MGM’S “OZ” AT AGE 80: BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN!
by John Fricke
If you’ve been watching the Turner Classic Movies cable channel over the past few weeks, you’ll probably have heard the happy news: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s musical masterpiece, THE WIZARD OF OZ, is going to be shown at 350 movie theaters across America for three days this weekend and next week. Such a booking, handled by Fathom Events, launches the film’s eightieth anniversary; yes, it was 1939 when audiences first heard “Over the Rainbow,” encountered Miss Gulch, were dazzled by the Munchkins, and (in general) got the entertainment delight of the season . . . and many seasons since.
If you’ve never seen OZ on “the big screen,” it IS true — as they say — that you’ve never really seen OZ! So, don’t miss this opportunity, whether on Sunday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, January 27th, 29th, or 30th. (You can research locations near you, plus performance times and ticket availability, via this link: fathomevents.com.)
Even if you’ve already watched THE WIZARD OF OZ in an actual theater, it quite honestly remains an event not to be missed – at any opportunity. Indeed, one of the most frequently-heard comments from diverse, world-wide OZ fans encompasses words like: “I look at the movie over and over . . . and every time I do, I see something I never saw before!” This eightieth birthday celebration is a great chance for everyone to spot new moments to treasure, new marvels to notice, and new wonders to share.
In keeping with that concept of sharing (segue!), this month’s blog actually has been designed to pave the way to glimpses of Ozian legend — or errata — that might be new for you, no matter when or where you next view the film. For example:
[Above left: Ray, Terry, and Judy – with Dorothy’s longer braids, November 1938. Above right: Ray and Judy, the latter with slightly (but perceptibly) shorter braids, March 1939. The differential is even more apparent when one watches this sequence in the film itself.]
The scene in which Dorothy (Judy Garland) and Toto (Terry) initially meet the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) was filmed three times — first in October 1938. But on that occasion, Judy’s hair, make-up, and costume were different, Ray’s make-up was different, and the Yellow Brick Road consisted of oval “pavement-ing”; it looked like a patio in Pasadena. All of that footage was junked after director Richard Thorpe was removed from the project. When new director Victor Fleming took over in early November, the trio’s first encounter was re-photographed, and the stars and set looked as we’ve known them ever since. Judy’s braids, however, were rather long and somewhat free-form and flowing as they cascaded down the front of her jumper, and those in charge apparently decided that such a casual look needed to be neatened a bit. When Fleming & Company next moved on to the apple orchard scenes, Dorothy’s hair hung somewhat shorter and prettier. It was kept like that until being completely reconfigured for the scenes in (and, per the plotline, after) the Emerald City Wash & Brush-Up Co. segment of OZ.
Principal photography for the motion picture was finally completed in early March 1939. By then, however, it had been decided that Ray Bolger should deliver a less whispery rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain,” as well as dance a more complicated, special-effects version of the song. So, he rerecorded the vocal and returned to the cornfield with Judy and Terry for retakes – and Judy’s hair was (whether forgetfully or intentionally) configured in the less-lengthy but neater style. When film editor Blanche Sewell assembled OZ over the next few weeks, she drew her finished footage from takes done in both November 1938 and March 1939. As a result – and just watch! – Dorothy’s braids waft back-and-forth between tousled or tight (and back again!) throughout the scene.
[Above: “What a world! What a world!” I’ve always theorized that Judy – as a sixteen-year-old minor – must have been commandeered away from the set at this moment to fulfill some percentage of her required-by-law, three-hours-per-day of schooling. Of course, she’s in the movie scene itself, but she missed the opportunity to appear in a classic OZ still.]
One point that film historians often offer is the reminder that THE WIZARD OF OZ movie was created long before there was such a thing as computer-generated-imagery (CGI). Every effect, every prop, every bit of scenery and costuming had to be created “for real” in 1938-39 . . . or in at least some semblance of real. One of the most memorable of the film’s visuals involved the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West. Yet this wasn’t an especially difficult challenge for “F/X” honcho A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie and his staff. He later confessed that it simply involved placing Margaret Hamilton on a small elevator platform, with her skirt tacked to the floor outside the parameter of the slowly-lowered foundation on which she was standing. Dry ice was placed under the far edges of her skirt and soaked by hose with water just prior to Fleming’s cry of “Action!”; the resultant, rising steam heightened the vision of her “dissolution.” But two other inventive bits added to the graphic image of the Witch as she disappeared. Her Winkie Guards gradually lowered their spears as she was, herself, lowered – further propelling the sinking visual on-screen in the eyes of movie audiences. Even more creatively, costume designer Gilbert Adrian provided a larger hat for that moment for Hamilton; it was placed on her (also just prior to “Action!”) and gave the illusion that her head was shrinking away in the same manner as her body.
At the top of this blog, you can see Judy, Ray, and Jack Haley in a photo posed to capture the moment immediately following the Tin Man’s “If I Only Had a Heart” song-and-dance. Note the oil can in Judy’s hand; in this specific film scene, she’s shown as she takes it out of her little wicker basket and proceeds to provide some additional comfort for her still-somewhat rusty friend. But when you next view OZ, watch the end of the preceding edit: As the Tin Man almost topples over and stumbles back to sit on the tree stump, Dorothy and the Scarecrow endeavor to catch and save him. In that process, and just before the end of the cut, the oil can falls right out of Dorothy’s basket. Yet, immediately thereafter, she retrieves it from there for her use!
[The Fabulous Fivesome – with Bert Lahr as the beloved Cowardly Lion — are about to be beset by the trees of the Haunted Forest in “The Jitterbug.”]
One of the most obvious inconsistencies in THE WIZARD OF OZ “continuity” still goes unnoticed by many — until it’s actually pointed out. So, we’ll wrap up this month’s blog with a final bit of history and trivia. In her tower room, the Wicked Witch summons her fleet of Winged Monkeys to “Bring me that girl and her dog! Do what you like with the others, but I want her alive and unharmed. They’ll give you no trouble, I promise you that. I’ve sent a little insect on ahead to take the fight out of them! Now, fly! Fly!” With that dictate, the Monkeys depart, and in the very next moment of the film, they’re seen as they swoop down into the Haunted Forest. They chase off the Cowardly Lion, disarm the Tin Man, disassemble the Scarecrow, and then fly off again, having captured Dorothy and Toto.
“Little insect”? Well, as OZ devotees can tell you, the Witch is referencing “The Jitterbug,” an animated, pink-and-blue spotted flying pest who was to sting Dorothy and her friends, infecting them with “the jitters,” and leading them into a wild and exhausting dance in which even the trees of the Haunted Forest took part. The routine was rehearsed, prerecorded, and filmed – it took five days for the latter – but the entire, light-hearted, swingy/perky song and its orchestration were totally wrong for the movie at that moment in its arc of storytelling and terror. So “The Jitterbug” was cut from OZ after its initial sneak preview in June 1939. However, as most of Hamilton’s dialogue was integral to the preceding, special effects-fraught, one-long-take scene, it pretty much had to be kept intact in the movie as it was released two months later. It’s been there ever since, yet only seldom does anyone ask, “What little insect?!”
So! Would you like to see these moments, bigger than life – along with so many others? Why not check that Fathom link above, dispatch yourselves to OZ over these next few days, and become happily overwhelmed by the magic, music, and majesty of it all? You’ll certainly be able to spot and enjoy these little errors of continuity (there are plenty more, too!) as they sail on by . . . on The Big Screen!
(Of course, watch here and on Facebook for forthcoming details about OZ-Stravaganza! 2019, as well: May 31st-June 2nd. There may be some big-screen surprises there, too!)