THREE TITLES, ONE FILM: RETURN TO/THE LAND OF/JOURNEY BACK TO/OZ! -- Part Three

 

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May 15, 2015 -- THREE TITLES, ONE FILM: RETURN TO/THE LAND OF/JOURNEY BACK TO/OZ!  -- Part Three

 

  

[At left:  On their JOURNEY BACK TO OZ, Liza Minnelli’s Dorothy – and dog, Toto – once again find themselves trundling down the Yellow Brick Road. They have their first encounter with the literal and figurative Signpost, who initially provides no more travelers’ aid than did Scarecrow Ray Bolger to Judy Garland (Minnelli’s mother) several decades before. The Signpost was voiced for the cartoon feature by comedian Jack E. Leonard. Center:  Ethel Merman was saddled with two of the least musical songs in the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen film score, but – billowing and bellowing forth -- her Mombi aggressively bit into (and then gleefully spit out) the lyrics to “An Elephant Never Forgets” and “Be a Witch.”  At right:  Old friends in the Emerald City. The Scarecrow’s number and lines were originally assigned to actor Peter Lawford in 1962 but charmingly re-recorded by Mickey Rooney before JOURNEY BACK TO OZ first hit theaters in 1972. Today’s blog is the third and final entry about that 1962-1974 project, alternately known as RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ, RETURN TO OZ, THE RETURN TO OZ and, ultimately, JOURNEY BACK TO OZ. Parts One and Two were posted on May 1st and May 8th.]

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As noted last week, JOURNEY BACK TO OZ quickly fell out of United States theatrical release, and it’s a safe bet that the average moviegoer of summer 1974 never was aware of its existence.  Even Filmation’s obviously exploitative claim that Liza Minnelli consented to play Dorothy “as a fitting tribute to her mother” garnered little attention. (Judy Garland died in June 1969; her daughter actually had recorded Dorothy’s numbers and dialogue seven years earlier, when she was sixteen.)  By late 1974, JOURNEY BACK TO OZ once again dropped from whatever public consciousness had redeveloped over the preceding months of children’s matinee and “special” showings. It was quite a turnaround from the initial excitement caused a dozen years earlier by the preliminary announcements of its all-star voice casting and happily-heralded original songs.

Filmation, however, was a viable television production house, and by Christmas 1976, their OZ property evolved into a holiday ABC-TV special. Additional footage was scripted and shot to “book-end” and permeate the program; therein, Bill Cosby appeared as The Wizard himself, searching for Dorothy while aloft in his balloon over the United States and Oz. He was abetted by a talking parrot puppet and two children (self-identified as Munchkins) who were determined to spend Christmas with their friend from Kansas. Cosby delivered his lines in that patented mix of adult and child inflection that suffused his “Fat Albert” cartoon series, and these interstitials led the TV viewing audience in and out of various segments of JOURNEY BACK TO OZ.

Yet again, there was no major or apparent interest in – or reaction to – the picture, although the syndicated SFM Holiday Network thereafter ran the compilation “event” across several Decembers, up through 1984. SFM also contracted Milton Berle (the voice of The Cowardly Lion in JOURNEY BACK TO OZ) to film his own set of non-holiday interstitial moments, so that the movie could be run at other times during a calendar year.

Thanks to these telecasts, there was a bootleg vinyl soundtrack album issued in the late 1970s, and a more legit, product-premium record album circa 1980. Thereafter, the burgeoning home video market offered JOURNEY BACK TO OZ on VHS tape. But it wasn’t until 2006 -- a “35th anniversary” year -- that it received a reasonably deluxe DVD release, as notable for its extras as for the re-emergence of the feature itself. The supplements included individual on-camera interviews with co-producer Lou Scheimer, director Hal Sutherland, and scenarist Fred Ladd; the latter especially tendered wonderful history and background.

