By John Fricke
[Here’s an Oz trivia query: Which outrageously popular song of 1905 can be heard on THE WIZARD OF OZ movie soundtrack during the sequence pictured here?]
Last month’s blog featured a discussion about The Oz Books – the famous “official” series of forty titles published between 1900 and 1963. And although it’s safe to say that I’m biased, I’ll never qualify the statement (as was put forward here in July) that there’s no better reading for youngsters, families, adults — or anyone — than the real, true Oz!
However, there’s also absolutely no question that, since the late 1950s, most people have first come to L. Frank Baum’s story via the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Highly praised at its initial release in 1939, the film is now regarded as legendary, iconic, unforgettable, classic, timeless, and magical. (One of many lovely claims that can be made for OZ is that it deserves at least all of those adjectives!) Millions saw it on theater screens in 1939-40, and additional millions attended its nationwide theatrical reissues in 1949 and 1955. Yet the total number of those who viewed OZ in movie houses was stunningly surpassed in one night. When the film first appeared on network television in 1956, it’s estimated that more than forty-five million people tuned in. The OZ audience was even larger for a second telecast in 1959; by 1960, the movie had launched its unique reign as an established, extraordinary, annual TV event that continued virtually unabated for almost forty years. Since 1980, the Judy-Garland-&-Co. musical has also been a consistent best-selling presence on home video, encompassing release on Beta tape, VHS tape, laser disc, DVD, Blu-ray DVD, and 3-D DVD. Thus, it’s happily apparent that — by the mid-to-late twentieth century – the OZ film had become the primary “yellow brick road” introduction to Baum’s story and characters for the majority of the world.
This is just conjecture, but it’s also highly probable that most people reading here have seen THE WIZARD OF OZ multiple times. So, given all the foregoing facts, I thought it might be fun this month to leap from July’s discussion of The Oz Books to a look-back at THE Oz film and point out some entertaining moments you might have missed — or for which you can watch the NEXT time you view THE WIZARD OF OZ. As entertainment (and, hopefully, entertaining) history, it’s a glimpse at both back-story and the film-making process: a peek “behind the curtain” at MGM-in-action across the months in 1938-39 when the movie went before their cameras.
For example . . . !
Sixteen-year-old Judy Garland was elevated to full “star status” on the MGM roster during production of THE WIZARD OF OZ. For many years between the mid-1980s and 2013, innumerable fans reveled in the story told by “flowerpot hat”/“sleepyhead” Munchkin Margaret Pellegrini, who remembered in happy detail the day on the OZ soundstage when the studio presented Judy with “her own [portable] dressing room trailer on wheels” in confirmation of the girl’s new rank. But if Judy was then officially a star, she remained legally a minor across the entire arc of OZ filming. This meant that, by law, she could only work on-set four hours each day, Monday through Saturday. Three other hours per day were committed to schoolwork; a fourth fell under the loose and nebulous designation of “recreation. Beyond that – and in addition to Judy’s limited availability of time — production honchos were increasingly, physically careful with the teenager, who appeared in all but a handful of OZ scenes. (Think about it: when is “Dorothy Gale” NOT on-screen across the one-hundred-one minutes of the movie?)
[Stafford Campbell and Bobbie Koshay “stand in” for Ray Bolger and Judy Garland during lighting tests on the Haunted Forest set. Ms. Koshay actually appears at least three times on-screen in THE WIZARD OF OZ.]
The result of all of this: there are at least three instances when Judy’s stand-in Bobbie Koshay, “takes over” – and you’re watching the “Dorothy double.” These include the moment when the Kansas girl walks the pigsty fence and topples into the pen; when the flying monkeys lift her into the air in the Haunted Forest; and when she – in brown-and-white-checked gingham – steps forward to open the door of the Kansas farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland . . . and then backs away, completely off-camera, to allow the “real” blue-and-white garbed Garland to exit onto the multi-hued plaza.
Among other “no-it’s-not-them” moments in OZ: Margaret Hamilton’s double, Betty Danko stood in for the initial appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West, popping up (under cover of scarlet smoke) through the floor of the Munchkinland set. Ms. Danko (as shown above) was filmed in long-shot, with the brim of her hat covering much of her face. The studio also spared Bert Lahr a certain combination of athleticism and potential physical impairment by having a double fulfill the leaping first “entrance” of the Cowardly Lion in the forest sequence, as well as the first leaping “exit” of that character through the “glass” window of the Emerald City palace, as he runs to escape from the throne room and the Head of the Great Oz.
