Thursday marks 80 years since the Aug. 15, 1939, Hollywood premiere of the film classic The Wizard of Oz, the story of a tornado that hits Kansas and transports a young girl named Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, to a magical place called Oz, where she embarks on a journey to track down the wizard who can help her go home.
The Hollywood studio MGM had pulled out all of the stops for the movie, spending $3 million (about $55 million today), desperate to match the commercial success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And it worked: The film won two Academy Awards for its music — “Over the Rainbow” won best original song and made Judy Garland famous— in addition to earning nominations for best picture, best cinematography, art direction and special effects. Commercially speaking it made decent money when it was released, but made even more money after CBS aired it for the first time on Nov. 3, 1956.
By 1967, TIME could declare that it had become “the most popular single film property in the history of U.S. television.” The movie had made Garland a “national legend,” the magazine continued.
But despite its commercial success, The Wizard of Oz is seen by some as cursed. There were so many serious accidents on set that those Oscar-nominated special effects almost cost cast members their lives, from the two actors playing winged monkeys crashing to the ground when the wires that hoisted them up in the air broke, to the Wicked Witch of the West’s stunt double Betty Danko injuring her left leg when the broomstick exploded.
“Some of these special effects had never been done before,” says Aljean Harmetz, a former New York Times Hollywood correspondent who wrote The Making of The Wizard of Oz, which revealed the disastrous filmmaking process. “There were no unions, at that time. Stars and lesser players were indentured servants [for] studios.”
But not everything you may have heard about problems on the set is true. “I think it had a basis in truth and it was magnified,” says Anne Edwards, author of Judy Garland: A Biography.
Here’s what’s real and what’s myth in some of the most popular theories:
True: the makeup made actors sick
Buddy Ebsen was originally cast in the role of the Tin Woodman, a.k.a. the Tin Man, but he was essentially poisoned by the makeup, which was made of pure aluminum dust. Nine days after filming started he was hospitalized, sitting under an oxygen tent. When he was not getting better fast enough, the filmmakers hired Jack Haley to be the Tin Man instead. This time, instead of applying the aluminum powder, the makeup artists mixed it into a paste and painted it on him. He did develop an infection in his right eye that needed medical attention, but it ended up being treatable.
Margaret Hamilton — who played the Wicked Witch of the West and was the one tipped who Harmetz off to the turmoil on set more than three decades later for her 1977 book — got burns, and the makeup artists had to rush to remove her copper makeup so that it wouldn’t seep through her wounds and become toxic. Unlike Ebsen, she didn’t get fired because they could live without her on the set for several more weeks.
False: An actor who played a munchkin hanged himself on set
In a scene where Dorothy, the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), and the Tin Man (Jack Haley) are skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, singing “we’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz,” some think the dark, moving figure hanging from a tree in the background is an actor who hanged himself on set. More likely, it’s one of the exotic birds that the filmmakers borrowed from the Los Angeles Zoo in order to create a wilderness setting, according to the fact-checking website Snopes.com. The rumor has been circulating since around 1989, the time of the 50th anniversary of the film’s release.
True: Someone stepped on Toto
An actor playing one of the Wicked Witch of the West’s soldiers accidentally jumped on top of Dorothy’s Toto, Carl Spitz, the dog trainer on set, told Harmetz. The dog (a female Cairn terrier named Terry) sprained its foot, and Spitz had to get a canine double. Terry did recover and returned to the set a few weeks later.
Probably false: Judy Garland was molested by actors playing munchkins
In a memoir by Judy Garland’s third husband, Sid Luft, published posthumously in 2017, he writes that, after bar-hopping in Culver City, the actors who played the munchkins “would make Judy’s life miserable by putting their hands under her dress.”
Harmetz says it’s true that the actors would go drinking near the Culver City hotel where they stayed, but she says their interactions with Garland did not rise to the level of what Luft described. “Nobody on the movie ever saw her or heard of a munchkin assaulting her,” says Harmetz.
Garland did say the drinking was annoying in an interview with talk-show host Jack Paar, but experts on Garland’s life say that her rant about being scarred by the rowdy behavior on set may have been a deflection from the real damage she suffered during that time, at the hands of the studio. Garland was only 16 when she made The Wizard of Oz, and her struggles with depression and disordered eating started at an early age and continued for the rest of her life. She claimed that the studio executives gave her uppers and sleeping pills so she could keep up with the demanding pace of show business. She struggled with a drug addiction and attempted suicide several times before she died of an accidental overdose on June 22, 1969, at just 47 years old.
“If she was a normal kid, allowed to go to a normal school and not come into the industry until she was an adult,” says Harmetz, “I doubt the tragedy that became her life in her last years would have happened.”
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