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THE WIZARD OF OZ (1933)

"Hail, to the Wizard of Oz...!"





  Director:
 
Ted Eshbaugh

Synopsis:  A girl called Dorothy sits bored and disconsolate on the porch of the farmhouse that is her home, playing listlessly with her dog, Toto. Suddenly, a tornado sweeps towards the farm. Dorothy and Toto run inside, but the tornado lifts up the entire house and carries it off. As the house spins in the grip of the tornado, Dorothy and Toto fall out, tumbling to the ground. Their falls are broken by a living scarecrow, with whom they make friends. They set out along the road, and soon come across a man made of metal, who is rusted solid, the axe in his hands still raised. The Scarecrow uses an oilcan liberally, and the Tinman is freed. He points out the high walls of a nearby city. The travellers cross a bridge and enter the city, and learn that they are in Oz. While the people cheer, the newcomers are led in procession to the palace of the Wizard of Oz, who demonstrates his powers for them.

 

Comments:  While today colour cinematography is taken for granted to the point that some narrow-minded individuals won’t watch black-and-white movies, the development of colour film photography in general and Technicolor in particular was a long, slow process full of trial and error, and demanding simultaneous advances in film, filter and camera technology. In 1917, the Technicolor Corporation (formally Kalmus, Comstock and Wescott, after its founders) developed a process for recording red and blue-green images separately, through coloured filters; these were then projected simultaneously to produce a coloured image. However, the process not only required a special projection system, but correct alignment of the image streams proved difficult. The first Technicolor film, The Gulf Between, was considered a failure. Herbert Kalmus and his associates went back to the drawing-board, and came back five years later with a refined process known as the subtractive two-colour cement system, wherein footage shot using the two filters was recorded on two separate, specially-designed film strips, which were later “cemented” together for projection.

 

  

The Gulf Between (1917)..................................The Toll Of The Sea (1922)

 

The Technicolor Corporation took its new system back to the motion picture industry, where it found a far greater measure of success – but not only, indeed not primarily, because of the significant improvements to the technology. So eager were they to gain a footing in the world of commercial film-making, the executives of the Technicolor Corporation offered a deal wherein their company would absorb any costs accrued by the studios above those normally associated with black-and-white photography. With nothing to lose, the studios were willing enough to experiment. Many films made during the 1920s included Technicolor inserts. Perhaps the two most famous of these are Ben-Hur, which – gasp! – featured colour nudity (ironically, this sequence was censored in many territories) and The Phantom Of The Opera, with Lon Chaney in his scarlet robes and death’s-head mask; while 1929’s The Mysterious Island featured both colour and sound inserts.

 

The first full-Technicolor film of this new era was 1922’s The Toll Of The Sea, starring Anna May Wong, which was filmed at Metro but produced by the Technicolor Corporation itself; while the second was Paramount’s Wanderer Of The Wasteland, made in 1924. While these were relatively small productions, involving acceptable costs, it was the Technicolor Corporation’s involvement in the production of Douglas Fairbank’s The Black Pirate that brought home the urgent need to renegotiate the company’s role in film-making. The Black Pirate was a huge hit, shown in countless cinemas and requiring countless prints, which were projected and re-projected, suffering not only normal wear and tear, but damage unique to the “cement” system, wherein the individual film strip nearest to the projection lamp showed a tendency to buckle. Under the terms of its contract, the Technicolor Corporation was obliged to replace any and all damaged prints, and at its own cost. The resultant financial shellacking sent the executives back to the drawing-board once again.

.

  

...........Ben-Hur (1925).....................................The Phantom Of The Opera (1925)

 

The next step forward was a system wherein the film strips generated during filming were themselves used to transfer the dyes onto a single, clear film base. This both produced stronger, more accurate colours, and solved the problem of buckling during projection. It was this system, dubbed the subtractive two-colour dye transfer process (and often incorrectly called “two-tone Technicolor”) that was used to film Warners’ ventures into pre-Code horror film-making, Dr X and Mystery Of The Wax Museum.

 

Despite these advances, the Technicolor Corporation still had a fight on its hands. The new technology was expensive, requiring extra lighting during filming and special projectors. Moreover, the experimentation in colour throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s had made it clear enough to the studio executives that while the public liked colour as a novelty, it wasn’t going to demand colour the way it had unequivocally demanded sound. The studios remained unconvinced of the advantages of colour cinematography until the final technical breakthrough in 1932, which produced a camera capable of recording three separate images through three different colour filters – red, green, blue – and a means of merging the colours into a single projection strip. This, then, was three-strip Technicolor; true Technicolor.

