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!