The Back Story of “Oz”

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When I was growing up in South Central Texas, one of the annual rites of Spring–other than lovely flowers, Easter, Tax Day (April 15th) and tornado season,  was the annual broadcasting of the 1939 movie classic, “The Wizard of Oz”.   It was always on NBC, usually on a Saturday night and hyped like hell the week before.   It was a big deal.  

Now, it’s on TBS  or TNT something like 40 times a week.  

But when it was a yearly event, it was a big deal.   The Sisters Kendrick would get together with my cousins Stevie, Brian and Kyle–as we did almost every year– and we’d watch the three-hour cinematic epic together. Coke floats, cookies and popcorn were as much a part of the setting as was the color TV “(only after 1966)  on which we watched.

We hated Elvira Gulch, wondered what the hell a “cruller” was; were frightened by the Wicked Witch of The West, how that damn broom of hers was able to fly AND leave contrails in its wake;  the butchness of the Lollipop Guild; what her armed guards were actually chanting as the Tin Man, The Lion and Scarecrow were trying to break into to her castle.  We marveled at how pretty Ray Bolger wasn’t and how lovely Billie Burke, who played Glenda, The Good Witch, was.

Then, as an adult I always marvelled at how much noted Washington, DC journalist, Helen Thomas looked exactly like one of the Taling Apple Trees.

 My male cousins liked the Flying Monkeys. Typical.

But us girls had different tastes. My oldest sister Kathy, loved the Emerald City scenes and Karol, my middle sister really liked the Munchkins. But me…weird kid that I was (and still am) really dug the tornado scene.

Wanna learn a little bit about that incredible part of the movie?  Are you sure?  

It may never look the same again if you do????  OK, you’ve been warned.

SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!

With that out-of-the-way, let’s start at the start. As if you had nay doubts, the tornado wasn’t real; it was fake. A fauxnado, if you will.  But how it was made was actually quite ingenious, considering it was the Thirties.

I did a little digging and with the help of a wonderfully informative piece written by Frank Marshall of “Storm Track”, I found out just how special effects (as limited as they were at the time of production in late 1937) were able to master and film a man-made tornado.

MGM initially budgeted eight grand to design, build, and photograph the twister which in reality was nothing more than a thirty-five foot tall rubber cone. The problem was this made the tornado too rigid and incapable of moving. It just kinda hung there.

Special effects coordinator and inventor Arnold Gillespie simply tore down the rubber tornado and tried again. Gillespie didn’t know much about tornadoes, but realized he couldn’t go to Kansas and wait for one to come down and pick up a house. So, he relied upon his background as a pilot for many years (even had his own airplane) for his next idea. He remembered that wind socks at airports resembled the shape of a tornado. He decided to make it out of plain old, muslin cloth, keeping it flexible so that it could bend, twist, and move from side to side.

Gillespie finally built a thirty-five foot long tapered muslin sock. The top of the twister was connected to a steel gantry suspended from the top of the stage. The gantry alone cost more than $12,000–damned expensive for the time–and was specifically built for the tornado by Bethlehem Steel. It was a mobile structure similar to those used in warehouses to lift heavy objects and could travel the entire length of the stage. The bottom of the cyclone disappeared into a slot in the stage floor. A rod came up through the base of the tornado to pull it from one side to another. By moving the gantry and the rod in opposite directions, it made the tornado appear to snake back and forth.

The first muslin tornado moved too violently and tore loose at the bottom. It was decided to mend the fabric with music wire so it would hold together when spun. This was a tedious task as one person had to be inside the tornado to poke the needle back out each time. To heighten the illusion a product known as “fullers earth”, a powdery brown dust, was sprayed into the base of the tornado with hoses containing compressed air. The same material also was sprayed into the top of the wind sock. The result was a boiling mass of dirt and cloud. The muslin was sufficiently porous that some of the dirt sifted through giving a blur or softness to the material. This also kept the sides of the tornado fuzzy, so that it didn’t look like a hard surface. It added to the realism, actually.

Four or five feet in front of the cameras were two panels of glass on which gray balls of cotton, which perfectly simulated mammatus clouds, had been pasted. The two panels moved in opposite directions adding to the boiling sensation and, at the same time, they obscured the steel gantry and top portion of the twister. Dense clouds of yellow-black smoke made from sulfur and carbon were injected onto the set from a catwalk above the gantry. The stage hands had no respirators and stayed up there breathing the stuff until they couldn’t stand it. Many of them became ill and some coughed up black-yellow mucous even days after the tornado was photographed. Remember, there was no such thing as OSHA in those days.

Once the tornado had been filmed, there was still plenty of work to be done. Rear-projection was used to transfer the previously shot image onto a translucent screen while actors such as Dorothy were placed in front of it. Wind machines provided the needed affect, while stage hands threw dried leaves and other debris in the air. When the tornado came close to the house at the end of the scene, more debris and dirt were added in the foreground to obscure the fake tornado while providing more realism.

I should mention that the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz was the costliest part of the entire movie. And considering the limited technology of the era, it looked pretty darn good.

Now that you’ve read how it was done, take a gander at the finished product once again.

But…uh…wait a sec. I hate to have to pee all over the fun, the cool realism and stuff, but notice at :51 and in subsequent scenes of the video you’re about to watch, the wind blows perpendicular to the tornado‘s approach.

Sorry.

Here’s a scene of the Gale farm being destroyed by the tornado–and one that was left on the editing room floor..it never made the movie, obviously.  I think it’s pretty impressive considering it was 1939.

