It’s been 77 years since their debut on the yellow brick road, but Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers from MGM’s The Wizard of Oz are still among the most sought-after items at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Gifted to Dorothy by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, to get back home to Kansas, the late Judy Garland’s sequinned, size 5 shoes have long fascinated American movie-goers who grew up with the pre-war film. And over the decades, the shoes have also drawn the eye (and ire) of collectors keen to claim one of the four known pairs for themselves.
Toronto-based filmmaker Morgan White was first alerted to the slippers a few years ago, when actor Leonardo DiCaprio helped the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to acquire a pair of the shoes. When White’s friend Derek Lajeunesse then handed him a copy of Rhys Thomas’ 1989 book The Ruby Slippers of Oz, he sensed there was a film at hand.
“It’s an attractive story and the beauty is, it’s about something that every single person in the world knows,” White tells realscreen. “That movie is literally the most-watched film of all time, so you say ‘ruby slippers’ and instantly something comes to people’s minds, and then you add on all that story and people are instantly interested in it. It’s a mystery and it’s a character study that you wouldn’t expect to surround the shoes.”
The Slippers, produced, backed and distributed by Tricon Film & Television, bowed at SXSW on Friday (March 11), and will next screen on Tuesday (March 15). Filmed over the past two years, the doc details Hollywood costumer Kent Warner’s discovery of the shoes in an MGM costume department warehouse in 1970 and the ensuing studio auction that spring, at which the shoes were sold off.
Over the years, however, it became evident there had been many more shoes, as collectors around the U.S. came forward with their own pairs, leading to bitter bidding wars between Oz aficionados, including actor Debbie Reynolds. One pair, sold by Warner to collector Michael Shaw, was on display in 2005 at the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, when they were stolen, ultimately leading to divers plunging into the Tioga Mine Pit last June (pictured below) to see if the shoes had been tossed into the water, as was rumored. In July, an anonymous donor put up a US$1 million reward for the shoes.
But wherever all the shoes are, that’s not really the point, says White, who thinks of the slippers as a MacGuffin.
“They’re kind of irrelevant, but they’re the thing that everybody wants,” he says. “Everybody’s stories have to do with their own personal attachment to the shoes, and not the shoes themselves.
“The dive allowed me to show that even today, 75-plus years after the movie came out, people are still willing to go to great lengths to be a part of the story,” he continues. “Because that’s really what it is – people want to attach themselves to the ruby slippers, because they’re forever. That film will last forever. It has no generation. It doesn’t even have a time.”
White, whose previous doc, The Rep, followed the co-founders of the now-shuttered Toronto Underground Cinema, says that following and interviewing collectors also got him into a “collector’s mindset” – a trait that came in handy for the years-long process of gathering the 50 hours of archival material secured to make the film.
He licensed some of the footage from U.S. news outlets such as NBC and ABC, but the more obscure material came from eBay and the personal archives of interviewees. The 8mm and 16mm footage of the MGM auction, for instance, came from the personal collection of the auctioneer’s daughter and has never been made public prior to the doc. Debbie Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, also contributed material from his mother’s archives.
“I would scour eBay, and I bought film prints. All of the film clips in the movie come off of film prints,” says White, adding that The Wizard of Oz footage was extracted from a 16mm film print and 16mm trailer of the film.
“I wanted to have that aged perspective, that collected perspective,” says White. “It’s not the best form or version of the footage [but] sometimes the worst quality footage looks more interesting than good quality footage.
“Also, I like the idea of the change that people [make] when they touch things. Just like the shoes are changed every time somebody touches them, because sequins fall off of them all the time, I wanted to find things that looked old because of that same idea too,” he adds.
White credits editor Derek Lajeunesse – the friend that originally loaned him the book – with shaping the narrative and injecting his passion for the story into The Slippers. Together, the pair is intent on bringing this mystery to the world, even if it has to be a mystery for a little while longer.
“To me, it doesn’t matter what happened to the shoes, it’s that they’re gone,” says White. “Because the shoes that existed before, they don’t exist anymore, and they’ll never exist in that form anymore.
“So when you really break down the reasons and what actually happened, who cares? They’re gone, and that’s the sad part. But the idea that people are still chasing for them is the important part.”
- The Slippers next screens in Austin on March 15 and 18. Visit the SXSW website for more information on screenings.
- Check out an exclusive clip from the doc below: