As a film, The Wizard of Oz of 1939 is so iconic, so well known, that any sequel has been treated as an affront to American culture. Just see for example, the reviled Return to Oz and the mediocre response to Oz the Great and Powerful. However, spin-offs and recontextualized works, like The Wiz (the musical) and Wicked (the other musical, based on a novel), do really well as long as they remain tied to Victor Fleming’s film.
Even before the days of Judy Garland, the Oz stories made for popular cinema. We already told you about the 1910 silent short film version of The Wizard of Oz, which confusingly packs much of the original children’s book and the stage play adaptation (from 1902) into 13 crazed minutes, redolent of Georges Méliès’ sci-fi films and filled with beauties on parade and a very active mule character called Hank.
Meanwhile, the prolific author of the Oz series, L. Frank Baum, reeling from taking a loss on the stage play version of his story, decided to make some money in cinema. In 1914, he and some friends from the Los Angeles Athletic Club (who called themselves the Uplifters) started their own production house, Oz Film Manufacturing Company, based in Los Angeles. Baum thought he had plenty of material to work with, making good-natured children’s films to compete with the more popular westerns.
All three of Baum’s features are now available on YouTube, with Baum’s first film, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, from 1914, at the top of this page. Adapting his 1913 book, Baum changed plot devices, adding in vaudeville routines and stop-motion animation. A French acrobat called Pierre Couderc played the Patchwork Girl in the stunt sequences, and the film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd, who became such fast friends on the production that they went on to make their own films.
After that His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, was released in 1914, and retells the Wizard of Oz story in its own way, but gives the Scarecrow a new origin story. Hank the Mule returns, as do some more pantomime animals. This time, the movie was made as promotion for the upcoming book of a similar name, but did not help sales in the end.
The final film produced was The Magic Cloak of Oz, based on a non-Oz Baum book called Queen Zixi of Ix, but Baum knew that anything with Oz in the title could sell. Paramount didn’t however, and delayed release for two years. This surviving version is missing a reel, and British distributors divided it up into two separate films.
Shot all at the same time, Baum was hoping to quickly make his investors’ money back, but this didn’t happen and the Oz Film Manufacturing Company shuttered soon after, with Baum dying in 1919 at age 62, with no idea how influential his one book would become.
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.