The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Toronto Film Society presented The Wizard of Oz (1939) on Sunday, February 16, 2020 as part of the Season 72 Sunday Afternoon Special Screening #5.

Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Producer: Mervyn LeRoy.  Associate Producer: Arthur Freed.  Director: Victor Fleming.  Screenplay: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum.  Music: Harold Arlen (Music), Edgar Y. Harburg (Lyrics), Herbert Stothart (Score).  Cinematographer: Harold Rosson.  Editor: Blanche Sewell.  Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons.  Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis.  Costumes: Adrian.  Release Date: August 25, 1939.

Cast: Judy Garland (Dorothy Gale), Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel/The Wizard of Oz/The Gatekeeper/The Carriage Driver/The Guard), Ray Bolger (“Hunk”/The Scarecrow), Bert Lahr (“Zeke”/The Cowardly Lion), Jack Haley (“Hickory”/The Tin Man), Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch of the North), Margaret Hamilton (Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry), Pat Walshe (Nikko), Clara Blandick (Auntie Em), Terry (Toto), The Singer Midgets (The Munchkins), Billy Bletcher (Mayor/Lollipop Guild Member (voice)), Buddy Ebsen (The Tin Man (singing voice)).

The Wizard of Oz turns 81 this year, and it still looks great! (Although to be honest, it has had a couple of facelifts and restorations over the years.) For those who haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat. Here’s the basic story: Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again. (Credit goes to writer Rick Polito for that one.) Chances are you’ve seen the film at least once, if not several dozen times. It seems pretty much perfect, doesn’t it? It’s hard to picture the movie any differently than it was made, but Dorothy was originally blonde (they shot for nine full days before deciding to use a different colour wig), and that’s just the beginning. There are rumours that MGM wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy. This would have made sense, as Temple was a bigger star at the time than Garland and closer to the age of the character. However, Temple was under contract to Fox at the time, and whether they refused to lend her out or producer Mervyn LeRoy got his wish in the casting of Garland (who was under contract to MGM), she did not end up playing Dorothy. Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as The Tin Man, but the aluminum makeup made him sick—enough to be hospitalized. MGM went back to Fox to ask for Jack Haley. This time, Fox said yes. The next casting switch was for the role of The Wicked Witch of the West. The original actress chosen was the glamorous Gale Sondergaard, with makeup modeled after the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). However, when it was decided to make the witch green and ugly, she passed on the role and was replaced by Margaret Hamilton. And finally, the role of Toto was originally to have gone to Lassie, but after it was found that Miss Gulch’s basket was too small for a collie, she was replaced with Terry the cairn terrier, who was discovered drinking from a bowl outside the Top Hat Malt Shop in Hollywood. (OK, that last part is made up, but the rest is true!)

The production also went through five directors. Norman Taurog was the original director, but was replaced after a few tests. Richard Thorpe came in and directed for two weeks when Dorothy was blonde, but after new makeup tests, he was replaced by George Cukor, who didn’t actually direct anything, but acted as a creative advisor before leaving to work on Gone with the Wind (1939) and was replaced by Victor Fleming (who would replace him again on GWTW). Fleming directed the Technicolor portion of the film, and then King Vidor stepped in to direct the black-and-white sequences.

Snips and tucks: Did you know that the original cut of the film was 121 minutes long? The original version was shown to only two test audiences in 1939. By the third test screening, the film was down to the 102 minute movie we all know. Scenes were cut for various reasons. The Wicked Witch of the West originally had a larger role, but when crying children had to be carried out of screenings, a number of her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. One entire musical number was scrapped—“The Jitterbug”. Producers felt it would date the film, with the jitterbug being a popular dance at the time, and at two hours, the film was already longer than average. The other major cut was a reprise of “Over the Rainbow” when the witch captures Dorothy. The footage no longer exists, but many of the recordings do and can be found on YouTube or various soundtracks. The film premiered on August 10, 1939 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, opening on August 25. It was immediately…not a hit. It didn’t make a profit until it was re-released in 1949. It was shown on TV for the first time in 1956 and quickly became an annual tradition. Of course, now we can watch it whenever we want to; it’s been commercially available in various formats since the 1970s.

Volumes have been written about Judy Garland, as well as a number of movies and TV shows, but we don’t really know about the other stars, who were popular in their day as well, though none of them became legends. Before The Wizard of Oz, Bert Lahr performed in vaudeville, including several Ziegfeld shows, and just before shooting The Wizard of Oz, he co-starred with Ethel Merman on Broadway in DuBarry Was a Lady. He continued to work in film, television, and stage, becoming more of a dramatic actor in the 1950s. He co-starred in the US premiere of Waiting for Godot (at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami) before co-starring in the play on Broadway. His last film was The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968). Jack Haley also got his start in vaudeville (you’ll find that’s a running theme), and was under contract to RKO for a number of years. He also appeared in a film with Judy Garland in 1936, Pigskin Parade. He left RKO in 1947 and reportedly went into real estate, making only sporadic appearances in film and television before his death in 1979. Six degrees of separation: Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, married Jack Haley’s son Jack Haley Jr in 1974. Ray Bolger (yep, he also started in vaudeville) fared slightly better than Haley, career-wise. He appeared in several films of note after The Wizard of Oz, including The Harvey Girls (1945) with Garland. He starred on Broadway in a number of shows, including Where’s Charley? for which he was awarded a Tony in 1949. He reprised the role on film in 1952, which included his signature song, “Once in Love with Amy”.

