San Luis Obispo, California – August, 1939
Inside a private screening room, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and his right-hand man, producer Mervyn LeRoy, have just finished watching a test print of The Wizard of Oz. Mayer is not satisfied with the cut and has instructed the projectionist to run it again, this time with the sound turned off.
“I don’t get this Garland at all,” said Mayer, pacing back and forth with a cigar in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other. “I mean, just look at her! She’s a goddamn rake! A ten-year-old boy in a skirt for Chrissake. And I know what you’re thinking too. I’m a schmuck, a dirty old kike too damn old to get it up anymore. Sure, my downstairs is shot, but this girl’s image just isn’t doing a thing for my upstairs either, that’s for certain. Tell me why the hell isn’t Jeanette MacDonald in this movie? Jeanette’s a full-figured woman at least! We’re talking about real slopes here that you could ski down if you were in the shape to do it. I know, I know. So the story is about a little girl, okay I get it, but even little girls can have tits and ass too dammit. Am I right?”
“I agree. You can never have enough cleavage, Louis,” said LeRoy. “I recently hired a woman as an assistant casting director who was well-endowed with a set of fluffy knockers. Let’s just say she helped ensure that my pictures reached a certain circumference of satisfaction.”
“A voluptuous woman is a siren that commands the universe,” said Mayer, arms outstretched.
“Indeed,” said LeRoy.
“Who doesn’t love a good set of curves?”
“I love them.”
“This picture’s simply too damn long!”
“Quite right, Louis.”
“Can we take out the witch?
LeRoy crossed his legs, held his chin in his right hand and squinted.
“Garland, you mean?” said LeRoy.
“Don’t be a fool, Mervyn! The green one! The one with the pointy black hat!” said Mayer.
“Afraid we can’t do it, Louis. It won’t wash. Story physics aside, she’s the bustiest one we’ve got in there next to Glenda. And don’t forget, test audiences have proven that men prefer a chesty witch.”
“My God you’re right. And don’t take Glenda out. She’s the best skirt we have up there.”
“And the flying monkeys?”
“What about them?”
“Do you think they are too scary?”
“For kids, I mean.”
The sound of a match strike caused the two men to turn their heads and peer towards the seats in the back row, into the darkest recesses of the room. The match light barely made visible a man dressed in black, in a black hat, in the blackness. He looked like a professor of a class you might not want to enroll in. His glasses, round. His eyes, blue. His cheek mole, large.
“Gentlemen,” said the man from the shadows, his accent unmistakably German. He brought the flame close to the tip of his cigarette, waved out the match onto the floor. “Perhaps I can be of assistance?”
“Yes, Ernst?” said Mayer.
“I am merely your bodyguard, Herr Mayer, so I realize my opinion doesn’t carry much weight,” said Ernst.
“Nonsense. You have an idea?”
“I’m all for tits and ass as much as you Americans, but I do have an ear for music. I think you should cut that scene where the stick-figured woman sings about the rainbow.”
“Cut the entire ‘Over the Rainbow’ number?” said LeRoy.
“Cut the whole thing,” said Ernst. “It slows the picture down. I want to get as fast as I can to the fun colored parts with the erotic munchkins and the sexy, good witch.”
“I think he’s right, Louis,” said LeRoy. “Her singing in that dirty barnyard with that little mutt does nothing for me. The song’s for flits.”
“Schwules,” said Ernst.
“Faygeles,” said Mayer.
“Queers,” said Leroy.
Suddenly there was a big bang that was accompanied by a terrific flash of the brightest, white light, as if a primeval atom had been split by an angry deity. Mayer thought it was like a million flashbulbs at a red carpet Hollywood premier had exploded all at once, blinding you. A magical lightning had struck the middle of the screening room and the thunder that followed it was deafening.
The blast created a smoky nebula that made it difficult to see much of anything for a minute. The whole place was electrified now, humming with audible feedback. Several remnant bolts arced between the floor and ceiling, one of which found the gold Rolex on Mayer’s arm with a loud crack, causing him to cry out in pain.
“Holy shit!” said Mayer.
“Don’t hurt yourself, sweetheart,” said a voice from the void. The men reeled their heads to see a silhouette taking shape from within the dissipating haze. When the air cleared, the figure hovered down out of the ether and glowed, surrounded by a sparkling, pink orb. The movie projector seized and emitted a focused cabaret spotlight on what appeared to Mayer as some kind of burlesque dancer. Before the men was a fantastic, six-and-a-half-foot Nubian doll in a golden sequined gown, with matching golden jewels, golden crown, golden scepter and golden feather boa.
“She must be a witch,” said Mayer.
“No, look! It’s a queen!” said LeRoy.
“You got that right, honey,” said RuPaul in full monster drag, her hit single, ‘Supermodel (You Better Work),’ blaring in the background:
I see your picture everywhere
A million dollar derrière
And when you walked into the room
You had everybody’s eyes on you
“Oh-kaaaaay, so you must be Loo E. Bee, huh?”
“Yes, but who are you?” said Mayer.
“Ha, well, let’s just say I’m a good friend of Dorothy.”
“What’s the big idea?” said Mayer, who couldn’t stop staring at RuPaul’s shiny calves.
“Are y’all listenin’?” said RuPaul.
“Yes!” said the three men in unison.
“Good. Don’t you dare cut that ‘Over the Rainbow’ song from this film, get me?” said RuPaul.
“But I want my film to be successful!” said Mayer.
“It will be a great success, but only if you keep that song in there.”
“So people will like it?”
“They will love it. All you have to do is just give it a chance. And it’s more than about love, sugar pie. It’s about war. And it’s about television and revolution, mmhmm.”
