The Wizard of Oz is an iconic movie with many dark secrets and rumors. During the film, several people were injured, the paint was toxic, the snow was made of asbestos, and the costumes were extremely difficult to wear. There may be some dark history, but the result was a movie of pure magic and imagination.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written by Lyman Frank Baum in 1898 and it was published in 1900. The book was an immediate hit and Lyman framed the pencil that he used to write it. On the paper attached to the pencil he wrote, With this pencil I wrote the manuscript of The Emerald City. He originally had a hard time coming up with a name for the magical land that Dorothy visits. One day, Lyman was looking at his filing cabinet and the drawers were marked with letters, it had A to G, H to N, and O to Z. That's how he got oz. The first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in two weeks and they sold 90,000 copies in the first 6 months. The book remained on the bestseller list for two years. It was soon turned into a musical and later, an MGM film called The Wizard of Oz. There were 13 other Oz books written by Lyman and Walt Disney Productions owns them.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs first premiered in 1937 and was HUGE. It grossed $8 million and this was during the Great Depression. Walt Disney originally planned to make an animated film based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz after the Snow White movie, but he found out that the rights were already sold to MGM. After MGM saw how well Snow White did, they wanted to take a story that was fantasy like and make something similar. Snow White had dwarfs and an evil queen, so The Wizard of Oz would have munchkins and a wicked witch. Noel Langley wrote four different scripts for the Wizard of Oz movie and most of his material remained as the framework for the movie, but he ended up being blacklisted by Louis B. Mayer from MGM. While he was on the set of another movie, Louis B. Mayer said something very condescending to Noel Langley and he said, “Every time Mayer smiles at me, I feel a snake has crawled over my foot.” Actors and extras all moved away from him and left him standing alone on stage and that's how he got blacklisted and removed from the Wizard of Oz. The blacklist was eventually called off and he was hired again for the movie and then he was later dismissed for a second time. The writers were invited to the premieres of the picture and Noel Langley cried the whole time. He said it was a year of his life and he hated the movie and felt that they missed the boat.
Harold Arlen was tasked with composing the songs and he was really struggling with the main ballad. He was heading to a theater and saw a drugstore. He told his wife to stop the car so he could jot something down. Schwab's drugstore was being fictionalized as the magic soda fountain where a good looking girl who wanted to be a movie star would be handed an agent's card before finishing her milkshake. The melody for “Over the Rainbow” was composed outside the front door of the drugstore. Everyone expected to have songs that were more childish, and this was more of a mature song. Yip Harburg was very hesitant about this song, but he decided to write the lyrics to see what would happen. They ended up loving how it turned out, but the song was originally removed from the film when they released the preview.
Shirley Temple was MGM's first choice to play Dorothy, but she was under contract to 20th Century Fox and they couldn't make a deal. MGM executives agreed that Judy Garland looked more like Dorothy, but she wasn't as famous as Shirley Temple during this time. They decided to send Judy on tour so she could appear on as many stages as possible. They wanted to make sure she was a star before the movie was released. During the movie Dorothy slaps the lion and he starts crying. Judy Garland couldn't stop laughing and they did the scene at least 10 times before the director, Victor Fleming had enough. He slapped Judy across the face and told her to go back to her dressing room. She came right back and did the scene without laughing. Judy Garland had a loose fitting dress for her costume and she wore very little makeup. She was forced to wear a binder or corset to flatten her chest because her boobs were too big. Dorothy was supposed to be a young girl. Her age isn't mentioned in the movie, but she's supposed to be about around 8-12 and Judy Garland was 16. Since everyone was forced to eat separately in their dressing rooms, her costars had no idea that MGM was rationing her food and keeping her on a very restricted diet.
