Twenty minutes into the first full-length movie based on L. Frank Baum's most beloved novel, a duck pukes into the face of Larry Semon, the star and director. Semon's 1925 flop, titled The Wizard of Oz, opens and closes with a Geppetto-esque toymaker reading to his granddaughter from a well-loved copy of the first Oz novel.
This framing device is meant to assure us that the comic violence in between has something to do with the stories Baum wrote and children loved. But even that toymaker's grandkid isn't convinced. "I don't like that," she complains, after a tiresome introduction focused on King Kruel and Lady Vishuss, bland new lordlings of Oz. "Read me about Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, and the Scarecrow."
If only he would. Grandpa does read on, but what he offers his moppet is the stubbornly un-magical tale of Dorothy, the farmgirl/flapper who is lusted after by Kansas field hands, suffers the assaults of an abusive uncle Henry, and does not know she is the lost princess of Oz, the magical land her house finally gets tornadoed to just over halfway through this 125-minute disaster. Before that, we get many punishing scenes of barnyard slapstick, fat men falling (including a young Oliver Hardy!), and even a visit from those evil Ozlings, who descend on Kansas in a prop plane, wielding pistols and wearing black capes and Zorro hats. And we get duck puke-- did the grandfather read that bit aloud? Does his copy of The Wizard of Oz contain errata?
Here's Semon's film in its entirety:
Indignities to look for:
12:10 Angry that she has picked some flowers, Uncle Henry threaten Flapper Dorothy with a switch.
12:50 A black field hand chows down on watermelon; a title card introduces the character as "Snowball" and identifies the actor playing him as "G. Howe Black."
19:45 Meet the vomiting duck of Oz, dirtying the face of silent comedy star Larry Semon, who at the time of filming was already on his way to being forgotten. Flapper Dorothy is played by his wife, Dorothy Dwan.
38:00 Certainly the greatest dive off a granary tower in any Oz movie.
41:30 Here’s a racist stereotype that hasn't survived: Snowball does not notice that he is repeatedly struck by lightning.
42:30 The house finally begins to pitch.
51:00 Semon's field hand passes himself off as a scarecrow. In this adaptation, Dorothy's three most famous friends in Oz are, as in the beloved 1939 MGM musical, played by actors who appear in the Kansas sequences. The difference: Rather than fantastical beings, all three are just those field hands in disguise.
1:15:15 Staring down an actual lion, this movie's Cowardly Lion -- that black field hand -- pulls off an early version of the "Smooth Criminal" lean. (It also resembles a memorable move of the Tin Man's dance in the 1939 film.)
1:16:10 HOLY SHIT! DID HE REALLY DO THAT STUNT? HOLLYWOOD, WHY WOULD YOU MAKE PEOPLE DO THAT?!
There have been many Oz movies, but before the release of Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful there has been only one good one. (I don't/can't count The Wiz. For all its funky joyousness and keep-easin'-on communitarinism, I find a yellow-brick slog.) Raimi's grand adventure is the second. Like all Oz films before it, it's likely to be praised (or assailed) for its faithfulness (or lack thereof) to Baum's fourteen Oz novels.
Those novels, though, are themselves hardly faithful to each other. Which Oz is the true one? The Oz of the later Baum books, where it's a stone fact that nobody kills and nobody can die, or the Oz of the first, where the Tin Woodman hacks the heads off no fewer than forty wolves? Is it The Road to Oz, wherein the Tin Man explains that the kingdom has no currency and no class structure, as "no one in all Oz cares to have more than he can use," or that of The Marvelous Land of Oz, in which the Scarecrow, having lost his straw, gets stuffed with cash and is deemed by the punning Woggle Bug now to be "the most valuable member of our party"?
Forever annoyed at the success of the Oz books compared to his many other children's novels, Baum continually retired from the series only to be lured back when low on cash. The second-- and possibly best-- novel, 1904's The Marvelous Land of Oz, followed four years after the first, and was dedicated to David C. Montgomery and Fred Stone, the musical theater actors who triumphed as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man in the 1902 Broadway adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The producers of that show added a romance for Dorothy, swapped out Toto for a cow, did away with the wicked witches. The Cowardly Lion remained, but only as a pantomime animal, which might explain why he was not at first a breakout character like the scarecrow and the Tin Man. In fact, when Baum penned his first Oz sequels, he hardly included the Lion at all -- before Bert Lahr's for-the-ages 'fraidy-ness in the 1939 movie, the Lion was considered the least of Dorothy's BFFs.