WIZARDS OF OZ
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
In the introduction to the 1st edition of his Oz series published in 1900, L. Frank Baum catagorically stated that .. ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.’ To what extent this proved true is fairly debatable, given that Oz has always had it’s fair share of dark imagery, but whatever Baum sought to eliminate from the traditional children’s tale, MGM whacked straight back in again for it’s Judy Garland 1939 revamp.
Margaret Hamilton’s horrifically scary Wicked Witch all by herself outdoes the creepy Child-Catcher of ‘Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang’, and rivals even Elm Street’s Freddie Kruger for sheer nastiness. Let alone the parade of manically grinning flying blue monkeys, disturbing tuneful midgets and loomingly devilish visage of the flame shrouded Wizard. Lyman Frank Baum worked variously as a reporter, newspaper editor, salesman, theatrical manager and actor, before turning to writing. Penning a stage play ‘The Maid of Arran’ in 1882, a treatise on chickens (curiously entitled ‘The Book of the Hamburgs’), contributed to ‘The Show Window’, a monthly magazine for window dressers, before eventually embarking on ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, followed by more than twenty further children’s books (fourteen of them Oz sequals).
Although attributed individually to Baum, Oz was actually a joint effort of sorts, being one of the first ‘Picture Books’ written in collaboration with an Illustrator, where the text and image are produced in unison, mutually complimenting eachother, in a fore-runner to the comic book. The artist in question was William Wallace Denslow, an editorial cartoonist with an eye for caricature & the decorative Art Nouveau style. It was Denslow who set the visual style for Oz cinema that was to follow, particularly the dramatic switch to colour that has been attributed to the makers of the 1939 MGM film. Denslow sepia-toned his Illustrations for ‘The Grey World’ of Kansas in the opening chapter, before graduating into green, blue & yellow for the world of Oz.
W.W. Denslow’s Illustrations 1899
As you’d expect, Dorothy and her travels in that Wonderful Land of Oz haven’t evaded analysis from the nitpicking Freudians and political analysts. Some learned souls (Salman Rushdie for one) have labelled Baum a Theosophist, deifying women and mystifying nature.. others hold that he was a misogynist, demonising womankind into Wicked Witches and transforming the Suffragete movement into an army intent on wreckling order and subverting civilisation. Dorothy is escaping from her mother’s domination, in the form of Aunty Em (‘M’ for mother apparently..), and seeking to kill her at the same time (the Witch is another aspect of Mother y’see.. are you keeping up?), domineering tornedos ..and the Tin Man has that big axe too.. let’s not go there. As far as Baum was concerned, he was merely writing a simple adventure story, and given the comparative simplicity and decided unambiguity of the piece when considered alongside that motherlode of Freudianism gone wild, Alice in Wonderland, Baum seem as innocent as his pigtailed heroine.
A much clearer theme running through Oz, is that of Baum’s interest in the contrast between reality and fantasy. The comparisons between the ‘Grey World’ – dustball Kansas, and the artifice of Oz as metaphor for colourful consumerism, which grew out of his old interest in Shopwindow display. We see this best in the novel itself, when Dorothy and her band of dysfunctional friends (the cowardly lion, brainless Scarecrow and Tin Man without a heart) discover that the ‘All Powerfull, Terrible Wizard of Oz’ is nothing more than a Flim-flam. A little old man, not from Oz at all, but blown into town in a balloon of hot-air, hiding behind a smoke & mirrors illusion of size and grandeur. Echoing Clarence Darrow’s infamous ‘Monkey Trial’ speech from ‘Inherit the Wind’, where Spencer Tracy compares the paint, spit & polish covering an old rotten rocking horse in a toyshop window, to the hollow nature of Christianity and religious power. Shiny and solid looking from without, but collapses into dust upon closer inspection.
THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ
Bebe Daniels / Hobart Bosworth / Eugenie Besserer / Robert Z. Leonard / Winifred Greenwood / Lillian Leighton / Olive Cox / Produced by William Nicholas Zelig / Directed by Otis Turner
Unlike Lewis Carroll, Baum was close enough to the mechanical age to personally oversee the adaptation of his brainchild to the medium of film, albeit in fairly clunky, amateurish fashion. Baum set up his own early Production Company that released both theatrical versions (all singing, all dancing), and one & two Reelers for early cinema audiences. The results were homemade affairs looking more like fancy dress than anything of real substance, but audiences were enchanted with these early possibilities. One of the earliest surviving adaptations has a ten year old Bebe Daniels as Dorothy, and some fun set designs that quite effectively reflect the illustrative style set by the books.. but sidestep the witch elements of the plot. Baum himself died in 1919, just as Cinema was beginning to take full flight with the visual imagination of fantasy, but he still managed to have a stab at producing films himself.
THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ
Violet Macmillan / Frank Moore / Raymond Russell / Leontine Dranet
Produced by L. Frank Bahm / Directed by J. Farrell MacDonald
The 1923 version holds the distinction of being produced by none other than Baum himself for his ‘Oz Film Manufacturing Company’, a tale complete with new Emerald City characters (a boisterous donkey named ‘Mewel’, and the lonesome ‘Zoop’).. though it was little more than a playful curiosity piece really, with little of interest beyond the exceedingly pretty Violet Macmillan. Violet went on to appear in a further Oz sequel ‘The Magic Cloak of Oz’, and even starred in a complete series of films written and produced by Baum called ‘Violet’s Dreams’, where she played a narcoleptic adventuress named Claribel, who embarks upon various fantastical adventures in her own dreamland. Sadly this entire series is now lost.
THE MAGICAL CLOAK OF OZ (1914)
~’It’s a whirlwind of laughter, pathos and illusion Be a Woozy; Be Square!’~
WIZARD OF OZ
Larry Semon, Dorothy Dwan, Mary carr, Virginia Pearson, Bryant Washburn, Josef Swickard, Charles Murray, Oliver N. Hardy, William Hauber, William Dinus, Frank Alexander, Otto Lederer, Frederick Ko Vert / Costume Design Frederick Ko Vert / Art Direction Robert Stevens / Editing Sam Zimbalist / Cinematography Frank B. Good / Produced I. E. Chadwich / Directed Larry Semon
Larry Semon is one of Silent Cinema’s great mysteries. A contemporary comedian of Chaplin & Keaton’s, Semon started out as a newspaper cartoonist, before taking the leap into clowning in Moving Pictures. Writing and directing his own comedies, he soon found himself earning that great bench-mark of success, a million dollars.. placing him on a level alonside Chaplin. The mystery lies in one crucial point.. Semon’s comedic skills seem (even to the kindest of critique) to be pretty poor, at least as far as his surviving films seem to indicate. You find yourself feeling rather sorry for the poor chap, but he really was pretty bad.. Reading the opinions of Chaplin and other contemporaries, we sense a similar embarrasment and incredulity. A little like Jim Carey perhaps (I’m sure there’s someone out there who likes Jim Carey? Hello, whoever you are..) Maybe I’m being unfair, there may well be a lost Semon film out there that is achingly funny, waiting to be rediscovered..but I somehow doubt it. Sorry Larry.
Semon’s Wizard of Oz is a really odd kettle of fish. Forgetting the fact that it’s unfunny (I’ll have to stop saying that, I’m feeling Larry’s ghost huffing behind me), it’s frankly more than a bit disturbing. The story is told by a grandfather Baum type figure who is reading The Wizard of Oz to his grandaughter in the real world. We open proper in the Emerald City of Oz, where we are told that the corrupt Prime Minister Kruel (we know he’s a bit dodgy due to his hammy lopsided expressions) is trying to find the true aire to the throne of Oz, a Princess named Dorothea, who has been hidden far from him, but destiny maintains is set to return and reclaim her birthright upon her eighteenth birthday. The people of Oz are getting restless with having to put up with a despot, so Kruel get’s his Wizard to produce a dancing girl to take their mind off of their troubles. The dancing girl in question is Frederick Ko Vert, a somewhat well known female Impersonator of the day, who proceeds to make disturbing faces at the camera, exposing the whites of his eyes to an alarming, almost painful degree, and saunters around unnervingly, scaring the hell out of the audience. Quite what Semon had in mind here, your guess is as good as mine.
