The Wizard of Oz (1939) Review

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Director: Victor Fleming et al

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1939 is possibly the greatest year in cinematic history with the release of films like Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. Interestingly enough, both films have a storied history and even overlapping directors. Victor Fleming was the primary director of the film (replacing two other directors, the first of which was George Cukor), however he left the production to direct Gone with the WindOz was nominated for many Academy Awards, however it lost the award for Best Picture to Gone with the Wind, also directed by Victor Fleming. There were a total of four directors who collaborated in the making of the film: first, Richard Thorpe (for almost two weeks) and then George Cukor (for two or three days). Victor Fleming (the credited director) was involved for four months, but was hired away by David O. Selznick to direct Gone With the Wind (1939). An uncredited King Vidor finished the production in ten more days, which consisted mostly of completing the film’s opening and closing sepia sequences in the Kansas scenes. He did not publicly take credit until his friend Victor Fleming died in 1949. Oz won with the Academy in two other respects: Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow” and Best Original Score by Herbert Stothart.

It was MGM’s most expensive production to date, making incredible use of technicolor. It was previously made into various stage productions and musicals, as well as silent shorts throughout the 1910s and 1920s. It was followed by a television series, animated versions, and production sequel many years later featuring Liza Minelli, Judy Garland’s daughter, as the lead.

The Wizard of Oz is the quintessential film of Hollywood at its glamorous heights, with equally dark and sinister undertones. The film is a triumph, but the backstory of much of its cast is a tragedy. It is a collection and compilation of various great songs and cinematic brilliance. The Wizard of Oz, the mirror of Hollywood in many ways, is a classic -one of the greatest films ever made.

The film had an incredible band of screenwriters, some credited, as the script was constantly being revised throughout the pre-production of the film. One of the writers was Herman J. Mankiewicz, screenplay writer for Citizen Kane.

The Story

The Wizard of Oz is somewhat loosely based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel called “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” MGM bought the rights to the children’s story in 1938.

A wide variety of differences exist between Baum’s children’s story and the film (in the book she wear silver shows, not ruby slippers for starters). The book tells the story of the young Dorothy (named after Baum’s niece who wound up tragically dying at five months old) and her dog Toto, as they adventure in the magical Land of Oz (so-named because Baum had a file cabinet with a drawer that read “O to Z” on it). The book was dedicated to his wife, Maud Baum. An early play based on the book was spawned out of Chicago in 1902. It became the seminal American fairy tale, based on old Germanic myths like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen stories, as well as Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The scarecrow is based on a nightmare Baum had as a child in which he is chased by a scarecrow. Some have suggested the story is a political allegory for the populism of the time. This was never confirmed by Baum. He eventually wrote 14 books in the Oz series. Baum’s father was a real estate and oil businessman, a nemesis of Rockefeller. In later Baum grew ill from years as a traveling actor and the family moved to Hollywood where they bought a home called “Ozcot”. Baum died in 1919 and thus never saw his most successful story put to film, however his wife, Maud, survived him by 34 years and even promoted the film in her later life.

The film’s dedication at the outset reads:

For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion. To those of you who have been faithful to it in return…and to the Young in Heart…we dedicate this picture.

At any rate, the film’s plot can be condensed as follows: Dorothy is a small town Kansas girl who lives with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, and she is tired of her drab life and longs to take her little dog, Toto, far away from an evil spinster who lives nearby. The early scenes mirror Expressionistic sepia tone themes (some of the last scenes to be shot, and were completed by King Vidor). During a violent tornado (which was shot as a 35 foot long stocking with chicken wire to capture the effect) Dorothy is struck on the head, and promptly transported to a faraway land of the Emerald City (all in Green), where the people in her life become unique new characters in a fairy tale. She mets a scarecrow (who was just made the day prior – he began to see as his eyes were painted on and hear as his ears were created), a tin man (or a tin “woodsman” as he is called in the book, and in the book he was once a normal man who had a munchkin lover so he was cursed by the wicked witch so that every time he axed a tree his limbs would be cut off instead of the tree so as each limb was hacked away he got the local worker to replace his limbs with prosthetic-tin limbs. Thus he entirely became a tin woodsman, but as a consequence he lost his heart and also lost all romantic interest in his lover so he focused on his woodsmanship until he rusted stiff for a year lost in the woods until Dorothy comes along and he decides to go with her to ask the Wizard for a heart.), and a cowardly lion (in the book the lion is an actual lion and in the book he was a much more heroic lion, who is secretly cowardly). In the book they all head toward the emerald city to seek the wizard but also they seek to kill the wicked witch, so she sends hoards of creatures who are brutally killed by Dorothy’s friends. At any rate, the early scene of Dorothy’s house spinning away and bring dropped out of a tornado was filmed shooting a miniature house dropped onto the set (with a backdrop of the sky) and then played back in reverse. She makes new friends and travels down the yellow brick road through the forest (where the studio rented real birds from the Los Angeles Zoo to appear more natural) to Oz where she defeats the wicked witch of the west and is rewarded by the Wizard of Oz with the things she and her friends lack (though curiously not the cowardly lion) and she is granted the chance to return home. The film closes with Dorothy’s words after she has returned to Kansas: “There’s no place like home…” In the book, Oz is a real place -her uncle has to rebuild their home and her aunt asks Dorothy where she has been.

