“The Wizard of Oz” is the most watched movie in history and the most influential movie ever made. It is also one of the most dangerous. Let’s look at what makes Dorothy’s trip over the rainbow so risky.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name by L. Frank Baum, “The Wizard of Oz” tells a story that needs no synopsis. It has so thoroughly soaked into the zeitgeist that even those who haven’t seen the film or read the books know the story. What isn’t so well known is what went on behind the scenes.
“The Wizard of Oz” had six directors. Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Victor Fleming, and King Vidor. Taurog, Thorpe, Cukor, and LeRoy were all replaced quickly. Fleming left to go work on “Gone with the Wind” and Vidor finished the job.
The film stars a 16-year-old Judy Garland along with Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, and Margaret Hamilton. “The Wizard of Oz” was the first film to showcase the new phenomenon of technicolor and was a modest hit upon its release. Like other films, “The Wizard of Oz” grew in popularity over time and, with the help of television, became a massive success.
“The Wizard of Oz” has a staggering legacy. It is one of the few films listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry. AFI ranks it as the 6th greatest movie of all time. “Over the Rainbow” sits at #1 on the list of best movie songs ever. The film changed the color of witches forever, spawned several sequels and a Broadway musical, and is a near-constant source of Halloween costume ideas.
But the movie is also the site of abuse, assault, poisoning, and near-death accidents. Much of what happened on the set of “The Wizard of Oz” would be illegal now. Other aspects, however, are still common today, over 80 years later.
“The Wizard of Oz” may be considered one of the greatest movies ever made, but how it was made tells a different story, one of heartless disregard for other human beings, including a minor. A story of one production’s drive for “realism” in a fantasy story, of a failure to understand the sleight-of-hand innate to cinema. A tale set in a land of make-believe that ruined lives and nearly killed its stars.
Let’s take a look at just how bad things can get on the other side of the rainbow.
If I Only Had a Brain: Safety Issues on Set
Researching the making of this movie was upsetting and—frankly—depressing. “The Wizard of Oz” is a relic of its time but also a warning to all in the film industry of how dreadful things can get when we relax our safety standards and remove oversight.
To properly dissect all the terrible issues of this productions, we would have to dedicate more pages than a website should. We could write a book on the making of “The Wizard of Oz” (and some have). Instead of a detailed look at all the troubling elements of this movie, here’s a list of the major infractions, missteps, oversights, and downright abusive behaviors on set.
Judy Garland, a minor at only 16 years old, was forced to take drugs by her employer as a condition of her employment. The studio and producers gave Garland amphetamines to keep her alert during the day and sleeping pills to get her to sleep at night.
This practice was considered par for the course with young actors back then, with Mickey Rooney, among many others, a known victim of this practice.
Forced Smoking and Crash Diets
Garland was also “prescribed” a crash diet that included cigarettes. She was told to smoke two packs a day to curb her appetite. The studio and the producers thought she looked too full-figured to play the pre-pubescent farm-girl Dorothy, so they made sure she ate little food and smoked lots of cigarettes.
But that’s not all.
Garland was forced to wear a corset to cinch in her waist and flatten her bosom. This made it hard for her to breath, leading to light headedness and trouble concentrating not to mention the constant pain it caused.
Garland was drugged, starved, forced to smoke, and cinched into a tortuous device; all things that make one loopy, lightheaded, and easily distracted.
So it’s heartbreaking to read that when this 16-year-old cracked up during a take, the director Victor Fleming, took her aside, smacked her across the face, and told her to get back to work.
The snowflakes that fall on the poppies were made of industrial-grade, undiluted asbestos, despite the fact that the health issues associated with asbestos exposure were already known at the time.
This was also a common practice back in the early days of Hollywood. The snow falling at the end of “White Christmas” was asbestos too. It was inexpensive and “looked good” on camera so productions used it, ignoring the health effects of asbestos exposure.
The new phenomenon of technicolor required huge lights that turned the soundstages into ovens, giving several members of the cast and crew heat exhaustion. Which makes this next item even more appalling.
