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Dorothy Gale Week Day 3: Liza Minnelli in Journey Back to Oz (1974)

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????Director: Hal Sutherland

Writer: Fred Land & Norman Prescott

Cast: Liza Minnelli, Milton Berle, Margaret Hamilton, Paul Ford, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Mel Blanc, Dal McKennon, Larry Storch, Risë Stevens, Jack E. Leonard, Herschel Bernardi

Plot: In this animated kind-of sequel to the 1939 MGM film, a storm is brewing in Kansas again, and Henry (Paul Ford) is getting worried. His niece Dorothy (Liza Minnelli) feels a-tingle, remembering  how a similar storm once swept her away to the land of Oz, but her Aunt Em (Margaret Hamilton) swears to her that Oz is simply a figment of her imagination. As she sings to Toto about wishing to return, a cyclone snaps the two of them up and pulls them into the air. When Dorothy comes to her senses, she realizes she’s landed by the Yellow Brick Road in Oz, and rushes off to find her old friends in the Emerald City. Setting off, Dorothy encounters a creature with a pumpkin for a head (Paul Lynde). Pumpkinhead is fleeing from an evil witch named Mombi (Ethel Merman), who created him to help her conjure some powerful, terrible work of magic. Dorothy tells Pumpkinhead to come with her to the Emerald City, where her friend the Scarecrow will help him.

Dorothy finds Mombi’s hut, where a crow (Mel Blanc) invites her to peek at the cauldron simmering on the fire. Mombi traps her and reveals her brew will create an army of green elephants to conquer Oz and destroy the Scarecrow. When Mombi leaves to get firewood, Pumpkinhead sneaks in and rescues Dorothy. As they escape, they encounter a carousel horse called Woodenhead (Herschel Bernardi), stuck upside-down in the ground. They free him and he joins their party.

Arriving at the Emerald City, they warn the Scarecrow (Mickey Rooney about Mombi’s attack just as the Witch and her Green Elephants arrive. Dorothy and her friends climb on Woodenhead’s back, but Toto and the Scarecrow are captured in the escape. Dorothy, Pumpkinhead and Woodenhead set out for Tinland, to enlist the aid of her old friend the Tin Man (Danny Thomas).  At first he’s eager to help, but loses heart when told of the army of elephants. The Cowardly Lion (Milton Berle) initially puts on a show of bravado, but quickly reverts back to quaking when told of the elephants. Glinda, the Good Witch (Risë Stevens) who has been watching the proceedings with her… “Glinda-Bird”… arrives to offer her aid, and gives Dorothy a package which she warns her not to open until she arrives at the Emerald City.

Mombi sends a group of enchanted trees after the friends, but Glinda – watching through the Glinda-Bird – gives Pumpkinhead a magic axe that turns them into… well… hippies. Saved, they return to an Emerald City that has rapidly fallen into decay. They are attacked by an elephant, but Dorothy opens Glinda’s box and a swarm of magic mice pop out and chase it away, freeing them to assault the palace. The mice make it to Mombi’s chambers and chase her the gardens, where she disguises herself as a rose bush. The mice have sent the elephants on a stampede, though, and she is trampled flat. Toto, recognizing Mombi’s true form, leads Dorothy to the flattened rose, who blames Dorothy for her fate just as she dies. As she withers, the elephants fade and the Emerald City is restored to its former glory. The celebration is short-lived, though, as Pumpkinhead has fallen along with the rest of Mombi’s creations. Glinda tells Dorothy her magic cannot restore him, and Dorothy weeps for her fallen friend. As she cries, her tears touch Pumpkinhead’s face, and the magic of her love restores him to life. The Scarecrow awards his friends, making Woodenhead his own royal steed and knighting Pumpkinhead, then offers Dorothy anything she desires. She asks, as always, simply to return home.  The Scarecrow find a loophole in the Oz Constitution that will only allow Dorothy to return home the way she came, and Glinda creates a cyclone to carry her back.

