By John Fricke
Across the last three decades or so, I’ve been the very, very grateful recipient of a number of kind comments about the books I’ve written. (The current THE ART OF OZ is number eight.) What I’ve heard across the boards, more than anything else, is a sort of glowing estimation: “The pictures are fabulous.” Invariably, this is either followed by an intimation — or even the outright, off-hand admission — of “Of course, I haven’t READ the book. But the pictures are fabulous!” 😊
To be completely honest, this doesn’t bother me a bit. The selection of art for every volume is as carefully considered as are the words that explain/accompany it. So, either way, both the generous “complimentor” and the author are fulfilled!
However, in keeping with an ongoing effort to please – and continuing the theme we launched last month – here are another ten pieces of Oz-related art. It’s hoped they’ll give you joy, pique your curiosity, or raise some warm memories of what L. Frank Baum, his associates, and his successors have shared with us in the name of that merry old land.
The success of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book in 1900 was immeasurably augmented a couple of years later by the overwhelming popularity of a similarly titled, somewhat comparable, and outrageously musical, comedic, and gaudy stage production. Its seven seasons of success in New York and on tour made it the (forgive me . . . ) CATS of its day – albeit with a lot more laughs and afterglow. Above, you’ll see the overnight sensation of the show, Fred A. Stone, whose dancing, tumbling, gymnastic, and embraceable characterization of the Scarecrow led to a subsequent stage and film career that lasted nearly forty years. In the musical, both he and his vaudeville partner, David C. Montgomery (playing the Tin Woodman), enjoyed multiple costume disguises in keeping with the much-reconfigured plot of the show. Here, Stone’s third act “whites” are part and parcel of a sequence in which his body was “taken apart” and reassembled onstage in front of a delighted audience.
L. Frank Baum was a born entertainer, whether as author, theatrical, or cinematic “imaginist.” A decade after the Broadway success of THE WIZARD OF OZ, he adapted his third Oz book (OZMA OF OZ) into another elaborate musical production, THE TIK-TOK MAN OF OZ (1913). The show revamped the OZMA plot, adding new characters and love interests (appropriate for TIK-TOK’s intended and all-ages appeal), plus lavish, stylish spectacle. Though the production never made it to New York, its success on the West Coast and on most of its Midwest tour brought glee to nearly ten months of responsive audiences. Savvy pop culture fans will notice the name of Charles Ruggles among the cast; he played — if only briefly — the juvenile romantic lead of “Private Files.” Ruggles went on to scores of roles in film (perhaps best known today: BRINGING UP BABY and the original THE PARENT TRAP) and television (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, and the voice of Aesop on THE BULLWINKLE SHOW among them).
The ad above touted the show’s coming engagement in San Francisco, where TIK-TOK’s famed producer, Oliver Morosco, had grown up. The musical had just completed a successful break-in in Los Angeles and was now deemed ready to conquer “the road.”
The Oz Film Manufacturing Company was Baum’s major foray into motion picture production – though quickly compromised (and then closed) by the public’s lack of interest in “family” movies in 1914. Yet no expense was spared in providing his features with a new, elaborate Hollywood studio, top-flight actors and mounting, and sumptuous publicity. The Company’s first project, THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ, is first represented above by an effective-if-odd art assemblage of character figures; clockwise, from top center, they seem to be Princess Ozma, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, Unk Nunkie, the Scarecrow, Hank the Mule (but with a unicorn horn?), the Cowardly Lion, the Woozy, General Jinjur, Dr. Pipt the Crooked Magician, and Ojo the Munchkin. (Some of that is, I admit, my own guesswork at the artist’s intentions! 😊)
The second Oz Co. ad presented here is taken from one of the early film “trade publications.” PATCHWORK GIRL had found a distributor (though, as referenced above, not a ready audience), and THE MAGIC CLOAK OF OZ was by then already completed and ready for booking as well. It had to wait several years for even limited release, but there’s no discounting the very high hopes and high energy of Baum and his compatriots in the sales push for the product.
