Sep 23 2010 11:59am

Filming Fairyland: The Wizard of Oz

Follow the yellow brick road, follow the yellow brick road, follow, follow....

Confession time: This movie scared the living daylights out of me when I was a kid.

I must have been about four or five when I first saw the movie, over the objections of my parents still remembering a bad freakout from viewing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (To this day, a small part of me still believes that if I chew gum, I shall blow up into a giant blueberry, doomed to be rolled around and around FOREVER.) But I desperately wanted to see the movie—it had a dog! And singing! And dancing!

An hour or so later, I was burrowing under my father’s arm, shaking in sheer terror, absolutely convinced that those flying monkeys were going to come right out of the television and eat me. (Never mind that nowhere in the film do the flying monkeys do any actual eating. They look just like the sorts of creatures that would not hesitate to eat small terrified children.)

And yet I insisted on seeing the film through to the end. I had to know what happened to that dog.

Years later, I can report that the dog is okay. (I hope I’m not spoiling anyone here.) The flying monkeys are still pretty horrific. (Although this may be lingering childhood trauma.) And this is still a powerful film, about trying—and failing—to escape your fears.

In the 1930s, MGM Studios was riding high as Hollywood’s most dominant movie studio, the only one to make it through the Depression with continuous profits. But in one film, they did not dominate: children’s entertainment, in part because despite the continued popularity of Shirley Temple films (over at rival studio 20th Century Fox), few realized the potential profit in children’s films.

The success of Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, however, proved that full length children’s films not featuring the adorable Shirley Temple could, indeed, make money, and appeal to a crossover audience. MGM began looking for a property that could, like the Disney film, combine the fantastic with the musical. The Wizard of Oz, already turned into two rather dreadful films, seemed a perfect follow-up.

No one had any idea of what a nightmare production and filming would be.

Even before principal shooting began, at least eleven screenwriters were rumored to have taken a hack at the script. Eventually, at least twenty people, plus actors Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Burt Lahr contributed in one way or another to the script, most never receiving credit. This inauspicious start foreshadowed other unexpected changes. Ray Bolger, set to play the Tin Man, begged for the role of the Scarecrow instead. His replacement Buddy Ebsen developed a severe allergy to the Tin Man’s makeup (his studio bosses initially thought he was trying to skip out on work) and in turn was replaced by Jack Haley. And before the Kansas scenes could be shot, director Victor Fleming was called off the film to save MGM’s other little film, Gone With the Wind. Sets and props had to be hastily created and recreated to work with the still tricky new Technicolor process, and many of the necessary special effects initially stumped film crews.

(Alas, as it turns out, that lovely story that actor Frank Morgan just happened to realize that the coat he is wearing in the Professor Marvel scenes was once owned by L. Frank Baum himself turns out to be not so true. Upon rethinking, however, I have decided to completely believe MGM’s publicity department on this one, since it’s the sort of story that ought to be true, even if it isn’t.)

Some ill thought ideas, including the hint of a romance between Dorothy and the Scarecrow/Hunk the farmhand, had to be dropped. (Vestiges of this idea remain in the film, if not anywhere in the books, especially in Dorothy’s line, “I think I’ll miss you most of all,” and in the decision to give the Scarecrow slightly more of a leadership role. Nonetheless, Dorothy and the Scarecrow are JUST FRIENDS, thank you very much.)

All of this should have created a film of complete chaos. And yet—apart, perhaps, from the Cowardly Lion musical number designed to showcase Bert Lahr’s singing and dancing chops, the film flows together remarkably well, moving seamlessly from scene to scene, and song to song-helped by the “If I Only Had...” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard...” songs that provide musical continuity. (It also helps that most of the songs are easy to sing along with.) The actors, particularly Judy Garland as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton as the terrifying Wicked Witch, threw themselves heart and soul into their roles, and if Dorothy occasionally comes off a bit too ingenuous for her age, it still largely works. It is, above all, a remarkably beautiful film, glowing with color.

And those Flying Monkeys? STILL FREAKY.

(If you can, try to see the film in its digitally restored version, which restored the sepia tones to the Kansas scenes and made the Oz scenes so bright and sharp that you can see the individual strands of the Cowardly Lion’s mane and tail. Alas, in an couple of shots you can also see the wire that moves the Cowardly Lion’s tail, but let us not be picky.)

