What a Character: Mary Wickes

By all accounts, Mary Wickes did not start out her life with the intention to become an actress. She was a St. Louis debutante who attended college early, graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in political science with plans to attend law school–that is, until she gave in to the allure of the stage and headed to New York instead. Appearances on Broadway eventually led her to Hollywood, and she found her niche as a character actress, generally typecast as a wisecracking sidekick–nurses, secretaries, housekeepers–in a number of sprightly comedies.

Wickes certainly did not look–or sound like–the typical Hollywood starlet. Her tall, thin, somewhat gangly frame had her towering over many of her fellow actors. She had wide-set eyes and a long nose that gave her a rather patrician profile. Her voice was remarkable: loud and insistent, demanding to be heard, marked by high-pitched cracks and growls that grew more distinct in her later years. She demonstrated an impeccable sense of comic timing, and she seemed to have an almost instinctive sense for well-staged reaction shots (few could say more with a pair of widened eyes than Mary Wickes could). Everything about her was unique. Even if she never intended to be an actress, there’s no denying she was custom-made to be one anyway.

Wickes appeared in a few cinematic shorts in the 1930s, including a notable one in 1938 called Too Much Johnson, directed by Orson Welles, which she made while a member of Welles’ Mercury Theater. She finally made her feature film debut at the age of thirty-two, when she appeared in the 1942 classic The Man Who Came to Dinner. In the film, Wickes reprises her role from the original Broadway production alongside co-star Monty Woolley (who plays the main character, popular radio host Sheridan Whiteside). As the much-maligned nurse, Miss Preen, Wickes bears the brunt of the acerbic Whiteside’s sharp-tongued barbs (in addition to some manhandling courtesy of Jimmy Durante). Her reactions to Whiteside’s constant insults range from wild confusion to wide-eyed horror to, finally, a sharp-tongued rant of her own–a brilliant moment that highlights Wickes’ comedic abilities:

“I am not only walking out on this case, Mr. Whiteside, I am leaving the nursing profession. I became a nurse because all my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity. After one month with you , Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory. From now on, anything I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure. If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed you, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross!”

Wickes parlayed that memorable supporting role into a number of others throughout the next fifty-something years. In the process, she starred with some of the biggest names of the classic Hollywood era, among them Bette Davis (the aforementioned Dinner; Now, Voyager; June Bride; The Actress), Abbott and Costello (Who Done It?); Doris Day (On Moonlight Bay, I’ll See You in My Dreams, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, It Happened to Jane); Jack Lemmon (How to Murder Your Wife); Rosalind Russell (The Trouble with Angels; Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows); Frank Sinatra (Higher and Higher); Bing Crosby (White Christmas); and many, many more.

Wickes was even immortalized in animation due to her involvement in two high-profile Disney features. For the 1961 classic 101 Dalmatians, Wickes served as the live-action model for the villainous Cruella De Vil. Disney’s Marc Davis animated the character, and according to his widow, Alice Estes Davis, Wickes was hand-picked by him to serve as the physical inspiration for Cruella: “She was very tall, slim, had good bone structure and was a wonderful comedienne. All he had to do was tell her once how he wanted her to walk and move and that and she did it.” Wickes also supplied one of the additional voices in the film.

But Disney wasn’t quite done with her after that; thirty-four years later, Wickes’ final role before her death in 1995 was recording the voice of Laverne, one of the gargoyles in Disney’s adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Sadly, Wickes passed away before completing her part, and the rest of her lines were filled in by actress Jane Withers (who also voiced Laverne in the highly unnecessary sequel to the film in 2002).

Wickes also made her mark on the small screen, with a number of appearances on popular television shows. Most notably, she became great friends with a fellow comedienne, the legendary Lucille Ball, and over the years, she appeared in several different incarnations on Lucy’s various television series. Her most well-known guest role, however, was her first (and the only one she would make on Ball’s first series, I Love Lucy). In 1952, she appeared as Madame Lemond, a grand dame of a dancing teacher, in the episode “The Ballet.” That episode remains one of the most beloved of the entire series, namely for the scene in which Wickes puts Lucy through her paces:

Lemond: “I think we should go to the barre.”
Lucy: “Oh, good, ’cause I’m awful thirsty.”

When Wickes passed away in 1995, Lucie Arnaz spoke at the memorial service and recalled the many times Wickes would come over to their home while she was growing up: “Mary was just like one of the family. If any of us were sick or even in bed with a cold, Mary would show up at the back door with a kettle of chicken soup. She could be loud and boisterous and as demanding as any of the characters she played, but she was also very loving and giving. What a lady!”

What a lady, indeed. In her eighty-five years on this earth, Mary Wickes appeared in over a hundred films and television series. She never lacked for new roles, and indeed remained a popular entertainer; in her final years, her popularity saw a resurgence with memorable roles in Postcards from the Edge, the Sister Act films (in which she played crusty, feisty Sister Mary Lazarus), and the 1994 version of Little Women, in which she played Aunt March. In the end, it’s little wonder Wickes was able to maintain a seven-decade career, because it is simply a joy to watch her onscreen. Even in the smallest of roles, she brings warmth, humor, and pure zing to each film she graces. In every sense of the word, Mary Wickes was quite the character.

