We all remember classic lines from classic movies. When we hear those lines, we immediately think of the actor, then the film and finally the character who uttered the words:
“Made it Ma, top of the world”, James Cagney; WHITE HEAT (1949); Arthur “Cody” Jarrett.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, Clark Gable; GONE WITH THE WIND (1939); Rhett Butler.
“Here’s looking at you, kid”, Humphrey Bogart; CASABLANCA (1942), Rick Blaine.
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”, Marlon Brando, THE GODFATHER (1972); Vito Corleone.
It’s rare, however, when more than 80 years after appearing on the screen, the mere image of a character can trigger immediate recognition, while very few people can name the actor playing the part. In the pictures above, who doesn’t recognize Ming the Merciless, evil ruler of the planet Mongo and arch-enemy of Flash Gordon in the Universal Studio’s 1936, ‘38 and ’40 movie serials, and the Wicked Witch of the West/ Elmira Gulch, who terrorized young Dorothy Gale, and her little dog, in the classic film, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)? But who were the actors playing those immortal roles?
Born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky in October, 1874, Charles Middleton was the son of a former Confederate officer who had made millions in land speculation. The family claimed to be direct descendants of Arthur Middleton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Not needing to work for a living, young Charles looked for a way to express himself, finally finding acting as a way to fulfill that need. After working in stage musicals, vaudeville and even a traveling circus, Middleton finally turned to films in 1920, at age 47. With the coming of sound, his villainous face and baritone voice made him a perfect foil for comedians like Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy. In the Marx Brothers film DUCK SOUP (1933), he even sings and dances. In a 30-year film career, which included appearances in over 200 films, he played every imaginable type of character, including playing Abraham Lincoln three times, as well as playing Lincoln’s father Tom, and even Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Despite all of that, to many of us, Charles Middleton will always be remembered as Ming The Merciless.
In a role which terrorized generations of children, Margaret Hamilton appeared on screen in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) for less than 12 minutes. Born in Cleveland, Ohio in December, 1902, young Margaret was drawn to acting at a young age. She made her stage debut in 1923, doing children’s theater, while attending college. She loved children and, before turning to acting full time, had been a kindergarten teacher (among her students were future actors, William Windom and Jim Backus). Even though she was a veteran of more than 70 films as well as two different TV soap operas and TV commercials, she spent the remaining decades of her life, including a visit to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, explaining to children that she was only acting as the witch and mean neighbor lady, Elmira Gulch. Despite that, children always approached her to ask why she was so mean to Dorothy. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, she died in her sleep in May, 1985. She was 82
More stories from Silver Screen Memories next week.