Study Guide

The Wizard of Oz Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Victor Fleming

    One Name, Many Directors

    Like the screenwriters, the director situation also got a bit out of hand. Officially, the name on the title is Victor Fleming, a veteran in the Hollywood game with some serious experience behind him. He started all the way back in the silent era, with a 1919 Douglas Fairbanks flick called When the Clouds Roll By. He had almost 40 directing credits to his name when The Wizard of Oz came around, and his next picture was Gone With the Wind, so he was kind of on a roll. Why not celebrate his name and his name alone as the genius who brought this movie to the screen?

    Because… well… he wasn't the only director. In fact, he was one of six guys who tried to ride this runaway train of a production. We suspect he got the final nod because he was on the shoot for longer than any of the others, but boy did it get complicated. How complicated? Take a deep a breath because we're about to spill out the whole sordid affair.

    It Started with Norman…

    It started in July of 1938, when Norman Taurog was announced as the film's director. He knew that game: a former child actor, he proved much more suitable to work behind the camera, winning a directing Oscar in 1931 for the movie Skippy. He remains the youngest man ever to win one for directing, and his resume includes over 180 titles, including a fistful of Elvis movies and another semi-classic, Boys' Town, in 1938. He's definitely the guy you want, right?

    Wrong. Two months after announcing him, Taurog was out, replaced by Richard Thorpe, whose resume was pretty similar to the first guy's. (185 films from stem to stern, including two Elvis pictures himself. For those of you looking to connect the King of Rock and Roll to the Wizard of Oz in some way…you're welcome.) He mostly worked in westerns and adventure films at the time, and while MGM valued his efficiency, he might not have been cut out for the singing and dancing stuff.

    The studio apparently thought so too. Principal photography began on October 12, 1938. 12 days later, Thorpe was out and his sequences would later be reshot. So we're thinking he pretty much stunk the place up.

    Cukor to the Rescue

    Into the breach rushed George Cukor, a very famous MGM director with the chops to handle the song and dance necessities of the production. He also knew how to adapt books to the screen, directing productions of David Copperfield in 1935 and Romeo and Juliet in 1936. After his work here, he went on to direct some of the greatest movies of all time, including The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Adam's Rib, My Fair Lady and the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born. For one mighty week, he kept the wheels from falling off the wagon on The Wizard of Oz until the studio brass figured out what to do.

    A Steady Hand on the Tiller

    Enter Fleming, at long last. A longtime collaborator with Douglas Fairbanks, he had already directed the likes of Lord Jim (1925), Treasure Island (1934) and Captains Courageous (1937). He stepped into the screaming chaos of the set and put things in order posthaste: shooting from November 1, 1938 until mid-February, 1939. Three-and-a-half months is a big chunk of time, enough to set the ship aright and get Oz back on track

    They needed it. Accidents were happening all the time. Margaret Hamilton got burned when a special effects sequence went wrong and actor Buddy Ebsen had to be replaced as the Tin Man when the make-up got into his lungs and almost killed him.

    Vidor Brings it Home

    There was only one problem: Fleming was already set to make Gone with the Wind for MGM, and on February 17, he left Oz to go burn Atlanta to the ground. Enter director #6 to anchor this agonizing relay race. King Vidor, yet another long-time Hollywood director with almost 80 films to his credit, came on-board to shoot the Kansas scenes and finally drag the movie across the finish line.

    So yeah, Fleming gets the glory (and followed it up with Gone with the freaking Wind, no less!), but clearly that door did a bit of revolving along the way. And again we are left shaking our heads that they managed to finish the darn thing, let alone create a masterpiece. Thanks for holding the line guys: it couldn't have been easy.

  • Screenwriter

    Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf; L. Frank Baum (novel)

    Too Many Cooks Couldn't Spoil This Soup

    Brace yourself: as befits a production as troubled as this one, the screenwriting credit is a bit of a hash. There are officially four people's names on the screenwriting titles, and IMDb lists a whopping 15 writers whose contributions went uncredited. This is the problem with writing by committee: too many fingers in the pie usually turn the whole thing into a mess.

