The Wizard of Oz at 80, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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!

The Wizard of Oz at 80, Part I (General overview)

Released 25 August 1939, The Wizard of Oz is almost universally considered one of the greatest films of all time. Has anyone not seen this film at least once?! Giving a plot summary seems almost pointless, since everyone’s familiar with it! The Library of Congress says it’s the most-viewed film in history.

The film came out in what many historians and laypeople alike consider Hollywood’s all-time greatest year. So many classic films débuted in 1939. I’d rate 1927 as the next-greatest year for film.

L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been adapted to the silver screen 23 times since 1908, including films about side characters, parodies, sequels, cartoons, and loose adaptations. The most famous is the seventh version discussed here.

The film is famous for starting in black and white, shifting to Technicolor, and ending in B&W. It shows the two artistic modes of filmmaking can exist side-by-side harmoniously, just as many films in the late Twenties (and in some countries into the Thirties) wonderfully blended both silent and sound storytelling.

Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and her little dog Toto (a female Cairn Terrier named Terry) live in rural Kansas with Dorothy’s Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Trouble starts when busybody neighbour Almira Gulch complains Toto bit her and gets an order from the sheriff to have Toto euthanised.

Dorothy, bound and determined to protect her furry buddy, bicycles away with Toto, but he jumps out of the basket and runs back to the farm. Dorothy then decides they’ll run away. While on the run, she meets Prof. Marvel, a fortuneteller who shows her a crystal ball image of Aunt Em dying of heartache.

Dorothy, plagued by guilt, bicycles home just as a tornado hits. The storm cellar is inaccessible, so she runs to her room. Dorothy falls unconscious before the house is lifted up and starts spinning in the air.

Dorothy lands in Munchkinland, an area in the magical Land of Oz. The Munchkins and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, greet her as a grand conquering hero, since the house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her. All that can be seen of her are her legs poking out from under the house.

The Wicked Witch of the West presently arrives to claim her sister’s ruby slippers, which Glinda magically transfers onto Dorothy’s feet. Before the Wicked Witch of the West departs in a column of fire, she furiously swears she’ll capture Dorothy, Toto, and the slippers.

Glinda tells Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road which leads to Emerald City, where she can ask the great, mighty, and powerful Wizard of Oz for help in going home.

Along the way, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), who longs for a brain; the Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley), who wants a heart; and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who desires courage. Dorothy invites them to come with her to Emerald City so they can have their own wishes fulfilled.

Along the way, the Wicked Witch of the West puts many obstacles in their way, but their progress is never thwarted. When they finally arrive, the Wizard of Oz, who appears as a floating head surrounded by smoke and fire, promises to help them if they bring back the witch’s broomstick.

The danger intensifies when they reach the witch’s castle.

This film has more than earned its reputation as one of the greatest of all time. It’s aged so well, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages, on different levels. I also highly recommend seeing it on the big screen if you can. I saw it at a local indie theatre in March 2017.

Surrealism on film

Released 6 June 1929 at Studio des Ursulines, Paris. Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) was the first film of Spanish director Luis Buñuel. The script was written by Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, though seeing as it’s surrealistic, there’s not much of a traditional plot. It’s based on surrealistic dreams of the creators, and purposely excluded anything which might have a logical meaning or symbolism.

The opening scene of a woman’s eye getting cut out with a razor is one of the most famous in film history. Over the years, various sources have claimed this was truly the eye of a donkey, pig, sheep, or other animal, but Buñuel himself said it was a calf. He bleached the skin and used intense lighting to give the impression of a human’s face and eye.

We then skip ahead eight years, to lots of free-associated, surrealistic images—a severed human hand, ants swarming over another hand (which makes me far more squeamish than the famous opening scene), bicycling, armpit hair turning into a sea urchin, an androgynous woman being hit by a car, attempted rape, and grand pianos with dead donkeys, pumpkins, the Ten Commandments, and two priests.

The next scenes are set around three in the morning and sixteen years earlier, with even more surrealistic imagery—a martini shaker representing a doorbell, a nun’s habit, books turning into pistols which then shoot someone, a naked woman who vanishes into thin air, a death’s-head moth, a beach.

The final scene is in the spring, also at the beach. Like I said, not much of a conventional plot!

Warning: NOT for the squeamish!

The film was shot over ten days in March 1928. Attendees of the première included Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Le Corbusier, Georges Auric, Christian Bérard, and André Breton’s entire Surrealist group. Buñuel was stunned the film was received so positively, while Dalí was disappointed by the audience’s reaction. Un Chien Andalou was intended to shock and insult people, which didn’t happen.

Buñuel and Dalí were the first filmmakers officially invited into André Breton’s Surrealist movement.

Two of the film’s big fans were wealthy art patron couple Viscount Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, who commissioned a sound sequel called La Bête Andalouse (An Andalusian Beast) with a budget of a million francs. This second film, one of France’s first talkies, premièred 29 November 1930 under the title L’Age d’Or (The Age of Gold).

The sequel created public outrage among right-wing groups in France and Spain, and was soon banned by the Prefecture of Police in Paris. There were some private screenings over the years, but it didn’t legally return to the public till 1979.

Sadly, both of the leading actors, Simone Mareuil and Pierre Batcheff, later took their own lives.

During David Bowie’s 1976 tour, Un Chien Andalou was shown in its entirety before each show in lieu of an opening act.

Over the last 90 years, Un Chien Andalou has received many accolades and been cited as highly influential in other artforms, like music videos and low-budget indie films. Though as important as this film is, I personally would recommend something with a more conventional plot if you’re interested in silent avant-garde films!

Hijinks in a hotel

Though the Marx Brothers made a (now lost) short film in 1921, Humorrisk, their first true film was The Cocoanuts. It premièred 23 May 1929 in NYC, and went into general release on 3 August. Typical of their Paramount films, the plot is rather thin and ramshackle. It’s just a vehicle for their zany, anarchic brand of comedy.

Like most early talkies, there were a lot of technological drawbacks. However, to its advantage, The Cocoanuts, like their other early films, was based on a stage play. It works for the action to be limited to a few sets without a lot of movement from the camera.

In the very early sound era, with a few notable exceptions, cameras couldn’t move very far, and microphones had to stay as close to the actors as possible. Because these microphones picked up every little sound, all the paper used in The Cocoanuts had to be soaked in water to avoid rustling.

A longer transitional period could’ve worked out these technological kinks, but people were so eager to play with the shiny new toy, they didn’t care about anything but the excitement of sound cinema.

During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, Mr. Hammer (Groucho) and his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) manage the Hotel de Cocoanut as ineptly as you can imagine. Mr. Hammer hasn’t paid his employees for two weeks, and Jamison prefers to sleep at the front desk.

Wealthy guest Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) is keen for her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), whom she believes will give Polly a big step up the social ladder. Polly, however, prefers struggling architect Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), who works as a hotel clerk and dreams of turning the entire area into Cocoanut Manor.

Predictably, Yates is a conman scheming to steal Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace, with assistance from his girlfriend Penelope (Kay Francis).

Two more conmen, Chico and Harpo, presently arrive, with plans to fill their empty suitcases by robbing and tricking the other guests. Also predictably, they drive Mr. Hammer, the employees, and the other guests crazy with their wacky antics.

Penelope realizes these guys are total dopes, and hatches a plan for them to take the fall for the theft of Mrs. Potter’s necklace.

Another predictable plot development is Mr. Hammer’s attempted wooing of Mrs. Potter.

Harpo is invited into Penelope’s room, and hides under her bed when Yates visits. He overhears them discussing their scheme, and holds out his hat to catch an incriminating note Penelope drops.

Penelope and Mrs. Potter, whose rooms are connected by a door, are quite bemused at Mr. Hammer, Harpo, and Chico running in and out. During this whirlwind back and forth, Penelope goes into Mrs. Potter’s room and steals the necklace.

Mr. Hammer tells Chico about his plans for a Cocoanut Manor auction, during which Mrs. Potter announces her necklace was stolen and offers a thousand-dollar reward.

Harpo presently produces the necklace, to Mrs. Potter’s great gratitude. A detective blames Bob, which spurs Penelope on to spin a wild fish story corroborating the accusation. Mrs. Potter believes Bob is guilty, but Polly believes in his innocence.

The situation worsens when Mrs. Potter orders Polly to stay away from Bob, and announces Polly’s engagement to Yates. Now it’s up to Harpo and Chico to get Bob out of jail and prove his innocence.

Typical of early talkies, there are a lot of musical and dance numbers. They feel kind of pointless and space-filling, much like the musical performances cluttering up the later MGM films. We can understand the story perfectly well without these interruptions! Seriously, you can skip all of them and not miss anything.

The film was shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where follow-up Animal Crackers was also shot. Paramount moved all their production to Hollywood in 1932.

The Marxes were horrorstruck by the final cut, so much so they tried to buy back the negative. Paramount refused, and released the film to great critical success. It earned $1,800,000 gross ($26,962,421 today) and was one of the most successful early talkies.

Reviews were mostly positive, esp. regarding the Marxes. The other parts of the film garnered more mixed reactions. They felt the romantic subplot and musical performances were pointless. Critics also mentioned poor audio quality in spots and poorly-filmed dance sequences.

The audiovisual issues were finally corrected in a long overdue 2016 remastering of the Paramount films. The original 2004 boxed set was just embarrassing!

A to Z Reflections 2019

This was my eighth year doing the Challenge on my main blog, sixth on my secondary blog. Very uncharacteristically, I didn’t start writing my posts till March. Twenty came from my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, but they all required extensive editing and expansion, as well as gathering photos. Most of them read like entirely new posts!

I’d originally planned more double-topic posts, and a few triples, but realised that not only would unnecessarily bloat my wordcount, but pull attention away from one main subject. I could always go back later to spotlight these people another year.

I also originally planned to go against my theme of lesser-known silent stars for the V day, featuring my beautiful Rudy Valentino, but I’m glad I decided against that too. Conrad Veidt has been one of my heroes since I learnt about his heroic anti-Nazi stance in October 2015. He was more than an incredible actor, but a lion of a human being.

For whatever reason, I’ve had really bad luck with links clicked on for the last few years! So many blogs had interesting names or themes, but I discovered that person hadn’t blogged in months (or years!), or quit participating early. Others have also noticed participation seems to be down the last few years.

Other blogs were hard to navigate, like putting A to Z posts on an entirely separate page, or posting multiple times a day and not putting the A to Z post on top, or putting a hyperlink to it at the start of the top post. Still other bloggers had no commenting option, or there were a lot of big graphics and text blocks to scroll through before finally finding the A to Z post.

I was quite turned off by bloggers using their theme to promote their businesses. I’m fine with a theme inspired by one’s business or art (e.g., fine arts brands, writing advice, recipes from your bakery), but not out and out telling bloggers to, e.g., hire you as a genealogical researcher or hawking merchandise from a pyramid scheme!

Having one big list was much more convenient than all the daily lists in different places, though its length and volume did prove a challenge in scrolling. I’d be happy to volunteer with maintaining next year’s list, as I did in 2015.

Post recap:

Art Acord (17 views)
John Bunny (28 views)
Eric Campbell and Charley Chase (20 views)
Marie Dressler (18 views)
Ernest Torrence and Julian Eltinge (13 views)
Pauline Frederick (10 views)
Raymond Griffith (13 views)
Bobby Harron (10 views)
Rex Ingram (7 views)
June Mathis (13 views)
Karl Dane (8 views)
Max Linder and Harold Lockwood (10 views)
Thomas Meighan (5 views)
Nita Naldi (12 views)
Olive Thomas (10 views)
Marie Prevost (12 views)
Lidia, Letizia, and Isabella Quaranta (8 views)
Wallace Reid (6 views)
Larry Semon (11 views)
Fred Thomson (14 views)
Lenore Ulric (13 views)
Conrad Veidt (10 views)
Anna May Wong (13 views)
Xuan Jinglin (6 views)
Yevgeniy Bauer (9 views)
Zhang Shichuan (5 views)