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back to the yellow brick road

January 23, 2012

In Friday’s post we covered the various adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s classic

novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”.  Today I’d like to share what I’ve learned

about the most famous version, the 1939 film musical starring Judy Garland.


In 1938, MGM Studios bought movie rights to the book from Samuel Goldwyn,

who wanted to use it as a vehicle for his star Eddie Cantor.  Walt Disney’s “Snow

White and the Seven Dwarfs” had proven a year before that adapting children’s

stories could be profitable.  It was feared, however, that the public would not

accept Oz as a real place, as Baum imaged it.


At least 20 writers worked on various outlines, treatments and scripts, and Oz

became an elaborate dream sequence.  Another change was a subplot that had

swing singer Dorothy besting an operatic Princess in a musical contest.  That

was dropped.


Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin were considered for the role of Dorothy,

but lost out to Garland and her jazzier singing style, already known to the

world from an Andy Hardy movie.  Buddy Ebsen, who would go on to be TV’s

Jed Clampett and Barnaby Jones, was cast as the Scarecrow, then the Tin Man. 

He was replaced by Jack Haley when the aluminum powder in his makeup

caused him to be hospitalized in critical condition.  Ebsen had to convalesce in

an iron lung.


Margaret Hamilton, pitch perfect as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the

West, was cast three days before shooting started.  W.C. Fields was first choice

to play the Professor/Wizard, but MGM wouldn’t give in to his salary demand.


Casting the Munchkins took a nation-wide search.  More than 100 midgets

were paid $125 a week each.  They stayed across the street from the studio.

Rumours of their heavy drinking and carousing, the basis for the odious

movie “Under the Rainbow“, were untrue.  The midgets, in fact, threatened

to go on strike unless the rumours were addressed.


Just a few weeks into production, producer Mervyn LeRoy replaced director

Richard Thorpe, who had replaced original director Norman Taurog.  George

Cukor helmed the production briefly before leaving to direct “Gone with the

Wind”.  He didn’t film any scenes, but he made changes that influenced the

project, specifically taking the blonde wig and heavy makeup off Garland and

putting her in a blue gingham dress with curve-flattening underwear.  He also

encouraged her to act more naturally.


Victor Fleming took over directing and got the credit for the final product, but

he left before it was finished to replace Cukor as director of GWTW.  Fleming’s

friend King Vidor took over for the scenes set in Kansas, but his work was not

credited. Vidor didn’t publicly acknowledge his contribution until after

Fleming’s death.


Big sets and a large cast brought huge problems.  The early Technicolor process

meant much more lighting than usual.  Sets sometimes reached 100 degrees F.

Margaret Hamilton’s witch makeup was so heavy that she had to live primarily

on liquids.  The copper-based cosmetics proved to be another danger to her

health.  She was severely burned filming the scene in Munchkinland where a 

ball of fire concealed her exit on an elevator.  The makeup had to be quickly

removed to treat her injuries.


In post production, Hamilton refused to do a pick-up scene riding a broomstick

that spewed smoke.  Her stand-in Betty Danko was seriously hurt when the smoke

device malfunctioned.


“Oz” had its Hollywood premiere August 15, 1939.  It barely made enough to cover

production costs.  MGM didn’t make a significant profit until a re-release in 1949.

Today, though, it’s a legend.  The U.S. Library of Congress calls it the most watched

film ever.  With a 70-year head start on “Avatar”, that distinction should stand for

a long time.                      

  1. beth reed permalink
    January 23, 2012 4:35 pm

    I knew some of the history, like Buddy Ebson being allergic to the powder but never knew he had to be in an iron lung.
    Years ago my mother told me that it was the first movie she seen in color and she spoke of the rumors that hollywood had said that it was cursed and plagued with problems.
    Also when I or my sisters misbehaved when we were little all my uncle had to do was threaten us with those monkeys from oz and we were angels.
    Wasn’t there an incident with the monkeys as well?
    It is still one of my favorite movies.

  2. beth reed permalink
    January 23, 2012 4:46 pm

    Oh I just thought that maybe it was not the monkey’s but maybe it was the ruby slippers.
    It seems to me that there was something else that keeps nagging at me.

    • January 24, 2012 7:57 am

      The articles I used didn’t mention any monkey mayhem, but I did learn that the slippers were silver in Baum’s book. MGM changed them to ruby to show off its new Technicolor process.

  3. beth reed permalink
    January 24, 2012 9:55 pm

    Silver slippers are pretty but the ruby ones really worke for the part. It is interesting how it all worked out.
    Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed reading what you wrote.

    • January 26, 2012 6:44 am

      Thanks. I’m going to finish the thread tomorrow with a post about Baum.

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