Sunday, March 17, 2013

Weekend movie blogging -- Herman Mankiewicz in Oz

With Oz, the Great and Powerful being both at the box office, it's worth taking a minute to give a little credit to someone who made an essential but largely unrecognized contribution to the original classic, Herman Mankiewicz. Famed film historian/director/sycophant, Peter Bogdanovich has spent the past few decades trying to undermine Mankiewiez's reputation since Pauline Kael had the temerity to suggest that Mankiewicz was the primary author of the script of Citizen Kane.

Bogdanovich has sold the "Herman Mankiewicz was a talented hack" line to countless credulous journalists and film students over the years and supported the claim with a highly selective recounting of Mankiewiez's resume.  With Oz back in such a big way, one of the films Bogdanovich omits is particularly relevant:
In February, 1938, he was assigned as the first of ten screenwriters to work on The Wizard of Oz. Three days after he started writing he handed in a seventeen-page treatment of what was later known as "the Kansas sequence". While Baum devoted less than a thousand words in his book to Kansas, Mankiewicz almost balanced the attention on Kansas to the section about Oz. He felt it was necessary to have the audience relate to Dorothy in a real world before transporting her to a magic one. By the end of the week he had finished writing fifty-six pages of the script and included instructions to film the scenes in Kansas in black and white. His goal, according to film historian Aljean Harmetz, was to "to capture in pictures what Baum had captured in words--the grey lifelessness of Kansas contrasted with the visual richness of Oz." He was not credited for his work on the film, however.
There are, of course, many things that have to go right to produce a truly iconic film, but if you had to pick the one element that made the film work and made people remember it, you'd probably have to go with Mankiewicz's contribution.


  1. Mark:

    I'm not disagreeing with you, but I think the baby boomers way overrate The Wizard of Oz for the simple reason that they saw it more than any other movie. It used to be on TV exactly once a year, and its appearance was always a big event (hard as this might be to imagine nowadays). It wasn't as big as the Super Bowl or anything like that, but we always knew it was going to be on, and watching it was an annual tradition.

    1. Andrew,

      I had initially typed "great" then replaced it with 'iconic' for just that reason. Oz, Wonderful Life, and (to a lesser extent) Gone with the Wind all had their reputation and impact enhanced by being television events (somewhat ironically in the case of Wonderful life -- stations aired it because it was cheap). On the other end of the spectrum, everyone knows who the Three Stooges are and no one remembers Joe McDoakes largely because the Stooges huge catalog made them TV friendly.

      That said, Oz was a big hit, critically and commercially when it came out and had been rereleased numerous times before its TV debut. Credit for that success probably goes first to Baum, but after that Mank's very close to the front of the line.