned on videotape.) Despite this announcement, due to my move and fluctuating monetary state until I established myself, I put off getting the set until last week. Finally, I was going to get a crack at mystery man Ted Eshbaugh's version of my favorite fantasy world. Of course, I was bound to end up disappointed, as my hopes were incredibly high.

In the way that most Oz adaptations begin, we meet a bored young lady named Dorothy who plays fetch with her little dog Toto on a farm in Kansas. A horrible thunderstorm causes the formerly sedate animals of the farm to seek shelter from an oncoming cyclone, and Dorothy and Toto do so also, running frantically into their home. However, the storm is too much and cuts a harsh path straight through the farm, and the house is lifted spinning high into the air. The next thing we know, Dorothy is falling through the skies, straight down a rapid clip, and as she does, the little girl that we have just met in a black-and-white landscape starts turning into vibrant shades of bright color, as does the world around her. By the time she lands on the body of a Scarecrow on the ground, she is as rosy-cheeked as a baby doll and resplendent in her blue dress and red hairbow. Toto lands, too, bouncing on the head of the Scarecrow, who comes to life and struggles to his feet (after having his rear lifted slightly by a magically appearing rabbit) to join the newly arrived pair. He is wobbly at first, but after he tips his hat and releases a flock of blackbirds into the sky, the trio march off out of the cornfields.

Dorothy and the Scarecrow play fetch with the giant-headed Toto as they reach the edge of a woodland area. When the Scarecrow throws the stick into the forest, they hear a disconcerting clang. They rush to seek the cause of the odd noise and find a Tin Man in mid-swing with a large axe, completely rusted to stillness, with flowers growing wildly up his metal legs. The Scarecrow pulls an oil can off the Tin Man's head which also serves as his hat, and swiftly brings the grateful man of tin back to clanking life, and brushes him clean as a measure of friendliness to boot. The Tin Man instantly befriends the trio and they march off out of the forest.

Why waste time finding and befriending the Cowardly Lion, too, when you can stop at a bridge just outside of Oz and watch a romantic pastoral scene with various birds and bugs going at it? Two swans kiss as they wrap their necks around each other atop a placid pool of water; a butterfly moves its gorgeously colored wing just ever so slightly to allow us the vision of two birds pitching woo, who wave back happily just before the butterfly moves his wing back like a Chinese screen; and a Kingbee and a Queenbee zip themselves up tight in a flower, and then seconds later, the flower bud reopens to unleash a squadron of baby bees clad in cute bonnets and diapers. (It's a sweet way to kill a minute of time in the cartoon, but the Lion could have been introduced in that same amount of time; the film feels incomplete in the character department for just that reason -- but, oh well...)

They leave the serenity of the bridge for the gates of Oz, lying just up the hill. Two peacocks fanning their tails out close them to show trumpeters announcing the arrival of the visitors. A wagon awaits for Dorothy, and she boards it courtesy of a caterpillar made of alphabet blocks, with feet protruding from each block. The blocks read "Welcome", and when Dorothy steps across them, the blocks change to read "Dorothy". The wagon takes off and the caterpillar is sent sprawling willy-nilly. Dorothy's wagon is part of a parade to the palace of the Wizard of Oz. A tremendously obese policeman leads the parade as he rides a low-riding tricycle (the back wheels are practically flat from his fatness), and he has a blackbird flying just in front of him that serves as a police siren when he pulls its tail. A marching band made up of bugs and assorted weird beings follows right behind, and we see a pair of hobby horses pulling the wagon. (These horses might be a reference to the Saw-Horse that figures prominently in the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. Or, they might not.) The Tin Man and then the Scarecrow follow, each tipping their hats to the ecstatic crowd, and Toto brings up the rear, holding his nose proudly in the air. Perhaps I shouldn't say he brings up the rear, though, for he is followed by a pack of other dogs, all sniffing the ground where Toto has just trod.

The wagon pulls in front of the palace and we see the crowd going crazy over its arrival. As the visitors prepare to ascend the stairs leading up to the palace, four disembodies suits of armor sing to them some instructions:

"Hail, to the Wizard of Oz!
To the Wizard of Oz, we lead the way!"

Dorothy and her friends enter a strange and eerie chamber, and there, across the room mixing potions is the famous Wizard of Oz. He casts a spell that causes four chairs to appear, each one suited to its occupant's personality. The Tin Man's is carved out of a treetrunk; the Scarecrow's is black and has the carved visage of a crow resting at its top; Dorothy's is a pretty little throne fit for a princess; and Toto's, in a surprising bit of bathroom humor, has a dog's head set where its seat should be, and Toto obligingly lifts his rear up and positions it near the carved dog's nose. The Wizard uses his wand to reveal a series of top hats, out of which pop eight rabbits, which then turn into dollies. As the lights go black about them, the baby dolls do a cutesy version of a Folies Bergere kickline, and when they join arms sideways and wave them, their blue dresses turn to pink and back again. Then they all fall down and disappear, and the lights come on and the Wizard cleans up the hats with his wand.