The film was filled with many errors and mishaps: you can see Dorothy’s braided hair change sizes in various scenes, in one scene she is wearing black not ruby shoes, when the flying monkeys swoop down a couple of their cables broke sending the actors crashing to the ground, one of the wicked witches henchmen accidentally jumped on top of Toto, spraining his foot, and a double dog was brought onto the set as a replacement, and the tin man cries chocolate syrup to create the illusion of oil, Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minelli later married the son of the tin man (1974-1979). The “over the rainbow” song was almost not included in the film as a result of Louis B. Mayer thinking it too sad, but producer Mervyn LeRoy threatened to quit if it was not included. There is also a popular conspiracy that a munchkin hanged himself in the background of the set during the song “we’re off to see the wizard,” though this is likely a live bird in the trees, as the film crew rented birds from the Los Angeles Zoo. Asbestos was used as the fake snow in an iconic snow scene in a field of poppies. asbestos, the carcinogen, was used widely in Hollywood as fake snow. It was also used to make the scarecrow’s costume in the film to keep it flame-proof. The stunning scene where we are first introduced to the technicolor world was shot in a unique way. A double of Judy Garland appears in a grey room (the whole set, and her dress are colored brown and black and grey) and she opens the door to a technicolor world. Off-screen she hands Toto to Judy Garland who is dressed in her typically blue and white dress as she walks onto the extraordinarily colorful scene.

Editing continued after production was complete, including cutting a musical scene called the “jitterbug.” The only known footage to exist of this scene is from a home movie composer Harold Arlen captured off to the side of the scene. In the final cut you can hear the wicked witch reference the original, in which she would send her insects, or flying monkeys, to force people to dance the jitterbug. In an early edition of the script Dorothy and the scarecrow were intended to be romantically involved (perhaps why she says she will “miss him the most” at the end).

Among many theories of the film, one exists suggesting that Glinda the good witch is actually the villain of the film, as she does not explain to Dorothy that she has the power to return home at any time by simply clicking her heels together. The musical adaptation Wicked explores this theme further by portraying the wicked witch of the west as a more relatable, positive character (which is somewhat more in line with the book).

The film was a notorious box office flop, despite its massive production costs, and it did not turn a profit until it was re-released in 1949. It was a huge critical success, and had a massive marketing budget in which the studio blasted Judy’s face all across the country, and upon the film’s release Judy and Mickey Rooney, her sometimes co-child star, appeared live after the close of the film delivered a performance in-person. Despite all this publicity, the film was a financial flop until the advent of color television, where it became an annual showings on the holidays.

Judy Garland
Judy Garland (whose real name was Frances Gumm) was only 13 when she signed with MGM. She came from a vaudeville family, and she became good friends with Mickey Rooney, fellow child actor and then the largest child actor star in Hollywood, but they were never romantically involved off-set. Garland had an incredible voice, delivering amazing live performances. In 1961, she later gave one of the greatest live performances of all time, including her famous “Over the Rainbow.” As a child her family gave her pills for energy, as well as the film studios. She missed out on future film opportunities with Fred Astaire due to her drug addictions. One of her other big films was A Star is Born in 1954. Her mother put tremendous pressure on her daughters, a woman she later called the “real wicked witch.” Her father was bisexual and only married their mother for their performance act, they constantly fought, and he was rumored to make advances on young men at the family theater. He died shortly after she signed with MGM.

Judy got married despite her mother’s and the studio’s disapproval and after she got pregnant and forced to get an abortion so they divorced. She caught her second husband in bed with her male employee, she immediately tried to kill herself by cutting her wrists. They had a daughter Liza Minelli. Her third husband was a gambler and a drunk. He continued to try to con her even years after their divorce. Her fourth husband slept with their daughter’s husband (Liza Minelli). Her fourth husband was openly gay. “friend of Dorothy”. Liza supported her mother financially and many times kept her from killing herself. In her later life she was alienated by her children, she was homeless and crashed on couches of her fans so she could hide out and get small gigs and hide out from the IRS. She died just three months after marrying her fifth husband at the age of 47, the victim of an accidental overdose.

