Wizard of Oz

‘Superlative’ ‘Oz’ debuts with a splash in 1939 KC

The “7 smash tunes” in the MGM film didn’t come from the 1903-04 Broadway musical, although this 1939 ad might have made moviegoers think otherwise.
The “7 smash tunes” in the MGM film didn’t come from the 1903-04 Broadway musical, although this 1939 ad might have made moviegoers think otherwise.

If you enjoyed “Snow White” you’ll go into ecstasies over “The WIZARD of OZ”!

That was the promise of an ad in the Aug. 17, 1939, edition of The Kansas City Star, one day before “The Wizard of Oz” premiered here.

MGM’s big-budget fantasy had made its national debut the same week, on Aug. 15, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

In Kansas City, “Oz” played at Loew’s Midland theater, 1228 Main St., in an exclusive one-week engagement. At the 12-year-old, 3,500-seat movie palace (“air-conditioned,” the ads always mentioned), you could see the Wizard for a quarter between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. After that, only 1,500 seats were sold for that price. Presumably the best seats for evening screenings cost more.

Loew’s, incidentally, owned not only a chain of movie theaters but also Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that made “Oz.”

Some other tidbits we found by perusing The Star from 75 years ago this week:

Judging by the size of the movie ads, the other big premiere Aug. 18 was “Bachelor Mother,” starring Ginger Rogers (a native of Independence) and David Niven. That was playing at the RKO Orpheum at 1214 Baltimore Ave.

The day of the “Oz” premiere, Loew’s Midland ran a huge ad with illustrated movie scenes inside each letter of WIZARD OF OZ. The film was trumpeted as “MGM’s Magic Show of Shows,” “A Triumph of Technicolor!” and “So Spectacular It Cost as Much as TEN Average Pictures!” (The Loew’s chain, by the way, merged with locally based AMC in 2006.)

This was the era of a movie theater in every neighborhood, such as the Aladdin, Admiral, St. John, Roanoke, Oak Park (on Prospect Avenue), Southtown, Mary Lue, Gillham, Brookside and Paseo.

On the Sunday following the premiere, The Star ran a review as well as a long feature story on the making of the movie. The review ran under the headline “Look Who’s Here!” with head-and-shoulders shots of Dorothy, her three friends and the Wizard. (The caption started out: “Your gayest friends from childhood’s bookshelf romp to the screen of the Midland in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”)

What did the reviewer think? “Superlative. It couldn’t be better. Don’t make the mistake of believing this Technicolor spectacle is just a show for children. … A fine screenplay and a new set of songs expand but do not change the joyous novelty of the original work. For a smashing photographic effect, the Kansas tornado ranks with the descent of the locust swarm in ‘The Good Earth.’ Don’t miss this movie. You might even want to see it every day this week.”

The review did, however, toss a brickbat at Glinda the Good Witch, “the most simperingly benevolent fairy in the folklore of all time.”

The feature story, by John C. Moffitt, The Star’s motion picture editor, asserted that the American Library Association didn’t like L. Frank Baum’s Oz books because they were too imaginative. Only recently, Moffitt added, had the Kansas City Public Library started carrying the first book in the series, making it “one of the few libraries in the country that places ‘The Wizard’ on its shelves.”

The only serious accident on the movie set, according to the article, was when Judy Garland fell into the pig pen, was charged by a nursing sow and had to be rescued by Bert Lahr (farmhand Zeke/Cowardly Lion).

(That anecdote is probably hogwash. We know Garland had a stunt double. We also know that Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton was badly burned vanishing through a trap door in Munchkinland. And that the original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, suffered a near-fatal allergic reaction to his makeup.)

According to Moffitt, who was probably relying on publicity material from MGM, screenwriters discussed giving Toto the ability to talk. After all, the Lion could.

Producer Mervyn LeRoy supposedly consulted with fans of the book who had written him letters. Not only should Toto not talk, he learned, but the pooch should be played by an actual dog, not a human.

Good call, Mr. LeRoy.

To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or send email to tengle@kcstar.com. On Twitter: @tim_engle

THE WIZARD OF AUGUST

We’re celebrating this month’s 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz” movie with a story a day.

Saturday in FYI: The scholars who study “Oz.”

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