With this said, some parts of the film have not dated well. The Munchkin scenes are—it pains me to say this—deeply annoying, partly thanks to a decision by the studio to redub the Munchkin voices with various recording devices that created frequently incomprehensible, and sometimes high pitched squeals. As a result, I could only sympathize with my viewing partner who said a loud “Thank God!” when the Wicked Witch finally made her appearance. (I do, however, regret to say that he spent the rest of the film cheering on the Witch.) A few of the backgrounds are too obviously soundstages and matte paintings, although I suppose that adds to the somewhat dreamlike quality of the film. And for the life of me, I cannot figure out why, if Glinda is powerful enough to make it snow on those poppy fields, she can’t do something to keep Dorothy from getting snatched up by those horrible Flying Monkeys just a few scenes later.

Quite a few other things surprised me on this viewing: just how long the film lingers in Kansas. The way the Tin Man’s feet clunk with every step—a very nice little touch—and how little he speaks in the final film, continually overshadowed by the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. Just how terrified the Cowardly Lion is throughout the film—except when he’s singing. (I suspect this is part of what makes the film so terrifying to small children—I mean, if a LION is scared, everyone must be doomed, right?) Just what lengths a woman will go to get that perfect pair of shoes. (Although, on that note, why, if you are allergic to water, would you keep buckets of it around your house?)

And just how much that cute little dog spurs the plot along—not just in the Kansas scenes introducing the fearsome Miss Gulch, but also in Oz, where he plays a major role in the scenes introducing the Cowardly Lion, leads Dorothy’s friends to the rescue against the Wicked Witch, and exposes the Wizard as a fraud. Toto might just be the real hero of the film.

But what really struck me about this film is how it confronts the issues of its time while completely avoiding them.

Hollywood movie studios in the 1930s were acutely aware of both the Great Depression and of growing tensions in Europe, in part because the Great Depression impacted their salaries directly, and in part because so many directors, screenwriters and film crew hailed from Eastern Europe. Film studios could, then as now, choose several different responses. Some avoided any hints of war or economic trouble, focusing on light, escapist fare. Warner Bros. chose to make a series of films that managed the neat trick of being pro-war and anti-Nazi without ever mentioning the Nazis at all (the 1938 Robin Hood, ironically starring Nazi sympathizer Errol Flynn, which draws specific visual metaphors between those oppressed Saxons and Jews in Germany, is perhaps the best example of this). In direct contrast, MGM backed David Selznick’s anti-war Gone With the Wind, with its striking images of the horrors of war mingling with a deliberate and heightened acceptance of racism.

But in The Wizard of Oz, MGM took a decidedly different approach. The film opens with an unflinching look at real life tensions, of living in a world where at any moment, someone can walk into your house and take away the thing, or person, you love most in the world, and do so while citing the law. (And Dorothy and the film most certainly consider Toto at least a quasi-person.)

This was filmed during a time when people throughout the world were doing just that—entering homes and taking away people and possessions. The Wizard of Oz doesn’t show this as dramatically as Robin Hood does (which includes scenes of violence as the stereotypically Jewish looking peasants are roughly taken from their homes) but that awareness is still there.

“There’s no place like home,” declares Dorothy, and she’s right-no other place in the film, even the castle of the Wicked Witch, is nearly as dreary as her Kansas home—even if the film Dorothy appears to be wealthier than the book Dorothy, whose farm did not have farm hands or extensive furniture. But where the book Dorothy could escape permanently to Oz, the film Dorothy has no such options. Anyone can dream of going over the rainbow. No one can actually stay there outside of a dream.

All the more poignant, then, that the film Kansas is far more dangerous than Oz, book or film, ever is. For all of the very real terror that the Wicked Witch and her Flying Monkeys evoke, they do less actual harm than Miss Gulch can and does in Kansas. (Not to mention that Dorothy makes it all the way through Oz and an assault on a badly defended castle with a fire safety problem without a single bruise, while back in Kansas, she appears to be suffering from a fairly severe concussion from the cyclone.) True, the Wicked Witch and her Monkeys do scatter the Scarecrow’s straw and send Dorothy flying up into the air, but the Scarecrow cannot feel pain and is swiftly restored, and Dorothy is not injured at all.

Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Miss Gulch remains alive and well (if the cyclone killed her, no one mentions it) and able to return and remove Toto again at any time, this time presumably with a more secure wicker basket.

Not to mention the dreary restoration of all that sepia-toned reality.

For all the deserved joy at the end of the film, this is a surprisingly bleak (and realistic) ending. Fantasize all you wish about escape; in the end, you’ll be right back where you were, perhaps with a head injury added in.

This is, I think, one reason (along with the Munchkins) why some people hate this film. But I think this very bleakness beneath the joy, this contradictory tension, is precisely what gives the film its power.

