Growing up in a home where classics were loved and appreciated, I remember being quite surprised when my mother told me that the actress who played the green faced, flying monkey commanding witch in The Wizard of Oz in actuality was a dear, sweet lady who loved children and was at one time a kindergarten schoolteacher. That dichotomy has always intrigued me.
When the What a Character! Blogathon came around, I knew exactly who I wanted to write about. Margaret Hamilton terrified children (this one included!) from all over the world, yet she was as different from her onscreen persona as one could possibly be. As a warm hearted woman, consummate professional, and caring mother, she devoted her life to the arts, the well being of animals, and the education of children.
With a clipped way of speaking and a short, curt manner, Margaret is usually seen playing maids, spinsters, and witches. Her characters possessed a strong backbone with a sharp wit and a commanding, oft times, foreboding presence. On a few occasions she did play against type as a trusting friend, a warm companion, and fittingly, a schoolteacher.
Born in Ohio in 1902, Margaret Hamilton was drawn to acting an early age, participating in children’s theater and making her stage debut when she was twenty-one. Urged by her parents to become a teacher, Margaret earned her degree in education from Wheelock College in Boston and was a kindergarten teacher for six years before returning to her love of acting. Margaret also found personal happiness during this time, marrying Paul Meserve in 1931.
After appearing in productions for several years at the Cleveland Playhouse, Margaret landed a part in the Broadway play Another Language (1932). MGM bought the property and brought most of the cast members to the studio to produce the movie of the same name marking Margaret’s screen debut (1933).
Three years later, Margaret and Paul had a son, Hamilton. When the couple divorced in 1938, Margaret was left to single-handedly provide for both her and her son. Never becoming a contract player at any one studio (except for one year at RKO), Margaret freelanced her services in order to work as often as she could for the price that she wanted.
By the time MGM was looking for cast members for The Wizard of Oz, Margaret had already done six movies with the studio. Having loved the story ever since she was young, she was delighted when she got the call that they wanted her for the movie. The question remained: which role did they want her for?
“And I asked him [her agent] what part, and he said, ‘The Witch,’ and I said, ‘The Witch?!’ and he said, ‘What else?'”Margaret Hamilton
Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West is on the screen for a total of twelve minutes; but that was more than enough to cement in the minds of everyone the world wide over, since 1939, what a witch looks like, sounds like, and acts like. The gleeful, maniacal cackle that we can never forget, the nasal intonation of her voice, the black as night dress and tall pointed hat, and the emerald green face and hands all stem from Margaret’s flawless portrayal. The witch is larger than life, menacing and dangerous, and her sarcastic, evil spirit provides a perfect foil for the innocent, optimistic Dorothy. Margaret’s performance in this film made her an icon and would define her for the rest of her life.
Several times, Margaret reunited with her Oz co-stars, which never fails to make this fan happy. In 1942, she and Toto took to the screen in Twin Beds. Margaret plays the maid and Toto, the couple’s beloved pooch, and in George White Scandals (1945), Margaret tries to keep her brother, Jack Haley, (the Tin Man) from marrying his sweetheart.
Margaret remained lifelong friends with Ray Bolger, and the two starred together in the Broadway play Come Summer (1969) and were cast mates in the fantasy film The Dreamer (1966).
In 1968, Judy Garland appeared with Margaret on the Merv Griffin show, and Judy asked Margaret to reproduce her famous cackle. The response from the audience says it all.
Although thrilled to be a part of one of the most loved movies ever made, Margaret disliked the fact that so many children had been frightened of the witch. Feeling responsible for their terror, she sought to rectify this by appearing on Mr. Rogers television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, in three episodes from 1975-1976. You can watch one of her appearances on the show below. It is simply charming.
In 1976, Margaret appeared on Sesame Street reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West complete with green face and costume. I’m sure she never expected the results. Parents and children wrote letters to the producers saying that they wished the witch to never appear on the show again. It caused the children difficulty getting to sleep because of how deathly afraid they were of her. Since then, the episode has not been broadcast on television or seen anywhere else. Read some of the letters that recently surfaced and more about Margaret’s controversial appearance here.
Hamilton Meserve said his mother, “was very concerned about the effect it [the witch] had on small children. She was very aware of the impact it had on kids. Time and again she would literally get down on her knees and have kids touch her face. She would say, ‘I’m a nice lady’ and that the witch was all ‘make-believe.'” Knowing this, I’m sure that Margaret had a hard time when she was not accepted by children because she did love them so much; however, I do think she truly enjoyed her character and didn’t have any regrets.
Images: YouTube (left); IMDB (center); Pinterest (right)
Working in a range of genres, from screwball comedy to horror, Margaret appeared in more than seventy films in a fifty year career spanning radio, television, and stage. Possessing a great sense of comic timing, she held her own alongside some of the greatest comedians in film including W. C. Fields and Mae West (My Little Chickadee), Buster Keaton (The Villain Still Pursued Her), Harold Lloyd (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock), and Abbott & Costello (Comin’ Round the Mountain). She also worked with some of Hollywood’s top directors: Fritz Lang (You Only Live Once); Busby Berkeley (Babes in Arms); William Wellmann (The Ox-Bow Incident); and Frank Capra (Riding High and State of the Union).
80 years after Oz, the life story of Margaret Hamilton continues to enchant and inspire. This past summer a play premiered in Sag Harbor, New York, entitled My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories. How I wish I could have seen it! Here’s the official description:
“The amazing tale of how a gentle kindergarten teacher from Cleveland scared the living daylights out of every last one of us…and the brains, heart, and courage it took to be America’s character woman…If there’s one movie we all share it’s ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but it is time to pay attention to the woman behind the cackle. Spend 85 wonderful minutes with Margaret Hamilton, for she has true and terrific stories to tell.”
Margaret Hamilton will always be known as the green witch who scared the wits out of children worldwide, but she was much more than that. She was a wonderful actress, devoted mother, and a determined woman who was driven by her passions. She deeply cared for others, gave generously to charities, and became a spokeswoman for the causes she believed in.
fun facts & Trivia
- In 2003, the Wicked Witch of the West was voted number four in the list American Film Institute: 50 Best Movie Villains of All Time, making Margaret’s character the number one female movie villain.
- Margaret Hamilton had a sister named Dorothy.
- Margaret was a member of the Beverly Hills Board of Education from 1948-1951.
- In 1972, Margaret got to “give us Auntie Em” when she voiced the character in the animated feature Journey Back to Oz.
This post is my contribution to the 8th Annual What A Character! Blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen, and Outspoken & Freckled. Thanks, ladies, for letting me participate! Be sure to stop by their blogs! To read the rest of the entries about other talented, colorful character actors, click HERE for day 1, HERE for day 2, and HERE for day 3.
Thanks for reading and for visiting The Classic Movie Muse!