Look Back at Which Witch Costume Catches Fire While Filming ‘The Wizard of Oz’

The Wizard of Oz, Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch
Everett Collection

“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”

With those chilling words — and her green skin, beaky nose, bloodcurdling cackle and batch of flying monkeys — actress Margaret Hamilton earned her spot in cinematic history as The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.

Though she landed the role only after producers nixed a more glamorous version and was onscreen for just 12 minutes in the 1939 film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel, her menacing performance created one of filmdom’s most iconic villains — and could have left her with a lifetime of physical and emotional scars.

Not only was the Wicked Witch’s skin color a first, but the paint that was used to turn the actress green was also made from powdered copper, which rendered it both highly flammable and so toxic that Hamilton could not risk eating or drinking except through a straw while she was made up. During the infamous scene where she waggles her gnarled finger at Dorothy (Judy Garland) and Toto and promises havoc, then disappears in a cloud of red smoke and fire, the pyrotechnics crew launched flames too soon. Hamilton was hospitalized with severe burns to her face and hands, halting production for six weeks and requiring some creative thinking on behalf of the costume department to hide her wounds when shooting resumed. 

Though her injuries were agonizing, they weren’t the only part of Wizard that caused Hamilton distress. A single mom and former kindergarten teacher, Hamilton was also a devoted fan of Baum’s novel, and worried that the film — her character especially — might traumatize little moviegoers, ruining Baum’s homage to the timeless power of courage, friendship and home. But many reviewers, including literary scholar Alice Ames Winter, applauded Hamilton’s performance and noted that her Wicked Witch was no more unsettling than other fairy tale baddies. Unless, of course, Winter wrote, children were the “ultra-nervous” type.

Turns out plenty were. Grownups, too. Nonetheless, the film earned Oscar notice and became a timeless classic.

Hamilton eventually appeared sans makeup on a 1975 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to reassure tots that her character was only make-believe and very relatable to little kids: “[She] is very unhappy because she never gets what she wants.”

Like, say, a pair of sparkly shoes that belonged to her sister.

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October 2023

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