Richard Thorpe was born Rollo Smolt Thorpe February 24, 1896 in Hutchinson, Kansas.
He began his entertainment career performing in vaudeville.
In 1921, he began working in motion pictures as an actor and then switched to film directing his first silent film in 1923.
From 1933 through 1935, Thorpe was principal director at the Poverty Row Chesterfield/Invincible studios, where his frugal habit of filming every scene in only one take served him well.
The first full length motion picture he directed was for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) titled the Last of the Pagans (1935) starring Ray Mala.
Thorpe is also known as the original director of The Wizard of Oz.
The Wizard of Oz Script
In January of 1938, MGM bought the rights to the popular novel by L. Frank Baum titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Samuel Goldwyn, had toyed with the idea of making the novel into a film as a vehicle for Eddie Cantor, who was under contract to Goldwyn studios and whom Goldwyn wanted to cast as the Scarecrow.
Originally, MGM head of production Mervyn LeRoy was responsible for the decision to make The Wizard of Oz.
LeRoy’s assistant William H. Cannon then submitted a brief four-page outline.
Because fantasy films before 1938 had not fared well at the box office, Cannon recommended that the magical elements of the story be toned down or eliminated.
In his outline, the Scarecrow was a man so stupid that the only way he could get employment was to dress up as a scarecrow and scare away crows in a cornfield, and the Tin Woodman was a hardened criminal so heartless he was sentenced to be placed in a tin suit for eternity.
The torture of being encased in the suit had softened him and made him gentle and kind. His vision was similar to Larry Semon’s 1925 film adaptation of the story, in which the magical element is absent.
The Wizard of Oz script continued through a number of writers and revisions.
LeRoy hired screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to work on a script.
Despite Mankiewicz’s notorious reputation at that time for being an alcoholic, he soon delivered a 17-page draft of the Kansas scenes, and a few weeks later, he handed in a further 56 pages.
Noel Langley and poet Ogden Nash were also hired to write separate versions of the story.
None of the three writers involved knew anyone else was working on a script, but it was not an uncommon procedure.
Nash soon delivered a four page outline, Langley turned in a 43-page treatment and a full film script.
Langley turned in three more, this time incorporating the songs that had been written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.
Yip claimed to have written the part where the characters give out the heart, the brains and the nerve.
No sooner had Langley completed it than Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf submitted a script and were brought on board to touch up the writing. They would be responsible for making sure the story stayed true to the Baum novel.
Because of a perceived need to attract a youthful audience through appealing to modern fads and styles, the script originally featured a scene with a series of musical contests. A spoiled, selfish princess in Oz had outlawed all forms of music except classical and operetta and went up against Dorothy in a singing contest in which her swing style enchanted listeners and won the grand prize. This part was initially written for Betty Jaynes. This plan was later dropped.
Another scene, which was removed before final script approval and never filmed, was a concluding scene back in Kansas after Dorothy’s return. Hunk (the Kansan counterpart to the Scarecrow) is leaving for agricultural college and extracts a promise from Dorothy to write to him. The implication of the scene is that romance will eventually develop between the two, which also may have been intended as an explanation for Dorothy’s partiality for the Scarecrow over her other two companions. This plot idea was never totally dropped, however; it is especially noticeable in the final script when Dorothy, just before she is to leave Oz, tells the Scarecrow, “I think I’ll miss you most of all.”
Again, the producers thought that a 1939 audience was too sophisticated to accept Oz as a straight-ahead fantasy; therefore, it was rewritten as a lengthy, elaborate dream.
The final draft of the script was completed on October 8, 1938, following numerous other rewrites.
All in all, it was a mish-mash of many creative minds, but Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf got the film credits.
Original Director Richard Thorpe
Filming commenced October 13, 1938 on the MGM Studios lot in Culver City, California, under the direction of Richard Thorpe.
Thorpe initially shot about two weeks of footage (nine days, total) involving Dorothy’s first encounter with the Scarecrow, as well as a number of sequences in the Wicked Witch’s castle, such as Dorothy’s rescue (which, though unreleased, comprises the only footage of Buddy Ebsen’s Tin Man).
Ten days into the shoot, however, Buddy Ebsen suffered a reaction to the aluminum powder makeup he wore; the powder he breathed in daily as it was applied had coated his lungs. Ebsen was hospitalized in critical condition, and subsequently was forced to leave the project; in a later interview (included on the 2005 DVD release of The Wizard of Oz), Ebsen recalled the studio heads initially disbelieving that he was seriously ill, only realizing the extent of the actor’s condition when they showed up in the hospital as he was convalescing in an iron lung.
