Few movies have become a legacy; passed down from generation to generation. While many of the films on the AFI list are brilliant and excellent, how many of them can be consider a true institution? Enter The Wizard of Oz. Released in 1939 and (mostly) directed by Victor Fleming (of Gone with the Wind fame), this film has gone on to be a tradition for many people and an example of a turning point in the world of film.
Based on the original book by L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz had been adapted prior to the 1939 adaptation. Silents and a short length cartoon all depicted a unique take on the story. However, it wasn’t until the success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) began to seriously consider a big budget version of the story. The pre-production of the movie was surrounded with a plethora of issues. Multiple versions of the script were commissioned and rejected. From an exact adaptation of the book to scripts with more loose interpretations of the story, the script was written and worked on by no less then fifteen different people. In the studio system at the time, it wasn’t unheard of to ask different people to write treatments and scripts, then mess together what the studio liked. Luckily for the movie, the multiple rewrites worked in its favor. The film strikes a unique balance between the fantastic and real.
A similar situation of multiple directors happened with the film. While Victor Fleming is the credited director, there were as many as five other men who were involved in the directing of the film. Most were stand in directors between the transition from Richard Thorpe to Victor Fleming. Originally hired as the director, Thorpe was fired after two weeks of filming. Upon looking at the rushes, the studio executives decided his film was lacking the fantastical feeling they wanted. His “version” is also infamously known as the one to put Judy Garland in a blond wig and heavy baby doll make-up. Fleming came in and helped to reform the visuals of the film as well as the characters. He worked on the production until he had to leave to work on Gone with the Wind. King Vidor took over, shooting the final “Kansas” scenes.
The cast wasn’t immune to the problems that the production crew seemed to experience. Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Tin-Man and had gone through the pre-production. It was over a week into production when Ebsen collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. It was found that the aluminum powder they used in his make-up was being inhaled into his lungs and eventually made it nearly impossible for him to breath. In an effort to keep it quiet, the studio brought in Jack Haley to replace Ebsen. They kept the reasons under wrap and it didn’t come to light until years later. They also replaced the powder with paste and never mentioned the previous issue with Ebsen’s make-up to Haley.
Judy Garland, an up and coming studio player, was reluctantly casted over the concerns of the executives. They felt she was too old to convincingly portray the part of a young girl from Kansas. While Shirley Temples name was thrown around as a front runner, it was felt she was still a little too young and so Judy got the role. Provided she lost some weight before filming and wore a full corset to cinch her waist and flatten her chest. Bert Lahr, who portrayed the Cowardly Lion, endured long days in a 90-lb costume that would become unbelievably hot under the stage lights. All three of the men had a variety of make-up problems. They were even asked to take their meals in their trailers due to the unsettling look of them in make-up.
Despite the production issues, the movie made it to end and was released to an excited public. Of course, no one could predict the amount of amazing films that were released that year including four that are apart of the AFI Top 100 list. The Wizard of Oz, with it’s brilliant performances and amazing effects couldn’t compete with the force that was Gone with the Wind. The movie barely made back any money on it’s initial run and was considered unsuccessful at the time. Only after rereleasing into theaters over the years and then airing it on TV, did the movie begin to enjoy the great success that still carries to this day.
When you talk to people about The Wizard of Oz, it is clear the amount of affection so many people have to the movie. Much like traditions might be passed down from a parent to a child, the movie is passed down through the family. Most people still own the old VHS copy they received as a child and have since shown the movie to their children. Yet, what is it about the film that keeps people coming back? People connect to the movie on a very basic level: it reminds them of childhood and simple imagination. Who can’t help but smile when Dorothy walks from the sepia toned farm house to the brightly colored land of Oz? While I don’t have any personal connections to the film (i.e. watched with my Grandparents, etc), it still manages to remind me of a fantastic time when imagination was important and adulthood seemed far down the yellow-brick road. Of the films I’ve watch thus far, this one has defiantly been the most successful in finding a way to connect with anyone, regardless of their personal experiences.