Thoughts: In the 1970s theatrical animation could be divided pretty squarely into two categories: Disney, and everything else. This Filmation effort falls into the latter category: limited animation, competent but unimpressive voice acting and weak music. The idea of doing an Oz sequel was all well and good, but Filmation went with stunt casting (Judy Garland’s daughter voicing Dorothy, original Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton doing a cameo as Aunt Em, plus several celebrities of the time) and an uncredited rewrite of Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. This movie plucks some of the characters from that book – Mombi and Pumpkinhead – turns the Sawhorse into a Merry-Go-Round horse, then turns the plot into something that’s trying hard to be The Wizard of Oz all over again. Instead of that other story, in which a young boy named Tip and his friends wind up stumbling on a plot to conquer Oz by an army of angry women, this movie has Dorothy once again marching to the Emerald City, once again picking up unusual friends along the way, once again being plagued by a Wicked Witch out for revenge. It’s incomprehensible to me why, with 14 Oz books to choose from by Baum alone, filmmakers never seem to look past the first three for inspiration, and often try to shoehorn elements from the latter two into the mold of the first one all over again. It’s equally baffling why they would create new elements when the originals (such as General Jinjur’s all-girl army, which the elephants are standing in for) work so much better. And for Heaven’s sake, why elephants? Okay, they’re big, they’re powerful, but the way the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion react to them you’d think elephants are their natural predators or something. Even mammoths might make sense, but the Tin Man going into a panic over green elephants simply doesn’t make any sense.

The performances, as I said, are merely adequate. Liza Minnelli is clearly cast simply for the gimmick of having her take up her mother’s role, as she brings nothing to the part. She’s not terrible, but there are most certainly more talented voice performers who could have done more, granted the character the sweetness and innocence she demands. As it is, the only thing that really can be said about Dorothy in this film is that she “kinda sounds a little like Judy Garland.” The animation is weak as well – Filmation does a far better job with the non-human characters than Dorothy. She’s surrounded by characters like the Tin Man and Pumpkinhead, which at least look amusing, but Dorothy herself is a stiff, unemotive creature that only really has one expression. This isn’t one of those times where I’m willing to chalk it up to the limited resources of the time, either. If Disney could make magical, powerful characters in the 1930s, the only excuse for the poor animation of the 70s is pencil-pushers cutting corners, and that I refuse to forgive.

Some of the other characters are better, at least. Milton Berle as the Cowardly Lion and Mickey Rooney as the Scarecrow fit the parts nicely. Danny Thomas’s Tin Man is less impressive, and Paul Lynde… well, he’s pretty much Paul Lynde talking out of a Jack O’Lantern. Ethel Merman’s Mombi isn’t bad at all, but she’s playing a typical, stereotypical witch, not particularly doing anything innovative. But my biggest problem with them is more along the lines of characterization than animation. The notion that the Tin Man or Lion would ever refuse to help Dorothy is preposterous. Hell, the entire point of the Lion’s story arc in the first book (or movie) is that he will always overcome his fear to help his friends! You mean to tell me you wave a little thing like an army of magic green elephants in his face and the king of beasts will lose his ability to fight? Absolutely not, my friends. I cannot accept this. The scenes with the Tin Man and Lion ultimately have no impact on the plot anyway, they’re included simply so that the recognizable characters could put in an appearance. It would have been just as effective and far less insulting, from a story standpoint, if the movie skipped from the escape from the Emerald City to the point where Glinda pops up. (It would actually be better, in fact, because if Glinda was watching the whole time, why the hell did she wait so long before taking action?)

