MGM bought film rights to L. Frank Baum’s very popular 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in January 1938, after seeing the stunning success of Snow White. Some people had assumed films based on fairytales and kids’ stories were no longer salable, but Snow White showed that was far from accurate.

Several different writers were brought on board before the final polished product was approved. In William H. Cannon’s initial 4-page outline, the fantasy elements were significantly toned down in response to fantasy films not being popular lately. His version strongly resembled Larry Semon‘s hideous 1925 version, without any magic.

Multiple other writers simultaneously wrote their own independent scripts, which was common practice at the time. After countless rewrites, it was finally finished on 8 October 1938. The majority of people who’d worked on the script got no screen credit.

According to an oft-repeated story, Shirley Temple was considered for the part of Dorothy. What a radically different film this would’ve been had she and not Judy Garland gotten the part! The film probably would’ve been a lot cutesier and not have aged so well. Deanna Durbin was also considered for the part.

Ray Bolger was cast as the Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow, but Bolger most wanted to play the Scarecrow because his childhood idol, Fred Stone, had played that role onstage in 1902 and inspired him to enter vaudeville. Producer Mervyn LeRoy amiably agreed to let them switch roles.

Sadly, Ebsen had to leave production because he had severe allergic reactions to the aluminum dust in his makeup, resulting in a long hospital stay. Typical of the era, he was forced to keep working through this serious health crisis. TPTB didn’t believe he was ill until an irate nurse interceded when Ebsen was forced back to work.

When Jack Haley took over the Tin Man role, the makeup changed to aluminum paste. Ebsen suffered breathing problems for the rest of his life.

W.C. Fields was originally slated to play the Wizard, but studio execs lost patience negotiating his salary. Wallace Beery then requested the role, but the studio refused to let him take so much time off from making other films. Frank Morgan was finally chosen for the part.

Gale Sondergaard was the original Wicked Witch of the West, but was displeased when the character took a turn from sly and glamorous to the typical ugly hag. Her replacement, Margaret Hamilton, suffered from more than just ugly makeup. During the second take of her departure from Munchkinland in a column of fire, she suffered second-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on her hand.

She was in hospital and recuperating at home for six weeks. After her return, she refused to do any other scenes with fire.

During her recuperation, her stunt double and stand-in, Betty Danko, had another fiery accident. A smoking pipe meant to resemble a broomstick exploded during the third take. She spent eleven days in hospital, and her legs were permanently injured. When studio execs called, her doctor gave them a piece of his mind and said if she were smart, she wouldn’t return to work for them.

Aline Goodwin, the next stand-in, completed that scene.

Remarkably, the song “Over the Rainbow” was almost one of the many things which was cut. MGM thought the Kansas portion was already too long and not so geared towards kids, their target audience. They also thought it degrading for Judy Garland to sing in a barnyard.

The song later won Academy Award for Best Song of the Year.

One song that was deleted was “The Jitterbug,” where Dorothy has a sing-off against an Oz princess (intended to be played by Betty Jaynes) who’s outlawed all forms of music. To cut the running time, this scene and song were left on the cutting room floor, never making it to the camera.

Another never-filmed scene featured Dorothy promising Kansan Hunk (the Scarecrow) she’ll write to him while he’s away at agricultural college. This was meant to explain why Dorothy’s more partial to the Scarecrow than her other two friends.

Given all the problems plaguing production, and how long it took to hammer out the final script, it’s a wonder this film went on to such massive success!

One thought on “The Wizard of Oz at 80, Part II (Behind the scenes)

  1. Isn’t it terrific that Disney’s SNOW WHITE did the opening of the gate so that people could see that filming WIZARD OF OZ would be possible – and marketable?

    Like the first TOY STORY or PAGEMASTER or CASPER did for computer graphic imagery and the supercomputer type stuff that Pixar does and did?

    “In William H. Cannon’s initial 4-page outline, the fantasy elements were significantly toned down in response to fantasy films not being popular lately. His version strongly resembled Larry Semon‘s hideous 1925 version, without any magic.”

    So the elements were very down-to-earth and down-home reflecting Dorothy’s alienation and disillusion and went well with the Depression-era structure. Cannon knew what he was doing when he made that outline.

    Semon’s version had NO magic in it? And for what other reasons was it hideous/do you consider it hideous, Carrie-Anne?

    “Multiple other writers simultaneously wrote their own independent scripts, which was common practice at the time. After countless rewrites, it was finally finished on 8 October 1938. The majority of people who’d worked on the script got no screen credit.”

    When you’re doing a big project like that – people knew what they had written and said and how it fit into the WIZARD OF OZ universe.

    “According to an oft-repeated story, Shirley Temple was considered for the part of Dorothy. What a radically different film this would’ve been had she and not Judy Garland gotten the part! The film probably would’ve been a lot cutesier and not have aged so well. Deanna Durbin was also considered for the part.”

    Durbin sounds like a good possible what-if. She seemed more mentally stable too than either Temple or Garland [though I know I’m on shaky ground when it comes to Temple Black’s later life].

    “Ray Bolger was cast as the Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow, but Bolger most wanted to play the Scarecrow because his childhood idol, Fred Stone, had played that role onstage in 1902 and inspired him to enter vaudeville. Producer Mervyn LeRoy amiably agreed to let them switch roles.”

    And that whole working through crises of the health variety… that does tell us a lot about working conditions in the 1930s and after.

    A bit like Laurel and Hardy and their later/last films.

    “Gale Sondergaard was the original Wicked Witch of the West, but was displeased when the character took a turn from sly and glamorous to the typical ugly hag. Her replacement, Margaret Hamilton, suffered from more than just ugly makeup. During the second take of her departure from Munchkinland in a column of fire, she suffered second-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on her hand.”

    A lot of viewers would have been displeased too – if the ugly hag was not exactly what so many of them wanted. 1939 was ready for a more complex Witch on the grounds of Baum’s work.

    Burns! That column of fire – it seems to have gone wild a lot in the first third of the 20th century, especially on film sets and similar confined locations.

    And the whole Kansas reasoning? Maybe there could be a bit at the beginning; a bit at the end; and a bit in flashbacks. Or was Oz an extension of Kansas and/or where the reader/kid lived?

    “One song that was deleted was “The Jitterbug,” where Dorothy has a sing-off against an Oz princess (intended to be played by Betty Jaynes) who’s outlawed all forms of music. To cut the running time, this scene and song were left on the cutting room floor, never making it to the camera.”

    What a shame about THE JITTERBUG. You could put it there to change the mood or have it as a tiny jingle.

    And isn’t this Oz princess in some of the other stories? I do remember some princesses who weren’t into music…

    Or FOOTLOOSE and a fantasy sequence/dream sequence. [yes I know that was 50 years later].

    “Another never-filmed scene featured Dorothy promising Kansan Hunk (the Scarecrow) she’ll write to him while he’s away at agricultural college. This was meant to explain why Dorothy’s more partial to the Scarecrow than her other two friends.”

    This is a lovely and sentimental [if not sententious] piece of information. Good to know that they could have had relationships out of Oz if they wanted and were able to. Puts another nail in my theory.

    Like

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