I chose Wizard of Oz for the specific purpose of comparing it to the much-beloved musical from 1939. Then, while watching the elder version, I realized I didn’t remember enough detail from the re-make to contribute any thoughtful or educated comparisons. I’d call my recollection of the Judy Garland classic a bit more iconic and nostalgic than ‘accurate’, so you’ll have to bear with me, since I don’t feel like renting and watching it just for the sake of comparison.
Up to this point, I haven’t paid much attention to the narrative content of early 20th-century films, and I think I’ve done so for a number of reasons. The most prominent and (perhaps) most conceited is the relative simplicity of these early films. It’s impossible to ‘de-contextualize’ yourself from the cultural viewing habits established from a lifelong diet of television and film. The ‘language’ (for lack of a better word) of cinema is taken for granted by modern eyes. While this is a shame in that we can never see a film as it was seen by the early 20th century viewer, it’s also a blessing in that a shared ‘language’ allows filmmakers and audiences alike to experiment with, manipulate, and subvert these assumptions to make ever better and more challenging cinema.
So, yes, this early version of Oz is simplistic by modern standards (and even those of the 1930s), but it also provides some insight into early cinematic viewership. As I mentioned in my post on the Teddy Bears, these early reels relied heavily upon known stories, either from shared folklore or popular culture. Oz is no exception, as it excises significant chunks of the story in favor of elaborate set pieces and whimsical ‘musical’ numbers (a strange designation for silent films, but remember that they were accompanied by live or recorded musicians at the theater). Those decisions play to the film’s strengths, as the setting and costuming are magnificent, even by today’s standards. The scene at the witch’s cottage involves no less than twenty actors dressed in an array of animal and monster costumes, all fighting amongst themselves, while the witch ascends toward the roof above. Likewise, the cyclone scene has a really excellent scrolling backdrop, which pops even in black-and-white. See below:
Still, this and other scenes betray a kinship between cinema and theater that I rarely see discussed (though that’s probably due to my lack of research rather than a lack of relevant scholarship). The framing of each scene in Oz is clearly theatrical, as the actors play to a defined audience space, where an unmoving camera is substituted for actual people. It’s no surprise that Oz began its life as a stage musical and it’s clear that much of the film’s narrative is adapted from that source. Certainly, cinema hadn’t yet embraced its unique ability to convey narrative expression through montage and camera movement, but I believe part of that had to be a concession to an audience more familiar with theater than film.
So how, then, do we make a distinction between these two art forms? It’s a moot point now, but I’m sure the argument of film vs. theater was a little more difficult to manage a century ago. I’ll offer three of my own thoughts:
1. Economics. A stage musical the size and scale of Oz would be extravagant by any standard. Plus, you have the employment of actors, stage hands, producers, etc. for a stretch of weeks or months. Cinema may not defray the cost of sets and costuming, but it does capture a single performance that can easily be distributed, copied, and replayed. (Note: Digital reproduction magnifies this advantage by the order of millions. It’s never been easier to see a movie in so many places and formats.)
2. Flexibility. Set and costume changes takes time in a theatrical production. With cinema, these changes are instantaneous and interchangeable. Continuity is malleable in cinema.
3. Spatial relationships. In ‘traditional’ theater, the stage’s location stays constant. That means the audience’s proximity to the actors remains constant as well. Cinema introduces a new set of spatial relationships between actors and audience. This isn’t utilized effectively in Wizard of Oz, since we never get a proper close-up on the actors, but it’s at least hinted at when we’re shown the Wizard’s written proclamation. To share a similar written article in a play, an actor would need to read it (or project it somehow). Cinema allows us to ‘see with our own eyes.’ Or, more accurately, the camera’s eye.
I’m sure we’ll continue to see an even greater set of distinctions as we continue through the century.