Uncovering the Secrets of The Wizard of Oz Doc The Slippers
Few films have captured the American imagination quite like The Wizard of Oz. Despite its age, the film remains a fabulously imagined time capsule representative of the ingenuity and creativity possible in filmmaking. Though much of the film’s output has become unquestionably iconic, it’s the ruby slippers that are arguably the most memorable piece of culture to last the 77 years since the film’s initial release. But the slippers have had a surprisingly troubled past, one that not only helped to create interest in the shoes themselves, but one that aided the practice of Hollywood memorabilia collection that lasts to this day.
It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that the shoes have such an iconic history as to possess an epic storyline of their own, but it’s a story that has gone largely undiscussed in popular culture. Fitting then that documentarian and filmmaker Morgan White has recently completed The Slippers, a thorough exploration of the golden age of Hollywood and a cogent investigation of the practice of memorabilia collection that uncovers stories of carelessness, greed and theft surrounding those iconic ruby red slippers. The Credits had a chance to speak with Morgan White just last week at SXSW, where we discussed the impetus of the project, the history of the slippers and the undeniable magic they hold.
I think first I’ve got to know what the initial spark was for this, in the film you start at the Smithsonian, is that where you first saw the slippers?
Actually, no, it didn’t come from that, though I did go to the Smithsonian. I’ll tell you the story and then I’ll get to that, so back in 2012 when the shoes sold at auction to DiCaprio and Spielberg, I thought, “Hey that’s really cool.” Because I’d been following those auctions more just as a fan, going “Boy, I wish I could own something.” And in the catalogue for that auction there was a little blurb about the story of the slippers and Kent Warner, the earliest memorabilia collector, and I thought, that’s really interesting. So I talked to my friend who’s a big Wizard of Oz fan who was also the editor on the film and he said, “There’s a book about all of this.” And he gave me the book and I read it in like a day. And I’m not a fast reader at all, but it was a real page turner in that sense. And I just didn’t believe this story and I just thought, “I have to make this into a movie.” For the Smithsonian though, when I was 16 my parents and I went on a trip, and I have all these old tapes, because I used to film everything as I was a kid, and at some point during the filmmaking process, I thought, “I wonder if I filmed the shoes,” and I went back through all the footage back when I was 16, I guess I was prescient enough to know that I was going to make this film and I found a bunch of shots of the shoes. Which actually, sadly, none of them made it in the film because a 16-year-old me was not a very good shot, so I chose not to use any of it, but it was cool to realize that back then I maybe knew somehow, or maybe I didn’t I just think it’s funny that back then I had this footage that was kind of a precursor to all this.
Are you primarily an Wizard of Oz fan, or a memorabilia fan?
I’m more of like a Hollywood fan. I love the golden age of Hollywood, I love classic movies and I absolutely love MGM. The story of MGM, the films, all that stuff, I find it really fascinating. That time in Hollywood is something that is lost, and something that I think would make everything better if it came back, to some extent. I mean, not necessarily the way they treated the stars, but the way that they made films back then was a lot different than it is now and they were less worried about money and more worried about quality of product. So I was always attracted to that, and I’m attracted to the idea that MGM, the biggest studio of them all, fell the hardest. And I love that this story starts at the death of something great and then transitions into the life of something that you wouldn’t expect, so I think that’s what drew me to it.
I think it’s so strange to think about the studio system as it is now versus then, and I was so struck by, near the end of the film you’re sort of exploring the archives of a studio now, that there’s a tag for Jack and Jill, one of Adam Sandler’s sort of poorly received movies.
Yeah, that was sort of my jab. It’s really funny that like, and obviously nobody was really conscious of things like that, but they threw away everything from the golden age of Hollywood and now they’re preserving Adam Sandler? Does that make sense? I mean yes in the sense that it’s part of a film, maybe in 50 years Adam Sandler films will become cache again and people will want to own them. I think anything made for a film is art to some extent and should be preserved, so I think it’s cool that they’re preserving stuff. But I think it’s weird the kind of things they’re preserving sometimes. All those halls were lined with movies where it was like, “What? Why?” But I think now that the studios are so conscious of how much we lost that now they’re saving everything, or rather they’re going through films and they’re picking key pieces, and then saving one version of everything, which is great.
So you talk to a lot of people in this film, and so many of them are so, so fascinating. Especially Michael Shaw, the victim of the slipper theft and David Elkouby, the contested owner of another mystery pair. How did you assemble this specific crew of people?
Well a lot of them are in the book, which was really cool to meet and become friends with people that I read about years ago. And then I just kind of talked to people who would say, “You should talk to this person,” and then that person would say, “You should talk to this person.” Documentaries kind of flow wherever they want to flow. When I started, I had no idea we were going to discover that story about the stolen shoes, I had no idea they were going to dive in that mine to look for those shoes.
I was going to ask!
I had no clue that we were going to go that far or to those depths, rather. And that’s the cool thing about making documentaries, they often flow in a kind of weird way. I had a few people I needed to interview, I had to interview the author of the book, I had to interview the people who actually owned the shoes, I needed as many of those people as possible. I knew I had to go to the Smithsonian because they had the shoes, but I didn’t know I was going to meet so many people that knew Kent. I didn’t know that I was going to get so involved with the museum in Grand Rapids, and those things sort of took a life of their own in some ways, which was really cool. And I sort of just fell deeper into the story than I ever thought I would.
