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).
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.
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?'”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.