Judy Garland introduced “Over the Rainbow” in the 1939, MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. The filming of the production began in October of 1938 with premiers on August 15, 1939, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and on August 17, 1939, at the Capitol Theatre in New York City.
Within days of the two premiers, recordings of “Over the Rainbow” were climbing the pop charts with Glenn Miller and Larry Clinton leading the pack. By mid-September four recordings were in the top ten
And in 1960, the Dimensions’ hit recording rose to number sixteen on the pop charts.
“Over the Rainbow” was to be the first of many Judy Garland hit recordings and would be recognized as her signature song. Her 1939 rendition was inducted into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Grammy Hall of Fame in 1981.
In 2001, “Over the Rainbow” was voted the best song of the twentieth century as part of the “Songs of the Century” project, a distinction created by the Recording Industry of America Association (RIAA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Three years later, in 2004, the song was voted the top movie song of all time, with the American Film Institute (AFI) declaring, “In the venerated #1 spot was Judy Garland’s soulful and iconic rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ from the beloved family classic, The Wizard of Oz.”
The story for the film originated in 1899 when 43-year-old L. Frank Baum authored what was to become one of fourteen Oz books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. On the face of it, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a children’s book, but many scholars see the story as an allegory for the dangers of retaining the gold standard. A hot political topic of the time, the hard-money East opposed the Silverites who advocated bimetallism, the addition of silver coinage to the gold standard. It was thought that the inflationary effect of a looser monetary policy would help the farmers, and others hit hard by the 1890’s depression, to reduce their debts. In this scenario, Oz is the abbreviation for “ounce” (of gold); the Scarecrow represents the Western farmer, who turns out to be more intelligent than he realizes; the Tin Woodsman represents the depleted American factory worker; and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan who betrayed the Silverites, and so on.
Another speculation cited by Alan Lewens in his book, Popular Song: Soundtrack of the Century, equates the journey to Oz with the one of America’s gold rushes, depicting how greed drove farmers (the Scarecrow), industrialists (the Tin Woodsman), and others who lacked moral courage (the Cowardly Lion) in search of the holy grail of personal wealth.
Yet another account has Baum getting the idea for the name Oz when he saw the letters O-Z on a file cabinet drawer.
Regardless of the intended allegory, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a huge success, and in 1902 an extravagant musical stage version opened in Chicago to great critical acclaim. The next year the show opened on Broadway becoming one of the greatest successes in Broadway history to that point. The book was also adapted for the screen with silent features in 1910, 1915, and 1925, none of which were successful.
MGM had originally wanted Jerome Kern to score the film but Kern’s doctor vetoed the idea, having prescribed rest to the songwriter who was recuperating from a recent heart attack. MGM also had to settle for second choice with the film’s star, casting Garland only after they were unable to borrow Shirley Temple from Twentieth Century-Fox. After multiple changes to the screenplay and cast and with contributions from four directors, The Wizard of Oz was completed in March of 1939 and went on to receive six Academy Award nominations, winning in the Best Score and Best Song categories, the latter for “Over the Rainbow”.
A number of film scholars have written analyses with Dorothy representing a depressed America turning to FDR’s New Deal for hope. Yip Harburg, who made contributions to the production beyond writing the lyrics, at least partially substantiated the claims in a Washington Post interview, saying that Emerald City was the New Deal.
Most of the Arlen/Harburg songs for The Wizard of Oz are remarkably memorable compositions with memorable lyrics. They are praised within the context of the film, but jazz instrumentalists and vocalists do not routinely perform them. Termed by Arlen the “lemon drop” songs, “Ding-Dong! The Wicked Witch Is Dead,” “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” are usually considered novelty fare, too closely connected with the movie plot to have become widely accepted by jazz musicians. “We’re Off to See the Wizard” did gain some notoriety, however, when Australia adopted it as their wartime marching song during World War II.
According to the official Harold Arlen website, www.haroldarlen.com, after completing the “lemon drop” songs, Arlen felt a ballad was needed to balance them out.
I felt we needed something with a sweep, a melody with a broad, long, line. Time was getting short, I was getting anxious. My feeling was that picture songs need to be lush, and picture songs are hard to write.
While driving, the melody came to him out of the blue, and Arlen said, “It was as if the Lord said, ‘Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!’” When Arlen played his tune for Harburg, however, the lyricist did not like it saying it sounded like something that should be sung by Nelson Eddy with a symphony orchestra rather than a twelve-year-old girl in a farmyard. In defense of his composition, Arlen played it for Ira Gershwin, knowing Gershwin was a respected (and childhood) friend of Harburg. Gerswin liked it and suggested a quicker tempo and less harmonization. With his encouragement Harburg proceeded to write the title and lyrics, attempting to scale the song down with childish words.
Once Harburg was convinced, Arlen had to pass the song by MGM executives who cut “Over the Rainbow” from the film three times, thinking it slowed the pace of their overly long movie. In the end, it was Arthur Freed who used his friendship and influence with Louis B. Mayer to get the song permanently reinstated.