‘The Wizard Of Oz’ Turns 80: Five Disasters And On-Set Accidents That Nearly Destroyed The Iconic Film

The 1939 Judy Garland film had a toxic work environment--literally--as several cast members landed in the hospital during filming.

Lobby card from the original 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz featuring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr.
MGM / Wikimedia Commons

The 1939 Judy Garland film had a toxic work environment--literally--as several cast members landed in the hospital during filming.

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved films of all time, but the production of the Judy Garland classic did not come easy. Before its release on August 25, 1939, the movie was riddled with so many on-set accidents and near-fatal mishaps that some felt the film was cursed.

While MGM shelled out big bucks to produce the fantasy film, the Oscar-nominated special effects nearly killed several cast members, according to Time. In the book The Making of The Wizard of Oz, writer Aljean Harmetz noted that some of the dangerous special effects seen in the movie had never been attempted before. In addition, there was no union to protect the stars and stuntmen if they were harmed.

Eighty years later, the Wizard of Oz’ disastrous production remains legendary.

In a 1995 interview with The Sun-Sentinel, original Tin Man Buddy Ebsen revealed that early in filming, he developed a life-threatening allergic reaction to the metallic dust used in the Tin Man makeup. The actor said he experienced violent cramping in his hands, arms, and legs and was rushed to the hospital as he struggled to breathe after ingesting pure aluminum into his lungs.

Ebsen was put under an oxygen tent for two weeks and ultimately fired from The Wizard of Oz after he was told to “get the hell back to work” while still in the hospital. The Tin Man’s replacement, Jack Haley, was painted with a less toxic aluminum paste but he still ended up with an eye infection from the silver makeup.

In addition, Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton’s copper-based green makeup was so toxic it could not be ingested, so she was forced to go on a strict liquid diet during filming. Hamilton was later burned while shooting the film and the makeup team had to frantically remove her toxic copper makeup before it seeped through her wounds.

According to Yahoo Lifestyle, the emergency occurred as Hamilton suffered a second-degree burn on her face and a third-degree burn on her hand after the special effects team set the pyrotechnics off too early during the filming of her Munchkinland exit scene. After delivering her signature line, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too,” Hamilton was supposed to disappear into a hidden elevator below the set as flames shot up, per ABC News. When the flames erupted too soon, Hamilton’s hat and broom caught on fire. The star’s face was badly burned and she spent six weeks in the hospital.

Speaking of that super scary Wicked Witch, Hamilton’s experienced stunt double Berry Danko didn’t escape danger either. While shooting the famous “Surrender Dorothy” skywriting scene, Danko’s left leg was injured when the Witch’s broomstick (which was actually a smoking pipe) exploded. The Wizard of Oz stuntwoman spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and endured lifelong scars from the accident that sent her flying off the broom.

Another health hazard came via the scene in which Glinda the Good Witch countered the sleepy effects of the Wicked Witch’s poppies with snow. The “snow” falling in the poppy field was actually asbestos, per TV Overmind. Dorothy (Judy Garland), the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) and the Tin Man (Jack Haley) were all covered with dangerous, 100% industrial-grade asbestos despite the fact that the health hazards of asbestos were known at the time. Asbestos exposure is associated with lung cancer and mesothelioma.

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And who can forget those terrifying flying monkeys who served as the evil companions to the Wicked Witch? According to The Guardian, several actors playing Winged Monkeys were injured on-set when the piano wires that held them up snapped while shooting the haunted forest scene.

Wizard of Oz historian John Fricke told Playbill the wires used to fly the Winged Monkeys broke as the actors swooped down into the forest to attack Dorothy and her squad.

“They couldn’t protect the actors. They had to put men in those costumes that had harnesses and battery packs built in to make the wings bob up and down, and then fly them from the top of the soundstage to swoop down onto the set,” Fricke said. “You hear them crashing to the ground. They were not severely hurt, but this was before the technology we have today.”

The Wizard of Oz turns 80 on August 25, 2019.