[Motion pictures are now well into their second century of – at best – providing extraordinary entertainment. And just above, you’ll find one of the all-time iconic movie stills, taken on the set of a film now described as the best-loved, most widely-seen, and most influential of all-time!]
These are days of understandable world-wide confusion and angst, when it’s undeniably good for the heart, soul, and mind to – as is possible -- dwell on brighter, better things. Thus, while taking care of ourselves and those we love, many of us may find restorative joy and energy in a resonant recollection of that “place where there isn’t any trouble.”
Those who read here will have no difficulty in following my train of thought, but there’s a higher authority who put it better nine or ten decades ago. Ruth Plumly Thompson was the second “Royal Historian of Oz” and author of nineteen books in the official Oz series. She once defined her young (and young-at-readers) as those who “may not be able to name offhand the capital of Nebraska or Montana [but] can tell you in a flash the capital of Oz.” She continued (and this is slightly paraphrased), “They are often more familiar with the principal rivers, mountains, rulers, points of interest, and historical landmarks of Oz than those of their native state – perhaps because they consider Oz their native state.”
For all those who claim Ozian citizenship (whether full or part-time), this month’s blog looks back at a happy association that grew out of that magic land and its citizens: a very special and particular fellowship that first sprang up between autumn 1938 and spring 1939 during production of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s movie musical, THE WIZARD OF OZ. When filming began, sixteen-year-old Judy Garland had been at MGM for three years; she knew Broadway star and “Scarecrow” Ray Bolger as a fellow MGM contractee, and she had done a buoyant dance duet with “Tin Man” Buddy Ebsen a year earlier in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938. (When Ebsen’s OZ make-up sent him to the hospital, his replacement was familiar to Judy, as well. She and Jack Haley had shared scenes in the Twentieth Century-Fox film, PIGSKIN PARADE in 1936.)
[A sixteen-year-old Judy Garland enjoyed her first professional association with Broadway’s Bert Lahr when MGM signed him to appear as the “Cowardly Lion” to her “Dorothy Gale” in their film of THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1938.]
Bert Lahr, however -- though already a vaudeville, theater, and film star of many years’ experience and acclaim – was someone comparatively new to Judy’s circle of professional acquaintances. She later confessed her adoration and affection for him, founded on both his extraordinary talent and the fact that he could make her laugh. Shortly before she died, she reminisced about OZ and rhapsodized, “Bert . . . . So talented. So warm. And just so funny as the Lion; it was hard for me to keep from laughing, what with all those whiskers and that tail. (His tail was guided by a man up high with a fish pole.) And I had to say, ‘You’re a very mean lion!’ And he’d go ‘Ooooooooh,’ and he had waterspouts [built into his headpiece] so he could cry.
“And I WASN’T supposed to laugh!”
This specific situation led to a famous on-set “altercation” that took place during the filming of the scene depicted at the top of this blog. It’s since been exaggerated and darkened into a purported tale of abuse, but it was merely a matter of one professional taking another in hand – and getting a job accomplished. As scripted, Dorothy faux-slapped the Cowardly Lion on the nose in her defense of Toto; Bert then let go with his waterworks, and Judy was supposed to be astounded while continuing to reprimand him. Instead, the young actress – later acknowledged by all who knew her as the funniest woman in Hollywood, with an unparalleled sense of humor – lost control, broke up, chortled, and ruined the take.
Between Lahr’s artistry and Garland’s capacity for laughter, this happened several times and became a minor but immediate problem. THE WIZARD OF OZ was already over-schedule and over-budget; there had been countless technical problems, and more than two weeks of its five weeks of filming (to date) had been junked. Furthermore, there were still fourteen weeks of principal photography yet to be achieved. So, when Judy’s quite natural but time and cost-consuming hilarity ruined a third or fourth take, OZ director Victor Fleming called a break. He quietly took her behind one of the trees in the forest set, and said, “Now, darling . . . this is serious.” And to stop her laughter, he smartly slapped her cheek and concluded: “Go in there and work.”
Not surprisingly, the unit got the scene on the next take, although even then, the right-hand corner of Judy’s mouth did briefly quiver a bit at Lahr’s theatrics. (This, of course, can also be interpreted as the Kansas girl’s honest reaction to the turnaround in the formerly fierce animal’s behavior.) Once the sequence was completed, Fleming called out, “Cut! Marvelous!,” and the cast took a brief break. The director then looked to writer John Lee Mahin, his on-set adjunct; Mahin – who once described Fleming as “a big tough-looking guy with a broken nose” – later related, “[Vic] turned to me and said, ‘I wish you’d hit me in the nose and break it again.’ I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because of what I did to her.’”
