The Horrible Truth of Wizards of Oz 1939


Brenda Mendoza Garcilazo, Resource Manager

The original Wizard of Oz movie was released in 1939 by director Victor Fleming. At this point, everyone has heard of this classic movie as it has at least 4 different versions of it not including the ‘Tom & Jerry and the Wizard of Oz’ version that I grew up watching. Although almost everyone has heard of the movies that originated from a novel by L. Frank Baum, not many people know the tragic things that the cast members of the 1939 movie had to experience and the environment they were in. From being set on fire to being exposed to cancer-causing substances, it’s a miracle that this movie was shown on the big screen. Today I write a short list of some of the things that happened off-screen that are known to the media about this movie that lead people into thinking the set was cursed.

First, it is known that director Fleming slapped his, at the time 16-year-old lead actress, Judy Garland across the face after she could not finish a scene without laughing. Not only did she get physically abused, but she was also to be on a strict diet and taking pills so she could remain a figure that the director seemed appealing for the role, these pills were rumored to trigger her future drug addiction. She was also harassed by some of the actors that played the munchkins as the actors were not the most appropriate behind the scenes. After everything young Garland went through, she only made the second lowest salary out of the entire cast, only beating the dog cast member who portrayed Toto.

Garland was not the only one that suffered sadly. Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Man, was sent to hospital with a frequent lung infection just nine days after he started filming after he was poisoned by the toxic aluminum makeup that he was painted with to appear as his character. Apart from waking up with difficulty of breathing, Ebsen also has intense cramping in his legs, arms, and hands. Ebsen spent two weeks in an oxygen tent because of the dust makeup that created the metal look. The studio called Ebsen and demanded he returned to work and when he was obviously unable to do so, the studio replaced him with a new actor, Jack Haley, who did not have to suffer with the makeup that was pure aluminum but still suffered with an eye infection with his own makeup. Bert Lahr, or the Cowardly Lion, had an issue with makeup and costume as well. His lion costume weighed almost 100 pounds and was incredibly hot and heavy and the actor was rumored to have a little number of breaks to take it off. Not to mention, the costume was made with a real-life lion pelt that he had to wear. Lastly, for costume and makeup, the yellow, red, and purple horses that were used in a scene in this movie were tainted by technicians with lemon, cherry, and grape-flavored powdered gelatin which was extremely harmful to the animals.

Apart from the snow that was used for filming that was just chrysotile asbestos, a cancer-causing substance, the tragedy that shocked me the most was that not one, but two cast members caught on fire while filming. First, Margaret Hamilton caught on fire when she was filming her scene where her character, the Wicked Witch of the West, was set to disappear in a flash of smoke went horribly wrong when the trapdoor she was meant to use to exit safely so the technicians could use their real-life fire prop delayed and the technicians could not see her with the smoke and activated the fire before she was off set safely causing her to gain severe burns on her face, her right eyebrow and lashes were also burned off, and her skin burned of her arm as well. Even with this catastrophe, the studio did not send her home and even called her the next day to ask her to come to work. Her friend was sent to pick her up and was gone from set for six weeks to recover when she was back, the nerves on her hand were still exposed and she had to wear gloves for filming. Hamilton was not the only Wicked Witch of the West to be burned on stage, her stunt double Betty Danko received severe permanent scaring and severe burns after her incident that occurred when the pipe generating smoke from her broomstick exploded while filming a scene where the witch is seen flying on her broomstick.

This movie seems very innocent to just a regular viewer but when you know the dark truths that happened backstage, it makes everything a bit darker.