These Behind-the-Curtain Facts Will Change How You See The Wizard of Oz

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jul 23, 2020 7:56:59 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: MGM/IMDb

From offscreen friendships and jarring pay inequality to the special effects and makeup tricks that brought some of the world’s favorite film characters to life, The Wizard of Oz (1939) had so much going on behind the emerald curtain and the Technicolor gloss of an amazing fantasy world.

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In honor of the 80th anniversary of the film, follow the yellow brick slideshow to peek behind that curtain and learn more about the secrets and fun facts that make the beloved film a timeless classic.

Margaret Hamilton Was a Fan Before the Film

As a self-proclaimed lifelong fan of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Margaret Hamilton was thrilled to be considered for a role in the 1939 film adaptation. Hamilton called her agent to ask which character the producers wanted her to play, and her agent famously said, "The witch — who else?"

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Photo Courtesy: Publicity Photo from Goldilocks (Broadway)/Wikimedia Commons; IMDb

Hamilton, a single mother, fought MGM for an agreed upon amount of guaranteed work time. Three days before filming began, the studio agreed to a five-week deal. In the end, Hamilton was on set for three months, but many of her scenes were cut for being too scary for audiences.

Dorothy's Original Look Was More Movie Star Than Farm Girl

Sure, Dorothy Gale doesn’t need prosthetics or aluminum makeup, but that doesn’t mean Judy Garland wasn’t put through the costume department wringer. Although she was young at the time, the 16-year-old Garland had to wear a corset-like device so she looked more like a preadolescent child.

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Director Richard Thorpe suggested Garland wear a blonde wig and loads of "baby-doll" makeup (as any preadolescent girl would…). Luckily, that vision of the character changed. After MGM fired Thorpe, the intermediate director George Cukor nixed the heavy makeup and wig. Instead, he told Garland to be herself. Smart move.

The "Skywriting" Scene Employed Some Great Movie Magic

The Wizard of Oz employs a lot of great film tricks, and some of the most unique were used in the skywriting scene. In it, the Wicked Witch (Margaret Hamilton) flies above the Emerald City, leaving the phrase "Surrender Dorothy" in her wake in black smoke.

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Photo Courtesy: MGM/IMDb; @WizardWasOdd/Twitter

Using a hypodermic needle, the special effects team spread black ink across the bottom of a glass tank that was filled with a thick, tinted liquid (some speculate milk). They wrote the phrase in reverse and filmed the scene from below. Initially, the skywriting ended with the ominous "Or Die — W W W."

The "Snow" in the Poppy Field Was Actually Dangerous

One of the Wicked Witch’s last-ditch efforts to impede Dorothy’s quest to meet the Wonderful Wizard of Oz involves a poppy field and some magical sleep-inducing snow. While many like to joke that the poppies and their drowsiness are the result of opium (a component of poppies), the scene has a much more blatant toxic connection than that.

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All that magical snow? It’s actually 100% industrial-grade chrysotile asbestos. Even though the health risks associated with the material were known at the time, it was still Hollywood’s preferred choice for faux snow. Our advice to Dorothy? Don’t catch any snowflakes on your tongue.

Scarecrow's Makeup Stuck Around for Awhile

In the end, Ray Bolger (Scarecrow) was probably grateful in more ways than one for Buddy Ebsen (the original Tin Man’s) willingness to trade parts with him. The Tin Man’s aluminum makeup caused a huge amount of problems for Ebsen, who was replaced by Jack Haley.

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Although Bolger’s makeup experience was better than Ebsen’s, he still had some issues. The Scarecrow’s makeup consisted of a rubber prosthetic, complete with a woven pattern that mimicked the look of burlap. After the film wrapped, the prosthetic left patterns on Bolger’s face that took more than a year to fade.

Margaret Hamilton Was Burned On Set

In a burst of flames and red smoke, the Wicked Witch (Margaret Hamilton) vanishes from Munchkinland. Although the scene is terrifying for viewers, it may have instilled more fear for Hamilton. On the first take, the smoke rose from a hidden trapdoor too early.

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Photo Courtesy: Still/TheHorrorFreak/YouTube

For the second take, Hamilton stood on the trapdoor as planned, but her cape snagged on the platform when the fire flared up. Her copper-containing makeup heated up instantly, causing second- and third-degree burns on her hands and face. To make matters worse, the crew tried to remedy her burns with (an even more painful) acetone solvent.

