A title card after the opening credits of THE WIZARD OF OZ reads,

For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart, and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion. To those of you who have been faithful to it in return… and to the Young in Heart… we dedicate this picture.”

The “forty years” in question are those between the release of the movie in 1939 and the publication of L. Frank Baum’s book in 1900, but they could easily be substituted with the 80 years since the MGM classic opened in theaters. As much as the world changed in those first forty years of the 20th century, it has changed exponentially more by the year 2019. And yet, that capital-t Time is still powerless to put THE WIZARD OF OZ out of fashion. As an entry in “Hollywood’s Greatest Year,” THE WIZARD OF OZ is certainly the most recognizable and universal, but how well does it hold up 80 years later? How did the most influential movie in history come to be?

Pay No Attention to the Men Behind the Curtain

Looking at the making of THE WIZARD OF OZ, it should have ended up a complete mess. There should have been too many cooks in the kitchen, too many accidents, too many sky-high expectations for the end result to be as successful as it is. Four directors helmed the epically scaled feature at one point or another: Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Victor Fleming, King Vidor, and then Fleming again. (Fleming and Cukor also did this dance on GONE WITH THE WIND, oddly enough.) That much inconsistency almost never works in a film’s favor.

But it was the distinct input from each of these directors that brought out certain miracles. Cukor shaped Garland’s look and presence as Dorothy. Vidor shot the “Over the Rainbow” scene, which Fleming wanted to cut. Fleming, for his part, steered the ship through eight months of grueling conditions and experimental methods.

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Somewhere over the rainbow way up high… Courtesy of MGM.

At least fifteen writers contributed to the script, both credited and discredited. Producers have volleyed for credit, too, from studio heads Louis B. Mayer and Nicholas Schenck to official producer Mervyn LeRoy to the uncredited Arthur Freed, who reportedly got Mayer to adapt the book in the first place and later brought Judy Garland to the studio’s attention.

The making of THE WIZARD OF OZ is truly a testament to the structure of the studio system. Whether you agree with its business practices and quality of output or not, its efficiency is undeniable. MGM purchased the rights to L. Frank Baum’s novel in January of 1938. Thousands of cast and crew later, the film was released a mere 20 months later in August of 1939. For comparison, 2013’s OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL took four years from development to release.

THE WIZARD OF OZ’s Secret

All that being said, THE WIZARD OF OZ has stood the test of time for a reason. Well, a lot of reasons, but one stands above the rest: it’s a great movie. Even 80 years later, with all the ways that American movies have changed, especially children’s movies, the magic remains. Every element of THE WIZARD OF OZ has a timeless quality to it. The story smartly removes the darkest parts of the novel while keeping some of the political themes. The thing that has made modern kids’ movies so successful is the layered approach to the story.

It has to work on a literal level to appeal to kids, but it also has to have a deeper layer to the message and dialogue for adults to feel the same attachment as their kids. THE WIZARD OF OZ manages to combine its messages to address childhood concerns — wanting your life to be more than it is, wanting a fantasy, wanting to stand up to adults — with the harsh realities of adulthood — frauds abound, fantasy isn’t real, you can only rely on your own inner strength. It’s a flashy musical-fantasy, but it has a lot to say, depending on how much you want to listen.

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

That story stands on the legs of its stars, many of whom almost never appeared in the movie at all. Mayer and Schenck wanted Shirley Temple as Dorothy, but her young age (10 at the time) and musical style didn’t fit the picture. Garland was actually the third choice and it’s now hard to imagine the film without her. Because the majority of her stardom came as an adult after THE WIZARD OF OZ, her young appearance gives her certain anonymity, that she could be any young girl, while a child star like Shirley Temple will always feel like Shirley Temple.

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A star is born, as it were. Courtesy of MGM.

