The Wizard Of Oz: A Not So Wonderful Film Behind The Scenes

While audiences continue to marvel at the wonders of this 1939 classic, there were horrors lurking just behind the scenes. Read on to learn more.

Adaptations Pop Culture TV & Movies
Tinman, Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion

The Wizard of Oz is a beloved classic that has enchanted audiences for generations and has long been celebrated for its whimsical portrayal of pure fantasy. Based on the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written by L. Frank Baum, it captures similar story beats to its literary predecessor. However, behind the technicolor curtain lies a darker narrative that paints a troubling picture of the production’s less-than-magical reality. As we peel back the layers of nostalgia, we discover a behind-the-scenes tale that sheds light on the grueling conditions, personal struggles, and ethical controversies that cast an ominous shadow over this cinematic masterpiece.

Less than Charming Directors

Few viewers might know about the several directors that came and went during the film’s production. The most notable directors involved were Victor Fleming and Richard Thorpe. Lesser-known is the involvement of Richard Thorpe, the original director who worked on The Wizard of Oz before Fleming took over. Some speculate that creative differences or his inability to capture the fantastical world of Oz led to his swift exit. Thorpe had a more mature vision of Dorothy, where she would also be blonde instead of Garland’s natural brown hair. This led to Garland wearing a wig and a heavy amount of makeup for two weeks of production until the studio changed its mind.

Fleming directing Judy Garland and Ray Bolger

Victor Fleming eventually took over as the director since the MGM producers appreciated his more whimsical and otherworldly approach to the film. Fleming was also the credited director for the film; however, he had a reputation for his intense work ethic and dual personality that switched between being charming and abrasive. While he crafted the iconic scenes of Oz, there are accounts of his combative behavior on set. Judy Garland, who played Dorothy, often bore the brunt of his mood swings. His aggressive directing style brought on memorable performances, but it also contributed to a tense atmosphere that left many cast members uneasy.

The Mistreatment of Judy Garland

Judy Garland, the young star who immortalized Dorothy Gale, experienced unimaginable hardships on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Cast at the tender age of 16, Garland was subjected to a grueling schedule that included 16-hour workdays. There were also limited breaks and meals, which made it challenging for the actress to stay focused and maintain her energy throughout the day. Garland also had to adapt to new directors since the production went through several directors who had different styles and expectations.

Judy Garland as Dorothy carrying Toto

There was a lot of tension between Garland and the director, Victor Fleming, in particular. Fleming, known for his harmful mood swings, was said to have allegedly slapped Judy Garland because she couldn’t stop laughing during a take. Adding to the abuse was the head of MGM, ​​Louis B. Mayer, who “insisted she consume only chicken soup, black coffee and cigarettes, along with pills to reduce her appetite.” The studio’s insistence on keeping her thin led to the use of amphetamines and barbiturates to control her weight, ultimately fueling a lifelong battle with addiction and mental health issues.

Make-Up Mishaps

Garland wasn’t the only actor to suffer under harsh conditions. Considering the film industry was still finding its feet in the 1930s, the makeup artistry for the film consisted of experimenting with toxic pigments on living actors. This unconventional approach led to more than one catastrophe, with the most infamous being the original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen. His initial look featured a fusion of white makeup with a hint of aluminum powder, a harmful byproduct still used in some cosmetics today.

Garland, Haley, and Bolger in Tinman scene

While shooting, an ordinary dinner turned into a terrifying episode as Ebsen started struggling to breathe. It later turned out that the actor had inhaled the aluminum powder, which led to him spending two weeks in an oxygen tent. Unfortunately, Ebsen did not recover quickly enough for producer Mervyn LeRoy’s liking, so the role was handed over to Jack Haley, whose makeup included an aluminum paste instead of a powder. This way, Haley wouldn’t be able to breathe in the hazardous substance being slathered all over his face. Ebsen, on the other hand, would continue to suffer from breathing problems for the rest of his life.

The Munchkin Controversies

As with most productions, there are many disputes and speculations that make it difficult for historians to separate fact from fiction. Rumors emerged about raucous behavior during production, with tales of Munchkin actors allegedly causing trouble on set. One particularly infamous tale centered on an alleged wild party thrown by the Munchkin actors in their hotel, complete with drunken revelry and debauchery. Of course, this could be an exaggeration of their behavior, mistaking their close-knit community dynamic with something more debaucherous. However, according to Judy Garland’s ex-husband, Sid Luft, she alleged that a number of men playing Munchkins “groped” her between takes, which added to the grim outlook of the atmosphere on set.

Three Munchkins singing

Another controversy arose around the treatment of the Munchkin actors during their time on set. It was widely believed that they were exploited and poorly compensated, facing demeaning treatment from certain crew members. This perception further fueled the intrigue surrounding the film’s production. As the years passed, efforts were made to shed light on the reality of their experiences. While some Munchkin actors did face challenges and unequal treatment, others later spoke out to affirm their fond memories of the set and the camaraderie they shared.

Hazardous Special Effects

The groundbreaking special effects that brought Oz to life also placed actors in dangerous situations. Another chilling chapter in the behind-the-scenes history of this film is the tragic fire incident that engulfed Margaret Hamilton, the actress who portrayed the iconic Wicked Witch of the West, and her stunt double, Betty Danko. The unsettling incident occurred during the filming of the witch’s dramatic exit from Munchkinland when her character vanishes in a cloud of smoke and fire. What was meant to be a thrilling special effect took an unexpected turn, resulting in a blaze that severely burned both Hamilton and her stunt double.

Margaret Hamilton the Wicked Witch of the West

The circumstances leading up to the accident were a distressing combination of factors, including the use of copper-based chemicals for the green makeup that covered Hamilton’s skin, as well as the flammable nature of the witch’s costume. As the pyrotechnic effect was triggered, the fire erupted with a ferocity that was beyond anyone’s anticipation. Hamilton’s quick thinking allowed her to escape the flames, but she suffered second-degree burns on her face and hand. Danko, who had also been sent to the hospital, would suffer from permanent leg scarring. While the aftermath prompted a reevaluation of safety protocols on set, it also showcased a disregard for the well-being of the performers.

The Wizard of Oz may have dazzled audiences with its enchanting narrative, but the hidden stories of hardship, abuse, and exploitation that lurk behind the scenes paint a grim portrait of Hollywood’s upbringing. By shedding light on these disturbing truths, we shed some light on the victims of this dark chapter in cinematic history and prompt a sober reflection on the price paid for our dear entertainment.

For more Bookstr content, check out the main page here!