For the past 80 years, The Wizard of Oz has brought joy to millions. The 1939 film is universally regarded as a masterpiece that celebrates the virtues of home, family, friendship, selflessness and love. However, the making of this beloved classic was far from the splendor that appears on screen. Many dark tales and rumors have emerged over the years and it’s time to separate fact from fiction.
The Pressure of the Ruby Slippers
Judy Garland’s legend started on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Seeing her talent and potential, MGM used the film to catapult her to stardom, and it worked. But her experience making the movie was rough on her and affected the rest of her life.
At age 16, it was a lot of pressure to carry a big budget film like Oz. She was not only supporting her family on her $500 a week salary, but the livelihood of hundreds of actors, crew members and studio employees rested on her shoulders and she knew it. As a performer from a young age, Garland was never allowed to be a regular child or teenager. The studio did arrange “dates” with other young actors for publicity; they also hired an assistant for her, Betty Asher, who feigned friendship with Garland while reporting her every move to studio heads and destructively meddling in her love life.
The Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s book is a child of 12. Garland was forced to wear a painful corset to flatten her chest to appear to be a preteen in her iconic blue gingham pinafore. Head of MGM Louis Mayer was particularly critical of Garland’s figure. He callously criticized her weight and put her on a strict diet of chicken broth, cigarettes and not much else. The studio had spies everywhere to make sure she didn’t eat solid foods. Mayer left her with a lifelong eating disorder.
He left her with more than that. In 1938, studio physician Edward B. Jones began to feed Benzedrine, an amphetamine, to Garland. The drug provided long-lasting bursts of energy, requiring a barbiturate to “come down” and sleep, creating a cycle of dependency. Her studio-sponsored drug use intensified in the following years, harming her health and her career. Physically exhausted, Garland called out sick too many times from post-Oz projects and in 1950, MGM fired her.
Garland, saddled with an eating disorder and drug problem from her days as a child star, was very unhappy for much of her life. On June 22, 1969, Garland died of an accidental drug overdose.
No Place Like…The Hospital
Buddy Ebsen, first hired as the Scarecrow and replaced by Ray Bolger, took on the role of the Tin Woodman and probably lived—barely lived—to regret it. The Tin Woodman costume required a coating of silver aluminum dust layered over clown-white makeup. When breathed in or ingested, aluminum is toxic and decreases the amount of oxygen in the body. Nine days into principal photography, on top of many days of makeup tests, Ebsen was gripped by shortness of breath. Combined with the restrictive costume, which forced him to stand the entire day, he had trouble taking a full breath and felt as though his lungs were filled with glue.
Admitted to the hospital, he was placed in an oxygen tent. Ebsen remained in the hospital for two weeks and spent the next month recuperating. In the meantime, studio executives assumed Ebsen was faking sick or exaggerating his symptoms. Without being informed, Ebsen was replaced by Jack Haley, who called it “the most horrendous job in the world with those cumbersome uniforms and the hours of makeup.”
The makeup was applied to Haley’s face as a paste instead of a dust to avoid inhalation. However, the aluminum paste made its way into Haley’s eye and caused a severe infection. Luckily, doctors stopped the infection before it permanently damaged his sight. Ebsen suffered lung problems for the rest of his life.
Getting into costumes and makeup required actors to come to set in the wee hours of the morning. Most were cumbersome and uncomfortable, but none more so than the Cowardly Lion’s lion suit. It was made from real lion hide, weighed 70 pounds and covered nearly every inch of Bert Lahr’s body. Under the sizzling hot Technicolor lights, wearing that costume was stifling to the point Lahr described it as wearing “a wet mattress” and smelled exactly like you’d expect, or worse.
Get The Water Bucket!
Though not the first choice for the role, Margaret Hamilton was a talented actress with experience playing the Wicked Witch in stage productions predating MGM’s adaptation. The script suggested that the Witch’s entrances and exits be accompanied by smoke and flame. Despite careful choreography and rehearsal, while filming the scene when the Witch appears in Munchkinland, Hamilton’s face and cape caught on fire. Her green makeup made of copper oxide fueled the flames against her skin and she was badly burned on her face and hands. When the makeup artist removed the green paint with alcohol, Hamilton experienced pain she’d never again experience in her life.
Knowing what happened with Buddy Ebsen, Hamilton was concerned she would lose her job while recuperating, but luckily she had filmed enough scenes to prevent being replaced.
When she returned six weeks later, she was expected to sit on a broomstick designed to bellow black smoke. A smart lady, she refused to go anywhere near smoke or fire again.
Hamilton’s stunt double Betty Danko, who was already hurt during rehearsal when the dance director accidentally fell through a trap door onto her shoulders, stepped in. On the third take, the smoke pipe exploded and Danko was blown sideways off the saddle. She wound up with a two-inch deep wound in her leg and spent eleven days in the hospital. Danko was paid $35 per day for her troubles.
The flying monkeys weren’t safe either. During the monkeys’ entrance into the Haunted Forest, two actors sustained minor injuries when the piano wire they were swinging from snapped and the plunged to the floor.
No one walked away from the filming of The Wizard of Oz completely unscathed. In those days, chrysotile asbestos flakes were commonly used to represent snow on screen. All five leads (Garland, Bolger, Haley, Lahr and Terry) were covered in the substance today known to be carcinogenic. Bolger’s Scarecrow costume was also flame-proofed with asbestos. It’s a wonder anyone survived.
Welcome to Munchkinland
Approximately 125 little people were hired to portray Munchkins in the land of Oz, with fewer than a dozen children added to the background of some scenes. Many were familiar with showbiz and had worked the vaudeville circuit or in circuses or carnivals, but most were discovered far from Hollywood and brought in from the East Coast. On set, they had to deal with condescension from the crew, being treated like children or little dolls. Due to the intricacy of the costumes, many of the Munchkin actors had to face the humiliation of being helped to use the bathroom by hired assistants.
The Munchkins were regarded as bizarre outsiders both at work and on their days off. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper painted the Munchkins as a menace. As years went on, the stories became more elaborate, with theater critic John Lahr describing “pimping and whoring” by the Munchkins and Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy describing “Munchkin orgies” in their memoirs. Judy Garland even perpetuated this rumor on a 1967 television interview, describing rowdy behavior like rioting, drinking excessively and brawling at their hotels, where they often stayed together with members of the same troupe. The truth is the diminutive actors behaved as any tourists would, sightseeing, taking day trips and hitting nightspots. Stories of Munchkins as troublemakers and sex fiends are greatly exaggerated.
Another persistent rumor insists that an unidentified Munchkin hanged himself on set and footage of the event made it into the final cut. Variations on this rumor allow the mystery person to be an Oz producer distraught the film was going over budget, a director’s daughter who was jealous Judy Garland got the part of Dorothy over her, or a suicidal grip. Though several actors and stunt people were seriously injured on set, nobody died, by suicide or otherwise. No Munchkins, producers, children of directors or grips were unaccounted for when the picture wrapped.
Though Oz conspiracy theorists will not want to hear it, the “hanging Munchkin” was actually a bird—a Sarus Crane rented from the Los Angeles County Zoo. According to some, the first VHS release of The Wizard of Oz shows a swinging body in the background during “We’re Off to See the Wizard” which was subsequently replaced by a bird upon DVD release. The origin of this rumor can be traced back to a YouTube video hoax which edited out the bird and replaced it with a swaying dark figure.
A Horse of a Different Color
Without the luxury of CGI, props and special effects designers in the 1930s had to get clever. MGM had the best in the business working for them and they managed to imbue the fantasy film with a sense of realism that dazzled audiences. The twister, in particular—made of a cloth tube laced with reinforcing wire and spun by an electric motor—was an impressive feat. Jell-O crystals were used inside the Wicked Witch’s hourglass and sponged onto horses to give them color when paints and dyes failed. The concoction tasted so good, the horses liked to lick it off themselves. Reapplication was frequently necessary. Why is this in an article about the dark side of Oz? Do you know what Jell-O is made from?
As urban legend has it, if you play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon LP simultaneously with The Wizard of Oz (with the sound turned down), you’ll find that they sync up perfectly. This trick has been blowing the minds of stoners and trippers for decades. Start the album, on vinyl, of course, as the MGM lion roars and let the synchronization begin. You’ll be in for a treat as the psychedelic rock tracks ebb and flow over Dorothy’s great adventure. Though there is absolutely no evidence that Pink Floyd was inspired by or influenced by The Wizard of Oz at all when composing this number one album, it’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.
For comprehensive behind-the-scenes info on The Wizard of Oz, read The Wizard of Oz FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About Life According To Oz by David J. Hogan and The Making of The Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz.