Monday 28 January 2013

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

Director: J Farrell MacDonald
Stars: Violet MacMillan and The Marvelous Coulerc

There are no less than six films based on L Frank Baum's Oz books in the works, including two due this year with massive budgets. Oz the Great and Powerful is a $200m Disney blockbuster helmed by Sam Raimi and Dorothy of Oz is a $60m CGI animated feature with an even more outstanding cast. So it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look at a much older Oz film, one released 99 years ago by Baum himself. The Patchwork Girl of Oz wasn't the first adaptation of his work, that honour going to 1908's The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, an expensive cross between performance and film that must have been something like Richard Attenborough interacting with himself within Jurassic Park. The earliest surviving adaptation is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from 1910, adapted via the 1902 stage musical. The three sequels shot the same year are all now lost. After that came this film, the first production of Baum's own Oz Film Manufacturing Company.

This production company was an ambitious undertaking to say the least. Not only did it attempt to draw children back to quality family entertainment from the violent westerns that were the norm, it aimed to do so at a frantic pace. It shot four feature films in 1914 alone, The Patchwork Girl of Oz for an early September release, with The Magic Cloak of Oz following later the same month, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz in October and The Last Egyptian in December. All were made by the same core crew: J Farrell MacDonald directing, Baum handling the scripts and Louis F Gottschalk composing complete scores to be sent out with the prints, a rarity at a time when theatres worked from cues. This pace was unforgiving and the first film's lack of success was a death blow. 1915 only saw the release of four shorts, with a fifth lagging behind in 1917; and the company quickly folded. Three features are available today, a fourth only exists at MoMA and the rest are lost.

Frankly, it's not surprising. Children's films are always tough ones for adults to properly evaluate as they succeed or fail through how well they connect to the minds of children, who don't always care about things that adults do, like consistency, plot continuity or believability. The longer since a film's release, the more difficult it becomes because changing culture plays a factor too. Think about how hard it is to get your kids to watch films that you grew up loving, then think about how hard it would be if they were in black and white or shot without sound. You might be surprised, as kids have a habit of confounding our expectations, but this is a primitive picture indeed, one that relies less on story, which is episodic and highly unrealistic, and more on slapstick, silliness and acrobatics. While there are some excellent effects, especially given the film's age, the non-human characters are created through costume and pantomime. Pixar it sure ain't.
The story is sourced from Baum's own novel, released a year earlier in 1913 as the seventh in the Oz series begun by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. He'd actually wrapped the whole thing up with book six, The Emerald City of Oz, but financial difficulties caused it to be promptly unwrapped again and it continued until his death, the fourteenth book, Glinda of Oz, arriving posthumously in 1920. The sweep of the story is the same, as a munchkin called Ojo quests through the land of Oz to find the ingredients needed to restore his uncle, Unc Nunkie, to life after being accidentally turned into a marble statue by Dr Pipt's Liquid of Petrifaction. There are differences, naturally, not least that Ojo is a boy in the book but a girl in the movie. The book and film also differ as regards to the number of marble statues and the ingredients needed to restore them and there's a strong difference in the assortment of characters encountered during the quest.

It starts off slowly, with Ojo and Unc Nunkie bemoaning their lot in life. There are no loaves on the bread tree in the yard, but they don't look malnourished. Ojo wonders why they're so poor, but I'm not seeing any signs. They live in a stone house with a big fireplace, though it's clearly a set built out of cardboard. Anyway they hit the road, as everybody knows that nobody goes without in the Emerald City. Their first stop is at Dr Pipt's place, which doesn't turn out too well, even if his status as 'crooked magician' refers to his limbs rather than his intentions. He lives there with Margolotte, his wife, whose desire for a servant girl made out of scraps prompts both the title of the film and crippling toil for her dedicated husband, who has spent six years stirring four huge iron cauldrons with both hands and both feet in order to create his magic powder of life. No wonder he's crooked, reminiscent of Kamaji in Spirited Away. Later he moves like Torgo in Manos: The Hands of Fate.

The mishap that sets up the rest of the film unfortunately takes place during a missing sequence, but it's clear enough how things progress to that point. Margolotte uses stop motion animation, ie magic, to conjure the patchwork girl together out of scraps. While her husband finishes up his six year potion, Ojo is shocked at the whole concept, or at least the lack of brains in play. Margolotte does suggest that, 'The fewer brains, the better servant,' but Ojo decides to raid the magic brains cabinet (it's labelled 'Magic Brains'), mix up contents from bottles like Obedience, Ingenuity and Judgement to sew into the patchwork girl's skull. On the positive side, this may be why Scraps, as she's named, turns out to be so useful later on. Unfortunately, perhaps it's also why she turns out to be a hyperactive acrobat, whose flouncing around in Pipt's cramped quarters causes three folk to be accidentally covered with liquid of petrifaction and so turned into marble statues.
Unc Nunkie and Margolotte are two, while the third is Danx, the munchkin boyfriend of Jesseva, Dr Pipt's daughter. Danx and Jesseva are new to the film and I still haven't managed to figure out the reason why. Sure, they're a happy young couple, which always looks good on screen, however big these munchkins happen to be, but there's not much happiness involved, given that Danx quickly becomes a statue. It's good reason for Jesseva to accompany Ojo on her quest to find ingredients for Pipt to brew up some antidote, but she decides to take Danx along too, in miniature form. I do realise that this is a children's movie and I also realise that I clearly don't understand, but it soon becomes apparent that the marble Danx, shrunken for portability, is an instant object of lust for every woman in the land of Oz who even catches a glimpse of him, catfights galore breaking out over this unfortunately dildo sized marble boy. This surely has to be a Japanese porn movie.

