WHAT MIGHT FRANK HAVE THOUGHT? – PART TWO

By John Fricke

[Above: One of the original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer poster designs, created to herald the initial release of their $3.7 million production of THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1939.]

Last month’s blog was conceived as a (pretty much unarguable) celebration of the two most important factors in the world’s continuing love affair with All Things Oz. These are, of course, the original story, characters, and concepts created by L. Frank Baum for his 1900 book, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, and the Technicolor motion picture musical of Baum’s basic tale, produced by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio some thirty-nine years later. When that film premiered, Baum already had been dead for two decades; in February, we used this space to imagine what his reactions might have been to MGM’s efforts. There were so many points to consider and illustrate that we now continue with those thoughts — both formulated and predicated as much as is possible on fact!

(For those who might like to peruse Part One of this purely personal fancy, please scroll down to the blog immediately below this one.)

Baum himself was a life-long “theatrical,” so it’s not at all difficult to suppose he would have appreciated many of MGM’s touches, whether they were original to the studio, derived from his book, or (legally) “lifted” from his 1902 THE WIZARD OF OZ musical play. Baum’s own show business career spanned four decades, and during that time, he oversaw or produced numerous stage shows and silent movies. These efforts were — both respectively and in the extreme — dazzlingly colorful and special effects-wonderful. In fact, Baum’s first Oz films were created for his FAIRYLOGUE & RADIO PLAYS tour, and though photographed in black and white, the footage was then colorized, frame-by-frame — by hand. As a result, even it was multi-hued . . . in 1908.

(Above: Per MGM, OZ went off the silver standard in 1938-39, and Baum’s sparkling gray shoes were replaced by ruby slippers.)

The three-strip Technicolor filming process was only a few years old when MGM innovatively decided to use it for OZ. Perhaps the most imaginative aspect of their approach came with the idea of opening and closing the movie in black-and-white (bathed in warming tones of sepia in the final printing process), so as to counter those moments with the glories of full-tint as Dorothy stepped into Munchkinland. Second only to that was the studio’s resolve to change Baum’s magical silver shoes to equally mysterious ruby slippers. Red — contrasted with the blue of Judy Garland’s socks and the blue-and-while of her dress – would especially “pop” on the screen against the Yellow Brick Road; silver (or, so to speak, black-and-white) shoes would have never made the same impression. This was a plus that Baum would have immediately grasped.

The author would have marveled, as well, at Metro’s realization of his Winged Monkeys and their extraordinary recreation of a Kansas tornado. Both innovations grew out of teamwork on the part of multiple studio departments, designers, and crews. Their labors included aspects of special effects (a division masterminded by A. Arnold Gillespie), unique costuming, trick photography and process photography, and the creation of elaborate inventions, set pieces, and props in wide-ranging dimensions. Among other “assemblages,” there were battery-packed actors wearing wings, jockeys and other diminutive men garbed as primates and suspended by piano wire from soundstage rafters, wind machines, dust machines, yards of muslin wrapped around a thirty-five-foot-long concoction of chicken wire. . . and on and on. (Baum “flew” several characters in his silent OZ films and made excellent use of trick camera work, as well, but such efforts were both far superior and infinitely more complicated in color in 1938-39.)

[Above: “It’s a twister! It’s a twister!” The cyclone cellar door was just about to close as a rear-projected – and astoundingly realistic-to-this-day – funnel cloud advanced on the Gale farm. Baum didn’t specifically describe the tornado visual in the first Oz book, but he indicated the conditions that prevailed as the storm loomed and engulfed the Gales’ one-room house. In one particular phrase, he provided a template on which MGM could build: “Aunt Em dropped her work and came to the door. One glance told her of the danger close at hand.”]

As noted, these were one and all Baum inventions. Yet as the monkeys, slippers, and “cyclone” continue to overwhelm all ages today – one-hundred-twenty-two years after the original book and eighty-three years after the movie – it’s fair to assume that Baum, too, would have been impressed by what had been wrought from his imagination and words on a printed page.

MGM also made “original” visual contributions to the OZ story, including the skywriting of the Wicked Witch of the West and based on early “aeroplane” maneuvers first practiced toward the end of Baum’s own lifetime. My feeling is that he would have relished that but drawn even more pleasure from another of the studio’s contrivances: the genial and strikingly versatile mammal enjoyed by Dorothy and her friends when they first arrived at the Emerald City:

Beyond all this, there were countless other Baum-based touches that Metro incorporated into their OZ – whether the particular elements were directly drawn from the author’s ingenuity or adapted from his apparently limitless inspirations. The on-screen realization of so many of his ideas, whether major or minor, surely would have resonated in his heart and pride had he seen MGM’s adaptation.