He then pours a potion inside another top hat, and the hat turns into a clucking chicken, which then lays seven eggs: six normal sized ones and a tiny little egg. Just before the laying, however, some of the remaining potion pours onto the floor, and a curious Toto runs up, sniffs it, and then licks some of the potion up. He does not find it to his liking, and yips and runs away. Each egg on the table cracks in turn, and out of each one comes a different mutated creature, with the body of a chicken, but the head and legs of another creature. In turn, they are a giraffe, a monkey, a pelican, an elephant, a dragon, and what seems to be a tiger but with Mickey Mouse-style ears with red and black stripes. The seventh tiny egg vexes the Wizard and refuses to hatch, and the hen runs up, seemingly squawking "Put it out! Put it out!", and then lays her head to the egg for a listen to what might be inside. The egg starts to grow in spurts, first to the size of an ostrich egg, and then larger and larger.

Everyone sets off in a panic, and things are made worse when the Wizard drops his wand and Toto, thinking he is playing fetch, takes off with the magical item. Dorothy and the Wizard give chase after the dog while the Tin Man and the Scarecrow try to deal with the ever-growing egg, already towering over the two of them. The Tin Man swings his mighty axe at the egg, but the weapon breaks in two. The Scarecrow discovers a display case full of ancient weapons, and he breaks into it and passes the Tin Man a sword and a spiked club. Both shatter on the indestructible egg. The brave heroes then pick up more weapons and besiege the egg further, but it is to no avail. Dorothy and the Wizard chase Toto endlessly around the still-enlarging ovoid, which now takes up more than half of the room. As the Tin Man waits for the Scarecrow to hand him another weapon to shatter on the egg's casing, Toto hands him the wand instead. One hit, and the egg explodes, leaving large chunks of shattered shell lying about the chamber, and rocking in the middle of one of the pieces is a tiny, chirping chick. The mother rushes to his side, picks him up and starts clucking Rock-A-Bye Baby. The music swells, and all of the participants in the story finish singing the song. We see "The End" written on the final page of a storybook bearing the famous Oz logo, and as the cover of the book closes, we hear a choir reverantly singing: "All Hail to the Wizard of Oz!"

So much potential, so many worthwhile scenes, all spoiled in service to a silly second half. Once they reach the Wizard, he is just a normal magician and they have apparently made the journey for a goofy magic show. The Wizard in the book may have been a humbug, but marvelous things still occurred about him. Sure, it involved murdering a witch and all that, but political assassination aside, he still made things happen. That said, for what is here, it is fun adventure with surprising visual depth. Ted Eshbaugh was certainly an interesting filmmaker, and it is a shame that he did not do more films (or, at least, more films that anyone knows anything about.) And for all my disappointment, the film itself is still certainly a unique vision, and I suppose that I should be thankful that I have even had the chance to view this piece of history.

More than once, I have heard that this cartoon paved the way for the similar beginning in the famous 1939 version, with the drab Kansas beginning in black-and-white making way for the rich colors of the magical land of Oz. Whether its MGM creators had seen this unreleased film or not before their production, and thus gained inspiration from this one detail alone, I am not aware. (I'm sure some far more knowledgable Ozophile out there knows the answer to this.)

Looking back on all of these silent versions of Oz and this cartoon, and also some of the later adaptations, what I can't figure out is why no one wants to stick with the story and characters in the original books. I love the scary Disney Return to Oz from 1985, with its presentation of a ton of little-used characters from across the Oz spectrum made their film debuts, but it seems the mainstream audience found it all a little too much. I know that the 1939 version presents a massive hurdle for filmmakers to leap, because audiences want more of that, and not necessarily the stories as set down in the books. I still hold out hope, however, that with the success of the Tolkien films and now The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that some enterprising young filmmaker will wish to tackle the Oz books anew, perhaps hopping the first book and starting directly with Land, or even picking up with the next book that actually features Dorothy, Ozma of Oz. (Elements of both books comprise Return to Oz.)

As long as a chicken doesn't grow an enormous egg, I will keep my mind open to all else that occurs...

The Wizard of Oz (Film Laboratories of Canada, 1933) Director: Ted Eshbaugh
Original Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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