When L. Frank Baum submitted the manuscript for his children’s story The Emerald City on 9 October 1899 little did he know the phenomenal impact his imagination would have on literature, cinema and popular culture throughout the twentieth century. By the time of its publication a little over six months later the tale would become The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its overnight success would soon lead to stage adaptations, motion pictures and an array of literary sequels and spinoffs. While the first feature-length cinematic adventure for his protagonist Dorothy and her assortment of out-of-the-ordinary friends would not become a reality until twenty years after his death the influence of Oz and the world which Baum created would place him alongside Lewis Carroll as one of the most imaginative and influential children’s writers of all time.
The tale of Dorothy, her faithful dog Toto and her adventures in the land of Oz would not only inspire Baum to write a total of fourteen stories over the next two decades but was also adapted to other mediums by a variety of artists, first commencing with a stage production just two years after the book’s initial publication before making the leap to the silver screen with the 1939 seminal classic The Wizard of Oz, transforming sixteen-year-old Judy Garland into a superstar and launching the iconic ballad Over the Rainbow into the public consciousness.
Born in 1856 to a wealthy father who had built his fortune in the oil industry, Lyman Frank Baum developed an interest in journalism from a young age and as a child wrote a short-lived paper with his brother called The Rose Hawn Home Journal. Following an unsuccessful acting career in New York, which ended with his theatre burning down only three months after its opening, Baum focused his attention on playwriting, a few of which would run for a short time before slipping into obscurity. During his work on The Maid of Arran Baum married Maud Gage and the two would remain inseperable until his death thirty-seven years later.
Throughout his twenties he continued to publish amateur writings until the release of his first tome The Book of the Hamburgs: A Brief Treatise Upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs in 1886. With Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland having become a phenomenal success when Baum was a child he finally turned his attention to writing for children with Mother Goose in Prose, a reworking of the classic nursery rhymes that Baum hoped would prove to be his breakthrough.
The success had not been as great as Baum had hoped, however, but the following year after joining the Chicago Press Club Baum met an illustrator called William Wallace Denslow who, as time would later tell, would become his most important collaborator during the creation of his next story. Having contributed artwork to Baum’s book of poems By the Candelabra’s Glare Denslow would play a significant role in the creation and design of Oz. Father Goose: His Book, published in 1899, would provide Baum with some much-needed acclaim and soon after its release he approached Denslow with his idea for The City of Oz, his most ambitious project to date.
Having drawn up a contract between each other Baum submitted his manuscript almost a month earlier than agreed, now under the new title of The Emerald City. A contract with their publisher, the George M. Hill Company, was signed on 16 November 1899 and Denslow set to work completing the illustrations and artwork for the agreed deadline. With Father Goose having granted them a certain amount of collateral, Hill was willing to be lenient to a degree but only if Baum and Denslow paid for the colour printing cost themselves.
With Baum owning the copyright to the story text and Denslow the illustrations a release date for 15 May 1900 was announced. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became an instant success and within two weeks of publication ten thousand copies had been sold. By the end of the year it had become a favourite among children and sales throughout the Christmas season boosted its popularity. It was later reported that by the end of Hill’s run the publisher had sold approximately ninety thousand copies, exceeding even Baum and Denslow’s expectations.
‘Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife,’ commenced The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Orphaned and living with her ageing aunt and uncle Dorothy’s closest companion was Toto, her small black dog whom she would regularly play with on the farm. But when a cyclone ripped through the countryside and ravaged the farm Dorothy found her house flying through the sky, finally landing safely in the faraway Land of Oz. Emerging from her home to a beautiful landscape Dorothy is soon surrounded by Munchkins, the ‘queerest people she had ever seen.’ Not much taller than Dorothy and dressed peculiarly the strangers were accompanied by an old woman, the Witch of the North, who praises Dorothy for freeing the Munchkins from slavery by killing the Wicked Witch of the East. Turning to find a pair of feet protruding from under the house she is horrified to discover that her home landed on the wicked woman, crushing her.
Desperate to return home Dorothy is told by the Witch of the North that she must travel to the City of Emeralds to seek audience with the Great Wizard, Oz. Taking the silver shoes that had belonged to the Wicked Witch and placing them on her feet Dorothy and Toto set out on their journey along the road of yellow brick, where they first come across a Scarecrow in the middle of a corn field. Fascinated by the story of the Wizard the Scarecrow accompanies Dorothy in the hope of acquiring some brains from the mysterious Oz.
