Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Oz Road Trip, Day 1

Oh, great, you melted her BEFORE she could tell you where the cell keys are?

It was shown on television once a year, with all the pomp and solemnity of a religious ritual. Some celebrity or other always gave it a lavish introduction. We turned out the lights and sat, breathless with anticipation, around the little TV set. Though we never owned a color TV, that was OK; my mom had seen it in the theater when it first came out 1n 1939, and she would explain about the shift to color when Dorothy first opened the door and looked out on Oz. We couldn’t see the colors, but we believed. And then the lion roared and the crashing opening chords played, with those terrifying swooping voices, and nobody moved a muscle for two hours…

So vast is the shadow cast by the MGM production of The Wizard of Oz, so indelible are its characterizations, so perfect its music and so assured is its cinematic immortality, that most people think of it as “The Original.” In fact, it isn’t. This most American of fairytales was filmed by its creator, L. Frank Baum, within a decade after the original Oz book was published, and Oz-related films were produced several times during the silent era. This column marks the first in a five-part journey through Ancient Oz.

Lyman Frank Baum was a showman at heart, though, like his Wizard, not really very good at the job. Having been fascinated with the theater as a young man, he was likewise enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by the nascent movie industry. In 1908 he produced a traveling multimedia extravaganza, The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays.

The show combined live action on stage with magic lantern slides and painstaking hand-tinted film (but no radio broadcasts; the term “Radio” was used then in the way “Space Age” was used in mid-20th-century advertising, referring to anything new and high tech). Baum himself appeared on stage as though he were giving a travel lecture, and would appear to step into the film at intervals and interact with the characters. The film’s plot combined elements of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and several other of Baum’s books. A little girl named Romola Remus (poor child) was the silver screen’s first Dorothy, and Nathaniel Mann composed music to go with the images, producing the earliest documented original film score.

It must have thrilled and astonished audiences, but the show was doomed, due simply to the fact that it cost more to put on than it could possibly make back at the boxoffice. The Fairylogue road show closed after two and a half months. Baum wound up bankrupt and under contractual obligation to the film segment’s producers, Selig Polyscope. It took several years and desperate measures (including selling off his royalty rights to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz!) for Baum to dig himself out of the financial hole he was in. The single print of the Fairylogue film must have stunk pretty badly of failure, for the Baum family took no particular care to preserve it and it crumbled away to dust. Only stills remain. Unless, of course, some time-traveling organization had an operative on hand to make a duplicate and stash it away for someone in the future to rediscover. We can hope, anyway…

Ave atque vale, Fairylogue. Selig Polyscope, well aware that the 1902 stage musical of The Wizard of Oz had been a smash hit, opted to produce their own film, The Wizard of Oz, in 1910, and this is the earliest surviving Oz adaptation. It runs a mere 13 minutes, and survives in at least two prints, one of them in vastly better condition than the other. Both can be viewed on YouTube; don’t bother with the Public Domain Theater version. The clip shown in two parts is the good one. If you’d like to own it, you’ll need to buy the 3-disc More Treasures from the American Film Archives for the superior print, although the 3-disc collector’s edition of the 1939 film includes the inferior print as an extra.

How does the 1910 version hold up, viewed today? Erm… well… if you love, and I mean really love pantomime animals, you will love this film. There are at least five of them in frame at one point, and never less than two. There’s Imogene the Cow (a holdover from the 1902 show, where she replaced Toto), Hank the decidedly randy Mule, Eureka the giant Kitten, the Cowardly Lion of course, and Toto himself—transformed from a miserable little mop-dog into a Panto Dog by Glinda, so that Dorothy will have a more effective protector.

People who like to fume about the manner in which Disney changed beloved classics are often ignorant of history, not to mention the realities of show business. Baum himself cheerfully changed his plots around for the Oz musicals to suit current popular taste, and was never reluctant to cash in on Ozmania when he could (he had Dorothy and Tip hawking copies of his latest Oz book in the lobby during the intermissions at the Fairylogue). Selig Polyscope’s film likewise leaves the book’s story far behind, renaming the Wicked Witch of the West “Momba” and throwing in a lot of vaudeville business. If you want to see what stage comedians did to get laffs a century ago, watch the 1910 Wizard of Oz. I hope you have a high tolerance for pratfalls. And did I mention there’s a scene involving a Union Enforcer? There’s a little dance number in which the Wizard’s departure is delayed by the girls in the Oz workforce going on strike.

Which is not to say this little film is without a certain charm. A lot of the plot and production design was borrowed directly from the 1902 musical, and so provides us with our only chance to get an inkling of what watching that lost show must have been like. Low production values sometimes produce delights: a tiny child in a Flying Monkey (or is it a Flying Lizard?) costume and flying harness makes several desperate swoops across the stage before finally managing to grab Momba’s window frame and announce the arrival of Dorothy and friends. Some shots prefigure scenes in the 1939 film: Dorothy freeing the Scarecrow, the discovery of the rusted Tin Man, the Wicked Witch’s death, the Wizard waving goodbye from the gondola of his balloon. And compare it with Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein and the Selig Polyscope Wizard of Oz looks like a Radio spectacular of cinematic expertise.

It must have been something of a success in its day, too, because Selig Polyscope went on to produce two more Oz films that same year, Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz and The Land of Oz. Neither, alas, have survived. Still, the cinematic journey down the yellow brick road had just begun. Baum resolved his affairs and moved to a sleepy little village just outside of Los Angeles. His remaining books were written “at Ozcot, in Hollywood” and, ever the optimist, Baum decided to try his hand at the new local industry. Next week we’ll take a look at The Patchwork Girl of Oz, proudly presented by the Oz Film Manufacturing Company.

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