 

The new process was first used experimentally in 1934. With the encouragement of RKO executive Merian C. Cooper, who was enthusiastic about the potential of colour film, John Hay Whitney and his cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney formed Pioneer Pictures, specifically to promote the new technology. Their first production, at a cost of $65,000 – nearly five times what it would have cost to make in black-and-white – was La Cucaracha, a twenty minute musical comedy directed by Lloyd Corrigan. The Technicolor executives weren’t best pleased about having their new system associated with the word “cockroach”, but all doubts were removed – on both sides of the technical fence – when La Cucaracha won a 1935 Academy Award as Best Short Subject.

 

  

La Cucaracha (1934)......................................Becky Sharp (1935) 

 

Even before that, however, under a nine picture deal brokered between Pioneer Pictures and the Technicolor Corporation, work had begun on what was to be the first full-length motion picture in the three-strip process, Becky Sharp; a production that also re-united Rouban Mamoulian with his Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde leading lady, Miriam Hopkins. Seen at this distance, the film is somewhat amusing for the determined way it declares, “Look! – we can do proper blue now!” The final breakthrough came with Paramount’s 1936 production of The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine, which not only proved that Technicolor could be used for location photography, but pointed the way forward for its use. As Technicolor was still much more expensive than black-and-white photography, studios confined its use to productions with assured profitability. It was also a question of mood: considered a “cheerful” medium, Technicolor was used predominantly for action and adventure films, while serious dramas, horror movies and, somewhat counter-intuitively, comedies were made in black-and-white; a division that would continue for the next two decades, with only occasional exceptions such as John M. Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven, a wonderful example of the oxymoronic Technicolor noir.

 

While Technicolor was fighting to establish itself in the world of motion pictures during the twenties and thirties, a parallel revolution was taking place in the world of animation. Frustrated by his dealings with the motion picture world and the constant financial manoeuvrings, Herbert Kalmus had the idea to take his process to where the nature of the product meant that costs were automatically significantly lower. In 1932, Kalmus met with Walt Disney and offered him the first use of the new three-strip process. The Disney Studios were already notable for the early adoption of synchronised sound (although Max Fleischer’s My Old Kentucky Home was the first individual cartoon with sound), and Walt leapt at the chance to stay at the cutting-edge by adding colour as well. At the time the Studios had in production one of their long-running “Silly Symphonies” series. To the horror of his fellow executives, Walt Disney ordered the existing work scrapped and done over again using the Technicolor process, even though the cartoon was already more than 50% complete.

 

  

............Flowers And Trees (1932).......................Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937) 

 

Walt’s instinct’s proved correct, however: Flowers And Trees was a huge success. The Disney Studios and the Technicolor Corporation signed a contract that gave the animators exclusive rights to the Technicolor process up to the end of 1935, with other companies only allowed to use the earlier, less vibrant two-strip system during that time. (This arrangement drew vociferous protests from the other studios, which had not even been given the chance to try out Technicolor, and the terms of the contract were renegotiated the following year.) Using the three-strip system, Disney went from success to success with its short animations, until in 1937 the company took the risk of producing a full-length animated film in Technicolor: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Doom-ridden by the critics right up to the day of its release, Snow White was the highest-grossing American film of 1938, earning nearly three times as much as its nearest competitor, and by the end of its worldwide run, the most successful movie ever made.

 

Although Disney was perhaps the most successful of the animation studios, they were certainly not without some very stiff competition. By the early thirties, most of the major motion picture studios had an animation unit. That put together at Warners by Leon Schlesinger was soon giving Disney a run for its money. In a deliberate plan to challenge their main rival’s supremacy, the Warners unit began producing more “adult” cartoons, whose unique, occasionally surrealist style and racy topical humour was about as far from Disney’s pastoral visions as you could get. Meanwhile, the Fleischer brothers, Max, Dave, Joe and Lou, founded their own animation studio, with their output distributed by Paramount; during the early thirties, they were best known for Popeye and Betty Boop. Other animators worked entirely independently. Among these was the artist Ted Eshbaugh, who set up his own studio in New York. After producing a handful of cartoons in the freely-available two-strip colour process, Eshbaugh made and released a seven-minute Technicolor adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz, announcing at the same time that it was to be the first in an ongoing series of Oz cartoons.

