On this day in 1938, the entertainment trade newspaper Variety reported that the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) had bought the rights to adapt L. Frank Baum’s beloved children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the screen, and that the studio has cast 16-year-old Judy Garland in the film’s central role, Dorothy Gale.
Born Frances Gumm on June 10, 1922, Garland was the daughter of former vaudeville performers. As a child, she toured with her older sisters in a musical act called the Gumm Sisters. In 1935, she signed a contract with MGM using her new stage name, Judy Garland. After some early film work, she co-starred with Mickey Rooney in a string of popular movies, beginning with Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937) and Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). At the age of 16, she won the role that would make her a star: Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
Production of The Wizard of Oz was beset by challenges from the beginning. The script went through numerous rewrites, and by filming’s end no fewer than four directors (Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Victor Fleming and King Vidor) had worked on the movie. Casting the film produced its own unique problems. By the time that Variety announced Garland’s casting, Ray Bolger had already been assigned the role of the Tin Man, and Buddy Ebsen had been picked to play the Scarecrow. At Bolger’s insistence, he and Ebsen soon swapped parts. Just nine days after filming began, however, Ebsen dropped out of the production after he suffered a near-fatal allergic reaction to the aluminum dust used in his Tinman makeup. Jack Haley replaced him. The all-important role of the Wicked Witch of the West was also recast, as the original actress, Gale Sondergaard, objected to playing such an ugly, evil character; Margaret Hamilton replaced her.
In the end, The Wizard of Oz emerged from these challenges as one of history’s most enduring and best-loved films, ranking sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of all time (compiled in 1999). The Wizard of Oz was especially honored for its pioneering use of the film process known as Technicolor, as well as for its now-iconic soundtrack. As Dorothy, Garland first performed what would become her signature song, “Over the Rainbow”–a yearning ballad that only became more poignant over the years, as the iconic actress struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. She died at the age of 47 on June 22, 1969.