When lightning recently struck my TV, the day after I had installed streaming, and after a good half-hour cry, my son and I ventured out to replace my beloved but pretty much obsolete TV. Now “modernized” and the owner of a “smart TV” with bells and whistles, I know my Dad would be amazed at how far technology has come from his 19-inch black-and-white DuMont.
Learning was a bit of a curve since I am technology challenged when it comes to remotes, but now I only have one remote to worry about instead of the three I once had, so that in itself was a blessing. While searching all the channel goodies in a new world where I could watch whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, a clip of “The Wizard of Oz” popped up and I aimed my remote at it.
And, yes, this column is about the film because I’m always interested in the evolution of film and how we got to where we are today. After the movie, I decided to do a little research on when and how it was made during a time when filmmaking hadn’t matured but was on the cusp of greatness.
According to various online sources, much of what took place in 1939, the year the movie was released, would have been taboo by today’s Hollywood standards. To start with, Judy Garland, the star and the one who had the most screen time, was paid considerably less than her trio of co-stars – yes, like the actresses of today – but she kept quiet about it. She was paid $500 per week to Bolger (Scarecrow), Haley (Tin Man) and Lahr (Lion) being paid around $3,000 per week. Even Toto, her scruffy little dog in the film, was paid $125 per week, a quarter of what Judy was paid.
Once the farmhouse lands in Oz (courtesy of using a muslin stocking for the funnel) and Judy is graced with red ruby slippers, those iconic slippers were originally supposed to be silver as written in the novel by L. Frank Baum. The change was made because MGM studio head Louis B. Meyer wanted to take advantage of the new Technicolor in films and insisted on red.
Four pairs of slippers were made and, during the 1970s, MGM needed to clean out the warehouse that contained most of the Oz props. Kurt Warner, one of the set’s original designers, was put in charge and, in return for his work, he was allowed to take whatever he wanted. Among the items he took was one pair of the red slippers. All four pairs had many handlers in years that followed, one pair was stolen and recovered by the FBI 13 years later, and two pairs have found a place in the Smithsonian.
The actors had to endure torture wearing their costumes. Lahr’s Lion costume weighed 90 pounds and wasn’t well ventilated, so he was constantly sweating. It took a few assistants to dry out the costume every night. Buddy Ebsen was the first Tin Man whose ensemble was made of metal, so he wasn’t able to sit while wearing it. Ebsen also had an extreme reaction to the makeup, so Jack Haley replaced him. When Haley took over, an aluminum paste was made to replace some metal.
In the film, Dorothy, Toto and the Lion fall asleep in a poppy field, but are magically awakened by falling snow. They didn’t realize it then, but what they were using as falling snow was falling asbestos fibers (deadly) which were often used as fake snow from the mid-1930s to the 1950s.
During the filming of the clip where the Wicked Witch escapes Munchkin land in a burst of smoke, there was a malfunction, resulting in the actress Margaret Hamilton’s broom, hat and makeup catching fire. Her face and hands were severely burned. After returning to work, she was asked to film the “Surrender, Dorothy,” scene, which also required smoke effects. She promptly refused and was replaced with a stunt double.
There are crucial differences between the book and the movie. For instance, in the book, there’s a scene with tiger-bear hybrids being killed in an abyss. Also, the Tin Man uses his ax on a wildcat and 40 wolves, and bumblebees swarm and sting the scarecrow and then die.
All these scenes were never put in the script or shot for the film as they were considered too scary and gruesome. You can bet that by today’s standards, they’d be in, but thankfully at least the studio bigwigs at that time made the right decision.
The movie went on to only win Oscars for best music and best song because “Gone with the Wind” had also come out that year and swept the big ones.
The beloved movie, however, remains timeless exactly the way it was intended.
Peg DeMarco is a Morganton resident who writes a weekly features column for The News Herald. Contact her at email@example.com.