As they venture further into the forest two more strangers join them on their mission; a rusty Tin Woodman, searching for a heart and the Cowardly Lion, who hopes that the Wizard would grant him courage. Following numerous adventures they finally arrive at the Emerald City, where Oz agrees to grant their wishes if they kill the last remaining Witch, the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy fulfils her mission and the Wizard keeps his promise, sending the young girl back to her family in Kansas. Claiming to have visited the Land of Oz Dorothy declares, ‘I’m so glad to be at home again!’
While the relationship between Baum and Denslow began to deteriorate over the next two years and Hill declared bankruptcy, June 1902 saw the opening of a stage production based on their best-selling story entitled The Wizard of Oz. The project had been conceived under difficult circumstances, with the tension that Baum and Denslow were struggling with resulting in neither wishing to cooperate with the other. Allegedly it had been at the suggestion of composer Paul Tietjen that Baum had first given consideration in allowing his story to be adapted for the stage, while collaborating together on another project, The Octopus; or The Title Trust.
The next key player in the development of the play was Fred Hamlin, manager of the Chicago Grand Opera House whom Baum had approached to assist with the production. It would be Hamlin who would suggest Julian Mitchell, son of stage veteran Maggie Mitchell, to direct The Wizard of Oz, whose initial reaction was merely ‘no good.’ At the urging of Mitchell, Baum reluctantly began to rewrite his original story to cater to the demands of the director, who had the unanimous support of Hamlin. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would go through numerous rewrites before Mitchell finally gave it his blessing.
Some of the suggestions enforced upon Baum were changing Toto from a dog to a cow, an Irish wizard and a host of additional characters not included in the original text. Baum was left somewhat frustrated by how little the play resembled his story, but the cast would receive acclaim from critics, with notable performances from Anna Laughlin as Dorothy and vaudevilles David Montgomery and Fred Stone as the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, respectively, while Stone’s brother Edwin would portray Imogene the cow.
The songs included in the production would soon be forgotten once the show came to an end
The Wizard of Oz would prove to be a worthy successor to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, once again fascinating the public with its bizarre characters and colourful set pieces. The songs included in the production would soon be forgotten once the show came to an end and while Baum had felt disappointed by the result he was eager to write a follow-up to his story. With the dust finally settled on the stage show he commenced work on The Further Adventures of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, with the portrayals by Montgomery and Stone in mind.
Eventually published in 1904 as The Marvelous Land of Oz, this book would mark the introduction of illustrator John R. Neill into the world of Oz, where he would would continue to return throughout the remainder of his life, eventually turning to writing with The Wonder City of Oz. Even as he continued to work on new stories for the ever-expanding world he had created Baum’s interests soon turned to cinema which, with the first feature film having only been produced in 1906 – Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang ran at sixty-minutes – was still very crude and underdeveloped. The inspiration for Baum’s next project would come from a variety of sources – his son Frank, who had been using slides for presentations and a type of film colouring he had discovered while in France – both of which would play a part in his ambitious concept The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays. Once again using his Oz stories as the basis the concept was a multi-media tie-in with the purpose of promoting his latest writing, specifically Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, which was published the same year by Reilly & Britton. Filming would take place at a studio run by another figure who would play a key part in the early adaptations of The Wizard of Oz: William Nicholas Selig.
Having started his professional life as an apprentice to a magician Selig became educated in both the art of illusion and theatrical entertainment, lessons he would take with him when he embarked on a filmmaking career in the 1890s. Prior to working on motion pictures Selig had also owned minstrel companies, a popular form of entertainment in the ninetieth century. But while in Dallas he discovered the kinetoscope, a contraption which allowed the viewer to observe the illusion of moving images.
Returning to his hometown of Chicago, Selig became fascinated with the potential of film and approached the Union Model Works to manufacture a device similar to the kinetoscope which had been designed by Thomas Edison’s company. Following his debut in 1896 with The Tramp and the Dog Selig began to specialise in documentary shorts that explored the concept of war or commercial pieces for local companies. 1908 saw Selig purchasing a city block on the corner of Byron and Claremont Avenue in Chicago with $5,000 procured through a loan and transforming the land into a studio, a template that would inspire other ambitious producers over the following decades.
