Emerald City Matte Painting

[Above: This legendary view of the Emerald City – as seen when Dorothy & Company first exit the Lion’s Forest in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) – is actually a crayon painting. (Tiny holes were pin-pricked into the towers of the palace, so that flickering lights behind the artwork would give the illusion that the castle was twinkling in the Oz sunlight.) Film footage of this painting was ultimately combined with “live” footage of Judy Garland and her friends, shot from behind and printed into the black space at the bottom of the drawing. Technically termed a matte painting, this art is one of a number of such drawings rescued from MGM dumpsters in the early 1970s -- for reasons you’ll read below.]



If you’ve watched the preview video blog for this month on The OZ Museum Facebook page, you’ll know that the March “Treasure” from their holdings is – quite simply – three pieces of paper. The caption above gives some indication of why they’re treasurable, but for those whose memory or research doesn’t date back to 1970, a further explanation is necessary and deserved!


At that point in MGM history, the studio had come under the control of businessmen who were trendy, vogueish, and all about the (as it turned out) however-briefly fashionable “new” and “now.” Facial hair, madras shirts, and bell-bottom pants defined their look; the past and tradition were valueless. Everything was today and/or the future – and the reigning honchos couldn’t wait to cashier any aspect of the studio’s classic history.


Many of you are already aware of the resultant May 1970 MGM auction, when wardrobe and props by the hundreds were dispersed with alacrity -- and a pair of ruby slippers sold for $15,000. (The only sale that monetarily matched that of the shoes was the sum brought by the sale of the full-size showboat in the lake on the backlot.) Costumes thought unworthy of special showcasing at the auction were soon thereafter sold “off-the-rack”; these included scores of completely intact WIZARD OF OZ Munchkin clothes.



MGM Production Documents

[Above: Page five of MGM’s score log for THE WIZARD OF OZ, listing the final orchestral sessions for the film. It shows the dates the recordings were made, their individual timings, the name of the composer and orchestrator for each passage, and the titles of the musical compositions involved. On such occasions, Herbert Stothart would watch a projection of the moments of film in question and conduct the four dozen musicians so that the recording of their performances would match the specific action on the screen. “Wizard’s Expose”/“Graduation Exercises,” for example, accompanied the discovery of the-man-behind-the-curtain and his presentation of “gifts” to Dorothy’s friends. Such Metro Music Department paperwork was among the comparatively small percent of studio files that survived the 1970s purge.]


At least such garb and furniture and props went out into the world. Most of MGM’s actual, active history was – literally -- junked. Screen tests and film of outtake scenes and songs (much of it on highly flammable nitrate stock) was carted out to the Pacific Ocean and sunk. Matte paintings, like the amazing OZ image above, were cavalierly tossed into the studio trash. Fortunately, historians were alerted to some of this and were able to do hasty, clandestine, illegal, and blessed “dumpster dive” raids.


Hundreds of thousands of pages of orchestration for movies dating back to the late 1920s (including all the musicians’ parts as listed above) was unceremoniously collected, trucked, and dumped into a landfill under what would eventually become a Southern California freeway interchange. All the production files for hundreds of movies – millions of pages of notes, memos, the minutes of high-powered meetings – suffered the same fate.

Think how much more we’d know FOR SURE, about MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ if there was access to all of that.


However . . . ! If we choose to look at the hourglass (!) as half-full, rather than half-empty, we are fortunate to comprehend a lot about the OZ physical production, thanks to the comparatively few pieces of paper that survive. (We’ll talk about some of those other amazing documents in a future blog, if you like.)


But for now, we come to our “Treasure” for March; “Treasures,” actually, in that these three pages of MGM paperwork were donated to The OZ Museum more than a dozen years ago. Via the foregoing paragraphs, I think you’ll already have come to realize how special they are – indeed, even (in some ways) miraculous in the fact that they’ve endured. Despite their limited wordage, they provide fascinating OZ back-stories.


MGM Production Documents

The paperwork above --which was filled out and added to and corrected across several months -- gives us confirmation of some of the production staff (choreographer Bobby Connolly’s last name is misspelled!), along with actual on-set production dates, and a list of the “interior” or “exterior” sets that would need to be built for the picture. (Of course, that reference applies strictly to the script description of the story locales in question; all of THE WIZARD OF OZ – except the opening and closing sky-and-clouds footage under the credits – was shot inside on MGM soundstages.) You can see, too, where OZ went through four directors once it started filming; a fifth – Norman Taurog – was transferred to another project before OZ got underway and only did some pre-production Technicolor tests. Also note that filming was completed on February 27, 1939 – but retakes got started on the very next day!


There are many such minute-but-worthwhile bits of information – all on this one piece of paper!


MGM Production Documents

This document provides a principal cast list, although in this case, Mitchell Lewis’s name is misspelled, and he actually played the Captain of the Winkie Guards: “She’s dead! You killed her!” Nikko was the winged monkey whose wings had been clipped by the Wicked Witch, so that she could keep him from flying away and thus be handy for her in all her castle activity. (That role was actually taken by vaudevillian Pat Walshe, who goes unmentioned here.) The information that fills most of this page, however, offers an analysis of the movie moments that would require miniature work, trick photography, and the like.


MGM Production Document

Finally, this fascinating document neatly summarizes what it cost MGM to make THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1938-39, including a concise summary of where and how the money was spent; how many feet of film were shot; etc. You’ll note that, when the movie was completed, it had cost 65% MORE than its original budgeting forecast. What must have been even more harrowing to the bookkeepers is the fact that this $2,769,230.30 was only the production cost. By the time advertising and Technicolor film prints were charged to the project, the final tally was a million dollars more than is noted here.


(Happy ending: We know they’ve long since made their money back -- not to mention an amazing profit!)


Hopefully, this concrete Hollywood history will have been of interest to you. As someone who has written OZ books, liner notes, magazine articles, recorded its DVD commentary, and lectured about the movie from coast-to-coast (and in England and France, too!), I feel inordinately grateful to The OZ Museum for its preservation of such “Treasures.” Having actual facts, such as those shown on these three pages, makes all the work so much easier – and infinitely more exciting. 😊


See you next month with another of the “Treasures from The OZ Museum”!

Article by John Fricke


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