July 4, 2014
The Stuff That Got Away
Over the last ten months or so, a lot of well-deserved attention has been accorded the 75th anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's The Wizard of Oz -- with doubtless more to come! As I write this, however, I reflect on the fact that it was during this week in 1939 that final editing of the film was completed. Across three "sneak previews" in June, roughly twenty minutes had been dropped from the "rough cut" assemblage of the movie, both to get it down to a manageable 101-minute running time (fairly standard for that era) and to eliminate inessential footage. In this case, "inessential" referred to segments or moments decried as unnecessary or detrimental by director Victor Fleming, producer Mervyn LeRoy, other M-G-M honchos who then held sway, or studio chieftain Louis B. Mayer.
For long-time or die-hard fans, these edits are now legendary, but for any who are new to Oz fascination and/or history, perhaps they’re worth revisiting. The major deletions, of course, involved musical moments: Ray Bolger’s “special effects” Scarecrow dance to “If I Only Had a Brain”; the upbeat (and, at that moment, inappropriate-to-the-story) jive routine for Dorothy, her friends, and the trees of the Haunted Forest in “The Jitterbug”; Judy Garland’s brief, tearful, and tremulous reprise of “Over the Rainbow” while imprisoned in the Witch’s Tower; and the “triumphal return” procession as The Fab Five (including Toto!) were escorted by three hundred green-clad Ozians through the streets of the Emerald City – with the Scarecrow proudly brandishing the captured broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Of interest as well are the many excised moments of dialogue, a number of which were made to decrease the screen time devoted to Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch. Hysterical children had to be carried out of the sneak previews – so many youngsters, in fact, that a Pomona newspaper critic publicly offered on June 17 that “the movie is not for children, at least in the form [shown] here last night…. Children are subjected to a strain far beyond any they might get by reading words on a printed page.” This, of course, was not what Metro wanted to hear, so as much tightening as possible was done on the Wicked Witch sequences, and a dozen lines of her dialogue disappeared.
Other deleted moments of “terror” included: the sight of the tornado funnel actually enveloping the Gales’ Kansas farmhouse; a sequence wherein the Witch turned the Tin Man (temporarily) into a beehive; the Witch’s appeal to winged monkey Nikko to bring her the golden “wishing cap,” by which she could summon her monkey army and send them to the poppy field to retrieve the ruby slippers from the poisoned, sleeping Dorothy; and the inexplicable, instant, black-magic disappearance of the weaponry that Dorothy’s friends carried with them into the Haunted Forest.
Finally, there were some bits that were dropped simply due to time constraints: farmhand Hickory’s demonstration of his “wind machine” invention (created to stave off tornadoes); minute, fleeting comedy bits involving Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, or the apple trees; Dorothy/Professor Marvel dialogue; and etc.
All of that footage gradually was trimmed from the master negative of M-G-M’s Oz during June 1939, and – on July 5 (seventy-five years ago this weekend) -- the last tweaks were completed. The rest of July was spent in briefly adjusting the mostly-already-in-place orchestral underscoring to reflect the final film assemblage, and to churn out five hundred 35mm prints of the picture, so that a mass booking in August could flood the United States and "Ozify" the cinemas of the country. On August 9, the film was privately shown to scores of media representatives (mostly newspaper and magazine critics and columnists) in both Los Angeles and New York City; only three or four of them failed to be enchanted, and the majority of Oz reviews were almost uniformly rapturous. The film officially premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on August 15 and at the Capitol Theatre on Broadway in Manhattan on August 17.
So there are plenty of celebratory dates to keep in mind as the summer evolves…but here’s a fleeting acknowledgement of “the stuff that got away.” Most of the deletions were probably for the best in terms of Oz appeal and longevity. Yet with every frame of the film since cherished by uncountable billions of fans, wouldn’t you have liked to have been present at the first sneak preview – to see “all” of M-G-M’s The Wizard of Oz?
Article by John Fricke