That was totally awesome.
There are a whole bunch of Wizard of Oz film adaptations, enough to make it a little mysterious that Disney never did an animated one. This is the very first of them, complete with three 1910 sequels that are now considered lost: Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz, The Land of Oz and the worryingly titled John Dough and the Cherub. Obviously it's primitive film-making, but that doesn't matter at all for four reasons. Firstly, the bits that look like a school play are charming. Secondly, getting hung up on those bits would be silly because it's not all like that and they've also got imaginative production design and several good-looking set pieces. Thirdly, the Wizard of Oz is all about physical action and wild visuals anyway, which makes it perfect for the silent era.
The fourth reason is pace. This thing moves like a bullet. It's thirteen minutes long and so you've never got a chance to get bogged down. Even if you're not used to silent films, you simply don't have enough time here to start clock-watching.
We start out with the most ridiculous-looking scene, just to get the introduction of the panto animals out of the way. Dorothy in this version ends up leading around a bunch of "you are taking the piss" comedy animal costumes, perhaps thinking she's Old McDonald. The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman look great and distinctive, but you'll need to be paying attention to spot the Cowardly Lion among the other daft animals. There's no Toto the dog, mind you. Instead we've got Imogene the cow, who like much of this movie comes from the 1902 Broadway musical "The Wizard of Oz". Anyway, the cyclone that blows everyone to Oz is realised by the animals mating with a haystack, after which a painted backdrop that in no way resembles a sky is made to move very slowly from right to left while everything else gets pulled across the set. This includes the haystack, complete with perverts.
One interesting thing about the movie's style, albeit probably normal for 1910 movies, is that the caption cards make no effort to represent dialogue. This film doesn't really do conversation at all, in fact. Instead the caption cards will simply tell us what's happening, e.g. "cyclone" or "Dorothy learns that water is fatal to a witch". The latter is hysterical, by the way. It should more accurately have said "the scriptwriters pull the plot resolution out of their arse as Dorothy turns up with a bucket of water for no reason at all". However there's one caption card which is a letter written by the king and contains important plot information, but has been done in such nasty slanty handwriting that it took me a few seconds to realise that I was meant to be reading it in the first place, by which point it was too late and it had gone again.
Oz is like a combination of Africa and Alice's Wonderland. It's got tropical vegetation, the witch lives in a grass hut and at one point black dudes lead camels across the screen, but on the other hand the king's court is a bit like the Red Queen's. He's got an army of page girls whose costumes remind me of playing cards. However there are also unique things about this Oz, such as the way doors and houses will have faces. The witch's house looks mad and evil, for instance, and has giant mushrooms.
I normally talk a bit about the actors, but this isn't the kind of film where you notice them. Nevertheless Dorothy was probably played by Bebe Daniels, who was both sexy and impressive as the femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon (1931)
that I watched recently. Meanwhile the Scarecrow might have been Robert Z. Leonard, who'd go on to be an Oscar-nominated director and did the Laurence Olivier Pride and Prejudice
. Oh, and if you're wondering about how to get your hands on this film, it's available for free legal download! Go to its wikipedia page and you'll find a link at the bottom to that website with lots of public domain films for anyone who wants to watch them. Alternatively you could buy a 3-disc DVD boxed set called More Treasures from American Film Archives (2004).
The special effects are pretty much what you'd expect, i.e. it's as if they're recording a stage production. There's lots of business with Kirby wires, which looks great. The only actual special effect is the fade when they kill Momba the witch, but that looks a bit boring. This film is great. It's got dance numbers! It's got a flying lizard! Every so often it'll do something completely out of left field, such as the sign near the end saying "union rules - no work after 12". Had it lasted ninety minutes then I should think it would have worn out its welcome, but at its actual running time it's a blast.