Financed by Baum the film used for The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays was later coloured by hand in Paris by Duval Frères and presented to audiences with an accompanying narration from the author and an orchestra performing original compositions written by Nathaniel D. Mann. Francis Boggs, an early director of silent films, shot the portions adapted from the Oz literature, while the remaining scenes, based on Baum and Neill’s 1906 children’s novel John Dough and the Cherub, were directed by newcomer Otis Turner.
The complex show, which included magic lantern slides and a large cast of performers, made its debut on 24 September 1908 in Grand Rapids, Michigan before finally closing almost three months later in New York City on 16 December. Unlike future adaptations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels, The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays allowed Baum full creative control and the critical reaction to the shows proved that his ambition and vision had proved successful.
Following the positive reception that the production had received Selig was enthusiastic about returning to the land of Oz and so approached Baum, who had suffered financially due to having covered the costs himself only to encounter poor ticket sales. Desperate to recoup some of his finances Baum reluctantly agreed to allow Selig to shoot several short films based on his Oz stories. The first was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a stripped-down adaptation of Baum’s first instalment of the series that featured actors in suits in place of real animals.
Otis Turner was once again in the director’s chair and his thirteen-minute piece caught the essence of Baum’s story, despite many of the key plot points having been overlooked. Selig and Turner then reunited for two more Oz tales, Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz and Land of Oz, before turning their attention to another Baum tale, John Dough and the Cherub. While Selig and Turner brought his imagination to the big screen Baum continued to expand on his series of novels with the sixth entry in his series, The Emerald City of Oz, while also collaborating with producer Oliver Morosco on a stage adaptation of Ozma of Oz.
Along with a group of associates Baum founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company with the intention of adapting various Oz tales for cinema audiences, the first of which, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, was released as Europe was going to war. While the company proved short-lived one of their productions, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, would serve as the basis for for Baum’s ninth Oz book, The Scarecrow of Oz. This would be the last big screen adaptation of an Oz story to be released during Baum’s lifetime. Baum passed away on 6 May 1919, just nine days before his sixty-third birthday, following a stroke the previous day. After an abandoned adaptation by Ray C. Smallwood in 1921 the next feature film to be based on the stories of Oz was released in 1925, six years after Baum’s death. Written by L. Frank Baum, Jr. and directed by and starring silent movie comedian Larry Semon, The Wizard of Oz featured his wife and regular co-star Dorothy Dwan in the lead role and Oliver Hardy, later to be one half of famed duo Laurel and Hardy, as the Tin Woodsman. Less atmospheric than previous versions and more focused on the comedic aspects of the story, Semon’s picture would remain forgotten for several decades, later overshadowed by the spectacle that was to come.
For Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of Hollywood’s leading studios, the road to The Wizard of Oz began in 1924, prior to the release of Semon’s feature, when executives were approached by the author’s son L. Frank Baum, Jr. with the intension of producing a lavish adaptation of his father’s work. While they would later give some thought to developing an animated series based on Oz Baum, Jr. was also in talks with Samuel Goldwyn to produce a feature film.
But with teenage actress Judy Garland now a contract player at MGM and writer Arthur Freed desperately searching for a suitable project for his young star a series of negotiations were set in motions with producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had obtained the screen rights to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from Baum Jr. to produce a feature length musical based on the beloved book. It would not be until February 1938 that the studio had closed the deal and could focus their attention on bringing Dorothy and the Land of Oz to life.
For MGM The Wizard of Oz was very much a showcase for the talents of Judy Garland. Having developed her skills as one-third of the Gumm Sisters, performing under her birth name Frances Ethel Gumm, Garland was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who saw in the young performer the makings of a Hollywood star. With both a talent for acting and performing Garland soon found herself in a variety of colourful productions alongside another promising teenage star, Mickey Rooney.
Despite Garland seeming an ideal choice for the role there were some at the studio who felt that a production as extravagant and ambitious as The Wizard of Oz would require a lead actress who would guarantee a box office success, something the relatively unknown Garland could not do. The alternative choice for the part of Dorothy was Shirley Temple, the young star of 20th Century Fox, whom the producers were under pressure to cast in the movie, despite the complications of borrowing a performer from a rival studio.