The cultural boundaries of time don't want to quit here. Intriguing characters like the Shaggy Man, the Glass Cat and the Yoop were dropped as the book became a script, but new characters arose in their place. Unfortunately, Mewel, a stray waif of a mule, is some guy in a pantomime costume who spends most of his time rubbing his ass, pun not intended, on everything he can find: trees, bridges, people. Maybe he has worms. Just as unfortunately, the Lonesome Zoop appears to be some sort of Chinese monkey demon who's so lonesome that he that apparently wants to ravish Mewel. Again, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that my strikingly modern interpretations of the character motivations in play are as wrong as wrong can be but I'm fascinated to find out what the point of these characters was. Unfortunately, their absence from the source novel means that I'm likely to be stuck conjuring up ever more outlandish reasons that are equally wrong.

Most of what we see is easily explainable, if not always easy to explain to a modern audience. For instance, Ojo, Jesseva and Scraps need three hairs from the end of a woozy's tail. Now, a woozy is a sort of large cat who seems friendly enough, though our heroes discover one in a corral behind a sign reading 'Beware of the Woozy', but in one of the least inspiring effects in the film, it's also apparently an AT-AT made out of cardboard boxes. What's more, the hairs on its tail aren't easily removed so, as only Scraps, the acrobatic patchwork girl, can climb over the corral, the woozy has her make it so mad that its eyes will squirt acid and burn a hole through the fence to freedom. Uh, what sort of message is this? Abuse animals to make them free? Next up is a six leaf clover, which only grow in Oz, where they cannot be picked, prompting Ojo to voluntarily break the law to land ingredient number two. This clearly isn't a particularly moral children's story, folks.
At least they get caught and marched into the Emerald City by a chorus line of guardswomen, in royal prison garb, which means that they have sheets thrown over them with holes in so that they can still see. This does make them look more like Casper the Friendly Ghost than Ku Klux Klan members, but it still seems a little strange a hundred years on. Surely, with many of the costumes and races in Oz, Baum was just going for childish silliness, but it would be great to know some of the cultural background behind those creations. There's a town populated by Hoppers, who have only one leg each so force everyone else to hop within city limits and chop off offending limbs as they find them. There's a village of primitive Tottenhots, all in blackface. There's even the cave of the Horners, who are jolly pregnant men who like to rub ther own bellies and have hair like that guy in Doctor and the Medics. I know about black stereotypes but what are the others?

I realise I'm poking fun here, but this has aged terribly, not in quality but in cultural grounding. It just seems so wrong in so many ways that presumably didn't in 1914. I should redress the balance and point out what works. The story is so ridiculous that anyone over the age of six will point out continuity errors and unexplainable leaps, but it zips along at a breakneck pace fuelled by sheer imagination. Blink and you'll miss a wild idea or two. While the costumes are awful, Sunday School play animals and big hats, the visual effects are pretty capable. The stop motion animation while Margolotte conjures Scraps together and as her husband stays at the House of Magic is fine. The Wall of Optical Illusion is just what you might expect and it's as well shot as the Horner ability to break the laws of gravity. The acrobatics are enjoyable, the Marvelous Pierre Couderc particularly impressive as Scraps, even though he's male as it would have been unseemly for a lady to tumble.

There's also another note of historical importance to remember, beyond the author of a popular children's series starting a production company to produce screen adaptations of his books, that he adapted himself. You don't see J K Rowling or Stephanie Meyer doing that today. This note has to do with a couple of minor supporting actors who just happened to meet on the set and begin a friendship that would become a major one in film. The tottenhot on the Royal Jury convened when Ojo plucks a six leaf clover is Harold Lloyd, unrecognisable in blackface, while inside the costume of the Cowardly Lion, louging on the dais next to the Hungry Tiger, is Hal Roach. Both were early in their careers here, but an inheritance allowed Roach to become a producer and in 1915 he set Lloyd on the road to stardom as Lonesome Luke in a series of over sixty comedy shorts. It's funny to think about the sheer talent on the set of this movie, where nobody expected to find it.

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