In early August 1939, The Wizard of Oz premiered in Hollywood in an event so lavish that the mounted police were called to handle the crowds of fans who’d arrived to see their favorite movie stars. Reviews the following day were even more ecstatic, with critics praising the film for its ability to create a land of “make-believe” so realistic that they would need to watch the film time and time again.
It’s safe to say, that after its debut, the film went on to change the way motion pictures were made, perceived and consumed. Year after year the image of a sepia Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” captures the imaginations of new audiences who wish they too could travel to the magical land of Oz and have their wishes come true. Yet with all that’s been said about the film, few people (other than die hard fans) know for, example, that Garland wouldn’t see the completed picture more than one year after its debut, or that Academy Award winner Gale Sondergaard, who had been cast as the Wicked Witch of the West quit the picture because she thought she was “too pretty” to play the part.
This and other interesting tidbits are included in The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion, a fascinating compendium of everything related to the movie classic. Written by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman, the book is a lovely “coffee table” piece that is sure to satisfy diehard fans as well as newbies. Most of the information contained in the book can be found in endless documentaries and specials made about the movie (some of which are also included in the new Blu-ray set, which is another beauty upon itself) but there is always something extra brought to the table by the texture and weight of paper.
In the introduction the authors justify the book’s existence by acknowledging the many other books written about the film and confessing they wanted to bring something new to the conversation. “We aspired to compile a commemorative album that adhered to strict criteria: its visuals would be largely composed of material rarely seen or previously unknown since 1939, and its text would contain newly uncovered quotes and fresh facts” they write.
For the most part they keep to this promise. Their book is organized in chronological order beginning with a short biographical account of the book’s author L. Frank Baum, and how his timeless classic drew the attention of MGM mogul Samuel Goldwyn who acquired the rights to the book in 1933. By the mid-1930’s another movie magician showed his interest in The Wizard of Oz; Walt Disney showed his interest in the rights to the book but received a negative from Goldwyn, leading to famous columnist Paul Harrison stating how he hoped Baum would haunt Goldwyn for not selling the rights to Disney.
The book then covers the arduous process of casting the characters and the film’s pre-production after Mervyn LeRoy signed on as producer. It details how MGM heads wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy, going against LeRoy’s wishes to cast Judy Garland. After Fox refused to lend Temple to its rival, they decided to go with Garland who seemed wrong from the start. Ozphiles clamored that she had dark hair and Dorothy was a blonde (proof that obsessive fandom isn’t a new phenomenon) and if anyone’s wondering why Dorothy was a redhead in the end, the book covers that as well.
From the infamous makeup that gave original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, an allergy, to the decision of making Wicked Witch actress Margaret Hamilton as scary as possible, the book covers every possible aspect that might enrich Oz lore. The book includes gorgeous behind the scenes footage including designs of the Emerald City rarely appreciated onscreen and set references of how famous moments came to be. After that we visit the complex post production and learn that the film’s footage remained untouched while engineers worked on the groundbreaking set design and then created the visual effects. The famous “Jitterbug” scene which included a musical number designed to compliment Judy Garland’s best known musical style was excised from the film and sadly the book isn’t able to make it the justice of actually listening to the odd little number.
As we enter the chapter which focuses on the film’s release, we are treated with publicity stills, posters and newspaper clippings which show the industry’s anxiety about finding out if this would be an over the top chaos or a new motion picture masterpiece. One of the book’s most fascinating entries deals with the film’s reception at the Academy Awards where it lost in all the major categories but went home with Oscars for its music. This is especially poignant because the authors point out that even if the film is now one of the most beloved film classics and is often brought up in lists enraged at how it lost the Best Picture Oscar, upon its arrival it was never really a threat to the other 1939 Technicolor extravaganza that was Gone With the Wind. “If Gone With the Wind had not won, the honor would most likely have gone to either Goodbye, Mr. Chips or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” they write and mention how The Wizard of Oz worked better as a showcase of MGM’s technical prowess than an actual threat to win Hollywood’s biggest prize.
Before concluding, the writers remark on The Wizard of Oz and how it was marketed to international audiences. The book includes collectible memorabilia that will have fans swooning, like reproductions of posters, publicity lobby cards and most exciting of all, a reproduction of the Wicked Witch of the East’s Certificate of Death, a true treasure from Munchkinland.
Overall, fans of the film will undoubtedly want to add this lavish book to their collection, especially if they’re avid collectors of Oz memorabilia. As lovely as it is, it will undoubtedly not be the last book on the film (especially how every five years we are provided with new restorations and more anniversaries to celebrate) but as it stands today, this book is the best tangible access to Oz goodies on print.