L. Frank Baum was the original J.K. Rowling or Leigh Bardugo. He wrote the first children’s fantasy bestseller and he pioneered ways of franchising it. Success came to him relatively late, but he made the most of it. Baum’s life and legacy are re-examined in an ever-so contemporary light in American Oz, written, directed, and produced by Randall MacLowry and Tracy Heather Strain, which airs as part of the current season of PBS’s American Experience.
Baum came from a prosperous family, but he was always sure he could make his own fame and fortune. Instead, the first half of American Oz chronicles his failures. Nevertheless, he managed to marry his beloved wife Maud Gage and win over her mother, prominent suffragette, Matilda Joslyn Gage. In fact, she became a major influence on his social perspective and one of his biggest boosters.
The first hour or so is rather sluggish, largely because the talking heads obsessively pick apart Baum’s early journalism from a hyper-woke contemporary perspective. Frankly, this kind of outrage prospecting just gets boring. Instead of being content to give Baum credit as an early advocate of women’s suffrage and generally enlightened notions of gender relations, they mine his less-edifying writings, to highlight grist for offense (plenty is supplied by editorials written when his newspaper was of collapse due to conflict with Native peoples).
Oz series itself is hardly mentioned until about an hour into the program. Not coincidently, that is when it starts getting interesting. The battery of experts intriguingly traces Baum’s sources of inspiration, such World Columbia Exposition. Yet, there is little or no analysis of the various allegorical interpretations of his Oz novels. There is some nice coverage of his failed attempt to produce early silent Oz movies, but somehow nobody addresses the notoriously weird and dark Disney-produced Return to Oz.
It is rather fascinating to see how Baum built his Oz brand. In many ways, his approach is not so different from that of major authors and creators today. He was just utilizing the technology of his time. American Oz almost buries these insights, which is unfortunate. Honestly, ninety percent of those who will watch this profile, will do so for Oz, but it takes way too long to get there. Too dry and too mired in wokeness, American Oz will disappoint most viewers when it airs this Monday (4/19) on PBS.