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The Stars of Oz

Published: 12/4/2012

Original Wizard of Oz movie poster (Wikimedia Commons/MGM)Seventy-three years after it was in theaters, The Wizard of Oz remains one of the most-loved movies of all time. In a world where it's easy to forget a blockbuster movie just a few months after its time, something has made The Wizard of Oz stick with us. Certainly, part of the movie's longevity is the timeless story… the beautiful, groundbreaking-for-its-time cinematography… the award-winning music. But perhaps most enduring are the performances – the people who brought Oz and its fantastic characters to life.

All these years after the film's debut, most of the actors who appeared in The Wizard of Oz have passed away, including all of the stars. This week marks anniversaries for two of them: Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) died 45 years ago today, and Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West) would have turned 110 later this week. We're remembering them and their costars today with a few facts about the people behind the makeup.

Ray Bolger delighted audiences as the Scarecrow (as well as farmhand Hunk back in Kansas). But when he was originally cast, it was to play the Tin Man. Bolger was desperate to play the Scarecrow, just like his idol Fred Stone had done in a popular 1902 stage production. He finally talked the producers into making the switch, and he worked hard to emulate his idol's "wobbly walk."

But playing the Scarecrow was not all song and dance: while having a smoke break between takes, Bolger accidentally tipped his ash into his highly flammable straw costume and caught it on fire – not once, but twice. Maybe the Tin Man would have been a safer choice… or maybe not….

Jack Haley didn't step into the Tin Man role immediately after Bolger shed it. Buddy Ebsen – who would later star as Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies – was initially cast as the Scarecrow and stepped into the Tin Man’s silver shoes when Bolger got his Scarecrow wish. But a severe allergic reaction to the metallic makeup landed Ebsen in the hospital (in fact, he would complain the rest of his life of chronic health issues he attributed to his stint as the Tin Man). With Ebsen out, the studio altered the makeup and brought in Jack Haley. Though we’re sure Buddy Ebsen would have been a fine Tin Man, there is no denying that Jack Haley put his heart into the part.

Jack Haley helped write dialogue for the Kansas portion of the story, as did Dorothy’s third companion, the Cowardly Lion (farmhand Zeke) played by Bert Lahr. Lahr's costume didn't make him sick, but it wasn't much easier to wear than the Tin Man's – made from real lion's hair, it was heavy and hot, almost unbearable under the bright lights of the set. But Lahr still made us laugh as he not-so-bravely went where no lion had gone before…

Margaret Hamilton played the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, as well as Miss Almira Gulch in Kansas. Hamilton’s delightfully wicked witch has terrified generations of children...

But perhaps the grouchiness of Gulch and the Witch wasn’t entirely an act – Hamilton’s costume was as perilous as her costars’. After the Wicked Witch first appears in Munchkinland, she exits dramatically in a burst of fire and smoke. On the second take, the fire and smoke burst a bit too dramatically… and the grease in Hamilton’s makeup caught on fire. With second degree burns on her hands and face, Hamilton spent six weeks in the hospital before she was healed enough to return to the set. To add insult to injury, the heavy makeup rendered her unable to eat solid food, so during the long days of filming, she existed on a liquid diet.

All the actors we've spotlighted so far played multiple parts in The Wizard of Oz… but none played as many as Frank Morgan. He was Professor Marvel back in Kansas, the Emerald City's Gatekeeper, a coachman with a horse of a different color, the Wizard's Doorman, and of course, the Great Oz himself. The reason for all those roles? Originally, studio heads wanted to woo W.C. Fields into playing the Wizard. They thought that more screen time – via a variety of roles – would entice him. But after a long stretch of haggling over Fields's fee, the studio gave up and cast Morgan, who did a wonderful job with his many characters.

And then, of course, there was Judy Garland. Her performance as Dorothy is so iconic, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. But Garland wasn't always a lock for the role – some MGM studio execs preferred the six-years-younger Shirley Temple. When negotiations to borrow Temple from her studio didn't work out, the studio eventually settled on Garland. She was 16 years old at the time of filming, much older than the young girl pictured in L. Frank Baum's books. Initially, in keeping with the image found in some editions of the books, Garland was given a blonde wig and "babydoll" makeup, her breasts were bound, and she was told to play Dorothy in an exaggerated fashion (perhaps in the style of the studio’s preferred star, Shirley Temple). Eventually, a new director changed the tone of the character, losing the wig and makeup and telling Garland to "be herself." Only the blue-checkered costume – including its corset to deemphasize her adult figure – remained, and the much more natural Dorothy we know and love today was born.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

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