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Oz on Film, Part Twenty-one: Oz Inspires Oz

Oz Inspires Oz; Anna Laughlin and Judy Garland get in touch with their inner Dorothys while Semon, Hardy, and Bell compare and contrast with Lahr, Bolger, and Haley.
Oz Inspires Oz; Anna Laughlin and Judy Garland get in touch with their inner Dorothys while Semon, Hardy, and Bell compare and contrast with Lahr, Bolger, and Haley.1939 Wizard of Oz photos property of MGM/Turner, composite by Peter Heimsoth

It has been very interesting to me, in the reading I’ve done about all the early dramatizations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to realize how many concepts and innovations we now associate with the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical version actually came from those earlier sources.

To begin with, it was the 1902 musical extravaganza by L. Frank Baum and Paul Tietjens which first gave us a dark-haired Dorothy Gale who was older than the child in the book. Both Anna Laughlin, the stage’s first Dorothy, and Judy Garland, the MGM starlet, were fifteen when they were given that role, though of course the stage Dorothy was meant to be a teenager old enough for a love interest, while Garland played a Dorothy of about the age of twelve.

It was also in the 1902 production that the Deadly Poppy Field was first destroyed by the Good Witch of the North conjuring a snowstorm to kill the poisonous flowers.

The extravaganza’s vaudeville approach and topical material had more than a few echoes in the MGM movie, and this time the Cowardly Lion, the power of speech being returned to him, got into the act in spades.

(Indeed, just as many people nowadays would be scandalized at the thought of a new musical of Wizard not using any MGM music—as was the case when Joe Cascone and James Doyle presented their The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Toronto in 2000—many Americans who still remembered the Baum-Tietjens show registered their shock when MGM said there would be an all-new score!)

Despite its many flaws, Larry Semon’s 1925 silent movie of The Wizard of Oz did introduce some ideas which, intentionally or coincidentally, the writers of the MGM script incorporated, particularly the concept of three workers on Uncle Henry’s farm turning up in Oz as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion. Semon, Oliver Hardy, and Spencer Bell’s characters merely disguise themselves, but Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr each play dual roles; Bolger is Hunk and the Scarecrow, Haley is Hickory Twicker and Nick Chopper, and Lahr is Zeke and the Lion.

MGM also used the unfortunate notion of the whole adventure being a little girl’s dream. In Semon’s film it was the Toymaker’s granddaughter, woken out of the dream by a Scarecrow doll falling onto the floor. In the MGM movie, it was shown that Dorothy herself had dreamed the magical events.

Even the cartoon short produced by Ted Eshbaugh in 1933 furnished inspiration. The opening Kansas sequence (all thirty-odd seconds of it) is rendered in black and white, but once Dorothy and Toto land in Oz—and on the Scarecrow—the wonder of Technicolor is revealed.

MGM put all these elements together, along with many ideas of their own, as well as the homespun charm and the central message of L. Frank Baum's book, and created something that has proved to be greater than the sum of its parts.