The Flying Monkeys Became Falling Monkeys

The Wicked Witch’s legion of flying monkeys — or Winged Monkeys as they’re called in the source material — have certainly been a source of terror for generations. Almost as scary as the Witch herself, these henchmen soar onto the scene to kidnap Dorothy and Toto — thanks to the magic of piano wires.

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However, the aerial stunt went awry when several of the piano wires snapped, sending actors plummeting a few feet to the soundstage floor. To create such a vast troupe of monkeys (and cut down on human marionettes), filmmakers made miniature rubber monkeys to help populate the sky.

“Over the Rainbow” Was Almost on the Cutting Room Floor

To no one’s surprise, the American Film Institute ranked "Over the Rainbow" #1 on a list of 100 Greatest Songs in American Films. But what may surprise you? The (arguably) most iconic song of Judy Garland’s career was nearly cut from the film.

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Studio execs at MGM thought the song made the Kansas scenes too long. Moreover, filmmakers were concerned that children wouldn’t understand the song’s meaning. Luckily, this unfounded concern melted like lemon drops. Unfortunately, Garland’s tearful reprise of the song was left on the cutting room floor.

The Tin Man Costume Didn't Allow Jack Haley to Rest Easy

Although Bert Lahr had to schlep around in a 90-pound lion costume, Jack Haley didn’t have it easy either. From the lingering concerns about the aluminum paste-based makeup on his face and hands to the minimal flexibility of the "tin" torso and arms, Haley faced some challenges.

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Reportedly, his costume was so stiff that he had to lean against a board to rest properly. Many years later, actor Anthony Daniels, known for playing the protocol droid C-3PO in the Star Wars films, had the same issue with his rigid costume. It seems even fantasy and sci-fi can’t help folks escape all their problems.

The Original Tin Man Was Rushed to the Hospital

Initially, Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Scarecrow, but traded parts with Ray Bolger. However, Ebsen’s new character, the Tin Man, caused him a world of issues. Namely, the character’s silver makeup contained a harmful aluminum dust that coated Ebsen’s lungs.

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Photo Courtesy: Pictured: Buddy Ebsen, left; Jack Haley, right via @HollywoodComet/Twitter; @JuanFerrerVila/Twitter

To make matters worse, Ebsen had an allergic reaction, and, unable to breathe, he was rushed to the hospital. MGM recast the role with Jack Haley (and changed up the makeup), but didn’t explain why Ebsen "dropped out." Although Ebsen didn’t appear in the final film, his vocals can be heard in "We’re Off to See the Wizard."

A Stocking & Some Miniatures Gave Us the Tornado

The tornado that strikes the Gale homestead is full of practical special effects that really hold up. The funnel itself was actually a 35-foot long stocking made of muslin. The special effects team spun it around miniatures that resembled the farms and fields of Kansas. Against the painted backdrop, the tornado looks menacing.

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The Gale house, which falls from the sky and into Oz, is just a miniature house that was dropped onto a sky painting. Filmmakers then reversed the footage to make it look like the house was falling out of the clouds.

Hollywood Didn't Pay Up Then Either

Pay inequality has always been an issue in Hollywood. For example, Adriana Caselotti, voice of the titular character in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), made $970 for her performance. The film went on to make roughly $8 million.

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According to the Los Angeles Times, Judy Garland’s pay was better than Caselotti’s — playing Dorothy earned her $500 a week — but it still didn’t reflect the film’s success. Even more discouraging, the folks who portrayed the citizens of Munchkinland were paid a mere $50 per week. (Meanwhile, Terry the dog earned $125 per week as Toto. A real yikes.)

Bert Lahr's Lion Costume Was Taxing

Originally, MGM thought it might cast its mascot — the actual lion used in the studio’s title card — as the cowardly character. Fortunately, for the safety of the actors and the animal, the filmmakers decided to cast actor Bert Lahr as the anthropomorphic character instead.

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To make a convincing creature, the costume department fashioned Lahr a 90-pound outfit made from real lion skin. However, the arc lights used on set made things a steamy 100 degrees during filming, which meant Lahr did a lot of sweating unrelated to his character’s nerves. Each night, two stagehands dried the costume for the next day.

The Initial Box Office Returns Were Uneven

The film started shooting in October of 1938 but didn’t wrap until March of 1939, racking up an unheard of $2,777,000 in costs. That’s nearly $50 million adjusted for inflation. Upon its initial release, the movie only earned $3 million at the box office — about $51.8 million by today’s standards.

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Although that seems impressive for a Depression-era film, remember that Disney made $8 million with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The Wizard of Oz’s modest success in the U.S. barely covered production and film rights’ costs — MGM paid $75,000 to the publisher for those — but success overseas fortunately bolstered the film’s returns.

