A cadre of Creative minds infused MGM's classic fantasy The Wizard of OZ with a timless supply of movie magic.
by George E. Turner
For nearly 40 years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion. To those of you who have been faithful to it in return... and to the Young in Heart ...we dedicate this picture.
With the words at left, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer introduced what became the most popular Technicolor fantasy ever made, The Wizard of Oz. The picture was produced in 1938-39, with the Great Depression slowly grinding to a close and the spectre of global war looming on the horizon. With a final cost of $2,777,000, it was one of the most expensive pictures ever made.
The script was based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which sold over a million copies and launched a long series of Oz books. It had been dramatized on the stage and was filmed by the Selig Polyscope Company in 1910. In 1913, Baum founded the Oz Film Company in Hollywood and made three Land of Oz features, all of which failed. I. E. Chadwick produced a silent Wizard in 1925 which also flopped, despite featuring Larry Semon as the Scarecrow, Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman, and Charlie Murray as the Wizard. In the 1930s, Samuel Goldwyn paid Baum $40,000 for film rights. Fantasy was still a hard sell in the Thirties, but it became easier in 1937 following the immense success of Walt Disney's first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Louis B. Mayer, the top man at MGM, bought the rights from Goldwyn for $75,000 in June of 1938.
MGM, then the world's richest motion picture company, stepped gingerly into the realm of "natural color." They began including two-color Technicolor sequences in silent features as early as 1924, with The Uninvited Guest. They also made several complete Technicolor features and shorts in the late 1920s and early '30s. Most producers were reluctant to go forward with color films even after the much improved three-color process was introduced in 1934. Aside from the added expense, many patrons claimed that color films gave them headaches the same complaint they had lodged against talkies a decade earlier. But by the end of 1938, with 25 Technicolor features in release, color had become a selling point instead of a liability. A look at, say, The Adventures of Robin Hood was sufficient to convert many naysayers.
In a last-minute decision, MGM finally took the three-color plunge for a 12-reel feature, Sweethearts, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. While that film was still in production, it was announced that The Wizard of Oz would also be filmed in Technicolor.
Mervyn LeRoy, a long-time Warner Bros. director, was lured away to MGM with a lucrative contract offer. He wanted to produce and direct Wizard, but was informed he was assigned to produce but not direct the high budget project.
Shirley Temple, Twentieth Century-Fox's child superstar, was originally sought for the lead role of Dorothy, but for various reasons the deal was never consummated. Universal's singing star Deanna Durbin was also considered, but her childish contours were blossoming. Judy Garland, 16, was under contract to MGM and was a stronger singer than Temple, but was at first thought to be too old for the part. She was small, however, and careful costuming and a bust-flattening undergarment made her appear much younger. Her screen test convinced everyone that she was ideal for the part.
Casting of the Wizard was more complicated. LeRoy wanted Ed Wynn, who felt that the part was too small. The studio's next choice was W.C. Fields a mind-boggling concept! Fields begged off because he was preparing You Can't Cheat an Honest Man at Universal. Others who were considered included Victor Moore, Hugh Herbert, Robert Benchley and Charles Winninger. It's easy to imagine any of these actors performing the role beautifully, but the final choice, Frank Morgan, proved to be the perfect Wizard.
Lanky, loose-jointed dancer Buddy Ebsen was signed to play the Scarecrow, a part for which he was ideally suited. However, another tall dancer, Ray Bolger, wanted the part so badly that he replaced Ebsen, who was then assigned to play the Tin Woodsman. Bert Lahr, the Broadway comic who hadn't quite caught on in movies, was hired as the Cowardly Lion and almost stole the show from everybody.
LeRoy wanted Gale Sondergaard to play the Wicked Witch as a glamorous villainess, but the studio chiefs overruled him, demanding a traditional witch. Edna Mae Oliver and Margaret Hamilton were interviewed, and the role went to Hamilton. Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice was first considered for the Good Witch, but the final choice was Billie Burke, Ziegfeld's widow. May Robson and Sarah Padden were tested for Aunt Em; Clara Blandick got the part.
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