Lahr’s absence – as well of that of Tin Man Jack Haley and Scarecrow Ray Bolger – is again (however briefly) apparent in the sequence in which the trio climbs the mountain to access the castle of the Wicked Witch. While it’s unquestionably the real trio on-camera for the close-shot dialogue moment (“I hope my strength holds out”/“I hope your tail holds out”), the Lion/Tin Man exchange is framed by two long shots and a medium shot wherein Dorothy’s companions are played by doubles. This is especially noticeable in the reasonably ratty condition of the costume of the faux-Lion!
[Will the real Haley & Lahr please stand up – and climb the Winkie Country mountain for their two-shot and this still?]
Munchkin Margaret Pellegrini was happily referenced above. At age fifteen, she was one of the youngest, tiniest, and cutest of the “little people” performing in THE WIZARD OF OZ, as well an adept actor/reactor to the plot unfurling around her character. Because of that, she was placed in multiple scenes, sometimes up front and sometimes in the background (where the camera was primarily focused on one or more of the speaking, principal players). You can see Margaret, in her blue flowerpot hat, directly (if hazily) in the distance and right in between Glinda and Dorothy when the latter sings, “It really was no miracle . . . .” In the very next shot, Margaret’s one of the Munchkins in the foreground to whom Dorothy was singing, and thereafter, she’s omnipresent as: the little people come forward to carol, “The house began to pitch”; at the conclusion of the tracking shot as they offer, “. . . [a healthy ‘sitch’-uation for] the Wicked Witch”; as she dances with others on the plaza; and (in an especially charming double appearance) in the group around the carriage as the two Munchkin gentlemen salute Dorothy (“We thank you very sweetly . . . “). Immediately thereafter, Margaret can be seen again over Glinda’s left shoulder, as the Good Witch exclaims, “The wicked old witch at last is dead.” (There are other such moments, but you get the idea!)
One of Jerry Maren’s background moments is worth referencing as well. When Betty Danko first appears as the Wicked Witch in Munchkinland, the green-garbed, “Lollipop Guild” member Maren is barely discernible upstage, right of center, standing in a group of other little people in front of the big white pot of artificial leaves and flowers. He spreads his arms upward on one of the final “Tra-la-la-la-la-lah”s, just before the explosion heralds the WWW. Then – watch for it – Jerry scampers across the background to the left and leaps into the window of one of the Munchkin huts. There he stays, legs hanging out the window (across Heaven knows how many “takes”), until he completely retracts them at the Witch’s exit.
[A dozen or so of the most photogenic and tiny “little people” worked an extra day on OZ for stills such as this one. Margaret Pellegrini (her flowerpot hat semi-obscured by a gigantic leaf or pod) is just to the right of Judy Garland’s outstretched left hand. Jerry Maren’s “Lollipop Guild” head seems to be growing out of the poufy right shoulder of Glinda the Good! Side note: For early Oz Festival attendees, the fondly-recalled and cherished Fern Formica is the Munchkin Maiden on the extreme right of this still.]
For OZ audiologists and musicologists, there are several soundtrack cues wherein the brilliant composer/conductor/arranger Herbert Stothart interpolated — or oversaw the interpolation of — various bits of famous and/or familiar classical and popular melodies in the film’s underscoring. (Stothart won an Oscar for OZ, and given his talent and musical perspicacity, it’s no wonder.) The vintage, well-known Payne/Bishop “Home Sweet Home” is heard several times in OZ. Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer” accompanies Judy and Terry in the very first scene, as Dorothy and Toto run home and commiserate on the feared advent of Miss Gulch. Pryor’s “Whistler and the Dog” – better known as “Where, oh where, has my little dog gone” – pops up as the Kansas girl and her companion run away from home; later on, the Van Alstyne/Williams hit of 1905, “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,” is very recognizable during the orchard sequence, just prior to the first appearance of the Tin Man. When Toto breaks away from the castle of the Wicked Witch, he’s accompanied by Mendelssohn’s “Opus 16, #2.” Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” – two years later an integral music cue in Walt Disney’s FANTASIA – was utilized (in part) for the Fab Five’s attempted escape from the Witch and Winkies. Finally, the traditional graduation-exercise theme, “Gaudeamus Igitur,” comes into play during a portion of the “presentation” sequence, where wonderful and wizardly Frank Morgan bestows a diploma to the Scarecrow.
Of course, there’s MUCH more minutiae that can be discussed regarding THE WIZARD OF OZ. Yet its overall potency as entertainment has always meant that – examine it frame-by-frame (as some have done) – even microscopic scrutiny can’t take away from the mirth, melody, emotion, and glory it purveys.
Such a special status and level of fame and familiarity may never again be equaled by any other motion picture!