Wednesday, November 30, 2016


L. Frank Baum
Illustrations by W.W. Denslow

Dire need does things to a man.

Having failed at acting, chicken breeding, and oil hawking, Lyman Baum found himself at a crossroads. His mother-in-law suggested he try writing fiction. Receiving so many rejection letters he immortalized them in a journal he titled "Record of Failure," Baum persisted until a publisher finally bit on Mother Goose In Prose. Two years later, he joined forces with illustrator W.W. Denslow for Father Goose, His Book, which turned out to be the best-selling children's book of 1899.

Baum followed up his success by staying within the genre, but drawing upon his own experiences (including boyhood nightmares of a scarecrow in hot pursuit and the yellow brick roads of a nearby city) to create a unique story rather than piggybacking on established ones. In one of the most hubristic moments in writer history, Baum actually framed the pencil he used to write the manuscript for what he intended to title The Emerald City and kept it hanging in his study.

Sometimes, a person just knows.

An episodic adventure written in the still-popular third person omniscient style, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is timeless. One might suppose--adhering to the conventional wisdom--that since the film was such a bewitching visual marvel, the source novel must be a florid masterwork.

Latecomers to the book may be taken aback by certain things, and those are the things I would like to focus on rather than attempt a rehash of one of the world's most famous tales.

--The Munchkins are approximately the same height as Dorothy. Also, though overjoyed at the sight of a crushed Wicked Witch of the East, they resist the urge to break out in song.

--The Good Witch of the North appears to bequeath Dorothy with the dead witches silver shoes and a forehead kiss that will provide the young girl magical protection.

--Dorothy and Toto follow the yellow brick road--after spending a night inside the killing house, eating bread and butter and changing into a nice gingham dress (Dorothy, I mean, not the dog). Her first night out, she stays at the opulent home of a Very Important Munchkin named Bog.

(The young girl's motivation is the same as the film: return home. Sure, the family farm in Kansas is superficially a desolate place; the grass, the paint, the people, all drained of their color by a merciless sun. Yet, it's home. And as she will later tell a travel companion, "There is no place like home.")

--The stuffed and stupid Scarecrow's origin story is pedestrian, but the Tin Woodman, wowee zowee. Love thwarted by wicked interference. At the behest of the girl's crooked mother, the Wicked Witch enchanted the Woodman's axe to lop off his limbs, one by one. Each time, a kindly tinsmith is able to replace what was lost. Even the terror of decapitation ("at first I thought that was the end of me") can't keep him down! At last, the axe bisects him. The tinsmith worked his magic yet again, but couldn't provide a heart. With no ticker, the Woodman's arduous feelings vanished. He took to the woods and all was well, least till he got caught in the rain (as often happens to the consciously lovelorn).

--The group are made to wear green glasses upon their arrival at Emerald City. Glad the movie changed this.

--The Wizard appears in a different form to each of them: a giant head to Dorothy, a pretty lady to the Scarecrow, a ludicrously-limbed beast to the Tin Woodman, and a ball of fire to the Lion. Wish the movie had kept this.

--The Witch sends forty wolves, forty crows and forty black bees at different times. All end up comprising hideous piles of death. There is, however, no evading the Winged Monkeys.

--The Wicked Witch puts Dorothy to work. She manages to trip the poor girl out of a single silver shoe by placing an iron bar on the floor and then casting an invisibility spell. (So why not use magic to get both shoes? Why not just push her down?) Peeved, Dorothy grabs a nearby water bucket.

Best moment to not make the movie:

"I am Oz, the Great and Terrible."
"I am Dorothy, the small and meek."

A good book to crack open over a bowl of hot soup. Dorothy and the gang spend much more time en route to the Wizard, and without a song to pollute the air. At its best, Baum's prose is like tickling a baby's feet; at worst, like being tickled by a porcupine's quills. The trek to see Glinda is one long bath in bottled water with soaps and shampoos nicked from hotels. Fighting Trees, a giant spider, Hammer-Heads…none of this is as exciting as it should be. These are superfluous non-threats, nothing more.

