BY: John Fricke
We’ve had a number of multiple-topic blogs here across the last six months, so for the next two entries, I thought it might be a good (and hopefully entertaining) idea to “get back to basics.” As a result, our February and March discussions will concentrate on an alignment of the two fundamental and “Mt. Everest”-high peaks of Oz. Perched at the pinnacle of the first of these, of course, is L. Frank Baum, who started it all. Topping the second? Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s film of his THE WIZARD OF OZ, which has carried the Baum characters and stories past fame — and legend and icon status – to the point that they’ve long since become a phenomenon of popular culture, virtually all around the world.
When MGM released THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1939, Frank Baum had already been dead for twenty years. His widow, Maud Gage Baum, was only very tangentially involved in the film’s production (recent fictional allusions to the contrary), but across several months that year, she attended the Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre; was a special guest on the national RIPLEY’S “BELIEVE IT OR NOT” radio program; and gave press interviews in several cities. In the course of some of these events, she was sometimes asked her opinion of the movie, as well as what she thought Frank himself might have thought of it. Though she had one qualification, Maud’s response was definitely favorable; as reported in the FARGO (North Dakota) FORUM on October 29, 1939:
“. . . She said she was well satisfied with [the movie], except that she wished there had been more music in it, and that there had been no witch. ‘You see, Frank wouldn’t have liked the witch part . . .. He never wrote anything that might frighten children.’”
While Maud Baum was correct that Frank didn’t “dwell on the dark” in his children’s stories, it’s also true that he laced them – including the Oz books — with exciting and fearsome encounters and challenges. That they seldom interminably haunted or traumatized readers or listeners is no surprise. He was a maestro at setting up and then swiftly handling such situations; they were overcome, generally in matter-of-fact sort of way, and in no more than a chapter or two. (Sometimes he’d manage it in a few paragraphs!)
While recently pondering all of this, I started to wonder just what Frank MIGHT have thought about MGM’s OZ. I pretend absolutely no omniscience as to the workings of the mastermind he was (or the master mind he possessed). Yet I’ve loved and researched the man and his work for so many decades, I realized it might be fun to contemplate the possibilities of his general or specific reactions to Judy & Company.
Thus the blogs for this month and next!
Those who know both the original THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book and its MGM adaptation are aware of major differences between the two. Most notably, there are the film’s added citizens of Kansas: Miss Gulch, Professor Marvel, and the three farmhands (Hunk Andrews, Hickory Twicker, and “Zeke”) – each of them in place to set up the psychological aspects of Dorothy’s dream. All this grew directly from Metro’s fear that adult audiences of the day would reject (i.e., not buy tickets to) a genuine fantasy story; thus, the studio deemed it essential to present Dorothy’s adventures as a wind-and-window-induced delirium.
Even with such tampering – plus the elimination of a score of episodes from the book and the conflating of the Good Witch of the North with Glinda, the Good Witch of the South — much more of Baum’s tale turned up in MGM’s motion picture than in any other major adaptation to that time. This is one of many levels on which I think Baum would have been delighted with the movie. After all, he himself eventually endorsed the wildly remote story utilized by the 1902 stage production of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and it went infinitely further off track than did Metro’s treatment. (It should also be noted that the smash hit status of that very first musical OZ definitely helped assuage Baum’s initial objections. During the seven seasons it toured, the show rang up a financial bonanza for many, including the equivalent of roughly twenty-five million dollars in today’s money for the OZ author.)
As for his heroine, Baum never even approximates Dorothy’s age in any of the Oz books, although she seems no more than a child of seven in the first of these. Would he have objected to sixteen-year-old Judy Garland in the role? It’s somehow doubtful, given the heart and soul she manifested and the impact she pretty much instantaneously made. Beyond that, it’s equally important to cite the four noteworthy Oz “theatricals” mounted between 1902 and 1914, as Baum was strongly involved in at least three of them. Their Dorothys ran the age gamut: eighteen-year-old Anna Laughlin in the aforementioned 1902 stage musical of THE WIZARD OF OZ; eight-year-old Romola Remus in the silent film and slide portions of Baum’s 1908 multi-media production, the FAIRYLOGUE AND RADIO-PLAYS; nine-year-old Bebe Daniels in Colonel William Selig’s three short Oz films of 1910 (including THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ); and twenty-seven-year-old Violet MacMillan — billed as “the daintiest darling of them all” — in Baum’s own Oz Film Manufacturing Company escapade, HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ, in 1914.
So . . . no; Judy’s age probably wouldn’t have bothered him!
