Margaret Hamilton came near to losing her career-defining role—not to mention her life—when her costume as the Wicked Witch of the West went up in flames during this month 75 years ago, sidelining her from The Wizard of Oz for six weeks before she could resume filming.
Victor Fleming suffered a nervous breakdown while filming Gone With the Wind, but the issues he contended with on The Wizard of Oz, by themselves, would have been enough to endanger the director’s health. Ms. Hamilton’s mishap just before Christmas wasn’t the only problem on the set of the musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy classic. In fact, it was, as a 2009 article in the U.K. newspaper The Express indicates, “a casualty ward.”
Buddy Ebsen’s health turned out to be even more of a problem than Ms. Hamilton’s. His reluctant agreement to exchange with initial "Tin Man" Ray Bolger his role as the Scarecrow became one he rued even more so when he suffered an allergy to aluminum dust in his makeup, forcing his replacement by Jack Haley. (Ebsen complained for the rest of his life about the health ills he incurred as a result of the film—and Haley himself developed a severe eye infection from his makeup as the new Tin Man.)
Hamilton had gotten her role to begin with when Gale Sondergaard, one of the great character actors in Hollywood (and the first recipient of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), grew so unhappy about the change that transformed the Wicked Witch from glamorous to ugly that she asked out of the part.
I was relieved to know that Hamilton—a gentle, former Midwestern schoolteacher who had loved the Baum works as a girl—was nothing like her terrifying screen crone. It would have terrified me no end if she had been even one-hundredth as bad as her character.
I wouldn’t, at the tender age when I began to watch the film, have felt the slightest bit of sympathy at the thought that her grass-green pallor—courtesy of an all-out studio effort to spend untold hours and expense on makeup—almost led to Hamilton’s death.
On December 23, 1938, a bit more than two months after she began shooting, Hamilton was in the midst of the second filming of the witch’s departure from Munchkinland in a burst of flame. The stage trap door did not open quickly enough, causing her to be caught in the pit and her costume to be lit aflame. She was saved from death in the pit by someone on set (accounts differ as to whether it was her makeup artist or an alert “Munchkin”). But her green makeup caught fire, leaving her severely burned on the face and right hand and sending her to the local hospital.
Rather than pressing for worker’s compensation, which would have left her persona non grata with not only MGM but all the other studios, Hamilton agreed not to sue, but only on one condition: that she no longer have anything to do with any more fire once she returned. That turned out to be a wise condition, as her double and stunt stand-in was herself involved in another accident that left her legs permanently scarred—and forced her off the set for the remainder of filming.
With the help of that makeup, plus her talent, Hamilton made herself over so completely that, in effect, she was too good in the role. She appeared so frightening that MGM studio execs trimmed some of her best scenes and deleted others completely, leaving her with a grand total of only 10 minutes onscreen—only increasing her chagrin about a role that not only put her at risk, but was hardly even mentioned by critics upon its release in 1939.(The film, not a box-office smash when it opened, only assumed iconic status when it began to be shown annually on CBS, then NBC, beginning in 1959.)
I gloried when Dorothy and her quartet of searching, incomplete new friends skipped and sang down the yellow brick road to those infectious Yip Hamburg-Harold Arlen songs, but I gulped and shivered when I caught sight of that female in black with the wart-encrusted face. The witch’s evil cackle sent me scampering for safety behind the big chair in our living room, waiting for the coast to clear. It was the least I could do. If she could threaten a nice girl like Dorothy with “I'll get you, my pretty--and your little dog, too!” what would she do with the likes of me?
I wasn’t the only TV-raised baby boom child transfixed by Ms. Hamilton’s all-too-convincing thespian witchery. In fact, a couple of my relatives (who shall remain nameless) saw a figure in their own lives who, in certain ways, was not unlike the Wicked Witch of the West.
The woman, a nun in our elementary school, St. Cecilia’s of Englewood, NJ, possessed a unique physiogomy—including thin, dark face, irregular nose and scowl of supernatural animation that, when displeased, bore in on you. The nun’s nickname, “Shotgun Rosie,” was a bit like the force that lifted the Wicked Witch aloft on her broomstick: Its derivation mattered less than that its possession now left observers dumbstruck.
“Shotgun Rosie” was also given to devising punishments that probably never occurred to her screen counterpart. My female relative was forced to kneel in front of a shrine on the side of the classroom for an entire afternoon—especially bewildering, I think, as this relative was, if not the best-behaved girl in her class, very close to it. By comparison, my male relative escaped lightly, having only to stand in a trash can in the corner in the front of the room for an hour.
The legend of this terror of St. Cecilia grew until one Friday afternoon in November 1963, when the nun was called from class into the hallway to meet with the principal, who looked gravely concerned. When “Shotgun Rosie” emerged a short while later, her tearful eyes caused more consternation among her confused students than her disciplinary methods.
“Class, President Kennedy’s been shot,” she was finally able to get out in a choked voice.
And at that point, just as a waking Dorothy realized that the people of Oz bore more than a passing resemblance to the Kansas she called home (even the Wicked Witch was just poor Miss Almira Gulch), so the fifth graders at St. Cecilia understood that the woman with the dour mien was just as human as anyone else they knew.