WHAT MIGHT FRANK HAVE THOUGHT? – PART THREE

by John Fricke

This considerably oversized Oz “prop” was the focal point of a series of publicity photographs taken at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios in Culver City, CA, in late February 1939. The five members of THE WIZARD OF OZ principal cast – and sometimes Toto, too – were alternately grouped in front of the book, standing on the book, or sitting on the spine of the book. (In the latter case, Frank Morgan posed alone as the Wizard as well as with Judy Garland as Dorothy. The two of them were then joined by Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, while Jack Haley as the Tin Man and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion seemingly stood on a platform behind the binding.) The illustration on the book’s cover itself is unique and lovely, and to this day, people ask if there ever was an actual edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ that utilized that art. Regrettably . . . no. There is a happier aspect to these publicity photos, however: at least some of the time, some of the name of author L. Frank Baum is visible, too! This was and is a courtesy not often extended to writers — a statement with which many past and present Hollywood scribes would concur.

Welcome! to the third and final installment of blogs that ponder the question, “What might L. Frank Baum have thought about the classic Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical movie made from his first Oz book?” – a film that wasn’t completed or released until twenty years after he himself had passed away. Baum, of course, is the man who discovered Oz and chronicled its earliest histories; it’s certainly fair to wonder if he would have enjoyed all the many aspects of his work that Hollywood brought to glorious, Technicolored life. Beyond that, though: What about those episodes or whole chapters that Metro remodeled, reconfigured, eliminated, or expanded — and the characters who were added, amalgamated, or simply subtracted?

Devotees of both THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book and the MGM film are already aware of Hollywood’s variations on the Baum text. There were, to be sure, many alterations, but it’s also true that THE WIZARD OF OZ screenwriters — Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf (and the uncredited Arthur Freed and John Lee Mahin) — were also adroit at sticking close to Baum when and where they could. One of the realizations that evolved across the assemblage of this three-part series was the fact that Frank Baum might well have been legitimately pleased that his template had been so regularly followed so much of the time.

There is, indeed, a definite, omnipresent, and genuine Baum spirit that permeates much of MGM’s version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. The blogs here for February and March discussed many of those facets of the film and included comments — in sometimes arbitrary order — about the 1939 Los Angeles and New York City movie premieres, the OZ songs, and the picture’s casting. There were, as well, details about scenes in, on, or involving Kansas, the tornado, Glinda, the ruby slippers, Munchkinland, the Yellow Brick Road, the apple trees, the Deadly Poppy Field, and the first visit to the Emerald City. (For any who might want to catch up on those initial installments, please scroll down past this entry for parts one and two below.) This month, we pick up the story in the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West and continue to the film finale, chronologically recounting a number of distinctive Baum narrative features and their treatment by MGM.

Dorothy’s melting of the Wicked Witch of the West in the film was certainly a direct carry-over from the OZ book. In the latter, however, the WWW isn’t even encountered “in person” until chapter twelve (of twenty-four), and she’s dispatched by the end of it. To add drama and tension to their plot, however, MGM’s adaptation made known the Witch’s threatening presence — and her desire for the magic slippers — almost as soon as Dorothy arrived in Oz. Additionally, the Witch became such a source of evil throughout the movie that the audience was rooting for her to be eliminated, and Metro improved on her departure, as well. In the book, the WWW arranges for Dorothy to trip over an invisible iron bar in the middle of the kitchen floor of her castle; the little girl loses one of her silver shoes in the process, and the Witch gleefully grabs it. As Frank Baum described the situation, “This made Dorothy so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.”

Above: OZ director extraordinaire Victor Fleming hoses down the dry ice under the skirt of Margaret Hamilton so that it will steam up and add to the illusion of her on-camera “melting.” From left: Haley, Garland, and Bolger look on.

We all know what happened next. For that movie moment, however, the screenwriters gave Dorothy a much more noble and heroic reason for seizing the pail. The Witch set fire to the Scarecrow, and the girl tossed the contents of the bucket to save him – simultaneously and fortunately hitting the villainess, as well.  In this change of narrative, the menace of the Witch was heightened one final time, and Dorothy had an honorable rationale for her action, rather than that of a little girl’s anger at being deprived of her (however-magical) shoe.

