The Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic that has enchanted audiences for generations. Behind the colorful world of Oz and the beloved characters lies a tale of hardship, danger, and sacrifice endured by the cast and crew during its production. From toxic makeup to on-set accidents, this list explores 24 shocking and little-known facts about the making of the film.
1. Judy Garland’s Nightmare
Judy Garland, who played Dorothy, endured brutal treatment from MGM studio executives, including cruel insults about her appearance and her smoking habits. She was sometimes insultingly called “a fat little pig with pigtails.”
2. Extreme Diet
Film producer Louis B. Meyer had Judy Garland on an extremely constricted diet: black coffee, 80 cigarettes daily, and chicken soup. And not to forget the diet pills she had to consume to lower her appetite. Not only this, but the producer hired individuals to surveil her.
3. Munchkin Misbehavior
As if that wasn’t bad enough, even the male actors who played Munchkins would often harass the actress. In the memoir Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland, Sidney Luft writes that many older Munchkin actors had been quite “naughty.”
4. Munchkin Mayhem
Many Munchkin actors had been so problematic that they had to be watched over during the shooting. Several of them ended up being arrested as well. What’s disturbing is that these actors “thought they could get away with anything because they were so small.”
5. A Fiery Ordeal
Margaret Hamilton, who played Wicked Witch of the West, suffered severe burns on her hand and face following a stunt gone wrong. It appeared “as though someone had taken the top of her hand and peeled it like an orange.”
The scene in question is from her dramatic exit from Munchkinland, but unfortunately, due to an issue with the trap door, she could not escape and got stuck in the flames. The burns were so horrible she was hospitalized for 6 weeks.
6. Toxic Makeup
Back in 1939, there wasn’t as much variety in makeup. The toxins in the green makeup used for Margaret’s role were so high that she had to be put on a liquid diet. This would ensure she didn’t mistakenly ingest the paint. The green makeup used for her contained copper oxide, making it unsafe.
7. Lion’s Roar Skin
Talking about toxic makeup, Bert Lahr, the actor who played the Cowardly Lion, suffered numerous burns from the lion costume’s makeup. Though the actor’s dedication to his craft is commendable, we hope no such instance will be repeated.
8. Jell-O Horses
At least the horses were safe from this torture. The paint used on the colorful horses in Emerald City consisted of Jell-O powder. They had to experiment with food coloring to avoid using toxic materials but ultimately landed on Jell-O due to its thick consistency. Filming wasn’t easy as “the horses invariably managed to lick off most of the Jell-O between shots.”
9. Stunt Double’s Tragedy
Margaret’s stunt double, Betty Danko, was hospitalized for 11 days during the shooting. The culprit? One of the pipes in her broomstick exploded.
10. The Unfortunate Replacement
Returning to the world of toxic makeup, the initial actor cast for Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, had to be replaced by Jack Haley because his toxic makeup “nearly choked him to death.” The actor’s experience eventually led the studio to shift to aluminum. Unfortunately, he got stuck with respiratory issues for the entirety of his life due to this demanding role.
11. Deadly Snowfall
Remember that seemingly innocent and harmless snowfall? The “snow” used in the poppy field scene was actually asbestos. This highly toxic material was commonly used on movie sets for its fireproof properties.
12. Small Sum
The movie lives in the hearts of many! It was one of a kind for its time and eventually brought massive profit to the production company. Yet, the Munchkin actors were paid $50 per week, translating to roughly $920 in 2023.
13. The Toto-tally Unexpected
Terry, the dog who played Toto, earned nearly three times more than the Munchkin actors, making $125 per week back in 1939. The dog alone earned almost $2,298 on a weekly basis.
14. Pill Pressure
A sad reality is that Judy Garland’s mother had introduced her to diet pills as a way for her to have an “energetic performance.” Later, the studio executives at MGM put her on more drugs to ensure she stayed physically frail.
15. Lavatory Help
One of the Munchkin actors had to endure a painfully embarrassing ordeal. He got stuck in the toilet due to his short stature for 45 minutes! The studio hired one of the attendants to help the Munchkins on and off the toilet.
16. Suffocating Scarecrow
Did you know Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow face mask almost suffocated him several times? At one instance, he said, “I had a rubber mask. It sort of closed the pores in my face, and when the lights got real hot and ate up all the oxygen, I couldn’t breathe.” Talk about some commitment to your role!
17. Judy Garland’s Tumultuous Journey
Many believe Judy Garland’s treatment on the set eventually led to her demise. The actual cause of her death had been an accidental barbiturate overdose due to her lifelong substance use disorder. On the scene, as a 16-year-old, she was encouraged to live an unhealthy lifestyle and given barbiturates to fall asleep.
18. The Weighty Truth
Sadly, the Cowardly Lion costume consisted of genuine lion skin and hair. This costume, weighing 90 pounds, was later sold at a New York auction for a staggering $3 million. Such a decision inevitably raises questions about animal rights in film and media.
19. Director Departure
The film’s original director, Richard Thorpe, was fired after only 2 weeks of shooting. Though it isn’t rare for directors to get changed, this decision undoubtedly led to a rocky start in the production.
20. Forest Fire Fiasco
The set of the forest was extremely flammable due to the fake trees being made of highly combustible materials. These posed a fire hazard during filming. Thankfully, no such accidents occurred.
21. A Box Office Let Down
Although so much work went into the film's production, it initially struggled at the box office and failed to produce big numbers. It only became a classic through later re-releases and television broadcasts.
22. A Tornado of Trouble
Due to the limitations of special effects at the time, the tornado scene was created using a 35-foot-long muslin stocking spun around by a propeller. It was physically demanding and potentially dangerous for the actors involved.
23. Slap of Silence
The director, Victor Fleming, allegedly slapped 16-year-old Judy Garland hard across her face. The reason behind it was that she could not successfully complete a scene due to giggling.
24. Auntie Em’s Tragic Farewell
Actress Clara Blandick suffered from poor health following the film’s release. This beloved actress left us in the most harrowing way imaginable. Unable to cope with her aging body and growing ailments, she decided to take her own life in 1962.
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Saad Muzaffar is an entertainment, lifestyle, and gaming writer at Wealth of Geeks. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science with a focus on Cyber Security and Data Science with an accompanying Minor in Political Science. When not writing, Saad enjoys playing the latest exclusive on his PS5 while trying to maintain his authority as the best Smash player in his group of friends. Community work is his passion, and he tries to help out whoever he can to the best of his abilities. He has one cat, Riki, and loves talking about his latest scratches. At WealthOfGeeks, Saad writes contributing lists focusing on entertainment, lifestyle, and politics.