The Wizard of Oz: Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West

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he_Wizard_of_Oz_Margaret_Hamilton

This post is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by three wonderful (and non-villainous) bloggers: Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy. Check out all the posts, where there’s evil, dastardly wrongdoings and malice aplenty!

“I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!” With that phrase, Margaret Hamilton secured Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West a spot at the top of movie villain lists forever – no mean feat considering that the film was released in 1939 and that her screen time in it was cut to 12 minutes because she was simply too scary. Of course, Hamilton wasn’t the first actress to play a witch on screen, but her creation has been incorporated into pop culture history and her appearance forms the stereotype we have of witches today. In fact, her instantly recognisable pointed hat was auctioned by Profiles In History in May 2010 with a guide price of $100,000 to $150,000 (although there’s no word on the final sale price).

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Gale Sondergaard’s screen test for the role

The Witch however, could have been very different. Initially, a more vampish look was favoured – no doubt inspired by Disney’s Wicked Witch (Snow White, 1937) – and Gale Sondergaard was engaged for the role. The film’s producer Mervyn LeRoy was concerned that the first screen tests were too beautiful, so a few blemishes were added. It’s unclear whether Sondergaard refused to embrace ‘ugly’ or if MGM decided she couldn’t, but she was dropped from the role three days before filming began and was replaced by Margaret Hamilton. If that sounds chaotic, that’s because it was: the script underwent multiple rewrites, the original director (Roger Thorpe) was replaced with George Cukor who in turn was supplanted by Victor Fleming and finally, King Vidor, and Buddy Ebsen (the original Tin Man) suffered an allergic reaction to his aluminium-based make-up. Although Cukor didn’t actually shoot any scenes he made a few key changes, including Dorothy’s hair and make-up. Costume designer Adrian was also brought on board and tasked with upping the scare factor, although it’s unclear if that was a directive from Cukor or an implementation from the top.

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he_Wizard_of_Oz_Margaret_Hamilton

Hamilton was a kindergarten teacher who started her career in community theatre and got her  her first break in the 1932 Broadway production Another Language. Following the play’s success she relocated to Hollywood where, after reprising the role on screen, she soon found herself playing a variety of small but not insubstantial parts under directors including Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz and Busby Berkeley. Not wanting to be typecast, she refused to sign a studio contract but kept her price low to avoid scaring off potential employers. By the time MGM were casting for the Oz role, Hamilton had completed five or six pictures for the studio. In the DVD commentary for Oz, Hamilton describes her reaction to the role:

“I was in a need of money at the time….and my agent called. I said, ‘Yes?’ and he said ‘Maggie, they want you to play a part on the Wizard.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh Boy, The Wizard of Oz! That has been my favorite book since I was four.’ And I asked him what part, and he said ‘The Witch’ and I said ‘The Witch?!’ and he said ‘What else?'”

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So perfectly cast was Hamilton that, when the film was sent for screen tests, audiences claimed her role was too scary, and many of her scenes were cut. That must’ve been quite a blow, considering what the actress went through during filming: during the scene when the Wicked Witch leaves Munchkinland in a flash of smoke and flames the trapdoor failed to open, and Hamilton’s costume caught fire. She was left with burns on her face and hands and spent several days recuperating in hospital. The green makeup wasn’t without problems too. Copper-based, it could only be (painfully) removed with alcohol, for several weeks after completing her scenes, Hamilton’s skin retained a green tinge.

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Now, it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Hamilton in the role. Her manic cackle followed her for the rest of her life, indeed in The Making of the Wizard of Oz (Aljean Harmetz) Hamilton revealed that she was often asked to reproduce the laugh:

‘”I guess for a minute they get the feeling they got when they watched the picture. They like to hear it but they don’t like to hear it. And then they go, Ohhhhhhhhhh!…The picture made a terrible impression of some kind on them, sometimes a ghastly impression, but most of them got over it, I guess… Because when I talk like the Witch and when I laugh, there is a hesitation, and then they clap. They’re clapping at hearing the sound again.”’

Although it’s Dorothy’s costume – and the red slippers – that’s the most famous, the entire look of The Wizard of Oz is iconic, and the costumes are some of the most memorable committed to celluloid. Most of the characters wear just one for the duration of the movie, so it was important that the designs were perfect. With most of the movie filmed in Technicolor (then a relatively new technology), it was essential that the main characters’ costumes worked together in a cohesive ensemble whilst retaining the spirit of L.Frank Baum’s original illustrations. As the Wicked Witch, Margaret Hamilton introduced a sinister darkness inspired by traditional European folk tales (albeit an element that the author had attempted to steer away from), with her exaggerated nose, extended talons and pointy hat.

Margaret Hamilton hat
Hat, designed by Adrian. The one on the left was used during the melting scene

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he_Wizard_of_Oz_Margaret_Hamilton

It might be all black, but her costume is more elaborate than it first appears. Adrian designed two of the iconic hats, including one with a larger brim to exaggerate Hamilton’s shrinking figure during the melting scene. Both were constructed from black wool bunting fabric and had a shaped brim to make the witch seem more menacing; a diaphanous silk scarf that ties loosely round the base of the cone-shaped head-piece and trails behind the witch on her broomstick, also adds to the image of ‘evil’. The voluminous costume makes the Wicked Witch seem larger and more frightening than she is, and was likely inspired by historical dress. The fitted bodice has a corset lace detail which brings in the silhouette and exaggerates the leg-of-mutton sleeves and the puffed skirt. The witch also wears a small, crossbody pouch finished with some hanging tendrils that appear to resemble monkey tails. Occasionally she also wears a full length cape, although it’s hard to discern when due to the volume of fabric.

