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A special which-witch-is-which edition of Why For

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

A special which-witch-is-which edition of Why For

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First up, George S. writes to say:

My family and I were visiting Disney-MGM earlier this year. And while I was at that park, I got talking with a cast member who was working at the "Great Movie Ride." He met our car as we rolled back in that attraction's exit area and asked us what we had all thought of the ride. I told him that I thought that TGMR didn't have nearly enough Disney in it. That it paid tribute to far too many films that didn't have anything to do with Disney Studios, movies like "The Wizard of Oz."

This cast member then told me that if it weren't for Walt Disney, MGM never would have made "The Wizard of Oz." I wanted him to explain that remark. But then he hurried off to help unload the next car that was coming into the station. And my family and I went off to dinner.

Since then, I've been puzzling about what this cast member said. And I can't figure out what the connection might be between Walt Disney and "The Wizard of Oz." So can you help me out? You seem to know about all of these weird connections between Disney and other movies.

Dear George S.

I think what that WDW cast member was trying to tell you was that it was the huge success of Walt Disney's 1937 release, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" ...


Copyright 1937 Walt Disney Productions

... that actually inspired Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to put "The Wizard of Oz" into production.


Copyright 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.

I mean, it can't really be a coincidence that -- just three weeks after Disney's feature-length cartoon opens to a huge box office and glowing reviews -- that MGM head Louis B. Mayer acquired the movie rights to L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

MGM certainly wanted the public to think that its lavish live-action version of "The Wizard of Oz" was a suitable follow-up to Disney's animated "Snow White." Don't believe me? Then check out this poster for "Oz" 's original release in August of 1939.


Copyright 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.

Yep. You read the copy on that poster right. "Biggest screen sensation since 'Snow White.' "

Though -- truth be told -- long before film had actually begun turning through a camera, during the pre-production phase of MGM's "The Wizard of Oz," Disney's first animated feature had a huge impact on this live-action musical.

How so? Well, take -- for example -- the Wicked Witch of the West. The production team initially had a lot of trouble getting a handle on what the villain of "The Wizard of Oz" should look like, how the witch should behave, etc. And since Disney had had such success with portraying the Queen in "Snow White" as a beautiful but cold & cruel woman ...


Copyright 1937 Walt Disney Productions

... The "Wizard of Oz" production team thought that this might also be the way to go with the Wicked Witch of the West. Which is why they initially hired elegant Gale Sondergaard ...


Photo courtesy of Google Images

... to play this role in the picture. MGM's costume department then created a sequined cowl & witch's hat. With the hope that this would give the Wicked Witch of the West a somewhat sinister air of sophistication.


Copyright 1938 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.

Not to mention aping the look of the Queen in "Snow White."

But after camera tests were done of Gale in this get-up, the higher-ups at MGM decided to go another way with the Wicked Witch. Rather than modeling that character after "Snow White" 's beautiful but evil queen, they decided to try a look that was more in line with the Queen's disguise ...


Copyright 1939 Walt Disney Productions

... You know? The ugly old crone?

So the studio first pulled all of the sequins off of Sondergaard's witch's costume, then slathered Gale's beautiful face with heavy make-up ...


Copyright 1938 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.

... in an attempt to make this glamorous actress look as ugly as possible. But being the great beauty that she was, Sondergaard's strong cheekbones still read through all of that heavy make-up. Which is when the studio realized that they were going to have to hire another actress to play the Wicked Witch. Someone like Margaret Hamilton ...


Copyright 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.

... whose already strong chin & sharp features would provide a good base for the Wicked Witch make-up.

Mind you, even though Gale Sondergaard left the cast of "The Wizard of Oz," she still managed to appear in a big budget fantasy film that a movie mogul deliberately put into production as his studio's answer to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Only in this case, it wasn't Louis B. Mayer. But -- rather -- Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. And the movie was "The Blue Bird" ...


Copyright 1940 20th Century Fox

... A Shirley Temple vehicle where Sondergaard played Tylette, a spoiled house cat who had been magically turned into a human being.