For example, we’re told in the first pages of Baum’s primary text that Aunt Em “never smiled” and Uncle Henry “never laughed.” They, in effect, “worked hard from morning until night and did not know what joy was.” Although slightly leavened for their MGM incarnations and initial on-screen moments, Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin were also anxiously preoccupied with farm worries when Dorothy arrived home “in a fret”; their busyness with the “old incubator. . . gone bad” found them distracted, unable to sympathize with the girl, and hard at work to save their chicks:

When the screenwriters set up the sequence, however, there was a further serendipity that MGM couldn’t have realized: Baum himself had experienced a glowing and prime reputation as a knowledgeable chicken breeder! According to preeminent Baum historian Michael Patrick Hearn, the author-to-be (while in his early twenties) began his exploration in “the care and management of fancy,” exotic, and ultimately prize-winning fowl. He “ambitiously founded his own commercial journal, THE POULTRY RECORD, in March 1880”; his five-part series on the Hamburg strain of chickens in 1882 was later brought together and published in 1886 as THE BOOK OF THE HAMBURGS. Per Hearn, this was “the first [volume] to ever carry on its title page the line ‘by L. Frank Baum.’”

Moving on: As most Oz fans are aware, THE WIZARD OF OZ book features two Good Witches. One is a lovely elderly woman known only as the Good Witch of the North; it is she who first welcomes Dorothy on her arrival in Oz. The other is a young and beautiful redhead, who sends Dorothy back to Kansas at the end of the story: Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. MGM, of course, conflated the two characters, casting the red-haired, fifty-four-year-old Billie Burke as Glinda and titling her the Good Witch of the North. With that change of the character’s directional and her own advanced years, Ms. Burke has seldom (across all the decades) been embraced as the ideal Glinda by strict Oz book devotees. Looking back at 1939, however, she — in her own way – lived up to the reaction the sorceress inspired in Dorothy and her friends when they first met her in Baum’s text. As he writes, Glinda “was both beautiful and young to their eyes.”

This is borne out by comments in some of the very first press reviews garnered by THE WIZARD OF OZ, and they certainly concurred with Baum’s descriptive line above. The Los Angeles TIMES found Miss Burke “indeed skillful casting. [She] might have stepped out of Baum’s literary make-believe. She appears almost like a being eternally young.” Louella O. Parsons in the Los Angeles EXAMINER was even more fulsome in her gush: “[She] looks like a twenty-year-old . . . a delight to the eye.”

Ms. Burke was recalled in an even closer, more personal contact by Karl Slover, who took multiple roles in the Munchkinland sequence of OZ. (By his own accounting, Karl’s assignments included appearances as the first trumpeter — preceding the entrance of the Mayor — as well as work as a Munchkin soldier, townsman, and townswoman!) Some fifty-five years after filming OZ, Karl remembered the on- and off-camera contrast in Billie Burke’s appearance: “She came in like an old woman, with a cane. I thought, ‘My gosh, she must be one-hundred-years old – or close to it.’ But when I saw her all dressed up [and] made up, she looked like she was about thirty-five! She looked beautiful – I mean BEAUTIFUL!”

Attendant to this same portion of THE WIZARD OF OZ story, Baum reported that only the Good Witch of the North and three Munchkin gentlemen actually appeared as Dorothy’s meet-and-greet committee when the girl first stepped out of her farmhouse. The motion picture, of course, turned the event into a musical extravaganza involving more than one-hundred-twenty on-camera participants. Yet the latter tactic was also Baum-founded. At the end of her first day in Oz — after Dorothy and Toto departed down the Yellow Brick Road for the Emerald City – Baum wrote that she “began to wonder where she should pass the night, [until] she came to a house rather larger than the” other Munchkin dwellings she had thus far seen en route. “On the green lawn before it, many men and women were dancing. Five little fiddlers played as loudly as possible, and the people were laughing and singing . . . to celebrate their freedom from the bondage of the [W]icked [W]itch [of the East].” Recognizing Dorothy as their national heroine, they invited her to join them to eat and spend the night, as “this was the home of one of the richest Munchkins in the land” – a gentleman who then personally waited on the girl himself. (Baum gave his name as “Boq,” a factoid sure to stir any WICKED book or musical aficionados who might be reading here.)

