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.
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.