The Movie - Production and Crew

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Who was the director?

The director initially assigned to The Movie was Norman Taurog, but before shooting began he was replaced by Richard Thorpe. Thorpe worked on The Movie for only ten days, however, before LeRoy, dissatisfied with the scenes Thorpe had shot to that point, decided to replace him. George Cukor took over, but didn't shoot any film. He did redesign some of the sets, costumes, and make-up, especially for Judy Garland. Thorpe had put her in heavy baby-doll make-up and a long blond wig, but Cukor changed that to the look used in the finished film. Once Cukor was done with The Movie — he began directing Gone with the Wind only a few weeks later — Victor Fleming came on board. Although known as a "man's film" director who worked on many pictures with his close friend Clark Gable, Fleming also had a reputation for saving troubled pictures, and he had two young daughters for whom he wanted to make a movie. Fleming did most of the work on the film — Cukor's changes and the recasting of the Tin Woodman meant scrapping the Thorpe footage, so Fleming started from scratch — until Clark Gable and David O. Selznick asked that he come work on Gone with the Wind, which was also running into trouble. King Vidor came in to finish The Movie, and his work included the Kansas scenes. Fleming, who at one point was directing Wind during the day and supervising the editing of The Movie at night, was given final screen credit. Vidor was offered co-directing credit, but turned it down, claiming Fleming had done all the real work.

Who did the music? The sound effects? The costumes? The make-up? The sets? The...

Whoa, all right, I get the idea. Who were the creative folks behind the camera, and what did they do, right? Okay, here we go:

  • The songs were written by lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg and his collaborator, Harold Arlen. They are probably most noted, outside of their songs for The Movie, for writing the Broadway hit Hooray for What? and the popular songs "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and "I've Got the World on a String."
  • The background music was composed, compiled, and orchestrated by Herbert Stothart.
  • Ken Darby was the vocal arranger.
  • The costumes were designed by MGM designer Adrian (his first name was Gilbert, but he used only his surname professionally; he was born Adrian Adolph Greenburg). Yes, he designed the Ruby Slippers.
  • The make-up was designed and supervised by Jack Dawn.
  • The sets were designed by William Horning and Jack Martin Smith, although MGM Art Department head Cedric Gibbons also had a hand in the process, as he did with every MGM picture at the time.
  • The special effects were designed by A. Arnold "Buddy" Gillespie, whose team had to design a tornado, a falling house, a sky-writing witch who later melted, flying monkeys, a disembodied head floating among flames, and a bubble to transport the good witch.
  • The cinematographer was Harold Rossen, but he had the aid of two cameramen lent to the production by Technicolor. Henri Jaffa was the Technicolor Color Director — essentially a consultant.
  • Bobby Connolly was the main choreographer, although Busby Berkeley did some work towards the end of shooting, after he signed with MGM.
  • Blanche Sewell was the editor.
  • Douglas Shearer, brother of MGM actress Norma Shearer, was in charge of the MGM sound department, and was thus responsible for the sound effects.

How did the Munchkin voices get so high?

Vocal arranger Ken Darby used the then-unusual technique of speeding up the recordings — actually, slowing the tape down during recording and playing it back at normal speed — to get the high pitched voices for the Munchkins. Most of the actors playing Munchkins were not singers, and some had thick accents, so they did not perform their own singing or dialogue. Instead, Darby hired other singers, and the Munchkin actors would lip synch to the prerecorded words. A similar technique was used for the Winkies, the Witch's guards, to lower their voices for their chant, and for the reprise of "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" after the Wicked Witch of the West is melted, which was eventually left out of the finished film. This time, however, the tape was speeded up during recording, making the voices lower when played back at normal speed.

What kinds of sound effects were used?

The Sound people had quite a challenge, putting in up to twelve tracks of sound in some scenes at a time when most movies had three. At one point they went to Catalina Island and recorded thousands of birdcalls, then played them at different speeds and backwards to achieve the spooky sounds of the Witch's haunted forest. Other special sound effects included the rustle of the Scarecrow's straw, the Tin Woodman's metallic clanks, the Lion's roars, and Toto's growls and barks.

What were the costumes made from?

Unlike most other films made by MGM, costumes for The Movie had to be made almost entirely in house, and by hand. Among the materials used were real straw for the Scarecrow, buckram and silver-painted leather for the Tin Woodman, two real lionskins for the Cowardly Lion (see the question What was the Cowardly Lion's costume made from?), and yards and yards of felt for the Munchkins. Five women in the Wardrobe Department spent several days doing nothing but dying material and clothes green for the people of the Emerald City to wear.