    At least everyone's clear about one thing: L. Frank Baum wrote the book, and a darn fine book it turned out to be. Baum died in 1919 and was probably very glad to be free and clear of the stinky bog that was the film adaptation process. After that things started to get hairy. Three other writers—Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf—are listed on the screenplay credits, but Langley gets an extra-special bonus credit: "Adaptation by." What the heck does that mean?

    Untangling all those Titles

    It helps to understand a little bit about how the screenplay got made. Langley was a South African émigré who wrote a series of bestselling novels in the early 1930s. In Hollywood, the phrase "bestselling novels" produces the same general reaction as throwing steak to hungry wolves, so Langley soon scored a high-end Tinseltown contract. By the time MGM wanted to make The Wizard of Oz, he already had a half-dozen writing credits to his name.

    He started the script and contributed some of its biggest ideas: the notion that it could all be a dream, for instance, and the farm hands taking on roles in Oz. (He also changed those slippers from silver like they were in the book to ruby, thus altering the course of sequin history forever.) He didn't know that others would get involved. In fact, when he turned in the script in June of 1938, he figured the cameras were ready to roll.

    Not so much.

    His official co-writers, Ryerson and Woolf, also had big meaty contracts at MGM, and knew their way around a screenplay. They worked as a team, and when the brass made grumbling noises about Langley's version, these two came on to spruce it up.
    The sprucing, it seems, got a little out of hand, and while the truth remains elusive, the producers apparently thought that the Ryerson/Woolf version was too talky. So Langley came back in to fix their fixes, probably sporting one of those eyeball twitches you get when the rage just cannot be contained any longer. He yanked out as much of the Ryerson/Woolf stuff as he could until MGM declared victory and turned the whole thing over to production (where revisions continued right up until the end).

    Some Screenwriters are More Equal than Others

    In light of that, the "adaptation" credit helps Langley stand out a little higher, while still giving Ryerson and Woolf their credit. This isn't at all unusual, and a lot of careful negotiation goes into who gets credit and how. (It's why, for example, Dwayne Johnson gets co-starring credit for The Mummy Returns, even though he's only in about 10 minutes of it.) Even so, be thankful that we got any kind of movie out of that hot mess, let alone one of the most beloved films ever made.

    From chaos came perfection...don't ask us how.

  • Production Studio

    MGM

    Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM, isn't much to look at these days, mainly relegated to a sexy library of old movies and the rare sighting in an actual theater. (You may have noticed its famous roaring lion logo in front of the recent Hobbit movies.) That wasn't always the case. Back in the day, MGM was the unquestioned king of the cinematic cage, and The Wizard of Oz arrived at the height of the studio's power.

    Early Beginnings

    MGM started as a branch of the Loews theater chain, whose owner, Marcus Loew, needed a reliable source of actual movies to show in his theaters. He started Metro pictures in 1919, then bought up Louis B. Mayer Pictures in 1924, keeping Louis B. Mayer himself on to run the studio in Hollywood. (Loew lived in New York, and the commute was a bit of a bear.) Throw Goldwyn pictures into the mix, and the newly minted Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures was born, with Mayer and producer Irving Thalberg running the show. ("Loew," btw, is German for "lion," which explains how Leo the Lion became their official mascot.)

    All the Stars in the Sky

    From the beginning, MGM adopted a "go big or go home" approach to filmmaking. They cultivated movie stars and pushed them as big selling points. "More stars than there are in heaven" was their tag line, and they meant it. Cinema icons like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Joan Crawford, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Greta Garbo all came from their stable.

    They also specialized in elaborate and expensive productions, starting with 1925's Ben-Hur and continuing with a series of high-end musicals throughout the 1930s. Technicolor, an early colorization process that they invested heavily in, paid dividends with all those expensive sets and flashy costumes which seemed to pop off the screen, wowing audiences used to black-and-white movies.

