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The Greatest Musical Fantasy Film Ever Made


PRODUCTION DATES:  October 13, 1938, to March 16, 1939 (“officially”)

PRODUCTION COST:  $2,777,000

RUNNING TIME:  103 minutes

RELEASE DATE:  August 15, 1939 (official world premiere)
See “Production Overview” below for details.


The Wizard That Almost Was – But Wasn’t

October 13, 1938, Judy Garland as the blonde Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of OzThe early weeks of filming The Wizard of Oz and the later deleted scenes are almost as famous as those that made the cut.  When filming began on October 13, 1938, under the direction of Richard Thorpe, the look of the film was much different than what we’ve come to know and love.  These first twelve days of filming are known as “The Thorpe Era.”  

Richard Thorpe was a well-known and respected director at MGM.  He began directing films in the silent era and had a long career that lasted through the late 1960s.  He directed everything from dramas to Tarzan films, to adventures and musicals, including Ivanhoe, The Prisoner of Zenda (both released in 1952), Three Little Words (1950), and even Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley (1957).   Unfortunately, Thorpe was all wrong for The Wizard of Oz.

Production was put on hold when the original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, had a near-fatal reaction to the silver makeup he had been breathing, which basically was slowly poisoning him.  During the break, and while they searched for a new Tin Man, it was decided that everything that had been shot was unusable.  Nothing seemed to be working.  Thorpe was eventually replaced by Victor Fleming, who went on to direct most of the film.  He famously left the production just when the finals segments, the sepia (Kansas) scenes, were to begin filming.  “King” Vidor took over, including staging and directing “Over the Rainbow.”  Fleming’s departure was due to another troubled production needing his expertise, Gone With The Wind.

During the short interim between Thorpe and Fleming, legendary director George Cukor was brought in to take a look, even though he had no desire to direct the film.  He was shocked at what he saw, especially Garland’s overly made-up appearance and affected acting.  It’s thanks to his intelligent input that we have the Dorothy we know and love today.  He cleaned up her makeup and took away the blonde wig, using Garland’s natural dark hair color, with a light red rinse added.  This brought out her natural, down-to-earth beauty.  Dorothy Gale was no Hollywood blonde glamor girl!  When giving her advice on how to play the role, he’s quoted as telling her to “Just remember you’re a little girl from Kansas.”  He wisely knew that for the film to work, Dorothy had to be the normal one among all of these fantastical characters and sets.  If the audience was taking this journey with her, they needed to be able to identify with her.  Cukor also changed the looks of the costumes and makeup on all of the main characters and even the Yellow Brick Road, as the following photos show.  All of these changes ultimately made an immeasurable impact on the film’s enduring success.  If anyone was the film’s savior, it was George Cukor.

Here is Judy Garland as the blonde (more of a honey blonde) Dorothy, with a different dress, blouse, and the bugle-beaded early version of the Ruby Slippers.  Even her makeup was different.  It was more doll-like and not realistic for a girl from Kansas.  The story is that Thorpe had Garland acting in a very affected manner, more like a fairy tale princess than an innocent young girl from Kansas.

B&W photo provided by Carrie Heffernan.  Thanks, Carrie!

Below is a nice color test shot of Garland in costume and makeup with some Munchkins.  It gives us a great idea of how the blonde Dorothy really looked.  Garland was probably posed with the little people for the director to see how the costumes and makeup would work together on film.  Note how Garland’s dress and blouse in this color test are both different than what she wore when filming began.