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Black Lamb

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Behind that curtain

September 1st, 2003

BY CAROL WOLFE

Dear Carol,

Although I am a great fan of cinema, I find that I can no longer go to the movies. I am totally fed up with the constant barrage of sex and the nonstop assault of four-letter words that seem to have replaced plot, adventure and romance. Yes, I may be an old fuddy duddy, but I yearn for the days when we could count on the movie industry to provide us with wholesome entertainment. My favorite film of all time remains The Wizard of Oz. I recently read somewhere that the making of the movie did not go smoothly. What type of controversy could possibly attend this charming piece of work?

Priscilla H.
Lewiston, Maine

Dear Priscilla,

The making of The Wizard of Oz was attended by one of the most bitter labor disputes of its time. The year was 1937. On February 26, Dennis Nunzio and thirty-five midget singers in the cast walked off the MGM stage in a joint work stoppage over issues of unequal pay, harassment and poor working conditions. Unrest began after Munchkin “villager” Chip Gimple asked Judy Garland if she wouldn’t like to get together for a drink after the day’s shoot, to which the child actress allegedly responded, “Yeah, Chippy? My tree stump or yours ?” ( Just two weeks earlier, she had told him it was too bad he wasn’t tall enough to play the part of Toto). Gimble was kicked off the set after telling Garland that perhaps the secret to escaping Oz might be to “stop putting so many Phenobarbs on your cereal every morning.”

From there, the battle escalated. A walkout turned into a full-blown strike and stages from Hollywood to New York were suddenly deprived of a much-needed cadre of mini-artists. A Broadway production aimed at young audiences had to open on March 15 as Snow White and the Seven Normal People, only to close three days later. A 1938 stage rendition of Gulliver’s Travels was panned as “perverted” after critics walked out on a scene where the protagonist was tied up and crawled over by twenty grown men.

Attempts at reconciliation were equally troubled. After being asked to meet with Midget Union leader Peter “Pee Wee” Leekus, Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy announced that he wasn’t about to negotiate with a “lawn ornament,” to which Leekus responded, “LeRoy’s got no balls. And trust me, I’ve got a ringside seat.” LeRoy retaliated by appointing talent agent Max Scheingold to find non union replacement workers, and on May 15, 1938, rehearsals resumed with an all-Pygmy Lollipop Guild.

Thus began a three-week nightmare. The first rehearsal was halted when four Pygmies were briefly hospitalized with “emotional problems” after a “very cruel practical joke” by Zippy Stein, one of the few non-striking flying monkeys. Animal trainer Errol Price abruptly terminated three additional Pygmies caught frantically chasing Toto around the back lot, allegedly because they were “hungry.” The final blow was delivered by the African Munchkins’ refusing to present the Emerald City Key to Dorothy during the week that she was making what was loosely translated by their spokesman as “blood from the baby hole.”

Internal disputes arose as well. Striking actress Midge Kurtz, rumored to be dating six-foot-two Oz film maker Victor Fleming, was accused by her fellow Munchkins of “sleeping on the director.” Citing discriminatory practices, Munchkin Tyson Raines insisted on auditioning for Jack Haley’s beloved role. At the screen test for the big musical number, two-foot-six Raines, dressed as the Tin Man, stormed off the sound stage after Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr stated that he refused to “do a dance with a toaster.”

In an unprecedented move, Federal Judge Simon Priestly accused Union leaders of coercion and racketeering, and an FBI investigation ensued. Ultimately, charges were dropped in an eleventh-hour agreement between Leekus and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, prompting Variety’s headline “Mental, Physical Midgets Find Common Ground.”
The Munchkins returned to work (after abandoning a last-minute demand to change the words in the song to “Lollipop Union”) and, of course, the rest, Priscilla, is history. No sex, no profanity, just wonderful cinema.

Carol •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Wolfe | Link to this Entry

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