MGM’s 1939 Technicolor musical masterpiece The Wizard of Oz is regarded as a standout event in a year filled with standout movies, like Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as well as a true family classic. Across town from Culver City in Burbank at the time of its release, Walt Disney Studios were heavily scrutinising the success of the picture due to Disney’s personal enthusiasm for the Land of Oz, and a sense of a missed opportunity.
Ironically, it was the triumph of Disney’s 1937 animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that had convinced rival mogul Samuel Goldwyn (the ‘G’ of MGM) that children’s stories could work as successful movies. $60,000 bought him the rights to the first in author L. Frank Baum’s series of 14 Oz books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Around the same time, Disney had been searching for a suitable followup animation project and asked his brother Roy to look into the rights – but too late. Walt was not, however, a man to give up easily.
In 1954, when the rights for 11 of Baum’s Oz books became available (including Ozma of Oz, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Road to Oz and The Scarecrow of Oz), Disney snapped them up. At the beginning though, he didn’t have an idea for a feature film in mind, but rather a series of live-action episodes for his Disneyland television series, starring the Mouseketeers.
Dorothy Cooper was hired to adapt The Patchwork Girl of Oz for television and submitted a two-episode story outline in April 1957, entitled Dorothy Returns to Oz. By August, however, the fully-formed teleplay had been renamed The Rainbow Road to Oz and Disney had read and liked it so much that he had earmarked the development as a new feature film.
This is when the project truly started to gather momentum and shape. The publicity department announced that filming would begin in November under The Mickey Mouse Club’s Sidney Miller and Bill Walsh. Character and set designs were sketched using both W. W. Denslow and John R. Neill’s original illustrations for the books and MGM’s production design for The Wizard of Oz as inspiration. These designs were then swiftly produced as scenery and costumes on a studio soundstage, leading to the clearest signal of all that Disney was zooming ahead with the idea of a new Oz movie: a 15-minute pilot segment on the “Fourth Anniversary Show” of Disneyland, featuring musical numbers proposed for the feature.
Paradoxically, the idea for this introduction to The Rainbow Road to Oz was that the Mouseketeers were trying to convince Disney that the film should be produced. Of course in reality, it was Disney himself who was determined to see this movie musical materialise. In the sneak peek, Mouseketeer Darlene Gillespie was cast as Dorothy, Bobby Burgess as the Scarecrow, Annette Funicello as Ozma (ruler of Oz) and Doreen Tracey as the Patchwork Girl.
By February of 1958, however, nothing further had been heard on the project, which was eventually to be replaced in the interim with a new version of Babes in Toyland, coincidentally starring not only Annette Funicello as Mary but also the original Scarecrow from 1939, Ray Bolger. Suggested reasons as to why The Rainbow Road to Oz was abruptly cancelled range from fears that the musical score did not measure up well next to Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen’s songs from The Wizard of Oz, to the worry that the Mouseketeers would not be able to carry the picture, to the very real threat of television’s appeal over that of the cinema (plus the added reach and popularity of The Wizard of Oz whenever it was aired on television).
Disney was not done with Baum’s creations yet, however. There was a proposed expansion to the Storybook Land Canal Boat ride at Disneyland in California, which never took place, although Walt’s enduring passion for the characters of Oz saw him display figurines developed for the abandoned venture in his formal office. In the mid ’60s things kicked off again with a series of immensely popular Storyteller LPs of the series, including The Scarecrow of Oz, which featured Ray Bolger again, and The Cowardly Lion of Oz, which purportedly included several of the proposed original musical numbers for The Rainbow Road to Oz.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and Walt Disney Studios were still wrestling with adaptations of Oz stories before they fell into the public domain, as seen by the tricky (and non-musical) Return to Oz, eventually released in 1985 and considered too dark and scary for young children. Even today in the twenty-first century, Disney’s preoccupation with Oz remains. 2005 saw the uneventful release of The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz and last year brought us (with some difficulty on Disney’s part due to being unable to directly reference anything from the original MGM Oz movie) Oz the Great and Powerful. It remains to be seen what more Disney may yet do with the wonderful world of Oz.
SOURCE: Jim Hill Media