Monday, December 8, 2014

The Wizard of Oz (Eshbaugh/Van Beuren, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When I got home last night I watched part of a quite remarkable program on Turner Classic Movies that was supposed to be a tribute to the Van Beuren animation studios — though I only got to see four of the seven cartoon shorts they showed and the only one I watched that was actually a Van Beuren production was A Little Bird Told Me, an engaging mixture of live action and animation from 1932. The head of the studio was Amedée Van Beuren and he was originally the business partner of Paul Terry, who made the popular “Terrytoons” cartoons into the 1940’s. They actually released the first sound cartoon, Dinner Time (1928), a month before Walt Disney’s pioneering (but not quite as pioneering as the film histories have it!) Steamboat Willie (indeed, Disney emerges as an ongoing nemesis in the Van Beuren story!), and when Terry quit the partnership in 1928 Van Beuren hired John Foster to take over the animation and continued along similar lines. They put out cartoons with a pair of characters named “Tom and Jerry,” though these were human beings (“a tall-and-short pair, usually vagrants who attempted various occupations,” says the Wikipedia page on Van Beuren, which makes them sound like an attempt to do a cartoon Laurel and Hardy) instead of the famous cat-and-mouse pairing of the same names later created at MGM. Van Beuren also produced a series based (at least nominally) on Aesop’s fables, and eventually found success when they licensed popular comic-strip characters like Felix the Cat and the Toonerville Trolley gang. They distributed through RKO Radio Pictures and also released live-action shorts and bought the reissue rights to Charlie Chaplin’s 12 masterpieces for Mutual Studios in 1916-17, dubbing in music, sound effects and occasional “wild” voices (and, according to Chaplin biographer Theodore Huff, ruining the films with their tasteless soundtracks — fortunately the currently circulating prints of the Chaplin Mutuals have gone back to a silent-style presentation with simple piano accompaniments and no synchronized sound effects).

In 1932 Van Beuren embarked on what was supposed to be the first cartoon ever shot in three-strip Technicolor, a one-reel semi-adaptation of The Wizard of Oz — only Walt Disney struck again; behind Van Beuren’s back he cut a deal with Technicolor that for three years he would be the only producer allowed to make cartoons in three-strip for U.S. release. Ted Eshbaugh, the director of The Wizard of Oz, went ahead and finished the film, and Van Beuren released it in Britain and Canada (where Disney’s ukase did not apply) but it couldn’t be legally shown in the U.S. until 1935, by which time Van Beuren had closed his animation studio (thanks once again to Disney, who’d signed a distribution contract with RKO and thereby left Van Beuren without a distributor) and Eshbaugh ended up owning the rights himself. Eshbaugh kept himself in business making commercial shorts, including the other two on TCM’s program last night: The Sunshine Makers (for Borden’s Milk), in which a company figures out a way to bottle sunshine, deliver it in milk bottles and convert a whole country of out-and-proud sourpusses to sunshine and happiness; and Pastry Town Wedding (which lists in two versions, one from 1934 and one from 1940 — I suspect the difference is the 1934 version was shot in Cinécolor and in 1940 Eshbaugh reused the same animation art and reshot the film in three-strip Technicolor once Disney’s exclusive deal expired — TCM showed the Cinécolor version), made for Cushman’s baked-goods company and featuring Cushman products prominently placed in the film. (I don’t know whether these films were shown in regular theatres or not, given the allergy of the movie business to any commercial exploitation in the 1930’s, but in today’s age of ear-splitting commercials in movie theatres it occurred to me that I wouldn’t mind them so much if they were produced with the artistry and imagination of Eshbaugh’s shorts.)

The Wizard of Oz is the most astonishing film of the four (though the two commercial shorts are visually stunning and quite clever and entertaining), and though it doesn’t work as an adaptation of the book — there’s no Cowardly Lion, no Wicked Witch, and the Wizard is an honest-to-goodness wizard (or at least a stage magician) instead of a total humbug with an electronic gizmo simulating super-powers — it is an absolutely glowing piece of visual art and it must have been seen by someone at MGM working on the classic 1939 live-action version. Though the credits are in color, when the film itself opens we see Dorothy (oddly designed to look like Betty Boop, though the Scarecrow and the Tin Man have the familiar appearances W. W. Denslow created in his illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s novel) in her farmhouse in Kansas in blue-tinted black-and-white. When the cyclone comes and takes her to Oz (on her own instead of inside her house in this version), her clothes change in mid-air and she gradually takes on color, and when she lands in Oz everything is in color. There’s been a lot of educated (and not-so-educated) guesswork about who thought up the famous gimmick of beginning the 1939 Wizard of Oz in black-and-white (sepia-toned in the original release prints and on the currently available video versions) and having it turn to color when Dorothy arrived in Oz; whoever thought it was an obscure cartoon director working on his own riff on the famous story for a tiny independent studio six years earlier?