Probably the most popular children’s film of all time, and listed as the top fantasy by the American Film Institute, the 1939 film was released to mixed reviews (Harvard Lampoon awarded it “worst film of all-time”) and commercial failure (according to some sources, it broke even) after being MGM’s most expensive production up to that time at an estimated four million.
Later, when televisions went into every household, the studio wisely saw a new market, licensing the film for decades beginning in 1956, and recouping it’s original cost, soared into profitability, and developing a new audience from repeated showings on the small screen. The film was the first complete film shown uncut on commercial tv in one evening. After 1959, it was then shown annually for years as a pre-Christmas event, always on the second Sunday in December.
The Original Children’s Literature
Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, (who sometimes abbreviated his name: O.Z.P.I.N.H.E.A.D.; then since it read pinhead, he shortened that to simply Oz). He was created by author L. Frank Baum, in his children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). In the book, he appears to each character separately, and in different forms: as a giant head, as a beautiful fairy, as a ball of fire, and as a horrible monster. When he meets them all, he seems invisible, just a disembodied voice.
As the real person, and not a wizard, he was nothing more than a performer in a circus, largely doing magic, who wrote his name Oz on the side of a hot-air balloon, which left Kansas one day and heavy winds blew them away, eventually landing in the Land of Oz. At the time, it had no ruler, so he was seen as sorcerer and made the supreme leader of the land. After he leaves Oz at the end of the book, in subsequent books the scarecrow first rules, then the rightful heir is enthroned, The Princess Ozma, freed from the wicked witch Mombi, to whom she was handed by Oz himself, who saw an opportunity to seize power over the superstitious populace.
Dorothy Gale is blown to Oz by a Kansas tornado, which causes debris to strike her on the head just as the journey begins. Of course, in the book she visits a real fantasy world, but in the film, it’s implied that she is merely in an unconscious coma and dreams up the entire story.
Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (1908), Dorothy returns to Oz after visiting cousin Zeb in California, and they are swallowed up by an earthquake and returned to Oz via underground.
In all, Baum wrote 14 Oz books, from the original in 1900, to Glinda of Oz in 1920. In the eighth book, Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), he introduces Oz to mobile phones! The inspiration for the character of Dorothy appears to be Alice in Wonderland, each are little girls who visit fantasy realms. The name came from his niece, Dorothy Louise Gale, who died in infancy.
The Wizard of Oz Film (1939)
Two different musical stage versions of the book were produced in both 1901 and 1902. The latter appeared on Broadway in 1903, and toured the country until 1909.
The celebrated version of the film is actually the third filming of the original novel. Silent versions appeared in 1910 and 1925.
Rights to the film were bought by MGM from Samuel Goldwyn, who wanted it as a vehicle for Eddie Cantor, who was to play the Scarecrow.
According to Wikipedia, there are at least 44 identifiable difference in the 1939 film from the original book. Most notable was that in the books, Oz was a real place, while it was a dream in the film. In a later book, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry take refuge in Oz when they can’t pay the mortgage on the new house built after the tornado removed their first house, which is miraculously intact at the end of the film.
Because fantasy films had not fared well at the box office, it was suggested before filming that the film tone down any references to fantasy or magic.
Screenwriter Herman L. Manckiewicz, who later co-wrote Citizen Kane with Orson Welles, turned in the first major screenplay re-write very quickly. At least three other screenwriting ‘teams’ were also hired, each without knowledge of the others, and the final mishmash of everyone’s efforts was eventually worked on by an estimated 17 authors.
The cowardly lion is not a main character in the book, so it has a minor appearance in the 1925 silent film.
Even though Dorothy is a little girl in the books, 16 year old Judy Garland is chosen to play her in the 1939 film, and they had to use either a corset or a brace, depending on whom you read, to suppress her adult breasts and render her flat-chested. This still reportedly didn’t keep the cast from hitting on Judy, especially the actors playing the munchkins. Even as a kid, I thought she was awfully large for a girl, she’s as big as all the men she travels with except for the lion (even though Garland is listed at 4 foot 11 inches). The original choice was Shirley Temple, who was to have been borrowed from Fox in exchange for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, whose tragic early death made that impossible, allowing Garland to get her big break. The studio originally had her in a blonde wig and heavy makeup. Director George Cukor thankfully forced the studio to let her be more natural.
