A Cartoon Master We've Forgotten
Ted Eshbaugh Makes a Wonderful Wizard Of Oz
Among most amazing artifacts of animation to be recently unearthed is Ted Eshbaugh's The Wizard Of Oz. What's that name, you say? Eshbaugh was a cartooning pioneer, left out of a not a few histories, but championed by Thunderbean's Steve Stanchfield, whose latest Blu-Ray compilation, Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, includes not only The Wizard Of Oz, but a representative sampling of Eshbaugh's work both before and after it. Eshbaugh (shown at left) was a young man with dreams, same as Walt Disney (they were born five years apart), but Walt's came spectacularly true, while for Ted, effort and innovation went largely unrecognized over a lifetime of cartooning. Virtually all his shorts were made for independents, and some have since disappeared. Thunderbean has managed to find color elements for a few that for years were seen only in black-and-white. Eshbaugh is best vindicated, however, by discovery of 35mm IB Technicolor for The Wizard Of Oz, a cartoon that existed before, but not looking like this. It is a highlight of Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, with so many parallels to MGM's 1939 treatment (including a B/W opening) that you figure Leo just had to have checked it out before going forward with a live-action redo.
Ted Eshbaugh got first trade attention in March 1932 for getting a color cartoon booked at the Loew's State in
Eshbaugh's "secret color mixing process" would distinguish "a series of 12 all-color sound cartoons," said Film Daily, with "new studios" being prepped for the tyro producer as Goofy Goat (that's him at left, with gf "Nanny" Goat)continued its stand at Loew's State. Lightning having struck for Disney assured that a trade would watch this youngster closely, coverage of his moves positive and even encouraging: "Eshbaugh, a youth with an idea and no capital, has lined up a staff of young cartoonists ready to turn out more reels if their maestro clicks or collects" (Variety). Goofy Goat scored a mention in the September 1931 issue of Photoplay, their "Short Subjects Of The Month" page saying "Let's see more" of this character "apparently out after some of Mickey Mouse's pickings." They must have caught the
It would have been Goofy Goat, and follow-up color reel The Snowman, that got Ted Eshbaugh his job making The Wizard of Oz. The Technicolor company wanted a demo reel that would demonstrate effectiveness of their new three-color process. What better than a cartoon that would emphasize widest expanse of the rainbow? Eshbaugh had a deal with Frank J. Baum to adapt his father's The Wizard Of Oz to animation, within an agreed upon time. As production went forward on the cartoon, Technicolor began negotiations with Walt Disney to use the new process for his Silly Symphonies. A contract dated 8/30/32 made way for a first, Flowers and Trees, with three more charted for color. Later amendment to the pact gave Disney exclusive rights to three-color Technicolor use in cartoons for a two year period from 9/1/33 to 8/31/35 (this based on primary research by Michael Barrier for his book, Hollywood Cartoons). In the meantime, Ted Eshbaugh had finished The Wizard Of Oz, a gorgeous sampling of what Technicolor could deliver, but not one that could be released to theatres, now that Disney had sole access to three-color for cartoons.
Under heading of life sometimes being not fair, Ted Eshbaugh had to watch his work buried by a bigger fish that Technicolor angled for and caught. What was one cartoon by Eshbaugh when a possible dozen or more from Disney were planned to exalt the process? Besides that, WD was a name known worldwide, thanks to Mickey Mouse, while Eshbaugh remained unknown. And yet ... there was The Wizard Of Oz, a short anyone with eyes would call infinitely superior to Flowers and Trees, which was not even drawn in color to begin with (more than half finished in B/W), but retrofitted in ways evocative of silent features (and cartoons) kept back for addition of music, sound effects, and even dialogue. Walt had to look at his Flowers and Trees beside The Wizard Of Oz and know that here was occasion when the better man had not won. I wonder if it played on his conscience afterward. Does anyone know if Disney ever offered Ted Eshbaugh a job? Judging by the man's talent, he certainly should have. Worth noting is fact that WD did purchase rights to the Oz books some decades later, but wouldn't screen adapt them during his lifetime as was plan.
So far as we know, The Wizard Of Oz languished in obscurity from 1932 on, but there was effort to release it to theatres in 1935, possibly in anticipation of Disney's three-color exclusivity running out in August of that year. What frustrated the plan, by Ted Eshbaugh and Technicolor, was a lawsuit filed by Frank L. Baum in 5/35, wherein he asked the court to block proposed release of The Wizard Of Oz. Basis was Eshbaugh's failure to finish the cartoon within agreed time set by the parties. "Contract is therefore regarded as void by Baum," reported Variety, leaving Technicolor "730 feet of negative, which under arrangement with Eshbaugh, company (Technicolor) is ready to market unless enjoined." How the matter resolved does not appear in trade search I made, but we might assume it went against Eshbaugh/Technicolor for fact The Wizard Of Oz would not have a theatrical release, at least in the
Ted Eshbaugh wasn't entirely a prophet without honor. He was recognized and invited to participate in an exhibit put on during fall 1933 by The Society Of Motion Picture Engineers. They wanted to establish a museum of film history at their