Trouble in Munchkinland

The Munchkins were integral to The Wizard of Oz's success, but they earnt less than Dorothy's dog, and were slandered by the stars. Geoffrey Macnab discovers the dark side of a classic
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Joanne Engle calls herself "the Munchkin wrangler": "That's because I head 'em up and move 'em out," she explains. Since 1994, the Florida-based publicist has helped manage the careers of the 10 or so remaining "little people" out of the 124 originally liberated by Dorothy (Judy Garland) from the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

Sixty years on, the Munchkins are still heavily in demand. Under Engle's guidance, they sign autographs at collectors' fairs, make personal appearances before screenings, and even go on cruises with fans. "People are in such awe of the Munchkins, I've seen them shake when they meet them. There are even tears in their eyes," she says.

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most exhaustively discussed and analysed films in Hollywood history. "I don't think there's much lore left to be mined," suggests the writer John Lahr (whose father Bert played the Cowardly Lion.) Any new information there is comes largely from the Munchkins. Now that the principal stars are all dead, they are one of the last living links with what is still – Harry Potter notwithstanding – the best-loved children's movie of all time. They are faithful and endlessly patient ambassadors for the film, but when one discovers how callously they were often treated, both on set and in subsequent years, their tact and forbearance seem heroic.

Even their allies liked to joke about the Munchkins (most of whom were hypopituitary dwarfs.) Take a sample of the most caustic quotes. "They were drunks. They got smashed every night and the police had to pick them up in butterfly nets," Judy Garland quipped on a TV chat show late in her career. "They got into sex orgies at the hotel. We had to have police on every floor," producer Mervyn LeRoy alleged. John Lahr referred me back to his biography of Bert Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, which contains the following aside: "Many of the Munchkins were midgets who, in fact, made their living by panhandling, pimping and whoring. Assistants were ordered to watch the crew of midgets, who brandished knives and often conceived passions for other, larger Metro personnel." He also repeated one of his father's tales about a little man called The Count who "got plastered during lunch, and fell in the latrine and couldn't get himself out".

These anecdotes make brilliant copy, but most are either exaggerated or simply untrue. Reading them, it's hard not to be reminded of another film that MGM produced seven years before The Wizard of Oz, Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), in which a travelling circus of clowns and dwarfs are likewise maligned and abused for the delectation of "normal" adults. As Karl Slover, 83, who plays the Munchkins' First Trumpeter, puts it: "A lot of stuff was told that wasn't so."

There is something unsettling about The Wizard of Oz, as there is about most of the best kids' movies. The strident Technicolor, the hyper-charged performances, the violent cyclone (far more frightening than anything in Twister), the demented cheerfulness of the Munchkins, and the shifty behaviour of Frank Morgan as the Wizard (and in various other guises), all verge on the sinister.

When the film was released in the UK in early 1940, the British censors gave it a certificate "for adults only", a nonsensical decision that critics of the era openly derided. ("Surely it is time that this absurd committee of elderly men and spinsters who feared, too, that Snow White was unsuitable for those under 16, was laughed out of existence", Graham Greene railed in The Spectator.)

The censors were being heavy-handed, but the story of what happened behind the scenes does indeed sound like something out of a horror pic. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton, below) was almost charred to a cinder when a stunt went horribly wrong. Her toxic, copper-based green make-up caught fire and would have burned away her face if it hadn't been for the heroics of a make-up artist. The original Tin Man (Buddy Ebsen) was lucky to avoid death after swallowing aluminium dust on his costume. ("I took a breath and nothing happened," he recalled.)

MGM's employment practices were Dickensian. The Munchkins were paid only a third of what Toto, Dorothy's dog, earned for their six- month stint of 12-14-hour days – $50 a week may have been a reasonable salary in late-1930s America, but it pales by comparison with Toto's $150, or with the $2,500 a week that Lahr (a huge Broadway star but not an especially big movie draw) earned for 26 weeks.

None of the Munchkins get residuals from The Wizard of Oz. They were all badly ripped off by a cut-throat manager called Leo Singer who took 50 per cent of all their earnings. "He had the major contract to provide the Munchkins to MGM, and so all of us had to sign up with him in order to work," says one. Karl Slover had joined Singer's troupe of touring midgets when he was only nine years old. One of Singer's agents had recruited him in his native Germany. He angrily denies the charge that his father sold him. ("My dad told me that if I wasn't satisfied on the midget show, I could use my own judgement and come home if I wanted to.")

Singer was, by Slover's account, a deeply unpleasant man. "If his wife had been there, we would all have been paid properly, but she wasn't there. As long as she was on the show, we got treated right. But when he took over, well, look out! We were lucky we got what we did get."

Not that the Munchkins are complaining. One of their most senior figures, Meinhardt Raabe, 86, remembers the awe that he felt the first day he walked on set." All the scenery was up. It was a magical place to come in to." He played the Chief Coroner, got to bark out the memorable mini-monologue: "As Coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her, and she's not only merely dead, she's really most sincerely dead", when the Witch was killed, and clearly relished the experience.

Both of the former Munchkins are disconcerting interviewees. Raabe and Slover are hard-of-hearing, with high-pitched voices (when Raabe answers the phone, I assume it's his wife). Engle has warned me to steer clear of the allegations of debauchery on set and, above all, not to ask them the one question that infuriates the little people above all other – namely, "Is it true that a Munchkin hung himself in the movie?". There is a scene shortly after Dorothy meets the Lion in which a strange-looking creature is visible in the background, seemingly dangling from a tree: according to Engle, it's not a dead Munchkin at all – it's a live emu. "The shape and the way he's standing... for whatever reasons, somebody thought that looked like a man hanging, and so that story got started. But as Meinhardt always says, 'If that had actually happened, do you think they would have left it in the film?'"

You can see why the Munchkins get annoyed – all the tall tales about them are either sleazy or grim. Engle has been told by her clients about one drunken, bad-tempered, gun-toting midget who was eventually kicked off set because of his antisocial behaviour. "But he was not a well-liked person," she says, earnestly, "and one person does not make a whole group of 124."

Ignoring her warning, I ask Raabe about Judy Garland's remarks. He admits he was upset by them. An expert public speaker who has two degrees, a pilot's licence and a qualification as a master gardener, he is the antithesis of the raucous, drunken midgets of legend. "It (Garland's quip) might have hurt personally," he reflects, stoically, "but in view of the fact that I was in a different realm from hers, it didn't matter." He was doing PR for a meat-packing company by this point. "It had no effect as far as my work was concerned. She was in an entirely different world from me."

'The Wizard of Oz' is available on a new, special-edition DVD from Warner Bros