Fantasy movies are as old as the movies. The several-minute-long earliest movies featured all the themes of the whole industry to come, like a couple kissing, a train coming into a station, a trip to the moon, a cowboy shooting a gun, and a demon appearing out of nowhere. But the fantasy movie came into its own with The Wizard of Oz, and that may be the most enjoyed movie in history. On AFI’s list, the film is Number 6 of all time, the Wicked Witch of the West is the Number Four Villain, “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow” the Number One Song, and “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” is the Number Four Movie Quote.
Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) lives on a farm in Kansas with Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) and Auntie Em (Clara Blandwik), who employ three farmhands—Zeke (Bert Lahr), Hunk (Ray Bolger), and Hickory (Jack Haley). When Dorothy’s little dog Toto bites the mean and wealthy Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), she gets the Sheriff to order the dog euthanized. Toto and Dorothy run away. Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), a carnival magician and fortune-teller, tells her to go home and Dorothy returns just as a tornado hits the farm. Dorothy’s house is taken up into the sky and dropped into what is basically another dimension.
When she emerges, the world is in full color. She is greeted by Munchkins and Glenda the Good Witch (Billie Burke). The Munchkins of Munchkinland are celebrating because somebody dropped a house on the Wicked Witch of the East. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton again), tries to grab her sister’s ruby slippers (a kind of teleportation device), but Glinda magically transfers them to Dorothy’s feet. The Wicked Witch vows to get Dorothy and her little dog too. Glinda tells Dorothy she can get home by journeying to see the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan again), so she follows the Yellow Brick Road toward the Emerald City.
On the way, she meets her companions—the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger again), who wants a brain, the Tin Man (Jack Haley again), who lacks a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr again), who needs courage. They think they can get all these things from the Wizard, so off they go. The Wicked Witch tries to stop them in various ways, but they reach the Emerald City. The doorman eventually lets them in because Glinda sent them. The Wizard is a huge ghostly head with a powerful voice who will grant them their wishes if they bring him the Witch’s broomstick.
They are captured by flying monkeys and taken to the witch, but Dorothy is protected by her slippers. They are confronted by the witch, who sets fire to the scarecrow. Dorothy throws a bucket of water on him but it splashes on the witch and she melts. Her much-relieved guards give Dorothy the broomstick.
They return to the wizard and Toto pulls aside a curtain to reveal that the Wonderful Wizard is just a man with projectors and loud-speakers and a lightshow. He confesses that he arrived in a tornado like Dorothy. He gives her companions testimonials that prove they already have what they need. The hot-air balloon accidentally takes off without Dorothy, but Glinda appears and teaches how to click her Ruby Slippers and say, “There’s no place like Home,” whereupon she is transported back to Kansas. She awakens in bed with a washcloth on her head and surrounded by her family and friends.
The film was directed, mostly, by Victor Fleming and produced by MGM, based on the 1900 fantasy novel by L. Frank Baum and a script by, mostly, Noel Langely, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf. Parts of the script were written by Ogden Nash and by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who came up with the idea of filming the Kansas scenes in black and white and the Oz scenes in color. Baum got the idea for Oz from the 1893 World’s Fair and, famously, his second file cabinet O-Z. The music was composed by Harold Arlen. It was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and it received rave reviews, but did not make any real profit until it appeared on TV in 1956. Then it quickly became the most seen movie in history.
They spent a week choosing the perfect yellow for the brick road. For a while, W.C. Fields was supposed to play the Wizard, but they spent too much time haggling over salary. There is a story that a coat found in a second-hand clothing store for the Wizard turned out to have belonged to L. Frank Baum, but some people don’t believe it. Talent scouts scoured the country for 100 little people. Many of them were Jewish and used the film to get out of Europe before the Nazis took over. The horses were dyed different colors with gelatin and had to be filmed quickly before they licked it off. As the film was an unheard-of two full hours long, a scarecrow dance sequence and several musical numbers were cut. “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow” was almost one of them.
It's a wonder that anybody survived the shoot. Famously, Buddy Ebson, hired to play the Tin Man, became ill from the aluminum dust on his costume, and was replaced by Jack Haley, though his voice was still used for songs. Haley had to lean against a board to rest because the Tin Woodman costume was so stiff. Thirty-eight years later, Anthony Daniels had to do the same as C3PO. The color film required a temperature of 100 degrees on the set. Bert Lahr’s costume was made of real lion skin and was sweltering inside. The poppy field was filled with snow made of asbestos. Some of the flying monkeys were dropped by their piano wires and injured. Margaret Hamilton was accidentally set on fire.
Hamilton’s scenes were trimmed as too scary for children. They would run away from her all her life, even though she tried to de-mystify the Wicked Witch by appearing and talking about the character on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. In reality, she was a lovely person and Judy Garland adored her. Judy Garland was in pain from the ruby slippers most of the time and wore a tight corset to hide her breasts as she was playing a part several times her junior, but apparently, she was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of everybody from Louis B. Mayer to the Munchkin Dwarfs. Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr resented the central role being given to a virtual unknown, so they upstaged her and played cruel practical jokes on her.
The character of Dorothy Gale and her blue gingham dress were inspired by Alice in Wonderland. She was named for the daughter of Frank Baum’s brother-in-law, Dorothy Gage, who died at the age of five months. In 1997, one of the last surviving Munchkins, who owned a monument company, named a cemetery after the child. The Smithsonian still has to change the carpets in front of the Ruby Slippers display frequently because so many people stand there to look at them. When Dorothy is told by a guard that she cannot see the Wizard, she bursts into tears. Judy Garland had just been told that her dog had died. Her daughter, Lisa Minnelli, married Jack Haley’s son.
Paul Williams wrote “The Rainbow Connection” song for the Muppet Movie, inspired by “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow.” Salman Rushdie was inspired to become a writer after seeing the movie as a child in India. For a while, versions of the movie shown in the U.K. had “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” cut out because protestors were singing it to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher. The sets were used by Little House on the Prairie in the Seventies. Michael Landon took up the floor of one building and found the yellow brick road underneath. In the movie Twister (1996), the tornado-catching device is named Dorothy. On the Day Judy Garland died, there was a tornado in Kansas.