#31 – The Wizard of Oz
Great films are alchemy: their magical formulas can never be repeated or explained. When we look at what producer Mervyn LeRoy and MGM had in store for this production, we can thank the Movie Gods for moving heaven, hell, and circumstance to engineer the finished product. MGM originally envisioned perky Shirley Temple as Dorothy, pernicious W.C. Fields as The Wizard, and lovely Gale Sondergaard as a beautiful, glamorous Wicked Witch of the West. To say the least, that would have been… a very different film. From the scripting to the casting to the production design to the costumes to the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography to the songs to the direction to the performances, The Wizard of Oz emerges as a one-of-a-kind miracle of a film in which all the pieces fell into place.
Given the film’s status as a beloved piece of everybody’s childhood, we forget that The Wizard of Oz is actually a classic Hollywood musical from the very beginning of the era (era) that saw MGM’s dominance of this genre. The Wizard of Oz is an early example of an “integrated” musical in that the songs and dance numbers are not merely for ornamentation but exist to define character (“If I Only Had A Heart” and “If I Were King of the Forest”) and advance the storyline (“Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard”). This is interesting in that many histories of the musical cite Oklahoma on Broadway as the first integrated musical, but Wizard was completed in 1939-- Oklahoma would not debut until 1943.
Beauty and the Beast singing “There must be more than this provincial life,” Aladdin and Jasmine pondering “A Whole New World,” Pocahontas exhorting us to see her situation with nuance so we can paint with all the “Colors of the Wind,” and Mulan tunefully wondering when her “Reflection” will show what is truly inside of her. A new children’s film trope is born, courtesy of The Wizard of Oz.
(By the way, the now iconic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” scene was actually directed by King Vidor and not credited director Victor Fleming. Fleming could not be on the set that day because he was deep into pre-production on his other 1939 film, Gone With The Wind.)
But the borrowing goes both ways. Walt Disney always maintained that, for the happy parts of any tale to ring true, the scary parts needed to be truly scary. The Wizard of Oz seems to borrow a page from that Disney master plan (specifically the evil witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released two years earlier) and provides its young audience with the stuff of childhood trauma. If Margaret Hamilton’s performance and make-up as the Wicked Witch wasn’t scary enough (“I’ll get you, my PRETTY!”) the film offers up those nightmarish winged monkeys that have always seemed uncanny in their execution. Are they costumed, masked children? Are they little people? Are they a freakish genetic experiment gone horribly awry?
Thanks to the Internet, we are all familiar with the urban legend of a stagehand (in some versions of the tale, it’s a munchkin!) hanging himself on set and actually being visible in some shots of the forest. That story is bunk, but an unusual amount of calamity did beset this film during production. (No, no one was actually crushed by a house.) Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man, but was rushed to the hospital after the make-up department first applied the aluminum dust to make him silver by spraying it; the aluminum dust coated the inside of his lungs. When Jack Haley took over the role, they applied the aluminum as a paste. Margaret Hamilton too was rushed to the hospital after the fiery exit in her first scene actually set her on fire. Her green make-up was copper based, which made her burns more severe.
The Wizard of Oz’s three miracles: Career-best performances from the entire cast, but especially the five leads (Jack Haley once revealed that his engaged, breathless line readings were inspired by the way he read bedtime stories to his children); beautiful, literate songs written by the team of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg and sung by the incomparable Judy Garland; and CBS television’s smart decision early on to show the film only once a year, which made it something special to look forward to around Easter.
“In nomine Baum, et MGM, y spiritu Garland. Amen.”