Follow the yellow brick road. I’ll get you my pretty. There’s no place like home.

These iconic lines all came from “The Wizard Of Oz,” which turns 80 this year.

The film made Judy Garland a movie star and charmed audiences across the country.

In his original review for Variety, critic John C. Flinn Sr. wrote
The Wizard of Oz

Nothing comparable has come out of Hollywood in the past few years to approximate the lavish scale of this filmusical extravaganza, in the making of which the ingenuity and inventiveness of technical forces were employed without stint of effort or cost. Except for opening and closing stretches of prolog [sic] and epilog [sic], which are visioned in a rich sepia, the greater portion of the film is in Technicolor. Some of the scenic passages are so beautiful in design and composition as to stir audiences by their sheer unfoldment.

Whether ‘Oz’ will pay out on its heavy production investment is useless speculation, wholly dependent upon the breadth of its appeal and the effective showmanship of its handling. Fantasies and fairy stories are way out of the groove of run-of-the-mill film entertainment. ‘Snow White’ reached the peaks of commercial success and drew to theatres a vast casual public which skyrocketed receipts. In some respects, ‘Oz’ possesses the same qualities of technical perfection and story appeal. At popular prices it’s a bargain package for eye and ear.

The movie has resonated with audiences for decades. It’s been called one of the most influential movies of all time. The techniques on display in the film have inspired countless directors. And the story itself — based on the novel of the same name — echoes to this day (notice any similarities between the Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion and C-3PO and Chewbacca?).

In 1975, the actress who played the Wicked Witch Of The West went on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” to explain to a new generation of young fans that her character wasn’t real.

The success of the movie inspired many other works, from “Wicked” to “The Wiz.”

What makes this movie so beloved? Why have we continued to watch it?

Produced by Danielle Knight. Text by Gabrielle Healy.

Guests

  • John Fricke Author, historian and producer; he has written seven books about "The Wizard of Oz" and Judy Garland, including the recent "Wonderful World of Oz"; he won two Emmy Awards as co-producer of the PBS "American Masters" and A&E "Biography" programs on Judy Garland

Five 'Wizard Of Oz' Myths Debunked

There are many myths and urban legends swirling around the classic film “The Wizard of Oz.” John Fricke, one of the nation’s leading experts on the film, debunks some of the most common misconceptions.

Myth: You can see someone hanging themselves in one scene

To make an interior set look like an exterior, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer leased birds from Los Angeles Zoo Park. The birds roamed the apple orchard and forest around the Tin Man’s cottage. A toucan, peacock, and sarus crane all make it into shots. And the crane’s flapping wings upstage as Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and Toto dance off on the Yellow Brick Road have been grossly misinterpreted.

Over the years, gossip-mongers have decreed that the “mystery” movement is any number of things other than a bird. In chronological order, they’ve called it: a stagehand who inadvertently got caught in the shot; a stagehand who hung himself; an MGM executive who hung himself because Oz was going so much over budget; a starlet who hung herself because she didn’t get the role of Dorothy; and a Munchkin who hung himself because Judy Garland wouldn’t date him.

As the home video incarnations of Oz have been remastered from original elements, the upstage movement has taken on much clarity and a gray/silver sheen. The latest rumor is that it is, indeed, a Munchkin who hung himself for love of Judy Garland, but who first encased himself in Reynolds Wrap. But … it’s just a bird — despite the rumors and the soul who has doctored the film clip for YouTube and inserted a hanging figure. He claims this is the original footage, before MGM got wind of the rumors and put in a bird.

Myth: The film flopped when it was first released

An early Oz historian made much of the fact that Oz lost money in its 1939-1940 engagements. The writer also quoted original negative reviews from The New Yorker, The New Republic and McCall’s, insinuating that most critical reaction was mixed.

However, some seventy other contemporary reviews were raves. They were prophetic about the film’s potential longevity. Additionally, Oz broke attendance records virtually everywhere it played, was frequently “held over” and was ranked as one of the year’s top-ten box office hits, as well as one of the ten best films in a national poll of 450 critics. Oz received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, plus five other nominations. It won Oscars for Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”) and Best Original Score.

It is true the film lost money in its first release. This was due to a combination of factors. Much of the Oz audience was comprised of children, who paid less than half of the average adult ticket price. As noted above, theaters were packed, but the resultant gross was less than it would have been had all the seats been taken by adults who were charged full price.

Finally, two weeks after Oz premiered, World War II broke out in Europe, thus eliminating much of the film’s anticipated foreign market. Oz brought in over $3 million at the box office on an investment of $3.7 million, which meant a loss of approximately $750,000. It went into the black on its first theatrical reissue in 1949. Since then, it’s produced nothing but profit.

Myth: Shirley Temple was first considered for the role of Dorothy

MGM bought the screen rights for Oz specifically to make a vehicle for their up-and-coming, sixteen-year-old player Judy Garland. When production cost estimates for the film began to soar past $1.5 million, the Loew’s, Inc., executives (who controlled MGM from New York City) became extremely uneasy about investing such an amount in a film without the insurance of a major box office star.

They suggested that Shirley Temple be borrowed from Twentieth Century Fox. Temple was then the number one movie attraction in the country and more age-appropriate for the role of Dorothy than Judy Garland. As a result, Roger Edens, MGM’s ace musical arranger, visited Fox to hear Temple sing and returned to Metro to declare her “vocal limitations … insurmountable.” Fox, meanwhile, actively refused to loan their prize performer to a rival studio.

All of these negotiations were carried out over just a few days. Nothing about them appeared in the rabid Hollywood media (or elsewhere) at the time. In summation: the rights to Oz were acquired as a Judy Garland vehicle, and its script and songs (specifically “Over the Rainbow”) were crafted for her.

Myth: The Munchkins drank and partied a lot

There were approximately 124 actors cast as the Munchkins. Over the years, producer Mervyn LeRoy, assistant director Wallace Worsley, Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr, Judy Garland and others recalled a few of these actors as being, in diverse ways, rowdy and wild. Unfortunately, once those stories began to circulate — beginning in the 1960s — any surviving Munchkins had to take the blame for the behavior of the few, and untrue rumors spread wildly. Those who lived, toured, and were interviewed into the 1990s and 2000s (and enjoyed the ever-burgeoning fame of Oz) were happy to name names and specify those who created havoc … and in what manner.

Myth: There’s a hidden message in the chant of the Winkie Guards

Over the years, the ominous grunting chant offered by the enslaved Guards of the Wicked Witch’s castle have been reported, distorted, and interpreted in a variety of ways. Among the most prevalent “translations” are “All we are, we owe her” and “Oh, we owe The Old One.” Another (tongue-in-cheek) theory offers the Winkie words as a subliminal endorsement for Oreo Cookies. Per the actual conductor’s score, however, the marching regiment is merely grumbling the nonsense sounds, “O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!”

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