 

As it would happen, this announcement proved somewhat over-optimistic. After a brief theatrical run, Eshbaugh’s cartoon fell into a black hole of legal difficulties, from which it only recently emerged as a result of the search for endless supplementary material to accompany the various DVD releases of the most famous of all Oz adaptations, MGM’s 1939 version of The Wizard Of Oz. The exact reasons for the abrupt disappearance of the Eshbaugh cartoon remain unclear, although using Technicolor in violation of the Disney contract has been suggested more than once. However, upon reflection this seems unlikely. As mentioned, there was certainly some loosening of the exclusivity of the Disney contract after 1933, with other animators acquiring permission from time to time to use the Technicolor process. Since Ted Eshbaugh worked independently, he could only have obtained access to the Technicolor equipment via direct negotiation with the company. The fact that his main distributors at the time were Canadian may have proved enough of a loophole for him to obtain the necessary permission.

 

 

A far more likely explanation for the disappearance of The Wizard Of Oz is the issue of literary rights. The credits of the cartoon make it clear that Eshbaugh had been working with the knowledge and permission of the Baum family, or at least one member of it: the “Colonel Frank Baum” who receives story credit is not L. Frank Baum himself, but Baum’s son, Frank Joslyn Baum (who we have encountered once or twice already in this history of the early Oz films). Acting as agent for his mother, it was Frank who licensed the rights to The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz in 1925 to allow the production of 1925s Wizard Of Oz; and it is likely that in spite of his story credit, that was the extent to his contribution to Ted Eshbaugh’s cartoon, too. However, only months after licensing the rights to his father’s work to Ted Eshbaugh, Frank Baum sold them outright to Samuel Goldwyn. It seems probable that this deal was behind the sudden vanishing of The Wizard Of Oz; it is certainly the reason that the proposed cartoon series never eventuated. However, there may be rather more to the story than merely a studio exercising its privileges, as we shall see.

 

As far as being an Oz adaptation goes, Ted Esbaugh’s version of the story has the distinction of having even less to do with its source material than does Larry Semon’s bizarre 1925 production. It is very evident that whatever he intended in the future, Eshbaugh saw The Wizard Of Oz primarily as a showcase for the new Technicolor process – and of course as a chance to learn how to use it. Thus, only the barest bones of the story are present; while in place of dialogue, the cartoon has sound effects and a musical score composed by Carl Stalling, who had made his name working in a similar capacity for the Disney “Silly Symphonies”, and would go on to a remarkable career with the Warners animation unit. Sadly, these days it can be difficult to judge how successful Ted Eshbaugh was in his deployment of Technicolor. This is one of those odd instances of a work certainly being available in pristine form at one time, but then reappearing later in substandard condition. Many, although not all, of the prints of The Wizard Of Oz that are available today are in a less than optimal state – including the one that came to my hands. However, we can still see how Ted Eshbaugh intended his experimental project to look, even if we do not get quite the full impact.

 

 

 

We begin, naturally enough, with Dorothy in Kansas. There is no sign of Uncle Henry or Auntie Em, though: merely an exceedingly bored young girl sitting on the porch of a farmhouse – and exhibiting, as cartoon girls of the thirties were wont to do, a distinct propensity for showing off her underwear. The girl’s dog – Toto, we suppose, although apart from Dorothy herself, no-one is named in the cartoon – wants to play, and Dorothy listlessly throws a stick to be fetched. Boredom abruptly turns to terror, however, as a tornado sweeps across the plains directly for the farmhouse. Dorothy and Toto run inside to avoid the storm, but the twister rips the farmhouse right up off its foundations and carries it away. The house whirls within the tornado’s grip, as does various debris and some unfortunate chickens, until Dorothy and Toto fall out. They plummet to the ground, their falls being broken by the straw-filled body of an animated scarecrow. After a moment of staring in mutual amazement, Dorothy helps the Scarecrow up, and watches as he unsteadily gains control of his movements. The Scarecrow executes a deep bow, and then he, Dorothy and Toto set off down the road.

 

More cheerfully now, Dorothy plays at throwing a stick for Toto, and the Scarecrow joins in. His stick sails into the woods, and there is the sound of it hitting something metallic. The travellers hurry to see what it is, scattering a gathering of birds that are using as a perch a metal man, who stands with an axe still raised, rusted solid. Realising the problem, the Scarecrow oils the Tinman until he is able to move freely once more, and then uses a handful of his own straw stuffing to polish him up.

 

Immediately, the Tinman points out the walls of a great city that sits nearby, on the far side of a bridge over a river. Joined by the Tinman, the travellers set out again, but pause on the bridge to admire the beauties of nature around them.

