It's been said of L. Frank Baum, perhaps not quite fairly, that everything he ever did involving the fantasy kingdom of Oz was a huge success, and everything he did without it was a calamitous disaster. Certainly he made a bit of money late in life as the producer of Oz-themed silent movies, before he died and his son bankrupted the company, showing that only one Baum had the magic touch.
The first Oz short of 1910, Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz is actually the closest, plot-wise, to the familiar 1939 version, and it has a cool cast, including nine-year-old Bebe Daniels as Dorothy and future director Norman Z. McLeod as the Scarecrow. But Baum really hit his stride as a mogul four years later, with the release of three feature films, in the year when features had only just started appearing in America. And His Majesty the Scarecrow of Oz, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Magic Cloak (of Oz) are all a lot more entertaining than Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man, the earliest of 1914's surviving American features.
Let's look at Patchwork Girl. On the assumption that the audience already knows the story world, this movie dispenses with all Kansas-bound scene-setting and introduces us to a Munchkin boy, Ojo, and his Uncle Nunkie. But, unlike in the MGM classic, munchkins in this movie are played by life-sized actors, albeit not tall ones. Ojo the Munchkin Boy is played by a girl, Violet McMillan, who appears in the other films in other roles. Considering the films must have been shot back-to-back-to-front, they play really fast and loose with their casting.
As with the earlier film, the cast is a veritable who's-that? of screen talent, though all the famous players are heavily disguised (and in the wrong job). A young Harold Lloyd cavorts topless as a "Tottenhot," unrecognizable amid the throng in his distressed afro wig and full-body blackface (blackbody?). His future boss, legendary producer Hal Roach, is a lion, though whether cowardly or not is never established. He just reclines through a few crowd scenes, desperately trying to upstage his co-stars with random little movements, but since they're all doing the same, it's hard to know if he's succeeding because he's gifted, because he's Hal Roach, or because he's a lion.
The strangest cameo of all comes from Bert Glennon, never an actor, always a cameraman (Stagecoach, The Scarlet Empress), who turns up late in the story cast as the scarecrow. Which makes no sense at all, but seems to be confirmed. And indeed, while the rest of the cast seem to be filled out with vaudeville comedians and clowns, masters of movement, the scarecrow's performance, while ambitiously attempting a cinematographer's idea of how a creature without bones or muscles might move, walks kind of like a drunken chimpanzee with tertiary syphilis.
The story is simple, yet worried into bizarre convolutions by Baum's restless mind. Ojo and Unc Nunkie are walking to Oz to make their fortune (it seems that there's poverty even over the rainbow) when they happen upon Dr. Pipt, the crooked magician (crooked as in hunchbacked and bowlegged, and this actor is a good mover, but unfortunately he never bloody stops) who is just completing his quest to create artificial life. This being an Oz story, he imbues life into a duvet-creature fashioned by his wife, the idea being that this eiderdown homunculus will take over the housework. But, like an elfin Dwight Frye, Ojo sabotages this scheme, apparently outraged at the idea of indentured servitude in this day and age, even in a magical fantasy dreamworld (Oz is not Gor), so s/he injects the quilted golem with a suffusion of "magic brains," from the helpfully marked Magic Brains Cabinet.
Disaster! The Patchwork Girl (blatantly, from her movements, a tall, energetic male tumbler) runs amok and, in a piece of missing footage, douses three supporting cast members in petrifying powder! So now there's a proper plot, though the film struggles to keep its mind focused on it: the three loved ones of the human statues must gather three ingredients to brew an anti-petrification spell.
You won't be surprised to know there's a happy ending, so let's skip the rest of the narrative and talk about creatures. Baum loves his creatures, and distributes them with largesse. We meet a mule, "Mewl, who is everybody's friend," but has no plot function at all, though the title informing us that he's played by "Mr. Fred Woodward," is priceless, followed as it is by a shot of the pack animal scratching his arse on a tree. Undignified, but at least he's a Mister. Mr. Woodward plays all the quadrupeds, doubling as "the Woozy, a Quaintness," a strange, box-shaped cat-thing with heat vision, and tripling as "the Zoop, a Mystery," a chimp-like wanderer of the wilderness.
To play the first two four-legged friends, Mr. Woodward employs arm extensions so he can accurately simulate the posture of a mule and what we must assume is the posture of a Woozy: this put me in mind of the villainous Wheelers of Walter Murch's underrated Return to Oz (1985), who had regrettable roller-disco tendencies but nevertheless captured some of the contorted charm of this movie's approach. The Zoop seems a forerunner of the Wicked Witch's flunkies from the '39 outing.
This being 1914, director J. Farrell MacDonald is gamely butting up against the limitations of film language as it was then understood. When Ojo spots something exciting in the road up ahead, he points, but since cinema hasn't really invented the reverse angle or the POV, we don't get to see what's exciting him/her so much, the scene changes with us none the wiser, and when we rejoin our little pal the suggestion seems to be that the thrilling view was a mule scratching its arse on a tree.
But the visual effects department has a few surprises in store. The magical assembly of the Patchwork Girl-Man is achieved with moderately crude stop motion, suggesting perhaps the influence of Segundo de Chomón. A similar trick is used to show the haunted furniture of the Magic House moving of its own volition. (The Magic House, paradoxically, is the film's one real structure, a perfectly mundane, weather-beaten bungalow.) Here, cinematographer and optical effects guru James A. Crosby does something startling: he tracks in, past a recumbent Pipt, until the furniture fills the frame and gets frisky. The main purpose for the unique movement seems to be to get the actor out of shot to allow a switch from live action to stop motion, but the added value is a sense of real magic, of things happening that have nothing to do with vaudeville actors and stage scenery, everything to do with the secret life of stuff, the way the world behaves when we're not looking...
Georges Méliès was still making films, barely, in 1914: this movie gives a suggestion of what he might have done if he'd kept going. But he didn't like these newfangled features: they were too disturbingly involving, too seductive, too realistic.