The Wizard of Oz at 80: fascinating facts about the 'cursed' film classic

Why were the cast and crew gasping for air? Why was the Witch off for three months? And which songs got cut? We follow the yellow brick road.

Why were the cast and crew gasping for air? Why was the Witch off for three months? And which songs got cut?

Jack Haley, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz. The film was released 80 years ago this month. (Allstar/MGM)

It's a film that has remained in the pop culture spotlight for so long, it's hard to believe that it was released the same year that World War II broke out, in 1939. 

But on August 25, the beloved film The Wizard of Oz marks its 80th anniversary. 

One of the earliest major Technicolor pictures, the film was a big-budget feat, and one that won two Oscars and catapulted Judy Garland into the limelight. 

But it certainly didn't come easy; in fact, some say the production was "cursed."

So what were some of the mishaps? Why were the sets so hot? What was Toto's story? And which publication said it "displays no trace of imagination, good taste or ingenuity"? We follow the yellow brick road.

It was based on a book

Many people think The Wizard of Oz film was an original screenplay, but it was actually adapted from Frank Baum's 1900 children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The original print run was 10,000 copies, but by the time it became public domain in 1956, it had sold more than three million.

The poster for Fred R. Hamlin's Musical Extravaganza, The Wizard of Oz. Cincinnati and New York: U.S. Lithograph Company, Russell Morgan Print, 1903. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress )

It was also a play

Following the book's roaring success, Baum adapted the story into a stage play, and introduced several new characters — including a chorus line of poppies. The play opened on June 16, 1902, at Chicago's Grand Opera House. A 1903 New York production became one of the most popular Broadway shows of its time.

The set got very, very hot

Because the film was among the earliest to be shot in Technicolor, it required large sets with cameras hidden in different corners and elaborate lighting that rendered the set suffocatingly hot.

"We had enormous banks of lights overhead," said cinematographer Harold Rosson in The Making of the Wizard of Oz. "We borrowed every unused arc light in Hollywood. It was brutally hot. People were always fainting and being carried off the set."

Some reports say that temperatures got up over 38 degrees Celsius. When the conditions became unbearable, director Victor Fleming would have the lights turned off and open the studio doors so the actors could step outside.

We borrowed every unused arc light in Hollywood. It was brutally hot. People were always fainting and being carried off the set.- Wizard of Oz cinematographer Harold Rosson

The Scarecrow had it bad

Actor Buddy Ebsen (who later starred in The Beverly Hillbillies) was originally cast as the Scarecrow, but popular Broadway actor Ray Bolger reportedly didn't want to play the Tin Woodman, so was given the part — but he may have regretted it, in particular because of the face mask he had to wear.

"The mask wasn't porous, so you couldn't sweat. You couldn't breathe through your skin," he said in an interview. "You don't realize how much you breathe through your skin until you can't do it."

Every night it would take an hour for the makeup people to peel the mask off — and by the end of filming, he had permanent lines near his mouth and chin.

The Tin Woodman didn't have it much better

Actor Buddy Ebsen had originally been cast for the part of the Tin Woodman (or "Tin Man") but had such a serious reaction to the silver paint that he ended up in hospital and ultimately had to leave the production.

Actor Jack Haley, who played the Tin Man, didn't have to wear a mask like the Scarecrow, but the costume department pulled his hair back flat, then put a rubber skin over his head and behind his ears. Then they covered his face with cold cream and coated it with a while chalk-like substance and painted it white.

"The idea of the white stuff was to close my pores so the silver paste that made me look like I was made of tin wouldn't damage my skin. They painted my face silver and glued on a silver nose," he remembered in an interview.

"They glued a strip of rubber that was supposed to be tin under my chin and glued each individual black rubber rivet on my face, then they painted my lips black because painting my face silver made my mouth too red."

Toto was a female

People assume Toto was a male dog, but it was actually a female Cairn Terrier named Terry — and it turns out that The Wizard of Oz wasn't the pooch's first big picture. Prior to Oz, she had also appeared in Ready for Love, and with Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes. (She played a dog named Rags.) For The Wizard of Oz, her salary was $125 a week — roughly $2,200 in today's dollars — which was more than what many of the human actors received, and roughly 10 times the minimum wage of the time. Terry ended up acting in 16 films, and died at the age of 11.

The Munchkins were underpaid

The Munchkins were an essential force throughout The Wizard of Oz — but the actors who played them didn't get much for their work. "Munchkinland was absolutely gorgeous — a bunch of little huts that were the home of the Munchkins and there was a parade of them down the left of the stage and to the right of the stage, and all the Munchkins lived in there. And there were 135 of us. So Metro Goldwyn went to a lot of trouble to get a lot of people to work for them," said actor Jerry Maren in an interview. "Of course we only got $50 a week. Boo."

