May 8, 2015 -- THREE TITLES, ONE FILM: RETURN TO/THE LAND OF/JOURNEY BACK TO/OZ! -- Part Two
[At left: Dorothy, Toto, and Pumpkinhead cavort during Liza Minnelli’s soundtrack rendition of “Keep the Happy Thought” -- perhaps perkiest of all of Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen’s musical numbers in JOURNEY BACK TO OZ. Center: The DVD box cover for the film’s home video release, which celebrated (per the carton copy) the movie’s “35th anniversary.” At right: The scene in which Glinda and her “Glinda Bird” -- whose “tattle-tail” is a sort of feathered audio/video receiver -- offer counsel to Dot, Pumpkinhead, and Woodenhead Stallion III. The “Good Fairy” was beautifully voiced by erstwhile opera star Rise Stevens; the latter two were (respectively and gleefully) personated by Paul Lynde and Herschel Bernardi. Today’s blog is the second of a three-part account that traces the complex history of JOURNEY BACK TO OZ, an animated feature-length motion picture first released in the United States in 1974 after more than a decade in production. Part One was published last week in the entry for May 1st.]
In spring 1963, Liza Minnelli – the daughter of Judy Garland and then seventeen years old – sat for an interview which ultimately appeared in the September issue of SCREENLAND magazine. She freely discussed her ambitions and described the first professional assignment she’d tackled a scant five months earlier: the speaking and singing role of Dorothy Gale in a cartoon musical film, referenced by her interviewer in the finished article as THE RETURN TO OZ. Minnelli noted that she initially rejected the job, wisely wishing to establish a career without trading on the part that had made her mother a star some twenty-four years earlier: “When they wanted me, I said ‘No!’ with a bang, but then my agent explained that it would be a different story from the one Mama made. It would be based on the second ‘Oz’ book, and a lot of fine people were doing the voices: Ethel Merman, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle, Peter Lawford, Jack E. Leonard. In company like that, I had to change my mind.”
Given the cast – and the promise of “fifteen new songs” by Academy Award-winners Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen – Minnelli was far from alone in her delight at the prospect of such a film. Yet shortly after the young performer expressed her enthusiasm, the originally-titled RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ privately encountered ongoing production snags and funding issues. Without public explanation, it swiftly, enigmatically disappeared from the show business radar and didn’t surface again for eight years.
Finally, in a summer 1971 proclamation of grandiose proportions, Filmation producers Norman Prescott and Lou Scheimer announced the movie’s imminent release – and ran into immediate, further trouble. Their new complications were publicized by Hollywood columnist Marilyn Beck, who broke the story of Minnelli’s reaction when the twenty-five year old actress heard about prospective screenings of the long-delayed project. No longer a novice, the full-fledged motion picture star straightaway reached out to Filmation for copies of the lead sheets for Dorothy’s four songs; it seems Liza had every intention of re-recording the numbers with the vocal sheen she’d acquired since 1962. Beck continued, “The studio is going along with her request, but quietly wishes she would forget the idea,” because the “rough and untrained” sixteen-year-old Minnelli voice was “very much like [that of] her famous mother.”
There was no further confirmation as to whether or not Liza returned to the OZ soundtrack microphone. In fact, the furor died down as quickly as it began – along with Filmation’s entrepreneurial plan to debut and tour the retitled-yet-again JOURNEY BACK TO OZ in a combination cartoon and live-action arena show. Another year of silence went by; then, suddenly, in late 1972, Warner Bros. haphazardly distributed the film in premiere bookings in Australia and the United Kingdom, as they’d obtained world-wide release rights to the picture, apart from the United States and Canada. Thanks to such a contract stipulation, it took a further eighteen months for OZ to be shown in this country, and it first opened in June 1974 in Sacramento, CA. Across that summer, the picture appeared in limited theatrical engagements, gradually petering-out via children’s matinee bookings or early-evening special screenings.
It was an odd and limp climax to more than a decade of effort by diverse and (in many instances) genuinely gifted people. As someone who’d been anticipating the feature since 1962 – under all of its titles – I finally saw it in mid-1974 in a small Milwaukee theater, where my attendance was a combination of honest anticipation, curiosity, and an assignment to review the finished work for The International Wizard of Oz Club magazine. (It’s only fair to confess that my long-ago research and reportage has been a memory-boon in resurrecting both the specific history of Filmation’s product and my own reaction to it more than four decades after the fact. Although a number of new quotes and additional materials augment today’s account, some of it is, indeed, drawn from the combination feature article and critique prepared for the Spring 1976 issue of THE BAUM BUGLE.)
