Young Dorothy discovers that the scarecrow on her family’s Kansas farm is alive. When a cyclone arrives, they are transported to the Land of Oz, where they meet a Tin Woodsman and a Lion. Travelling through a forest, they are captured by Momba the Witch…
L. Frank Baum began his career as an actor and writer in the theatre and was an unsuccessful storekeeper and newspaperman before hit the jackpot with his children’s novel ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900). It was launched with the help of a Broadway musical stage play, and eventually became a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, Baum’s financial acumen was not as great as his literary prowess and, after the failure of his ambitious stage version in 1908 (which incorporated excerpts of film), he was declared bankrupt in 1910. As part of the settlement, Baum lost the rights to some of his books and this film was produced without his input.
This 13-minute silent is the earliest surviving cinematic version of the story, with Baum’s 1908 footage being lost. It was loosely based on the original 1902 musical, although the story focuses far more on the conflict with the wicked witch. Obviously there are no songs, but there is one sequence where Dorothy does a few dance steps and the principals set off skipping two by two into the forest, although there’s no yellow brick road in evidence. Essentially what we get is a static camera shooting actors against painted studio backdrops that have very little depth, and animal costumes wouldn’t look out of place in the school pantomime.
As might be expected, what photographic effects there are recall the ‘stop the camera/start the camera’ tricks of French pioneer Georges Méliès, although there is a nice dissolve at one point as a character slowly vanishes. Costumes and settings are nowhere near as elaborate as Méliès’ creations, and it’s fairly obvious these filmmakers don’t possess his flair or expertise. The credits of the film are actually lost, and the identity of those involved is disputed by film historians. Otis Turner is usually given the nod as director but, more controversially, many believe that Dorothy was portrayed by a young Bebe Daniels. She played opposite Rudolph Valentino in ‘Monsieur Beaucaire’ (1924) and later became a star in early musical ’42nd Street’ (1932). Having married British actor Ben Lyon, the two relocated to England where they became stars all over again, along with members of their family, on radio, TV and film in the highly popular ‘Life With The Lyons’ show.
Of course, the film has little but curiosity value now, but there are some touches that are likely to raise a smile. Toto the Dog has been replaced by Imogene the Cow (apparently from the 1902 stage show), the Wizard produces doves from his top hat like a stage conjurer and his female assistants refuse to help him with his retirement plans because union rules mean they can’t work after noon.
Sequels quickly followed: ‘Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz’ (1910), ‘The Land of Oz’ (1910), and ‘John Dough and the Cherub’ (1910), all usually attributed to Turner as director. Unfortunately, to this date, they are all lost films. Baum regained the rights to his fictional world shortly afterwards, and formed his own film company, releasing three longer movies in 1914, one of which just about ran to feature length. Baum wrote 17 novels based in Oz, but his fortunes continued to fluctuate through the remainder of his life, mainly because of his love of bankrolling theatrical shows, several of which flopped. He died after a stroke in 1919.
An interesting fragment of film history, which may possess little merit in its own right, but was one of the important first steps down a very familiar road.