November 20, 1925 [The Phantom of the Opera, The Wizard of Oz]

At what point do the fairy tale and the Gothic fable meet? It must be a dark wood indeed, a clearing amid the tangled roots and snaking limbs with toadstool-rings below and cold sharp stars above. In that space, the foolishness of both might melt away, and leave yearning and dread to wrestle in silence.

L. Frank Baum’s books hold almost as much fascination for my children as Peter and Wendy--and it may be the illustrations as much as the stories themselves. Arthur Rackham and W.W. Denslow, like the great Tenniel before them, understand children’s love for intricacies and details, both illuminative and puzzling. As much as they show, they also obscure—better yet, evoke a sense of mystery.

--And is that, then, the point of contact, where Oz/Neverland and Lon Chaney’s opera-house meet, in mystery? The Phantom of the Opera leads us underground, where arched ceilings drip like hungry jaws and flesh is twisted into a bony grimace as hard and fast as a promise kept--but what a promise! Chaney’s masked Erik loves, but demands that his lover follow him into the dark, far from home.

It’s a shame Larry Semon’s version of the Oz story refuses to make any such promises to his Dorothy. While he, too, removes her from safety, there is no mystery, no breathless discoveries to be made. It’s simply Semon making faces, standing in solitary dislocation while things land on him and strike him on the head. All right, certain moments surprised me into laughter; but screen comedy tends to heave mightily for its effects, so there’s always a storm raging--and sometimes literally: the tempest that carries Dorothy to Oz is a marvel of apparently sentient lightning-strokes, jabbing at them all the way. And a few other bits crop up--but most of it seems to come from a stubborn refusal to engage our imagination--unlike Chaney’s Phantom, as grotesque as any sudden development the Grimm Brothers could conjure, as sharp-angled as an old woodcut, rough and dim. There is a constant mystery here, a secret--which rests not only in the plot, but also within the images, divorced from narrative, indelible.

I am not so cruel as to ask Oz to situate itself in dank catacombs--but some darkness should creep in, if only to throw into sharp contrast the threat of the dangers and the relief of the happy ending. Otherwise, all we have is an ending, neither happy nor sad: just standing there, grinning amid ineffective racket.

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