[Above: Meet Edna Mae Oliver, classic “character actress” of stage and screen -- and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s initial choice to play The Wicked Witch of the West and Miss Gulch in the 1939 motion picture, THE WIZARD OF OZ.]
Last month’s blog (“REVISITING SOME OF THE ‘MISSING’ OZ”/January 19, 2018) proved to be one of the most popular in this series, as it recapped moments that were filmed and cut from -- or scripted and never filmed for -- MGM’s classic 1939 musical, THE WIZARD OF OZ. In keeping with that theme, and in the hope that additional information along those same lines will also please, here’s a look-back at Metro’s very FIRST choice to play The Wicked Witch of the West (and eventually Miss Gulch) during the first six months of 1938.
As has been noted in the accurate histories about the making of OZ, its production was the brainchild of the studio’s long-time lyricist, Arthur Freed. For nearly a decade, he and songwriting partner Nacio Herb Brown had contributed musical numbers to MGM’s song-and-dance motion pictures; their hits included “Singing in the Rain,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “All I Do is Dream of You,” “You Were Meant for Me,” and “Broadway Rhythm.” In autumn 1937, however, Freed got the go-ahead from Metro chieftain Louis B. Mayer to become a full-fledged producer, and the ambitious Freed decided to build a movie around an upcoming star, the then-fifteen-year-old Judy Garland. He selected THE WIZARD OF OZ as her vehicle and immediately began to plan concepts and casting for the other roles.
By January 31, 1938, Freed had composed and circulated an MGM memo that listed some of his initial thoughts about OZ actors. Eleven days later, a copy was sent to Mervyn LeRoy, who had just arrived at Metro as a producer -- a position he’d successfully filled at Warner Bros. for several years, although he was better known as a director. Per Mayer’s dictate, LeRoy took over OZ; by early 1938, the film had become too major and far too expensive a project -- even in those preliminary days of preparation -- to entrust to a semi-novice. LeRoy thus received screen credit as the producer of OZ, but Freed worked with him as an unbilled associate and remained more than intrinsic to (and responsible for) countless decisions and details regarding casting, scripting, musical numbers, and staging.
[Above: Arthur Freed’s original casting memo, January 31, 1938 – prepared even before Mervyn LeRoy officially started work at MGM on February 3rd. Notice the handwritten addendum: “Copy dated 2/10 sent to LeRoy.”]
Actually, only four of those on Freed’s initial memo would last through the straits of OZ preproduction. Among those who didn’t make the final cut were the two women slated to appear as the witches of Oz: Fanny Brice (whose career and personal challenges provided the foundation for the Barbra Streisand Broadway success and biopic, FUNNY GIRL) and Edna Mae Oliver. The former would have played Glinda; Oliver was thought ideal to fly on, fly off, commandeer monkeys, and melt away….
With all joking towards one side, she was – indeed -- perfect and prime casting. Born in Massachusetts in 1893, Edna Mae Oliver quit school as a young teen to pursue a theatrical career. Her Broadway debut in OH, BOY! (1917) established a pattern: she was already playing much older than her years (in this case appearing as an alternately comedic and querulous Quaker aunt). Among a dozen subsequent New York credits, Oliver enjoyed her greatest stage success as cantankerous Parthy Ann Hawks in the original SHOW BOAT (1927). She began screen acting in 1923, and her rawboned, self-described “horse face” was seen in nearly fifty vehicles in that medium before her premature death on her fifty-ninth birthday in 1942. Oliver received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1938) and proved to be singularly unforgettable in her interpretations of prominent literary characters: Aunt March in LITTLE WOMEN and The Red Queen in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (both 1933), Aunt Betsey in DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935), The Nurse in ROMEO AND JULIET (1936), and the Lady Catherine de Bourgh in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1940). She crustily confronted – and then crumbled to – the charms of Shirley Temple in LITTLE MISS BROADWAY (1938) and starred in several mysteries as “spinster sleuth” Hildegarde Withers.
As might be imagined, Edna Mae Oliver’s splendid coalescence of crank and comic had garnered a world-wide audience of movie fans by 1938, and it’s not at all surprising that Arthur Freed envisioned her as an integral element of an idyllic, all-star OZ cast. Oliver’s standard screen persona additionally and most definitely carried over to some of the first scripting done for the film by legendary scribe Herman Mankiewicz (grandfather of Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz). “Mank’s” Wicked Witch of the West was, to be sure, a much different type of harridan than the cackling horror who finally appeared on the screen in the finished OZ in August 1939. He was “assigned” to write the film eighteen months prior to that -- on February 28th, 1938 -- and with Freed’s January casting list as his guide, the Mankiewicz WWW was very much an Oliver prototype.