Once the WWW was liquidated, our five famed travelers returned to the Emerald City throne room in both book and movie. They were at first nonplussed, however, and then furious when “the Great and Powerful Oz” refused to immediately grant their requests. Given such circumstances, Baum wrote that “The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash, they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man . . . who seemed to be as much surprised as they were.”

In 1938-1939, Cairn Terrier Terry/Toto was already an intrepid little film actress, but it was probably beyond her heft to knock over a reasonably large screen. Thus, at Metro, the Lion didn’t get to roar at the Wizard, but Dorothy did continue to berate him: “If you were really Great and Powerful, you’d keep your promises!”  Meanwhile, the diminutive dog moved upstage right and pulled aside a light-weight curtain to reveal “a very good man . . .

a very bad Wizard.”  This was a happy cinematic echo of Baum’s saga, although if you watch the scene closely, you’ll observe that Terry had the hem of the curtain attached to her collar before the director called “Action!” In this manner, she was only called upon to walk in the direction of her off-camera trainer to effect “the reveal.”

A side note: It’s safe to say that Baum would have been fascinated by the Wizard’s electronic gadgetry as supplied by 1939’s Hollywood. In the original OZ book – published thirty-nine years earlier – all of the humbug’s tricks were “magicked up” out of the more prosaic elements or stunts of the time:  ventriloquism, oversize puppets, thick paper, wires, oil, animal skins, a costume, a mask, and a huge ball of cotton,.

The ensuing MGM “presentation sequence” — in which the Wizard grants the desires of Dorothy’s three friends — is, once again, a reasonable approximation of Baum’s approach, although the writers seemed to be subliminally following a dictate of the legendary George M. Cohan. The celebrated author/songwriter/performer once gave an actor in one of his plays the directorial suggestion: “Whatever you do, kid . . . serve it with a little dressing.” (The performer in question, incidentally, was Spencer Tracy.) The OZ scripters took Baum’s basic gifts to the trio – a mixture of bran, needles and pins; a sawdust-stuffed, satin heart; and a bowl of mysterious liquid – and transmogrified them into a diploma; a ticking timepiece (albeit in the correct shape); and a prideful medal. Philosophically, these gifts transmitted the same, basic tenets as did those in the book – they were just glamourized a bit for Technicolor.

For the conclusion of the presentation dialogue, Noel Langley wrote a line that has, in recent years, often been attributed to Baum. It actually never appeared in the Oz book texts, yet it certainly resounds as an unforgettably Ozzy theme of human and humane commonality: “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

Back to Baum! The Wizard’s subsequent explanations to his new friends and his “premier balloonist” departure play out in much the same style as that employed by the author. In the film, Frank Morgan describes himself as “an old Kansas man myself, born and bred in the heart of the Western wilderness.” Meanwhile, the little man in the book admits to Dorothy, “I was born in Omaha” (which is pretty much next door). MGM made specific use of that Baumian information by giving the onscreen Wizard a hot air balloon grandiosely gilded with the three words: STATE FAIR/OMAHA. (As a side note: This segment in the film has given rise to a trivia inquiry that falls in and out of favor and familiarity: “What is painted on the other side of the Emerald City balloon?” The next time it comes around — and if someone asks you — just be aware that it’s a trick question; ain’t nuthin’ back there! The only actual three-dimensional balloon “set pieces” utilized in the movie are the wicker basket and its sandbags, the reinforced ropes that connect the basket to (and then extend slightly above) the ring-like cable “attachment block,” and the very narrow “mouth” or “throat” of the balloon itself. Everything else — the majority of the balloon (and its ornate lettering), the treetops and towering walls and turrets of the Emerald City, the distant countryside – is a matte crayon drawing, photographed separately and then “married” to the film of the live action scene.

