The truth behind ‘The Wizard of Oz’

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:

  • The movie was originally conceived of as a Marx Brothers film, but MGM Studios wanted it to have a more timeless feel. That’s why then-it girl Shirley Temple was passed over for the part of Dorothy. Instead, newcomer Judy Garland was cast for the lead — the role that made her a star.
  • Margaret Hamilton suffered second- and third-degree burns while filming a scene in which the Wicked Witch disappears into a cloud of smoke. Later, her stand-in, Betty Danko, was severely injured while filming a scene with a burning broomstick. Her legs were permanently scarred.
  • Speaking of injuries, Buddy Ebsen, the actor originally cast as the Tin Man, nearly died when aluminum dust from the silver makeup coated his lungs. He was replaced by Jack Haley.
  • The movie opened just two weeks before World War II erupted.
  • When the film was later released in England, it was declared for adults only because the witch was too scary.
  • She was so scary, in fact, that some of her lines and scenes had to be cut from the final film. Some children had to be removed from the test screening because they were so frightened of the character.
  • The Wicked Witch only has 12 minutes of screen time.
  • The Baum books were once banned in school libraries. Not only were series generally frowned upon, so were fairy tales.
  • Later Hollywood films picked up some cues from Oz. In “Star Wars,” for example,” Chewbacca is a dead ringer for The Cowardly Lion; Princess Leia is Dorothy, and can anyone doubt that R2D2 is just a shorter Tin Man?
  • “Over the Rainbow” was almost dropped from the film. It later became one of the movie’s most iconic scenes.
  • In the books, Dorothy wears silver slippers. They were changed into ruby in the movie because the color popped more in Technicolor.
  • Hollywood lore says that Frank Morgan, the actor who played the Wizard, wore a coat on screen that formerly belonged to Baum. Unfortunately, that rumor is false. It was spread by MGM to build excitement for the movie.
  • Victor Fleming is not the film’s only director — he was pulled early to direct “Gone With the Wind.” The Kansas scenes, which were the last to be filmed, were directed by silent film director King Vidor.
  • Garland was just a teenager during filming. She was excited about prom, and even had her dress picked out for the big day. That day never came — she was sent off to promote the film and instantly became a star.

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