"The Wizard Of Oz" Film Marks 70th Anniversary
August 25th marks the 70th anniversary of the release of one of the most beloved films in cinema history. Film historians reckon that "The Wizard Of Oz" might be the most viewed films of all time. As with other cherished things, behind the scenes stories have become almost legendary - whether they were true or not. Here are a few that you may not have known...
The transition between the sepia toned Kansas scenes and the technicolor brilliance of Oz is an inspired way to bring audience into the dazzling world of color, but Oz is not the first color movie in film history. There had been about a half dozen other color films beforehand (not counting the many partial color and tinted films of the silent era), and of course the full color "Gone With The Wind" premiered a few months later, so industrywide color production was well on its way. Manufacturers and hopeful inventors were experimenting with a color film process almost since the invention of motion pictures.
This was not the first film made of Oz. The author of the dozen plus Oz books, L. Frank Baum, created the Oz Film Manufacturing Company expressly to create gentler cinematic fare aimed at children than the violent cowboy films of the day. The company made three silent films of Dorothy's adventures that are only tangentially related to the books. Baum also toured what we would today call a multimedia show of Oz with film clips and live actors on a stage. No roadshow footage survives, but the other Oz works are available on DVD.
Wizard of Oz only barely recouped its production budget on first release, and wasn't considered much of a financial success until a re-release some years later. It showed no signs of becoming a timeless classic until the advent of television when its broadcast became an anticipated yearly event.
The troubled production had four directors. These were the days of contract players in the studio system, and directors were thought to be just as interchangeable. It's amazing that with so many behind the scenes difficulties, and so many changes in direction and cast that the film is as consistent as it is.
Originally Ray Bolger was not cast as the scarecrow, instead he was the tin man. He persuaded the powers that be to swap his role with Buddy Ebsen (yes, Jed Clampet) who then played the tin woodsman. Tragedy nearly struck when aluminum dust from the tin man's original makeup coated the inside of Ebsen's lungs and he nearly died in the hospital. The part was quickly recast with Jack Haley (after a quiet change to the nature of the makeup), though if you listen to early choruses of "We're Off To See The Wizard", you can still hear Ebsen in the soundtrack. Just listen for his hard midwestern R's. Ebsen also well outlived the entire original cast.
"Over the Rainbow" was cut out of an early edit of the film. MGM thought it was unseemly for one of their stars to be singing in a dirty barnyard, and that the song slowed the film down. The number was wisely reinserted, was celebrated as the breakout song from the movie, became Judy Garland's theme song for the rest of her bittersweet career, and a lovely song for the rest of us.
Since the mid 90's, fans of the Pink Floyd album "Dark Side of the Moon" have claimed that you can sync up the album at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz and the LP and the movie link up in weird ways. The effect is actually quite eerie. Many have claimed that the sync-up is too close to be a coincidence, but the band says that it is indeed just that. Get out your turntable, and look up "Dark Side Of The Rainbow" to learn more.
As of right now, six of the original Munchkins are still with us. There's a persistent myth that in one of the scenes in the haunted forest, you can see an unhappy Munchkin hang himself in the finished film. This has been established to be one of the many bits of hired-in movie wildlife - looks to be a large crane in this instance.
One of the difficulties with any legendary enterprise is to get past the legend to the true facts. It's much the way that all the documentaries I've seen about Orson Welles promise not to get caught up in the legend of the man, which they quickly do. With Oz, many books rapidly fall in love with the source material, so it's difficult to learn much of value. After a long search, I did however find an excellent book about Oz that really discusses MGM Production No. 1060; "The Making Of The Wizard Of Oz" by Aljean Harmetz. You'll gain new insight into this miraculous movie, and learn what a miracle it is that it ever actually happened at all.