Unbeknownst to the director, Garland had evidently come up behind him, and overheard Fleming repeat to Mahin, “I wish you’d hit me in the nose.” Judy then quietly crept around in front of the director and – according to Mahin – “She said, ‘I won’t do that . . . but I’ll kiss your nose.’” And she stood on her tiptoes “and she kissed him, right on the nose!”
[From a distance: With the scene triumphantly completed, the corner of Judy’s mouth still seems ready to burst into a smile at the comic aplomb of costar Bert Lahr. Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, and Terry/Toto look on.]
Judy adored Victor Fleming ever after and, at the conclusion of OZ filming, described him as “a wonderful man. He’s perfectly marvelous. He has the nicest low voice and the kindest eyes. Besides, he realizes that a girl who is sixteen is practically grown-up. He shows me all the courtesies he would to Hedy Lamarr. That’s very important to me. He notices my clothes and the way I do my hair and remarks about them.”
All that being said – and to return to the topic at hand – Judy held neither her break-up nor the directorial reprimand “against” Bert Lahr; she adored him for both his unquestioned performing genius and his humor. Regrettably, they were never again to work together; a rumored reunion of Judy, Bert, Bolger, and Haley on the CBS 1963-64 JUDY GARLAND SHOW TV series didn’t materialize. But Garland and Lahr were irrevocably associated because of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and they referenced each other or crossed paths several times in succeeding years:
[Ten-year-old Liza Minnelli and (almost) four-year-old sister Lorna Luft were photographed together as they watched a pre-screening of THE WIZARD OF OZ at the CBS building in October 1956. This picture was used to promote the film’s upcoming television premiere, which Liza would co-host with Bert Lahr.]
[Above: Judy Garland during her eighty-performance concert tour, June-December 1967.]
Then, seemingly out of the blue -- and in the middle of a two-week engagement at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas – she cancelled a show on December 4. Though made-up, coiffed, costumed, and ready to take the stage, her departure from her dressing room suite was brought up short by a TV newscaster, who announced that Bert Lahr had died earlier that day. Judy caved in, took to her bed, and despite exhortations from the club bosses that she appear, she resolutely refused.
The next day, however – and prompted by further media comments and press headlines -- she agreed to speak to a radio interviewer who reached her at the hotel. Before bringing Judy to the phone in her suite, a member of her entourage told the inquiring reporter that Garland was quietly incensed by the approach the media was taking to Lahr’s passing; she had privately commented that “it’s like taking Santa Claus away from the children by convincing them that ‘the Cowardly Lion from THE WIZARD OF OZ is dead.’”
After exchanging courteous greetings with Judy, the interviewer expressed both his gratitude for her time and his condolences. He noted that he'd been following comedy performers like Lahr “ever since I’ve been nine years old,” and Judy gently but firmly interjected, "Well, then, you can keep following him, because he's still around . . . He gave so much laughter -- and will still continue to do that -- because fortunately he's on film, he's on recordings. And I was lucky enough to know him as the wonderful man that he was. And so I just can't . . . I don't particularly want to accept him as some human being that’s just dead and to be forgotten. Because he never will be . . . !” And she prophetically continued, “They'll probably show THE WIZARD OF OZ many times” before adding, “I don't want children thinking of the Cowardly Lion as a man who's dead, you know? And he really isn't dead. You can still hear his voice whenever you want . . . .” Then, in a quintessential Garland mix of pronouncement, original verbiage, and tender humor, she concluded, “Some people just aren't 'die-able," I don't think!" The interviewer concurred, “That's true, it's an immortality in itself.” And she affectionately agreed, "Yes!” and thanked him for calling.
[Not two years later, in another heartfelt comment about Bert, Judy reflectively, rhetorically asked a friend, “Why is it God sometimes takes those who should be able to stick around if they wanted to?”]
After her December 5, 1967, telephone declaration, Judy prepared to return to the Caesars Palace stage. Her all-out performance won the customary rapturous response, but – lest there be any doubters in the crowd who might be silently questioning the “reasons” she missed the preceding night’s show – she deflected any unspoken rumor at the finale of the act. As usual, she sat on the edge of the stage, and the showroom was completely darkened but for the pin-spot on her face. And as the piano played the arpeggio introduction to “Over the Rainbow,” Judy simply said,
“This I am singing to my dear Cowardly Lion . . . .
“God bless him.”
[Above: Eternally the Cowardly Lion – and the adoring Dorothy Gale: most definitely NOT die-able”!]
Article by John Fricke