A friend pointed out a haunting secret tucked away in the depths of The Wizard of Oz. Way in the background at the end of the scene where the angry trees shake apples onto Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow, you can see a man who is supposedly hanging himself. As the trio dances off on the yellow brick road singing "We're Off to See the Wizard," you can catch a glimpse of this man supposedly setting out a block, hanging himself, and lastly kicking the block out with his foot. Although this image is real enough to give you chills, it could conceivably be a fake. Is it? If it is real, then why did the director keep it in the movie? What is the story of this man?
--James Leary, via the Internet
I know, I know. I'm wasting myself on these obviously brain-damaged questions. Then again, they do give you an excuse to call up Munchkins. Tell me how often Woodward and Bernstein do that.
The alleged suicide comes not at the end of the apple-tossing scene (at which point the Tin Woodsman hasn't yet appeared) but roughly eight minutes later, after the Wicked Witch has made a surprise visit and then vanished in a cloud of orange smoke. Resolving to be brave, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the now-present Tin Man link arms, march out to the yellow brick road, and prance around a bit. In the background at this point, in about the center of the frame, one can see a dimly lit stand of trees. Something is moving near these trees, but it's hard to make out what. The trio sashays off toward the rear of the set, in the general direction of the trees, then veers and exits stage right. Just as they leave the frame, a limblike thing near the trees swings up briefly into a horizontal position, then drops again. A suicide kicking the ladder out from beneath himself? Or--you have to consider all the possibilities--the leg of a naked woman in the throes of a passionate embrace?
You can guess what I saw. However, the most common version of the legend has it that this is the on-camera suicide of a despairing Munchkin. (Runner-up: a despairing, or just accident-prone, stagehand. Some claim the victim had recently been fired.)
The Straight Dope research department, known for its dogged investigative skills, tracked down Stephen Cox, author of an entertaining volume entitled The Munchkins of Oz (1996). Cox, who interviewed more than 30 Munchkins to collect stories about the making of the movie, dismissed the suicide story and hinted at an alternative theory, which we'll get to in a moment. He also put us in touch with Mickey Carroll, 78, one of 13 Munchkins still alive today (out of an original 124). Carroll said he'd first heard the story about five years ago but also thought it was bunk. "We were on the set for two months," he said. "I think I would have known if someone committed suicide." (Incidentally, several Munchkins did get fired--one for threatening his wife with a gun--but apparently none was the suicidal type.)
Well, OK. But then what are we seeing? Cox points out that if you look closely during the eight or nine minutes preceding the "suicide," i.e., from just before Dorothy and the Scarecrow encounter the apple-tossing trees, you can spot a large bird strolling around the set--maybe a crane or a stork. (For much of the time it appears to be tethered near the house on which the Wicked Witch perches.) One presumes the bird is supposed to provide atmosphere, but basically all it does is pop into the frame at odd moments. Reviewing the "suicide" with this in mind, we instantly realize: it's the stupid bird pecking the ground and then flapping its wings! Though, this being Hollywood Babylon and all, a naked woman's leg can't be ruled out entirely. But the adult in us knows the truth.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.