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By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

April 2, 2013

Editor’s Note: Last week we took a look at the earliest films based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. This week we continue with a roundup of the films of the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, Baum’s own company.

One reason the Oz Film Manufacturing Company’s films are of historical significance stems from Baum’s association with Louis F. Gottschalk, the composer (not to be confused with the famous Louis Moreau Gottschalk, to whom he was related). Baum and Gottschalk collaborated on a stage play The Tik-Tok Man of Oz in 1913, for which Gottschalk contributed the music.

The show played well in Los Angeles, but it was deemed too expensive to take to Broadway.  After that, and with a desire to get into the movies (feature length films had been around since 1906), Baum and Gottschalk collaborated on the Oz Film Company with Baum serving as President and Gottschalk as vice president. Gottschalk contributed film scores, and consequently the Oz films had the earliest original feature film scores. Music had always been in the movies—the Lumiere Brothers had a pianist at their first exhibitions of films in 1895 — but the standard was to use cue sheets rather than full, written-out scores.

In contrast, the Oz Company sent out scores with their films for the house musicians to use in accompanying the movie.

His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914)

Running about an hour, this 1914 film is a hybrid of material from the first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and new material which Baum later used as the basis for his 1915 entry The Scarecrow of Oz. It is fun to see a scene from the first book that didn’t make it into the 1939 movie — the scene where the Scarecrow’s raft pole gets stuck in the mud in the river and he ends up clinging to a pole out in the middle of the water. In the book, Dorothy persuades a stork to fly out and lift the Scarecrow to safety. In the movie, however, a giant crow does the job.  They don’t hit it off at first, one being a crow and the other being a scarecrow, but after a short tussle, they end up doing a little dance together, which is actually a very funny bit.

Other than rehashing scenes from the beloved 1900 book to draw in the audience for the new material, Dorothy doesn’t have much to do in this movie. The central plot revolves around a bad king who is unhappy that his daughter has fallen in love with a low-born gardener’s boy. The king enlists the help of a witch to freeze his daughter’s heart so that she will be immune to love. The witch does the deed for money, and she furthers the job by turning the princess’s suitor into a kangaroo.

The witch is not unlike W.W. Denslow’s illustration.  To me, she looks like a bag lady with an eyepatch using her umbrella as a walking stick.  After having her heart frozen, the princess wanders around in a daze for most of the movie.  In this version, the Wizard of Oz actually performs real magic, although he isn’t found in any Emerald City. He seems to be an itinerant wizard, wandering the countryside in a wagon pulled by another of Baum’s endearing creations, the Saw-horse, who is some animated logs that function as a horse.  The Wizard amusingly cans the witch in a large can labeled “Preserved Sandwitches,” then blacks out parts of the label until it says “Preserved Witch,” then shrinks the can.  Dorothy and her companions storm the bad king’s castle and somehow emerge victorious, probably because the Scarecrow, while shot full of arrows, does not have a vulnerability to arrows. The bad king is ousted, the scarecrow is crowned king, the Wizard (in exchange for releasing the witch from her can) convinces the witch to release her spell on the princess and change the gardener’s boy back to a human, and the ending is fairy-tale happy.

While Baum was a true storyteller for children, and his new books were annual Christmas presents to a generation of them, this film strikes me as rather intense for young children. There is a scene where the witch sets upon the helpless Scarecrow and savagely plucks out all his straw, leaving him limp and lifeless. The way his head flops around when he is just an empty fabric is gut-wrenching to see after such a violent attack.  Dorothy and the others get him stuffed again in short order, and pretty soon he is reanimated to his usual jovial, loose-limbed self.  In another scene, the tin woodsman decapitates the witch with his axe. She is left sitting on his castle steps desperately proving the empty space above her neck with her hands. Again, the situation is resolved when she finds her head and sticks it back on. I suspect Baum’s intent was to make the film cut across age barriers and appeal to adults and children. What success he had achieved with his stage shows had been on the part of adult ticket buyers and attendees, so not a bad thought. The concept of a family picture hadn’t developed yet in 1914, so unfortunately Baum was a few decades too early to enjoy the success in film that would later come to Walt Disney.

One last tidbit of information that took a little digging to discover: the character of Button-Bright in this film (a little girl with amnesia for her past who Dorothy’s entourage discovers sitting in the road playing jacks) was played by one Mildred Harris, who married the 29 year-old Charlie Chaplin when she was 17. She left that relationship and embarked on an affair with the Prince of Wales. She is the one who introduced Edward, Prince of Wales, to Wallis Simpson, and the rest is history. I find it interesting that Ms. Harris assisted in overthrowing one king in the fantasy-land of Oz, and then later contributed to events that led to the abdication of the throne by a king of the real world.

The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914)

This charming fairy tale is only peripherally an Oz story, as it takes place in the lands of Noland and Ix, which are part of the greater fairyland universe of countries neighboring Oz in L. Frank Baum’s novels. The basis for the story is Baum’s 1905 novel Queen Zixi of Ix, which was a personal favorite of the author among his works. Queen Zixi was not originally an Oz story, but sometime between 1905 and the 5th Oz book (The Road to Oz, 1909), Baum figured out that Noland and Ix are neighboring countries, along with the Forest of Burzee (which figures in Queen Zixi and Baum’s 1902 novel, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.)

