The Making of The Wizard of Oz

The Making of The Wizard of Oz

Paperback(75th Anniversary Updated Edition)

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Released in conjunction with the 75th-anniversary DVD release of The Wizard of Oz, this book is the definitive story of how one of America’s most beloved movies was made and a marvelous, unprecedented examination of how Hollywood used to make movies. This updated edition includes numerous photos and shares hundreds of interviews with cameramen, screenwriters, costume designers, directors, producers, light technicians, actors, and more to reveal how the factory-like Hollywood system of moviemaking miraculously produced one of the most enduring films ever made. From the scandalous headlines of Munchkin orgies at the Culver City Hotel and the Witch’s (accidental) burning to the building of the Emerald City and the sewing of nearly 1,000 costumes, The Making of The Wizard of Oz provides a richly detailed re-creation of MGM’s production No. 1060 and a detail-by-detail, department-by-department look at the most powerful and flamboyant studio Hollywood has ever known.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613748329
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Edition description: 75th Anniversary Updated Edition
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 421,103
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Aljean Harmetz is the author of The Making of Casablanca, On the Road to Tara: The Making of Gone with the Wind, Rolling Breaks and Other Movie Business, and a novel, Off the Face of the Earth. She spent twelve years as the Hollywood and West Coast cultural reporter at the New York Times.

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The Making of the Wizard of Oz

By Aljean Harmetz

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2013 Aljean Harmetz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-835-0



In the fall of 1937, either Mervyn LeRoy or Arthur Freed persuaded Louis B. Mayer to buy The Wizard of Oz. That much, and only that much, is certain.

"Mr. Mayer bought the book for me," said LeRoy, sitting in his trophy-stuffed office, nearly forty years later.

"It was always understood," said Arthur Freed's widow, a year after her husband's death, "that Mr. Mayer purchased the book because Arthur said it would make a great musical."

Arthur Freed and Mervyn LeRoy had first met in 1923 on the set of a silent picture at First National. They had been roughly equal at that first meeting. LeRoy was on the set as a gag man, Freed to play background music on the organ. Fourteen years later, LeRoy had by far the higher status within the movie industry. At the age of thirty-seven, he was a $6,000-a-week producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Freed, then forty-three, was also at MGM, but as a $1,500-a-week songwriter.

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio at which both Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed worked in 1937 was a factory–the largest and most exclusive of the Hollywood factories. It was part of what insiders affectionately called The Industry, as though no product other than motion pictures was worth making. MGM's quota of one movie a week, fifty-two movies a year, was seldom met. The studio was more likely to produce one movie every nine days, since cans of film are not directly analogous to cans of asparagus. The Wizard of Oz would become Production #1060, one of forty-one movies released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1939.

The Metro in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stood for a corporation formed in 1915 to finance the making of movies. The Goldwyn was Samuel Goldwyn, who had formed his own producing company in 1915 and resigned from it in 1922. The Mayer was Louis B. Mayer, who was brought in to run the amalgamated Metro-Goldwyn in 1924. It was Mayer who gave the order to purchase L. Frank Baum's children's story from Samuel Goldwyn for $75,000. Both MGM's contract brief and the Goldwyn Studio records give the final purchase date as June 3, 1938. But the optioning of the book occurred late in February,* and MGM was not the only studio interested in buying it. On February 19, 1938, The New York Times ran a short article on that subject.

With the industry convinced that "Snow White" will be a box-office success, there is a wild search by producers for comparable fantasies. Within the last ten days Samuel Goldwyn has received five offers for L. Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz," the highest being $75,000. Twentieth Century-Fox is reported anxious to purchase the book for Shirley Temple, but all offers have been rejected. Goldwyn has owned the property for five years.

Goldwyn had purchased the book almost by accident. Playwright Sidney Howard, urging it on him, had even bought him a copy, an elaborate children's edition. The sequel to that purchase gave Howard a Goldwyn anecdote: he had, he told friends, asked Sam Goldwyn a few weeks later how he had liked the book. "Wonderful," Goldwyn said. Howard then asked if Goldwyn had finished it. "No," Goldwyn said, "I'm on page six." Whether Goldwyn ever finished reading the book or not, he bought it. For $40,000. And he was not unhappy to turn a $35,000 profit five years later.

