Thursday, September 24, 2009

Are You There God? It's Green Margaret!

I don’t suppose anything on Earth scared me quite as much as a child than The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (with The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hot on her heels!) I’m certainly not alone on this score as this maleficent hag (and her creepy flying monkeys) sent countless children to their rooms at night, praying that they wouldn't awake to find her at the foot of the bed.

Now, of course, I revel in each and every frame of Miss Margaret Hamilton’s marvelous, but surprisingly scant, screen time in the film. What is it with me loving, practically worshipping, the same things that I either loathed or was afraid to death of as a child?!

Last night I was privileged enough to secure a ticket to a 70th Anniversary screening of this legendary movie which was presented in a high-definition format, allowing every possible detail of the many wonderful props and glorious costumes to be seen in all their glory. (Also, this format pointed out some of the artificiality in the sets and even the lace from the characters’ wigs, but who gives a hoot?!) A tornado was never more threatening and Miss Hamilton was never more vividly green. I came away from the screening even more devoted to the power of handcrafted special effects and more staunchly opposed to computer-generated imagery than I was before.

In an almost ridiculous bit of irony, Hamilton, who has elicited squeals from children for over seven decades now, was, prior to her film career, a Kindergarten teacher!! Jim “Mr. Howell” Backus was one of her young charges, as a matter of fact. She toiled away in character parts (which, with an usual face like hers, was all she could ever hope for, especially in those heady glamour days of Hollywood) until she was called upon to enact what would be a role for the ages.
Initially, the Wicked Witch was going to be more like Snow White’s stepmother, a tall, lithe beauty in a glitzy black gown, but still possessing all the evil qualities one might expect. When the decision was made to head more towards the crone territory, Gale Sondergaard declined to continue in the role. This paved the way for Hamilton who ensured that any potential campiness the role might offer, then or now, went out the window as she delivered a breathtakingly nasty villainess. In fact, some of her most vividly horrible moments were snipped from the film for fear of the effect it might have on kids who would be watching. One can only dream of these someday being unearthed and shown again, unlikely as it is.

Hamilton didn’t have it easy during the making of the movie. Aside from the arduous make-up tests and applications, the necessity to avoid eating during filming due to the toxicity of her make-up and the somewhat heavy costume under scorching lights, she was severely burned thanks to the mistiming of one of her exits involving a fiery explosion. It took a month and a half for her to recuperate and when she returned, she declined to take part in anything involving flames. In a sad comment of the times, she knew she had no way of suing or being compensated for her injuries and trauma unless she never wanted to work in films again.

Still, she took pleasure in the notoriety the part gave her, especially from 1956 on when the film was broadcast on television for the first time and enraptured a whole new generation (even though virtually all the TVs were in black & white at the time!) Miss Hamilton worked in TV and film periodically and had a long tenure as Cora, a general store owner who championed Maxwell House coffee in a series of ads. In 1976, she donned her Wicked Witch makeup and costume again for the ultra-campy and ridiculous Paul Lynde Halloween Special, in which she hobnobbed with, among others, Billie “Witchiepoo” Hayes, Florence Henderson (who delivered a humiliatingly hilarious disco rendition of “That Old Black Magic”) and, most startlingly, the rock group Kiss!

The legacy of Margaret Hamilton in this role is undisputed, but I must point out that even so, her ACTING seems somehow underrated. After all, it was not deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination even though, within the film, she demonstrates not only exceptional skill, but versatility as well. Her crotchety, fussy, old bat Miss Gulch, while mean and crusty, is semi-comic and light years removed from her Witch, who is the personification of horribleness. No one could have brought the intensity, vocal variety or sense of menace to the role the way she did.

Playing The Wizard in a stage production once was a complete joy for me and I must say that the message of this story (at least as it appears to me) is one that I admire heartily. That is that many times the things we desire, or believe that we lack, are within us already. We just haven’t discovered them yet. The Scarecrow who covets a brain is the one who keeps coming up with solutions. The Tin Man who wants a heart is the most emotional of all. The “Cowardly” Lion is the first one up the mountain to rescue Dorothy. It’s a rewarding notion that I think does children more good than 99 and 44/100% of the drek that is placed before them. The fact that they may not sleep for days afterward is a small price to pay in my opinion! Ha ha!


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