Happy Birthday to The Wizard of Oz!

By September 1939, The Wizard of Oz had premiered on both coasts and was playing in first-run theatres across the country. Getting to the point of debuting one of the most highly anticipated films of the year was a long and arduous process that has been recounted in many documentaries and books, most recently The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion (HarperCollins, 2013).

The Wizard of Oz was innovative for its time on several fronts. It made extensive use of Technicolor, a film negative that passed through three camera prisms simultaneously to produce hues that, when combined in a single print, seemed to glow on-screen with a vibrancy that surpassed real life. It required intensive lighting in order for the film to photograph properly. The use of Technicolor hadn’t yet been perfected at the time of The Wizard of Oz and required testing and retakes to get the colors just right. Double-exposure for scenes such as Glinda the Good Witch appearing and vanishing in her bubble proved especially tricky in Technicolor.

Next, make-ups were required in order to transform actors into fictional creatures such as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, not to mention the Winged Monkeys, Munchkins, and Winkie soldiers. Prior to The Wizard of Oz, fantastic make-ups generally consisted of masks that limited actors’ ability to project emotion and made them unrecognizable. This problem was solved by the sparing use of foam-rubber appliances glued to each character’s face. In this manner, The Wizard of Oz actors could still be identified and their eyes and facial expressions could emote realistically. The Wicked Witch of the West, with her poison-green skin, was possibly the very first movie character to have unnaturally tinted flesh.

Costuming the cast was equally challenging. Wardrobe for well over one hundred miniature adults playing Munchkins was created by overemphasizing their small stature with contrasting large buttons and belts and voluminous sleeves. After a plush outfit was discarded for the Cowardly Lion, a suit made of real lion pelts was sewn together. Creating a Tin Man costume that was noiseless during filmmaking but pliable enough for dancing was achieved by using a leather-covered drum for the torso and similar, hinged portions for the arms and legs. The Scarecrow was to appear stuffed with straw, and his stuffing required rearranging after every film take in order to match the previous shot.

Special effects were created for The Wizard of Oz that were also ahead of their time. It was of great importance that the cyclone that transports Dorothy and Toto to the Land of Oz be as authentic as possible. A camera crew was even dispatched to Kansas, in part on the off chance that a real tornado might manifest. Otherwise, trial and error using smoke and a swirling water vortex led to the ultimate use of a thirty-five-foot muslin cone that was flexible enough to resemble a twister when moved back and forth amid dust and debris. Magicians were reportedly consulted to conjure up feats of magic, disappearing, and sleight-of-hand. The Horse of a Different Color was really two white steeds that were sponged with food coloring and alternated on-screen with clever editing to seem like a single chameleon-like creature (afterward, the horses were rinsed off in the Pacific Ocean). The Winged Monkeys flew suspended from piano wire; some were actual stuntmen while others were rubber miniatures in various sizes to give the illusion of depth. Rubber was also used to create the confrontational talking apple trees. Each housed a man who slipped his arms into the branches like gloves in order to animate the trees, which closed up the back with a zipper!

Who can forget the wonderful melodies in The Wizard of Oz? The songs were written to express the emotion of each character while also advancing the plot. “Over the Rainbow” became Judy Garland’s signature theme and, in 1940, she wondered why people were disappointed that she didn’t dress and wear her hair like Dorothy in public! “We’re Off to See the Wizard” was the rollicking march song that was repeated throughout the picture, making it particularly memorable. During World War II, it became the battle march of the Australian Imperial troops, who were British allies. “If I Were King of the Forest” was Bert Lahr’s show-stopping comedic tour de force; Lahr’s Cowardly Lion was exaggerated in mannerism and appearance, and the actor stole the show according to many 1939 critics.

As we reflect back, it is with fond memories of a time when the men and women who crafted The Wizard of Oz did so with unusual attention to detail and high standards for excellence. The selection of actors was unparalleled, even though most were second or third choices. At the time, some critics and fans were skeptical of casting Judy Garland as Dorothy! Victor Fleming had the Herculean task of directing most of The Wizard of Oz before taking over 1939’s other most memorable movie, Gone with the Wind (King Vidor finished up by directing the Kansas scenes and any retakes). Producer Mervyn LeRoy realized a boyhood dream by bringing The Wizard of Oz to the screen. LeRoy’s highest compliment came when his idol, Walt Disney, wrote to tell him what a fine picture he had turned out.

Today we celebrate The Wizard of Oz as an enduring entertainment that—75 years later—still manages to hold its own against even CGI special effects. Here’s looking forward to the next 75 years of traveling down the winding Yellow Brick Road!