Once the book had been purchased, Mayer assigned Mervyn LeRoy to produce the movie — and insisted that LeRoy accept Arthur Freed as his assistant.

"Mr. Mayer bought the book for me," Mervyn LeRoy repeated. "I wanted to make a movie out of The Wizard of Oz from the time I was a kid. I'm getting sick of hearing about Arthur Freed and The Wizard of Oz. Arthur Freed's name isn't on the picture. Mine is. Mr. Mayer asked me to take Arthur as my assistant, and he helped a lot with the music. I never took credit for anything that didn't belong to me. But I produced that picture."

At seventy-six, LeRoy is an eager, vague, paunchy little man. For most of his forty-eight-year career in Hollywood, he has had two reputations. He is considered by most people to be "a nice guy, a sweetheart." He reminds others of the Hollywood opportunist Sammy Glick, in Budd Schulberg's novel What Makes Sammy Run?

He is, more than anything else, a survivor — proud of his seventy-five movies, prouder that twenty of them played the Radio City Music Hall: "I had more films play the Music Hall than anyone else." From the giant paper clip to the giant desk blotter, everything in his office is engraved.

There are two Academy Awards. Both are special, rather than competitive, awards. The first was given to him in 1945 for his "tolerance short subject," The House I Live In. The second, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, was given to him in 1975 for the body of his work as a producer. Despite his seventy-five movies, he was nominated only once as a director, for Random Harvest in 1942. Although The Wizard of Oz was nominated as Best Picture of 1939, MGM, rather than LeRoy, received the nomination. By the time Arthur Freed won the first of his Oscars for Best Picture a decade later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had changed its rules.

On the walls in the outer office are 130 autographed pictures, including one "To my very loyal friend, Mervyn LeRoy, with all good wishes" from Louis B. Mayer. The framed photographs and the hundreds more that fill his filing cabinets testify to a directing career that started in 1928 and included Anthony Adverse, Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Madame Curie, Johnny Eager, Mister Roberts, and The Bad Seed, along with Hot Stuff, Broadway Babies, Show Girl in Hollywood, Quo Vadis, Two Seconds, Million Dollar Mermaid, and Latin Lovers. He produced and directed his last film, Moment to Moment, in 1965, and by 1976 was more a horseman than a moviemaker, spending most of his time as president of Hollywood Park racetrack. Recently, however, he has been trying to finance a film version of James Thurber's Thirteen Clocks, perhaps hoping wistfully in his mid-seventies to re-create the success of the children's movie he produced nearly forty years before.

Arthur Freed's equally trophy-stuffed office has been dismantled. It was actually a suite of offices on the second floor of MGM's Thalberg Building, overlooking the mortuary next door so that — for inspiration — the members of the Freed Unit could watch the bodies come and go. They always took a ghoulish pleasure in the fact that great musicals were being created just above the nose, so to speak, of a funeral parlor. Freed's Academy nomination plaques and his awards crisscrossed the walls of his secretary's office. Freed's own office had Rouaults on the walls and orchid plants on every available surface. He was successful at the tricky business of growing orchids and was probably as proud of his plants as he was of his movies. Arthur Freed died on April 12, 1973. According to an account he provided just before his death,* he dropped in at Mayer's house for breakfast one morning and was told to "Find a property and make a picture." Over lunch a few hours later, he authorized agent Frank Orsatti to negotiate with Sam Goldwyn for The Wizard of Oz.

Freed's office had a private bathroom with a shower, a point of status that he was quick to display to new members of his unit. But that was later, much later. In 1937 he was housed in the row of shabby music bungalows near the railroad tracks at the end of the main lot. Freed won an Academy Award for producing the Best Picture of 1951, An American in Paris, and another for producing the Best Picture of 1958, Gigi. He also produced Meet Me in St. Louis, On the Town, Cabin in the Sky, Summer Holiday, The Band Wagon, and Easter Parade. But in 1937 Freed had never produced a musical or any other film. He was a writer of song lyrics, half the team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, responsible for "You Are My Lucky Star," "The Wedding of the Painted Doll," and "Singin' in the Rain."

