ANIMATION SPIN
March 28, 2017 posted by Greg Ehrbar

Filmation’s “Journey Back to Oz” (1974) on Records

How does the soundtrack to Filmation’s seminal animated feature connect with Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, Astro Boy, a Congo airline and a plate of bad shrimp?

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JOURNEY BACK TO OZ
Original Soundtrack Musical Story Album
Texize (Morton Norwich) Premium Record S-7243 (12” 33 1/3 RPM / Mono & Stereo)

Album Released in 1980. Producers: Lou Scheimer, Norm Prescott. Dialogue: Norm Prescott, Fred Ladd. Music Arranger/Conductor: Walter Scharf. Running Time: 38 minutes.

Voices: Liza Minnelli (Dorothy); Mickey Rooney (Scarecrow); Milton Berle (Cowardly Lion); Danny Thomas (Tin Man); Ethel Merman (Mombi); Paul Lynde (Pumpkinhead); Herschel Bernardi (Woodenhead); Jack E. Leonard (Signpost); Rise Stevens (Glinda).

Songs: “Faraway Land,” “Signpost Song,” “Keep a Happy Thought,” “Horse on the Carousel,” “B-R-A-N-E,” “An Elephant Never Forgets,” “H-E-A-R-T,” “N-E-R-V-E,” “You Have Only You,” “If You’re Gonna Be a Witch,” “Return to Oz March,” “That Feeling for Home” Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen.
Instrumentals: Overture, Entr’acte Overture by Jimmy Van Heusen.

Few single animated features parallel the early history of a studio like Journey Back to Oz. It was the project that initiated Filmation’s founding; its various starts and stops between 1960-61 and its limited theatrical release in 1974-75 went hand-in-hand with the growth of the studio.

220px-Journey_back_to_ozIn 1962, as Producer Lou Scheimer and Director Hal Sutherland were forming Filmation in Hollywood in 1962, producer/co-screenwriter Norm Prescott and co-writer Fred Ladd were completing Universal’s Pinocchio in Outer Space in Belgium. In the superb bonus features for the DVD release, Ladd told Filmation historian Andy Mangels: “Norm had the idea… that we could overlap some production with another picture, which turned out to be Journey Back to Oz. The European studio… was too small to accommodate this, so… it was moved to Yugoslavia. They couldn’t cut it and the picture was pulled from them. After a year, they still hadn’t completed the six-minute prologue before the titles.”

At the Paramount commissary, Prescott met Scheimer and suggested bringing the Oz project to Hollywood with funding he was acquiring from a airline that was flying resources into the Congo—but the airline folded and production was again halted. Having become partners at Filmation in the process, Scheimer, Prescott and Sutherland sought funding for the Oz until 1969–when TV successes like The New Adventures of Superman and The Archie Show and the studio’s purchase by TelePrompTer made it possible to bring Journey back into production.

The voices and songs had been recorded in 1960 with the exception of Mickey Rooney’s performance as the Scarecrow. He replaced Peter Lawford, whose aristocratic voice was deemed unsuitable for the character. As Filmation was to do for subsequent cartoons like their Star Trek series, the voices for Journey Back to Oz were recorded wherever the actors happened to be available at the time, in New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas (Walter Scharf recorded the musical score in Paris).

JourneyOzBack-600Lawford’s presence in the cast, along with Milton Berle and others associated with Frank Sinatra’s “rat pack,” became available through the efforts of Sammy Cahn, a friend and musical associate of the performers. Judy Garland herself signed the contract for Liza Minnelli, who was 15 at the time.

Ladd (who was preparing Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and Gigantor for American TV while working on this film) recalled that Minnelli had dined on a plate of spoiled shrimp the night before the recording session and required a facility to be nearby in case she needed a quick retreat. A trouper even at that young age, the soundtrack betrays not a clue to Minnelli’s discomfort. Months later, Minnelli had developed a more individual style for her maturing voice. She wanted to record again so she wouldn’t sound so much like her mother. “She got really upset with us when we said ‘no,’” recalled Scheimer in the commentary. “But it was done and we liked what was done.”

