The best-known tornado in the world

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The wind began to switch – the house to pitch and suddenly the hinges started to unhitch.

–We Welcome you to Munchkinland lyrics by Yip Harburg

So how did the real-life wizards of special effects at M-G-M Studios get Dorothy’s house to spin into the air in that famous tornado scene? Nowadays, anything that an artist can imagine can be produced on film with computer graphics, but in 1939, when M-G-M began filming The Wizard of Oz, it seemed preposterous that an imaginary world could be brought to life on film. Walt Disney had recently had a big hit with the animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but how could a house fly into the air in a tornado. Nobody knew! But at Louis B Mayer’s MGM they were determined to try– which meant making up their techniques as they went along.

W.W. Denslow, who drew the original illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, had given an idea of what it should look like. The big question was– how?

Original Wonderful Wizard of Oz illustration by W.W Denslow

Then a strange thing happened.
The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air. Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Dorothy Gale’s farm on the M-GM set.

So how did they make that farmhouse fly into the air? Simple. They built a small scale model, and then dropped it spinning. To make it look like it was rising, they slowed it down and reversed the film. Dorothy’s house was actually– FALLING!

And where did the author Frank Baum get the idea for a twister that lifted a house in the air? Nobody knows for sure, but some believe he was inspired by news accounts of a deadly tornado that flattened Irving, Kansas in 1879.

And is there any child anywhere that hasn’t wondered what it would be like to be inside a house that flew into the air?

For more about the special effects used to create that terrifying tornado, watch this video created for The Wizard of Oz’s 75th Anniversary. Believe it or not, 2019 marks this tornado’s 80th anniversary!

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