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The almost-deadly truth about 'The Wizard of Oz' set

Recognised as one of cinema’s most defining films, Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz is a masterpiece that would bring monochrome filmmaking into the vibrant era of colour. In pre-war 1939, the cinema industry was a very different place, often built on rudimentary practises and questionable professional attitudes. Such led to the despicable mistreatment of young actress Judy Garland on set, as well as some dangerous, almost fatal special effect malpractices. 

Once stated by film director Joel Coen, one half of the iconic Coen Brothers, that “every movie ever made is an attempt to remake The Wizard of Oz” due to the film’s influence on traditional storylines, to claim that the film is one of cinema’s most influential is certainly a justified one. Ripped, copied and mimicked throughout the 20th century, The Wizard of Oz’s magical tale of a young girl, Dorothy (Garland), from Kansas swept away to the fantasy land of Oz, is one of cinema’s most iconic storylines. 

Meeting new friends, a Lion (Bert Lahr), a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), and a Tin Man (Jack Haley), Dorothy ventures across the land in search of the titular Wizard who will help her return to Kansas and grant her friends their greatest desires. As they travel across the magical kingdom of Oz they are met with glorious landscapes and impossible vistas, one of which being the famous poppy-field in which Dorothy momentarily rests. Doing so, Glinda, the good witch of the North (Billie Burke), causes it to snow, waking Dorothy and helping her onwards in her quest. Though, as they rejoice in their newfound vigour, they fail to realise that the snow falling from the sky is not snow at all, but Asbestos used to achieve several of the special effects throughout the film. 

Also used to decorate the Wicked Witch of the West’s burning broomstick, asbestos-based fake snowflakes were once a popular Christmas decoration throughout the United States and Europe before the substance’s dangers were discovered in the 1980s. The surprising use of the mineral joins several other strange special effects choices on the set of the film, including the use of green makeup for Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch, which had to be removed with acetone due to its toxic copper content. In addition to this, the Tin Man’s costume was made of leather-covered buckram, and the oil used to grease his joints was made from chocolate syrup, whilst The Cowardly Lion’s costume was made from real lion skin and fur.

Despite the bizarre and creative techniques used to form the magical kingdom of Oz, Victor Fleming’s film is ultimately a groundbreaking achievement of filmmaking that would be nominated at the 1940 Academy Awards for an award in art direction and special effects. Though it may not have taken these awards home, it did manage to swoop statuettes for best original song and score.

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