Wow. That was freaky. It's like a silent horror version of The Wizard of Oz
. More specifically it's like a Brothers Grimm version of the story, complete with on-screen decapitation and witches pulling people's hearts out. Needless to say, I loved it.
What's interesting about the production of this one is that it's the third of a trilogy of 1914 Oz movies from The Oz Film Manufacturing Company, whose president was L. Frank Baum himself. Yup, the original books' author. The first two were The Patchwork Girl of Oz
and The Magic Cloak
and both of those still exist too, although the latter is missing one of its five reels. This one even claims to be directed by Baum, although I see wikipedia calls this a lie and thinks it was just J. Farrell MacDonald again, as with the other two. I don't know about that, but it would certainly seem that these three films are close as you're going to get to a definitive movie version of Oz as its creator wanted. Baum died in 1919, so he never saw the Judy Garland film that's now the dominant incarnation.
Anyway, the plot's nothing like the one everyone knows. The wonderful cast list includes:
- Dorothy, a Kansas girl who is wandering in the Land of Oz
- The Scarecrow
- The Tin Woodman
- The Cowardly Lion / The Kangaroo / The Crow / The Cow / The Mule
- King Krewl
- Googly-Goo, a wealthy courtier
- The Wizard of Oz
- Pon, the Gardener's Boy
- Princess Gloria, niece to King Krewl
- Old Mombi
- Button-Bright, who is lost and doesn't care
Apparently there's also something called The Lonesome Zoop, who's in all three of Baum's movies. If that's what I think it is, then it's a dancing monkey-thing that plays silly buggers with the Cowardly Lion.
The main storyline involves King Krewl, Gloria, Pon and Old Mombi (the Wicked Witch), with everyone else just along for the ride. The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman are at least memorable, but Dorothy's just this kid who's been kidnapped from Kansas by Mombi and tags along with the others for laughs. There's little reason for her presence, but at least she's better served than Button-Bright, who's introduced so surreptitiously that I missed it and was wondering where this extra woman came from. He's (yes, he's) played by Mildred Harris, who'd later marry Charlie Chaplin.
We begin with King Krewl ordering Gloria to marry his courtier Googly-goo. She refuses because she's in love with the gardener's boy, Pon, whereupon Krewl calls on the services of Mombi to destroy the girl's love. So far this was all looking hackneyed and more than a little Disney, but it's what happens next that made my eyes pop out. Mombi and her coven pull Gloria's heart out of her chest, freeze it to ice and then put it back again. This happens on-screen. Admittedly they do it with a dematerialising fade effect rather than the full "Mola Ram in Temple of Doom", but it's still the actual organ and a realistic-looking size and shape.
What's more, it has the desired effect. Gloria's heart really is frozen and she no longer cares about Pon, or anyone else. That's only one of the horror moments in this film, though. Others are:
(a) the birth of the Scarecrow, who looks like a zombie or Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King's It. He's got a face like a skull. At first he's just hanging lifelessly in a field, but then a Red Indian ("the Spirit of the Corn") dances around him before fading away like a ghost. This brings the Scarecrow to life.
(b) the first thing Mombi does on meeting the Scarecrow is to disembowel him.
(c) the Tin Woodsman chops off Mombi's head with an axe. This is on-screen. Her head falls off and the actress staggers around in a black hood in front of a black doorway. Admittedly she then picks her head up and puts it on again, but there's no suggestion that that's an option after the second decapitation that's implied in the happy ending. The deposed King Krewl runs in to grovel at people's feet, but gets dragged away by a big axe-wielding dude. That's the last we see of him. I suppose you could tell your little children that he's been sentenced to 200 hours' public service cutting down apple trees, but it seems clear to me that our happy King Scarecrow is about to get an interesting new public decoration on a spike.
(d) The following I'd call the most likely to induce nightmares, even though you'll find it in the original novels. Dorothy, Button-Bright, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman have escaped from Mombi by crossing a river on a raft. The Scarecrow is pushing them along, but then his pole sticks in the river bed and the raft carries on without him. What freaked me out is that no one notices! Nice friends. The Scarecrow disappears under the water in a shot that in a Kenji Mizoguchi film would mean he'd drowned. Fortunately though this is L. Frank Baum, so instead we get an underwater scene with the Scarecrow being attacked by a giant fish, after which he meets a mermaid and gets carried off by a giant crow.
(e) The wall of water. I hadn't the slightest clue what this was going to be. In the end it's a laughably simple special effect, but one that would have been freaking terrifying if the raft hadn't obviously been drifting at about three metres an hour.
This thing is incredible. By the time we hit an intertitle saying "the Tin Woodsman's heart is captured by the Princess", it was surprising to find this not being taken literally. I'd expected her to open his chest up. Admittedly the film has its goofier moments as well, such as the pantomime animals and the way in which our heroes trick the witch into... um, sitting on a slow-moving cart. That was funny. The film also manages not to be gruesome in how the Wizard of Oz defeats Mombi, which is weird and mad but also whimsical. However what happens next after that is a palace revolution in which our heroes plan to overthrow the king and replace him with his (frozen-hearted) niece, which means a battle scene with King Krewl's army, men on horseback and a castle wall. The Scarecrow is the first to scale the latter and when he reaches the top, he's got a dozen arrows sticking out of him.
In case you were wondering, this Wizard isn't a fraud. He has magic powers. He also has a top hat, an outfit like a travelling showman and a cart that's being pulled by something that's either a headless horse, a pig or a wooden robot. The witches are spooky too, by the way. Mombi isn't in traditional witches' clothes, instead being rather well-dressed if you don't mind her hat looking from certain angles like an animal nailed to her head. However her coven are shapeshifters, either looking like (a) beautiful maidens with flower garlands or (b) black-clad hags with broomsticks. It's particularly startling to see them take flight, since the scene was obviously being shot outdoors.
There's a ton of location shooting, by the way. This makes it look realistic and reduces the fantasy level, with the actors really having to negotiate rivers, trees, wheat fields and so on. However it's got quite a few fairy-tale elements, plus of course panto animals. The latter includes a donkey who gets a bit of acting to do, pricking his ears and wiping tears from his eyes. However the Cowardly Lion again is just a silly costume that can't show any personality, either cowardly or otherwise.
Of the main characters, I'm starting to think that the Scarecrow is the plum role in any Oz adaptation. He's a scene-stealer with all that physical acting, such as floppy arms and a head that wobbles all over the place. He's likeable, he gets all the comedic scenes and he's a memorable character to have things happen to. I enjoyed his weird little scene in which he can't eat food, for instance, and I'm not surprised that the script forgets that the characters had been planning to enthrone Gloria and sticks the crown on the Scarecrow instead. There's something glorious about King Scarecrow. However this Tin Woodman is memorable too, chopping off heads and living in a Tin Castle. His armour design looks a bit Persian.
To my surprise, I liked this film just as much as the (awesome) 1910 Wizard of Oz silent
. The story's mad, the actors are going appropriately over the top and the horror movie aspect is downright startling. These are seriously badass witches, liable to turn their co-stars into animals. In fact I assumed the film was doomed to run out of steam once they'd sorted out Mombi and were now going after King Krewl, but I was proved wrong by the battle sequence. Oz is proving to be a richer, weirder place than I'd previously assumed.