A Year: Day to Day Men: 15th of August, Solar Year 2018

Behind Door One

August 15, 1939 marks the Hollywood premier of the film “The Wizard of Oz”.

In January 1938, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to L. Frank Baum’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” from Samuel Goldwyn, who had toyed with the idea of making the film as a vehicle for Eddie Cantor who would play the Scarecrow. The final draft of the script was completed on October 8, 1938, following numerous rewrites from many screenwritersz; Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf received the film credits.

In his book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, Frank Baum describes Kansas as being “in shades of gray”.  Effectively, the use of monochrome sepia tones for the Kansas sequences was a stylistic choice that evoked the dull and gray countryside. Much attention was given to the use of color in the production, with the MGM production crew favoring some hues over others. Consequently, it took the studio’s art department almost a week to settle on the final shade of yellow used for the yellow brick road.

Though Judy Garland was set for the part, Nicholas Schenck, head of Loew’s Inc., MGM’s controlling parent company, felt box-office security in the person of Shirley Temple was needed to ensure a financial return against Oz‘s big budget. At an unofficial audition, MGM musical mainstay Roger Edens listened to Temple sing and reported that she lacked the robust vocal chops required for the extravaganza being prepared. So, the part of Dorothy remained Judy Garland’s, as intended.

Gale Sondergaard, a recent Academy Award winner, was originally cast as the Wicked Witch; however, she  became unhappy when the witch’s persona shifted from sly and glamorous into the familiar “ugly hag”. She turned down the role and was replaced on October 10, 1938, just three days before filming started, by MGM contract player Margaret Hamilton. After the filming of “The Wizard of Oz”, both Hamilton and Garland started filming  the Busby Berkeley musical “Babes in Arms” with Hamilton playing a role similar to the Wicked Witch.

An extensive talent search produced over a hundred little people to play Munchkins. They were each paid over 125 dollars a week, equivalent to 2200 dollars today. The MGM costume and wardrobe department, under the direction of costume designer Adrian Greenberg, had to design over 100 costumes for the Munchkin sequences. They then had to photograph and catalog each Munchkin in his or her costume so that they could correctly apply the same costume and makeup each day of production.

The Hollywood premiere was on August 15, 1939 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. While the earnings for the film were considerable, the high production cost, in association with various distribution and other costs, meant the movie initially recorded a loss of over one million dollars for  the studio. It did not show what MGM considered a profit until a 1949 re-release earned an additional $1.5 million. The film has been inducted into National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and is listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

Leave a Reply