[Above: One of Buddy Gillespie’s countless moments of triumph is caught in this rare Technicolor test frame. It’s a glimpse of special effects footage that shows three sizes of rubber monkeys – with each of them attached to and manipulated off-camera by four wires, so that they appear to be soaring across Winkie Country terrain in MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. This film was projected outside the window of the Tower Room of the Wicked Witch of the West. Margaret Hamilton, Nikko (actor Pat Walshe), and three other monkey actors played the scene on the set itself, while the faux monkeys were screened behind them . . . and the Witch shrieked, "Fly! Fly!"]
If you’ve seen this month’s video, these written comments will come as no surprise. For any who may have missed January’s sixty-second film – just recently posted on The OZ Museum Facebook site -- I should explain that we’ve changed the format of Wamego’s blog entries for 2021. There’ll still be one of each, every month: a video and a separate, full text; the difference comes in that we’ve selected a single “through-line” theme for the year. Approximately every four weeks, the Facebook page will debut a brief video, in which I’ll discuss (and you will see!) one of the TREASURES FROM THE OZ MUSEUM collection. Then, a week later, I’ll follow up with a much more detailed written history and/or back-story about that outstanding Oz item.
[If you’d like to go over to the Facebook page now and check out this month’s “preview,” please feel free. We’ll be here when you come back!]
All joking towards one side: There are many hundreds of unique or remarkable rarities among Wamego’s holdings, and in some ways, this isn’t really surprising. At last count, it was estimated that the Museum contains some twenty-five thousand individual pieces. Unfortunately, only about twenty-five hundred can be displayed at any given time, and particularly in the case of THIS month’s treasure, the public viewings are, indeed, very few and far between. That’s why these two items were selected to launch our 2021 series.
[Above: "Right profile!" The MGM make-up concepts created for the live monkey actors in THE WIZARD OF OZ were brought into play once again for the same studio's PLANET OF THE APES in 1967, almost thirty years later. Meanwhile, MGM was nothing if not detailed-oriented. As can be seen in this month’s video -- and in the image of the pre-restoration monkey-miniature further down in this blog -- even the tiny rubber monkeys in OZ were sculpted and painted to resemble their live-action counterparts.]
If you know your history of the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production of THE WIZARD OF OZ, you’ll be aware that there are only about a dozen actors who actually fly (and perform) as monkeys in the film. These were diminutive, slightly-built men – roughly the physical equivalent of jockeys -- as well as several of “little people” who’d also appeared as Munchkins. Clever photography and editing made it seem there were many more such simians, but MGM, the OZ director (Victor Fleming), and the OZ producer (Mervyn LeRoy) wanted a genuine spectacle at the “Witch’s Tower” and “Haunted Forest” moments of the movie. So, they turned – as they did for the exterior and interior of a tornado, an airborne house, a melting Witch, a flying Witch, a sky-writing Witch, a bubble-transported Witch (and etc.!) – to the studio’s own real-life wizard: A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, head of Metro’s special effects and art director from 1924-1965.
Let’s let Buddy tell it himself, in a quote from a March 6, 1970, interview. Prompted by an interviewer (who mentioned, “I especially liked the scene at the castle of the Wicked Witch, when she sends out her army of flying monkeys”), Gillespie remembered, “It was originally decided to do the flying monkeys in cartoon animation. I was a little against this, because I thought you would be able to tell it was animation on the screen. After a number of tests and experiments, they gave up the idea of animation, and we did it with miniature monkeys we cast [in rubber] and supported with twenty-two hundred piano wires! The wires supported them on an overhead trolley and moved their wings up and down. It was an awful job to hide the wires. They had to be painted and lighted properly, so that they blended into whatever the background might be.” Later on, in his professional autobiography, Buddy elaborated, “Model monkeys . . . were hung by two stationary wires to head and feet. Two moving wires were fastened to tips of wings and moved by eccentric in [an] overhead frame, supporting numbers of monkeys in formation. These frames were carried by large trolley wires and pulled by motor drives.”
[Two of the three monkeys who fly out of the Tower Room windows on cue – “Fly! Fly!” -- are obviously off-duty here. This frame may have been taken from film made when the back-projection footage of their rubber cohorts was being tested. Please see next paragraph.]
According to Gillespie’s special effects work sheets, the monkeys were rubber-cast in four sizes. They were photographed at a side angle against the mountain backdrop and skyscape, and the finished film was then projected, as needed, outside the Tower Room window of the Wicked Witch of the West. When she commanded the monkeys to “Fly! Fly!” to the Haunted Forest -- to “bring me that girl and her dog!” – the movie showed the miniatures as they aeronautically travelled from left to right across the horizon. (The rubber guys were augmented, of course, by three of the live actor monkeys who had been with the Witch in the Tower Room and leapt from her window sill – and three more who followed them, already in the air.)
The miniatures were also and separately filmed “head on,” to be shown – in the distance – as they approached the Haunted Forest and immediately terrified Dorothy and her friends. The live-actor monkeys did the actual flying into and landing on the set; after they captured the Kansas girl and her pet, laid waste to the Scarecrow, fought with the Tin Man, and scared the poor Cowardly Lion into submission, they soared upwards again. But their retreat across the remote sky was again performed by the manipulated rubber crew, operated not unlike some varying contingents of marionettes.
