Aug 15, 2014
“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cordially invites you to The Premiere…”
Seventy-five years ago tonight...!
On August 15th, 1939, the massive publicity machine of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was poised to launch -- in splendid style – its biggest motion picture of the year. In fact, it was the most expensive film the studio had produced since the silent screen BEN-HUR, nearly a decade-and-a-half earlier.
For months, local Los Angeles journalists, entertainment columnists, and the trade press had acknowledged the fact that only M-G-M then possessed the financial assets, creative personnel, technical resources, and audacious bravery to invest three million dollars in a Technicolor musical fantasy. Critics lavishly praised the film after an advance media screening on August 9th (please see last week’s blog for details), but the actual premiere on the 15th would display the product to an at-least-somewhat-ambivalent cross-section of the entire industry.
Metro thus had high expectations that Tuesday night – and no few fears. As a result, the studio shot the works, pulled out all the stops, and fulfilled every theatrical cliché to masterfully coalesce old and new Hollywood – its participants, its chroniclers, and its observers. This was virtual “success insurance,” and it paid off: the gangbuster first night of THE WIZARD OF OZ thrilled attendees, dazzled the media, and happily impressed even hardened veterans of the business. The event turned out to be both an uproarious triumph, as well as the formal debut of a movie that one day would be recognized as the most-familiar and best-loved in history.
In contemporary, florid journalism, Edwin Schallert described for readers of The Los Angeles TIMES the "atmosphere, excitement, and thronging of sight-seers.” He rejoiced that a “renewal of the gala, golden days of the films was again to be chanted at this first showing at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, locale of many events of this type in the past. [OZ] sets an intensified pace for the new glamour days, which have suddenly flashed forth meteorically on the cinema horizon."
Ella Wickersham employed less grandiose verbiage in The Los Angeles EXAMINER, but her narrative was equally enthusiastic and offered a more exact approximation of the scene: "Bleachers flanked both sides of Hollywood Boulevard from Orchid Avenue to Orange Grove Drive. The roofs of neighboring store buildings were jammed. Spectators hung from every window of the Roosevelt Hotel. The forecourt of the Chinese was colorfully arrayed with scenes and characters from the Land of Oz and the Emerald City." [Note: The Ozzy décor, created by M-G-M for the occasion, included a cellophane cornfield, a stuffed Scarecrow, a robot-like Tin Woodman figure, and a yellow brick road for ticket-holding guests to traverse on their way into the theater.] "Under an emerald green canopy, an orchestra played, while the stellar lights of our village made smart entrances down spacious lanes, kept clear by an admirable performance of more than a hundred police."
Among those "stellar lights" were some whose work was about to win them a first round of OZ-related fame and, ultimately, legend. Cast members in attendance included the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Good Witch, and Uncle Henry -- Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Billie Burke, and Charley Grapewin – along with
the film’s producer Mervyn LeRoy, director Victor Fleming, associate producer Arthur Freed, musical conductor Herbert Stothart, and scenarist Edgar Allan Woolf. Other Metro officials basked in reflected glory: Ida Koverman (assistant to studio chieftain Louis B. Mayer), publicist Howard Strickling, vice-president/ general manager Eddie Mannix, Mayer adjunct Benny Thau, and producer Hunt Stromberg.
Additionally, the Grauman's cavalcade included the kind of gathering once referenced by TIME Magazine as "stars, starlets, starlettes, and lesser celestial debris": Eleanor Powell, Hedy Lamarr, Wallace Beery, Eddie Cantor, Orson Welles, Harold Lloyd, May Robson (an early but abandoned candidate for the role of Aunt Em), Edgar Bergen, Allan Jones, Bonita Granville, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Ruth Hussey, Ann Rutherford, Buddy Pepper, Virginia Weidler, Ernst Lubitsch, Louella Parsons, Brenda Forbes, Nancy Hamilton, and Lynne Carver.
Perhaps the most thrilled of any in the crowd were two people who could honestly claim the longest-term Oz involvement. Greeting each other, posing together, and reminiscing at length were seventy-eight-year-old Maud Gage Baum and the brilliant stage and screen performer, Fred A. Stone, then nearly sixty-six. He was one of the stars of the original, history-making theatrical production of THE WIZARD OF OZ, creating and playing the role of The Scarecrow for four consecutive seasons beginning in 1902. She was the widow, emotional mainstay, and cherished inspiration of L. Frank Baum, the man whose unparalleled imagination fashioned the Oz characters and stories – and who wrote the first fourteen books in the Oz series, leading off with THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in 1900.
As an extra courtyard attraction at Grauman’s, five actors who’d portrayed Munchkins in OZ were summoned, made-up, and re-costumed to greet and pose with the celebrity invitees. Nona Cooper, Billy Curtis, Tommy Cottonaro, Jerry Maren, and Victor Wetter appeared both for the premiere and then again to enthrall the public across the first few days of the Chinese Theatre OZ engagement. (As many fans are aware, Jerry Maren played the center member of the “Lollipop Guild” trio in the film, but he was garbed as the Munchkin Mayor for his Grauman’s work. Maren today is the sole survivor of the approximately one- hundred-and-twenty-four “little people” cast in OZ in 1938. His subsequent entertainment career spanned eight decades of film, TV, and stage credits, along with more than two decades of attendance at Oz festivals all over the country. At ninety-four, he now lives in comfortable retirement in Southern California.)
All in all – and just as M-G-M hoped and planned – “seventy-five years ago tonight” proved to be an extraordinary occasion. Neighborhood veterans called it the biggest premiere in recent memory. Police estimates held that there were ten thousand people either packing the ten-tiered stands at Grauman’s or lining the streets; another two thousand (@ $2.20 per ticket) entered the theater itself.
In line with the obvious glee of the opening night audience, reviewers spoke of OZ across the next few days in estimations that echoed the critical paeans published after the film's press screenings a week earlier. Schallert clearly if unwittingly defined the picture for the ages when he labeled it "one of those marvels of moviedom which come all too seldom -- a pioneering step and an artistic realization. It will have a great audience, both by virtue of its entertainment and its imagination and beauty."
One player preeminently involved in THE WIZARD OF OZ was nowhere to be seen at Grauman’s on August 15th. Next week’s blog will both explain her absence and recount the level of unprecedented madness she and Mickey Rooney caused when the picture opened on August 17th in New York City.
Article by John Fricke