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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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The Christmas Special Day 7: The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

year-without-a-santa-claus-br-copyDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.

Writer: William J. Keenan, based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley

Cast: Mickey Rooney,Shirley Booth, Dick Shawn, George S. Irving, Bob McFadden, Rhoda Mann, Bradley Bolke, Colin Duffy

Plot: One year Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney) comes down with a terrible cold. His elfin doctor tells him people don’t care about Christmas anymore anyway, and the sad Santa cancels Christmas this year. With everyone distraught, Mrs. Santa Claus (Shirley Booth) sends elves Jingle and Jangle (Bob McFadden and Bradley Bolke, respectively) — with the reindeer Vixen — south to try to find some leftover Christmas spirit from the year before to convince Santa to get back on his feet. When Santa finds out they’ve left, he gets out of bed to try to fetch them, fearing they’ll run afoul of “the Miser Brothers.”

The elves, as it turn out, are heading right between the kingdoms of the warring Snow Miser (Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (George S. Irving). Vixen barely escapes the Misers, and the trio land in nearby Southtown, U.S.A. They begin their search for Christmas spirit, but run into one person after another who doesn’t care… even children ambivalent about Santa Claus skipping his annual visit. They leave the children when Vixen – disguised as a dog – is taken away by the dogcatcher. One of the children, Ignatius Thistlewhite  (Colin Duffy) is later approached by Santa Claus. Ignatius directs Santa to the dog pound and he leaps upon Donner to fly to the rescue. Ignatius and his parents see the flying reindeer, and he realizes his mistake. The elves and Ignatius arrive at town hall at the same time, trying to plead to the mayor for Vixen’s freedom. The mayor doesn’t believe them, and jokingly offers to free Vixen if they can make it snow in Southtown. Meeting up with Mrs. Claus, the elves visit Snow Miser who – after one of the most rousing and memorable musical numbers Rankin and Bass ever produced – they ask to bring snow to Southtown. As it turns out he’d love to do that very thing, but his brother the Heat Miser won’t allow it. When they turn to Heat Miser, he agrees to allow snow in the south, but only if Snow Miser will cede to him the North Pole for a day. Realizing the brothers will never come to terms, Mrs. Claus goes over their heads to their mother… the notoriously reclusive Mother Nature herself (Rhoda Mann). Mother forces them to cooperate.

Unbeknownst to them, Santa has taken Vixen – sick from the heat – back home to the North Pole. Santa, still feeling ill himself, sits down for a nap, unaware snow is falling in Southtown. Mrs. Claus returns with newspapers proclaiming an official holiday in celebration of Santa Claus. All over the world, children come together to visit the North Pole and give gifts to Santa for a change. On Christmas Eve however, Santa receives a letter from a child who proclaims she’ll have a blue Christmas without him. Santa, touched despite the blatant plagiarism from an Elvis Presley hit, demands his sleigh be prepared for his traditional Christmas rounds. He makes a special journey to Southtown, appearing in public (I told you guys he constantly breaks that rule in the Rankin-Bass universe) to thank the children who taught him his lesson. He leaves to perform his duty, taking off from the newly-renamed Santa Claus Lane.

Thoughts: I was almost reluctant to include this one, based on my “one-per-franchise” rule. This film is considered by some to be a sequel to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, mostly due to the fact that Mickey Rooney returns as Santa Claus. But then I decided screw it – it would be easy to link together most of the Rankin-Bass specials and just as easy to declare that each one exists in a totally separate reality from all the others, so I’m just going to do the ones I want to. It’s my project, after all.

If I did want to think of it as a sequel (which I don’t), this is the Superman II of the franchise. The origin stuff is out of the way, so we can tell a solid, self-contained story without worrying about wasting time placing the pieces on the board. The cast is expanded and the threat is considerably greater than in the first film. Also like Superman II, this film features the hero deciding to eschew his responsibilities and struggle with questions of his own relevance, only to learn a harsh lesson about just how needed he truly is. In both films, our hero is rendered ill, wounded, and is eventually prodded forward by the urging of an outside party (Santa’s letter to the little girl, Superman given a plea by the President of the United States). Even the villains in each film take the opportunity to screw each other, setting up circumstances that directly lead to the solution to the threat. This movie, it should be noted, has 100 percent fewer Super Roofie Kisses than Superman II, so the metaphor isn’t a perfect one.

