I’d taped this documentary under the pretense it was somewhat recent. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic was a CBS special aired in 1990. If you have the VHS copy of The Wizard of Oz this documentary was included (and it’s on the 3-disc Collector’s Edition DVD) . Regardless, as a child I never understood what the hell this was after the movie and my mother would turn it off so it’s nice to finally see this. It’s a fun 56-minute look at the making-of The Wizard of Oz, addresses the various myths, and is amazing for the extensive background photos that many people haven’t seen. The documentary does rely on a lot of archival interviews as the majority of the stars were deceased by 1990 and a few of the interviews made especially for this seem staged but interviews aside you should seek this out for the wonderful pictures and discussions of how important the Wizard of Oz is as a film!
For a brief documentary (clocking in at under an hour) there’s a lot that is discussed. The documentary opens with clips of The Wizard of Oz dubbed in various languages from French to German. It shows how universal Dorothy and her journey to Oz is around the world, and in some cases the language makes the film more terrifying. As if the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t terrifying enough to a six-year-old try listening to her in German!
50 Years of Magic explores the different elements that came together to make the beautiful finished product that is The Wizard of Oz. The highlight is the “what could have been” section devoted to actors who ended up having to leave the project for one reason or another. The documentary shows makeup and costume tests with original Wicked Witch of the West actress Gale Sondergaard. These pictures show the vampy, gorgeous witch that could have been but once the decision was made to make the witch ugly it was obvious the long hair and face makeup didn’t work on Sondergaard as the pictures show. To go along with this there’s interview footage with actress Margaret Hamilton, who ended up with the role, discussing how she got it. Hamilton has a wonderful sense of humor when telling the story of her getting the role because she was “ugly.” Some actresses would be upset but it’s obvious that Hamilton praised the role for giving her immortality in celluloid. The video above details the casting of the Wicked Witch of the West and includes the footage.
There’s also discussion on the rumor of original Tin-Man actor Buddy Ebsen. The documentary shows the makeup and costume tests for Ebsen. What’s fascinating is how contrasting Ebsen’s costume and makeup was along the finished product. Ebsen had nothing around his face in terms of costuming, just the aluminum powder that eventually forced him to leave (it was causing him respiratory issues that almost killed him). Jack Haley, the Tin-Man in the film, had aluminum paste on him which makes him look more like he’s encased in the Tin Man costume. I loved looking at these old pictures because it truly shows you the different routes the film could have taken. I also thought the pictures of Judy Garland in the original blonde wig and excessive makeup was intriguing as it showed more a young woman as opposed to a little girl. Dorothy Gale almost become a fetish character.
In other behind-the-scenes news the documentary includes deleted scenes and effects shots that are pretty much the entire reason to watch this in the first place. The two scenes in question include a dance sequence between Dorothy and the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) involving a pumpkin and some wobbly planks. It’s a fun sequence that was dropped due to fear the film was running long. Considering how quick the pacing is already I can understand the need to remove this sequence, it doesn’t necessarily enhance or take away from the movie’s end result. The second scene is the original tornado sequence (which I tried desperately to find on YouTube) that was shortened for fear it was too frightening. For 1939, the special effects are better than what we have now as evidenced by this original scene. The gathering clouds, the cyclone actually enveloping the house, it all looks like something you’d watch on the evening news. Considering how dark it is (literally and figuratively) and when taking into account how frightening the movie already is for kids, it might have been a wise move to shorten the scene but damn does it look cool. There’s also explanation of how they achieved the house falling into the camera utilizing a miniature house and running the film backward that is fun to watch.
The documentary doesn’t necessarily include anything revelatory that you can’t already find on IMDB (although it’s still surprising to know Billie Burke was pushing 50 when she played Glinda…talk about good genes). If anything the doc knows this which is why a good chunk of time is devoted to a press tour Judy Garland went on with Mickey Rooney when this came out. The footage is nice but it has a tenuous connection to the film at best. The interviews with the cast are all archival and/or from other sources since many of the stars were deceased by this time. The only name actors involved are Garland’s daughters Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft. The strange thing is many of Minnielli’s comments are played over scenes and sound like they’re from an audio recording of a biography she wrote. When the duo do sit down together I’m not actually sure their scenes were meant for this documentary. They seem to be watching The Wizard of Oz and their interactions seem fake. It’s disturbing and weird.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic is not only a nostalgic trip back to 1939 filled with amazing test footage and a sweet story, but it’s a trip back to 1990. There’s nothing particularly new or exciting about this documentary, there’s no on-set interviews that appear to be recorded strictly for this. I do want the Harry Winston ruby slippers though that narrator Angela Lansbury has…how much you think those go for now. It’s a basic documentary but proves why it’s barely an hour. The documentary can be watched (in 5 parts) here:
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.