American Icon; The Wizard of Oz Was a Flop at First
Few movies will ever achieve as much lore as “The Wizard of Oz.” For every inch of celluloid, there are ten stories about the making of the movie, some true but most exaggerated.
It all began, after a brief test run, at the Mann’s Chinese Theater; the red carpet premiere in Hollywood, Los Angeles on August 15, 1939.
Audiences around the United States would get to see the movie in its full glory that same month, but the box office take would not reflect the expectations of the executives.
Oh, they made back their investment, by about $49-million in today’s money, but the near-patriotic love of the movie wouldn’t kick in for another decade.
“The Wizard of Oz” is the cinematic darling that was almost a dud, spared as much by the lore that spread around the story as it was by the persistent airing of the movie on TV.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The original book upon which they based the movie was from 1900, by L. Frank Burns. The title of Burns’ book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” made it as a song in the movie, but was apparently too long for the marquees.
Producers dropped the wonderful part, at least in the title.
In the story, a tornado knocks out a young girl named Dorothy. During her slumber, she dreams of walking a yellow brick road wearing a pair of silver slippers with her dog Toto, en route to the Emerald City.
There, they are to meet with the Wizard of Oz, who can help Dorothy and Toto get back home. Along the way, they meet the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the bad guy of the story… the Wicked Witch of the West.
The movie departed from the book in all the ways it counted, like when they making Dorothy’s shoes ruby instead of the silver ones described in Burns’ book.
Other than the beginning scenes in Kansas, which was shot in black and white, producers shot the film in Technicolor. When Dorothy opened the door of her house to the land of Oz, everything on the other side of the door was in full spectrum Technicolor.
When audiences arrived at the scene with the slippers, ruby was the obvious and best choice.
The fan theories and stories around the movie range from the absurd to the interesting. A quick jaunt down the yellow brick road of snopes.com can separate the fact from the fiction, but even the farces are amazing.
The most heinous rumor is the hanging story. In one scene one can see what appears to be a suicide by hanging in the forest background of the set. It’s a bird extending its wings, which is clear in quality copies of the movie.
In some versions of the lore, it’s a munchkin who hangs himself. In others, it’s a young actress who didn’t get the role of Dorothy. In reality, it was nobody. There is no hanging.
Speaking of young actresses, it was Shirley Temple, not Judy Garland, who was originally supposed to be Dorothy. That tale was true. Temple was too young at 11 years old.
The other bit of popular lore is that one can sync Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, “Dark Side of the Moon” with the movie by playing it after the MGM lion roars.
The beats of the tracks sync up well for much of the movie, but the band denies intentionally connecting their album to the venerable movie.
Other lore around makeup and on set accidents vary in truth, but viewers will spout the trivia they know as absolute fact during any airing. Like watching “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” one can’t sit through the film without interruption.
Made for TV
The producers of “The Wizard of Oz” didn’t intend to create a made for television movie, but it did so well in broadcast television once it made it to the little screen.
Before that, they re-released the film in theaters in 1949 hoping to make some more money, and they did. It only grossed $3-million in ’39, after $2-million in production costs. The 1949 run made up some of the expected revenue, enough to warrant doing it again in 1955.
In today’s world of Netflix and endless online content, that plan would never work, not unless they retooled the movie or something.
By 1959, enough homes had color television sets, MGM sold rights to air the movie on broadcast TV. Affiliates for CBS aired it during the holiday season to a positive response.
They repeated the December airing every year until the 1980s, melding it to the holidays as an American tradition. Today, folks rent or play copies of the movie at Christmas as part of their holiday ramp up.
While “The Wizard of Oz” didn’t hit the ground running in 1939, it has since lodged itself in the American psyche as another pillar of Americana. It’s not quite apple pie, but we’ll take it as a substitute for pumpkin.