Saturday, June 5, 2010

100 years, 100 films 5: His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914)

I chose another Oz film, because I thought it would be interesting to compare with 1910's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and see just how much American cinema had evolved. And, well, it has evolved, quite a lot - it's rarely impossible to tell what is going on, for example - but, if this film is anything to go by, it hadn't evolved to the point of actually being good.

The problem is that, even though the action is now staged with a certain level of competence (admittedly that level isn't particularly high - there are an awful lot of shots where you just can't see anyone's heads), it never manages to make us forget that this is just a bunch of people in stupid costumes running around in someone's backyard. There's nothing 'special' or 'otherworldly' about any of the locations, and so it just becomes a thing of, "so, what's the difference between Oz and the real world?" I mean, yes, there are witches and wizards and living scarecrows, but those are just magical people. What is magical about the world?

There are a few moments that work on an "Oz is a magical world" level - there is the surprisingly effective "wall of water", and the castle is somewhat otherworldly looking. But most of the time, it's just a regular patch of land. The best example of this problem is with the introduction of the Cowardly Lion. We get a title card that announces, "the Cowardly Lion is king of the jungle," and then we see a guy in a lion costume sitting in a wheat field. I'm sorry, L. Frank Baum, but that wheat field isn't a jungle, no matter how much you want it to be.

Another problem was the fact that the magic just wasn't very... impressive. The special effects are all just sub-par George Melies rip-off stuff, and this was made at a time when just having someone vanish and turn into a horse or whatever was no longer a novelty. There needed to be something special about the effect, otherwise it just isn't interesting. That's not to say that the effects are bad or anything, they're just... meh.

But, when all is said and done, it wasn't exactly a bad movie, and it was certainly a massive step up from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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