Here he is, the whiz of 'The Wizard of Oz': Lionizing L. Frank Baum

TV REVIEW

December 10, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Dreamer of Oz: The L. Frank Baum Story" is an old-fashioned, frothy concoction of Horatio Alger dreams, Hollywood values, Day-glo sets, soft focus, childlike innocence and calculated filmmaking.

The made-for-TV biography of the author of "The Wizard of Oz" gets a little tedious in its constant exhortations about "dreaming dreams," "believing in dreams" and "following dreams." In fact, the film, which airs at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), has a lot more to say about dreams and imagination than it does about Baum's real life.

But "The Dreamer of Oz" will grow on those viewers who let it. By the time of the big deathbed scene, some viewers won't care that the makeup on John Ritter (who plays Baum) and Annette O'Toole (who plays his wife, Maud) is bad and that their acting is not much better. The more you love "The Wizard of Oz," the more likely you are to be among those weeping as the Baums share one last kiss. "The Dreamer of Oz" treats "The Wizard of Oz" like it is the Bible.

The film covers the years 1870 to 1939 -- from the time of Baum's proposal to Maud to the premiere of the movie version of "The Wizard of Oz." Baum died in 1919. The film is told in flashback by Maud. As she arrives for the 1939 premiere of the film, she is ignored by all the reporters except one bushy-tailed cub who recognizes her and gets her talking about the old days.

As biography, it's pretty typical bio-pic stuff. What matters most to the scriptwriter are those details that relate to Baum's vision of Oz.

Much is made of Baum's niece, Dorothy, and the profound effect her death at age 6 had on him. We also are given about five camera shots too many of the file cabinet with the label "O-Z" on it, which is reportedly where Baum came up with the name of the land in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." The scene in which Baum, Maud and Maud's mother (Rue McClanahan) come up with the full title seems as contrived as the goopy Beach Boys biography on ABC last year, where one character casually says he "gets around," and Brian Wilson jumps up and say, "Hey, let's call this song 'I Get Around.' "

But what's a little extra goop during the holiday season?

At its best, "The Dreamer of Oz" is about a man who continued to dream in the language of fairy tales long after he quit being a child. At the age of 40, after a life of much failure, he finally got one of those fairy tales into print.

And the fairy tale that turned his life around has continued to fuel the thoughts and dreams of generation after generation.

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