Is it true that the Wizard's coat originally belonged to L. Frank Baum?

No, but you're close. For the Kansas scenes, made towards the end of the film's shooting schedule, a shabby old coat that had once been quite elegant was found at a local thrift shop for Frank Morgan to wear as Professor Marvel. While idly examining the coat one day Morgan found the name "L. Frank Baum" stitched into a pocket. The discovery caused quite a stir on the set, and Baum's widow and the Chicago tailor who had made it later confirmed that it had belonged to Frank (the Baum's had moved to Hollywood in 1911, and Maud Baum still lived there). At the end of filming LeRoy presented the coat to Mrs. Baum.

What was the Cowardly Lion's costume made from?

Lahr's costume was made of two real lionskins, weighed over fifty pounds, and was extremely hot and uncomfortable to work in. He claimed it was like "working inside a mattress." When Lahr was on the set, the lights would be turned off and the soundstage doors opened for fresh air every half hour so he wouldn't suffocate. One of the costumes was found and restored in the 1990s, and featured on the program History's Lost and Found on the History Channel. It is now in a private collection.

What were the Ruby Slippers made from?

Certainly not rubies! They were ordinary red shoes, with red silk sewn onto them, and red sequins sewn onto the silk. Should you be fortunate enough to see a real pair, you'll notice that the sequins are a darker color than that seen in the film, making the slippers look more burgundy than ruby. This is because the color process of the time couldn't record true colors, so colors were adjusted so that they would appear onscreen as the desired color. Had the sequins on the Ruby Slippers actually been the same bright red as seen in The Movie, they would have looked orange on screen.

What unusual make-up techniques were used on this film?

Because of the unusual nature of some of the characters, much of the make-up in The Movie was groundbreaking, and many of the techniques developed are still being used today. In 1933 Paramount released an all-star version of Alice in Wonderland, but most of the stars were unrecognizable behind the masks used to create the characters. So to utilize the faces of The Movie's actors and make them more recognizable, Jack Dawn developed a way of using foam rubber prosthetics. Dawn pioneered the use of prosthetics for the 1937 film version of The Good Earth — unfortunately to make European and American actors look Chinese — but The Movie was the first true test of prosthetics to create the make-up for entire characters. A rubber bag, with holes cut out for eyes and mouth and textured to look like burlap, became the Scarecrow's head, and over one hundred of these were baked for the film. The Lion's make-up involved a number of different pieces, and the Wicked Witch and the Winkie guards had false noses and chins attached before green make-up was applied. (There is no truth to the story that Hamilton lost her false metal nose on Hollywood Boulevard, since it wasn't metal, and she wouldn't have been allowed to take it out of the studio anyway.) Jack Haley's Tin Woodman had a rubber strap placed across his chin, a false aluminum nose, and individual rubber "rivets" applied each day. And the Munchkins were made up in assembly line fashion in a rehearsal hall, with MGM training dozens of people in make-up application for The Movie as there weren't enough people already on staff or otherwise available. While other materials are often used today, a similar technique is still being used for movies such as the Star Wars series, and television programs such as the numerous Star Trek shows. For more information about the make-up techniques used in The Movie, Make-Up Artist Magazine devoted an entire issue to it in 1999, which you can read online or order at http://makeupmag.com/issues/id/809/.

Where were the sets, and how were they built?

The Movie was made entirely in the studios of MGM, so all of the sets — around sixty in all — had to be built on soundstages. Every set had a backdrop that, if designed and lit properly, would look like the outdoors. In other cases, only a portion of the set would be created for the actors to appear on, and then the shot would be joined with a matte painting in post-production. The mattes were painted by Warren Newcombe.

Are the sets still standing? Can I go see them?

No, sorry. Once a set was finished being used for filming, it would be struck as quickly as possible so that the soundstage could be used for another scene — or for production of another movie. The set pieces and props were often used in other movies, and the backdrops would be stored for possible reuse if a scene had to be reshot. Once the film was finished, however, there would be no reason for MGM to hang on to anything. It's most likely that the backdrops were eventually thrown away, but there have been rumors that some of them were saved from a landfill in the 1970s. If any of the backdrops do exist, I don't know where they are. (This rumor may relate to some of the smaller background drawings used for special effects, which were salvaged, and were donated to either the UCLA or USC film archives.) The soundstages are now part of the Sony Pictures Studio, and many are still in use, so none of the sets from The Movie have been preserved on the sets they were shot on.

Was the Witch's castle a real castle?

