She didn’t want to frighten him, so Hamilton Meserve’s aunt warned him that his mother, Margaret Hamilton, was in a “costume” before he entered her dressing room on the set of The Wizard of Oz. “She was completely swathed … like an Egyptian mummy. I saw one eye that was uncovered,” Meserve tells Closer. “That’s the thing I remember most because I was only 3.” Earlier that day, Margaret, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, received second- and third-degree burns on her face and hands while making her exit from Munchkinland. “It’s amazing it didn’t leave a single scar,” her son says.
Injuries on film sets were shockingly common back then. But, even so, The Wizard of Oz achieved a special place in film history that few movies can match. The film remains more popular today than it was when it premiered 83 years ago. “We don’t get residuals, just immortality,” Ray Bolger, a.k.a. the Scarecrow, once quipped.
Shirley Temple had been the front-runner to play Dorothy Gale in MGM’s film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel. “If you read the book, Shirley was closer to the age of Dorothy, but 20th Century Fox refused to lend her out,” says Aljean Harmetz, author of The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Another consideration was financial. At the time, Shirley was a bigger star than Judy Garland and would have commanded more than the $9,649.98 Judy earned. “The only stars that made less than she did were Toto and the Munchkins,” notes John Fricke, author of Judy: A Legendary Film Career.
Vaudevillle veterans Ray Bolger and Buddy Ebsen (later Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies) were among the first cast as Dorothy’s friends. “There was some ambiguity of who was going to play who, but eventually Ray was cast as the Scarecrow and Buddy was the Tin Man,” says William Stillman, coauthor of The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion. But two weeks into filming, Buddy became extremely ill from his silver aluminum powder makeup. “He couldn’t breathe, and his fingers and toes started to cramp up,” his daughter Kiki tells Closer. The actor spent six weeks hospitalized in an oxygen tent, and Jack Haley assumed the role. The formula of the Tin Man’s makeup was also changed.
There were other mishaps, and even rumors and gossip that the production was cursed. Betty Danko, Margaret’s stunt double, was hospitalized for six months after a motor propelling her across the sky during the “Surrender Dorothy” scene caught fire. However, the legend that there’s the body of a suicidal Munchkin visible in a tree in Munchkinland is false. “What you can see is an optical illusion caused by the lighting,” says Harmetz.
Despite everything, many actors were happy to be part of The Wizard of Oz. “As a little girl, I saw those enormous plastic colorful flowers, the yellow brick road, that pool, that village — I was just so stunned by it,” Betty Ann Bruno, who played a Munchkin, tells Closer. Fellow child actor Joan Kenmore also recalls the shoot fondly. “I remember having fun doing the dancing and singing,” she tells Closer, although she notes that the dozen children hired as background Munchkins irked some of the adult Little People actors. “They were kind of crabby,” she says. “They didn’t like it when my little friend and I were laughing.”
Rumors of Munchkin drunkenness on set are also not true, although some of the Little People did frequent the bar at their hotel. “People at the hotel bar were really eager to buy them drinks,” says Harmetz. Dorothy’s sidekicks also got up to mischief. Ray and Jack convinced a hairdresser to shock Bert Lahr, a.k.a. the Cowardly Lion, while curling his furry wig. Bert retaliated by plastering the Tin Man’s metal chassis with tomato can labels while Jack napped.
Judy would win a special juvenile Oscar for The Wizard of Oz, but the film was deemed a flop when it barely recouped its $2.8 million budget in 1939. That changed in 1956 when its first TV broadcast attracted 45 million viewers and paved the way for the annual rebroadcasts that became popular special events until the video age. Today, the film remains a beloved part of pop culture. “I think a lot of that has to do with its message, ‘There’s no place like home,’” says Harmetz. “It became something that parents watched with their kids. And then their kids grew up and watched it with their kids.”