Mon
Jul 13 2009 3:37pm

Ancient Rockets: Oz Road Trip, Day 4

Oil can what?

With His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz we come to the last of the films made by the Oz Film Manufacturing Company. If Baum had chosen to send this one up to bat first, rather than The Patchwork Girl of Oz, Paramount might have been more receptive to releasing the other two films. Even so,  Scarecrow was the best received by critics of the day and did even better at the box office when it was briefly retitled The New Wizard of Oz and re-released in 1915. Unfortunately its success was too little too late for Baum’s film venture. To make matters worse, the first reel was thought lost for a number of years. Several generations missed out on a chance to see His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, but we are luckier.

Anyone interested in the creative process and the way writers revise and recycle their work to suit expedience will find Scarecrow fascinating. Baum had, at this point, lost the rights to his original Wizard of Oz story. With the screenplay for Scarecrow he indulged in a sort of alternate universe retelling of the same tale, but with some new characters, new origins for his old characters, and perhaps a neat idea or two that had occurred to him too late to include in the original. Not only is Scarecrow the closest thing we’ll ever have to Baum’s original story as he might have filmed it, but he even mined the new ideas in the screenplay for his ninth Oz book, The Scarecrow of Oz.

Besides, there are neat special effects, dancing witches, and... a panto mule, of course.

The film opens with Oz Film’s logo, which is Ozma’s smiling face gazing out on the audience. Ozma notwithstanding, we quickly learn that somebody named King Krewl is now ruler of the Emerald City. King Krewl is a sight to behold, in Elizabethan doublet and trunk hose, spats, and a crown that looks as though it came out of a Christmas cracker. He may be eeevil and a bad dresser to boot, but Krewl’s daughter Princess Gloria is a sweet young thing. She doesn’t at all care to be married off to her father’s old courtier Googly-Goo, however, and wanders off to the garden to lament her fate. There she meets the palace gardener’s boy, Pon, and it’s love at first sight.

In a somewhat uneconomical bit of storytelling, King Krewl catches the lovers embracing not once but twice, and Pon is banished. Princess Gloria refuses to marry Googly-Goo anyway. Here the narrative jumps around a bit...

We learn that “Dorothy, a little girl from Kansas” has somehow or other wound up in Oz. She is taken prisoner by the witch Mombi and dragged away to be a kitchen slavey at the witch’s hut in the forest. Meanwhile, a couple of farmers are making a scarecrow. They set it up on its pole and ride away. No sooner are they gone than who should emerge from the depths of the cornfield than a bunch of chorus girls dressed as... er... sunflowers? And they are led by the Spirit of the Corn, who wears braids, a headband with a feather in it, a deerskin dress; the whole Hollywood Native American stereotype. She brings the Scarecrow to life and vanishes. 

King Krewl drags Princess Gloria to Mombi’s hut and leaves her there, asking the witch to freeze his daughter’s heart so that she will no longer love Pon. Mombi is delighted to oblige, and pitches Dorothy out the door so she can’t snoop. Snoop she does, however, as does Pon, who creeps up from another direction. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Mombi summons up her coven and they dance about before a cauldron. Gleeful mugging and capering follow, and blacked-out teeth galore. One of the witchettes is wearing a bat outfit adorable enough to make mothers everywhere want to copy it for their toddlers’ next Halloween costume. Gloria’s heart is taken out, frozen and replaced, in an entirely untraumatic scene using a sort of valentine heart/modeling clay prop and rather badly matched stop motion. Dorothy and Pon, having noticed each other while eavesdropping on all this fun, team up to rescue Princess Gloria. They run away with her, witches in hot pursuit, but are unable to make much speed because the enchanted Princess tends to sort of wander slowly and disdainfully across the landscape, and does so for the rest of the film.

Enter the panto mule! Yes, he’s back, unnamed this time but full of fight, and he obligingly takes on the witches while Dorothy and Pon hurry the Princess to safety. One witch actually takes flight on a broom, in an adroitly managed flying harness, and since this scene is shot outdoors in real Southern California oak savannah one assumes primitive boom equipment had to have been involved. You really hope some poor uncredited extra didn’t end up dumped on her fanny in the chaparral.

Our heroines and hero run into the Scarecrow, who joins their party, and shortly thereafter find the Tin Woodman (played by French acrobat Pierre Couderc), who is apparently already the Emperor of the Winkies. Notwithstanding, the Winkies haven’t noticed that their Emperor has rusted solid in front of his own tin palace,  and here follows the iconic scene in which Dorothy and the Scarecrow free him by oiling his joints. Shortly thereafter some footage from The Magic Cloak of Oz is re-used, in which the Lonesome Zoop battles a Lion. IMDB credits Fred Woodward as playing all the animals in Scarecrow, but given that all three films were made with pretty much the same cast and within days of one another, it’s much more likely that the guy in the Lion costume is Hal Roach. Cut to a new scene in which the Lion bites the Scarecrow and spits out straw; bites the Tin Woodman and paws his teeth in pain; and eyes Dorothy suspiciously, deciding he’s better off not attacking her. He joins the party, needless to say. So there they all are, on their way across Oz, harassed by an evil witch every step of the way! Quite like old times. Only different. 

They have several adventures before running into the Wizard, who is a traveling magician with a wagon drawn by—wait! Look! Can that be the Sawhorse? It is! And he looks just like John R. Neill’s illustrations! Which means the costume must have been unbelievably uncomfortable for the luckless actor inside. The Wizard has real powers here, and quickly provides useful help in resolving the plotline.

His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz is a lot of fun, not least in its enthusiastic use of primitive camera tricks. Watch particularly for the Wall of Water scene, which uses simple optical illusions to mess with your perception. Baum’s inventiveness is evident here, and everyone seems to be having a good time. The Scarecrow talks constantly; I wished, again, that I could read lips, because he’s evidently improvising dialogue and I’d love to know what he was going on about. But the prize for Most Overacting in a Witch Costume goes to Mai Wells as Mombi, whose nonstop grimaces and fist shaking steal the film.

You can view Scarecrow online at the Internet Archive, or you can watch the lousy narrated print that’s been in general circulation since 1996 from various public domain DVD companies. The film has never been restored, and should be; I’m hoping Warner Home Entertainment will clean it up for that pricey 70th-Anniversary collection this autumn. If nothing else, maybe they’ll get rid of that stupid soundtra—

But wait! What’s that ghastly sound? That sort of flatulent, flapping noise? What’s that on the horizon? Do I see a cyclone advance, bearing a... dead turkey? Run for cover, cinephiles everywhere! Next week I bring you the worst Oz film ever, Larry Semon’s execrable 1925 silent Wizard of Oz.

1 comment
marbpl
1. marbpl
The second half of Baum's 1915 book THE SCARECROW OF OZ (available in print and online) was based on HIS MAJESTY THE SCARECROW OF OZ, There is also a review of the film at www.stomptokyo.com/badmoviereport/reviews/W/wizard25.html

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