Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

TINTYPE TUESDAY: Peeking Behind the Curtain of THE WIZARD OF OZ!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY! This week, we’re off to see The Wizard of Oz—and you won’t believe what was going on behind that curtain.

The tornado in Kansas was nothing compared to the blizzard of cast and crew changes—not to mention the many mishaps, including a couple of near-fatalities. Even Toto didn’t escape unscathed…

So hang on to your hamper—here we go!

  • Dorothy: Both MGM unit head Arthur Freed and music maven Roger Edens fought for Judy Garland, but Louis B. Mayer—who often derided the painfully insecure teenager as “my little hunchback”—pressured producer Mervyn LeRoy to do whatever it took to land Shirley Temple for the lead. Fortunately, all attempts to get 20th Century Fox to loan out the wildly popular moppet went nowhere. (However, the long-standing rumor that MGM offered to swap the services of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for Temple is false; Harlow succumbed to renal failure in June 1937, before MGM even had the rights to the book.) Deanna Durbin, whom Mayer openly preferred to Garland, was also considered—but because the film initially had a sub-plot involving Betty Jaynes, another operatic singer, she was dropped from the running. So Mayer had to “settle” for Judy.
  • The Scarecrow: Buddy Ebsen was the first loose-limbed, lanky dancer to step into the role, which would have worked out much better for him, as we’ll soon see… but Ray Bolger ultimately carried the day (and the hay).

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  • The Tin Man: Much to his disappointment, Bolger was first cast in this clunkier role. If he’d only had the heart… but he longed to be the Scarecrow, the part he’d seen his childhood hero, Fred Stone, play in the 1902 Broadway show—which is what inspired him to hit the boards in the first place. “I’m not a tin performer—I’m fluid!” he reportedly pleaded to LeRoy, who finally caved in, allowing Bolger and Ebsen to swap roles. Ebsen was an absolute peach about the whole thing, even teaching Bolger the “wobbly walk” he’d perfected in rehearsals. But no good deed goes unpunished, and this one almost killed him: after about a week of breathing in the toxic aluminum powder that covered his “tin” face, Ebsen was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. (At first, Mayer—who assumed other people’s morals were as low as his own—thought the actor was faking an illness as some sort of contract ploy. So he dispatched his minions to the hospital—where they found Ebsen strapped into an iron lung.) When Jack Haley, on loan from Fox, arrived to replace him, the make-up artists were much more careful: they protected his face with a thick layer of white greasepaint and diluted the aluminum powder into a paste. (Oh, and they never told him why his predecessor left the film—on a stretcher.) Ebsen didn’t vanish entirely, though: his voice can still be heard in the group vocals, as there was no time to re-record them.

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  • The Wicked Witch of the West: Initially, the witch was fashioned along the glamorous lines of the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When she morphed into something decidedly more hag-like—including green skin, a long, pointy nose and a wart or ten—Gale Sondergaard, MGM’s original choice, pointed her pumps toward the exit. Margaret Hamilton was cast just three days before shooting began. Told by her agent she was up for a part in the film, she asked which one. “The wicked witch—what else?” he helpfully replied. (That 10% they get? It ain’t for morale-boosting!) Hamilton proved to be the second casualty on the set: In the scene where she seems to disappear in a cloud of fire and smoke, she very nearly did. At the last minute, a moving platform was supposed to lower her out of harm’s way, but her cape got snagged and she was trapped amid the flames—which fed on the greasepaint and copper makeup slathered on her face, arms and hands. Before she could be pulled free, the fire had seared into her skin, leaving her with second- and third-degree burns. Wise woman that she was, she later refused to do a post-production pick-up scene that involved a flaming broomstick. So they had to make do with maiming her stand-in: the smoke mechanism exploded, burning and permanently scarring Betty Danko’s legs.
  • The Wizard of Oz: After Ed Wynn refused the part because it wasn’t big enough, MGM turned to W.C. Fields, who thought the paycheck wasn’t big enough. During a few protracted rounds of haggling—they offered $75,000, he wanted $100,000—the producers burned while Fields fiddled. They finally gave up and offered the role to Frank Morgan.

