Still Following the Yellow Brick Road (After 70 Years)

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It was 70 years ago today that The Wizard of Oz premiered at The Strand Theatre in the little lakeside town of Oconomowoc, Wis. The film, based on the hugely popular children's series by L. Frank Baum, wasn't an overnight success and it wasn't even the most popular film that year "“ but now, where would Kansas be without Dorothy?

In tribute to the film that gave us "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Judy Garland, Toto (whose furry paw we should also shake for "Roseanna" and "Africa," among other awesome songs), "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," here's just a fraction of Oz trivia:

The Books

Lyman Frank Baum, a failed businessman and actor, wrote the first of the Oz books in 1900, becoming an almost immediate success. The first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, concerned Dorothy Gale, a young girl living with her Aunt and Uncle in the flat plains of Kansas, who one day is transported by means of her one-room farmhouse and a cyclone to the wondrous Land of Oz. There, she gets into an awful lot of adventures "“ some decidedly darker than the somewhat treacly film covers "“ in her quest to get home to Kansas.

Dorothy later returns to Oz, although the world also went on without her: Baum wrote 14 books in the Oz series, and one book of short stories set in the Oz-verse. Long after the books were published, people began to discuss the deeper political meanings behind the works "“ and it wasn't all just philosophical stoner fodder. Baum, whose mother-in-law was a staunch and formidable suffragette and was himself a supporter of women's rights, used some of his writing to criticize unequal gender roles.

Others saw a deep vein of satire and morality coursing through the books: Dorothy is the everyman, the Munchkins the populace, even the Tin Woodman as the "dehumanized industrial worker." And one scholar, writing in 1964, claimed that the Oz books were parables on Populism and the false movement from a gold standard (Yellow Brick Road) to unreliable cash (Emerald City), via the magic silver slippers "“ put your hopes in silver, the books seem to say, a message echoed by political thinkers of the time.

Whatever the interpretation, the books remained popular for generations after their initial publication and the stage adaptations within the first years of their printing.

The Movies

scarecrow-ozThe 1939 film wasn't the first screen production of L. Frank Baum's books, by any means. Between 1910 and 1925, no less than four silent films of varying length, quality, and fidelity to the books were produced "“ one, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz in 1914, was written and directed by Baum himself. It was also not the first screen depiction to show Kansas in black and white and Oz in color "“ that honor goes to a 1933 cartoon that also featured songs and music. (Incidentally, all of these are available on a 2005 three-disc collectors edition of The Wizard of Oz).

No, The Wizard of Oz "“ the one with Judy Garland, the songs, the Technicolor, the Munchkins and the flying monkeys, the one that everyone remembers and is practically a national treasure "“ wasn't the first. But it was the best.

In 1933, MGM studio head Samuel Goldwyn announced his plans to make a Technicolor, musical version of the movie, and MGM bought the rights to the books in 1937. From there, however, it was rough going: Because it would be one of MGM's most expensive films to make to date, it had to be good and everyone was under tremendous pressure to make it work.

Herman Mankiewicz, a former newspaper man who would later pen Citizen Kane, knocked out the first script in four days, but it was laden with a too-cutesy, too made-up Dorothy and laborious subplots. Poet Ogden Nash did a rewrite of the screenplay; it too was canned. George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story) was set to direct, but his ego appeared to have gotten in the way and he lasted only three days. Richard Thorpe signed on to direct, and was fired after two weeks. Goldwyn had hoped to snag Irving Berlin to do the lyrics and music, but they ended up "“ happily "“ with relative unknown Yip Harburg instead (he'd penned the Depression-era stalwart, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"). And ultimately, it was Noel Langely, a 26-year-old South African scriptwriter who finished off most of the final script and who faded back into obscurity soon after, while director Vic Fleming and then King Vidor were brought on to shepherd the film to completion.

Filming The Wizard of Oz was no stroll down the Yellow Brick Road, either.

wicked-witchThe costumes were killers: Margaret Hamilton, who famously played the grotesque Wicked Witch of the West, was nearly killed when her make up caught fire, while her stand-in was hospitalized after being knocked from her broom during the skywriting scene. Judy Garland was forced to wear a painful corset to keep her chest Kansas flat. The Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow also weren't allowed to eat with the other actors in the cantina because their make-up was too frightening (no word on whether the Wicked Witch was welcome).