Cut to Kansas, and the first fully fledged screen Dorothy, played by Larry’s wife Dorothy Dwan, who plays the part half coquettish child-woman and half sultry seductress… which sits as a somewhat suspect combination somehow. Oliver Hardy (pre-L&H) plays a heavy who competes with Larry for Dorothy’s affections. We’re introduced to Larry with a series of quite bewildering japes concerning eggs, hose pipes and lots of running around, which must have seemed lame even at the time. There is one scene that makes us sit up and pay attention though, and it’s actually pretty damned good. A rather well conceived shot of Dorothea’s house being tossed about by the tornedo, carrying all to Oz. That said, if this had been made in 1915, around the time of the Chaplin two reelers, then it would be quite astounding, but since it was contemporary with Douglas Fairbanks’ ‘Thief of Bagdad’, this Oz was old fashioned and creaky even by standards of the day.
We’re well over two thirds of the way in before we see any of the other Oz characters appear, and even then they’re just a dolled up Semon and painted Hardy (plus an uncomfortably steriotypical black farmworker in fancy dress), a dual roleplaying that is fleshed out so nicely in the later MGM version. Before the story can get any more tangled and convoluted, the little girl who is being read to by Grandpa Semon get’s bored and wanders off to play with a toy Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion.. taking us with her.
Semon’s Wizard of Oz bankrupted the poor fellow, and failed to launch his wife’s career to any great extent. Just three years later Semon died and remains little remembered, save for Oz, which ironically was probably his worst film. Although several thousand miles from Baum’s book, Semon did incorporate aspects of the original story largely omitted by the Garland version. Principally that Dorothy is a lost Princess of Oz, an aspect of Dorothy’s character that carried across the Baum novels, and doesn’t resurface with any real gravity in an Oz production till the 2008 Tin Man series more than 80 years later.
THE WIZARD OF OZ
Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Hayley, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Gladys W. Allison, John Ballas, Josefine Balluck & Terry the dog / Make-up Jack Dawn / Set & Design Edwin B. Willis & Cedric Gibbons / Editor Blanche Sewell / Cinematography Harold Rosson / Produced Mervyn LeRoy / Directed Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe & King Vidor
Lions and tigers & munchkins, oh, my!
Finally, a cinematic adaptation with some gusto arrives to both entertain and scare the proverbial pants off it’s audience in equal measure. It took the combined efforts of MGM’s finest creative cream and somewhere in excess of $2,777,000 to bring Baum & Denslow’s picturebook Oz to the screen. Baum had already laid the groundwork with his stage versions, even writing & producing a popular musical version that had a very healthy run at the turn of the century. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer cracked the whip, and over the six months between autumn 1938 and the spring of 1939, the production burned up four Directors (including Victor Fleming and King Vidor) poisoned it’s Tin Man (Buddy Ebson), turned it’s leading lady into a drug addict and withstood swarms of rowdy Munchkins reeking drunken havok across the MGM lot. Still, as Baum put’s it, ‘It is a long journey, through a country that is sometimes pleasant and sometimes dark and terrible.’
For the first time an adaptation of the picturebook was to tackle a key element of Baum & Denslow’s vision – the transition from ‘The Grey World’ of Kansas to the vivid colours of Oz. A literal jump from hard edged B&W to colour was considered too jarring, so as with Denslow’s original illustrations, the decision was made to shoot the first (Kansas) section in sepiatone. The house is of course the means by which we move between the two worlds, so great effort was made to join the two with a careful reveal.
That gorgeously effective flying house sequence was performed easily enough, by dropping a darling little model of Dorothy’s house from high up in the studio rafters, and letting it glide down to it’s demise on the dust strewn studio floor below. Run backwards, the house arcs and pitches nicely back into place obscuring the lens, and striking us square in the eye. Setting up nicely for our arrival in Oz, the sense of a coming change (the shift to colour), and marking the death of The Wicked Witch of the East (crushed by the impact). As Dorothy opens the front door we are already shooting in colour, the lighting kept low, and the interior of the house a uniform grey.. even Dorothy’s dress seems lighter in shade.. then colour floods in through this domestic portal. The effect upon audiences programmed to accept B&W cinema must have been a real revelation of wonder.
