The American Film Institute can be a wonderful friend to those who love movies and those who love lists about movies. From its first ranking in 1998—“100 Years…100 Movies”—AFI has put forth other such conversation starters as “100 Years…100 Thrills,” “100 Years…100 Laughs” and “100 Years…100 Movie Quotes.” On one particular list that came out in 2003, actress Margaret Hamilton appeared in a well-deserved and lofty fourth place. The list was “100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains,” with Hamilton landing firmly on the villain’s side of the fence portraying a single woman looking for a new pair of slippers. Hamilton’s specialty was playing busybody spinsters, a character she perfected in 69 feature films during her 41-year film career. She may not have had a lot of screen time or played full-bodied, complex characters, but movies instantly became more interesting whenever she popped up on screen.
Nothing Sacred (1937)
For a fine example of how movie dialogue can possess a certain music and rhythm, take a look at the scene where New York newspaperman Wally Cook (Fredric March) arrives in the small town of Warsaw, Vermont—a place whose inhabitants are suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, this slicker from the city. In his search for Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a woman reportedly dying of uranium poisoning, Cook encounters a stern array of citizens in a deftly written sequence—consisting primarily of “Yep” and “Nope” responses to his questions—that reveal the stern, standoffish nature of the townspeople. Hamilton plays a drugstore clerk peeved that Cook has “tooken up” her time.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
“I don't look on it as any great shakes of acting,” Hamilton once said of her most famous role. “It's not subtle or restrained. It isn't any of the things you like to think might apply to your acting.” She’s wrong of course. Her acting isn’t subtle or restrained because The Wicked Witch of the West isn’t. The character is fiercely driven, fiendishly evil and vividly grotesque—the stuff nightmares are made of. And so enduring is Hamilton’s performance that a 1976 appearance on Sesame Street, with the actress in character as the witch, elicited complaints from parents of terrified wee ones. The episode never re-aired, its footage kept from public view to this day. A year earlier, Hamilton appeared as herself on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to much softer effect. After a friendly chat with host Fred Rogers, the affable host helped Hamilton into her witch’s costume, all the while emphasizing that she was merely play-acting.
Babes in Arms (1939)
Hamilton plays Martha Steele, a small-town sourpuss who voices her concerns to Judge Black (Guy Kibbee) that the juveniles in town—which consist of Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney), Patsy Barton (Judy Garland) and an earnest gang of vaudevillian offspring—value show business more than their schoolwork. This would be the second movie of 1939 to feature Garland and Hamilton. Though The Wizard of Oz was well received, Babes in Arms would end up being the year’s biggest moneymaker for MGM.
My Little Chickadee (1940)
Hamilton plays Mrs. Gideon, the biggest gossip of Little Bend, who makes life so inconvenient for Flower Belle (Mae West), a singer of shady virtue, that Belle is run out of town on a rail. W.C. Fields costars as con artist Cuthbert J. Twillie, who marries the loose woman and thereby lends her a bit of (temporary) respectability. The western comedy was written by West and directed by Edward F. Cline, who helmed many of Fields’s most popular movies.
Brewster McCloud (1970)
Bud Cort stars as the title character of director Robert Altman’s oddball tale of a loner who lives in the Houston Astrodome and yearns to fly. As stadium singer Daphne Heap, Hamilton takes part in a mean, funny national anthem sequence over the opening credits. And if the mere presence of Margaret Hamilton fails to evoke memories of The Wizard of Oz, Altman throws in red slippers (worn by the actress), a gingham dress (worn by Jennifer Salt) and a few bars of “Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack.