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The Horrors Behind the Making of ´The Wizard of Oz´

by Alema Ljuca 5 months ago in pop culture
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To make a fairy tale, the cast went through a nightmare.

Lobby card from the original 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

An unusual friendship, a yellow brick road, and ruby red slippers were what it took to make the most influential film of all time. When it premiered in August of 1939, The Wizard of Oz brought magic in Technicolor to the cinemas across America. The enchanting story has captured millions of hearts since and serves as an eternal reminder that “there is no place like home.”

What is less talked about are the sacrifices and hardships the cast had to endure to make the timeless piece. The filming of The Wizard of Oz left its stars addicted, hospitalized, and scarred for life, both physically and mentally.

The Sacrificial Lamb - Judy Garland

Ten years Judy’s junior, Shirley Temple, was considered for the leading role of Dorothy. After failing to impress the studio bosses because she didn’t have the vocal range, they turned their attention back to Garland. But she wasn’t a perfect fit either, so the studio literally shaped her for the role.

Judy was 16 when she was chosen as Dorothy and had started to develop a young woman’s body. To make her appear younger, they taped down her breasts and put her in a tight corset to cover her curves. She also wore facial prosthetics in the form of removable teeth caps and a rubber disc that changed the shape of her nose.

Judy Garland as Dorothy, 1939 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The control of Judy’s body was not just external but also internal, and her mother was in on it too. Garland’s mother, Ethel, pushed Judy to perform when she was just three years old. According to the biography Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke, Judy was only ten when her mother introduced her to pills: uppers for getting up and downers for going to sleep.

The studio system and its grueling schedule intensified young Judy’s need for pills, and by the age of 16, when she was making The Wizard of Oz, she was a full-on addict.

To make matters worse, Louis B. Mayer and the MGM bosses called the young star a ‘fat little pig with pigtails.’ To control her weight, Garland was put on a diet of only chicken soup, black coffee, cigarettes, and diet pills (on top of the ones she already took).

But the abuse of the studio elders was not only emotional — it was physical too. While filming a scene with the Cowardly Lion, Judy couldn’t stop giggling. The film’s director Victor Fleming pulled her to the side, slapped her across the face, and said: “Now go in there and work.” Garland went back to the set and did the scene in one take.

On the big screen, Dorothy was helped and celebrated by the munchkins. Behind the scenes, they molested her. In his memoir, Judy’s third husband, Sidney Luft, wrote the following: “They thought they could get away with anything because they were so small. They would make Judy’s life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress. The men were 40 or more years old.”

No one ever came to her defense.

The Wizard of Oz movie poster from 1939 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Judy Garland died at the age of 47 from a pill overdose, the same pills she was introduced to as a teen. She never got over her addictions, and it is often stated that the movie she was best known for ruined her life. This is what she said about how the studio treated her:

“They had us working days and nights on end. They’d give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills­ — Mickey sprawled out on one bed and me on another. Then after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling but it was a way of life for us.”

Burns, Scars, and Toxic Substances

Everyone was scared of the witch in The Wizard of Oz, but instead of fearing her, we should have been scared for her.

Margaret Hamilton played the movie’s ultimate villain, the Wicked Witch of the West. She was so committed to her craft that she endured burns, hospitalization, and toxic chemicals. To start with, her face was covered in green paint, which contained toxic copper. The paint had to be thoroughly cleaned off with alcohol at the end of the day. Luckily, the chemicals didn’t cause the actress any harm, but the next step did.

Margaret filmed the scene where she leaves Munchkinland in a cloud of flame and smoke, and it went well. They were ready to move to another scene, but the film’s director Victor Fleming wanted another take, just to be safe. This time Margaret’s hat and coat caught on fire, and the skin on her face and hands got severely burned. To treat her burns, the green paint had to be removed with alcohol. The actress spent six weeks in the hospital and returned before healing completely. To avoid the green paint, she wore gloves for the rest of the filming and refused to do any pyrotechnic scenes.

