June 13, 1910 – Mary Wickes:
“Women like me. They think I’m wholesome or something.”
If you are fortunate enough to be a successful female character actor, you’ve probably made your living playing nuns, housekeepers, nosey neighbors, butch gym teachers, cranky old ladies, grannies, schoolmarms, eccentric aunts, witches, or some other lesbian stereotype. Mary Wickes played them all, and more, in a career that lasted more than six decades.
Sure enough, I first took note of her as a nurse, Miss Preen, in The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942), a role she had originated on Broadway in 1939. She did the cranky old lady thing as Aunt March in her final film, Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994). Wickes served as the live-action model for the Disney’s Cruella de Vil (voiced by glamorous Betty Lou Gerson) in 101 Dalmatians (1961); she was my favorite pick-a-little lady in The Music Man (1962), a nosy neighbor for sure; in Now, Voyager (1942); she played another nurse, this one wisecracking with Bette Davis‘s character.
Besides The Man Who Came to Dinner and Now, Voyager, Wickes also worked with Davis in June Bride (1948), which was filmed during the 1948 Presidential campaign between incumbent Harry S. Truman and Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Wickes was a staunch Republican. A line delivered by Wickes, referring to an old-fashioned home crammed full of Victoriana kitsch which desperately needed remodeling, was filmed twice, once as: “How can I convert this McKinley stinker into a Dewey modern?” and the second time with the name “Truman” instead of “Dewey”. When the film opened in late October, Dewey seemed to be the certain winner, so the Dewey line was used. When Truman unexpectedly won, a revised reel was sent to theaters. Davis, a staunch Truman supporter, sent co-star Robert Montgomery, who had headed the Hollywood Republican Committee to elect Dewey, and Wickes, a gleeful gloating telegram.
She understudied Margaret Hamilton in the Broadway play, The Farmer Takes A Wife (1934) with Henry Fonda, and then did Hamilton’s famous role of Almira Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West in a stage production of The Wizard Of Oz in 1971.
Her long lanky body, striking, expressive face, distinctive voice, and crack comic timing made her one of favorite performers.
Born Mary Isabella Wickenhauser in St. Louis to a wealthy family, contradicting those salty, working-class roles at which she excelled. She had abrupt, tell-it-like-it-is demeanor that made her an audience favorite. She was particularly good at playing characters that chided the rich and the overly pious.
She graduated from Washington University with a degree in political science with the intention to become a lawyer. She started doing theatre to overcome shyness on the advice of a professor. She did summer stock, and then moved to New York City where she landed an understudy job before Orson Welles hired her for his Mercury Theatre company.
Hollywood noticed, and Wickes was hired to reprise her role in The Man Who Came To Dinner for Warner Brothers opposite Bette Davis. She was cast in a larger role in an Abbott and Costello comedy, Who Done It? (1942), and then she continued to get work in supporting roles in films for the next decade, specializing in those sassy, wisecracking characters. Take note of her deadpan delivery the harassed housekeeper in the Doris Day musicals On Moonlight Bay (1951) and By The Light Of The Silvery Moon (1953), a character trope she repeated in the Irving Berlin holiday favorite White Christmas (1954), starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. She really got that nun thing going when she worked opposite Rosalind Russell in The Trouble With Angels (1966) and Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968), and kept it going as Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act (1992) and its sequel Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit (1993).
On the sitcom Dennis The Menace (1959-1963), she was a different sort of stereotype, Miss Esther Cathcart, a horny spinster who chases every single man in sight.
Wickes was never restrained by the studio system, working freelance extensively. This gave her a chance to work in a broader range of projects than most of her character actor contemporaries. She was a great, longtime friend of Lucille Ball and her family, doing frequent guest spots on I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. Day was another close friend, and she was a regular on The Doris Day Show (1970-72). By the 1980s, her appearances on television in series such as M*A*S*H, Columbo, The Love Boat, and Murder, She Wrote had made her a widely recognizable to other generations.
Wickes was that kind of actor, the one that everyone knows but can never quite put a name to, and she lived a quiet personal life with longtime partner, Abby Carson, a writer. They shared an apartment in New York for decades. She supported social causes without drawing attention to herself, and after her final credits rolled in 1995, she left her large estate to establish a library of obscure history of film and television at her alma mater.
I love her in Postcards From the Edge as the mother of Shirley MacLaine‘s character; it perfectly captures her unexpected wit and sensibility.