[Above: That’s portraiture! Morr Kusnet sketched these wonderful likenesses of the four principal cast members of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ for publicity purposes in 1939. The Brooklyn-born freelance artist (1908-1990) drew countless newspaper, advertising, and magazine cover illustrations across a five-decade career – very often depicting movie stars.]
Last month’s blog “looked back” at February 1939, when filming of the soon-to-be-classic THE WIZARD OF OZ was in its fifth month at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Culver City, CA. Those who swing by to read here expressed resounding delight in such history, and I think their reaction can be logically traced to a combination of factors.
Most certainly, there’s a unique bond felt by countless people with the MGM motion picture, whether their sentiments top off at pure adoration -- or bottom out at murkier recollections of the terror instilled by the Wicked Witch of the West and her Winged Monkeys. The fact that this year marks the movie’s eightieth anniversary is doubtless another factor in the latest swell of interest in what MGM wrought all those decades ago.
So, with a desire to fulfill the additional desires or interests of any “Metro Maniacs” among you, we’re going to sneak further behind-the-scenes this month to provide information and art to those who best love their Oz as wrought by Judy Garland & Company. (I don’t think I need to say this, but – believe me -- it’s no task for me to travel this particular Yellow Brick Road; it launched me on my own jaunt to Oz more than sixty years ago.)
How about stepping back and figuratively standing in between the cameras and the sets? It’s a closer look at genius at work, whether in views of the Oz “creators” in action or in glimpses of the physical template designed and manufactured as a sort of an Ozzy giant playground for adults.
Under the jurisdiction of Cedric Gibbons, head of the MGM Art Department, it was art director William Horning who came up with the visual concepts for the diverse Oz sets – from Kansas to fairyland and back again. Metro sketch artist Jack Martin Smith turned Horning’s ideas into drawings and paintings; when they were approved, another department crafted blueprints for the construction branch, who took over from there. It sounds easy, and to be sure, MGM was the quintessential well-oiled-machine of its day. But given the imagination, fantasy, delight, and timeless first-class work manifested by their employees (and the challenges met and surpassed), it’s no wonder the studio earned the sobriquet, “The Dream Factory.” As an example, view the vista of Munchkinland above – never depicted on this level in the illustrations crafted by W. W. Denslow for L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book in 1900. MGM’s Munchkinland was all its own – and unforgettable.
Here’s a familiar crossroads. Or is it? This is actually the set on which OZ began principal photography in October 1938, and if one doesn’t look closely, all appears recognizable. The truth, however, is that this specific Yellow Brick Road was never seen in the finished film. As was reported here last month, all of the October 1938 footage directed by Richard Thorpe was scrapped when he was fired from the picture. When Dorothy re-met the Scarecrow in November (together again for the first time!), director Victor Fleming -- probably under counsel from interim director George Cukor – saw to it that the cornfield set pathway was not only neatly curbed but totally re-paved. His bricks looked like bricks, rather than non-skid bathtub decals.
Back in 1988, I had the privilege of interviewing OZ assistant director Wallace Worsley at his California home. Worsley worked at MGM for more than fifteen years, diversified into independent television and movie jobs in New York and abroad in the 1950s, and capped his career with assignments on such later classics as DELIVERANCE, COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Some fifty years after the fact, his memories of OZ were clear, cogent, and sage, especially when it came to his professional association with Victor Fleming. Worsley admiringly described the director as “a real interesting character. If he saw a grip [crew member] doing something wrong, he’d . . . show him how to do it.” Such hands-on aid – whether verbal or physical – extended to the players as well, and though he’s semi-obscured in the photo above, Fleming had no hesitation in guiding the performance of Apple Tree # 1!
What’s wrong with the picture above? (Apart, of course, from the fact that the background is too dark for any hysteric gloom-spreaders to catch a glimpse of the Reynolds Wrapped hanging Munchkin in the background.) (P.S. It’s a bird, folks!) Actually, there are a couple of curiOZities here in view. Tin Man Jack Haley appears to be resting between takes of “If I Only Had a Heart,” and his cumbersome, silver/metallic cloth-covered buckram top is nowhere to be seen. (His tin-hand “gloves” are off, too.) Note, as well, that he’s towel-and-shawl-wrapped against the chill of his post-exertion dance routine. Can anyone spot the other “peculiarity” in this photo? (Leave your answer in the comment section on The OZ Museum Facebook page when this blog is posted, please – and we’ll acknowledge whoever comes up with the correct information! Also: We know, of course, it’s Ray Bolger at right, standing with Haley. But who’s the cigar-chomper on the left?)
Here’s magic-making in full swing. Numerous technicians are virtually unseen in the darkened foreground of this production “capture” – all of them in support of the heinous Hamilton on the roof. But she’s not alone up there; glance to her right and note the operator aiming a key light at Miss Margaret’s face – possibly to make sure that any shadow cast by the broomstick she’s holding doesn’t shroud the greenery of her complexion!
Many thanks for joining in this month’s “journey back to Oz,” and please stay tuned for the forthcoming Part Two of THE DREAM FACTORY – ALL IN A DAY’S WORK!
Article by John Fricke