The Wizard of Oz (1925)

The Wizard of Oz (1925)‘That’s a lot of applesauce!’

On her 18th birthday, farm girl Dorothy discovers that she is the lost princess of Oz, abandoned as a baby. Unfortunately, her kingdom is in the hands of an unscrupulous Prime Minister and his lackeys, who will stop at nothing to hang on to power.

If this silent version of L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy were released today, it would no doubt be described as a ’reimagining’ of the tale, as, despite Baum’s co-writing credit, it has almost nothing to do with him and almost everything to do with Larry Semon. He was a movie comedian, whose clowning in a series of short films was so popular that, in the early 1920s, he was a serious rival to Charlie Chaplin. By 1925, the star was confident enough to branch out into features, and to take on the role of writer, director and star for his first attempt.

While it’s no surprise that Semon tailored the material to his own slapstick persona, it is remarkable that he throws out almost everything from the popular stories. To begin with Oz doesn’t appear to be a magical land at all, appearing more like a neighbouring foreign kingdom of some sort, just a short bi-plane ride from the Kansas farm where Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) lives with her aunt and uncle. She’s being favoured with romantic attentions from both farmhand Oliver Hardy (yes, that Oliver Hardy!) and a wacky itinerant drifter played by Semon. Also home on the range is Spencer Bell, who is introduced sitting in a watermelon patch eating a slice of the fruit, because he’s a black man, right? Through various awkward plot machinations, the trio are obliged to disguise themselves as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion, and there’s no prizes for guessing who gets to play the king of beasts.

The Wizard of Oz (1925)

Duran Duran’s new album cover was a bold choice…

Apparently, this is little more than a compilation of Semon’s most popular gags from his short films. There’s no real effort at establishing characters and the humour is of the basic ‘banana skin’ variety that inexperienced audiences tend to associate with silent cinema. Even the Wizard is reduced to a peripheral character, who is exposed as a cheap confidence trickster anyway. Predictably fans of the books weren’t keen on Semon’s take, and even his fanbase wasn’t impressed. The film bombed and killed his career.

Just before the movie hit theatres, Semon married co-star Dwan (born Dorothy lllgenfritz), despite a 17-year age difference. Happiness did not follow. The flop left Semon almost penniless, and his life spiralled out of control, taking in a severe nervous breakdown before his death at the age of only 39 in 1928. However, the circumstances of his demise were somewhat mysterious, and some believed he faked his own death to escape his creditors.

Considering the failure of Baum’s own trio of film adaptations less than a decade before, it’s interesting to speculate what drew Semon to the material in the first place. True, he had some common ground with Baum, both of them were reckless spendthrifts who blew fortunes, but Baum always bounced back from his various bankruptcies while Semon was not so capable. It took until MGM’s Judy Garland version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) for someone to successfully adapt Baum’s work and get a return on their investment. Yes, despite what you may have heard to the contrary, it did not bellyflop on its initial release at all. On the contrary, it did decent, if unspectacular, box office and won 2 Oscars. Of course, it was subsequent re-runs on TV that elevated it to the classic status it enjoys today, but it was not originally the financial disaster that many commonly believe.

Baum’s own ‘Oz’ films may have been a little crude and unsuccessful but they exhibited a level of creativity and imagination that is sorely lacking from this adaptation. One for the curious only.

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His Majesty The Scarecrow Of Oz (1914)

His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz (1914)‘My name is Button Bright. I’m lost. I don’t know where I come from, and I don’t care.

The Princess of Oz falls in love with a gardener’s boy. Her father is incensed, and hires the old witch Mombi to freeze her heart. Kansas girl Dorothy is already a prisoner of the old crone and enlists a scarecrow to help her escape and foil the King’s dastardly schemes.

Children’s author L. Frank Baum enjoyed global success with his books set in the Land of Oz, but early films based on his work were made without his control, as he’d sold the rights for financial reasons. All those films are now lost, with the exception of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1910). When Baum reacquired the rights, he formed his own film company and released three silent features set in Oz, of which this was the last.

Inevitably, the plot is a simple one and has no shades of grey. We have lovely, innocent Princess Gloria (Vivian Reed) being forced into a loveless marriage by her dastardly father King Krewl (the clue’s in the name!) played by Raymond Russell. She’d much rather knock boots with Googly-Goo (Arthur Smollet) but he’s just a lowly serf and has a very silly name. Luckily, Dorothy (Violet MacMillan) and her friends, Scarecrow (Frank Moore), Cowardly Lion (Fred Woodward) and Tin Woodsman (Pierre Couderc) are on hand to make sure the course of true love runs smooth.

