MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, filmed in the dawning days of Technicolor—and decades before CGI and high-tech special effects—is a hand-crafted cinematic achievement anchored by its extraordinary cast: Judy Garland as Dorothy, Ray Bolger as The Scarecrow, Jack Haley as The Tin Man, and Bert Lahr as The Cowardly Lion. The musical film is a touchstone for millions across the globe who have grown up under its spell.
Playbill spoke with John Fricke, the preeminent Wizard of Oz historian and author of seven books on both Oz and its star—Judy Garland, to glean an expert take on the film. Here, Fricke shares 17 moments that fans should watch for on the big screen, and dispels one grand myth surrounding The Wizard of Oz.
17 Wizard of Oz Moments to Watch For:
The on-screen cyclone was constructed from chicken wire wrapped in muslin. Hung from rigging above the set, the bottom was attached to a cart driven by two stagehands concealed beneath the soundstage floor. The cart was driven back and forth to create the resulting effect of the funnel cloud swooping and twisting across the prairie.
Dorothy’s Bed During the Tornado:
The framework of Dorothy’s bedroom was constructed on a tilting cart that would jolt the set about, heaving furniture and tossing Dorothy about as she is swept up into the cyclone and dropped back down again.
When Dorothy Meets the Scarecrow in the Corn Field:
Judy Garland’s braids shift from long to short and back again several times during the scene in which she first meets the Scarecrow. Keep an eye out as she cuts the Scarecrow down from his post in the corn field and throughout “If I Only Had a Brain.”
When Dorothy and the Scarecrow Encounter the Talking Apple Trees:
A split-second glimpse of Judy Garland in black shoes when she should be wearing Ruby Slippers as she and the Scarecrow scramble away from the Apple-throwing trees.
When the Flying Monkeys Swoop Down and Abduct Dorothy and Toto in the Haunted Forest:
Several of the piano wires used to fly the actors playing the Winged Monkey’s snapped as they swooped down into the Haunted Forest to attack Dorothy and company. “They couldn't protect the actors. They had to put men in those costumes that had harnesses and battery packs built in to make the wings bob up and down, and then fly them from the top of the soundstage to swoop down onto the set,” Fricke explains. “You hear them crashing to the ground. They were not severely hurt, but this was before the technology we have today.”
Edits and Cut Scenes:
Early edits were made to The Wizard of Oz for several reasons. One was running time. The original film was 11 minutes longer.
During the farm scenes in Kansas, each of the three farmhands have dialogue referencing the characters they become in Oz. Jack Haley’s Hank makes a slight reference to the Tin Man, but a sizeable portion of his dialogue is cut, leaving him with the strange line, “Someday they’ll erect a statue to me in this town.” Aunt Em then admonishes him for “fiddling with that contraption.” What contraption? Originally, Hank had shown Dorothy his latest invention—made from metal, of course—that could control the weather and keep them safe from cyclones. This justified his reasoning for getting a statue, and the “contraption” Aunt Em references.
When Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal The Wizard as a fraud, actor Frank Morgan initially did a series of sleight-of-hand magic tricks in an attempt to appease Dorothy and company. These illusions were also cut to reduce running time, though the props—including a bunch of colored flowers—can still be seen in the background of the throne room console.
Edits were also made to reduce the Wicked Witch’s screen time after young audiences were frightened by the character. Some of this is apparent in the film.
In the Munchkinland scene, the camera cuts away from the Wicked Witch as she says, “I can cause accidents too.” Her lips keep moving, though the dialogue is cut. In another cut scene, the Wicked Witch ordered Nikko—her head Flying Monkey—to bring her the Golden Cap, a reference from L. Frank Baum’s original book. The cap gave her the power to summon the Flying Monkeys and order them to snatch the Ruby Slippers from a sleeping Dorothy in the poppy field. Though this first scene was cut, Nikko returns in a later scene to hand the Wicked Witch the Golden Cap, which is swiftly tossed aside when her plans are foiled.
The famously cut “Jitterbug” musical number. This sequence occurred just before the Flying Monkeys fly in to attack in the Haunted Forest, and it is still referenced in the Wicked Witch’s dialogue from that scene. “Do what you like with the others, but I want her alive and unharmed!” she says. “They'll give you no trouble, I promise you that. I've sent a little insect on ahead to take the fight out of them.”
The insect would render its victims helpless by compelling them to perform the popular jitterbug dance until they collapsed in exhaustion.
The studio hoped audiences wouldn’t notice the line cue and subsequent missing number, and for the most part, they never have. The official Hollywood footage of “The Jitterbug” has never been found, though the soundtrack recording does exist. The only footage of this four-minute dance number known to exist is from composer Harold Arlen’s home videos from the set of The Wizard of Oz, which has a view from off to the side.
When stand-ins take over for the stars:
It’s not actually Judy Garland who opens the farmhouse door to walk into Munchkinland. Garland’s double (dressed in sepia tones used for the Kansas scenes) opens the door and backs out of the frame as Judy Garland—now in full color costume—swiftly steps forward and walks through the farmhouse door to enter Munchkinland in a seamless Technicolor shot. Garland’s double also previously appears when Dorothy falls into the pigpen in on the Kansas farm, and again when she is hoisted aloft by the Winged Monkeys in the Haunted Forest.
The Wicked Witch:
Margaret Hamilton’s double actually makes the Wicked Witch’s entrance into Munchkinland.
The Cowardly Lion:
Bert Lahr’s double makes several appearances: His first is The Cowardly Lion’s leap onto the Yellow Brick Road when he first encounters Dorothy, The Scarecrow, and The Tin Man. His second is when The Cowardly Lion makes his terrified leap through the Emerald City window after their first audience with The Wizard.
Another moment features stand-ins for Larh’s Cowardly Lion, as well as Ray Bolger as The Scarecrow and Jack Haley as The Tin Man. The three stand-ins appear as the trio follow Toto to rescue Dorothy from the Wicked Witch’s castle. “It’s a noticeable difference,” Fricke points out. “Bert and Jack appear in the closeup shot when they say the dialogue, ‘I hope my strength holds out.’ ‘I hope your tail holds out!’ But in two or three cutaways from those moments, you can see that it’s not our stars climbing the castle exterior. And the Lion double is wearing a truly ratty second-tier costume.”
The Legend of the Hanging Munchkin. A repeated myth surrounding the film involves a shadowy figure which can be spotted moving in the trees during the end of the Tin Man's scene as Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man skip upstage singing "We're Off to See the Wizard." Various tales, with their own tragic back stories about the figure, persist to this day.
The most prevalent myth claims that a Munchkin hanged himself from the set after Garland declined to go on a date with him. Others say that the individual is a stagehand, or a young Hollywood starlet who was so distraught over not getting the role of Dorothy that she lept from the top of the soundstage.
"This lore started a good 25–30 years ago," Fricke says. "What you’re seeing when you look upstage is a live bird. That's a sarus crane flapping its wings. Because everything in The Wizard of Oz was shot interior on sound stages at MGM, they wanted to give the Tin Woodsman’s scene a feel of the outdoors, so they rented birds from the Los Angeles Zoo.
"If you watch the scene closely from the beginning, there’s also a live toucan on the branch as Judy and Ray are coming down the Yellow Brick Road. Some people think it’s a stuffed figure, but it’s real. There’s also a peacock roaming throughout the following scene with the Tin Man. We didn’t know these details about the birds until we did the research for the 50th anniversary book in 1989.” (You can make out the crane clearly in the new high-definition restorations of the film.)