Margaret Hamilton did not, in fact, get her start in vaudeville. She was a kindergarten teacher before making her film debut in 1933. Hamilton’s role as the witch stayed with her throughout the rest of her life. She often said that children asked her why she had been so mean to Dorothy. In 1975, she appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and explained that she had just been pretending—putting on the costume had turned her into the witch. (For more good stories on Hamilton, check out her Wikipedia page.) Finally, Billie Burke—who may have had the longest career of them all. She started acting on Broadway in 1907, at the age of 23, and married none other than Florenz Ziegfeld Jr in 1914. She had a lengthy career in silents until 1921. (She was so popular, she had dresses named after her and was a major trendsetter.) She returned to Broadway for a decade, then returned to Hollywood, where she appeared in Dinner at Eight (1933). She worked fairly consistently until 1960, and with her impressive résumé, her role in The Wizard of Oz could very well have been just a blip in her career! She also wrote two autobiographies.

Notes by Mark Brodsky

Judy Garland, Schmudy Garland. The real star of The Wizard of Oz is “Toto”, the adorable little cairn terrier who appears in nearly every scene of the movie and drives a great deal of the on-screen action.

She (yes, she) was actually named Terry. Born on November 17, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois, Terry moved westward to California with her human family, who placed the one-year-old at Carl “Papa” Spitz’s Hollywood Dog Training School to cure her of house-training issues. The family never returned. Spitz ended up adopting the dog, even though he knew she was too absurdly shy (her first three weeks with him were spent hiding under a bed) to ever work before the cameras. But he forgot to take into account the breed’s characteristic spunkiness and resiliency. Terry surprised her new owner by blossoming on her first film set (Ready for Love, 1934) and she continued to perform flawlessly in a variety of roles—16 in “toto”, including Bright Eyes (1934) with Shirley Temple; The Dark Angel (1935) with Frederic March and Merle Oberon; Fritz Lang’s classic Fury (1936) with Spencer Tracy; Cecil B. de Mille’s The Buccaneer (1937), again with March; The Women (1939) with Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Canada’s own Norma Shearer; Twin Beds (1942) with former Oz co-star Margaret Hamilton; and Tortilla Flat (1942), where she was reunited with Oz director Victor Fleming and “Wizard” Frank Morgan.

When MGM acquired the rights to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 fantasy tale “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, the studio’s property department was handed a copy of the book and told to find a dog that looked exactly like the W.W. Denslow illustrations. There ensued a massive search rivalling that for Scarlett O’Hara. At last, somebody sent Spitz a copy of the “Oz” pictures and he showed up at the MGM studio with Terry. The rest, as they say, is “herstory”. Terry was hired at a salary of $125. per week (equivalent to $2,300. in today’s dollars), far more than many human actors in the film were paid, including the 124 Singer Midgets who portrayed the Munchkins.

But the film wasn’t all smooth sailing. When Terry first met actor and dog-lover Margaret Hamilton, the two had a great time playing together. Later on, when Hamilton emerged from the makeup department in full Wicked Witch regalia, Terry literally shat herself in fear. She also was scared of the big wind machines used for the tornado sequences and other special effects—Papa Spitz spent weeks acclimatizing her to stand her ground. It was harder for her to do so after one of the Wicked Witch’s “Winkie” guards accidentally stepped on Terry and broke her paw. The dog spent a couple of weeks recuperating at star Judy Garland’s house. This cemented the bond between the pair, leading Garland to try in vain to buy her from Spitz. When Terry finally returned to the Oz shoot, she spotted another cairn on set and immediately went diva-ballistic, attacking her rival—only to find it was a stuffed dog stand-in.

Still, in all, Terry performed amazingly well throughout most of the shoot and did all her own stunts, from jumping out of a bicycle basket to pulling back a curtain; from barking furiously at flying monkeys to making a spectacular leap from the Witch’s castle drawbridge. After The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, Terry continued appearing in films. But the fame of her seminal role began to rub off on her: Everyone kept calling her “Toto”, which led Spitz to officially change her name in 1942. That was also the year that her pup, Rommy, started appearing in pictures, beginning with Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and Air Force (1943).

Terry/Toto died in 1945 at the age of 11 and was buried at the Spitz ranch in Studio City, Los Angeles. In 1958, the site was appropriated by the city for an infrastructure upgrade. Her body now lies buried somewhere beneath LA’s Ventura Freeway.

Written by Leslie C. Smith

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