Copyright 1940 20th Century Fox

Unfortunately, "The Blue Bird" bombed at the box office when this Walter Lang film was released to theaters in January of 1940. So Gale's performance as Tylette pretty much went straight into the toilette ...

And speaking of movie that under-performed, Emily T. writes in with a question about "Bedknobs & Broomsticks":

Dear Jim --

I really enjoyed that story that you did last week about how Disney Feature Animation recycles story ideas. Mostly because you touched on my absolute favourite Disney film, "Bedknobs and Broomsticks."


Copyright 1971 Walt Disney Productions

For years, I have heard that this Robert Stevenson film was the studio's attempt to do sort of a sequel to "Mary Poppins." Which is one of the reason that David Tomlinson wound up cast as this film's romantic lead.


Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions

But recently I have heard that Disney actually intended on making "Bedknobs" (to borrow a Jim Hill-ism) a really-for-real sequel to "Mary Poppins." That the studio supposedly went so far as to offer the role of Eglantine Price to Julie Andrews. And that Angela Lansbury only got this role after Julie turned down the part. Is there any truth to this story?

Dear Emily T.

Actually, yes there is. Ever since Julie had done her Oscar-winning turn in "Mary Poppins" ...


Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions

... the folks at Walt Disney Studios had been hoping to lure this Brit back to Burbank. Have Julie lend some of her star power of a new Walt Disney Productions picture.

Which is why in late 1968 "Bedknobs" producer Bill Walsh sent Julie a copy of the film's screenplay. Andrews (who -- at that time -- was right in the middle of shooting "Darling Lili" with her husband Blake Edwards) took a quick glimpse at the script. Concerned that the character of Eglantine Price was a little too close to Mary Poppins, which might then cause her critics & fans to accuse Julie of repeating herself, she politely passed on the project.

Which is how Angela Lansbury eventually wound up playing the apprentice witch in this December 1971 release ...


Copyright 1971 Walt Disney Productions

... But not before the studio seriously considered a dozen other actresses for this part. Including Lynn Redgrave, "Laugh In" starlet Judy Carne and British TV favorite Wendy Craig.


Photos courtesy of Google Images

But given that Lansbury was just coming off of her Tony Award-winning turn in the hit musical, "Mame," it was felt that Angela had the proper chops to tackle all of the singing & dancing that had to be done in "Bedknobs & Broomsticks." More to the point, that this Broadway star (just as Julie Andrews did when she transitioned from appearing in "Camelot" to starring in "Mary Poppins") would bring a certain amount of class to this new picture from Walt Disney Productions.

So Disney officially offered Lansbury the part of Eglantine Price in the fall of 1969. Angela formally accepted the role in November of that same year. And by March of 1970, she was seated on a broomstick. Hanging from piano wires high above a soundstage floor in Burbank.


Copyright 1971 Walt Disney Productions

Now where this gets interesting is that -- once Julie finished working on "Darling Lili" -- she picked up that copy of "Bedknobs & Broomsticks" that Bill Walsh had sent her in late 1968. She then gave the script a much more thorough reading. And this time around, Andrews liked what she saw. 

Which is why Julie then picked up the phone and gave Bill a call, telling him "You know, if you're still looking for an Eglantine Price, I think I'd be interested in playing this part now."

It was then that Walsh had to tell Andrews that -- just a week earlier -- Disney had signed Angela Lansbury to star in "Bedknobs & Broomsticks." That a story about this deal would be appearing in the trades shortly.

Ever the pro, Julie told Bill that he made the right choice, that Angela would do an excellent job with the role. And then -- before hanging up -- Andrews wished Walsh well, saying that she hoped production of his new film would go smoothly.

Now when you hear a story like that, you just have to wonder: How much better would "Bedknobs & Broomsticks" have done at the box office in 1971 if the company's PR flaks had been able to promote this picture as " ... Julie Andrews' triumphant return to Walt Disney Studios" ?