There were a whole lot of costumes

The film included more than 600 actors, which meant a lot of costumes — nearly 1,000 in all — most of which were highly detailed and elaborate. There weren't hundreds of ruby slippers, but Dorothy's red shoes — each one made of leather, satin and more than 2,000 sequins — were not one of a kind. In fact, there are at least four known pairs, one of which was recently recovered after a brazen theft from a Judy Garland Museum in 2005. In 2012, Leonard DiCaprio helped purchase another pair for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The director left partway through

The Wizard of Oz was mostly directed by Victor Fleming, but he left to take over the troubled production of Gone With the Wind. King Vidor ended up taking over, directing the sepia Kansas scenes — including Garland famously singing Over the Rainbow as well as the tornado sequence. Astonishingly, Over the Rainbow almost didn't make the final cut.


Dorothy was almost a blonde

Early in the filmmaking process, The Wizard of Oz had several different directors, including Mervyn LeRoy who was fired and replaced by George Cukor, who was also directing Gone With the Wind. (He was later replaced by Fleming, who would also replace him on Gone with the Wind.) Cukor didn't work on Oz for long, but he made several key changes, including transforming Dorothy from a blonde-haired ingénue to a more natural, down-home brunette.

"He said to Judy Garland, 'The irony is that you really are Dorothy. And the more real you are, the crazier this freak show around you is going to seem," recounted film historian John Fricke in an interview.

"You look at Judy Garland's life and she was the girl from the Midwest and her kind of tornadic talent lifted her up and carried her into a crazy world of show business. And everybody went along on the ride," he said. "That's one of the reasons Oz is so resonant to this day. It's just part of all that."

The Witch was afraid of burning the Scarecrow

In a famous scene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) tries to set fire to the Scarecrow, and in response, Dorothy douses him with a bucket of water, which ends up melting the Witch. However, Hamilton wasn't entirely comfortable setting fire to Bolger.

"After an earlier experience when my broom caught fire, it was almost too much for me," she said in The Making of the Wizard of Oz. "But I was assured Bolger's suit was asbestos and there was little danger of it catching fire."

But she ended up getting burned herself

It turns out Hamilton should have been more concerned for herself. In order to capture the appearance of the Witch "melting," a trap door was built into the studio floor, and Hamilton was lowered as dry ice in her dress gave the appearance of smoke. But in one take, the timing was off, and the fire wasn't fully extinguished when she was lowered, which caused her green copper-based face paint to melt, leaving the actress with third-degree burns. It reportedly took her three months to recuperate from the injury, and she refused to shoot any retakes of the scene or others like it.


Several songs got cut

The Wizard of Oz is known for its unforgettable score, but a few songs didn't make the final cut – including an original song called The Jitterbug which referenced the popular dance style of the time, and was supposed to come as the group was making their way to the Witch's castle.

At least two other songs were also cut — one a reprise of Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead! and the other a reprise of Over the Rainbow that Dorothy was supposed to sing when she was trapped in the Witch's castle. Film performances of the sequences were lost but the audio still exists.

We didn't know it was a classic. It was a job. We were getting paid, and it was a lot of weeks of steady work.- Actor Jack Haley, who played the Tin Woodman or "Tin Man"

They didn't think it would be a hit

MGM hoped the film would be a hit, but nobody predicted it would capture imaginations for generations to come. "We didn't know it was a classic," said Haley in an interview. "It was a job. We were getting paid, and it was a lot of weeks of steady work." 

It got good reviews — and some serious stinkers

For the most part The Wizard of Oz was well-received, with Variety describing it as "likely to perform some record-breaking feats of box-office magic," and, "given a sufficient period of pre-release showings in selected major spots, favorable word-of-mouth on the unique and highly entertaining features of the film should spread rapidly. It's a pushover for the children and family biz."

This was forcibly borne in on me as I sat cringing before MGM's Technicolor production of 'The Wizard of Oz,' which displays no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.- New Yorker film critic Russell Maloney in 1939

The New Yorker, however, wasn't nearly as kind, with writer Russell Maloney saying the film "displays no trace of imagination, good taste or ingenuity" and that it's "a stinkeroo." "I don't like the Singer Midgets under any circumstances," he continued, "but I found them especially bothersome in Technicolor."

The New Republic was also unkind, saying, "It has dwarfs, music, Technicolor, freak characters and Judy Garland. It can't be expected to have a sense of humor as well — and as for the light touch of fantasy, it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet."


It didn't make money right away

The film was a hit at the box office, earning more than $2 million in North America and another $1 million internationally, but because of the film's high production costs and distribution headaches, it actually lost more than $1 million. Eventually it became profitable, but not until MGM re-released it in 1949.

It won two Oscars — but not Best Picture

The Wizard of Oz was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, best art direction, best special effects, best original score and best original song, but it only won for best score and best song. The best picture Oscar instead went to Gone With the Wind — the film that Wizard of Oz director Victor Fleming had left to help finish. Now it regularly appears on lists of the best films of all time.