I watched all three (or four, if you will) of the movies, all of the “making of” features on the DVDs, and now I’m reading my way through two-foot-high stacks of reference materials and theory.
One book that’s been a bit of a shocker was The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz, from 1977. Shocking because of the yesteryear’s attitudes that are both being talked about, and demonstrated. Some of the stories that Harmetz tells about the filming of the movie in 1938, the attitudes of the director towards the actors and the apparently complete lack of care for the physical safety of the people on set, let alone their emotional well-being, are quite horrifying. Buddy Ebsen, first cast as the Tinman, nearly died from having his lungs coated in aluminum dust which was used to powder his face silver. He vanished from the set, just didn’t show up for filming one morning, and none of his co-stars knew that he was in the hospital under an oxygen tent, rather than having been fired. Jack Haley, his replacement, was simply sent over to MGM from another studio where he was under contract (which meant they could “loan him out” to whomever they wanted), and got plopped into a role he had never sought and which involved the torture of being in a horribly uncomfortable costume and make-up (at least they had replaced the aluminum dust with an aluminum paste, but even that gave him an eye infection – I think you can see it in some of the scenes, his eyes are distinctly red-rimmed). He was never told what happened to his predecessor; and he spent some of the filming in fear that he, too, would be “fired” if he didn’t play along with what was demanded of him. Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, caught fire in her disappearance scene from Munchkin Land and burned off the skin on her grease-paint-covered hands and face; the toxic copper in her green make-up made it impossible to treat the burns as quickly as necessary. She was in agony for six weeks; but she did not sue the studio because she knew that if she did, she would never get acting work again. Uh, hello? The negligence of the studio causes one of the workers severe injuries, and the actor has to worry about the repercussions of getting compensation for the incident? In fact, according to Harmetz, it was the director Victor Fleming’s impatience that caused this accident to happen. Then, when Hamilton returned on set, she refused to have anything to do with any scenes that involved further fire – d’uh. But they wanted her to ride a smoking broomstick for the sky-writing scene, in fact, pressured her quite heavily to do so. Finally they gave in and used a stunt double, Betty Danko, for the parts where smoke comes out of the back of the broom. Once again Victor Fleming stepped in, and his demands caused another accident: the broomstick literally exploded under Danko, and she was severely injured. She ended up in the same hospital where earlier two of the Flying Monkeys had been treated for their injuries after the wire they were rigged on had broken (Harmetz 279).
This sort of stuff is hard to believe for us today. Was there no such thing as Workmen’s Compensation in the 30’s? I guess not. The actors and studio workers seem to just have been so many objects for the Great Director to manipulate, like props and backdrops, to create his Great Work of Art – or the Great Studio, as it were, to create their Great Moneymaker. Capitalism at its finest. Incidentally, another thing that strikes me about “The Making of the Wizard of Oz” (both the Harmetz book and the documentary in the Special Features section of the DVD) is that it’s always “his” Great Work of Art. Everyone, but everyone, working in the film industry was male. In the photos of the crew and studio employees there is a sea of suits and ties, with nary a female presence to be seen. I believe the only women involved in this production were Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Bobbie Whatshername (Glinda the Good Witch, a very famous star whose name I can’t remember), and their dressers. Oh, and of course the little women who played the Munchkins.
And speaking of which, that was the other thing I found quite shocking in Harmetz’ book: the way she talks about those little people. She consistently refers to them as “midgets”, which, as I found out in the course of this research, is a gross insult to little people – them’s fightin’ words, along the lines of “nigger”. At least it is today; I don’t know if in 1977 it was any less offensive. I guess it was normal then. (Apparently “dwarf” is a better term than “midget”, but the preferred term is “little person”.) But even leaving aside the nomenclature, Harmetz’ tone is incredibly condescending, as if the people in question were not only small in stature, but infantile in nature, as well. Okay, maybe I’m being unfair to Harmetz; the impression of condescension might come more from the people she quotes – workers and actors who were part of the 1938 production. For example, one of the dressers says that she “used to play a game with them. … Because they liked to be treated like big people” (201). Wow, you mean, adult human beings like to be treated like adult human beings? How kind of her to humour them by playing a game with them. That’s the 30’s attitude – but still, Harmetz’ 70’s writing still brims with “otherness”. Referring to the Munchkin actors as “cute” and “like children” might not be Harmetz’ own words, but in her selection of quotes she emphasises over and over again that little people aren’t “real” actors – their defining characteristic is their stature.
And that’s one of the things I took away from this book, and from much of the “making of” features particularly about the Wizard of Oz: just how powerfully the interpretation of a story is influenced by the time in which it is made. Baum’s fantasy land Munchkins aren’t cute – they are just a short-statured group of people, the adults the same height as six-year-old Dorothy, who happen to like blue clothing. MGM’s 1930’s Munchkins are most emphatically cute and childlike in their primary-coloured puffed and frilled outfits, far more so than teenage Dorothy in her simple gingham who towers above them. And the 1970’s biographer finds nothing wrong with that, because after all, midgets are not like real adults.
Movies, far more than books, I think, are a mirror of their time. It’ll be interesting digging further into that aspect of these films, especially seeing as the Harry Potter movie was made immediately on the heels of the release of the book, practically contemporary with it. The Oz book and film are nearly forty years apart, but both are in the past for today, while Narnia was written more than sixty years ago, but the film is very recent. I wonder how much that is in evidence in the adaptations.