Monday, April 20, 2009

'Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain'

A century ago, a book took America by storm. A new kind of children's fantasy told in conversational style, it captivated adults and children alike. Its decorative illustrations in color were unlike any that had appeared before, weaving the story into a wealth of beauty and form, of sense and nonsense, of joy and seriousness.

When it was published in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz enjoyed instant success. The first edition of 10,000 copies sold out in bookstores in the first two weeks. At the end of 1901, sales totaled nearly 90,000. After the author turned the book into a stage play titled The Wizard of Oz in 1903, starring Fred Stone as the Scarecrow, it played three seasons on Broadway and then toured for eight years. By the time the book’s copyright expired in 1956, a total of 4,195,667 copies had been sold, making it one of the best-selling children’s books of the twentieth century.

As a movie, however, the children’s classic has had a checkered history. In all, eight versions were filmed in the silent era before the 1939 Technicolor classic was made. The first, in 1910, was a filmed version of the 1903 Broadway musical. Nine-year-old Bebe Daniels, who later would star in films such as Rio Rita and 42nd Street, played Dorothy. In 1925, popular comedian Larry Semon directed a film version in which he played the Scarecrow. Rotund comedian Oliver Hardy, later one-half of the Laurel and Hardy team, played the Tin Woodman. Appropriately named 19-year old Dorothy Dwan played Dorothy. She and Semon were married just before the film’s release in January of 1925.

Sam Goldwyn bought the movie rights to the book for $40,000 in 1933. Five years later, he sold them to MGM for $75,000--a quick and easy profit, considering that he had done nothing about making a movie during that time. The eventual MGM film became the studio's second feature in three-strip Technicolor. The first had been Sweethearts, a 1938 adaptation of the Victor Herbert operetta, starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

With limited space on movie marquees in mind, the film's title was shortened to The Wizard of Oz. Before it was completed, it would require the services of ten screenwriters, four directors and—in addition to the ten featured players—a small dog and 124 dwarfs of both sexes playing the Munchkins. The “little people,” as the studio referred to them, were mostly refugee circus performers from Central and Eastern Europe who presented housing headaches for MGM, often staging scandalous orgies in the Hollywood hotel in which they were quartered.

The Screenwriters
Screen credits show Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf as writers of the screenplay. In typical Hollywood fashion, others who worked on script revisions, often simultaneously, included Herman Mankiewicz (who would later write Citizen Kane and All About Eve), humorist Ogden Nash, Herbert Fields, poet Samuel Hoffenstein, Jack Mintz, Sid Silvers and John Lee Mahin. The title role was written with box-office draw W.C. Fields
in mind. Producer Mervyn LeRoy wanted Ed Wynn, who turned down the role. MGM executive Arthur Freed wanted Fields, and offered him $75,000. Fields supposedly demanded $100,000, which was too steep for MGM’s budget.
The DirectorsThe film had four different directors: Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Victor Fleming and King Vidor. When filming started, Judy Garland wore a blonde wig and heavy "baby-doll" makeup. Before he was fired, Thorpe, a workmanlike director, shot two weeks of material, none of which appears in the final film. The studio found his work unsatisfactory and called on George Cukor temporarily until a new director could be found. Cukor did not actually film any scenes. What he did was to modify Judy Garland's appearance by getting rid of the wig and the baby-doll makeup, and telling her to just be herself. Victor Fleming took over from him and filmed the bulk of the movie until he was assigned to Gone with the Wind. Veteran director King Vidor served briefly to wrap up the monochromatic Kansas scenes.

The CastIn 1938, MGM had 120 salaried stars and feature players under contract. From these, the studio managed to cast six of the major roles in The Wizard of Oz. It had to turn to agents only for the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) and the little dog Toto. Surprisingly, the top salaries of $3,000 a week went to Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow) and Jack Haley (the Tin Woodman), followed by $2,500 to Frank Morgan (the Wizard and several other roles) and Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion). Margaret Hamilton received $1,000 a week, and held out for and got a guarantee of six weeks’ work. As it turned out, she was on the picture for four months and racked up a salary of $18,541.68. For each week’s work, Billie Burke (Glinda) took home $766.67 and Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry) $750. Judy Garland (Dorothy) had to be content with a mere $500 a week. Toto, the little Cairn terrier, earned her trainer $125 a week.

After a number of popular stars rejected the role of the Wizard as too small, MGM decided to include the roles of Professor Marvel, the doorman and palace guard, as well as the coachman who would perform a musical number. This was to increase the screen time for the actor playing the title role to match the rest of the cast. Even so, the film occupied little of contract player Frank Morgan’s working time—less than a week as Professor Marvel and a few more weeks as the Wizard in the other roles. Morgan (real name, Wuppermann) was an heir to the Angostura bitters fortune.