In their own manner, then, MGM compressed Baum’s description of Dorothy’s first day in Oz — from arrival into the evening — yet duly incorporated all of it into the first production number of their movie. Crowds of Munchkins danced and sang in celebration of their freedom from slavery – and even the five little fiddlers eventually led a musical procession:

Returning again to Baum: The next morning, a few hours (or a few paragraphs) later, as Dorothy continued her walk, she came to “a great cornfield,” and met the Scarecrow. Although MGM’s set decoration was merely a movie plot point and probably not meant as an identifiable Baum homage, there was a physical crossroads created for this scene, where Judy Garland’s character discovered a second yellow brick lane. Baum’s later Oz books, particularly THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ (1913), offered proof of an additional such paved pathway in the Munchkin Country, although we’re not told (nor do the official maps of Oz indicate) that the two byways ever coincide. Yet such alignment in the film enabled the girl and Scarecrow to – in best movie fashion – “meet cute,” as he is the one who is able to ultimately point out the correct route to the capital.

Earlier in this entry, there was a brief discussion of Baum’s early days of chicken breeding. This personal hobby continued and evolved across the years, as “Ozcot” — his final home in Hollywood — boasted an enormous rear garden, where he bred not only fowl but champion flowers, as well. Per TO PLEASE A CHILD, the first Baum biography, the Baum backyard also included “a circular aviary almost twelve feet in diameter and containing a constantly running fountain.” Therein, “Baum kept several hundred songbirds and brilliantly colored members of the feathered kingdom. These were the companions of his hours while he sat in the summer house, penning a new story.” One might then imagine the author’s quiet bemusement at the birds of MGM’s OZ: not just the hypothetical, odd-looking (and oddly-shrieking and cawing) denizens of the Haunted Forest, but especially the more brightly-hued live toucan on the tree branch and the live peacock behind the fence as Dorothy and the Scarecrow sauntered into view of the apple orchard.

(Pay no attention to that witch behind the tree trunk . . ..)

A side note: Contemporary MGM publicity proclaimed that the studio “rented” the toucan, peacock, and others from the financially strapped Zoo Park in Los Angeles. It purportedly fell to OZ director Victor Fleming to select an appropriate few (from among some three hundred birds) to appear as background atmosphere amidst the trees of the orchard. Another of Fleming’s apparent choices, an oversize Sarus crane, is later seen further upstage at the end of this segment of the film; it’s the wing-flapping of that crane that has evolved into the preposterous saga of a visible, “hanging Munchkin” on a WIZARD OF OZ set.

The apple trees in MGM’s orchard offer another instance of the studio’s “Baum utilization.” Late in THE WIZARD OF OZ saga, Baum depicts a grove of fighting trees, one of whose branches “bent down and twined around [the Scarecrow], and the next minute, he was raised from the ground and flung headlong among his fellow travelers.” The straw man then approached a second tree, with the same result. Metro placed combative trees earlier on in their cinematic version of Baum’s tale, and those in the movie were a trifle more sedentary. Their unexpected conversation, selfish fruit fixation, and expert apple tossing, however, certainly provided active hostility to challenge both the Scarecrow AND Dorothy. (They also inadvertently and conveniently led the girl to discover the rusted Tin Woodman.)

A brief you-are-there! moment to conclude this month’s blog: Little Karl Slover had his own unsettling encounter with one of MGM’s apple trees. During a rehearsal break for the Munchkinland sequence of the OZ movie, he and several fellow actors were taken to an adjoining soundstage to see the orchard set. Slover never forgot his astonishment at the sight, especially as he was compelled to exclaim to a companion, “That durn tree just made a face at me!” The friend was doubtful and dismissive: “There’s no such of a thing as that,” but Slover maintained, “I know what I saw!” A moment later, the friend wonderingly apologized: “That durn tree just made a face at ME, too!” The Metro technician acting as their guide then laughingly explained to the little people that “There’s a man in each tree, and they’re practicing” for their upcoming scene with Judy’s Dorothy and Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow.

There’s – also — still a lot to discuss, and my space is just about “up” for March. I hope you’ll welcome a third (and, I promise, concluding) episode of “What Might Frank Have Thought?” next month.

And, as ever, we appreciate the fact that you’re here — whether you’re looking at the artwork or reading the text or both! 😊

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Sources referenced above:

Baum, Frank Joslyn and Russell P. MacFall: TO PLEASE A CHILD (Chicago: Reilly & Lee Co., 1961)

Baum, L[yman]. Frank: THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (Chicago: The George M. Hill Co., 1900)

Hearn, Michael Patrick: “L. Frank Baum: Chicken Fancier,” THE BAUM BUGLE, Autumn 1986 (Volume 30, Number 2), pps. 23-25. Journal of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc.: ozclub.org

Slover, Karl: Interview conducted by John Fricke for the home video documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS. Portage, IN: September 1993