August 15, 1939– The Wizard Of Oz premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a cinematic event that changed many lives and altered pop culture forever.
Little Stevie Rutledge:
“Mommy, Mommy…please let me stay up and watch The Wizard Of Oz, please, please! I promise to be good!“
From 1956 to 1998 The Wizard Of Oz was an annual television viewing tradition at my house and for families all over the USA. Because of these broadcasts, it has become one of the most famous films ever made. The Library Of Congress names The Wizard Of Oz as the most-watched film in history. It often ranks among the Top 10 Films in most critics’ lists and in popular polls. It certainly is in mine.
The Wizard Of Oz has provided enduring quotes for our popular cultural consciousness. Its signature song, Over The Rainbow, as sung by young Judy Garland, has been voted the Greatest Movie Song Of All Time by the American Film Institute.
The film resonates profoundly for gay people. At the very least, it brought us the term “Friend Of Dorothy”, codified slang for a gay guy that goes back to World War II. Plus, the screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf provided so many other catchphrases that have entered our lexicon:
“Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!“
“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?“
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.“
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!“
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.“
“You have no power here! Begone, before somebody drops a house on you, too!“
Do gay people identify with young Dorothy, or is it with young Garland in her most iconic role? Do we think of ourselves as the self-proclaimed sissy The Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man in need of a heart, or The Scarecrow- the ultimate twink, or maybe even Toto?
If you are a gay person, you probably have spent a significant time in the closet, showing yourself to society as straight before seeking the opportunity to be your true self. Most of us needed to escape the lonely, authoritarian, oppressive, hetero-normative, black and white world of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s farm, a stand-in for most hometowns. We get over that rainbow to the Technicolor Land of Oz where we could be free to perform song and dance numbers, encounter fantastical creatures, enjoy narcotic poppies, and experience excitement and transgression. We even chose the rainbow as our symbol of pride!
But, it is also a terrifying journey, with a green-skinned Witch and deviant freaky flying monkeys. Indulgent Oz might be a bad drug trip. Even a singing, dancing chorus of small people might be an analogy for doing too much coke in the Emerald City’s hottest club, Poppy Fields. On her return to the monochrome, safe Kansas, Dorothy says:
“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard.“
Much of the story was always confusing to me. What is so essentially evil about a wicked witch wanting those damn ruby slippers? Why, when water will kill her, does The Wicked Witch of the West live in a place with a moat and where they leave buckets of water around? Residents of Oz are tough; Glinda The Good, played by Billie Burke, has no problem with murder and apparently neither does Dorothy.
All the witches seem rather lesbian to me. MGM cast Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West, an actor with a history of spinster roles, when first choice Gale Sondergaard refused to play an ugly green witch. “Spinster” was often a Hollywood code for lesbian. Obviously, Almira Gulch, without a husband, is a stand-in for a dyke. Glinda is single also, but she is pretty and her costume is positively bridal. The Wicked Witch’s crime is that she’s unfuckable, and yet, even that doesn’t hold her back. She is even sexually predatory to the young femme Dorothy, stating:
“It’s so kind of you to want to visit me in my loneliness.“
It is all rather gay to me. Even as a child I picked-up that queer vibe.
Nothing about putting together the film version of The Wizard Of Oz came easily to producer Mervyn LeRoy and musical producer Arthur Freed. There were many rewrites. During filming, directors continued to add and cut scenes. Jack Haley and Bert Lahr wrote some of their own dialogue for the Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion. Because the screenwriters weren’t getting it, lyricist Yip Harburg (Harold Arlen wrote the music) wrote all the dialogue that setup the songs including the part where they give out the heart, the brains and the nerve. He was the final script editor, giving the film some cohesiveness.
Shirley Temple was originally attached to play Dorothy and the great W.C. Fields had been tapped to play The Wizard. Ray Bolger was originally cast as The Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen (most famous as Jed Clampett on the 1960s television series The Beverly Hillbillies) was to play The Scarecrow, but before filming commenced they convinced LeRoy to let them switch roles. Ten days in to filming, Ebsen had a severe reaction to the aluminum powder makeup he wore and it coated his lungs. Ebsen was hospitalized in critical condition. He was replaced by Haley. MGM neglected to tell Haley about the makeup, he thought Ebsen had been fired.
The original director, Norman Taurog, was replaced by Richard Thorpe who was replaced by George Cukor who didn’t actually shoot any scenes, but took on major artistic decisions and really set the tone for the film that we know. Cukor left to direct Gone With The Wind and Victor Fleming took over. Then Fleming left to take over Cukor’s work on Gone With The Wind and King Vidor became the fifth director of The Wizard Of Oz. Vidor shot the black and white Kansas scenes, including Garland’s singing of Over The Rainbow and the tornado.
Filming of the massive musical film was long, wild, difficult and dangerous. Half of the cast was either injured or nearly died during filming. Producers had to find and screen test hundreds of little actors.
MGM designer Adrian had to design over 100 costumes for the Munchkin sequences. Then he had to photograph and catalog each small actor in costume so that the clothing and makeup would have continuity each day of production. Margaret Hamilton was severely burned making her entrance in Munchkinland and she spent six weeks in the hospital before returning to the set. The Flying Monkeys were nearly strangled by the wires used to keep them aloft.
For a month after the film opened on this day in 1939, Garland and her pal and MGM star Mickey Rooney would perform a live act for the audience, quite the deal for 25 cents a ticket (Toto also made more per week than most Americans did in the 1930s).
The Wizard Of Oz received enthusiastic reviews when opened, but it lost money in its initial release. It grossed about three million dollars (25 million was spent on advertising for the film’s re-release in 2013). It didn’t show a profit until it was re-released a decade later. Now it is recognized as a landmark achievement. It is also a bit of a mess: Dorothy’s hair changes lengths from scene to scene, props change or disappear, lighting necessary to shoot in Technicolor reflects back on the shiny sets. But, as the mayor of Munchkinland announces to Dorothy:
“From now on you’ll be history!“
An important film for queer people, The Wizard Of Oz should be seen by everyone on the planet at least once. Dorothy says it perfectly like this:
“Someplace where there isn’t any trouble? Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train; it’s far, far away, behind the moon, beyond the rain…“