Especially as the narrative starts to deal with the theft of the shoes, people get very emotional. Were you expecting that and did it ever get prickly or weird to deal with?
It was never particularly hard, the museum people were really happy that someone was helping. Michael [Shaw], on the other hand. Michael is, I don’t know how much of that is real and how much of that is show, to be perfectly honest. I walked into [this interview] with the idea that Michael’s not going to like everything we talk about, and I know that, but at least everything I get from him will be somewhat real and I’ll get interesting answers to my questions. And he loved talking about the studio stuff and all the collecting stuff and as we started getting into the theft and the loss of his shoes, that really got harder for him. And I think that was because he loved those shoes. It’s like, as crazy as this sounds, it’s like somebody had stolen his child. He wanted to be buried with those shoes, apparently, he loved those shoes and he did good things with those shoes. Some people who own those shoes don’t do good things with the shoes, whereas Michael toured them, let people see them. So he feels like he’s been burned, but maybe that’s also karma because was he supposed to get the shoes? Nobody really knows. He says one thing, everyone says another thing. It’s just the hearsay of story built around story over time.
So, the craziest moment in the film I think is when you’re speaking to another collector, David Elkouby, who may or may not in fact have the shoes, and he offers to show you them for $2500 on camera. And there’s a note before you move on that he very quickly, off-camera, rescinded that offer. Can you tell me about that?
Ah, David. I’ve never met somebody so slimy in my entire life.
He does not look so good.
He doesn’t really, he was very strange. I don’t know why you would say that on camera and then not go through with it and I think the reason he didn’t go through with it is because he really doesn’t have them. I think a lot of people think that he bought them for somebody. I think that’s probable, that somebody else does actually have them, so that’s why he rescinded the offer is that he couldn’t make it happen or he was never going to try to make it happen. But yeah, I called him once, I left him a message, and then I called him a third time and he got angry at me for pestering him. And in the end, it makes him look exactly as he is in real life. Some people were wonderful custodians of the shoes, but David is not.
Can I ask you about what you sort of feel the ethics are behind private collecting of something as big and as culturally important as these shoes?
I mean, okay, you can own the physical property, but you can’t own what those shoes are and that’s the difference. Half of the people that own them seem to get that fact, and then the other half don’t. They live in the memories of watching that movie and they do represent all of those things: home, family and all of that stuff. So you can’t own that, you can’t own people’s memories. You really can’t. And so, yes, if you want to buy them, you can put up $2 million dollars and buy them but you don’t really own what the shoes represent. Just like you don’t really own what any prop really represents to somebody. It’s kind of an interesting idea, because there’s such a market and it’s so big now and the question is is this market right to some extent? And, I guess, where they should actually be. To me, they should be in a museum, but not all art is in a museum, and you think about it, there are Picasso paintings that no one has seen for years, they’re sitting in someone’s study in their mansion and the reality is they spent $15 million on that painting, and they believe that it’s theirs. Well, yeah, I guess it is, but in reality it’s the world’s because it’s art and art is for everyone.
I feel like I have to ask, do you have any theories about where those missing slippers that were stolen from that Grand Rapids museum are?
As sad as it is to say, they are more than likely at the bottom of a pit. There are theories about where the slippers have gone that we didn’t put in the film because there’s no actual proof, and that would have just added another layer that was unnecessary. The theories that are in the movie have pretty much been proved wrong. It’s not an inside job. People think that they were burned, people think that they were buried, but there’s no concrete evidence to that. The best case scenario seemingly is that a couple of kids got drunk, broke into the museum, stole the shoes, when they realized what happened, they ditched them. I’m sure that if someone dove long enough in that pit and searched long enough, they might find something, but whatever they do find is not going to be the ruby slippers. It’s going to be some portion of the slippers. Though as crazy as it sounds, that portion would still be worth a lot of money. Just because they were the ruby slippers at one point, and that story is a really attractive story to a lot of people. Imagine having that on your shelf, going, “Yeah those were a stolen pair, they were at the bottom of the pit,” people would want to own that and be a part of that story.
I almost think it would be sadder if they were found, in a way.
That’s interesting. It would be really sad for Michael, who had lost them for all these years. Maybe it would be sad if they were found.
It’s just nice to keep them mythical, maybe.
Yeah, totally. And that’s why when we set out, the museum set out with the intention of finding those shoes, and we just set out to capture the moment and not caring about what we found. I knew that this story, it doesn’t matter if we find the shoes because it’s the idea that the story keeps going and it will keep going forever. That movie is timeless, it has no time, if you watch it it has no time. Seemingly, it’s set in the Great Depression, but they don’t really allude to that completely, it’s just small middle America, it looks like it’s in the past, but maybe it isn’t and then once she gets to Oz there’s obviously no time. That film will continue forever because people will show it to their kids and their kids will show it to their kids and so on and so on and so on because there’s something attractive about that world to all children. And that’s a really cool idea. Like the movie, the shoes themselves will continue, because they are the catalyst to everything. The entire world of memorabilia collection starts with them. So if memorabilia keeps going, the shoes will keep going. And every time that they sell, if they sell again, they’ll sell for more. They will continually be the benchmark.