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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

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.

Accidents

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.

Box office

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.

Sources: IMDB, oz.wikia.com

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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