The summer of 1939 was busy for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of Hollywood’s major studios, as it rolled out The Wizard of Oz, a movie musical almost two years in preparation. The budget for production and promotion was almost $3 million, making it MGM’s most expensive effort up to that time. A June radio broadcast introduced the songs and characters to the public. Sheet music was sent to prominent vocalists and bandleaders. Sneak previews, test-market viewings, and other publicity events took place around the country. The official premiere of The Wizard of Oz occurred at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on August 15, followed two days later by the East Coast premiere at Loewe’s Capitol Theatre. Nationwide release came on August 25.
The rest is history—and what a history!
The Wizard of Oz made indispensable contributions not only to American film and song, but also to our national culture. How often have we heard someone paraphrase what Dorothy utters when stepping out of the tornado-tossed house in the land of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”? Or quote the Wizard’s attempt to deflect attention from his newly humbugged self: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”? The American fashion designer Marc Jacobs could count on deep cultural memory when releasing a vivid red lipstick called “Surrender Dorothy,” the menacing phrase written in the sky by the Wicked Witch of the West. And, speaking of red: “ruby slippers” can mean only one thing—or actually a few things, since several sets were made for the filming of The Wizard of Oz. One pair now occupies an honored place in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., alongside such iconic objects of material history as the fragments of the American flag that inspired the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Wizard of Oz literally resonated around the world. Australians refer to themselves as “Ozzies” (a phonetic spelling of “Aussies”). When World War II broke out, the march-like number “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” sung in the film by Dorothy and her companions as they set out on the yellow brick road, became a rallying song for troops from Down Under. No less an authority than Winston Churchill related in his history of the war that Australian soldiers sang it during an important (and victorious) battle with Italian forces in North Africa in January 1941. “This tune always reminds me of those buoyant days,” Churchill wrote.
The Wizard of Oz, a live-action musical in Technicolor (a new phenomenon at the time), was MGM’s response to Disney’s 1937 animated blockbuster Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Adapting the L. Frank Baum classic into a film that would appeal both to children and adults proved challenging for executive producer Mervyn LeRoy and his team. In the end no fewer than fourteen writers worked on the screenplay. Over its long production time, the film had four different directors. A ten-year-old Shirley Temple was originally slated to play the role of Dorothy, but LeRoy, wanting a more experienced singer, turned to one of MGM’s newest stars, the sixteen-year-old Judy Garland.
There were many mishaps or delays along the way to the film’s premiere. The actor scheduled to play the Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen (later famous on the television show “The Beverly Hillbillies”), proved to be severely allergic to silver makeup and body paint; he was replaced by Jack Haley. When filming the explosive exit of the Wicked Witch from the Munchkin village, Margaret Hamilton suffered serious burns and had to miss over a month on the set. The Scarecrow’s makeup created lines in Ray Bolger’s face that he had for the rest of his life.
MGM got one thing right from the beginning—the songwriters for The Wizard of Oz. The associate producer in charge of the musical aspects of the film, Arthur Freed, passed over better known composers like Jerome Kern to choose the team of Harold Arlen (music) and E. Y. (“Yip”) Harburg (lyrics), who had already worked together on a number of Broadway and Hollywood projects. Freed admired their ability to write songs at once appealing and sophisticated, and that is just what Arlen and Harburg did for The Wizard of Oz, creating charming “lemon-drop” numbers (as Arlen called them) like “If I Only Had a Brain” and “Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead,” as well as the poignant ballad “Over the Rainbow,” which won an Oscar.
“Over the Rainbow” has, of course, had a life of its own beyond The Wizard of Oz. It holds the American Film Institute’s spot for top song and was also voted the greatest song of the twentieth century in a survey conducted in 2000 by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America. It has been recorded thousands of times, by singers and instrumentalists working in many different styles. The version by the Hawaiian pop star Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (best known as “IZ”), has sat at or near the top the Billboard World Songs Charts since its release in 1993.
“Over the Rainbow” became Judy Garland’s theme song, helping seal her reputation as one of the greatest vocalists of her era. Her recordings and concert performances, extending from the original MGM studio take of 1938 to ones made shortly before her death in 1969, chart her difficult journey from child stardom to troubled adulthood. The youthful but nuanced innocence of the film version yields over time to the emotionally wrenching Capitol Records version of 1955. In the 1938 recording, Garland’s voice climbs upward smoothly, cautiously, on a single breath, for the final phrase “why, oh why, can’t I?” In 1955 Garland breaks the line up with several breaths, articulated by sobs or catches in the throat. Same song, same question, same singer—but different expressive worlds.
Eighty years on, watching the film for the first or the hundredth time, or listening to its immortal songs, we still fall under the spell of The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz ranks among the top ten in the AFI’s lists of the best movies of all time. As we observe the anniversary, it is appropriate to remember that there was no single wizard behind the curtain. We celebrate all the writers, directors, designers, cameramen, musicians, actors, and singers who created the magic that viewers experienced for the first time in the summer of 1939.
Featured image credit: Lobby card from the original 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz featuring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr. MGM, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.