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Disney's long, long journey to Oz

Jim Hill

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Disney's long, long journey to Oz

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It was 50 years ago tonight that the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz" was first shown on television.

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video

The first-ever telecast of this Victor Fleming film was a rating smash. Over 44 million people tuned in to catch this broadcast (Which was hosted by the Cowardly Lion himself, Bert Lahr as well as by Judy Garland's then-10-year-old daughter Liza Minnelli).

CBS executives (Who had aired this Academy-Award winning motion picture as part of a special extended version of the "Ford Star Jubilee" program) were obviously thrilled with those ratings. But you know who was even happier? Walt Disney.

"Why Walt Disney?," you ask. Well, you see, Walt had long been a fan of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books. In fact, back in the mid-1930s, just as Disney Studios was starting to search for a story that would serve as a suitable follow-up to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Walt had Roy inquire about the movie rights to the original "Wizard of Oz" book.

Unfortunately, the Baum family had just sold the rights to this best-selling fantasy novel to rival mogul Samuel Goldwyn for some $60,000. Which is how Disney Studios missed out on the chance to make an animated version of "The Wizard of Oz."

But even though this initial opportunity had slipped through Walt's fingers, he never lost his enthusiasm for the Oz books, their colorful characters and spectacular settings. Which is why -- in 1954 -- when the movie rights to 11 of Baum's books became available (I.E. "The Emerald City of Oz," "Glinda of Oz," "The Lost Princess of Oz," "The Magic of Oz," "Ozma of Oz," "The Patchwork Girl of Oz," "Rinkitink in Oz," "The Road to Oz," "The Scarecrow of Oz," "Tik-Tok of Oz" & "The Tin Woodsman of Oz"), Walt quickly snatched them up.

Mind you, back then, Walt wasn't thinking about bringing Oz back to the big screen. But -- rather -- he wanted to use some of the Baum books as possible fodder for episodes of his new ABC television series, "Disneyland." Toward that end, the studio hired TV writer Dorothy Cooper to adapt "The Patchwork Girl of Oz" to the small screen.

In April of 1957, Ms. Cooper turned in an outline for a proposed two-part episode of the "Disneyland" TV series which was initially supposed to be called "Dorothy Returns to Oz." However, by August of that year, when Dorothy turned in her fleshed-out version of this teleplay, the project was then titled "The Rainbow Road to Oz."

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

Walt read Dorothy's teleplay and liked it. Quite a bit. In fact, Walt liked this script so much that he took "The Rainbow Road to Oz" off of the studio's television development track and moved this project over to the feature side of the house.

At that point, the studio's publicity department kicked things into high gear. Press releases were sent out to the trades announcing that Walt Disney Productions would begin shooting "The Rainbow Road to Oz" in November of that same year. This multi-million dollar live action musical was to have been directed by Sidney Miller and produced by Bill Walsh. Who -- at that time -- were both playing huge parts in the day-to-day production of "The Mickey Mouse Club."

And speaking of "The Mickey Mouse Club," guess who was supposed to have filled most of the major roles on this motion picture? That's right. The Mouseketeers.

So with just a few months 'til production was actually supposed to begin on "The Rainbow Road to Oz," Disney's design team threw themselves into the project. Using William Denslow & John R. Neill's original illustrations for inspiration, these artists quickly created a costume design for the Scarecrow ...

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

... as well as the Patchwork Girl.

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

Then after figuring out what Oz might look like ...

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

... These artists handed these plans over to the studio's fabrication staff. And quicker than you can click your heels together three times ...

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

... Oz and its colorful characters had been brought to life on a barren soundstage on the Burbank lot.

As you can see by the costume design that Disney artists put together for the Cowardly Lion ...

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

... Walt was going for a look that was reminiscent of the MGM movie but not actually derivative.

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

The way I hear it, the production staff most enjoyed working on the characters who had not appeared in the 1939 film. Take -- for example -- Ozma.