Ray Bolger was originally cast as the tin-man and he was bummed. He wanted to be part of the film, but he didn't feel that it was the right role for him. He felt that he would be a better Scarecrow, but Buddy Ebsen was cast in that role. Both of them agreed to switch roles, but Buddy isn't the person that ultimately ended up playing the tin man. Just 9 days after production started on The Wizard of Oz, Buddy was in Good Samaritan Hospital under an oxygen tent. His skin was bright blue and he was having a difficult time breathing. He felt like his lungs were coated in glue. He had already done four weeks of rehearsals for the movie and pre-recorded his songs. During these weeks, Buddy had been a bit of a guinea pig for the studio. They had no idea how they were going to create the Tin Man's costume and they ended up covering him with powdered aluminum dust. He said that one night after dinner, he took a breath and realized nothing happened. He was rushed to the hospital and they told him his lungs were coated with aluminum dust. MGM was furious with Buddy. They didn't understand why he was wasting time in a hospital and they said it certainly wasn't aluminum dust because they had used PURE aluminum dust. In the 30's aluminum wasn't known to be harmful like it is now. They actually used to give this dust to miners to breathe in to protect their lungs. They didn't realize the damage they were causing. Eventually, MGM got tired of calling the hospital demanding that Buddy get to work, so they replaced him. People often wonder why Buddy didn't sue MGM and he's like listen, you don't just lightly sue MGM and get away with it.
Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow said they worked so hard and long on this movie that he genuinely felt like it was a jail sentence. His makeup took an hour and 45 minutes to put on each morning. He would go home exhausted and would drink two bourbon old-fashioneds. He said the alcohol would bring him down and the sugar would lift him long enough for him to eat dinner and fall into bed. Ray doesn't remember much outside of that routine. Go to work, go to bed, repeat. He was up by 5AM, got to the studio by 6:15 and started the Scarecrow makeup.
A wax face was made for the Scarecrow and replaced by foam rubber baked in the oven. This resulted in a rubber bag wrinkled so that it looked like burlap. The bag covered Ray's entire head except his eyes, nose, and mouth. It took a full hour every morning to glue the bag to his head and another hour to blend the makeup on his face to the color of the mask. The mask wasn't porous so you can't sweat or breathe through your skin. He said it felt like he was suffocating. To top it off, they had giant banks of arc lights overhead, like an obnoxious amount. They basically borrowed every unused arc light in Hollywood and people were always fainting and being carried off stage because it was so hot. Ray pretty much couldn't use the bathroom during filming because he was stuffed with straw. It was sewed into his sleeves, boots, belly, legs, and shoulders. If he opened the costume, all the straw fell out and they had to try to put him back together so he looked the same as the last shot. When it got unbearable, they would turn the lights off, open the stage doors, and actors would just fall out the doors gasping for air. At the end of the night, it would take an hour to gently peel Ray's Scarecrow face off so that it could be used again. They went through 100 of the bags for his face. When he finally removed the bag for the very last time, Ray found out that his mouth and part of his chin were permanently lined from months of being the Scarecrow.
Jack Haley (hail-ey), was the replacement Tin Man and he didn't have a mask to deal with, but he had his own troubles. He was actually under contract with 20th Century Fox who loaned him out to MGM for this film. He said the costumes made the job so horrendous, but he didn't have a choice. He had to take the job because of his contract. Each day, the makeup department pulled his hair back flat so they could put rubber skin over his head and they glued it down behind his ears. His face was covered with a cold cream and they put a white chalk-like salve over his face to close his pores. That way, the silver paste would make him look like tin without damaging his skin. Since Buddy had such a reaction to the makeup, the technique of applying it to Jack's face was a bit different. They no longer brushed it on as a powder, they began making it into a paste and painting it on. Jack didn't have any breathing issues, but he did get a severe infection in his right eye from the aluminum paste. He had to be off work for 4 days, but doctors were able to stop the infection before it damaged his sight. A silver nose would be glued on and a strip of rubber was glued under Jack's chin and his lips were painted black because the silver paint made his mouth too red. He was also unable to breathe through his face since his pores were closed. The Tin Man costume was made of a course fabric used for binding books and then it was covered with leather and painted silver, so it was incredibly stiff. Jack says he wasn't able to lie down or even sit when he was in his costume, he could only lean against something. They had a reclining board which was a tilted board that was originally built for actresses wearing big gowns or hoopskirts, but Jack used it frequently.
Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion, had the worst costume of all. He of course wears a giant fur wig, and his chin was covered with a fur beard. He wore mittens, and a real lion skin suit that was padded, so it was heavy. After each shot, he had to completely take his entire outfit off and he would just be dripping sweat. Bert hated putting on the costume and makeup so much. Once the nose and mouth were glued to his face, he wasn't able to open his mouth to chew. He had to bring lunches that he could sip through a straw. If he couldn't stand to have another milkshake or soup for lunch, it meant he would have to sit in the chair for another hour after lunch to have his face put back on.
