Nerd History (w/Tom Elmore): The Wizard of Oz That Wasn’t – an 80-Year Retrospective

2019 will mark the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) fantasy/musical is considered the most watched motion picture in history thanks to its numerous re-releases and over six decades of airing on television.

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The cast of Judy Garland as Dorothy, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, Margret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and Frank Morgan as the Wizard are all so etched in our consciousness’s that it is virtually impossible to think of someone else playing those roles, and yet had it not been for some quirks of fate, the cast may have looked like this:

 

The Cast

 

  • Shirley Temple as Dorothy

 

While Oz was always intended to be a starring vehicle for Garland, the fact is that some of the powers-that-be at MGM wanted Temple as Dorothy, since she was one of the biggest box office stars in Hollywood. In addition, ten-year old Temple was only a year younger than the book’s 11-year old Dorothy, while Garland was 16

 

MGM representatives visited Temple at her home studio, 20th Century-Fox, and had her sing the songs written for Oz. However, Temple’s voice was not strong and powerful enough for them. While some claim that this caused MGM to lose interest in Temple, others say that 20th Century-Fox’s studio head, Daryl Zanuck refused to loan her.  Zanuck rushed into production The Blue Bird a Technicolor musical fantasy starring Temple to compete with Oz. However, the film became Temple’s first critical and box office failure, and was the beginning of the end of her film career.

 

  • Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow, Ray Bolger as the Tin Man.

 

Bolger and Ebsen were both popular song and dance actors. However Bolger felt that his style of dancing would be better suited for the Scarecrow role. Consequently he convinced the studio and Ebsen to switch parts. While Bolger’s argument was valid, cynics point out that Bolger had read the book and would have known that the Scarecrow was a bigger part.

 

  • Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Man

 

Ten days into filming as the Tin Man, Ebsen (best remembered as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies) noticed one evening that he “took a deep breath-and nothing happened! It felt like no air had reached my lungs.” He was rushed to a hospital where doctors determined that Ebsen was suffering from an allergic reaction to the aluminum dust used in the Tin Man’s make-up; it had also coated his lungs. Ebsen would spend two weeks in an oxygen tent and another month recovering, and suffered from respiratory problems for the rest of his life. Ironically, when he died in 2003 he was the last surviving major participant in the film. His recordings for the film have since been released on DVD and CD.

 

In the meantime Haley, a former vaudeville performer, who also had his own radio show, took over the role never knowing until years later what had happened to Ebsen. The make-up department changed the make-up from a powder to a paste, which caused an eye infection that forced Haley to miss four days of filming.

 

  • Leo the Lion as the Cowardly Lion.

 

There was an early suggestion that the MGM mascot, whose roar was heard at start of every MGM film, be used as the Cowardly Lion with an actor dubbing the lines. No knows for sure if this was a joke or a serious idea. Regardless, it was quickly discarded in favor of Lahr (Born Irving Lahrheim), also a former vaudeville performer. Ironically, Lahr, who ad-libbed most of his lines, got the best reviews of the adult cast members.

 

  • Gale Sondergaard as the Wicked Witch of the West

 

Sondergaard was a personal favorite of Oz’s producer Melvin LeRoy. Three years earlier he had directed the actress in her debut film Anthony Adverse, for which she won an Oscar. Afterwards, LeRoy put Sondergaard in as many of his films as he could.

 

Together they created the original concept of the Wicked Witch: a beautiful, but stern looking woman, inspired by the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She would have worn a black sequin hat and a tight fitting black sequin dress. Though to be safe, they also had a wardrobe test done of Sondergaard in “ugly” make-up. Soon afterwards LeRoy told her, “I can’t make the witch a glamourous witch. The children need that wicked, hateful witch. And I don’t want you to be an ugly witch.” Sondergaard agreed. “In those days I was not about to make myself ugly for any motion picture.” She left the project and never had any regrets about It. Ironically, Sondergaard was in The Blue Bird.

 

Margret Hamilton, who Bolger described as “not the most beautiful woman in the world, although she had a beautiful interior,” got the part. Hamilton, who made a career out of playing plain and unglamorous women,  brought to the film an advantage over her co-stars, not only had she read the book, but she had also previously played the witch in a community theatre production.

 

  • Ed Wynn as the Wizard

 

Wynn was LeRoy’s first choice to the play the Wizard. Best known today for playing Mary Poppins’ laughing, floating Uncle Arthur, and the voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Wynn had made a successful leap from vaudeville to radio and Broadway. However the part, as written at the time it was presented to Wynn, was small, with only two appearances. Because of this Wynn, much to his later regret, turned it down.

 

  • C. Fields as the Wizard

 

The legendary comic actor was LeRoy’s next choice for the Wizard. (Many connected to Oz felt that Fields should have been the first choice.) LeRoy even had the script writer’s start writing lines to fit Fields’ style and personality.

