Sunday, December 16, 2018

Good Witch: Rediscovering Margaret Hamilton

The What a Character Blogathon is an event devoted to the great character actors of classic Hollywood and the often memorable supporting roles they played throughout film history, hosted by Once Upon a ScreenOutspoken & Freckled, & Paula's Cinema Club. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of the host sites.

She didn't scare me the most. The flying monkeys did; their faces were creepy as hell. Remember when they tore the Scarecrow apart while kidnapping Dorothy? And of course, the Great and Powerful Oz himself was total nightmare fuel. That scene where they're walking down that long hall and into his chamber still gives me a little chill. But I don't recall being that scared of her. Maybe she wasn't bizarre looking enough?

We'll come back to that role, and that movie, later.

From most of the stories I've read about her life, like this one, Margaret Hamilton sounded like the antithesis of her signature character. As a former schoolteacher, she cared about how kids perceived her; perhaps you saw that video of her appearance on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, for example. It's tempting to fill this post with nothing but testimonials.

I wanna give her her due as an actress. For instance, she did a lot of radio work. One of her best radio gigs was a recurring role on the series Ethel and Albert (AKA The Couple Next Door), the domestic adventures of an Ozzie & Harriet-like married couple. Hamilton played Aunt Eva, later Aunt Effie. Here's a video of the TV adaptation, with her in it, from 1953.

I love this shot of her
so much.
In the 70s, CBS revived radio plays with a series called CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Hamilton got to portray a witch again, in the episode "Triptych for a Witch," from 1975.

Hamilton appeared on lots of TV shows, including Car 54, Where Are You?, The Patty Duke Show, The Addams Family, As the World Turns, Gunsmoke, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, and of course, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special.

In 1976, she guest-starred in what would become an infamous episode of Sesame Street. She reprised her signature character, who terrorized Big Bird and company, searching for her missing broom. Wouldn't you know it, parents wrote in to complain she scared the kiddies too much — so it was never shown again!

Boob tubers of a certain generation, however (um, like mine), might remember her better for a series of Maxwell House commercials, where her character peddles it at her small town general store:

Hamilton pursued stage acting as early as 1923. She made it to Broadway, in productions of Goldilocks, Show Boat and Oklahoma! In 1974, she was featured in Sondheim's A Little Night Music, a loose retelling of the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. Wanna hear her sing? Actually, it's more of a Rex Harrison sing-speak.

With Ray Bolger (L)
and Jack Haley (R), 1970
As for the movies, in addition to you-know-what, Hamilton worked with directors Frank Capra, William Wyler, William Wellman, Preston Sturges and William Castle, and acted with, among others, Henry Fonda, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn and Abbott & Costello, and that's pretty impressive.

Oz, however, stands alone. Much has been written of its legacy within film, television, the stage (Wicked is still running on Broadway, last I checked) and more, that it scarcely seems worth going into again here.

Let's talk about Hamilton's Kansas character in the film, Miss Gulch. In the scene where she comes to take Toto away from Dorothy, she holds herself very erect and properly. According to Aunt Em, she owns half the county, a detail that often goes overlooked, yet she remains a Miss and not a Mrs. Methinks she knows how she comes across to people like the Gales.

Anybody know what
year this is from?
Hamilton's portrayal leaves little room for sympathy; Miss Gulch is a sour old bird, no question. She probably inherited her wealth, and is used to people kowtowing to her; notice how she's physically taken aback when Aunt Em gets all in her face. I wouldn't call this an acting master class, but Hamilton does give a general impression of the kind of woman she embodies, beyond what little we see here.

In Maine, her adopted home in her later years, a play is in development about Hamilton, made with her son's blessing. With any luck, it'll get people to remember her not just as a good actress with an iconic film role, but as a good person as well.

Movies with Margaret Hamilton:
The Wizard of Oz
These Three

Alan Hale Sr.
Sig Ruman
Shelley Winters
Joe E. Brown


  1. You wrote a lovely tribute to a woman I admire. I saw her in that tour of A Little Night Music with Jean Simmons as Desiree. Boy, did I have stars in my eyes!

    I'd never heard of that Sesame Street debacle. Really! I'll bet the kids weren't half as scared as the parents thought they were.

    PS: The long walk down the hallway to the wizard was my scariest moment as a kid. I was with the lion when he ran away.

  2. The Sesame Street ep had things like the WWW threatening to turn Big Bird into a feather duster and Oscar totally falling in love with her. I imagine kids today could probably watch AMERICAN HORROR STORY and not blink an eye.

    That's awesome that you saw her on stage.

  3. I love how you wrote this, and how you never mentioned the full name of her most famous movie. I also enjoyed the commercial you posted. What a talent! She is always enjoyable to watch.

  4. Those Maxwell House commercials almost feel like a serial. One could make an argument for Cora as one of her best characters.

  5. It's interesting that not enough has been written about Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz - but now you did it! Very nice analysis of her Kansas counterpart in the movie.
    I never knew she was a schoolteacher, and I'm gald to know she was awfully nice in her real life. I hope the play about her is a success.

  6. Admittedly, there's not much about Miss Gulch to write, since we see so little of her. Maybe someone should write a prequel set entirely in Kansas...


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