Hats off to the Wicked Witch of the West and Margaret Hamilton

May 28, 2010 | 8:41 p.m.

Susan King writes about classic Hollywood for Hero Complex, and today she’s somewhere over the rainbow….

Wicked Witch of the West

What’s the most famous hat in Hollywood history? Charlie Chaplin’s bowler? Humphrey Bogart’s fedora? Our vote goes to a more singular fashion statement — the pointy-tipped black chapeau worn by the Wicked Witch of the West in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, a pop-culture artifact that goes on the auction block June 10.

The hat is being sold by Profiles in History, an auction house that expects the bidding to run into the low six digits. Of course, the hat would have been just a movie prop if it hadn’t been for Margaret Hamilton, the actress who nearly stole the movie from Judy Garland and her beloved pooch-pal Toto.

Wicked Witch hat

With her green face makeup, pointy nose, talon-like fingers and that cackle — “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too” — Hamilton became one of the most iconic villains in screen history.

Hamilton, who was born Dec. 9, 1902 in Cleveland, Ohio, was in real life a gentle, sweet woman who even taught kindergarten before she landed her first major role in the 1932 Broadway play “Another Language.”

She reprised her role for the film version and became one of Hollywood’s most dependable supporting actresses playing, as she once described, “women with a heart of gold and a corset of steel.” Hamilton was savvy. Going out of her way to avoid typecasting, she refused to sign with a studio and asked for only $1,000 a week as her salary so she wouldn’t price her way out of jobs.

She had played the Wicked Witch in a stage version of “Wizard” in Cleveland, but her experience on the broomstick didn’t mean she was the first choice for the part in the Technicolor fantasy. The film’s producer, Mervyn LeRoy, had his heart set on Oscar-winning actress Gale Sondergaard (“Anthony Adverse“). But even in her makeup, Sondergaard was deemed too attractive.

Hamilton was waiting in the wings. She got the part and a guarantee of six weeks’ work. But it was not without its downside. She had an especially scary moment during the filming of the scene when the witch leaves Munchkinland by disappearing in a flash of smoke and flames — in one take, the trap door didn’t open and her costume caught on fire.

Wicked Witch of the West upclose

She continued to work in movies over the years, including 1940’s “My Little Chickadee” and Robert Altman’s R-rated 1970 comedy “Brewster McCloud,” but didn’t give up the theater. She toured the country in 1974 in the seminal Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music” and appeared at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1977 with Rex Harrison in George Bernard Shaw’sThe Devil’s Disciple.”

Hamilton’s connection to “Wizard of Oz” continued over the decades. In 1962 she provided the voice of Auntie Em in the animated “Journey Back to Oz” and reprised her role briefly as the Wicked Witch in a 1964 episode of ABC’s children’s education program “Discovery.” She died of a heart attack May 16, 1985. A whole generation also remembers her commercials for Maxwell House coffee….

— Susan King



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16 Responses to Hats off to the Wicked Witch of the West and Margaret Hamilton

  1. CS Gray says:

    My grandmother taught with Margaret Hamilton in Cleveland, in fact she was dating my grandfather until he came by school one day to pick her up for a date, and met my grandmother. My grandparents always said she was a wonderful kindergarten teacher, a concept that was difficult for me to grasp when I was 5. How could the scary green faced wicked witch ever be a kindergarten teacher?

    • Karen McKee says:

      Do you know the name of the elementary school where Margaret Hamilton taught in Cleveland. My mother was in Jim Backus' class there. I have class pictures for 1st and 2nd grade with the two of them, but no school name.

  2. jtbwriter says:

    Thank you for a wonderful rememberance of Margaret Hamilton-she really added to every film she did. Her performance in the original version of "13 Ghosts" both evoked her "Wicked Witch" persona with a warmth for the family in danger (from a murderous pre-"Adam 12" Martin Milner.) I hope her work in "Discovery" will soon be available on DVD for another generation to enjoy!

  3. zubzwank says:

    One of my favorite post WOO Margaret Hamilton roles was when she played the maid (with a broom!) in William Castle's 13 Ghosts.

  4. Mark Eustace says:

    Nobody will ever come close to Margaret Hamilton's superior witch in "Wizard"
    When she looked into the camera and said" I'll get you my pretty!" it hit home.
    She needed no "digital" effects like today just pure talent and effective acting. My I miss her!
    Mark Eustace

  5. Tony Westbrook says:

    She was also a great comic actress. I love her in "Rosie" with Rosalind Russell and Sandra Dee". "Atta girl Daffy!"

  6. Ironman Carmichael says:

    Margaret Hamilton brought to life the real Elphaba, though she didn't live to see the name become associated with the character. Anyone else is a punk imitation.

  7. Michael says:

    In 1,000 years, when the world will want to know what a witch is, they will playback a clip of Ms. Hamilton's character.

  8. Margaret Hamilton set the gold standard for wicked witches. In the fairy tale games I play at home with the young children in my family, Hamilton is the model for the witch. No matter the story, Hamilton's cackle and her "I'll get you my pretty," is essential for thrills.

  9. MarcP says:

    Many witches have come and gone, but Hamilton's witch lives on and on.

  10. vienna locraft says:

    margaret hamilton i love you soo much and i have a dog name ace! from vienna locraft

  11. Jackie says:

    When I get uptight, I am the "Wicked Witch of West"ern Mass.

  12. TheMaskedMarvyl says:

    There will never be a Wicked Witch like Margaret Hamilton. I wish she had lived to see Wicked, the musical. I think she would have liked it. I always had a soft spot for this character. I never thought she was evil; just very angry and bitter over the hand she was dealt. In the musical, we see why.
    "What a world, what a world….."

  13. anthony munoz says:

    look up witch in the dictionary and there's her face.
    simple and pure terror

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