Thursday, December 27, 2018

Some Tra-La-Las for "The Road to Oz"

Next year will be 2019, the 80th anniversary of that much-heralded year for movies, 1939. (In just that year, the world was given Babes in Arms, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Drums Along the Mohawk, Gone with the Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Gunga Din, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, The Women, Wuthering Heights and even more!) A chief film of 1939 which will be celebrating its 80th birthday is The Wizard of Oz, a movie beloved by countless throngs of fans worldwide. And marking the occasion is a new book called "The Road to Oz: The Evolution, Creation, and Legacy of a Motion Picture Masterpiece" by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman.

These particular authors, incredibly devoted fans of the film, have already put forth three books pertaining to The Wizard of Oz including one on the many pieces of memorabilia and collectibles, one on the special effects magic of the movie and a 75th anniversary companion to the film, loaded down with beautiful photos and tidbits of information regarding the treasured classic. This time, they've put together an exhaustive, almost textbook-like account of how a series of children's books segued to the stage then to silent film and finally - after a long, rocky, yellow brick road - to a high-profile, highly-anticipated feature, the likes of which will never be seen again.

We do not write much about The Wizard of Oz here because generally our interest lies in digging up lesser-known people and properties to muse about, but there have occasionally been times we've grazed the subject. There was our brief, early tribute to the marvelous Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West to a fare thee well, an in-depth look at movie dogs which included the beloved Terry (who portrayed Toto) and a profile of Frank Morgan, who deftly played the title character (and a couple of others!)

It's not because we don't love and adore the movie that it doesn't get written about much here. It's because there are plenty of sites, books, docu- mentaries and so on that have already covered it in-depth, so there isn't much need for me to throw my tin hat in the ring. I absolutely love the film. Just when you think that there isn't anything that could possibly be dug up about it, though, the authors of "The Road to Oz" have done just that. Scarfone and Stillman have painstakingly gone through stacks and stacks of documentation, archival material and photos and transformed their findings into a dense, meticulously-researched telling of all the things that went into making the movie. (Also, persistent rumors and myths are addressed along the way!)

That's one Oliver Hardy of Laurel & Hardy as The Tin Man
Diehard fans know (or, in some cases, think they know) practically everything about Oz. I never claimed to be one of those, but I like to think I am up on a lot of the trivia. However, I was certainly not up to snuff on much of the pre-1939 information, such as the stage and radio adaptations or the silent rendition of the story. One thing I didn't know was that a 1955 Best Actress nominee had once played Dorothy Gale in a radio series of the tale. All of this is provided in detail and how certain parts of each project found their way into the MGM feature.

Cantor with Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch.
Speaking of, MGM only got hold of the property after Samuel Goldwyn had tried for a time to launch his own production. Eddie Cantor, a major 1930s film comedian, would have starred in that rendition had it seen the light of day. I also didn't realize at all how closely associated Walt Disney's Snow White was to the film, at least in the minds of moviegoers. Disney had his eye on the material for a time as well and his 1937 animated stunner Snow White was the benchmark for fantasy escapism. It never dawned on me that viewers might compare and contrast the two movies.
The elegant Queen from Snow White (based on the features of Miss Joan Crawford) even inspired the first look chosen for The Wicked Witch when she was to be played by Gale Sondergaard, but ultimately it was determined to go scary and craggy instead. When this happened, Sondergaard took a hike, not wanting to appear horrid and ugly, something she clearly got over by the time of 1976's The Return of a Man Called Horse, in which she played a heavily-wrinkled Indian woman!
Garland with her initial blonde locks.
Some movies are planned out to the last detail and filmed with barely a hitch. Some others are a harried, discombobulated mess all during filming and then turn out startlingly well (the 1942 classic Casablanca comes to mind.) For as polished and gloriously resplendent as Oz is, you'd hardly know just how much turmoil went on behind the scenes, particularly at the start. There were injuries, effects challenges (which brought about great innovation) and even a director change and the scrapping of some completed scenes (in order to completely overhaul the way Judy Garland looked as Dorothy!) This apart from sequences that were filmed, but later cut from the movie for either time or to avoid future anachronism (such as an entire musical number "The Jitterbug.")
Jitterbug, anyone? This sequence has never been rediscovered after cutting, only appearing in some grainy "home movie" type footage.
Was the floor of this set inspired by an earlier project?
It's a fascinating read and, while there are indeed photos included, some rarely if ever seen, this is not in any way a "coffee table" book. It's a very intensive look at the people and production components of one of the world's favorite movies. Thus, it may not be for the casual fan. However, for those who have a cinematic obsession, there can never be too much trivia or too much information. We want to know it all.

