The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)
You’ve all probably seen the 1939 classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland and… some other people. If you thought about it at all, which you probably haven’t, you’d likely guess it was the earliest movie based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.
You would be wrong, of course. You’d be off by, oh, almost three decades.
There was an Oz movie made in 1925, featuring Oliver Hardy, which had almost nothing to do with the book. Before that, there was a version that began production in 1921, but was never finished. Before that, there were films like His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz (1914), The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914), and The Magic Cloak of Oz (1914). Apparently, 1914 was a good year for Oz, but not so much for Austria-Hungary.
But if you want to go all the way back to the very first Oz film ever, look no further than the subject of today’s recap: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, released in—hold onto your hats, folks!—1910, making this the oldest movie to be recapped on the Agony Booth!
Yeah, that’s right. This movie is one hundred years old! Eat it, The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus! Don’t you be bringing that Wilsonian-era crap into this house! Not when we’ve got a movie filmed during the previous president’s administration. Who was that, you may ask? I’ll give you a hint.
He’s the whitest chief of state that’s a hit with all the ladies… Taft! Daaaaamn right.
Some context. In 1910, World War I hadn’t happened yet. The Titanic was still being built. Zeppelins were viewed as the next big thing. Theodore Roosevelt had only been out of office for one year, and that delightful scamp Ty Cobb was warming his way into the hearts of America. Hell, Joan Rivers still had most of her original body! That’s right, I just made a Joan Rivers joke, and this movie is even older than Joan Rivers’ jokes!
At first, I was surprised to find out there were Oz movies made back this far. I thought that back then, people just had barn raisings, quilting bees, terrorist bombings, and lynchings to entertain themselves. But as it turns out, the Oz books were very much the Harry Potter of their day.
The first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was released in 1900 (and if you’ve never read it, do it now!). It spawned thirteen sequels, all written by original author L. Frank Baum. From there, it became a merchandising bonanza, with a stage play in 1902, a 1908 musical on Broadway, four 1910 movies (of which this is the first, and the only one that still exists), the movies in 1914, the 1925 film, a Technicolor cartoon version in 1933, the 1939 version we’re all familiar with, and then several generations of adaptations, products, and a total of forty books in the Oz canon. Not to mention a popular TV series, which frankly seemed to stray quite a bit from the source material. I’m pretty sure I don’t remember insane, ass-branding Nazis in the Munchkin Kingdom.
In a lot of ways, the 1910 movie is puzzling. First of all, it features several song and dance numbers. In a silent film. Which is already only thirteen minutes long. Second, it only tangentially has anything to do with the Oz books. Third, no one knows who was actually in the damn movie! Yep, everyone is uncredited here. I’m sure for some of them, that was something of a relief.
Oh, the big ones get credited; those are the ones whose names are up above in the Cast of Characters, but everyone else? Bupkis.
And while we’re on the subject of the Cast of Characters, I tried my best to find close-ups of the actors for the cast listing above, but there’s not a single close-up anywhere in the movie. Yes, that’s right; this movie is so old, close-ups hadn’t been invented yet!
In general, I have no trouble enjoying a silent film. Some of my favorite movies of all time, including Sunrise, Last Laugh, and The Phantom of the Opera (which includes a fantastic scene in color), are all silent. So I have no problem watching silent films. In general.
No, I just have a problem with the fact that this film is a big, stinking pile of shite.
So, with that summary in mind, let’s get the recap started!
Our story begins with Dorothy on the farm in Kansas. She meets the beloved characters we all know and love from the books, like Imogen the Cow, and some nameless mule who seems to love kicking people. These are, of course, a couple of guys dressed up in cow and mule costumes.
We’re also introduced to the Scarecrow, who in this version is living on Dorothy’s farm. Yes, he’s a magical, sentient scarecrow living in the “real” world. Alrighty, then.
While Dorothy and the Scarecrow are chatting, a mighty wind begins to blow. Soon, something that the intertitles describe as a “cyclone” hits, and as anyone living in the Midwest knows to do during a cyclone, Dorothy and friends take shelter on a haystack. Yes, not even in a haystack. On one. This must’ve been the filmmakers’ way of proving that the Scarecrow doesn’t have a brain. And neither does Dorothy, or possibly anyone else living on this farm.
