sat 24/08/2019

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – The True Story, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – The True Story, BBC Four

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – The True Story, BBC Four

An engrossing, detailed documentary with one significant omission

It wasn’t the scary flying monkeys that troubled America, it was the headstrong little girl

“There’s no place like home… there’s no place like home… there’s no place like home…” A wish became a mantra and then became a happy ending, when Dorothy wiggled her ruby-red shoes in the MGM movie version of L Frank Baum’s fairy story. But this documentary didn’t even get to the most watched film in the history of cinema until its closing 10 minutes: perhaps because its makers were concerned that if they’d called it “The Story of L Frank Baum” it wouldn’t have found an audience.

And that would have been a pity because Baum’s story, as told by his great grandson, great granddaughter and various literary and movie scholars, is an engrossingly eventful one. This New York-born entrepreneur was a baseball player, a photographer, an inventor, a newspaper editor and department store owner. In fact he didn’t even start writing in earnest until a decline in his health during old age. But there can be no understanding of The Wizard of Oz’s position in our culture without some knowledge of the man who created this almost myth-like template for the American Dream, way back at the turn of the 20th century.

Baum got the name of his fantasy kingdom from glancing at the 'O-to-Z label on his filing cabinet

It turns out that Dorothy – the still centre of the Oz tornado of flying monkeys and evil witches – was at the time the book’s most controversial ingredient. It wasn’t the fact that she was the first young girl to be placed at the centre of a narrative; it was the fact that she was such a spirited, independent girl (due in part, it was said, to the influence Baum’s wife, mother and mother-in-law had - all of whom were involved in the suffragette movement). In fact, so unthinkably precocious was her character - in this era when it was still thought that a child should be seen but not heard - that the Oz books were banned by many public libraries.

L_Frank_BaumHowever, what I found most fascinating wasn’t the grand overarching story of this generously moustachioed entrepreneur’s numerous and inventive attempts to make a living to support his family, but the little incidental details along the way which later contributed to the making of such an era-defining work of art as The Wizard of Oz. For example, the idea that Baum (pictured right) got the name of his fantasy kingdom from glancing at the “O-to-Z” label on his filing cabinet, thus supporting Pasteur’s dictum that “chance favours the prepared mind”. Then there was the story that while working as editor of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer he had become obsessed by a news story about a house that had been uprooted by a tornado and then landed, still intact, two miles away. Not to mention the mannequin Baum constructed out of tin to function as an eye-catching attraction in the window of the department store he owned before the Great Depression bankrupted him.

Eventually we got to MGM’s rich Technicolor jewel of a film. The Wizard of Oz was a yellow brick road movie which began and ended at home - which of course is where the American heart is. It was interesting to consider that my own ambivalent attitude towards this film – both as a child and as an adult – wasn’t entirely subjective and unfounded. There seems to be little doubt that the atmosphere of foreboding that permeates every frame of Oz - despite the choreographed jollity and uplifting songs - was a result of the fact that while the film was being made (1937-38), war was on the way, and Baum’s innocent utopian vision of home sweet home could no longer be taken for granted. So, long before the doomed post-Oz Garland would retrospectively cast a melancholy shadow over the child star Garland - the luminescent film star herself was out entertaining the homesick troops with their favourite song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, while those same troops sang “We’re Off to See the Wizard” as they marched into combat.

I did have one gripe though. Given that this was a BBC film and not an American production, I was surprised that there was no mention of the fact that our very own precocious but grounded Alice was skipping around Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland some 35 years before dear Dorothy was wafted off to Oz. We were told that Baum loved Dickens, so surely he would also have been aware of Carroll and his similarly absurdist land peopled by unlikely creatures and a headstrong little girl? If Baum hadn’t been painted throughout this documentary as such an innovator this could have been forgiven - but must every corner of history get rewritten to favour our US cousins?

The Wizard of Oz was a yellow brick road movie which began and ended at home - which of course is where the American heart is

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Baum couldn't have been bankrupted in the Great Depression, he died in the early 1920s.

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