Making 'The Wizard Of Oz' Was Pure Hell Behind The Scenes

“There’s no place like 1930s Hollywood …”
Making 'The Wizard Of Oz' Was Pure Hell Behind The Scenes

Everyone loves The Wizard of Oz, the classic tale of the amazing wonders that can occur when an impoverished minor gets concussed during a natural disaster. But as much as the 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s (gore-filled) novel has become a cinematic keystone of modern culture, it sure was a pain in the ass to make. 

Pretty much everything that could go wrong, did go wrong while crafting this timeless gem. For starters, the studio went through several directors, including Norman Taurog and Richard Thorpe, who had some … not great ideas for key female characters. While he envisioned the Wicked Witch of the West as a sexy terror in a sequin dress, inspired by the Evil Queen from Snow White, much more disquietingly, he wanted Dorothy, a literal child, to be “fancy fairy-tale ingenue” who was “more mature,” and wore a curly blonde wig. 

When executives saw Thorpe’s dailies, he was canned from the production, although the press was told at the time that he was “seriously ill.” And say what you will about the recent drama at Lucasfilm, at least they’ve never pretended that a fired Star Wars director was dying of some mysterious disease.

Then came director George Cukor, who only worked on the movie for a mere week because he really didn’t want the job and hated the book. Because of Thorpe’s terrible costume ideas, all of his footage had to be reshot. And when Victor Fleming took over as director, his first day of filming was ruined when a raven got loose and flew into the rafters of the soundstage. While Fleming worked on most of the movie, he too eventually had to be replaced by King Vidor (the director, not an actual King) when he left The Wizard of Oz to go work on something called Gone With the Wind.

Fleming was also the one responsible for one of the worst stories to come out of the making of the movie; he allegedly slapped star Judy Garland because she couldn’t stop laughing during a take. That wasn’t even the beginning of the abuse that 17-year-old Garland had to suffer; the head of MGM, ​​Louis B. Mayer, made derisive comments about Garland’s weight, and “insisted she consume only chicken soup, black coffee and cigarettes, along with pills to reduce her appetite.”

Garland wasn’t the only actor to go through hell, either. Because this was the 1930s, and the movie industry was in its relative infancy, the film’s makeup effects basically consisted of toxic paint being experimented with on live human actors. This naturally led to more than one disaster; most famously the original Tin Man actor, Buddy Ebsen, initially had a slightly different look consisting of white makeup with a dash of … aluminum powder.

“Wanna know how I got these scars?”

Which may sound dangerous, but at least it looked better than the “preliminary” design for the character, which looked like a homemade Iron Man sex doll.

During the shoot, one night at dinner, Ebsen started to feel like he was “dying” and couldn’t breathe. It later turned out that he had, you guessed it, aluminum powder in his lungs! Even though he had to spend two weeks in an oxygen tent, producer Mervyn LeRoy wanted Ebsen to suck it up and return to the set, and eventually recast the part of the Tin Man because he “​​got tired of calling the hospital.” He lost the role, but as a terrible souvenir Ebsen still had breathing problems for the rest of his life, which he blamed on “that damned movie.” The gig was quickly taken over by Jack Haley, whose makeup now included aluminum paste, not powder. That way he couldn’t breathe in the extremely hazardous substance being slathered all over his face. 

After shooting with Haley for three days, the filmmakers decided that he was a little too shiny, and should look like he'd been somewhat rusted. So they scrapped the footage and changed his look yet again, with a price tag of $60,000 – which in 1939 money could buy a hell of a lot of cigarettes and phonographs. 

Haley eventually got an eye infection thanks to the makeup, while Scarecrow actor Ray Bolger started to notice lines on his face from routinely having a bunch of crap stuck there day after day. Meanwhile Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion, soaked his costume in sweat and Margaret Hamilton had a “slight tint to her skin even weeks after playing the Wicked Witch.” To add insult to injury (literally) these troubled actors weren’t even allowed to leave the set at lunchtime because their makeup was “potentially off-putting to the appetite of anyone eating in the Metro restaurant.”

Then there were the non-makeup-related injuries; while shooting the scene in which the Wicked Witch exits Munchkinland in a cloud of red smoke and a blaze of fire –

– during one take, the fire effect began slightly too soon, while Hamilton was still being lowered down a trapdoor, and she was severely burned on her hands and face. Worse still, since her makeup was toxic and “made from copper” (of course) when the burns were cleaned with an antiseptic, it was extra painful. And as for her minions, the flying monkeys –

– the performers delayed the shoot for “several hours” because the studio wanted to pay them per day, not per stunt take. There was even an emergency call to the Screen Actors Guild to straighten out the situation. And these guys had good reason to be concerned; some of them were eventually sent to the hospital when “their support wires snapped and they crashed to the set floor.” Seemingly the colorful horses from the Emerald City were the only ones who were treated humanely because they were lovingly dyed with a “​​Jell-O-based tint that wouldn’t be harmful to the animals.”

Not to mention that the script was being written constantly, to the frustration of the actors, and one of the Witch’s guards accidentally stepped on Toto, requiring the employment of a replacement dog. One of the most oft-repeated urban legends of this production involves the drunken antics of the actors who portrayed the Munchkins; Judy Garland once recounted in an interview that MGM “put them all in one hotel in Culver City and they got smashed every night.” These wacky stories even inspired the famously terrible '80s comedy Under the Rainbow starring Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher and, um … Hitler?

While some of these stories may be true, it seems like they have been largely exaggerated and are only representative of a very small number of the expansive Munchkin cast. Although, according to Judy Garland’s ex-husband, Sid Luft, she alleged that a number of men playing Munchkins “groped” her between takes which adds yet another terrible layer to this pancake stack of awfulness.

Obviously there are always a few problems on every film set, but the making of The Wizard of Oz was truly a mess. At one point, because of this staggering number of production problems, the studio actually tried to kill the movie altogether. Thankfully, everything eventually worked out. And, really, without all of this chaos, we wouldn’t have one day gotten the movie we all know and love: The Wiz.

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Top Image: Warner Bros.

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