Violence and Ventilation: 15 Bonkers Behind-the-Scenes Details of 'The Wizard of Oz'
Not to alarm you, but The Wizard of Oz is 83 years old. That’s right -- 83 goddamn years old. If The Wizard of Oz were a person, we’d be checking them into a home and politely nodding our heads while they tell us about the time they blew up Margaret Hamilton, but that’s not a dementia-induced invention. Even eight decades later, there are almost certainly no other movies that were as chaotic behind the scenes.
The Cowardly Lion Was Almost a Real Lion
During pre-production, a lot of wild ideas were tossed around about how to present the Cowardly Lion, including stealing Disney’s thunder and animating him in or, somewhat less riskily, using Leo the Lion from MGM logo fame and dubbing his lines. Then they realized it would be way less dangerous to just put a guy in a suit.
The Lion Costume Was Real Lion
They did get to use a real lion -- in a fashion. The Cowardly Lion suit was made out of real lion pelts that weighed nearly 100 lbs., and the body odor of an actor forced to move around in a heavy, unbreathable animal carcass combined with the smell of, you know, an animal carcass resulted in an unimaginable stink. Seriously, try to imagine it. It didn’t help that…
The Set Was Unbearably Hot
There was a reason bright, pretty colors were still so uncommon in film at the time. They required more lights, and even more were needed to cover the enormous Wizard of Oz set, so the crew “borrowed every unused arc light in Hollywood,” resulting in temperatures that soared over 100 degrees. Combine that with singing and dancing in ridiculously unforgiving costumes, and it wasn’t uncommon for actors to pass straight out.
The Not-So-Flying Monkeys
Even now-primitive practical effects like suspending actors on wires was dangerous, as the wires holding up the flying monkeys as they flew down into the Haunted Forest snapped, causing them to crash to the ground. You can even hear it in the movie.
The snow that falls on the gang in the poppy field is none other than good old-fashioned asbestos. Of course, no one realized how stupid dangerous that was at the time, and it was actually considered a safer alternative to cotton, which had a tendency to catch fire, especially under blazing hot lights.
The Tin Man Almost Died
The actor originally cast as the Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, had to be hospitalized after inhaling too much of the aluminum powder that was used to give him his metal face. In the meantime, they pulled his job out from under him and gave it to Jack Haley, who was made up with an aluminum paste instead.
The Scarecrow Got Permanent Scars
Not even (just) the emotional kind. After trapping himself in a suffocating mask that left him fighting for consciousness day after day, the skin of Ray Bolger’s face was forever messed up by the scratchy burlap.
The Wicked Witch Was Blown Up
For the scene where the Wicked Witch of the West disappears from Munchkinland in a fiery cloud, Margaret Hamilton was supposed to drop into a hidden hole in the floor, but the flames went off prematurely, resulting in second-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on one of her hands. She later told the crew, “I won’t sue because I know how this business works, and I would never work again. I will return to work on one condition -- no more fireworks!”
Hamilton’s stunt double, Betty Danko, was later injured in the scene where the Wicked Witch writes “Surrender, Dorothy” in the sky after the smoke-spewing pipe attached to her broomstick exploded. She recalled later that the crew was more concerned with the location of the hat that flew off her head than the two-inch-deep burns on her leg.
Her Makeup Was Toxic
Unlike the Tin Man situation, the Wizard of Oz crew knew the green makeup they used on Margaret Hamilton, which was made with copper, was so toxic that she couldn’t risk getting any in her mouth and could only eat through a straw. It made her accident way worse, too, because the makeup had to be immediately scrubbed off harshly with alcohol lest it soak into her bubbling skin.
The Director Slapped Judy Garland
Judy Garland had, well, a lot to deal with, but she was still a kid, and she kept giggling during the scene where she was supposed to boop the Cowardly Lion’s snoot. A less “working in a ruthlessly exploitative system” man might have given her a gentle talking-to, but director Victor Fleming just slapped her across the face. It scared her into compliance, but you can still see her trying not to laugh in the scene.
The Munchkins Molested Her
In his memoirs, Garland’s ex-husband Sid Luft claimed the actors who played the Munchkins often showed up “on the set, hung over, they would make Judy’s life miserable by putting their hands under her dress.” She laughed it off at the time and hopefully didn’t get slapped for it.
With regards to those hangovers, the Munchkins were known for getting wild after hours, with Garland later claiming, “They got smashed every night, and the police used to scoop them up in butterfly nets,” and producer Mervyn Leroy writing that they “they had orgies in the hotel, and we had to have police on about every floor,” though he excused their behavior by explaining that “to make a picture like The Wizard of Oz, everybody had to be a little drunk with imagination.” The Munchkin actors insisted that only a handful of them were big partiers, but how big does an orgy have to be before it’s a situation?
When a Munchkin Brought a Gun to a No-Fight
One of the apparently less in-hand Munchkin actors, Charles Kelley, brought two loaded guns to set one day to either intimidate or legitimately injure the mayor of Munchkin City for flirting with his wife, who also played a Munchkin. She later left her husband for the mayor, which we can all agree was a huge step up.
The Munchkins Were Paid Less Than Toto
To be fair to the actors who played the Munchkins, they had reason to be on edge. They were paid less than Toto at $100 a week, and their agent took varying outrageous cuts until some actors were only making five dollars a day. Under those circumstances, you’d probably feel like shooting someone, too.
Top image: MGM