There's no film like "The Wizard of Oz."
What better way to ring in the new year by dedicating my first blog post to the 1939 classic, "The Wizard of Oz."
There is no denying that "The Wizard of Oz" is the most watched film of all time. As children, a majority of us are introduced to this classic tale through the screen. Kids are very impressionable and as children we all take something different away from this movie. I know that even as a kid, that moment Dorothy opens the door and the film switches from sepia to technicolor, I was convinced that at one point, the world was actually black and white and eventually found it's color.
But as an adult, I watch this movie now and see it in a different light. Having been fascinated by what seemed to be a groundbreaking movie for its time, I grew up reading biographies, watching documentaries, and researching what went on behind the scenes during production of this film. Along with being one of the most universally known and referenced films of the 20th century, it is also one of the most researched films. There are very few facts today about the production that would shock fans of this film as so much has already been revealed.
So what makes this film so legendary? So iconic? Is it the beautiful composition of music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg? The way Judy Garland serenades us with her rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" which ranks #1 on multiple lists of the greatest songs of the 20th century?
It could be the imaginative cinematography of Harold Rosson.
Or perhaps it is the strong dynamic of characters we meet throughout the film?
Or is all about the shoes?
Released in 1939, which is widely considered to be the most outstanding year in motion pictures, "The Wizard of Oz" was up against stiff competition with films like "Gone With the Wind," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Women," and much more. But no film at that time went through as harrowing a production process as "Oz" did.
In January of 1938, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." After the success of Walt Disney's first animated feature film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," released a year earlier, MGM was eager to capitalize on the success of translating popular children's stories onto the big screen.
"The Wizard of Oz" had already been made into a feature film in 1925 during the silent film era and was not received well by critics. This time around, more attention to detail was needed and the script went through multiple revisions until October of 1938 when the final draft was completed, though numerous rewrites would follow. Several writers contributed to the script but only three received credit in the film: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf.
"Oz" went through FOUR different directors during production; unheard of at the time. The first Director was Richard Thorpe, who shot about two weeks of footage until Mervyn LeRoy (head of production at MGM) felt Thorpe was rushing production and had him replaced with George Cukor. However, Cukor did not actually shoot any scenes for the film. Working more as a creative advisor, he made several changes to the production including altering Dorothy Gale's original blonde wig and heavy makeup to a more natural look.
Assuming the title of Director next would be Victor Fleming who, pleased with the changes Cukor made, took on the project and would be considered the "main director" of the film. Come February of 1939, Victor Fleming left production to replace George Cukor as director for another epic MGM production that was waging it's own battles, "Gone With the Wind." King Vidor would go on to replace Fleming and shoot the rest of the production which mainly included the Kansas sequences and Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow." In the opening credits of the film, Victor Fleming is the only director listed.
Casting for "The Wizard of Oz" was no easy task. With different opinions on who should be cast in roles as well as unexpected changes in casting during production, the shooting schedule only seemed to lengthen.
Gale Sondergaard was originally cast as The Wicked Witch of the West but turned down the role because she did not want to play such an evil character.
Famous dancer Buddy Ebsen, initially cast as The Scarecrow, switched roles with actor Ray Bolger and was cast as the Tin Man. Ten days into shooting, Ebsen suffered a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum powder makeup he wore and was hospitalized. Soon after he was forced to leave the production. Jack Haley would go on to play the Tin Man.
When casting the lead role of the young girl from Kansas who finds herself in the magical land of Oz, studio executives were divided between a select few actresses. Ultimately, Mervyn LeRoy wanted up and coming star Judy Garland but it is believed that during early production of the film, child star Shirley Temple was in negotiations to take the lead role of Dorothy Gale. Temple drew in a much larger crowd than Garland and studio executives thought her name attached to the picture would create a bigger box office draw. With Judy still on their minds, the studio sent MGM composer Roger Edens to listen to Shirley sing. After her audition, Edens felt Garland's vocals would far surpass Temple's in the leading role. Shirley Temple was also under contract with 20th Century Fox and it is speculated that they would not release her from her contract to do the film. Regardless by that point, the studio had found their Dorothy.
Judy Garland in early wardrobe tests as Dorothy.