Speaking of Glinda, here we see one of those oft-used fantasy tropes that usually irritates me: the “don’t open it until the proper time” gimmick. Writers often use this to create some false suspense, but at least they usually make some effort to explain why the giver of the gift won’t say what it is: magic, arbitrary rules of the game, “you wouldn’t have believed me,” something. None of those are brought into play here, though, there was no reason for Glinda to make a secret out of the box’s contents. It’s just there so we can have a brief moment in the forest where Woodenhead suggests opening the box to escape the trees and Dorothy can tell him no, reminding us that she’s a good little girl who does as Glinda tells her.

The songs, like the voice acting, are merely adequate. Each character gets at least one, Dorothy gets several, none of them are particularly memorable. This was par for the course for films of this nature, sadly, and that’s even sadder when you compare it to the incomparable music from the 1939 film.

When I learned of the existence of this movie, I was initially very excited – as I always am when I find out about a version of Oz I haven’t encountered before. Sadly, the whole thing fell very flat for me. It was at least more recognizable than the 1925 Wizard of Oz, but in truth, that’s mostly because it was built on the back of the Judy Garland film. That’s not to say you can’t tell a good Oz story that way – many people have – but this didn’t hold up for me. Still, I can see a lot of similarities to the cartoons I grew up watching, the ones that hold a special place in my heart even today. On the other hand, I can also recognize that a large number of those cartoons I loved as a kid are terribly weak when looked back upon with a discerning eye. I suspect that if I had watched this movie as a child, I’d probably upon it with rose-colored glasses. As it is, I’m just left sliding the disc back into its NetFlix sleeve and feeling a little disappointed for the second time in this week’s experiment.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Dorothy Gale Week Day 2: Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Wizard of Oz 1939Director: Victor Fleming

Writer: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick

Plot: On a farm in Kansas, Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) has to defend her dog, Toto, from the angry reproach of her neighbor, Mrs. Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). Because Toto has bitten Gulch, she’s within her rights to take the dog and have it destroyed. Dorothy and Toto run away, encountering a carnival performer called Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), who convinces her to return home to her upset Uncle Henry and Aunt Em (Charley Grapewin & Clara Blandwick). When she returns, a tornado has sprung up and her family is hiding in the storm cellar. Dorothy and Toto rush into the farmhouse, which the tornado plucks from the ground and hurls through the air.

Dorothy crashes in a brilliantly colorful land called Oz, where she finds herself the darling of a group of small people called Munchkins.  She is met by a good witch named Glinda (Billie Burke), who explains that Dorothy’s house crushed the tyrannical Wicked Witch of the East. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton again) arrives for vengeance, but finds she cannot harm Dorothy directly, as Glinda has given her the dead witch’s powerfully magic Ruby Slippers.

Glinda sets Dorothy on a path to the fabled Emerald City, where the Wizard of Oz may be able to help her get home. Along the way she is joined by three others, each who need help from the Wizard: a living Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) was made without a brain, a Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley) who was crafted without a heart, and a Lion (Bert Lahr) who is sadly a coward. The three of them encounter the witch several times, narrowly escaping her traps before finally arriving in the Emerald City. When they go into the Wizard’s chambers, they encounter an enormous floating head that tells them he can grant their wishes, but will only do so if they can bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Dorothy and her friends travel to the Witch’s palace, where she is captured by the Witch’s flying monkeys. The other three disguise themselves as guards and rescue her, but encounter the witch upon escape. In desperation, Dorothy hurls a bucket of water at the witch, who immediately melts away, destroyed by her one weakness. Returning to the Emerald City, the Wizard tells them he needs time to think about their requests. As the friends despair, Toto discovers a little man (Morgan again) hiding behind a curtain, operating a machine that projects the image of the head. The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, it seems, is a humbug – a simple performer from the United States who accidentally drifted into Oz years ago in a hot air balloon.

Recognizing that the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman and Lion already possess those very things they most desire, he gives each of them a small token: a diploma to signify the Scarecrow’s wisdom, a testimonial in the shape of a heart for the Tin Woodsman, and a medal to proclaim the courage of the Lion. For Dorothy, though, the only thing he can do is repair his balloon and take her home himself. Before they’re about to leave, though, Toto leaps from the basket. Dorothy rushes after him, and the balloon drifts away with the Wizard alone. Dorothy fears she’ll be trapped in Oz forever, but Glinda appears again and reveals that the Ruby Slippers she wears have the power to transport her: she need only click her heels together three times and recite “There’s no place like home.” When Dorothy does this, the world swims around her and she wakes up back in Kansas, surrounded by her Aunt and Uncle, three farmhands who bear a striking resemblance to her friends in Oz, and Professor Marvel, who has come to check on her. Although they all believe she dreamed her adventure in Oz, Dorothy doesn’t care – she is content to simply be home.

Thoughts: After yesterday’s somewhat disturbing look at a silent Oz, spending time with the MGM classic is just what I needed. This is the movie we all know and love, the apex of the musical fantasy, the film that virtually everybody in the world has seen as a child, hidden from the flying monkeys, sang along with the Munchkins, and then later pretended they didn’t like a few years later while going through a hipster phase. It is, in fact, a masterpiece.

Although the film seemed like it was going to be a disaster for much of the production, with prospective directors and screenwriters playing musical chairs before we finally landed on the people who got the credit, the final result is something that was spectacular to look at in 1939 and is still lovely today. The transition from the sepia tone of Kansas to the brilliant color of Oz is beautiful both artistically and technically. The shift demonstrates a transition from a sad, humdrum world into a place of incredible wonders, and when you consider most people in 1939 would never have seen much color before, it’s easy to see it as a game-changer. The color in this film mattered as a storytelling choice, it sold the idea that color can influence the telling of the tale. This was Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer all over again, looking at the camera and proclaiming “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” This (if I may briefly tangent) is why I still don’t care for 3-D movies – no matter how pretty any of them may be, I’ve yet to see a movie become more effective as a story because it is in 3-D, the way this film could never have been filmed in black and white.

Judy Garland has become the gold standard for Dorothy Gale. Not only is the actress most identified with the role, but a vast majority of the artistic representations since then have used her likeness and costume as the basis, even though later Oz books specified her as blonde and depicted her in different clothes than the blue checkered dress. In truth, at 16 when the movie was filmed, Garland was really too old to fit the part as written (at one point, then 10-year-old Shirley Temple was a frontrunner for the role). Yet her youthful charm, innocence, and amazing voice sold her like few actresses have ever sold a part. You cannot use the name Dorothy without summoning up a vision of Judy Garland, and that’s all to the good.

Despite the various cast changes, it’s now virtually impossible to imagine anyone filling in the other principle roles than the actors we had. Ray Bolger flawlessly plays the wise man who doesn’t understand his own worth, Jack Haley has tenderness without seeming weak, and Bert Lahr is a living cartoon, silly and heartwarming all at once. Morgan and Hamilton, similarly, have become the benchmark for their parts as the Wizard and Witch. Hamilton in particular deserves special credit, I think, taking a character who had little personality in the original novel and creating one of the most enduring villains in cinematic history.

The film leaves out certain sequences from the book, and changes too many things for it to really succeed as an adaptation, but the alterations are forgivable in the context of the film MGM was trying to make. Sequences like the China town (brought back by Disney in this year’s Oz the Great and Powerful) would have been difficult to make convincing with the special effects of the time. Other scenes featured Dorothy’s friends getting rather violent in defense of the little girl – could you imagine seeing Ray Bolger standing atop a pile of crows after snapping their necks or Jack Haley swinging his axe to behead a pack of ravenous wolves? The original story left a lot of blood on the page that never made it to the movie screen, and that’s honestly okay.

This is one of those films that’s so well-known, so well-loved, it’s hard to  imagine anything I could say that hasn’t been said already. As an Oz fan, I’m still waiting for a truly faithful adaptation of the L. Frank Baum novel, but as a fan of musical cinema, this is one of the greatest movies ever made.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!