This is the second of a five-part series, adapted from an essay in LIFE’s The Wizard of Oz: 75 Years Along the Yellow Brick Road, published by Time Home Entertainment and available on newsstands this week.
In the year 1900, at the very dawn of what TIME cofounder Henry Luce would proclaim as “the American century,” L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. His book proved an apt fable for a nation cresting toward maturity and eager to seize preeminence from senescent Europe. Baum kept the rococo creatures of antique fairy tales — Munchkins and flying monkeys in place of gnomes and talking donkeys — while discarding the medieval morality. No children get eaten. Only a witch dies.
Here was a story that Teddy Roosevelt, the spirit of that adventurous age, must have loved: of a lone girl who undergoes hardships to forge a glorious future for herself and her adopted country. Like the pioneers heading West to carve out their personal manifest destinies, Dorothy left her spare home and disapproving elders on a journey of self-discovery into a miracle mirage that her kin were too dim even to imagine. Baum’s Dorothy was a true heroine of nation-conquering dimensions: she came, saw and conquered, liberating the masses. She was Oz’s Julius Caesar and Joan of Arc.
In many ways Baum prefigured Walt Disney (who in the 1930s had hoped to make an animated feature of the Baum book, but MGM secured the rights first). He invented characters that lodged in the popular imagination, then extended their lives in sequels and translated them into other media. Like Disney, Baum became nearly as famous as his creations, not by hosting a TV show but by touring cross-country. And in 1905 he announced an Oz theme park, which he never realized. In fact, his dreams crashed when he invested much of his fortune in Oz movies. That made him another kind of American icon: the big dreamer who can’t write himself a happy ending.
MGM’s movie version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz suffered its own detours and disappointments; its success was neither sure nor immediate. Hollywood’s most ambitious previous attempt at a live-action fairy tale — Paramount’s 1933 Alice in Wonderland, with Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle and W.C. Fields (who would be an early candidate for MGM’s Wizard) as Humpty-Dumpty — had foundered at the box office. Who’d want to make the same mistake twice?
(SEE: TIME’s 1933 cover story on Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland)
What must have spurred MGM to making a musical version of the Baum book was the popular and critical favor that greeted Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In a promotional book for exhibitors, MGM trumpeted the achievement of its rival studio: “You are Presenting the Greatest Marvels, Splendors and Wonders on the Screen since the Extraordinary Snow White,” adding for clarity that “The Wizard of Oz is Played by a Cast of LIVING ACTORS! It is not a Cartoon Picture.”
(READ: TIME’s 1937 cover story on Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
MGM would boast that it spent “$3 million” (a production budget gives the figure as $2,769,230.30) on a film in a genre, the musical fantasy, which had never produced a live-action hit. And a movie with no stars. The opening credits expend only one card on the names of the eight principal players — Garland, Frank Morgan as the Wizard (and Professor Marvel), Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow (and Hunk the farmhand), Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion (and Zeke), Jack Haley as the Tin Man (and Hickory), Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch, Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch (and Elmira Gulch) and Charlie Grapewin as Uncle Henry. (Clara Blandick, in the crucial role of Auntie Em, was not listed in these credits, though “the Munchkins,” aka the Singer Midgets, were.)
Morgan had been a reliable MGM comic foil. Bolger, Lahr and Haley were seasoned stage performers. Burke, anther Broadway veteran (and widow of Florenz Ziegfeld, whom MGM had bio-picked in the Oscar-winning The Great Ziegfeld), put her giddy coloratura speaking voice to delightful use as a Hollywood supporting player, but never a movie lead. Of all the Wizard cast, only Garland would soon reap her own legend, which was intimately tied to this film. Hamilton also won a curious renown for her role: decades later, she’d autograph her fan photos “WWW,” for Wicked Witch of the West.
(READ: TIME’s first notice of Judy Garland, in 1936)
Today, The Wizard of Oz is a conundrum of a different color: a masterpiece made by anonymous craftsmen. A dozen screenwriters worked on the script, with the credit finally going to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, all of whom had worked on earlier Judy Garland films but are notable for little else. Renown for the geniuses who brought Munchkinland and the Emerald City to scintillating life — including art director William A. Horning, makeup artist Jack Dawn and special-effect maven A. Arnold (Buddy) Gillespie — doesn’t extend far beyond this film.
Richard Thorpe, the Kansas-born artisan who later directed Esther Williams in four musicals and Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock, began shooting The Wizard; but when Buddy Ebsen, who was to play the Tin Man, developed an allergy to the aluminum dust in his makeup, both Ebsen and Thorpe were replaced. Sam Wood, whose direction of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, would win Robert Donat an Oscar for Best Actor, also worked on the Wizard set for a brief spell. George Cukor, the first director of Gone With the Wind, offered wise advice on Garland’s makeup and other visual aspects, but directed not a frame of the movie.
It was a different time in Hollywood; directors were under studio contract and chipped in when asked. But no one, apparently, was asked to ride herd over the Singer Midgets. Their on-set rambunctiousness became the stuff of movie legend, and inspired — not quite the word, if you’ve seen it — the 1981 farce Under the Rainbow, with 150 little people and Carrie Fisher as their den mother.
(READ: TIME’s review of Under the Rainbow)
The Wizard‘s producer of record was Mervyn LeRoy, who had established his name as the director of such crime films as Little Caesar and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. But the film’s guiding hand belonged to Arthur Freed, the associate producer who received no screen credit. It was Freed, later the producer of MGM’s finest musicals, who shepherded The Wizard from first concept to finished picture. Composer-arranger Roger Edens, Freed’s invaluable aide during his 20-year reign at the studio, supervised the movie’s music, also without credit.
Victor Fleming ought to be revered, if only for his work on 1939 films; he directed Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Yet he is absent from most critics’ Hollywood Pantheon, despite the strong case that Michael Sragow makes in his 2008 biography Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master. Assigned to his first musical and first color film because of his smart handling of two children’s adventure movies, Treasure Island and Captains Courageous, Fleming steered the Oz shooting until David O. Selznick called on him to replace Cukor on Gone With the Wind. And King Vidor shot the Kansas sequences. (If you tear up attending to Garland’s brilliantly unadorned rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” thank Vidor.)
(READ: Steven James Snyder in praise of Michael Sragow’s biography of Victor Fleming)
A man’s man whom Sragow dubs “the real Rhett Butler,” Fleming could flare into bullying, even sadistic behavior: he once slapped Garland for giggling during a scene. In a near-tragedy, Hamilton caught fire during the Munchkinland sequence; after six weeks’ absence from the film, she wore a glove on her right hand to cover the exposed nerves. When she returned to the set, Fleming grabbed that hand hard. “Well, the pain was so unbearable,” Hamilton recalled, “that I almost passed out. ‘It looks fine,’ he said.” His tough-guy persona aside, Fleming directed most of The Wizard, and it looks fine.
After an unusually long shooting schedule of 108 days, from Oct. 13, 1938, to Mar. 16, 1939, and furious fiddling in post-production, the film had its Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Aug. 15, 1939. Two days later it opened at the Broadway’s Capitol Theatre, where Garland and her frequent costar Mickey Rooney performed after each screening. The reviews were mostly positive, with TIME’s anonymous critic opining, “As long as The Wizard of Oz sticks to whimsey and magic, it floats in the same rare atmosphere of enchantment that distinguished Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. … Lavish in sets, adult in humor, it is a Broadway spectacle translated into make-believe.”
(SEE: TIME’s 1939 review of The Wizard of Oz)
The acclaim didn’t instantly translate into big bucks for MGM. In its initial release, the movie earned about $3 million — the 10th highest-grossing picture of 1939, behind Gone With the Wind, of course, but also below Mr. Smith and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, as well as the Garland-Rooney Babes in Arms. After studio overhead and exhibitors’ fees were factored in, The Wizard finished in the red. Not until its 1949 rerelease did the movie enter the profit side of MGM’s ledgers.
And then it became a flying cash cow on TV and DVD. Everybody at MGM got rich — except for the actors. They were under contract and got no royalties. Their Yellow Brick Road was paved with gold brick.