Author L. Frank Baum's beloved children's book characters were featured in several films before the wonderful WIZARD OF OZ began charming audiences in 1939. This is the fifth silent "Oz" film, following three 1910 one-reelers (THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, DOROTHY AND THE SCARECROW OF OZ, and THE LAND OF OZ) and 1914's THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ and THE MAGIC CLOAK OF OZ (the latter relocating Baum's non-Oz novel Queen Zixi of Ix). PATCHWORK GIRL, MAGIC CLOAK and this film were produced and distributed by Baum's own Oz Film Manufacturing Company/Alliance, which went on to release four non-Oz adaptations before Baum died in 1919. (In addition, some hand-tinted filmlets had been produced for a 1908 touring multimedia show, THE FAIRYLOGUE AND RADIO-PLAYS, in which Baum appeared live as the Royal Historian of Oz.) This was the final Oz movie made with Baum's direct involvement. He had planned to adapt the first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), but wound up departing from the source material enough that he created an original screenplay; he later adapted it into another "Oz" book (1915's The Scarecrow of Oz).
King Krewl (Raymond Russell) wants his daughter Gloria (Vivian Reed) to wed courtier Googly-goo (Arthur Smollet), but she loves gardener's son Pon (Todd Wright). So dad hires the witch Mombi (Mai Wells) to freeze Gloria's heart. Dorothy (Violet MacMillan), a young Kansas girl imprisoned by Mombi, escapes and joins forces with Pon, the Princess and a Scarecrow (Franke Moore) who's been brought to life by an odd Indian maiden and several dancing girls. The quartet soon add to their number carefree lost boy Button-Bright (Mildred Harris) and the Tin Woodsman (Pierre Couderc); in a foreshadowing of the 1939 version, they release him from rusty paralysis by oiling his joints. Mombi arrives, shaking her umbrella, and the Tin Woodsman chops off her head. She replaces it and, none the worse for wear, turns Pon into a kangaroo. The group subsequently raft down river and encounter a series of marvels — including a mermaid, a giant crow and a hill of water — before meeting the itinerant Wizard (J. Charles Hayden), who drives a carriage drawn by something resembling an animated, four-legged log. They trick Mombi into his clutches and he magically imprisons her in a can of "Preserved Sandwitches," while they're befriending the Cowardly Lion (previously seen briefly in his jungle home, tussling with a creature that looks like one of the 1939 film's famous flying monkeys). Eventually, things are put right: Gloria's heart is unfrozen, Pon is de-kangarooed, and Dorothy crowns the Scarecrow king. In its day, this must have been a special-effects extravaganza, with its copious trick photography, underwater sequence, elaborate costumes and actors flying on wires. The acting is surprisingly good, particularly Moore's slapsticky Scarecrow and Wells's Mombi, and Wright and Reed make an attractive couple, even by modern standards. Though the electric organ score is unnecessarily ominous in clearly comical scenes, this is a fascinating early interpretation of what has become a classic tale. leave a comment --Frank Lovece