However, the famous skywriting scene still had to be filmed, so a stunt double was brought in. Betty Danko was chosen as Hamilton’s stunt double. She was sitting on a pipe filled with fire, which represented the broomstick when it exploded. Betty was hospitalized for 11 days and never worked with fire again.

The Wicked Witch of the West and Dorothy (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Dorothy was not the only character who had been recast. The Tin Man was too, but for a much, much worse reason.

Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Scarecrow and Ray Bolger as the Tin Man. But the roles were reversed after Ray insisted that he should be the Scarecrow due to his singing and dancing abilities.

Buddy Ebsen was now the Tin Man, and they started filming. After they applied the aluminum dust on his face, which was toxic, Ebsen had a major allergic reaction. But no one believed him, and he was ordered back to set. Only after the medical personnel got involved and saw the severity of his situation did they take him seriously. Ebsen was hospitalized in critical condition because the aluminum had coated his lungs.

Buddy Ebsen would complain of breathing problems for the rest of his life. He never appeared in The Wizard of Oz since he was replaced, and his scenes were redone.

Jack Haley was the new Tin Man, and the aluminum dust was replaced with aluminum paste. Still, Haley ended up with a severe eye infection, and filming had to be postponed once again.

Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow, didn’t go unharmed either. His costume made him so hot that he was constantly on the brink of fainting. And after the movie was done, he ended up with permanent scarring on his face.

The four main characters: the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Dorothy, and the Cowardly Lion (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone who watched the movie can’t forget the scene where it snows on a poppy field. Magical as it may have looked, it was poison that was falling from the sky. The snow was made out of pure asbestos, a substance that, when inhaled, can lead to serious lung problems, including asbestosis and cancer. The use of the dangerous substance didn’t stop there. The Wicked Witch’s broom and the Scarecrow’s suit were also laced with it.

The Costume From Hell

The aim of a good costume is to paint a realistic picture of the represented character. But sometimes, it can be a bit too realistic.

That was the case with a particular ensemble in The Wizard of Oz. The costume of the Cowardly Lion, played by Bert Lahr, was made out of a real lion pelt. It weighed 60 pounds, and that wasn’t even the biggest problem. Under the studio lights, the temperatures used to get alarmingly high, and Bert was at constant risk of overheating. He sweated so profusely in the costume that the studio had to get an industrial drying bin to dry the pelt for the next day.

Lahr’s son, Herbert, shared the following insights:

“The Lion’s suit was very interesting. It was a real lion skin, and it weighed 60 pounds. My dad had to be in it all day, he couldn’t eat because of the way the mask was, so he had to eat his lunch through a straw.”

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, 1939 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The costume was sold at a Bonhams auction on November 24th, 2014, in New York for 3,1 million dollars. It is the most expensive costume worn by a male performer in Hollywood history.

Pay Inequality

Even today, women are paid less than men, but in 1939, that was the norm. Despite carrying the movie as the leading role and appearing in almost every scene, Judy Garland was paid $500 per week compared to her male costars, Ray Bolger (Scarecrow) and Jack Haley (Tin Man), $3,000 per week.

On the other side, her dog was paid more than some human actors in the movie. Dorothy’s dog Toto, portrayed by a female Cairn Terrie named Terry, earned $120 a week (around $2000 in today’s money), whereas the munchkins got less than half of that.

But again, who would dare to question the authority and choices of the Hollywood bosses in the 1940s.

Dorothy and her dog Toto, 1939 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hollywood doesn’t function in the old studio system anymore, and the techniques they use are much more advanced and safety regulated. If The Wizard of Oz was made today, the idyllic picture projected to the public and the onset experience of the actors wouldn’t be in such sharp contrast as in 1939.



Gerald, C. (2000) Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland

Anne, E. (1975) Judy Garland: A Biography

Aljean, H. & Margaret, H. (1977) The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM

Doug, M.C. & Ted, S. (1976) Down the Yellow Brick Road: The Making of The Wizard of Oz

This story was originally published on Medium.

pop culture

About the author

Alema Ljuca

Through variety to clarity. International business student with a focus on strategy and innovation.

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