The Wizard of Oz – The Story Behind the Film

The 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, beloved by children and adults alike, holds a special place in cinematographic history. The award-winning movie is based on an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Baum’s novel was published in 1900 and the American Heritage Center is fortunate to have one of the first editions of the book in its Toppan Rare Books Library.

Cover page of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900.
Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The AHC has also recently acquired two rare early draft scripts for the movie. For those unfamiliar with the book and movie, a brief recap is in order. The story follows the adventures of Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl, who is transported by a cyclone, along with her house, and little dog Toto, to the magical land of Oz. Dorothy’s house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her. The witch’s magical shoes become Dorothy’s and she sets off along the yellow brick road to find the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. Dorothy hopes the Wizard will help her return to Kansas. As she makes her way along the yellow brick road, Dorothy befriends a scarecrow, tin woodman and cowardly lion.

Illustration on page 67 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900.
Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

After reaching the Emerald City and being granted an audience with the Wizard, Dorothy and her friends learn that he will only help them if they kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Following a series of adventures and botched attempts by the witch to do away with the quartet, Dorothy manages to kill the witch by dousing her with water.

Illustration on page 155 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900.
Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Dorothy and her friends return to see the Wizard, who confesses to being an ordinary man, bereft of magical powers. Dorothy despairs she will never get back to Kansas, but Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, comes to the rescue, explaining to Dorothy that she need only tap the heels of her magical shoes together three times to travel wherever her heart desires. In the end, Dorothy and Toto return to Kansas, exclaiming “there’s no place like home.”

The challenge of adapting the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a script began on February 28, 1938. The effort would take months and eventually involve a whole host of writers. In hindsight it is a wonder that the script was ever completed. The story behind the writing was a saga of its own.

Herman J. Mankiewicz was the first writer hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Pictures to adapt Baum’s book into a film. Mankiewicz was an acknowledged genius of a screenwriter, albeit a troubled one. An alcoholic with a penchant for gambling, he wrote rapidly and prolifically and was well known for his sardonic wit and clever dialogue. Although never formally credited for his work on The Wizard of Oz, Mankiewicz was responsible for one of the signature aspects of the film. It was his script that established the opening Kansas scenes of the movie in black and white, expounding upon Baum’s description of the grayness of the Kansas landscape and Dorothy’s daily life. Mankiewicz envisioned the visual contrast which was to come in the film when Dorothy opened the door of her Kansas farmhouse and entered the Technicolor Land of Oz.

The Mankiewicz script that is part of the AHC collections is dated from March 3 to March 19, 1938, and follows Baum’s book in many aspects, including describing silver magic shoes and a one-eyed Wicked Witch of the West. Mankiewicz’s involvement with the film was short lived – in less than a month he moved on to other projects.

Unbeknownst to Mankiewicz, before he had even submitted his script to MGM, two other writers had also been hired to write scripts for The Wizard of Oz. Noel Langley was given the assignment on March 11, 1938. He, too, was unaware that Mankiewicz was also working on a script. Langley’s involvement with the film was complicated. Langley’s script is notable because it details the on-screen transformation of Kansas schoolteacher Miss Gulch into the Wicked Witch of the West as she peddles her bicycle through the cyclone. The Langley script also introduced the characters of Lizzie, a love interest for farm hands Hunk and Bulbo, the son of the Wicked Witch of the West. Neither Lizzie nor Bulbo made it into the final version of the film.

Cover of the Noel Langley script for The Wizard of Oz film, March 22, 1938.
Container 1, The Wizard of Oz Scripts, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Langley script which is part of the AHC collection is dated March 22, 1938, and is 43 pages in length. By June 10, 1938, Langley had been dismissed from The Wizard of Oz production team. Langley left the job feeling that the director had been pleased with his treatment of the material, so he was alarmed to learn in mid-June that two more writers, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf had also been hired with instructions to rewrite the script.

Ryerson and Woolf worked as a team and had collaborated on several lesser-known films in the 1930s. Ryerson was particularly known for bringing warmth to stories. Together the duo developed the idea to have Frank Morgan, who was a popular actor of the era, appear as multiple characters in the film. It is their script notes that outline having Morgan play both the eccentric fortune telling professor in Kansas and the Wizard in the land of Oz. Their script also refers to the magic shoes as red (and not silver, as in earlier scripts) and the mean schoolteacher who threatens to dispose of Dorothy’s beloved Toto as Miss Gulch. The AHC Wizard of Oz collection includes Ryerson and Woolf scripts and notes that are dated from June 4 to June 7, 1938.

Page from the Ryerson and Woolf script for The Wizard of Oz film, June 7, 1938.
Container 1, The Wizard of Oz Scripts, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Noel Langley’s dismay at Ryerson and Woolf’s hiring escalated into an angry confrontation with the film’s director. Langley demanded to have his name removed from the script. In the meantime, Ryerson and Woolf had made significant changes to earlier scripts. By July 27, 1938, they had wrapped up their edits. But Langley’s involvement with the film was not finished. Langley and the director came to an agreement and on July 30, 1938, Langley was rehired to do final edits on the script to be used for shooting. Langley continued to work on the film until October 31, 1938.

Five months later, when production on the film was complete, and the credits were prepared, Langley, Ryerson and Woolf shared the acclaim. The final credits on the film read “Screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf. Adaptation by Noel Langley.”

The story behind the scripts provides insight into the movie-making creative process and Hollywood screenwriting in the late 1930s. For researchers interested in The Wizard of Oz, or for the just plain curious, a visit to the American Heritage Center offers the exceptional chance to compare the film scripts with the first edition of Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And for true Oz aficionados, the AHC’s Toppan Rare Books Library also has thirty-four of the other books in the Oz series.

Post submitted by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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