While The Wizard of Oz script was still being worked out, MGM set about casting the film. Casting the film turned out to be no easier than finalizing the script. Originally Shirley Temple was considered for the iconic role of Dorothy. She was the biggest young star at the time, but was signed to Twentieth Century Fox. MGM reportedly started negotiating to borrow Miss Temple from Fox, but once it was decided to produce The Wizard of Oz as a full fledged musical, she was not seen as being suitable for the role.
Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Louis B. Mayer
The MGM Casting directors soon turned their attention to Deanna Durbin, who was also under contract to another studio. As the script and songs began to finalize, however, her singing voice was not seen as being suitable for the role.
Of course, MGM contract player Judy Garland would eventually take the iconic role of Dorothy, which turned her into a superstar.
The next major roles to get cast were the Scarecrow and Tin Man. Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Scarecrow and Ray Bolger as the Tin Man. Bolger, however, had always wanted to play the scarecrow. MGM decided to grant his request and swapped their parts. Bert Lahr was the last of Dorothy’s friends to get cast in the film.
Buddy Ebsen, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland and Bert Lahr
The biggest challenge, however, was casting the dwarves who would portray the Munchkins. MGM needed hundreds of them to completely fill out Munchkinland. MGM was unable to finish the casting before production began, so the Munchkinland sequence was one of the last scenes filmed. MGM looked far and wide for little people who could sing, dance and act and flew them all out to Hollywood. The film would be a defining moment for the dwarves cast in it; most of them had never met another little person before. While their behavior on set was legendarily exaggerated, they were quite a raucous bunch.
For the actual Wizard of Oz, MGM looked outside its lot at first, wooing W.C. Fields for the role. As negotiations with Fields dragged on, the studio chose an MGM contract player- Frank Morgan to portray the Wizard. A similar issue came up with casting the wicked witch. MGM reached outside its fabled contract roster to hire Gale Sondergaard to portray the witch. Ms. Sondergaard was excited to play the role at first, mainly because the intent was to make the witch more glamorous, like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
However, the character soon morphed into a more traditional, haggish witch. Gale was not interested in portraying such a character and bailed out just days before the shooting was supposed to begin. MGM turned to Margaret Hamilton, another MGM contract player to take the role.
Production on the film would begin in mid-October of 1938, with the film’s release planned for August of 1939. That the project ran into so many problems- with both script and casting- and still made it to production is a testament to MGM’s movie making machine. The film would need even more help as filming began.