The Winged Monkeys in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz served at the pleasure of the Wicked Witch of the West and terrorized Dorothy and her companions, and thousands of small children watching the big screen throughout the country. My youngest daughter was one of those children. Many years later I purchased a pair of bronze candle holders in the shape of flying monkeys, and I am not allowed to use them when she is around.
I think for children the goblinlike Flying Monkeys. squealing servants of the Wicked Witch are the stuff of nightmares. For the most part the monkeys were not played by the same small actors as the munchkins. Only a few of the more athletic midgets were asked to don the monkey make-up and costumes fitted with battery-powered wings. The wings were motorized so they would flap while the monkeys were airborne.
Veteran Hollywood midget stuntman Harry Monty was one of the actors who played both a Munchkin and a Flying Monkey. Those who played the brown flying chimps mostly were too tall to play a Munchkin.
They had a harness around them and strung them up on wires. Then they would swoop down. One terrifying moment was when a Flying Monkey swooped down and grabbed Toto, Dorothy’s little dog. They were to be paid $20 for swooping, but there was a misunderstanding about the number of swoops were to be paid. The director assumed it was per day, and kept telling monkeys to keep swooping, while the Flying Monkeys thought it was $20 per swoop. To get the matter settled the monkeys went on strike. It must have been quite a picture– twelve monkeys sitting on chairs with their arms folded and legs crossed arguing with the director over money. As soon as it was settled they were back in the air on black cables which were invisible during the filming.
The rest of the illusion was created by dangling little rubber, painted monkeys about eight inches in length. These molded figurines–complete with foamlike wings and a pipe cleaner for a tail–were suspended on wires, much as the actor/monkeys were, and flown along at the same time to create the illusion of a large army of evil beasts. In 1996 one of the decaying, rock-hard rubber monkeys was auctioned off, fetching $3,000.
After more than fifty years, the slim steel tracks that were built and and installed in the reinforced rafters of MGM Sound Stage 29 are still there, high above the floor as a haunting reminder of Oz’s monkeyshines.
Excerpt from The Munchkins of Oz, by Stephen Cox