The Dark Side of Oz in a Time Before “Me Too”

Judy Garland was just 16 years old when she was cast as Dorothy. Insecure and lonesome, she became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, which were often given to young actors to help them sleep after studios shot them up with adrenaline so they could work long hours.

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The spotlight — and her damaging contract with MGM — didn’t help, leading to her lifelong struggles with an eating disorder and alcoholism. According to a writer for Express, "[Garland] was molested by older men, including studio chiefs [and head Louis B. Mayer], who considered her little more than their ‘property.’" Moreover, MGM forced Garland to stick to a wildly unhealthy diet of cigarettes, coffee and chicken soup.

The Voice of Snow White Had a Cameo

A few years before The Wizard of Oz debuted, Walt Disney’s feature-length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) became a smash-hit. Not only did the film revolutionize the animation industry, it also reinvigorated the fantasy genre.

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Disney wanted to follow up Snow White — then the most successful film of all time — with an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, but MGM owned the rights. By happenstance, Adriana Caselotti, who voiced Snow White, had an uncredited role in Oz. During the Tin Man’s "If I Only Had a Heart," Caselotti speaks her sole line, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?"

The Ruby Slippers Are Props & Treasured Artifacts

Keeping in line with the book, Dorothy’s iconic footwear was originally silver, but screenwriter Noel Langley felt the red color would really pop in glorious Technicolor. Designed by MGM’s chief costume designer Gilbert Adrian, the shoes are each covered in about 2,300 sequins.

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Photo Courtesy: Top right: @Billboard/Twitter; Others: @FBI/Twitter

One of the remaining pairs is on view in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Since the display is so heavily trafficked, the museum has replaced the carpet there several times. Another pair were stolen from Minnesota’s Judy Garland Museum in 2005, but the FBI recovered the slippers for the institution in 2018.

Only One Sequence Was Filmed "On Location"

The Wizard of Oz is your classic adventure story, and Dorothy’s quest leads her from a Kansas farm to another world — complete with corn fields, poppy-filled meadows and forests. However, despite all these scenic locations, nearly all the scenes were shot on a soundstage.

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Photo Courtesy: @IEBAcom/Twitter; Pictured: This was the 400-pound, three-strip Technicolor camera Harold Rosson used on the film.

As was customary at the time, immense, detailed backdrops were painted by studio artists, making it possible for filmmakers to transport audiences to far away places without filming on location. In fact, the only location footage in the film is the opening title sequence — those clouds are 100% the real deal.

A Second Toto Was Brought In

Toto, played primarily by Terry, is one of the most beloved dogs in film history. Terry was famously not a huge fan of special effects and can often be seen running out of a shot when something loud or alarming happens — like when the Tin Man spouts out all of that steam.

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After one of the Witch’s guards accidentally stepped on her, Terry was on bedrest for two weeks. Filmmakers went through two doubles to find one that resembled the original canine actor more closely.

Fun fact: Judy Garland was so fond of Terry that she wanted to adopt the dog.

Margaret Hamilton “Mourns the Wicked” Witch

In addition to being a huge fan of the Oz books, Margaret Hamilton also believed her character was more than just your run-of-the-mill evil villain. More than 35 years after the film debuted, Hamilton, donning her Witch’s costume to show kids it was make-believe, appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where Fred Rogers interviewed her about the character.

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According to Hamilton, the so-called Wicked Witch relished everything she did, but she was also a sad, lonely figure. In short, things never went well for the frustrated Witch. Oddly enough, the Broadway musical Wicked also takes this approach to the Witch’s character.

The "Horse of a Different Color" Was Made Possible Thanks to a Food Product

In 1939, audiences were just as amazed as Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion when the horse in Emerald City took on a rainbow of colors. This "horse of a different color" was made possible thanks to a surprising food item…

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Jell-O crystals were used to color the horses, which meant filmmakers had to move quickly — the animals were eager to lick up the sweet treat. But the colorful steed isn’t the only interesting component in this fan-favorite scene. The horse-drawn carriage was once owned by President Abraham Lincoln and now resides at the Judy Garland Museum.

The Makeup Department Hired on Extra Hands

From the citizens of Munchkinland and Emerald City to the Witch’s flying monkeys, so many actors had to undergo a makeup transformation in order to give life to this fantasy film. To keep up with the daily demands, MGM called upon workers from the studio mailroom and courier service to manage makeup stations.

