*Oz the Great and Powerful Is Neither of Those Things
Twenty minutes into the first full-length movie based on L. Frank Baum's most beloved novel, a duck pukes into the face of Larry Semon, the star and director. Semon's 1925 flop, titled The Wizard of Oz, opens and closes with a Geppetto-esque toymaker reading to his granddaughter from a well-loved copy of the first Oz novel.
This framing device is meant to assure us that the comic violence in between has something to do with the stories Baum wrote and children loved. But even that toymaker's grandkid isn't convinced. “I don't like that,” she complains, after a tiresome introduction focused on King Kruel and Lady Vishuss, bland new lordlings of Oz. “Read me about Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, and the Scarecrow.”
If only he would. Grandpa does read on, but what he offers his moppet is the stubbornly un-magical tale of Dorothy, the farmgirl/flapper who is lusted after by Kansas field hands, suffers the assaults of an abusive uncle Henry, and does not know she is the lost princess of Oz, the magical land her house finally gets tornadoed to just over halfway through this 125-minute disaster. Before that, we get many punishing scenes of barnyard slapstick, fat men falling (including a young Oliver Hardy!), and even a visit from those evil Ozlings, who descend on Kansas in a prop plane, wielding pistols and wearing black capes and Zorro hats. And we get duck puke– did the grandfather read that bit aloud? Does his copy of The Wizard of Oz contain errata?
Here's Semon's film in its entirety:
Indignities to look for:
12:10 Angry that she has picked some flowers, Uncle Henry threaten Flapper Dorothy with a switch.
12:50 A black field hand chows down on watermelon; a title card introduces the character as “Snowball” and identifies the actor playing him as “G. Howe Black.”
19:45 Meet the vomiting duck of Oz, dirtying the face of silent comedy star Larry Semon, who at the time of filming was already on his way to being forgotten. Flapper Dorothy is played by his wife, Dorothy Dwan.
38:00 Certainly the greatest dive off a granary tower in any Oz movie.
41:30 Here’s a racist stereotype that hasn't survived: Snowball does not notice that he is repeatedly struck by lightning.
42:30 The house finally begins to pitch.
51:00 Semon's field hand passes himself off as a scarecrow. In this adaptation, Dorothy's three most famous friends in Oz are, as in the beloved 1939 MGM musical, played by actors who appear in the Kansas sequences. The difference: Rather than fantastical beings, all three are just those field hands in disguise.
1:15:15 Staring down an actual lion, this movie's Cowardly Lion — that black field hand — pulls off an early version of the “Smooth Criminal” lean. (It also resembles a memorable move of the Tin Man's dance in the 1939 film.)
1:16:10 HOLY SHIT! DID HE REALLY DO THAT STUNT? HOLLYWOOD, WHY WOULD YOU MAKE PEOPLE DO THAT?!
There have been many Oz movies, but before the release of Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful there has been only one good one. (I don't/can't count The Wiz. For all its funky joyousness and keep-easin'-on communitarinism, I find a yellow-brick slog.) Raimi's grand adventure is the second. Like all Oz films before it, it's likely to be praised (or assailed) for its faithfulness (or lack thereof) to Baum's fourteen Oz novels.
Those novels, though, are themselves hardly faithful to each other. Which Oz is the true one? The Oz of the later Baum books, where it's a stone fact that nobody kills and nobody can die, or the Oz of the first, where the Tin Woodman hacks the heads off no fewer than forty wolves? Is it The Road to Oz, wherein the Tin Man explains that the kingdom has no currency and no class structure, as “no one in all Oz cares to have more than he can use,” or that of The Marvelous Land of Oz, in which the Scarecrow, having lost his straw, gets stuffed with cash and is deemed by the punning Woggle Bug now to be “the most valuable member of our party”?
Forever annoyed at the success of the Oz books compared to his many other children's novels, Baum continually retired from the series only to be lured back when low on cash. The second– and possibly best– novel, 1904's The Marvelous Land of Oz, followed four years after the first, and was dedicated to David C. Montgomery and Fred Stone, the musical theater actors who triumphed as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man in the 1902 Broadway adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The producers of that show added a romance for Dorothy, swapped out Toto for a cow, did away with the wicked witches. The Cowardly Lion remained, but only as a pantomime animal, which might explain why he was not at first a breakout character like the scarecrow and the Tin Man. In fact, when Baum penned his first Oz sequels, he hardly included the Lion at all — before Bert Lahr's for-the-ages 'fraidy-ness in the 1939 movie, the Lion was considered the least of Dorothy's BFFs.
So, Baum's second Oz book was directly shaped by ancillary media. That was often the case with the others: The Tin Man's name, Nick Chopper, comes from that first musical. In later books, Baum sometimes forced crossovers with characters from his less popular properties, like Queen Zixi of Ix. He tried writing sequels to the Broadway show, including one based on Ozma of Oz, the third Oz novel, but rights issues involved with the first show meant he couldn't use the Scarecrow or Tin Man; when the new play failed to move beyond its initial run in Los Angeles, Baum adapted that adaptation into the eighth Oz novel, Tik-Tok of Oz, the first in which his two most popular characters don’t turn up at all.