Ebsen’s sudden medical departure caused the film to shut down while a new actor was found to fill the part.
No full footage of Ebsen as the Tin Man has ever been released — only photographs taken during filming and test photos of different makeup styles remain.
MGM did not publicize the reasons for Ebsen’s departure until decades later, in a promotional documentary about the film.
His replacement, Jack Haley, simply assumed he had been fired.
Ironically, despite his near-death experience, Ebsen outlived all of the principal cast members by at least sixteen years, although his film career was damaged by the incident.
Producer Mervyn LeRoy had taken this time to review the already shot footage and felt that Thorpe seemed to be rushing the picture along, creating a negative impact on the actors’ performances.
Thorpe had notoriously gave Judy Garland a blonde wig and cutesy “baby-doll” makeup that made her look like a girl in her late teens rather than an innocent Kansas farm girl of about thirteen.
LeRoy decided to have Thorpe replaced, because he felt that Thorpe’s scenes did not have the right air of fantasy about them.
Stills from Thorpe’s work on the film survive today.
Mickey Rooney didn’t play any role in the movie, but he was never far away from Judy Garland behind the scenes and they enjoyed each others company.
Ironically, after being fired from Wizard of Oz, Richard Thorpe directed Mickey Rooney in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939).
Richard Thorpe went on to direct more than one hundred and eighty films, concentrating on cheap American Westerns, crime films, and two-reel comedies.
Though his direction tended to be perfunctory and unimaginative, Thorpe had several memorable productions to his credit, notably The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), and Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock (1957); he also directed four of MGM’s Tarzan films.
After directing The Last Challenge in 1967, Thorpe retired from the film industry.
His two favourite films were Night Must Fall (1937) and Two Girls and a Sailor (1944).
Richard Thorpe died May 1, 1991 in Palm Springs, California.
Richard Thorpe was the father of Jerry Thorpe, himself a prolific director who spent much of his career at MGM.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Thorpe has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6101 Hollywood Blvd.
In 2003 a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California was dedicated to him and his son, Jerry.
Now WE know em
FYI – Casting for the Wizard of Oz
Mervyn LeRoy had always insisted that he wanted to cast Judy Garland to play Dorothy from the start; however, evidence suggests that negotiations occurred early in pre-production for Shirley Temple to be cast as Dorothy, on loan from 20th Century Fox. This story later appeared in many film biographies (including Shirley Temple’s own autobiography).
The documentary The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic states that Mervyn LeRoy was under pressure to cast Temple, then the most popular child star; but at an unofficial audition, MGM musical mainstay Roger Edens listened to her sing and felt that an actress with a different style was needed.
Newsreel footage is included in which Temple wisecracks, “There’s no place like home,” suggesting that she was being considered for the part at that time.
Actress Deanna Durbin, who was under contract to Universal, was also considered for the part of Dorothy.
Durbin, at the time, far exceeded Garland in film experience and fan base and both had co-starred in a 1936 two-reeler titled Every Sunday. The film was most notable for exhibiting Durbin’s operatic style of singing against Garland’s jazzier style. Durbin was possibly passed over once it was decided to bring on Betty Jaynes, also an operatic singer, to rival Garland’s jazz in a discarded subplot of the film.
Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen (later famous for his role as Jed Clampett on the popular 1960s TV show The Beverly Hillbillies) was to play the Scarecrow. Bolger, however, longed to play the Scarecrow, as his childhood idol Fred Stone had done on stage in 1902; with that very performance, Stone had inspired him to become a vaudevillian in the first place. Now unhappy with his role as the Tin Man (reportedly claiming, “I’m not a tin performer; I’m fluid”), Bolger convinced producer Mervyn LeRoy to recast him in the part he so desired.
Ebsen did not object; after going over the basics of the Scarecrow’s distinctive gait with Bolger (as a professional dancer, Ebsen had been cast because the studio was confident he would be up to the task of replicating the famous “wobbly-walk” of Stone’s Scarecrow), he recorded all of his songs, went through all the rehearsals as the Tin Man, and began filming with the rest of the cast.
Bert Lahr was signed for the Cowardly Lion on July 25, 1938; the next month, Charles Grapewin was cast as Uncle Henry on August 12.
W. C. Fields was originally chosen for the role of the Wizard, but the studio ran out of patience after protracted haggling over his fee; instead, another contract player, Frank Morgan, was cast on September 22.
