Review of the TV movie The Dreamer of Oz (1990)
I’m going to continue with my reviews of all things Oz with a TV movie that NBC aired in 1990 called The Dreamer of Oz.
The movie was a fictionalized biography of the adult life of L Frank Baum and how he was inspired to write The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I remember watching much of this when it originally aired. My family had no desire to watch it so I was vetoed during commercials and had to switch back and forth, sometimes missing chunks of the story. However, I remember it fondly and I wanted to revisit it for my Oz series.
In the movie, L Frank Baum was played by John Ritter.
Baum’s wife, Maud, was played by Annette O’Toole. Maud’s mother, Mathilda Gage, was played by Rue McClanahan.
Also of note, Ritter’s real life son, Jason, played one of his sons in the movie which I thought was a nice touch.
The movie is actually book ended by scenes at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (aka, TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood) in 1939 during the world premier of the MGM musical version of The Wizard of Oz. A reporter takes an elderly Maud Baum aside and asks her about her husband Frank and how he came to write the book.
The rest of the story is told in flashback and begins about the time Maud meets Frank during a party thrown by one of Frank’s sisters. We see the courtship of the couple and the many lean years in which Frank tries to do different jobs and make ends meet. We see him start to tell his children and the children of the neighborhood pieces of a larger story about what he calls “The Magical Land”. The ideas are developed over the years and we see some of the inspirations for characters along the way. Eventually Baum meets WW Denslow while writing the book Father Goose which would go on to be a big hit. Baum gambles the royalties of that book to sell what is now called “The Land of Oz” book. And, obviously, it hits. Big time.
From the release of the Oz book, the story sort of fast forwards to Baum’s death of stroke and then we are back to Maud at the MGM world premier. They gloss right over the events after Oz becomes a hit, most notably the deterioration of Baum and Denslow’s relationship over the next year or so. Denslow would illustrate only one other Baum book and no more Oz books. Of course, that period could be a TV movie in and of itself. Baum himself went through bankruptcy as well as several failed book series. He only begrudgingly returned to Oz in the beginning for sequels.
Overall I enjoyed this movie. I really liked Ritter’s performance as Baum. He really gets across that Baum was a dreamer, always reaching for the stars. Annette O’Toole is also really good as head strong Maud. I’ve always liked her anyway. Rue, of course, is Rue. And I mean that in a good way. She plays the elder Gage matriarch as the perfect, head strong, women’s rights activist that she was.
If nothing else, I think the movie is a little too white washed. And it uses gimmicks to illustrate Baum’s inspirations. Expect characters to all of a sudden change to look like an Oz character because that’s how Baum sees them. And also expect little nods to Oz story elements. Stuff like a midget pops up to ask for a job at Baum’s store for no other reason than to give an inspiration for the Munchkins. And Baum participates in a “gunfight” in a way that inspires the idea of the Cowardly Lion. And Baum decorates the window of his store for fall and you see him putting together….wait for it….wait for it….a scarecrow. Yes, that actually happens. It’s all made up for the movie and cheesy, but honestly, Ritter sells it. I like this movie and I’m glad I could revisit it. I recommend it, but expect the quality you would get from your typical late 80s TV movie.
For years this movie was unavailable outside of bootlegged Internet copies. Recently, Dreamer of Oz was made available on Disc 2 of The Wizard of Oz 70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray set. It should also be available on the The Wizard of Oz Ultimate Edition Blu-ray set. However, it periodically shows up on YouTube as well. You can currently find it here. You can also buy the Official Dreamer of Oz Soundtrack.
And it has just come to my attention that today is Frank Baum’s birthday. So this couldn’t have been a more appropriate review to post.