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!