Real Lion Hide
The Cowardly Lion costume was made from real lion hide. This made the costume over one hundred pounds and restricted airflow to the point that Bert Lahr was often struggling to stay hydrated and upright.
Lion hide is hard to come by, and no single hide looks like another, so only one version of the lion’s costume was made. But when it comes to costume issues, our next two entries take the cake.
One of the original designs for the Tin Man costume included aluminum powder. The original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, sucked that powder into his lungs all day long. His lungs ended up coated in aluminum and he suffered an allergic reaction to the aluminum on his skin.
Ebsen went into anaphylactic shock and ended up in the hospital for poisoning. The studio called soon thereafter to order him back to set. Ebsen was in no condition to return. So the studio recast the part. Jack Haley took over for Ebsen, but the studio never told Haley what happened to Ebsen.
The production did, however, replace the aluminum powder with an aluminum paste to prevent inhalation. The paste still led to a serious eye infection.
Halt and Catch Fire
The Wicked Witch’s green make-up involved copper dust which is, itself, a health hazard. But it is also a thermal conductor, meaning it is a good conductor of heat. That is important to know if you plan to have it near fire. (You should never plan to have it near fire).
Both Margret Hamilton and her stunt double Betty Danko were injured by fire/explosions during filming. Most famously, Hamilton was supposed to go down a trap door just before fire erupted. The timing was slightly off. The fire came too soon and the copper on Hamilton’s face and hands ignited.
She ended up with second and third degree burns and spent several weeks in the hospital recuperating. But, just like Ebsen, the production called to order her back to set for—get this—another scene involving fire. Hamilton refused and her stunt double performed the scene instead.
The scene called for Danko to straddle a pipe filled with flammable material for a close-up of the skywriting. The flammable material was supposed to simply create smoke, but it caught fire, the pipe contained the heat from that fire, creating an explosion. Danko suffered third-degree burns on her legs and thighs. She and the production are lucky she didn’t die.
This is just a highlighted list of the major safety issues on this production. There are much more, including on-set drunkenness, sexual assault allegations, wires breaking, constant rewrites, and stuntmen injuries.
Needless to say, “The Wizard of Oz” was an extremely unsafe production. Let’s look at how risk management could make things safer.
Off To See the Wizard: How Risk Management Could Make Oz Safer
Looking back across the 80-plus years since “The Wizard of Oz” premiered, we can’t help but be thankful for the regulations that many have fought hard for and won. DGA, SAG-AFTRA, and the Teamsters all have rules that would make many of the issues on “The Wizard of Oz” nearly impossible today.
Productions can’t replace actors injured in the course of production without proper compensation and without informing their replacement about the conditions that led to the recasting. We aren’t allowed to use asbestos for anything. We aren’t allowed to drug actors or force them to diet. We are not allowed to hit employees.
(Note: it was also illegal in 1938 – when this was filmed – to drug minors and to hit people. These issues were simply not brought to the attention of law enforcement.)
Given just how much has changed since 1938, we are not going to focus on elements whose solutions are obvious and whose practice is now illegal. Instead, we want to draw our attention to one major aspect of the filmmaking process that is still very much with us today.
Let’s look at how risk management can help productions choose between reality and believability.
This is not an exercise in performative superiority. We think that by examining major safety issues from classic Hollywood movies, we can help present-day productions avoid unnecessary risks.
Reality vs. Believability
Productions often strive for a sense of “realism” and that goal can lead to risks. We must never forget that on a film set, none of this is real. We are making a movie and that means our goal should be believability not reality.
Production risk management often involves helping productions make the shift from reality to believability. This transition requires asking questions that, oftentimes, only an impartial third party would even think to ask.
In the case of “The Wizard of Oz” we would want to engage the creative team in thoughtful conversations that, hopefully, would get them thinking along safer lines.
Can The Audience Even Identify Lion Fur?
When it comes to the Cowardly Lion costume, we would encourage the creative team to use materials that are more breathable, lighter, and that allow the costume department to create multiple copies.