Soon enough, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Cow, the Mule, and Toto are all deposited in Oz. They recover pretty quickly, get themselves together, and head out.
Meanwhile, at the Capitol of Oz, we’re about to witness Momba the Witch asserting her power over the Wizard of Oz.
Er… yes. That’s what I just said.
After this intertitle, we go immediately to a short dance number, set to whatever public domain music they slapped on your copy of this movie.
This then segues into the Wizard holding up a proclamation. This proclamation says that since he can’t get out from under Momba’s thumb, he’s going to bugger off back to Omaha. Yes, we’re told up front where he’s from.
At this point, for no obvious reason, Momba the Witch drops into the party and zaps the Wizard, causing a pointless puff of smoke. Then, also for no obvious reason, she flies off.
Back with Dorothy and friends, here’s Glinda the Good Witch watching over Dorothy, as she’s about to be attacked by the Lion. Yes, the Lion has finally turned up.
Glinda doesn’t want Dorothy eaten, so she turns Toto into a much bigger bulldog kind of thing, which instantly attacks the Lion, and at this point I must say I actually rather like costumes for the Scarecrow, Big Toto, and the Lion. They all look pretty decent.
Eventually, the Mule and the Cow show up, just as the Scarecrow notices the Wizard’s proclamation posted on a tree nearby. We can now read the full thing, and it states that the Wizard will give up his crown to anyone who can defeat Momba. I think that’s what it says, anyhow. Who the hell can read cursive these days?
I also see that the Wizard signs his name “The Wizard of Oz, King”. So his actual name is “The Wizard”? He’s a Time Lord, right?
And now our friends happen upon the Tin Woodsman. They give him a bit of oil, and our merry band of travelers is now complete! Oh, and they seem to have been joined by Eureka the Kitten at some point. Okie-doke!
This, of course, leads into another short dance number.
After that, we cut to Momba’s cottage, where a flying lizard cavorts about. He jumps up to a concealed window, and warns Momba that the Fellowship of the Silver Slippers are approaching. Once they’re close, Momba flies out of her window, and down onto them. As you do.
They’re all captured and hauled off to Momba’s jail, where according to an intertitle, Dorothy learns that water is fatal to a witch. Instantly after that, she throws water onto Momba, who then fades out.
Dorothy releases the Tin Woodsman from his cell, and he menaces some of Momba’s guards with his axe. Yes, they put him in a jail cell with his axe.
He then goes and releases everyone else, and after approximately seventeen seconds of peril, our merry band is back together again as Dorothy heads to the Emerald City to claim the crown.
Damn it, I already said that! Stupid intertitles.
You know what was a good movie? F. W. Murnau’s Last Laugh. No intertitles at all. He assumed his audience was smart enough to keep up with the plot without them. Of course, he also made a coherent movie, so… yeah.
So they’re brought before the Wizard, who tries to give his crown to Dorothy, but at her insistence he makes the Scarecrow the new king instead. After crowning the Scarecrow, the Wizard finally buggers off back to Omaha.
We then see the Wizard in the Departures lounge at Oz International, getting ready to go. But there’s a bit of “comedy” where one of the workers hangs a sign saying under union rules, they don’t work past twelve.
Then, since it’s been at least four minutes since the last dance number, we get a dance number. After this, we see the Wizard leaving in his balloon. Then there’s yet another dance number as the lyrics for “Tonight, Tonite” spin through my mind, and very abruptly, the movie ends. That’s it. That’s all. We don’t get to see Dorothy go home or anything. It’s just the end. Full stop. Fin.
So ends one of the more bizarre chapters in Oz history. Even by the standards of early cinema, this was pretty incoherent, and had nothing really to do with the plot of the novel. The dance numbers seemed to come out of nowhere and were, I guess, put in there because the producers figured that people paid to see motion, so they might as well give them their nickel’s worth.
But there were some good things about this movie. The performance of Raymond Z. Leonard as the Scarecrow was quite good, and was clearly an inspiration for Ray Bolger’s performance in the better-known 1939 film. Also, as mentioned, the fursuits/costumes were pretty good.
So, where are the cast and crew now? Dead.
BONUS! Watch The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) in its entirety below!