THE WIZARD OF OZ —–“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more….. Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!….. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…… I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!….. There’s no place like home.”
The Library of Congress deemed it “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale.” No need for any plot synopsis on this one: if you are somehow unaware of Dorothy & Co., and their perilous pilgrimage to the Emerald City, you’re either too wee to read or too clueless to help. Entire books–at least eight–have been written on this 1939 fantasy touchstone of essential Americana (sweet Kansas farm girl, awesome tornado, cute dog) blended with the dark lesson legacies of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Raw talent, studio expertise, built-in nostalgia, eternal camp value, chills that echo from childhood, smiles you can’t hold back and great songs—in Technicolor! “We’re off…!”
L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz” was published in 1900. In the first musical play version, two years later, Toto was absent, replaced by a cow named Imogene. One of the social highlights of its 6-year tour came in Chicago, when visiting Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich from Russia drank champagne from a satin slipper one of the chorus girls had scampered in.
Before M-G-M took on the task for a special Technicolor extravaganza, it had been done as silents in 1915 and 1925. At least 18 individuals had a hand in contributing to the script, officially credited to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf. Produced by Mervyn LeRoy, it was directed by Victor Fleming, taking over from George Cukor (on it for one week) who’d replaced Richard Thorpe (one week). King Vidor finished up when Fleming left to tackle the daunting enormity of Gone With The Wind.
Edgar “Yip” Harburg wrote the songs, with music by Harold Arlen (“Over The Rainbow” was almost deleted!) and Herbert Stothart did the scoring, which nabbed him an Oscar. Another of the little golden men went to “Over The Rainbow”, and there was an Honorary Juvenile Award for beleaguered trouper Judy Garland (who also charmed that year in Babes In Arms). Further nominations went up for Best Picture, Cinematography, Art Direction and Special Effects.
Over several grueling months, gulping $2,777,000 ($50,799,000 today), it wasn’t an easy shoot. ‘Tin Man’ Jack Haley: “People question me, like you’re questioning me now, say ‘Must’ve been fun making The Wizard of Oz.’ It was not fun. Like hell it was fun. It was a lot of hard work. It was not fun at all.” Haley replaced Buddy Ebsen, who’d been poisoned by the aluminium dust in his makeup. Sweetheart pro Margaret Hamilton (‘The Wicked Witch Of The West/Miss Gulch’) suffered 1st and 2nd degree burns on her hands and face that took three months to heal; later her stand-in Betty Danko was similarly severely scorched when she took over witch-duty for Hamilton, making $35 for the stunt that disfigured her legs. As for those 124 unruly midgets, in his autobio, producer LeRoy wrote “there were fights and orgies and all kinds of carryings on. Almost every night the Culver City police had to rush over to the hotel to keep them from killing each other.”
After the toil and tumult of production, another $630,750 (equal to $11,538,000 today) was spent on a nationwide marketing blitz. Figures for its resultant money reap are all over the Yellow Brick Road. Without bogging into warring statistics (your frazzled scribster is getting muy fed up with trying to untangle box-office stats in general), the gist is that while it made money on initial release, tagging 9th place for the year, it did not make enough to cover the prodigious outlay, and would not until re-released a decade later. Immortality came on the small screen: it is said that with the decades of mass-audience television showings, it’s the most-seen motion picture in history.
It was with those traditional yearly TV airings, starting in 1956, that successive generations were won over. The charm and chuckles, the songs, settings, scares and sentiments of this fabulous fantasy transcended entertainment value to become a cherished, immutable part of our cultural DNA. Any child (or grownup who kept their imagination) not freaked out by flying monkeys isn’t allowed into the treehouse. That tornado? “Holy dirt clod! Dad, do they have those?” A horse covered with jello. Rhinoceros? (if you can’t answer, leave the forest).
101 minutes, with Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin (‘Uncle Henry’), Clara Blandick (‘Auntie Em’), Pat Walshe (‘Nikko’, the chief Winged Monkey).
* Some stray straw—costume designer Adrian made 3,210 sketches for his creations. Of the five pairs of Ruby Slippers used, one was stolen, three have fetched Emerald-high prices at auction and one sits in the Smithsonian (waiting to be clicked to whisk us away from this nightmare age). Dorothy inspired Dawn Wells ‘Mary Ann’ character on Gilligan’s Island, so millions of guys owe a slobber debt that can only be repaid in the next life.
Speaking of pure, the snow in the Poppy Fields sequence was made of 100% industrial-grade chrysotile asbestos. Twenty men spent a week sticking 40,000 wire-stemmed poppies onto the set. A distracted Winkie Guard stepped on one of Toto’s paws (history’s most famous Cairn Terrier was played by ‘Terry’) and broke it.
Per bitchy yelps, one Russell Maloney of “The New Yorker” sneered that it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity”; this, from the ragazine that would inflict the Wicked Witch of the East Coast, Pauline Kael, on the world; where’s a falling house when you need one? Way later in the gotcha game, more trenchant wag Rick Polito of the “Marin Independent Journal” gained some fame for his one-line review: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”
Those among us familiar with the drug culture of—uh, let’s see—1965-2022—-may have a dazed & confused recall of the woo-woo synchronicity culled from playing Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “Dark Side Of The Moon” with our heroes trek into “all those colors, man” (just sayin’…)
FYI, Munchketeers: “The Winkie Chant” does not, sad to say, have lyrics like “All we own, we owe her…” The screenplay has them droning “O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!.” Now, be a good monkey, put the DVD in and hear the great and powerful truth.
Perspective 1939…. as the insane political world geared up to release a cataclysm, America’s West Coast wonderland of artists, technicians and showmen let rip a cascade of bona fide classics and crowd-pleasing goodies that offered shelter from the approaching storm. Keeping Cowardly Lions from surrendering were…
Adventures—Beau Geste, Stanley And Livingstone, Gunga Din, The Four Feathers, Only Angels Have Wings, Five Came Back
Thrillers—Son of Frankenstein, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (“Elementary, my dear Watson.”) and The Hound Of The Baskervilles, The Roaring Twenties
Westerns—Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Dodge City, Jesse James, Union Pacific
Dramas—Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Of Mice And Men, Intermezzo, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Rains Came
Comedies—The Women, You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, Idiot’s Delight, Ninotchka
Historical Epics—Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along The Mohawk, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
Gone With The Wind
Though they’d all been around, finally breaking big that year were Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Wayne. Landing in the States to show us how it’s done were Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Making debuts: Ingrid Bergman, Edmond O’Brien, Peter Cushing, Linda Darnell, Richard Conte, Victor Mature, Greer Garson, Dirk Bogarde, Jennifer Jones and Veronica Lake.
Deranged dictators should have clued in: any country that could produce all that fun while rolling out battleships, tanks and B-17s isn’t one you want to rudely wake up from a nap. “There’s no place like home…”