The "castle" was all done in the studio, and the special effects department. Much of what is seen in the finished film is a detailed matte painting, and a partial set that the actors could appear in would be combined with the painting in post-production to make it look as if the actors were on a much larger set. It is possible that the paintings and set designs were based on a real castle, but I don't know which one.

Was there any location filming done for The Movie?

No. The Technicolor process of the time was pretty complicated, and sets had to be very brightly lit to register on the film. Location work could be done, but it was not ideal. As a result, The Movie was made entirely on soundstages. (While The Wizard of Oz was in production, Technicolor developed color cameras that could more successfully film outside in natural light. It was too late to use them on The Movie, but the process was used in making Gone with the Wind later in the year.) The Kansas scenes could perhaps have been done on location if the crew had wanted to, but location shooting was still unusual for a major studio feature at the time, and the MGM designers did just fine creating Kansas on a soundstage, anyway. There is, however, one shot in The Movie that was filmed outdoors: The clouds behind the opening and closing credits.

How did they do the special effects?

Remember, The Movie was released in 1939. This was long before the days of synchronized cameras, multi-film techniques, blue- or green-screen effects, and computer animation so common today. Buddy Gillespie had several weeks and MGM's deep pockets to work with, however, and was encouraged to experiment. For the most part he was quite successful. The biggest problem proved to be the cyclone. A miniature Kansas set was built, and a funnel-shaped tube of cloth was anchored to a dolly on the stage. The two ends could be rotated and moved around at different speeds. The first attempt used rubber, which didn't work well, so that was scrapped in favor of muslin, which did the trick. (Some of the tornado footage was recycled in another MGM movie four years later, Cabin in the Sky, and other productions.) Most of the flying monkeys were working models, with a few actors in costumes and harnesses. To melt, all Margaret Hamilton had to do was stand on a small elevator built into the set. Dorothy's window during the cyclone was a rear projection screen, and the Witch's crystal ball and the steam in the Wizard's throne room served as front projection screens. Glinda's bubble was a silver ball, and the camera tracked towards it while filming. The Witch's skywriting was actually a hypodermic needle spreading black ink across the bottom of a glass tank filled with tinted water. And the "smoke" coming from the Tin Woodman's hat was the result of compressed air and talcum powder. Test footage for some of the special effects are available on the more recent DVD releases of The Movie.

How did the Lion's tail move?

Look carefully in some scenes, and you can see for yourself. It was on a fishing line, and there was a man in the stage rafters with a fishing pole who would swish it around. Lahr would sometimes hold the tail, and those are the scenes where the line was let loose.

What did they use for snow?

As you may have already realized, it was dangerous business making movies in the late 1930s! And the snow during the poppy scene was no exception. Small chunks of white gypsum, the mineral used in plaster of Paris and other products, were used. Powdered gypsum is dangerous when inhaled, so the actors were told not to inhale too deep! The use of gypsum in this fashion was outlawed soon afterwards.

Was The Movie originally made in color or black and white? Were the Oz scenes colorized later?

The vast majority of The Movie was originally shot in color, and those were all of the Oz scenes. They were not shot in black and white and later colorized. The Kansas scenes were filmed in black and white, but processed so that they appeared in sepia tones — in other words, brown and white. For a time, the sepia tones were dropped, and Kansas was shown on television, in theaters, and on videotape in black and white. For The Movie's fiftieth anniversary in 1989, the sepia was restored (one videodisk release had it in sepia even earlier), and has been there ever since.

Was The Movie the first film made in color?

Not even close! It wasn't even the first Oz movie in color. There had been several experiments with color films in the silent era. (You can see the earliest surviving color film via this link.) L. Frank Baum was even involved with one of them, the hand-tinted films of his Fairylogue and Radio-Plays multimedia show (see the question Have there been any Oz movies? for more information). The first true color feature movie, however, shot in the same three-strip Technicolor process used on The Movie, was Becky Sharp in 1935, an adaptation of the novel Vanity Fair. Shorts and cartoons had used Technicolor even earlier, including a 1933 cartoon version of The Wizard of Oz (which unfortunately could not be released, as Walt Disney had signed an exclusive contract with Technicolor). After Becky Sharp, the studios gradually made more and more color pictures — although black and white was still the rule, and color used for only the most prestigious films. One color film that pre-dates The Movie and is still well known today: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937. For more information about the history of Technicolor, and The Movie's place in it, check out http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/technicolor10.htm (this is the tenth page of a complete history of early Technicolor, which begins at http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/technicolor1.htm).

Why were the Kansas scenes filmed in black and white?

