JULY / AUG 2012: BY VERONICA LEIGH
Everyone remembers the first time they watched The Wizard of Oz. At the very least they remember the impact it had on their childhood and how it inspired their innocent imagination. They sympathized with Dorothy or the Scarecrow, the Tin Man or the Cowardly Lion, and by the end learned that there truly is “No place like home!” But the legend of Oz doesn’t begin with MGM. Oz goes back a half a century further, to a dreamer who loved to entertain his sons with stories.
Born on May 15, 1856, L. Frank Baum didn’t find his niche in life until he found Oz. For a time he worked in the theater, but after he married he opened a store. That business venture fell through and he was soon bankrupt. After that, he began a career in writing and supplemented his income by working as a traveling salesman. Ever the storyteller, Baum amused his children and others by creating a fantasy world called “Oz.” To this day, there are conflicting reports as to where the name originated. One theory persists that in Baum’s office there was a cabinet, with one half of the alphabet divided into the section A-N and the second O-Z. Another story is that as he entertained the children, he loved to hear their “ooh’s and ahh’s.”
Whatever its origins, Oz left an impression on all, including his mother-in-law who encouraged him to write down his stories. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900 to critical acclaim.
The story opens on a bleak Kansas prairie with little Dorothy Gale, who lives with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. Her little dog Toto is her one consolation whilst living in such a dusty and depressing place. One day, inside the farmhouse, Dorothy and Toto are transported in a cyclone to the magical Land of Oz. The house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, the evil ruler of the Munchkins. This begins her travels to seek the Wizard of Oz, whom she believes can send her home again. Along the way she befriends Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. The four overcome various obstacles and confront the Wicked Witch of the West before Dorothy learns she had the power to go home all along. Clicking her heals together three times, she wishes to go home and is reunited with her family in Kansas.
Early on, attempts were made to bring this beloved classic to the big screen, first through the silent films. It was only after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that MGM opted to make its own movie directed towards young audiences. Through several directors and many writers, a film capturing the beauty of innocence and magic emerged. Baum’s basic story remained the same but some of it was altered to compensate for length, special effects and creativity. The Wizard of Oz was filmed as a musical and has many dance sequences and elaborate numbers. The magical silver slippers were changed to ruby. The Wicked Witch of the West was transformed into the prime villain. The Good Witch of the North and the Queen of the Field Mice became a single benevolent witch called “Glinda the Witch of the North.”
To contrast the Sepia toned Kansas, scenes featuring the exotic Land of Oz were filmed in Technicolor. The first choice to play Dorothy Gale was Judy Garland, even though New York offices preferred the adorable Shirley Temple. However when FOX refused to loan Temple out, Garland was in and the role propelled her to stardom. Buddy Ebsen was first selected to play the Scarecrow and Ray Bolger the Tin Man. Bolger’s heart was set on portraying the Scarecrow so he went to Mr. Mayer’s office and demanded to have the role. His persistence won out. Ebsen didn’t mind switching to the Tin Man until the aluminum dust in his makeup caused him an allergic reaction and he wound up in the hospital. Jack Haley took his place. Bert Lahr brought hilarity to the character of the Cowardly Lion, despite her congenial nature, Margaret Hamilton was casted as the Wicked Witch of the West, and to complete the main cast, Frank Morgan was the bumbling Wizard. Hundreds of little people from all over the world made their cinematic debut as the Munchkins.
Many of the principle actors attested that while they loved The Wizard of Oz, it was an extremely difficult movie to film. Between the uncomfortable costumes, unfortunate accidents, and often dangerous conditions, it was a wonder it was ever completed.
Over a hundred years have lapsed since the book was published and seventy years have passed since the movie debuted but time has not diminished the unfading love for The Wizard of Oz. It grows stronger with each generation. ■
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh is an aspiring novelist, who lives in Indiana with her family and six furbabies. Her obsessions range from Jane Austen to the Holocaust to the TV show Once Upon a Time. She has published two short autobiographical pieces and hopes to see more in print. She also lurks on her blog.