December 9, 1902– Margaret Hamilton
I was shocked to read that tweet from POTUS dissing Margaret Hamilton. Is nothing safe from the reach of his nastiness? in 2017, he tweeted: “Very rude and insulting of Hamilton to treat our great V.P. Mike Pence to a theater lecture. Couldn’t even memorize lines.” That seemed so unnecessary. She was an accomplished and interesting woman, even if she was not a “10”. I don’t blame her for booing Pence; the very idea of flying monkeys offends his deeply held religious beliefs.
One of my favorite films of the early 1970s is director Robert Altman‘s wonky social satire Brewster McCloud, which on initial release in 1970, I saw in the theatre multiple times. Brewster McCloud is a film about flying, and it pays homage to Margaret Hamilton’s iconic character, “Wicked Witch of the West”. In the film, Hamilton plays a wealthy woman who is crushed by a large birdhouse. As the camera pans down her body, you see that on her feet are those ruby slippers.
Hamilton was an exceptional character actor who never asked for more than $1000 a week for her work, for fear she would price herself out of a film role. She had a career that lasted five decades, with more than 70 films, but we all remember her best for a certain green-skinned witch in the MGM classic The Wizard Of Oz (1939), another good movie about flying. The Wizard Of Oz did not bring Hamilton fortune, but it really did bring her forever fame. Despite the attention, not much happened for her career after the excitement over the film’s initial release had died down. It wasn’t until the 1970s that her career blossomed once more as she was rediscovered by a whole new generation of film fans
As spokesperson for Maxwell House Coffee, Hamilton created a character, “Cora”, an elderly shopkeeper with that no nonsense New England charm. The ads proved very popular and Hamilton was once again in the spotlight that she deserved. Cora was so popular that she even had her own cookbook, with Hamilton’s image on the cover.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Hamilton. As Almira Gulch, the busybody who stuffed Toto into the picnic basket, or the Wicked Witch Of The West, Hamilton brought her characters to life with her expressive crusty features and her crisp voice with its rat-tat-tat clear enunciation.
Hamilton’s line from The Wizard Of Oz: “I’ll get you, my pretty… and your little dog, too!” was ranked 99th in the American Film Institute’s The 100 Most Memorable Movie Quotes. Her son, interviewed for a special DVD edition of the film in 2005, commented that Hamilton enjoyed the line so much she would use it in real life. Her character is ranked Number Four on the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 Best Movie Villains Of All Time, making her the top female baddie.
Believe it or not, she appeared in The Wizard Of Oz for a total of only 12 minutes, but what an impact she made. Yet, Hamilton really suffered for her art. During shooting of her exit from Munchkinland via a trapdoor’s drop, the special effect flames failed to work properly and Hamilton received second-degree burns on her face and hands. She spent six weeks recovering in the hospital and at home for another six weeks before she could return to the set, where she refused to do any scenes that involved the fire effects for the rest of the filming. The producers used a stand-in. Hamilton:
“I didn’t sue, because I know how this business works, and I would never work again. I returned to work on one condition no more fireworks!”
MGM producer Mervyn LeRoy asked for cuts to some of Hamilton’s scariest scenes, worrying that they would frighten children too much. Hamilton:
“I was in a need of money at the time, I had done about six pictures for MGM and my agent called. 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 years old’.’I asked him what part, and he said: ‘The Witch’, and I said: ‘Which Witch?’ and he said: ‘THE Witch! What else?'”
Hamilton went on to work with some of her favorite The Wizard Of Oz co-stars again. The great Frank Morgan, who plays Professor Marvel and The Wizard, had no scenes with Hamilton in The Wizard Of Oz, but she had already played his housekeeper in Saratoga (1937). She has a fun turn with Judy Garland in Babes In Arms (1939) as a society woman with schemes to send the group of kid actors to a work farm. She plays the comically tough-talking sister of Jack Haley (The Tin Man) in George White’s Scandals (1945). Hamilton and Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow) worked together again in The Daydreamer (1966), and together on Broadway in the musical flop Come Summer (1969). Little known tid-bit: Hamilton was reunited with a bunch of her former Oz cast members when she served as host for Flying Monkeys On Ice, an all-simian skating revue in Vegas.
Hamilton was one of those working actors who took roles wherever she could find them. She continued to find work in television doing daytime soap operas and prime time series, including a stint as Hester Frump, Morticia Addams’ mother on The Addams Family. (1965–68).
Hamilton eventually returned to the Broadway stage where she began her career. She had a supporting role in one of my favorite forgotten musicals, Goldilocks (1958), opposite Don Ameche and Elaine Stritch. She was in a popular revival of Show Boat (1966), plus she was Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! (1968) at Lincoln Center. I saw Hamilton in her final stage role as Madame Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim‘s musical A Little Night Music.
Hamilton loved kids. She was a teacher before her acting career, and she was an advocate for causes protecting children and animals. During her Hollywood years, Hamilton served on the Beverly Hills School Board.
Hamilton lived in New York City for most of her later life. She had an apartment in my most very favorite of NYC neighborhoods, Gramercy Park, in a building where she had actor James Cagney as a neighbor. She took her final curtain call in 1985. She was 82 years old when she left this world. Hamilton’s Wicked Witch Of The West scared a lot of kids through the decades, but in real life, she seemed to have been a real sweetheart.