Invisible Ink: No 143, Noel Langley

Christopher Fowler
Saturday 29 September 2012 15:09

I came to Noel Langley via a Penguin paperback of Cage Me A Peacock, a hilarious satirical version of The Rape of Lucretia that required the publisher to reassure readers with the rider: "Written with such delicacy and cool assurance that I cannot imagine anyone taking offence." But Langley could be bitingly unsentimental too. He was born in 1911 in Durban, South Africa, and moved to the US, where he went on to become a novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director. But Peacock was banned in his place of birth (mind you, The Belles of St Trinian's was also banned there).

Personal details are few. I know he had five children and was attracted to classical mythology, fairytales, and fables as well as theatre life. His 1936 novel There's a Porpoise Close Behind Us is a charming backstage tale of two innocents, Robin and Diana, and their attempts to survive in the poisonous London theatre world. But it was his children's book The Land of Green Ginger, about the son of Aladdin, that made his name and became a perennial best-seller. It is also the only one of his books still in print, and there's a very nice edition illustrated by Edward Ardizzone presumably dating from the 1960s, when Ardizzone was ubiquitous.

Langley went to Hollywood and began adapting films, where the success of Green Ginger landed him the job of writing The Wizard of Oz for the screen. However, his finished script was altered by two other scriptwriters. Edgar Allan Woolf and Florence Ryerson were hired to make sure that the film followed L Frank Baum's book more closely, but Langley hated the changes, feeling that the finished result was too sickly and sugar-coated. Altogether, 14 writers worked on the film including Ogden Nash, songs were added, "Over The Rainbow" was almost removed because the studio thought it was degrading for Judy Garland to be singing in a barnyard, and still the film failed.

Langley tried to write a sequel based on The Marvellous Land of Oz using some of the concepts he had created for the original, but it never materialised. Interestingly, some of the things we remember best about The Wizard of Oz were Langley's invention, such as the ruby slippers and Toto revealing the wizard behind a curtain. Langley wrote the screenplay for Ivanhoe and adapted and directed versions of The Pickwick Papers, Our Girl Friday, Svengali, and The Search for Bridey Murphy.

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