Between 1914 and 1915, Baum himself even wrote and produced a trio of short Oz films. In these, the wizard has genuine magical powers, and almost every scene features the strenuous dancing of pantomime animals. Here’s the most accomplished of these, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. Baum is credited as director.
The film and some choice images are below. Worth noting in it:
00:15 The smiling beauty is meant to be Ozma, the queen of Oz from the third book on. This brief shot of her face branded the three films produced by Baum's Oz Film Manufacturing Company.
7:10 The scarecrow is brought to life through the magic of a Native American spirit woman. That's, uh, not in the book.
8:40 Isn't Burger King still using that costume today?
12:50 The witch Mombi summons a batch of additional witches, who caper evilly for far too long.
16:20 Witches versus a pantomime horse!
20:40 As in the 1939 film, and almost all theatrical productions, the Scarecrow has some trouble walking at first.
29:40 The Tin Man chops the head off Mombi the witch, slightly perturbing her.
31:10 Flying monkey versus Cowardly Lion, who, again, is an un-talking pantomime animal.
35:00 After suffering an assault by a swordfish, the scarecrow is aided by a mermaid with an umbrella.
36:07 A great crow saves the Scarecrow; then, after some awkwardness, they dance.
46:00 At long last, we see the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion together.
48:40 The Wizard of Oz, now a magician of great power, cans and preserves the witch Mombi.
Despite such direct involvement by Oz's creator, the 1914-15 films still don’t feel much like what most viewers probably expect or want from an Oz adaptation. Raimi's film comes closer, I think, although it has its disappointments: the lavish 3-D chase scenes can drag, and the woman-spurned origin of its witch's wickedness would be weirdly retrograde even without the example of Wicked. (And why would Raimi cut short a from-nowhere musical number in Munchkinland when he allowed them to run so long in his last Spider-Man?)
Still, Oz the Great and Powerful shares three key qualities with the 1939 film and the best of the books themselves: An emphasis on odd friends who learn to work together; a smart balance of the fun and the scary; and the sense that Kansas practicality and decency will best all magic, no matter how powerful.
So, there’s no point in worrying about purity of vision in this newest film Oz. Or in Walter Murch’s undervalued but too-sinister Return to Oz, the 1985 film where Dorothy has PTSD and gets chased by wheeled extras from A Clockwork Orange. Or in Victor Fleming and King Vidor’s beloved MGM extravaganza, which itself introduced an idea entirely unfaithful to the books: The suggestion that maybe that place over the rainbow was all in Dorothy’s head. In Baum, that’s impossible: In The Emerald City of Oz Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry move to Oz themselves. In the movies, though, the possible madness of Dorothy is just another puking duck — another iffy idea that Oz can survive.
Speaking of puke: Savor this trailer and clip reel from the only Oz movie as bad as Semon's 1925 eyesore.
“You'll be Ozzified,” the narrator promises; it’s up to you whether or not that sounds like a threat. Surprisingly, Barry Mahon's stiff and rickety 1969 travesty The Wonderful Land of Oz is the Oz movie that is most by-the-book faithful to Baum, which shows you just how much fidelity is worth.
It plows straight through Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz, right down to the book’s peculiar politics of gender: At the climax, the hero, an orphan boy named Tip, gets transformed against his will into a princess, Ozma, who will rule over Oz for all the books to come. Meanwhile, General Jinjur, annoyed at the hegemony of men, leads her all-girl army against the Emerald City, deposing the Scarecrow — Oz's ruler after the first novel — and forcing men to do housework. (Less nobly, in the book, the girls also crave the capital’s emeralds, which they plan to use in jewelry and gowns. Worse, the revolutionaries get run off by a couple of field mice.)
The movie is a cramped, shadowy bore, staged and designed by budgetless amateurs. It's not at all helped by a lead who can't remember his lines and croons dirges with titles like “I Don't Want to Be a Statue” — that one could be an honest assessment of his performance. (The kid, Mahon's son, never again deigned to act.)
Despite committed performances from Jinjur and the Scarecrow, everything is slow and off, a nightmare played at the wrong RPM speed: Listen to the distant, strangled, echoing voice of Jack Pumpkinhead, who sounds like a kid down a well; gaze upon the great, google-eyed madness that is the face of the Highly Magnified Woggle Bug; watch the uncertain gait of each actor, as they pick their ginger ways across a cardboard fantasyland that one wrong step could bring crashing down.
Most importantly, watch the final 30 seconds of this collection of clips, and ask yourself, “What, if anything, did they cut?”
[You might not truly want to see this madness.]
[We are not responsible if you find yourself Ozzified.]
*Oz the Great and Powerful Is Neither of Those Things