Culture & Literature
LIFE The Wizard of Oz

LIFE The Wizard of Oz

LIFE The Wizard of Oz

Dorothy and her profound journey of self-discovery with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and her little dog Toto have long ascended to the level of cultural myth. Now, the editors at LIFE celebrate yet another decade of its vivid life and influence with this special, commemorative issue, ‘The Wizard of Oz: A Timeless Film Turns 80.’ Begin with “The Eternal Oz,” an extensive and insightful essay by Richard Corliss that goes behind the scenes and below the surface to present the brilliance and importance of the film. Meet the progressive, feminist author of the book that led to this classic film in “Who Was L. Frank Baum?” Then, “Imagining Oz” and “Sowing the Seeds” take you behind the scenes and through the intricate and fascinating production of the film. Consider one of the most powerful years in film production, “The Class of ’39,” that brought other classics such as ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ Throughout LIFE’s ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ you’ll find rare and lavish photography about the iconic film, intimate portraits of the film's stars, and exclusive commentary from renowned contributors. Celebrate the decades of history, explore the legends and lore, and consider the profound effects the film has had on not just the film industry, but on culture.

United States
Meredith Corporation
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in this issue

32 min.
the eternal oz

L. Frank Baum’s book, published in 1900, was a smash, generating scores of sequels—a baker’s dozen written by the man himself and then more by others. That was merely the start. In 1902 the author wrote the lyrics and libretto for a lavish stage musical that, after further development, ran on Broadway for 464 performances. Baum also turned the books into a traveling show that he narrated, as the Wizard, with the help of actors, film strips and magic-lantern slides—these were the money-losing Fairylogue and Radio-Plays. In 1910 the first movie version appeared, featuring a young Bebe Daniels in the role of Dorothy. In 1925 another silent-film adaptation hit the screen, costarring Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodman. Since then, international film remakes have run the gamut from O to Z…

4 min.
who was l. frank baum?

Born in 1856 smack-dab in the middle of New York State in a village called Chittenango, which today hosts an annual Oz-Stravaganza Festival, Lyman Frank Baum enjoyed many things about his upbringing—with a few marked exceptions. He didn’t like his first name, which had been bequeathed from an uncle, and so when he came around to fashioning a byline, “Lyman” became simply “L.” And he didn’t much enjoy his time at the Peekskill Military Academy, where he was sent at age 12 and lasted two years, and so when he came around to writing his most famous book he satirized the authoritarian regimen he had encountered via the Wicked Witch’s troops, including her squadron of monkeys. Frank Baum was by all accounts a friendly and fanciful boy and young man who…

3 min.
imagining oz

Baum was theatrical, his story was theatrical, and almost before the ink was dry on a second printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, there were theatrical productions and soon movies (the early films were what are now called “shorts”). The 1902 musical, which was vastly reworked from a 1901 operetta, featuring a doctored script and some lyrics by Baum, costumes and sets by Denslow and music by a tunesmith named A. Baldwin Sloane and a classically oriented young Missourian named Paul Tietjens, was one of the great stage successes in the early years of the 20th century, and sent The Wizard down the paved-with-gold road as an eternally popular vehicle. According to Baum, “The thought of making my fairy tale into a play had never even occurred to me…

13 min.
sowing the seeds

As Richard Corliss wrote in his introductory essay, not only wasn’t this movie a sure thing for the longest time, many things about it—starting with who would play Dorothy—weren’t sure things until the cameras were actually rolling. Five directors would work on the movie; four of them, including Hollywood legends King Vidor and George Cukor, uncredited. Among an even larger list of uncredited script writers were Ogden Nash and Herman J. Mankiewicz. A lot of talent, certainly: But when the credits and noncredits of any film project extend to this length and become a mishmash, that’s usually a recipe for disaster. That the movie got made at all seems, in retrospect, marvelous: a fortuitous delight. That The Wizard of Oz became one of the greatest movies ever made seems miraculous. In…

18 min.
the wizard of oz

Today, the film seems perfect. But as opposed to books, which often represent the vision of one author, movies are team efforts. MGM’s The Wizard of Oz was built in many stages, as Richard Corliss and our previous chapters have explained. Here’s what you will not see in the following 32 pages, because Victor Fleming, having labored mightily, nevertheless turned in a 120-minute movie. Gone with the Wind was going to get away with its 238-minute run time in 1939, but a family film like The Wizard of Oz was not going to be allowed two hours. So said producers Arthur Freed and Mervyn LeRoy before three previews in California, which they hoped would help shave 20 minutes from the final product. Cut, in two stages, were: • The now legendary…

4 min.
not exactly boffo

Just as stunning to MGM’s bean counters as a house falling out of the heavens and flattening a random witch was the reception The Wizard of Oz received in 1939. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had, just recently, become the biggest movie ever (and Disney had then angled to make an animated Wizard of Oz, only to be rebuffed because MGM held the rights to the book; Disney would get around to its animated Return to Oz in the 1980s and was also behind the recent James Franco feature—we’ll get to all that). But the short of it: The Wizard of Oz opened to great fanfare, but then it sort of drifted on. It did fine with the critics, okay with the audience. Frank S. Nugent, the esteemed screenwriter…