Dark Secrets Behind the Making of ‘The Wizard of Oz’
Few films enjoy the cult status and enduring popularity like The Wizard of Oz. This 1939 American musical fantasy by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) is considered one of the greatest cinema masterpieces in history. However, when it came to creating the movie, everything wasn’t rainbows and poppy fields.
On Aug. 15, 1939, Hollywood premiere of the film classic The Wizard of Oz, the story of a tornado that hits Kansas and transports a young girl named Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, to a magical place called Oz, where she embarks on a journey to track down the wizard who can help her go home.
MGM had pulled out all of the stops for the movie, spending $3 million (about $55 million today), desperate to match the commercial success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And it worked: The film won two Academy Awards for its music — “Over the Rainbow” won best original song and made Judy Garland famous— in addition to earning nominations for best picture, best cinematography, art direction and special effects. Commercially speaking it made decent money when it was released, but made even more money after CBS aired it for the first time on Nov. 3, 1956.
By 1967, TIME could declare that it had become “the most popular single film property in the history of U.S. television.” The movie had made Garland a “national legend,” the magazine continued. But despite its commercial success, The Wizard of Oz is seen by some as cursed.
There were so many serious accidents on set that those Oscar-nominated special effects almost cost cast members their lives, from the two actors playing winged monkeys crashing to the ground when the wires that hoisted them up in the air broke, to the Wicked Witch of the West’s stunt double Betty Danko injuring her left leg when the broomstick exploded.
Ten years Judy’s junior, Shirley Temple, was considered as the leading role of Dorothy. After she failed to impress the studio bosses, because she didn’t have the vocal range, they turned their attention back to Garland. But she wasn’t a perfect fit either so the studio literally shaped her for the role.
Judy was 16 when she was chosen as Dorothy and had started to develop a young woman’s body. To make her appear younger, they taped down her breasts and put her in a tight corset to cover her curves. She also wore facial prosthetics in form of removable teeth caps and a rubber disc which changed the shape of her nose.
The control of Judy’s body was not just external but also internal, and her mother was in on it too. It was Garland’s mother, Ethel, who pushed Judy to perform when she was just three years old.
According to the biography Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke, Judy was only 10 when her mother introduced her to pills: uppers for getting up, and downers for going to sleep. The studio system and its gruelling schedule intensified young Judy’s need for pills and by the age of 16, when she was making The Wizard of Oz, she was a full-on addict.
To make matters worse, Louis B. Mayer and the MGM bosses called the young star a ‘fat little pig with pigtails’. To control her weight, Garland was put on a diet of only chicken soup, black coffee, cigarettes, and diet pills (on top of the ones she already took).
But the abuse of the studio elders was not only emotional, it was physical too. While filming a scene with the Cowardly Lion, Judy couldn’t stop giggling.
The film’s director Victor Fleming pulled her to the side, slapped her across the face, and said: “Now go in there and work”. Garland went back to the set and did the scene in one take.
Judy Garland would die at the age of 47 from a pill overdose, the same pills she was introduced to as a teen. She never got over her addictions and it is often stated that the movie she was best known for ruined her life.
This is what she said about how the studio treated her: “They had us working days and nights on end. They’d give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills.
Then after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling but it was a way of life for us.” One of the drugs given to Judy was Benzedrine, also known as speed.
Everyone was scared of the witch in The Wizard of Oz, but instead of fearing her, we should have been scared for her. Margaret Hamilton played the movie’s ultimate villain, the Wicked Witch of the West. She was so committed to her craft that she endured burns, hospitalisation, and toxic chemicals.
To start with, her face was covered in green paint which contained toxic copper. The paint had to be thoroughly cleaned off with alcohol at the end of the day. Luckily, the chemicals didn’t cause the actress any harm, but the next step did.
Margaret filmed the scene where she leaves Munchkinland in a cloud of flame and smoke, and it went well. They were ready to switch to another scene, but the film’s director Victor Fleming wanted another take, just to be safe.
This time Margaret’s hat and coat caught on fire, and the skin on her face and hands got severely burned. To treat her burns her green paint had to be removed with alcohol. The actress spent six weeks in the hospital and returned before healing completely. To avoid the green paint she wore gloves till the rest of the filming and refused to do any pyrotechnic scenes.
However, the famous skywriting scene still had to be filmed so a stunt double was brought in. Betty Danko was chosen as Hamilton’s stunt double. She was sitting on a pipe filled with fire, which represented the broomstick, when it exploded. Betty was hospitalised for 11 days and never worked with fire again.
Dorothy was not the only character who had been recast, the Tin Man was too, but for a much, much worse reason. Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Scarecrow and Ray Bolger as the Tin Man. After Ray insisted that he should be the Scarecrow due to his singing and dancing abilities, the roles were switched.