And -- finally -- I answer the questions that I've been getting via e-mail ever since Monday, when JHM ran my "Harry Potter and the Letter of Intent" story ran on JHM back. Since that time, my article has been rebutted by both the Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet. Who say that a representative from J.K. Rowling's office told them that there was "no truth" to this rumor.

So -- faced with a denial like that -- am I now going to change my story?

No.

There is a letter of intent, folks. I'm certain of it.


Copyright Warner Bros. Productions

As to why I'm certain ... I can't say any more without revealing who my sources on this story actually are. And I'm not going to do that because ... Well, if I did that, I'd wind up destroying a friend's career. And I'm not going do that just so I can prove to a bunch of Harry Potter fans that what I posted on Monday is actually true.

"So if Disney really is working on a 'Harry Potter' -related project," you ask, "then why would a representative from Ms Rowling's office tell the Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet that there was 'no truth' to this story?" ... I don't know what to tell you, folks. Other than to point out that we're still at least nine months away from when this project was originally supposed to be announced. So maybe a decision was made to deny any doings with Disney until the proper time for the official announcement arrived.

As to the other alleged "error" in Monday's article (I.E. I supposedly got the publication date for the seventh "Harry Potter" book wrong) ...Look,  I actually called Scholastic last week during the research phase of this story. And according to the staffer that I spoke with, July 7, 2007 is the date that this publishing house hopes to begin selling the seventh & final book on.

As this unnamed Scholastic employee explained it to me:

"That date is just too perfect. It's a Saturday in the middle of summer. By then, the kids will have been out of school for a couple of weeks. So they'll be chomping at the bit to get their hands on this book. So that means that the big boxes will be able to move hundreds of thousands of copies at all those stroke-of-midnight sales events.

Of course, Jo has to finish writing the book by next spring in order for us to actually meet that delivery date. Which is why we're all sending good thoughts her way right now. Hoping that she'll then be able to get the manuscript to us in time to take advantage of the whole 7-7-7 thing.

But if we don't get her manuscript in time to take advantage of the July 7th publication date ... It ultimately doesn't matter. 

Scholastic is still going to have the most highly anticipated book of the year. The final installment of the 'Harry Potter' series. This book is going to sell like gangbusters no matter when we release it."

So there you have it. Scholastic is hoping to receive Rowling's manuscript in time to take advantage of the inherent PR value of having the seventh & final "Harry Potter" book officially go on sale on July 7, 2007. But if that doesn't actually happen ... It's not the end of the world. This publishing house already knows that it has one of the best selling books in history on its hands.

And speaking of the end of the world ... We've now reached the end of this week's edition of "Why For." Here's hoping that you all enjoyed the assortment of stories that have been posted on JHM over the past five days. More importantly, that you come back to the site next Monday to see what else we have to offer.

Have a great weekend, okay?

j

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  • Um...I'm not going to pick on the standard Jim Hill "No, really!--There's a really neat reason why I'm not wrong!...And it's a SECRET!  :) "  I assume other hands will take up that burden without asking.
    Just to say that only the CIA flat-out "absolutely no truth" denies things when they're true.  Entertainment PR companies just stall.

    And just to throw another degree of separation into the Snow White->Oz->"Blue Bird" Sondergaard relationship, we're assuming everyone already knows Fox's Blue Bird only came about after the studio wanted to do a Technicolor fantasy, to save face for originally refusing to lend out Shirley Temple to MGM to play.....Dorothy.  In Oz.   :)
    (And Fox's version's marginally better than that silly Elizabeth Taylor Russian version--now available on disk--but not by much.)
  • I agree with George S.: "I told him that I thought that TGMR didn't have nearly enough Disney in it."  I mean, "The Wizard of Oz" is an MGM film, and it is Disney-MGM Studios, so it almost can pass...I wish they'd redo the ride with Disney or Muppet films.  Heck, even Pixar films.

    "Rather than modeling that character after "Snow White" 's beautiful but evil queen, they decided to try a look that was more in line with the Queen's disguise ..."
    I'm glad the test didn't work- that seemed to be complete copying of Disney's idea.  And, I like the Witch to be green...