One of the most dismissed and eventually disdained OZ projects was the full-length, silent screen, Larry Semon movie comedy, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1925). Despite its appropriation of Baum’s title and several characters, the final result was mostly a combination of slapstick action and young adult romance. (Dorothy Gale is herein – both literally and figuratively — a flapper-age lost princess of Oz.) Semon directed and starred as a Kansas farmhand who disguises himself as a Scarecrow. Spencer Bell, a well-regarded African-American actor, played another farmhand who masquerades as a lion but is otherwise racially stereotyped. The extent of the latter profiling is most succinctly noted in the fact that he used the stage name G. Howe Black to assay the role, and his character was called Snowball.
One of the curi-Oz-ities in last month’s blog was an ad for the early Rankin-Bass (then Videocrafts Inc.) cartoon series, TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ. Since then, several All Things Oz devotees have commented on the company’s visual interpretations of the Baum “stars” (the show dates from 1961) and took extra pleasure in the concept of the pink gumdrop Munchkin. Here – especially for you Munchkin fans! – is another gathering of the clan in a detail from different publicity for the show. (And for those of you who might never get enough of catchy TV theme songs, here’s one that, once heard, is seldom forgotten. It opened each of the more than one hundred episodes of the series! https://youtu.be/GfqrjkhAbqA )
As shown up top, MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ was a network TV mainstay and annually appeared almost every year from 1956-1998. Countless print displays alerted the public to the film’s appearance, and the one offered just above caused a bit of a stir at the time: the largest image (though used in reverse) seemed to Oz partisans to be a still taken during the deleted production number, “The Jitterbug”! This later proved to be true, and other photos were discovered in ensuing years. But the tantalization of such a photograph was heady stuff for some of us back in the day!
A different but joyous-on-its-own thrill was raised among Oz enthusiasts in 1984, when Hollywood trade papers carried the full-page color assemblage shown here. Disney took this means of announcing that filming had finally begun on its much-discussed and anticipated production of [RETURN TO] OZ. Although the resultant motion picture won a very mixed response a year later, the specific, initial fervor felt by many fans for the appearance of the age-appropriate Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) was certainly fulfilled. Ms. Balk gave a pitch-perfect and highly gratifying performance. (Additionally, this photo showed her holding the key intrinsic to Baum’s OZMA OF OZ book!)
Finally, we top ‘em all by our own “return” . . . to Frank Baum himself. The alternately tender and dramatic saga of his career and personal challenges as a young-to-middle-age-man were put forward in a quietly splendid TV movie, THE DREAMER OF OZ, on December 10, 1990. The two-hour NBC special gave imaginative, yet based in fact expansion to the manner in which Baum created his initial Oz characters and adventures. Baum’s formidable mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was enacted by Rue McClanahan (“Blanche Devereaux” to any fans of THE GOLDEN GIRLS who might be reading here), and Annette O’Toole appeared as her daughter Maud Gage – ultimately Mrs. L. Frank Baum. The cast was topped by John Ritter (THREE’S COMPANY) as the author and dreamer himself. Ritter’s sensitive and winning portrayal provided wondrous warmth to the proceedings, as did the “wraparound” of the presentation: Maud’s purported interview with a young journalist at the premiere of MGM’S OZ, some twenty years after Frank’s passing.
The foregoing is perhaps all the reminder we need that Oz wasn’t of its time during Frank Baum’ life span here, nor has it been consigned to happy history since then — no matter how many the decades since he moved on to “a land that he dreamed of” (and wrote about) on countless occasions. Thanks to his astonishing and ever fresh, fertile, and festive imagination – and the creative talents of all those who participated in the projects referenced above – Oz is timeless.
However apt or excellent or poor or odd its countless thousands of adaptations by others, Oz continues its unprecedented heart hold. For that, we can only be grateful to L. Frank Baum.