What, though, about MGM’s 1939 musical score? According to many reports, Baum possessed a genuine affinity for music and the popular songs prior to and across his lifetime era (1856-1919). He sang happily and well, played both piano and guitar, and often enjoyed family “musicale” evenings with his wife and four sons, all of whom had light proficiency on various instruments. Such activity for L. Frank Baum, however, was a natural offshoot of greater ability – and ambition. On his twenty-sixth birthday (May 15, 1882), he premiered THE MAID OF ARRAN, a five-act “Irish Idyll” for which he wrote script, songs (both music and lyrics), and served as leading man. The production successfully toured -– mostly with Baum – to over one hundred cities and towns, including New York. It marked the onset of some thirty-five years of additional script and lyric writing for Frank, and he tallied more than thirty shows in all. Most never made it into production or even completion, but there were dramas, comedies, and especially musicals among his output.
As referenced above, THE WIZARD OF OZ stage musical played from 1902-1909, and although the show included some Baum plotlines, characters, scripting, and lyrics, there were contributions by many others. The show, however, achieved multiple Broadway engagements and was far and away Baum’s greatest theatrical conquest. He tried writing script and lyrics again for an adaptation of his book, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ, but the resultant THE WOGGLE-BUG (1905) was a quick failure. He similarly and more wisely constructed a mostly original Oz musical for a subsequent endeavor, THE TIK-TOK MAN OF OZ (1913). It enjoyed a reasonably successful outing, toured almost exactly a year after opening on the West Coast, and played as far east as the Midwest.
All this comes by way of saying that L. Frank Baum’s love of song and popular entertainment might naturally have led to his endorsement of MGM’s OZ melodies by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E. Y. “Yip” Harburg. They were contemporary/modern in a late 1930s musical sound and style, yet timeless as such expert words and music have proved to be. Furthermore, the score was “integrated” and didn’t exist just for the sake of sheer diversion. It helped as well to propel the OZ storyline and/or define its characters. Consider “If I Only Had a Brain/a Heart/the Nerve,” “Ding-Dong! the Witch is Dead,” “You’re/We’re Off to See the Wizard” — and then factor in Dorothy’s “I want” song; “Over the Rainbow” expressed emotions that were far more wondrous when sung than they might have been if spoken in dialogue. This was an approach Baum himself attempted early on, as there are several semi-integrated lyrics that survive from his decades of stage writing. For example, his initial contributions to the 1902 WIZARD included “The Scarecrow” (“Alas, for the Man Without Brains”), “Just a Simple Girl from the Prairie,” “When We Get What’s A’Comin’ to Us” (a Dorothy/Scarecrow/Tin Woodman trio), and ‘The Guardian of the Gate”; their titles alone — or at least — convey the author’s intentions.
Another of Baum’s joys – indeed, a personal passion — dates back even earlier, to the boyhood years he lived at Roselawn, the family estate at Mattydale, NY. His rampant, youthful zeal for flowers and gardening was rekindled across the last years of his life in the large backyard he cultivated at Ozcot, the home he and Maud built in 1910, just north of Los Angeles. (They chose to settle in a quiet, uncomplicated little village called Hollywood . . ..) Such was Baum’s expertise that he became quickly known as the champion amateur horticulturist of Southern California, winning more than twenty cups in local flower shows, and garnering special recognition for his chrysanthemums and dahlias. The early Baum biography, TO PLEASE A CHILD (Chicago: Reilly & Lee Co., 1961) – coauthored by eldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum and Russell P. MacFall — discusses Frank’s intense study, cultivation of, and care for his garden, including a prized and secret fertilizer formula of personal devising. Some of the blooms he produced “were as much as a foot across.”
Along those lines, it’s nice to imagine his reaction to the purposely grandiose and glowing flowers with which MGM bedecked the fanciful Munchkinland for the first Technicolor scenes in THE WIZARD OF OZ film!
