THE BOOTLEG FILES: “TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ”

BOOTLEG FILES 174: “Tales of the Wizard of Oz” (1961 Rankin-Bass animated TV series).

LAST SEEN: Some episodes are on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: It just fell between the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Be on the lookout for it.

In last week’s column, I had the opportunity to pay tribute to one of my favorite TV cartoon series from my distant childhood, “Crusader Rabbit.” This week, I pay tribute to an old-time TV cartoon series that I neither heard of nor saw until last week. Its obscurity is astonishing, since it is so entertaining and original. I was genuinely surprised that it has been out of release for so many years, since there are no rights-related problems prohibiting its commercial distribution.

The series in question is “Tales of the Wizard of Oz” and it is historically significant because it is an early creation of the legendary Rankin-Bass Productions – yes, those wacky and wonderful folks behind the stop-motion animated Christmas specials we watch every year. But unlike “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Tales of the Wizard of Oz” is a traditional cel animation production, which was not the Rankin-Bass forte (actually, their worst offerings were cel animated).

Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, through their Videocraft International, made their first foray into television with a 1960 stop-motion animated series called “The New Adventures of Pinocchio.” Using their “Animagic” stop-motion process, Rankin and Bass created a lively number of shorts that put Pinocchio and Gepetto in humorously contemporary settings. New characters such as the beatnik Cool S. Cat and the private eye Pedro Pistol were added to spice up the stories. The series was sold via syndication, but it made very little impact with viewers and it is most forgotten today.

Shortly after that series was completed, Rankin and Bass teamed up with Canadian producer F.R. Crawley to create another animated series. The decision to use the L. Frank Baum characters made perfect sense, since they had become integral parts of the popular culture through the long-running series of “Oz” stories and the 1939 MGM musical film classic. But at the same time, there were copyright issues to consider. Although the book that started in all, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” slipped into the public domain in 1956, the MGM film and its character designs were still protected by copyright. Thus, Rankin and Bass needed to reconfigure the Baum characters so they would bear no physical, vocal or intellectual resemblance to the MGM production.

The solution was actually rather clever: the three main characters from the Yellow Brick Road were given names (something that Baum never considered). Thus, the new cartoons had Socrates the Scarecrow, Rusty the Tin Man and Dandy Lion. The personalities were also altered: the Scarecrow was intensely accident-prone but strangely indifferent to his bumbling, the heartless Tin Man was aggressively rude and insensitive to others and the Lion, although still jittery when facing real and perceived threat, is often more of a fussbudget than a brazen sissy.

As for the Wicked Witch, she is more of a raucous hag than a malevolent force of evil. The Munchkins are pear-shaped beings that speak in unintelligible buzzing voices. The Wizard is reimagined as a short bald man wearing a huge top hat. His voice sounds just like W.C. Fields, and actually refers to Dorothy as “my little chickadee.” (It is not certain whether Rankin-Bass knew that Fields was the original choice to play the Wizard in the MGM film.) Dorothy, sporting long red hair, is surprisingly a minor character who either watches the antics of the others from the sidelines or offers belated practical solutions after various slapstick dilemmas take place. Toto is a white terrier, but he rarely turns up.

“Tales of the Wizard of Oz” takes on the visual look of the 1950s UPA cartoons: an intentionally limited animation that often borders on the abstract. But the humor is very much in tune with the style of Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairytales,” with familiar characters involved in highly unlikely activities.

For example, one cartoon finds the Tin Man deciding to open a supermarket that would compete against the Lion’s supermarket. The Tin Man wants to hire the Scarecrow, but he works for the Lion and doesn’t want to quit. But the Tin Man convinces the Scarecrow to perform intentional sabotage, thus forcing the Lion to fire him. So the Scarecrow antagonizes his boss and his customers with boorish behavior (squirting orange juice at shoppers, eating their groceries, etc.). You can’t get further from the original Baum concept, right?

Actually, it gets progressively weirder. In one cartoon, a dogcatcher snatches Toto. The Tin Man and the Lion break into the dog pound at night with a blowtorch and liberate the captured canines. Toto gets his revenge by biting the dogcatcher on his nose. The Tin Man, however, gets imprisoned in a kennel cage by the dogcatcher and protests his captivity by banging on the bars and yelling “Let me out of here!”

Other weird characters turn up, adding to the chaos. The politically incorrect Asian detective Chowy Mein, accompanied by his “fat number one son, One Ton,” are called by the Wizard to locate a missing magic book. Chowy Mein determines that he’s the real criminal and he handcuffs himself! There’s also Desmond the Dragon, who complains of chronic heartburn and who is too afraid to use his wings for flight (he asks the Wicked Witch for bus fare). And then there are the visitors from Topsy-Turvy Town (where everyone walks upside down).

The Wizard is something of a bumbling humbug. His magic often backfires with weird results: when the celebrated Yellow Brick Roadsters request a brain, a heart and courage, the Wizard gives them a train, a cart and porridge. When the Lion returns to ask for courage, the Wizard determines that a lower body temperature will help raise the level of courage – so he puts the Lion in a refrigerator!

Rusty the Tin Man, who doesn’t think twice about calling his friends name or unleashing cruel pranks on them, often gets the best lines. When reading aloud from a book on becoming lawyer, he comes across a passage that says: “The first thing a lawyer should do at the scene of an accident is run and yell.” At which point he pauses and then realizes: “Hmmm, makes sense!”

There is some discrepancy on how many episodes were made (some sources state there were 120, others say 130, others say 150). “Tales of the Wizard of Oz” had some degree of popularity – at least there was enough interest to bring back the characters for a one-shot, one-hour NBC TV special called “Return to Oz.” This production was a virtual remake of the MGM version: Dorothy returns to Oz to discover the Wicked Witch has reconfigured the local scene to the worst of the bad old days, thus requiring a reprise of their initial battle against the witch.

“Return to Oz” was broadcast in February 1964, but it was not well received. Later that year, however, another Rankin-Bass production was also broadcast: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The instant classic status afforded that special made everyone forget the Oz-related cartoons – especially Rankin-Bass, who permanently discontinued that franchise.

“Tales of the Wizard of Oz” played in syndication into the early 1980s, though mostly on Canadian television (the majority of online commentary on the series comes from Canadians who lovingly recall the episodes). The rights to this series currently belongs to a company called Classic Media, which made “Tales of the Wizard of Oz” available for a limited pay-per-view presentation through several cable TV providers in 2005. Classic Media put the 1964 special “Return to Oz” on DVD in 2006, but it has not made “Tales of the Wizard of Oz” available for home entertainment release. (There was at least one bootleg VHS video in release in the 1990s, from a now-defunct label specializing in public domain dupes.)

However, enterprising bootleggers who recorded the episodes during its pay-per-view return have been posting episodes across the Internet. There’s a slew of episodes available on YouTube, and many of these have been reposted elsewhere online.

Discovering “Tales of the Wizard of Oz” is a joyous surprise, and I am confused why it is not better known. Hopefully the online availability of the old cartoons will help spur a new interest and bring the series the level of praise it clearly deserves.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on March 30, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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