[Among Ladd’s recollections: Minnelli’s casting was arranged by family friend Sammy Cahn, the picture’s lyricist. Cahn was aided in his work by another close friend and professional associate, Frank Sinatra, who paved Cahn’s way to several additional stars who quickly got onboard for RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ, as it was titled in 1962. One of these was Frank’s frequent compatriot Peter Lawford, whose Scarecrow “takes” later were dropped; per Ladd, the British actor “didn’t sound like he was from Kansas” -- or, apparently, Oz. Contrary to 1963 reports about an orchestra in Sweden supplying the lush background accompaniment to the songs, Ladd remembers that it was a vast aggregation of musicians in Paris who were added to the prerecorded voice and piano tracks (the latter supplied by composer Jimmy Van Heusen). New to voice-work, Ethel Merman was “hungry for direction” from Ladd, and under his tutelage, she delivered to the max. The writer’s reminiscences also account for at least one of the three “missing” refrains from the score: “What Does the Woggle-Bug Do?” The number was cut when that character – from the original L. Frank Baum story, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ – was eliminated as the JOURNEY BACK TO OZ script advanced and was refined. Finally, it was Ladd who oversaw (or “over-heard”) the splicing of all the individual voice tapes into a cohesive unit. This was its own challenge. Except for a brief exchange between Minnelli and Mombi’s evil crow, “read” by the master himself, Mel Blanc, none of the performers were ever in the studio with each other at the same time.]

The JOURNEY BACK TO OZ anniversary DVD is a happy, historical package. Apart from the interviews, there’s also a full-length commentary track by Scheimer, Sutherland, Ladd, and Ervin Kaplan, the film’s director of color; galleries of various in-production photographs of both the cartoon and its TV “wraparounds,” plus animation cels, background paintings, and poster art; a sing-a-long showcase; a couple of different trailers (“previews of coming attractions”) from the theatrical release; the surviving -- or still accessible -- moments of the 1976 Bill Cosby TV intros-and-outros (prudently presented separately from the cartoon itself); and the first draft script and storyboards.

It’s been a sincere pleasure to try to cobble together at least a cursory overview of the roller coaster career of [THE] RETURN TO/THE LAND OF/JOURNEY BACK TO/OZ – and it’s been made possible by diverse sources, all of which need to be credited. The foundation was provided by the Spring 1976 feature article I was asked to do for The International Wizard of Oz Club magazine, THE BAUM BUGLE. (At that time, I appreciatively acknowledged fellow members B. A. Baker and a long-time personal and Oz friend, Douglas G. Greene, who shared notes he made during a contemporary telephone conversation with Norman Prescott, the man who initiated JOURNEY BACK TO OZ in 1962.) Additional facts and flavoring were drawn from prior BUGLE entries, fanzines in the collection here, the JOURNEY BACK TO OZ Wikipedia submission, and some of the DVD extras.

Finally – and speaking personally -- I need and want to recognize the retroactive delight derived here from watching the film again. What seemed, on some levels, disappointing in 1974 (after twelve years of anticipation) was tempered by the passage of more than four decades. Some of this quiet joy must stem from the intervening changes -- did someone say “deterioration”? -- in pop culture music and lyrics. As a result, a retrospective review of the Cahn/Van Heusen score shows it to be musical-theater-rich and wise, even if not a classic. The alternately sweeping, sprightly, or driving orchestration and conducting of Walter Scharf is outstanding. The rioting elephants remain a terrifying spectacle.

Most especially, there is magic in the “old pro” cast and the genuine charisma, class, and nostalgia they bring to the soundtrack. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, such virtuosity (and the familiarity of their various performing personas) was almost de rigueur and taken for granted. Years later, their veteran vaudevillian, Broadway, and nightclub expertise and polish suffuses the delivery of story and song; they often pump much more verve and humor into the dialogue and lyrics that exists in the words themselves. When it IS there, they embellish…beautifully. (Or, as George M. Cohan purportedly told Spencer Tracy at the onset of the latter’s career: “Whatever you do, kid, serve it with a little dressing.”)

Yes, there are (to be honest!) a few lapses in performance level, in cartoon quality, in story continuity. Though nothing actually seems missing from the plot, there is the occasional sense that not every desired moment of animation was completed – and that Filmation finally, ultimately went with what they had.

However – and by now -- that’s a comparatively minor consideration. And if the movie’s present-day popularity doesn’t exactly rank it as a monumental cult favorite, it’s easy to comprehend the fact that it’s long since become a TV and home video treat for many kids who grew up in and since the 1970s. For this kid, who grew up in the 1950s, searched for any passing word about the cartoon from the time it was announced in 1962, and who may have been lukewarm in his response in 1974, I gratefully admit that it’s been a lot of fun and very warming – in May 2015 – to JOURNEY BACK TO OZ.

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P.S. And a happy 159th birthday – today! – to the man who started it all: L. Frank Baum!  J

 
 

Article by John Fricke

 

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