Random Musings: Returning to Oz; celebrating Jack Benny


Return to Oz

What comes to mind when you hear the name “Dorothy”? I suspect that most people would reply, “The Wizard of Oz.” Probably more because of familiarity with the 1939 Judy Garland-led movie, which for decades was shown on TV every spring, than because of the books.

Likewise, I suspect many people are also familiar with the key points of the story, whether or not they’ve seen the film.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if few people are aware of the 1985 film Return to Oz.

Which is too bad, because it’s a good movie. I wish my female cousins had been able to see it during their formative years, because the Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) of that movie was a smart, resourceful, active participant in the action.

Unlike Garland’s Dorothy, who was, for all intents and purposes, a damsel in distress, Balk’s Dorothy often takes the initiative. Imprisoned by Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh) with Tik-Tok, the mechanical man who constitutes the entire Royal Army of Oz, Jack Pumpkinhead and Billina the chicken, it’s Dorothy who concocts a plan to escape.

Intelligent and resourceful, this incarnation of Dorothy Gale is no damsel in distress.

Intelligent and resourceful, this incarnation of Dorothy Gale is no damsel in distress.

Balk, who was 9-years-old when Return to Oz was made, was also closer in age to the Dorothy of the books than Garland (16 when she made her film).

Return to Oz, which is based on the books The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, isn’t a sequel to the 1939 film. Still, there are elements from that film, such as the ruby slippers and beings in Oz having analogues back in Kansas. It’s not a sequel because once she’s back in Oz, Dorothy finds her old house. At the end of the Garland movie Dorothy wakes up in her bed, the house still very much in Kansas.

Return to Oz opens in October 1899, six months after the tornado. Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are concerned about Dorothy, who keeps talking about this Oz place and who hasn’t slept through the night since the tornado. Aunt Em takes her to a Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson), who claims that the application of electricity will “cure” Dorothy of these “bad waking dreams.”

Like Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, Dr. Worley doesn’t believe Dorothy’s claims about Oz, even when she shows him a key she says was sent to her on a shooting star (Aunt Em had dismissed it— with barely a glance— as having belonged to the old house).

After Aunt Em leaves Dorothy at the “hospital”, Nurse Wilson (Marsh) has her strapped to a gurney and taken into the operating theater. When a lightning strike cuts the power, Worley and Wilson leave the room and another girl (Emma Ridley) frees Dorothy from her restraints. Turns out I guessed correctly about the girl’s identity.

Despite being cooperative (if a bit curious) Dorothy is tied down.

Despite being cooperative (if a bit curious), Dorothy is tied down.

The two flee the grounds, but are caught in a flash flood. Awakening the next morning, Dorothy finds herself in a crate, in what’s little more than a pond, accompanied by Billina, a chicken from the farm. How Billina got there, given that the farm is many miles away, isn’t explained. Because Billina is now talking, Dorothy deduces that they’re in Oz.

Before long, Dorothy discovers the old house; the ruins of the Yellow Brick Road and the ruins of the Emerald City, where several creatures— including the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion— have been turned to stone. Soon after, she encounters Mombi. Learning that the Nome King (Williamson) conquered the Emerald City and took the Scarecrow captive, Dorothy and company head in that direction after they escape from Mombi. Their plan: rescue the scarecrow.

How did Oz get in such a sorry state? Dorothy herself inadvertently caused it to happen.

As to the key, it turns out the Scarecrow sent it to Dorothy, confident she’d locate Tik-Tok, who was in a room accessed by said key. Tik-Tok said he was instructed to wait there for her.

Dorothy rises to the occasion when challenged by the Nome King. She also refuses a chance to go home, because it would have left her friends in dire straits.

Dorothy confronts the Nome king.

Dorothy confronts the Nome king.

Years ago, Peter David had a lot of positive things to say about the film in his column in Comics Buyer’s Guide. One thing he pointed out was that unlike the revelation that the Wicked Witch of the West is vulnerable to water (which was never set up), the cause of the Nome King’s defeat is set up. A subtle set-up, in my opinion, but it’s there. Even so, as in the 1939 film, Dorothy and company got lucky. In neither film did our heroes know that their adversary had an Achilles’ heel, much less what it was.

Another thing David pointed out (which he admitted he hadn’t thought of until one of his daughters mentioned it) is the very good question of why, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy didn’t turn the hourglass over again to give herself more time. Had there been such an hourglass scene in Return to Oz, I’m confident the Dorothy of that film would have thought of it.

In fairness to Garland’s Dorothy, the 1939 film and the 1985 film were different types of movies made in different eras with different cultural attitudes regarding the capabilities of girls and young women.

In the end, Dorothy returns home (because she knows she’s needed on the farm, not because she’d been wishing to get home since she arrived); and although she still has no proof Oz exists, much less that she was ever there, she’s a much happier individual than the melancholy girl she was at the start of the film.

Jack Pumpkinhead, the Scarecrow, Dorothy, the Gump and Tik-Tok.

Jack Pumpkinhead, the Scarecrow, Dorothy, the Gump and Tik-Tok.

According to David’s column, Return to Oz was labeled as too scary for children by some critics. Don’t know if I’d agree with their argument. Yes, there are some scenes that a child might find scary; but, for a little kid, The Wizard of Oz wasn’t all songs and dances, either.

In short, this is a film worth seeing. See it if you’re an Oz fan; or if you’re a fan of Will Vinton’s Claymation™ and/or animatronics; or if you like films with smart, resourceful female protagonists.

Celebrating Jack Benny

Jack Benny

Today is February 14 and that means, of course—

It’s Jack Benny’s birthday.

I wrote in-depth about Jack Benny last year. You can read the full entry here:


In brief: Born Benjamin Kubelsky, Jack Benny (Feb. 14, 1894- Dec. 26, 1974) was one of the all-time funniest comedians, with successful radio (1932-1955) and TV (1950-1965) series. In both series, he often made himself the brunt of the jokes, with his cast getting laughs at his expense. Often he would interrupt a dig at himself with “Now cut that out.” or “Wait a minute! Wait a minute!! Wait a minute!!!”

Benny’s first words on radio on The Ed Sullivan show, March 19, 1932, were “ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will now be a short pause while you say, ‘who cares?’”

While a generous man in real life, Benny’s on-air persona was that of a skinflint. I recounted various examples last year. Here’s another one: In the season-opening Sept. 11, 1949 radio episode— Benny’s first on CBS— Benny was absent for most of the show, finally saying his first lines 22 minutes into the half-hour program. His line, “this is where I get off, driver”, brought the house down.

Turns out Jack had been on a free tour bus provided by the chamber of commerce and he’d asked to get off when the bus reached the CBS studios.

Radio historian Anthony Tollin wrote in the program booklet accompanying the Legends of Radio: The Ultimate Jack Benny Collection from Radio Spirits that CBS Chairman William Paley called Benny to ask how he’d had the guts to let most of the episode go by without him. In the autobiography/biography Sunday Nights at Seven (begun by Jack and finished by his daughter, Joan, after his death; pages 239-241), Benny said he did the same thing for the debut episode of the 1951-52 TV season, and that was the reason for Paley’s call. But whenever Paley made that call, Benny’s entrance was comedy gold. And as he pointed out, he was still “there”, because other members of his cast were talking about him.

So ignore those who advocate that Feb. 14 should commemorate Val someone or other. The true significance of the day is that it’s Jack Benny’s birthday.

Copyright 2015 Patrick Keating

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