Director J. Farell MacDonald was behind the camera for all three of Baum’s ‘Oz’ movies, and it’s obviously he was learning all the time, as this is the most technically accomplished of the trilogy. There’s more location filming, different camera angles, and a better grip of narrative thanks to far more fluid editing. There’s even some primitive wire work with the flying witches, which might be easy to spot but was probably quite ambitious at the time. There’s also a surprisingly effective sequence where the Tin Woodsman decapitates Mombi (Mai Wells) only for her to put her head back on. This is shot against a darkk doorway, which allows for the actress to play ‘headless’ in a black bag. Pleasingly, it’s basically the same principle as was developed by SFX wizard Jack P Fulton for filming the ‘missing’ parts of Claude Rains in Universal’s ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933), although obviously that was a tad more sophisticated.

His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz (1914)

The restraining order hadn’t worked.

Performances are as you would expect, and we still get actors dressed as pantomime animals, although there is less of that than might be expected. Some of the cast drop props on a couple of occasions, and there’s a strange continuity gaff with the Scarecrow’s head, but l’m guessing that reshoots were not a priority and some of the footage may have been lost over time. It’s actually quite remarkable that all three of Baum’s films have survived mostly intact.

MacMillan was 29 years old when she played Dorothy, graduating from other roles in the previous two films in the series: ‘The Patchwork Girl of Oz’ (1914) and ‘The Magic Cloak of Oz’ (1914) in which she played a Munchkin Boy and the King of Noland respectively! Judy Garland was only 17 when she tackled the role and had no previous experience in Oz at all, so it’s obvious who was better qualified for the role. Predictably, many of the other cast members had parts in the other Baum films; although it seems that no-one ever played the same part twice. Director MacDonald quit the canvas chair in 1917 to concentrate on his acting career, which saw him play small parts in F W Murnau’s classic ‘Sunrise’ (1927), ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1931), ‘Show Boat’ (1936) and finish his career with ‘Superman and the Mole Men’ (1951)!

As you’ve probably gathered, this is pretty basic stuff, but certain aspects do have more sophistication and better technique than you might expect. Having said that, the films were not successful and the characters remained off-screen for ten years until Larry Semon’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1925).

Worth a look if you’re interested in the development of cinema and the early days of fantasy film.

The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914)

The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914)‘And silly old Zixi wanted to count the bears as people. The idea of bears as kings!’

The fairies of Oz weave a magical wishing cloak and give it to poor Bud and Fluff, a young boy and his sister who have lost their father. He wishes for happiness and, when they arrive in the kingdom of Noland, he is proclaimed monarch. Meanwhile, Queen Zixi of lx plans to steal the wonderful garment so she can restore her long lost youth…

L Frank Baum suffered various changes in fortune after acquiring worldwide success as the creator of the Land of Oz. His books made him rich, but he often lost money bankrolling theatrical shows which bombed. The result was that the film rights to his work were in and out of his hands during his lifetime. Things were obviously looking up in 1914 as he formed his own production company and began shooting on ‘The Patchwork Girl of Oz’ (1914). However, it would appear things did not go smoothly from a technical point of view and delays resulted in work beginning on this much shorter film, probably in order to meet business obligations.

Ironically, the result is a far more watchable picture, in most part due to its far shorter length (just shy of three quarters of an hour). The story moves far more quickly than Baum’s other pictures, and features several different plot strands. On the one hand, we have Bud and Fluff (Violet MacMillan and Mildred Harris) trying to adjust to their royal life, but instead bankrupting the treasury by buying too many toys! Their mule Nicodemus runs off into the woods, where he teams up with a band of other animals to free a young girl from the clutches of a group of dastardly bandits. These forest creatures include a tiger, an elephant, the Lonesome Zoop (who is kind of a cross between an ape and a clown), a lazy lion (not a cowardly one), and a friendly crow. If all that wasn’t enough, there’s also scheming 683-year old Queen Zixi of lx, who looks like a young woman, but is cursed to see her true reflection in a mirror in a pleasing echo of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’

The film is now more interesting as a document of silent cinema than as entertainment, but there’s still some innocent fun to be had from the wackiness on display. This includes a gang of fat-suited beach balls called the Rolly Rogues, who live above the clouds and eat buttons and hair pins. They even invade Noland and force the population to make them soup! There’s much running about and tearing of hair, of course, and events are in the safe hands of director J. Farrell MacDonald, who was behind the megaphone for all three films in the series.

The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914)

The mystery of what happened to Shergar was finally solved…

Of course, the SFX are as basic as you’d expect, and the animals are just actors in pantomime costume. These include series veterans Frank Moore and Fred Woodward, who played Woozy the Quaintness in ‘The Patchwork Girl of Oz’ (1914) and went on to play the cowardly lion in next, and final, picture ‘His Majesty the Scarecrow of Oz’ (1914).

MacMillan was also a Baum regular, appearing in all three films, the first two as boys, before finally being rewarded with the role of Dorothy in the last one. Queen Zixi was played by Juanita Hansen, an actress whose promising career was periodically derailed by drug problems. Eventually, she opened a clinic for addicts and, in later life, stepped out of the spotlight to become a clerk for a railroad company.