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Since most of the Ozian ensemble required prosthetics, makeup artists — and "makeshift" artists — formed a kind of costuming assembly line. Most actors had to arrive before 5:00 in the morning — six days a week! — to begin the intensive process.

Memorable (& Often Misquoted) Lines Fill the Film

The film is chock-full of iconic, memorable songs, and it has the great fortune of being responsible for some of the most quoted lines in movie history as well. In 2007, Premiere compiled a list of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" and placed a whopping three of the film’s lines on the list.

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"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" was voted #24, while "There’s no place like home" nabbed the 11th spot. Finally, the frequently misquoted "Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore" landed in the 62nd spot.

The Witch's Fire Employed Some Technical Wizardry (& Juice)

Clearly, the technical wizardry — or witchcraft — in the movie is incredible. Like the "horse of a different color" sequence, another iconic, special effects-heavy scene harnessed the power of everyday household items to pull off fun tricks.

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Shortly after Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland, the Wicked Witch tries to snatch the ruby slippers from the young girl’s feet. However, fire strikes the Witch’s hands, repelling her. This "fire" is actually apple juice spouting from the slippers in a sped-up clip to make it look more flame-like.

Technicolor Required Some Ingenuity in the Props Department

Experimenting with Technicolor was part fun and part problem-solving for filmmakers. In order to properly capture scenes with the Technicolor camera, the soundstage needed to be lit with arc lights, which often heated the set up to a toasty 100 degrees.

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After the lights were set, the experts experimented with what would look best on film, especially in colorized form. For example, the white part of Dorothy’s dress is actually pink — simply because it filmed better. And the oil the Tin Man is so excited about? It’s actually chocolate syrup.

The Wicked Witch of the East Makes More Than One Appearance

Part of the Wicked Witch of the West’s beef with Dorothy is that the young girl dropped a house on her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East, who was the short-lived owner of the ruby slippers. Although Margaret Hamilton already plays both the Wicked Witch of the West and her Kansas counterpart Almira Gulch, she also plays the Wicked Witch of the East — if only briefly.

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During the tornado sequence, an addled Dorothy looks out her bedroom window and watches Gulch transform into a witch, her shoes shimmering. For fans, this glint indicates the witch outside the window is wearing the ruby slippers. The restored version of the film makes that shimmer even more noticeable.

The Film's Running Time Was Cut Down Several Times

The first cut of the film clocked in at a running time of 120 minutes. Although that seems like nothing by today’s Marvel movie standards, producer Mervyn LeRoy felt it was long and unwieldy and wanted to chop off 20 minutes.

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After cutting the famed "Jitterbug" number (top right) and an extended Scarecrow dance sequence, the film was 112 minutes long. LeRoy held a second preview screening, and, afterwards, nixed Dorothy’s "Over the Rainbow" reprise, an Emerald City reprise of "Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead," a scene where the Tin Man becomes a human beehive (Yikes!) and a few Kansas sequences.

So Much for a “Wicked” Witch

Filmmakers deemed Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West performance too frightening for audiences and cut or trimmed many of her scenes. But not everyone thought her performance was terrifying — namely Judy Garland, who played the Wicked Witch’s nemesis, Dorothy Gale.

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Off-screen, the film’s starring foes were actually friends. One story that emerged from the set described Garland excitedly showing off a dress to Hamilton, declaring she was going to wear it for her graduation. Unfortunately, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer sent Garland on a press tour the day of her graduation. Upset, Hamilton phoned Mayer and chewed him out.

Giving Credit to Technicolor

In the opening credits, the text reads "Photographed in Technicolor," as opposed to the more apt "Color Sequences by Technicolor." The phrasing of the credits makes it seem as though the entire film was shot in color. Was this done deliberately, or was it a minor syntactical faux pas?

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It’s widely believed this was a bit of a stunt done to enhance the surprise of the picture turning into full three-strip Technicolor when Dorothy arrives in Oz. Posters made at the time of the film’s debut made no mention of sepia tint (or "black-and-white"), adding credence to this theory.

One of History’s Most-Watched Films

Although The Wizard of Oz proved popular in theaters, another film released the same year, also directed by Victor Fleming, actually topped the box office. (You may have heard of that little movie — it’s called Gone with the Wind.) Nonetheless, MGM’s musical fantasy may have more staying power than other films of the era, thanks in part to re-releases.

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The film was first broadcast on television on November 3, 1956, and garnered an impressive 44 million viewers. It’s believed that The Wizard of Oz is one of the 10 most-watched feature-length movies in film history, largely due to the number of annual television screenings, theater viewings and various format re-releases.