There is much to like here, but the movie disappoints, because you wish it had been made later in time with more modern technology. Especially regrettable are the animal scenes with people dressed up in animal costumes. One of the main characters is a donkey, and he is kind of endearing. In fact, the donkey could well be a prototype of the Eddie Murphy character in the Shrek movies. But while the rest of the movie is a romantic fairy tale that works well for adults, the animals in The Magic Cloak seem like they are targeted at a preschool audience, as if they are refugees from a storytime puppet show. The story involves a magic cloak that is woven by the fairies and grants each bearer one wish, only not if it is stolen. Queen Zixi is over 600 years old and has been the victim of a spell which keeps her perpetually 16, but she is forced to carry a mirror that reveals her true age.  This bothers her, presumably because she is so vain that she would like to look at herself in the mirror to see how pretty she is, but she can’t, because all she ever sees is an ancient hag. She conspires to obtain the magic cloak so that she can wish away the spell of the mirror, but when she finally steals it, it doesn’t work because it has been stolen.  She discards the cloak, and a scavenging woman picks it up and commences to sell a piece of it to a sailor who wants it for a tie. When the kingdom is threatened, and the cloak is needed to make wishes upon to repel the invaders, it has to be found and reassembled. Finally, the fairies take it back because they have discovered that ordinary mortals don’t use the magic wisely. But such a summary does not do justice to the story — there is a lot more in the book, and even in the movie.

The movie is a simplified version of the book, which is (based on a reading of the plot summary) quite an epic fantasy for a fairy tale.  There are many scenes in the silent film that beg for a modern remake. The scene of the fairies weaving the cloak. A scene where the witches take off flying on their brooms. The scenes where the Rolly Rogues (think malevolent mountain-top beach-ball-shaped people) roll down the hills to conquer the city of Noland and then roll back up the hills when they finally get chased out of town.

There are many whimsical moments in this story, but many of them are buried by the primitive filmmaking technology and the fact that it was still 15 years before talking films. L. Frank Baum’s vision was clearly beyond his capabilities at the time. Like so much of his work in the theater and cinema, he was ahead of his time.

I long for a modern filmmaker, someone who is sensitive to the concept of fantasy in the movies, to revisit Queen Zixi of Ix.  Done right, retaining the comic elements of the story, treating it with the same respect as a Grimm or an Andersen fairy story, this could be a huge hit.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

This was the first of the Oz Film Manufacturing Company’s productions. It fared poorly on initial release, so the other films ran into distribution problems, which contributed to the demise of the company. To my taste, The Patchwork Girl of Oz is the least successful of the three 1914 Oz films. The original screenplay by L. Frank Baum was turned into his novel of the same name, however, and the material works much better as a book. The book is charming, and the first edition is a wonderful piece of art. The John R. Neill illustrations make Baum’s whimsical ideas jump off the page.  The film suffers from black and white. The book, by contrast, revels in color.

The film is marred by an overbearing grotesqueness. Every clever idea in the story becomes grotesque on screen. All the characters are either falling all over the place or wobbly kneed or just hideous. The central plot involves a magician who invents a “powder of life” which animates a life-sized ragdoll girl, while at the same time another of his magical concoctions turns three of the characters into lifeless statues. The magician and a Munchkin boy named Ojo set out to find the ingredients for a potion to turn the statue people back to life. Those ingredients include the water from a mysterious Dark Well, three hairs from a creature called the Woozy, and a six-leaved clover.  Various complications ensue, not the least of which is that it is illegal in Oz to pick a six-leafed clover, so all the characters are hauled before Ozma, the Queen, for judgement.

The Woozy is a weird geometrical animal whose modern equivalent is probably Nickelodeon’s Wubbzy (is it any coincidence the names are so similar?). The Woozy is a clever invention and looks in the movie just about how John R. Neill draws him in the book.  There are also some nice stop-motion animation sequences, such as the auto-assembly of The Patchwork Girl and the table that sets itself in The Magic House.

But aside from the Woozy and some clever effects, the other fantastical elements in the film fall flat. While Baum’s odd fantasy societies work in the book, they come off as scary and grotesque in the movie. The Hoppers in the book each have one leg, but in the movie they look like people with both legs tied together.  When the Magician and the Patchwork Girl encounter them, they set out to cut off one of the Magician’s legs because only one-legged hoppers are allowed in their land.  The Patchwork Girl persuades them to cut one of her legs off instead, so we watch aghast while they hold her down and amputate.  The story makes it lighter than it sounds by having the Magician forthwith reattach her leg while out of sight of the Hoppers.  But the whole amputation motif comes off as disturbing.

There is another society call the Tottenhots, who look like a group of African tribesmen living like a prairie dog town. The movie does not do anything with the Tottenhots, just hits us with this brief, creepy image.  Worse yet is a society called the Horners who look like a bunch of middle aged guys in robes with their hair tied up in huge spiked horns.  They hold their bellies, which look like they all have baby bumps, while they laugh, and laugh, and laugh. I had to look in the book to see that they are “The Joking Horners,” which set my mind at ease a bit, because they just seem demented in the movie. In the book, the joke is that the Horners’ jokes aren’t very funny. The Horners acknowledge that it spoils a joke to have to explain it, but then they proceed to explain their jokes. A talking picture might have helped to make the Horner funnier, because this movie just makes them look sinister and demented.

The movie ends with the Scarecrow hooking up with the Patchwork Girl. It is intended as a touching scene, these two floppy misfits finding mutual love. If they weren’t so grotesque, like most everything else in this movie, maybe their love could have saved this mess. Alas, it doesn’t work out that way. Paramount dropped their distribution of the Oz films based on the poor performance of this one. With different distribution, they got a little play in 1917 with some modest success, but it was still almost 25 years before Hollywood would get behind Oz and give it the A-list treatment.