Please repeat after us — a great classic movie could not have been made WITHOUT the right actors. Proper casting, in short, was (and still is) just about everything!

One of the virtues of the old studio system –which had dozens of “stars and featured players” contractually obligated to and at the disposal of various moguls — was that there was genuine economic incentive to optimally exploit each player.

And, more often than you might think, artistic considerations came into play with the question — is so-and-so really “right” for this role?

Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to speculate on what might have occurred if, say, The Wizard of Oz had been cast differently. As hard as it is to imagine these days, Judy Garland was not the clear first choice as Dorothy (10-year-old Shirley Temple was very much in the running).

And Ray Bolger was originally destined to play the Tin Woodman (not Jack Haley who did play the role). Also, try to imagine W.C. Fields (or even comedian Ed Wynn) in the role of the Wizard.

And don’t forget glamorous Gale Sondergaard (pictured above) as the Wicked Witch. (Who is this Margaret Hamilton, anyway?) And, hey, wasn’t Edna May Oliver a shoo-in for the role of the Good Witch (the role that finally went to Billie Burke)?

So, our question is:  Would The Wizard of Oz be the classic it is with Temple as Dorothy, Bolger as the Tin Woodman, Fields as the Wizard (instead of Frank Morgan who nailed the part), Oliver as the Good Witch Glinda and Sondergaard (not Margaret Hamilton, pictured below) playing the Wicked Witch as a stylish “fallen” woman? We say, thank goodness we never found out.

We researched both author Aljean Harmetz’ 1977 book The Making of the Wizard of Oz as well as the movie’s producer Mervyn LeRoy’s 1974 memoir Take One to discover the casting that might have been. In 1938, the year Wizard was in its pre-production period, MGM had under contract some 120 stars and featured players, and worked hard to fill all key roles from this talent roster.

As we’ve previously reported, Temple, under a Fox contract at the time, was envisioned in the role of Dorothy but MGM couldn’t convince studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck to loan her out. And besides, producer LeRoy and MGM exec Arthur Freed were early Garland advocates.

At one point, producer LeRoy mulled the casting (as a “glamorous witch”) of Sondergaard, a good looking character actress who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1936’s Anthony Adverse, which happened to have been directed by LeRoy.  Sensible heads prevailed and Hamilton, then a 36-year-old, newly divorced single mother earning her way on small character parts, won the role.

Declaring that the role of the Tin Woodman wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m not a tin performer. I’m fluid, Bolger wore down MGM execs down and finally landed the the Scarecrow part. (At 72 in 1976, Bolger was still dancing each morning to keep his joints lubricated.)

Yes, W.C. Fields was seriously considered for the role as the Wizard. But the great comedian begged off because he was preoccupied by writing the script for You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, which came out in 1939, the same year Oz was released.

The longest casting search was for the role of Toto, “played” superbly by a shy female Cairn terrier, Terry, coached by German-born animal trainer Carl Spitz. He acquired the dog abandoned by its owner who couldn’t pay the bill for Spitz’ training services.

Spitz said he escorted Terry to the Thalberg Building on the MGM lot. The producer was there, the writer was there. Everyone. And someone right away hollered. ‘That’s the dog we want.’ Terry had no serious competition for her part.

More challenging were ‘the Little People,’ the Munchkins.

We brought midgets from all over the world, and quickly discovered that they were a handful, wrote LeRoy.  They were wild. Every night there were fights and orgies and all kinds of carryings-on…the Culver City police had to rush over to the hotel to keep them from killing each other. I was very happy when their part of the picture was over.

 

 

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