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Following the yellow brick road: The history of Oz in film

By Chris Vander Kaay

By Kathleen Vander Kaay

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19 2013 3:45 p.m. MDT

Dorothy (Judy Garland) in "The Wizard of Oz."

Warner Bros.

As MGM prepares to release a 3-D version of the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” to theaters on Sept. 20, the film stands at the doorstep of a milestone: the 75th anniversary a beloved and influential film and, according to the Library of Congress, the most-watched movie of all time.

With the exception of superstar Judy Garland, the cast of the movie was made up of character actors whose careers were eclipsed by the shadow of Oz. Director Victor Fleming was a filmmaker whose movies are remembered better in history than he is. Even choreographer Busby Berkeley, who worked on some of the dance numbers for the film (his deleted Scarecrow scene can be viewed at the Turner Classic Movies website), is remembered better for other films.

So what is it about the classic film that has held the love and attention of audiences for such a long time?

Fans of the land of Oz would say that the magic of author L. Frank Baum’s original story has much to do with its success. The magic of that world was too much to remain contained within a single film, as has been proved by the number of times that the world of Oz has been remade, rebooted, altered, borrowed and paid homage to since Baum’s original story “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was published in 1900.

Here’s a quick walk through the history of the magical land of OZ on film and television:

“The Wonderful Wizard of OZ” (1910)

Many people believe that the 1939 version of the film was the first one ever put to film. Not only did it miss that honor by 29 years, but this original version, produced by a prolific film company called Selig Polyscope, had a sequel called “Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz” later that same year. The film series continued past that, with the sequels — “The Land of Oz,” “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” and “The Magic Cloak of Oz” — being produced and sometimes written by Baum himself under The Oz Film Manufacturing Company. The series continued until 1914, with the last installment, “The New Wizard of Oz,” being written, produced and directed by Baum.

“Return to Oz” (1985)

Though television would visit the land of Oz infrequently in animation (“Tales of the Wizard of Oz” in 1961) and filmed versions of live stage shows (“The Marvelous Land of Oz” in 1981), it would be 46 years before a studio would produce another big-budget story that brought the land of Oz to the big screen. Directed by Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch and written by Gill Dennis (who would later co-write the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line”), “Return to Oz” was decidedly darker than the original 1939 musical and stayed closer to the content of the original books. Though not the success Disney had hoped for upon release (according to Box Office Mojo, the $25 million film had a domestic return of only $11 million), it has earned a devoted following.

“The Dreamer of Oz” (1990)

Following a renewed interest in the television movie-of-the-week format and “The Wizard of Oz” on its 50th anniversary, NBC aired “The Dreamer of Oz,” a story of the creation of Oz by Baum. Starring John Ritter as Baum and written by classic science-fiction author and “Twilight Zone” writer Richard Matheson, this sweet film reveals the story behind the inspiration for Dorothy, and the hilariously simple method by which he named the land of Oz.

“Lion of Oz” (2000)

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