Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Oz Road Trip, Day 2

Who needs a pre-nup? It’s destiny!

It was a sleepy little temperance colony, quaint cottages and gardens nestled between orange groves and steep hills just west of Los Angeles.  A generation before it had been sagebrush and coyotes, a generation later it was a burgeoning movie town; but for that brief idyllic time in 1910, Hollywood looked like the perfect place for a successful writer to settle down, build his dream house and maybe do some gardening.

So L. Frank Baum settled in at “Ozcot,” and one imagines his wife was grateful that they now lived out in the middle of nowhere, far from the temptations of show business that had bankrupted Baum in 1908. Unfortunately for her, D. W. Griffith and the Biograph company had just discovered Hollywood, too, shooting a film (In Old California) there that same year. Overnight, barns all over the village were being converted to movie studios. Baum heard the siren call of showbiz once more, and in 1914 founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company. Rather than attempt another version of The Wizard of Oz, to which Baum had lost the rights anyway,  he set to work on a screenplay adaptation of his novel The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

The result is the first full-length Oz film, and it is a decidedly mixed bag.

Baum wisely streamlined the storyline, leaving out several characters and subplots. Ojo, a Boy (at least, that’s what the first title cards say he is) lives in poverty in Oz with his Unk Nunkie, a white-bearded ancient. The bread trees have stopped bearing, the cupboard is bare, and Ojo persuades Unk Nunkie that they have to go to the Emerald City, where they will presumably be eligible for Emerald WIC coupons. Off they go! But theirs is not the only drama playing out in Oz. Dr. Pipt, a Crooked Magician, has been busy in his magic shop for six years, stirring four pots with both hands and feet (no wonder he’s crooked). He’s trying to create the Powder of Life. Meanwhile his wife, Margolotte, is annoyed that she has to do all the housework by herself and decides to create a servant girl from an old patchwork quilt and assorted scraps. Outside, Dr. Pipt’s daughter Jesseva is having a romantic stroll in the garden with her Munchkin boyfriend Danx. (Who is neither a dwarf nor a midget, by the way; Baum never indicated the Munchkins were Little People.) The young lovers join a throng of other Munchkins, and all dance joyfully.

Just when it looks as though an actual plot is developing, though, in come the Pantomime Animals.

The first of them, anyway, and the least appealing: we first meet Mewel, a panto mule, in an extended sequence in which he rubs his butt against a tree. At least, we can hope that’s what he’s doing. He encounters Ojo and Unk Nunkie, and won’t let them cross a bridge. They finally shoo him away and go on to Dr. Pipt’s house, where they are welcomed as guests. Dr. Pipt has just finished his labor of six years and prepares to use the tiny pinch of Powder of Life that has resulted on the patchwork servant. But Ojo, naughty boy, mixes up a vial of brains on the sly from a cabinet containing big bottles of Cleverness and other characteristics. He fills the Patchwork Girl’s head up with ideas, but unfortunately fails to add any sense of balance or locomotor skills. The first thing she does on springing to life is knock over a Liquid of Petrifaction. It spills on Margolotte, Unk Nunkie and Danx, turning them into statues.

Dr. Pipt isn’t about to spend another six years stirring four kettles at once— his thigh muscles already look like Popeye’s arms— but luckily he has the recipe for a re-animating potion, and the rest of the film involves the quest for the potion’s ingredients.  Along the way our heroes encounter the Woozy (another panto animal, but much less annoying and actually a necessary part of the plot) the Lonesome Zoop (who looks like a cross between a Flying Monkey and the Grinch, and is completely extraneous to the plot) and the Tottenhots, who are… unfortunate racial caricatures.

However, among the costumed extras capering about in the Tottenhot scene are a couple of Hollywood newcomers who clearly need the box lunch and bus fare they’re earning, but won’t for long: Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd. They struck up a friendship on the set of The Patchwork Girl of Oz, and went on to become Hollywood legends themselves. Good luck spotting Roach, but Lloyd gets a second moment in front of the cameras as one of the jurors in Ozma’s courtroom. Look for him at the far right, in blackface. At the far left is the Scarecrow, who gets bored with jury duty and wanders outside, where he encounters the Patchwork Girl of his dreams. Cue the violins and floaty hearts.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz ought to have been a rousing success. It wasn’t. It was such a dismal failure that Paramount, who was the Oz Film Company’s distributor, declined to accept their remaining two Oz films, which had already been made. A few abortive attempts were made to reorganize, but the company folded and though Baum’s finances had been cannily arranged to avoid investing any of his own money this time, the disappointment is thought to have shortened his life.  

What has The Patchwork Girl of Oz got in its favor? Quite a lot, from our point of view in 2009. If you want to see how Oz’s creator envisioned his own work, here it is. The costumes have the real feel of the O’Neill illustrations, with the men in vaguely Elizabethan dress and the women ruffled up like outsize dolls. Lots of pointy hats. Most of the exteriors were filmed at the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, which provided exotic-looking backgrounds, though in one shot somebody’s genuine old adobe house is used. There are some charming stop-motion magic scenes and camera tricks. The plot is the most coherent of Baum’s surviving films, by virtue of being the most intact. And there’s all that historical significance: the pairing of Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd! The fact that Dick Rosson, who played Danx, was the brother of cinematographer Hal Rosson, who worked on the 1939 Wizard of Oz.

On the other hand… nobody in cast or crew seemed to have realized that acting for the cameras was not at all the same thing as acting on stage, a common enough failing in the early days of cinema. What’s worse, though, is that not only do they seem to be playing to a stage audience, they seem to be playing to a stage audience in Hayfield, Iowa in 1879. Clearly the operating theory here is that cavorting wildly, falling down and LOTS AND LOTS OF PANTO ANIMALS will prove just irresistibly hilarious. And will appeal to the kiddies besides. I have been babysitting small children on and off for a half-century now, and it’s been my personal experience that one sure way to terrify kids into screaming hysterics is to put them into a situation where something in a big creature costume is pursuing them. You’ve been there, I’m sure. “Come back, sweetheart! It’s just Goofy! Don’t you want to have your picture taken with Goofy?” Hell no, Auntie! And there are really an unreasonable number of menacing creatures in animal costume in the silent Oz films. The post-matinee night terrors must have been awesome.

Baum had a curious blind spot that way, and sometimes it worked as a strength… The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is powerful because it frightens as well as enchants. But consider the fact that the original draft of The Patchwork Girl of Oz contained a sequence about a village of animated vegetables who raise “Meat People” for food, complete with an illustration of a veg-farmer watering a row of children’s heads… Baum’s illustrator tactfully suggested the episode be dropped. And what were preliterate kids to make of the cover of Baum’s John Dough and the Cherub, which showed the eponymous hero smiling as a large knife sliced through him? Jeez.

To conclude: your only option for viewing this film at the present time is in a fairly cheapjack collection that has appeared under several labels since 1996, and its sole virtue is that it does give you all of Baum’s films that were available at that time (quite unrestored) plus Larry Semon’s 1925 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. It also gives you a repetitive, inappropriate musical score and annoying voice-overs. Don’t waste your money! Something better is coming soon… about which, more next week when we look at The Magic Cloak of Oz.

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