The United States was hurting in 1939. Still suffering through the Great Depression, anxiously eyeing the threat of war across the Atlantic (the Nazi invasion of Poland was just a week away), Americans cast their eyes to the movies for a little relief.
What they got was a blast of fantasy, song and Technicolor. On August 25, 1939 — 79 years ago today — MGM unveiled The Wizard of Oz.
The film, loosely based on L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, follows the adventures of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland, of course) after she, her dog and her farmhouse are ripped away from Kansas and thrown into the magical land of Oz. There, she and her eclectic companions (the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion) must deal with all manner of perilous situations — from flying monkeys to sleep-inducing poppies to the Wicked Witch of the West herself. And even after the Witch is defeated, Dorothy still must overcome adversity to finally make her way back home.
The movie teaches plenty of lessons along its Yellow Brick Road. Its characters need brains, heart, and courage in the face of many adversities. And in some people’s eyes, the film even offers some Christian lessons in its folds (even though Baum himself was a Theosophist).
Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow, hints at the story’s felt spirituality in an essay he wrote for Guideposts:
My favorite [book growing up] was L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. “This book has a marvelous philosophy, Raymond,” Mother said. “It tells how we all need wisdom, love, courage and a home. The trouble is,” she added softly, “God has given each of us these gifts, but we don’t believe it. And so we roam the world searching for them when we have them within us all the time. Remember what the Bible says: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ [Luke 17:21] Keep those words with you always, Raymond.”
But if the movie’s a classic story of adventure and peril with a happy ending, the making of the movie was no less adventurous and perilous. Its makers needed to deal with a bevy of challenges no less frightening than a barrel full of flying monkeys. Take a look:
Hollywood and Oz don’t mix?
Encouraged by the success of Walt Disney’s Snow White, MGM bought the rights to L. Frank Baum’s story for $75,000 — more than the studio paid for the rights for Gone With the Wind (their other high-profile production that year). But Snow White aside, fantasy movies were notoriously risky investments, and the land of Oz had already seen its share of failure on screen. A 1925 silent version of the story (featuring the Tin Man as the villain!) was a critical and commercial failure, and its studio, Chadwick Pictures, actually went bankrupt during the film’s run. An even earlier version, 1908’s The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays and featuring Baum himself, was also a financial flop. MGM would have to overcome history to turn a profit.