Buddy Ebsen was now the Tin Man and they started filming. After they applied the aluminium dust on his face, which was toxic, Ebsen had a major allergic reaction. But no one believed him and he was ordered back to set. Only after the medical personal got involved and saw the severity of his situation, did they take him seriously.
Ebsen was hospitalised in critical condition because the aluminium had coated his lungs. Buddy Ebsen would complain of breathing problems for the rest of his life. He never appeared in The Wizard of Oz since he was replaced and his scenes refilmed.
Jack Haley was the new Tin Man, and the aluminium dust was replaced with aluminium paste. Still, Haley ended up with a severe eye infection and filming had to be postponed.
Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow, didn’t go unharmed either. His costume made him so hot that he was constantly on the brink of fainting and after the movie was done, he ended up with permanent scarring on his face.
Everyone who watched the movie can’t forget the scene where it snows on a poppy field. Magical as it may have looked, it was poison that was falling from the sky. The snow was made out of pure asbestos, a substance which when inhaled can lead to serious lung problems, including asbestosis and cancer. The use of the dangerous substance didn’t stop there. The Wicked Witch’s broom and Scarecrow’s suit were also laced with it.
The aim of a good costume is to paint a realistic picture of the represented character, but sometimes it can be a bit too realistic.That was the case with a particular ensemble in The Wizard of Oz.
The costume of the Cowardly Lion, played by Bert Lahr, was made out of a real lion pelt. It weighed 60 pounds and that wasn’t even the biggest problem. Under the studio lights, the temperatures used to get alarmingly high and Bert was at constant risk of overheating.
He sweated so profusely in the costume that the studio had to get an industrial drying bin to dry it for the next day. Lahr’s son, Herbert, shared the following insights: “The Lion’s suit was very interesting. It was a real lion skin, and it weighed 60 pounds. My dad had to be in it all day, he couldn’t eat because of the way the mask was, so he had to eat his lunch through a straw.”
MGM executives initially wanted to cast Leo the Lion, the iconic lion from their logo, in the role of the Cowardly Lion. They would’ve hired an actor to dub over the character’s dialogue and Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow would’ve been joined by an actual live lion on the set.
Unsurprisingly, the insurance company wouldn’t even entertain the idea and Bert Lahr was cast to play the Cowardly Lion in a costume.
The only footage in the entirety of The Wizard of Oz that was shot on location are the clouds that appear over the opening titles.The shot of Dorothy’s house falling from the sky was achieved with some movie trickery. A miniature house was dropped onto a painting of the sky on the soundstage floor, then the film was reversed to make it look like the house was falling out of the sky.
MGM almost cut the “Over the Rainbow” musical number from The Wizard of Oz, because executives felt that it made the Kansas-set opening too long, and also worried it would go over kids’ heads. Luckily, the executives allowed the number to stay and “Over the Rainbow” was later given the top spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs in American Films.
They were the residents of the surreal world of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz , but behind the scenes the adult dwarf actors were hard-drinking, sex-mad hellraisers.
The revelation that 16-year-old Judy Garland was constantly groped by some of the Munchkins will come as no surprise to those who witnessed their wild antics.
Ex-husband Sid Luft wrote in an unfinished memoir: “They’d make Judy’s life miserable by putting their hands under her dress.” But the Hollywood legend appears to have taken their advances in her stride, even when they were at their most brazen. One of the 124 actors hired by MGM as Munchkins for the 1939 movie tried to get the teenage starlet out on a date.
Judy said: “One of them, a gentleman of about 40, asked me for dinner. He was about two inches high, and I didn’t want to say, ‘I can’t, because you’re a midget’. So I just said, ‘No, my mother wouldn’t like it’. And he said, ‘C’mon, bring yer ma, too. Two broads for the price of one’. ”The actress, added: “There were hundreds of them, they put them all in one hotel. They got smashed every night and the police would pick them up in butterfly nets. The poor things.”
That was the Culver Hotel in Hollywood, and it became the epicentre of the dwarves’ drunken debauchery for the eight weeks they stayed there during filming. The police were regularly called and, as well as butterfly nets, they had to find new ways of apprehending the revellers.
In one incident at their Culver City Hotel, Actor David Niven had been walking past their hotel and witnessed several Munchkins were resisting arrest for being drunk and disorderly. “With hands too small for cuffs and no restraints of a suitable size, the hotel laundry had been called upon to help. Niven watched as nine policemen emerged from the foyer, each holding a wriggling, writhing and a rather heavy pillowcase.”
When it came out, "The Wizard of Oz" was neither a commercial or critical success. The New Yorker said it had "no trace of imagination, good taste or integrity" and the New Republic said it was full of "freak characters." Nonetheless, it was nominated for six Oscars, and won for best original score and best song for "Over the Rainbow."Garland also received a special "juvenile" Oscar, to which she joked that she wasn't good enough for an "adult" award.
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