With the release of Sam Raimi’s CGI-heavy fantasy film Oz the Great and Powerful coming this weekend, it seems appropriate to look back in time more than 70 years to the release of one of the most influential films of all time: The Wizard of Oz.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the story had been made into a film previously (once as a silent film in 1925 and again as a short film in 1933). However, it was Victor Fleming’s musical rendition of the story that left the brightest mark on the cinema landscape. This commentary was included on the 2005 DVD release, which is also included on the 70th anniversary 2009 DVD and Blu-ray discs.
The late Sidney Pollack serves as emcee for the commentary, introducing archival interviews with cast, as well as family members of deceased cast and crew.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Commentators: John Fricke (historian), with archival interviews of Barbara Freed-Saltzman, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, John Lahr, Jane Lahr, Hamilton Meserve, Dona Massin, William Tuttle, Buddy Ebsen, Mervyn LeRoy, and Jerry Maren
1. The entire film was shot on a studio set. In fact, the only location footage in the entire picture are the shots of clouds rolling under the opening titles.
2. The studio originally wanted Shirley Temple as Dorothy, but this was a short-lived hope. Temple was under contract with Fox, who would not release her, and some considered the role to be below her talents. The film was then wrapped around Judy Garland, who had only debuted in features in 1936, a year before The Wizard of Oz was put into development.
3. In the Kansas sequence, there are two deleted scenes in which Hickory (Jack Haley) is working on a “wind machine,” which he describes as “having a real heart” (a nod to his upcoming character of the Tin Man). Later, as the tornado is approaching the Gale farm, Henry finds Hickory tinkering with the wind machine again.
4. Fourteen writers worked on the script in various capacities.
5. The Kansas scenes were shot at the end of the production schedule, directed by King Vidor after MGM sent Fleming to “save” Gone with the Wind. It was Vidor’s idea to add camera movement to the song “Over the Rainbow,” which the studio tried to cut from the film several times before producer Arthur Freed demanded to keep it in.
6. Toto was played by a female cairn terrier named Terri, who coincidentally got her start in a the film Bright Eyes with Shirley Temple. Judy Garland grew so fond of Terri that she wanted to keep her after production wrapped, but trainer Carl Spitz refused to sell her.
7. Ed Wynn was the first choice to play the Wizard, but he turned the role down because the script only had him in the very end as the Wizard himself and a doctor in Kansas. Additional roles were added to showcase a star performer, including Professor Marvel at the beginning, the Oz gatekeeper, the Carriage Driver, the Guard, and a deleted blackface character in the Kansas sequence.
8. The jacket that Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) wears was chosen from a rack of wardrobe clothing. On set, Morgan turned out one of the pockets to discover a label which read, “L. Frank Baum.” Later, Baum’s widow confirmed that the jacket had been made for her late husband, and it somehow found its way onto the set.
9. The tornado special effect was so effective and successful that additional footage was used in 1943’s Cabin in the Waters and 1947’s High Barbaree.
10. Many shots were trimmed down or edited out of the film because they were too intense for families and children. In particular, one deleted shot shows the tornado completely enveloping the farmhouse. Later in the film, many shots of and lines from the Wicked Witch (Margaret Hamilton) were removed because they scared children so badly in test audiences that some kids had to be literally carried out of the theater.
11. The original book happens in reality with Oz as a real place. MGM studio heads felt this fantasy would be too much for audiences of the day to accept, so the Kansas framework was developed, including the corresponding characters in reality which Dorothy dreams about.
12. A total of 124 little people were cast as Munchkins, with heights ranging from 2’3” to 4’8”. The studio originally wanted 300 little people, and to help pad out the numbers, they used eight to ten children in the background, waving out of windows in the village.
13. The only Munchkins to have their real voices recorded on set were the two who stand at the carriage and thank Dorothy for killing the witch so completely. All other voices, both spoken dialogue and singing, were done by famous voice actors of the time.
14. Glinda’s bubble was actually a glass ball that was shot separately with a moving camera and composited into the film. Because Technicolor compositing was so new, it took two weeks of lighting to get the glass ball to look right.
15. The date on the death certificate for the Wicked Witch of the East that the Munchkin coroner presents to Dorothy and the Mayor is May 6, 1938. This is 19 years to the date that L. Frank Baum died.
16. Another change from Baum’s original book was that the original silver shoes became ruby slippers. This change was made because red popped much better in Technicolor than silver did.
17. The “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” lead-in to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was added at the last minute, during the filming of the Munchkinland sequence.
18. A variety of birds were brought onto the apple orchard set from the Los Angeles Park Zoo in order to make it look more like an exterior location. A large crane can be seen stretching its wings at the very end of this scene. According to Fricke, this out-of-focus bird was so blurred on broadcast television and early VHS tapes that people have attributed it to a stagehand walking into the shot as well as the notorious story of an actor (often said to be a Munchkin actor) hanging himself in the background. On the Blu-ray, DVD, and remastered VHS tapes, it is clearly a bird, though many conspiracy theorists and YouTube vloggers claim this has been digitally added. (To be sure myself, I have purchased a vintage VHS tape of the film online and will see what the old version looks like. They should arrive in a couple weeks.)
19. It is well known that Buddy Ebsen was the original Tin Man, but he had an allergic reaction to the aluminum powder in the make-up. He was also the original choice for the Scarecrow, but Ray Bolger fought for the role and won it. The studio bosses thought that Ebsen was faking his reaction to the make-up as a way of protesting the loss of the Scarecrow role, to the point of actually calling the nurse to make sure he was indeed too sick to play the Tin Man.
20. The flying monkey that is seen with the Wicked Witch while she gazes into her crystal ball was named Nikko, and actor Pat Walshe is given a credit at the end of the film for this role. However, due to editing down of the Wicked Witch’s dialogue, his name is never mentioned, so that credit at the end of the film has caused much confusion in audiences over the years. In all, about a dozen actors – mainly Munchkin actors and local L.A. jockeys – played the flying monkeys.
21. The Horse of a Different Color was originally conceived by writer Noel Langley to be a red, green, and purple-striped beast that talked. (Look for beasts like this in Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.) Because the ASPCA kept a close eye on how the horses were treated, the dye was quite harmless vegetable dye or grape, cherry, or lemon Jell-O powder.
22. The Wicked Witch’s skywriting was originally scripted to say: “Surrender Dorothy or Die! – WWW.” The sequence also included several close-up shots of the Witch on her broom. Hamilton refused to do those shots because she no longer wanted to be involved with fire or smoke. During the shooting of this sequence, the broom actually blew up, and Hamilton’s stand-in needed to be hospitalized.
23. The weapons Dorothy and her companions carry into the forest just disappear after the scene cuts to the Witch. They are actually lost during the infamous deleted “Jitterbug scene,” in which the Witch sends an insect ahead to enchant them into a song and dance number. Studio heads decided to remove the scene because they felt the popularity of the contemporary jitterbug dance would date the film.
24. Hamilton’s fake fingernails were made from cut-out film negatives. Her copper-based green paint is well known for being quite toxic, and it resulted in her having a green hue to her skin for months after production wrapped.
25. Contrary to popular belief, the chant that the guards sing outside of the Witch’s castle has no hidden meaning. According to the script, it says: “O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!”
26. According to publicity at the time, Hamilton needed five takes to get the right sense of menace when she lights the Scarecrow’s arm. And the end of the last take, she reportedly fainted dead away.
27. So many lights were needed to film Oz’s throne room that they were borrowed from other studios. Firemen were assigned to the set to ensure there were no accidents, and this was a good thing because at one point, the throne itself caught on fire from the effects.
28. The Scarecrow’s recitation of what appears to be the Pythagorean theorem when he receives his diploma (“The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side”) is actually incorrect on multiple accounts. (It should be: “The sum of the squares of the two shortest sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the remaining side, or hypotenuse.”) According to Fricke, this is the biggest inside joke of the entire film.
29. In the original book, the gifts the Wizard gave Dorothy’s companions were different. The Scarecrow got bran with nails and pins poured into his head, so he had “bran new brains” that was also sharp. The Cowardly Lion was given a bowl of mysterious liquid, which the Wizard said wouldn’t be courage until it was inside him. The Tin Man got a plush heart, not a clock.
Best in Commentary
- Margaret Hamilton: “I had that nose for quite a long while.”
- Jerry Maren (leader of the Lollipop Guild): “I’d never seen another littler man or woman in my life before then. It was really exciting. Man, they’re all over the place. Do I walk like that? Do I talk like that?”
- Ray Bolger: “I thought of the Scarecrow as a man without a brain, and it fitted me.”
The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite films of all time. Even today, its artistry in set design, photography, make-up, and effects holds up to many modern films. It’s a real shame that DVD commentaries weren’t around when many of the people involved were alive and/or younger, as the first-hand accounts would have been amazing to hear.
While I have no quarrel with Fricke, who does dispense some excellent tidbits of information throughout the recording, he does tend toward reading prepared notes rather than talking off the cuff. This leads to a more stilted commentary, but I have come to expect this of the classic films that pre-date DVDs by 50 years or more. The archival interviews are interesting, but the real meat is in the stories that Fricke tells.
Still, the commentary is more for the die-hard Wizard of Oz fan than the casual audience member. But I have to wonder: who isn’t a fan of this movie? It’s as watchable today as it was when I was a child.