By John H. Foote
At four years old (I think) I first watched The Wizard of Oz with my parents on television. The characters fascinated me, except one. One character sent me running from the room down to the safety of my bedroom and my teddy bear sitting on my bed. There is a point in the film where the camera filled the screen with the cackling green face of the monstrous witch and little Johnny boy was out of the room like a bullet, shaking and terrified. My Dad retrieved me, told me it was OK, but I spent the rest of the movie on his knee and cheered when she melted into the floor.
For generations of moviegoers, the Wicked Witch of the West was evil personified for millions of children around the globe. Turned green by her vile soul, she cares about no one but herself, her dark powers, and the power of the ruby slippers she covets. She terrorizes Dorothy and her three friends throughout the film, until finally all are together in her castle, a gloomy, horrific place where she meets her maker. Cornered, realizing the Witch is about to set Scarecrow on fire, Dorothy throws water on her, melting her. Was it the purity of the water or Dorothy that killed the Witch? We are never told.
Margaret Hamilton was a well known character actress within the MGM stock players catalogue. Never famous, she was widely respected as an actress and was cast by Victor Fleming himself to play the role of the Witch. I wonder if she knew going in it would be the role of her lifetime, the role she is best remembered for, and the role that nearly killed her?
She found the perfect voice and tone to portray the Witch, speaking in a high pitched voice in which threats sounded all the more threatening and her body language was slighting expressionistic in the way she moved and gestured. I have often wondered how many actors and actresses used her as inspiration for their own creations? You can certainly see Hamilton in Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) in her grand movements, slow deliberate walking, without question the soul of the witch is in that character.
First seen in the film as Miss Gulch, the pinched – wealthy old maid who bullies most of the community – she becomes the Witch in front of Dorothy’s eyes during the cyclone. Ironically Dorothy calls her “a wicked old witch” while Gulch is there taking the child’s beloved dog Toto from her. Appearing for the first time in an explosion of flame, the tiny munchkins fear her, but the good witch Glinda does not. Dorothy makes an enemy of the Witch of the West with her house landing on her sister, the Witch of the East. Giving Dorothy possession of the ruby slippers, Glinda insures the two are enemies, but she will protect Dorothy throughout the film, when her three friends fail her. At various times the Witch threatens the Scarecrow with flame, tells the Tin Man he will use him for a bee hive, and just plain old terrifies the Lion, already a coward, or so he thinks.
Hamilton underwent a tough make up job each day, having her face painted green, her nose made longer, a creation that made her terrifying to the audiences of the film. And that mocking cackle was downright frightening, just as it was when she climbed aboard her broom and flew off into the Oz sky.
Incredibly none of the actors in The Wizard of Oz were nominated for Academy Awards, the most deserving being Hamilton and actor Bert Lahr as the Lion. How were they missed? Did the Academy not take their performances seriously enough because the film was fantasy? Possibly, but when you look at the nominees of that year, only the actors from Gone with the Wind (1939) challenge but never surpass the work of the Oz actors, especially Hamilton. Watching the film again, I found myself wondering HOW WAS SHE NOT NOMINATED?
Hamilton was left scarred for life when a fire explosion, used exiting the Witch from Oz, badly burned the actress, nearly killing her. She recovered for six weeks and refused to sue the studio knowing she might never work again. The injuries never prevented her from getting work in either film or television.
Hamilton made many films, but just a single great one in which her performance is among the most iconic in cinema history. Brilliant and perfect in every way, it seems incredible the studio actually cut some of her more frightening scenes from the film. How is that possible?
She sent this four year old scampering in terror from the room, and frankly still scares the hell out of me today.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.