The Real Star of The Wizard of Oz

There are two ways to watch The Wizard of Oz:

1) Not focusing on Toto.

2) Focusing on Toto.

A couple of months ago, while watching The Wizard of Oz for the umpteenth time, I chose to watch it using method number two.

Through the entire picture, I didn’t/couldn’t take my eyes off Toto.

Even when Toto was not in a shot, I wanted to know what she was doing. Despite knowing a happy ending was in the cards for all involved (except for the Wicked Witch of the West of course), I always felt a tiny sense of relief and comfort when my Toto came back into view.

Few Wizard of Oz purists would argue that Terry, who changed her name to “Toto” after making the The Wizard of Oz (Toto was no fool) delivers a stunning performance as Toto.

Just as it’s literally impossible to imagine say Errol Flynn or Humphrey Bogart playing Jimmy Stewart’s role in It’s A Wonderful Life  it’s equally unimaginable to picture fellow heavyweight actors Lassie or Rin Tin Tin as Toto.

What makes Terry’s performance even more remarkable is that Terry was a female playing a male.

Few actors or actresses have pulled off playing the opposite sex so successfully. A distant second, in my opinion, can be found in the picture “Tootsie” where Dustin Hoffman, in the title role, turns himself into a surprisingly attractive and very dateable female.

One of the most memorable scenes in The Wizard of Oz is when Dorothy sings “Over The Rainbow”.

It’s also the scene where Toto does some of her greatest acting.

After Dorothy starts to sing, we first see Toto in about a two second shot eagerly looking up at Dorothy through the spokes of a wheel.

A bit later, Toto jumps up on the piece of farm equipment. She gently extends her paw for Dorothy to grab, but Dorothy – busy singing turns the other way.

I think we’ve all had that happen to us. We extend are hand out with the intention of shaking someone’s hand, but they don’t see it. I’m not sure why it’s so embarrassing, but it is. Our embarrassment only stops when we try again and the person actually sees our hand and completes the handshake.

But Toto handles it gracefully.

She merely moves her paw back in and waits for a more timely moment to extend it — which happens a bit later.

Here are some of my other favorite Toto moments:

1) When the Glinda the Good Witch of the North originally meets Dorothy she asks her if she’s a good witch or a bad witch. After Dorothy says “no”, Glinda asks if Toto is a witch. I think Dorothy was as shocked as us viewers by that question. Next we’re treated to a shot of Toto excitedly waving her tail – thankful that she survived the tornado and seemingly just happy to be alive.

2) When the Wicked Witch of the West captures Dorothy and Toto, Toto escapes jumping off the draw bridge avoiding the guard’s spears being thrown her way – being cheered on by Dorothy who yells “Run Toto Run”. Originally when I saw this I thought to myself:

“Hmm why would Toto abandon Dorothy? It doesn’t make sense. Toto seemed so loyal up to this point. I mean, what the dilly-o Toto?”

Of course, Toto had it all figured out. She knew Dorothy’s other three companions were too dumb (one having admitted that he didn’t even have a brain) to find their way to the castle and rescue Dorothy. Toto knew if Dorothy was to be rescued, she’d have to make it happen.

3) When she does lead them back, they actually start off in the wrong direction, but it’s Toto who starts up the stairs barking her pretty little head off to indicate where Dorothy’s being held.


4) It’s Toto who, by pulling back the curtain, reveals that the Wizard of Oz isn’t really a wizard. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?” I don’t think so, you very bad man.

As a movie, The Wizard of Oz is near perfect….except, in my opinion, for one tiny (but huge) dialogue misstep.

It comes near the end when Dorothy is saying her goodbyes to her three companions. She turns to the Scarecrow last and says “I’ll think I’ll miss you most of all”.

All I’m thinking at this point is not how much Dorothy loved the Scarecrow, but how bad the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion must feel knowing Dorothy has just relegated them to tier-two friend status.

But enough about that…

… back to the star of the show…


As we all know, Toto plays a key role in how Dorothy leaves Oz.

We know from early in the film Toto likes chasing cats, so were not that surprised when she jumps out of Dorothy’s arms to chase a cat when they’re in the hot air balloon.

Dorothy, of course, jumps out of the balloon to fetch Toto. Meanwhile the balloon is inadvertently set ajar leaving the “wizard” to float off to not-even-the-wizard knows where.

I often wonder if Toto did this on purpose.

Think about it.

Toto knew the Wizard was a fake.

Perhaps Toto also knew that Dorothy already possessed the ability to go back home.

Dog food for thought anyway.

Toto was also the only one of the main characters who had nothing to gain by going to Oz.

Would the scarecrow have gone to Oz if he didn’t think he’d get a brain out of the deal?

• Would the Cowardly Lion have agreed to go find Oz if he didn’t think there was some courage in it for him?

• Would the Tin Man have gone to Oz if he didn’t need a heart so bad?

…ok they probably would have gone anyway, but here’s my point…

Toto already had all the brains, courage and heart she needed.

Her only motivation to go to Oz was the unconditional love for Dorothy (and the cool $125 a week she was banking – which was more than some of the humans in the film were making).

When Toto made The Wizard of Oz, she was five years old having been born in 1933. In total, she made 13 movies.

To prepare for her role as Toto, Toto stayed at Judy Garland house for two weeks prior to filming (Garland actually wanted to adopt Toto after the movie, but, of course, Toto was too big of a star to be relegated to the role of a mere house pet).

Filming The Wizard of Oz was not all doggie biscuits, being petted by Munchkins and marking her spot on the yellow brick road though. One of the witch’s guards stepped on Toto’s foot, seriously spraining it.

Plus Toto had trouble adjusting to the wind machines, but soon learned to position herself behind the other actors. (Would Robert De Niro have thought of that? I don’t think so.)

She also didn’t like being placed inside the wicker basket – but persisted because she knew her sacrifice was small compared to the joy she’d bring kids of all ages for years to come.

Pound per pound, no one has had a bigger impact on American culture.

Next time you watch The Wizard of Oz, focus on the real star of the picture. And I think you’ll agree with me when I say, when Toto blasted off to doggie heaven in 1944, Hollywood and the world lost one of its most enduring stars.

- J.N. Wood