Our blog post this month is in honor of Margaret Hamilton, the wonderfully Wicked Witch of the West, who was born on December 9, 1902. Mention The Wicked Witch to any fan of The Wizard of Oz and chances are they’ll either react with an imitation of the green-complexioned villainess’s evil cackle or they’ll recall a childhood memory of how the Witch sent delicious shivers up their spine.
Though she developed a love for performing at an early age, Hamilton’s professional career began as a kindergarten instructor in her native Cleveland, Ohio. Her father, prominent local attorney, Walter J. Hamilton, insisted daughter Margaret have a career to fall back on, but he funded her early acting aspirations. Margaret Hamilton understood early on that her lack of physical beauty would never earn her female leads and required her to compensate by learning comedy. (When her father suggested she get her prominent nose altered with plastic surgery, she steadfastly refused.) Hamilton’s brand of humor was to deliver her lines with deadpan sarcasm and caustic wit, making her supporting roles in theatrical productions memorable. After accruing credits at the Cleveland Playhouse, Hamilton segued to the Broadway stage before relocating to Hollywood to appear in films in 1933.
Margaret Hamilton won the role of a lifetime when glamorous actress Gale Sondergaard declined the part of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. The script had been revised so that Sondergaard would play the character “with a hint of evil beauty” instead of as the repulsive crone in the original L. Frank Baum book. But under protest from Oz fans, producer Mervyn LeRoy recanted and reverted back to the concept of the Witch as a menacing, Halloween-type hag. The script had also expanded the Witch’s part so that she was obsessed with the Ruby Slippers’ power and would thus be a dramatic threat to Dorothy throughout the film.
By her own accounting, Hamilton was delighted to be associated with The Wizard of Oz, having loved the book as a girl and having played the Wicked Witch at least once before in a Junior League of Cleveland theatrical production of the story. She auditioned in a shawl and some decrepit-looking clothes and used her most menacing voice to read lines from the script, which included her famous witch laugh.
The change of actresses came with a handicap: Hamilton would be expected to have a false nose and chin painted over with green make-up (also applied to her neck and hands). Hamilton was assigned the role in early October 1938 and within a month, it was being reported that she was making other screen villains “look sissified by comparison.” When Hamilton gave out autographed portraits of herself to the small actors playing Munchkins, it was the first time many of them saw what she really looked like, as she always came to the set in full make-up!
Most fans know that Margaret Hamilton was seriously injured on December 28, 1938, during a timing mishap on a stunt in Munchkinland. On one take during which the Wicked Witch was to vanish in a burst of angry red smoke and flame, the fire effect was started too soon as Hamilton deescalated on a platform that took her beneath the stage. Her broom straws ignited instantly, burning her right hand and face, putting her out of commission to heal and recover for many weeks. (Because copper was used to tint her make-up its sickly hue, it was toxic to her exposed flesh and was painfully removed using rubbing alcohol.)
Hamilton recovered and completed her role as the frustrated and manipulative Wicked Witch of the West. But she also portrayed two other roles in The Wizard of Oz: that of wealthy spinster Almira Gulch, the Witch’s Kansas alter-ego, as well as the Wicked Witch of the East, seen briefly during the cyclone scenes. Her expert performance proved to be too harrowing and a number of her most vitriolic lines were excised in the editing process. After filming, and to her amusement, Hamilton’s make-up had a lingering effect, having temporarily tinged her face a pale green!
When Margaret Hamilton died on May 16, 1985, more than one newspaper honored her tongue-in-cheek request to print “Dong-Dong! The Witch is Dead” as the headline of her obituary. Although she performed in many other movies and plays, she will forever be remembered with fond – if not cautious — memories as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.