WASHINGTON — Flying monkeys, ruby slippers and dueling witches. These images have come to epitomize the Hollywood version of “The Wizard of Oz,” which turns 75 years old this week.
But did you know those famous red shoes were actually silver in the book series by author L. Frank Baum? Or that Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, suffered burns while filming an explosion scene?
Michael Patrick Hearn, author of “The Annotated Wizard of Oz,” has spent most of his life unearthing these and other little-known facts about the childhood classic.
Hearn discovered the Baum series when he was just 10 years old. At that time, the books were banned from many libraries, but Hearn cherished the characters and storytelling. He joined the International Wizard of Oz Club in order to find out more about his favorite series.
“It really was an American fairy tale,” he says. “There are so many things that relate to the American experience — the scarecrow, the mechanical man and the wizard that turns out to be a humbug from Omaha.”
Despite its humble setting, “The Wizard of Oz” was a highly complicated film to make in 1939. It cost MGM Studios $3.2 million to develop, and only raked in about that much when it was first released.
At the time, Americans were struggling through the Great Depression, and World War II was just around the corner. The film was eclipsed by world events, but MGM wouldn’t give up. The film was re-released in theaters in 1949 and first shown on television in 1957.
“It was the repeated showings on TV that really became a part of the American childhood,” Hearn says. “It became a national event. You waited a whole year to watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ again.”
Part of the appeal, Hearn says, is the multi-generational bonds that were created.
“It was shared by parents and their children,” Hearn says. “And then the children grew up and their children watched it.”
Dorothy is a large part of its timeless appeal. Unlike modern fantasy movies, which are often driven by special effects, big explosions and fancy costumes, “The Wizard of Oz” leans heavily of its lovable characters.
Hearn dived into Hollywood lore to learn more about his favorite story. He met cast members, studio executives and other die-hard fans.
These and other secrets were shared Wednesday night at the National Museum of American History, during a talk hosted by Smithsonian Associates.
Here are some secrets Hearn divulged: