“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
THE WIZARD OF OZ
"For nearly forty 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."
Following the 1933 success of Paramount’s live-action Alice In Wonderland (Gary Cooper was The White Knight and Cary Grant, The Mock Turtle opposite Charlotte Henry), L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became the hottest book in town.
MGM wanted it for - guess who? - Laurel and Hardy!
By September, producer Samuel Goldwyn had won the rights for $40,000. Sam had Eddie Cantor (the Al Jolson lite) in mind, opposite Helen Hayes or Mary Pickford as Dorothy (33 and 41 at the time!!) and WC Fields (already Alice’s Humpty Dumpty) as the Wiz. Within a year, Cantor has fled (The Scarecrow, he said, was not his type) and once Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs shot through various global box-office roofs in 1937, Goldwyn started juggling a fistful of offers from five major studios for his rights.
Fox bid high - for their biggest star, Shirley Temple.
MGM bid higher - for Fox’s biggest star, Shirley Temple!
Metro chief LB Mayer won the property for $75,000 on June 3, 1938. Now, 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.
OK, OK, Temple it is. But, hey, wait a minute fellas, wait a minute… Can the kid sing well enough? (No, she could not). So we dub her, awready ! What… why, when we have Judy?
Mervyn LeRoy (succeeding the late genius Irving Thalberg in charge of Metro production) and the MGMusicals producer Arthur Freed both claimed responsibility for bringing the project - and Judy Garland - to LB’s attention. (Checking all timelines indicates Freed was first to talk to Mayer about both). 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 Gale . Mayer leaned toward Deanna Durbin as “An Orphan in Kansas who sings jazz,” 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 charmingly 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 J Mankiewicz and Ogden Nash, among 19 writers, worked on the script - 15 being uncredited, including the additional dialogue from The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion: Jack Haley and Bert Lahr.
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.
The Cowardly Lion/Zeke . Tex Morrissey is on Freed’s February 23, 1938 notes as a possibility foir the role created by the youngest scenarist Noel Langley, 26. Then, Bert Lahr nailed it… once LeRoy dropped plans to use… MGM's real 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 £1,500a 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, 1962-1970.
"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 aluminum 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 nailed 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, the UK's Gracie Fields, Helen Gilbert, Una Merkel, long-faced Edna May Oliver, viper-tongued Cora Witherspoon, and the remarkably named Helen Troy. Everyune voted 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).
Directors changed, too...
Richard Thorpe started by prettying up Judy with a blonde wig on October 13, 1938 - for the "If I Only Had a Brain") with Ray Bolger. Thorpe was fired after twelve days. Well, an October 26 announcement stated that George Cukor was "relieving" Thorpe (who had relived Norman Taurog so he could start prepping The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) because of Thorpe’s "serious illness." Either way, he was shipped out of town to avoid the Press.
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 took over on November 8 for four months before being replacing George Cukor on 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'scritic 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.”