Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Wizard of Oz catapulted Judy Garland into stardom and set a new standard for cinematic design in musical fantasy. Acclaimed and beloved by generations of audiences, it has become one of the most famous films of all time.

Summary of Event

Samuel Goldwyn sold the film rights to L. Frank Baum’s Baum, L. Frank classic 1900 children’s book The Wizard of Oz to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer] (MGM) for $75,000 on June 3, 1938. The studio had, however, been preparing to film the story for several months prior to the sale. As early as January, 1938, Mervyn LeRoy had entrusted William Cannon Cannon, William with the task of preparing the story for the screen. The first of the twelve screenwriters who worked on the script was Irving Brecher; others included Herman Mankiewicz, Mankiewicz, Herman Ogden Nash, Nash, Ogden Noel Langley, Langley, Noel Herbert Fields, Fields, Herbert Samuel Hoffenstein, Hoffenstein, Samuel Florence Ryerson, Ryerson, Florence and Edgar Allan Woolf. Woolf, Edgar Allan Langley, Ryerson, and Woolf received screen credit. Harold Arlen Arlen, Harold and Edgar Harburg Harburg, Edgar wrote the music and lyrics; they had been hired in May. The model for both the writers and the composers was Walt Disney’s animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (film) which had been extremely successful just a year earlier. From the beginning, however, MGM did not apparently expect to make much money on the live-action fantasy. Instead, this was to be the studio’s “prestige picture” for the year. [kw]Wizard of Oz Premieres, The (Aug. 17, 1939) Motion pictures;The Wizard of Oz[Wizard of Oz] Wizard of Oz, The (film) [g]United States;Aug. 17, 1939: The Wizard of Oz Premieres[10050] [c]Motion pictures;Aug. 17, 1939: The Wizard of Oz Premieres[10050] [c]Entertainment;Aug. 17, 1939: The Wizard of Oz Premieres[10050] LeRoy, Mervyn Freed, Arthur Fleming, Victor Garland, Judy Bolger, Ray Haley, Jack Lahr, Bert

When the film began production, Norman Taurog Taurog, Norman was the director, but he left within a short time to direct the Mickey Rooney vehicle The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939). Richard Thorpe, Thorpe, Richard director of a few Tarzan films, followed briefly, then—for seven days—came George Cukor. Cukor, George Cukor, like his successor Victor Fleming, left The Wizard of Oz to work on Gone with the Wind (1939). Gone with the Wind (film) Finally, King Vidor completed the sequences in Kansas that would begin and end the film. On-screen directorial credit went to Victor Fleming, and it seems clear that he did the lion’s share of the director’s work. The many writers, directors, producers, and assorted others who worked on the film, however, show just how much of a collaborative effort filmmaking was in the large studios of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Much of the film’s appeal stemmed from the performances of its stars, but these, too, changed before the final version was cut. At the outset, Louis B. Mayer Mayer, Louis B. attempted to borrow Shirley Temple Temple, Shirley from Twentieth Century-Fox to play the role of Dorothy, but Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck Zanuck, Darryl F. refused. The alternative was Judy Garland, the choice of both LeRoy and his assistant Arthur Freed. Garland was sixteen years old and more mature than the Dorothy of the book, but with a tight-fitting brassiere and pigtails, she began to look the part. At first, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman were to be played by Buddy Ebsen and Ray Bolger, respectively, but after much complaining by Bolger, the two actors changed roles. Before long, Ebsen developed an allergy to the makeup needed to play the Tin Woodman, and he was replaced by Jack Haley.

The part of the Cowardly Lion was apparently always intended for Bert Lahr. Gale Sondergaard tested for the part of the Wicked Witch, but the role eventually went to Margaret Hamilton. A number of actors were considered for the role of the Wizard. LeRoy wanted Ed Wynn, but he turned the part down because he thought it was too small (Wynn based his decision on an early version of the script in which the Wizard’s part was considerably smaller than in the final version). Others mentioned for the part included Wallace Beery, W. C. Fields, Hugh Herbert, and Charles Winninger. The final choice was Frank Morgan.

Production began in the fall of 1938 and was completed in the spring of 1939. Several features of the final film were noteworthy, including the wardrobe and makeup, the special effects, and the music. The head of the MGM wardrobe department was Gilbert Adrian, Adrian, Gilbert and his counterpart in makeup was Jack Dawn. Dawn, Jack To give the effect of a straw man, the makeup people fashioned a light mask of baked rubber made to simulate burlap. For the Tin Woodman, a suit of buckram covered over with metallic cloth painted silver served to give the illusion of a tin man. Bert Lahr wore fifty pounds of genuine lion skins.

