Seeing The Wizard of Oz is practically a childhood rite of passage, one that most of us have memories attached to. You loved the part with the colored horses! The munchkins cracked you up! You inexplicably got nosebleeds any time the flying monkeys came on screen! (That’s a real one from my friend’s brother, by the way. Too scary.)
But the people involved in the making of The Wizard of Oz have memories attached that are just as distinct and twice as strange. The technicolor explosion that is this movie didn’t just spread permanent pop culture references into our atmosphere — it was a nuclear bomb of urban legends and injuries.
Keep in mind that the following are the lighter rumors and that there was a lot of true, nightmarish Old Hollywood horror and abuse at play, as well. You can hear a little about it on our Guide to the Unknown episode on The Wizard of Oz.
The munchkin suicide rumor
There’s an enduring urban legend that after Dorothy and the Scarecrow hook up with Tin Man by his hut and are bouncing up the yellow brick road singing We’re Off to See the Wizard, that you can see a munchkin die by hanging in the background.
Now the short answer to whether this is legit? No. The studio brought in various birds to give the set a more outdoor vibe (you can see a peacock earlier, in that horrific, squeaky “Oil can” scene), and what you actually see happening during the scene in question is a crane spreading its wings.
I’ll admit, it’s a weird thing to mistake for an actual person hanging from a rope, so I can see how a believer could say it’s a preposterous excuse. But is it any more preposterous than the justifications for the rumor being true?
If it were true that a cast member died by hanging, on set, with the camera rolling, on a huge production with tons of people around, it would be really unlikely that all of those people have kept it kept secret all this time. It would also be a big damn deal. One that, if we’re to draw conclusions from the secrecy around it, the studio wouldn’t want getting out — but we’re to believe the studio “forgets” and leaves it in the final cut? Not to mention the fact that those are prop trees, incapable of being climbed up and then holding the weight of a person.
It’s a cool, creepy story, but like a fake tree under the weight of a person, it just doesn’t hold up.
A few years ago, someone added fuel to the fire by circulating a video saying it’s an original VHS copy containing the TRUE revealing death footage that was edited out in later remastered versions. I watched it — it does look like something hanging, but it’s totally doctored. I’m more than happy to believe all kinds of creepy lore, but this is just not a thing. However, lots of people in the comments of the YouTube video insist that YES, this is what the remember from the tape they watched when they were kids! Mandela effect in action?
...But there were injuries
Buddy Ebsen (who went on to play Jedd Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies) was originally cast as the Tin Man, and had gone through all of the costume/makeup tests, recorded for the soundtrack and done four weeks of rehearsal...and then had to be replaced by Jack Haley. It turned out that the silver paint they used on him contained aluminum dust that caused his lungs to fail, and he had to be placed in an oxygen tent to recover. (If I only had the lungs, amirite, Buddy?)
The Wicked Witch of the West, the terrifying Margaret Hamilton, sustained 3rd degree burns when a special effect malfunctioned during a scene where she disappeared in a puff of smoke. Her oil-based green body makeup caught fire, burning a trail up her hands and arms.
When she fully understandable refused to do another smoke stunt, her stunt double Betty Danko was called in and was also injured by fire when she the smoking pipe they used as a broomstick exploded. She spent 11 days in the hospital and her legs were permanently scarred. Good god! The Wicked Witch was afraid of water but I think we can all agree that fire was the real enemy, here.
It was probably the least of her problems during the shoot, but Margaret Hamilton’s skin was also dyed greenish for weeks from the copper in her makeup.
It wasn’t only humans who succumbed to the bad luck on set. Dorothy’s dear Toto broke a paw when one of the witch’s guards, known as Winkies, stepped on her foot. She made a full recovery and successfully sued the studio, allowing her to buy a small island where she and the flying monkeys lived out their days, away from the harsh glare of fame that burned so many others.
When Dorothy, Toto and the Cowardly Lion fall asleep in a poppy field and are woken up by gently falling snow — that snow was asbestos. Asbestos fibers were often used as fake snow, even decoratively in homes, from the 30s - 50s.
I’m sure they wished that was real snow and not cancer falling from the sky for more reasons than one. The studio lights made it go above 100 degrees on set — they needed extreme lights for technicolor — so everyone was super hot and sweaty, which can’t have improved the general vibe. The Cowardly Lion’s outfit was made out of real lion pelts and smelled horrendous. The Winkies and flying monkeys had such heavy costumes that they came close to having heat stroke.
On a (literally) lighter costuming tip, when the Wizard is in Kansas as Professor Marvel, he’s wearing a thrift store coat. The actor Frank Morgan noticed an inscription on the inner pocket — L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz! It was given to Baum’s widow after filming, who confirmed it had been his. Was that inscription actually a curse, a sigil disguised as a signature that cast a pall on the production? I’m going to say DEFINITELY.
Dark Side of the Rainbow
We’ll leave things on a totally sweet note. Dark Side of the Rainbow is the name for the experience of syncing up Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the moon with The Wizard of Oz and experiencing all of the weird synchronicities that the band members have said are purely coincidental. Here’s what happens when you start the album at the MGM lion’s first roar:
-Dorothy starts to run during the lyric, “No one told you when to run”
-When the fortune teller in the cursed-ass coat tells Dorothy to return home, the line, “Home, home again” is sung
-The song Brain Damage starts when The Scarecrow sings If I Only Had a Brain, and as he dances on the yellow brick road the lyrics, “Got to keep the loonies on the path” plays on the album
-The song Great Gig in the Sky matches up with the tornado, and the song Money starts to play just as Dorothy opens the door to the colorful Munchkinland — which marks the beginning of the second act of the movie AND the first song on the second side of the album
-Just as the album closes with the sound of a heartbeat, Dorothy puts her ear to the tin man’s chest.
Like this? Listen to us talk about it on episode 40 of Guide to the Unknown.