WASHINGTON – Glinda the Good Witch was a diva on set. And Frank Morgan,a.k.a. the Wizard of Oz,may have been stumbling down the yellow brick road instead of skipping because of the amount of alcohol he was drinking.
Lions,and tigers,and revelations from the set of the 1939 classic,“The Wizard of Oz,” were revealed Wednesday at an evening event honoring the Hollywood film’s 75th anniversary at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Michael Patrick Hearn,a literary scholar and leading authority on all things Oz-related,offered the audience – primarily of adults in their late 50s and older – a look at “those men behind the curtain” and the issues they encountered with the Oscar-winning film.
“Recording sound on film in 1939 was still a complicated process. Margaret Hamilton’s high-pitched cackle cracked several sound needles before Fleming got her to tone it down a little,” Hearn said.
Victor Fleming directed the film.
The scholar developed a longtime friendship with Hamilton,the Wicked Witch of the West,or “Maggie” as he called her. Hamilton died in 1985,but allowed Hearn to interview her over the years about her experience on the iconic set.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s classic starring Judy Garland was the focus of the Smithsonian event,but Dorothy and her trio of misfits first came to life in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” a children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum.
The New York native began the series in 1900 and wrote 14 books about the Land of Oz before his death in 1919. His work has gone on to inspire more books,Broadway musicals and movies,including the recent Disney film,“Oz: The Great and Powerful,” starring actors James Franco and Mila Kunis.
Museums also carry memorabilia from the film. The American History museum displays a pair of the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy after her house lands in Oz – on a witch – in the film. The shoes were anonymously donated to the museum in 1979.
Hearn said the 1939 Technicolor version of Oz was a landmark for American film as it blurred the line between reality and fantasy. But for the cast,the environment on set was nearly unbearable,he said.
“The official word from MGM was about how happy everyone was about making the picture. But what Margaret Hamilton remembered the most was how uncomfortable everybody was throughout the long ordeal,” Hearn said. “All the actors,including every munchkin,had to be in their chairs for Jack Dawn’s makeup at the crack of dawn,” Hearn said.
Uncomfortable costumes left some actors wishing they could tap their heels together and go home,too.
Ray Bolger,who played Scarecrow,could hardly hear because his ears had to be covered by a sack and straw. He also had to wear a rubber mask that he said would become stifling during dance numbers.
Actor and dancer Buddy Ebsen was slated to play Tin Man but developed a severe aluminum dust allergy that sent him to the hospital. Singer Jack Haley replaced him. Haley’s costume did not allow him to sit,so he could only rest on a leaning board,Hearn said.
The Cowardly Lion had his own complaints. Bert Lahr,the former Vaudeville actor,wore a freshly-made lion skin for the start of the film but the odor made him ill. Costume designers created a new one from an old rug that weighed about 60 pounds.
Lahr’s daughter,Jane Lahr,70,flashed a smile at the mention of her father’s costume as she sat among the Smithsonian crowd. Her Tony-award winning father died Dec. 4,1967,but on Wednesday,Jane Lahr was celebrating his 119th birthday.
“Dad didn’t watch the movie until years after it premiered,maybe in the 60s. It was on TV,and we just sat down on the couch and watched it together,” she said. “I could tell it was all coming back to him.”
The film required five months to shoot,four months to edit and cost MGM $3.2 million – which would be more than $54 million in 2014. Its legacy,said Hearn,is evident in its continued relevance in popular culture.
“One can hardly read a newspaper,magazine,watch TV or go online without running into some reference to Dorothy,the Scarecrow,the Tin Man,the Cowardly Lion,the Wicked Witch,the Wizard of Oz and Toto,too,” Hearn said. “‘Toto,I have a feeling we’re not Kansas anymore’ may well be the most quoted and misquoted and most harried streamline ever.”
Reach reporter Megan Card at [email protected] or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.