At this point, the screenwriters did some further “marrying” of their own and again merged themselves with Baum’s book. Therein, the Wizard implores, “Come, Dorothy! . . . hurry up, or the balloon will fly away.” “I can’t find Toto anywhere,” she replies, and of course, she “did not wish to leave her little dog behind.” However, “Toto had run into the crowd to bark at a kitten, and Dorothy at last found him. She picked him up and ran toward the balloon.” Of course, it was just then that the Wizard’s tethering ropes snapped, and he sailed away without her. The film most naturally follows this same track, although cinematically it provides a beauteously rouged Emerald Citizen to hold the distracting feline:

The OZ motion picture then wraps up rather speedily with the arrival of Glinda and the poignant moments of our friends’ farewells. Alternatively, the Oz book places Glinda in her castle “Away to the South,” which creates another adventuresome trek for Dorothy & Co. (In the process, they move through five extra chapters and encounter fighting trees, a giant spider, the Dainty China Country, and the Hammer-Heads.) Once they arrive at Glinda’s “very beautiful” home, however, the story plays out in the same fashion as the film. Glinda knows the secret of the silver shoes: “They can carry you to any place in the world in three steps . . .. All you have to do is knock the heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go.”

Naturally, Dorothy decides to depart “at once.” In the author’s words, “She threw her arms around the Lion’s neck and kissed him, patting his big head tenderly. Then she kissed the Tin Woodman, who was weeping in a way most dangerous to his joints. But she hugged the soft, stuffed body of the Scarecrow in her arms instead of kissing his painted face, and found she was crying herself at this sorrowful parting from her loving comrades.”

Hollywood offered its own most-affecting visualization of this, and even the hardcore contemporary newspaper and magazine reporters were quick to admit it. Seventy-five members of the international press were invited to MGM for a first glimpse of OZ on August 9, 1939, and as James Francis Crow wrote the next day in the HOLLYWOOD CITIZEN-NEWS: “When the lights went up after the projection-room showing, many of the critics still had the tears in their eyes. They had been crying with . . . Judy Garland, at her farewell to the wonderful people of Oz.” He declared, “OZ is a great motion picture. It is not only a magnificent, history-making technical achievement; it is a warmly human, deeply emotional photoplay, too.”

In addition to the scripting and performances, those good-byes of the five principals were further and immeasurably enhanced — as was much of THE WIZARD OF OZ movie — by its ultimately Academy Award-winning musical score. Herbert Stothart was justifiably honored with the Oscar for OZ on February 29, 1940; a perfect example of his genius at musical composition and arrangement may be found in the music cue for the partings. “I Hereby Decree” wove the melodies of Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had a Brain” with that of the nineteenth century classic, “Home Sweet Home” by Henry Rowley Bishop.   

The Baum book swiftly concludes when Dorothy finds herself “sitting on the broad Kansas prairie.” Just ahead, she sees “the new farmhouse Uncle Henry built after the cyclone had carried away the old one. Uncle Henry was milking the cows in the barnyard . . . and Aunt Em had just come out of the house to water the cabbages.” The sober-faced, never-smiling, thin, gaunt, and gray woman of Baum’s chapter one is now nowhere in view. Instead, Em cries, “My darling child!” and folds Dorothy in her arms, repeatedly kissing her.

The movie more than duplicates this joy at Dorothy’s “return.” In the film, of course, she’s in her room, coming out of the delirium caused by a tornado-induced head injury. The too-busy Em of the earlier Kansas scenes is here replaced by an aunt who lovingly tends to the little girl in bed, applying and removing a cold compress, holding and clasping her hand, calming and reassuring her. Dorothy’s formerly preoccupied Uncle Henry stands nearby, leaning forward and concerned, but when the girl awakens, looks around, and begins to speak, he slowly stands straight and discreetly exhales in relief.

Excepting MGM’s “You’ve just had a bad dream” copout, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to think that Frank Baum would have joined the 1939 critics: He would have been emotionally touched, as well, by these Emerald City goodbyes and the Kansas welcome-homes; they were, as can be seen here – and however elaborated – very much extensions of his own writing.

