The scandalous legacy of the Wizard of Oz

The scandalous legacy of the Wizard of Oz: As a new film is announced, how the classic 1939 version was marred by controversy – from rumours of drunken sex parties to Judy Garland being given diet pills

  • New film version of the Wizard of Oz is in the works, it was reported yesterday
  • The best known adaptation of the story is the 1939 film starring Judy Garland
  • Filming was marred by controversy and scandals, from abuse to sex parties
  • Actors were also poisoned by their makeup and covered in asbestos snow 

When the Judy Garland version of the Wizard of Oz was released, it was the last word in special effects, make-up, set design and costumes, not to mention the highpoint of the teenage star’s career. 

Dozens of film, TV and theatre adaptations have followed in the decades since, including Michael Jackson’s The Wiz, West End musical Wicked, and 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, starring James Franco, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis.

Now, the film is set to be given new life once again with a fresh big screen adaptation helmed by writer/director Kenya Barris.

The pitch was picked up by Warner Brothers it was announced on Monday. Barris closed the deal with Warner Bros last week.

But while the timeless tale, based on the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, continues to entice audiences, stories from the set of the 1939 film are far less magical. 

As a new version of the Wizard of Oz is announced, FEMAIL looks back at the tales of scandal and controversy that emerged from the set of the classic 1939 version starring Judy Garland. The leading lady was reportedly made to go on a diet and given pills to encourage weight loss

Stars Jack Haley, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Tales from the set of the film have aged far less well than the movie itself

There were reports of lewd behaviour from cast members, drunken orgies, and abusive control of 17-year-old Judy Garland, who was forced to go on a diet and wear an iron corset because she was too ‘fat’ for the lead role. 

The performers playing the Munchkins were paid less than Toto the dog and reportedly resorted to sex work to top up their measly income

They were overseen on set by a German aristocrat who is rumoured to have travelled the country buying little people from families who didn’t want them.

Here, ahead of the new film, FEMAIL shares some of the shocking on set stories that have aged far less well than the story itself…  

‘Pudgy’ Judy Garland was forced to take diet pills, had her eating monitored, and was made to wear an ‘iron’ corset to hide her breasts 

The leading role in the 1939 film was originally written for an eight-year-old girl but studio executives wanted 17-year-old Judy. However the actress was made to wear an ‘iron’ corset and put on a diet to try and transform her teenage physique. Pictured, with co-star Billie Burke

The leading role in the 1939 film was originally written for an eight-year-old girl but studio executives wanted 17-year-old Judy. 

Judy’s eyebrows and teeth fell short of studio’s high standards 

Judy was given caps for her teeth and had the position of her eyebrows altered

MGM’s makeup chief, Jack Dawn disclosed that ‘Judy’s eyebrows dipped down too close to her nose, making her forehead too high and her nose too short for the rest of her face’, according to the author. 

So they raised her eyebrows.  

To fix her pointed teeth, Garland was sent to a dentist and porcelain caps were applied to the three front teeth.

They didn’t stay on while filming and when they came lose on the set, filming was stopped and the caps were reattached.

‘I was particularly sensitive about my nose and teeth,’ Judy said in an interview. 

‘My teeth didn’t all grow at the same time. I thought I was snaggletooth, and often used to put my hands over my mouth to hide my teeth. I was like the girl in the ads who was afraid to smile.’ 

Bosses had been eyeing up Shirley Temple for the role but Judy had the singing chops, rising star power, and was the darling of MGM’s co-founder and producer Louis B. Mayer.

However there were perceived flaws with their would-be leading lady, according to authors of 2018 book The Road to Oz: The Evolution, Creation, and Legacy of a Motion Picture Masterpiece. 

Judy was considered ‘pudgy’ with crooked teeth and had already started developing breasts, which would have to be taped down for her to play the role of a child. 

