Many of us have warm memories of curling up in front of the TV with the family for the annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz. There’s just something about the music, the magic, the Munchkins and the message that make it a familiar favorite we can watch again and again – and that touch of wickedness just adds to the fun. The film adaption of L. Frank Baum’s beloved book was released in 1939, and although it wasn’t initially a huge box office hit, it has become an icon of American culture. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, which it lost to Gone With the Wind. Take a peak behind the curtain and learn some not-so-wonderful facts about the filming of this tale of a girl and her dog on the Yellow Brick Road. Toxic sets, stolen slippers, suicides, oh my!
1. The Original Tin Man Ended Up in an Iron Lung
The actor Buddy Ebsen (later of Beverly Hillbillies fame) was first cast as the Tin Man, but he had a horrible reaction to the silver makeup they used since it was made from aluminum powder. After a few days he had breathed in so much aluminum dust that he had to be hospitalized and recovered in an iron lung. It affected him for years. When they replaced him with Jack Haley, they switched over to a safer aluminum paste instead.
2. The Poppy Field Was Really Carcinogenic
To create the poppy field scene they actually used chrysotile asbestos fibers. Asbestos is highly carcinogenic. In the film, the poppy field was meant to be dangerous as well. The Scarecrow says to the Cowardly Lion: “Run fast, and get out of this deadly flower bed as soon as you can. We will bring the little girl with us, but if you should fall asleep you are too big to be carried.”
3. Toto Got Paid More Than the Munchkins
Toto, played by a Cairn Terrier named Terry, made a pretty good wage. She got $125 each week which was a higher rate than a lot of the Munchkins were making. She did however get injured at one point when a guard accidentally stepped on her and broke her paw.
4. There’s a Rumor That a Munchkin Was Hung on Set
In some versions of the film you can catch a shot of something which looks a lot like a body hanging in the foreground. Urban legend has it that it’s possibly a Munchkin who committed suicide. However, people have refuted this claim and suggest it was actually a bird since there were some wild animals on set.
5. The Wicked Witch Paint was Toxic
The paint that they used to paint Margaret Hamilton an eerie green was totally toxic. She couldn’t risk ingesting any of it, so she had to live off of a liquid diet while they filming. Once shooting was wrapped, her face stayed green for weeks!
6. The Cowardly Lion Costume was Made from Real Lion Pelts
In a move that probably wouldn’t fly anymore, the Cowardly Lion costume was actually created in part by using real lion pelts. It also weighed over 100 pounds, which must have been extremely hot for the actor, Bert Lahr.
7. The Set Was Uncomfortably Hot
To shoot in Technicolor at that pioneering time the set had to be lit extremely brightly, which means that with all those lights it was often over 100 degrees while they were shooting. Imagine enduring that in a fur suit.
8. One Pair of the Ruby Slippers Was Stolen
In 2005, someone managed to steal a pair of the ruby slippers used in the film from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. In 2015, a million dollar reward was offered to the anyone who returned them, but they are still at large. There are three other existing sets safely locked up, one on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where it is the most asked about exhibit. In the books, the shoes were silver, but they were changed to ruby for a better wow factor with the Technicolor.
9. Many of the Wicked Witch Scenes Didn’t Make the Cut
There were originally a lot more scenes with the Wicked Witch, but then they realized that kids were too freaked out by her. They went back in and cut or edited a lot of her darker scenes.
10. The Scarecrow Costume Did Some Near Permanent Damage
Actor Ray Bolger who played the Scarecrow had to wear intense prosthetics on his face that actually ended up leaving creases in his skin. And those creases didn’t smooth out overnight. It actually took over a year post filming to get rid of them.
11. “Over the Rainbow” Was Almost Scrapped
During post production they almost decided to cut “Over the Rainbow” since the song seemed too long. They ended up keeping it of course and it became the most popular song in the film. It actually went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song at that year’s Oscars.
12. There Were a lot of Sweet Things Coming From the Costume Department
To pour oil on the Tin Man, they couldn’t use actual oil since it didn’t show up well, so they ended up using chocolate sauce. Similarly, they dyed the horses of Oz with green Jello powder. They kept licking it off, so their scenes had to be shot quickly.
13. Only Two of the Munchkins Actually Had Speaking Parts
Although there where many little people cast as Munchkins, only two of them actually had speaking parts. The rest was created with voiceovers, and the singing was dubbed by professional singers.
14. The Director Was Accused of Being Pro-Nazi
the film’s director Victor Fleming was supposedly pro-Nazi. According to the actress Anne Revere, who worked with him on a different film, he was “violently pro-Nazi” and also hated the British.
15. The Wicked Witch Really Got Burned
In a scene where the Wicked Witch disappeared in a cloud of smoke, the actress Margaret Hamilton actually got burned. The green paint on her skin was oil based and it caught fire, causing the skin to burn on her arms and hands. She was ultimately fine, but after that she wouldn’t shoot any scenes with real fire.
16. Judy Garland Had to Be Cinched to Look Young
Judy Garland was 16 when she started filming The Wizard of Oz, and she was a little too shapely to play young Dorothy. She had to be bound up in a tight corset to look more childlike in the movie.
17. There Was Quite the Age Difference Between the Witches of Oz
Can you believe Margaret Hamilton who played the old hag Wicked Witch of the West was only 36 at the time? In contrast, Billie Burke who played Glinda the pretty Good Witch of the North was actually 54.
18. Aunty Em Took her Own Life
Clara Blandick, the actress who played Dorothy’s Aunty Em, suffered from severe arthritis and impeding blindness in her later years. At the age of 81, she commited suicide in 1962 by overdosing with pills. Her suicide note read, “I am now about to make the great adventure. I cannot endure this agonizing pain any longer. It is all over my body. Neither can I face the impending blindness. I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.” Sadly, Judy Garland also died from an overdose seven years later, when she was just 47 years old.
19. The Director Slapped Judy Garland in the Face
During the scene when Dorothy has to slap the Cowardly Lion, Judy Garland got a case of the giggles which delayed the shot. To snap her out of it, director Victor Flemming took her to the side and slapped her across the face. That got her to focus.
20. The Scarecrow’s Brains Were Defective
When the Scarecrow is granted his diploma, he recites the Pythagorean Theorem to show off his brilliant noggin. However, he gets the math wrong. He refers to an isosceles triangle when it actually applies to a right triangle. He also talks about square roots, when it should really just be squares. Ray Bolger just couldn’t spout the theorem correctly, so they had him talk fast and hoped nobody would notice.
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