‘I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore..’
‘And now, my beauties, something with poison in it, I think. Something with poison in it, but attractive to the eye, and soothing to the smell. Poppies… Poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep. Sleep..’
Baum’s Dorothy of course was meant to be nine or ten years old, but along with popular cinema’s need to reinstate the darker aspects of the traditional fairytale, Hollywood increased Dorothy’s age to round about sixteen with this version, although the adults in the story treat her a little younger. Initially MGM toyed with the idea of a more glamorous Dorothy. Costume, hair and make-up tests were instigated with this image in mind, before settling on a compromise floating somewhere inbetween.
Martin Scorsese’s excellent 80’s Black-comedy ‘After Hours’ offered up a disturbing and droll take on the confusion tied to Dorothy and this new ambiguous sexual maturity.. ‘My husband was a movie freak. Actually, he was particularly obsessed with one movie, “The Wizard of Oz.” He talked about it constantly. I thought it was cute at first. On our wedding night, I was a virgin. When we made love – you’ve seen the movie, haven’t you? Well, whenever he – you know, when he came …he would scream out, “Surrender Dorothy!” That’s all! Just “Surrender Dorothy!” Instead of saying something normal like, “Oh, God,” or something normal like that. I mean, it was pretty creepy! And I told him I thought so, but he just, he just couldn’t stop.. ‘
The characterisation of The Wicked Witch presented similar problems. Once again the push came for a more glamorous, Vamp image rather than the traditional old crone, made ever more popular by the Witch in Disney’s Snow White. Beautiful women get ‘bums on seats’, and with that in mind pretty Gale Sondergaard was brought onboard. Considering the popularity of the ‘Sexy Witch’ that has re-emerged in recent years (Pfeiffer in ‘Stardust’, Kidman & Bullock in ‘Practical Magic’..) the idea wasn’t all that daft, but test shots for Miss.Sondergaard met with much shaking of heads.. attempts were made to make her ‘a little bit ugly’, with a few blemishes here and there, but in the end they scrapped the whole idea and got themselves the real thing. Margaret Hamilton -it’s not unfair to say- was a hard faced character actress who was born to play the Wicked Witch of the West. True, she wasn’t quite as frightening to look at as she appeared in Oz (Green make-up and an extra pointy-nose exageratted things), but she had just what was needed to reinject the darkness of the traditional European folk-tale (that Baum had worked so hard to remove). You’ll be hard put to find a more convincing cine nemesis, especially one who manages the feat with merely a dab of green paint and a pointy hat. You certainly won’t find her so vividly depicted in Baum’s books either.
Margaret Hamilton – “I was in a need of money at the time, and my agent called. I said ‘yes?’ and he said ‘Maggie, they want you to play a part on the Wizard.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh Boy, The Wizard of Oz! That has been my favorite book since I was four.’ And I asked him what part, and he said ‘The Witch’ and I said ‘The Witch!’ and he said ‘What else?'”
‘I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do!’
1st choice for the role of Wizard was W.C.Fields (a natural, can you imagine?), but I believe he was a little too expensive, so a more than acceptible Frank Morgan took up the role, a fine actor, already familiar to audiences in the guise of numerous dithering Professors, Colonels, Lords, & Kings. Morgan was required to play an assortment of roles (a dream Peter Sellers role!), including that of a coach driver, Guard, Gatekeeper, Wizard & Professor Marvel back in Kansas. Dancers Ray Bolger and Jack Hayley provided their dancing skills for the Scarecrow & Tinman, and Bert Laht brought a little Jimmy Durante style humour to The Cowardly Lion. As with The Wizard, they all have their alternates in Kansas, so as to pull the – ‘Oh, well.. it was all a dream’ trick at the close and take us back to grey reality. Perhaps if Dorothy had still been wearing the Ruby Slippers upon her return, the audience may have felt a little more uplifted leaving the cinema? The way those red slippers vanish from the Wicked Witch of the East’s curly toes, and reappear on Dorothy’s feet echoes charmingly in Powell & Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ ballet a decade later, combining Baum’s imagery with the fairytale darkness of Hoffman. Baum’s slippers were not red at all though, but rather silver.. I suppose to make them stand out as something special in both realms. Not colourful like everything else in Oz, not truly colourless like all in the ‘grey’ land of Kansas. Baum analysts say the silver slippers represent ‘..industrialisation, empty Capitalist promises and colonial pretensions toward bourgeois exoticism..’ but then they would, wouldn’t they?
‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!’
The ‘No place like home’ line is used as something of a spell or talisman here, Baum on the other hand gives us a marvelous bit of catch-22 logic on the relationship between fantasy and reality, but of course MGM omitted any such depth in favour of a solid two-dimensional interpretation of Oz.
SCARECROW – I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, grey place you call Kansas?
DOROTHY – That is because you have no brains..no matter how dreary and gray our homes are. We people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.
SCARECROW – Of course I cannot understand it.. if your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains
RETURN TO OZ
‘Return to Oz’ made in the mid 80’s attempted a closer association to the original books, with some charming results. The Scarecrow, Tinman & Lion are very much more in keeping with the original Denslow illustrations a century ago, and characters from the other Baum Oz books find their way in too..most notably ‘Tik-tok’ the Clockwork man. The most interesting thing that ‘Return’ manages to get across, is a darker feel, in regards to Dorothy’s connection with Oz. They keep the old Baum notion, that Dorothy is a lost Princess of Oz, but show her carted off to a Psychiatrist, who doubting Dorothy’s sanity attemps to ‘cure her condition’ with electric-shock treatment. A key difference is now apparent, whereby the films start to reference eachother – a link to the now iconic MGM version is established, by weaving the Psychiatrist and his evil assistant into the Oz realm in place of the evil neighbour/ old Wicked Witch nemesis. The design of ‘Return’ is especially noteworthy, The Emerald city is beautifully realised as a sort of gigantic, polished maze, akin to a Russian Royal Palace, or Minoan Labyrinth. It’s floors as reflective as the heavily ornamented walls & ceilings, creating a Matisse unity of floor, walls & ceiling.
With each succeeding interepretation, the cinematic Oz grows and morphs into a a more substantial realm, to such an extent that it’s become a piece of tradition to rival the very tales it sought to initially imitate. Oz has developed a life beyond it’s original creators, each generation has breathed life into it and taken it far beyond the original sum of it’s parts. Even Sidney Lumet’s dodgy ‘The Wiz’, with a worrying Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow adds spice to the blend. Oz truly has a creative life of it’s own.
DREAMY WANDER – 2007
A Short Film Starring Zooey Deschanel, Directed By Ellen Von Unwerth
When the makers of ‘TIN MAN’ were looking for their modern Dorothy, it’s a fair bet that someone put them onto Ellen Von Unworth’s trippy little short film ‘Dreamy Wander’, made to advertise Erin Fetherston fashion collection for 2007. Von Unworth’s quirky shorts have sparked quite a bit of interest over the past few years, (Wendybird’ with Kirstin Dunst for one), but Dreamy Wander is by far her best..mostly due to it’s star, the wonderfully individual Zooey Deschanel. The very essence of the modern Alice/Dorothy in Ozland. On the surface the first hook is the low fringed Lilly Allen style hairdoo and soulful, striking gaze, but what you don’t see, or rather ‘hear’, is Deschanel’s distinctive tone of voice. No pip-squeak or girlish giggle, but a steady headstrong depth, with a slight hint of..well..pothead. Check out her delightfully oddball Indie albums made in conjunction with musician M. Ward, under the name ‘Him and Her’.
Tales of the Wizard of Oz (1961) / The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1987) Canada / The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1987) Japan / The Wizard of Oz (1990-91) DiC Entertainment / Tom and Jerry & The Wizard of Oz (2011)
A whole host of animated versions of the Oz stories have popped up over the years, though mostly they’re direct imitations of the MGM film, rather than attempts at adaptation of the Baum novels themselves. What these cartoons do achieve though, is a sense of creating another Oz universe, since they have the ability to mold and shape the entire frame, starting from a blank page where every detail is an invention independent of real life. ‘Tales from the Wizard of Oz’, made during the early 1960’s was perhaps the closest that a cartoon has ever come to utilizing the imagery of the original illustrations by Denslow, although the actual style of the series was one of madcap fun, rather than storytelling in the strictest sense.