The Kansas scenes were filmed in black and white as a contrast to the bright colors of Oz, and also as a way to translate to film a technique Baum and Denslow had used in the book, using different colors in the pictures to show different locations. It is not true at all that MGM ran out of money, and had to resort to black and white as a cost cutting measure. MGM was the biggest, richest movie studio of its day, and could easily afford to film Kansas in color if they chose to. For the initial theatrical release, the Kansas scenes were actually processed with a sepia wash, so that Kansas actually looked like it was brown and white. This process was not used again until a 1980s videodisk release, the 1989 video release, and the 1998 theatrical rerelease, so for many years Kansas actually was in black and white. Two instances of sepia remained, however, even during the black and white years: Dorothy's entrance into Munchkinland (which was actually shot in Technicolor with a brown set and a double for Judy Garland wearing a brown dress), and Aunt Em's appearance in the Wicked Witch's crystal ball.

What's this I hear about a dance number called "The Jitterbug"?

When it was first previewed in the summer of 1939, The Movie was nearly two hours in length, which some believed to be too long. So a number of scenes were shortened, and several dropped entirely, such as the return to the Emerald City after melting the Wicked Witch of the West (including a reprise of "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead"), an extended version of Ray Bolger's dance during "If I Only Had a Brain" (which was recovered complete in the 1980s), and a scene where the Wicked Witch really does turn the Tin Woodman into a beehive, complete with animated bees. Also cut was "The Jitterbug," an elaborate song-and-dance number that came right before the Winged Monkeys captured Dorothy and her friends in the Haunted Forest. It's still referred to in The Movie when the witch tells the monkeys, "I've sent a little insect on ahead to take the fight out of them!" No one is exactly sure why it was cut, since it took several weeks to choreograph, rehearse, and film, and cost quite a bit of money, but the best guess is that it was too lighthearted for the dramatic tension of the story at that point, and unlike the rest of the musical numbers, it was extraneous and didn't advance the plot. It was also felt that it would date the film, as "jitterbug" had already become slang for a hot dancer at that point, and the studio hoped the film would have long-lasting appeal, for at least ten years. (If only they'd known...) While the footage is now lost, Harold Arlen did take some home movies on the set during rehearsals, which have now been made available on television (the Ripley's Believe It or Not show on ABC in 1983 was the first public appearance of the entire film), video, and DVD. And numerous school and community theater productions have put "The Jitterbug" back into the story, either in its intended place in the Haunted Forest or as a replacement for the poppy field.

Were there any problems in making The Movie?

Many! The film took six months to shoot, used MGM's biggest sound stages, stretched the studio's resources to their limits, and the bright lights needed for the color photography generated a lot of heat, so something was bound to go wrong. Besides the problems of Buddy Ebsen and Jack Haley's make-up (see the question Is it true Buddy Ebsen was originally cast to play the Tin Woodman?), two major accidents happened, both involving the Wicked Witch:

  • Margaret Hamilton, on the fourth take of the Witch's disappearance from Munchkinland, caught on fire. The green make-up used at that time contained copper and was highly flammable, and only quick thinking and immediate first aid kept her alive. Even so, Hamilton was off the set for several weeks, and the skin on her right hand was so badly burned that she had to wear a tight-fitting green glove instead of make-up for the rest of the film, as there was so little skin there. The shot of the Witch's fiery exit used in the movie was an earlier take. Look carefully and you can see the smoke start up before Hamilton hits her mark.
  • Naturally enough, Hamilton wanted nothing to do with fire for the rest of the film. Even setting the Scarecrow on fire later on made her extremely nervous, despite the asbestos lining in the Scarecrow costume's arm. So Hamilton's double, Betty Danko, made a number of the broom flights. And at one point, the prop broom exploded, seriously injuring Danko and embedding bits of the costume into her leg, and causing the costume's hat to fly into the rafters above the stage.

Haley and Lahr also had general problems with their costumes and make-up (see the question What was the Cowardly Lion's costume made from? for details on Lahr's costume woes), Haley couldn't sit down and had to lean against a reclining board to relax, and Ray Bolger had trouble going to the restroom without spilling straw all over the place. None of them were allowed to eat in the studio commissary, as they looked so grotesque. Lahr could barely open his mouth to eat anyway, and had to drink soup and other liquids through a straw. Hamilton also had trouble at lunch, as she had to carefully eat her sandwich wrapped in waxed paper, else the make-up would rub off onto the bread.

Is it true that you can see a man hanging himself in The Movie?

