Dark Secrets Behind the Making of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Few films enjoy the cult status and enduring popularity like The Wizard of Oz. This 1939 American musical fantasy by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) is considered one of the greatest cinema masterpieces in history. However, when it came to creating the movie, everything wasn’t rainbows and poppy fields.

The story behind the creation of The Wizard of Oz is almost as fantastical as the film itself. From shocking behind-the-scenes mistreatment of actors to possible suicides, this is everything you never knew about the making of The Wizard of Oz, including what really happened to the famous ruby slippers (No. 12).

1. The film might have been cursed

The original Wizard of Oz

The original Wizard of Oz | Noroi/Wikimedia Commons

Was The Wizard of Oz a cursed film? Hollywood studios seemed to think so.

While the 1939 version of the film is certainly the best known, it wasn’t the first attempt at bringing Frank Baum’s novel into the spotlight. A vaudeville-style musical version was released in 1902 and a silent movie version came out in 1910. An adaptation centering on the scarecrow as the main character in 1925 was a box office flop that plunged one Hollywood studio into bankruptcy.

Next: The costumes were the opposite of comfortable

2. Wearing the costumes was pure torture

The Wizard of Oz

A lobby card from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The actors had to endure utter torture to wear their costumes.

For starters, Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion costume was made from an actual lion hide and weighed about 90 lbs. It didn’t allow for much ventilation, so Lahr was constantly sweating during filming. It got so bad that it took two assistants to dry out the costume every night.

Meanwhile, Buddy Ebsen’s Tin Man suit was made of metal, so he couldn’t even sit down in it. When he got tired, the poor guy had to lean on a board. He also had a violent reaction to his makeup that put him in the hospital. The incident forced MGM to recast his part to Jack Haley, which is who played the Tin Man in the movie.

Next: The Wizard of Oz went through several of these.

3. Four different producers worked on the movie

Mervyn Leroy Wizard of Oz

Mervyn Leroy | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The film went through four different producers by the time it was through.

Richard Thorpe, the first director, insisted that Judy Garland wear a blonde wig and thick makeup to depict Dorothy. When Buddy Epsen got sick from his Tin Man makeup and filming shut down for two weeks, the studio fired Thorpe and replaced him with George Cukor of My Fair Lady fame. Cukor encouraged Garland to wear natural makeup and play Dorothy less cartoonish and more natural.

Cukor later left the film to work on Gone with the Wind instead and Viktor Fleming took his place. However, Cukor came back a few weeks later after getting fired from Gone With the Wind by Clark Gable (supposedly he was fired when Gable found out he was homosexual).

Director King Vidor was responsible for most of the sepia sequences and also helped Mervyn LeRoy with editing in post production.

Next: Garland got reprimanded for giggling.

4. Judy Garland got slapped in the face

The Wizard of Oz cast

The Wizard of Oz | CBS Television Network/Wikimedia Commons

While filming the famous slap scene between Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, the young actress couldn’t stop giggling. After several ruined takes, director Viktor Fleming took Judy Garland aside, slapped her across the face, and then told her to “go in there and work.” Then next time she attempted the scene, she did it perfectly (with no giggling).

Next: Garland may have also been molested.

5. Garland might have been molested by munchkins

Lollipop guild Judy Garland Wizard of Oz

Jerry Maren, playing a Lollipop Guild Member, presents Judy Garland with a lollipop | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Was Judy Garland molested by munchkins? Her ex-husband says she was.

Sid Luft was married to Garland from 1952 to 1965. According to his memoir, Judy and I: My Life With Judy Garland, the actors made her life hell. “They would make Judy’s life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress … The men were 40 or more years old,” he said.

Next: The Wicked Witch of the West was too believable.

6. People thought Margaret Hamilton was really evil

Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz

Margaret Hamilton and Judy Garland | Wikimedia Commons

Not only did the public think former kindergarten teacher Margaret Hamilton was really evil following the first airing of The Wizard of Oz — she also suffered physically for the role. Hamilton received second and third-degree burns all over her body when the green copper makeup she was wearing got too hot during the fire scene.

