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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic
Remind Me
The Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic

In 1989, movie lovers from around the globe joined Hollywood in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of The Wizard of Oz (1939). To mark the occasion, the documentary The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic (1990) was produced. It tells the story of how Oz came to be, from book to screen, and explores the fortuitous meeting of cast, crew, music and special effects that culminated in one of the best loved movies of all time.

Hosting the documentary is narrator Angela Lansbury, who shares her own experiences with the movie. Cast and crew members also add their personal Ozstories - like one from Scarecrow Ray Bolger on being kicked out of the MGM commissary because he looked so strange in costume. Other interviewees include director Mervyn LeRoy, "Tin Man" Jack Haley, Jr. and Dorothy herself, Judy Garland. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic also delves into the studio vaults to discover missing musical numbers from the movie. And it demonstrates the film's universal appeal with foreign language clips - get ready for a German speaking Wicked Witch.

The story of Oz begins with author L. Frank Baum. He turned out the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 at the urging of his mother-in-law. Many volumes would follow, and by 1938 (when the movie went into production), over 10 million Oz books had been sold. However, a name you might never associate with The Wizard of Oz was indirectly responsible for bringing the story to the big screen - Walt Disney. Because Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was so incredibly popular, MGM's Louis B. Mayer wanted to produce his own "children's" movie. And his new chief of production Mervyn LeRoy (brought in after the death of Irving Thalberg) suggested Oz. LeRoy hoped to both produce and direct the picture, but Mayer felt it was too big of a job. So Arthur Freed was assigned to help with casting. Some 14 writers worked on the script, though only three received screen credit: Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, and Noel Langley who's credited with changing the silver slippers of the book to ruby red, integrating the hired hands on the farm into the fantasy and adding the line "there's no place like home." It turned out Mayer was right about the film being a huge project - too big for one man certainly. In fact, the film ended up going through four change-of-directors before it was completed.

Richard Thorpe was first, followed by George Cukor, who was instrumental in creating the screen prototype for Judy Garland's Dorothy. Then Cukor was called away to work on another big film for MGM - Gone with the Wind - and Victor Fleming was assigned the project. Known as a man's director, Fleming claims he made the film "because [he] wanted [his] two little girls to see a picture that searched for beauty and decency and sweetness in the world." It is Fleming who would receive credit for Oz, and, ironically enough, Gone with the Wind as well. Due to Cukor's differences with GWTW's producer David O. Selznick and star Clark Gable, Fleming would be shifted from Oz to GWTW. King Vidor stepped up to finish the last 2-3 weeks of Oz filming, which included the important Over the Rainbow number. Since Fleming was a friend, Vidor accepted no credit for his work on The Wizard of Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic (1990) also explores the casting process behind Oz and includes an interesting disagreement between LeRoy and Freed over how the Wicked Witch should be portrayed. This dispute ultimately determined who would get the part. LeRoy imagined her to be a seductive witch, something like the evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, while Freed envisioned an ugly, scary witch. Gale Sondergaard was originally the frontrunner for the part, but after making screen tests, she decided to decline the role; as was much the case in those days, most actresses shied away from being portrayed as unglamorous or unattractive. And so, Margaret Hamilton was brought in for the role. Money made the difference in another casting decision. W.C. Fields was first in line for the Wizard. But when he couldn't agree on a price, Frank Morgan accepted the part.

Almost everyone knows the story of original "Tin Man" Buddy Ebsen (who, in fact, was first cast as the Scarecrow but agreed to switch with Ray Bolger who so ardently wanted the part) and the tin dust makeup that made him so ill he had to be hospitalized and replaced by Jack Haley. But the documentary also includes some lesser known stories, like that of Jack Haley who was so tired from alternately working on his radio show that he slept on a reclining board between takes. And the frightening story of Margaret Hamilton nearly being seriously burned. In addition, there is behind-the-scenes and home movie footage. And a discussion of Oz's special effects from tornados to flying monkeys with A. Arnold Gillespie.

The Wizard of Oz received five Oscar® nominations and earned Judy Garland a special Juvenile Award. And in 1956, the movie found a new home on television. Looking back, it's surprising that Oz lost money in its first release. But then again, 1939 was an incredibly competitive year at the movies. Still, when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic was made in 1989, well over a billion people worldwide had seen Oz, making it the most watched movie to date.

Producer: John Fricke, Jack Haley, Jr., David Niven, Jr.
Director: Jack Haley, Jr.
Screenplay: L. Frank Baum, John Fricke, Jack Haley, Jr., Aljean Harmetz, Stanley Ralph Ross, Jay Scarfone, William Stillman
Film Editing: David E. Blewitt
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Angela Lansbury (narrator), Ray Bolger, Arthur Freed, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli.
BW & C-51m. Closed captioning.

by Stephanie Thames