No, of course not. It's true that you can see a shadowy figure fluttering in the background at the end of the scene in the Tin Woodman's forest, just as Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman are marching offscreen as they sing "We're Off to See the Wizard." And if you ever get a chance to see the film projected onto the big screen of a movie theater, you can quite clearly see that it is a bird flapping its wings. (A number of birds were rented from the Los Angeles Zoo for this scene. Other birds sharp-eyed viewers can also see in that forest are a toucan and a peacock.) Let me say that again to make it perfectly clear to those who still believe it's a hanging man:

IT IS A BIRD FLAPPING ITS WINGS.

So what kind of bird is it? For a long time, many thought it was a stork, but this is probably just a conjecture, since there was a stork in the original novel. I have now had two birders tell me that it was a crowned crane, or Balearica pavonina. Since I'm not any sort of bird expert, I will have to take their word for it.

So why do so many think that this poor, innocent bird is a hanging man? The problem is, most people today don't see The Movie on the big screen; they watch it on television, videotape, or DVD. And the scan lines that make a TV picture possible do the disservice of making the picture less clear than on a movie screen. The small size of most TV screens and the lack of clear prints before 1989 don't help, either. So on a television screen, the stork is not very clear. Some have thought it was a stagehand accidentally caught in the shot, or the Wicked Witch still lurking in the background, but for some reason this shadowy figure passed into urban legend as a hanging man. But it can't be. Studio security was tighter than usual on The Movie, and it's extremely unlikely that a major studio like MGM wouldn't notice such a macabre sight, or would allow it to be included in one of its highest profile pictures. Besides, most of those trees were on a painted backdrop, and the rest were artificial, and thus too fragile to hold that much weight. And towards the end of the scene, all three principal actors look directly at the object in question. If it was something that wasn't supposed to be there, especially something so gruesome, doesn't it make sense that at least one of them would alert the crew and stop filming right then and there? Don't forget, there were a lot of people on the set watching what was going on, with the director and his assistants, the cameramen, the lighting crew, and so forth. Would all of them not notice something suspicious? Could all of them not say anything about it for so long?

Some amusing variants of this story have surfaced:

  • The hanging man was one of the Munchkin actors — which is unlikely, as the forest scenes were actually shot before the Munchkinland scenes, and the little people playing the Munchkins hadn't arrived in town at that point. Many of the surviving Munchkin actors have also stated that this is false.
  • A Munchkin actor hanged himself after being rejected by one of the Munchkin actresses — see above.
  • The man hanging himself is the director's son, upset that he didn't get a part in The Movie or on the crew — which is impossible, as Victor Fleming only had two young daughters at the time.
  • MGM was forced to leave the shot in, as they couldn't afford to reshoot the scene — which is extremely unlikely, as MGM was the biggest studio of the day, and could well afford another take.
  • The man who hanged himself was the grandfather of the boy who became the ghost in Three Men and a Baby, another popular Hollywood urban legend. Since the "ghost" is actually a cardboard cutout of actor Ted Danson, this is not terribly likely.
  • The "hanging" was actually a technician who got entangled in some cables or ropes and accidentally fell into the scene, strangling himself — I think somebody is confusing the stagehand and hanging legends.
  • The bird was added in later to mask the hanging — well, then, couldn't they have made the bird clearer? Or erased the hanging man entirely?
  • The hanging person was a young, unknown actress who was upset that she didn't get the part of Dorothy — the only actresses ever seriously considered for the part were Judy Garland and, for a brief time, Shirley Temple (see the question Wasn't Shirley Temple originally cast to play Dorothy? for the details).
  • The hanging was still in the original videotape release of The Movie, but replaced by the bird in the 1989 fiftieth anniversary rerelease — the only change made from the early '80s release and the 1989 one was to finally change the Kansas scenes back to their original sepia tones. Furthermore, I can personally attest to seeing the bird in a film print in 1979, before The Movie was ever released on home video.
  • The hanging is really somewhere else in the scene, or the next one — look, if people can't even figure out where the hanging is, could it possibly be that it isn't really there?
  • I'm just part of some conspiracy to cover up the truth — if I am, I wish someone would let me in on the secret! I have no reason to hide the truth, I am in no one's employ or thralls, and I don't see what good it would do me or anyone else to hide it now. The truth is, there is no hanging.
  • "I know who the hanged man was" — yet every time someone has told me this, they clam up when I ask for a name or details. If there is truly a hanging in The Movie, I and Oz and film researchers around the world are going to need a lot more evidence than "It looks like a hanging man" or a man with no name.

Regrettably, there are now online videos of the scene showing a hanging figure in the background. Please rest assured, this footage is a forgery and should not believed.


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