SOMETHING ABOUT WHICH TO BE GRATEFUL:
THE MGM “WIZARD OF OZ” PLOTLINE WE NEVER GOT TO SEE!
By John Fricke
Eighty years ago this month, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ was in the midst of its initial theatrical engagements all over the United States and Canada. The film would soon open, as well, in Mexico, Central and South America, Great Britain, Australia, and other global locales. What a joy it is to realize – all these years later — that the ceaseless power and potency of OZ have made 2019 a celebratory anniversary occasion for countless world-wide fans!
There have been many opportunities since January to reflect on the magic of Metro’s OZ, and how wonderfully well all of its diverse scripting, songs, characterizations, and visual and aural effects managed to coalesce more than eight decades ago. I’ve been privileged to discuss the making of MGM’s movie more times and in more places, coast-to-coast, than ever before. Even more importantly, audience fascination never seems to fade when it comes to this topic, and the age range of listeners and inquisitors is as vast and all-encompassing as ever. (Ah, the articulate six-year-old girl in Illinois last week who wanted to reassure me that there is NOT a hanging Munchkin in the background of one scene. Of course, I don’t mean to discount the older — by decades and decades — folk in San Diego who insisted in June that this unique fabrication was fact. 😊 )
It seems that, these days, the public is actually, actively most intrigued by anecdotes concerning the plot twists and turns that a dozen writers proposed for (or actually scripted into) the OZ scenario, long before the cameras started turning. There were, of course, many different ideas for casting, costuming, and makeup, as well, but it’s the divergent storylines that garner the wildest response from auditors. Their reactions have encompassed everything from bemused chucking to awed disbelief, and they’ve especially liked the Cowardly Lion concept that almost was.
So, for any of you who might not know it – or might want to share it — here it is!
In 1938, MGM executives, advisors, and counselors bemoaned the fact that L. Frank Baum’s original book, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, was bereft of any prominent romantic narrative. (The backstory of the Tin Woodman’s dismemberment by witch-enchanted axe – all due to the love he shared with a Munchkin girl — was comparatively minor, not to mention potentially gory. The backstory of the Winged Monkeys and their sassy treatment of handsome Quelala – to the objection of his fiancé, the sorceress/princess Gayelette — was too far afield from the major plot to consider.) So, in a concentrated attempt to eventually attract the all-important teen and young adult audiences to OZ upon its release, those who oversaw MGM studio properties devised a way to overcome the amorous shortcomings of Baum’s tale. As the film was to be a musical, they decreed that a young, operatic Princess Betty of Munchkinland — and her intended, the Grand Duke Alan — should be written into the plot. Both would sing, as a sort of late teens’ incarnation of Metro’s successful adult vocal team, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy — and the opening Betty/Alan “simple love” duet was tentatively scheduled for an early scene in OZ, shortly after Dorothy’s arrival. Later, the starry-eyed duo would be captured by the Wicked Witch of the West and separately encaged in her courtyard. Their cages would be reasonably adjacent, however, so that they could continue singing. (No, I’m not kidding.)
What, you might ask, has all this to do with the Cowardly Lion? Well . . . later in the film, the Grand Duke Alan was to be transformed INTO the Cowardly Lion by the Wicked Witch and sent out to prove his bravery by battling a dragon. (In later scripts, he would have fought a gorilla.) True to the tradition of singing royalty, he’d triumph over the beast, regain his human form, and he – not Dorothy – would then dispose of the Wicked Witch.
Beyond that? As the OZ scripts continued to evolve, Betty and Alan’s characters were also given Kansas counterparts and new names: Sylvia and Kenny. The girl was the niece of MRS. Almira Gulch (which is another long detour in an early OZ scenario), and Kenny was Sylvia’s beau. Once the story reached Oz — and as Dorothy’s delirium was in full swing — the niece would reappear as Princess Sylvia, and he would become Prince Florizel. (His moniker became Kenelm or Kenelin in later drafts of their dialogue.) At the end of the film, back in Kansas, the two young people were scripted to elope. In her attempt to stop them, the furiously peddling Mrs. Gulch would topple off her bicycle into a trough of water — an ironic (if slightly obvious) finish.
OZ producer Mervyn LeRoy planned to cast teenage soprano Betty Jaynes as Betty/Sylvia, as she was already under contract to MGM. Her Alan/Florizel/Kenelm/Kenelin vis-à-vis would be played by radio and motion picture tenor Kenny Baker. For further musical pow, Judy Garland’s Dorothy was initially scripted as a hot-swing-singing Kansas orphan — a definite counterpoint to the Princess’s classical refrains – and the two girls would team up in the Emerald City for an “Opera Vs. Jazz” challenge duet.
(How do you like it so far? 😊 )
It took nine months of preproduction planning before THE WIZARD OF OZ went before the cameras; thankfully, by Month Six, the entire romantic Betty et al/Alan et al subplot had been dropped from the script. Baker went over to Universal Studios to star in THE MIKADO; Jaynes remained at MGM and was featured in Judy’s next film there, BABES IN ARMS. In that scenario, their “Opera Vs. Jazz” coupling found a more logical, contemporary, and exciting home; please see the photo above. (Or maybe you’d rather watch it? Courtesy YouTube, in two parts: https://youtu.be/CtUwC1y8bdQ and https://youtu.be/sHBi3MTg9MY .)
If you’ve followed all of this thus far, you might again be thinking, “But what did they do about the Cowardly Lion?” (If you’ve followed all of this thus far, you should be eligible for an Ozzy endurance medal.) According to studio promotion — and it may well have been just that: hype rather than fact — MGM’s next idea was to use their own living logo, Leo the Lion, in the role. Varying representatives of the “king of the beasts” had been seen as the opening visual of virtually all of the studio’s releases since the mid-1920s (and as the mascot to herald “A Goldwyn Picture,” beginning in 1916). The purported plan was to elevate the current Leo to costar status in OZ, with an actor’s voice dubbed in.
Wiser (safer) heads prevailed. By late spring 1938, Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg had begun to write the songs for THE WIZARD OF OZ. They’d twice worked on Broadway with comic actor/singer Bert Lahr – in LIFE BEGINS AT 8:40 (1934) and THE SHOW IS ON (1936) — and they rhapsodized about the sort of material they could prepare for him as an Ozian lion. MGM went into action, hired Lahr, and ultimately provided OZ with Dorothy’s quintessential cowardly companion.
Aren’t you glad?
Thanks for reading!