Despite its legacy, shooting “The Wizard of Oz” was anything but a magical experience.
The actors were forced to deal with miserable working conditions. For roles requiring heavy makeup like the Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch, they had to be on set as early as 4 or 5 a.m., and filming would drag on until 7 or 8 p.m.
What’s more, due to the special lighting requirements of three-strip Technicolor, arc lights would heat the set to more than 100 degrees. For Lahr, whose Cowardly Lion costume was made of real lion skin and weighed around 90 pounds, the heat was unbearable, causing him to sweat profusely. During production, two people had the job of staying up all night to dry the sweat-soaked costume so they could film the next day.
Production also ended up lasting a lot longer than expected. Originally contracted for six weeks, Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch) ended up working for 23. During that time, she was forced to adopt a liquid-only diet to avoid ingesting the witch’s green makeup. Most of her dialogue, however, ended up getting cut because her character was deemed too scary.
From the beginning, “The Wizard of Oz” was plagued by serious accidents.
Most famously, Buddy Ebsen, the actor originally cast as the Tin Man, nearly died when aluminum dust from the silver makeup coated his lungs, making it impossible to breathe. He spent two weeks recovering in an oxygen tent, during which time the part was quietly recast with Jack Haley (although Ebsen’s singing voice can still be heard in the final film).
Another serious injury occurred while filming the Wicked Witch’s flashy exit from Munchkinland. After delivering the line, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too,” the actress was supposed to disappear through a trap door in a burst of flames. On the second take, Hamilton’s copper-based makeup caught fire along with her broom and hat. She suffered second-degree burns and spent six weeks recovering before returning to finish production.
After that, Hamilton’s stunt double, Betty Danko, was also hospitalized when the smoking pipe she was sitting on for one sequence exploded, causing permanent scarring to her legs.
And on another occasion, several actors portraying the flying monkeys were injured when the piano wires suspending them snapped.
Even Toto didn’t escape unscathed. In a scene at the witch’s castle, one of the guards stepped on and broke Toto’s paw.
In the words of “Conan the Barbarian” director John Milius, though, “Pain is temporary, film is forever.” It speaks volumes about the professionalism of the actors and crew that “The Wizard of Oz” was able to keep going despite the many injuries and mishaps.
One oft-repeated myth involving “The Wizard of Oz” was that it was a complete flop. It wasn’t. In fact, it was actually one of the bigger hits of 1939, pulling in around $3 million.
Unfortunately, it was also MGM’s most expensive movie to date. Due to the primitive Technicolor process, production costs came in at around $2.8 million, meaning it barely broke even.
Through TV, however — and especially thanks to the advent of color television sets — “The Wizard of Oz” managed to find its real fan base two decades after its initial release. From 1959 to 1991, it received a special annual broadcast on CBS that helped make up for its lackluster box-office performance and establish it as a perennial family favorite.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.
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