Over the Rainbow
Everyone knew MGM’s film version of The Wizard of Oz was something special in 1939. The studio optimistically thought the movie might have a fairly long life—at least 10 years! More than 70 years and countless TV broadcasts later, it is one of the most popular and enduring films ever made. As Hollywood continues to roll out Oz adaptations—such as Disney’s 2013 Oz the Great and Powerful—this map investigates their Technicolor archetype.
An immediate hit, the 1902 stage musical The Wizard of Oz made stars of its leading men, the comedy duo of David Montgomery (Tin Woodman) and Fred Stone (Scarecrow). The show drew crowds on Broadway and throughout its nationwide tour, and local productions were staged well into the 1920s.
The first major motion picture of the original novel was 1925’s silent Wizard of Oz, notable primarily for an early appearance by Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodman, shortly before he teamed with Stan Laurel. In the following decade MGM made the full-color musical The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland.
The story came to television first as Rankin/Bass cartoons: Tales of the Wizard of Oz (1961), a series of shorts that veers off in unexpected directions, and the longer Return to Oz (1964), in which Dorothy helps the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion retrieve their gifts from the Wizard after they’ve been stolen. The first made-for-TV movie version was in fact The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005), featuring singer Ashanti as Dorothy, Kermit the Frog as the Scarecrow, Gonzo as the Tin Thing, Fozzie Bear as the Cowardly Lion and Miss Piggy as all four witches.
When Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) became a surprise hit, the rest of Hollywood wanted to make musical fantasies too. One of the hottest properties was L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, owned by MGM. The studio first hired a dozen screenwriters, some of whom were unaware that others were working on the project. At various points in these plots, Dorothy sang jazz, a spoiled Kansas girl and her pampered Pekingese were added as characters, and the Cowardly Lion became a transformed human prince with an opera singer fiancée. When the story really bogged down, the studio took the script back to basics until it looked more like Baum’s novel. The book’s original illustrations also influenced the film’s design, particularly in costuming. Dorothy’s dress in book and film is blue gingham, the Tin Woodman’s funnel hat and conical nose were taken from the illustrations, and the Cowardly Lion wears a red bow atop his mane in both. Contrary to a myth that The Wizard of Oz was a box-office flop, it became one of the biggest moneymakers of 1939, but it lost money overall, partly due to the enormous expense of Technicolor.
MGM secured the film rights to L. Frank Baum’s novel for $75,000 in 1938. Knowing its adaptation would be a big movie, the studio quietly bought the rights to the 1902 Oz musical and the 1925 silent film so nobody could put out a competing version. The decision was fortuitous, because those two shows had a significant impact on the movie. The soporific poppy field, for instance, was a problem. In the book, a band of field mice retrieves the Cowardly Lion, an event that was impossible to represent believably with 1930s film technology. So the movie borrowed the musical’s Act I finale, using snow to counteract the poppies’ effect. From the 1925 silent film, MGM likely borrowed the idea of Kansas farmhands becoming Dorothy’s companions in Oz.
The MGM film introduced the notion that the Wicked Witches are sisters. The movie also changed Dorothy’s footwear. Her magic shoes are silver in the book but became the iconic ruby slippers for the movie—all the better to show off in lively Technicolor. Those shoes are so well known, they now reside at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
MGM’s Wizard of Oz was envisioned from the start as a vehicle for Judy Garland. The 16-year-old singer had been at the studio for three years and was gaining audience acclaim. Due to the movie’s expense, however, some at MGM didn’t want to take chances and instead sought to borrow established star Shirley Temple from 20th Century Fox. But no one at MGM was impressed with Temple’s singing, nor would Fox agree to loan her out.
Despite the belief that Garland was perfect for the part, the initial impulse was to change her look completely, with a long blond wig, baby-doll makeup and a bit of putty to smooth out her nose. Garland’s breasts were taped down to make her seem more like a 12-year-old, and she wore a tight-fitting girdle. Wizard’s first director, Richard Thorpe, had Garland traipsing about like a fairy-tale princess, and when the early rushes came back, he was let go. Garland was remade again, though still required to wear chest tape and slimming underwear. Interim director George Cukor dropped the wig, removed most of the makeup and told Garland to be herself, which was good advice: Her heartfelt, genuine performance earned Garland her only Oscar.
Composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg knew the Wizard of Oz score needed a ballad. The trouble was, ballads are usually about love, and Wizard lacks romance. The pair decided to make the song about longing for a better life in a different place. Harburg figured if Dorothy’s Kansas were as bleak and gray as Oz creator L. Frank Baum describes it, one of the few times she would see color is when a rainbow formed after a storm; the rainbow became the bridge from Kansas to Oz. The song’s first two notes worried Harburg, since they jump an entire octave. He couldn’t find the right lyric to cover it. He considered “Over the rainbow is where I want to be,” “I’ll go over the rainbow,” “Someday over the rainbow” and “The other side of the rainbow.” He finally arrived at the perfect two-syllable opener: Somewhere.
The songs were ultimately at the mercy of the studio executives, however, and “Over the Rainbow” was slated to be cut. Associate producer Arthur Freed issued an ultimatum: The song stayed or he would leave MGM. Freed was vindicated when “Over the Rainbow” won the Oscar for best song.
“Over the Rainbow” was written with Judy Garland’s considerable talent in mind. Even at 16 years old, she could clearly handle a difficult song. Her recording debuted on the Good News radio show in June 1939, two months before the movie opened. By the time it premiered, the sheet music was a best-seller; Garland’s single for Decca Records entered the hit parade and quickly went to number one, becoming the year’s best-selling record.
The song had a special impact in the U.K.: The Wizard of Oz opened there at the end of 1939, after World War II had begun. When London was hit by the Blitz, in 1940, Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” was played regularly to encourage the British to focus on better times ahead.
In her concerts, Garland always sang “Over the Rainbow” as the finale, usually following “We’re a Couple of Swells,” which she performed in a hobo costume mimicking the one she wore in 1948’s Easter Parade. When she finished that song, Garland would come to the front of the stage, have a seat and—still in her hobo outfit—belt out her most famous number. Rarely was there a dry eye in the house.
The Wiz was a big risk when it opened on Broadway: A new musical with an African American cast hadn’t succeeded since the 1940s, when a handful of black musicals, such as Carmen Jones (1943), with book and lyrics by hitmaker Oscar Hammerstein, achieved mainstream success. It first looked as if The Wiz would have a short run; reviews were mixed, and seats didn’t fill. But the African American press was complimentary, word of mouth spread in the black community, and houses began to sell out. The show became a crossover success, winning seven Tony Awards, including best musical.
When Motown Productions became involved with the film version, released in 1978, the label’s star Diana Ross used her connections to play Dorothy. Director John Badham, who had wanted to cast an unknown as the lead, withdrew and was replaced with Sidney Lumet, who proposed urbanizing the tale. Michael Jackson joined as the Scarecrow, singer Lena Horne as Glinda, and comedians Nipsey Russell as the Tin Woodman and Richard Pryor as the Wiz. At 34, Ross was considered too old to play Dorothy, and though the film garnered four Oscar nominations, it failed financially—putting a dent in Ross’s film career.