‘The Wizard of Oz’ and its military and veteran connections

There's no place like the U.S.A. for the incredible veterans involved in The Wizard of Oz.
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Wizard of Oz lobby card
Wikimedia Commons

The Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic and known as one of the most-watched films, ever. Its storied production made a star out of its lead Judy Garland and forever enshrined her in Hollywood history. Its Technicolor-drenched fantasy motif has been copied, parodied and paid homage to countless times. The film was nominated for five Oscars and won two of them: Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Ms. Garland received an honorary Academy Juvenile Award, which was one of only 12 ever awarded. You will likely be surprised at the amount and position of the military veterans in the cast and crew.

Veterans involved with The Wizard of Oz:

Bert LahrJudy GarlandRay Bolger, and Jack Haley promoting the Sunday, March 15, 1970, NBC broadcast of the 1939 MGM feature film The Wizard of Oz. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

1. Victor Fleming – The Director

Victor Fleming, 1920s
Victor Fleming, 1920s. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Academy Award-winning director Victor Fleming is known for his great works Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, both completed in 1939. He directed 49 films in his career, including Joan of Arc, Bombshell, Red Dust, Reckless, and Treasure Island, and he often collaborated with his friends, such as Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman and Spencer Tracy. Before his mainstream success and entering the annals of cinema history, he served in the U.S. Army in World War I in the Signal Corps as a photographer. He was the lead photographer for President Woodrow Wilson in Versailles, France. Upon Fleming’s return to Tinseltown, his career took flight and his efforts placed him as one of the greatest directors of all time.

2. Ray Bolger – The Scarecrow

Publicity photo of American entertainer, Ray Bolger, circa 1942, promoting the Broadway production of Rodgers & Hart’s musical comedy By Jupiter. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ray Bolger acted during the Golden Age of Cinema and was known not only for his acting abilities but also his singing and dancing talents. He was a musical theater skills and stage performer in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Although not the original choice for the Scarecrow as Buddy Ebsen (WWII veteran of the USCG) had been cast, Bolger was set to play the Tin Woodman, which he was not happy about. He ended up in the role and made movie history for his timeless portrayal of Scarecrow who finds his brain. Post-Oz he toured with the USO during World War II in the Pacific entertaining troops. He also starred in the Stage Door Canteen, an American World War II film. An interesting fact, later in his life he danced and sang in a Dr. Pepper commercial, reminiscent of his work in Oz.

3. Bert LahrThe Cowardly Lion

Bert Lahr in 1936. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bert Lahr started his career in New York City on Broadway in vaudeville acts, which included stage musicals and burlesque. Lahr served in the U.S. Navy during World War I and earned the rank of seaman second-class. Although his legendary status came about from his portrayal of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, he was well known for his talents long before. His stage-honed skills brought humor and joy to the film with his character finally getting the courage he so greatly desired. Of note, his character is the only one to have two solos in the forest sequence and another solo while waiting for the wizard, which showcases his dynamism. Lahr continued with Broadway performances including earning a Tony award for the Best Leading Actor in a Musical in Foxy. His final role was in The Night They Raided Minsky’s which was written and produced by another famous WWII veteran and prolific producer, Norman Lear.

4. Hal Rossom – The Editor

Rosson with his wife Jean Harlow in 1934. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Picasa

Oz‘s editor Hal Rosson’s cinematography career in Hollywood spanned over half a century and he was nominated for five Academy Awards during his run. He received an Honorary Oscar for his work on The Garden of Allah. Well before Oz and his Tinseltown success, Rosson served in the U.S. Army in World War I. Once back from the war, Rosson went to work and amassed 155 film credits, a few of which started before the war and the high majority after, ending in 1966 with El Dorado. His cinematography for Oz is beautiful, deep and brings to life such an incredible story. Rosson’s legacy for such a cinematic gem is highly memorable and lives forever in the Heaven of movies.

5. Honorable mention: Mervyn LeRoy – The Producer

Promotional photo of director Mervyn LeRoy. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Prolific director, producer and actor, Mervyn LeRoy produced the great The Wizard of Oz. His directing credits include Little Caesar, Mister Roberts and The FBI Story and his producing credits include Little Women, The Bad Seed and No Time for Sergeants (also directed). He made numerous casting discoveries throughout his career with such talents as Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, Sophia Loren and Lana Turner. All of these actors became megastars and paved the way for the present-day industry. He was nominated for Best Picture a record eight times as a director or co-director and received an Honorary Oscar for The House I Live In. His noteworthy service to our country was in the middle of his career from 1944 to 1945 with him directing U.S. propaganda films such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which won the Oscar for Best Special Effects, and The House I Live In. Both films were well-received and positively impacted the American homefront during the latter stages of the war. LeRoy used his Hollywood career and leverage to support the American war effort and defeat the Axis powers. This makes him worth the mention.