Her stunt double spent months in the hospital after a prop broom exploded — they were using a double because Hamilton got injured on an earlier take.

Next: Being the Cowardly Lion wasn’t easy.

7. It took a huge amount of courage to portray the Cowardly Lion

Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz

Bert Lahr in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Wikimedia Commons

Bert Lahr wasn’t allowed to eat while in his makeup since it was so difficult to apply. At first he tried to remain agreeable and just live on milkshakes and soup so he didn’t ruin it. But when filming the movie went on for years, he put his foot down and requested a makeup redo after lunch.

Next: This famous song almost didn’t make it into the movie.

8. They almost cut the song ‘Over the Rainbow’

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Wikimedia Commons

The song “Over the Rainbow” was almost cut from the movie since producers thought it was too slow and long for younger kids watching the movie, plus studio head Louis B. Mayer thought it was too depressing. They ultimately decided to leave it in when one producer and assistant producer threatened to quit if it was cut.

Next: Was the movie an instant success or not?

9. The film broke even at the box office

Lobby card from The Wizard of Oz

A lobby card from ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Legend holds that The Wizard of Oz was a box office flop. The truth is a little more complicated.

The movie brought in $3 million during it’s time in theaters, which makes it a great success for the time. However, the high cost of production, including technical demands, cast changes, director changes, and wrecked Technicolor film made the film just break even. It was also pulled from theaters faster than some competing titles like Gone With the Wind, which kept on playing for several years.

Next: Here’s what took so long for the sequel.

10. Making a sequel was too complicated

Wizard of Oz sing a long

Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland, composer Harold Arlen, and various MGM and music publishing executives sing songs | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Studio executives wanted a sequel, but it didn’t happen for several reasons. First, Garland’s performance put her at the top of every casting list and she got tied up in projects for years following the release. Also, the cost of producing the film along with all the snafus along the way made it hard to get the next project approved.

The Wizard of Oz didn’t get a proper sequel until Disney took on the project with Return to Oz in 1985.

Next: Did a munchkin really kill himself?

11. No, a munchkin did not commit suicide on set

The munchkins from the wizard of oz

The original Munchkins from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Ever hear the one about a munchkin hanging himself during the filming, which viewers can see if they look close enough? Turns out that rumor is false.

According to Snopes, the scene in question happens after Dorothy and Scarecrow attempt to pick apples and encounter the Tin Man. The trio heads down the yellow brick road and a dark shadow in the distance is said to resemble a person hanging. But it wasn’t a suicide caught on film — it was a bird.

To make the movie set appear more representative of an outdoor setting, the studio brought in live birds to wander around that set. That shadowy thing is actually a bird spreading its wings, not a munchkin ending his life.

Next: A studio employee took home this priceless relic.

12. A set designer took home the famous ruby slippers — for free

The Wizard of Oz ruby slippers

The original ruby slippers from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Astrid Stawiarz/AFP/Getty Images

Kurt Warner was a set designer and wardrobe assistant in Hollywood in the 1970s. When MGM needed to clean out their warehouses, they enlisted Warner to help out, offering him whatever costume pieces he wanted for free. Among the items he took? Scarlett O’Hara’s dress, Humphrey Bogart’s trench coat, and several pairs of ruby slippers.

Today, Dorothy’s red shoes are worth at least $1.5 million.

Next: Someone else almost played the role of Dorothy.

13. Shirley Temple almost played the role of Dorothy

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Warner Bros./Wikimedia Commons

While some sources claim that MGM wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy, the truth is that the studio always had Judy Garland as their top choice. With Temple’s proven success rate, they did consider her, but ultimately chose Garland thanks to her vocal range and obvious talent.

Next: Glinda was much older than she appeared.

