Anyone who wants to see a perfect performance on film need only watch Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”
She was scary. We’ll tell you how scary in a minute.
In honour of frightening witches on this Hallowe’en, I’ve dug up an old newspaper story about Hamilton’s career. It’s funny to see her associated with comedy—she worked with both W.C. Fields and Percy Kilbride in features—because her role in “Oz” is really her defining one, despite her coffee commercials on TV many years later. This is from August 1, 1941 in the Daily Kennebuc Journal of Augusta, Maine, where Hamilton was performing in summer theatre with four-year-old son Toni in tow.
Margaret Hamilton Got Start in High School Senior Play
Lakewood Actress Who Has Played In 43 Movies Tells of Road to Footlights
Like the heroines in all the best theater novels, Margaret Hamilton finally had her chance on the New York stage after several years of hounding agents and tramping from one theater to another. Miss Hamilton, who is a member of the Lakewood company this Summer, got her first real shove toward the stage in a high school senior play.
Brought up in Cleveland, our heroine had serious leanings toward kindergarten teaching until the annual senior play came along. Cast as a man in the production, Miss Hamilton wowed the audience and received such hyperbolic praise for her acting that she realized at once that kindergarten idea was a mistake and it must be the stage for her.
Her sensible parents raised no strenuous objections to the notion, only insisting that first she learn the fundamentals of teaching so that she could earn her living, and then, if the urge were still upon her, she might try her hand in the more artistic and possibly less lucrative field.
Followed several years of both teaching and acting, Miss Hamilton became a member of the Cleveland Theater group and taught in a kindergarten on the North Shore while acting in one of the two groups at the theatre afternoons and evenings. Although she never attended a dramatic school, a great deal of practice, experience in every phase of the theatre was available with the Cleveland group. Even in those first years, she play the character parts for which she has since become so well known, and during that period took over 60 character roles.
After a summer at the Dennis Theater on Cape Cod and a try-out of “Another Language” in Greenwich, Conn., Miss Hamilton’s father staked her to a year in New York during which time she could discover whether or not New York producers were clamouring for her presence.
That year consisted chiefly of pounding the pavements and dropping in to see people who, because of her summer experience, had told her to come around in the Fall. It was odd, Miss Hamilton, said, how they had all forgotten her and couldn’t even recollect the type of part she played. The $100 a month which her father sent her supported a friend as well as Miss Hamilton, and they were on pretty slim rations most of the time.
At the end of the year, nothing had happened, not even a walk-on and Miss Hamilton was on the verge of accepting a permanent position as teacher of five-year old when the long awaited break came. Backers had been found for “Another Language” and the show was about to open in Washington.
“I shall never forget that opening night,” Miss Hamilton said. The Washington try-out was over, and funds were so scarce that the company had to waive their bond in order to get to New York. The entire cast felt that a run of two weeks would be a miracle and were tightening their belts in anticipation of more job hunting. “Another Language,” however, ran 50 weeks and was the entering wedge for several of the young actors in the group, including Miss Hamilton.
Her past six years have been spent in Hollywood where she has been in 43 pictures, including the fantastic “Wizard of Oz.” “The Wizard” was the screen version of a popular children’s book, and in it Miss Hamilton was cast as a witch. On the surface of it, being a witch seems a mild enough assignment and one would hardly expect a children’s story to furnish dangers and thrills. However, the making of the film was not a tame or easy period for Miss Hamilton.
Many of the scenes in which Miss Hamilton flew through the air with the greatest of ease on her brook-stick were done in miniature, but an occasional close-up to give authenticity was necessary. During the shooting of one of those scenes, Miss Hamilton received a first degree burn on her arms and hands, and a second degree burn on her face. After six weeks of hospitalization, she returned to the set and was told they were ready to shoot another sequence in which smoke would pour forth from the brook-stick.
Upon learning that the costume designed for her was fireproofed, in spite of the fact that the smoke bomb was guaranteed to be harmless, Miss Hamilton refused to be part of parcel to the scene. Her stand-in was used, and inside of a few seconds, the bomb exploded, severely injuring the stand-in. Seldom a dull moment in making a picture, Miss Hamilton says.
Like all performers who have had both legitimate and screen experience, Miss Hamilton much prefers the stage. Movie-making is such a hodgepodge with the end of the film often being shot first, that it is almost impossible to sense the continuity of the picture. The appreciable lift that an audience gives an actor, and the applause or laughter that greets him, is the biggest possible stimulus to a good performance, according to Miss Hamilton.
Nearly all tragedians long to do comedy, and most comedians have a secret desire to have a crack at a serious role. Miss Hamilton, having made a name for herself in character parts, all of a humorous nature, is automatically cast in those roles. But, like all of her colleagues, she would like a straight part, and at the Lakewood Theater during the week of August 4, that long awaited opportunity will be given her. In “Lady in Retirement,” Miss Hamilton will, for the first time in her long career, have a straight lead.
Embryonic actors seeking advice from Miss Hamilton as to how they may further their careers, receive discouraging but sane advice. “Don’t do it, my dears,” she says.
Just how scary, just how convincing was Hamilton in the role? Well, there were parts of the movie I simply couldn’t watch (when I was a kid, “Oz” was seen only once a year on TV). But here’s a better example from Hedda Hopper’s column from November 4, 1941.
When Margaret Hamilton played the wicked witch in “Wizard of Oz,” she had to frighten Toto, the little dog, in many scenes. Yesterday she was on the set of “Twin Beds” in a maid's costume, when Toto saw her, tucked his tail between his legs, ran under the couch and howled dismally. He remembered her, and wanted no more abuse.
That’s right. Margaret Hamilton was so scary, she frightened people. And a little dog, too.