It would be Nicholas Schenck, the president of Loew’s Inc., the company producing the picture alongside MGM, who was the most outspoken protestor against the casting of Garland, feeling that Temple, then only ten-years-old but already a star, would bring in audiences who may otherwise have ignored the picture. 20th Century Fox, however, refused to give up their most cherished asset and with no A-list celebrity available for the role, Garland was finally cast as Dorothy.
While Garland had been a difficult choice for the studio the other key characters in the story were cast with little difficulty. Ray Bolger had begun his career as an entertainer in the mid-1920s as a dancer on the vaudeville circuit but his comedic talents who would draw him to the stage and, in January 1926, he made his Broadway debut in A Night in Paris. While Semon had portrayed the Scarecrow over a decade earlier it would be Bolger who would truly bring the character to life.
Previous adaptations had featured actors dressed in animal costumes
Initially, however, Bolger had been offered the role of the Tin Woodman, something that the actor had been less-than-enthusiastic with but once he convinced the studio that he would be better suited to play the Scarecrow, the part of the Tin Woodman would be given to Jack Haley. Another performer with a dancing background, Haley would also cut his teeth in vaudeville shows before joining forces with fellow entertainer Charley Crafts for the double act Crafts and Haley. Broadway would soon come calling before Haley made the transition to the big screen in a variety of musical productions. The casting of the Cowardly Lion would prove almost as difficult as Dorothy, as first the decision had to be made of how the character would be performed. Previous adaptations had featured actors dressed in animal costumes but there was some consideration given to using a real lion. This would have been achieved by adding a voiceover in post-production, although the end result may have been too costly and unrealistic. Finally the producers agreed that an actor would be required for the role and so songwriter Yip Harburg suggested Bert Lahr.
Having dropped out of high school at fifteen Lahr, like many of his co-stars, became a regular vaudeville performer and later appeared on Broadway for the first time in the 1927 production of Delmar’s Revels. He made his feature debut three years later in Flying High and by the time he was cast as the Cowardly Lion had already carved out almost a decade’s worth of experience in supporting roles. Bolger, Haley and Lahr would also play ‘real world’ alter-egos of their characters, bookended during the Kansas sequences that insinuate Dorothy’s visit to Oz was only a dream.
The scope of which The Wizard of Oz would cover in terms of costumes and production design was a giant leap forward from past adaptations of the story. Among the elaborate and memorable characters were the Munchkins and a horde of winged monkeys that served the Wicked Witch of the West. The filmmakers also made the ambitious-if-unusual decision of featuring the Kansas sequences in sepia before introducing the land of Oz in dazzling Technicolor. While not the first musical to be based on Baum’s story the movie would become most famous for its showcase tune Over the Rainbow, sung by Dorothy shortly before being whisked away by a twister during a storm.
If the casting of The Wizard of Oz proved challenging then directing the picture would become a nightmare. Principal photography was delayed due to Garland’s prior commitments to Listen, Darling, with the initial start date of 15 September pushed back to the following month. But by 24 October producer Mervyn LeRoy had become dissatisfied with the dailies that were coming from the set and had decided that the director, Richard Thorpe, was to be fired from the production.
Their choice of replacement was Geogre Cukor, who had joined the studio in the mid-1930s following contracts with Paramount Pictures and RKO. But Cukor’s tenure with the project would also prove to be short-lived and by the end of the month he had also parted ways with Oz. Much as he would do with David O. Selznick’s epic production of Gone with the Wind, Victor Fleming would be hired as Cukor’s replacement and would ultimately be considered as the true director of both productions.
Even with a director in place, constant script rewrites became a regular hindrance during filming, forcing the actors to learn new dialogue on a near-daily basis. This, coupled with the restrictions caused by the overbearing make-up, would transform the set into a nightmare for many of the performers. Even the studio were losing their patience with their once-promising project and considered withdrawing the funding and closing the production down. But some of the participants, particularly Freed, still believed in The Wizard of Oz and were determined to see their hard work come to fruition.
Fleming was exhausted by the time he completed his work on The Wizard of Oz but now he faced the daunting task of turning his attention to another demanding project, Gone with the Wind. With Fleming having left before the end of production the last few days of photography were completed by Academy Award nominee King Vidor. While Fleming would direct the majority of the movie, in truth The Wizard of Oz was a collaborative effort and was not representative of one individual’s vision.