At that time, I pointed out that JOURNEY BACK TO OZ was a basic (if very loose) adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s second Oz book, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ. One of the major differences between the printed page and silver screen editions is that Filmation chose the popular, uber-familiar character of Dorothy to serve as a plot-substitute for Baum’s original protagonist, Tip -- a young Ozian boy with a mysterious past In Baum’s version, Tip and his companion, Jack Pumpkinhead, escape from Mombi the Witch; join forces with a wooden Sawhorse; and travel to the Emerald City to visit the Scarecrow, who is the ruler of all Oz. Tip warns him of an approaching Army of Revolt, led by dozens of beautiful Oz maidens who plan to conquer the kingdom, govern it to suit themselves, and make men do all the housework. (This was Baum’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the suffragette movement, as the “women’s rights” campaign was in full sway when THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ first appeared in 1904.)
JOURNEY BACK TO OZ reworked Baum’s saga in its own cinematic way. In the cartoon story, Dorothy and Toto were swept up by a Kansas cyclone for a second time and once again deposited in Oz. They soon encounter a talking Signpost and a terrified Pumpkinhead, the latter running from Mombi, “the Bad Witch,” who is planning to invade and conquer the Emerald City with a herd of gigantic green elephants. Mombi manages to trap Dorothy in an enchanted chair that wraps its arms around the girl, but Pumpkinhead and Toto come to her rescue, and the three make their way to Emerald City to warn The Scarecrow of the imminent danger. En route, they are joined by Woodenhead, an ex-merry-go-round horse.
The Soldier With the Red Whiskers escorts them to a not-too-bright Scarecrow, who is weary of both throne and crown. His reunion with Dorothy is suddenly trunk-ated (…) by the rampaging elephants as they overrun and decimate the City. Mombi takes The Scarecrow and Toto prisoner, but Dorothy, Pumpkinhead, and Woodenhead escape to Tinland to ask The Tin Woodman (here “The Tinman”) for aid. Terrorized by the thought of massive green elephants, he refuses to help and, instead, sends them to The Cowardly Lion, who reacts in the same fashion. Glinda then appears and gifts Dorothy with a small box, to be opened only in an emergency. Back at The Emerald City, the travelers are surrounded and threatened by the elephants, but Dorothy opens the box and releases an endless stream of tiny white mice. The pachyderms panic and stampede, the prisoners are freed, and Mombi -- to avoid capture -- transforms herself into a rose, which then is trampled into oblivion by her retreating monsters. At her death, all of Mombi’s spells are broken; the elephants entirely disappear, and The Emerald City regains its lustrous splendor.
Unfortunately, as one of Mombi’s creations, Pumpkinhead becomes an inanimate vegetable vine, but he is revived by a single tear from Dorothy and made Minister of Agriculture. Woodenhead is likewise given royal rank, and Dorothy – by now homesick – is returned to Kansas by a cyclone summoned by Glinda. (The Scarecrow conveniently has discovered a rule that all visitors to Oz can be sent home in the same way they came.) Dorothy awakens on Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm to realize that she had bumped her head on a wooden gate, and that her entire journey was a dream.
The JOURNEY BACK TO OZ scenario is a peculiar amalgam of creativity, blatant “lifting,” and repetition. Salient aspects of the plot are pure Baum, although he is nowhere credited for the material from his book. The idea of a trip to Oz by cyclone scarcely approaches unique thought; neither does the notion that Dorothy’s visit is only a dream. The actual JOURNEY script even re-coins random phrases and a sentence or two from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Additionally, those who’ve read the forty “official” Oz books will note some other odd -- if mostly inadvertent? -- coincidences. Travelers encounter a wooden, non-talking but animated (in the sense of living) signpost in THE PURPLE PRINCE OF OZ (1932). On command, a chair magically enfolds its arms to capture a prisoner in THE GNOME KING OF OZ (1927). The tears of Dorothy and other Ozites revive the Cowardly Lion when alchemy turns him to stone in THE COWARDLY LION OF OZ (1923). And an “escaped” merry-go-round horse who initially can travel only in circles was the protagonist of MERRY GO ROUND IN OZ in 1963 -- albeit therein a dainty female, and sans Herschel Bernardi’s New York vocal inflections.
