By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
In the days leading up to Halloween and to Backlots’ Hitchcock Halloween Blogathon, I will be profiling several spooky characters from classic film to get my readers in the mood for Halloween! The profiles will culminate in Hitchcock Halloween, a celebration of all things related to the Master of Suspense, appearing on the blog on October 31.
My first installment in Countdown to Hitchcock Halloween is a profile of one of the most recognizable spooky visages in classic film, that character we all love to hate, The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (1939). The role was played by Margaret Hamilton with great skill–so great, in fact, that she has succeeded in frightening generations of young children and nearly cost The Wizard of Oz its legion of young fans right from the outset.
The Wizard of Oz was officially released on August 15, 1939, and like all films made under the strict Production Code, it had to undergo rigorous examination to make sure that there was nothing in the film that violated the principles laid out so strictly in the Code. The movie passed, but with qualifications that “care should be taken to avoid an effect which is too frightening to children.” The British censor board had a similar edict–it was given an adult permit due to the frightening nature of the witch, the “grotesque moving trees, and various hideous figures [that] would undoubtedly frighten children.” Scenes were also deleted upon the movie’s release in Sweden and Denmark.
Margaret Hamilton herself was concerned about the effect the Wicked Witch of the West might have on children. A former kindergarten teacher who was extremely fond of children, Hamilton was concerned about the role’s frightening nature and how her image might be colored in the eyes of the children she so adored. Decades after the film’s release, she recalled how children came up to her and asked why she had been so mean to Dorothy. In response to this, she appeared on the children’s television program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” showing children how she put on her makeup as The Wicked Witch of the West.
The Wicked Witch of the West has also become something of a cultural icon. In addition to her several famous catchphrases, her trademark green makeup is how many of us perceive to be the way a witch “should” look. This is entirely due to the effects of the movie–the green skin tone of the witch is not present in the original novel by L. Frank Baum and was created by the studio as one way to show off the new Technicolor advancement that was all the rage in 1939.
Later in life, Margaret Hamilton was able to shed a bit of her public persona and appear in an entirely different milieu–as Cora, the coffee house woman who only serves Maxwell House in a series of commercials for the instant coffee brand.
See you tomorrow for another installment of Countdown to Hitchcock Halloween!