After eighteen Oz books, Ruth Plumly Thompson had understandably grown tired of the series, not to mention the ongoing fight with her publishers. Reilly and Lee continued to print the Oz books with multiple and frequently inexcusable printing errors (carefully reprinted in the Del Rey editions) and rejected her multiple cross marketing and merchandising ideas, decisions she believed deprived her of much needed potential income. (Thompson continued to support herself and other family members through her writing.) The later strong sales of Oz and Wicked merchandise were to prove her instincts right, but regrettably not to her financial benefit. Irritated, she lined up other writing projects, for the Sunday comics and Jack and Jill magazine, and began to feel that she might be able to quit Oz at last.
But one obstacle stood in her way: a little movie that Metro Goldwyn Meyer planned to release. Thompson was not thrilled with the rumored plans for the movie, partly because she was not making any money from it, and partly because although she had lobbied to cast Shirley Temple as Dorothy, the studio had ignored her, casting Judy Garland instead. An unhappy Thompson claimed that children were upset that the young and blonde Dorothy would be played by the considerably older and dark haired Garland. (I can’t argue about the age, but Dorothy’s blond hair came entirely from John Neill’s illustrations, so powerful was their impression on me that I was surprised to find during this reread that L. Frank Baum had never bothered to give Dorothy a hair color at all, limiting his physical description to a “sweet little girl,” and that in the original W.W. Denslow illustrations, Dorothy has brown hair.)
Behind the casting concerns were some personal disappointments. Thompson had also tried, and failed, to sell the film rights of her own Oz books to Hollywood studios, with a particular focus on Disney, then hunting for a successor to Snow White (1937). Disney, however, wanted the original story, not the sequels, and in the end, decided to use Bambi. Thompson, convinced that her publisher could have done more to sell film rights, felt betrayed yet again. Nonetheless, she had to agree that even if the MGM movie proved unpopular, the publicity would help sales of Oz books, all at MGM’s expense. She sat down to pen another Oz book, planned to be released with the film, with the awkward title of Ozoplanning with the Wizard of Oz, in hopes of further connecting the book and the film.
The reluctant result is one of the weakest and least “Ozzy” of her Oz books, perhaps because the parts of the book not designed to tie in with the movie were apparently written in hopes of inspiring a big budget, big action film, complete with adult Action Heroes and a grand aerial battle, elements not generally (nor successfully) associated with Oz. The second half of the book, in particular, seems to be crying out for the directorial skills of an Ed Wood, and the entirety can be kindly called a mess.
Ozoplanning begins by gathering together all of the characters—Dorothy, the Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the Soldier with the Green Whiskers, and Jellia Jamb—into the chambers of the Wizard of Oz for a nice lunch. (MGM deleted Jellia from the final script, and Thompson was apparently unaware of the major role that Glinda would have in the film.) After saying some very mean things about Kansas (sorry, Kansas) the characters spend some time wistfully recapping the first book and the movie. Boring. Then they pop on a couple of Ozoplanes created by the Wizard of Oz and head off into the stratosphere where the Tin Woodman attempts to seize the land of the Strats in the name of Ozma and the Strats get mad and invade Oz and there’s some parachuting and a very beautiful red headed girl fleeing from an ardent suitor oh and a deer.
If, aside from the invasion, a now common Oz plot, and maybe the deer (not exactly a major character here) this does not sound quite like an Oz book to you, I’m with you. I don’t exactly hate this book, but I am mildly bewildered by it.
A significant part of the problem, aside from the aliens, and the deer, and the last minute introduction of the very beautiful red headed girl (I’m thinking Olivia de Havilland, in a red wig) is Thompson’s abandonment of her own characters for Baum’s, something that rarely went well for her. She gets the Tin Woodman, in particular, a character she had ignored for eighteen previous books, entirely wrong. If you’ll remember—I believe he’s even sung a song or two about it—if the Tin Woodman is known for anything, it’s for his Kindly Heart. Certainly, that heart had failed him once or twice before, but, in general, the Tin Woodman had always at least attempted to be a model of courtesy, kindliness and consideration.
Here, quite apart from attempting to claim an independent country, an act its rulers quite rightfully take as an act of invasion and war, he is frequently sarcastic, cruel and unkind. In a major switch from his usual protective role, he decides to continue to fly the Ozoplane up into the stratosphere even though he knows he is putting his companions and the valuable Ozoplane in danger. Sure, it starts what stands in for a plot in this book, but it’s all wrong. Nor does the Cowardly Lion fare much better: Thompson turns the Lion into an actual coward, instead of someone who acts bravely despite his fears.
Other annoying bits: Jellia doesn’t want the Strats to invade Oz because Ozma is a real princess and prettier than Jellia is. Seriously. That’s her argument. (It’s rightfully ignored.) For some reason, in the absence of Dorothy, Ozma, the Wizard and the Scarecrow, those put in charge are…Betsy Bobbin and Trot, despite the presence of several other more responsible characters, including, not at random, Cap’n Bill, Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, Billina, and even the Hungry Tiger or the Patchwork Girl, if needed. Betsy Bobbin and Trot order all of the celebrities not on magical planes or off sightseeing to flee the Emerald City, leaving the regular Emerald City folk to face the aliens alone and defenseless. (Sometimes, you really have to wonder about regular life in the Emerald City.) Ozma spends most of this book on vacation—literally—failing to leave her subjects with any way to contact her in the event of an alien invasion. Lest you argue that this is an unlikely circumstance, just look at how frequently the Emerald City has been invaded.
Ozoplanning was Thompson’s last “official” contribution to the Oz series, although she later wrote two more Oz books (which I haven’t read): Yankee in Oz and The Enchanted Island of Oz. If it had taken her awhile to reach the peak of her writing powers, these last two Oz books suggest that her retirement from the series was well timed.
Sidenote: Although Disney never did create a film based on a Thompson novel, a later marketing agreement with MGM Studios allowed Walt Disney World to sell Oz products based on the film, allowing Disney to make more money from Oz film rights than Thompson ever had.
Before I continue on to the three John R. Neill books, I promised to recommend specific Thompson books to a commenter wondering why he should bother with the Thompson books at all. My list:
Definitely worth a read:
Probably worth a read, and definitely of interest to Oz fans:
Only of interest to Oz fans:
The Cowardly Lion of Oz (ugh, that clown), The Silver Princess of Oz (unless you want to stop midway through with my assurances that Planetty and Randy really do marry and live happily ever after even though THEY PROBABLY SHOULDN’T the end)
Ojo of Oz. Other Oz fans really like this one. I can’t, for reasons I explained, but to be fair, that’s only one part of what would otherwise be one of Thompson’s better books.
Since no one has ever given her an Ozoplane to travel to Oz with, Mari Ness lives in central Florida.