The long and arduous process of shooting The Wizard of Oz finally came to an end on 16 March 1939, a little over five months after cameras began rolling under the direction of Richard Thorpe. With a budget in excess of $2 million it had proved to be a challenging and occasionally soul-crushing experience for all involved but the initial reaction to the picture when it was released in the summer of 1939 proved promising. ‘It is all so well-intentioned, so genial and so gay that any reviewer who would look down his nose at the fun-making should be spanked and sent off, supperless, to bed,’ declared Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times. John C. Flinn Sr., writing for Variety, was equally excited at the result. ‘Nothing comparable has come out of Hollywood in the past few years to approximate the lavish scale of this filmusical extravaganza,’ he stated in his 16 August review. ‘In the making of which the ingenuity and inventiveness of technical forces were employed without stint of effort or cost.’ But while the movie was almost universally praised by critics its box office performance was less than stellar.
‘It took The Wizard of Oz over twenty years to earn its money back,’ claimed author Aljean Harmetz. ‘The picture was probably never intended to make money. Despite Walt Disney’s successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the year before there was a Hollywood truism that fantasies were failures at the box office. Disney’s gamble on a full-length cartoon was daring and it could have made Mayer daydream of equal success. But Mayer was too shrewd to daydream very often. The Wizard of Oz was intended as a prestige picture that would more or less break even.’
But in the decades that followed The Wizard of Oz would be hailed as a cinematic triumph and one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time, entertaining and delighting generation after generation with its memorable songs, striking visuals and energetic performances. Despite Baum having passed away many years earlier, in print the world he had created continued to expand through the imagination of other writers, with Ruth Plumly Thompson taking over in 1921 with The Royal Book of Oz, the first of nineteen that she would write in less than twenty years. Illustrator Neill then turned to writing with 1940’s The Wonder City of Oz, the first of three he would author before being suceeded by Jack Snow, Rachel R. Cosgrove and an array of other writers.
Over the years other filmmakers would attempt to capitalise on the success of The Wizard of Oz by offering their own interpretations of Baum’s series of books, with animator Hal Sutherland embarking on a feature film in the early 1960s called Journey Back to Oz. Financing issues would ultimately cause the funding to dry up and the picture would remain unreleased for a decade, during which time Barry Mahon had directed The Wonderful Land of Oz. Another loose adaptation was Oz: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Road Movie which, as the title suggests, focused on a rock group and the adventures of a teenage girl called Dorothy.
Many producers had tried to rework The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in a way that had incorporated as much of their own imagination as Baum’s, while also in many ways becoming a product of its time, but none of these past adaptations were as far-removed from the source material as The Wiz, an all-black stage production that made its debut on Broadway in 1975 to considerable acclaim. Winning numerous Tony Awards and introducing audiences to a new selection of songs, the play was written by William F. Brown with music and lyrics from Charlie Smalls.
The Wiz was produced during an era when black art was finally being recognised in American culture
Directed by Geoffrey Holder, The Wiz was produced during an era when black art was finally being recognised in American culture, from filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles and Ossie Davis to Motown artists and such musicians as Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. Following its opening night at the Majestic Theatre on 5 January 1975 the original production ran for a total of one thousand, six hundred and seventy-two performances, by which point it had become a phenomenal success. While the show would eventually be revived in 1984, The Wiz would become more famous for a big screen adaptation that was released in 1978.
Produced in New York City on a budget of $24 million, the idea of developing a feature film based on the play was the brainchild of Rob Cohen, who intended on casting the star of the original Broadway show, Stephanie Mills, in the role of Dorothy. The motion picture was to be developed by Cohen under Motown Productions with a screenplay written by Joel Schumacher, the man responsible for scripting the 1976 Richard Pryor comedy Car Wash. But complications would arise when one of Motown’s key artists Diana Ross expressed her desire to play Dorothy, having already witnessed the stage show on Broadway.