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

The "Rainbow Road to Oz" design team put together an outfit of Ozma that Annette Funicello just adored. So much so that -- after she completed shooting the wardrobe tests for this character -- Annette begged to be allowed to wear her Ozma wig home. So that she could then show off her faux long locks to her family.

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

So as you can see, in the late summer / early fall of 1957, "The Rainbow Road to Oz" seemed to be on Disney Studio's fast-track. A 15-minute-long segment of the season opener of the "Disneyland" show (Which -- FYI -- will be included as part of the "Walt Disney Treasures -- Your Host, Walt Disney" DVD that will be hitting store shelves on December 19th) was devoted to this forthcoming film. With the conceit of this portion of the "Fourth Anniversary Show" being that the Mouseketeers were trying to sell Walt on the idea of turning "The Rainbow Road to Oz" into a movie ...

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

Which is why Annette, Doreen Tracey, Darlene Gillespie and Bobby Burgess were supposedly all in costume, appearing in possible musical numbers for this proposed motion picture ...

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

But it was Walt -- rather than the Mouseketeers -- who was really pushing to get this movie made. Even going so far as to acquire the rights to a 12th L. Frank Baum book, "Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz," for an amount that was said to be the equivalent of what the studio had paid for the first 11 books.


But then the previously-announced start-of-production date in November came and went. And then -- by February of 1958 -- rumors began circulating that Disney had abandoned plans to shoot "The Rainbow Road to Oz." That Walt had suddenly tabled this project and was now searching for a more suitable production to serve as his studio's entry into the world of live action musicals.

Why did Walt suddenly flip-flop on "The Rainbow Road to Oz." Over the years, I've heard a variety of explanations about the abrupt cancellation of this project. They run the gamut from "The projected cost of production got too high" to "Walt didn't think that the Mouseketeers could carry the picture" to "The rewrite that Bill Walsh did of Dorothy Cooper's script didn't quite come together" to "The score that Tom Adair & Buddy Baker wrote for the movie wasn't nearly as strong as the score that Yip Harburg & Harold Arlen wrote for 'The Wizard of Oz.' "

Whatever the real reason was, Walt lost confidence in "The Rainbow Road to Oz." Though -- that said -- when he finally did decide on the property that would serve as a replacement for this proposed production, Victor Herbert's comic operetta, "Babes in Toyland" ...

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

... Walt picked a project that had a surprising amount of things in common with "The Rainbow Road to Oz." Take -- for example -- "Babes in Toyland" 's storybook setting. Which was very reminiscent of what Disney had planned on doing with "The Rainbow Road to Oz." Then there's Annette Funicello ...

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

... Who was originally supposed to play Ozma (Which was one of the lead roles in Disney's "Oz" picture) but wound up playing Mary in "Babes in Toyland" instead.

And it wasn't just "The Rainbow Road to Oz" that must have been weighing on Walt's mind as he over-saw the casting of "Babes in Toyland." Clearly Disney must have also been thinking about MGM's 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz" when he began hiring people to appear in this picture. Otherwise, how do you explain how Ray Bolger ...

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

... the Scarecrow from that Victor Fleming film wound up playing the villainous Barnaby in this Jack Donahue picture? Or -- for that matter -- how Ed Wynn ...

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

(Who had actually been MGM's original choice for the title character in "The Wizard of Oz." But Wynn proved that he was indeed "The Perfect Fool" when MGM offered Ed the part in 1938 and he turned that studio down) wound up playing the Toymaker?

Truth to be told, the parallels between "The Rainbow Road to Oz" and "Babes in Toyland" run even deeper than this. Given that the real reason that Victor originally wrote his operetta back in 1903 was because the Broadway stage version of "The Wizard of Oz" had been so successful earlier that same season. Herbert's backers basically told him to " ... write a show like 'The Wizard of Oz.' " Which is how Victor wound up writing the score for "Babes in Toyland."

Okay. Enough with the operetta history. Let's get back to the Disney / Oz saga, shall we?

