[Above:  Despite the comparatively small amount of surviving MGM Studios paperwork, it seems likely that this photograph was taken exactly eighty years ago this coming week. It marked the final day of work on THE WIZARD OF OZ for “Tin Man” Jack Haley and “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr – and boasted a photographic session that has given OZ fans a raft of treasured images ever since.]


In last month’s blog, we took a “crystal ball” approach to the new year and looked ahead to a number of Ozzy anniversaries that occur during 2019. Paramount among these, of course, is the eightieth birthday of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s cinemusical, THE WIZARD OF OZ -- the movie in which Judy Garland & Company continue to make pop culture history.  

Indeed, that’s one of the most amazing achievements of the OZ film: it never stops renewing itself in terms of enduring and cross-generational appeal. This was particularly apparent during the past few weeks, when OZ was booked into theaters for special showings throughout the United States on January 27th, 29th, and 30th. After just the first of those dates, cross-country media headlines proclaimed the news: THE WIZARD OF OZ had taken in more than $1.2 million dollars at the box office in a single day. Beyond that, the overall demand for tickets was so intense that Fathom Events (producers of an ongoing “Big Screen Classic” series in association with the TCM cable channel) added two more days of OZ performances during the first week of February.

In all, these engagements grossed $2 million-plus, which broke every Fathom record for such “revivals.” OZ surpassed such prior triumphs as the fortieth anniversary presentation of JAWS (2015; $1.62 million); the seventy-fifth anniversary of GONE WITH THE WIND (2014; $1.55 million); and the thirtieth anniversary of THE PRINCESS BRIDE (2017; $1.48 million).

Well, if a film released in 1939 can manage THAT, we should not only make note of it here, but also – just for fun – celebrate this year’s anniversary by taking a look back at what was happening EXACTLY eight decades ago at MGM in February 1939. (This way, if anyone asks, “What went on in OZ eighty years ago this month?,” you’ll have the facts. Or you might casually raise the topic in conversation – and then dazzle ’em with your knowledge!)


[Above:  This is just one small “exterior” corner of THE WIZARD OF OZ Emerald City set. Notice how little of the façade and surrounding vista were actually, physically constructed. Everything you don’t see here was beautifully and painstakingly-color crayoned on a cardboard “matte,” two or three feet wide and tall. The painting was separately photographed, and then that film was matched (or matted) to the film footage of Dorothy and her friends as they approached their goal -- and had their subsequent conversation with the Guardian of the Gates.]

Back in the day, the onset of February 1939 was spent in completing principal photography on the various components of the Emerald City set. Those overwhelming and dynamic green structures comprised the largest of all the OZ locales – twenty-eight hundred square feet in all – and included the exterior gate (“Who rang that bell?!”); the massive interior plaza (“The Merry Old Land of Oz” routine, the balloon departure of the Wizard, the deleted  “triumphal return” with the Wicked Witch’s broomstick); the Wash & Brush-Up Company beauty parlor; the entrance to the Wizard’s palace and interior corridor; and the throne room itself. Possibly because of its scope, the Emerald City was also the last of the Land of Oz scenery to be built on the MGM sound stages; the conclusion of Technicolor filming for the production was planned to take place there and had begun in mid-January.  

Much Emerald City footage was actually captured by OZ director Victor Fleming during the last two weeks of that month. Then, between the end of January and February 17th, he oversaw the sequences in the palace hallway (“Somebody pulled my tail!”), the foyer (“If I Were King of the Forest”), and the throne room.  One of the very last segments he crafted was the “presentation scene,” wherein the Wizard granted the requests of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion.

