Inhaling Asbestos, Facial Burns and Toxic Make Up: Margaret Hamilton’s Time In The Wizard Of Oz

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 musical, The Wizard of Oz, has been a childhood staple across the generations. While many viewers are familiar with its legacy, not many have discovered the dangerous lengths the actors went to in order to produce the classic. Other than Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West seemed to have one of the worst times of them all.

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 musical, The Wizard of Oz, has been a childhood staple across the generations. While many viewers are familiar with its legacy, not many have discovered the dangerous lengths the actors went to in order to produce the classic. The Wizard of Oz is an unprecedented feature characterised by it’s leading use of Technicolor and musical numbers with Judy Garland in the main role. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and has been selected as one of the first 25 films to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry.

While many of the cast members went to great lengths to achieve the director’s vision in The Wizard of Oz, Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West had the worst time of them all.

Gale Sondergaard, who was the first recipient of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, was originally cast in the role of the Wicked Witch of the West but withdrew from the role as she did not like the witch’s persona which had developed from a glamorous character to one recognised for both her evil traits and looks. She was replaced just three days before filming began by MGM contract player Margaret Hamilton.

The production of the memorable Technicolor scenes was exhausting for cast and crew as it ran over six months from October 1938 to 1939. The cast were working six days a week and had to arrive on set at 4AM to be fully made up in their costumes. The make up and costumes were made even more uncomfortable by the extremely bright lighting needed in the early technicolour process which could heat the set up to over 38°C!

Margaret Hamilton had to wear a copper-based make up to achieve the green look of the Wicked Witch of the West. This copper-based make up was so toxic that she was unable to eat solid food while wearing it so had to eat a liquid diet on shoot days! The make up had to be removed with acetone but was later removed with alcohol to sterilise Margaret Hamilton’s face after she received third-degree burns on set.

When the Wicked Witch of the West has to leave Munchkinland, the production team created a concealed elevator to lower Hamilton below stage level. This was accompanied by fire and smoke as a special effect to dramatise and conceal her leaving the scene. The first take of this special effect went well but, on the second time, the fire was activated too early setting alight to Margaret Hamilton‘s toxic green copper-based face paint leaving her with third-degree burns on her hands and face! She had to spend three months recuperating before returning to work onset.

Unfortunately this was not the end of Margaret Hamilton‘s misfortune on the set of The Wizard of Oz due to special effects. The crew used asbestos to achieve the witch’s burning broomstick as well as using it as the fake snow to cover Dorothy as she slept in the field of poppies. Asbestos is notoriously toxic!

Before starring as the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton was a schoolteacher then turned to acting with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Wicked Witch of the West was her most famous role. After her accident on set that lead to third degree burns on 23rd December 1939, Hamilton refused to have anything more to do with fire. It is reported that after she had recuperated in hospital she said that she wouldn’t be suing the company as she knew it would mean that she would never work again. Judy Garland was said to have visited Margaret Hamilton while she was recuperating at home after her accident.

Hamilton filmed more scenes in The Wizard of Oz than what was shown in the final edit and some of the scenes were cut as executives worried that they would frighten children. Margaret Hamilton joined Mister Roger’s Neighborhood in 1975 where she explained to children watching that she was only playing a role of a wicked witch as she was deeply concerned that the film would give children the wrong idea of who she really was. After her starring role in Oz, Hamilton continued to work in education and did many school visits after the film was released. Many children would ask her to recreate her wicked witch laugh!

Betty Danko was Margaret Hamilton’s stand-in for the Wicked Witch of the West and stunt double. She also had an accident on the 11th of February 1939 starring in the role! Betty Danko was also severely burnt during the “Surrender Dorothy“ sky writing sequence in the Emerald City. Danko was sat on a pipe billowing with smoke made to look like a witch’s broomstick and the pipe exploded on the 3rd take of the scene. She spent 11 days in hospital and her legs were permanently scarred from burning! Despite this, Aline Goodwin was hired as a new stunt double to finish the broomstick riding scene.

Margaret Hamilton wasn’t the only cast member to suffer on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen was cast to play the Scarecrow. Ray Bolger really wanted to play the Scarecrow however so was later recast. This led to Buddy Ebsen being recast as the Tin Man. 

Several tests were performed with Ebsen to find the right make up and costume for the Tin Man. Much like Margaret Hamilton‘s make up, Buddy Ebsen‘s make up for the Tin Man was also toxic! 10 days into filming the Wizard of Oz, Ebsen suffered a toxic reaction after inhaling aluminium dust in the aluminium powder he wore for make up. He had to be hospitalised in a critical condition and was forced to leave the project! In the 2005 DVD release of the Wizard of Oz, Buddy Ebsen recalled that the studio executives only appreciated the seriousness of his illness after he had been hospitalised and they halted filming to find a replacement. Despite his hospitalisation for performing in the role, no footage of Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Man has ever been released and the public have only seen photos taken during filming and in make-up tests. Audiences can still hear Buddy Ebsen’s voice in songs featuring the tin man in group vocals. 

Ebsen was replaced by Jack Haley who believed his predecessor was fired. Haley was then required to wear an aluminium paste as make up with a layer of clown white grease paint underneath in order to try and protect his skin. He did not have the same reaction to it as Ebsen but he did suffer an eye infection from the make up.

Similarly the costumes for the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow were made from foam latex make up created by artist Jack Dawn. It took reportedly an hour every day to peel off Ray Bolger‘s mask on his face while he played the Scarecrow. According to the Chicago Review Press, constantly peeling off this glued mask actually left Ray Bolger with permanent lines around his mouth and chin. The Cowardly Lion‘s full costume was made from real lion skin and fur! Not what you’d want to be wearing especially under 38°C in heat from the studio lights. 

Further interesting special effects and costume techniques that were implemented on the set of the Wizard of Oz included the Tin Man’s costume being made of leather covered buckram and the oil use to grease his joints was chocolate syrup. For the scene that stars horses of different colours, the white horses were covered in Jell-O powder! 

The Wizard of Oz truly is a classic work of cinema that has spanned generations. The initial production has come under a lot of scrutiny for dangerous effects, injuries and the toxic treatment of its stars, especially Judy Garland who was reportedly given several drugs to keep her weight below a certain limit and to keep her pepped up during long filming hours. Other the cast members like Margaret Hamilton really suffered to get this film released and into the public eye. So next time you watch The Wizard of Oz, take a moment to appreciate the cast’s performances and remember just how gruelling the production was for them.

Margaret Hamilton The Wizard Of Oz - Inhaling Asbestos, Facial Burns and Toxic Make Up: Margaret Hamilton’s Time In The Wizard Of Oz

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