Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before
Release Date: June 1, 2013
University of Mississippi Press
Hardcover, 370 pages
Throughout a seven-decade career in show business, Mary Wickes was a welcome and hilarious presence in hundreds of movies, television series and films, stage productions, and radio broadcasts. Much like contemporaries such as Thelma Ritter and Margaret Hamilton, the tall and somewhat gangly Wickes excelled at a certain type of role–the supporting comic relief, in the form of sharp-tongued nurses, cooks, housekeepers, nuns, dowagers, and befuddled observers of the antic happenings around her. In the process, she shared stage and screen with some of the biggest stars from classic Hollywood, among them Bette Davis, Abbott and Costello, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Doris Day, Rosalind Russell, Ethel Merman, Shirley MacLaine, and of course, her longtime best friend, Lucille Ball. Simply put, Wickes had one of those faces that is instantly recognizable, and she remains much beloved by classic film fans (indeed, she is forever a favorite of the crew here at True Classics).
Steve Taravella’s recent biography of Wickes, appropriately subtitled I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before, paints the portrait of a determined woman who sought to become an actor not for love of money or fame, but for the sheer joy of performing. In fact, as Taravella points out, she often went against her own financial best interests, eschewing agents and managers and likely accepting compensation for far less than she was worth. Mary wanted to support herself, but wealth was not a particular goal. For her, it was all about the work, and her chosen career was one of the great loves of her life–the other being her mother, Isabella, with whom Mary was extremely close. Through correspondence between mother and daughter–revealed through unprecedented access to Wickes’ estate and the collection of her papers at her alma mater, Washington University–Taravella highlights a loving, close relationship between mother and daughter that ultimately reveals much about Mary’s personality.
After initially discussing young Mary Isabelle Wickenhauser’s upbringing and college days in St. Louis, Taravella then structures his examination of Mary’s life largely by certain aspects of her career, from her early days in the theater through her television work and her film successes. While this structure seems jarring at first (for example, Taravella jumps from discussing her 1930s stage work to her days in television in the 40s and 50s before devoting a chapter to Wickes’ work in both the theater and big-screen versions of The Man Who Came to Dinner), it actually works quite well in saving the biography from being a mere dry, chronological retelling of Wickes’ life.
The biography is incredibly well-researched, and it is obvious that Taravella put an immense amount of work into providing readers as thorough an understanding of Mary Wickes as possible. I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before is filled with interesting anecdotes about Wickes’ career that may be wholly unfamiliar to her many fans. Even the most ardent of her admirers may be surprised to discover new facets of Mary’s life in reading this book: for instance, did you know that Mary Wickes was the first performer to ever play Mary Poppins, in an early television production from 1949? Or that Wickes survived breast cancer in the early 1960s after undergoing a mastectomy (something she kept secret for years)?
A number of photographs accompany Taravella’s narrative, including family portraits, film stills, and behind-the-scenes shots from various productions. Of particular interest in the book is an appendix including a detailed compilation of Wickes’ performances over the years, from film to television to stage and radio; Taravella even provides a selected listing of Wickes’ promotional appearances as herself on talk and game shows, and a list of commercials in which she appeared. To see fifteen printed pages listing every Mary Wickes performance in multiple forms of media over the course of seven decades drives home how truly dedicated and prolific an actress she was.
If there is any quibble to be found in Taravella’s work, it is in some of the extraneous details, namely a sprinkling of typos and misspellings of other actors’ names (one example: a mention of Zac Efron’s performance in 2008’s Me and Orson Welles adds an extra “f” to the actor’s last name). But this is a minor inconvenience in an otherwise well-conceived effort.
Our rating: 4.5/5 stars
Bottom Line: As the portrait of a consummate performer, Taravella’s biography serves as a fond remembrance of one of the greatest character actors of all time, a woman whose talent for making people laugh was virtually unparalleled. Highly recommended.
[Disclosure: True Classics heartily thanks the University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before for the purposes of this review.]