After 75 Years, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Still Has Secrets to Tell

Marching orders for the authors of 'The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion': Find new material about a film that’s been endlessly analyzed

In case there was any doubt, “The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion” confirms that no film has entered our pop-culture subconscious as deeply as that 1939 MGM classic. Even a quick glance at the just published book conjures up names and images (the Flying Monkeys, the Lollipop Guild, Auntie Em!) and one-liners from the movie that we can all recite in our sleep: “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” “I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog too!” “There’s no place like home,” ad infinitum. Only “Casablanca” can rival “Oz” for the number of quotable quotes.

Given that widespread familiarity, authors Jay Scarfone and William Stillman admit in their foreword that they had a formidable task, so they gave themselves strict criteria: They wanted to gather visual material, quotes and facts that have been rarely, if ever, seen.

They succeeded. The coffee table book offers a treasure trove of images, including startling photos of Judy Garland testing multiple wigs in various styles and colors — including cascading blonde locks. There’s a costume test for the Scarecrow where he looks like a refugee from a Tim Burton movie. And there are photos of Oz-mania, including a human logjam at Grand Central Station when Mickey Rooney and Garland arrived there for the film’s New York premiere, as well as a boxy-looking 70-foot Tin Man balloon for the 1939 Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The film is so well known to us, so well constructed and so perfect in its detail that every creative decision seems like it must have been inevitable.

Scarfone and Stillman offer a multitude of facts to dispel that illusion. Some of the anecdotes are, inescapably, fairly well known, such as the fact that the Wicked Witch was originally envisioned as a slinky seductress. Others are more obscure and eyebrow-raising, including the revelation that producer Mervyn LeRoy and his team at one point considered casting a human in a dog suit as Toto.

And they confirm that nearly every actor was a second or third choice for the role, and that fans of the books, and of Garland, protested when she was cast. (Ben Affleck, take heart!)

Naturally, the scriptwriting was difficult, and naturally, the writers’ wishes were often ignored. Noel Langley “was one of more than a dozen individuals who had their hand in developing the film’s screenplay, but one of only three to receive credit.” The authors acknowledge Langley as defining the trip to Oz as Dorothy’s dream, even though the L. Frank Baum books treated the journey as fact. When Langley saw the film, “He wept bitterly and stated that he ‘loathed the picture’ for completely missing the mark.” However, he eventually warmed up to the film.

His co-writers, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, by contrast, took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety that read, “Every moment we worked on the ‘Wizard’ with Mervyn LeRoy was a moment of joy.”

Scarfone and Stillman offer data about the production, estimating 200,000 sound effects were used, including the troublesome cyclone effect. They also contend that Hollywood lore has exaggerated the antics of the actors playing the Munchkins, but it offers some other insights:

“Stage magazine detailed MGM’s plight in accommodating more than a hundred Munchkin actors in a 1939 column: ‘Since the studio was constructed with players of normal height and weight in mind, there was some difficulty finding chairs and dressing tables and bathroom fixtures of sufficient nearness to the ground to be utilitarian.’ Beyond this challenge, however, was an even more obscure one; the account also revealed how it was necessary to hire a man for the sole purpose of picking the Munchkins up and putting them down again on designated spots: ‘He was called the midget elevator, and the local unions were in a temporary dither over his salary classification.’ ”

The authors also quote from the unpublished memoir of makeup artist Jack Young, who recalled seeing two small actors “staggering down the studio street, each one clasping a bottle of champagne almost as big as they were.”

When the picture opened, the Powers That Be imposed an added pressure on the filmmakers, one that will be familiar to modern Hollywood:

“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was tops in publicizing its four-star and ‘B’ pictures but was inexperienced when it came to merchandising them. Despite the talents of cast and crew, Mervyn LeRoy was under pressure from the front office of Loew’s Incorporated, MGM’s parent company; not only did Loew’s Incorporated want ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to be a cinematic success, it also wanted the film to generate revenue via character merchandising. … In truth, the initial merchandising push behind ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was minor, compared to the product lines being set up by Paramount and Disney. For Christmas 1939, both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ had about 100 licensed accounts each; all told, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ had roughly two dozen — which accounts for the present-day rarity (and desirability by collectors) of the film’s original novelties.”

But never fear, there are several pages illustrating that merchandise, including paper masks of the characters, Valentine’s Day cards and Swift’s Oz the Wonderful Peanut Spread.

Shortly after its August 1939 bow in the U.S., the picture opened internationally. It wasn’t a big hit in Denmark, despite the fact that characters were renamed “to make them more personable to the Danish market.” The Tin Man became Herr Bliktud and the Cowardly Lion became “Lion Afraid Trousers,” a Danish version of Scaredy-Pants.

While the war affected its playdates in some places, the film was a long-runner in Australia:

“The picture was still making the rounds in 1941, by which time ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ was advertised as the morale-boosting World War II battle march of the Australian Imperial Force. The battlefield tale … was that the Aussie troops chanted ‘The Wizard of Oz’ marching song during the Battle of Bardia, Libya, that January — the first such WWII military pursuit for which the Imperial Force participated as an ally. … Winston Churchill was so taken by the Australians’ spirit of resolve that he mentioned the troops’ singing of ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ in his 1949 WWII history, ‘Their Finest Hour.’ ”

The book includes a package of various collectibles, including reproductions of lobby cards; a mockup newspaper called the Oz Herald, headlined “The Wicked Witch of the East is Dead!”; a separate death certificate; and 4.5”x6” photos of the principals.

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