10 June 2008 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Mostly accurate, completely fascinating.
I'm a major fan of the wonderful series of Oz novels written by L. Frank Baum (and the sequels by other authors), so I'm sometimes irritated that so many people know Oz only through a certain MGM musical. Here, intriguingly, we get a documentary which attempts to give an overview of the entire Oz phenomenon.
It's not widely known that there were at least FOUR film versions of 'The Wizard of Oz' before that MGM movie. We see here a brief clip of a live-action silent version from 1925, featuring Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodman. I wish that this documentary had mentioned a crucial fact about that silent film: two of the farmhands on Dorothy's Kansas farm accompany her to Oz, where they disguise themselves as a scarecrow and a tin man. Many of the plot points that are supposedly original to the 1939 movie (such as the farmhands reappearing in Oz as fantasy figures) actually came from earlier film versions of the same story. A 1910 'Wizard of Oz' movie features talking trees with faces: again, anticipating the MGM film. This documentary doesn't mention the 1910 film, but does include a brief clip from a 1933 colour animated adaptation of 'The Wizard of Oz'.
The talking heads here are an interesting bunch. Ray Bradbury and Erica Jong are merely commenting as Oz fans, without having contributed to the series. Fairuza Balk starred as Dorothy in 'Return to Oz', a 1985 sequel that was deeply disturbing and intelligent ... so, of course it failed at the box office. A couple of Baum's relations are here, including his granddaughter Ozma (named for Oz's fairy princess). Diana Ross, star of 'The Wiz', weighs in, as do Jack Haley Jnr and Liza Minnelli (standing in for guess who).
Ray Bolger gives a brief interview here: due to his declining health, he is filmed lying in bed with the camera pointing straight down at him. He claims that his contract with MGM guaranteed him the role of the Scarecrow (in that '39 movie). In fact, it's now well-known that Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Scarecrow (he would have been perfect!) and Bolger was cast as the Tin Woodman, but when Bolger saw the costume he was expected to wear (a bunch of stiff cylinders, with diapers so he wouldn't have to take the cozzy off for bathroom breaks!), he bullied Ebsen into swapping roles with him. Ebsen nearly died when he inhaled the metallic make-up designed for the Tin Woodman's role.
The most intriguing participant in this documentary is an elderly lady who rejoiced in the name Romola Remus; as a child actress in 1908, she actually worked with L. Frank Baum in his own film studio dedicated to producing silent films of his fantasy stories. Ms Remus also holds the record for greatest gap between her IMDb credits. (One in 1908, one in 1985; that's the lot.)
Also, we get a fascinating clip from the Walt Disney vault. In the mid-1950s, Disney and the Mouseketeers attempted to film an original musical -- 'The Rainbow Road to Oz' -- loosely based on the Oz novels. We see two production numbers, clearly filmed on a soundstage. Singing and dancing as Dorothy Gale, Darlene Gillespie -- with her blonde hair and Canadian accent, and dressed in a fetching pinafore -- looks and sounds more like Alice in Wonderland. 'The Rainbow Road to Oz' was never completed, due to legal tangles.
At one point, we're told that Baum's mother-in-law allegedly urged him to write down and publish the Oz tales that he told to his sons. That story is indeed a Baum family legend, but it's not true: Baum had written and published several other children's books (including a couple illustrated by the great artist Maxfield Parrish) before he wrote 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz'.
TRIVIA NOTES: L. Frank Baum's wife was an ardent feminist who campaigned for women's suffrage, with her husband's full support. When Baum died in 1919, his last words were "Now we can cross the Deadly Desert" ... a reference to the barrier surrounding the Land of Oz (in his novels, but not in that 1939 movie).
I heartily enjoyed 'The Whimsical World of Oz' (except perhaps for its wince-worthy title). Not only is this documentary full of (mostly) accurate information about the Oz universe, it's also very entertaining for children and adults. I rate this a full 10 out of 10. Most importantly, this documentary is a vital corrective for anyone who thinks that a certain MGM movie is the main embodiment of Oz.