Even though Walt had seemingly lost all enthusiasm for making a new "Oz" movie, that didn't mean that Disney had actually fallen out of love with Baum's characters. Truth be told, Walt was just looking for a new home for Dorothy and her pals. And -- for a while, anyway -- it looked like he had found one along the shores of the Storybook Land Canal Boats ride at Disneyland.

As the story goes, Walt proposed putting an addition on this Fantasyland attraction in the late 1950s. One that would have created a Big Rock Candy Mountain for the Casey Jr. Circus Train to climb as well as some new mysterious caverns for the canal boats to float through.

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

As to what would be hidden away deep inside the caves of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, Walt had the Imagineers design various tableaus featuring the lands of Oz ...

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

... With the basic idea being that all of the characters were heading to the Emerald City to take part in a surprise birthday party for Dorothy.

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

It was Walt's hope that this new Oz-themed sequence would finally give Disneyland's "Storybook Land Canal Boats" ride a fitting finale. So blueprints were drawn up ...

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

... Like the one pictured above. Which is for the Tin Woodsman's castle. And then models were made ...

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

... and maquettes of the Oz characters were created. Below, you'll see the versions of the Wicked Witch and the Cowardly Lion that Joe Rinaldi designed.

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

But in the end, Walt opted not to go forward with construction of this Oz-themed expansion of the Storybook Land Canal Boat ride. No one that I've ever spoken with about this proposed Disneyland addition can come up with a logical explanation. Except perhaps that while a Big Rock Candy Mountain may have looked good on paper, the full-sized dimensional model that the Imagineer built using real candy was distinctly unappetizing.

What is certain is that Walt was still very fond of the Oz characters. Given that he kept many of the maquettes that had been created for the Storybook Land expansion project on display in his formal office (I.E. The area where Disney greeted guests & dignitaries that were visiting the Burbank studio) for years after that project had been tabled.

Yeah, Walt clearly wanted to do something with the Oz characters. Which is why -- in 1965 -- he had his staff invite Ray Bolger back to the Burbank lot, so that he could reprise his performance as the Scarecrow on a new Disneyland Storyteller album "The Scarecrow of Oz."

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

That LP was so well received that it was followed up by three other Oz-theme storyteller albums: "The Wizard of Oz," "The Cowardly Lion of Oz" and "The Tin Woodsman of Oz." (The "Cowardly Lion" album has always been of particular interest of Disney history fans. Given that it reportedly features several of the musical numbers that Tom Adair & Buddy Baker had originally written for "The Rainbow Road to Oz.")

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

But for the next 10 years, Disney executives basically did nothing with the Oz characters. And -- with every day that ticked by -- the options that Disney had held on those 12 L. Frank Baum books back in the 1950s were losing their value. Given that many of these titles -- just like the original "Wizard of Oz" had -- were getting ready to slip into public domain. Which meant that any studio could then produce an Oz picture.

Finally, in 1980, Tom Wilhite -- the then-head of production at Walt Disney Studios -- had had enough. He was tired of seeing the company produce this seemingly endless series of mediocre films. Particularly since the studio was sitting on the movie rights to this spectacular series of children's books. So Tom began searching for a director who'd be willing to tackle the Oz project.

To hear Walter Murch tell the story, "Tom had to work his way down to the Ms before he finally found me." Murch -- an Academy-Award winning sound & film editor -- may seem like a rather unlikely candidate to direct Disney's Oz movie. But Walter's pedigree (I.E. Murch had worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the "Godfather" films as well as George Lucas on "THX 1138") was impeccable. More to the point, given that Murch had just won an Oscar for his work on "Apocolypse Now," he had a fairly high profile at the moment.

So Murch was signed to both write & direct what was then known as "Oz" ...

Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions

... (The "Return to Oz" title wouldn't actually be tacked onto the film 'til much further on down Disney's developmental track). And -- when Wilhite first announced the project to the press in January of 1991 -- he revealed that Dorothy would most likely not appear as a character in this picture. "We'll probably combine characters from various books and structure a new storyline."

