Thursday, May 21, 2020

Making A Classic: Wizard of Oz Part Four

With all of the issues that happened before The Wizard of Oz began filming, MGM was probably hoping for a smooth production. With both the original wicked witch and director replaced before principal photography began, Louis B. Mayer was hopeful that the worst was over. That would not prove to be the case. A series of catastrophic events would befall the production.

The first casualty of the production was Buddy Ebsen. MGM’s famed makeup and design team was trying to ensure that Oz popped on screen. The silver paint they were using for the Tin Man caused a severe reaction in Buddy Ebsen. Ebsen collapsed on the set and was rushed to the hospital, where he lay in a coma for several days. According to legend he awoke to see Louis B. Mayer, nervously fidgeting in the hospital room. Mayer then broke the news that he was replaced by Jack Haley. Haley, meanwhile, had not been told what happened to Ebsen and assumed that Buddy had been fired. It is probably unlikely that Mayer had the time to sit at Ebsen’s bedside to break the news to him personally. However, it is definitely believable that MGM didn’t tell Jack Haley about the health problems the Tin Man makeup caused. They needed him to suit up and shut up.

The production hadn’t gotten too far behind, but Mervyn LeRoy took advantage of the minor delay to replace director Richard Thorpe with George Cukor. Cukor made huge changes to the film. Originally, Judy Garland was outfitted in a blonde wig and babydoll dress. Cukor wanted her to play Dorothy more naturally, so the wig was removed and the familiar blue gingham dress used. In order to save money, Jack Haley only re-recorded a few of Ebsen’s singing lines. Therefore Ebsen’s singing performance remained in the final film.

Cukor’s time on the set would be short. MGM saw the production as troubled and had only hired him to get things back on track. Victor Fleming would arrive in November of 1938 to handle the bulk of the directing duties. Fleming would suffer through the six month slog of filming the technicolor scenes before being pulled off to finish Gone With the Wind. The technicolor scenes were a nightmare for cast and crew. The lighting required for each scene made the sound stages extremely hot and the makeup and heavy costumes unbearable. Margaret Hamilton was the second casualty of the shoot, suffering third degree burns during the scene in which she vanishes in Munchkinland. The injury caused her to refuse doing more special effects scenes. It was a good decision- the stand-in hired to replace her was injured as well.

King Vidor was brought in to finally wrap things up on this very expensive project. Production finally ended in June 1939, just weeks before the planned release. Despite the delays and issues, the picture still came in close to its budget. Now it would be up to the audiences. Would this Wizard bring in as many customers as Snow White?