Virtually all the characters endured many changes in costume and makeup. For example, the witch’s costume at various times included sequins and cowled headdress, fright wig and false nose, several hairstyles, and green skin. For the diminutive Munchkins who populated the land of Oz, Adrian and Dawn concocted costumes and makeup that would make the already small actors cast in the roles appear even smaller than they were. Oversized belts, hats, buttons, and so on accentuated the smallness of the Munchkins. The Munchkin makeup required wigs, prosthetic items, and skullcaps. Dawn organized an assembly line to manage the makeup of the Munchkins, a kind of real-life echo of the sprucing up of the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Dorothy that took place within the film in Emerald City.

Equally complex were the special effects. Special effects, motion pictures The film contained many fantastic effects: a tornado that swept Dorothy and her dog Toto into the land of Oz, a good witch who traveled in a bubble, flying monkeys, talking and apple-throwing trees, a flying witch, a huge, spectral appearance by the Wizard, and a melting witch. In charge of special effects for the picture was A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, Gillespie, A. Arnold and he and his cohorts used five of the six types of special effects available at the time: miniatures, back projection, optical effects, matte painting, and full-scale mechanical effects.

Some of the flying monkeys were full-scale effects; various types of rear and front projection created the effects of the Wizard’s disembodied head and the head of the witch in her large crystal ball. The witch on her broomstick writing in the sky was a miniature; the witch was, in reality, three-eighths of an inch high, and her broomstick was a hypodermic needle filled with milk and dye. Matte painting was used to create the panorama of Emerald City and parts of the witch’s castle. Other effects included the Cowardly Lion’s swishing tail, which was controlled by a man on a catwalk with a fishing pole, the line of which was attached to the tail; dry ice and an elevator simulated the melting witch. Elevators proved dangerous, and Margaret Hamilton, the wicked witch, was injured using one in her departure from Munchkinland near the beginning of the film. On the second take, the flames that accompanied her departure set alight her hat and broom, and her face and right hand were burned. She left the set for six weeks.

Perhaps the most complicated effect in the film was the tornado. The tornado was a muslin sock connected to a slot in a floor and to a steel gantry at the top of a stage. The gantry had a small car that could zigzag horizontally. From the bottom, fuller’s earth and compressed air were fed into the tornado to create the illusion of a great wind whipping up dust as it crossed the prairie. Eight-by-four panels of glass with cotton balls pasted on them served to heighten the effect of a stormy sky. Once photographed, the film of the tornado was projected to form a backdrop for the actors scurrying to shelter.

In addition to its effects, The Wizard of Oz contained a stunning musical score. From romantic ballads to jaunty dance numbers to ebullient celebratory choruses, the music and songs were various and vibrant. The score was the creation of Harold Arlen (music) and Edgar Harburg (lyrics), and their genius provided not only memorable songs and tunes but also songs that were integrated with the plot development. “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” for example, clearly sets the wistful tone for a young girl whose life is as uneventful as the sepia-colored print of the scene indicates. The lyrics prepare viewers for Oz as a dreamworld (“a land that I heard of once in a lullaby”) and a land of color (“skies are blue,” “troubles melt like lemon drops,” “bluebirds,” and, of course, the rainbow image itself). Dorothy’s longing for color, adventure, and release finds expression in the song. In a similar way, the songs of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion fill in their personalities. Unlike other musicals of the 1930’s, The Wizard of Oz contained no large-scale production numbers that existed merely for their own sake. The closest the film came to such a scene was in the Lion’s “King of the Forest” number; even that song, however, indicates the Cowardly Lion’s inner goodness. The scene also serves to provide a playful interlude before the climactic encounter with the Wizard.

Such lively music and words deserved equally lively choreography, Choreography;musical motion pictures and in this, too, the film excelled. LeRoy wanted Busby Berkeley to handle the dance numbers, but Bobby Connolly Connolly, Bobby came from Warner Bros. to take over as dance director. His dance numbers were visually imaginative. The sprightly nursery-rhyme effect of “The Wicked Witch Is Dead” sequence far outshone similar sequences in Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland (1934), and Ray Bolger’s floppy footwork as the Scarecrow became justly famous. It is interesting to note that much of Bolger’s first dance was cut to keep the film from running too long.

