Yesterday when I was posting everyone’s Day One entries, I realized something: It’s not only the eightieth anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, but the hundredth anniversary of L. Frank Baum’s death. Obviously, we wouldn’t be talking about this classic film right now if it wasn’t for this man.
Baum was ahead of his time in a lot of ways. He was always coming up with ideas and schemes, not all of which panned out. Some were more out of left field than others, such as Baum’s debut book, a manual devoted to the care of Hamburg chickens. Others, like Baum’s Bazaar, a luxury store Baum opened in Aberdeen, South Dakota, lasted until a depression hit the area.
Primarily, Baum loved to entertain, and once his Oz books became successful, he started a film company in Chicago, producing movies set in the universe he created. Most of the films Baum produced during his life have not survived, but what we have is eye-popping.
The first time Oz was brought to the screen was in 1908, in Baum’s Fairylogue and Radio Plays. Sorta. According to Aljean Harmetz, the Fairylogue was a touring multimedia presentation in which Baum would advertise his books. Basically, it was a live infomercial before infomercials were a thing. Unfortunately, the production bled Baum’s coffers dry after only three months because it was way too expensive. Very little survives of the show except for a few stills.
The last project produced by Baum’s Chicago film company is the 1910 version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It draws a lot from the stage version of Oz, featuring some characters that weren’t in the book.
We have no reliable information about the production; in fact, it’s a source of debate among historians. The film is almost laughingly hilarious, but it’s prescient in that it shows Baum always had a film version of his best-loved book in mind.
Anyway, the Scarecrow (Robert Z. Leonard) meets Dorothy (Bebee Daniels) right before the cyclone hits, and then he, Dorothy, Toto, a cow named Imogene, and a mule named Hank are whirled away via haystack to Oz.
In this version, the Emerald City is ruled by a horrible witch named Momba (Winiefried Greenwood). She can’t be all that bad, though, because our first sight of her kingdom shows about a dozen chorus girls dressed as soldiers happily tripping the light fantastic. Meanwhile, the Wizard (Hobart Bosworth), who’s been dethroned as the king of Oz, proclaims he’s tired of being king, and he’s a humbug anyway, so he wants to go back to Omaha.
Meanwhile, Glinda the Good Witch turns Toto from a cute little terrier into a guy in a dog suit, and as our friends are on their way to the Emerald City, Mombi shows up to greet (read: eliminate) the newcomers. Spoiler alert: Dorothy makes the witch disappear by throwing a bucket of water over her, and the grand finale happens when Dorothy and the group reach the Emerald City. Among other schtick, the Scarecrow gets spaghetti legs like another, more famous strawman we could mention.
Baum made the 1910 film to fulfill a contract, and his film career was over for the time being.
After Baum and his wife, Maud, moved to Hollywood, Baum started another film company called The Oz Film Manufacturing Company, based in Santa Monica. Most of the films are either lost or are too degraded to show publically, and the company failed after about a year. However, a couple of movies survived, one being 1914’s His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz.
Oh, golly. This story is from the Scarecrow’s point of view, but it still contains a lot of familiar Wizard of Oz moments, and Baum used it as source material for a novel of the same name. Dorothy comes to Oz, they free the Tin Man and meet the Lion, and make their way to the Emerald City.
However, the film also includes a scene from the book in which the group is punting across a river, when the Scarecrow gets stuck on the rod. Unlike the book, though, he falls in, where he meets mermaids who carry parasols. The Scarecrow visits for a bit before going back up the pole, where a giant raven rescues him.
The Wizard takes up a big chunk of airtime in the film as well, because our group needs saving from the Witch Mombi (Mae Wells), who’s out to take over Oz. She sabotages Princess Gloria (Vivian Reed), who’s fallen in love with Pon (Todd Wright), the gardener, by turning her heart to ice. Then she turns Pon into a kangaroo. Her Highness wanders through the movie gazing imperiously at everyone and everything, while Pon hops around helplessly.
Never fear, though, because the Wizard (J. Charles Hayden) has a mighty big bag of tricks. He imprisons Mombi in a can of “Preserved Sandwitches,” before shrinking it down and stashing it in his coat pocket. He tells Mombi he’ll let her out if she frees the Princess from the spell. Will Mombi agree? Hmmm…
Also released in 1914 was The Magic Cloak of Oz, based on Baum’s serial, Queen Zixi of Ix. The film is what we would call a spinoff today, and follows a brother and sister, Bud (Violet MacMillan) and Fluff (Mildred Harris), after Bud becomes King of Noland. They had gone to the town because their aunt needed to find a job. In tow is their mule and faithful friend, Nickodemus (Fred Woodward), who’s as loyal as most mules are stubborn.
Bud wins the throne via plain old luck of the draw–he’s the forty-seventh person to pass through the gate of the city of Noland. At first Bud and Fluff are in seventh heaven, skipping court assemblies to go buy toys and having an absolute ball.
Even without Bud’s new kingship, Fluff is doing very well for herself. The fairies give her a magic cloak that grants a wish to the owner. If the cloak is ever stolen from Fluff, it won’t be magic anymore.
What happens next? The inevitable. Princess Zixi (Juanita Hansen) is a beautiful, rather narcissistic woman who looks young but is actually pushing seven hundred, a fact she’s reminded of every time she looks in the mirror. It’s her punishment for offending an unidentified higher power. Zixi steals the cloak from Fluff because she wants to lift the curse.
Just to keep things fun, the Rolly Rogues invade Noland in search of a new kind of soup, and Bud and Fluff have to get the cloak back from Zixi. Oh, and Nickodemus rescues a little girl, Mary, from a pack of wolves and witnesses a slapfight between a lion and a zoop (a type of primate). Can’t make this up. Oh wait, Baum did.
There were a couple of reasons Baum’s films failed. Distribution was a problem, not to mention movies weren’t considered a suitable place to take children. If Baum had been born a few decades later, the outcome might have been different. Hiring more competent directors might have been a boon, too.
Baum didn’t live to see later screen adaptations of Oz. He died of a stroke on May 6, 1919. However, Maud was around for the dreadful 1925 film, and later, the 1939 classic that we’re celebrating this weekend. She seemed to enjoy the attention that her departed husband’s film was getting, and was photographed having lunch with Judy Garland.
There’s also a Paul Harvey-esque, stranger-than-fiction story that goes along with Maud’s involvement with the film. When it came to the coat worn by Professor Marvel, the producers wanted shabby chic. A rack of coats was brought in from a thrift shop, and Frank Morgan selected an elderly Prince Albert-style velvet coat that fit like a glove. He wore the coat for much of the film.
By chance one day, Morgan turned out the coat’s pockets, and written on the inside of one, he found a name: L. Frank Baum.
Maud confirmed that the coat was her husband’s, and was presented with it after filming wrapped. Costumer Mary Mayer remembered that people thought the story was too good to be true, but in a sense it’s completely natural. It was almost as if the author had given the film his blessing in spite of passing on twenty years previously.
Baum had very much wanted Oz to be a movie, because he loved entertaining children. He tried hard during his lifetime to make Oz successful onscreen, but it was a dream deferred. For nearly a century, the 1939 film has delighted audiences the world over, so it’s pretty safe to say Baum got his wish.
For more Oz goodness, click here. Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow…
Fricke, John, with Jay Scarfone and William Stillman. The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History. New York: Warner Books. 1989.
Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. New York: Alfred K. Knopf. 1977.
L. Frank Baum, the Man Behind the Curtain. Narrated by Mark Bramhall. Written by Frederick Bailey. Sparkhill Production, 2005.