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Of course, Hamilton actually wears two costumes during the film, although the former is less well-known. In the sepia-tinged Kansas sequence (apparently the directors weren’t convinced that contemporary audiences would accept the idea of a ‘fantasy’ Oz and opted for the dream scenario) she plays Miss Almira Gulch, a straight-backed, bicycle-toting neighbour who despises Dorothy and Toto. Sour faced and bitter, her unfashionable clothes reflect her old-fashioned principles, buttoned to the neck, cinched at the waist and topped with a straw hat they speak volumes about her narrow-minded character who is lost in the era her clothes are from.

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So entwined was Hamilton with the Wicked Witch that she continued to be associated with her for the rest of her career, despite completing a variety of for-TV films and series (including The Addams Family). She received, and replied to, countless letters from children, reprised her role in a never-screened episode of Sesame Street and, doubtless aware of the part she had played in such an iconic film, was always willing to discuss her role. What’s ironic is that in interviews she comes across as polite, gentle and unassuming; clearly evil and villainous tendencies can be found inside everyone, perhaps all that’s needed is a slap of green paint and pointy hat.

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21 thoughts on “The Wizard of Oz: Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West

  1. I sure do love Hamilton in this movie. She did such an amazing job, and left an impression that will never escape me. Every time she shows up in other movies, there is no mistaking who you’re watching. My favorite is when she plays the witch in the Abbott & Costello movie “Comin’ Round the Mountain”. What a great role. 🙂

    1. It must’ve been quite annoying to have your career defined by one role but she was always so gracious about it – a response that couldn’t have been further from the character! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    1. Ahhh, I wish I had the opportunity to remember her later roles. I saw Oz when I was 6 or 7 – it must’ve been an impressionable age as it’s the only role I was ever able to associate with her!

  2. Having become a big fan of green women from my Star Trek crazed youth, I see this with as giving green gals a bad name! A fun post about the craziest greenie of them all! This villain thing has been fun to be a part of; thanks for adding to it!

  3. Thanks for all the great info about Margaret H., her wardrobe and her makeup. Fascinating – it’s hard to believe she has only 12 minutes of screen time!

    I did not know about her costume catching fire. Yikes! That could have ended very badly.

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon and profiling the #1 Baddie of all filmdom!

    1. Thank you for co-hosting – I can’t wait to read about all the other villains!
      MH managed to make quite an impression in the time she was allowed, and she went through a great deal during filming. Apparently, once fully made up, both she and the Tin Man couldn’t eat anything, and both were forced to endure a liquids-only diet.

  4. I really enjoyed your write-up on this iconic character. It’s funny, as many times as I saw The Wizard of Oz growing up, I never was afraid of the Wicked Witch — she was just so fascinating. (I’m not sure what that says about me!) While I can’t imagine anyone else but Margaret Hamilton in the role, I sure wonder what the part would have been like with Gale Sondergaard. Also, I’m glad to read that Margaret Hamilton was always willing to talk about the role — so many performers want to escape parts with which they’re closely identified. And I’m glad you mentioned Another Language — I think I will give that a re-watch tonight! Good stuff, all around!

    1. I have to confess that this is the only role I’ve seen Margaret Hamilton play (apart from the Addams Family!), but researching and re-watching clips of the Wicked Witch I really want to see some more!

  5. Absolutely fascinating background, and those photos you used just glow in full technicolor glory. Loved reading this, and I agree with Karen, for some reason I kind of felt for the Witch too, which says a lot for Hamilton’s performance. Unforgettable for sure. Thanks so much for being a part of this event 🙂

    1. Ahh thank you for your kind comments and for hosting such a fabulous blogathon. I think technicolor really made this movie, and the attention to detail that went into every costume (right down to Oz’s gloves and the Flying Monkey’s jackets) is just incredible. That’s probably one of the reasons why it still resonates today.

  6. Thank you for such an interesting comprehensive post on Margaret Hamilton and her role in The Wizard of Oz. By the time she appeared on ‘Mister Rogers’ she knew how iconic the movie and the character was. An amazing actress and performance.

  7. Wow, I’d never noticed the spectacular details on her costume before… I think I’d gladly be a witch if I had Adrian designing for me, too. Hamilton as the Wicked Witch is truly an Icon!

  8. Fantastic posting – it’s fascinating to learn all the background information about how this famous portrayal was created. And interesting that she still terrified children when the role was reprised in Sesame Street.

  9. Wow, she should really be commended for all she endured in the making of the film and then keeping such a great attitude about forever being linked to that role. Thanks for all the great background info and for bringing back some fun memories. When I was little I was never really scared of her as the witch but was always creeped out when Miss Gulch flew by Dorothy’s window during the tornado, and that still sticks with me today.

  10. What a wonderful post! I didn’t know much about Margaret except that I recall reading that she said she had accepted her ‘ugliness’ from an early age and was comfortable to joke about it, and always willing to use it to her advantage. She seems like a lovely woman and it is very interesting to read about her playing such a now-iconic villain. Loved this, thanks for sharing!

  11. Great pick! I remember that witch scared me to death as a kid, heck she still does :D. I had no idea what she went through for this role. Don’t know so much if she herself scared me or her horrible cackle ha! I hated how mean she was to Toto, and those monkeys still give me nightmares. LOL Truly enjoyed this post!

  12. Hamilton can be seen early on in “Nothing Sacred,” playing a taciturn Vermont small-town biddy in a rocking chair at the general store who coolly responds to Fredric March’s Wally Cook character.

  13. I never knew that the witch costume from the film had been that influential, but it makes sense. She was terrifying! And that voice. I love that she imitated that fantastic cackle for audiences afterward. Thanks for a great post. Leah

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