Running severely counter to their Baum, MGM, and other incarnations, The Tinman and Lion of JOURNEY BACK… are fairly appalling and unattractive in their cowardice and unwillingness to help rescue The Scarecrow and The Emerald City. Finally, one wonders if any feminist Oz fans since the 1970s ever have taken offense -- on multiple levels -- at the concept of Baum’s conquering and beauteous all-girl army being rewritten by Hollywood as a convoy of hefty elephants…if equally scared by a scrambling assemblage of mice.
JOURNEY BACK TO OZ is interlaced with Cahn and Van Heusen’s musical numbers, yet the celebrated team often seems at low-wattage here; their songs are basically pleasant but not especially memorable. Each seems to possess a single, arbitrary quality, whether melodic, jaunty, poignant, witty, or character-defining. Yet it requires an amalgam of several such essentials to turn a tune and lyric into a classic.
As has been noted, early publicity claimed OZ would include a score of fifteen songs. The finished movie purveys twelve, although the triumvirate theme for The Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion (a la MGM’s “If I Only Had a Brain”) is a double-reprise of the same melody with altered lyrics. For the record, the numbers include:
“A Faraway Land" – Dorothy (LizaMinnelli)
“I Don’t Know Where I Am” -- The Signpost Song (Jack E. Leonard)
“Keep the Happy Thought” – Dorothy
“Pity the Horse Who Must Dwell On the Carousel” – Woodenhead Stallion III (Herschel Bernardi)
“An Elephant Never Forgets” – Mombi (Ethel Merman)
“B-R-A-N-E” – The Scarecrow (Mickey Rooney)
“H-E-A-R-T” – The Tinman (Danny Thomas)
“N-E-R-V-E” – The Cowardly Lion (Milton Berle)
“Be A Witch” – Mombi
“You Have Only You” – Glinda (Rise Stevens)
“Return to the Land of Oz” – Dorothy
“That Feeling for Home” -- Dorothy
Some of the original all-star cast for the film apparently dropped out or was replaced across the lengthy production schedule. Though first announced as The Cowardly Lion in late 1962, Phil Silvers must have been supplanted fairly quickly, as Minnelli above-references Milton Berle in the role as early as spring 1963. Peter Lawford’s tracks were abandoned, and Mickey Rooney rerecorded the role of The Scarecrow sometime prior to 1971. Danny Thomas definitely sang for The Tinman, but his acting lines were taken by Larry Storch, who did a dandy imitation of the Thomas tones to help maintain continuity. Storch also spoke for Amos, the Kansas farmhand, while the great voice-actor veterans Mel Blanc and Dallas McKennon were heard – respectively -- as Mombi’s evil crow adjunct and the red-whiskered soldier.
[A bootleg record album titled THE RETURN TO OZ includes all of the numbers listed above, as well as orchestrator Walter Scharf’s “Overture.” The latter went unused in the film, at least insofar as its original purpose was concerned: to showcase the Van Heusen melodies in a “Broadway” medley/treatment prior to the onset of the story itself. The recording also includes a deleted Merman/Mombi reprise of one of Dorothy’s songs (rewritten as “Keep a Gloomy Thought”), as well as the voice of Peter Lawford singing “B-R-A-N-E” and reciting a few lines of The Scarecrow’s dialogue.]
From the first viewing of JOURNEY BACK TO OZ, it immediately was apparent that no rerecording had been done by Liza Minnelli. Both of her upbeat tunes are full of verve and vocally sound, if unrefined and tight in the stretch; her two ballads are well-intended but quavery. Despite Marilyn Beck’s pronouncement in summer 1971, the girl’s voice was basically untrained in 1962 and possessed little of the control, range, or soaring sound possessed by her mother at the same age. Not unexpectedly, Minnelli’s work is that of a sixteen year old who is just learning to use her instrument; in the process, she does a sincere, believable job, though not a magical one.
Perhaps those are the best adjectives to describe the overall film as well: in 1974 – and after a nearly twelve year wait -- I found JOURNEY BACK TO OZ to be sincere and believable, if far from magical.
Yet there already were lurking professional strategies for the property.
And …say! Just how many cultists does it take to make a cult film, anyway?
[to be concluded]
Article by John Fricke