The Desert of Oz

Palm Springs has a special connection to the making of one of Hollywood’s most beloved movies.

Howard Johns Arts & Entertainment 0 Comments

Eight-one years ago, filming was ready to begin on one of Hollywood’s most beloved movies, The Wizard of Oz. Palm Springs has a special connection to the making of this classic. Relive the magical journey of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion as we take you back down the Yellow Brick Road.

Once upon a time, a Palm Springs resident’s passion for a fanciful story about a young girl who dreams of a better place somewhere over the rainbow led to the most watched film of all time. To this day, The Wizard of Oz entrances children — and their parents, who have watched Dorothy’s story unfold countless times. The American Film Institute in June named The Wizard of Oz its top pick in the fantasy genre. The 1939 film’s poignant message of hope and friendship has reached across hundreds of countries and been translated into dozens of languages. Its longevity has inspired remakes, sequels, cartoons, books, and the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Wicked — all this from Mervyn LeRoy’s lifetime dream.

“I wanted to make a movie out of The Wizard of Oz from the time I was a kid,” recalled the film’s producer, who died in 1987.

A short, jovial man with a taste for fancy clothes and fine cigars, LeRoy lived for 30 years in a smart tile-and-stucco bungalow at 166 W. San Marco Way next door to the Racquet Club, where he played tennis every Sunday. His most acclaimed films were the gangster saga Little Caesar, the backstage musical Gold Diggers of 1933, and the Roman spectacle Quo Vadis. He was known equally for lush romantic dramas such as Waterloo Bridge and Little Women, as well as the song-filled extravaganzas Million Dollar Mermaid, Rose Marie, and Gypsy.

For LeRoy, who spent his entire life in show business, fantasy took precedence over reality. The cousin of Hollywood pioneer Jesse Lasky, who produced the first feature-length film The Squaw Man in 1914, LeRoy started as a stage performer in vaudeville. His second of three wives was Doris Warner, the daughter of Palm Springs resident Harry Warner, oldest of the four Warner brothers, who employed LeRoy steadily during the Great Depression. Warner resided in a Mediterranean-style villa at 591 Stevens Road in Las Palmas Estates in Palm Springs.

After rival Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio boss Louis B. Mayer lured him from Warner Bros. to produce and direct films in 1937, LeRoy was determined to bring Frank L. Baum’s now-immortal fairy tale to the screen. Most of all, he wanted to direct it.

When Mayer told him it was “too big a picture for you to do both,” LeRoy settled for producing this homespun fable about a Kansas farm girl’s incredible adventures. He then searched for an imaginative director to supervise the introductory sepia-toned pastoral scenes and the glittering Munchkinland color sequences that followed.

The Orsatti Agency — run by Frank and older brother Victor Orsatti (who retired to 1356 Primavera Drive in Palm Springs’ Deep Well Ranch condominiums) — represented some of MGM’s biggest stars. Mayer wanted Orsatti’s talented 16-year-old client, Judy Garland, to play the lead role of Dorothy and authorized him to buy the film rights to Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from Lasky’s brother-in-law, Samuel Goldwyn (the original “G” in MGM, who had branched into independent production).

A shrewd businessman, Goldwyn resided in a whitewashed, blue-tiled Spanish estate at 334 Hermosa Place in Palm Springs. He agreed to sell Mayer the rights for $75,000, and LeRoy proceeded to make his most cherished film, which was budgeted at nearly $3 million. First, LeRoy needed a script. He was fortunate to have an abundance of talent to choose from in the Palm Springs area.

Standing 6-feet-5-inches, Noel Langley was as unusual looking as he was perfectly equipped to adapt Baum’s bizarre story about witches and dwarfs. The 26-year-old writer had authored two plays and two novels, including the popular children’s tale The Land of Green Ginger. But his talents went beyond juvenile fiction. He also dabbled in the occult — a hobby that Langley continued to practice when he moved to a two-bedroom cottage at 15785 Via Quedo in Desert Hot Springs.

It was Langley’s clever idea to tell the film’s main story within the framework of a dream sequence. He explained to LeRoy that “you cannot put fantastic people in strange places in front of an audience unless they have seen them as human beings first.”

His screenplay condensed the episodic nature of Baum’s book by combining some characters and eliminating others. He created the bad-tempered spinster Miss Gulch, who morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West, for example, and changed the book’s silver shoes into dazzling ruby slippers to take advantage of the film’s Technicolor palette.

Casting the actors proved almost as big a challenge as writing the script. After Garland signed to play Dorothy, Ray Bolger declined the part of the Tin Man, choosing instead to play the Scarecrow. Buddy Ebsen wore the Tin Man’s makeup until he was hospitalized with aluminum poisoning. Jack Haley took Ebsen’s role.

MGM costume designer Gilbert Adrian — who started a fashion trend when he invented shoulder pads for Joan Crawford — created the brightly colored flowers, bells, tassels, bows, and ribbons that adorned the vests, coats, hats, gloves, and shoes of the 124 Munchkins and 300 inhabitants of Emerald City.

One of those friendly midgets was played by the petite actress Lillian Porter, whose enterprising husband Russell Hayden co-founded Pioneertown four miles north of Yucca Valley. In 1939, Adrian married Oscar-winning actress Janet Gaynor, who owned the Singing Trees Ranch at 20th Avenue and Mountain View Road in Desert Hot Springs.

Stocky, white-haired character actor Frank Morgan, meanwhile, was the sixth performer cast in the film — after Borscht Belt comedian Bert Lahr signed on to play the Cowardly Lion and Margaret Hamilton took the Wicked Witch role from Gale Sondergaard, who had turned it down.

A longtime resident of Rancho Mirage, Morgan lived in a ranch-style adobe house at 71845 Sahara Road, near Magnesia Falls. He played not one but five characters in the film: Professor Marvel, the Emerald City doorman, the cabby who drives the Horse of a Different Color, the uniformed palace guard, and the Wizard.

With the cameras set to roll in the late summer of 1938, LeRoy’s first choice to direct The Wizard of Oz was Norman Taurog, regarded as Hollywood’s top children’s director. A kindly, rotund man with spectacles, Taurog had won an Oscar for his heartwarming film Skippy.

But Taurog, a resident of 1188 E. Tamarisk Road in Palm Springs before moving to 42635 Tennessee Ave. in Palm Desert Country Club, soon had his hands full with another tearjerker: Boys Town. LeRoy had to look for someone else.

Enter Richard Thorpe, the studio’s quintessential director of action movies. A tall, handsome fellow, Thorpe was responsible for the first four Tarzan films, in which swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller wrestled stuffed lions and rubber crocodiles. Thorpe was considered highly efficient, having directed six films at MGM that same year. But after only 12 days of shooting scenes with Dorothy and Toto in the Wicked Witch’s castle, Thorpe was suffering from exhaustion and abruptly taken off the film and sent to Palm Springs. Victor Fleming directed the remaining five months of filming. (Thorpe later purchased a two-bedroom Biltmore Hotel condominium at 1550 S. Camino Real in Palm Springs; his director-son Jerry Thorpe resides in Palm Springs’ Andreas Hills.)

Throughout the production, LeRoy relied on spectacular visual effects to give his film a sense of wonder and excitement. Those unforgettable scenes — a spinning tornado, a falling house, a skywriting witch on a broomstick, and an army of flying monkeys — were created by four-time Oscar-winning special effects expert Arnold Gillespie, who lived at 660 Compadre Road near Palm Springs International Airport.

A licensed pilot, Gillespie based his innovative tornado on the windsocks that were used to measure the airport’s weather conditions. He built a 35-foot-high muslin funnel and suspended and rotated it with wires from an overhead gantry at the studio. The dust cloud that accompanied the Kansas twister was a mixture of fuller’s earth and compressed air pumped into the top of the giant windsock. The farmhouse was a 3-foot-tall model with 3-inch cornfields.

Finally, to help make all this magic come to life, LeRoy turned to MGM film editor Blanche Sewell, who lived at 1232 El Alameda in Palm Springs. She cut and glued 10,000 feet of exposed film.

Three months after they completed The Wizard of Oz, the California Theater in San Bernardino showed a sneak preview. Moviegoers were captivated by Garland’s wistful rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” They cheered the Munchkins’ joyful chorus of “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.” They giggled at the Scarecrow’s funny lament “If I Only Had a Brain” and sang along to the delightful tune “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”

Following its release, the film was nominated for five Oscars, winning two gold statuettes for Best Music Score and Best Song. Garland received a special award for singing her way into movie history.

For the devoted people who worked on the film, the success of The Wizard of Oz, which grossed $15 million, proved there is no place like home — especially if it’s Palm Springs.

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