Gale Sondergaard was originally cast as the Wicked Witch. She became unhappy when the witch’s persona shifted from sly and glamorous (thought to emulate the wicked queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) into the familiar “ugly hag.” She turned down the role and was replaced on October 10, 1938, just three days before filming started, by MGM contract player Margaret Hamilton. Sondergaard said in an interview for a bonus feature on the DVD that she had no regrets about turning down the part, and would go on to play a glamorous villain in Fox’s version of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird in 1940; that same year, Margaret Hamilton would play a role remarkably similar to the Wicked Witch in the Judy Garland film Babes in Arms.
According to Aljean Harmetz, when the wardrobe department was looking for a coat for Frank Morgan, they decided that they wanted a once elegant coat that had “gone to seed”. They went to a second-hand shop and purchased a whole rack of coats, from which Morgan, the head of the wardrobe department and director Fleming chose one they thought had the perfect appearance of shabby gentility. One day, while he was on set wearing the coat, Morgan turned out one of the pockets and discovered a label indicating that the coat had once belonged to Oz author L. Frank Baum. Mary Mayer, a unit publicist for the film, contacted the tailor and Baum’s widow, who both verified that the coat had indeed once belonged to the writer. After filming was completed, the coat was presented to Mrs. Baum. Baum biographer Michael Patrick Hearn disbelieves the story, it having been refuted by members of the Baum family, who never saw the coat or knew of the story, as well as by Margaret Hamilton, who considered it a concocted studio rumor.
Reorganization of The Wizard of Oz after Richard Thorpe was let go
Judy Garland’s makeup and wig were discarded at the suggestion of George Cukor, who was brought in temporarily.
Cukor explained to Garland that she was playing Dorothy in an exaggerated fashion, his advice – “be yourself.”
This meant that all the scenes Judy Garland had already completed had to be discarded and re-filmed.
Cukor also suggested that the studio cast Jack Haley, on loan from 20th Century Fox, as the Tin Man.
To keep down on production costs, Haley only rerecorded “If I Only Had a Heart” and solo lines during “The Jitterbug” and “If I Only Had the Nerve”; as such, Buddy Ebsen’s voice can still be heard in the remaining songs featuring the Tin Man in group vocals.
The makeup used for Haley was quietly changed to an aluminum paste, with a layer of clown white greasepaint underneath to protect his skin; although it did not have the same dire effect on Haley, he did at one point suffer from an unpleasant eye infection from it.
In addition, Ray Bolger’s original recording of “If I Only Had a Brain” had been far more sedate compared to the version heard in the film; during this time, Cukor and LeRoy decided that a more energetic rendition would better suit Dorothy’s initial meeting with the Scarecrow (initially, it was to contrast with his lively manner in Thorpe’s footage), and was re-recorded as such. At first thought to be lost for over seven decades, a recording of this original version was rediscovered in 2009.
Cukor did not actually shoot any scenes for the film, merely acting as something of a “creative advisor” to the troubled production, and, because of his prior commitment to direct Gone with the Wind, he left on November 3, 1938, at which time Victor Fleming assumed the directorial responsibility.
As director, Fleming chose not to shift the film from Cukor’s creative realignment, as producer LeRoy had already pronounced his satisfaction with the new course the film was taking.
Production on the bulk of the Technicolor sequences was a long and cumbersome process that ran for over six months, from October 1938 to March 1939. Most of the actors worked six days a week and had to arrive at the studio as early as four or five in the morning, to be fitted with makeup and costumes and would not leave until seven or eight at night. Cumbersome makeup and costumes were compounded by the fact that the early Technicolor process required a significant amount of lighting to be used (due to the low ASA speed of the film), which would usually heat the set to over a hundred degrees. According to Ray Bolger, most of the Oz principals were banned from eating in the studio’s commissary due to their costumes. Margaret Hamilton’s witch makeup meant that she could not eat solid food, so she practically lived on a liquid diet during filming of the Oz sequences. Additionally, it took upwards of 12 takes to have Dorothy’s dog Toto run alongside the actors as they skipped down the Yellow Brick Road.
All of the Oz sequences were filmed in three-strip Technicolor. The opening and closing credits, as well as the Kansas sequences, were filmed in black and white and colored in a sepia tone process. Sepia-toned film was also used in the scene where Aunt Em appears in the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball.
The massive shoot also proved to be somewhat chaotic. This was most evident when trying to put together the Munchkinland sequences. MGM talent scouts searched the country far and wide to come up with over a hundred little people who would make up the citizens of Munchkinland; this meant that most of the film’s Oz sequences would have to already be shot before work on the Munchkinland sequence could begin. According to Munchkin actor Jerry Maren, each little person was paid over $125 a week for their performances. Munchkin Meinhardt Raabe, who played the coroner, revealed in the 1990 documentary The Making of the Wizard of Oz that the MGM costume and wardrobe department, under the direction of designer Adrian, had to design over one hundred costumes for the Munchkin sequences. They then had to photograph and catalog each Munchkin in his or her costume so that they could correctly apply the same costume and makeup each day of production.
