BEYOND THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD
Lions and tigers and secrets, oh my! Judy Garland biographer Gerald Clarke reveals the untold tales behind The Wizard of Oz (airing commercial-free this week on Monday, July 3 at 8 pm/ET and 11 pm/ET, TCM).
A troubled set and an unproven star could have blown away The Wizard of Oz. So how did the movie become a Hollywood classic, a TV tradition and both a blessing and a curse for Judy Garland? Then as now, Hollywood announced new movies with lights, whistles and a shower of confetti - all the hype and superlatives in a press agent's arsenal. But in 1938, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer announced that it had acquired rights to a much-loved children's story, the studio uttered little more than an embarrassed whisper. And for good reason. MGM had almost no idea what kind of film it planned to make out of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum's tale of witches, wizards and a frightened little girl from Kansas named Dorothy. The studio knew that it would essentially keep the title of Baum's book (which this year celebrates its centennial). MGM also knew that it would make a musical: The success a few months earlier of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs guaranteed that. Beyond that, though, MGM, which prided itself on attention to detail, drew a blank. Would its Oz be funny, or would it be serious? Would it use familiar old songs, as MGM had done in so many previous musicals, or would the studio order its songwriters to compose new ones? And what kind of songs would they be? Traditional ballads? The operatic arias that were so popular with audiences of the 1930s? Or would they be swing, the bouncy sound millions of young Americans were dancing to in the years just preceding World War II? Since MGM had paid the towering sum of $75,000 for the film rights (even Gone With the Wind had cost only $50,000), the studio could do just what it wanted with Baum's book. Many decisions, of course, would be governed by the studio's choice of stars, and if MGM had landed the ones it wanted, Oz would certainly have been a comedy. Studio executives hoped to get top comedians for two key roles: Ed Wynn or W.C. Fields for the Wizard himself and Fanny Brice or Beatrice Lillie for Glinda, the Good Witch. All four actors either declined or were unavailable, however, and the studio had to make do with two lesser-known character actors, Frank Morgan and Billie Burke. And up to the last minute, producer Mervyn LeRoy wanted the sleek and glamorous Gale Sondergaard to play the Wicked Witch of the West, but a spirited argument by his colleagues finally persuaded him that really wicked witches had to be ugly. Margaret Hamilton, who admirably fit that description, took Sondergaard's place.
Gradually - and more by chance than design - Wizard (or MGM's Production 1060, as it was called internally) began to assume shape. Bert Lahr was chosen for the part of the Cowardly Lion, Ray Bolger for the Scarecrow and Buddy Ebsen for the Tin Man. Although most people at the Culver City studio were rooting for 16-year-old Judy Garland to play Dorothy, MGM bosses in New York, headed by a vulgarian named Nicholas Schenck, wanted a bigger star: little Shirley Temple, No. 1 at the box office for three years running. It was thus with some trepidation that Roger Edens, the studio's chief vocal coach, went to hear Temple sing. And it was with considerable glee that he returned with good news for Garland. Temple's vocal limitations, said Edens, were insurmountable. Garland had the part, but for a time it appeared that she might have to split the musical duties with two other characters. Dorothy would sing swing songs, and Princess Betty of Oz (to be played by Betty Jaynes) and her lover, the Grand Duke Alan (Kenny Baker), would take charge of the high-toned stuff-opera, in other words. The script (no fewer than 10 writers took turns at it) was hampered by such complications; thus Princess Betty and her duke were ordered into exile-to a screenwriter's wastebasket. Also banished were both opera and swing. The latter, like rock and roll 20 years later, was deemed too risqué for children's consumption: "Orchestrated sex" was the label one moralist attached to swing's hyperkinetic rhythms. The Wizard of Oz would have traditional songs sung in the traditional way, and the little Garland girl was to do most of the singing.
Hoping for a Christmas release, MGM had expected to begin shooting April 19, 1938. But the studio had seriously underestimated the difficulties of translating Baum's fanciful world onto the screen. How could the cyclone that carries Dorothy from Kansas to Oz be reproduced on a soundstage? How could the winged monkeys and witches Dorothy encounters be sent flying through the air? Today, a few keystrokes of a computer could conjure up those effects; in 1938 such cinematic magic required both ingenuity and months of work by the best technical brains in the motion-picture business. Even color, a new and still-primitive technology, was a problem. Most of the paints applied to the soon-to-be-famous Yellow Brick Road mysteriously showed up green on film, and MGM's art department spent nearly a week frantically searching for a yellow that would satisfy the finicky Technicolor camera.
Having been pushed back once already, the starting date for Oz was delayed again, and again after that. Shooting did not begin until October 13, 1938. And then it came to a quick-and nearly fatal-stop. Only nine days after filming started, the Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, was hospitalized, his lungs almost lethally coated with the aluminum dust used for his makeup. As bad as it was for Ebsen, the delay was good for the picture, giving producer LeRoy the leisure time necessary to carefully examine the footage that had already been shot and to decide that none of it, not a single foot, was worth saving. He belatedly realized that his director, Richard Thorpe, did not have what it took to make such a multifaceted movie. The result was a fundamental change. Not only did Oz get a new Tin Woodman - Jack Haley - but also a new director: Victor Fleming (after a brief stint with George Cukor).
The director of such movies as Treasure Island and Red Dust, Fleming quickly restored order to what had threatened to become an out-of-control set. A real man's man, Fleming rode a motorcycle, piloted a plane and was a sure shot with a pistol. When his sleep was disturbed by the yowling of wildcats in the hills above his house, he picked them off, one by one, and placed their lifeless bodies outside his door - whether as trophies or as warnings to other noisy beasts, he did not say. Compared with those unfortunate felines, Judy Garland got off lightly. After she ruined a few takes with an attack of adolescent giggles, Fleming slapped her face hard. Her case of the giggles was permanently cured. Giggles were the least of Fleming's problems, however, and Ebsen was not the only one who suffered a nearly fatal incident. After threatening Dorothy and Toto - "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!" - Hamilton, as the Wicked Witch, was supposed to vanish from Munchkinland in a burst of smoke and fire, as a hidden elevator carried her to safety a second before flames shot up. All went well on the first several takes, but on the sixth or seventh, the flames erupted too soon, setting fire to Hamilton's huge hat and witch's broom. Suffering serious burns to her face and right hand, she did not return to the set for six weeks. After that, Hamilton refused to go near smoke or fire, and her stunt double was assigned to ride the witch's smoky broomstick.
Even Terry, the cairn terrier that played Toto - the only one in the main cast that was paid less than Garland's puny $500 a week - temporarily joined the casualty list when her paw was squashed by one of the Wicked Witch's heavy-footed guards. Hurt in ego only was a Munchkin who had to be rescued from a fall into a toilet bowl. Following that embarrassing mishap, MGM assigned big people to assist the little ones in such delicate situations. "Obstacles make for a better picture!" Fleming liked to say. If that's true, The Wizard of Oz had a promising future. Called away to direct a different kind of epic (Gone With the Wind), Fleming left the Kansas scenes - the most emotional scenes in the movie, as it happened - to his replacement, director King Vidor. The man responsible for such unabashed tearjerkers as The Big Parade and Stella Dallas, Vidor was, in fact, far better equipped to oversee the movie's more tender moments, and it was his sensitive direction that helped make Garland's performance of "Over the Rainbow" so moving. Completed on March 16, 1939, Baum's gentle fantasy had far exceeded MGM's budget, rising to what was then the enormous sum of $2,777,000.
In an effort to shorten the film's length for theaters, nervous executives demanded a major deletion: "Over the Rainbow" and the entire scene that surrounded it. Besides the sequence's length, those dour men in dark suits objected to the scene's barnyard setting, which they believed tarnished MGM's lustrous, sophisticated image. Fortunately, the movie's creators prevailed, and no less than the head of the studio himself, Louis B. Mayer, relented, allowing Dorothy to continue singing of a land she had heard of once in a lullaby. Five months later, on August 15, 1939, The Wizard of Oz was given its Hollywood premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Ten thousand fans filled bleachers to see arriving stars and moguls. Smiling Munchkins steered arriving guests down a yellow brick road to the theater's entrance. The Wizard of Oz had started on its own path to become the most beloved-and most watched-movie in the history of cinema. And Judy Garland would follow along every bump and curve.