Also, at least as of this writing, the book has the rather considerable distinction of having nearly a dozen reviews on and they are ALL five-star rated! (On a personal note, I was excited that the authors included recognition of the Mego figures that came out in the early-1970s as I positively loved those toys!) Anyone wanting more information on this brand new book may find it right here.


A said...

Thanks, Poseidon, we just watched this over Christmas! Happy New Year!

Gingerguy said...

Poseidon I loved all your jokes! I never cease to be amazed at what a cottage industry "OZ" is. One could do a family tree of all the influences from "Zardoz" to "Wicked". The Broadway show just had a 15th anniversary special and I learned that the character Elpheba was named for L.Frank Baum.
I worked once with a waiter who found endless uses for lines from the movie, if it was busy he would say "my, people come and go so quickly around here" etc.
I hope I am not repeating this but I took a nephew to a stage version once with Eartha Kitt as the Witch (sadly that nephew remained straight)and she sang the scuttled "Jitter Bug" You can just imagine what she did with the "R" in Rascal. This book sounds fun for the obsessed or folks who didn't work in restaurants with the obsessed. Happy New Year to all

D ODay said...

One of the greatest qualities of 'Oz' is it's perfect pacing. There is not one unnecessary moment in the movie - every word, every second of screen time advances the story. That is why it somehow seems to be over before you realize it, yet you don't feel the least bit unsatisfied.
In addition to the 'Jitterbug' number, the Scarecrow originally had a much longer dance. The producers were right to cut both. 'Jitterbug' simply stops the story cold at a very dramatic point, and dates what is otherwise a timeless film. The extended Scarecrow number just got repetitive and silly. I know there are cinephiles who bemoan the loss of any footage, but in this case the producers knew what they were doing.

Poseidon3 said...

Hello, A! Sounds like a good idea - a heartwarmer during the holiday season.

Gingerguy, hilarious as usual. Don't worry about repeating yourself (if you even did.) We sometimes have short memories around here anyway! LOL I had a Red Lobster coworker who always quoted "Airplane!" lines to crew and guests. But my favorite was when he'd walk along a line of booths with a tray stand and bang it along the tops, just like Lorna Patterson does with the guitar case in the movie. LOL (And, yes, I've probably shared THAT before!) One time he asked a fellow server if she liked "gladiator movies" and she seriously thought for a moment and then said, "Well... 'Spartacus!'" Ha ha!

D ODay, I actually agree with you completely! Thank you!

David Kenilworth said...

The bullseye! Margaret Hamilton on being cast as The Wicked Witch of the West

Stefano said...

Good juxtaposition of the Evil Queen and Crawford; I read somewhere that MGM head Louis B Mayer scoffed at the prospects of "Snow White" during its making, saying "Who is going to pay to look at drawings of a fairy princess when for the same price they could see Joan Crawford's boobs?" After "Snow White" became a box office bombshell, MGM quickly started work on "Oz", which began filming less than a year after the "Snow White" premiere. The kind of production schedule only possible in that great studio age.

Poseidon3 said...

Stefano, that quote is HILARIOUS. Lo, these many years later, audiences are still enjoying both!