Garland’s acting style hasn’t aged well on its own, but it fits the movie. It’s over-the-top and theatrical, but it’s not too far off from the dramatic hysterics that kids often break in to. When you’re a kid, everything feels like the sky is falling. That has to be even truer when faced with talking scarecrows and flying monkeys.

Garland’s earnestness also played well off her co-stars’ comedic styles. Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), and Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion) come from Vaudeville, giving them a combination of comedy and song-and-dance talent that will become rare in the coming decades. Their physical comedy only adds to the humor of the script and the development of their characters.

We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

What we always expect to feel most dated about old movies is the visual style. Whether it’s because of the film quality, the cookie-cutter studio sets, and props, or the pre-computer effects, there is usually a disconnect for the modern viewer. That is true to a degree in THE WIZARD OF OZ; it doesn’t look like it was made in this century. But it doesn’t look outdated or obviously fake, either.

THE WIZARD OF OZ was one of the first movies to use three-strip Technicolor. The result was remarkably vivid colors, though it now just looks like a normal color movie. What we now recognize as especially colorful and bright palettes are color choices made to take advantage of the Technicolor rather than a result of the Technicolor itself. It’s no accident that a book that highly relies on color — a yellow brick road, an emerald city, bright red poppies — was adapted into an early Technicolor vehicle.

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MGM’s “Technicolor triumph.” Courtesy of MGM.

The production design is equally intentionally in-your-face. The costumes and sets are whimsical and child-like as if a kid doodled them in a notebook. Even the design of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion have that fantastical quality. They aren’t meant to look literally real. Especially in the age of CGI, they don’t look “realistic,” but if they did it would certainly blunt their effect. Compare the Cowardly Lion with his then-revolutionary foam latex prosthetics, swishing tail, and bipedal gait to something like the upcoming “live-action” LION KING. The latter may be more “realistic,” but it lacks the charm or soul of the Cowardly Lion. The design of THE WIZARD OF OZ avoids the uncanny valley completely by never aiming for realism.

THE WIZARD OF OZ’s Money Magic

Part of this “1939 is the best year in film history” narrative is based on the economic boom for Hollywood. Moviegoers bought tickets like it was going out of style and, because of the efficiency of the studio system, studios made money hand over fist. But THE WIZARD OF OZ lost money in its first year. Production has gone over its $2 million budget by a full $1 million, so the studio put an additional $1 million into the film’s marketing to try and recoup. It didn’t work fully and the worldwide box office was just over $3 million for the initial release.

It wasn’t until a decade later that THE WIZARD OF OZ finally broke even. The 1949 re-release earned MGM an additional $1.5 million, but the film’s economic story has never been about movie theaters. THE WIZARD OF OZ has been at the heart of changing media distribution for almost all of its 80 years.

THE WIZARD OF OZ in Prime Time

Part of THE WIZARD OF OZ’s multigenerational notoriety comes from its television broadcasts. While most film studios suffered at the hands of the newfangled TV, MGM found a cash cow. CBS first broadcast THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1956, paying $225,00 for the right to do so, with the option to re-broadcast. And, boy, did they re-broadcast.

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An ad for the 1977 broadcast of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Courtesy of TV Guide.

Ratings are hard to come by for the era, but at least 45 million people watched the initial broadcast on black-and-white TV sets, meaning the film’s famous Technicolor wasn’t even necessary to draw in viewers. And it only grew from there. From 1959 to 1991, THE WIZARD OF OZ became event television, “a modern institution and a red letter day in the calendar of childhood,” according to Time magazine in 1965.

It was these TV broadcasts that solidified THE WIZARD OF OZ as a touchstone of Americana. In a pre-global media landscape — and especially pre-cable — television united Americans more so even than Hollywood movies. There were limited choices on TV, such as sporting events, breaking news items, and episodes like “Who Shot JR?” were the cultural references that you could count on your neighbor or coworker to have experienced. THE WIZARD OF OZ brought Hollywood into that realm, with the added market for children, who would then become adults with their own children, and THE WIZARD OF OZ would still be there in prime time around Christmas.

Like a Fine Wine

In that regard, it almost seems unfair to credit THE WIZARD OF OZ to the year 1939, when that was literally its worst economic year. Sure, people were buying a huge number of movie tickets that year, but it wasn’t to see THE WIZARD OF OZ. But it is certainly remarkable that the movie had the same cultural relevancy and an even greater economic value with each passing decade since its production.

The real test will come in 2035 when THE WIZARD OF OZ becomes part of the public domain. The novel has been in the public domain since 1956, which has already caused legal trouble for Warner Bros. (which purchased the MGM library in 1986). If it’s anything like the soon-expiring license on Mickey Mouse, we’ll be seeing an influx of THE WIZARD OF OZ-themed merchandise and greater lobbying efforts to change copyright laws in Warner Bros.’ favor.

80 Years Later

There are about a thousand different schools of thought when it comes to deciding how a movie “holds up” over time. There’s the literal route: Do we still think it’s a “good” movie? Would we still watch it in the present day? I’d give THE WIZARD OF OZ a resounding “yes” on both accounts.

Then there’s the ideological route: Do the movie’s politics withstand modern scrutiny? Is it “problematic”? For the most part, THE WIZARD OF OZ is not. Gender politics are solid: Dorothy is a remarkably strong heroine, and female characters are allowed to be both good and evil, never relying on gender-based tropes. Racial politics are not terrible. All the characters are white, but it’s not blatantly racist either. The main issue would be the Munchkins. It’s not a very sensitive term, for one, and there’s a lot of Othering going on.

But at the same time, little people didn’t often appear at all in film, let alone in a positive light. THE WIZARD OF OZ employed 124 little people, showcasing the singing and dancing talents of some of the actors.

The True Cost of THE WIZARD OF OZ

Margaret Hamilton in her famous, copper-based makeup. Courtesy of MGM.

And there’s always the behind-the-scenes route, examining the practices that created the movie. This is where nearly every old movie falls apart. With Hollywood for what it was, there were no checks on the system, no protections for employees. Just a bunch of powerful white men trying to make as much money as possible.

Working conditions on THE WIZARD OF OZ were, let’s say, not great. Technicolor film requires extremely bright light to process, and temperatures regularly exceed 100°F on set. Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Man, was badly poisoned by his aluminum makeup, even having to go to the hospital in critical condition before he was replaced by Haley. Haley couldn’t sit down in his costume and Lehr couldn’t eat in his prosthetics, taking his meals through a straw. Margaret Hamilton also had bad reactions to her Wicked Witch makeup.

She had to stick to a liquid diet when in the makeup. As if that wasn’t bad enough, when the Wicked Witch leaves Munchkinland in a burst of flames, Hamilton’s makeup caught fire and gave her third-degree burns on her hand and face. (Her stunt double filmed her scenes while she was healing, and the double also received burns during the skywriting scene.) Judy Garland’s infamous demise started with THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Studio men gave her “pep pills” to keep her active during the long shoots and sleeping pills at night, while also starving her to keep her weight down. They bound her breasts to make her look younger and costumed her in tight corsets. Her resulting fame made them work her even harder:

“The pills started when she turned out pictures faster than Metro could make money on them,”

Jack Haley said.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow…

This all raises the question of whether or not it was “worth it.” We tend to say that the suffering of artists is worth it for the art they create. That’s an incredibly selfish view. Sure, it’s worth it to us, we’re not the ones who suffered. Only the artists themselves can make that call. And since it’s been 80 years since all that suffering happened, none of the artists are around to see what they’ve created and ultimately make that decision.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it and appreciate it. We can make ourselves better for having it in our lives. As a timeless and powerful children’s movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ checks those boxes. We can honor the suffering by sharing its magic with the people we love, whether it’s our own children or millions of other Americans watching TBS at Christmas time.

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