Filming even proved to be dangerous, at times. Margaret Hamilton was severely burned in the Munchkinland scene, and as she tells the story on the DVD commentary: “There was a little elevator that was supposed to take me down, with a bit of fire and smoke erupting to dramatize and conceal my exit. The first take ran like clockwork, I went down out of my clothes, the fire and smoke erupted and that’s the one you see.” But for the second take, the timing was off, and she was exposed to the flames. The grease in her copper-based makeup caught fire and had to be completely and quickly removed before the ensuing second-degree burns on her hands and face could be treated. After spending some six weeks in the hospital convalescing, she returned to the picture.
Then on February 12, 1939, Victor Fleming hastily replaced George Cukor in directing Gone with the Wind; the next day, King Vidor was assigned as director by the studio to finish the filming of The Wizard of Oz (mainly the sepia Kansas sequences, including Judy Garland’s singing of “Over the Rainbow”).
In later years, when the film became firmly established as a classic, Vidor chose not to take public credit for his contribution until after the death of his friend Fleming in 1949.
Post-production of Wizard of Oz
Principal photography concluded with the Kansas sequences on March 16, 1939; nonetheless re-shoots and pick-up shots were filmed throughout April, May and into June, under the direction of producer LeRoy. After the deletion of the “Over the Rainbow” reprise during subsequent test screenings in early June, Judy Garland had to be brought back one more time in order to reshoot the “Auntie Em, I’m frightened!” scene without the song; the footage of Clara Blandick’s Auntie Em, as shot by Vidor, had already been set aside for rear projection work, and was simply reused. After Margaret Hamilton’s torturous experience with the Munchkinland elevator, she refused to do the pick-ups for the scene in which she flies on a broomstick which billows smoke, so LeRoy chose to have stand-in Betty Danko perform the scene instead; as a result, Danko was severely injured doing the scene due to a malfunction in the smoke mechanism.
At this point, the film began a long arduous post-production. Herbert Stothart had to compose the film’s background score, while A. Arnold Gillespie had to perfect the various special effects that the film required, including many of the rear projection shots. The MGM art department also had to create the various matte paintings for the background of many of the scenes.
One significant innovation planned for the film was the use of “stencil printing” for the transition to Technicolor. Each frame was to be hand-tinted to maintain the sepia tone; however, because this was too expensive and labor intensive, it was abandoned and MGM used a simpler and less expensive variation of the process. During the re-shoots in May, the inside of the farm house was painted sepia, and when Dorothy opens the door, it is not Garland but her stand-in, Bobbie Koshay, wearing a sepia gingham dress, who then backs out of frame; once the camera moves through the door, Garland steps back into frame in her bright blue gingham dress (as noted in DVD extras), and the sepia-painted door briefly tints her with the same color before she emerges from the house’s shadow, into the bright glare of the Technicolor lighting. This also meant that the re-shoots provided the first proper shot of Munchkinland; if one looks carefully, the brief cut to Dorothy looking around outside the house bisects a single long shot, from the inside of the doorway to the pan-around that finally ends in a reverse-angle as the ruins of the house are seen behind Dorothy as she comes to a stop at the foot of the small bridge.
Test screenings of the film began on June 5, 1939. Oz initially was running nearly two hours long. LeRoy and Fleming knew that at least a quarter of an hour needed to be deleted to get the film down to a manageable running time, the average film in 1939 running just about 90 minutes. Three sneak previews in Santa Barbara, Pomona and San Luis Obispo, California helped guide LeRoy and Fleming in the cutting. Among the many cuts was “The Jitterbug” number, the Scarecrow’s elaborate dance sequence following “If I Only Had A Brain,” a reprise of “Over the Rainbow” and “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead,” and a number of smaller dialogue sequences. This left the final, mostly serious portion of the film with no songs, only the dramatic underscoring.
One song that was almost deleted was “Over the Rainbow.” MGM had felt that it made the Kansas sequence too long, as well as being far over the heads of the target audience of children. The studio also thought that it was degrading for Judy Garland to sing in a barnyard. Producer Mervyn LeRoy, uncredited associate producer Arthur Freed, and director Victor Fleming fought to keep it and eventually won. The song went on to win the Academy Award for Best Song of the Year. In 2004, the song was ranked #1 by the American Film Institute on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs list.
After the preview in San Luis Obispo in early July, The Wizard of Oz was officially released in August 1939 at its current 101-minute running time.