Usually playing jovial or befuddled characters, Frank Morgan, like many Hollywood stars, had a secret--a drinking problem. His favorite drink was Champagne, and he always carried a supply in small attaché case fitted with a minibar. From time to time on the set he would repair to his dressing room “for a little snifter,” but his drinking never caused him to muff his lines. His occasional attempts to stop drinking, however, would leave him short-tempered and irritable. On the Oz set, director Victor Fleming once told him to “get back on the Champagne kick so we can live together.” He died of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 59. Unlike many movie stars, Frank Morgan is not buried in California but in the family plot in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery (Sect. 168, Lot 1447).
Makeup ProblemsElaborate makeup was a problem for the players in the film. Long hours were spent in the makeup chair while elaborate facial changes were made to the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion. Judy Garland’s dumpy teenage figure required a tightly laced corset that also flattened her breasts. Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Woodsman, but insisted that he would rather play the Scarecrow. His childhood idol, Fred Stone, had originated that role on Broadway in 1903. Lanky dancer Buddy Ebsen, who had been cast as the Scarecrow, switched roles with Bolger. But the special makeup for the Tin Woodsman was toxic. Ebsen had a violent reaction to the aluminum powder dusted on his face and hands and wound up in intensive care in the hospital. In the makeup used on his replacement, Jack Haley, aluminum paste was substituted for the aluminum dust that had poisoned Ebsen.

Memorable Quotes
Dorothy’s line, "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." was voted as #4 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Lines. "There's no place like home" was voted as #23. “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too” squeaked in at #99.
SongsThe songs in The Wizard of Oz were the result of the collaboration between prolficic songwriter Harold Arlen, who was only 33 years old, and lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Arlen would work with 31 lyricists over his long career. (Harburg was earlier responsible for the lyrics of the hauntingly beautiful “April in Paris” and the anthem of the Great Depresion, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) Among the dozen Oz songs, the wistful classic “Over the Rainbow” would become a Judy Garland standard. It was voted #1 in the American Film Institute's list of "The 100 Years of the Greatest Songs."

The AFI board described "Over The Rainbow" as having "captured the nation's heart, echoed beyond the walls of a movie theater, and ultimately stands in our collective memory of the film itself. It has resonated across the century, enriching America's film heritage and captivating artists and audiences today.” Another Arlen song, “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” was voted #82 on that list. Paradoxically, “Over the Rainbow” was almost removed from the final print by MGM head Louis B. Mayer because it had been shot “in a barnyard.”
Honors“Over the Rainbow” won the film’s only Oscar. The Wizard of Oz was voted #6 in movies in the AFI’s 1998 list of top movies in 100 years of film making, #1 in fantasy films, #26 in inspirational movies, and #3 in movie musicals. Judy Garland was voted # 8 in the AFI’s list of 100 top movie stars.
AftermathThe film began shooting on October 13, 1938, and was completed on March 16, 1939, at a record-breaking cost of $2,777,000. It earned only $3,017,000 on its initial release. After the costs of distribution, prints and advertising were added to its production cost, the loss to MGM came to nearly a million dollars. The film came close to making a profit during its first re-release in 1948-49, when it brought in another $1,500,000. It did not really begin to make money until 1956 when it was leased to TV. By 1976, theatrical distribution had yielded MGM a total of $4,800,000. The combined take from leasing the film for TV, first to CBS and then to NBC, was more than twice that--$9,950,000.

The Wizard of Oz received only a single mention in The Guinness Book of World Records. Ironically, this was for the dubious honor of being the film to which a live-action sequel was added after the longest period of time. The 1985 sequel titled Return to Oz was released 46 years after the original.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Judy Garland's real name was Frances Ethel Gumm. (Her father's name was Francis and her mother's name was Ethel.) She hated her name and changed it as soon as she could. She made her first movie for MGM in 1936 when she was 14 years old. To control her tendency to chubbiness, the studio alternately dosed her with amphetamines to speed up her metabolism and control her weight, followed by sleeping pills to bring her down from the amphetamine high. As a result, she became addicted to prescription drugs and continued to abuse them during most of her adult life.

Judy Garland died in London of an accidental dose of barbiturates on June 22, 1969, a dozen days after her 47th birthday. Fans who lvisit the graves of the famous don't have to go to California to find Judy Garland's last resting place. She is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery on Secor Road in Hartsdale, N.Y., in Unit 9, Alcove HH, Crypt 31. By coincidence, prolific composer of "Over the Rainbow," Harold Arlen (real name: Hyman Arluck), is also buried at Ferncliff in Grave 1666 of the Hickory Plot.

It may come as a surprise to learn that F
erncliff has represented the final curtain call for many stars of stage and screen, including Joan Crawford, Ona Munson (who played Belle Watling, the good-hearted bordello madam in Gone with the Wind), Basil Rathbone, Jerome Kern, Preston Sturges (whose The Lady Eve is still one of the most delirious screwball comedies ever made), Paul Robson, Ed Sullivan, and Frances Ford Seymour, mother of Jane and Peter Fonda. Other perhaps less well-remembered names include Richard Barthelmess, Irene Bordoni, Connee Boswell, Lya De Putti, Hugh Marlowe and Raymond Walburn.

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