The company’s founder Berry Gordy had reservations about casting her in the lead role, primarily due to the fact that Ross was already in her thirties, while the character of Dorothy had always been portrayed as a child. Even Cohen, who had been left with the responsibility of the project, was hesitant at allowing Ross to portray the character but fearing that any kind of resistance could result in the project being cancelled he agreed. In order to keep the production under control Cohen decided to hire veteran filmmaker Sidney Lumet, the man responsible for such masterpieces as 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, to direct the picture. With Ross heading the cast it was important to surround the star with other talented and confident performers, particularly singers whom she could interact with. Cohen would finally suggest Michael Jackson who, in the mid-1970s, was still more known as a member of the Jackson 5 than as a solo artist. Also a fan of the Broadway show and a close friend of Mills, Jackson was urged by Ross to audition for the production but, with Gordy already supporting the decision, he was cast as the Scarecrow, the character that Jackson felt ‘best fit my style.’
While controversial comedian Richard Pryor would take on the role of the Wizard, Cohen would decide to recruit some of the original Broadway cast for his big screen version, with Ted Ross and Mabel King once again portraying the Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch of the West, respectively. Completing the lead cast was Nipsey Russell, who began his career in the 1960s as a guest on a variety of game shows before hosting Your Number’s Up, in the role of the Tin Woodman.
To create the kind of characters that the script demanded the producers began a search for a talented young make-up artist who could bring the inhabitants of Oz to life. They finally decided on thirty-year-old Stan Winston, who had started his career on a slew of low budget genre pictures for independent producer Charles Band and his Emmy Award-winning work on the 1972 made-for-TV movie Gargoyles. With Universal Studios involved in the production Winston had free rein in their special effects department, but a dispute over his listing in the end credits would result in the artist threatening Universal with legal action through a dispute of contract.
Any hope that Cohen had in following in the footsteps of the makers of the makers of The Wizard of Oz by delivering another timeless classic was crushed when The Wiz was released one week before Halloween in 1978. The poor critical and commercial reception the movie received had little negative impact on the career of Jackson, however, as the following year, teaming up once again with producer Quincy Jones who had also worked on The Wiz, Jackson finally became a star in his own right with the multi-Platinum selling classic Off the Wall.
In 1985, forty-six years after the release of The Wizard of Oz, Walt Disney Pictures released a sequel to the original story which saw Dorothy unable to convince her family that she had visited Oz six months earlier, forcing Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to take drastic measures to help cure the child. Taken to a facility run by the mysterious Dr. Worley, Dorothy is subjected to a form of electro-shock therapy when a blackout allows her to escape with the help of another young girl.
Accompanied by her hen Billina, Dorothy finds herself once again in the land of Oz but now the yellow brick road has been destroyed and her former friends have fallen foul of the sinister Nome King, forcing Dorothy to team up with a wind-up man named Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead, a child-like orphan desperately seeking his mother. She finally finds her way to the underworld of the Nome King, who challenges Dorothy in order to save the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, all of whom have become his prisoners.
Return to Oz was first suggested by Walter Murch, Francis Ford Coppola’s editor on his 1979 war epic Apocalypse Now, who approached Tom Wilhite at Disney with the suggestion of taking Dorothy back to the land of Oz. The project’s greatest asset would prove to be Gary Kurtz, the long-time producer of George Lucas, having worked together on American Graffiti and the first two instalments of the Star Wars saga. While the studio were hesitant about taking on a project that could prove expensive Murch received the support of Coppola and Lucas, both of whom had collateral in Hollywood.
With the addition of producer Paul Maslansky, the man behind the soon-to-be released comedy Police Academy, principal photography on Return to Oz began on 20 February 1984 at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England, with nine-year-old newcomer Fairuza Balk cast as Dorothy and Murch making his directorial debut. Assisting in the creation of his new collection of bizarre characters was creature designer Lyle Conway, who had achieved similar results with both The Great Muppet Caper and The Dark Crystal. Billina, the hen who develops the power of speech in the land of Oz, required Conway to create seven different versions as wear and tear on set would soon take their toll on the props. The screenplay, adapted by Murch and Gill Dennis, used two of Baum’s stories as their source of inspiration. Jack Pumpkinhead had been created by Baum for his second book in the series The Marvelous Land of Oz, which had also featured the Deadly Desert, while the characters of Tik-Tok and the Wheelers were introduced in his third book Ozma of Oz. Return to Oz had been a risky project for Disney; having been disappointed by the box office returns for 1982’s Tron they had entrusted a $25 million sequel to a seminal classic in the hands of a first-time filmmaker. Audiences and critics were unsure how to react to a movie that had taken such a darker approach than its predecessor.
