Friday, March 8, 2013
As yet another spinoff of "The Wizard of Oz" arrives in theaters, it's almost hard to believe that the original film, which premiered 74 years ago, was, in many ways, a near disaster.
The 1939 classic took more than a dozen screenwriters, three directors, six soundstages, 23 weeks to shoot and cost nearly $3 million -- MGM's most expensive film that year. Though released to much fanfare, it lost money until 1956, when MGM leased it to CBS, which began showing it on television every year and turned it into a cultural phenomenon.
Even more surprising: Judy Garland, who played Dorothy and went on to become a huge star, was not the studio's first choice. And "Over the Rainbow," which became the film's iconic song, almost didn't make it in.
"There were problems all along, but mostly because this was uncharted ground," said Aljean Harmetz, author of "The Making of the Wizard of Oz," the definitive book on the film. "They were creating new techniques to do the special effects. They were creating characters that had never been on the screen before. They were doing fresh things. It was the early days of Technicolor, which had only been around three years."
For two of the three surviving diminutive actors who played Munchkins, it was one of the best experiences of their life.
"It was wonderful," Jerry Maren, the Munchkin in the middle who famously welcomes Dorothy to Munchkinland by handing her a lollipop, told ABCNews.com. Now 93, he even sang a few bars of the "Lollipop Song."
Maren, who was 16 at the time, said Garland was "an angel. She was so thoughtful and considerate. She was so nice to us. She was lovely to everybody."
"The reason that scene is so good is because we really did enjoy it," Ruth Robinson Duccini, now 95, told ABCNews.com. "That was a lot of fun. And that comes through in the scene."
"I know they can never make another movie like that," said Duccini, who played one of the Munchkin villagers when she was 20. "What amazes me is the interest in it. There's still so much interest in it. People love that movie."
"It has stood the test of time," said Harmetz, whose book will be released in a new edition this fall -- in time for the movie's 75th anniversary. "There were a number of compromises all the way through, and yet the compromises sometimes made the film better. I take it just as it is."