Mar 27, 2015 IS THERE ANY REAL, RESOUNDING REASON FOR RUBY-RED RUTABAGA? -- PART TWO
[Above left and right: Two pages from the 1962 Whitman Publishing Company TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ Coloring Book. “Minimalist” doesn’t quite describe the art, but The Fab Four and The Wicked Witch of the West are eminently recognizable; both drawings also feature the Videocraft International, Ltd., depictions of The Munchkins. Center: A page from the March-May 1962 Dell Publishing Company TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ Comic Book. (Back in the day, there was no Spell-Check -- nor, apparently, a spell-checker, at least when it came to the names of vegetables.) The entry below, about the TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ Rankin/Bass TV show that inspired the foregoing tie-ins, is a continuation of last week’s blog.]
That Monday in September 1961 was fraught-with-anticipation. Many minutes ahead of the scheduled 5:50 p.m. programming, I perched on the floor of our TV room/den and way-beyond-eagerly leaned forward toward the family’s black-and-white TV set.
And The Event? The syndicated “launch” of TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ: two five-minute cartoons, to be shown back-to-back. Thanks to a Sunday TV magazine listing in the Milwaukee JOURNAL newspaper, I’d had thirty-some hours’ notice that the series was to be locally telecast. That gave me and my imagination full reign, and the latter had been all over the map (of Oz…) for the better part of two days. I’d wondered and pondered and fundamentally hallucinated about how the animations would look -- how the storylines would be handled -- how the famous characters would be portrayed – and which Oz tales would be told.
I think it’s safe to say that my expectations were considerably grander than the Videocraft International, Ltd., conceptions. Or budget.
So I watched those first two episodes – “intently” doesn’t begin to say it – and to this day, I clearly remember my impressions and reactions. It may come as no surprise to hear that I already was junior-league-judgmental when it came to Oz. Even as a ten-year old, I wanted (what I considered, anyway) Only The Best For Baum! Now it’s true that just two L. Frank Baum Oz books by then had slipped into public domain, making them freely available for adaptation. But both THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ offered scores of personages, incidents, and sequences that were ideal for dramatization. As a result, the very “original” (not to say slipshod) road taken by Videocraft, Jules Bass, and Arthur Rankin, Jr., simply couldn’t/didn’t measure up for me.
Their cartoons obviously were haphazard and done on-the-cheap. The almost-total lack of “link” with (and reverence for) Oz as known in the initial Baum book was infuriating. By 1961, there were something approximating four-and-a-half-million copies of THE WIZARD OF OZ in print, and I wanted that sense of respect for his joyous world and its citizens. Why did Videocraft open their presentation with The Wizard on-site in their (renamed) “Emerald Castle”? Everyone (…!) knew he’d returned to the United States by balloon! And why was he voiced a la W. C. Fields? (Well, in retrospect, why not? I guess I wasn’t as liberal – or, at least, as “show biz” – in 1961 as I’ve since become.)
Compounding that basic (if unintentional) cheek, however, Dorothy’s three friends were given corny proper names: Socrates, Rusty, and Dandy, i.e. dandelion. The premiere’s plot-line -- which was more of a plot-dash -- involved an innovative narrative in which The Tin Man makes a plea to The Wizard for a heart. How novel. Ever the charlatan, Oz begins to craft one and then is brought up short with the realization that he’s run out of ruby-red rutabaga – an essential ingredient for the potion. He provides Rusty with the seeds to grow the necessary root, but The Wicked Witch of the West silently and secretively materializes, pickpockets the seed packet, and replaces it with “Munchkin Seeds.” Thus, when Rusty, Socrates, and Dandy plant the contents of the envelope, all that pops up out of the ground is an oddly-shaped “tear-drop” of a creature with a major proboscis.
Thus passed the entire first episode.
In the second, the Tin Man and Scarecrow send Dandy off to the Emerald Castle for additional rutabaga seeds. En route, he encounters Dorothy and Toto, who literally “blow in” through a hole in the animation cel, cut out of the background by another Munchkin; you kinda have to see it to comprehend it. Dot possesses a canny, characteristic Kansas spunk and stands right up to the Lion: “You’re not very much of a ferocious-type lion, are you?” To this, he only can honestly riposte, “Well, you’re not very much of a poor, defenseless little girl.” The child next bravely and semi-comically confronts The Wicked Witch -- in a brief cameo appearance – after which girl, dog, and Dandy go off to see The Wizard.