It was no secret at MGM that Arthur Freed wanted to be a producer. "He was a very pushy person," recalls Frank Davis, a junior producer at MGM during the late thirties. "He wanted to be tops in the picture business. He always showed up at every preview of every picture whether he should have been there or not. He had definite opinions. He had courageous opinions. He didn't mind sticking his neck out, and Mayer may have admired that. They were intelligent opinions. They were good opinions. I never cared for Arthur very much, but I recognized his ability."

Freed was enormously ambitious. "A very ruthless, ambitious man," according to Jack Cummings, who was L. B. Mayer's nephew and also a producer of musicals at MGM. About ten years after Freed got his first chance to produce a movie, he came to Cummings and the other producer of MGM musicals, Joe Pasternak, and told them he wanted to be the head of all the musicals. Twenty-eight years later, the sting of that moment had not quite stopped smarting for Cummings. "Arthur said, 'The Boss wants me to be the head of the musicals so everything will be better organized. We've got to get organized around here.' I told him it was fine with me because the day he took over I was leaving the studio. Then I told him the only one of us who needed to be better organized was himself. Which was true. His pictures cost lots and lots of money. Too much money, although in trying for new horizons in musicals you sometimes have to spend the money, and he did make some good pictures. I told Mr. Mayer what my answer to Freed was. He never said a word. But that was the end of it."

Freed was almost maddeningly inarticulate. E. Y. Harburg, who wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz, recalls that "Whenever Arthur talked, all you could do was guess at his meaning." "The word was out that he was lecherous," says Mary Ann Nyberg, who became his costume designer in 1949. "But I wanted the job badly. When I walked into his office, I decided that the best thing was to let him make a pass at me in a hurry and quit because gossip moves fast in this town. His first words to me were, 'How do you like sex?' I said, 'I just love it, but there's one terrible thing. I really put my passions into my work. So anyone who fools around with me when I'm working is losing money.' Freed sighed and said, 'Would you like to go to the commissary and have lunch?' He was a sweet man and he never made a pass. But girls used to go through his office every fifteen minutes. If he had that kind of energy, no wonder he had no energy for conversation. The joke was that when the Freed Unit got through with a girl she went to the LeRoy Unit and then to the Pasternak Unit."

If there was one quality that Freed had in great abundance, it was self-confidence. Even so, his belief in himself was probably a fraction lower than LeRoy's. "Mervyn had absolute confidence in himself," says Frank Davis. "He knew he couldn't fail." LeRoy had two other qualities in common with Freed: he also was enormously ambitious, maddeningly inarticulate. "People always used to wonder how Mervyn was ever able to direct a picture," says someone whose career paralleled LeRoy's at MGM. "He'd say, 'Put a little more into it, baby.' But he somehow got his emotions over to his actors. They understood him in some way. And he made some good films." The two men had been friends almost since their first meeting in 1923. When Arthur Freed brought his bride, Renee, south from San Francisco later that year, the first person to whom he introduced her in Hollywood was Mervyn LeRoy. Before LeRoy's marriage to Doris Warner, he was the Freeds' classic bachelor friend, in and out of the house and most often staying to dinner. The friendship lasted, more or less, for fifty years. And yet, after Arthur Freed's death LeRoy did not call. Freed's widow waited for a word of sympathy that never came.

In the long run, perhaps it hardly matters whether it was LeRoy or Freed who asked L. B. Mayer to buy The Wizard of Oz. Once bought, the book became part of the MGM system, ready to be turned into the kind of lush, elaborate, technically proficient film for which MGM was already — and would continue to be — famous. Warner Bros.* films were harsh, grainy, and abrasive, filled with the nervous energy of James Cagney, Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson. Columbia had director Frank Capra, little money, and heart-warming comedy just on the far edge of sanity. Paramount was "sophisticated," its films full of gleaming black and dazzling white; the image that film historian Arthur Knight still carries of Paramount is "Cary Grant in an evening suit in a boudoir hung with velvet draperies." At 20th Century-Fox, it was Shirley Temple, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power — syrup and sentiment, pleasant but forgettable. MGM did it all more extravagantly, more opulently, often better. Years later, Frank Capra remembered preview audiences anticipating the quality of a film by the symbol preceding it. Columbia's lady with a torch always caused groans, while MGM's lion or Paramount's star-circled mountain brought "anticipatory applause." And publicist Eddie Lawrence and screenwriter William Ludwig spoke of MGM in the exact same seven words: "MGM was the Tiffany of the business."