To a lesser degree, Journey Back to Oz shared a similar path to success with its 1939 counterpart, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. Wizard did well in its initial release and reissue in theaters, but to MGM execs, it was not a phenomenon on the level of Disney’s Snow White.

Journey was only shown in eleven theaters between 1974 and 1975, using the “four wall” system of self-distribution that made millions for such low-budget films as Billy Jack and The Adventures of the Wilderness Family. The initial box office results for Journey Back To Oz were disappointing.

Both The Wizard of Oz and Journey Back to Oz benefitted from television. Wizard became an institution in its yearly presentations starting in 1956. Journey, of course, cannot claim anything close to such fame, but was aired as a Christmas special in 1975 (for the ABC broadcast, Bill Cosby, then of Filmation’s Fat Albert series, appeared in live-action wraparound segments with Dal McKennon voicing a parrot puppet). In syndicated airings on the SFM Holiday Network, it became the crown jewel of SFM’s annual film packages.

Journey-Back-to-OZ-Production-Cel-The star-studded cast was certainly a draw in these cases, especially with the daughter of MGM’s Dorothy taking the lead role. Historically, Journey can be considered the first animated feature with an extensive voice cast of big-name celebrities.

In 1980, Texize sponsored a TV broadcast of the film, hosted by Milton Berle. Texize made the soundtrack album available as a premium. The LP is described as a “Musical Story Album” on the cover, but the disc contains songs, music and short dialogue excerpts rather than a complete narrative. The story is printed on the back cover with song lyrics. There was never a traditional retail issue of this album. (An “unofficial” LP had been floating around among collectors that included several alternate versions of the songs as well as Lawford’s original voice work.)

There were several VHS and DVD releases, though a Blu-ray is overdue—the film may have its flaws, but the art direction and color styling would benefit from high resolution.

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
Peter Lawford & Mickey Rooney Sing “B-R-A-N-E”

Peter Lawford gave the Scarecrow role his trademark suave sophistication, which would have been fine for a character other than the Scarecrow. Scheimer recalled Mickey Rooney to be an incorrigible personality in the studio but a total pro as a voice actor.

9 Comments

  • Mickey Rooney seems a much more logical choice for the Scarecrow than Peter Lawford, and he has more of an Oz connection–not only did Rooney co-star with Judy Garland more times than any other actor, he and Judy did the live warm-up act promoting “The Wizard of Oz” in its New York premiere. Beyond that, his vocal interpretation seems much more suited to the Scarecrow than Lawford’s.

    An interesting bit of trivia from the DVD extras…Cahn and Van Heusen also wrote a “Woggle-Bug” song for the Woggle-Bug character who was originally slated to appear in the film. When the character and the song were cut from the film, the song was re-purposed as a “Woggle-bird” song for the Hanna-Barbera live action and animation special “Jack and the Beanstalk,” in which Gene Kelly danced with two oversized animated birds. The song itself is clearly derived from the popular turn-of-the-century promotional song “What Did the Woggle-Bug Say?” which was a big hit around 1903-1904.

    This film is better than its reputation suggests…the animation is pretty decent, the colors are rich and vibrant, and it’s a bit more “Ozzy” than many other Oz adaptations, especially those produced in recent years. I love the opening sequence of the cyclone, which introduces the voice of each of the main characters as an object representing that character flies across the screen in the midst of the storm. Liza Minnelli’s young voice is perfect for Dorothy…it’s also a nice nod to the 1939 film to have Margaret Hamilton providing the voice for Aunt Em.

    The original release of the soundtrack which featured Lawford’s interpretation of the Scarecrow role was under the label “RFO” which stood for “Rescued From Oblivion” and the cover artwork was, if I recall correctly, from the original Denslow illustrations for “The Wizard of Oz.”

  • Journey Back to Oz should be considered as the original animated sequel to The Wizard of Oz and not the live action Disney movie Return to Oz (which failed miserably in the box office in 1985) . This was Filmation’s first feature film and oh what a stellar cast did they had with Liza Minnelli staring as Dorothy Gale the role her mother Judy Garland made famous in the Wizard of Oz,Mickey Rooney (who starred with Judy Garland in many of the live action MGM films), Danny Thomas,Paul Lynda,Milton Burle,Margaret Hamilton (who starred as the original Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz) Ethel Merman (who was outstanding as Mombi the Wicked Witch of the North) Larry Storch and voice over legends Don Messick,Dallas McKennon and Mel Blanc.

