BEHIND THE SCENES AT METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER . . .MORE THAN (BUT BARELY!) EIGHTY YEARS AGO
by John Fricke
[Above: This is a familiar setting, to be sure, but here it’s been captured in one of its quieter moments: no green-clad townspeople, no coachman, no horse-of-any-color! Of course, one can see at least three (maybe four) stand-ins for the actors, plus a caught-in-the-act studio workman — all of them preparing to rehearse “The Merry Old Land of Oz” musical number at MGM, eighty years ago. Note the painted backdrop out the door, the bell-pull, and especially the fixtures above the set pieces. Metro had to hook up extra generators outside the OZ soundstages in order to power the scores of lights required to film in early three-strip Technicolor.]
Across the past couple of months, this blog has focused on current Oz news and events, specifically (and understandably) the anticipatory – and joyously fulfilled – excitement attendant to the 2019 OZ-Stravaganza! in Chittenango, NY. Throughout my days and nights as emcee and presenter for that festival, however, I was confronted again and again by single-minded attendees, all of whom had ONE topic on which they wanted to happily focus. (Truth be told, it’s been the same at every other locale in which I’ve thus far performed since January.) And the bottom line? Everybody is exhilarated at the thought — and wants to talk about the fact — that this year marks the eightieth anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture. 😊
Thus, in keeping with all the fan fascination, the blog this month looks way back to 1939, and I hope it will please the MGM adherents among its readers! I’m most certainly always delighted to share information about and material from the movie, and we’ve selected pictures of some of the extraordinary behind-the-scenes underpinnings that helped to make Metro’s OZ timeless, unique, unforgettable, and loved.
[Here’s another example of the amazing lighting equipment required to film THE WIZARD OF OZ just over eighty years ago. By actual count, there are several dozen “lamps” in play here, and this is just one corner of the set. It’s all the more remarkable when one realizes that the battlements and exteriors of the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West were among the darkest scenes in the picture.]
The photo above is reasonably self-explanatory, but in just the casual, between “takes” moment captured here, one can find plenty to examine: Winkie guards, Metro technicians, a bit of another painted backdrop – and a portion of one of the set pieces, used on-screen as an unsuccessful escape route by Dorothy and her friends.
How about an opportunity to examine the marvelous throne-room console of the Wizard himself – without the actors and their irate action (“You humbug!”) in the foreground? Surely the “old Kansas man” himself must have done some early investigation into the real-world magic of scientists, inventors, and creators like Thomas Alva Edison & Company to hook up such a wonder-working piece of equipment. If we are to believe what we see in the movie (and doesn’t everybody?), the whiz-of-a-wiz could stand right there, “behind the curtain,” and set off fire, smoke, and sound effects, image projection, and echoing voice amplification. He’s not only a very good man . . . he’s also a very good Wizard – at least when supported by the expertise of MGM’s technical and FX staff. (And here’s a shout-out to A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, who oversaw the studio’s special effects department, and who personally made a lot of OZ “work,” in many ways that no one else could have done at that time. And probably since.)
Finally, we have glimpses of two Ozian sites you never saw in the finished movie. The cornfield crossroads is shown here as it looked when director Richard Thorpe began filming THE WIZARD OF OZ in October 1938. Two weeks later, he was relieved of his duties; the film’s producer, Mervyn LeRoy felt that the “rushes” of OZ thus far lacked the right touch of fantasy. He was also displeased at the fact that Thorpe seemed to be leading the actors in incorrect interpretations, especially the blonde-bewigged, overly-rouged, and “fancy/schmancy” Dorothy Gale. With Thorpe spirited away to Palm Springs (and away from inquisitions about OZ “problems” from local columnists), ace director George Cukor came in for a week of corrective suggestions. These included revisions to the appearance of Judy Garland, Ray (Scarecrow) Bolger, and Margaret (Wicked Witch) Hamilton – and even a revamping of the cornfield set. The next time you watch the movie, compare the still above to what appears on your screen. In the actual film, the legendary Yellow Brick Road is neater and curbed; the field itself is glamorized (and includes pumpkins); and the oval floorwork has been swapped out for something that actually looks like bricks – and not bathroom tiling!
Also above: Here’s another self-explanatory visual; just notice the reference board in the foreground that designates the set as the “Jitter Bug Forest.” In this space, the upbeat, jazzy, swing-sounding “Jitter Bug” production number took place, with the four leading actors forced to wildly bop around after being stung by an animated, pink-and-blue-spotted insect. The “Bug” then left them to the mercies of the ruthless trees – not to mention the men inside the trunks who manipulated them. (Hey – they were just doing their jobs!))
I have been asked many times why I think THE WIZARD OF OZ continues its hold on so many (literally) hundreds of millions of people — from those still with us who saw it in 1939 to those who remember its theatrical reissues in 1949, 1955, or more recent years. Of course, the same fascination is felt by those who’ve only viewed it on “the small screen,” in some of its forty network telecasts between 1956 and 1998, or in its countless revivals since then on cable, or in its (literally) billions of home-video encounters . . . whether on Beta, VHS, laser disc, DVD, or via streaming services.
WHY does it endure? Well, here’s one component: There are millions and billions of joys in its approximately 145,440 frames of film. Those frames rush by pretty quickly, of course; but the thrills are there to behold – and to try to glimpse. Hopefully, the more static images above will offer a “happy anniversary” opportunity to more-closely examine some of the behind-the-scene wonders of the merry old land of MGM. They certainly contribute to the overall and incomparable rainbow of delight that is THE WIZARD OF OZ . . .
EIGHT DECADES LATER!
[And here’s a low bow and hat-doff to those involved in OZ set and prop design, execution, and decoration: Jack Martin Smith, Cedric Gibbons, William A. Horning, Edwin B. Willis, Jack McMaster, Hal Millar, Franklin Milton, Lorey Yzuel, Randall Duell, George Gibson, Henry Greutert . . . and any/all of their compatriots!]