Monday 17 December 2018

Mary Wickes, The Original On-Screen Mary Poppins, Was “Devastated” When Walt Disney Snubbed Her For The Iconic Movie Role .

Mary Wickes, Julie Andrews, Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins 

This week brings the release of Mary Poppins Returns, in which Emily Blunt takes over one of Julie Andrews’ most iconic roles. But she isn’t the second screen performer to swing from that parrot-handled umbrella and have a bag like the inside of a Tardis—she’s the third.
On December 19, 1949, in a one-hour live Studio One in Hollywood presentation on CBS (a weekly anthology series), Mary Wickes became the first actor to play Mary Poppins.
You might not know her name, but you’ll almost certainly recognize her face—or voice. Born Mary Isabelle Wickenhauser in 1910, she died in 1995 after a stage, film, and TV career that spanned 61 years. Her first movie role was as nurse Miss Preen in The Man Who Came to Dinner, which she also starred in on Broadway. Her last was as a cartoon gargoyle in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Along the way, she showed up in The Music Man, a clutch of early Doris Day movies, White Christmas, Postcards from the Edge, Little Women, and a range of supporting and guest roles on TV, including her good friend Lucille Ball’s sitcoms, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy and I Love Lucy.

She was in one of the most memorable episodes of the latter, “The Ballet,” playing Madame Lamond, a baton-wielding retired prima ballerina who Lucy has to impress in order to make it into Ricky’s show. She attempts to assess Lucy’s abilities but when she shouts a series of increasingly sophisticated instructions, Lucy’s legs become so pretzeled, Lamond has to insert her baton between Lucy’s knees to untangle her and twirls her around, without breaking a sweat or cracking a smile.
Her killer comic timing meant she excelled at both farce and dry wit and she held her own against the most talented comedians of every era, including Whoopi Goldberg in Wickes’ most high-profile role as the freshly-ousted choir director Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act, which she took when she was 81.
She was certainly pigeonholed. As her New York Times obituary put it, “She specialized in sourness, or, more politely, acerbity, which she used to her comic advantage in roles as housekeepers, spinsters, wicked stepmothers, nuns and back-talking secretaries.”
But there was more to her than that: she imbued the characters she played with kindness and dignity, and while a lazier actor might have rolled out the same battle-axe act for every gig, she made sure each one was a distinct individual. Emma Allen in White Christmas is a different housekeeper than Marie in Father Dowling Investigates, and both of those are different from Emma Flood, the retired Marine-turned-temporary housekeeper she played in an episode of The Doris Day Show.
She often stole scenes, by virtue of her natural charisma and comedic talent rather than because she tried to draw attention to herself, and elevated everything she starred in. As Stella the cook, she prevents the Doris Day musicals On Moonlight Bay and By The Light of the Silvery Moon becoming irredeemably twee, like when the family’s youngest child Wesley crashes into her tea tray, smashing everything, and she mutters, “I wonder what you get for manslaughter in this state.”
One performance that’s aged badly is her season three appearance on M*A*S*H, when she played Rachel, an army nurse who aggressively pursues Frank (Larry Linville) and then accuses him of rape when Houlihan (Loretta Swit) finds them kissing. In his insightful and aptly-titled biography of Wickes, I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before, Steve Taravella points out that the trope of a desperate, tragic single woman was unfortunately pushed on her regularly, although usually to a lesser extreme, including in June Bride, the Dennis the Menace TV show, and 1942 Abbott and Costello movie Who Done It?
The so-called humor seemed to derive from the alleged ridiculousness of the idea that someone like Wickes (tall and loud, with a big nose and a weak chin) could be attractive to men or the hero of her own story. Perhaps today she would be offered a wider variety of roles, have the ability to produce her own material or subvert her image using YouTube, to become the star instead of the sidekick.
Like a pop culture Forrest Gump, she participated in some momentous events in entertainment history. She played Bette Davis’ mother’s nurse in Now, Voyager, appeared alongside Grace Kelly when Kelly made her stage debut (in The Torch-Bearers at the Bucks County Playhouse near Philadelphia) and had the questionable honor of being the animation model for Disney’s Cruella de Vil.
SISTER ACT, Mary Wickes, 1992. ©Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
Mary Wickes starred alongside Whoopi Goldberg in the 1992 smash, Sister Act.Photo: Everett Collection

But she never became a household name and was underappreciated critically, too. The closest she ever came to an award was a supporting actress Emmy nomination in 1962 for short-lived sitcom Mrs. G. Goes to College (later renamed The Gertrude Berg Show).
She claimed not to mind her lack of fame. “They may not ask for my autograph,” the New York Times reports her saying, “as long as they sign my paycheck.” But Steve Taravella writes that she was devastated to not be remembered as the first Mary Poppins.
Her portrayal reportedly earned her the largest amount of fan-mail for a CBS show to that point and for years afterward, she asked the network and later Walt Disney to stage a remake. It’s not clear whether she held onto the dream of playing Poppins again until 1964, when the movie came out, but Taravella reports that she told a Houston Chronicle journalist “it broke my heart” to not be involved in some capacity.

As the popularity of the first movie grew and now as the hype around the sequel is ramping up, her stint as Mary Poppins fades further from our collective cultural memory. That’s understandable: made before streaming, DVDs, or color TV, it was never repeated and hasn’t show up online.

There’s no way for contemporary audiences to evaluate her performance or to compare it to the actors who came after. There’s also no way to give her the plaudits she deserved while she was alive for being one the best character actors of all time. But as the role she originated is revived once more, the least we can do is remember Mary Wickes: the original Mary Poppins and a first-rate second banana.

Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist writing about pop culture, health and books. Her bylines include The Guardian, The Washington Post and Bitch Media. She also tweets: @dianeshipley 

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