But the screenplay that Walter would submit in the spring of 1982 did feature Dorothy as a character. It was also much darker in tone than the studio had been anticipating. Which caused Disney executives much concern.

Still, development of "Oz" continued. A veteran production designer, Norman Reynolds (Who had worked on "Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back" as well as "Raiders of the Lost Ark") was hired to bring Baum's world to life. And work then began on the various robotically-controlled characters that would be featured in the film ...

Copyright 1982 Walt Disney Productions

At this point, some $6 million had already been spent by Walt Disney Productions on "Oz." And then -- in November of 1983 -- Richard Berger (I.E. The executive who had replaced Tom Wilhite as president of production at the studio) suddenly shut down production of the picture.

As Berger explained to the New York Times back in July of 1985:

''The budget was up to $27 million (Which was significantly higher than the $20 million that 'Oz' was originally supposed to cost) ... The movie was supposed to (be shot in) Algiers, Sardinia, Spain, Canada, Kansas and England ... All of Disney's recent movies had (gone) over budget. 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' had been $5 million over budget. (Which is why I) decided to close down the movie and write off the $6 million (that the studio had already invested in the picture).''

Eventually however a compromise was reached. "Oz" 's budget was pared back to $25 million. Which meant that virtually all of the movie's on-location sequences (Which would have sent the cast & crew off to Sardinia & Algeria to shoot the scenes set in the Deadly Desert, Kisserta near Naples to shoot the Nome King's throne room sequence and Hadrian's Villa outside of Rome for Mombi's palace as well as the ruins of the Emerald City) were scrubbed. Except for the scenes that were set in Kansas (Which were shot out on the U.K. 's Salisbury Plain, near where Stonehenge is located), the entire film would be shot on five soundstages at Elstree Studios.

The film (as Murch and his production team had originally envisioned it) never quite recovered from all these budget cuts. Though much time & effort had already been devoted to creating authentic likenesses of favorite old characters like the Scarecow ...

Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions

... Now there was no money left in the budget for the complicated electronics that would have brought his face to life. Which is why the Scarecrow mostly had a fixed expression in the finished film.

As for Jack Pumpkinhead ...

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

... A Baum character who had also been slated to have a featured role in "The Rainbow Road to Oz" ... It often took as many as six puppeteers to bring Jack to life ...

Copyright 1984 Walt Disney Productions

... Where even the seemingly simple act of standing up and/or sitting down involved all sorts of elaborate off-screen mechanics.

Photo by Jeff Lange

The "Return to Oz" shoot did not go well. Given that Fairuza Balk, the film's 9-year-old star, could only work 3 1/2 hours each day and that characters like Billina the talking chicken were notoriously difficult to operate, the production quickly fell behind schedule. At one point, Disney execs actually tried to remove Murch as director of "Return to Oz," only to have George Lucas intercede on Walter's behalf.

Once production was completed, Murch's movie had to deal with other problems. You see, by the time that "Return to Oz" had finally made out into theaters in June of 1985, Mouse House management had changed yet again. Now it was Michael Eisner & Jeffrey Katzenberg who were calling the shots in Burbank. And -- to be honest -- Michael & Jeffrey didn't know quite what to make of Walter's film. A PG-rated pseudo-sequel to 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" with no music that was often too dark & scary for small kids to handle.

So while "Return to Oz" may have been the centerpiece of an elaborate presentation at Radio City Music Hall that summer, around the rest of the country this Walter Murch film didn't receive very special treatment. At that time, noted author Harlan Ellison actually accused Disney Company management of deliberately sabotaging "Oz" 's chances at the box office. Which is why he urged his readers to " ... go see it, before it disappears."

Copyright 1985 Walt Disney Productions

Luckily, thanks to VHS and DVD, "Return to Oz" has not disappeared. And while this movie may have been a real box office disappointment back in 1985 (Earning only $11.1 million during its entire domestic run), it has since gone on to be embraced by Baum enthusiasts around the globe. Who have applauded Murch's efforts to keep the look & style of this film consistent with that of L. Frank's books.