I honestly like this much more than Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, mostly because – although it suffers from an unforgivable lack of Topper the Penguin (something else it has in common with Superman II) — it more than makes up for it with the introduction of the Miser Brothers. These are characters that have really become cultural hallmarks, at least for my generation. Their respective Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs have been covered by pop groups and rock bands, and even the most ardent Scrooge will find themselves singing along if that particular tune starts piping in through the mall sound system. Of all the characters created by the Rankin-Bass people from whole cloth (as opposed to being based on a preexisting tune or legend), these are the two that have most fully acclimated into American pop culture. They are the perfect example of a Rankin and Bass creep-to-be-redeemed. They aren’t evil, they’re just childish, and the ire they’ve directed at one another for such a long time has contributed directly to the lack of Christmas spirit in the world around them. It’s not a question of turning them away from being bad, it’s just a case of making them realize it will be better for everyone if they would simply cooperate with one another, a lesson similar to that learned by General Zod and Lex Luthor, and I swear to Krampus himself that’s the last Superman II reference. Today.

On a more personal note, the notion of snow in the south being the hallmark of real magic is something else that helps this special resonate with me. I’m from Louisiana, friends. White Christmases aren’t exactly common here. Neither are white New Years, white Valentine’s Days, or white Martin Luther King Days. It doesn’t snow down here much, is the point I’m making. So the idea of a little snow hitting specifically on Christmas really does carry magic in the south that those of you in colder climes may not realize. I offer the following evidence: a few years ago, against all odds, it actually got cold enough to snow in New Orleans on Christmas Day. It wasn’t much snow, just a dusting really, and my Yankee now-fiancé Erin just laughed when she saw how excited we were… but on that day, people flooded the streets. Everybody in the neighborhood was outside, kids who hadn’t taken their eyes off their X-Boxes in years were playing in the sun, throwing snowballs at each other and embracing the sudden burst of joy that was falling down as surely as the ice. My sister, who was 23 at the time, actually pulled the doorknob out of the door in her rush to get outside. It doesn’t happen here, friends. So I know how the folks of Southtown feel.

Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, this special proves that the fear of waning Christmas spirit isn’t a new problem at all. It’s actually kind of encouraging to realize people were afraid of these same problems forty and fifty years ago – if we’ve made it this far, maybe it’s just one of those things that never really goes away. But that’s okay, because there are people like Mrs. Claus, people of goodwill like you and me (admit it, you love Christmas, you wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t), and through our own small efforts and acts of kindness and acts of will, we’ll help the holiday persevere.

The Christmas Special Day 6: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

santa-claus-is-comin-to-town-copyDirectors: Jules Rankin & Arthur Bass

Writer: Romeo Muller

Cast: Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, Robie Lester, the Westminster Children’s Choir

Plot: Friendly mailman S.D. Kluger (Fred Astaire) has once again rounded up a cart full of letters about Santa Claus. To answer all the questions at once, he decides to share with us the story of Santa’s life. Years ago, in a vaguely Eastern European land called Sombertown, a baby is found. He’s brought to the town’s mayor, the Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), who immediately sends the baby to the local orphanage. On the way, though, the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) sends up a terrific snowstorm that snatches the child away. The forest animals find him and hide him from the Warlock, taking him to a safe place – the home of an elf family named Kringle. The elves name him Kris, raising him as their own. As he grows up he learns all of their skills, including making toys. Sadly, the elves have mountains of toys that go undelivered thanks to the Burgermeister, even though they were once the royal toymakers to the king. Kris eventually grows into a strapping young man with the voice of Mickey Rooney. He vows to set out and begin delivering the toys, with an official red-and-white Kringle suit and a penguin named Topper. In Sombertown, though, the Burgermeister has outlawed toys entirely. Ignoring the decree Kris hands out toys to children, but a schoolteacher named Jessica chastises him for breaking the law. The Burgermeister declares Kris a rebel and orders him arrested, but Kris distracts him with a yo-yo and escapes. Kris and Topper turn up in the lands of the Winter Warlock and are captured. Before he can destroy them, Kris gives him a wooden train, and Winter’s frozen heart melts away, restoring his humanity. Winter offers to use his magic to help Kris in exchange for toys once in a while, and he demonstrates his power by showing him a vision of Jessica, who is wandering the woods looking for him. She’s got a handful of letters from the children asking for toys to replace the ones the Burgermeister destroyed, and Kris begins using the Warlock’s tricks to watch over them, to be sure they’re being good, for goodness sake.

