When I sat down to write about the 75th anniversary of MGM’s iconic musical The Wizard of Oz, the strangest thing happened. No sooner had I booted up my laptop than the skies darkened, and the wind began to howl.
Heart hammering, I ran outside. Sure enough, there on the horizon was an undulating tower of dust and debris. An enormous twister, headed my way.
Looking harder, I saw that the tornado was made not of bad weather, but ordinary muslin: a 35-foot sock of the stuff, suspended from a gantry and disappearing into a slot in the ground. The roar I could hear was the sound of compressed air pumping fuller’s earth up through the sock’s interior, and spilling it out into the air.
This twister was a fake.
But it could still kill me.
Terrified, I ran to the storm cellar, my trusty laptop clutched to my chest. But it was too late. The cyclone was upon me. It seized me, lofted me skywards and carried me away, not over the rainbow but 75 years back through time to 25 August 1939, and the city of New York. On that very day, right across the USA, The Wizard of Oz was enjoying the biggest simultaneous launch of any motion picture in history, with synchronised openings in 400 theatres, and the support of a massive $250,000 ad campaign.
I flew above Broadway. Everything below me was black and white, like a Movietone newsreel. I was surrounded by flapping wings. Not birds, nor even flying monkeys, but the popular magazines of the day. They spun past me, spilling their stories about the making of the most famous movie musical ever made …
Motion Picture Daily, 18 August 1939:
“… opening of Wizard of Oz at the Capitol, with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney making a personal appearance, had Broadway gasping yesterday. Lines of waiting patrons, four abreast, extended to 51st St., west to Eighth Ave., down 50th St. and back to the box-office for a complete encirclement of the block on which the Capitol stands. The house played to absolute capacity all day, and it was estimated that 35,000 paid their way through the box-office. Sixty police were assigned to the theatre area …”
Hollywood, March 1939:
“… as the tin woodman in the Wizard of Oz, Jack Haley has to put on a silver make-up of such a chemical nature that it’s dangerous to wear. When putting it on, the make-up man protects the actor’s eyes by using shields. Once on, Jack is followed around by assistant make-up men who watch closely to see that Jack’s face is free from perspiration. The make-up takes about three hour to put on and two to remove and Jack has figured out that before the picture is finished he will have devoted more than five hundred and forty hours to make-up alone …”
Photoplay, September 1939:
“… 165 arts and crafts … 65 separate sets … a city of 22,000 glass objects … 40,000 poppies … 212,180 separate sound effects … Jack Dawn, head of the make-up department, devised 116 separate faces for [the Munchkins] …[costume designer Adrian turned out] 4,000 costumes for the more than 1,000 members of the cast [and] devised “skins” and eagle wings for the Flying Monkeys and two skins with a zipper for Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion …”
Motion Picture, March 1939:
“… [Jack Dawn] has invented a gelatinous, flexible substance that looks like flesh, and when put on the face allows complete freedom of expression. It’s light and porous, absorbs perspiration, and is comfortable to wear … He considers [The Wizard of Oz] his biggest and most difficult assignment to date. And it will show his wonders of make-up. A man will look like a lion or flying monkey and still preserve his identity …”
I clawed at the pages of the magazines, seeking more detail. What of the special effects? What of those glorious matte paintings? What more could I learn about the construction of the very twister that had carried me away?
Alas, it was too late. Already the cyclone was carrying me back home. I snatched one more glance at Motion Picture as it tumbled away, fascinated and amused by its closing lines concerning makeup artist Jack Dawn:
“Jack lives in the San Fernando Valley, and is the husband of the beauteous Marla Shelton, who patiently submits to his various tests and experiments, and with whom he is very much in love.”
I awoke at my desk, blinking and bemused. In front of me was my laptop. On its screen were the very words you read now. I had no memory of writing them.
I stretched, went to the window. The sky was clear, the air fresh as if from recent rain, though the ground was entirely dry.
Far in the distance, a rainbow sparkled.
I gazed into the rainbow’s many colours, remembering the long-ago world of 1939 to which I’d been unexpectedly whisked. The monochrome world. I thought about how, in the film, Dorothy’s Kansas homeland is black and white, while her destination of Oz is a many-hued dream. Yet my experience had been the opposite. After a moment, I understood why.
In 1939, movie magic was still a closely-guarded secret. Read the magazines of the day, and you’ll be lucky to find anything more than the kind of studio flim-flam I’ve just shown you. As for what you do read, well, it may be true … or it may just be humbug.
So I was glad to return to the world of today, a rainbow world of infinite colour, in which the secret world of cinematic illusions is there to be discovered, if only you know where to look. Some say knowing spoils the magic. Others say knowledge is power.
Me, I say there’s no place like home.
- The Wizard of Oz 75th aniiversary website
- The Wizard of Oz: 75th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray
- The Making of The Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz
Quotes and magazine image sourced via the Media History Digital Library