It’s been 80 years since the release of The Wizard of Oz, a moment that made a mark on cinematic history forever.
It cemented Judy Garland has a major Hollywood star, earned numerous awards and five Oscar nominations (as well as a win for Best Original Score) and in the decades since has become one of the most watched movies ever and its song, ‘Over the Rainbow’, is a timeless classic.
The film version of L Frank Baum’s original book has lived on through the various movies, TV shows, comics and other pop culture adaptations that have been created in the last 80 years.
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However as much as The Wizard of Oz is a classic celebration of celluloid achievement for many of those who made it, the film will not be remembered in as joyful terms as the audience rather a cursed production that nearly cost them their lives.
Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, had to be rushed to hospital after suffering a second-degree burn on her face as well as a third-degree burn on her hand from a stunt gone wrong. The scene involved Hamilton jumping through a trapdoor to make an exit from Munchkinland but the Special Effects team set the pyrotechnics off too early and she was injured.
“I won’t sue because I know how this business works and I would never work again,” the actress said at the time. “ I will return to work one condition - no more fireworks!”
Her stunt double Betty Danko also suffered burns though her injuries occurred while shooting the “Surrender Dorothy” skywriting scene. Danko was sat on the Witch’s broom which was, in fact, a smoking pipe and during one take it exploded and she was forced to spend two weeks in the hospital to recover. The stuntwoman still has lasting scars from the experience.
A toxic work environment... literally
Jake Haley famously played the Tin-Man, and his son went on to marry Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, but he wasn’t the first choice for the role.
Buddy Ebsen was but he suffered an allergic reaction to the silver make-up used and was hospitalised.
Haley took over the part and even though the aluminium powder that hurt Ebsen was changed to a less toxic paste he still ended up with an eye infection.
Judy Garland may well have endured the most torturous shoot out of everyone. The actress was 17-years-old and on contract with MGM when she was cast as Dorothy and the producers put her through immense stress and suffering in order for her to look the childish part.
Garland had already abusing narcotics for years thanks to her stage-mother Ethel and that continued into her movie career in order to keep her weight down, wake her up or send her to sleep in accordance with her gruelling shoot schedules. MGM studio head Louis B Mayer was said to be instrumental in Garland’s abuse, who not only sexually harassed the young starlet but would send spies down to the Oz set to ensure she was sticking to her diet of chicken soup, black coffee and 80 cigarettes a day to curb her appetite.
If the star was seen breaking her diet she would be reprimanded and forced to consume more diet pills in order to maintain her tiny seven stone-figure. Even at that weight, Garland’s breasts were bound with tape and a special corset was made in order to flatten her curves which was no doubt painful to wear for the long hours the shoot demanded.
“They had us working days and nights on end. They’d give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills,” Garland once said. “Then after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling but it was a way of life for us.”
Garland also had to suffer through the advances of some of the rowdier Munchkin actors. Many crew and cast members have spoken of the drunken actions of the diminutive stars who would apparently drink between takes and cause police to come out to the crew hotel to break up their debauched parties.
“They put them all in one hotel...they got smashed every night, and they picked them up in butterfly nets,” Garland told Jack Paar in a 1967 interview. Her ex-husband, Sidney Luft, said in his memoir that the actors, “would make Judy’s life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress.”
“The men were 40 or more years old,” he wrote. “They thought they could get away with anything because they were so small.”
Poor Judy continued
The Wizard of Oz truly marked the downward spiral of Judy Garland’s life despite just being 17. The tragic star's childhood was robbed by the likes of Mayer and her mother Ethel who exploited her talents for their own financial gain and her life never really recovered.
She was married five times and despite her public “girl next door” image she was said to act volatile and erratic on movie sets. Her dependence on pills continued throughout her life and was the cause of her untimely death aged 47 on 22 June 1969
“I tried my damnedest to believe in that rainbow that I tried to get over and I couldn’t,” Garland once said.
“I just couldn’t.”