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