Episode 37A Minicast: The Women of Oz

During our full length Oz episode we talked about several women who were associated with Oz the stories: Dorothy, Ozma, the witches, Maud Gage Baum and others. We didn’t talk about the women associated with the 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz: Judy Garland, Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton. Consider them now covered in this chat about the lives of the three female lead actresses from that timeless musical.

Margaret Hamilton, Judy Garland and Billie Burke circa 1939

Judy Garland

Francis Ethel Gumm was born on June 10, 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota to Francis and Ethel Gumm. What her parents lacked in creative baby naming, they made up for in show business savvy and soon “Baby” was performing with her two older sisters on the vaudeville stage run by her parents. A dalliance of Papa forced the family to move to California four years after her birth where they opened another vaudeville theater and Mama set to making her darlings stars.

The Gumm Sisters

The girls studied singing, dancing, acting and went on tour with their mother managing them. There are conflicting stories about how they changed their name to Garland- but the Garland sisters they became for one year…until the trio broke up when older sister Suzy eloped.

Francis, now called Judy,became a solo act and at 13 signed with MGM. They didn’t know exactly how to cast her- too old for little girl roles, not sexy or skinny enough for vava-voom teen roles- they found a place for her paired with Boy Teen Hearthrob- Mickey Rooney. On a grueling filming schedule, and physically curving out they also put her on amphetamines to give her energy and help her get thin, and sleeping pills to counteract those. (We all know this doesn’t end well, right?)

At the age of 16 she was cast in the role of Dorothy.(And we all know how that worked out, too, right?)

After Oz, Judy went on to make many more musicals and her own life became more dramatic than any film. First married at 19 to band leader, David Rose-that marriage ended three years later when she fell for film director Vincent Minelli. That marriage lasted for one child (Liza) and about six years. By 30 she was twice divorced, was becoming known as being unreliable and dropped by MGM.

A third marriage to producer Sid Luft, two more children (Lorna and Joey) and a career touring as a stage act followed. She did make a few more movies, had a short lived television variety show, a very bitter divorce, two more marriages before financial financial troubles really set in. On June 22nd 1969 while in London she died of an accidental drug overdose.

She was only 47.

Judy Garland

Billie Burke

(Deep breath) Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke was born on August 7th, 1884 in Washington, DC. Her father was a circus clown (no, really, he was!) and she spent a great deal of her childhood traveling with the circus…really! We know, cool.  At 18 her family settled in London where she made her stage debut as an actress. By age 22 she was on Broadway. Shortly after that, Hollywood was calling and she answered. She decided that she preferred stage work and headed back to New York.

Billie Burke in Vanity Fair, 1920

It was there that she met her husband, show producer, Florenz Ziegfeld. Marriage and one child followed, but the family was plummeted into financial difficulties during the Crash of ’29. Within three years, Flo would be dead and Billie was back in movies to support her and her daughter, Patricia. (For more on Flo Ziegfeld and his show, see this post by our friends, The Bowery Boys)

Billie was usually type-cast as an upper class ditz with a high-pitched voice. She mostly appeared in comedies and musicals and in 1938- at the age of 54 we might add- she was cast to play Glinda, the good witch.

Billie at age 69…we all should age this well! Such natural beauty.

After Oz her career really didn’t slow down much. She would ultimately make over 80 movies,, have her own radio and television shows, and appear in stage productions. She retired from acting in 1960, and died from natural causes on May 14th, 1979 at the age of 85.

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Brainard Hamilton was born on December 9th, 1902 in Cleveland, Ohio. She attended an all-girls school and while she made her stage debut at 18, her parents insisted that she go to college. After college she became a kindergarten teacher, married and had one son…this life doesn’t really sound like the life of a movie star, does it? She did begin her acting career on the New York stage, but once she divorced her husband and was left to raise her son alone she kicked that acting career into overdrive.

A youngish Maggie

As a character actress, Margaret thought that she stood a better chance of getting work if she didn’t sign with one studio. Instead she made a very nice living traveling between them all and asking for weekly wages. When she was cast in Oz, she was guaranteed six weeks work…which turned into 23!

Her post Oz career included radio shows, television shows, a soap opera, and a very long run as the spokesperson for a coffee company. She was a lifelong supporter of education, made over 70 films and appeared in almost as many stage productions.

Margaret Hamilton, nothing like the witch…not one bit.

Following a heart attack, Margaret died in her sleep at the age of 82 on May 16th, 1985.

For media and book links to all things Oz, please see the shownotes from the Episode 37: The Wizard of Oz

As always, music comes courtesy of Music Alley, visit them at music.mevio.com