The 80’s and early 90’s brought long running adaptations with a closer attention to plot and characterization, but the flavour of these series felt quite separate from the cinematic worlds of Oz. One of the nicest homage pieces in recent years came from MGM in the form of a Tom & Jerry special, released as a direct-to video affair. ‘Tom and Jerry & The Wizard of Oz’, is a beautifully made little piece, that not only manages to capture some of the genuine magic of the 1939 version, but also achieves a pleasing warmth for the Tom & Jerry cartoons of the 40’s & 50’s themselves. Oddly enough we’re in Larry Semon territory, since T & J weave in and out of the main plot-line, protecting Dorothy, and getting into madcap trouble along the way (though with better gags, naturally). This dance around the rafters of a well known and much loved plot neatly echoes Tom Stoppard and his masterly play ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’, which wittily steps in and out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, without upsetting the intricate balance. Although this T & J version is a close homage, it does offer a rather nice difference, in it’s technicolour view of Kansas, with some splendidly majestic views.. even though the loss of the ‘Grey world Kansas’ does reduce the impact of their eventual arrival in a paintbox Oz.
One other thing to look out for is the old-fashioned quality of the animation, which appears to have been hand-drawn, rather than worked up on computer.. the result being a charming quality of characterization and heart, that modern Disney films sacrificed for quicker and slicker productions. That charming little wobble to the outlines of the animation seems to add a vibrancy that the more rigid and perhaps more sophisticated techniques miss out on. Animation is a magic trick on the senses, and sometimes too much polish rubs away the sparkle.
Zooey Deschanel, Alan Cumming, Neal McDonough, Kathleen Robertson. Raoul Trujilo, Callum Keith Rennie, Richard Dreyfuss, Blu Mankuma, Anna Galvin, Ted Whittal, Ian A. Wallace, Donny Lucas, Gwyneth Walsh, Rachel Pattee, Alexia Fast, Karin Konoval / Screenplays Jill E. Blotevogel, Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle / Art Direction Paolo G. Venturi / Soundtrack Simon Boswell / Editor Alan Lee / Cinematography Thomas Burstyn / Producer Robert Halmi Jr & Sr. / Director Nick Willing
Bringing us all the way to ‘Tin Man’, the rather intelligent summation of the whole century of Oz folklore, with some charming 21st Century twists added for good measure. Our new Dorothy Gale (D.G.) doesn’t sing, dance or skip merrily down yellow brick roads, her Oz is something of a darker, parallel Oz-universe. That’s not to say that this version disregards the Oz folklore, quite the opposite in fact, it’s more faithful to Baum than anything to date. Tin Man takes the key material and reinterprets it for a more sophisticated, modern audience. Playing on words and phrases to find secondary meanings, not unlike the word play in Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo+Juliet & Moulin Rouge. A Tin Man for example, is the street name for a Policeman in Oz, as in Tin badge.. the image given further significance when we first encounter our particular Tin Man (Neal McDonough) locked inside a standing metal Sarcofagus. Forced to watch an endlessly looped hologram of his familys murder played out before his eyes..a Tin man in a tin man. Swept up in a tornedo, Dorothy finds herself in an Oz eerily familiar to her, with a scarecrow of a man who’s brain has been stolen, a cowardly psychic Lion and a bitter, revenge seeking Policeman. All are off to see a mad old Wizard Richard Dreyfuss, before confronting D.G’s wicked older sister Azkadellia played by scrumptious Kathleen Robertson. We even get to meet the original silver slippered Dorothy in her Grey World.
