There are so many faults to be found with The Wizard of Oz (1939) that one scarcely knows where to begin. It’s a klutzy movie. The technicolor is tacky. The Land of Oz is tackily realized, and so literal. Indeed, there’s a lack of imagination throughout. The film is heavy, as though based on something by the Grimm brothers. (It isn’t a film; it’s a production.) The Borscht-belt humor, especially pertaining to the Cowardly Lion: What on earth were these people thinking? They weren’t thinking. They just didn’t care. (The film raked in big bucks at the box-office, but the production was so pointlessly expensive that the net result was a financial flop.)
Still, included in the Vatican arts council’s list of 100 outstanding films, The Wizard of Oz has its partisans, and the movie does have its virtues. If the Oz material appals, the Kansas material—directed by King Vidor, not Victor Fleming, who mangled the rest—moves and delights. (This includes the scene in which Judy Garland, who plays Dorothy, sings “Over the Rainbow.”) The sepia-and-white cinematography in Kansas, by the same Harold Rosson who’s color blind in Oz, is gorgeous, and the naturalistic production design there, unlike the fairy-tale production design in Oz, is beautifully rendered. There’s no place like that farm.
Nevertheless, no one on earth, including in Vatican City, could possibly like this film based on its merits. It’s one of those films, like The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) or Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), that one pretends to like and, pretending, convinces oneself one does like it—or genuinely likes it for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the film. For instance, The Wizard of Oz sends a certain kind of soul into fits of nostalgia. It rekindles childhood memories, or makes one wax sentimental for the good old days of the Great Depression when everyone was starving to death.
By contrast, one doesn’t have to condescend in such a manner to like His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, one of a number of silent films that the author of the Oz books, L. Frank Baum, wrote and produced. Indeed, Baum himself directed this pre-World War I film, and it’s light, airy, and as fresh as the out-of-doors where it was shot, not dank and studio-bound like the lumbering, bellowing mastodon that Mervyn LeRoy produced for M-G-M a quarter-century hence. His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz doesn’t make us nostalgic for our own childhoods; instead, it allows us to enter a child’s world of unfettered fancy. There’s no place like Baum, there’s no place like Baum.
The story is fabulous. Poor Dorothy (Violet MacMillan, with blonde curls), from Kansas, is lost in the Land of Oz, where Old Mombi, a scolding witch (Mai Wells, a hoot), has enslaved her as cook and housekeeper. With a hairdo that seems to give her a pirate’s eyepatch, Old Mombi is ever seeking cold cash for her witchly mischief. Today, royals have called on her at her shack. King Krewl is not at all happy that his niece, Princess Gloria (Vivian Reed, beauteous), has fallen in love with Pon, a mere gardener’s son (Todd Wright—Everyboy who ever did love a princess). What’s to be done? Not to worry, Old Mombi assures King Krewl; she will freeze his niece’s heart, and that will be that. Left alone with the princess, who for the occasion has been tied to a post, Old Mombi works her black magic, summoning her sister witches to ensure that her potion-stirring and incantations get the job done. Outside meanwhile, through a window, Dorothy and Pon watch in horror. Fleeing the witches, the two reunite with Gloria at a well; but all is not well, because Gloria’s heart is now frozen to her once-beloved! The threesome becomes a foursome when Dorothy frees a field scarecrow (Frank Moore, terrific) from his pole, whereupon he promptly falls in love with the ice-hearted princess. Other characters become part of the group, including Button Bright, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, with Old Mombi periodically popping up, a ubiquitous nemesis with a prodding umbrella, at one point (on camera) losing her head—literally—to the Tin Woodman’s ax. (Not to worry; once her groping locates it, she puts her head back on as if it were a hat.) The Tin Woodman decides to kill King Krewl and make Gloria queen, giving the heretofore wanderers (minus Gloria, who lacks all interest, and Pon, whom Mombi has turned into a kangaroo) a mission. Along the way, the group meets the traveling Wizard of Oz, who, a wizardly match for her, turns Mombi into a can of “preserved witch.” (Yum.) Meanwhile, the king’s army is attempting to snatch the Princess to take her back to the castle when our group chances across the army’s path. Will this all end happily? Don’t doubt it for a moment.
His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz is one of the most liltingly magical films I have seen. To be sure, Baum has as a cinematic guide Georges Méliès, who in France had already taken his Trip to the Moon (1902) and made his Impossible Voyage (1904) and Conquest of the Pole (1912). It is surely these and other films by Méliès that helped fill Baum’s wondrous bag of camera tricks. But Baum’s sprightly humor is all his own, and Scarecrow’s hilarious squaring off and his dance with a giant crow in a field may have caught the eye of Charles Chaplin, in whose The Gold Rush (1925), the greatest American film comedy, Charlie, starving, imagines a confrontation with a giant chicken he wants to eat—in reality, his shackmate, transformed by Charlie’s hunger. Among the most remarkable passages in Baum’s film is one in which Old Mombi assaults Scarecrow and tears the straw of life out of his chest as he lies on the ground. Seamless editing replaces the actor playing Scarecrow with a real scarecrow, permitting a scene of truly gripping witchly frenzy and scarecrowly vulnerability. Even more marvelous are the scenes on the barge as Dorothy and her companions pursue their plan to dispose of King Krewl. At one point Scarecrow is left behind, stuck on his pole in the water, and, looking for a way out, he goes into the depths of the sea, encountering a whole other realm. At another point, the group on their barge goes up and comes back down the Wall of Water—one of the most deliriously beautiful passages in all of fantastic cinema. There isn’t a moment of this film that doesn’t delight.
Also, even after the wanderers adopt something of a cause, they remain wanderers, taking to the water only to end up at the point on land from which they started, having things just happen to them, and chancing across unusual characters, both human and animal. (Fred Woodward, the “King of All Animal Personators,” plays the Kangaroo, the Crow, the Cowardly Lion, a cow and a mule.) Unlike The Wizard of Oz, this film isn’t straightjacketed into a moralistically tagged linear narrative; Baum’s film is open to magical and fanciful experience. The plot isn’t the point; the wonder is.
His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz is as light as light on water. A dream of a movie, it’s like a wonderful dream.