With that digression said, I must admit that the Kansas scenes—even Judy Garland’s signature “Over the Rainbow” moment—are not the ones that stick with me. Rather, I remember the little moments in Oz: the Horse of Many Colors; the Cowardly Lion saying, with quivering knees, “I do believe in spooks. I do, I do;” the joyful dancing of Our Heroes as they sing their way down the Yellow Brick Road.

And, er, yes, those terrifying Flying Monkeys.

Go see it, on a big screen, if you can. It’s at turns aggravating, terrifying, inspiring, and, yes, from time to time, a bit boring. But if you can watch the sight of a tap dancing Tin Man without grinning your face off—well, I can only say that you don’t have a heart.

Housekeeping note: And yes, with this, I’m back to more or less regular blogging at, after a too-long interval caused by some unexpected chaos in the months of August and September. Barring any extensions of said chaos, in the next few weeks I’ll be heading back to examine some of the L. Frank Baum books I missed on the great Oz reread, as well as some of the non-canonical books by the other Royal Historians and Gregory Maguire. Then, it’s on to other fantasy worlds. Some that might just happen to feature another talking lion of quite a different sort.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where she keeps a wary eye out for Flying Monkeys.

Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
James Hogan
1. Sonofthunder
Yay Oz! And wow, I haven't seen this movie in a long time. It was one of our family favorites, so we saw it a lot. I don't remember the first time I saw it, but I couldn't have been too young, because I never remember being afraid of the monkeys! Although, it was quite tragic...we had recorded the movie onto a VHS tape, and it ran out right as she's tapping her slippers together at the end! So to this day, I don't believe I've ever seen the end. My mom told us how she woke up in her bed at home and told everyone where she'd "been" and how they'd all been with her, or something to that effect. But really, I should see the end for myself, sometime.

And your review does the movie marvelous justice...just a delightfully fun and smile-inducing movie! And so many little moments that stick with you...lions and tigers and bears, oh my!!
Rob T.
2. Rob T.
My family's experience of this film was the opposite of Sonofthunder's; we always seemed to tune into it whenever it was re-broadcast, but always somewhere after the beginning, and I'm pretty sure I never saw the whole film until I was grown up. The flying monkeys were pretty freaky, but for me the scariest part was the cyclone, which I still find hard to watch today even though I know Dorothy and Toto come out of it all right.

I've seen the MGM Wizard of Oz in movie theaters twice, the second time early this year in the company of two of my nephews and one of the nephews' friends (these boys ranging in age from 7-1/2 to 9). All of the boys enjoyed the movie, and while none were overly demonstrative about it (they'd all seen it on home video before), at least one allowed that he liked it more than Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. (That was all the validation I needed!)

Good to have you back, and I'd be interested to see your take on the 1980's film Return to Oz should you feel moved to write about it (hint, hint, nudge, nudge).
Noneo Yourbusiness
3. Longtimefan
Hooray for Mari Ness and her Wonderful return!

I was so glad to see this post today. I cannot even tell you. :)

I have the super deluxe box edition of the Wizard of Oz because it is just really a movie that was the whole of my childhood in a way. Every spring we would watch the televised version and I read all the books I could find for summers on end.

It is just so great to see you have come back bringing with you such delightful posts. Thank you so much.

I also loved the horse of a different color. I hear they colored it with powdered gelitain. I tried that with our family dog once but it was a brown dog and it just did not look the same. Nor did the kitchen when I was done. It was a bit of a sticky mess. Here is a hint if you ever try gelitain coloring at home. It is a sweeping clean not a mopping clean. The water (as with Witches) does not help. :)
Welcome back. :)
Rob T.
4. DavidA
A perspective from a different generation . . .

When I was growing up in the early '60s, there was only one way and one time to watch the Wizard of Oz -- NBC broadcast it every Thanksgiving. That was in part an advertisement for its color broadcast -- for a few years, NBC was the only TV broadcast "in living color." But we had no color TV until much later, so I saw the whole movie in black-and-white. I did not even know that the Oz sections were in color, so I did not know I was missing anything when Dorothy opens the door to Munchkin land, and I had no idea what the joke was about the Horse of a Different Color.

OK, kids, that's enough -- now get off my lawn.
james loyd
5. gaijin
"...I cannot figure out why, if Glinda is powerful enough to make it snow on those poppy fields, she can’t do something to keep Dorothy from getting snatched up by those horrible Flying Monkeys..."

Probably because the monkey abduction took place in the west (the wicked Witch's domain) while the poppy incident was in central Oz (neutral ground) so both witches got to show their chops.