Furthermore, other than Dorothy herself, I didn't find myself really caring much about any other character in the book. The Lion made me laugh a couple times, but so does Kathy Griffin, doesn't mean I give a shit about her life. 

55 novels, dozens of short stories, hundreds of poems, and still Frank Baum died broke. Not to mention...

Director-Victor Fleming (primary)
King Vidor (sepia sequences; replaced Fleming after latter left to work on Gone With the Wind, which would win arguably the most impressive selection of Best Picture nominees in Oscar history--including The Wizard of Oz)
Writers-Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf (anywhere from ten to fifteen scribes contributed to the final script)
Lyrics-Edgar "Yip" Harburg
Music-Harold Arlen

....Baum's story had been adapted into several short films and a successful stage musical by the time MGM spent a then-exorbitant $2.7 million to put it on the big screen in revelatory Technicolor.

No suspense: The Wizard of Oz is superior to the source material. By turning the story into a musical fantasy and cutting down on the violence, the filmmakers were able to toss the junk and present the public with what remains one of the crowning jewels of the medium.

The Technicolor isn't just there to coax sounds from the audience. It's a crucial part of the narrative. The moment the sepia tones give way is one of the great reveals in cinematic history. (What audiences then must have felt and thought!) No kidding that ain't Kansas. Alive and lively, Dorothy is helpless to do anything other than absorb the abundance.

Making it a musical? Brilliant. Are all the songs brilliant? No. (The entire Munchkins sequence is akin to ingesting fifty Cadbury Creme Eggs in a single sitting.) Still, "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" remains the go-to tune when you are super-happy that someones heart has stopped beating and "Over the Rainbow" is a unforgettable heart-clencher of a ballad that might be the finest recipient of the Best Song Oscar.

The acting is uniformly enjoyable. 17-year-old Judy Garland plays 12-year-old Dorothy close to perfection. Frank Morgan's multi-role turn is only questionable if you let your mind wander in the realm of "what-ifs" once you learn that W.C. Fields and Ed Wynn were considered before him. Probably my overall favorite performance is Bert Lahr as farmhand Zeke and the Cowardly Lion. He's a blubbering comedic landmine, careening from terrifying jungle cat to terrified kitten, his face and voice made to entertain.

Film Glinda, like book Glinda, is "end result uber alles." Dorothy wouldn't have made her necessary personal journey if she'd been told straight away how to get back home. You know, like Jim and Pam had to go through all those sitcom contrivances during Season 3 of The Office in order to earn their happy ending, instead of just banging on his desk at the end of Season 2. This is totally like that.

All that said, the movie screwed up the ending. The producers decided to make it all a dream, assuming that audiences of the era were far too sophisticated to give time and money to a silly fantasy film. In Baum's book, Dorothy really did experience winged monkeys and Kalidahs (bear bodies! Tiger heads! The illustration of them plunging to their deaths is just adorable), while fearing she would never see her loved ones again. The stakes were high, and real.

Otherwise, the film is a masterclass in how to take a good story and make it great. The key? Get people to care. Give the characters personalities, expand the world in which they live. Add a nosy neighbor intent on having a small dog killed. Boooo. Don't just have Dorothy's companions tell her what they want from the Wizard, give them literal song and dance routines. Yayyyy.

As a bonus, even the effects hold up well, especially during the twister. (The Wicked Witch going Liu Kang on Scarecrow is pretty all right, too.)

The twist that the Wicked Witch can only obtain the slippers upon Dorothy's death is a great one, more demented than anything Baum dreamed up. Or not. See, in the book, those cursed winged monkeys actually speak. Holy crab cakes, can you imagine watching the film as a child, and already just the sight of those things has set your subconscious mind to NIGHTMARE for the next three sleep cycles, and then the monkeys open their mouths and words come out. 

No. The film is defter, cleverer and feeds the head to satisfaction.  The Wizard of Oz is an enduring part of pop culture, of our shared language--and virtually none of the words were taken from Baum's book. "We're not in Kansas anymore" isn't in there, nor is "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"

A rare example of the visual trumping the text, and while I recommend Baum's book to anyone who loves the movie, I'm not going to insist.

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