All things considered, it was more dramatic and dare I say, even more realistic than anything in that silly ass 1996 movie “Twister”

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I was always bothered by so many things in the movie, “Twister”, namely that all that heavy farm equipment that fell out of the sky, the ones that storm chasers Bill and ex-wife Jo were dodging in their, all occurred in a massive F-5 tornado, yet the sun was shining the entire time.

HORNY, HORNY MUNCHKINS??

There are reports that claim Judy Garland didn’t like the Munchkins. It’s been said that she had said that during the entire filming of the Wizard of OZ, the Munchkins behaved like drunken little bastards that cavorted and carried on like crazy. I mean hey, this was 1939. There were no Associations of Little People. Matt Roloff hadn’t been born. The casting call for Munchkin Mania was like a horny convention for these little souls. It was probably the one time in which dwarfs from around the country amassed in one place and that had to have been like speed dating for these folks. I’m sure several took advantage of it and if they did, who can blame them?

But were they as wild and drunken as Judy Garland said? Who knows. There are reports that she certainly was. Several years ago, I remember hearing about one interview in which she called them something to the effect of “drunken little hams”.

Politically incorrect? Completely, but even so, I always thought that was a rather funny quote.

PINK FLOYD AND OZ–ONE IN THE SAME??? 

The Album the Dark Side of the Moon works as an alternate soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz. Pink Floyd has never admitted to intentionally doing such a thing,  however there are many coincidences that seem to substantiate the myth, including the rainbow prism on the album cover.

Come on, many of you freaks have seen this at the midnight movie at the neighborhood Bijou, Rialto or Pantages when you were kids and  all hopped up on goofballs and those marijuana cigarettes.  But if you haven’t, you can try it yourself  at home.  

Load the Dark Side of the Moon cd into a CD player (or place the album on the turntable–SPIN ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM!!!)  and set it to continuous replay so that it will replay the whole CD over and over. Start the CD immediately after the black and white MGM lion roars for the third  time.

Then turn down the sound on the TV. You may need to test the results a few times, but if it’s correct, the line “balanced on the biggest wave” should be the scene where Dorothy is balancing on the fence near the pig sty.  “On the Run” starts as Dorothy falls in.   Note: in order for this to work, you need to have a copy of the Dark Side of the Moon on CD, and either the VHS or DVD edition of the Wizard of Oz.

JUST WHAT WERE THOSE GUARDS CHANTING????

I mentioned it briefly at the top of the post.   The debate over what they were actually chanting is as old as the movie.

Remember the guards?  They protected the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle?  Well here they are, “hailing Dorothy” for peripherally melting the witch (“What a world, what a world!!!) with some water she actually threw on the Scarecrow who the witch ignited a few seconds earlier just for shits and grins.

But before this scene, when the Tinman, Scarecrow and the Lion were trying to rescue Dorothy from inside the castle, the guards were on the outside and they were chanting something repeatedly.  Looked for it on You Tube, but found nothing.  

I’ve asked a lot of people what they thought was being said.  Comments ranged from “All we own, we owe her”….to “Oh we love the old one”…..and “Oh we loathe the old one.”

For years I thought they were chanting, “Oreos..Linoleum”.   Don’t ask.

Well, I looked and I searched and found on a screenplay for “Oz” on a website and damned if those bastards weren’t saying anything at all.  The lyrics of that chant were simply, “O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!”

THE ON SET SUICIDE

I’ve heard about this myth…but only in the past few years or so.

Feh.

It’s said that right after Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet the Tin Man and he does his choreographed number about needing a “hot”, as he says in his accent, they ease n down the Yellow Brick Road to meet the Wizard., you can supposedly see a Munchkin or a despondent stage hand or one really pissed off Craft Service worker hanging by his or her neck from a rope.

No, you can’t.

Here’s the deal: the Set Designer wanted the outdoor look of the woods in this scene to be as realistic as possible, so he brought in large birds from the Los Angeles Zoo…emus, peacocks and cranes.

A crane is what we’re actually seeing in this now famous shot. In fact, a close up reveals that you can see the bird’s head bend down and peck at something on the ground and then it even spreads its rather expansive wingspan.

Here, see for yourself:

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But still, there are some convinced this is in fact, a suicide that was caught on tape and somehow went completely unnoticed by the cast and crew at the time of filming. These people believe what they want to believe. Their paranoia, coupled with the realization of their own insignificance, forces them to perpetuate nonsense like this.

These are the same pathetic, small-minded people who refuse to believe other facts;  like the one about A-1 jet fuel burning at 800° to 1500°F, which isn’t hot enough to melt steel (2750°)  but can cause steel frames in tall, commercial buildings in Manhattan on a balmy September day in 2001, to lose most of their structural integrity–especially when the impact of a Boeing 757 hits a structure at 400 plus miles an hour, there’s tendency for the fireproof cladding to “come lose”.     That means the steam beams are exposed; they’re there unprotected and will heat up to the point where these beams and trusses  lose significant strength.

When that happens, the steel tries to expand at both ends and when it’s weakened to the point that it can no longer expand, it sags in the middle and that forces surrounding concrete to crack. That, coupled with the weight of concrete and gravity being what it is, causes compromised steel beams and trusses to fall.

Momentum takes over and the floors that these beams once supported, collapse and if the building is multi-leveled, the floors pancake on top of each other.

Momentum.

Gravity.

Physics.

The floors fall.

And sadly, tragically, logically, so do 110-story buildings under the same circumstances.

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