Of course, Baum’s surprise at seeing his poppy field brought to life on a Culver City soundstage might have topped everything else. The MGM publicity department was in rampant and full swing at that time and noted — without a trace of hyperbole – that it took twenty men a full week to implant the forty thousand artificial flowers into the floor of the set on Stage 29. Whatever the veracity of such a claim, the impact of the workmen’s cumulative effort made a happy impression on twenty-two-year-old Munchkin townswoman Betty Tanner. She remembered for decades to come her surreptitious sneak peek into that huge hanger-like structure and was wide-eyed and dumbstruck by what she saw. Fifty-five years later, she marveled, “Oh, that was BEAUTIFUL. That set was just absolutely BEAUTIFUL!” It’s a safe bet Baum would have concurred:
Although . . .! He might have demonstrated even greater glee at MGM’s denouement for the poppy field scene. His THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book included a similar sequence wherein Dorothy, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion fell prey to the heavy scent of the poppies, descended into deep slumber, and threatened to “sleep on and on forever.” Baum solved their problem both easily and imaginatively (thus eliminating any nightmares for youngsters). First, he had the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman make a chair of their arms so as to lift Dorothy up out of the flowers – with Toto in her lap – and carry her away from the poppies to safety. To rescue the Lion, the Woodman built a four-wheeled cart, which was then quickly pulled into the poppies by thousands of the subjects of a newly met friend, the Queen of the Field Mice. Her citizens were harnessed together by pieces of string, and once the Scarecrow and Tin Man hefted the Lion onto the cart, the mice swiftly pulled him from peril, too.
Well. Even MGM in its halcyon heyday would have been hard-pressed to summon up thousands of theatrically-trained mice (with their own string); after all, the studio had fallen short of its goal of three hundred Munchkins by roughly one-hundred-and-eighty. So the studio turned to the script of Baum’s 1902 musical, wherein exemplary director and stage craftsman Julian Mitchell developed the poppy scene into one of the highlights of any contemporaneous offering. He brought back the show’s Good Witch of the North (earlier prominent in the Munchkinland segments), and she created a massive snowstorm to defeat the lethal flowers. Each of the latter was played by a leggy chorus girl, garbed in green and wearing an oversize red poppy hat.
Following the same pattern, MGM’s Billie Burke –as Glinda – summoned snow to overcome the spell of the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton. (There was, incidentally, no wicked witch character whatsoever in the 1902 musical.) Baum had thrilled to the winter storm spectacle and its impact on every audience in 1902; he should have felt pride at seeing such an elaborate, expanded recreation of that concept from his own show:
As earlier referenced, THE WIZARD OF OZ stage musical was pretty much an unprecedented theatrical sensation across those years of 1902-1909. If one described it in modern “long-run” company, OZ was sort of the CATS or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or HELLO, DOLLY! of a much earlier time. That being said, one of the elements of the MGM motion picture that Baum might have liked best was . . . its success!
The studio went all out to launch the film on both coasts. The Los Angeles premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on August 15, 1939, drew a crowd of ten thousand fans, who swarmed either side of Hollywood Boulevard, peered from the windows and rooftops of neighboring buildings, and cheered dozens of arriving stars. (Among the OZ associates in the crowd: producer Mervyn LeRoy; his associate, Arthur Freed; director Victor Fleming, Scarecrow/Ray Bolger, Cowardly Lion/Bert Lahr, Glinda/Billie Burke, Uncle Henry/Charley Grapewin, musical “adaptor” and conductor Herbert Stothart, and five costumed Munchkins from the cast.) The next day, the box offices at both Grauman’s and Loew’s State were swamped; MGM had wisely booked OZ into two of the area’s first-run theaters for its debut.
On the East Coast, the noise made by OZ was even greater, and Baum himself would have been amazed. The picture opened on August 17 at the Capitol Theatre, and the four-abreast throng of eager patrons began lining up at the entrance at 5:30 a.m. By the time the box office opened at eight o’clock, the orderly but jam-packed multitude extended out from the ticket windows at the southwest corner of Broadway and 51et Street, then spilled west down 51st Street to 8th Avenue, bent south from 8th Avenue down to 50th Street, and trailed again back east and then north, around the corner of 50th Street and Broadway. It was a living, breathing moat of nearly ten thousand people, all waiting to get into a venue that seated half that number. Adding to the excitement of the massed and massive all-age assemblage was their anticipation for the “live” stage show they’d be seeing between screenings of THE WIZARD OF OZ: the Capitol Theatre was offering a “special added attraction” of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland singing, dancing, and clowning through a thirty-two minute show, five times a day, and accompanied by a twenty-three piece orchestra.
Wouldn’t you stand in line, too?! 😊
It doesn’t take much imagination (at least not if it’s an imagination like mine . . .) to picture Baum on the other side of 51st and Broadway that morning, looking across the street at those thousands of people with a pleased, gentle smile on his face and a bright and grateful twinkle in his eye. I think of him as bemused and quietly astounded – but mostly immeasurably warmed and proud of what had been wrought from his own imaginings of four decades prior . . ..
Next month: Part Two of “What Might Frank Have Thought?” (And many thanks for reading thus far!)