MUNCHKIN orgies. Judy Garland beaten by the director. The Wicked Witch almost burned alive. Neil Mackay, Writer at Large, discovers that the making of the world’s most influential and best loved film was hardly child’s play, as the movie marks its 80th birthday.


BEFORE the Munchkin orgies, before the director slapped Judy Garland, before the Wicked Witch nearly burned to death, The Wizard of Oz was a day-dream in the mind of a two-time loser called L Frank Baum.

Baum was born rich but flunked most things he tried - his store ‘Baum’s Bazaar’, and a newspaper he ran, both failed. However, he loved children, and he loved writing. Baum wanted a daughter - he planned to call her Dorothy - but when his first child Frank was born in 1883, Baum began inventing stories to entertain him, stories which would eventually be published as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in August 1900, with 14 sequels following.

Baum was unsuccessfully adapting his Oz stories into films in the early years of Hollywood when he died at his home, Ozcot, in California in 1919. Twenty years later, in 1939, Hollywood would finally work its magic on Baum’s creation and turn The Wizard of Oz into the most celebrated and influential film in cinema history.

This week the movie marks its 80th anniversary. For a film which moulded the childhoods of millions, the story of how this strange fairytale came to the screen is far from kid-friendly. In fact, at times, it’s strictly for adults only.


IN 1937, Louis B Mayer, the mogul who headed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most glittering of Hollywood’s dream factories, bought the rights to The Wizard of Oz for $75,000. The plan was to make a movie rivalling Disney’s game-changing Snow White. MGM marked Oz ‘Production Number 1060’. It cost nearly $3m to make and was one of the most expensive productions ever, taking nearly 20 years to turn a profit. The film’s lyricist, Yip Harburg, said the studio never banked on Oz making money: ‘Once a year they did a loser for prestige.”

In the 30s, the studio system ran Hollywood. Directors, writers, and actors were all ‘owned’ by one of the big studios like MGM or Columbia. Studio bosses had final say, and below them the producer was king, not the director. Writers were told what movies to work on, as were directors and actors.

Herman Mankiewicz, who’d go on to win an Oscar for Citizen Kane, was the first of ten writers attached to Oz. An alcoholic, his major contribution was the idea that the film should be shot in black and white when Dorothy is in Kansas, but in colour when she’s in Oz. The American poet Ogden Nash stepped in briefly after Mankiewicz was taken off the project, but it was third writer Noel Langley, aged just 26, who made the script his own, and created much of the story, including the ruby slippers - although they were originally silver. However, he also had sprawling side stories involving the Wicked Witch’s son ‘Bulbo’, which were later cut.

Summer leaves: Scotland’s top writers select their favourite literary fragments

Langley, however, would see his career ruined by studio boss Mayer. After shooting ended, Langley was heard to publicly say: “Every time Mayer smiles at me, I feel a snake has crawled over my foot.” He was blacklisted and couldn’t get another job for any studio.

Langley watched the movie alone in a cinema on Hollywood Boulevard when it was released. “I sat and cried like a bloody child,” he said. “I loathed the picture.” He wasn’t alone. The New Yorker called it a “stinkeroo”. As Aljean Harmetz says in her book The Making of The Wizard of Oz: “Most of the serious critics thought it dreadful.”


The wrong man got the Oscar. When Oz won the Academy Award for Best Original Score it went to Herbert Stothart - house composer for MGM. The only problem was he hadn’t written any of the songs - the real work was done by lyricist and composer Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen. But under the studio system jobbing songwriters were treated as badly as jobbing screenwriters.

Arlen and Harburg - later blacklisted as a communist during the McCarthy era - were paid a flat rate of $25,000 and given a bungalow at MGM to live and work in. Their first task was tackling “the lemon drop songs” - light, catchy tunes like Ding Dong the Witch is Dead and We’re Off to See the Wizard. Some tunes, like If I Only Had a Brain, had already been written for other musicals and just needed new lyrics.

The idea for the film’s anthem, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, came to Arlen when he drove past Schwab’s Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard - a place that summed up the song’s sense of longing. The drugstore was famous for the wannabe movie stars who hung out there, and the legend that a beautiful girl could get an agent before she finished her milkshake at the soda fountain.

After his first preview of the movie, though, Mayer pulled Over the Rainbow from the film asking: “Why does she sing in a barnyard?”. Harburg and Arlan were horrified. Harburg said the studio bosses were “ignorant jerks”. Eventually, Mayer relented and allowed the song to remain. Other songs were not so fortunate - The Jitterbug took five weeks to shoot and cost £80,000 but ended up on the cutting room floor for the first release.

As the film’s biographer Aljean Harmetz says: “What is most remarkable about the Wizard of Oz - and perhaps the mark of its success - is that one doesn’t really think of it as a musical.”


MGM was famous for having “more stars than there are in heaven”. Judy Garland was one of 253 actors under contract with the studio when she was hired in 1935, aged 13, on $100 a week. It was the beginning of a career which would bring Garland fame and adoration, as well as abject mental and physical suffering. She was a raw and sensational talent but not conventionally beautiful, and in the Hollywood of the 1930s that meant “the teeth capped, the nose restructured, the thick waist held in by corsets, and the body reshaped as well as possible by diet and massage” - as Aljean Harmetz describes how Mayer moulded his young star.

The mogul even referred to Garland as his “little hunchback”. He initially didn’t want her in Oz and tried to secure Shirley Temple, but she was under contract with 20th Century Fox. The trials and humiliations of child stardom led to a lifetime struggle with drink and drugs for Garland - eventually leading to her death, after a number of suicide attempts, by an accidental barbiturate overdose aged 47.

Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley - who played the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man - were all seasoned vaudeville stars on higher salaries than Garland. Bolger was on $3000 a week. Haley was a last minute replacement. Initially, Buddy Ebsen - who went on to star in the The Beverly Hillbillies - was cast as the Tin Man, but an allergy to aluminium make-up nearly killed him, and Haley stepped in.

WC Fields was the first call for playing the Wizard - but he wanted too much cash, asking £100,000, so Frank Morgan begged the studio for the role. Morgan was not a star, but a charming alcoholic. He carried a briefcase filled with Martinis so he was never without a drink. In an astonishing coincidence, a frock coat bought from a second hand store for Morgan’s costume was found with a label stitched inside - it read ‘L Frank Baum’, and was authenticated as the writer’s. When shooting wrapped, Morgan gave the coat to Baum’s widow.

The Wicked Witch might have turned out very different if producer Mervyn Le Roy had his way - he wanted a glamorous villainess, all sequins and figure-hugging dresses. Studio bosses scotched the idea, and the role fell to Margaret Hamilton who made the part her own.

Hamilton was a 36-year-old single mother who, although she’s terrified generations of children, is recalled by all who knew her as a kind, gentle, clever and funny woman. Playing the Good Witch Glinda was Billie Burke, the bejewelled wife of Florenz Ziegfield, of Ziegfield Follies fame. When her husband died leaving her half a million in debt, Burke turned to the movies to stay afloat. Burke’s dressing room had satin walls and a pink chaise-longue, Hamilton’s was a canvas tent.

READ MORE: Brian Cox on bringing Logan Roy and Succession home to Scotland

There was one final star to cast: Toto - played by Terry, a female Cairn Terrier, who suffered from chronic shyness. Despite a tendency to hide when there was loud noises, Terry was hired on £125 a week. By that stage of her career, 16-year-old Garland was on £500.


“We had a hell of a time with those little guys,” producer Mervyn LeRoy recalled. “They got into sex orgies at the hotel. We had to have police on every floor … Everything you can imagine sexually was going on.”

Screenwriter Noel Langley remembers “showgirls” being escorted to their rooms by armed guards. Judy Garland once said: “They were drunks. They got smashed every night and the police had to pick them up in butterfly nets.”

Others described the Munchkins as an “unholy assemblage of pimps, hookers, and gamblers”.

One Munchkin actor bit a policeman, a few were known to carry knives, and some female Munchkin actors did solicit the crew. But as the film’s biographer Aljean Harmetz says most were well-behaved. “Memories are distorted because the activities of [a] few … were applied to all the Munchkins.”

In fact, many - who’d been exploited and abused due to their disabilities - were shy and vulnerable. This was the era when most of the 124 little people needed for the film could be hired from a company called ‘Singer’s Midgets’, on five dollars a day.

The ‘big world’ was also dangerous. Attendants were hired to take some to the bathroom after one actor fell down a toilet and couldn’t get out.


Oz had four directors. Richard Thorpe for two weeks, George Cukor for three days, and King Vidor for ten days - but it was Victor Fleming who got the credit and put in the most work over four months. Fleming also took the Best Picture Oscar from Oz with his other film of 1939 Gone With the Wind.

Fleming was macho to the bone. He shot wild cats outside his Bel Air home, and had a particularly vile party trick of killing flies and eating them. He was a flamboyant anti-communist with his own plane, and infamous for womanising. During one confrontation on set, Fleming lost his temper with Garland who was unable to stop laughing at the clowning of Lahr’s Lion.

John Lee Mahin, a screenwriter friend of Fleming who was on set, recalled: “They must have done the scene ten times and eventually she was giggling so much she got hysterical. She couldn’t stop laughing. And Vic slapped her on the face. ‘All right now,’ he said, ‘go back to your dressing room.’ She went. And when she came back she said, ‘Ok.’ And they did the scene.”

The shooting was exhausting and gruelling - especially for the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow who suffered through lengthy make-up sessions and baking arc lights. By lunchtime, with their make-up melting, the crew found them so “disgusting” to look at that the three ate alone in their dressing room.

Garland’s breasts were bound with cloth to keep her looking pre-pubescent, causing her considerable pain, but she never complained. Many of the crew worked round the clock and the place was awash in alcohol.

Filming was plagued by accidents - thanks to the demanding and physical special effects. Betty Danko, stunt double for Margaret Hamilton, was crushed on set. Hamilton was badly injured when she caught fire during a scene where the witch disappears in a puff of smoke. Her face was burned and the skin on one hand completely removed, exposing the nerves. She was unable to film for six weeks. When she returned, Fleming grasped her so hard by the injured hand that she almost fainted.


Although the film has earned billions to date, it initially made a loss of about $1m at the box office. However, its real legacy isn’t financial but cultural. Its simple message of family, hope and home caught the imagination of a public about to face six years of war in Europe. Its arrival on TV at Christmas from the 50s to the 80s secured its place in the hearts of babyboomers and Generation Xers. The gay community embraced Garland as a suffering icon.

Director David Lynch once said Oz influenced every film made since 1939. His own movie Wild At Heart is a love letter to Oz. Steven Spielberg’s AI is Oz reimagined with robots. Musicians have been inspired by it, like Elton John with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. If there’s a list of all time great movies, Oz is there, usually at the top. Its words and symbols, songs and ideas are weaved into everyday life. How often do you hear someone say ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’, or refer to a villain as ‘the Wicked Witch of the West’. The Wizard of Oz has shaped our imaginations from childhood to adulthood - which is why even at the ripe old age of 80 it will continue to live on long after all of us have quit the stage.

Ray Bolger the Scarecrow said it was the movie’s “simple philosophy” which made it immortal: “There’s no place like home, everybody has a heart, everybody has a brain, everybody has a soul.”