[Above: A black-and-white capture of the distant miniature monkeys – in Gillespie’s words – “approaching [Haunted] forest.”]
Scores and scores of the figurines were made and used in the film, and given their fragility even then, only a few seem to have survived until today. I know of at least one in a private collection, and -- gratefully and celebratorily! -- two more are in proud residence as TREASURES OF THE OZ MUSEUM in Wamego, KS.
According to Clint Stueve, Executive Director of the museum and Columbian Theatre, “One of [our monkeys] came from the extraordinary collection of Friar Johnpaul Cafiero, whose family’s ‘Oz archive’ makes up about sixty percent of our holdings. The other was anonymously donated to the museum.” Once such exceptional items were onsite, Stueve and his professional compatriots had one immediate – and necessary – goal: to conserve, preserve, and (to a certain extent) restore these rapidly deteriorating possessions. Both pieces had been treated with extreme caution across the preceding decades, but the aging rubber and physical delicacy of such originally active “props” meant that the Cafiero monkey was (if complete) broken in several pieces; the other was minus its wings and its legs from the knees down.
[Above: As the Tin Man said to the Scarecrow after the flying monkeys took him apart in the Haunted Forest: “Well, that’s you all over.” These are the pre-restoration pieces of the rubber monkey miniature from the collection of Friar Johnpaul Cafiero – one of thousands of items he has shared with The OZ Museum. The photograph was taken on April 4, 2017, as the conservation and reclamation of the piece was about to be launched.]
It took five years to raise funds for the essential professional care of the miniature monkeys, as well as do the research to determine which organization might be best for the assignment. Per Clint, “We talked with other Oz collectors and people in the restoration field with whom we'd worked in the past. There were a few options, but we ultimately decided to work with Irena Calinescu, owner of Fine Arts Conservation LLC in Los Angeles.” So valuable and brittle were the surviving monkeys (and pieces) that, for safety’s sake, Clint “was entrusted to take ’em from Kansas back home to California, where they were originally created.” When they were ready “to make the return trip to their new home at The OZ Museum,” however, “I had to drive them back to ensure we didn't undo any of the restoration work.”
The two journeys were made in May and October 2017, and the Fine Arts company summarized their assignment in the following words: "Conservation treatment of the two flying monkey props from THE WIZARD OF OZ film, [including] stabilization, repair, aesthetic compensation, and mounting for display in custom-fabricated cases." As can be seen by the images in this month’s video blog, the miniature monkeys are now permanently stored in a case in Wamego that insures both climate control and limited exposure to the elements. As Clint sagely comments, “This is the ideal means of extending their lives, especially as they were not made to last. It’s always important to realize – or to be reminded – that these things were built for a single purpose, more than eighty years ago.”
[Above: Here’s a reminder of what the skies beyond the Witch’s Tower Window looked like when the flying monkeys weren’t on call. Betty Danko (Margaret Hamilton's stand-in/double) and Pat Walshe (Nikko, the Wicked Witch’s “clipped wing” familiar) are shown here, possibly during camera and/or lighting tests for the "something with poison in it" scene -- or moments later, when the Poppy Field sequence is in full force.]
The cost for such reclamation and longevity? In this case: twelve thousand dollars. Yet as Clint comprehendingly and wisely maintains, "The Oz Museum won't be around too long, if the pieces themselves don't last. It’s all-important to tell the story of OZ through these and other artifacts. Of course,” he adds, “the irony of the little rubber monkeys is that, while they’re again intact, they remain so fragile and delicate that we’re still trying to determine the best means of SAFELY exhibiting them. Temporarily, we expect to showcase them during the annual October OZtoberFest -- but one at a time, the better still to extend their lifespan.”
I don’t think there could be a better argument for the care of collectibles (of any nature) than that put forward here by Clint Stueve on behalf of The OZ Museum in Wamego. Meanwhile, I hope you’ve enjoyed this combination of both past and present Oz history -- from Buddy Gillespie’s MGM in Culver City, CA, to Kansas . . .and then back again in both directions.
I should also add that this month’s video about the flying monkeys contains a happy mash-up of pictures of both the live-actors and the miniatures, regardless of audio narrative. We realize that any Oz fan can tell the difference, but we wanted to show a lot of images -- contrasting both “real and rubber” -- as we celebrated Buddy’s contribution. 😊
Many thanks for exploring our new 2021 approach to blogging! Comments are always welcome – and there are numerous TREASURES FROM THE OZ MUSEUM to come!
P.S. For those of you who’d like to see more examples – and read further descriptions -- of Buddy Gillespie’s OZ and other MGM work, I wholeheartedly recommend THE WIZARD OF MGM/MEMOIRS OF A. ARNOLD GILLESPIE (ART DIRECTOR/HEAD OF SPECIAL EFFECTS FROM 1924-1965), edited by Philip J. Riley & Robert A. Welch. Robert is “Buddy” Gillespie’s grandson. It’s available from Bear Manor Media at $29.95/hardcover and includes 377 pgs. of memoirs, vintage worksheets, movie stills, and test frames of the miraculous on-screen Gillespie achievements. Please Google: Bear Manor Media; then click on “catalog,” and the book comes right up!
Article by John Fricke