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Still from the 1910 Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Via the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Still from the 1910 Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Via the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

March 28, 2013

The MGM movie musical version of The Wizard Oz is so firmly rooted in our popular culture as an incomparable movie classic that is difficult to conceive of other versions of the story on screen. But, in addition to recent entries such as Oz the Great and Powerful this year and 1985’s Return to Oz, there were actual several Oz films made before the iconic 1939 film.

With its publication in 1900, Oz had been in the public conscience for almost 40 years before the MGM musical. Oz has always had a life outside the children’s book that started the craze and its sequels. L. Frank Baum traded on his experience as an actor and playwright to produce an Oz drama very early after the 1900 publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  However, he had trouble finding anybody to stage the work. The show was finally picked up by Chicago director Julian Mitchell with the caveat that he could change the show as he saw fit.

Mitchell turned Oz into a musical extravaganza with a radically different, more adult plot than the book. It ran from 1902 to 1909 and made a fortune. It was on Broadway starting in 1903. The show made Baum rich, far beyond what he could make from the books alone.

The first Oz movies were Baum’s Fairylogue and Radio Plays, an unusual multimedia production combining live actors, hand tinted magic lantern slides and film, which ran in 1908.  Unfortunately, the production, in which Baum heavily invested and starred in himself as the Wizard and narrator, went bankrupt and closed before it could finish its projected run.  It was very popular wherever it went, but the production costs were too expensive to allow for a profit to be made. The films were done in conjunction with the Selig Polyscope Company, the first film studio in southern California, which made movies from 1896 to 1918, starting in Chicago and then moving to the Los Angeles area. The Selig Polyscope Company also made the earliest surviving Oz film, their 1910 film, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The 1910 movie seems to draw on the stage musical tradition more than being based on the book, because the characters keep breaking into dance and there are several scenes with chorus lines of dancing girls that add nothing to the story. It is not a very coherent fantasy story, because Dorothy actually finds the scarecrow in Kansas before they ever get to Oz, and he inexplicably comes to life while still in Kansas. They get blown to Oz, along with a couple people dressed in cow suits, taking refuge from the cyclone in a haystack.

Toto starts out looking a lot like the 1939 Toto, but Glinda the Good Witch changes him into a more efficient protector of Dorothy by magically making him almost as big as the lion, so Toto spends most of the movie not as a terrier, but as a person in a silly dog suit.

The Wizard is portrayed as being held prisoner in Oz and forced to serve as King by a character named Momba the Witch, and all he wants to do is return to Omaha in his balloon, which he finally does later in the movie.

Dorothy destroys the Witch with a pail of water, just like the story we all know, except that instead of melting, she just sort of vaporizes — I guess it was an easier special effect to pull off.  Dorothy refuses the crown of Oz and it is given to the Scarecrow.

A 1933 Technicolor cartoon exists, this time retitled — like the movie The Wizard of Oz, with the “wonderful” left out. L. Frank Baum’s eldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum, had some involvement in the production of this animated short feature. The innovation of starting with the Kansas scenes in black and white and transforming to color when the characters arrive in Oz began with this film.

Unfortunately, since the film was produced without proper licensing from the Technicolor Corporation, a lawsuit blocked the release of the film in color. This animated short has the usual 1930’s animation preoccupations with silly antics performed by animals and sight gags in general.  It is only marginally related to the Wizard of Oz books. The cyclone in Kansas is depicted convincingly. Then, Dorothy and Toto fall out of the sky and land on the Scarecrow, bringing him to life. The Tin Man is reanimated with some oil. Toto is not very lovable, kind of a Disney-esque Pluto-like character. The Cowardly Lion is noticeably absent. The Wizard is rather macabre and malevolent-appearing, but all he really does when they catch up with him is perform a bunch of magic tricks, and then the film is over.

After the magic tricks start, there is no resemblance to any Wizard of Oz plot-line. The film has a few clever sight gags, such as 1930’s animated films revel in, such as the moment when the scarecrow tips his hat and a flock of crows flies out.

When the Broadway and traveling musical version of Oz ended at the end of the decade, L. Frank Baum found himself with a tighter money situation again around 1910.  He had been over-wintering at the Hotel del Coronado since about 1903, but in 1910 he settled in southern California in what became Hollywood.  Even though the Fairylogue and Radio Plays had lost him lots of money, he was determined to bring Oz to the movies.  Toward that end, he started the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, an independent film studio, in 1914.  The company made three Oz films but, while the films were critically well received, there were financial problems, and the company folded in 1915.

We’ll take a look at the Oz Film Manufacturing company’s films in our next post.