IT’S 75 years since Dorothy and Toto unwittingly found themselves following the Yellow Brick Road. With its flying monkeys and cackling crones, beneath the outward whimsy there is something rather dark and feverish about The Wizard Of Oz, which marks its 75th anniversary this month. To mark the occasion , the iconic film has been re-released in 3D.
In fact, the Yellow Brick Road was paved with ill fortune and tragedy. The shoot, at the MGM studio lot in Culver City, California, was dogged by mishaps while key cast members would go on to have spectacularly unhappy lives. Oz eventually became notorious as Hollywood’s great ‘cursed’ movie: there is even an urban myth that, in one shot, you can see the swinging body of a ‘Munchkin’ who has hung himself (actually, it’s the silhouette of the bird).
Though her suffering was concealed from the cameras, star Judy Garland — a vision of pigtails and dewy eyes as Dorothy — is known to have had an especially miserable time. Plucked from a dustbowl sideshow by MGM studios age 13, when cast in the Wizard of Oz four years later, she was living almost like an indentured slave, allowed only one square meal a day and fed barbiturates so she could keep pace with the gruelling schedule.
This was at a devastating cost to her health. Garland weighed seven stone and was encouraged to smoke up to 80 cigarettes daily to suppress her appetite. With justification the actress would later complain the studio had stolen her youth, and fundamentally damaged her as a human being.
She wasn’t alone in finding the filming an ordeal. The original choice to play Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, was hospitalised following a dangerous allergic reaction to the silver-make-up. His replacement, Jack Haley, fared better but only just. The aluminum powder , which had coated Ebsen’s lungs, was changed to a less toxic paste; Haley, nevertheless, came down with a painful eye-infection.
Meanwhile, during the shoot, Wicked Witch of The West Margaret Hamilton suffered severe burns. She was required to fall through a trap-door which would burst into flames. Alas, the timing was off and the detonation occurred before her tumble to safety. (“I will return to work on one condition,” she said from hospital. “No more fire work!”). The famous flying monkey scene almost ended tragically as the piano wires suspending the actors snapped and they fell to the ground. The diminutive Munchkins experienced no such calamities but their off-screen debauchery was soon Hollywood folklore. Between takes they drank and brawled; it is suggested they supplemented their earnings — Toto the dog was on a better pay-scale — by pimping themselves out to the crew.
“They were drunks, they got smashed every night,” Judy Garland recalled. “The police used to scoop them up in butterfly nets.” Bert Lahr, who played the easily frightened Lion said: “Assistants were ordered to watch the midgets. They brandished knives and conceived passions for normal-sized cast members.”
The Wizard Of Oz was not a hit on its release in 1939. Though reviews were kind and the novel by L Frank Baum on which it was based was well-loved, audiences did not flock to the film. Executives who had blanched at the overtly fantastical elements of the plot and suggested changes (in one early draft of the script the Tin Man and Scarecrow are normal people who happen to dress oddly) must have felt vindicated. It wasn’t until a 1949 re-issue that The Wizard of Oz turned a profit.
By then, the ‘curse’ of the movie was in motion. Garland descended further into drug-mediated unhappiness (she died aged 47 from a barbiturate overdose in 1969, following several suicide attempts). Frank Morgan, who played The Wizard, was in a serious car accident months after the film’s release; his driver was killed, his wife injured. Eleven years later, he was cast as Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun: the day before filming was to begin, the actor died in his sleep from a heart attack.
The story even has a bittersweet postscript. Clara Blandick — Dorothy’s Aunt Em — lived to 81. However, in 1962, she overdosed on sleeping pills, having tried to suffocate herself with a plastic bag. In her suicide note, she announced she was embarking on ‘the greatest adventure’.
It doubtless came as cold comfort but, at that time, the Wizard Of Oz was already on its way to iconic status. In 1989, the American Library of Congress declared it the most widely seen motion picture in histo ry; Harold Arlen’s Over The Rainbow was subsequently named the greatest song of the 20th Century by the Recording Industry Association of America. From suffering and tragedy was born a movie that has inspired millions and is part of our shared global experience.