And that’s about all a just-under-five-minute segment could encompass.
(Although I’m half-teasing. Sorta!)
Across the next four days, four further cartoons were shown, yet any continuity in the story-telling evaporated by installment five. TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ thereafter evolved (or deteriorated or persisted; pick a verb!) as a “rather outrageous burlesque” – which gentle descriptive phrase was employed around that time by the beloved and ever-gracious Ozophile, Fred M. Meyer. Starting in 1961 and continuing for three decades-plus, Fred was the secretary, mainstay, and backbone of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc.; he could find some semblance of gold in nearly any Oz-related product or project!
Reconsidering them today, I can enjoy the TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ on the basis of nostalgia alone. And viewing some of them again reveals a modicum of fun and occasional wit – even if “silly” doesn’t adequately define them. Though not especially “Ozzy,” the voiceover work was virtually always appropriate. Rusty comes across as a gravelly blow-hard: an amalgam of character actor Herb Vigran and Fred Flintstone. The Wicked Witch sounds like the love-child of raspy-toned thespian Edna Mae Oliver and the exemplary Jonathan Winters in his incarnation as little old Maude Frickert. Dandy alternately presents himself as apologetic, alarmed, or timid, while Socrates retains a nice naivety and ingenuousness. The Munchkins – often traveling in packs -- never really converse; they simply, incessantly chatter in jabbering, nonsense noise. (For the historical record, the TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ vocal performances were furnished by Carl Banas as The Wizard, Corinne Conley as Dorothy, Paul Kligman as Dandy, Alfie Scopp as Socrates, Larry D. Mann as Rusty, Peggy Loder as The Wicked Witch, Bernard Cowan as the Munchkins, and Stan Francis “as cast.” Cowan, Kligman, Mann, and Scopps doubled up as needed, as well.)
The episodic nature of most of the TALES quickly led to wild, non-Oz anachronisms. At one point, the Winged Monkeys turned up as rowdy conventioneers, bombed out on coconut juice, and making hash of the Emerald Castle. Machine Gun Morris and His Sidekick Louie brought in a touch of THE UNTOUCHABLES, a contemporary, popular TV drama about Chicago gangster-ism during the 1920s’ Prohibition era. Elsewhere, a recruiting officer endeavored to enlist Dandy, Rusty, and Socrates in the army. Dandy, however, faints at the thought of rifles and bayonets, and it’s left to the Tin Man to afford the most likely prospect. (Quote the officer: “The army could use you! You’re perfect sergeant material: positively heartless!”)
The Wicked Witch rotates between rutabaga robbery, a desire to stuff her mattress with Socrates (the ever-mobile Munchkins having proved to be too lumpy), and the semi-glamorous guise of a comic valentine. In the latter manifestation, she rushes home to see her dream man -- “The Count” -- on her crystal ball, which apparently doubles as a surrogate television set. Her hero is a cross between Bela Lugosi and Renzo Cesana, the seductive late-night television host of the 1950s who was better known as “The Continental.” To prepare to gaze into her TV, the Witch changes into a tight sweater and lounging Capris, capping her come-hither persona with the “new Jackie hairstyle” – a droll throw-away homage to then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
So, as noted, I now can appreciate (and even revel in) diverse aspects of the show. Yet I’ll also never forget my anticipation as a ten-year old -- and my mystification at and dissatisfaction with the finished efforts. Although I couldn’t have chosen these words in 1961, I was consciously, acutely aware that – to me, anyway – TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ pretty much seemed a wasted opportunity to bring something wondrous and magical to the greater Oz legend. By the second or third week of the telecasts, I don’t think I even tuned in every day, and certainly not religiously.
In summation (and Fred Meyer notwithstanding!): To this preteen, the cartoons provided positive proof that All That Is Oz Is NOT Gold.
Although that being said….
A burlesque? For sure.
TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ, indeed, scored and scores on all three counts. The program had its defensible, merry moments -- and I DID watch…most of the time.
I also had a genuinely good time re-watching a number of the shorts to prepare this mini-series!
So here’s a celebratory link to the first two episodes as detailed above: https://youtu.be/KS-K02xqV6w If you find them more entertaining and less perplexing and careless than I did in 1961, please understand: I was ten…and a purist Ozian (or Ozian purist), through and through!
And that theme song remains relentlessly catchy….
[to be concluded]
[Next week: The Rankin/Bass Oz characterizations “go network” and (however briefly) upscale!]
Article by John Fricke