Even worse, Buddy Ebsen, who had been cast as the Tin Man and had even recorded his songs for the soundtrack, had an allergic reaction to the aluminum powder used in his make up and had to leave the set, to be replaced by Jack Haley (Ebsen himself had replaced Ray Bolger, who convinced MGM to let him play the Scarecrow instead). Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion, was saddled with 90-pounds of fur and hair to achieve the anthropomorphized lion effect. A few of the Winged Monkeys were hurt when the wires holding them up broke.

There were even rumors of Munchkin sex orgies at the hotel where the little people were staying, although surviving Munchkins claim those reports were way overblown. (Of course, they were only getting paid about $50 a week, plus room and board, so can you blame them?)

Munchkin orgies aside, the final product was a bit of a departure from the somewhat bleaker aspects of Baum's classic text: There, Uncle Henry and Aunty Em, for example, were unhappy people who didn't know what joy was "“ all the more reason for young Dorothy to want to escape to a far off magical land "“ and there was no evil Miss Gulch to snatch Toto away. The Tin Man had at one time been a real man, who had, after an accident with an enchanted axe, lost all of his limbs and ultimately his head and had them replaced with tin prosthetics. The same witch who enchanted the axe then called down a rainstorm, fixing the now rusted Tin Man to the spot. Even the Emerald City wasn't actually green "“ that was an effect achieved by the green tinted glasses that the Wizard forced the citizenry to wear bolted to their heads.

And, of course, the shoes in Baum's original were silver, not ruby "“ ruby just showed off the Technicolor better.

The film was, at first blush, only a moderate success "“ its massive budget threatened to swamp its actual take of around $3 million, although the initial reviews of the film were largely positive (The New York Times called it a "delightful piece of wonderworking"). It was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and ultimately took home Best Original Song and Best Music, and a special award for Judy Garland.

The Aftermath

ruby_slippersThe movie's real success story actually came a few years after its first theatrical release. As Judy Garland's star continued to rise and the film took on a more mythic aspect, people began to truly love it. It was reissued in 1949, then again in 1955, both times to record-breaking crowds, before becoming an annual television tradition "“ in its first network showing in 1956, the "event" attracted 45 million viewers.

The groundswell of national obsession with the film has cemented its place in history "“ and in a particularly affectionate fandom. Remember those red slippers? They pop up at auctions often, usually fetching high sums, along with other memorabilia. The Wicked Witch's hat sold for $33,000 in 1988, while Dorothy's dress, the one Garland wore in the film, sold for $267,000 in 2005.

The Adaptations

MJ-WizThe Wizard of Oz has been the inspiration for several more films and stage adaptations, though few have captured the magic of the 1939 film. Most notably, there was The Wiz, an "urbanized" version (meaning African American) of the story. The musical premiered in 1975 on Broadway and was a rousing success; the 1978 film version, set in Harlem and featuring Diana Ross as Dorothy Gale and a bizarrely made-up Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, however, was not.

Then there's Disney's Return to Oz, a 1985 sequel to the first film that took its inspiration from two other books in the Oz series, Ozma of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz. This one involved Dorothy suffering from what looks like undiagnosed PTSD from her experiences with Oz, Aunt Em deciding to chuck her in an insane asylum to get her some electro-shock therapy, and Dorothy eventually escaping to Oz, with her pet chicken, Billina. Creepy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn't do all that well at the box office.

In 2005, The Muppets redid Oz, with singer Ashanti playing Dorothy, Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard, Queen Latifah as Aunt Em, Quentin Tarantino as, bizarrely enough, himself, and the Muppets as the various other characters. All the witches were played by Miss Piggy and of course, Kermit the Scarecrow, Gonzo as the Tin Thing, and Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion. And Toto is not a dog, or a shrimp "“ he's a King Prawn.

And now the enormously popular musical Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire's novel of the same name, which looks at the Oz story from the perspective of the drowned witch.
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While today is the day the film officially premiered in Wisconsin, Warner Bros. Isn't releasing its massive, 70th anniversary DVD set until September 29. In the meantime, the company has loosed a seven-story tall, emerald green hot air balloon across the country to advertise the new box set. (You can track its progress here.)

And be on the look out for other Oz-related celebrations "“ like in Wamego, Kan., population 4,312, where the Oz theme has been deployed in everything from the local wine shop, the Oz Winery, which sells Witch in a Ditch Red, to the local hair salon, Scissors of Ahhhhz. This year, in addition to celebrations at the Oz museum, they'll be hosting the street festival, Oztober.

Oh, and why did the film premiere in Oconomowoc, pronounced oh-CON-oh-moe-wok, not, as many people assumed, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre? One of the composers on the film, Herbert Stothart, owned a lakeside cottage there.

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August 12, 2009 - 6:10am
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