Cursed Movies I: Health Hazards of Oz

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The 1939 cinema classic The Wizard of Oz, the movie that launched teenage singer/actress Judy Garland into stardom, has long had a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most ‘cursed’ films.

Many, many things did go wrong on the set, including costs…the MGM musical/fantasy came in over budget at a cost of $2.8 million. This in part reflects The Wizard of Oz’s disjointed trajectory – going through five directors including King Vidor, George Cukor and Richard Thorpe and 14 screenwriters in the course of the production. The movie’s ultimate director Victor Fleming (who also directed the other great Hollywood film of 1939 Gone With The Wind) was widely suspected of Nazi sympathies.

Judy as Dot in Oz
The staggeringly appalling treatment of 17-year-old Judy Garland (Dorothy) would today be seen as out-and-out child abuse, irrespective of whether it was within or without the celebrity world. The film-makers half-starved Judy, limiting her to only one square meal per day, fed her on barbiturates and got her fixed on an 80-a-day cigarette habit. Garland eventually spiralled into a tragic pattern of drug dependency and suicide attempts. [E Power, ‘The Wizard of Oz – Dark side of the rainbow’, Irish Examiner, 15-Sept-2014, www.irishexaminer.com].

Equally alarmingly was the casual disregard of the health and well-being of other cast members as well. Buddy Ebsen (later famous as Jed Clampett in TV’s Beverly Hillbillies), to achieve the silver make-up of his character “The Tinman” was coated in aluminium powder which gave him an allergy and got into his lungs, after two weeks he became seriously unwell and was hospitalised and out of the film✳. His replacement Jack Haley was less exposed to deadly toxins but still contracted a troublesome eye-infection.

Fitting out supporting actress Margaret Hamilton for the role as the “The Wicked Witch of the West” meant painting her skin with green copper, exposing her to a clear carcinogenic risk. Even more perilous, in one hazardous scene Hamilton was nearly burned to death when a pyrotechnics feature went horribly wrong…requiring the actress to be hospitalised for a couple of weeks.

The film’s jinx extended to minor players like the munchkins (small colourfully-garmented characters portrayed predominantly by people with the condition dwarfism). The vertically challenged actors were grossly underpaid (‘Toto’, Dorothy’s dog in the movie was paid more than them!) and consequently they got drunk every night and reportedly ran riot on the set. Even Toto didn’t escape a mishap – one of the supporting actors accidentally stepped on him in a scene breaking the mutt’s paw and necessitating a canine replacement.

In the celebrated poppy field scene Dorothy and other characters get saturated in snow flakes, the only problem was the substitute snow comprised sheets of lethal asbestos![Power] Hollywood regularly used 100 percent industrial-grade chrysotile (white asbestos) in films, in White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby got it poured all over him! Ray Bolger’s “Scarecrow” straw-filled costume was also lined in asbestos in order to be flame-proof [S Kazan, ‘The Wizard of Oz or The Wizard of Lethal Asbestos Exposure?’, (Kazan, McLaine, Satterley &’Greenwood], www.kazanlaw.com].

The curse for a time seemed to continue post-release. Although The Wizard of Oz is universally celebrated today as a classic of the cinema, it did not meet with immediate acclaim from either the public or critics. These reservations did not start to turn around until the CBS television network reintroduced the movie to the wider public in 1956. In 1989 the US Library of Congress nominated The Wizard of Oz as “the most-viewed motion picture on television syndication” [‘The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org]. Countless scores of viewers of the joyous spectacle of ‘Oz’ over the years would have been blissfully unaware of the unhappy, off-screen events that relentlessly dogged the production.

PostScript: Judy a victim of MGM’s mogul monster
MGM’s systematic abuse and exploitation of Judy Garland emanated from the very top of the studio – MGM head Louis B Mayer. To get the absolute most out of the studio’s new star Garland, Mayer maintained tyrannical control over all aspects of the Wizard of Oz star’s life.

Mayer hooked Garland on a cocktail of drugs, having her fed alternating courses of amphetamines, adrenaline shots and downers like Seconal. And Mayer, to ensure that Judy, away from the studio, kept to the strict diet of coffee, chicken soup and cigs, had a battery of spies reporting back to him on the beleaguered actress’s behaviour [Neil Norman, ‘Dark side of Oz: The exploitation of Judy Garland’, Express, 05-Apr-2010, www.express.co.uk]]

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✳ Ebsen as a result of exposure to the deleterious materials was required to use a respirator for the remainder of his life (he lived to 95)
a mistreatment aided and abetted by Judy’s own mother Ethel who mercilessly drove the early show business career of Garland and her sisters, thinking nothing of feeding the three sisters pep pills to cope with the brutal workload she had burdened them with! [Norman]