The Dark Side Over the Rainbow

By: Malena Esposito

It’s a story you’ve been familiar with your entire life. You know, the one with the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the little yappy dog. Considering it was Hollywood’s first Technicolor film, The Wizard of Oz was a huge step in cinema advancements. They say “there’s no place like home,” but how homey was this legendary set in reality?

The torment starts before production even began back in the early 30s. Along with her two sisters, Judy Garland, aka Dorothy Gale, was part of a traveling singing group called “The Gumdrops,” a play on from her maiden name of “Gumm.” Managed by their mother Ethel, the girls were given pep pills to keep them awake in order to maintain their busy schedules and performances. By 1935, Garland was signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films.

Judy had her audition for the film that would start and end her career when she was only 16 years old. Due to her impressive vocal talents, she was given the role of Dorothy Gale, but not without being forced to lose weight. Similar to teenage girls in today’s era, Garland had insecurities about her weight, and even called herself a “fat little pig.” In addition to having a personal trainer, she was forced by producers and directors to follow a strict diet that consisted of black coffee, chicken soup, and 80 cigarettes a day, along with pills every 4 hours to suppress her hunger. Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of MGM studios, even went as far as to send employees to spy on Judy, who was severely reprimanded if she was ever caught eating sweets like a soda or a sundae.

In the book that The Wizard of Oz was based on, the character of Dorothy Gale, was only around 12 years old. However, at almost 17, many alterations had to be done to make Garland seem more childlike. In fact, she wasn’t even first pick for the part—Shirley Temple was. At the time, the 13-year-old it-girl was Hollywood’s most prized possession. MGM reached out to her to give the red slippers a shot, but was unable to fill the shoes due to her contract with Twentieth Century Fox, MGM’s prime competitor. Temple served as inspiration for many alterations the company made for Garland, including her nose. Apparently, Judy’s nose was “too big for the big screen,” which resulted in the use of prosthetics to make it appear smaller. The modifications continued when the young actress had to wear two fully tightened corsets used to flatten any curves she had.

Unfortunately, the torment doesn’t stop there. Garland was repeatedly violated both by Mayer and the Munchkin actors of the set. In a memoir written by her last husband before her death, Sid Luft wrote that “they would make Judy’s life miserable on set.”  He added that most were “40 or more years old,” and they thought they “could get away with it because they were so small.”  Just because they were adults, doesn’t mean they acted like it. Nobody knows exactly why the munchkins behaved in such a disturbing manner, but it might’ve had something to do with their pay. They only made a mere fifty dollars a week, about $870 today, whereas Terry, aka Toto the Dog, made about $125 a week, about $2174 in today’s money. One munchkin can even be seen hanging himself in the original VHS version of the film, but years later, it was digitally edited,to gloss over any suspicion, making the dangling body appear more like a bird.

Can you recall the scene in which Dorothy slaps the Cowardly Lion? Turns out, the actress giggled so hard while filming, the director, Victor Fleming, pulled her aside and slapped her. She went back to the stage and nailed the scene in one take. To make matters worse, many adult talents feared the young star would overshine their own performance, and therefore shunned and ignored her. Ironically, Judy often recalled Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, to be her only friend on set.

But as it would turn out, the on-screen antagonist suffered physically just as much as the protagonist did emotionally. When the Witch disappeared from Munchkinland in a puff of smoke, her oil-based green makeup reacted to the special effects, causing Hamilton to endure severe second-degree burns on her arms and face. She continued filming, but refused to be in any more smoke scenes. Her stand-in was Betty Danko, who was also gravely injured. And due to copper being a component of her makeup, she couldn’t ingest anything, and was therefore put on a strictly liquid diet for the majority of the five months of filming. Her face was stained green even months after filming was complete. Her screen time was even cut or reshot when a practice child audience found her makeup to be too terrifying. It was scary enough, that Hamilton, along with Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion), and Jack Haley (Tin Man), were all banned from the MGM lunch room out of fear that they might petrify cast and  crew members.

And speaking of the Tin Man…. You know the Tin Man, right? The one with no heart? Turns out, he almost had no lungs, too. The original actor, Buddy Ebsen, was allergic to aluminum, which the metallic makeup incorporated. After ten days of filming, the silver powder “coated his lungs like paint,” which resulted in an urgent trip to the ER for Ebsen. He was replaced by Jack Haley, who didn’t have much of an easier time, because the new grease-based makeup gave him an eye infection. In addition, his costume was so stiff that he could only lean up against something to take a rest. If he layed down, he would not be able to get back up.

Sad to say, but that isn’t everything. Many, if not all of the actors playing the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys got severely injured on set as well. The string that held them up snapped, causing the actors to collapse to the ground. Even the dog playing Toto got injured when one of the witch’s guards accidently stepped on his paw, causing a break in his foot. Oh, and one more thing — did I mention that the set itself was just about 100 degrees? That’s right. As the first Technicolor film, the lights had to be blistering in order for the vibrant hues to show up on camera. This severely impacted actors with heavy costumes, including Bert Lahr, whose Cowardly Lion get-up weighed almost 100 pounds itself.

All in all, the production of this classic filmed was filled with agony and anguish. Judy Garland spent almost the next decade of her life controlled by MGM, who even forced her to get an abortion at 19 to keep her “good girl” image. By 1947, she had a nervous breakdown on the set of “The Pirate,” resulting in her admittance into a private sanitarium. She completed filming, but a few months later, underwent her first suicide attempt. Garland died in 1969 due to a the barbiturate addiction she had been faced with for decades. Before her death, she spoke of her struggles, saying that “I tried my damnedest to believe in that rainbow that I tried to get over, and I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”


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