Louis B. Mayer, executive of MGM, was reportedly sexually inappropriate with Judy, and he forced her to look younger in many films. He also called her his little “hunchback.” Oz was both the beginning and the end of Judy Garland’s career. Other child actresses were considered. The studio pumped her full of uppers in the morning and downers in the evening -on a rigorous diet of chicken soup, coffee, and cigarettes to suppress her appetite. She was also on diet pills which caused insomnia. She was 17 years old playing a nine year old character so they forced her to wear an uncomfortably restricting costume. Judy was not well-liked by other actors on set as they felt she received too much attention. She and Margaret (the wicked witch) were the only friends on set. Margaret was, ironically, a former kindergarten teacher. Judy developed severe body image issues as well as drug addiction throughout her difficult life. She was later fired from MGM for failing to attend filming sessions. She had multiple nervous breakdowns and died at age 47 in 1969.

Other Cast Members
Each actor in the film had a successful career before and after the film, but none would be as remembered as Oz. For her performance, Judy won her sole Oscar, a special award for ‘juvenile’ actors. She is one of only a small handful of people to ever receive the award: others include Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, and several others.

Ray Bolger was initially cast to play the tin man, but being a dancer and fan of the scarecrow, he convinced the studio to switch him to the scarecrow role. He was replaced by Buddy Ebsen (best known as Jud on “The Beverly Hillbillies”) as the tin man, but the aluminum dust as part of his costume caused a serious medical emergency and after nine days his lungs failed and he was put into an oxygen tent. The dust caused an infection/allergic reaction in his lungs and the pain was so brutal that he thought he would die. He was then replaced by Jack Haley and swapped out the dust for a silver paste causing him a serious eye infection but after four days of lost shooting, he was able to return. On the original soundtrack you can still hear Buddy Ebsen’s voice in “We’re Off to see the Wizard.” No footage of Ebsen as the tin man has ever been released.

The munchkins were short people, many people from Europe using the film as an excuse to flee Nazism. Only a small handful could speak English, and they conducted the voice-overs. One of the last surviving munchkin actors died in 2009. In 2007 the munchkins were given a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. The dog Toto was payed more per day by the studio than were the munchkins. The munchkins were known for being promiscuous and drunk on the set. There are many stories of the munchkins engaging in rowdy, all-night, binge parties and sexual liaisons.

The costume for the cowardly lion was made with hair and skin from real lions, weighing 60 pounds. Burt Lahr sweated heavily under the costume and the filmmakers made an industrial drying bin to dry it out each night.

Actor Frank Morgan played five different roles in the film, including the Wizard. W.C. Fields, another noted alcoholic, was initially chosen to play the Wizard, after Ed Wynn turned it down (he thought the role was too small for him), however the studio got tired of haggling over Fields’s fee so they instead cast Frank Morgan. Morgan brought a briefcase to the set every day filled with all manner of alcohol, as he was a severe alcoholic. If he didn’t drink every day, he was a miserable person to work with. Amazingly, by chance, he happened upon a thrift store which sold Mr. L. Frank Baum’s jacket, a jacket he wore in the film as the Wizard (it had Baum’s inscribed inside it).

As mentioned above, the fearsome wicked witch played by Margaret Hamilton was actually a former kindergarten teacher. During the second take of the scene in which the ‘wicked witch’ departs from munchkin land in a blast of smoke and fire, she received second degree burns on her face and third degree burns on her hands. The only way to get the green paint off her skin was with alcohol. She was out for six weeks and refused to be featured in any scenes featuring fire or explosives. Thus her stunt double (Betty Danko) was featured in the scene of the witch flying on a broom leaving a message in smoke behind her broom, but on the third take of this scene an explosion happened in the pipe permanently scarring her legs. Another stunt double was brought in to finish the scene. Margaret wore gloves for the rest of the filming since they couldn’t apply the green paint to her burned hands. Hamilton’s green make-up was highly toxic, forcing her to partake of a liquid diet while filming.

2 thoughts on “The Wizard of Oz (1939) Review

  1. Pingback: The Big Parade | Great Books Guy

  2. I always enjoyed seeing The Wizard Of Oz when I was a kid and therefore never missed a chance to see it whenever it aired on TV. Sadly it’s harder to watch it now knowing all the personal problems and health risks that the cast, especially Judy Garland, endured on the set. The price for a career in the movies is always enormous and quite often tragic. But like all true fans, I’m very grateful to the powers that be for making The Wizard Of Oz one of the cornerstones of movie magic.

    Liked by 1 person

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