by John Fricke

Above: Could there ever have been a more joyous Ozzy image – then, since, or now? It was taken at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Culver City, CA, in 1939, and highlights the principal stars of their forthcoming film, THE WIZARD OF OZ. From left: Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland, Terry (as “Toto”), Frank Morgan, and Bert Lahr.

One of Chittenango’s most loyal boosters — and OZ-Stravaganza! attendees — sent me an email this past Wednesday, August 25th, that simply said:

“Happy WIZARD OF OZ Day!”

He, like so many others on social media, was celebrating the fact that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s extraordinary movie of L. Frank Baum’s story, THE WIZARD OF OZ, was nationally released on that date in 1939.

Eighty-two years ago!

Given the inspiration of his email, it seemed like a worthy idea to use this month’s blog to contemplate the most recent pop-culture impressions made by that motion picture — now in its ninth decade of legend. I know I don’t have to discuss with those reading here the fame and familiarity of Judy Garland & Company. They, along with “Over the Rainbow,” the ruby slippers, Baum’s characters, his Yellow Brick Road, Poppy Field, Emerald City, and melting witch, are so deeply ingrained in public consciousness that it’s almost best to simply and declaratively state that MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ isn’t any longer “a film”; it’s a world-wide phenomenon. 

Across the last three-and-a-half-years, there (thus far) have been forty-one blogs in this series. Every four or five months, one of them has looked back at some aspect of Metro’s movie, cast, production, promotion, or reception. The most recent of these, back in March, celebrated MGMunchkin Margaret Pellegrini, so another nod to the 1939 film seems due about now. As noted above, there’s great, good reason to do so, for the movie continues to grab international, national, internet, and/or fan “headlines.”

For example (and just in the past few months!):

1) It would have been difficult indeed to escape the multimedia attention accorded OZ in July, when another of Judy Garland’s “Dorothy Gale” dresses from the motion picture was pretty much unexpectedly discovered at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  (Please see photos just above.) Gifted to the institution by celebrated actress Mercedes McCambridge circa 1973, the garment had been treasured, eventually carefully folded up, placed in a shoe box, and tucked so safely away that no one knew where it had gone! It turned up, quite by accident all these decades later, on an office shelf – the shoe box wrapped in a protective garbage bag. The iconic outfit has since been authenticated by the same Smithsonian Institution archival team that oversees and protects a pair of Judy’s ruby slippers at the National Museum of American History.

2) Next month, the long-awaited, oft-postponed, and no-doubt-glorious Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open in Los Angeles, and it has already won classification as the world’s premier institution dedicated to the art and science of movies. Given that, it’s yet another signal honor for MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ to have been selected to launch the edifice in two separate and wondrous ways. Opening day, September 30th, will be celebrated with “A Symphonic Night at the Movies”: a matinee and evening screening of OZ at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., accompanied by the American Youth Symphony, conducted by David Newman.

There’ll be, as well, a concurrent MGM OZ exhibition, including such film-related memorabilia as one of the then-cutting edge (and majorly cumbersome!) Technicolor cameras used to film the picture; a Munchkin jacket costume; documents and photographs that (per a press announcement) “will explore the [OZ] screenwriting, casting, make-up design, costumes, and stars such as Judy Garland”; AND a pair of the original ruby slippers. The latter was purchased on behalf of the Academy several years ago by a consortium of contributors, including (among others) Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg. These ruby slippers are in the best condition of all known surviving pairs.

The photo above – or one of four others taken on the same occasion – Is said to be part of the Academy’s OZ exhibition and is my very minor contribution to the event! They reached out to me about “the Munchkin bus pictures” about two-and-a-half-years ago, as I’d used them in several books, articles, and documentaries since I first discovered the negatives by accident in 1990. (They had been misfiled with pictures from a totally non-OZ-related motion picture for many decades.)

This series of poses was made in Times Square, NYC, in early November 1938. Many of the “little people” who lived in the Northeast were asked to congregate there to depart by bus for California and their roles in THE WIZARD OF OZ. And yes . . . for the countless thousands who came to know and love him on the “Oz Festival Circuit” between 1989 and 2010 (including the annual Chittenango OZ-Stravaganza!), that’s eighteen-year-old Jerry Maren, dead center in the first row, sporting a pullover sweater, tie, and suspenders. The smallest of the assembled gang on the bus, he would soon be cast as the (again!) dead center member of The Lollipop Guild trio in the movie.

3) Meanwhile, back in 2021, other OZ activities continue unabated. There have been any number of recent MGM-related podcasts, although the sum total is a very mixed bag of varying quality. One of the best of these, at least per the comments I’ve heard, is the ambitious, multi-part series, NO PLACE LIKE HOME, written and hosted by Ariel Ramchandani with cohost Seyward Darby. (Full disclosure here: I did a two-hour-plus interview for the program, but I’ve not yet heard any of it and have no idea to what extent I might have been incorporated. The enthusiasm referenced above has come via unsolicited responses offered elsewhere.)

Above: This 1949 lobby card was one of a set prepared for the first OZ theatrical release in 1949. The extent of Judy Garland’s increased star power and popularity since 1939 is reflected in her now much-larger billing and prominence.

4) Most controversial of the present-day OZ announcements has been that of a “remake” of THE WIZARD OF OZ, to eventually come from New Line and Temple Hill, to be directed by Nicole Kassell. Although irate fans were immediately up-in-arms and manning the battlements at such news, their ire was mostly based on ill-chosen phrases by the media in heralding the news. First of all, please remember that IF this new THE WIZARD OF OZ makes it to the screen, it is not intended as a literal remake of the MGM musical. It’s instead to be a retelling of the Baum text, and as those who love the Oz books have forever lobbied for a “real” version of his story, this might be it. Even more importantly (at least for the moment): Countless other such film and TV projects have been screechingly and screamingly proclaimed over the years, never again to surface – never mind materialize.  (The lobby card above, however, is posted here as a reminder to all filmmakers everywhere who might think it a good idea to actually, actively recreate the 1939 movie: You ain’t never, ever gonna come even near to touching – never mind equaling – the coalescence of talents pictured and named here!)

5) Finally, an audio recording made for the soundtrack of Metro’s OZ in September 1938 has been floating around for a number of years, but it’s lately caused a lot of social media conversation. So let’s conclude with some music!

The Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain” was one of the very first OZ pre-recordings, to which Ray Bolger and Judy Garland would lip-sync and dance on the Yellow Brick Road. It was among the first moments actually filmed, too, in late 1938. But there was eventual dissatisfaction with the rendition, its orchestration, and its choreography: too light and whimsical, not enough verve and energy. So the whole thing was redone the following March.  This, however, is the first version, and those of you who know the sequence well will have no difficulty in picking up on the differences in Ray’s vocal delivery and the more sanguine dance music that follows:

Happy listening! And thanks (very much) for reading. It seems there’s no end to the surprises that continue to be conjured by MGM’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.

And isn’t THAT nice?!