But, by far the most interesting cast member is the young Mildred Harris, who also appeared in the final entry in Baum’s Oz trilogy. She was once one of the most highly paid actresses in Hollywood and, just four years after appearing here, became the first Mrs Charlie Chaplin at the age of 17. When that union didn’t take, she began an affair with the Prince of Wales, who subsequently became notorious for his affair with a certain Wallis Simpson and his abdication of the British throne! Harris’ career declined rapidly with the arrival of the talkies, and she was working as an extra when she died after an operation at the age of just 42.

Unfortunately, Baum’s somewhat surreal sense of humour struggled to find an audience at the time the films were released. All of them flopped, and the company was sold shortly afterward along with the film rights (again!)

Worth checking out if you’re a fan of the books, or if you’re interested in the baby steps of fantasy cinema.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)‘Oh, no, she has no brains. The fewer the brains, the better servant.’

A crooked magician makes a girl out of household scrap materials to be a maid for his wife. Unfortunately, a passing Munchkin gives the creature some brains, and there’s an accident with Petrification Fluid…

The first feature film based on the works of L Frank Baum to be made with the author’s creative input. Baum had several careers before he hit the jackpot as a children’s author with ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900), but he wasn’t very good with money. Over the course of his life, he see-sawed wildly between wealth and bankruptcy, and, during hard times, he was forced to sell the film rights to his magical land. This led to the earliest screen adaptations of his work, of which only ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1910) survives today. When he was back on his feet, he reacquired the property, formed his own film company and brought out three silent features in 1914, of which this was the first to go into production.

The plot gives us young Munchkin boy Ojo (played by the very female, 29 year-old Violet MacMillan) who lives in near poverty with her guardian, Uncle Nunkie (Frank Moore). Realising that prosperity awaits in the Emerald City, the duo pack their bags and set out, although they seem to have forgotten to consult Google Earth as there’s no Yellow Brick Road in sight. Along the way, they come across magician Dr Pipt (Raymond Russell) who has been working for the past six years to create ‘The Powder of Life’, the sole purpose of which seems to be that his wife Margolotte (Leontine Dranet) needs some help with the household chores! You can’t help thinking it might have been a bit easier (and slightly quicker) to just hire someone, but there you are.

Anyway Ojo slips the Patchwork Girl some brains from the bottles in the ‘Magic Brains’ cupboard(!) and chaos is the result. Then it’s off on a quest through the Land of Oz to find the bizarre ingredients required to return certain cast members to life. These objects include three hairs from the tail of a Woozy and a six-leaf clover. As well as the Woozy, which is played by Fred Woodward in a selection of different-sized cardboard boxes, we also meet the Lonesome Yop and the Soldier with the Green Whiskers. Apparently, Woozy is a ‘Quaintness’ so now you know.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

The selection in the ‘Brains’ aisle had become a bit limited after Brexit.

Technically, there were noticeable advances since ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910). That was just a filmed stage show, with a camera pointing directly at the action while characters entered and exited a single cardboard set. The camera is still (mostly) static here, but we get mid-shots, long shots, and the beginnings of editing technique. There’s location filming, a more developed storyline, and far fewer actors dressed as pantomime animals. Although we do get Mewel (a mule, surprisingly), a hungry tiger and the Cowardly Lion.

The king of beasts is played by none other than Hal Roach, who went on to achieve worldwide success as a writer-producer-director and movie mogul, specialising in the world of silent screen comedy. He’s best remembered now as the producer who brought the world Laurel and Hardy, but the ‘Our Gang’ series of shorts were just as big at the time. And it began here, on this film no less, because it was here that he met unknown-comic Harold Lloyd, who was playing an unbilled bit. Together, the two started making their own short films and, before too long, Lloyd was an international star, reaching the height of his fame with pictures like ‘Safety Last!’ (1923) and ‘The Freshman’ (1925). By then, Hal Roach Studios were firmly established as one of the biggest in Hollywood.

This film, and the other Oz features made by Baum’s company were not a success, however, and the business folded pretty quickly. Baum had many further financial up’s and down’s before his death in 1919. Despite the endurance of his literary creation, his reputation has suffered somewhat in recent years with the reappraisal of some of his political beliefs. Although a supporter of the woman’s suffrage movement, he also wrote a series of inflammatory editorials relating to the Native American race in the 1890s. Baum maintained that the safety of the white American settlers depended on ‘the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians’ and that ‘we cannot honestly regret their extermination.’ It seems probable that Baum modified his views in later life, however, as he deplored the horrible situation of Indian Reservations in his novel ‘Aunt Jane’s Nieces and Uncle John’ which was published in 1911.

Like many silent pictures, this is little more than a curiosity now, but it was certainly a marked improvement on the only earlier Oz film that has survived the passage of history.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)We’re off to see the Wizard…

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.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

‘Once more into the breach, dear Munkins…’

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.