Friday, April 29, 2011

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The True Story

So, BBC Four showed a new Oz documentary yesterday, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The True Story. (Didn't I just say that? It feels like I did.)

The documentary opens with the final moments in Oz from the classic 1939 film, but it focuses mainly on the life of L. Frank Baum, the man who created the story of the film.

The documentary focuses mainly on the type of person Baum was and his creation of Oz and how groundbreaking it was for American literature. (Carroll's Alice goes without a mention, but then, it is a different story and character.) This is done with well-researched narration, paired with historical photographs, and early film footage (including Baum's silent Oz films), and interviews with many knowledgeable people from the Oz community, such as Robert A. Baum, Gita Baum Morena, Michael Patrick Hearn, Nancy Tystad Coupal, Eric Shanower, and John Fricke (who has a lot of fun in the last 10 minutes when the MGM film is covered).

While I feel the biography did a great job of portraying who Baum was, I was surprised at some gaps in his history left uncovered. The fact that he was hesitant to create an Oz sequel, much less a series, is not mentioned at all, and neither was his pseudonymous work. And when John R. Neill's art for the later Oz books is introduced, no matter how well Eric Shanower and the rest of the wonderful talking heads try to make it sound, the documentary almost makes him sound like a usurper to Denslow's position. (The change in publisher is also left un-noted.)

Little is mentioned of the enduring legacy of Oz. No later works of Oz fiction are mentioned aside from Baum's. While we see some of Eric Shanower's art, if I had not been aware of what it was, I might have assumed it was an illustration for another edition of Baum's work. Also, the only play mentioned is the 1903 extravaganza, and aside from Baum's silent films, and the 1939 film, no other films are mentioned, not even the films for the Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, which is mentioned, though no one says "Radio-Plays."

But with those omissions, there are plenty of good points. Some photos I had not seen before. Baum's life in Aberdeen and his relocation to Chicago is highlighted very well, as is his early life and possible inspirations for Oz (though no mention of Dorothy Gage). And even though that issue of his editorials about the Indians raises its ugly head, it is explained very well, noting that this was a one-off in the tone of Baum's writing, and appropriately explaining the context.

All together, not bad for a one hour documentary, and definitely worth watching. Let's hope it comes stateside in some form. I'd recommend it for anyone wanting to know exactly what kind of person Baum was.

If the BBC iPlayer is available in your area, you can watch it at this link for a limited time.

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