Considered by many to be one of the best movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz paved a way for both color movies and special effects upon its release in 1939. The film also brought together the biggest cast of little people ever to star in one movie. As Munchkins, these actors welcomed Dorothy to Oz and danced their way into movie lovers' hearts. While the studio system treated actors like Judy Garland terribly and behind-the-scenes disaster stories from the film abound, the Munchkin actors suffered difficulties as well.
Rumors of drunken encounters and heated tempers plagued them for years after the film, and while most of these stories are untrue, the little people of Oz also put up with horrors on set that are seldom discussed. Despite their experiences behind the scenes, however, most of the Munchkin actors enjoyed their time working on the film, and they even earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007. Audiences will remember Munchkinland and its jolly residents for years, but what went on behind the scenes made The Wizard of Oz historic for different and unexpected reasons.
Rumors Circulated About The Little People Turning Their Hotel Into A Party Ground
Of all the stories behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz, rumors about the Munchkin actors' behavior have been the most tenacious. According to stories, the little actors spent their off-screen time drinking, partying, and engaging in intimate group activities.
They also allegedly sexually harassed Judy Garland, and according to screenwriter Noel Langley, "The showgirls had to be escorted in bunches with armed guards." These rumors mostly came from Mervyn LeRoy's memoirs and a 1967 Garland interview on Tonight Starring Jack Paar, in which she claimed, "They got smashed every night and the police would pick them up in butterfly nets."
According to the actors themselves, these rumors were entirely fabricated, aside from the antics of a few troublemakers. Margaret Williams remembered, "[T]hey'd have a few drinks and party at night at the hotel there, but they didn't get that rowdy, like they said."
An Actor Came To Set Armed And Threatened A Fellow Actor
Among the rumors of the Munchkin actors' bad behavior were a few stories based in truth. Actor Charles Kelley arrived in Hollywood determined to protect his wife, who was also playing a Munchkin. He brought two pistols to the set and demonstrated aggressive behavior, including threatening people in a restaurant and dragging his wife by her hair.
According to stories, he became so enraged at his wife having a possible affair that he arrived at her hotel room waving a knife. When his wife later married Charlie Becker, the Mayor of Munchkinland, Kelley's suspicion was confirmed.
Margaret Hamilton Endured Third-Degree Burns After A Fire Effect Went Awry
Margaret Hamilton's role as the Wicked Witch of the West required her to wear green makeup made from copper oxide, which is flammable, though not toxic. Hamilton and the crew discovered this during her Munchkinland exit, in which she descended below the stage on a platform while smoke and pyrotechnics were set off above her.
On the fourth take, the effects went off early, setting Hamilton's hat, broom, and makeup on fire. The crew had to use alcohol to painfully remove Hamilton's makeup. "I thought I was going to faint," Hamilton remembered. "The fire had singed my eyebrows off and burned my cheeks and chin."
The actor left the production for six weeks. In addition to her facial burns, she suffered exposed nerves on one hand.
Many Of The Munchkin Actors Had Never Met Other Little People
Many of the Munchkin actors didn't realize other little people existed. "Not only the United States but from all over," Jerry Maren remembered. "A few of them came from Texas. You'd never believe that. I always thought only big, tall men came from Texas..."
The friendships and relationships formed by the Munchkin actors during filming created a strong feeling of acceptance among them. "The experience made me feel like maybe I wasn't so bad after all. Maybe I was as good as anyone else," recalled Fern Formica.
The Wizard of Oz brought together the largest group of little people to work on a special project. This gathering led to the formation of the Little People of America advocacy group years later.