The completed film was a triumph of cinematic art that demonstrated how the collaboration of many people could produce a serendipitous masterpiece. It premiered first in Wisconsin on August 12, 1939, and three days later in Hollywood. The film opened in general release on August 17. The Wizard of Oz sums up much of what went on in the films of the 1930’s: The Depression-weary lives of middle Americans are visible in the opening and closing sequences in Kansas, and the lavish worlds of escape that Hollywood was famous for producing in the decade appear in the colorful Oz sequences. Both the fantasy and the “reality” in the film express the need for self-reliance and cooperation; all one needs to succeed, the film implies, are a little ingenuity and pluck. In a year in which high romance was the order of the day—witness such 1939 productions as Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Destry Rides Again, Only Angels Have Wings, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—The Wizard of Oz provided romance enough for everyone.


The Wizard of Oz was more successful than anyone involved with its making expected. Shortly after its release, the market was flooded with memorabilia related to the film: party masks, rag dolls, wooden dolls, rubber dolls, Valentine cards, stationery, and dart games. Such merchandise continued to sell decades later; clearly, the public, in North America and around the world, took the film to its heart. It also took Judy Garland to its heart, and the film had a profound impact on her career. She had signed her first contract with MGM on September 27, 1935, only three months after her thirteenth birthday. The Wizard of Oz was her eighth film and the one that catapulted her to worldwide fame.

For her role in the film, Garland won a special Academy Award as the best juvenile performer of the year. The honor was well deserved; Garland played her part with a conviction and a depth of feeling that struck a chord in audiences. MGM knew it had a star on its hands, and the studio’s story department set about finding musical properties for her. In the next two years, she starred in seven films. As late as 1968 (six months before she died), Garland guest-hosted a television talk show on which Margaret Hamilton made a surprise appearance. Garland asked her wicked witch adversary from The Wizard of Oz to “Laugh! Just do that wicked, mean laugh!” Hamilton did as she was asked, and the audience went wild.

The Wizard of Oz is among the most familiar films in history. It has enjoyed a long life on network television (it was the first film MGM sold to network television in 1956), and its release to the home video market has ensured that many households own a copy of the musical. Released in 1939, popularly referred to as the single greatest year of the Hollywood studio system, The Wizard of Oz is one of the central films supporting that title. Moreover, what MGM referred to in 1939 as the film’s “kindly philosophy” has not gone out of fashion. Audiences young and old continue to seek escape to fantastic worlds in motion pictures, looking for places where good always triumphs over evil and people get what they desire. Motion pictures;The Wizard of Oz[Wizard of Oz] Wizard of Oz, The (film)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billman, Carol. “’I’ve Seen the Movie’: Oz Revisited.” In Children’s Novels and the Movies, edited by Douglas Street. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. A comparison of the book with the film. Argues that the film reduces the clutter of the book and simplifies the plot and that the visual splendor of the film helps it to surpass the book, despite the fact that both are moralistic. Notes that the artificiality of the effects adds to the film’s (and Oz’s) fantastic quality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fricke, John, Jay Scarfone, and William Stillman.“The Wizard of Oz”: The Official Fiftieth Anniversary Pictorial History. New York: Warner Books, 1989. A detailed account of the making of The Wizard of Oz and its subsequent impact. Filled with rare photographs of the players and professionals associated with MGM, of Oz memorabilia and merchandise, and of memos and letters related to the film and its creation. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of “The Wizard of Oz.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. A detailed account of how a major studio worked in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. Many interviews with the people who worked on the film, and many behind-the-scenes photographs. A more complete account of the special effects than in the Fricke, Scarfone, and Stillman volume. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langley, Noel, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf.“The Wizard of Oz”: The Screenplay. New York: Delta, 1989. The first publication of the entire film script, including the addition of scenes and songs cut from the final version. Introduction and notes by Michael Patrick Hearne. Contains film stills and other photographs. Hearne’s introduction chronicles, in brief, the making of the film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McClelland, Doug. Down the Yellow Brick Road. New York: Pyramid Books, 1976. Recounts the legends behind the making of the film. For a general audience rather than for aficionados. Many film stills.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scarfone, Jay, and William Stillman. The Wizardry of Oz: The Artistry and Magic of the 1939 M-G-M Classic. New York: Applause, 2004. Lengthy study of the makeup, special effects, set design, props, and costumes employed in the film. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swartz, Mark Evan. Oz Before the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” on Stage and Screen to 1939. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Recounts the history of Oz adaptations up to the 1939 film, comparing them to the version that since 1939 has been definitive. Bibliographic references and index.

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Categories: History