The Wizard of Oz at 80, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Though The Wizard of Oz was very popular and successful upon its August 1939 release, it nevertheless only earned $3,017,000 ($55,688,827 today) on a $2,777,000 budget ($51,258,824 today) which didn’t include promotional costs. That added up to a loss of $1,145,000. The film didn’t make a profit for MGM till its 1949 rerelease, when it earned $1.5 million ($16 million today).

Prior to the 25 August 1939 general release, it had a sneak preview in San Bernardino, California, followed by test market previews in Dennis, Massachusetts (where I’ve visited many times) and Kenosha, Wisconsin on 11 August and Oconomowoc, Wisconsin on 12 August. Its Hollywood première was at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on 15 August. The NYC première followed on 17 August at Loew’s Capitol Theatre.

Critical reviews were overwhelmingly glowing, though there were some naysayers. Russell Maloney of The New Yorker lambasted it as “a stinkeroo,” and Otis Ferguson of The New Republic said “it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet.” Some moviegoers also thought 16-year-old Judy Garland was a bit too old to convincingly play Dorothy.

Regardless of these minority opinions, The Wizard of Oz came in seventh on Film Daily‘s nationwide year-end poll of 542 critics.

The film was nominated for six Academies, and won for its score and the song “Over the Rainbow.” Judy Garland won an honorary Academy Juvenile Award.

On 3 November 1956, The Wizard of Oz became the first Hollywood film shown without commercial breaks in prime time on a national U.S. TV network, as part of the last program in the about-to-be-cancelled series Ford Star Jubilee on CBS. Most people in that era only had B&W televisions, however, so they were unable to see the film as it was intended.

CBS earned $225,000 for the broadcast, which was a big success. When they showed it again on 13 December 1959, even more people tuned in. From then on, it became an annual tradition.

The Wizard of Oz is possibly the most famous and beloved film to be regularly shown on U.S. television.

The film was one of the 25 inaugural inductees to the National Film Registry in 1989, and is one of only a dozen films on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

The Wizard of Oz has had many theatrical rereleases since its first triumphant one in 1949, and has always been among the very first films on various home media formats (VHS, DVD, laserdisc, CED, Blu-ray, 8 mm film).

Over the last eighty years, countless critics have continued lauding the film, and it always shows up on those incessant best-of lists. Salman Rushdie cites it as his inspiration for becoming a writer. Innumerable TV shows, films, cartoons, books, songs, and music videos have referenced it.

One of the film’s most famous icons, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, were silver in the book, but MGM changed them for the sake of making more impact in Technicolor. The studio’s chief costume designer, Adrian, created their final form.

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.

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