It’s now uncertain as to whether or not the scenarist considered a Kansas counterpart for the Wicked Witch. (The dual-role, Kansas/Oz approach was supposedly a script contribution made by Noel Langley, who began his own separate work on OZ on March 11th. He would soon thereafter create the Miss Gulch character.) Mankiewicz’s treatment, however, did include the appearance of a haughty woman in the movie’s first scenes: a passenger in a limousine that got lost in front of the Gale farm. But one can only guess if the same actress was intended to reappear in Oz.
Beyond that, the Mankiewicz WWW didn’t even appear in Munchkinland, which he scripted instead as a less dramatic and more extended musical sequence than was ultimately viewed on-screen. Mank first gave Dorothy the expected, lengthy song-and-dance production number with “the little people.” After this, though, he had her taken off by carriage to meet the Princess and Prince (or Grand Duke) of Oz, who sang their own separate love duet while awaiting her arrival.
Yet the Witch was not far behind. According to the original 1938 scenario typescript, the following segment was to – finally -- show:
like an office door, with an upper half of frosted glass. On it is painted, like the name of a law firm:
The film was then to DISSOLVE TO:
INTERIOR OF THE ROOM.
The Wicked Witch of the West is seated behind an enormous desk, like an American businessman’s desk, which is the only article of furniture in this very large and dismal room. A trembling little man – a Munchkin, but not one of those in the previous scene with Dorothy – is standing in front of the desk. The Wicked Witch has only one eye.
Wicked Witch: What do you mean, a house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East?
Munchkin (in a tiny voice): But a house DID fall on her.
As the scene continued, the Witch was to rhetorically mutter, “What was she doing standing around where a house could fall on her? It’s things like this that sometimes make me feel like giving up the witch business completely.” it was apparent that the Mankiewicz Witch was to be as much a comic villain as an evil one: more offhand than vehement, and more crotchety than threatening or malevolent. (Even when further displeased with her Munchkin “spy,” her retaliating threat was to destroy him “utterly . . . I’m going to sneeze you and your whole family right off the face of the earth.”)
If this behavior and dialogue seems vastly foreign to the WWW we know and love – and from whom we’ve run -- its tone was totally true-to-type for an Edna Mae Oliver movie role.
Eventually, however, the Witch was to become more traditionally hateful. Mankiewicz described her capture of the Princess and Prince/Grand Duke, transporting them to her castle where they were locked in separate cages in her courtyard. (As this was a musical, they were again to sing with each other from their new accommodations….) It’s worth noting, as well, that Mankiewicz employed a few of L. Frank Baum’s original WWW characteristics in his descriptions. According to THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900), the Witch of the book also had just one eye -- and kept forty wolves as pets. Mank dropped the grand total of wolves to twenty in one of his script notes but at least remained semi-faithful to Baum’s text.
[Above left: As per Freed’s January 31st memo, Judy Garland’s Dorothy was to sing “jazz,” while her Ozian Princess compatriot sang “opera.” The contrast was intended to reach its peak at some point in the Emerald City, when the two would offer a friendly comparison and vocal competition. The basic idea of “Opera Vs Jazz” had already reached the screen in Garland’s MGM short subject, EVERY SUNDAY (1936), in which she briefly duetted with musical classicist Deanna Durbin. Two years later, Princess Betty of Oz was to be cast with remarkable teenage soprano Betty Jaynes. When her role – and that of the Prince/Grand Duke – was dropped from the script, Jaynes instead appeared with Garland, Mickey Rooney, and countless other teens in the screen musical, BABES IN ARMS (1939). This photo shows the two girls in the throes of the “Opera Vs Jazz” medley from that film, accompanied by Rooney. Above right: THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946) was one of Garland’s greatest MGM vehicles. The still here (from an ultimately deleted sequence) presents Judy, center, with tenor Kenny Baker located just several men to her right – and to the right of Ray Bolger. Eight years earlier, Baker (as noted by Freed in his memo) was the original choice to play The Prince of Oz. For further information about Jaynes, Baker, and their intended participation in THE WIZARD OF OZ, please see the blog for February 16, 2016: “DON’T LIKE GOODBYES” – OR: DOROTHY AND THE COLLEGE MAN.]
Mankiewicz was removed as an OZ writer on March 23rd after about a month of work. (He was supplanted by Langley and, later, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, and a number of others.) None of his contributions remained in the shooting script, and Edna Mae Oliver herself was dropped from consideration for the film by summer 1938. At that point, it was decided to portray the Wicked Witch as younger, slinky, sequined, and beautiful, and Gale Sondergaard was tested and announced for the role. When Freed & Company reverted to their original “ugly” notion of the character, Sondergaard left the project – and Margaret Hamilton came in.
In retrospect, I seriously doubt that we would swap-out Margaret Hamilton for ANYONE else’s portrayals of Almira G. and the WWW. But I hope you’ve found it interesting (or at least curious) to read about the Witch Who Almost Woz, and that perhaps you’ll seek out Edna Mae Oliver in her other films…and imagine her majestically blustering her way through the Land of Oz.
She blustered so very, very effectively in so many other extraordinary screen personations!
Article by John Fricke