Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz movie (1939)

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Dorothy with the Wicked Witch and Glinda - Wizard of Oz

Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz: Making a classic movie (from 1939)

The magic of modern moviemaking at its miracle best breathes life into that beloved classic of childhood

By Dixie Willson

And so M-G-M’s art department was given a script labeled “Wizard of Oz”; a movie script of that wondrous book, that grave and gay mixture of nonsense and philosophy which for forty years has been a juvenile best seller.

At last it was to be breathed into life in as miraculous fashion as ever story or picture imprisoned on film — the fantasy of a little lady from Kansas whom the tail of a cyclone transports to the mystical kingdom of those three musketeers, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Woodman.

Soon there would take place in the huge city of M-G-M’s studio, such breath-taking, unbelievable sights as would have the very stars standing on the sidelines to stop, look and listen! For where else, if ever, could eyes behold flying houses, apple trees which pelt you with apples, men whose complexions are green and whose heads are square! A forest of jitterbug trees! Horses in the gayest shades of the rainbow! Judy Garland whisked away by a cyclone! A fairy city built of emeralds!

The Wizard of Oz lobby card

The magic of modern motion-picture making at its miracle best!

And beginning, of course, in the art department from whence all pictures start; that practical, hard-boiled, down-to-earth art department, where dreams are not only dreamed but come true; where cities, even whole countries, are created for the asking.

“So they gave us a script,” smiled handsome, brawny Art Director Cedric Gibbons, “in which a little girl from Kansas lives a great adventure in a country of her own imagination. But neither in the script nor in the original book was there any description to indicate along what lines her imagination might build such a country! Which left us, first of all, to do some imagining ourselves!

wizard of oz promotional photo

Munchkins and more mischief behind the scenes

“Take one scene of the fifty, for instance, the country the book calls ‘Munchkinland,’ to be inhabited by ‘very tiny people called Munchkins.’ To fashion a ‘Munchkinland’ which a little girl from Kansas might have dreamed, we began with a premise that the smallest things she had ever seen were probably ants. And how do ants live? Under grass and tree roots.

“So with toadstools and anthills as our architectural pattern, we made proportionately larger grass and flowers, such as, for instance, hollyhocks twenty feet tall.”

So much for a thumbnail bit of the “Oz” problems of the art department. And remaining a moment longer in “Munchkinland,” what about Munchkins to people this delightful place?

During Producer Mervyn LeRoy’s entire shooting schedule for “Oz,” the Munchkins, finally assembled, were the gayest detail of all. In response to a call sent out by Casting, midgets from all over the world came trouping to Hollywood; little midgets, middle-sized midgets, lady midgets, gentlemen midgets, midget graduates of Universities, a midget window demonstrator from Chicago . . . The littlest ones smoking the biggest cigars, eating the largest pieces of pie.

Wizard of Oz 1939 - Clara Blandick, Judy Garland, Terry, Margaret Hamilton, Charlie Grapewin

Oh, Toto: Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz

But the midgets, while perhaps the jolliest casting problem, were not the most difficult. Midgets, after all, are easy to find, but not so the frowsy little mutt who was to play the longest screen role ever written for a dog! Through the entire hour and a half of picture, he appears in every scene!

He will be remembered in the book as Toto; the illustrations showing a bright-eyed Cairn terrier. After many tests and long consideration, the role was entrusted to an engaging little girl dog named Terry who, as boy dog Toto, has delivered a superlative performance.

In Hollywood, Terry’s owner and trainer, Mr. Carl Spitz, conducts a kindergarten, grammar school, high school and college for canines.

But, though Terry enjoys acting, the “Oz” role was something else again, the strangest background she has ever been called upon to understand! Our lady Toto found it obviously distressing, then suddenly everything was forgotten in complete devotion to the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Woodman.

When the picture was finished and the four said goodbye, it was a sad moment for all of them.

During the entire ten months of shooting, they seemed to fascinate Terry completely, a state of mind which I could well appreciate. Certainly on all Hollywood’s fantastic acres, I have never come upon so startling an eyeful.

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Testing Judy Garland hair and dress - Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz movie (1939)

Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz: The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion

My first sight of them was one day during luncheon, which was always served in their dressing room. Because of make-up complications, they did not attempt to eat in the commissary. Leaving a pair of straw legs, a lion’s skin and a framework of tin joints behind them, yet retaining from the neck up the result of a two-hour morning session in make-up, the three, at noon, would repair to their dressing room to sit around the luncheon table in well-worn bathrobes.

ALSO SEE: Fantasy in fashion: Costumes from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I was bound to know it was still Mr. Bolger, Mr. Lahr and Mr. Haley, as upon the day of my call they turned three pair of eyes toward the door to acknowledge my arrival, but never have I been so carried beyond the realm of anything I could believe.

There they were, a scarecrow’s gunny-sack countenance, framed with wisps of weathered straw which plainly could only have escaped from inside his head, a lion looking through a tawny mane, and a third face contrived of rivets and tin, a funnel for a nose soldered snugly to an unmistakable aluminum head.

“I know what you’re thinking,” grinned Mr. Bolger, after an interim in which I could but silently stare. “When I saw the rushes yesterday where they took off my legs and threw them away, I just about believed, myself, that I’m straw. When I go home at night, I feel as if I’m still just flapping in the wind!”

The Wizard of Oz movie starring Judy Garland is here to delight the kids (1939)

“The whole business seems real,” put in the Lion. “When we barged down a stone hall in- the scene where we were to try and escape from the castle and the iron door swung shut just before we got through it, and those six-foot green-eyed Wmkies ganged up on us, and the witch cackled in at the window, I’m right here to tell you it was something to shiver about!”