“Revolution? Television? Are you mad?” said LeRoy.
“Don’t believe a word that German bodyguard told you, Louis,” said RuPaul. “No sir. He’s really a secret agent man, working closely with the Nazi party. Boo hissssssss.”
“This is absurd! These accusations are poppycock. I demand you tell me who you are!” said Mayer.
“Brace yourselves! Ready, sweetie? I’m from the future, you dig? In the future, the ‘Over the Rainbow’ song becomes popular with American soldiers in the next World War. Oh it’ll be here soon enough don’t you worry. World War II they’ll call it. The song will symbolize the hopes of the American troops and for all those sailors and seamen—oh my Lord—coming home, winning the war, making babies with their wives, yada yada yada. Judy Garland even sings the song to the troops overseas. Without Judy Garland, the troops lose their morale, mmmkaaay? If the troops lose their morale, the Germans win the war. Lose the war, and you get German television instead of American television. No American TV and there’s no Lucille Ball, no Liberace. Without Liberace there’s no Elton John, no Diana Ross. No Diana Ross and it’s the end of the world, baby.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mayer.
RuPaul pulled in dramatically close to Mayer. For a moment it looked like they might break into a fiery tango.
“Don’t fuck it up,” said RuPaul.
Before Mayer could respond the golden queen had vanished, and for a moment the three men could hear the faint echo of her laughter, her gay dance club ballads fading into subspace. When the room stabilized, the projector resumed playback of the film, and both Mayer and LeRoy were staring at Ernst with contempt.
“What?” said Ernst. “You can’t possibly believe that silly Negro woman! How can you trust someone who comes and goes like some cheap magician? And did you see that ridiculous dress she was wearing?
“Nazi spy?” said Mayer, grabbing Ernst by his lapel.
“Yeah,” said LeRoy. “Tell us or you’re going to get a knuckle sandwich!”
“Okay, okay! Alright!” said Ernst. “We were trying to figure out the atom bomb, but now we’ve switched gears, thinking much more long-term. Germany wants to conquer America so it can take over the television industry.”
“But there is no such thing as a television industry!” said Mayer.
“Not yet, but there will be!” said Ernst, who was starting to give Mayer that creepy, Peter Lorre-as-mad-scientist vibe. “Germans were the first to televise the Olympics and now—now our latest invention—Das Whatchamacallitz with its magic crystal has shown us the future, look!”
Ernst produced a small black box from a rucksack near his feet, no bigger than a loaf of bread. It had three serious looking knobs on it with two silver antennas on the top, and he plugged it into an outlet in the wall. The glass screen on the short end came to life with a high-pitched whine and sparkled fuzzy grey, but there was no image.
“That crazy future queen was speaking the truth!” said Ernst. “Das Whatchamacallitz showed us the future too. It showed us WWII, the atomic bomb, the power of this silly rainbow song to defeat us, and the successful deployment of the television network.”
Ernst adjusted the controls to a setting labeled “1992” and there appeared a moving, black and white image. First there was an ocean wave, cresting and coming into focus, a crowded beach, and then, a panel of about eight young women, all white, who walked shoulder to shoulder into the water together as if they were close friends or curious lovers, the entire frame a horizon of their backsides, a clutter of nubile cheeks bursting from Brazilian cut bikini bottoms, their hips raised and spines arched in a tableau of magnificent curves, a simulacrum of lordosis behavior. Asserting his dominance, the shirtless male emerged and spun a rescue can in his palm. The confident lifeguard, also Caucasian, revealed himself as a healthy, pale-eyed Olympian running through the surf in slow motion. He had wavy hair and top billing, his name broadcast in steely titles.
“Gentlemen, gaze into the crystal! You see? The future is German,” said Ernst. “There will exist a super race of strong, good-looking Aryan men and women. This actor’s name here is Hasselhoff!”
“Charlatan! Why would anyone want to watch movies on a tiny gizmo like that?” said Mayer.
“That thing’s a piece of shit!” said LeRoy.
“No, I’m sorry Ernst,” said Mayer. “MGM is not interested in television, atomic bombs, world wars or Nazis. We’re in the movie business. And business is good right now. The best it’s ever been in fact. That’s the way we like it. Why would we queer our good fortune today by changing how we run things around here?”
“But, but,” said Ernst. “You have to invest in the future. There is no stopping what will be!”
“Superstitious horse pucky!” said Mayer.
“Excuse me?” said Ernst.
“That means bullshit you Kraut sonofabitch,” said LeRoy.
“Now get the hell out of here, you and that idiotic doodad!” said Mayer.
“Fools!” said Ernst as he unplugged his machine and darted out of the screening room.
Up on the screen, Dorothy began to mouth the words to ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Mayer walked over to the wall and pressed the intercom button for the projectionist.
“Tom?” said Mayer. “Hey, Tom? Are you there? Can you turn the sound back on please?”
The two old men sat down together in the middle of the front row, leaned back in their seats and listened. Each of them heard the song and it was like they were hearing it again, but for the first time. Their expressions reverberated with a wondrous calm and sincere attention—the awe of a newborn child. And for a brief moment, they forgot about the future of television programming, death, destruction, the Fountain of Youth or the search for El Dorado, and their eyes began to fill with saltwater.
“You know, that damn song is starting to grow on me,” said Mayer.
“There’s something about it,” said LeRoy.
“Close your eyes now.”
“What do you see?”
“My God. It’s full of curves.”
“I like it.”
“I love it.”
And the screening room dissolved into the cosmos.
Header photograph: By MGM (eBay card) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons