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'The Wizard of Oz' should have been a disaster

By Jeff Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19 2013 11:00 a.m. MDT

The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), Dorothy (Judy Garland) and Glinda (Billie Burke) in "The Wizard of Oz."

Warner Bros.

These days, it doesn't take much for a big-budget studio movie to get branded a disaster, even months before release. A soaring budget, on-set tensions, out-of-control talent, alienated fans — all of these things spell train wreck.

But every once in a while, a movie manages to overcome the bad luck or divine wrath or whatever it is that seems to plague it throughout production and become a genuine hit. Call it the “World War Z" effect.

If ever there was a film that must have seemed doomed for failure, though, it was MGM’s 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

As the almost 75-year-old classic returns to theaters this weekend, now in IMAX 3-D, it seems appropriate to take a quick look back at some of the reasons its enduring legacy is nothing short of a miracle.

Script

Everyone knows the expression “too many cooks in the kitchen.” That certainly applied to “The Wizard of Oz,” especially when it came to its script.

More than a dozen writers took a crack at adapting Baum’s story, including, at different points, poet Ogden Nash as well as Bert Lahr, who ended up being cast as the Cowardly Lion.

One of the big hurdles the writers felt they had to overcome was the premise itself of a girl traveling to a magical, faraway land. The studio thought it was too fantastic for 1939 audiences to accept.

One early version of the script completely stripped the story of any magical qualities. Instead, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion were turned into simple farmhands who dress up in disguises like the characters from the book.

A later version, however, introduced the idea of a wraparound story that made Dorothy’s trip to Oz nothing but a dream. Imagine the outcry now if an adaptation tried something like that.

Ultimately, the final script was a Frankenstein monster, barely stitched together from pieces of multiple drafts, but even that was still changed pretty drastically during filming and editing.

Directors

Nowadays, shuffling directors midproduction is one of the telltale signs of major problems on a film. Just recently, for example, Pixar made news — and not in a good way — for replacing the director on one of its upcoming animated features, “The Good Dinosaur.”

Things under the studio system were a little different, but “The Wizard of Oz” didn’t change directors once. It did it multiple times. All together, five different people sat in the director’s chair before production finally wrapped. Of the five, only Victor Fleming — the fourth in line — received onscreen credit.

While Fleming’s contribution was without question the biggest, it was his predecessor, George Cukor, who helped established much of the film’s tone before heading off to shoot a little movie called “Gone with the Wind” (on which he was later replaced, once again, by Fleming).

One of the most obvious changes Cukor made was to Dorothy’s appearance. Before he took over, Judy Garland had shot her scenes in a blonde wig and thick “baby-doll” makeup that Cukor felt was inappropriate for the character, requiring extensive reshoots.

The last director to contribute was none other than King Vidor (“War and Peace”), who shot most of the Kansas sequences, including the song “Over the Rainbow,” although he kept silent about his involvement until after Fleming, a close friend, had passed away.

Filming

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