[Above: It was just 85 years ago this coming August that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released its (all in one!) “Technicolor Triumph,” “Miracle Picture,” and “Wonder Show of Shows”: the $3.2 million-dollar musical fantasy, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Shown here is one of the original 1939 posters for that film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s book; the latter was first published in 1900.]

It's no exaggeration to state that people of all ages are familiar with the movie of THE WIZARD OF OZ. They know its famous characters, they can sing along with its timeless songs, and they can quote from (or at least recognize) its most iconic lines of dialog: “I’ll get you . . . and your little dog, too,” “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” “Lions and tigers and bears -- oh, my!,” “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking” . . .  and etc.  😊 

My personal passion was launched when I was five years old, and in the 68 intervening years, it’s been equally divided between the film and the book on which it was based. (Also and eventually called into that hallowed circle of fascination were all thirty-nine other, “official” Oz books, many volumes by additional authors, dramatizations, products, ad infinitum.) Across these decades, however, it’s become increasingly apparent that fewer and fewer people seem to be aware that THE WIZARD OF OZ movie was, indeed, initially a book:



First published in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s story has sold uncountable millions of copies. It has been adapted, abridged, and translated, and the full text includes many more adventures experienced by Dorothy & Company than ever could have fit into one movie. (In this day and age of franchising, Hollywood would probably split the book’s 24 chapters into at least a three-part motion picture extravaganza!)

It’s true, however, that the necessity of presenting a film appropriate to the running times and audience expectations of 1939 meant that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was forced to omit (or willingly omitted) whole sections of the Baum book. Missing onscreen were the encounters of the Fab Four (and Toto, too) with the Kalidahs, the Hammerheads, and a giant spider; the backstory of the Tin Woodman’s creation; the details about the three additional disguises employed by Oz the Great and Terrible during the travelers’ first visit to the Emerald City; the saga of the Stork who saved the Scarecrow; the battles with the crows, bees, and wolves sent by the Wicked Witch of the West to thwart Dot and all in their attempt to reach her castle; and a trek through the delicate and Dainty China Country. 

Yet beyond all of this “editing, Metro also instigated and implemented many creative changes of their own. So – and as this summer sees the 85th anniversary of the incomparable MGM version of THE WIZARD OF OZ -- the OZ Museum blog series for this entry (and the next 11 installments) will examine the differences between book and film. It’s proof positive proof that if you’ve missed either, you’re missing a LOT of wonderful wizardry!


Frank Baum never cites the age of his little heroine in any of the Oz books. (The success of the first led him to write thirteen full-length sequels.) From his descriptions, though – and from the immediately classic illustrations by William Wallace [W. W.] Denslow – it seems that Dorothy Gale must have been envisioned as a child of six or seven:

MGM, however, bought the screen rights to THE WIZARD OF OZ specifically as a showcase for their 15-year-old wunderkind, Judy Garland. When the project was initiated for her by Arthur Freed in autumn 1937, Judy had been under contract to the studio for two years, and during that time, she’d completed her first three feature films. (She would do three more -- and turn 16 -- across the next 12 months of OZ negotiation and preproduction.) The youngster was acknowledged as a spectacular talent, and the script and songs for OZ were being fashioned to further propel her to full-fledged stardom. Judy’s Dorothy is cited in the OZ screenplay as a girl of 12; the girl’s acting ability and diminutive 4’11” stature made that a reasonably believable “fit.”

In both the OZ book and its MGM “adjustment,” Dorothy resides with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, whose difficult lives in Kansas are duly described by Baum and representatively pictured by Denslow. This adaptation of his earliest illustration of the two was adapted for a 1964 reprint of THE WIZARD OF OZ by the supreme Oz artist and historian Dick Martin. Of course, Toto is already an integral part of the saga, as well:

Veteran character actors Charley Grapewin and Clara Blandick were cast as Dorothy’s kin by MGM. Respectively 69 and 62, they manifested fine incarnations of a farm-worn-and-weary couple of relatives – continually under the literal or figurative clouds of threatening nature, hovering poverty, or (as here with “that old incubator”) faltering equipment:

The cyclone, of course, is essential to both the OZ printed page and its silver screen incarnation. Denslow judiciously highlighted its prominence in the story by picturing it on the introductory page of the initial chapter of Baum’s book:

In its approach to THE WIZARD OF OZ, MGM was thus far plausibly faithful to the author’s characters and concepts, incorporating ingenue, aunt, uncle, dog, and strenuous farm life into their motion picture. Yet their alteration of Baum’s tenets took a sharp turn before tackling that severe (if typical) Kansas storm. It was the studio’s feeling – seemingly first propelled by screenwriter and credited “adaptor” Noel Langley – that THE WIZARD OF OZ needed to be made “rational” to any contemporary adult audience. Therefore, Baum’s straightforward fairy tale was enhanced by some scripted, psychological underpinning for Dorothy’s fantastic expedition. Langley suggested that the girl’s eventual friends (and enemy) in Oz be first reflected at the farm and in its surrounding environs. He (and ultimately co-credited scenarists Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf) devised and developed the three farmhands to foreshadow companions-and-champions-to-come: Hunk Andrews (Ray Bolger), Hickory Twicker (Jack Haley), and Zeke (Bert Lahr):

