Though The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, it remains a popular classic that spans the generations today. In fact, a recent study claimed that it is the most watched film in history. This is probably due to the number of TV screenings each year as well as the multiple DVD/video releases which have keep it’s popularity alive and allowed every child to experience its magic.
But what happened behind that making of this magic? Here are 10 on set stories that you probably never knew:
1. In the famous “Poppy Field” scene (in which Dorothy fell asleep) the “snow” used in those camera shots was made from 100% industrial-grade chrysotile asbestos, despite the fact that the health hazards of asbestos had been known for several years.
2. The Munchkins are portrayed by the “Singer Midgets”, named not for their musical abilities, but rather for Leo Singer, their manager. The troupe came from Europe, and a number of these actors took advantage of the trip to immigrate and escape the Nazis. Professional singers dubbed most of their voices, as many of the actors couldn’t speak English and/or sing well. Only two are heard speaking with their real-life voices – the ones who give Dorothy flowers after she climbs into the carriage.
3. In the first take of the scene when the Wicked Witch of the West leaves Munchkinland, the smoke that was supposed to go up around her came early and started forming before she stepped on the platform she was supposed to be on. On the second take, part of Margaret Hamilton’s cape became caught in the platform when the burst of fire appeared. Her make-up heated up, causing second- and third-degree burns on her hands and face, and it was later discovered that one of the key components in her make-up was copper. The producers used the first take. You’ll notice the early appearance of the red smoke.
4. While filming the scene in which Dorothy slaps the Cowardly Lion, Judy Garland got the giggles so badly that they had to take a break in shooting. The director, Victor Fleming, took her aside, gave her a quick lecture, and then slapped her. She returned to the set and filmed the scene in one take. Fleming was afraid that this would damage his relationship with Garland and even told a co-worker he wished that someone would hit him because of how bad he felt, but Garland overheard the conversation and gave him a kiss on the nose to show that she bore no hard feelings. In the film she can still be seen to be stifling a smile between the lines “well, of course not” and “my, what a fuss you’re making.”
5. At the end of the sequence in which Dorothy and the Scarecrow first meet the Tin Man, as the three march off singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” there is a disturbance in the trees off to the right. This was long rumored to be one of the crew (or, by some accounts, one of the dwarf actors) committing suicide by hanging himself, but it is in fact a large bird stretching its wings.
6. “Over the Rainbow” was nearly cut from the film. MGM felt that it made the Kansas sequence too long, as well as being too far over the heads of the children for whom it was intended. The studio also thought that it was degrading for Judy Garland to sing in a barnyard. A reprise of the song was cut: Dorothy sang it to remember Kansas while imprisoned in the Witch’s castle. Judy Garland began to cry, along with the crew, because the song was so sad.
7. The famous “Surrender Dorothy” sky writing scene was done using a tank of water and a tiny model witch attached to the end of a long hypodermic needle. The syringe was filled with milk, the tip of the needle was put into the tank and the words were written in reverse while being filmed from below.
8. Margaret Hamilton, a lifelong fan of the Oz books, was ecstatic when she learned the producers were considering her for a part in the film. When she phoned her agent to find out what role she was up for, her agent simply replied, “The witch, who else?”
9. Almost 50 years after the release of this film, Margaret Hamilton revealed her approach to the character of the Wicked Witch in an interview with Fred Rogers for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968). Hamilton saw the Witch as a person who relished everything she did, but who ultimately was a sad, lonely figure – a woman who lived in constant frustration, as she never got what she wanted (this is, in fact, the basis of the novel and musical “Wicked,” in which the Wicked Witch of the West is portrayed as an unfortunate protagonist). In the same interview, Hamilton also famously donned the original Witch costume to explain that the witches were only make-believe, and that children shouldn’t be afraid of them.
10. According to lead Munchkin Jerry Maren, the actors on the set who played the Munchkins were paid $50 per week for a six-day work week, while Toto received $125 per week.
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