Moving past the advance press screening on August 9 to August 15, 1939, Baum certainly would have loved the manner in which his wife, Maud Gage Baum, was honored at the actual OZ premiere in Hollywood. Frank Whitbeck served as MGM’s master of ceremonies on that occasion, and when he brought Maud up to the KMTR radio microphone in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, he declared, “Tonight, Mrs. Baum, we of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer are proud to have you here . . . to dedicate this premiere to your husband and the books he wrote – and to the happiness he brought to millions of children . . . .”

Maud was indeed thrilled, but she relished an additional joy on that occasion, and it was a reunion that Frank would have savored with her. In the Grauman’s forecourt, she encountered two long-time friends with whom she’d shared an earlier extraordinary experience: the Chicago opening night of THE WIZARD OF OZ stage musical in June 1902. One of the gentlemen was Ashton Stevens, long regarded as the dean of American drama critics. The other was Fred A. Stone, who – in the role of the Scarecrow – had been at the forefront of the magic at Chicago’s Grand Opera House, thirty-seven years in the past. (Ella Wickersham, covering the MGM premiere for the LOS ANGELES HERALD-EXAMINER, eavesdropped on the trio and wrote the next day, “It was positively heartwarming to hear [them] discussing those exciting days.”)

Above: Reunion! Maud Gage Baum and Fred Stone pose together at the Hollywood OZ premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Stone’s name and fame came up again twelve days later when journalist Burns Mantle — a preeminent and veteran drama critic — wrote an extensive piece about the August 17, 1939, Broadway debut of THE WIZARD OF OZ for the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. Much of Mantle’s piece also reflected on the overwhelming success of the 1902 stage musical in Chicago, as he was employed there at that time and experienced the excitement. The respected historian recalled that it was the team of David C. Montgomery and Fred A. Stone (as the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow) “who created the sensation of those early performances,” and he added that “Stone was especially favored” by both audience and critics. In that vein, Mantle went on to muse about MGM’s movie: “It seems to me it would have been a good business move to have given Fred Stone a chance at his old part of the Scarecrow. He can still negotiate the dances, his experience these last twenty years has made him a good actor and a resourceful comedian, and he still has a considerable following among older playgoers. But I suppose [MGM] thought the picture should be kept in the tempo of the present . . ..” Stone would have been sixty-five at the time OZ was filmed, so it’s not certain which of Mantle’s viewpoints he might have endorsed.

As was noted in the first blog of this series, Mrs. L. Frank Baum publicly stated that she was well-satisfied with MGM’s film. She wrote to OZ producer Mervyn LeRoy within a day or so of her “big night” at Grauman’s to express her gratitude; her letter appears to be lost to time, but his response is worth quoting:

“Words fail me to tell you how happy your wonderful letter made me feel. Really, from the bottom of my heart, the picture’s success is complete knowing you loved it as I do, and that you especially liked Judy, and the Tin Man and the Lion and the Scarecrow as well. But most of all, as you stated it, we were able to retain Mr. Baum’s ‘kindly philosophy’ . . . and we in turn are grateful for Mr. Baum’s wonderful and remarkable imagination which made the picture possible . . ..”

This may be a solely personal conclusion, but after getting the idea for what turned out to be these three blogs (and then assembling them over the past eight or nine weeks), I don’t think we really have to guess what Frank might have thought about the MGM movie, back then or since. More than any of the many other Ozzy components of the last one-hundred-twenty-two or eighty-three years, the Oz book series and MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ have doubled, tripled, quadrupled – and then multi-multiplied — their success at conveying the happiness Frank Whitbeck referenced above. By now, and whether separately or together, L. Frank Baum and Judy Garland & Company have proudly entertained and enraptured billions of children.

Uncountable billions of children.

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Among the sources consulted for this month’s blog:

Baum, L. Frank: THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. Chicago & New York: The Geo. M. Hill Co., 1900

Kanin, Garson:  TRACY AND HEPBURN: AN INTIMATE MEMOIR. New York: Viking Press, 1971

Mantle, Burns: “Ballyhoo and Judy Garland Lure Crowds to WIZARD OF OZ; Movie Recalls 1902 Version in Chicago Theater.” THE CHICAGO SUNDAY TRIBUNE, August 27, 1939