This is the twenty-first in a series of examinations of legends from movies and the people who make them and whether they are true or false.
Click here to view an archive of the previous movie urban legends.
Reader Eric will appreciate this week’s theme (although he’ll know all these legends) – all legends about the Wizard of Oz!!!
MOVIE LEGEND: 20th Century Fox tried to work out a “trade” of Jean Harlow and Clark Gable so that Shirley Temple could star in MGM’s Wizard of Oz.
STATUS: False, with I believe some truthiness mixed in
On the IMDB trivia page for the Wizard of Oz, it states:
Shirley Temple was the original choice to play Dorothy. However, she was under contract to 20th Century Fox at the time. A deal was put in place to loan her to MGM Studios in exchange for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow going to 20th Century Fox for a film. However, after Jean Harlow’s untimely death the deal was revoked.
First off, I don’t mean to pick on IMDB’s trivia page at all, they’re usually great. I only cite this to show that it IS a common belief that this was the situation.
In any event, for years, the whole “Shirley Temple was going to be Dorothy!” story has been circulating, and really, there probably is some truth to it all.
Shirley Temple WAS the most famous child actress in the film at the time the Wizard of Oz began filming.
And I believe there certainly IS something to be said for the fact that studio executives at MGM would have liked for her to star in the Wizard of Oz, to give it some more box office cache.
However, Judy Garland seems pretty clearly to be the first choice for the film. She was announced as being the lead when MGM announced they were doing the film, and as an MGM contract player who was getting a bit of a buzz at the time, it would have made perfect sense for MGM to have Judy Garland given a chance to have a starring role in a major film.
Now, that isn’t to say that once Garland got the role that executives didn’t reconsider, which they almost certainly DID do.
Mervyn LeRoy (producer of the film) has always said that he never wanted anyone but Garland, but it’s likely fair to say that he was pushed for a bigger name. There is some evidence to suggest that Temple may have at least had an informal audition for the role (and news reels from the time seem to support this, as Temple would make jokes about the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home,” etc.).
However, at the heart of the legend is the assertion that Jean Harlow and Clark Gable were going to be “traded” from MGM to Fox for a film in exchange for Fox letting Temple do the Wizard of Oz.
The problem here is that while the above piece notes Harlow’s death, it doesn’t mention WHEN she died, exactly.
Harlow died in June of 1937.
MGM did not even BUY the rights to the Wizard of Oz until January of 1938!
So no, there was no deal involving Harlow and Gable for Temple (even though Temple asserted so in her auto-biography).
However, this does not mean that that there was no some OTHER possible deal that fell through. The fact that Temple thought that there was is a pretty good indication for me that, at the very least, she was being told that there were negotiations for such a deal. She might have simply gotten the names wrong.
Still, if the story is “Harlow and Gable for Temple,” then it is false.
MOVIE LEGEND: A dispute with Technicolor kept the MGM Wizard of Oz as the first instance of black and white turning to color at Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.
The MGM version of the Wizard of Oz was not the first time that the Wizard of Oz was adapted into another medium.
The most famous of these adaptations was most likely the 1902 musical (just two years after the novel’s release!).
When MGM purchased the rights to the novel, it also purchased the rights to the stage play AND the 1925 silent film of the story, all in the interest of being the only people out there with the right to do a Wizard of Oz production (interestingly enough, none of the stage musical’s songs were used).
The MGM film was to be the first Wizard of Oz production done in color.
However, interestingly enough, there almost was ANOTHER Wizard of Oz production in the 1930s, and this one would have beaten the MGM film to the “color” aspect by a good six years!
Ted Eshbaugh, with help from L. Frank Baum’s son, created a short film version of the Wizard of Oz in 1933.
The film opened with Dorothy in Kansas in black and white…
Then that famous tornado came by…
As Dorothy plummets into Oz, she begins falling in black and white…
but lands in color!!!
Then we get a shortened Wizard of Oz story that really barely resembles the novel, but at least most of the most famous characters are there (at this point in time, the Cowardly Lion’s part had been shrunk in most adaptations of the story – it was the MGM film that brought him back to prominence – this film skips him entirely), check out Scarecrow and Tin Man!
Sadly, Ensbaugh produced the film without an official license from Technicolor, so he was prevented from releasing the film theatrically.
Years later, it would pop up here and there, but in all black and white.
Many MORE years later, MGM must have bought it (or perhaps it went into public domain) and then they re-colored the film and included it as a bonus on the 70th Anniversary Edition of the Wizard of Oz DVD.
MOVIE LEGEND: Victor Fleming had an…interesting method for getting Judy Garland to keep from laughing during the filming of a scene for the Wizard of Oz.
STATUS: I’m Going with True
Victor Fleming was actually the FOURTH director on the Wizard of Oz (following Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe and George Cukor), but if you had to pick one person as “the” director of the film, I suppose you’d have to go with Fleming.
In any event, there’s a famous (infamous?) story about Fleming and Judy Garland from the film that I’ve seen a few times over the years and I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it.
Here’s the story:
One day on the set of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Judy Garland found herself playing a simple scene in which her character (Dorothy) slaps the supposed ferocious lion (Bert Lahr) and he promptly begins to cry. When she slapped Lahr, however, his reaction was so comical that Garland burst into fits of laughter. Director Victor Fleming ordered another take, but again Lahr’s expressions reduced his costar to tears. At last she retreated behind a tree and made a vow: “I will not laugh. I will not laugh.”
Sure enough, in the next take she was once again convulsed with laughter and eventually grew so hysterical that she simply could not stop. Fleming finally went over and slapped her firmly in the face. “All right now,” he said, “go back to your dressing room.” Garland did as she was told and returned a few minutes later. “OK,” she said, and performed the scene without a hitch.
The story first appeared in the 1977 Aljean Harmetz classic book The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM, with the source being screenwriter John Lee Mahin, who worked on the film.
A second-hand story is a BIT fishy, even if it came from someone who definitely DID work on the film like Mahin, so I’ve always been a bit wary of the story, but after reading through a couple of Victor Fleming biographies, it seems to be pretty accepted by Fleming historians and, in fact, his own family (his daughter says it sounds like something her dad would do – and she denies any assertion that such behavior was “abuse” under the “that’s just how things were back then” theory), so I’m willing to believe Mahin.
Crazy story, though.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com