Oz and the film medium were born at roughly the same time, so it was inevitable that Dorothy and her friends would appear onscreen before long. Less than a decade after the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s short-lived multimedia production Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908) offered a blend of live stage actors, photographic slides, and film clips portraying scenes from Baum’s early Oz novels. Today, only a few slide images from the show are known to exist.
In 1910, the Selig Polyscope Company released four shorts based on Baum’s early full-length fantasy works: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Land of Oz, Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz, and John Dough and the Cherub (the latter based on a non-Oz novel of the same name). To date, only The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been found.
After moving to Hollywood, Baum co-founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company with three business partners. The independent studio produced The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Magic Cloak of Oz, and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz in 1914. All three feature films are currently available. The Last Egyptian, based on Baum’s pseudonymous adult novel, survives only in a single partial print preserved in the film collection of the Museum of Modern Art. None of these films enjoyed significant success. After making a few short subjects the following year, the Oz Film Manufacturing Company folded.
The first large-scale Oz film adaptation was Chadwick Pictures’ production of The Wizard of Oz, released in 1925. It co-starred film comedians Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy (prior to his legendary partnership with Stan Laurel) as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, and Semon’s wife, Dorothy Dwan, as Dorothy. With a disjointed screenplay cowritten by Semon and L. Frank Baum’s eldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum, the movie bears almost no resemblance to the original book and has a poor critical reputation, although it is widely available.
Fourteen years later, the most famous manifestation of the Oz phenomenon, MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, was released to great acclaim. At long last an Oz adaptation had succeeded widely at the box office. (For more on the MGM film, click here.)
So legendary was the MGM movie that, for decades afterward, few filmmakers dared attempt a follow-up. Those who did found little reward in it, and their films were quickly forgotten. The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969), a low-budget kiddie matinee feature based on Baum’s second Oz book, was roundly panned. The animated feature Journey Back to Oz (1974), which languished in production for more than a decade, included the vocal talents of Liza Minnelli (Dorothy), Mickey Rooney (the Scarecrow), Milton Berle (the Cowardly Lion), Margaret Hamilton (Aunt Em), and Ethel Merman (Mombi); despite its fine pedigree, however, it did not fare well in theaters. In a dramatically different vein, Oz (1976), an Australian hard-rock reimagining of the first Oz book, also failed to win the hearts of a wide audience.
There were higher hopes for The Wiz (1978), Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning African American musical, whose impressive cast included Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Lena Horne as Glinda, and Richard Pryor as the Wiz. But a bloated budget, underwhelming box office, and negative reviews left the production in the red.
In the 1980s, expectations for a new Oz movie reached fever pitch when Walt Disney Pictures, which had hoped for years to bring Baum’s fairyland to the big screen, made Return to Oz (1985), a sequel combining elements of The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, the second and third Oz novels. Directed by Oscar-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, the film starred nine-year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy and featured stunning visual effects that yielded an Oscar nomination. But critics found the story too dark for children, and the $28 million film earned less than half of Disney’s investment back in its initial release. With its high production values and compelling cinematic elements, however, Return to Oz has gone on to become a cult favorite.
The MGM film’s mythic stature only increased after it celebrated its golden anniversary in 1989, and it became even harder to produce an Oz film without being accused of tampering with a legend. The next major Oz movie would not come until 28 years after the release of Return to Oz, whose failure had doubtless discouraged other filmmakers from trying to adapt Oz for the movies.
Ironically, it was the studio that had suffered the fallout from Return to Oz that set its sights once more on following the Yellow Brick Road. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), a Wizard of Oz prequel directed by Sam Raimi and featuring the high-wattage cast of James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams, premiered to a worldwide marketing blitz. Released in both 2D and 3D, the film earned almost $500 million in its theatrical release. Plans for a sequel were quickly announced, and the once-dim prospect of a stream of high-profile Oz movies no longer seemed so far-fetched.