Yesterday, wandering through Beverly Hills, I ogled a private home that looks as though it should house a Wicked Witch or two. It was a vivid reminder that Los Angeles -- land of giant donuts, movie palaces modeled on Chinese temples, and a suburb named after Tarzan of the Apes -- has always spawned fantasy. Today it’s clear that fantasy, Hollywood-style, is still very much with us. I’m referring to the blockbuster opening of Disney’s Oz, The Great and Powerful, based on characters devised by one of SoCal’s adopted sons, L. Frank Baum. Now the race is on for both Disney and Warner Bros. (which holds the rights to MGM’s classic Wizard of Oz) to bring additional Oz material to the waiting public.
Surely, nothing will ever supplant the 1939 musical in our collective imagination. But The Wizard of Oz, which has been called the most watched motion picture in history, didn’t start out as a surefire hit. I’m taking most of my information from Aljean Harmetz’s invaluable 1977 account, The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Harmetz, whose mother had toiled in the studio’s wardrobe department, provides an insider’s view of the twists and turns surrounding the film’s completion. Her book, one of the first “making of” volumes ever written, captures an era that itself is now very much somewhere over the rainbow.
For one thing, fantasy was something new in Hollywood back then. It was only because Walt Disney’s Snow White had been a worldwide sensation that MGM ventured its own brand of once-upon-a-time. The financial risks were huge. Idiot’s Delight, starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer, and based on a drama direct from Broadway, shot for 8 weeks at a cost of $1,519,000. This was about average for a major MGM film in 1939. By contrast, Wizard of Oz took 22 weeks to shoot, and cost $2,777,000. MGM would not recoup its investment for twenty years, until television sales made all the difference.
Then there were screenplay and personnel problems. Believers in auteur filmmaking should know how many hands wrote the script, and how many directors stepped in to call the shots. Famously, Judy Garland became Dorothy when Fox wouldn’t lend out Shirley Temple, and Buddy Ebsen had to relinquish the role of the Tin Man ten days into production because the aluminum powder makeup made him deathly ill. Margaret Hamilton, who became justly famous as the Wicked Witch of the West, was a last-minute replacement for Gale Sondergaard, who objected when her role shifted from a glamorous but deadly villainess (as in Disney’s Snow White) to a green-faced hag.
In 1939, special effects were still primitive, and Margaret Hamilton bore the brunt of an experiment in the Munchkin Land sequence. As she remembered, “There was a little elevator that was supposed to take me down, with a bit of fire and smoke erupting to dramatize and conceal my exit. The first take ran like clockwork, I went down out of my clothes, the fire and smoke erupted, and that's the one you see." But on the second take, the timing was off, and she was exposed to the flames. The grease in her copper-based makeup caught fire, leading to second-degree burns on her face and hands. She was hospitalized for six weeks, before returning to the Culver City lot.
Harmetz faults The Wizard of Oz for sentimentality, but also argues for its psychic power in capturing and surmounting childhood fears: “It is in the tangled subtext—beyond or beneath art—that the film has remained alive.” Let’s see James Franco top that!