Just above, I referenced “enemy.” While the girl from Kansas meets a host of dangerous and/or evil creatures in Baum’s text, the movie pretty much coalesced most of her trouble into The All-Time Motion Picture Harridan, Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton):

From Dorothy’s spoken concern in her first moment on screen and on through the child’s initial dialog with the others on the farm, the specter of Miss Gulch is omnipresent and sets the film plot into instant action. The “wicked old witch” then turns up, in person, to abusively commandeer Toto away from the Gale Farm – a legal maneuver that Aunt Em and Uncle Henry can only tepidly challenge:

The intrepid dog (played by the outstandingly trained “Terry,” a female Cairn terrier) makes an escape, of course, and returns to Dorothy – who then runs away herself, taking Toto with her. Fortunately, they encounter an itinerant if small-time showman, whose wagon signboards boast balloon ascensions amidst his other professional offerings:

Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) is intrepid enough to quickly recognize Dorothy’s serious concerns, yet he knows that it’s best that he steer her back to the farm. 

He stirs up some fakir hocus pocus to convince her that she’s needed by her suddenly ill aunt, but as the girl endeavors to return to Em’s side, she rushes headlong into an incoming cyclone/tornado/twister:

Dorothy is confronted by the ominous, swooping-ever-nearer funnel as she makes her way back to the homestead. Once there, she finds that aunt, uncle, and farmhands are already barricaded in the storm cellar, where it’s impossible for them to hear her entreaties for admission over the howling winds. Her only recourse is to take shelter in the farmhouse itself.

Once inside and in her bedroom, she’s suddenly knocked unconscious by an imploding window. Her subsequent delirium is launched with images of the tornado funnel engulfing the farmhouse (this particular sequence – though also part of the story’s reality in the original OZ book -- was deleted from the film’s final cut):

Dorothy’s unique transportation to Oz was, of course, integral to Baum’s book. In a turnabout, however, he included a moment MGM omitted from their screen treatment. Baum’s “cyclone cellar” is immediately under the farmhouse and is reached by a trap door in the cabin’s floor. Aunt Em escapes there at the first sign of “the danger close at hand” (Uncle Henry has gone off to “look after the stock”), and she leaves the door open as she beckons Dorothy to follow her. Unfortunately, Toto – that little old instigator – has hidden under the bed, and by the time the child can retrieve him, the whirlwind has struck and lifted the one-room house increasingly higher into the air. At one point, the dog again dashes away from his little mistress, creeps too near the open trap, and tumbles out into the sky. He is fortunately – according to Baum – kept aloft by “the strong pressure of the air,” and Dorothy shuts the trapdoor after managing to snag him back. Denslow charmingly captured the latter moment:

In summation? Baum’s chapter one establishes Dorothy, Toto, Em, Henry, the cyclone – and the gray, gray, gray, gray, gray, gray, gray, gray, gray conditions of Kansas – in just five brief pages of THE WIZARD OF OZ book. (He uses that dull-color adjective exactly nine times in his taletelling as he conveys the drought situation the Gales are undergoing.) MGM takes considerably more time to set up their version of the story but adroitly adds those five Kansas counterparts to stir Dorothy’s psyche as she’s swept away from home. (They toss in an inordinately relevant “character” song for the girl, too!)

Next? Well, “oh, what happened then was rich!” Next month, please return here to read about the way Baum’s description of Dorothy’s arrival in Oz – and her first night of travel on the Yellow Brick Road through the Munchkin Country – were conflated by MGM into one of the most colorfully glorious production numbers in movie musical history.

P.S. I held off on submitting installment #1 of this new blog series until Wamego’s OZ Museum could offer formal announcement about their wonderful “big reveal” earlier this month – especially as it has an undeniable tie-in to our topic here. If you follow the “Oz collectibles” auction news, you’ll know that one of the miniature model Kansas farmhouses used in MGM’s film was sold late last year for an astronomical (and well warranted!) price to a private collector. Well, that beneficent soul has now offered his genuine “objet d’art” to Wamego’s OZ Museum on temporary loan, and with understandable ceremony, it was put on display there a few weeks ago. It’s accompanied by the original MGM receipt and inter-office memorandum regarding its initial sale in 1970 to another private collector.

So this comes as a fervent reminder: If at all possible, hie yourself to Wamego soon -- maybe for OZtoberFest! on Saturday, October 5? Whenever, however, don’t miss your chance to enjoy a “You are THERE” moment with an extraordinary treasure you’ve actually seen on screen . . . in the best-loved motion picture of all time.


Article by John Fricke


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