We had no idea that the lion costume was made of real lion fur until researching this piece. This is because few members of the general audience are capable of differentiating lion fur from other types of fur.
The Story-World Will Sell It
Epitome’s Risk Managers often remind productions that part of the magic of a story is that if the characters in the story say something is true, the audience will believe it.
This understanding would go a long way to increase the safety for the actors playing the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man. Who really knows what a Cowardly Lion looks like when played by an actor? Or for that matter, what a Tin Man looks like?
The only references available for these fantastical ideas are Baum’s books and WW Denslow’s illustrations. There is only one Tin Man in this entire story-world. So, when we meet him – and the characters identify him as the Tin Man, and he struggles with issues that only a Tin Man would have – we go along with it, no matter how he looks.
There is not another Tin Man with whom we can compare this character. He is it. So, however we choose to costume him or whatever we choose to use for makeup will be more than enough to establish this character as the Tin Man – or the Cowardly Lion for that matter – to the audience.
There is certainly no reason to use real lion fur or actual aluminum to convince people that these characters are who the story says they are.
A little imagination goes a long way.
Does the Witch Need to Be Green?
Here the production team suffers from the opposite problem. While with the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion production was focused on making them look real, with the Wicked Witch they decided to lean into the fantasy, creating the very same risks.
There is no reason of the Wicked Witch to be green. In Baum’s source material, the Wicked Witch of the West is described as having one-eye and three pig tails. She is drawn by Denslow as short, round, and wearing an eye patch.
The green skin is purely the choice of production. But green is a difficult color to come by naturally and safely, especially in 1939. Copper is poisonous and a thermal conductor and that makes it a bad choice for makeup.
By choosing a different look for the Wicked Witch, the production could have easily avoided the unfortunate injuries to Margaret Hamilton.
This all comes back to the fact that the story world will sell it. There is no in-story justification for the green skin and there doesn’t need to be. The movie’s story world says she is green so she’s green. This further proves that production could have made the witch look any way they wanted to, and it would have worked.
Risk management is there to help them see that fact. To further illustrate this point, let’s look at how the rest of the movie looks.
Fake is Fake
Nothing about “The Wizard of Oz” looks real. In fact, none of it is. The only real, on-location footage in the entire movie is the opening shots of clouds.
This film was shot on soundstages, and it shows. Backdrops are obviously backdrops. Sets are sets. The whole mise-en-scène is fake but that works. This is a strange, illusory world and the fakeness of it all helps to put us in a constant state of unease.
As risk managers, we would help the creative team see that their choices overall are fake-looking, so why strive for a sense of realness in only a few areas, especially when those choices are so obviously unsafe?
Returning to the Cowardly Lion here, his face looks like a man in half a mask. This is not a flaw but a feature of the movie. The feeling of living within a child’s imagination comes through with all of these elements that are just not quite right.
We would encourage the production to refrain from their misguided attempts to use real lion fur and metallic dust when any other choices would work just as well and be safer.
Speaking of safer, let’s turn our attention to how a focus on reality can blind productions to the actual magic of filmmaking.
The Slight-of-Hand Magic of the Movies
The focus on reality over believability also unnecessarily limits filmmakers and blinds them to the very magic of their chosen medium. As risk managers, we are surprised how often filmmakers forget the tricks of filmmaking.
Films are not stage plays. In movies we have editing, camera tricks, forced perspective, inventive lensing, and special effects at our disposal. In the medium of cinema, there is never a need to stage something dangerously.
When we examine the stunt that burned Margaret Hamilton, we see a production that has forgotten the sleight of hand tricks of the trade. There is no justifiable reason why an actor – especially one covered in flammable make-up – to be within burning distance of a fire or explosion on a film set.
Through the magic of movies we can easily create a safe distance between the pyrotechnics and the actors. Long lenses shrink distances. Forced perspective fakes proximity. Edits jump through time.
