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More Wrestling Than Wrestling: Judy Garland, Part 1

If this picture doesn't scream "professional wrestling", you're clearly a delusional idiot.
If this picture doesn't scream "professional wrestling", you're clearly a delusional idiot.

A while back, when I was more naive to the ways of the world, I wrote something at the Pro Wrestling Only message board about how tenuous the comparisons between pro wrestling and MMA are, and how they could be used to connect pro wrestling with virtually anything, including, for the purposes of my discussion, The Wizard of Oz. Of course, as Bob Dylan said, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. I have had a spiritual reawakening regarding wrestling's undeniable connections to anything and everything, and revisiting that piece only serves to illustrate how wrongheaded I was.

Make no mistake: Judy Garland was more wrestling than wrestling. Working her way up the independent scene, she was initially rejected/held back by the big leagues for not having the right look. She overcame their skepticism through sheer talent and a willingness to sacrifice her body for the boys in the back. She became a top star and a gay icon, and then lost all her money and died of a drug overdose in her forties. In other words, she's a pro wrestler. If there are certain petty distinctions like her not performing in a staged combat sport that would make you think she's somehow different from any other wrestler ever in any significant way, you're delusional. And looking back to that earlier piece I wrote, I'm reminded of just how great a wrestler she was. After all, she made The Wizard of Oz work, and that's no small feat. Where backwards thinking cretins look at Oz and see one of the undisputed masterpieces of cinema, those of us in the know see an angle botched six ways to Sunday, and a massive carryjob by a small and meek girl with powerful screen presence. Confused? You won't be after the jump.

The Wizard of Oz angle has it's origins in a book written by L. Frank Baum in 1900. There had been several attempts to adapt it to film, but it wasn't until 1939 that the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promotion would produce what is now seen as the definitive screen version of the work. But behind the film's legendary status lies a story of classic pro wrestling incompetence from men who clearly just didn't get how to build an angle that would be a long-term draw at the box office. Frankly, this is a film that would have been completely forgotten by today's audiences were it not for Garland's preternatural ability to compel the fans, to get them to care in spite of the mess going on around her.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The whole thing starts in 1938, when MGM named Mervyn LeRoy - the booker behind such early 30's classics as Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and The Gold Diggers of 1933 - was named as the company's new Head of Production. It was LeRoy who hatched the idea to do Oz, but though he was merely supposed to be overseeing the production, the rapid turnover amongst the film's booking team suggests he wanted his old, more hands-on role back. And frankly, I'm not sure LeRoy himself quite knew what he wanted out of Oz, as his vision would change drastically as the angle played out.

To his credit, LeRoy did know one thing that he wanted - Judy Garland. MGM, which had been thoroughly burying Garland in B movies with Mickey Rooney, didn't have a whole lot of confidence in what turned out to be one of LeRoy's few good decisions, and they actually tried to strike up deals with 20th Century Fox and Universal to procure the services of Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin, respectively, preferring to use top names from other promotions than sink to using "the little hunchback" in such a prominent role. When those fell through, they even tried to push Bonita Granville - who had an Oscar nomination under her belt for her heel work in These Three, but had no prior musical experience - before finally caving in and letting LeRoy cast Garland as Dorothy Gale, a humble girl living on her aunt and uncle's farm in Kansas, dreaming of something more.

The angle began with King Vidor as the head booker. Vidor was one of the legends of the silent era, the booker behind The Big Parade, The Crowd, and Show People, amongst other great works. Under his vision, The Wizard of Oz was to be a relatively simple angle - shot in black-and-white, Dorothy would run into trouble with grouchy local woman Almira Gulch after Dorothy's dog Toto bit her. Gulch would get an order from the local sheriff to have Toto euthanized, but Toto would escape, and Dorothy would run away with her canine companion. Where to, you ask?


Hmmmm...a woman using her singing talents to help promote her act...kinda sounds a bit like what the Beauty Pair and the Crush Gals were doing, doesn't it? Now where do you suppose they got that from? Mildred Burke? Yes, I know Judy isn't the only woman ever to sing in a movie, but she was one of the best, and one of the most prominent. There's an obvious shared history between wrestling and movie musicals. You can't look at it and say they're not the same, or at least that they don't belong to the same family of entertainment. It's only logical that Garland's impact would be felt in the wrestling world. Incidentally, in another early bit of incompetence on set, MGM heads came very close to scrapping "Over the Rainbow", feeling that the angle had too much of a slow build already and that this would just drag things out further. LeRoy and associate producer Arthur Freed fought successfully to keep it in, and a classic was spared.

To this point, LeRoy had performed admirably in protecting the studio from itself. For reasons that I will not pretend to know or understand, that was about to change....


Click here for Part 2.

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