I don’t want to go too far into this, because I’ll be spending a little more time on Tin Man over in the TV Section (Televisual Feasts – http://verdouxtv.wordpress.com/), but I was a little surprised that the critics who denounced it as having ‘nothing to do with the Wizard of Oz story’, clearly hadn’t actually read the original book. The MGM Judy Garland version was a fine film, but in only a superficial sense represents Baum & Denslow’s Picturebook that was a popular classic for 40 yrs before MGM adapted it for the screen. Tin Man updates, modernizes, but doesn’t denegrate the work. I think it’s a charming piece, greatly benefiting from it’s moderate budget and quality cast. I imagine they were a little annoyed at not being able to use ‘OZ.’ for the title, but with ‘The OC’ (Orange County) and ‘Oz’ (Oswald State Correctional Facility) already out there in TV land, they didn’t have much choice really. ‘D.G.’ would be a bit too obscure I suppose, although more appealing for those in the know. Shot as a feature length mini-series (three parts at an hour & a half each), and proved very popular with cult-Tv audiences, Tin Man nevertheless failed to evolve into a full length Tv series. Perhaps that’s a good thing, as the makers would have found it very tricky to keep a’hold of Zooey Deschanel since her star has risen so high, and let’s face it, we certainly don’t want another ‘Lost’ on our hands, with every exciting nuance stretched to breaking point and rubbed into the Kansas dust.
OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi / Screenplay Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay Abaire / Soundtrack Danny Elfman / Cinematography Peter Deming / Editing Bob Murawski / Production Design Robert Stromberg / Art Design John Lord Booth III / Producer Debbi Bossi, Grant Curtis & Josua Donen / Directed by Sam Raimi
Find yourself in Oz
All adaptations of the Baum Oz tales feature a fundamental division between the worlds of Kansas and that of the Land of Oz, whether it be a stylistic change, or one of colour. Director Sam Raimi’s ‘The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz’, not only keeps Kansas in grey tone black & white, but also locks our vision into a Tv ratio box with the cinema screen bare at either side. Upon reaching Oz our senses are not only relieved, but are genuinely thrilled by being released from a constrained vision, and the sudden ‘lights on’ of the colour rush. Of course such tricks are part and parcel of Hollywood’s continual effort to one up previous incarnations of successful ideas, but the effect is a pretty impressive one, and makes the garish colours of Oz somehow more bearable and forgiving.
Along with this familiar device of the colour shift, we also have dual characters echoed in both worlds, as they were beautifully done in the MGM version. Michelle Williams plays the Wizard’s love interest in the b&w section, then pops up as Glenda the Good Witch in Oz, and a crippled child seeking to be healed by the Wizard while in Kansas, appears as a damaged china doll in Oz. Whether there be pre-existing hints in any of the novels or not, the use of this ‘oh, perhaps it’s all a dream’ motif only really works for Dorothy, since if we backtrack to how the Wizard arrived in Oz himself, we have already accepted Oz as a reality. As is usual with any film that already has pre-existing cinematic adaptations bouncing around the public consciousness, key references to the films rather than the original literary source tend to come to the fore, even if they cease to make much sense to the present context.
Director Sam Raimi may seem a curious choice for Disney to seat at the helm of their Oz extravaganza, but if you consider the colourful witches of his Evil Dead trilogy, and more recently his hilarious, dark take on the terrors of Gypsy curses in ‘Drag me to Hell’, it’s not all that a madcap idea. There are more than few references to the Raimi universe squeezed in along the path, the most obvious of which being the stock appearance of Evil Dead’s iconic hero Bruce Campbell as a very ‘Ash’ styled Emerald City guard. Aside from his talent for discovering the darker humour in a tale, what Raimi does achieve with ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’, is a genuine warmth that doesn’t descend too deeply into sickly sentimentality. This is partly achieved by the inclusion of darker elements, but characters of pure good, such as the little china doll (voiced with much tenderness by Joey King), are so tenderly crafted that they genuinely move us.
Since ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ is a Disney production, there were several tricky copyright issues to tackle, mostly governing the yellow brick road (no spirals allowed!), and the Wicked Witch (no mole and no sneaky using that particular shade of Margaret Hamilton green!), but generally the world of Oz feels suitably familiar. Disney were eager to cash in on a fairy-tale movie that featured a good, strong male lead (though we principally still have a female dominated drama), and the box-office receipts seem to justify their investment in a flipping great wodge of cash. John Carter may not have achieved quite the success that Disney were hoping for (despite being a thoroughly enjoyable film), but their new Oz franchise is already set to make a sequel, though without Sam Raimi in the director’s chair, who knows if the boat will stay afloat.
‘Did those crows just say we’re gonna die?’