23 April 2011

Two Articles on L. Frank Baum, Movie-Maker

This week at Chicago Unbelievable, novelist Adam Selzer provided an introduction to the first movies ever made from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books—in 1908!

Called “Radio Plays” for reasons unclear, these lost snippets of hand-colored film from the Selig Polyscope studio were part of an elaborate stage production that Baum himself oversaw and financed. The show included a small cast of live actors alongside the movies, and he acted as host and lecturer, telling stories from his books.

The child actress who starred as Dorothy, with the astonishing name of Romola Remus, lived into the late 1980s. She apparently gave a lot of reminiscences to the Chicago papers. Selzer quotes one of those:

The privilege of knowing Mr. Baum was a happy and rewarding experience for me. I, also, portrayed the role of Dorothy in the first 'Wizard of Oz' movie. I believe it was the very first colored moving picture. It was produced by Selig's company.

I remember Mr. Baum was always on hand offering encouragement or constructive criticism to all his workers. When the film was shown at various theatres, he would lecture about his various books. I recall some proud and joyous moments standing beside this tall, gentle, dignified gentleman on-stage after each matinee. The little children would clamor for his autograph, with cheers of joy!
But the show was a financial failure. Despite reviews praising it as a family show, it didn’t sell enough tickets to adults to cover the high production cost, and Baum ended up signing away the proceeds of some of his books for many years.

After regaining his financial footing with new novels, Baum and his family moved out west to a suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywood. By coincidence, the American film industry followed, and Baum became involved in another movie-making venture called the Oz Film Manufacturing Company. This time he didn’t invest much of his own money. Which was good, because that venture failed as well.

The movie magazine Daeida just published an interview with Baum’s great-grandson Robert about the family’s life in Hollywood. It includes many family photographs of the author’s house there, called Ozcot, along with the gardening trophies Baum won in his last years. You can read that article online in the April 2011 issue, starting on page 10.


Adam Selzer said...

I forgot that Baum moved to Hollywood around then - right abound the same time Selig opened operations there. Did one suggest it to the other?

Hungry Tiger Talk said...

From the BAUM BUGLE and ANNOTATED WIZARD I have always understood the term "Radio Play" to refer to the film coloring technique invented by Michel Radio. Thus it was shorthand for telling the public the films were in color - sorta like "Technicolor"

J. L. Bell said...

Baum had started visiting southern California (Coronado) in 1904, before the Radio Plays, so he could well have found Hollywood on his own.

As for Selig, my impression is that he and Baum had a business relationship, and that business ended unhappily. Selig was one of Baum’s main creditors after the Radio Plays, and in the aftermath Selig made his own short Oz films without Baum’s involvement. I don’t think they stayed in touch.

J. L. Bell said...

I also read about “Radio Play” as possibly referring to Michel Radio’s hand-coloring technique as opposed to Radio’s own involvement.

A weakness in that theory is that until the rise of commercial radio I can’t find the phrase “Radio Play” printed in connection with anything except Baum’s show. (I checked Google Books and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America newspaper database.) So the term doesn’t appear to be widely known, making its commercial value limited.

Maybe it just sounded cool.

ericshanower said...

Romola was a guest at the 1984 Ozmapolitan Convention and performed some of her vaudeville act for us, singing and playing the piano. It was hard for me to imagine this 84 year old woman as the little girl from photos of the Fairylogue and Radio Plays, but I was glad to have had contact with her.