    The Biggest Movie Company in the World

    And boy did the formula work.

    There was a Depression on and people needed an escape from their problems: preferably as pretty as possible and featuring gorgeous people with no apparent problems. Nothing like a film featuring expertly choreographed dancing girls in beautiful color to lift people's spirits. Mayer cultivated a strong management philosophy that could crank those movies out like clockwork. Even when they ran into trouble, like they did with The Wizard of Oz, they had the structure in place to send someone to the rescue. When one director didn't work out, they could just plug in another, and keep merrily rolling along. (More on that in our "Directors" section.)

    Until the end of the 1950s, the formula made them the undisputed kings of Hollywood. How big? Well if you adjust the numbers for inflation, their biggest movie, Gone With the Wind, is still the all-time box office champ: ahead of Avatar, Star Wars, Titanic and any superhero movie you can name. Their string of classics includes the likes of Singin' in the Rain, The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Guys and Dolls, Forbidden Planet, The Time Machine and North by Northwest. Oh yeah, and The Wizard of Oz was its baby too. Clearly Mayer and the boys were doing something right.

    The Slow Decline

    Sadly for them, their business model featured a fairly serious design flaw: their revenue for any given year was completely dependent on one gigantic break-out hit to handle the ups and downs of the box office. When that hit didn't hit, the whole circus tent just kind of collapsed on them. And as the '50s turned into the '60s, they found themselves unable to adapt to the changing times. One flop turned into two, then three, and suddenly the untouchable lion started to look like a bit of a mouse.

    As the '60s turned to the '70s, output slowed even more. MGM sold off parts of its business and even partnered with United Artists for a while to try and capture the old magic. It didn't happen. By the mid-'80s, the studio was basically just a library of great old films, which business magnate Ted Turner purchased in 1986. He used it to bolster scheduling on his TBS Superstation, and eventually launched the Turner Classic Pictures station, which is probably on your cable box today.

    It's an ignominious end to what was once a 600-pound gorilla of a movie studio. The Wizard of Oz showed us its formula at work when it was firing on all cylinders. It was filmed entirely on sound stages at the MGM studios (there isn't a single outdoor shot in the whole movie) and its stars were largely contract players working under deals for Mayer. That makes the movie a slice of history in more ways than one. The cliché is true: they don't make 'em like this anymore.

    And we're very glad for that: Wizard 2: Dorothy's Revenge just doesn't have the same ring to it.

  • Production Design

    Shot on Soundstages on 35 mm Technicolor Film

    Directors very rarely shot on location in the 1930s. It cost a lot of money to fly anywhere back then, and besides it's wasn't like they could actually get to a magical land of Munchkins and talking trees via airplane. Every scene in the movie was shot in Hollywood, and those "outdoor" sequences were actually on a soundstage. (Look closely at the end of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," and you'll see Garland dance right up to the painted backdrop on the wall.) That's pretty impressive considering how readily we accept the magic of it all, especially since they didn't have access to a single computer or artificial effect. (Take that, James Cameron!)

    They performed another little bit of magic with the Technicolor process, which is what first allowed movies to be shown in color and which was quite the big to-do in 1939. Color tinting had existed since 1916 and Technicolor combined strips of film exposed under different colored filters to create a natural-looking palate. MGM loved using it, but it was very expensive, and cheaper movies still leaned heavily on black and white. Black-and-white movies stuck around until the mid-1960s before finally giving way to color. Now it's usually only used when the director wants to create a certain mood, evoke an older era, or as a nod to old movies. (Young Frankenstein is a great example.)