Judy Garland’s real name was Frances Ethel Gumm, and her nicknames were Joots, Miss Show Business and Baby Gumm. She chose the name Judy from a popular 30's song - or it was chosen for her by Louis B. Mayer, depending on who you read. Her salary was just $500 per week, and the Cairn terrier who played Toto, named Terry, was the only cast member paid less, at $125 per week for it’s trainer Carl Spitz. The film’s credits list the dog as Toto ‘as himself’, not as Terry. She ended up receiving a special 'juvenile' Oscar, a smaller statue, for this performance.
Most of the 124 munchkin actors were from Europe and didn’t speak English, as they could find enough little people in Hollywood. Their voices were dubbed by American actors, then sped up to create their high-pitched sound. This is why the voices don’t appear well-synced at all in the film. It was also rumored that they had wild parties and even orgies, something they later denied.
Screen dancer Buddy Ebsen was all set to play the tin man, and had an allergic reaction to the makeup made from aluminum. The aluminum powder was breathed into his lungs, coating them, and he ended up in an iron lung in the hospital; this gave him healthy problems throughout his career, and it wasn’t until his role as Jed Clampett on tv’s Beverly Hillbillies that he again achieved any notoriety as a star.
The film was shot entirely on MGM’s sound stages (which is obvious as Oz has little but perfectly flat ground beneath their feet), but the number of sets totalled 94, so they were each destroyed as later sets had to be built on the same stages.
The always popular song Over the Rainbow was originally cut from the film after bad reaction from preview audiences. After all, musically the song stands apart from all the children’s level songs like "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" and "If I Only Had a Heart", and the adult sentiment of the song hardly seems like that of a little girl. The song was inserted later, and won the Oscar® for best song. As a children’s film, how many kids would be enthralled by that song for three minutes? When I was a kid, we booed any cowboy that kissed a girl or started singing.
Margaret Hamilton, as the wicked witch, was badly burned on her face and hands during her ball of fire exit from Munchkinland, and had to hospitalized; she didn’t return to the cast for six weeks. The take used in the film is the first one because she was burned on the second take, before she fell through a trap door in the stage, assisted by a malfunctioning elevator. She later refused to ride the broomstick billowing smoke, and her stand-in Betty Danko was injured filming that scene.
The munchkins, who were paid $50 per week, augmented their parts as the flying monkeys of the wicked witch, getting another $25 per week for those roles. Many were injured as the piano wire suspending them broke during filming, sending several to the hospital. Maybe Toto was smashed during one of these mishaps.
The tail of Bert Lahr, the lion, was also suspended by piano wire and worked by a crewmember from a catwalk above.
The house used in the tornado sequence was a tiny model one, not even a foot wide.
The Rains Came, which dramatically recreated a famous tragedy in India in 1916, when a rain-weakened dam burst and flooded an inhabited valley.
The part of the wizard was written for W.C. Fields, who turned it down, basically by demanding so much money the studio never agreed to terms.
I never realized until I went to college that poppies (the source of opium and morpine) sent by the wicked witch, made Dorothy’s troupe fall asleep – while snow (sent by the good witch), the nickname for cocaine, made them wake back up. I’m sure this reference is over the heads of most children, though in Baum’s time both drugs were legal and could be bought cheaply at any pharmacy simply by asking for them. In fact, morphine could be bought in bars, usually for a little more than a shot of whiskey. It’s a wonder anyone could even walk home after a trip to a bar.
It took the art department over a week to settle on the shade of yellow for the brick road, finally settling on a basic yellow available for outdoor painting without any remixing.
The monochrome films of Kansas were actually the last to be filmed. King Vidor filmed these scenes, the sixth director that worked on the film if you count producer Mervyn Leroy, also a well-known director. Rather than hand-tint the film sepia, instead the farmhouse was painted sepia, and the clothes were sepia colored.
Directors Richard Thorpe and Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) were dismissed quickly; the only other director to leave his mark was the famour George Cukor (The Women, My Fair Lady). Main credit went to Victor Fleming, who also was the last director to take over Gone With the Wind the following year.
1000 Dvds to See. I didn't appreciate Judy Garland until I saw her singing blues and jazz much later in her career. My current favorite film of hers is Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis, which, for me, has the best Halloween in all of cinema, with bonfires lit in the streets and a fake body thrown on the streetcar tracks. During the Trolley Song, watch for someone yelling out "Hiya, Judy!", causing her to look over but continue the song without missing a beat. This film also features the classic Christmas opp song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". This was the film that brought Judy together with her future husband Vincente Minnelli, father of their daughter Liza.