Compounding this month’s eighty-years-ago history, that phrase above -- “last segments” – is telling, accurate, and an important aspect of the overall, “making of” OZ mosaic. Although all the Kansas scenes remained to be filmed, Victor Fleming’s final day of OZ direction occurred just eight decades ago this week, on February 17, 1939.  It’s highly ironic that he didn’t get to complete the film, in that he was the one who had actually and actively saved OZ from oblivion the preceding November. Director Richard Thorpe had been fired from the project in late October, and his two weeks of unsatisfactory rushes were scrapped; the entire OZ endeavor was in danger of being cancelled. Fortunately, the brilliant George Cukor quickly stepped in as a sort of stop-gap “leader” and spent a week making major changes in make-up, hair, and/or costuming (for Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Wicked Witch), as well as in the appearance of the Yellow Brick Road. But Cukor was on the brink of directing GONE WITH THE WIND and could only spare those few days. It was the masterful Fleming who wheeled in and took over -- for keeps -- on November 4th, 1938. Finally, OZ was on the right track, and Victor Fleming was the man who stupendously, sagely, and entertainingly kept it there.


[Above:  During a visit to Oz, legendary Hollywood scenarist and journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns is flanked by the soon-to-be legendary Judy Garland and OZ director Victor Fleming. He was then in the midst of a career-making (and physically debilitating) period as the “savior” of troubled MGM pictures. Just prior to OZ, he performed heroic reconstruction work on the studio’s THE GREAT WALTZ (1938). He was then the fourth OZ director, junking two weeks of existing footage and beginning the movie over again from scratch. Fleming completed eighty per cent of the picture before being pulled off the Yellow Brick Road and sent to Tara and Atlanta to helm GONE WITH THE WIND. The latter won him the 1939 “Best Director” Academy Award Oscar on February 29, 1940.]

Why, then, did Fleming leave the production in mid-February without finishing it?  In an almost unbelievable twist of fate, there suddenly was serious trouble on the set of the only motion picture in town “bigger” than OZ: David O. Selznick’s GONE WITH THE WIND. Cukor had begun filming it in January, but saddled with a mediocre and ever-worsening script, he was floundering.  Additionally, GWTW leading man Clark Gable was uneasy in his role as Rhett Butler; he wanted Fleming -- his closest friend and the director with whom he was most cinematically simpatico -- to take over guidance of the property. After several heated days of manic corporate negotiations, Cukor was dropped from GWTW (and quickly reassigned to THE WOMEN), Fleming came over to Gable and Selznick’s rescue, and King Vidor took on the final three weeks of shooting THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Years later, Vidor remembered that Fleming specifically stayed with OZ to complete the Technicolor sequences. He also and graciously walked Vidor through the already-built Kansas sets to give him a feel for the job and an idea of what had been planned in advance in accordance with the script and characterizations. After Fleming departed, Vidor spent the last full week of February in filming all the barnyard segments involving the three farmhands – whether alone or in company with the other members of the cast. Studio records are far from conclusive or complete, but they do show that Jack Haley’s last day of OZ work occurred on Sunday, February 25th; it was spent in posing for publicity pictures, both solo and with his fellow cast members. (Please see the image at the top of this blog.) Haley then returned to his “home studio,” Twentieth Century Fox, from whom MGM had borrowed him to play “Hickory Twicker” and the Tin Man.


[One of the sequences King Vidor directed for THE WIZARD OF OZ is shown here. Two stills of this grouping were circulated for publicity, although the one shown here appeared less frequently than its counterpart. Why? As can be seen above, Bert Lahr moved!]

Across the last couple of days of February and well into the first week of March, Vidor filmed the smaller Kansas scenes involving Clara Blandick, Charley Grapewin, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan, and Judy Garland -- aka Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, Almira Gulch, Professor Marvel, and Dorothy Gale. (And Terry/Toto, too!) The director also supervised Technicolor retakes of a revised version of “If I Only Had a Brain” for Judy, Terry, and Ray Bolger; the complex, “special effects” choreography for the re-do of the number was created by the new-to-MGM Busby Berkeley.

Ah, for a time machine!

In lieu of that, however, it seems there’s one basic fact that may be acknowledged:  Whether you’ve read along here to experience the MGM of eighty years ago this month – or you attended one of the Fathom Event theater screenings a few weeks back – there’s ever and always more conclusive proof (if needed!) that “There’s NO place like OZ.”

Thanks for sharing!


Article by John Fricke


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