“HANGING” AROUND METRO
[Above: Moments after they strike this pose in THE WIZARD OF OZ, our Triumphant Triumvirate and Toto (too!) turn and scamper up The Yellow Brick Road together. What – oh, WHAT!? – is the cause of the mysterious movement in the background as they’re caroling, “We’re Off to See the Wizard”?]
Nov 27, 2015
OZZY TRIVIA # 4: SOMETIMES A BIRD IS JUST A BIRD….
It’s not surprising that this query has popped up here; it’s one of the most frequently-raised questions about Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 motion picture production of THE WIZARD OF OZ. That being said, however, it also may very well be the most preposterous of any trivia inquiry ever asked about any movie ever made…!
Was there really a suicide on the set? Everyone talks about [a] mysterious hanging [scene]. Did this happen?
I want to begin by saying that if some of my response here seems sassy or dismissive, those tones are definitely NOT directed toward the person who posted this topic; it seems to be a very genuine request for information, and I’m always grateful for the opportunity to try to provide that. No – anything skeevy (!) about what I’m about to write would be aimed toward those folks out there who insist the fiction is fact…or those worthy souls who ignore all the tenets of common sense and continue to perpetuate the rumor!
First off, the scene under discussion is that which takes place during the apple orchard/”If I Only Had a Heart”/Wicked-Witch-on-the-Roof segment of the movie -- with the Tin Woodman’s cottage in the background. Secondly, let’s clarify one thing right at the top. Filming a scene in a studio as preeminent as MGM – and for a project as complex, expensive, and top-of-the-line as OZ – required a massive technical crew at-hand and on hand. In other words, a Metro cameraman didn’t simply position a huge Technicolor machine on a bend in The Yellow Brick Road, put it on automatic, and desert the set in hopes that the lens MIGHT capture the image of a little Kansas girl, her dog, a Scarecrow, and a Tin Woodman as they came singing, dancing, and sauntering by. That cinematographer – in this case, Harold Rosson – was actively THERE, with additional cameramen in place, as well; manipulating the heavy, cumbersome equipment required for early three-strip Technicolor filming often required a multi-person effort.
Continuing: Alongside or behind the camera, one also would find a director and, in the case of a musical like OZ, a choreographer -- plus their assistants. There were additional technicians who oversaw lighting and sound, and others who monitored the playback machine for the prerecorded vocal and orchestral track of the song in this specific scene under discussion. There were make-up people (at least one each for every principal actor involved), hairdressers, and costume adjuncts. There were greensmen, in charge of the trees and plants that were components of the scenery. There were stagehands who performed a multitude of tasks; for example, they saw to it that the Yellow Brick Road maintained its sheen, and they covered it when it wasn’t in use. There would be at least one still photographer (if not more) at work, capturing poses for later publicity usage.
To summarize: There were scores of people who were present on THE WIZARD OF OZ set at any given moment of filming. It’s sheer folly to assume or assert, as some unworthy gossips have insisted upon doing, that not a single soul among such a multitude of technicians wouldn’t notice someone hanging from a tree, upstage, but in plain view on the soundstage. Yet the legend foolishly persists; some total idiot (and I’m being extremely polite in describing him/her thus) even has doctored the footage of that scene and posted it on-line with the declaration that the clip on display was drawn from an early print or video of the film -- before MGM realized they’d unwittingly photographed and exhibited a hanging corpse, and then withdrew the film and doctored it themselves to avoid further detection.
[Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and Terry flank Jack Haley…but they scarcely were alone on the road to Oz. At any given moment, dozens -- and dozens -- of technicians watched from (or swarmed) behind the camera or from overhead in the soundstage rafters.]
Through the years, the shifting form in the background at the conclusion of that sequence – visible as Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and Jack Haley (vocally dubbed, at that moment, by Buddy Ebsen) trundle up the Yellow Brick Road and off screen-right – has been described in increasingly tasteless, ugly, and nefarious ways. Initially, it was something mildly theorized as a worker who inadvertently got caught in the shot. But this then leapt, for some reason, to the declaration that it was an agonized stagehand who hung himself… and it evolved from there into the saga of either an MGM executive who hung himself over his trepidation that OZ was costing too much money and would ruin his career, a despondent starlet who hung herself because she’d been passed over for the role of Dorothy, or a distressed Munchkin actor who hung himself because he was unhappy that Judy Garland wouldn’t date him.
Most recently, the OZ film regularly has been remastered and re-struck from its original film negative components; this means that increasingly clear, sharp reproductions of the picture have been shown and/or marketed. In these, the movement upstage has been seen to possess a gray/silver sheen, and the myth has grown yet again: The figure now is sad to be that of a distressed Munchkin actor who was unhappy that Judy Garland wouldn’t date him – and who first wrapped himself in Reynolds Wrap-like aluminum foil…and THEN hung himself.
It’s a sad comment on some present-day examples of human nature that these theories are conceptualized and/or shared in the first place. But – with tongue-totally-in-cheek apologies to such Howard Stern/Jerry Springer/Maury Povich (et al) “inspired” minds on-the-loose – I’m happy to report that, where suicide is concerned, there’s NO ONE and NOTHING hanging on any of the OZ sets. And here’s the actual back story attendant to the forest movement during the penultimate moments of the sequence in question:
Back in 1938-39, all the story scenes in THE WIZARD OF OZ were photographed on MGM soundstages in Culver City, CA; there was no location or outdoor filming utilized for the film, and the only legitimate exterior footage seen therein shows the background sky and clouds under the movie credits. Desirous of providing the necessary out-in-nature ambiance to the apple orchard/cottage moments, the studio leased several birds from the financially-strapped Los Angeles Zoo Park to roam the trees. At least three of them are eminently visible:
a) When Dorothy and The Scarecrow make their initial entrance, The Wicked Witch of the West peers at them from behind a tree. One of its branches extends outwards over the Yellow Brick Road, and a toucan-like bird is perched upon that limb.
[WWW, Dot, and The Scarecrow share an apple orchard, as a blasé toucan oversees the action from the branch of the tree.]
b) Later, during the discovery of The Tin Woodman – and his subsequent dance and conversation with his new friends – there are random glimpses of what appears to be a peacock, strutting around in the background.
And – finally!
c) What has been specifically cited as a Sarus crane – or some variety of that bird – inhabits the far reaches of the forest. When the happy trio and Toto careen up and over on The Yellow Brick Road (on their way off the set), that crane slowly, almost regally, raises his wings and seems to flap a salute as they advance.
Well, then…who wouldn’t?!
I most sincerely thank our post-er for the question – and for the opportunity to explain away the ongoing silliness of that Ozzy rumor!
Article by John Fricke