Filming for “The Wizard of Oz” started on October 13, 1938 and over the next six months, the production would go through multiple script rewrites, changes in staff, and a schedule that consisted of most of the cast working six days a week up to fifteen hours a day. Because of the complex technicolor process at the time, the set could be as hot as 100 °F. Over a hundred little people were cast to play the Munchkins. MGM costumer Adrian had to design over 100 costumes for the Munchkin sequences. In total, over 3,000 costumes were created for the film.
The “Oz” set also underwent some very bizarre moments during production. While shooting the scene in which the Wicked Witch of the West exits Munchkinland, actress Margaret Hamilton needed to go to the concealed elevator which would lower her below the stage. We see in the film an explosion of fire as she is lowered down giving the illusion that she has disappeared. The first take went well but in the second take, the flames set fire to her makeup and caused second-degree burns on her hands and face. Hamilton would later refuse to do the scene in which she flies on a broomstick that billows smoke. Her stand-in, Betty Danko performed the scene and was severely injured due to a malfunction in the smoke mechanism.
There is also the infamous rumor that one of the Munchkins committed suicide on the set and can be seen hanging in the background during a scene in the movie.
Margaret Hamilton in an early wardrobe test as The Wicked Witch of the West.
Many of her scenes were edited due to the fact that the studio thought she would be too frightening to children.
Shooting of “The Wizard of Oz” concluded in March of 1939 but over the next few months, multiple reshoots had to be done under the direction of Mervyn LeRoy. This long post-production project also included composing the film’s background score as well as perfecting the use of sepia and technicolor in the film and the MGM art department painting the backgrounds throughout the film.
Test screenings of the film began on June 5, 1939. At a running time of nearly two hours, the studio needed to cut the film down to the average running time of 90 minutes. After cutting out a few dance sequences and musical numbers, the studio was debating whether Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” scene should be cut from the film, thinking that it was degrading for Judy to be singing in a barnyard. But Mervyn LeRoy, Arthur Freed, and Victor Fleming all fought to keep the song in the film and it resulted in an Academy Award for Best Original Song and iconic status as one of the greatest songs of all time.
The film was officially released on August 25, 1939. Overall reception of the film was positive. Upon its worldwide release, the film made a total of $3,017,000 which was a considerable amount for its time but with the high production cost, the film was not very profitable. It wasn’t until the film’s rerelease in 1949 and it’s first television screening in 1956 that “The Wizard of Oz” began making much higher profits in distribution and started to gain a huge following as a staple in pop culture.
"The Wizard of Oz" was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, but lost to the more well-received and profitable “Gone With the Wind.”
For years, there has been much debate among Oscar fans over whether or not “The Wizard of Oz” deserved more award consideration than David O. Selznick’s civil war epic. Personally, I think that in 1939, a historic year in cinema, “The Wizard of Oz” was so imaginative that perhaps it was a little ahead of its time while “Gone With the Wind” had a lot of elements that audiences wanted to see in theatres at that time.
Would I give the award for Best Picture to “The Wizard of Oz” today? Yes. But in 1939, “Gone With the Wind” was so big, so extravagant, that it was an undeniable winner.
Both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” are in my TOP 10 films of all time.
So why is “The Wizard of Oz” in a league of its own? What make this film, released almost 80 years ago so iconic? Looking at this film not just as the average movie goer but as someone with a vast knowledge of cinema, I think the answer is very simple: NOSTALGIA.
I think most move goers remember a handful of films that they watched when they were young and those select movies stick with them for the rest of their lives. Sometimes living in the present can be so formidable that looking back on the past can be very inviting and those traces of nostalgia are often what keeps our spirits going.
As the audience, we all take something different away from this film, not every movie has that effect on people.
As a gay man, growing up in a small Midwest town, “The Wizard of Oz” was a dose of sanctuary for me. Watching Dorothy go from a world where everything is black or white and travel to a fantasy land where everything is vibrant, colorful, and magical was very important for me. Yes, she battles enemies in both worlds but through it all, she is accepting of those who are different and fights to survive and even though where she comes from, not everyone understands her, all she wants is to go home, to find her place somewhere “over the rainbow.”
There is no film like “The Wizard of Oz.” After nearly 80 years, no film can compare to the cinematic experience one goes through when watching this masterpiece. Whether it is your first or hundredth time watching, you will find yourself transfixed on the imaginative cinematic splendor of “The Wizard of Oz.”