 

 

 

And here for a time The Wizard Of Oz parts company with its source, turning instead into a Technicolor showcase. Even in poor quality prints, it is easy to see that this section of the cartoon must have been a visual feast, as our characters spend some time with the birds and the bees – literally. All around the travellers, pairs of birds bill and coo – also literally. On the river, two swans entwine their necks and kiss; while in a tree, songbirds whisper sweet nothings to each other, as a smiling butterfly looks on. Then we get a little pre-Code humour, as a couple of bees – that is, a bee couple – flies into the heart of a flower and close it about themselves. When the flower opens again, a whole swarm of baby bees, all wearing nappies and bonnets, flies out, leaving their parents looking somewhere between smug and embarrassed.

 

Two peacocks close and lower their tails, revealing the open gates of the great city. The travellers enter, and find that they are expected. Dorothy is helped into a carriage emblazoned with the word “Oz”; and while the others walk behind her, they all become part of a procession, which the people greet with cheers and waving. As they approach the palace, a witch appears in the shadows: she throws handfuls of sparkling confetti into the air, then joins in the applause of the gathered crowds. (The only appearance by a witch in the cartoon, and presumably a “good” one.) The travellers walk up the steps into the palace, which is guarded by singing suits of armour that don’t actually have anyone inside them....

 

Inside, the newcomers meet the Wizard – who is very wizardy indeed in this interpretation, black robes, pointy hat, cackling laugh, the works. He invites his guests to sit down, and in another interesting touch we see that they have individually designed chairs: Dorothy’s is like a throne; the Tinman’s is carved out of a tree; the Scarecrow’s has a looming crow-face; while Toto’s isn’t a seat at all, but – ulp! – the carved face of another dog, into which he, yes, pushes his butt.

 

 

 

The Wizard then performs magic tricks for his guests. First he makes an entire row of top hats appear, and conjures rabbits from each of them. The rabbits all turn into little girls, who jump down onto the table and form into a kick-line – and show off their underwear. As they do so, their dresses change from blue to red and back again. The girls then disappear one by one, and the Wizard scoops all of his top hats up into another one as his guests applaud.

 

Next the Wizard pours a mysterious fluid into the remaining top hat, which turns into a hen. The hen goes into an egg-laying frenzy, while the Wizard taps each egg with his wand, causing it to give rise to a strange, mutant creature, part-chicken, part....something else: giraffe, chimp, pelican, elephant, dragon.... The last egg, however, is distinctly undersized. The hen draws near and listens; there is definitely life inside. Suddenly, the egg begins to grow – and grow – and grow. The alarmed Wizard reaches for his wand, but Toto runs off with it. As Dorothy and the Wizard pursue him, the Scarecrow and the Tinman attack the egg with everything else to hand: an axe, a sword, a mace, a pike, all to no avail. Just as it seems that the egg might grow so large as it bring down the ceiling of the palace, Toto trots up and touches it with the wand. The egg explodes....

 

....and sitting in the wreckage is a tiny, normal, unfledged chick. The hen rushes up and takes it in her wings, cradling it lovingly as the others gather around and sing “Rock-A-Bye, Baby”. The End.

 

Yes, I was confused too.

 

 

 

Although quite charming in its own right, as an Oz adaptation The Wizard Of Oz is certainly very lacking. Nevertheless, this short, obscure cartoon may have played a significant part in what many people now consider the definitive version of L. Frank Baum’s famous story. Although I did not mention it on the way through, and while it may not be immediately apparent from the screenshots up above, there is one highly imaginative artistic aspect to this cartoon, which ties in to its role as a Technicolor showcase: only the Oz sequences are in Technicolor; the opening Kansas footage is in the equivalent of black-and-white, a uniform blue; and when Dorothy tumbles from the farmhouse, passing from Kansas to Oz, the image changes from monotone to full colour.

 

It is difficult to watch this cartoon and then imagine that its disappearance, and the subsequent reappearance of its most original feature in another work by another set of film-makers, is no more than a coincidence. After all, while Samuel Goldwyn may have been within his rights to yank The Wizard Of Oz from circulation, why bother? A single, short, independently-produced cartoon could hardly pose a threat to a major studio film....unless there was something in it that the executives of that studio didn’t want the public to see. It is also noteworthy that between its initial run and its vanishing, The Wizard Of Oz was reissued in black-and-white only. Goldwyn was willing enough for people to see the cartoon, it seems, but only once its chief claim to fame had been removed.

 

Now, I don’t want to get carried away on this point; and I certainly don’t want either to denigrate the MGM version of The Wizard Of Oz, nor to praise this cartoon version beyond its intrinsic worth, which frankly is rather limited. It’s simply a matter of credit where it’s due; so the next time you’re watching Judy Garland step from her sepia-toned farmhouse into the full Technicolor splendour of Munchkinland, you might want to spare a thought for Ted Eshbaugh.
 
 
 

Fine Stats
----posted 23/01/2010