“In doing characters like these,” said Mr. Bolger again, “every little thing is so important. In an ordinary part, if you slip up on a gesture or a word, you can get away with it. But, in a thing like this, you aren’t allowed a moment in which to be yourself.”

“And when you’re playing for kids,” added Mr. Haley, “you’re playing for the toughest audience in the world. The grown people look at it just to be entertained, but the kids look at it … to believe it!”

A voice called from downstairs to say they were wanted on the set. Three chairs scraped away from the table, three undefined creatures knotted the cords of their bathrobes and paraded out.

Wizard of Oz press kit - Dorothy and Scarecrow - Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz

School for Judy, Glinda & the Great Oz

Following them to the set, I discovered later that Judy Garland as Dorothy, and small Terry as Toto, were the only members of the entire company unworried by trick make-up of one kind or another. But Judy had another plaint. The grownups could finish a scene and knock off, whereas for her, in that trim ever-present trailer which is labeled “Judy Garland, School,” the thrill of adventure in “Oz” was forever anticlimaxed by plain old-fashioned geometry.

Judy, however, was not the only scholar. There was also Mr. Wizard-of-Oz Frank Morgan, for whom weeks of serious coaching were necessary for a smooth delivery of the magic his title role required. He can now make a bird cage disappear up his sleeve with the best of the Houdinis, but it took four months of concentration and practice to accomplish it.

As for me, it seemed that all the magic in the world might be accomplished by just one wave of the wand of Miss Burke as the Good Fairy, her elfin Irish smile in the most perfect setting I have ever seen created for it; a cloud of shell-pink tulle, pale silver butterflies poised upon its delicate mesh.

Dorothy with the Wicked Witch and Glinda - Wizard of Oz

“It makes me wish,” she said gently, “that I were sixteen again . . . that my feet didn’t have to touch the ground!” But Billie Burke, as the Good Fairy of “Oz,” is sixteen again, and you are perfectly certain her feet never have touched the ground.

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“It’s a divine part,” she said. “There’s child enough in all of us to be thrilled with the settings and the feeling of this picture. It has terrified me a little,” she confided, “to think of living up to the children’s idea of what a Good Fairy must be, but I can only hope with all my heart that I won’t disappoint them.”

Alone on the great soundstage just then, she was waiting for her last scene, which was to be a montage of her face and her smile as it would drift across the picture to finish Dorothy’s dream. The famous Burke red-gold hair rippling loosely about her shoulders’ shimmered with diamond dust and infinitesimal stars. Above, on the catwalk, the electricians waited with the necessary arcs and suns. She laughed and touched me with her wand.

“What would you like?” she asked. And indeed there was nothing for me to believe but that she could grant it, for if ever good fairies lived, this one was the epitome of them all; a sentiment subscribed to one moment later by Miss Victoria Fleming, five years old, as she approached with her father who had come to superintend this last shot.

“Daddy,” she whispered, looking up at Miss Burke who waited in the single circle of light breaking through the darkness of the great empty soundstage. “Daddy, do you think I could touch the Good Fairy?”

1939 Promo - Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz movie starring Judy Garland

Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz: A set transformed into the Emerald City

Later, I watched preparation for a scene on the stage next door; a stage almost the size of a New York block, a stage transformed now into the Emerald City, a panorama of green glass domes, castle gates, tall towers, a floor of highly polished baked enamel, a windmill’s green glass arms slowly revolving against an iridescent sky.

The extras sat about in idle groups; men with green beards and purple feather hair, women wearing jewels which glowed like cats’ eyes in the dark. Alongside the eight-foot cabochon emeralds which marked the palace gates, the scarecrow’s stand-in stretched full-length asleep. Silently, methodically, unemotionally, half a dozen workingmen pushed mops about the floor, making it ready for the coming shot when not a footmark would be allowed to mar its polished perfection.

See the wonderful Wizard of Oz trailer – plus ads from its premiere (1939)

Along the sidelines parked a row of lighted trailers, the dressing rooms of the principal players, their exclusive little doors bearing the names “Mr. Bolger,” “Mr. Haley,” “Margaret Hamilton,” (Miss Hamilton playing your gorgeously wicked and relentless witch).

Outside Mr. Lahr’s door hung, limply, his lion suit. Presently it would take three dressers to get him into it. On a wig block reposed his tawny toppiece. Mr. Lahr himself, sitting just within his open door, bent his saffron rubber face over a typewriter upon which he was pegging out a letter. And not at all surprising in this setting of complete fantasy, a sky-blue horse stood hitched to a barouche in which Judy, the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Woodman were to ride through the city gates.

The Wizard of Oz - Follow the yellow brick road - Behind the scenes

A sky-blue horse? Yes, and complacently munching teatime oats, a scarlet horse, a lavender horse, a pink one and one of canary color. For the carriage proceeding through the city was to illustrate that timeworn phrase “a horse of a different color,” the blue horse changing before your very eyes to pink, to yellow, to lavender!

And which perhaps pigeonholes, as well as anything can, the picture itself, a production which is indeed, a horse of a different color, the new musical score, the half a hundred Technicolor scenes, laced together with elements which seem to promise something singularly delightful for us all; honesty, beauty, satire and philosophy for the grownups, with adventure and suspense for the children.

And every man to his own particular taste in whimsies, of course, but as for me, “Munchkinland” provides the one I am waiting for . . . flowers growing out of the holes in the toes of the midget Munchkins’ shoes!

Behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz movie (1939) - from Photoplay

Sights, unbelievable and breath-taking, are what you catch on this set visit where the Wizard of Oz, Frank Morgan (above); the Cowardly Lion, Bert Lahr; the Tin Woodman, Jack Haley; the Scarecrow, Ray Bolger; the Good Fairy (left), Billie Burke and Dorothy, Judy Garland bring enchantment to this delightful fantasy

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