 

However Fields refused. Money was apparently an issue. Fields allegedly wanted $150,000 to do the picture. However, there is a letter, probably written by Fields and signed by his agent saying that the comedian turned down Oz to finish the script for Universal Studios’ You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man. Though some reports said that Fields and MGM did come to an agreement, either the studio either reneged on the contract or the shooting schedule of You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man prevented Fields from being the Wizard. (Though one cannot help but to suspect that Fields may not have really wanted the part and used it as leverage with Universal.)

 

LeRoy started looking at MGM’s large roster of character actors to find his wizard, when out of the blue Frank Morgan begged for the chance. Why Morgan, who specialized in befuddled characters, wanted the part remains a mystery, but he was cast as the Wizard after doing a “marvelous” and “funny” ab-lib screen test where he stunned everyone with his knowledge of the script.

 

  • Billie Burke, who played the Good Witch of the North, Glinda, was the only actress considered for the role.

 

The Directors

 

Besides all the casting drama, there were four directors who worked on the film. In the assembly line model of film making that MGM used in the 1930s, most preproduction was done before the director was assigned. Often the director would simply be handed a script and told to shoot it. If the studio did not like what the director was doing, they would replace him with another director.

 

  • Richard Thorpe

 

Thorpe never knew why he was chosen to direct Oz. Certainly nothing in his previous credits, mostly westerns, action/adventure and crime dramas, suggested that he would be an ideal director for a musical fantasy. Shooting began on October 12, 1938. When LeRoy started seeing the rushes, he realized that he had made a mistake. Consequently, Thorpe was fired after two weeks of shooting, though the MGM publicity machine claimed that Thorpe was ill, and had him whisked off to Palm Springs to keep him away from reporters.

 

  • George Cukor

 

Although he was about to start shooting Gone With the Wind, Cukor had some free time and LeRoy asked the Oscar-winning director and Hollywood legend to look at the completed film footage and offer his advice. Though Cukor’s worked on Oz for only three days, his contributions were significant. He recommended discarding a blonde wig that Garland had worn and to tone down her make-up to make her look more natural and less like a fairy-tale character. He also told Garland not to act “too cute” and be more real. Cukor also modified the make-ups for the Scarecrow and the Witch.

 

  • Victor Fleming

 

At first glance Fleming, was an odd choice for Oz. He was known as a “man’s man” and his action/adventure films, reflected his personality. Yet he was also known as a director who could save troubled productions. More importantly to LeRoy, he felt that Fleming had “the mind of a child” which is what the director of Oz needed. Fleming at first refused, but was convinced by both LeRoy and MGM head Louis B. Mayer to take on the project. Fleming later said he did it for his two daughters whom he greatly adored.

 

Fleming brought in John Lee Mahin, the last of ten writers who worked on the script to polish the final draft. After four days of script revisions, shooting restarted from scratch on November 4. Fleming directed the Technicolor sequences, but on February 12, 1939 he was released from directing Oz to bail out another troubled production, Gone With the Wind. (Cukor and the film’s star Clark Gable had clashed to the point Gable was threatening to quit) However for several weeks Fleming did double duty, directing GWTW by day and editing Oz with film editor Blanche Sewell by night. Together they delivered a two hour rough-cut on March 15.

 

  • King Vidor

 

The day after Fleming was assigned to GWTW, King Vidor, listed in the Guinness Book of World’s Records for having the longest career as a film director (1913-1980) took over the picture. Vidor, who was nominated for the Oscar five times for best director, directed all the Kansas sequences including the memorable Over the Rainbow musical number. Vidor claimed that this was the first singing number in a film where the singer walked instead of just standing still. Incredibly, MGM almost cut the scene from the final print, as they felt it was too long and that it was demeaning for Garland to sing in a barnyard. Intensive lobbying from LeRoy and others convinced Mayer to put the sequence put back in. The song would go on to win an Oscar.

 

Vidor finished principal photography on March 16, 1939; however, reshoots and pick-ups were done into May with LeRoy directing. At one point MGM considered crediting Fleming and Vidor as the film’s Co-Directors, but the idea was dropped after objections from Fleming. Vidor’s involvement in the film would not be made public until after It was not until after Fleming’s death in 1949.

The film we know today premiered August 15, 1939. The projected shooting of eight to nine weeks had turned into seven months, when accounting for retakes. The final budget came out to $2.8 million dollars making it MGM’s most expensive film to date. Consequently, the film would not be declared profitable until its 1949 re-release. While it is possible that the star power of Shirley Temple and W.C. Fields may have made it a more profitable picture, it is debatable if it would have been a better picture.

 

The single best single source for the behind the scenes story behind the film is Aljean Harmetz’s 1977 book The Making of the Wizard of Oz. The movie is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.

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-Tom Elmore
Staff Writer/Resident Historian
Nerd Nation Magazine

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