The Movie - Preproduction
How did The Movie get started? Why did MGM make it?
In the early days of talking pictures, Hollywood rarely made fantasy movies because movie studio executives thought the public wouldn't accept them, and the few they made usually didn't do well. But in 1937 Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it became the all-time biggest money-making film up to that time. The other Hollywood studios took notice, and scrambled to make their own fantasy projects. (No, copying what works for other moviemakers is not a recent phenomenon.) MGM songwriter Arthur Freed, who wanted to break into producing, was looking for a vehicle for Judy Garland. A fan of the Oz books, Freed found out that independent producer Samuel Goldwyn owned the film rights to The Wizard of Oz and convinced MGM to buy those rights, beating out four other studios. Mervyn LeRoy was a producer that MGM had just hired away from Warner Bros., and he, too, was interested in making The Wizard of Oz. As a studio, MGM also wanted to make The Wizard of Oz a full-color, special effects spectacular so that they could show off what the studio could do — it was a "prestige" project.
Who was the producer of The Movie?
Since Oz was felt to be too big a project for a first-time producer like Arthur Freed to manage (see the previous question), Mervyn LeRoy was named producer, with Freed as his assistant. Freed received no onscreen credit in the finished movie, but the experience he gained would lead to his becoming a producer in his own right who would oversee some of MGM's biggest musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin' in the Rain.
What was the MGM studio production code for The Movie?
Officially, it was MGM Production #1060.
How much did the movie rights cost?
MGM paid $75,000 to Samuel Goldwyn for the rights. This was an unusually large amount for the day. By comparison, David O. Selznick paid Margaret Mitchell $50,000 for the film rights to her book Gone with the Wind, also a larger-than-usual sum at the time. While they were at it, MGM also bought the rights to the 1902 stage play and the 1925 silent movie, so that nobody else could release a competing version.
Some folks, looking back with decades of hindsight, seem to think that there was some deeper or hidden meaning to The Movie, such as a call for American isolationism in light of the troubles going on in Europe at the time, or a parable on the benefits of President Roosevelt's New Deal policies. (The latter is extremely unlikely, as Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was a staunch Republican.) But like the book (see the question Is it true that The Wizard of Oz was written as a political tract? elsewhere in this FAQ), any message is there if you look hard enough, but it is extremely doubtful that any one particular message was ever intended. The film was made merely to entertain. (In an amusing scene in the mystery novel Murder on the Yellow Brick Road, a studio executive reels off about half a dozen different interpretations of The Movie during one course of dinner.) It's possible that some people, erroneously hearing that there is some special meaning to the story, have created a meaning for The Movie, not realizing that this theory applies to the book.
Who wrote the screenplay?
A number of writers had a hand in developing the screenplay. Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf received the official credits, Langley was credited with the adaptation, and most of what appeared on screen is their work. But Herman J. Mankiewicz (who would win an Oscar in 1942 for writing Citizen Kane), Ogden Nash, William Cannon, Irving Brecher, Herbert Fields, Samuel Hoffenstein, Jack Mintz, and Sid Silvers all worked on The Movie at one point or another. John Lee Mahin did some uncredited clean-up writing and quick scene rewrites during production, and lyricist E. Y. Harburg provided some of the segues into the songs and other bits of dialogue, including most of the Wizard's speech to Dorothy's friends as he gave them what they wanted.
Why is The Movie so different from the book?
That's Hollywood! Baum's book contained a number of scenes that just couldn't be done by the special effects of the time, or they would have made The Movie too long, or cost more than even MGM could afford, so they were not included in the script. Other changes were made (combining the unnamed Good Witch of the North and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South into one character, for instance) to simplify the story for the screen, the Wicked Witch of the West was brought in much earlier as a unifying thread for an otherwise episodic plot, and the whole story was made into Dorothy's dream because it was felt that audiences wouldn't believe the story any other way. The book's silver shoes became ruby slippers because The Movie was one of the few films made at the time in color, and MGM wanted to show it off. Considering how many odd ideas were proposed at one point or another (see the next question), and how very different previous versions had been, it could be seen as a triumph that the final results are as close to the book as they are!
How did the screenplay change as different scripts were written?
The writers often created new incidents to liven up the story. The original idea was to turn the story into a slapstick musical comedy, so there were a few deviations from what was written in the book. Some of the earlier scripts included a son for the Wicked Witch of the West whom she wanted to put on the throne of Oz, a stuck-up niece for Miss Gulch, a rescue from the Wizard's balloon by the Munchkin fire department, a singing princess and her cowardly suitor who gets transformed into a lion, a rainbow bridge that the witch constructs as a trap for Dorothy, and a romance between Dorothy and one of the farmhands. When the script got too bogged down, however, Langley, Ryerson and Woolf would turn to Baum's book for inspiration, and the results were generally an improvement.
Why was Oz a dream?
This is probably the most controversial change that MGM made in The Movie, at least among fans of the book. In the books, Oz is a real place, where Dorothy and her family eventually go to live forever. But in The Movie, it was all a dream induced by a bump on Dorothy's head. MGM executives were skittish about the fantasy elements of The Movie, and didn't think that the majority of the public would accept the story as it stood on its own. So it was made into a dream to make the incredible seem that much more believable.
Where can I find a copy of the script?
In 1989, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of The Movie, the screenplay was published by Delta Books, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn. This book includes a number of scenes not in the finished film, several notes, and complete lyrics. Although it's now out of print in America, the book can be found at many libraries, or bought from IWOC. It is also still available in Great Britain. At least two other editions of the script have been published, and one was also included in the 1993 collector's set, The Ultimate Oz, and the gift set edition of the 1999 video and DVD releases. It can also be read on the WWW at ftp://ftp.sunet.se/pub/pictures/tv.film/Wizard_of_Oz/ms_wizoz.html.
What are the words to "Over the Rainbow," or any of the other songs?
I get asked this often enough that, if I could, I would include lyrics in this FAQ or elsewhere on WWOOW. However, The Movie, including the song lyrics, is still under copyright, and I cannot legally put the lyrics in this document without permission. But they can be found, if you're willing to do a little work. First, the lyrics are available in the published editions of the screenplay (see the previous question). Second, not only the words, but the music as well, are available in a song folio from your local music store (if they don't have it, they should be able to special order it), or (TMOHH) in my online Oz bookshop, http://thewizardofoz.info/aisle7.html. Third, you can find them on the WWW at http://www.stlyrics.com/t/thewizardofoz.htm or other lyrics websites.
How much did it cost to make The Movie?
For it's time, The Wizard of Oz was an expensive movie. The final tally came to around $2.77 million. Most major feature movies, by comparison, cost around $1 million at the time. The Wizard of Oz, however, was not the costliest movie of the year — Gone with the Wind cost a whopping $4 million to make.