Originally released in August 1939, The Wizard of Oz celebrates its 85th anniversary this year and it’s coming back to theaters for a limited time. Easily one of the most iconic films of all time, The Wizard of Oz has captivated audiences for generations, and the U.S. Library of Congress credits it as the most viewed films in history. Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film adaptation remains the most successful adaptation of the original material, though many have followed.

With beloved actress Judy Garland at its core, The Wizard of Oz is remembered and cherished for its lively characters, award-winning songs, and often-quoted dialogue. While many television networks have broadcast the film for viewers at home over the years, especially around the Thanksgiving holiday, there is something remarkable about seeing a classic piece of American film on the big screen, the way it was originally meant to be seen. But what exactly does it take to become a timeless classic?

In celebration of its 85th anniversary, we’re looking back on the film’s production with some interesting tidbits you might not know about.

Dorothy’s Final Look

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Of course, Dorothy is now considered to be one of Judy Garland’s most well-known roles, but the part almost went to several other young actresses. Shirley Temple was the most recognized child actress at the time who was considered for the part, as was Deanna Durbin. While Judy Garland was ultimately cast as the lead, she initially filmed many of her scenes in a blonde wig. However, after a review of the footage, the studio preferred Garland’s natural looks with her dark, brunette hair and called for reshoots.

Dorothy’s dress also may not be quite what you think it is. While many believe her dress to be blue and white, the use of Technicolor required the dress to be blue and light pink to better show up on film. The gingham pattern of Dorothy’s dress, while already popular in more rural areas, was instantly sought after by all, and has continued to remain a staple influence in fashion trends.

Lastly, just as the part almost went to another actress, Dorothy’s most iconic song, “Over the Rainbow,” was nearly cut from the film. The studio felt the song was too long and wouldn’t be understood by children, though the film’s directors and producers pleaded for it to stay in. In the end, the song went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, so clearly both audience members and critics alike enjoyed it, and it has since become one of the most recognizable tunes, not just in the movie, but ever.

Innovations with Technicolor

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While The Wizard of Oz was not the first film to use Technicolor – that title belongs to The Gulf Between (1917) – it made fantastic strides in film history with it. The three-strip process was incredibly expensive at the time, resulting in the movie costing $2.7 million to make (or about $60 million, adjusted for inflation). At the time, this was MGM’s most expensive film.

Technicolor gave the film its iconic transition from the black-and-white, sepia-toned shades of Kansas in the real world to the vibrant hues of Oz. Filming in Technicolor, however, presented not only financial challenges, but also practical. The bright lights that were required for the filming process often heated the set to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, making the heavy and bulky costumes and makeup worn by the actors even more uncomfortable.

In a happy accident, though, one of the film’s most iconic images – Dorothy’s red slippers – was a result of filming in Technicolor. In the original novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Dorothy wore silver slippers, but the production decided to give her ruby ones to take advantage of the color film process. They’ve been treasured ever since.

Makeup and Costume Woes

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With any elaborate character, it’s expected that there be an extensive makeup and costume process. This is especially true in the days before CGI and motion-capture technologies came into play. In early cinema, special effects, makeup, and costuming all had to be completely practical. This resulted in a variety of materials, some rather untraditional, being used to achieve the look. Makeup artist Jack Dawn became one of the first to use foam latex to create the masks for the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow. While this material has since become popular on film and television sets, it was groundbreaking at the time, though the techniques used with it have since improved.

With an extensive makeup process, actors like Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow, had to arrive on set as early as 4:00 AM, often working long days of fifteen or more hours. Some of the makeup application and removal techniques even resulted in permanent lines on Bolger’s face, and Jack Haley contracted an eye infection from the aluminum paste used on the Tin Man. Oh, and the Tin Man’s tears? Those were actually chocolate syrup. Bert Lahr’s restrictive Cowardly Lion makeup – and a costume made of real lion skin and fur – permitted him to only eat soup and milkshakes while filming. Even more alarming, Margaret Hamilton’s green makeup as the Wicked Witch of the West had a poisonous copper base that not only restricted her to a similar liquid diet but also caught fire while filming and gave Hamilton third-degree burns. Luckily, special effects makeup has become far safer and more regulated over the years for both actors and artists alike.

Unconventional Special Effects

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With any fantasy production, it is always a challenge to create environments and effects that feel both real and extraordinary at the same time. The famous twister seen in the film that rips through Kansas and transports Dorothy to the land of Oz was created by lead special effects director Arnold Gillespie using thirty-five feet of muslin cloth and Fuller’s earth, a type of clay. As this was also before the use of CGI, the colored horses in Oz couldn’t simply be achieved with post-production effects. A practical way to color the animals was achieved with Jell-O powder to turn the white horses purple, red, and yellow. And in a move that would not even be considered today, asbestos was used for fake snow – rather than soap flakes – as well as for a portion of the Wicked Witch’s burning broomstick.

Its Legacy Continues to Inspire

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Not only is the original The Wizard of Oz returning to the big screen this year, but so is one of its most anticipated reimaginings. While many subsequent interpretations and sequels have followed the 1939 film – and several silent films even came before it – Wicked: Part One is set to release in November 2024. Based on the highly successful Broadway musical Wicked, which itself was based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the feature film also takes inspiration from the 1939 film and L. Frank Baum’s original novel. The story dives deeper into the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West – here named Elphaba – and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande will star in the lead roles this time around, digging into the story of all that happened in Oz before Dorothy’s arrival.

Get tickets for The Wizard of Oz, back in theaters January 28-29 & January 31

  • Editorial