14. The Wicked Witch of the West was much younger than Glinda

Billie Burke and Judy Garland

Billie Burke and Judy Garland | MGM/Wikimedia Commons

Glinda was depicted as young and beautiful while the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, was made to look like a creepy old hag. The weird thing is that Hamilton was only 36 at the time of filming while Billie Burke, who played Glinda, was 54.

Next: Ray Bolger couldn’t forget playing Scarecrow — literally.

15. The Scarecrow costume left Ray Bolger with serious scars

Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz

Ray Bolger in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Wikimedia Commons

Stage makeup and prosthetics in 1939 were nowhere near what they are today. Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow makeup left deeply embedded marks in his skin that didn’t disappear for more than a year after the movie wrapped up filming. Luckily, this would never happen today.

Next: Toto made more money than these actors.

16. Toto got paid more than most munchkins

Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | NBC Television Network/Wikimedia Commons

Terry the terrier catapulted to fame following his walk down the yellow brick road. One controversial fact? Toto the dog made about $125 per week working in the movie, which was more than some of the (human) munchkin actors got paid. Still, it wasn’t easy work — he had to take a few days off when someone accidentally stepped on his foot.

Next: It was one of the most expensive films to make.

17. It cost millions of dollars to make

Lobby card Wizard of Oz

Lobby card | MGM/Wikimedia Commons

It was one of the most expensive movies made to date, rivaling the type of budget that today’s CGI fantasy films command. There had never before been so much money thrown at special effects, makeup, costumes, reshoots, rehearsals, and extended production times in Hollywood history. All told, the movie cost a whopping $3 million to create.

Next: It was one of few films to achieve this honor.

18. It was one of the only films to air on television every year

The Wizard of Oz cast

The Wizard of Oz cast | NBC Television Network/Wikimedia Commons

The movie became incredibly popular once it got aired on television.

By this point it had earned a respectable amount at the box office and had won a few Oscars. But it wasn’t until The Wizard of Oz came into people’s homes that it became the cult classic it is today. Annual broadcasts of films were rare at this time, but the movie remained such a ratings juggernaut that they kept airing it. At one point, 50% of all people watching television were watching The Wizard of Oz.

Next: The movie indirectly killed this person.

19. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ killed Judy Garland

Judy Garland in 1939

Judy Garland in 1939 | MGM/Wikimedia Commons

Judy Garland died of a drug overdose in 1969 — and she has “The Wizard of Oz” to blame for it.

Since Dorothy was supposed to be a prepubescent girl but Garland was already a teenager when filming began, the studio execs decided to force Garland to wear a tight corset to conceal her womanly figure. She was also prescribed amphetamines to keep her weight down and then barbiturates to help her sleep after grueling 16-hour work days. Sadly, this first foray into drug use would affect Garland for the rest of her life — and eventually kill her.

Next: You never knew this about the Wicked Witch of the West.

20. The Wicked Witch of the West is scarier than you think

Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz

Margaret Hamilton in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Hamilton endured a lot of torture for nothing. Besides the toxic copper face paint burning her skin and the residual fear and hate from audiences, she also had a lot of scenes cut from the movie because they were deemed “too scary for children.”

Next: This person had a magical dressing room.

21. Glinda’s dressing room was seriously enviable

Glinda the Good Witch

Glinda | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Glinda didn’t just get to portray the more beautiful witch — she also got the better dressing room.

Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, admitted that on filming days when Billie Burke wasn’t around, she used to sneak into her dressing room to have lunch. “She had a pink and blue dressing room,” Hamilton explained in The Making of The Wizard of Oz. “With pink and blue powder puffs and pink and blue bottles filled with powder and baby oil. And pink and blue peppermints.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton described her own canvas tent dressing room as, “simply awful.”

Next: Dorothy’s ruby slippers almost weren’t red.

22. Dorothy’s slippers were almost silver

Dorothy's ruby slippers

Dorothy’s ruby slippers | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In The Wizard of Oz books, Dorothy’s slippers were silver, which is what the studio originally had planned for Judy Garland’s wardrobe. The change was made because MGM studio head Louis B. Meyer wanted to show off the new technicolor better.

