If you ask an elementary school student today how to spot a witch, there’s a good chance they’ll rattle off a few obvious giveaways— broomsticks, black cats, pointy hats and of course, the unmistakable green skin. Now, looking through historical deceptions of fictional and accused witches, it quickly becomes clear that the green skin hasn’t been part of witch mythology for very long. Various witch trials wouldn’t have really worked if the accused could have quickly pointed out how they lacked a deep, emerald hue. Unfortunately for the hundreds of men, women and children put on trial for witchcraft throughout history, witches only turned green in 1939.
This change in skin tone was brought about because of technological and economic forces, rather than anything supernatural. The first color movies were made in 1917, but they were expensive to produce. When MGM started producing 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, however, they decided to go all in, and they wanted to make sure the public appreciated their investment. Filming in color required elaborate, unwieldy Technicolor cameras that would film a different hue on three pieces of celluloid simultaneously so that they could later be combined into a full-color image. This required specialists, noise-dampening and more, so to make the most of it, producers pumped as much color into the art direction as possible.
Going green for the silver screen
While scenes of Kansas were shot in a desaturated sepia tone that was closer to the black and white audiences were accustomed to, Oz was an amazingly saturated world, complete with yellow-bricks and emerald buildings. Dorothy’s magical slippers were switched from the silver described in the original novel to ruby red, and of course, the wicked witch’s originally nondescript skin was painted a deep green. Unfortunately for actress Margaret Hamilton, the make-up used to accomplish this color was copper-based, and thus poisonous if ingested. Beyond that, it was also flammable, and an on-set accident left Hamilton with second-degree burns on her face and hands. So was this suffering, which was more direct suffering than any historical “witch” was ever charged with, worth it?
The film was well received by critics, but it’s initial release didn’t recoup the production expenses. It was finally in the black when it was rereleased in 1949, but the biggest impact may have come when it was shown on television in 1956. The Wizard of Oz has since been released in variety of formats, and has obviously become a cultural touchstone in the last 70 years. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s likely that you can now spot a villainous witch better than anyone in Salem ever could.
PS: Brooms and pointy hats actually predate green skin on witches, but their origins were a bit much for my second-grade and younger audience. Feel free to read about brooms here, and possible explanation for pointy hats here.
Source: Why Are Witches Green? by Linda Rodrguez McRobbie, Boing Boing