 

This post is our submission to the “What a Character!” blogathon hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Once Upon a Screen, and Paula’s Cinema Club. The blogathon concludes tomorrow, so make sure to check out all of the great characters being discussed by the participating blogs!

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21 thoughts on “What a Character: Mary Wickes

  1. Pingback: WHAT A CHARACTER! Sunday entries… | Once upon a screen...

  2. Nicely done, Brandie.

    I hope you’ll forgive a little dark humor, and I hope no one will take it the wrong way, but these things happen and it’s part of life so here goes.

    A few years ago, my Dad stroked and and it really rung his chimes good and proper. He was unable to form intelligible speech and there wasn’t really any way to tell whether he could understand what we were saying and, well, it was bad.

    I was struck by the difference in assessment of his condition by the various members of the hierarchy at the convalescent hospital. Doctors were the most optimistic, saying he had every chance of a full recovery, before wandering off to a 3pm tee-time, nurses were consoling and hopeful, saying well he might, but—

    The physical therapist was, in stark contrast, brutally honest, and told me, “oh hell no, he’s hammered. He’s not going anywhere, I guarantee.”

    I said exactly two words in response, and they were:

    “Mary Wickes.”

    Quoth the bewildered therapist: “Excuse me?”

    Sorry. Told you it was little dark.

  3. I’ve never ever come across anyone who doesn’t love Mary Wickes. Without a doubt one of the best ever. As you say, her timing was impeccable, always unforgettable. This is a wonderful tribute to her and her impressive career. A JOY indeed. A GREAT READ on a great actress.

    LOVE to learn she was the (physical) inspiration for Cruella de Ville. I had no clue.

    Aurora

  4. I didn’t know that she didn’t complete her role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame – next time I watch I’ll be testing the lines to see which ones are her.

    I love Wickes because she fits into both the classic Hollywood films but still starred in things as the years went by. My first introduction to her was Sister Act and I worked backwards from there. And I’m with Aurora – fascinating that she was the physical double for Cruella – I’ll never watch that film the same way again!

  5. This is great read. Wickes did some of the best non-verbal acting ever…I’d never have guessed she was a debutante. That would have been a great movie right there.

  6. Brandie, I became a Mary Wickes fan after seeing her on TCM in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. I remembered seeing her on episodes of I LOVE LUCY and other sitcoms during my childhood, but I didn’t realize she’d been performing in films and on TV for seven decades – wow! My husband Vinnie recognized both the voices of Mary Wickes and Jane Withers in the Disney version of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (he’s got a great ear for these things). I really enjoyed your tidbits about Mary being a debutante, as well as being Cruella DeVil’s live-action model! Loved your rich trove of Wickes lore! Great post, as always!

  7. I also didn’t know she was the live action model for Cruella De Vil. A wonderful character actress, she was delightful. More than holds her own as one of the best things about “White Christmas” (1954). Great post.

  8. I have always loved Mary Wickes – I think a movie is always that much better for her having been in it. I also didn’t realize she was the inspiration for Disney’s Cruella DeVille. This is a lovely tribute to a very talented woman.

  9. Mary Wickes is one of those old Hollywood names the mention of still make me smile. If a Hall of Fame just for character Actor’s existed Mary Wickes would be among those front and center! Enjoyable post of one not be forgotten thanks for this Paula.

  10. Beautifully written, Brandie and chockful of goodies! Like the others, I adore Mary–and not just because I’m built like her! White Christmas, Trouble with Angels, and Now, Voyager are my favorite turns of hers…no one can kiss Bing Crosby like Mary!! Thanks for a thoughtful, funny, well-crafted tribute. I loved reading this! Warmly, Kay

  11. I didn’t know Mary Wickes was the model for Cruella! Such an interesting note!!! Who doesn’t love her?? I think my favorite role of hers is the nurse in Now, Voyager. She definitely held her own against Mrs. Vale. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Wow, I learned a lot about Mary. She had an amazing career through several medias. The Cruela inspiration was totally new to me.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses, Brandie!

  13. I’ll always remember her as the eavesdropper who causes the rift between Bing & Rosemary in WHITE CHRISTMAS and in the serial “Annette” (starring you-know-who) on THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB.

  14. My autistic/developmentally delayed son does a spot-on impersonation of Mary as LaVerne the gargoyle in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. I recently showed him Mary’s picture on the cover of my “Father Dowling Mysteries” DVD and he talked like LaVerne for the rest of the day! One of the last Father Dowling episodes gave Marie the housekeeper a romantic interest in Ivan Dixon. Mary didn’t get many on screen romances, so that one made up for lot of overlooked opportunities.

    A wonderful article on a wonderful gal.

  15. Pingback: Thelma Ritter, WHAT A CHARACTER! | Once upon a screen...

  16. A book just came out:

    Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (Hollywood Legends) [Hardcover]
    Steve Taravella (Author)

  17. Pingback: Thelma Ritter, WHAT A CHARACTER! «

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