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The disturbing truth behind Judy Garland’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ experience

When a film has three writing credits with a further seventeen uncredited and four directors fired before Victor Fleming finally finished the project, it’s a hint that there was trouble in paradise. Sadly, it didn’t stop there. Far from merely being a chaotic shoot that reflected the slack creative milieu of Hollywood at the time, the despairing tales of a 16-year-old Judy Garland unearth the dark underbelly of cinemas so-called Golden Age. 

The accounts of Judy Garland‘s onset experiences go beyond glib tales of farce and enter the rather more serious realm of being genuinely harrowing. Sadly, the seeds for her tragic on set experiences were sewn long before the demanding production of the MGM epic. According to biographers, when Garland was just ten years of age, her pushy stage mother Ethel Gumm would cruelly drug her with stimulants so she would stay awake for 72-hour shoots, only to then force-feed her sleeping pills to knock her out when she wasn’t required on set.

This gruelling and despicable regime set a precedence that she was disposable and that exploitation was merely the harsh reality of life on the silver screen. This would later manifest in the making of the Wizard of Oz and be far war worse for Garland than ever before.

In 2005, Sid Luft, Judy Garland’s ex-husband had a posthumous memoir published that alleged that the child star was continually groped by the actors playing the munchkins. “They thought they could get away with anything because they were so small,” Luft wrote. “They would make Judy’s life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress. The men were 40 or more years old.” 

Disturbingly, although Luft’s memoir depicts a personal tale of how her experiences on set led to drug dependencies and suicidal tendencies, which in turn, put a dreadful strain on their marriage, Garland would still fear speaking out in public. In an interview with Jack Parr in 1967, she was asked about the munchkins in which she jokes about being asked to dinner by a 40-year-old and hints that “they got up to a lot,” but ultimately remains the consummate performer and jokes about how they were drunk and had to be rounded up before a shoot by a runner with a butterfly net. However, for a brief second, she seems to almost be about to remark on their alleged assaults. 

The movie would prove to be the moment that her name was eternalised in Hollywood stardom, and yet it also marked the end of her career in earnest. By the end of filming, she was addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, and her mental health was marred by the scars of filming. She had been molested by studio executives, spies were sent to her home to ensure she was sticking to a regimented diet of coffee, cigarettes and chicken soup and contact with anyone her own age was limited. 

This ordered cruelty had started early in Garland’s life, which led to a perpetuating cycle. After her first starring role in Pigskin Parade, she remarked: “I was frightful. I was fat – a fat little pig in pigtails.” This self-judgement was no doubt a result of MGM head Louis B Meyer referring to her as “my little hunchback” and the constant application of prosthetics, a corset and a diet that professionals would deem deadly by current medical practices. As a biographer, Lauren Becall states: “From childhood, Judy was placed on drugs – to lose weight or to go to sleep or to wake up. And once you get hooked on pills… it obviously affected her.” 

This is not just an illustration of Hollywood’s dark early years but a toxic example of how the chaotic creative process of filmmaking can be used to mask dehumanising crimes that occur therein. The movie might be over 80 years old, but more still needs to be done on this front to this day where the artistic practices in search of cinematic gold often come at a cloaking cost. 

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