Next: The film was inspired by this Disney classic.

23. Disney’s ‘Snow White’ provided inspiration for the film

The Wizard of Oz movie poster

‘The Wizard of Oz’ movie poster | MGM/Wikimedia Commons

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937 with smashing success. That’s one of the main reasons MGM exec Louis B. Mayer was so convinced that The Wizard of Oz would have similar results.

The film took many cues from Snow White. First, the original Wicked Witch was supposed to be played similarly to the evil stepmother from Snow White. Actress Gail Sondegaard read for the part with the intention of portraying a sexy, beautiful villain, which is why the studio ultimately went in another direction.

Still, the lasting impact of Snow White’s influence can be heard during the Tin Man’s song, “If I Only Had a Heart.” When you hear the line: “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” you’re hearing the voice of Adriana Caselotti — the voice of Snow White.

Next: You won’t believe how the horses changed color.

24. The horses got their color from Jell-o

The Wizard of Oz carriage

Horse of a different color carriage | Jonathunder/Wikimedia Commons

Remember the color changing horses during the Horse-of-a-Different-Color scenes? Those weren’t achieved by CGI special affects — the horses changed color with Jell-o! Multiple Emerald City horses were stuck with Jello-crystals to achieve their rainbow hues. The scenes had to be shot quickly before the horses started to lick it off.

Next: The book doesn’t exactly match the movie.

25. There are key differences between the book and the movie

The Wizard of Oz

‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Patrick Riviere/iStock/Getty Images

The Wizard of Oz book is a bit more graphic and gory than the film. For example, in the book there’s a scene with tiger-bear hybrids being killed in a crevasse. Also, Tin Man uses his axe to decapitate a wildcat and 40 wolves. Bumblebees swarm and sting scarecrow and die.

Next: This actor had experience on Broadway

26. Bert Lahr performed vaudeville before joining the cast

Cowardly Lion costume

Actor Bert Lahr’s “Cowardly Lion” costume | Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

It makes sense why the Lion has two musical numbers when you consider that Lahr was a vaudeville performer and Broadway star. Both “If I Were King of the Forest” and “If I Only Had the Nerve” were written for him by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, a team who created Broadway numbers for the actor in the past.

Next: The cast got close during filming.

27. The principle actors were close on and off-screen

The Wizard of Oz cast

‘The Wizard of Oz’ cast | NBC Television Network/Wikimedia Commons

They’re not just pretending to be friends on camera — the four main actors in The Wizard of Oz really were close. Jack Haley (the Tin Man) was the godfather to Bert Lahr’s (Cowardly Lion) son, John. Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, married Jack Haley’s son. Ray Bolger (Scarecrow) gave the eulogy at Margaret Hamilton’s (Wicked Witch) funeral.

Next: This dance number got cut from the movie. 

28. The four stars almost danced the jitterbug

The Wizard of Oz

‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Deleted scenes are nothing new in the movie world, but this one could have made the film much different. Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion are all supposed to get attacked by a flying insect called, “the jitterbug.” The bug would then make the crew dance and sing. Ultimately, producers cut the scene to keep the film from becoming dated too quickly.

Next: There was no such thing as equal pay.

29. Judy Garland earned much less than her friends

The Wizard of Oz

‘The Wizard of Oz’ | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Talk about a wage gap. While Dorothy is no doubt the star of the film, Judy Garland only earned about $500 per week playing the part. Meanwhile, Ray Bolger (Scarecrow) and Jack Haley (Tin Man) earned the most, bringing home about $3,000 per week.

Next: This actor played multiple parts. 

30. The Great and Powerful Oz made several appearances in the movie

Dorothy and the Wizard

Dorothy and the Wizard | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Actor Frank Morgan didn’t just play one role in The Wizard of Oz — he played five.

Not only did he depict the Great and Powerful Oz, but he also played the fortune-telling professor in the beginning, the cabby driving the Horse-of-a-Different-Color carriage, a guard at the wizard’s palace, and the doorkeeper at the palace.