Even without The Wizard of Oz, Garland would doubtless have become a star. The box-office receipts for Babes in Arms, which was released two months after Oz, left no doubt of that. The frothy Babes, one of eight movies Garland was to make with Mickey Rooney, made even more money than Oz did on its initial release. (Oz grossed only $3 million actually, not even enough to cover its cost and advertising budget; the film began to make money only upon its sale to CBS, in 1956.) As for Garland, she'd have many other successes during her 11 remaining years at MGM, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Easter Parade. But nothing quite matched The Wizard of Oz. Thanks to almost annual airings (first on CBS, then on NBC from 1968 to 1975, then back on CBS until Ted Turner got the rights for 1999 and beyond), Oz became a TV tradition, a rite of passage for whole generations of children who grew up to make its images and language - "We're not in Kansas anymore" - an integral part of the national vocabulary. When a federal judge ruled against Microsoft a few weeks ago, for example, one analyst went on television to declare: "Ding Dong! The witch is dead!"
In time, Oz conquered the rest of the world, as well. Indian novelist Salman Rushdie regards it - the movie, not Baum's book - as his original literary influence. And he titled his first story, written in Bombay when he was 10, "Over the Rainbow." What excited Rushdie and uncounted millions of others was a Technicolor retelling of an ancient story. Like the heroes and heroines of mythology, little Dorothy is on a journey of self-discovery: She is making a spiritual passage from adolescence to adulthood, immaturity to maturity. She is in search of her own adult identity, and her quest ends only when she realizes that she does not need a good witch, a wizard or even ruby slippers for protection: She can take care of herself. If Dorothy can survive the hazards of growing up - the wicked witches everyone encounters - so can every other child. Without Garland, The Wizard of Oz would still have been a good picture. But it almost certainly would not have had such lasting reverberations. Her Dorothy is the quiet center around which the movie turns, and it is her Dorothy with whom the world identifies. But if Garland gave The Wizard of Oz its haunting poignancy, she, in return, was touched by its peculiar magic. For the rest of her life, she was two people: Judy and Dorothy.
It was Dorothy who helped bring tears to the eyes of those who attended Judy's concerts in the 1950s and 1960s. Recognizing what the movie had done for her, Garland always spoke of it with reverence, and "Over the Rainbow" became her prayer. She was emotional about all of her songs, she once said, "but maybe I get more emotional about 'Rainbow.' I never shed any phony tears about it. Everybody has songs that make them cry. That's my sad song." Garland was not Dorothy, however, and never had been. She wanted to be seen not as a wide-eyed innocent but as a temptress who could make men melt. She was a lively, sexually adventurous young woman. More than anything, she wanted to be like her friend, the irresistible Lana Turner. Increasingly, she found the image of Dorothy to be a kind of prison. No one at MGM complained when Turner went nightclubbing, but when Garland was seen at Ciro's too often, there were howls of anger from the front office. Her public viewed her later problems with drugs and men not with sympathy but with scorn. She had betrayed her image.
For many, Garland remains Dorothy even now, 31 years after her death from a drug overdose, in 1969. That I discovered, to my surprise, when my biography of Garland was published last April. Though the book received generally good reviews, some of Garland's more fanatical fans, displaying symptoms that might have puzzled Freud himself, were outraged that I talked about her active sex life, her drug addiction and her emotional problems. "We don't want to hear about these things," they shouted in letters and through the Internet. It was not Judy Garland they cared about - in other words, the real, vibrant woman I had tried to portray. It was Dorothy, a girl who never existed except on film. Toward the end of her life, Garland herself rebelled against the doppelgänger that had shadowed her for so long. Speaking into atape recorder for what she hoped would be her autobiography, she cried out in pain, anger and the bitterness of despair. "I wanted to believe, and I tried my damnedest to believe in that rainbow that I tried to get over - and I couldn't! So what? Lots of people can't."
From the July 1 issue of TV Guide.
© 2006 Gerald Clarke
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