Still, it speaks volumes about what Michael Eisner must have really thought about "Return to Oz" when it came time to chose which films would be featured in "The Great Movie Ride" at Disney-MGM Studios. Michael could have made use of the characters & settings from Disney's own "Oz" picture for free. But he paid big bucks to Ted Turner for the rights to use the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz" instead.

The Imagineers then used the MGM film as inspiration for the various scenes that they wanted to include in the studio theme park's thesis attraction ...

Copyright 1986 WED Enterprises

... They even made use of then-state-of-the-art Sarcos technology to create a scarily life-like Wicked Witch of the West in the ride's Munchkinland sequence.

Copyright 1989 The Walt Disney Company

Clearly, WDI has a thing when it comes to the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz." Otherwise, why else would they have included nods to that film in attractions like DCA's "Golden Dreams" and Walt Disney Studios' "CineMagique"?

Meanwhile, Disney Company execs seem eager to continue to cash in on the public's affection for the Oz characters. Take -- for example -- last year's "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" ...

Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises

... or the deal that Disney & producer Jerry Bruckheimer signed with American McGee back in 2003 to produce a trilogy of films based on McGee's twisted & sinister Oz prequel. Which promised to make the formerly-thought-to-be-dark "Return to Oz" seem like a walk in the park.

Anyway ... My apologies if today's article about Disney and the Oz books seems somewhat downbeat. An endless litany of projects that either didn't make it off the drawing board and/or ultimately didn't turn out as well as had been initially hoped.

'Cause -- you see -- that's not really the case. There is at least one Oz-related Disney project that turned out beautifully. Of course, in order to see it, you first have to journey to Disneyland Paris and then visit that theme park's "Les Pays des Contes de Fées" attraction.

Copyright 2002 Nouveau Millénaire

The very last thing that you see on this Fantasyland attraction is a beautiful miniature recreation of the Emerald City.

Photo by Eric Craven

And who's there waiting at the entrance to the city? Tiny versions of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion.

Photo by Eric Craven

I don't know why it is -- as a baby boomer -- that seeing these characters there on the steps of the Emerald City just makes me smile. Maybe watching "The Wizard of Oz" all those years whenever the film aired annually on CBS has finally truly warped my brain.

Speaking of which ... In honor of that very first telecast 50 years ago tonight, why don't you throw the 1939 version of the movie into your DVD player tonight? And remember (at least for a little while) what it was like to be a kid again, when you first saw Dorothy begin her journey down the Yellow Brick Road?

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video

The above article is actually something that I've been working on -- on & off -- for about seven years now. In fact, if I remember correctly, when I initially came on board at MousePlanet, one of the very first story ideas that I ever pitched to Al Lutz was doing something about how Disney had tried to get all of these Oz-related projects off the ground since the 1930s.

Obviously, when you're writing an article like this, you have to do an awful lot of research. Which is why I'm grateful to Disney historians like Greg Ehrbar, Jim Fanning, Bruce Gordon, Ryan Harmon, Tim Hollis, Jack Janzen, Leon Janzen, David Mumford, Brian Sibley & Dave Smith and -- on the Oz side of the house -- Alan Eyles, John Fricke, Aljean Harmetz & Brad Munson for all the hard work that they did prior to me actually starting to put this piece together. Without all of the reference books and magazine & newspaper articles that these folks had written previously, today's article would not have been possible.

Thanks also to Eric Craven & Jeff Lange for providing photographic support for this piece. And the ever-wise & patient Nancy Stadler for scanning, comping & cropping all of the images that you see in today's story.

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  • Todd James Pierce talks with Pam Burns-Clair, co-author of “Harriet Burns: Walt Disney’s First Lady of Imagineering.” A brand-new book which will make its debut this Sunday at the NFFC-Disneyana Fan Club’s Show and Sale

  • Tokyo Disneyland also had some shows dedicated to 'Oz' although they do change from time to time so I'm not sure if its still on...

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