Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Retro Review: The Oz Audio Collection

These reviews are of pieces of merchandise that are now out of print and are not likely to get another release too soon. I'll try to direct you to places to get them, but they may be hard to find or expensive.
Audio books have become an important secondary way to enjoy literature. Whether the audience for them is blind, spends a lot of time driving, or if they just want a different way to enjoy a good story, they present a story in a way that is easy to digest. With digital formats today in CD, MP3, iPod AudioBooks, and Audible, as well as the recently deceased audio cassette, it seems odd to realize that the unabridged audio book took awhile to come about.

Stories told through audio are, of course, an evolution of oral storytelling, and began with the debut of radio. But it was not until the long playing phonograph was introduced that audio stories became commercial items. Storytelling records for children became a popular item, and adaptations of classic stories and film stories were the norm. Eventually, the idea came around to abridge or condense a book to a length that would only take the length a vinyl record to play a recording of. Complete recordings of books were not unheard of, but they would require multiple records, making the sets costly to produce and package, and thus, a higher price to the customer.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz went into public domain in 1956, and many reprints and adaptations came about because of it. Caedmon Audio (which was later taken over by Harper Collins) noted this and eventually came to release three abridgements of Baum's books and a collection of short stories for sale.

The choice for narrator (which was often a noted actor) in this case was Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in MGM's Wizard of Oz movie.

The four records were re-released for sale as a collection of audio cassettes, which was how I was able to enjoy them. It seems a CD release was in the works, but it didn't last long if it was produced. I asked my library to get them, but later found the set you see pictured at a yard sale.

The first of the tapes is an abridgement of The Wizard of Oz, which is a basic abridgement. Dorothy and her friends arrive at the Emerald City after meeting the Cowardly Lion, with no incidents noted. The Wicked Witch immediately summons the Winged Monkeys, and the journey south to Glinda is also told without any incidents. While this is expected, it sadly removes the events that help the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion prove their qualities to Dorothy without realizing themselves, or put them to the test.

The second Oz book, The Land of Oz, gets a similar treatment, but all mentions of the Woggle-Bug are removed. Also, rather grievously, the story cuts off just after Ozma is restored. It ends with the Scarecrow making up a poem about being glad of no longer being king that must have been added by the person responsible for the abridgement. With this ending, the Emerald City is still held by Jinjur, and as Ozma of Oz is not in the set, we are given no indication that this changes.

The other Baum book to get an abridgment is Queen Zixi of Ix, which is also cut tragically short. The wishes of Rivette, Jikki, and Tallydab are excised as well. The story ends just after Zixi meets the little girl in the boat and scolds her for her foolish wishes before realizing her own wish might be considered just as foolish. While this feels more like a complete story, Bud and Fluff are now without their magic cloak, and Bud doesn't get to make the best wish made with the cloak. I really wished there was a second tape for Zixi, as it deserved it.

The final tape is called Little Oz Stories. What is it? Is it Little Wizard Stories of Oz? Is it excerpts from the Oz books that can be read as standalone portions? No, it's a selection of stories from the Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz series. That's a rather odd choice, as the stories are out of order, and these weren't some of Baum's best. Also, people unfamiliar with the series would wonder why the Oz characters are in America. Anyone unfamiliar with the post-Wizard Oz stories might wonder if Jinjur exiled them!

The first side contains:
  • The Scarecrow Presents a Magic Automobile to a Little Girl
  • The Two Wishes
  • Jack Pumpkinhead Pawns the Sawhorse
  • The Scarecrow Tells A Fairy Tale To Children and Hears A Equally Marvelous True Story
Side two features five more stories, including three featuring Dorothy:
  • A Magnetic Personality
  • How the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman Met Some Old Friends
  • How the Sawhorse Saved Dorothy's Life
  • Dorothy Spends an Evening with her Old Friends and is Entertained with Wonderful Exhibitions
  • How the Woggle-Bug and his Friends Visited Santa Claus
Since these are short stories, they are not properly abridged, though stories with the "What Did the Woggle-Bug Say?" questions have the lead-ins for those removed. This is, notably, the first time the actual Baum stories had been collected, though it wasn't complete.

Bolger is, admittedly, not the finest narrator, but he gives these stories—which he was a fan of—a delightful performance with little vocal gestures and chuckles, and frankly, I love the dignified voice he puts on when he says "H.M. Woggle-Bug, T.E." Even the stories with some poorly-done abridgements are worth listening to for his performance. His Scarecrow doesn't sound the same as it did in 1939, but it is still quite in keeping with Baum's character. His Tin Woodman sounds squeaky, his Woggle-Bug is dignified, his Jack Pumpkinhead sounds a little "mush-mouthed," his witches are mean, and his ladies are elegant. Bolger's Dorothy has a tone of innocence, and his boy characters are lively.

The set also features music, some bouncy travel-style music for the Oz stories, while Queen Zixi has a dreamlike, melodious selection. Little Oz Stories also makes use of the same music at times.

The set comes packaged in a stiff card package as pictured. Today, we'd call this "environmentally friendly" packaging, but I prefer cassettes in a package that will last. When I got this set, it had already seen use, then after my purchase, it spent a few years in a desk drawer before I finally decided to record the audio to MP3s for personal use. Since that is completed, I likely won't have much cause to use the packaging, but still.

The absolute worst thing about the set is the back cover blurb. It reads all right until it gets to the description of The Land of Oz:
The Land of Oz recounts the adventures of the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow with Tip, a little boy who lives just outside the city of Oz with an old witch, and their magical friend Jack Pumpkinhead.
A poor use of commas make it sound like Jack was a longtime resident at Mombi's. "The city of Oz" is a confusing term, as Oz has many cities, but is not a city in itself. I believe it should have said "Emerald City." Furthermore, Jack was brought to life by magic, but other than that, he can't really be considered "magical."

The blurb for Little Oz Stories is even worse.
Finally, the Little Oz Stories relate numerous tales including Dorothy's return to visit with her old friends, how Glinda the Good Witch returned Oz to its rightful ruler, Princess Ozma, and the Woggle-Bug's visit with Santa Claus.
That makes it sound like Dorothy goes back to Oz, but the story it refers to (the last of the three in which she appears) has her visit her friends who are staying in a hotel or apartment provided for them during their visit to America. The story of Oz being restored to Ozma's rule should have been on the set, but it is not in there.

My final gripe is the potentially confusing statement that the Wizard of Oz film was made in 1938. This is accurate, in that the production took place during that year, but the film was completed and released in 1939, which, for the brevity of the back cover, should have been used instead.

Anyways, this is a set that MGM fans who have a moderate interest in Baum's books should enjoy, with the Scarecrow's most famous voice telling them more stories about Oz, and Baum fans might enjoy the presentation. If you want it, and can use audio cassettes, affordable copies are on Amazon.

(Please don't ask me to send you my MP3s. Legally, in order to have MP3s made from a cassette still under copyright, you must own an actual copy.)

1 comment:

Nathan said...

I believe I still have the cassette copies, although one of them was destroyed by my player. I found it interesting that Bolger went with a different voice for the Scarecrow, but made the Lion sound kind of like Bert Lahr.