The men playing the scarecrow, the lion, and the tin man were all banned from eating in the commissary. They tried this once when they were dressed in bathrobes, but their faces were covered with rubber, fur, and aluminum paste. People told them they looked disgusting and the studio told them if they would eat in their dressing rooms, their food would be payed for. Bert Lahr, the lion would get so pissed at Jack Haley, the tin man because he was was able to lean against his reclining board in between takes and just sleep. Meanwhile, Bert couldn't sleep at night, couldn't nap during the day because of his costume, he couldn't eat properly, and it was making him really sick.
Frank Morgan played the wizard and he was not even on the list of choices for who MGM wanted, but he begged for a shot. He did a screen test and they couldn't deny that he was perfect for the job.
The Wicked witch of the West: Margaret Hamilton was fairly isolated during the movie. She mainly played her scenes with Judy Garland and the Winged Monkeys, or she was by herself. Her makeup took 2 hours every morning and she had a false nose, chin, and a wart. After the rubber was glued on, the makeup artists built her eyebrows and covered her face, arms, and hands with green paint. Once Margaret was in her makeup, she couldn't touch anything or green streaks would be left behind. Her skin actually had a green tinge to it several months after filming was over. Margaret had to eat a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in wax paper for her lunches because they didn't want her to ingest too much of the green paint that contained copper. She also had to eat her lunch by herself in her dressing room. Margaret says the room was awful. The floor had a dirty looking rug and there was a chair and a card table with a light over it. She joked that the studio must have mixed her up with the actual witch to give her this room. One time she saw the dressing room for Glinda the good witch and it was the complete opposite of hers. The walls were pink satin and there was a pink couch and a fur rug.
Margaret's scenes were very difficult. When the witch melted in the movie, they did this by having her stand on top of a hydraulic elevator in the floor. Her costume was fastened to the floor and dry ice was attached to the inside of her cloak. The elevator would be lowered and the dry ice vapors gave the melting illusion. Margaret had a stunt double named Betty Danko and she was 28 years old. In her 11 year career, she had only been seriously injured once, but that all changed on the set of The Wizard of Oz. When the Wicked Witch first makes her entrance into Munchkinland, they needed the stunt double for the scene. They had a pit covered by a piece of aluminum and when they jerk it away, Betty would spring into the scene through the smoke. During the last rehearsal, a dance director Bobby Connolly fell through the pit and landed on Betty's shoulders. He was showing the Munchkins how to avoid the pit and he slipped through. She was pretty sore from this, but she was still able to work.
In the movie, the Wicked Witch gives a speech and there's a puff of red smoke as she disappears. The catapult was replaced with an elevator and the stunt double, Betty would step on the elevator and go down. She was only used to test this out to see if they needed to make any changes before Margaret Hamilton stepped on it. So, Betty tries it out and says that it actually goes really slow, but there's a little jerk when you hit the bottom. She told Margaret to flex her knees to absorb the shock. She also said the pit was really narrow at the top so it's just enough room for your shoulders to come through and if you're not careful, you can catch yourself on it. The directors decided they wanted this scene done in one shot. Margaret Hamilton was kind of sketched out by this because she had a long cape and didn't want to trip as she walks backwards, then she would need to and exactly right or she may break her leg on the way down. She practiced this over and over until she was sure she had all the movements down and could make the landing. The first take was perfect and she was told to pull her arms in tighter so she didn't break them on the next take. Everyone was sent to lunch and it was decided that they would do this scene one more time when everyone got back.
During the second attempt, the smoke and fire started too late, in the next one, it was too early. Then, the fire and smoke didn't happen at all. They tried the scene again and the smoke and flames went up too quickly. Margaret Hamilton felt warmth on her face and people were running and shouting. The flames had jumped from the straw on her broom to her face. It burned her chin, the bridge of her nose, her right cheek, and the right side of her forehead. The eyelashes and eyebrow on her right eye were burned off, and her upper lip and eyelid were burned. Margaret said she actually didn't realize what had happened. She felt warmth, then someone snatched the hat off her head and grabbed the broom from her hand. When she looked down at her hand, she saw that from her wrist to her fingernails, there was no skin. The MGM doctor would have immediately covered the burns with a salve, but he couldn't because the green makeup was toxic and had copper in it. The gold seals up the skin and closes the pores and the green paint is toxic. To remove the Witch's makeup, her face had to be cleaned spotless every night. Well, when she got burned, she had to be scrubbed clean of makeup and they used alcohol to do this. She didn't scream and just sat there as they scrubbed her burns with alcohol. Margaret was out for 6 weeks, but MGM did call her right away to see when she'd be back. Her doctor took the phone and yelled at them saying that she'd be back when she's good and ready. He said she's be a fool not to sue them. Margaret didn't sue because she wanted to be able to work again.