    Even so, The Wizard of Oz found a way to one-up everyone by adding a twist. As everyone knows, the Kansas sequences are shot in black-and-white (or more accurately, in a monochrome sepia tone, which is kind of brown), while the Oz sequences use color.
    That emphasizes how dull and boring Kansas is, and actually takes a page from Baum's book. "When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around," he wrote. "she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side." (1.2) He goes on about the grayness for quite some time, to better drive the point home. In contrast, the Oz sequences look even more spectacular, with the colors popping out all bright and vibrant wherever you look.

    Granted, it raises the question of why Dorothy would ever want to go back to Kansas, but you have to admit it looks awesome. MGM always knew how to bring The Pretty, and with this one found a way to actually make an aesthetic and thematic point with Technicolor. Take another look, because few films have had the nerve to try that trick again.

  • Music (Score)

    Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg

    Three guys brought us the wonderful score to the wonderful Wizard. Well, technically, it was one guy, composer Herbert Stothart, but he took his cues from Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, who wrote the songs. Those two are probably the most important people involved with the score, since Stothart pretty much cribbed from them the whole way through.

    In fact, the songs are actually more important than the score, since they dominate the action for the first two-thirds of the movie, and include the likes of "Over the Rainbow," "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" and "If I Only Had a Brain." You know: the ones no one has ever heard of and certainly don't get sung over and over in nightclubs, gay pride parades and in the shower the world over.

    Arlen came from New York City, where he had a background in vaudeville and wrote shows for the famous Cotton Club in Harlem with his lyricist Ted Koehler. They were no strangers to hit songs, writing the likes of "Stormy Weather," "Get Happy" and "Let's Fall in Love." (We know, we know: they all sound like grandma music, but grandma was young once, too.)

    The Cotton Club was a pretty wild place, and when Arlen got married in the 1930s, he needed to slow down a bit. So he headed out to Hollywood to write songs for the movies, joining forces with Harburg, who had also come from New York. (And seriously, who wouldn't want to team up with a guy nicknamed Yip?)

    How good were their songs? You can hear one – "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" – from Marx Brothers in the film At the Circus, then the same one again from Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show, and then yet again from Robin Williams in The Fisher King. That's some staying power, that is.

    Believe it or not, their best was yet to come. MGM was impressed by their sense of whimsy and thought it would be a perfect fit for a movie involving flying monkeys and talking scarecrows. They were asked to write the songs for The Wizard of Oz, with Stothart on hand to write the underscoring. Stothart was a bit of a grand old man at MGM, having written for them for the preceding decade. It's safe to say they knocked it out of the park on this one.

    And yet despite all of that heavy hitting in the movie's corner, MGM almost killed their greatest creation. The bigwigs thought it was ridiculous to have a girl singing in a barnyard and tried to cut "Over the Rainbow" from the movie. Three times. Three freaking times. Arlen rolled up his sleeves and went to bat for the song, and eventually won out. Good thing too. Today it's generally regarded as the greatest song ever written for a film, and we bet you're singing it to yourself as you read this. Well done on that one, Harold.

    Oh yeah, and one more thing: all three men won the Oscar for their work on the film. Stothart won Best Original Score, and Arlen and Harburg won for that song that everyone tried to kill. We'd say they darn well earned it.

  • Fandoms

    On some level, everyone who ever saw this movie is a fan, which lets us cast a pretty wide net. There are fans and then there are fans however… and you know when you spot a 400-lb. man wearing a version of Dorothy's dress that you've entered some next-level appreciation here.

    The most well known organization for all things Oz Fan is the International Wizard of Oz Club, founded in 1957. They host conventions and events all over the world, stage readings of L. Frank Baum's original books, and have even published some of his hard-to-find manuscripts. That comes with a fistful of appreciation for the movie as well, and the group used to feature stars from the film at their conventions.

    Speaking of conventions, Oz Con International, better known as Winkie Con, has spent the last fifty years hosting annual get-together for Oz-o-philes. They were rocking the cosplay long before those Comic-Con folks got into it, and they even host their events in San Diego like Comic Con does. Luckily, the folks down there don't bat an eyelash anymore at the sight of 40 people dressed up like the Tin Man.