Victor Flemings’ The Wizard of Oz is widely regarded as one of the most revolutionary films of all time. The commercial success of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the innovative use of technicolour made it a Hollywood classic from the moment it was released in 1939.
Evolving from the rigid monochromatic silver screen of the 1920s, The Wizard of Oz was filled with the promise of a colourful future for cinema. But despite being a milestone for cinema as we know it, the making of the film behind the scenes is full of its own dark secrets.
There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the Lore of Oz- you may be familiar with the myth of the hanging munchkin or the stories of aluminium poisoning or the abuse of Judy Garland.
So what is fact and what is fiction? What actually happened behind the set of the family favourite?
The Tin Man Poisoned
It may come as a surprise that Jack Haley was not the original Tin Man. Before him, Buddy Ebsen was set to play the role. Unfortunately, he would end up hospitalised in the coming weeks after being cast.
The aluminium dust that was used by the makeup department to create a tin effect was being inhaled by Buddy and eventually coated his lungs. Ebsen stated “One night after dinner, I took a breath and nothing happened”. He was rushed to hospital where he remained for two weeks.
But while he was there, MGM executives kept calling and demanding he return to the set. According to Ebsen, “It seemed they couldn’t understand that an actor could get sick. They were furious”. He specifically named Mervyn LeRoy, an uncredited director for the film, who would call repetitively.
Angered by his inability to return to set quickly enough, they replaced him with Jack Haley. This time, the makeup department took measures to prevent events repeating, such as using aluminium paste instead of powder. Haley made it through the production process without facing any severe damage, but he still fell victim to an eye infection as a result of the aluminium. He also claimed that he “couldn’t breathe” through his face with the makeup on, and that he felt suffocated.
Actors Being Suffocated in Costumes
Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow also faced similar difficulties with his costume. He wore a rubber foam mask that was baked in an oven to resemble a bag over his head. The bag covered his entire face except his eyes, nose and mouth, and Bolger claims that it was extremely suffocating.
Bolger stated that “The mask wasn’t porous so you couldn’t sweat. You couldn’t breathe through your skin. You don’t realise how much you breathe through your skin until you can’t do it. We felt like we were suffocating”.
However, despite his and Haley’s troubles, Bolger claimed that “Bert Lahr had it worst of all”.
Behr Lahr was cast as the Cowardly Lion and the costume was made out of real lion hair. The suit was also padded and described as “carrying around a mattress with you” and weighed around 70 pounds. At the end of each day he would be dripping in sweat and the costume would have to be dried out. Along with the suit. Lahr also wore an enormous fur wig and beard.
Lahr also had to deal with the dreaded prosthetics. A prosthetic lion’s mouth and nose were glued to his face, which meant he could not open his mouth wide enough to chew. Filming on set often lasted as long as fourteen hours, and the whole time, Lahr could only eat whatever he was able to drink through a straw. Makeup artist Charlie Schram stated that “Lahr went through hell”.
The Hanging Munchkin Myths
You may be aware of the rumours that one of the Munchkin actors committed suicide and is seen hanging in the woods in one of the scenes.
The shadowy vague figure, in actual fact, is not a munchkin but a large bird. Many birds were borrowed from the Los Angeles Zoo to make the woods seem realistic, and this was what caused the shadow that seemed munchkin-shaped.
Some people still believe that MGM executives created the story of the birds to cover up the truth, but the likelihood of a dead actor being seen in a shot is extremely low.
Judy Garland Slapped by Fleming
During the filming of the scene introducing the Cowardly Lion, Lahr was made to put on a false bravado, which, much to Garland’s delight, ended in him chasing Toto. The young actress who played Dorothy could not stop laughing at the spectacle, and director Fleming had to order several takes.
After a couple of takes, she attempted to regain composure by walking around a tree and repeating to herself “I will not laugh”.
However, Garland was still hysterical and the scene had to be filmed ten times. At first, Fleming was patient with the young star but he soon lost his temper. He grabbed her and slapped her across the face. She then performed the scene without breaking character.
The Wicked Witch Burnt
After Dorothy first meets the Wicked Witch, she exits the stage in a cloud of smoke. To execute this effect, Margaret Hamilton, who played the witch, would have to step onto a secret elevator that would be lowered as a large cloud of smoke and fire erupted around her.
The first take went smoothly, but Fleming was a perfectionist director and demanded another take. In the second take, the smoke and fire started too late and in the third, it started too early.
On the fourth attempt, the fire came quickly- too quickly. The bristles on Hamilton's broom caught flame and since the elevator was so tight, the bristles were near her face. This resulted in Hamilton “scalding her chin, the bridge of her nose, her right cheek, and the right side of her forehead. The eyelashes and eyebrow on her right eye had been badly burned off; her upper lip and eyelid were badly burned”. The skin on her hand had also reportedly been “peeled like an orange”.
As if the burns alone were not painful enough, what came next was even worse. Hamilton was painted in green makeup each day and at the end of filming, it would be removed with alcohol and that day was no different.
Hamilton spent six weeks in hospital for six weeks before returning to set.
Poor Conditions on Set
The use of technicolour at this time was a relatively new innovation in technology. In order to highlight the vibrant colours on screen, the studio had to use arc lights to light the huge set. They supposedly borrowed every unused light in Hollywood at the time and this resulted in temperatures soaring beyond 100 degrees at times.
It is reported that people would regularly faint on set and Fleming would open the studio doors to let air in when it got too hot. For the primary actors in their extravagant costumes, the conditions must have been hellish.
However, the poor conditions do not stop there. During the scene in the poppy field when Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion fall asleep, Glinda the Good Witch uses snow to wake them up. It is reported that ground-up asbestos was used for this scene.
The dangers of asbestos were still largely unknown at this time.
These are just a few of the horror stories from the set of The Wizard of Oz, showing the atrocities that befell the cast of the film. There are still many other rumours circulating, such as the stories about Judy Garland being forced to maintain a diet of strictly soup and black coffee, and smoke upwards of 50 cigarettes a day. Or the rumours of Munchkins being wild party-goers and drinkers. Most of these are untrue, but the ones that have been proven true are enough to show that perhaps Oz wasn’t such a magical place after all.
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