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.