    I love "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and "Mary Poppins", and I'm glad that Angela Lansbury plays Eglantine.  How would parents explain that Mary Poppins changed her whole identity and ended up with Mr. Banks?  That's too confusing!  And, thanks for putting in the part about how Ms. Andrews wished Bill Walsh well with his film.  She seems like such a genuine person.

    As always, another great Why For!



  • Okay, I swear I didn't join this site just to be contrary, but I'm going to disagree about TGMR. I think the fact that it's filled with movies that aren't Disney is what makes it, well, great (although I think it is in desperate need of an update). I like that Disney has gone to great lengths to acknowledge other films besides their own in MGM. It's one of the reasons why I like that park so much.

    At the same time, though, I'm a 20 year-old college student who is majoring in film. So my opinion is going to be different then those who are bigger Disney buffs than general movie buffs.
  • I'm just glad the real Jim Hill finally escaped from being held captive in the basement by his evil twin brother for several months. October has been a good month for the site.

    So if he occasionally plays a few games in the name of entertainment, or even bends the truth a smidgen, all is forgiven. But as far as bending the truth goes, I have to disagree with DerekJ. ALL publicity flaks lie like the dickens these days -- it's part of their job description. I suspect it's now Chapter 1 in the COM 101 texts.

    As for GMR, I think the attraction name says it all. Not only is it a Great Ride, it's supposed to be about Great Movies, not New Movies. And as far as great movies go, it's difficult to criticize the selection of scenes. I have no problem with it being a "movie museum", that's what it is and what is was always intended to be. Sure it would be great if they would freshen it up a little for those of us who go too often, maybe have one or two scenes that are swapped out every year or two. But the Wizard of Oz scene has got to stay!
  • I agree with those who think that the Great Movie Ride is great because it's a movie ride, not just a Disney ride. I don't know, I find it kind of refreshing.

    However, I do think it would be awesome if they updated it some. There have been many great movies that have come out since 1989. But I think acquiring rights or whatever would be too expensive/difficult, so that'll probably never happen.
  • I agree with Crouchingwhitekid.

    Disney-MGM Studios is supposed to reflect the Hollywood that never was, that was only in our minds.

    Disney didnt own Hollywood. There were other movies out there.

    Its funny how people get up in arms, about adding Pixar characters to Epcot, but then turn around the demand they put more Disney into MGM.

    There are plenty of movies to steal from... but thats why Magic Kingdom is there, for the classic dark ride fairytale rides.

    MGM will (hopefully if rumors hold up) be getting Midway Madness, which will add some more Pixar to the World. And a dark ride to the studios.

    Theyve already dissasembled the 'working production studio' aspect of MGM, please let us keep our old hollywood movie feel, without raping it with cutsey disney.
  • "Since that time, my article has been rebutted by both the Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet. Who say that a representative from J.K. Rowling's office told them that there was "no truth" to this rumor.

    So -- faced with a denial like that -- am I now going to change my story?

    No.

    There is a letter of intent, folks. I'm certain of it.

    As to why I'm certain ... I can't say any more without revealing who my sources on this story actually are. And I'm not going to do that because ... Well, if I did that, I'd wind up destroying a friend's career. And I'm not going do that just so I can prove to a bunch of Harry Potter fans that what I posted on Monday is actually true."

    Mugglenet and Leaky have both been acknowledged and officially recognised by JK Rowling.  Has JimHill.com media?  Your tone about providing proof to a bunch of Harry Potter fans smacks of misplaced superiority.   Those sites do exactly what you do here:  provide news and information about the entertaiment industry.   Their focus is exclusively Harry Potter -- while yours is Disney and other animation.  Don't be so patronizing.

    Mugglenet and Leaky have an official denial.   You have an unnamed source and questionable fact checking.  

    In your original article, you state 7-7-07 is the plublishing date for the unnamed Book 7.  Now, with this update, 7-7-07 the "hoped for" publishing date.  Can't you ever say outright that you were wrong?  You're a writer.  I'm sure you know that "is" and "hoped for" are, by definition, NOT interchangeable.  

