Wamego #74 June 24, 2016
THE WIND BEGAN TO SWITCH – OR: WHY SHOULD JIM CANTORE HAVE ALL THE FUN?
[Above: What is arguably the most famous canvas cone in history – or, at least, in motion picture history. It’s the masterwork of A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie and his crew on the MGM Studio soundstage # 14, filmed during January and February 1939 for the Kansas sequence of THE WIZARD OF OZ.]
As this is a personal blog, I’m allowed (it says here…) to speak personally -- at least on occasion! So I want to thank Tammy Weeks Dodds for this month’s trivia question, which enables me to reflect on an aspect of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ that made for one of my most memorable viewing moments, way back when I first saw the film at age five.
Tammy asks: Tell me again, please, how they did the tornado? You told me at The OZ Museum at OZtoberFest, and it was interesting, but I don't remember some of it. Thanks!
The OZ storm scenes intrigued me, too, Tammy; in fact, I was so swept up (…) in them that I -- at least casually and during my preteen era -- considered meteorology as a career. “Back in the day,” I collected newspaper and magazine pictures of diverse funnel clouds and read every book about tornadoes I could find. (At that time, there weren’t many, but let’s hear it for Snowden D. Flora!) Nowadays, with the proliferation of majestic, terrifying, and/or astounding storm-chaser videos permeating The Weather Channel and You Tube, Metro’s creation is somewhat less amazing than it seemed thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. But consider: In 1938-39, there were comparatively few photographs of actual tornadoes, and just a few seconds of faint film footage of a 1933 waterspout in Cuba; that’s all that A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie and his MGM special-effects cohorts had to go on.
Thus, their achievement was and remains extraordinary.
Beyond that and as an additional reminder: there were no CGI effects in 1939 -- no computers to generate images. Whatever Gillespie & Co. achieved in terms of OZ magic had to be (as the expression goes) “made of whole cloth”…and quite literally WAS, as It turned out, in the case of the tornado. But let’s let Buddy describe this in his own words, drawn directly from one of the work sheets he had to keep/submit on behalf of his MGM activities:
“For the tornado used in Kansas Farm sequence, a Gantry Crane travelling the length of Stage #14 was hung from the bottom of the roof trusses. The Gantry car supported a canvas cone in the shape of a tornado, which was rotated by a D. C. motor on a speed control. The motor assembly was arranged to tip sideways and was controlled from the car, together with its cross travel. The approach was controlled by a motor winch on the stage floor. The base of the tornado cone was fastened to a car traveling on a predetermined track and containing arrangement for dust. This car was moved by operators below set. Set was built on platform and was ¾ scale. Sky was projected moving clouds on white backing. This was augmented by cotton clouds on moving foreground glasses. Air was piped around set for wind effects. Wind machines were also used.”
Buddy’s “canvas cone” was approximately thirty-five feet in length, from the rafters at the top of the soundstage to the car beneath the foundation. As he indicates, the farmhouse, barn, telephone poles, fields, etc., were built in miniature, and the funnel (accompanied by Gillespie’s piped air, wind machines, dust, cotton clouds on glass, and etc.) was photographed as it was dragged across -- and from below -- the set.
A number of test shots, angle shots, in-the-distance shots, closer shots, and retakes were photographed in January and February 1939. Meanwhile, the cost of this entire process finally came to $27,089.82 in terms of equipment, construction, man power, and man hours. (This dollar figure covers the scenes of the full-length tornado funnel on the horizon as it advances on – and eventually envelops – the Gale farm. It does NOT include the expense and additional creativity it took to fashion and implement other moments of the “cyclone sequence”: the farmhouse as it rose – and then fell – through the air; the house as it rode up the side of the funnel; the interior of the funnel; and the storm’s denizens and debris as seen through Dorothy’s bedroom window.)
[A side note: Unsuccessful attempts to create the Kansas tornado out of water dated back to the preceding August. Many years later, Gillespie remembered that he also tried to work with rubber to fashion a vortex.]
[For this innovative and harrowing shot, Judy Garland and Terry were photographed in front of a real fence, while Gillespie’s remarkable tornado footage was projected on a screen behind them. In effect – and in truth – when you see this scene from THE WIZARD OF OZ, you’re watching a movie of Dorothy, photographed as she watched another movie.]
But whatever the expended cost and time, there’s no question that MGM got full value out of the OZ tornado footage. It (or alternate, unused “takes” of Gillespie’s efforts) turned up again in the finale moments of the Ethel Waters/Lena Horne/Eddie “Rochester” Anderson Metro feature, CABIN IN THE SKY (1943), as well as in the June Allyson/Van Johnson HIGH BARBAREE (1947).
So thanks again, Tammy, for a fun question! And, as there’s space for one more this month, let’s move on to Angelo Thomas, who writes: “I've heard that MGM had planned on producing a sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ at some point, loosely based on Baum's second book. How far was that idea developed, and at what point did the studio decide not to move forward with it (and why)?”
There’s much more rumor than reality in what you’ve “heard,” Angelo. Absolutely nothing in MGM’s OZ legal files indicates that any such sequel was an ACTIVE (or even possible) issue. The cost of such a production – and the fact that THE WIZARD OF OZ didn’t show a profit until 1949 – pretty much precluded the idea of a sequel on a rational, business level.
It’s remotely (repeat: remotely) possible that there might have been random, very informal and very unofficial conversation about such a film across 1940, especially once it was decided -- late that year -- that Shirley Temple would be contracted by the studio. But this is all conjecture; nothing in Temple’s MGM legal file references such a project, and the myriad press rumors about her first vehicles for the studio fastened on a possible role in the “Andy Hardy” series or with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in BABES ON BROADWAY (1941). Neither of these panned out, either.
It IS true that one of the OZ film scenarists, Noel Langley, later worked on a screenplay for what would have been a very loose adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s second Oz book, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ. But Langley’s tenure at Metro was pretty much over by mid-1940. As I recall, there’s also no specific date on his surviving OZ-sequel paperwork, so it’s quite possible that this wasn’t even a film for MGM consideration. Finally, in case you haven’t already read it, there’s an exemplary article by Oz historian Michael Gessel that offers a happily-detailed account of Langley’s potential project. It appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of THE BAUM BUGLE, the journal of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (ozclub.org)
Again, my appreciation for the questions; they’re a pleasure to try to answer – and I hope the response here provides some level of satisfaction…or at least history.
Article by John Fricke