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The Wizard of Oz

Updated on September 17, 2011

The Wizard of Oz is a classic, much loved film musical and is generally ranked among the top ten best movies of all-time. Its signature song, "Over the Rainbow," which was almost cut from the film as being too sophisticated for the teenaged Judy Garland, won an Oscar for Best Song and has been voted the greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute. Thanks to its exposure on television The Wizard of Oz has been seen by more viewers than any other movie. In a recent People Magazine poll, it was chosen as the favorite movie of the twentieth century.

Plot Outline

Dorothy Gale, an orphaned young girl unhappy with her drab black-and-white existence on her aunt and uncle's dusty Kansas farm. Dorothy yearns to travel "over the rainbow" to a different world, and she gets her wish when a tornado whisks her and her little dog, Toto, to the Technicolorful land of Oz. Having offended the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), Dorothy is protected from the old crone's wrath by the ruby slippers that she wears. At the suggestion of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke), Dorothy heads down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, where dwells the all-powerful Wizard of Oz, who might be able to help the girl return to Kansas. En route, she befriends a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). The Scarecrow would like to have some brains, the Tin Man craves a heart, and the Lion wants to attain courage; hoping that the Wizard will help them too, they join Dorothy on her odyssey to the Emerald City. Instead, the Wizard sends them on a quest to kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

Main Cast

Although the four main stars each made a number of films, they are all best remembered for their roles in the Wizard:

Judy Garland....Dorothy Gale

At sixteen, Judy Garland won her only Academy Award, a special Oscar for the best performance by a juvenile, for her role in The Wizard of Oz. She later starred in a number of other films, winning Oscar nominations for A Star is Born (1954) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and had a hugely successful singing career elevating her to the postion of international icon and superstar. However her portrayal of Dorothy is still her best-known and best-loved film role.

Jack Haley....The Tin Man

Jack Haley was born in Boston, Massachusetts on August 10, 1898. He starred in vaudeville as a song-and-dance comedian, then after numerous Broadway shows, went on to radio and eventually television.

He was hired for The Wizard of Oz after another song-and-dance comic, Buddy Ebsen, who was originally set to play the Tin Man, had a near-fatal reaction from inhaling the aluminum dust makeup. The makeup was switched to a paste, to avoid risking the same reaction by Haley.

He married Florence McFadden in 1921, and they had one son, Jack Haley Jr. (later a successful film producer) and one daughter, Gloria. Jack Jr. was married to Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland, for a short time in the 1970s.

Ray Bolger....The Scarecrow

Long, lanky and a unique classic movie singer, dancer, and comedian, Ray Bolger appeared in a little over 20 films during the course of his career, but his nimble, eccentric dance style and winning, aw-shucks onscreen persona nevertheless made an indelible contribution to the movie musical genre.

Born in Massachusetts in 1904,he began his career as a dancerand his ability and athleticism won him many starring roles on Broadway in the 1930s. Eventually, his career would also encompass film, television and nightclub work. He will always be remembered for his role in Oz where he displayed the full range of his physical, comedic, and dramatic talents playing the character searching for the brain that he has always had.

Bert Lahr...The Cowardly Lion

Long before the coveted role in "The Wizard Of Oz," Bert was a known name in burlesque, vaudeville, and Broadway. He starred in Broadway's "Ziegfeld Follies" and had his own show on radio before venturing into feature films. Bert always loved the stage, and expanded his range when he starred in the serious drama, "Waiting For Godot." He was a member of the Hollywood Victory Caravan, and went around the country to help raise money for World War II. He appeared in a total of 18 Broadway shows from 1927 through 1964.

He died, aged 72 in 1967. Judy Garland, that night, on stage in Las Vegas, dedicated "Over the Rainbow" to the memory of Lahr, or, as she referred to him on that occasion, "my beloved Cowardly Lion.".

Production History

In January 1938, MGM bought the rights to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The final draft of the script was completed on October 8, 1938 (following numerous rewrites).

The script went through a number of revisions before the final shooting. The original producers thought that a 1939 audience was too sophisticated to accept Oz as a straight-ahead fantasy which was why it was reconceived as a lengthy, elaborate dream.

Filming commenced on October 13, 1938, with Richard Thorpe directing. After several scenes were shot, Thorpe was fired and George Cukor who was on his way to direct Gone with the Wind, took over, until he left on November 3, 1938, and Victor Fleming took over the direction of Oz.

Filming concluded on March 16, 1939; with subsequent test screenings on June 5, 1939.

Technical Innovation

The Wizard of Oz was produced at the peak of Hollywood's Golden Age, when MGM had at its disposal the foremost technical experts available at that time. It was this standby of talent that made the production of such an ambitious film feasible. To mount such a project today would cost at least $50 million.

It was photographed in a little-used three-strip technicolor process. In this process, three separate strips of black-and-white film were exposed through a prism which segregated the three primary colors. It was an extremely intricate process to handle and required enormous amounts of light to properly expose. While it was the most expensive process available to Hollywood at the time, it yielded an unequaled color quality. The studio chose the three-strip process because it worked out well with black-and-white stock. The framing of Dorothy's fantasy was processed in black-and-white, heightening the effect of the technicolor journey to Oz. The fact that the three-strip process originated in a black-and-white stock made this easier.

For these reasons production occurred entirely indoors on the sound stages of MGM. Because of the large set, as many as nine cameras hidden in bushes or potted plants would be used to film one scene. The hidden cameras took close-ups, while the main camera, used to capture the whole scene, was on the end of a boom and was constantly moving. The extensive lighting equipment necessary for Technicolor photography in 1939 is very apparent in these behind-the-scenes shots. Banks of lights lined the floor of the stages and the catwalks above the actors and made the set uncomfortably hot, especially for the actors wearing heavy costumes.Because the film was studio-bound, a lot of responsibility fell on the special effects department. Mattes were used extensively to give depth to the Kansas landscape, and a sense of distance to the Land of Oz. Intricate trick photography was employed to allow a bicyclist and a man rowing a boat to float helplessly in a tornado.

Filming in Process
Filming in Process

No less important was the MGM art department. Elaborate sets were conceived and constructed in full scale to create Oz, the Wicked Witch's sanctuary, and the throne room of the Wizard of Oz. Working with the limitations imposed by the tri-color film process, Gibbon's department had to create a color scheme that the film stock could exploit. The result was a beautiful, color-conscious mise-en-scène.

Perhaps most miraculous was the role played by Jack Dawn and the MGM makeup department. It was Dawn's task to take three nonhumans-a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion-and bring them to life. He had to give them personalities and human characteristics that would evoke an humanity amidst the costumes dictated by their roles. This was done convincingly, resulting in three of the most elaborate makeup/costume designs to date in Hollywood: the costumes did pose certain critical problems for production, however. Bert Lahr's costume for the Cowardly Lion, for instance, weighed nearly 100 pounds. This, coupled with the intense heat caused by the lighting needed to shoot, made filming for long durations impossible, and the film had to be shot in segments with a day's shooting often ending before a scene was complete. As a result, before the next day's shooting could begin, makeup had to be meticulously matched and perfectly recreated to retain consistency. Daily rushes were used to aid this process. While this precision slowed down the production, the commitment to perfection became a trademark of MGM.


The Wizard of Oz has witnessed more than 20 years of revival on both television and in theaters, remaining widely popular. Internationally, the film has enjoyed wider distribution than any other American film in history-fantasy, musical or otherwise. It would seem that the directness of the film's message-"There's no place like home"-and the sincerity of its presentation is the key. However, beneath the fantasy is one of the most polished and elaborate productions ever mounted in Hollywood.


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