MGM's pictures of the early thirties bore the imprint of Irving Thalberg. By 1938, when The Wizard of Oz went into production, the stamp was that of L. B. Mayer. When Mayer came to Metro-Goldwyn as vice-president and general manager at a salary of $1,500 a week in 1924, he brought with him Irving Thalberg, a short, frail young man with a heart damaged by rheumatic fever, to whom Mayer always referred as The Little Giant. Thalberg — the model for Monroe Stahr in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon — was the creative force at MGM from 1924 until his death in 1936, although he stopped personally overseeing every single MGM movie in 1933. Mayer had the larger salary and the bigger title. Thalberg had what was commonly called, even then, genius. Even Mervyn LeRoy, who had been Mayer's man, said, "I only met two geniuses in all my years in the business: Irving Thalberg and Walt Disney."

If a preview audience was unresponsive to a finished film, Thalberg could take it into an editing room and recut it into a success. If a film was good, he could make it superior. In addition, he was courteous, gentle, and worked from 10 a.m. until long after midnight, his capacity for work seemingly based on the curious proposition that if he wasn't bored, there was no reason to get tired. With the passage of time Mayer's antagonism toward his Little Giant was so great that the two men rarely spoke.

Irving Thalberg died in September 1936, and playwright Charles MacArthur once described working at MGM thereafter as "like going to the Automat." From then on MGM belonged to Mayer. It belonged to him for sixteen years, until he was deposed in favor of Dore Schary in 1951. After Thalberg's death, his assistant, Al Lewin, resigned, and some of his favorite writers and directors found more congenial work elsewhere. Here and there a few contracts were not renewed. But Mayer did not attempt wholesale executions in order to rid the studio of all of Thalberg's camp-followers: he needed them to make the successful pictures that the money men in New York expected from MGM.

Thalberg was suitably immortalized by having his name placed on the four-story white administration building Mayer built in 1937. When Mervyn LeRoy came to MGM, he took possession of one of the corner executive suites complete with private conference rooms and private bathroom on the third and most exclusive floor. The center of that floor contained Mayer's private flock, the executives who became powerful as studio administrators after Thalberg. Benny Thau, Eddie Mannix, Sam Katz, and Mayer's assistant Ida Koverman lined the corridor leading to Mayer's labyrinth of secretaries and his secretaries' secretaries.

Adjoining Mayer's office were a rather small sitting room and bathroom. A private elevator in the sitting room led to a rear entrance of the building. The elevator allowed Mayer to make an unobserved exit from his office whenever he found it politically desirable. The private elevator no longer works. Studio president James Aubrey had it disconnected in 1970 because he was afraid someone might use it to gain access to his office.

Mayer's executive dining room on the fourth floor of the Thalberg Building has also — long since — been closed. It was that private dining room to which Mayer invited Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and the rest of the black cast of Cabin in the Sky in 1943 when the studio manager — his brother, Jerry — refused to allow them to sit at tables in the commissary. And the next day the commissary was open to them. Black or white, L. B. Mayer's stars were his stars.

Although the executive gymnasium on the fourth floor still existed in 1976, it no longer contained — as it had in Mayer's day — a resident chiropractor. The fourth floor was being used mainly for storage. Mayer's office, too, was gone. Each succeeding president or vice-president in charge of production to occupy Mayer's office — Dore Schary, Sol Siegel, Robert O'Brien, Bo Polk, James Aubrey — changed it to his whim. Dore Schary built a patio, where he could lie in the sun and read scripts. Bo Polk knocked out walls. James Aubrey paneled the office in green leather and put back the walls Polk had knocked out. Only Frank Rosenfelt stifled the urge to make Mayer's office his own. Since becoming president on October 31, 1973, he has lived in the office exactly as his predecessor, James Aubrey, chose to decorate it.


Excerpted from The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz. Copyright © 2013 Aljean Harmetz. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION by Margaret Hamilton,
1. THE STUDIO, 1938,
A. The Auction of the Ruby Slippers,
B. About L. Frank Baum,
C. Credits,

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