Today is, sadly, the final day of what has been one of the most entertaining, challenging, and rewarding weeks of my life. For seven days straight we have celebrated the life and work for famed character actress Mary Wickes. In this final installment, I will share with you the projects Mary participated in with The Walt Disney Company.
I was five years old when Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released in 1996. As an avid Disney fan since birth, I had seen each new movie as it was released, and Hunchback was no exception.
Disney's Hunchback, like most of their projects that involved source material, was highly-adapted and shaped to fit the franchise. In Hunchback's case, they added three stone gargoyles that would spring to life to comfort the deformed Quasimodo and give him sage advice, injecting humor into the religion-charged narrative. Hugo, the comedian gargoyle, was played by Seinfeld favorite Jason Alexander, while Victor, the staunch, rational gargoyle, was played by Murphy Brown's Charles Kimbrough.
Laverne, the grumpy gargoyle with the heart of gold, was played by (you guessed it) Miss Mary Isabella Wickenhauser herself! Hunchback was her final credit in a storied career that spanned nearly 70 years.
Yet, surprisingly, this project was not her first connection with Disney-related fame.
Many people don't know that Mary was the first person to ever play Mary Poppins on screen in a 1949 episode of the live television show Studio One. According to Wickes biographer Steve Taravella, "Mary's appearance and temperament were ideally suited to Poppins. As the teleplay opens, an obviously windblown Mary arrives to care for the Banks children dressed in a straw hat decorated with flowers, long woolen scarf and gloves, hair in bun, umbrella in hand, high-ankle black shoes, dark overcoat, and carpet bag. Mary's Poppins is terse, stern, and matter of face-almost severe-yet she clearly has the children's interests at heart and will be an advocate for them." (203) The show drew raves, prompting director Sherman Marks to wire Mary: "Congratulations. I know 'Mary Poppins' has made radio and movies a thing of the past." (203)
It was Mary herself who convinced Disney to consider Mary Poppins for the big screen, according to Taravella: "...Mary was having lunch [on the Disney Lot]...when Disney came in. 'I kind of smiled at him and he said, "May I join you?" I said, "Oh, please." He sat down and we chatted...' She pushed Mary Poppins so enthusiastically that she came to believe it was she who got him to proceed with the project, although she acknowledged at least once that someone else had already mentioned it to him." (204)
When Disney finally produced Poppins, Mary was replaced by Julie Andrews. "I just can't understand the Julie Andrews casting at all," Paul Nickell, Mary's director in Poppins, said. "It's completely beyond me why Mary wasn't even considered for it, as far as I know." (204-205)
Despite the sadness of not being the most famous Mary Poppins of all time, Wickes was proud of her tenure as the dream nanny. "I was the original Mary Poppins - nobody did it before me!" Max Showalter remembers her proudly boasting. (203)
Another iconic Disney character that Mary played a part in creating was that of the wild-eyed, fur-loving Cruella de Vil in 1961's animated feature 101 Dalmatians. Gorgeous actress Betty Lou Gerson was cast as the voice of the devilish woman, but her body wasn't physically right the animators to observe to create Cruella's movement. So, as always, Mary was called in to don the famous hairdo and fur coat of the larger-than-life Tallulah Bankhead-inspired force of nature.
According to Taravella: "In 1959, in black satin dress and costume wig (half black, half white), waving a cigarette extender and frightening elan, Mary preened and gestured on a bare stage to help Disney animator Marc Davis capture the woman who wanted to make fur coats out of cute puppies. But this was no quick day job; Mary was the model for a couple of weeks. 'I thought, I'll just go out and they'll photograph me,' she said. 'The thing that's funny [is that] to me it was backwards. All the dialogue had been recorded. So I had to fit my movements to the dialogue. I would think it would be better the other way around.' Dalmatians was the first and only time Mary took a job of this sort, but Davis says she did great work. 'I used her suggestions and made them more so. If you looked at the footage of Mary and then the character, you would have a difficult time seeing the resemblance. It's suggestion you need,' said Davis...She was very proud of One Hundred and One Dalmatians." (72-73)
In Mary's files at Washington University, there are several prime shots of Mary as Miss de Vil:
Mary's final acting credit, as well as her final connection with Disney, was her portrayal of Laverne in Hunchback. In fact, Mary died before her lines were finished, so actress Jane Withers had to come in to expertly dub Wickes' trademark verbal signature.
Mary was in the throes of macular degeneration when she recorded the lines for Hunchback, so she had to have her script written out in large print to see them. Looking at the script in her files inspired me instantly, showing her tenacity and drive to work right up until the end. These are just a smattering of pages from her personal script:
And, with that, Mary died at the age of 85 on October 22nd, 1995.
Hunchback was the first thing I ever saw Mary in... or so I thought. When I was three or four, I discovered 101 Dalmatians. I was obsessed with Cruella de Vil and pretended my sandbox was her car as I'd joyfully squeal "crazy woman driver!" Little did I know that Mary served as the character model for Cruella. How was I to know? But, when preparing for this research and I saw those photos above, I nearly started to weep.
Mary, inadvertently, played a huge part in my upbringing. Whether it was I Love Lucy or Hunchback, she became like a comfort food to me, her presence a necessary balm for the wounds of the world. Even when I was surrounded by Mary's aura this week, I still watched her clips and episodes with fevered glee. She inspires me continually to always work at my craft, be the best that I can be, and never forget that there's always a place for a person who works hard in this world.
This project that I decided to undertake was a labor of love and one that I am incredibly proud of. To spend a week steeped in a bygone era of glamour and quality entertainment was like going to Disney World.
So, whenever you see Mary in an episode of Lucy or watch Dalmatians with your children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, you can proudly say, "I know I've seen that face before! And I adore her."
This project would have been impossible without the help of some brilliant contributors along the way:
Steve Taravella, whose biography of Mary made this project possible and was nice enough to give me a shout-out on Twitter with some very kind words!
— Steve Taravella (@Mary_Wickes) October 17, 2016
To the Special Collections Department of Washington University - St. Louis, and especially Sonya Rooney, who allowed me to wade deep into Mary's papers and could not have been more charitable, helpful, and kind! (They even gave me a shoutout on the University Blog! How about that?)
And to all of you fans out there who read my work and encourage me to be as strong as Mary every day, especially Joan Crotty, my #1 fan!
(All documents courtesy of: Mary Wickes Papers, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections, University Archives)
**I thank you for spending the entire week with me to celebrate the life and times of character actress Mary Wickes!**
I invite you to visit my new website, StevenKrage.com! I'm very proud of my new creation and would love to hear your feedback about it.
And the newest episode of my podcast, The Objectivist and The Vegan, has been uploaded to SoundCloud!
In this episode, Steven and Jack debate the good and the bad of the 1990s. Dating advice and potential pitfalls also get the glamorous verbal lashing of Mr. Krage and Mr. Bower! Click the orange play button below to enter our nutty world: