METRO-GOLDWYN-MONKEYS: I COULD GO ON FLYING!

 

Wamego #72 May 27, 2016

METRO-GOLDWYN-MONKEYS: I COULD GO ON FLYING!

 

 

[Above: Director Victor Fleming (right) stands mid-soundstage on the “Haunted Forest” set at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during filming of THE WIZARD OF OZ in January 1939. He’s in the perfect position to view a rehearsal of the incoming flight of actors who’d been cast as the movie’s airborne brigade of terror: the infamous Winged Monkeys. (Several of them can be seen at center and left, suspended above the tree branches.) Some forty-four years later – and amidst much advance warning publicity -- ABC telecast THE DAY AFTER, a three-hour, made-for-TV motion picture about a nuclear attack on the United States and its aftermath. Parents were heavily cautioned to prepare any youngsters for the realistic drama and attendant visual horrors of the production – or to keep their kids entirely away from the TV set – to avoid post-program trauma. A week later, a journalist with one of the national news magazines opined that, yes, the movie did indeed possess moments that would have deeply disturbed and appalled many viewers. But, with omniscience and dry humor, he went on to accurately offer that nothing would ever scare children as much as the Winged Monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ….]

 

Across the years, it’s probably a historical toss-up as to who or what has frightened more people during their first (or early) viewings of the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Is it the evergreen Wicked Witch of the West? the dog-napping Almira Gulch? the fearsome, twisting tornado? the mysterious striped stockings that curl-up and withdraw under Dorothy’s house in Munchkinland? Perhaps it’s best – and most honest -- to split the horror “honor” between all of those.

However....

It’s also just possible that the really long-lasting terror of the movie has been provided by that delightful coven of characters created by L. Frank Baum way back in 1900 for his very first Oz book, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. MGM brought them faithfully to the screen when dramatizing Baum’s story, and there’s no question that the Winged Monkeys maintain a chilling power over the imaginations and memories of those who’ve cinematically traveled the Yellow Brick Road across these last eight decades.

This all serves as preamble to today’s trivia questions, as The OZ Museum Facebook page recently featured two inquiries about those fuzzy flying nightmares. Diana Plas has asked, “How did MGM create the effect of the flying monkeys?” and Howie Manheimer wants to know “how the studio got their wings to flap?”

Well, ladies first! And I hope Diana doesn’t mind, but I’m going to include some basic background information, too.

Although typically-inflated studio publicity later claimed there were thirty-six “on-screen” Winged Monkeys, only a dozen or so men actually performed in those classic (and classically chilling) WIZARD OF OZ roles. At least two of the actors were drawn from the troupe of little people who’d already worked on-camera in the Munchkinland sequence; a couple of others supposedly were professional jockeys. Regardless, all of the “acting” Winged Monkeys were diminutive, lightweight gentlemen who were harnessed and then lifted, flown, or deposited during their OZ scenes via artful maneuverings of virtually invisible piano wire. Such engineering made them, in effect, a gathering of “living marionettes.”

 

     

[These pictures show an actor who’s both modeling Winged Monkey wardrobe and make-up, as well as actively posing so that it can be determined how his “in-flight” moments might come across when filmed. The dozen or so men who actually acted and flew in the movie wore art deco-patterned jackets, designed (as were all of the other OZ costumes) by the legendary Gilbert Adrian. The pint-size players donned his felt garb over their similarly-felt simian suits. OZ and Metro make-up expert Jack Dawn developed the prosthetic pieces of rubber that gave the players’ faces the appropriate primate appearance – and then topped them off with individual wigs in a peaked-wave style that both echoed and prefigured the Mohawk. Curiozity: As far as I can tell, only two of the Monkeys were provided with Adrian’s bellboy-like caps: Nikko, the Witch’s constant companion -- and the commandeer of her army.]

 

Whatever their total number, it’s also worth noting that the acting Monkeys “struck” the picture for several hours one morning in January 1939, as director Victor Fleming prepared to film the sequence in which they dove into the Haunted Forest to capture Dorothy and Toto for the Wicked Witch of the West. The aerial performers became wary that they would be paid only a flat “day rate” for their work -- and not the then-standard $25.00 fee for each actual “take” of their flying tour de force. Years later, Tin Man Jack Haley remembered that an emergency call went out to the Screen Actors Guild, which rushed a representative to the Culver City MGM soundstage to straighten out the situation. In the end, the monkeys got their money, as they were totally within their rights to claim stunt salary for such effort. (Ironically, even with full payment assured, two of them then sustained minor injuries when they fell to the stage floor after their piano wires snapped during the monkeys’ entrance plunge into -- or departure lunge from -- the Haunted Forest.)

Meanwhile, it’s also true that there appear to be scores of other Winged Monkeys on screen in OZ -- seen in the distance as they soar in a swarm past the tower window of the Wicked Witch, or as they appear and disperse on their flight to kidnap Judy Garland and Terry/Toto. That larger portion of the troupe was done in miniature – and rubber. Meinhardt Raabe, at work as the village coroner on the nearby Munchkinland stage, popped in to peek at the creepy, parched, and twiggy woods of the forest; in 1987, he reminisced, “The whole ceiling of [that] building was hung with little monkey puppets. You could see the wires leading out to pulleys on the side, so they [could be] manipulated by people on the side of the set to simulate all those little flying monkeys.” (Raabe also remembered seeing Judy’s “double” in a harness, preparing to be carried into the air as Dorothy Gale was lifted from the Haunted Forest by two of the “live” Monkey actors.)

 

 

[Above left: A trio of trouble-makers – suddenly benign between takes, January 1939. Right: A duo of nonchalant actors composedly converse as their miniature rubber counterparts are tested in the background. At the lower left of the frame: The “Lilly,” a six-by-nine-inch white card held up to the camera at the conclusion of each Technicolor shot. When the film was processed, the white of the Lilly was a primitive means of determining if hues had been accurately captured and lighting had been correct.)

 

As for Howie’s query as re: their ability to “flap,” the Metro Monkeys were much assisted in this activity by something as basic and uncomplicated as a battery pack, built into each costume. It’s a very succinct answer, I know, but them’s the facts!

Despite the brevity of the immediately-preceding answer, I hope all of this proves worthy-in-response -- and I certainly thank Diana and Howie for providing good, solid, conversational topics. And by the way and just for record: According to Baum’s book, the Winged Monkeys themselves were captives of whoever owned a special, magic Golden Cap. (The Wicked Witch even briefly brandishes that headgear during one moment in the movie.) In Baum’s full recounting, however, the Cap passes to Dorothy after the Witch is melted -- and those nefarious chimps turn out to be both gentle and helpful to her in subsequent chapters of the first Oz book.

Or, to put it more directly:

READ!

(And come fly with me/us, Oz-style!)

 
 

Article by John Fricke

 

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