Cursed on-set stories: When Margaret Hamilton’s costume caught fire while filming ‘The Wizard of Oz’
While the 1939 musical comedy The Wizard of Oz is considered an iconic film and has a significant fan following, it was a living nightmare for the actors and crewmates on stage. With the mercenary Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studio having no regard for the life and safety of the actors, caring only about wrapping up the film on time, paying stunt doubles lower than the minimum wage rate, it is scathing, in the years gone by, to learn the hellish torture inflicted on the actors behind the scenes of a cult classic film.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s famous novel and with the screenplay written by the talented Herman J. Mankiewicz, the film stars a host of incredible actors such as Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke and more. The plot revolves around a young girl named Dorothy and her dog Toto as they run away from home after their neighbour Miss Almira Gulch threatens to euthanise Toto. They embark on a series of strange adventures and befriend Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and try to defend the Wicked Witch of the West who is revealed to be Miss Gulch.
A series of mishaps occurred on the sets due to the studio’s vicious actions. Judy Garland, who played Dorothy, is said to have been placed on an extreme diet which consisted of chicken soup, black coffee, four packs of cigarettes and diet pills every four hours, which was detrimental and horrific. The studio members were cruel, inconsiderate and demanding; the original Tin Man, played by Buddy Esben, was hospitalised after being severely poisoned by the aluminium in his makeup. While he received no support or sympathy from the studio, he was quickly replaced. Lack of special effects made the studio rain down chrysotile asbestos as a substitute for actual rain. What is a more brilliant way to kill your main characters than raining on them with actual carcinogens?
In 1939, the film studios had no technology, nor did they have the interest to adhere to a set of safety standards that would lead to a subsequent decrease in the number of on-set injuries. The actors had to endure both physical and emotional anguish for their respective roles; once you get to know about this, the film will not be the same anymore.
Remember the Wicked Witch of the West, clad in a black hat and sitting on a broomstick to fly around and seek revenge on Dorothy and Toto? Margaret Hamilton played the role of the Witch as well as that of Miss Gulch and received high praise for her wonderful performance. However, Hamilton had a nightmarish experience on-set, all of which has been documented in Aljean Harmetz’s book the Making of The Wizard of Oz.
While Hamilton was filming a scene in which she disappears in a puff of smoke from Munchkinland, the imbecile crew-members did not give the actress enough time to exit the stage safely before starting the fire. As a result of their callousness, according to Harmetz’s book: “The flames caught on her broom and hat, ‘scalding her chin, the bridge of her nose, her right cheek, and the right side of her forehead. The eyelashes and eyebrow on her right eye had been burned off; her upper lip and eyelid were badly burned.'”
The third-degree burns that the actress suffered led her to be confined at the hospital for some time, much to the annoyance of the disgruntled studio members. The studio did not even take the initiative of taking the actress to a hospital; her friend did. While she was sent home before returning to work on-set, Judy Garland paid visits to her regularly to look after Hamilton’s son, Hamilton being a single mother.
Margaret Hamilton needed money to sustain herself and her young son; however, Baum’s book had been her favourite for a long time which prompted her to take up the role. She was also worried about the grotesque portrayal of her as the Witch and her vile antics towards Dorothy which would have scarred young children; this led to quite a few scenes comprising Hamilton being cut off from the final film.
She was highly invested in her role and was horrified by the demeanour of the studio, who simply called her the day following the near death-like incident to ask when she would be able to return on-set. When she returned to work, Hamilton had a set of strict rules for herself, where she refused to do any other scenes involving the use of fire. She has been quoted saying, “I won’t sue because I know how this business work, and I would never work again. I will return to work one condition–no more fireworks!” Hamilton, dedicated and devoted to her role, did not recover after six weeks yet returned to work and played her scene with effortless ease, while the exposed nerves in her hand remained hidden behind green gloves.
“I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!”