The wardrobe department created a bizarre looking corset contraption for her to wear, which Judy swore was made of iron. But it successfully held down her breasts and the long wig with curls that toppled over her shoulders added to the deception.

The actress was also forced to go on a diet and was watched every time she sat down to eat in the MGM commissary. Her paranoia is documented in interviews from the time. 

‘Everybody in the restaurant is watching to see that I don’t snitch an extra dessert or something,’ Judy told one reporter. ‘At least I feel that everybody’s watching. Maybe it’s my conscience.’ 

Bosses even assigned a personal athletic conditioner, Bobbie Koshay, to the actress to get her exercising and put her through rigorous physical training including badminton, swimming, hiking and tennis.

The final prong in their aggressive, abusive weight loss programme was experimental diet pills. 

The studio prescribed Dexedrine, a drug new to the market in 1937 and typically given to treat Narcolepsy, depression and obesity. 

‘While the Dexedrine provided pep, unknown was its potential for addictive misuse and adverse side effects including paranoia and insomnia’, write authors Jay Scarfone and William Stillman.

The pep part of the drug was so strong the studio prescribed sleeping pills to knock Judy out at night.

All of this criticism was devastating to Garland’s fragile psyche.

‘Such subjective critique made during her formative years haunted Garland into adulthood’, write Scarfone and Stillman. The actress struggled with substance abuse issues for years. 

The German baron who bought little people from their parents  

In L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, he describes the Munchkins only as shorter than usual in stature and clad from top to toe in blue. MGM decided they wanted to cast little people in the roles – and needed as many as 350 performers to act in the movie

Tin Man actor poisoned by his own makeup 

Jack Healy, pictured, was cast as the Tin Man after original actor Buddy Ebsen was poisoned by the aluminium makeup

Actor Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Tin Man but was hospitalized during the rehearsal period. 

He reportedly woke up one night, days before filming was set to begin, in agony from cramps in his arms and legs.

He was taken to hospital with difficulty breathing and remained in an oxygen tent for two weeks. Doctors realized his job was to blame. 

The actor had been rehearsing in the silver face makeup integral to the Tin Man role, not realising he was allergic to the aluminium.

The actor was replaced and the makeup changed but his stand-in still contracted an eye infection. 

In L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, he describes the Munchkins only as shorter than usual in stature and clad from top to toe in blue. 

MGM decided they wanted to cast little people in the roles – and needed as many as 350 performers to act in the movie. 

The task of assembling the troupe fell to a man named Leo Singer. 

Born in Germany as Baron Leopold Van Singer, he had put together a troupe of touring little people who took part in vaudeville shows all over Europe.

Shockingly he had bought some of them as children from their parents, who wanted to get rid of them.

By 1938, he had gathered a stable of 100 performers and was based in America. 

The studio did not want small adults or children. In its search, MGM advertised all over the country, visited circuses and sent out talent scouts.

As soon as word got out, little people began to arrive in Hollywood by bus and train looking for a part. 

Singer was put in charge of them all – looking after their lodging, food and attendance on set. But no one had any affection for him.

One of the performers, Meinhardt Raabe, recalled why. 

With a background as a salesman and fairground barker, Raabe was cast as one of the more prominent Munchkins, with a speaking part.

His character, the Coroner, is the one who squeaks that the Wicked Witch of the East is ‘not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.’ 

Despite his starring role, he said Singer stole a big percentage of his wages. 

Many pointed out later that they were being paid far less than anyone else on the film – including Toto the dog. 

Rumours of rowdy sex parties and drunken antics

Although the Munchkins actors’ antics on screen brought joy to generations, behind the scenes they reportedly astounded cast and crew with shocking episodes of drunkenness, depravity and wild sexual propositions. Pictured, Munckin actors, Jakob Gerlich, Jerry Maren and Harry Doll. There is no suggestion they were involved in the reported lewdness

Despite playing a key role in the film, the Munchkin actors were paid far less than their co-stars – even Toto the dog. Pictured, Judy Garland as Dorothy with some of the performers

Although the Munchkins actors’ antics on screen brought joy to generations of children, behind the scenes they reportedly astounded cast and crew with shocking episodes of drunkenness, depravity and wild sexual propositions.

Scarred by his Scarecrow mask 

Scarred: Scarecrow actor Ray Bolger

Actor Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow, was left with facial scarring from the rubber prosthetic mask he wore for his character. 

Meanwhile the green makeup of the Wicked Witch of the West seeped its way into actress Margaret Hamilton’s skin to the point where it took ‘months’ to return to normal.  

There were rumours of sex parties in the famous Culver Hotel (subsequently owned by John Wayne) where they all lived during filming and stories of wild evenings with rooms ransacked and actors swinging from the rafters. 

One horrified observer described them as ‘an unholy assembly of pimps, hookers and gamblers’. 

Members of the cast and crew recalled scandalous antics, although it is impossible to know if they are true. 

‘I will never forget two little [people], really loaded, staggering down the studio street, each clasping a bottle of champagne almost as big as they were,’ Oz makeup man Jack Young recalled of a Christmas party, in quotes reprinted by Jay Scarfone, William Stillman.

‘The studio Chief of Police had to bail out two female [little people] charged with prostitution’.

On another occasion, an inebriated performer was rescued from a toilet bowl.  

Ray Bolger, who danced his way through the film as the Scarecrow, recalled: ‘We were all looking for him. And we found him, too! 

‘Apparently, he drank his lunch, sat on the stool, fell into it and couldn’t get out. There he was with his head and legs stuck up.’

Many of the actors playing the Munchkins had led exceedingly difficult lives.  

Some were from Germany and had been forced to flee the country by the Nazis’ doctrine of ‘social hygiene’, which demanded the elimination of disabled people. 

About 170 came from New York. Most were old enough to have learned to survive in the city during the years of the Great Depression.  

Most were old enough to have learned how to survive in New York or in Europe during the years of the Great Depression.

Wicked Witch of the West actress went up in flames during filming  

Wicked Witch of the West actress Margaret Hamilton suffered burns in an on set accident, according to Aljean Harmetz’s 1977 book, The Making of The Wizard of Oz

Fake snow made from asbestos 

In the early days of Hollywood, movie studios often used bleached cornflakes as a substitute for snow but the team behind the Wizard of Oz reportedly opted for chrysotile asbestos – another trick of the trade.

In the scene in which Dorothy is awakened in a poppy field by a blanket of snow, Judy Garland was covered in the substance. 

Once lodged in the lung tissue, asbestos fibers can cause several serious diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.

Asbestos was also used for its fire-retardant qualities. 

Scarecrow actor Ray Bolger reportedly stuffed his costume with the substance in scenes involving a naked flame.

Wicked Witch of the West actress Margaret Hamilton suffered burns in an on set accident, according to Aljean Harmetz’s 1977 book, The Making of The Wizard of Oz. 

The star was filming the scene in which the character disappears in a flash of smoke – only she was still on set when the crew started their fire. 

Flames reportedly engulfed her broom and hat, ‘scalding her chin, the bridge of her nose, her right cheek, and the right side of her forehead. 

The eyelashes and eyebrow on her right eye had been burned off; her upper lip and eyelid were badly burned.’

It took the actor six weeks to recover and even then the nerves in her hand where the skin had burnt off were so sensitive she had to wear green gloves rather than makeup. 

Cowardly Lion costume made from actual lions 

The film crew won praise for the intricate costumes in the Wizard of Oz, but some of the methods would definitely not be allowed today. 

The Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr was made from the hide and hair of an actual lion.

The costume was reportedly so heavy to wear under the intense set lights that Lahr regularly sweated through it and it needed to be cleaned at the end of each day. 

It sold for more than $3million at a New York City auction in 2014.  

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