Aug 08, 2014


Seventy-five years ago tomorrow….

On August 9th,1939 (it was a Wednesday), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and their parent company, Loew's, Inc., threw open their screening rooms in Hollywood and New York City for a very special critics' preview.

Well over one hundred members of the international newspaper and magazine press corps -- movie reviewers, columnists, reporters, and feature writers – were invited to take their first look at the final cut of M-G-M's hugely-expensive, Technicolor production, The Wizard of Oz.

The picture had been in the works for almost two years -- ever since Metro's successful lyricist Arthur Freed approached studio chieftain Louis B. Mayer and asked if he could both produce a film and build it around a fifteen-year-old singing sensation then making a hit on records, on the radio, and in M-G-M's Broadway Melody of 1938. Mayer gave his permission, but when preproduction estimates on The Wizard of Oz crept past the million dollar mark, he reclassified Freed in the (unbilled) position of the project’s associate producer. Official production reins were turned over to the more experienced Mervyn LeRoy, who nonetheless joined Freed in championing Judy Garland as the story’s protagonist, "Dorothy Gale… from Kansas."

Under their dual aegis and beginning in January 1938, Oz underwent nine months of preparation before actual filming began. Some fourteen writers and consultants worked on -- or contributed suggestions for -- the script, which was finally attributed to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf. At least eight composers and lyricists were considered or rumored to write the picture's songs, until Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg got the job. Nearly thirty different actors purportedly were discussed for the film's nine principal roles. And from the initial Technicolor costume and make-up tests through last-minute retakes and musical underscoring (an eleven-month period between July 1938 and June 1939), five different directors worked on the picture, with Victor Fleming rightfully receiving full and final screen credit.

In the end, Oz went over budget by 65%. By the time the additional costs for advertising and film prints were figured into the ultimate tally, MGM had invested $3,700,000 in their musical fantasy gamble.

Thus, the press opinions formed on both East and West Coasts on August 9th, 1939, were of paramount studio concern. And though reviews didn’t begin to appear in print until the next day, the Metro publicity team apparently received an immediate hint as to critical response -- if any indication can be found in this description of the screening, published on August 10th in the Hollywood Citizen-News:

“It isn’t often that Hollywood preview critics admit their enthusiasms among themselves…[but] it was different…yesterday. The reviewers expressed themselves freely, and the opinions all amounted to the same thing: The Wizard of Oz is a great motion picture. It is not only a magnificent, history-making technical achievement; it is a warmly human, deeply emotional photoplay, too; and when the lights went up after the projection room showing, many of the critics still had the tears in their eyes. They had been crying with the young star, Judy Garland, at her farewell to the wonderful people of Oz…. [It’s] an inexhaustibly entertaining and great motion picture.”

Virtually all the other comments gleaned after the August 9th preview were equally rapturous – and in some cases prophetic. Here is a sampling:

The Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest novelties ever offered on the screen…an amazing adventure” -- The Los Angeles Herald-Express; “A charming, exciting, and beautiful picture” -- Screen and Radio Weekly; “The perfect piece of entertainment…the best picture of the year” -- The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News; “The best picture that Metro has turned out in many a day” -- United Press; “Jam-packed with entertainment for the entire family” -- The Los Angeles Evening News; “An amazing achievement in entertainment…elaborate, magnificent, and thoroughly beguiling.... It may very well prove to be one of Metro’s all-time top money offerings” -- Daily Variety; “A milestone in motion picture history…brilliantly inventive and arrestingly beautiful and dramatically compelling to the eye, the ear, and the emotions” – The Hollywood Reporter; “It will in the future be regarded as one of the most truly important contributions to the motion picture” -- The Los Angeles Times.

Or in the words of wire service scribe Paul Harrison: “Oz will probably play for the next five years.”

Plus seventy.


Welcome to the 75th anniversary of the best-loved motion picture of all time!


Article by John Fricke


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