When Margaret went back to work, her face was healing up and they knew they could cover the injuries with makeup, but that wasn't going to work for her hands. All of the nerves in her hand were still exposed, so she was going to wear green gloves since her skin wasn't thick enough for makeup. Margaret was told about the scene they were filming on her first day back and the studio told her it was the one where she sits on her broom and writes letters in the sky and it would be really safe and easy. The production assistant asks Margaret if she wanted her regular costume or fireproof costume. She was irate. She had a fireproof costume? She went to the film production manager and said explain again what scene we are doing today? He's like no worries, you're basically sitting on a broom, it's super safe. Margaret's like ok if it's so safe, why do I suddenly have a fireproof costume? He's like well.....you'll be sitting on a steel saddle attached to a broomstick and there will be a pipe underneath. They didn't anticipate any fire, but it's possible that if you stick tissue paper into the pipe, it might burn. Margaret said she'd had enough fire and wouldn't be taking any more risks like this on set. She told the studio that if they had to fire her, she was fine with that.
They decided not to fire Margaret. They went to her stunt double, Betty and asked if she would do the shot and she said yes. Margaret did talk to Betty and warned her not to do the shot because it was dangerous, but Betty said she was getting paid really well for it. Margaret had been home for less than an hour when she got the call from the studio saying Betty Danko was in the hospital. Betty had practiced the shot twice and it went perfectly both times. Her cape was pinned down to hide the pipe during these shots. When Victor Fleming came over to watch, he said he wanted the cape to blow in the wind and asked the special effects crew to find a way to hide the pipe under Betty's body instead. The pipe was now covered with asbestos and she was told to try the scene again. The first two times, when Betty pressed the button, smoke poured out of the straw on the broom. When she pressed it the third time, the pipe exploded. Betty said it felt like her scalp blew off. Her hat and wig flew off her head and they found them days later. The explosion blew her off the broomstick and she managed to hang on upside down while they lowered it to the floor. Betty's left leg was bruised from thigh to knee and there was a two inch deep wound on her leg that was full of pieces of her costume. She was hospitalized for 11 days and when she was there, her doctor said oh we just had two of the Winged Monkeys here a few weeks ago. They fell when their wires broke. The studio had to hire another stunt double, Eileen Goodwin to finish the broomstick ride.
Glinda the good witch: Billie Burke got a sprained ankle.
Toto: It took the longest time to find the dog because they wanted it to look similar to the one in the drawings. Her real name was Terry and she was horribly shy and hid from people, but during the film, she progressed into a show dog and got over her fears. During a scene, one of the Witch's soldiers jumped on her and sprained her foot, so they had to find a double for the dog.
There's a famous scene in the movie where Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man fall asleep in a poppy field. The snow that fell on them was asbestos and was often used in movies during the 20s and 30s.
There has been a rumor that a munchkin had taken their life on the set and you can see them hanging during one of the scenes. This is false. First off, I think it's safe to say that they wouldn't just carry on with the scene if this happened and it certainly would have been removed from the film. What you're really seeing is a bird in the trees that spreads its wings.
There were 124 munchkins and none of them did any singing in the movie because they couldn't carry a tune. They had to manufacture a sound-recording machine specifically for this part. They got singers to sing very slow and then they played it back faster and higher. The munchkins actually caused a ton of trouble. They would drink every night and got into sex orgies at the hotel, so police had to be on every floor. The police had to pick them up with butterfly nets when they got too wasted. When they were on set, Judy Garland says that many of the Munchkins groped her. They made her miserable during filming because they kept putting their hands under her dress. People said you have to watch them all the time because they caused so much mischief on set. Obviously there were 124 Munchkins so this isn't to say that they were all rowdy, but it sounds like several were causing trouble. Judy even presented each Munchkin with a box of chocolate and a signed photo of her after the last shoot, so it doesn't seem like she disliked all of them. Makeup for the Munchkins started at 6 AM and they would line a hall with 30 chairs and mirrors and each Munchkin would move from chair to chair in an assembly line.
The Making of The Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz