The Yellow Brick Road and Beyond
July 26, 2013
This relatively short (less than an hour) and occasionally interesting documentary deals with, as its subtitle says, “The History of L. Frank Baum’s Classic Books and Movies.” It doesn’t however, deal with them very comprehensively and leaves quite a lot uncovered.
Written and directed by Troy Szebin and narrated with a bit more chipper-ness in his voice than seems necessary given the cliché-loaded text he’s reading, the documentary spends most of its time on the classic movie version with Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and 124 “little people.” Interviews with a few of them provide some entertaining side-stories, as does a brief clip of Garland herself making an appearance on the Jack Paar show where she, perhaps jokingly, referred to them as “little drunks.”
The 50 minute documentary devotes just 22 minutes to events prior to the legendary movie version,and has only eight minutes left when it moves on to sketch subsequent adaptations for television, movies and the stage. Thus, there just isn’t time to relate much beyond the basic information about such vehicles as The Wiz, the 1975 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, and the 2003 Broadway smash that is still going strong, Wicked. Most of that time is taken up with tales of the 1939 film.
Before getting to the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz, however, the documentary provides an interesting mini-bio of the author of the Oz books, L. Frank Baum himself. Sprinkled with photos and film clips, not all of which seem to be related to the point being made and others which beg for identification, there is enough here to give one the basic facts and a feel for the man who created a story which we all know so well.
Many comments from people who have either something to do with the classic movie or credentials the producers felt justified their appearance in the documentary help tell the stories of Baum, the Oz books and the many spinoffs of which the movie was, of course, the most important.
Some of the most interesting facts or observations come from Carlos Larkin who is simply identified as an “Oz Historian.” I don’t know how he earned that appellation. A search for his name of the Library of Congress Online Catalog comes up empty and his website reveals that he is an actor. It doesn’t list any Oz-related activities. Nonetheless, his comments which are sprinkled throughout the film are often insightful. It is Larkin who makes the observation that Baum was “aiming for something a little less horrific and terrifying than the fear-based morality tales that European folklore had given the children.”
Moving rapidly along, the film devotes less than a minute to the first hit musical based on the story, the 1903 The Wizard of Oz, which ran for 293 performances at the old Majestic Theater on Columbus Circle. That musical had a score by Paul Tietjens and A. Baldwin Sloane. Many of the songs were recorded by various artists on piano rolls and music boxes as well as the new fangled talking machines: wax cylinders and 78s. These have been lovingly tracked down, cleaned up and offered on a two CD set by David Maxine. My copy has the imprimatur of Hungry Tiger Press of San Diego while Amazon is showing it as a release of Original Cast Records with an ASIN: B00009MPYQ. Either way you track it down, it is a great deal more satisfying a visit to the history of Baum’s creation than is the documentary.
The most lengthy section of the documentary does include clips from the famous movie itself, a few photos from the set, photos of the four directors who served on the movie before its final release and some anecdotes about its initial minor success and then its resurrection as a classic due to television exposure. The clips of interviews with some of the “little people” who worked on the movie reveal that there were 124 of them because that is how many showed up for the casting call – everyone of which was hired at $50 a day plus room and board. This contrasted with the pay for the dog playing Toto who got, the interview says, $125 a day.
Legends are retold. These include the cutting of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” after the film’s second preview convinced studio officials that the song slowed down the start of the film too much. The song’s restoration before the release of the movie saved it from oblivion so it could go on to win the Oscar for Outstanding Song from a Movie and become the standard we all know today.
There is also a discussion of the famous ruby slippers. The book originally had them in crystal but, as the movie was to be a technicolor spectacular, ruby was selected so that the red would show up better. Larkin reports that there were four pairs used in filming. One is on display at the Smithsonian. Two are believed to be in private collections and the fourth pair was stolen from a museum in Kansas and has not been recovered.
The documentary rushes through the subsequent tale of the spin offs of The Wizard of Oz leaving more questions pending than it answers.
Perhaps more interesting to avid collectors or just curiosity seekers is the bonus content of the disc. While the documentary is just 50 minutes, another hour and a half are devoted to a 1925 silent film version of Wizard of Oz staring its director Larry Semon and featuring Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy and, as the Tin Woodsman, none other than Oliver N. Hardy (later just Oliver Hardy when teamed up with Stan Laurel). Backed by classical music that has nothing to do with the scenes on the screen (mostly Vivaldi) the film is actually quite entertaining and interesting since you know the story and can spot the differences between this version and others.
The Yellow Brick Road and Beyond – DVD
Passport Video Catalog PIP-DV-7430
Running time 50 minutes
plus 1:30 bonus feature