Frank L. Baum’s book, published in 1900, was a smash, generating scores of sequels and a traveling show. In 1910 the first movie version of the story appeared, and another in 1925. Stage adaptations have included The Wiz, a black-cast Broadway musical, filmed in 1978 with Diana Ross as Dorothy, and Wicked, a revisionist tribute to the Wicked Witch of the West that has been enthralling audiences for a decade.
Yet when most people hear The Wizard of Oz, their minds and hearts leap directly to the 1939 MGM film starring Judy Garland. Multiple generations, from toddler to centenarian, know the film’s dialogue by heart. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore;” “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too;” and “There’s no place like home” were all included on the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 movie quotes. Harold Arlen and E.Y. (Yip) Harburg’s songs have permanently nestled in every fan’s internal juke box. We all sing “Over the Rainbow” to ourselves, but also: In England, when former prime minister Margaret Thatcher died in April 2013, her political detractors waged a campaign to propel “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” to No. 2 on the British music charts.
In its day The Wizard of Oz was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning two, for Original Score and Original Song (yes, “Over the Rainbow.”) But what film needs Oscars when its award shelf keeps filling decades after its original release. For instance: a People magazine poll of the century’s favorite movies rated The Wizard of Oz as No. 1, tied with The Godfather.
Dorothy may never escape Kansas, but moviegoers can always return to Oz. Of all the estimable movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, it is the one that has never gone out of fashion. Modern viewers, whose main complaints about old movies are that they are too dark and too slow, needn’t adjust their eyes and clocks to The Wizard of Oz. Once Dorothy alights in Munchkinland, the film bursts into riotous color and zips along like a Pixar cartoon epic—but with the very best songs. Timeless then, it is timeless now. Ask yourself: Who isn’t eager, at any moment, to soar with Dorothy over the rainbow and into the merry land of Oz. —adapted from an essay by Richard Corliss.
LIFE’s special issue on The Wizard of Oz takes a long walk down the yellow brick road, with inside stories about the making the casting and making of an iconic movie, the magical film year of 1939, and the many other adaptations of Frank L. Baum’s beloved book, including the not-so-beloved 1925 film shown below.
One of the earlier screen adaptations of Frank L. Baum’s book was this 1925 silent version in which Larry Semon (above right) directed, wrote and played the role of the Scarecrow— and gave himself top billing over both Dorothy (left, played by Dorothy Dwan) and Oliver Hardy’s Tin Man. The film, with its silly slapstick and racial stereotyping, is unwatchable today, and it left plenty of room for someone else to make a better version.
The music is of course as invaluable to the appeal of the Wizard of Oz as any other element, with “Over the Rainbow” being an undisputed high point of American cinematic song. Here Bert Lahr ((far right), Ray Bolger (back row, right), Judy Garland (1922—1969) (sitting, right), composer Harold Arlen (1905—1986) (sitting left), and various MGM and music publishing executives sing songs from the film in the NBC radio studio.
While it is now impossible to imagine any other actors in the film’s iconic roles, the casting process had its twists and turns. For instance, the movie began shooting with Buddy Ebsen playing the Tin Man, but he had to be replaced after he was hospitalized for two weeks because a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum dust in the Tin Man’s makeup. While Ebsen recovered and earned enduring fame as Jed Clampett on TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies, Jack Haley took over as the Tin Man. The role of the Wicked Witch of the West was originally offered to Gale Sondergaard (above). But Sondergaard, who won an Oscar for her film debut performance in 1936’s Anthony Adverse, backed out after she saw herself in the makeup, fearing that the hideousness would derail her career. Sondergaard’s did earn another Oscar nomination for Anna and The King of Siam in 1946. Meanwhile, Margaret Hamilton donned the black pointed hat and green makeup, and she rode that broomstick to pop-culture immortality.
Other casting options included W.C. Fields, who was offered the role of The Wizard but asked for too much money, so MGM turned to contract player Frank Morgan. For Dorothy, some at MGM preferred Shirley Temple to Judy Garland. Ray Bolger was an original candidate for the Tin Man, but asked to be switched to the Scarecrow, stating, “I’m not a tin performer, I’m fluid.” Right he was. The Lion endured no uncertainty: that was Bert Lahr, then and forever.
The movie’s opening scenes took place in black-and-white, but before long Dorothy went over the rainbow into the technicolor dazzle—the yellow brick road, the ruby red slippers, the ghastly green face of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Once in Oz, it was time for Dorothy to get her team together. For Garland, Jack Haley was a familiar face, as they had both appeared in the 1936 movie Pigskin Parade. The Tin Man makeup that felled Ebsen did cause Haley an eye infection that sidelined him for part of the shoot. Years later, when it was suggested that playing the Tin Man must have been great fun, Haley responded “Like hell it was. It was hard work.”
At the Emerald City, Dorothy and friends encounter the Gatekeeper, one of the many roles played by Frank Morgan. The MGM contract player was also the coachman in the carriage drawn by the horse of a different color and the guard at the entrance to the Wizard’s hall, and well as Professor Marvel in the Kansas scenes of course the Wizard himself.