The monkeys always creeped me out too, but not nearly as much as Miss Gulch on that bike inside the cyclone . Even as a child watching every year (on CBS by that time), I wondered why Dorothy was so happy to be home when it meant Toto was again vulnerable to Miss Gulch. Thank you for addressing this.
Rob T.
6. hapax
Like DavidA, I grew up just knowing that the was reserved for the broadcast of the movie, and there was a certain comfort in the certainty that everybody I knew (surely everybody in the world!) was experiencing this exact same event along with me -- that's what I miss most about the world of personal videos, downloadables, and so forth.

Although the single biggest turnout I have ever had for an adult program at the public library was when I arranged to show THE WIZARD OF OZ along with the Pink Floyd soundtrack of THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. I know that it was an urban legend, but the synchronicity is still pretty freaky.
diane heath
7. jadelollipop
I remember seeing this annually but never the whole thing at any given moment. I remember the flying monkeys but being more scared of the Wicked Witch when she popped up in the crystal ball.
My daughter was scared of the wheelers in Return to Oz
Rob T.
8. Teka Lynn
I remember cuddling up to my grandfather and repeating staunchly aloud, "There's no such thing as flying monkeys," while he responded comfortingly, "No, there's no such thing as flying monkeys," over and over during every Winged Monkey sequence.

We used to watch the annual broadcast on a black and white TV, although I did catch it in color at some point, probably at a friend's house. We didn't get a color set until 1979. I did know that the slippers in the movie were "ruby", something I always sneered at as lacking fidelity to the book. My grandmother explained that it was because MGM wanted to showcase the Technicolor, but I still thought it was pandering to the masses. I also didn't like the Kansas framing sequences.

My grandparents saw The Wizard of Oz when it was first released in 1939. They left the theater to find out that World War II had started.
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
I saw the recent rerelease in the theatre- to my amazement, the new print showed all sorts of exciting things in the bqckground. When Dorothy and Toto are starting off along the Yellow Brick Road, there are peacocks and flamingos in the background.
Mari Ness
10. MariCats
Thanks for the kind words, everybody!

@Sonofthunder - See the end, if you can - it manages, as I said, to be both depressing and joyful all at once, and you get a final chance to see almost all of the actors (except for Margaret Hamilton/Wicked Witch and Billie Burke/Glinda, who is never in any of the Kansas scenes at all, further making Kansas seem depressing and glooming). And you get a nice sense of just how creepy the whole bit with Dorothy and Professor Marvel could have been when he shows up at her window...(I'm just as glad the film didn't go there, either.)

@Rob T - The cyclone special effect is really well done. The guy responsible for directing those sequences, King Vidor, survived the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900; I suspect that played a part in adding to how realistic that scene feels.

@Longtimefan - Luckily for my mother, I don't think I ever tried to turn our family dog different colors with gelatin powder....But it's another pretty cool effect, managed both with the gelatin powder and some pretty slick film editing.

@davida - Wow. That would have created a very different viewing experience indeed. I grew up with both black and white and color TVs and television shows (most of my kids shows were in color, but my friends and I did watch some of the Bewitched reruns in black and white), so if I thought about this at all, it was to wonder why anyone would bother with black and white when color was so clearly available on Sesame Street.

The original sepia tones give a very different look to the black and white sequences - it literally feels dustier and heavier. Excellent artistic choice, if completely lost on most viewers for years.
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@gaijin - The poppy fields is one sequence handled much, much, better in the book (I think) - partly because it eliminates any thought that our heroes can be saved at any moment by one of the good witches, thus keeping up the tension. Plus, it just makes more sense overall.

@jadelollipop - I haven't seen Return to Oz yet, although, yes, that will be changing soon.

The Wicked Witch was pretty terrifying in every scene she was in.

@Teka Lynn - To be fair, in 1938/1939 nearly all movie studios, even the legendary cheapskates of Warner Bros, were trying to use Technicolor to entice movie audiences to their films. Unlike 3-D, which seems to be mainly working for Avatar, Technicolor did attract large audiences. Both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind Technicolor films remain amongst the highest grossing films ever (of course, it helps that both are frequently rereleased).

On the other hand, 1939 was also the year of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Wuthering Heights, which did quite well in black and white. At least artistically. I'm not sure about their financials.

