Wizard of Oz, The (1939): Classic Hollywood with No Signature–Who Directed What and Why

After The Women, George Cukor was assigned to direct the musical fable, The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland.

The picture had taken six months of preparation, with a number of directors coming and going. When director Richard Thorpe was fired, producer Mervyn LeRoy brought Cukor, though it was never clear whether he would just look at the rushes and provide advice, or also direct the picture. Cukor was on the set for only three days, but after expressing his dissatisfaction, he was kindly removed. In the end, the movie was directed by Victor Fleming, who, ironically, replaced Cukor on the two pictures he is best known for, Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

From the start, LeRoy had doubts whether it was the right property for Cukor. It was not his kind of film–MGM knew all too well that Cukor didn’t like fantasy films and he didn’t relish working with children. However, Cukor did make one major contribution to the film: He got rid of Judy’s blond wig and cute doll face make-up and restored her down-to-earth ingeniousness.

Cukor didn’t worry much about The Wizard of Oz–the reviews of The Women were really great. He desperately needed a major critical and commercial success to boost his morale after GWTW. “Marvelous,” wrote the NY Times, “Every Studio should make one nasty picture a year.” Cukor’s direction was intentionally coarse and broad, but never vulgar. One of Cukor’s few low comedies, The Women became one of his most popular successes, and later acquired a cult status.

The Women was a huge commercial triumph: In its 64th week in NY, it ran bigger than other recent releases. In Syracuse, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Atlanta, it was more successful than Wizard of Oz. However, none of the actresses received an Oscar nomination, nor did the picture, in a year considered to be the best in Hollywood’s history. GWTW swept all the l939 awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Actress. With all the success of The Women, the Christmas of l939 was one of the saddest for Cukor. Always the gentleman, he sent a telegram to Selznick on the opening night of GWTW. “I don’t know whether to be wistful, noble, or comic,” he wrote, “but tonight I send you my love.” And he treasured for life a letter from Margaret Mitchell: “The premiere was exciting and fine, but we did miss you. You were almost our first contact with the movies–and a most pleasant one–so we naturally had you and the film linked up together in our minds. It seemed strange not having you here with us at the ‘birthday.”