Monday, May 18, 2020

MGM’s Biggest Gamble- The Wizard of Oz, Part One

Making a motion picture has always been a massive undertaking. In order to introduce some sanity to the process, MGM had turned the art of show into a business. Its legendary motion picture machine could produce films more efficiently, more quickly and more successfully than any other studio. While it couldn’t completely eliminate the problems that could crop up on a motion picture, it could minimize their effects. One such film that might have collapsed under a less regimented production process was 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.

The success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs swept through Hollywood like an earthquake. Here was a musical feature, produced by an independent studio, that had shot to the top of the box office. The film sparked the infamous “box office poison” letter which called out Hollywood Stars for their excesses. If a cartoon princess could capture the hearts of the world, who needed Mae West or Clark Gable? The most notable studio chief who took offense at this turn of events was Louis B. Mayer. A musical such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had it not been animated, was MGM’s domain. Mayer pledged to beat back this interloper by producing a family musical picture that would rival Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He just needed the right material.

He thought he might have found it in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. Samuel Goldwyn, whose Goldwyn Pictures had been absorbed into MGM, had purchased the Oz rights in the 1920’s and produced a 1925 silent picture based on the books. Mayer’s interest was further piqued when he discovered that Walt Disney was interested in the property as well. Walt Disney Productions in 1938 was no match for MGM. Louis B. Mayer acquired the rights and fast tracked a grand musical in the MGM tradition, based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.

The Wizard of Oz would have the full resources of MGM behind it. How else could a gigantic project such as this one which had no script at that time get produced quickly enough to be released the following year? The production would soon run into several catastrophic roadblocks that might have sunk films that were produced by lesser studios. The Wizard of Oz, however, was being produced by the all powerful MGM. Louis B. Mayer was the one man in Hollywood who was just as powerful (if not more so) than the Wizard of Oz. If anyone could get this complicated picture made, it would be him.