“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
THE WIZARD OF OZ
Producer Sam Goldwyn bought L Frank Baum's book for $40,000 in 1933 and the fame of Disney's Snow White soon had him juggling a fistful of offers for the rights. Fox wanted it for Shirley Temple. MGM's chief LB Mayer wanted it for MGM - and paid Sam $75,000 on June 3, 1938. All LB needed was Temple. And he began to move heaven and earth, well, Gable and Harlow - offering to trade them to Fox for Temple's services... Harlow's tragically premature death ended that idea.
Mervyn LeRoy (succeeding the late genius Irving Thalberg in charge of Metro production) and the MGMusicals producer Arthur Freed both claimed responsibility for the project. Mayer let LeRoy produce but not direct - "too big a picture for you to do both" - and ordered him to use Freed as his assistant.
“Freed’s name isn’t
on the picture,” said LeRoy.
It is Freed, on record, however, saying "Thank God!" when Darryl Zanuck, piqued at losing the rights battle, refused to loan Shirley. (He then proceeded to kill her career in another fantasy, The Blue Bird, 1940).
Dorothy . Mayer leaned toward Deanna Durbin but Universal refused to release her. He then thought of Bonita Granville as LeRoy and Freed both claimed they suggested Judy Garland, 15, as Dorothy.
LB Mayer often called Judy
“my little hunchback.”
But then, he also saw Oz as his annual "a loser for prestige" film. LeRoy had Garland's teeth fixed, Mayer rushed her into three quickies and a nationwide tour to make her A Star - as Herman Mankiewicz and Ogden Nash, among 14 writers, worked on the script.
Garland's salary was $11,000 - $4,000 less than her red sequined shoes fetched at a 1970 auction at MGM's Stage 27 where the Yellow Brick Road once stood. Judy was one of the many accidents making classic magic. Apart from Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion (created by the youngest scenarist Noel Langley, 26), nobody was first choice. Well, Lahr was after LeRoy dropped plans to use... MGM's Leo the Lion!
The Scarecrow/Hunk . When Samuel Goldwyn held the rights, Eddie Cantor was set as Hunk. At Metro, Ray Bolger was not happy being The Tin Man. Not about money; he was the highest paid on $3,000 a week. "I'm not a tin performer. I'm a soft person." He longed to be the scarecrow - his idol, Fred Stone, created the stage role in 1902 (and was too old for the film at 65) - and got his way by swopping roles with Buddy Ebsen.
The Tin Man/Hickory . With Bolger gone, poor Ebsen was soon suffering more than his lowly £1,500 a week. (The 124 Munchkins were paid $75; Toto the dog got $125!). The problem was Tin Man make-up. "I became an experimental guinea-pig," said Ebsen, out of the film - and fame until Davy Crockett, 1956, led to TV's Beverly Hillbillies, 1962-70.
"They started out with an actual stove pipe. I sounded like a junk cart coming down a bumpy street. They said: OK, now do a dance step. I did a very careful dance step. They said: OK, do a bigger step. And I did a hitch-kick and almost did an ad lib castration. It got very close to the meat. They said: OK, we can't use that. We don't want a Tin Man with a high voice."
To protect Ebsen's masculinity, the costume became cardboard. A clown cap covered his hair and he wore a rubber nose and chin. Fine! Except the metallic look nearly killed him.
"They used some powder on my entire head and face. And my cough today is somewhat attributable to the fact that I breathed that stuff in my lungs. Aluminium, pure alumunium!
“They called an ambulance
and took me straight to the hospital.
And I was replaced in the show by Jack Haley.”
Jack Haley Jr recalls his father sitting in a room for a week at home, blinds drawn and a red towel over a lamp. "Had he known [about Ebsen], he would have saved himself a lotta agony because they switched from a powdered aluminium make-up to a paste - all over his face - and he suffered a terrible eye-infection. He thought he was going to lose his eye-sight."
Ebsen's Tin Man was finally seen in a 17-minute "scrapbook" of rare footage added to the 50th anniversary video and laserdisk release in 1989.
The Wizard/Professsor Marvel . Mervyn LeRoy wanted Ed Wynn. Arthur Freed voted Wallace Beery (trapped in other films) or WC Fields. MGM said WC rejected $75,000. Truth is he was totally tied to writing You Can't Cheat An Honest Man at Universal. Robert Benchley, Hugh Herbert, Victor Moore, Charles Winninger were suggested when Frank Morgan, among the 120 actors under MGM contract, pleaded for a test. His improvising clinched it.
Aunt Em . Sarah Gladden and May Robson were suggested; Clara Blandick was accepted. Sarah Podden was beaten by May Robson to Aunt's Em's daughter.
Uncle Harry . Harlan Briggs was beaten when a favourite old codger of the movies, Charley Grapewin, was persuaded out of retirement at 70.
The Good Witch of the North/Glinda . Casting director Billy Grady offered Fannie Brice (Streisand played her in Funny Girl), Constance Collier, Gracie Fields from Britain, Helen Gilbert, Una Merkel, long-faced Edna May Oliver, viper-tongued Cora Witherspoon, the remarkably named Helen Troy - and the one they all voted for was Billie Burke.
The Wicked Witch of the West/Miss Gulch . Edna May Oliver was also nominated for the bad witch. Leroy fancied a more glamorous, "fallen woman" version and tested Gale Sondergaard in a sequined outfit. Deciding that evil had to be ugly, he tested her again - she loathed the make-up and fled. Enter: Margaret Hamilton, who had twice played it on-stage. Her broomstick caught fire, badly burning her face and right hand during her climactic vanishing trick. (Sondergaard went to Fox to be Tylette the Cat in The Blue Bird, 1940, with, ironically... Shirley Temple).
Richard Thorpe started by prettying up Judy with a blonde wig on October 13, 1938 - and was fired after twelve days.
Leroy said first rushes looked like
Ladies Night In A Turkish Bath
George Cukor killed Judy's wig and "fancy-schmancy" ways for three days before Victor Fleming worked four months until drafted to Gone With The Wind. Producer Mervyn LeRoy helmed some transitional scenes. And with ten days of the Kansas scenes, including 'Over The Rainbow,' King Vidor wrapped 22 weeks of the $2.8m Production #1060 on March 16. 1939.
And after all that, the New Republic's critic Otis Ferguson said older kids would prefer a Tarzan movie. Said Jack Haley:
“We didn’t think it was a classic.
It was a job. We were getting paid...
and it was a lot of weeks of steady work.”