@Pam Adams - The restoration is really incredible; I don't remember seeing half of the stuff on the screen that's there now - the birds, the separately moving flowers, the glistening corn in the Scarecrow's field and so on. Definitely worth checking out on the big screen when possible.
Rob T.
12. zenspinner
I saw it in the theater too, this last re-release. It must have been the blurry background in the older prints that created the legend about someone hanging him/herself off in the distance as the party heads off for Oz (right after the witch-on-the-roof sequence). I remember hearing that in the eighties and figured it couldn't possibly be true, but darned if I could tell what was going on in the background. It certainly looked like someone climbing up a stepladder, jumping off and swinging. But on a big screen with a fully restored print, it's obvious it's just the birds. That's been in the back of my mind all these years, even though I was sure it wasn't true, so I was glad to see for myself what it really was. :)
Mari Ness
13. MariCats
@jadelollipop - Correction to my previous comment: I actually have seen Return to Oz, but so many, many years ago that I can barely remember the film, and, as just demonstrated, can't always remember that I've actually seen it.
Ian Gazzotti
14. Atrus
I think the reason many dislike the "it was probably all a dream" ending is that it's in stark contrast with Baum's portrayal of Oz as a very real country that can be reached through non-magical means.

And I really love Return to Oz, even re-watching it now. As a children movie, I think it stands the test of time better than this one.
15. GT
I haven't seen this movie since I was a little kid. I remember those flying monkeys all too clearly. Scary stuff for a five year old!
Rob T.
16. a-j
Just to clear up a query if I may? Errol Flynn a nazi sympathiser? I thought that was an urban myth (he was a nazi spy in the version I know) based on the fact that unlike his friend David Niven he did not volunteer to join the British armed forces in 1939.
One Oz myth I can shoot down (apologies for the pun) which is that the film only really became popular in the 1960s. Well, it was certainly popular enough in war-time Britain for it to be referenced without explanation in the Powell/Pressburger film The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp (released 1943) and in Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea (published 1951).
Rob T.
17. TheLibraryFairy
The Wicked Witch was way scarier than the monkeys-ever. AND she had a bigger role. She was the one I can still remember running and hiding from-I wonder why the monkeys didn't scare me.
My best memory of that film is going to my grandfather's to watch the movie in color and being outraged when it opened in black and white. Imagine my relief (and amazement) when it opened up to the colorful world of Oz!
Rob T.
18. Alexander K.
You know, claims that Errol Flynn was a nazi sympathizer are, at best, unsubstantiated. Of course, I'm really just complaining because I was such a great fan of his films growing up and defamations of one's childhood heros are always hard to take lying down.
Rob T.
20. Angiportus
I saw it on a b & w tv when I was real little. Don't recall being really scared of anything but the scene of the witch's death stuck to the back of my mind. It resonated with some part of me, that she seemed to dissolve into a dark liquid--but it wasn't till many decades later that I checked the thing out from the library, saw it all in color, and realized that the disturbing part was the plaintive sound of her voice as she realized the end was at hand. I am sensitive to sounds/voice tones, and I didn't care to watch that again. And I would have had Dorothy sound less pleading too, just before that--but still, quite a story.
Ron Garrison
22. Man-0-Manetheran
I love everything about this movie but the end. Hated it. Hated it. Hated it. (Can you tell I wanted to run away from home?) What a cop out! You live in Kansas, girl. Get over it.
Rob T.
23. Jeff S.
When I was in the Navy, the Electronic Technicians(ET's) ran the on-board media system which involved playing various VHS movies on 2 or 3 channels. Usually movies, with a few TV shows sent out to us in the mail. I was running the system one night and had started the 7 pm group of movies when I decided to watch the Wizard of OZ on the monitor attached to the console. I was just getting to the cyclone when couple of my buddies walked in and started to give me a hard time about watching " a kiddie show" I told them that I happened to like the Wizard and they could lump it. They stayed. A couple of other guys from the department walked in before the coroner verified the Wicked Witch was dead and stayed. Before you knew it, there were 7 or 8 big tough navy squids sitting in the small media shop watching the movie all the way to the end. That's the power of the Wizard right there I tell you.
Mari Ness
24. MariCats
@a.j. First, sorry for the very belated response to this comment - I didn't see it until this week and haven't had the time to respond until now.

I'd last read about Errol Flynn as a Nazi sympathizer some time back when doing some research into Warner Bros movies and specifically Robin Hood. Most of the evidence is from the prewar period; once war broke out, Flynn did make several attempts to join the U.S. military to fight the Nazis but was turned down for medical reasons - which of course ended up adding to the rumors.

On the other hand, two additional factors have to be considered: 1, Flynn was frequently high, drunk, or both, so it's a bit hard to say exactly what he believed based on public statements - and Flynn was known to contradict himself. 2) Flynn did unquestionably have major issues and fights with his Jewish director and was heard to make anti-Semitic statements on set.

@21 Angiportus Margaret Hamilton does some effective voice acting throughout the entire film, but you're right - her plaintive cry there is particularly effective.

@23 Awesome story.

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