The next night Kris returns to Sombertown with a sleigh full of toys and a list of the good children (which, naturally, he checks twice), and the next morning the Burgermeister is again outraged at the proliferation of toys. He orders the doors and windows locked all over town, but Jessica and the animals continue to deliver letters to Kris. Refusing to disappoint a child with a special request, Topper suggests Kris try entering homes through the chimney, a task which quickly becomes standard operating procedure. The Burgermeister turns over all the houses looking for toys, so Kris starts hiding them in stockings hung to dry by the fireplace. The Burgermeister finally uses Jessica to track down the Kringles’s home, and Kris, the Kringles and Winter are all captured and arrested. Jessica tries to break Winter out of prison, but the only remnant of his power are some magic kernels of corn. She feeds them to eight of Kris’s reindeer friends, who gain the ability to fly. They sweep into the prison and break out the inmates, taking them away. With the Kringle home destroyed by the Burgermeister, Kris and his family are now outlaws. Kris grows a beard to help disguise himself (doesn’t bother to change his bright red clothes, but, y’know, a beard… that should do the trick) and decides to use an alias. The eldest Kringle shows him a medal with his birth name on it: Claus. Taking back his real name, he asks Jessica to share it and the two are married in the woods on Christmas Eve while the Kringles decorate the pine trees and place their wedding gifts beneath the boughs. With his last burst of magic, Winter fills the trees with brilliant lights.

Kris and the Kringles march further north and build a home, where they continue to make toys for years. Eventually, the Meisterburgers die out, and Kris is able to make his journeys more freely. The letters from the children grow more and more frequent, though, and he decides to restrict his deliveries to one night a year, the holiest night, Christmas Eve.

Thoughts: Although, as we’ve seen, Rankin and Bass made a cottage industry out of turning Christmas songs into Christmas specials, this may be their crowning achievement of adaptation. The song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has even less of a plot than Rudolph or Frosty’s titular claims to fame. It’s basically a reminder to kids not to act like jerks because Santa won’t give them any loot on Christmas morning, and as this is a one-hour special, they’re going to need a lot more to go on. Romeo Muller, who has earned a permanent spot in Christmas Heaven for writing so many of these, does an absolutely heroic job weaving the tale of Santa’s life. This is without a doubt the longest synopsis I’ve written yet in the Christmas project, and that’s due entirely to the complexity of the story and the number of important touchstones along the way.

Muller manages to work in most of the major points of the Santa legend – the elves, the toymaking, the reason Christmas Eve is so sacred to him. For the most part, he does it very organically, almost seamlessly. The only thing that breaks the spell, that reminds you that he’s going through a checklist of Santa Facts, is that every so often Fred Astaire and the children break in with some narration to point out that you just learned something important: “So that’s why he makes such wonderful toys!” Yeah kid, we got that. No need to call attention to it. Muller also gives Santa a Mrs. Claus, elves, flying reindeer and the charming voyeuristic powers that probably weren’t nearly as creepy in the pre-Internet days.

There are a few interesting trends in here that would later reach out and lay branches in future Rankin and Bass productions. We’ve got multiple antagonists, at least at first, in the Warlock and the Burgermeister. The Warlock’s menace ends quickly, though, and he reforms, becoming a friend to our heroes. We’d see this later in other cartoons, including Jack Frost in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and, to a lesser degree, the Miser Brothers in Year Without a Santa Claus. It’s a good way to work in themes of redemption into these cartoons without actually making an icon like Santa or Rudolph a jerk at any point in their respective careers. Not every villain can be redeemed, of course, but the way we see the Burgermeister waste away in self-imposed loneliness and misery says a lot for the power of having a winning personality.

The story is a tad anticlimactic – the Burgermeister never really gets his comeuppance, he just loses his prisoner and it’s implied that he dies a pathetic wretch. But Fred Astaire comes in at the end of the special and delivers a speech of pure sincerity to rival “Yes Virginia.” It’s a beautiful moment and it leads right into the musical finale.

This isn’t my favorite of the Rankin and Bass specials, and none of the elements created for this show specifically have ever really caught on with the public at large the way some of the other Rankin and Bass creations have. (Not even Topper. What’s up with that? Topper is awesome.) But on the whole, it’s a fine origin for Santa Claus, one that is perfectly satisfying for any child who wants to know all of the things kids tend to ask about Santa. Even after all these years, it’s still a joy to watch.