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  • Toto:  Shirley Temple may never have made it to Oz, but she did meet Toto five years before Garland did. Terry the terrier appeared in 16 films, including Temple’s Bright Eyes, as well as Fury, The Women and George Washington Slept Here. In Tortilla Flat, she re-teamed with Morgan and Fleming, and in Twin Beds, she reunited with Hamilton. Her $125 weekly salary for Oz was more than double than that of the Munchkins, who each earned $50 a week. And as it turned out, Terry should have gotten combat pay: one of the Wicked Witch’s heavy-heeled henchmen stepped on her tiny paw and broke it, sidelining her for several weeks.

All of which bring us to the director. Or directors. Richard Thorpe, whose previous work consisted mainly of quickie westerns, was first at the helm, but LeRoy felt he was shooting the film more like a low-budget oater than a lavish fantasy, rushing scenes along and not giving the production the care it deserved.

While he searched for a replacement, LeRoy left the project in the tender hands of George Cukor—who, in his brief stint as caretaker, made some critical changes. First, he ditched Garland’s blonde wig and heavy glamour-girl makeup, which made her look ridiculous and feel worse.

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He also told Garland to relax and simply be herself—a lovely, vulnerable teenage girl—which was just what the part called for. Then he did something less crucial but pretty fabulous: he brought in Adrian to design the Wicked Witch’s costume. Which, if you peer beyond the black-on-black, is a real work of art, with its lace bodice, cut-out mutton sleeves, and pouch dangling fetchingly from the hip. To her pointy hat, Adrian added a long, silky-sheer scarf that floats menacingly behind her, like an ill wind.

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Cukor was never meant to stay on when production began in earnest; he was due over at Gone with the Wind. Victor Fleming took the reins in October 1938, and oversaw everything but the sepia-tone scenes (including the Over the Rainbow number) that book-end Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. But the following February, he was called away suddenly… to direct  Gone with the Wind after Cukor was fired. Fleming’s close friend King Vidor came aboard to gently shepherd the crucial Kansas scenes through to completion, but never publicly acknowledged his involvement until after Fleming’s death in 1949.

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And as if Fleming didn’t have enough on his mind during the shoot, he also had to protect Garland from her scenery-chewing companions on the Yellow Brick Road, seasoned old vaudeville pros who were none too excited about surrendering the spotlight to her (as she laughingly recalls in a clip from The Jack Paar Show, below). Ironically, her only close friend on the set was Hamilton, a former kindergarten teacher who gave her some much-needed mothering.

Whew! There’s enough material behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz for a whole other movie…

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a weekly feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

8 Comments

  1. What a fascinating piece — many thanks!

  2. Thanks for the information.

    If you’ve never seen it and have a few minutes to spare, here’s a charming clip I found a while back: Margaret Hamilton making a guest appearance with Mr. Rogers.

    She talks a little about making the movie and gives her analysis of what made the witch what she was.

  3. Many of Garland’s fellow Oz actors, including those who played the Munchkins, later objected to Garland’s characterization of them as hogging scene-stealers, claiming it wasn’t true. Apparently Garland had a penchant for sacrificing accuracy to a good story…

    • Actually, Victor Fleming also complained about the film being “one giant headache,” including, among his complaints, the hamminess of the trio, most notably Bert Lahr… 🙂 But they were fabulous, of course…

  4. One of my favorite movies and many favorite songs — especially, of course, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I guess I never thought about the behind-the-scenes stuff. Interesting! I don’t know how true it was but I read somewhere that when she was 18, she became pregnant by Tyrone Power. The studios back then had so much control over their actors and they forced her to England to have an abortion. Don’t know if it’s true or not. So sad if true.

    • Yes I’ve heard that as well. Betty Asher, the “minder” the studio assigned to her and whom Garland trusted, also told her awful lies about Power to break up the affair. There’s a special place in hell for what Louis B. Mayer and his own flying monkeys did to that girl…

  5. I thought I knew my Oz lore pretty well, but you’ve come up with some new ones on me, missie!

    • Wow, that is the ultimate compliment, my friend!! ❤

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