It’s the holiday season, and our TV channels love to show popular old films, to provide us with the background entertainment to our turkey munching and mulled wine sipping, but we don’t want remakes, do we. No, sir. Just the original classics for us. Except we might not realise that some of the films we consider to be originals were in fact remakes in their day, and a prime example of that is the hugely popular 1939 musical film The Wizard of Oz. There were no fewer than ten films set in Oz that predated the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production, and that’s not surprising when you consider the popularity of the books at the time. L. Frank Baum never intended to write any sequels to his 1900 novel, but was nagged so much by his young fans that he ended up writing 13 more novels and a handful of short stories. After his death in 1919, his publishers hired another author to continue the book series. Oz was a publishing phenomenon.
The first attempt at a film adaptation was produced and written by Baum himself, who also provided live narration for the screenings. The filmed elements of that 1908 tour are lost, so the first ever version of the Oz story we can see is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a silent sub-15 minute effort from 1910. The credits are missing from the print, so there has been some guesswork over the years as to who the actors are, although it’s a safe bet that Dorothy is played by Bebe Daniels, who would have been 9 years old at the time. She was already an established child actress, having debuted on the stage at the age of 4, and starred in her first film when she was just 7. She is a lively and energetic Dorothy, more than holding her own among the otherwise adult cast, although the scarecrow tries to steal the show with his back-flipping antics, and has an even greater role than in the book or the 1939 film. In this version, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow before she is whisked away to Oz, and basically forms a double act with Dorothy throughout.
Fitting the story into 15 minutes obviously results in some compressed storytelling, so it seems odd that there are additional elements added in as well, such as Imogene the Cow, who is swept up by the tornado along with Dorothy, Toto and the Scarecrow, and Eureka the Kitten, a character from one of the sequels. It seems to all be little more than an excuse to get as many actors in animal costumes on screen as possible, with even Toto transformed into a human-sized bulldog. There are moments that are unintentionally funny: the cow seems to be trying to hump a hay bale when the storm approaches, and they all bizarrely think that holding on to some hay will be a good way to protect themselves from a tornado. Dorothy becomes the hero when she amusingly realises that water kills a witch. That’s convenient. Both of those silly moments build up to early examples of special effects, with the camera undercranked so the hay bale spins around very quickly when it is swept up by the cyclone, and later the witch faded out of the picture when she is killed with a bucket of water.
Silent films can be hard to follow, with the captions only providing a very brief outline of each scene, but The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is made all the more confusing by the amount of characters packed into such a short space of time, and the compressed storytelling. There are often so many people on set that the screen is filled with actors, which must have been impressive for the time, but muddles the action we are supposed to be following, with Dorothy and the Scarecrow sometimes lost in the crowd. The sets are impressive, with an upper level at one point for the witch’s cottage, and the painted backdrops are beautiful, even seen through the lens of a blurry 111-year-old film.
There were three sequels to this production, all of which are lost. Like Baum’s original adaptation, we will probably never be able to see them, but at least we can still enjoy this weird and wonderful example of early silent film. Judy Garland will forever be remembered as the definitive Dorothy, but other Dorothys were visiting Oz more than a decade before she was born. This Dorothy saved the day with a randy cow and a bucket of water, but for a generation of children, a long, long time ago, Bebe Daniels was their Dorothy. RP