One of America’s best-loved movie projects gets underway on this day in 1934, when the producer Samuel Goldwyn buys the film rights to the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Published in 1900, Baum’s novel told the story of Dorothy, a young girl on a Kansas farm who is swept away by a tornado and carried to the magical Land of Oz. Baum, who died in 1919, based his book on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, and also drew inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. His own work of children’s literature became an instant classic, was translated into some 40 languages and spawned numerous sequels–Baum’s widow, Maud, allowed another writer to continue the series after her husband’s death in 1919–and adaptations, including a long-running Broadway musical that debuted in 1903 and several silent films. The most famous adaptation, however, would be Goldwyn’s film version of The Wizard of Oz, which was finally released in 1939. Goldwyn had supposedly intended for Shirley Temple to take the part of Dorothy, but the role went to 17-year-old Judy Garland instead, and it would catapult her to international stardom.
The film followed Dorothy and her terrier, Toto, from the Kansas home they share with her aunt and uncle to Oz and their journey along the Yellow Brick Road. Along the way, she encounters a series of colorful characters including the Tin Man, who needs a heart; the Cowardly Lion, who lacks courage (and whose costume was made of two real lion skins); and the Scarecrow, who needs a brain. Other key characters were the Munchkins, Glinda the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West. The Kansas scenes were filmed in black and white, but the rest of the movie was made in Technicolor, a relatively new process at the time.
Production of The Wizard of Oz was plagued with problems, from numerous script rewrites to casting and directorial changes. After the original director, Richard Thorpe, was fired, Victor Fleming stepped in to take over the director’s role from George Cukor, who left to helm David O. Selznick’s Civil War epic Gone With the Wind, a job which, ironically, Fleming would later replace him in. When Fleming left, King Vidor stepped in to replace him. Despite all these changes, Fleming received the main director’s credit for the movie. Another stumbling block occurred when Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Man, got sick from a reaction to the aluminum makeup he was forced to wear; he was replaced by Jack Haley.
In the end, the 101-minute-long film had modest success at the box office and earned several Oscar nominations–including a Best Song win for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a special award for Garland as Best Juvenile Performer. In 1956, an estimated 45 million people tuned in to watch the movie debut on television as part of the Ford Star Jubilee. Countless TV showings later, The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved and best-known films of all time.
The Wizard of Oz spawned two sequels, including Journey Back to Oz (1974), an animated film featuring the voice of Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, and Return to Oz (1985). An all-African-American remake, The Wiz (1978), starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, with music arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones. In 1998, The Wizard of Oz ranked sixth in the American Film Institute’s poll of America’s 100 Greatest Movies. In a measure of its enduring success, Wizard of Oz fan clubs still exist today, more than a century after the book’s first publication.