    Also Bill Cosby (at the time where he was working on Filmation’s Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids) was The Wizard in the live action segments on Journey Back to Oz back in the late 1970’s which was also broadcasted on the syndicated SFM Holiday Network during the Christmas Season. Milton Berle took over for Bill Cosby on the SFM Broadcast when Journey Back to Oz wasn’t aired during the Christmas season.

    The opening theme of Journey Back to Oz was Johnny Pearson’s The Awakening which was later used in Great Britain as the theme for ITN’s News at Ten broadcast.

    • This is actually somewhat superior to many other Filmation shows (yes, I know, an interesting comment..:)) I didn’t know Don Messick also was in this. Any time I look at Dorothy, maybe due to Filmation having a a Hanna-Barbera similiarity and her young-girl character, but I hear Janet Waldo’s sweet girlish voice piping out! One of Mel Blanc’s few Filmaiton voices along with the Daffy/Porky/Goolies crossover released a few years before the 1974 release of the movie.

  • It’s always been amazing (to me) that they chose Garland’s daughter to play the role that made her mother famous. I wonder if it was planned or a coincidence..

    • It was definitely planned. I believe there was a concern among the film industry that any Oz project would be unsuccessful without a connection to Judy Garland, as she was and remains the ultimate screen Dorothy. Liza’s involvement was probably a deal-maker for many of the investors.

      Ironically, by the time the film was released, Liza was no longer in her teens and her voice had matured considerably. It’s been reported that during the filming of “Cabaret” Liza learned of the imminent release of the Oz film, and wanted to re-record her vocals for the sound track. This did not occur, probably to the film’s advantage, as her teenage voice has a fresh quality that would have been diminished by re-dubbing.

  • I never liked how they made Tin Man and the Lion chicken out from helping Dorothy in this version. If it was a case of too many characters to handle, Why couldn’t they have done it in a better way they stays true to the characters?

    • Yes, that is one of my quibbles with this film. The Tin Man and Lion are completely non-supportive of helping their old pal the Scarecrow out of a jam, and that is totally out of character for them. Furthermore, notice how even Glinda is doubtful of her own magical abilities to help. In the Oz books, Glinda is the most powerful sorceress in Oz, and she does not back down from any challenge. While it’s empowering to Dorothy to tell her “it’s all up to you” it is not a worthy representation of the character of Glinda. I agree that surely the writers could have found a way for the characters to be truer to their book incarnations and still keep the plot rolling.

      But even despite these serious flaws, I still really like this film!

    • Count me among the people annoyed when Tin Man and Lion wimped out, and Scarecrow was just sort of useless — especially since the ads and promotional art positioned them as stars.

      I got the impression from the DVD that they were largely locked into old voice tracks and storyboards, produced not by a creative team working together but piecemeal over time by individuals who may not have been on the same page. That would go a long way to explaining why the film feels so awkward.

      The DVD also included some of the Bill Cosby inserts for television showings. Is it just me, or did it look like Cosby was working under protest?

  • I am a huge fan of this film, and I have followed its complicated history. I, like many of you, know this film from its Christmas showings (both from ABC and SFM), and I have a dub of the TV cut on DVD-R. It certainly plays better in its TV cut, even if I have to see it once a year.

    It should be noted that the best existing elements on this movie is an HD, time compressed cut of the theatrical version, produced in the PAL format (the time compression being the result of the PAL system), as the original film elements were believed to be discarded by one of the previous rights holders. It may be technically possible to slow down the speed of the PAL transfer by 5% back to the original speed.

    But somewhere hidden in a television archive there is a video master of either the ABC or SFM version of the film just waiting to be unearthed by the film’s current rights holders, Universal Pictures (which now has most of Filmation’s holdings.). And yes, it is overdue for a blu raybissue.

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