Actress-singer Judy Garland paved her way into movie history at the age of 16 by skipping down the yellow brick road in a blue gingham dress and sparkling ruby red slippers as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 MGM movie musical, The Wizard of Oz.
But the role almost went to another multi-talented child star: 11-year-old Shirley Temple.
While various accounts of how the battle for the title role played out, Jay Scarfone and WIlliam Stillman, longtime historians of the film who have authored numerous books, including 2018’s The Road to Oz: The Evolution, Creation, and Legacy of a Motion Picture Legacy, explained that it came down to contracts and the studio system of the early days of the film industry.
Born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Garland had started performing at the age of two-and-a-half. She broke out from a sister act with older siblings, Susie and Jimmie, and signed a movie studio contract before her teen years. “I was born at the age of 12 on an MGM lot,” Garland said of her deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
That contract led to starring roles in MGM movies like Pigskin Parade (1936) and several Andy Hardy movies with co-star Mickey Rooney, including Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). But her contract also limited the projects she could take on since they had to be in the MGM family.
Meanwhile, Temple who was six years Garland’s junior, signed her first contract at age 3 with Educational Pictures, which led to a contract with Fox Film Corporation by the time she was 6.
Temple, was a self-professed Wizard of Oz fan who had been spotted with the book on her bedroom shelf. Temple wrote in her 1988 biography Child Star that she had believed so much in the world of Oz that when her mother said she could play Dorothy, the young Temple replied that she wanted to go to Kansas and meet her.
Rumors about Temple playing Dorothy in a series of movies began to swirl around 1935. Temple wrote in her book that she learned of a possible negotiation in 1937 that would loan her to MGM for The Wizard of Oz, if Fox could get Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in return. Harlow, however, died from acute kidney failure in 1937 and the deal never happened.
Scarfone and Stillman aren’t convinced the supposed Gable-Harlow deal was ever really in the works. The historians pointed out in a Huffington Post story after Temple’s death, that the timeline doesn’t make sense since MGM didn’t acquire rights to The Wizard of Oz until 1938. They contend that Garland, who was 17 when the filming ended, was tied to the project all along.
Temple, herself, would later say that Garland was always meant for the ruby slippers. “Sometimes,” Temple wrote, “the gods know best.”