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Oz on Film, Part Twenty: A Classic on the Horizon

The way I've always thought MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" should have opened.
The way I've always thought MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" should have opened.
Images property of MGM/Turner Entertainment, Composite by Peter Heimsoth

Up until 1939, the Oz books which were published in the same years as the various Oz screen productions we’ve so far explored together, had little if any direct connection with the films, with the obvious exceptions of some of L. Frank Baum’s own productions. We’ve also looked at the parallels between Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Lost King of Oz and Larry Semon’s Wizard.

But in 1939, Thompson knew full well, as did all of America, that the renowned film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was working on a big-screen Technicolor musical version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. To that end, she included that gentleman in the title of her book for that year, Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz, which brought together Dorothy Gale and her original traveling companions the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, as well as Oscar Zoroaster Diggs himself.

1939 holds the record to this very day of being Hollywood’s greatest year for movies. Their output of consistently praised and hugely popular motion pictures has not been matched even to this day. There have been years when more movies were produced, but never have so many classics at once erupted from the minds and talents of the world’s moviemaking capital.

A very short partial list includes Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wuthering Heights, Beau Geste, and The Wizard of Oz. MGM alone was responsible for forty-one releases that year.

Many books have been written about MGM’s Production #1060, one of the most well-known being Aljean Harmetz’s succinctly titled The Making of The Wizard of Oz. That was published in 1977, and while much more in the way of production notes and photographs and even lost film clips has been unearthed since then, Harmetz’s book remains the definitive volume on the realization of Baum’s (and others’) vision on film, mainly because many of the people involved in the movie were still alive and were personally interviewed by Harmetz, to whom they gave their stories.

In my articles on the making of the film I will use Harmetz’s book as a referent, but will not go over too much of it, since it is well worth seeking out and reading. I will also try to avoid repeating much of what most people already know about the tales regarding the movie, such as how Buddy Ebsen had been given the role of the Tin Woodman and had even shot some scenes, but had to be released from the picture because the aluminum powder in his makeup got into his lungs. Jack Haley succeeded him in a reformulated aluminum paste.

What may not be as well-known is the fact that Ebsen’s voice can still be heard in the movie. But more on that subject and many others later! Won’t you please join me as we travel—to coin a phrase—“Over the Rainbow."