MGM’s 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz, the most famous adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel, was far from the first. The Wizard of Oz was a Broadway mega-hit way back in 1903, making a deep impact on the popular culture of the early 20th century. Nor was the MGM film the first Wizard of Oz to reach the silver screen; that distinction belongs to a 1910 short made by the Selig Polyscope Company. The 1939 movie was not even the first Oz film adaptation to feature prominent actors; fourteen years earlier, a slapstick version of The Wizard of Oz had been released, co-starring movie comedians Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy.
What MGM’s Wizard of Oz can claim, however, is the title of not only the best-known and most greatly loved Oz adaptation of all time, but one of the most beloved and most widely seen films ever made. The American Film Institute has named it the best American fantasy movie, and it is preserved in both the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry and UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two.
The Yellow Brick Road from paper to celluloid was not an easy one; the production of The Wizard of Oz was both arduous and expensive. More than a dozen writers tinkered with the script through numerous revisions (screen credit ultimately went to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf); five directors came and went (the final movie bore the name of Victor Fleming, who was on set for most of the filming and also directed Gone with the Wind the same year); Buddy Ebsen, originally cast as the Tin Man, had to leave the production when his silver makeup made him sick; and Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, suffered severe burns while filming a special-effects scene and spent six weeks recovering. The film eventually exceeded its budget by half a million dollars.
In the end, however, the sheer manpower and determination of the most powerful movie studio got the job done, and The Wizard of Oz debuted to great fanfare with a star-studded premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on August 15, 1939. In early test screenings the film was nearly two hours long; by the time of the premiere it had been cut to its final 101-minute version, with Judy Garland’s indelible rendition of “Over the Rainbow” surviving only because of the combined insistence of director Victor Fleming, producer Mervyn LeRoy, and associate producer Arthur Freed.
Contrary to some claims, The Wizard of Oz was generally well reviewed in 1939, although it did not break even in its initial release. The movie had successful re-releases in 1949 and 1955, but it was through the new medium of television that Wizard achieved immortality in popular culture. First aired on TV in 1956, the film returned to the small screen in 1959 and became a special once-a-year family viewing event from then until 1991. That annual tradition secured Wizard a firm foundation as a beloved staple of every American’s childhood.
Many unique elements contributed to the immortality of the MGM film. Apart from the innate power of the original story by L. Frank Baum, the monumental performing talents of Judy Garland as Dorothy may be the biggest single factor. Under the expert direction of Victor Fleming, Garland, along with co-stars Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow), Jack Haley (the Tin Man), and Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion), brought the story to life compellingly and sensitively. An army of talented costumers, painters, makeup artists, sound and special effects experts, camera technicians, musicians, and others made the wonderful Land of Oz a stunning reality for millions. The dazzling songs by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg are permanent fixtures of the musical lexicon, with the Oscar-winning “Over the Rainbow” ranked number one on the Recording Industry Association of America and National Endowment for the Arts’ “Songs of the Century list” as well as on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Songs” list. An even greater tribute may be that “Over the Rainbow” became a meaningful anthem evoking home for American troops overseas during World War II.
The late film critic Roger Ebert wrote that The Wizard of Oz “somehow seems real and important in a way most movies don’t. Is that because we see it first when we’re young? Or simply because it is a wonderful movie? Or because it sounds some buried universal note, some archetype or deeply felt myth? I lean toward the third possibility, that the elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children…. Its underlying story penetrates straight to the deepest insecurities of childhood, stirs them and then reassures them. As adults, we love it because it reminds us of a journey we have taken. That is why any adult in control of a child is sooner or later going to suggest a viewing of The Wizard of Oz.”
And it is that first viewing of The Wizard of Oz that often creates in children a fascination with the film and, frequently, leads them to a dizzying array of Oz collectibles. Ironically, while the MGM film has in many ways eclipsed the original book, the movie also has led countless viewers to rediscover the Oz series and its many delights that have yet to be glimpsed onscreen. Lots of Oz fans enjoy both the film and the books equally, if in different ways. As the MGM movie’s prologue says, “For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.”