Coming to PBS’s American Experience tonight, Monday, April 19:
Randall MacLowry, Tracy Heather Strain
American Experience (April 2021)
A portrait of L Frank Baum, best known for his popular series of children’s books that began with THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ.
THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ was first published in 1900, becoming an instant success, and spawned more than a dozen sequels, a traveling multimedia show, a popular stage musical, several less successful silent films all in the lifetime of its creator, L Frank Baum. Of course, the most enduring version of the Oz story came in 1939, two decades after his death, with THE WIZARD OF OZ, and since then, the story has inspired further adaptations and reworkings, from THE WIZ to WICKED. Randall MacLowry and Tracy Heather Strain take a comprehensive look at Baum’s life and experiences and how they influenced the creation of his legendary children’s story. As with all entries in the venerable PBS series, their profile is informational and educational rather than particularly cinematic, presented through extensive narration and talking heads, but is successful nevertheless. The doc traces Baum’s story from a privileged upbringing through a series of entrepreneurial ventures to make his own fortune and support his family, from poultry breeder and actor to traveling salesman, general store manager, and newspaper publisher, before he was encouraged by his mother-in-law, a suffragist and author, to publish his own stories. In some ways, Baum reflected the small-minded sentiments of his times, particularly in his racist – and even disturbingly genocidal – views of indigenous people, but in other ways, surprisingly progressive, such as his support of women’s equality. MacLowry and Strain contextualize these contrasting elements, and demonstrate how they played out in his writing, from stereotypical, racialized characters on the one hand to the more positive focus on a young, empowered heroine. Further, the profile explores how OZ resonated as a distinctly American fairy tale of perseverance and achieving the American Dream, both upon its initial publication at the turn of the century and then again, notably, at the end of the Great Depression with the Judy Garland-starring MGM musical.