Knowing what we know today about asbestos, it can be weird to look back on how it was used in days gone by – which includes in some classic and much-loved Hollywood films.
Perhaps the most notorious case is in the much-loved family classic from 1939, ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Dorothy may have skipped along the Yellow Brick Road with the scarecrow, the tin man, and the cowardly lion all right – but as they did so, they were putting themselves right bang in the pathway of asbestos contamination too.
For example, do you remember the snow scene in the poppy field? The ‘snow’ used in filming was actually 100% industrial grade chrysolite asbestos. It was chosen because of how it virtually resembles real snow – and for the same reason, it was a popular Christmas decoration in homes all over the US each year, being sold under brand names like White Magic, Pure White, and Snow Drift. Little did parents think as their children scattered the artificial snowflakes around that they were actually being put in lethal danger.
Also in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, actor Ray Bolger – who played the scarecrow – was probably at more risk than anyone. Because his costume was stuffed with straw, and because his character had several run-ins with fire, the costume was insulated with asbestos because of how it is fire proof. This means that for several months, he literally covered himself in asbestos every day.
Or remember the broom belonging to the Wicked Witch of the West, that went on fire? It was actually only the head of the broom that burned. The handle didn’t – because it too was made from asbestos.
However, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was not the only classic film to feature asbestos – and it wasn’t even the only classic Christmas movie to do so.
For example, the 1942 Bing Crosby favourite ‘Holiday Inn’ – where the song ‘White Christmas’ first appeared – also used chrysolite asbestos for all its snow scenes. So too did the film ‘White Christmas’ itself, when it followed twelve years later.
Incidentally, another Christmas classic – ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – was also due to use asbestos for its snow scenes, but at the last minute, the producers changed their mind.
Not because they were concerned about health risks. It was purely because it interfered with their sound equipment!