If we were hired to provide risk management services on the set of “The Wizard of Oz” we would be sure to remind the production team that these three tricks of the trade – longer lenses, forced perspective, and editing – can make this stunt dramatically safer.
Contemporary productions still struggle with these issues. Because every production, no matter the era, faces a choice between reality and believability.
No Place Like Home: Bottom Line
Risk Management helps to guide productions toward believability instead of reality by reminding them of the innate power and magic of the movies. Believability is always safer and it is often also less expensive.
The drive for reality led the makers of “The Wizard of Oz” to use real lion hide and genuine metallic dust. It blinded them to the intrinsic illusion of the story-world and led to a near endless series of dangerous and risky decisions.
The most troubling aspect of the making of “The Wizard of Oz” was the discovery of the production’s ability to prioritize safety when they wanted to. The horses in the production had to be dyed fanciful colors. But the creative team didn’t want to harm the horses (for a change) and so they used a safe Jell-O based dye on their skin.
This meant that they had to shoot the scene quickly because the horses began licking off their tasty makeup. But this further proves that when they wanted to, the filmmakers could choose safer options and modify their production schedule to accommodate safety.
They just didn’t seem to want to make those choices and adjustments when it came to the human members of the film.
“The Wizard of Oz” is remembered rightly as an astonishing achievement in cinema history and a much-loved and endlessly watched film. But it was also one that scarred the actors both literally and figuratively. It was a dangerous production that could have been made safer if only people prioritized safety.
If this series has taught us anything so far, it is that Hollywood history is filled with both triumph and tragedy. Often in the same production.
Buddy Ebsen survived his aluminum poisoning but suffered with lung issues for the rest of his life. While he did not return to the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” Ebsen did have a successful acting career. He went on to star in many films and television shows, most famously as Jed Clampett, the father in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” He passed away in 2003 at the age of 95.
Margert Hamilton’s skin remained slightly green tinted for over a year after production wrapped. Her burns eventually healed, and her career blossomed. She died at the age of 82 in 1985 with over 127 acting credits.
Ray Bolger had facial scars from this burlap Scarecrow makeup for nearly a year after filming. He was the last surviving member of the cast when he died in 1987 at the age of 83.
After enduring “The Wizard of Oz” shoot that saw him forced to eat and drink while leaning against a board because he could not get out of his Tin Man costume, Jack Haley had a long career as a comic actor but never outshined his role as the Tin Man. When asked about his time on “The Wizard of Oz” Haley remarked, “It was awful. You couldn’t have fun… I had to drag myself to work.” Haley died in 1979 at the age of 81.
Director Victor Fleming left “The Wizard of Oz” to director “Gone with the Wind” but remained the only credited director of the film. 1939 was the high point of his career. He never again came close to the success of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” His career fizzled out less than a decade later, ending in the commercial failure of 1948’s “Joan of Arc.” Fleming died of a heart attack in 1949. He was 59 years old.
King Vidor’s work on “The Wizard of Oz” is indelible but uncredited. He shot all of the Kansas-set sequences of the film including the most iconic scene of all, Dorothy singing “Over the Rainbow.” He is credited by the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest career as a director at 67 years. Vidor died at the age of 88 on his ranch in Paso Robles, California.
Judy Garland was traumatized by her torturous experience making “The Wizard of Oz.” She struggled mightily with being best known for a part that caused her such pain. When the Queen of England met Garland, she asked the star to sing “Over the Rainbow.” Garland demurred saying, “Ma’am, that song has plagued me all my life.”
Garland suffered a life-long battle with substance abuse and body-image issues that she, and others, tie directly back to her treatment as a child actor in Hollywood. She once famously remarked, “If I’m a legend, then why am I so lonely?” She died of an accidental overdose in 1969. She was only 47.
Epitome Risk is a Woman-Owned, Veteran-Run, U.S.-Based risk management company, specializing in risk management and COVID-19 safety support for tv & film productions. Epitome Risk works together with the film unions, insurers, studios, and production companies to make every project as safe as possible.