Animatronics and puppets had become something of a trend in the mid-1980s, with the likes of Labyrinth enjoying critical acclaim, but Return to Oz had offered certain aspects that may have been considered unsuitable for children, such as the electro-shock therapy that Dorothy narrowly escapes from at the beginning of the story. ‘This Dorothy, who has nothing like the spunk and resourcefulness Judy Garland brought to the role, is nonetheless cast as a conquering adventuress in an alien empire,’ criticised Janet Maslin, ‘since she never stops to marvel at the mysteries of this new place, neither can you.’
There were a lot of fundamental differences between the 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz and Return to Oz, not only due to Disney’s decision to avoid using songs in their sequel but also with the portrayal of Dorothy. Garland’s incarnation of the character would be full of wonder at the beauty and magic that Oz has to offer, while Balk is more horrified at the state that the once-wonderful land has been reduced to. But once again it would be Dorothy that would destroy the evil force that threatens the realm and brings peace to the people of Oz.
Baum would continue to evoke magic in the imagination of storytellers, from David Lynch’s 1990 road movie Wild At Heart to the BBC sci-fi drama Life on Mars sixteen years later, while in 2005 Disney returned to the series once again with the made-for-TV musical The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. The film starred pop singer Ashanti as Dorothy, who leaves her Kansas trailer park in search of fame and fortune and encounters many of the Muppet characters in place of those from Oz, with Kermit the Frog as the Scarecrow and Miss Piggy as all three witches. The negative response from audiences and critics would cause the Muppets franchise to remain dormant for the next six years, before relaunching with 2011’s award-winning reboot The Muppets.
The task of introducing audiences to a modern interpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz hardly seemed suited to a filmmaker such as Sam Raimi, the man who had started his career in the early 1980s with the video nasty classic The Evil Dead, but following his success with a trilogy of Spider-Man blockbusters Raimi joined forces with Disney for a prequel to the original tale, Oz The Great and Powerful. While initial reports seemed to indicate that Raimi intended to remake the 1939 classic, when the project was first announced other filmmakers were in discussion to helm the production.
In the spring of 2010, a century after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published, Disney announced that Sam Mendes, fresh from his success with the James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, was to direct a story about how the Wizard first came to arrive in Oz, a tale that was only briefly explored in the classic movie. Robert Downey Jr., whose career had been revitalised in 2008 with the Marvel hit Iron Man and his Academy Award-nominated turn in Tropic Thunder, was also attached to the project in the eponymous role of Oz, the soon-to-be Wizard.
The first Oz movie to be shot in 3D
But by the summer Mendes had walked from the production and the next filmmaker rumoured to be in discussions with Disney was Guillermo del Toro, then also attached to the highly anticipated Hobbit films. Finally, however, Raimi was announced as the director but by the New Year Downey Jr. had decided to withdraw, leading to talk of Johnny Depp taking on the role. The first Oz movie to be shot in 3D, Mitchel Kapner was hired to develop a screenplay that focused on the journey of Oz from his life as a travelling magician and con artist to the magical land of Oz, where he would defeat the evil witches and be crowned Wizard.
In October 2010 David Lindsay-Abaire was hired by Disney to rewrite the original screenplay, without any actors having officially signed onto the project. The shooting script would feature references not only to the writings of Baum but also Raimi’s past work, specifically his 1992 Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness, both of which told of a selfish man whisked away to a faraway land, where he uses his knowledge of the future to help defeat the forces of evil. In keeping with tradition, Raimi cast his Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell in a minor role, appearing as the gate keeper of the Emerald City. Oz the Great and Powerful told the story of Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, or Oz to his associates, who runs an elaborate magic show as part of a travelling circus with his underappreciated assistant Frank. When his taste for womanising forces him to escape from the strongman of the circus, Oz finds himself in a hot air balloon, drifting into the eye of a storm. Finally landing safely, he discovers that he has drifted into a land full of magic and colour, unaware that he has travelled to the far-away realm of Oz.
His first encounter is with a beautiful young woman called Theodora, who believes that he is the Wizard prophecised to deliver the people of Oz safely from the evil witch Glinda. With the promises of fortune and glory, Theodora’s sister Evanora sends Oz on his quest to destroy Glinda, along the way making friends with a winged monkey called Finley and a broken china doll. But soon he discovers that Glinda is kind and gentle and has been banished by the true wicked witch, Evanora, who manages to manipulate Theodora into embracing her evil side. Oz and Glinda are forced to join forces with the people of Oz to defend the land from the wicked witches.
Raimi would spend approximately three years working on Oz the Great and Powerful, which would not only require 3D but would also be shot with a substantial amount of computer-generated imagery, giving the movie an almost cartoon or computer game look. Filming commenced in July 2011 in Detroit, close to where Raimi had spent his childhood and shot many early Super 8 films, with James Franco in the role of Oz. Thirteen years younger than Downey Jr., Franco had previously worked with Raimi on the Super-Man franchise, while also gaining critical acclaim for his performances in 127 Hours and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, another role that required working with CGI characters.
Oz the Great and Powerful was less a prequel to MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and more a precursor to Baum’s original story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book that had been in the public domain since the 1950s. Raimi, who was a fan of Fleming’s movie as a child, did want to make some references to the 1939 film, specifically by starting the story with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, in keeping with motion pictures of the era, before transforming to a full colour 2.40:1 widescreen ration in an attempt to recreate the magic of first arriving in Oz, just as The Wizard of Oz had done over seventy years earlier.
The project had been developed by producer Joe Roth, whose previous attempts at updating and expanding classic tales had included Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman. Released nationwide in the United States on 8 March 2013 Oz the Great and Powerful was a commercial success, although in total it had failed to achieve the same box office figures as Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, another CGI-dominated 3D movie released by Disney three years earlier.
Critics were surprisingly harsh to the latest big screen Oz adventure. ‘Oz the Great and Powerful is a film that doesn’t know its own mind,’ claimed Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. ‘A partially effective jumble whose elements clash rather than cohere, this solid but not spectacular effort stubbornly refuses to catch fire until it’s almost too late.’ Writing in his Indiewire colum, Leonard Maltin was a little more open to the picture that Raimi had created. ‘Oz The Great and Powerful is played straight; its sincerity should win over younger viewers completely. It isn’t overplayed (thank goodness) so grownups can engage with it too. And, in the tradition of the 1939 classic, director Sam Raimi and his team fill the screen with sights of awe and wonder.’
Even as Raimi was developing his prequel, Asylum veteran Leigh Scott directed a straight-to-DVD fantasy called Dorothy and the Witches of Oz, which told of an adult Dorothy who works as a writer in New York and begins to realise that the stories she is writing about Oz are in fact memories of her childhood. Elsewhere, Glee regular Lea Michele provided the voice of Dorothy for the 3D animated musical Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return. Both features were critically reviled. Raimi, meanwhile, announced at the time of Oz the Great and Powerful‘s release that he had no interest in directing a follow-up. ‘I tried to make it a complete ending,’ he admitted, ‘so that the audience would be fulfilled, but I also let Evanora and Theodora get away.’
Over a century since its original publication and the legacy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remains as strong as ever, its influence on popular culture and fantasy storytelling undeniable, from the magical worlds of the Harry Potter franchise to the pure virginal protagonists of modern horror films. ‘Many claims have been made for The Wizard of Oz. It has been seen as a political allegory, with the yellow brick road referring to the gold standard that America had embraced,’ explained an article in the Telegraph that marked the ninety-seventh anniversary since the death of L. Frank Baum. Yet even in the world of today, far removed from that which the author had experienced, critics have tried to find parallels with Baum’s homeland of America and his fictitious land of Oz. ‘L Frank Baum’s original novel was written in 1900 and the film was made in 1939. Yet all the themes of Trump’s America are there,’ claimed Guardian writer Bidisha in 2018, drawing comparisons between the story and the American political landscape of the twenty-first century. ‘The US of The Wizard of Oz is not so far from the US of today. The supposedly great man living in Trump Tower – I mean Emerald City – turns out to be a con artist, a bloviating coward who relies on self-aggrandisement and empty shows of power to cow the people.’ It would seem that a fantasy story as inventive and outrageous as the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz still sets the imagination racing of both children and adults more than a hundred years after its publication and will continue to fascinate readers and viewers of its numerous adaptations for years to come.