  • greenyskp said: Theyve already dissasembled the 'working production studio' aspect of MGM, please let us keep our old hollywood movie feel, without raping it with cutsey disney.

    What do you call that hideous sorcerer hat that blocks almost every view of the Great Movie Ride???
  • I love this site when you're talking about Disney history and epherma, but I really have a bone to pick with this Harry Potter article. If you can't verify your source to us in a public manner, then this is a rumor and should be presented as such. The way you have it here makes this whole Harry Potter debacle look like a fact. Facts are provable by nature. Now, it may be perfectly verified to  Mr.Hill personally, but if you can't share that proof with your readers, regardless of your noble reasons, then what we've got here is a rumor in sheep's clothing. Please either list your sources, or don't post, or make it clear that it's a rumor. Come on, even middle school science reports need to list sources. You can do better than this.
  • Thanks for another great article Jim!  I never knew that Julie andrews was married to Blake Edwards.
  • I understand that not listing sources upsets some readers and damages credibility, but Jim's just being a good journalist.  Without sources that trust him, we wouldn't have all these interesting stories.  We'd have another Disney site that reposts their press releases.

    Now, I doubt anyone is going to subpoena Jim for a Harry Potter story, so let's just mull it over and wait and see.  He could be wrong, but he could be right.
  • "I can't say any more without revealing who my sources on this story actually are. And I'm not going to do that because ... Well, if I did that, I'd wind up destroying a friend's career. And I'm not going do that just so I can prove to a bunch of Harry Potter fans that what I posted on Monday is actually true."

    Whoo-boy!

    So let me see if I got this right. Some folks on the Internet don't like it that Jim won't burn his source just to make them happy. Okay, fine.

    If a story had to ruin someone's career just to be considered valid, gotta doubt that anyone would talk to anyone else ever again.

    Me? I can take or leave the item. Letters of Intent are thrown about all over the business world for all kinds of projects. Call it covering your butt if you like. If I were Disney, I would have all kinds of letters covering all kinds of possiblities. One for Harry Potter makes as much sense as anything else.

    Keep 'em coming Jim. If nothing else, you're stirring the pot or cauldron a bit more.
  • You blew it on the 7/7/07 thing, the article said this was the release date, not a "hoped for" date.  At least have the class to admit you were wrong instead of making weaselly excuses.

    And those two HP sites have a LOT more credibility when it comes to HP than this one ever will.  Those sites have interviewed Rowling personally, as well as Arthur Levine himself and the directors of all the films.  They have direct contact on a regular basis with both the publishers and warner brothers - I'm going to take that a LOT more seriously than some guy who talked to the person who answered the phone at Scholastic.

    Wipe that egg off your face.  And maybe try being apologetic for once when you get called on a mistake instead of compounding the foolishness.
  • "You blew it on the 7/7/07 thing, the article said this was the release date, not a "hoped for" date."
    Oh give me a break. He blew nothing. Right now the release date is 7/7/07. Do you know of any other release date? If not, this is the only one possible right now. If it changes, it changes, but right now that's the anticipated date. And with every book, a release date is always subject to change (until it actually gets released).


    "I'm going to take that a LOT more seriously than some guy who talked to the person who answered the phone at Scholastic. "
    If you want to take Jim seriously or not, that's your choice, I really don't think anyone else here cares. If you don't think he's credible, stop reading the article, it's as simple as that.


    "Wipe that egg off your face.  And maybe try being apologetic for once when you get called on a mistake instead of compounding the foolishness."
    Tell me this, if Jim got it wrong, tell me the release date. He did not say, "The release date WILL be 7/7/07. There is absolutely no chance it will be changed." Give me a break.
  • My problem isn't with Jim not listing his source, that's his perogative. My problem is acting like these things are facts when they cannot be substantiated for us readers. Until they can, as far as I'm concerned, it's nothing more than a rumor. Which is fine, as long as that's made clear from the get-go.
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