During last year’s Christmas break, which happened to be just days after the What a Character! Blogathon, I settled in to watch episodes of The Gertrude Berg Show and found myself laughing aloud. A lot. The Berg Show, which was originally titled Mrs. G Goes to College, is about a widow who goes to college after her children are grown. The situation comedy, which only lasted from 1961 to 1962, also featured the goings on in the building where Sarah Green lives. Green (aka Mrs. G), played by the talented Gertrude Berg, has daily exchanges with Cedric Hardwicke who plays Professor Crayton, another tenant in the building, and landlady Winona Maxfield played by Mary Wickes. By the end of the first episode of The Gertrude Berg Show, I’d decided who my actor of choice would be for this year’s What a Character! Blogathon.
Mary Wickes was born Mary Isabella Wickenhauser in St. Louis, Missouri on June 13, 1910. Mary was the only child of doting parents, Frank and Isabella Wickenhauser. Her upbringing was one of homespun values in a well-to-do household. Mary described her parents as civic-minded people who loved people, which resulted in Mary’s interests outside of acting. She remained close to her parents always.
On April 12, 1988, Mary Wickes returned to her alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis to deliver a speech in honor of a close friend and former dean. In the speech Mary talked about the importance of her “bedrock values” and about her career. “I am very proud of my profession, ” she said, “I am proud of the tradition and I can’t imagine doing anything but being an actress.”
If you can tell anything from watching Mary Wickes’ work it’s that she enjoyed doing it. That enjoyment coupled with her talent made her one of Hollywood’s most accomplished character actors. Interestingly, her story is not one of those where the entertainer dreamed of entertaining from an early age. Wickes recalled in the Washington U. speech that her parents loved the theater and that she was taken to see shows since she was very young. Mary went on to say that her reaction to watching shows was rather strange, “If anything was terribly funny, or just wonderful – the leading lady wore beautiful evening clothes and the scene just went so beautifully – I would cry.” Clearly, she was moved, but it still never occurred to her that she would become an actor at that early age. Her interests were varied. She majored in Political Science and joined every club imaginable including the debate team, which she enjoyed immensely. It wasn’t until her junior year that acting became a possibility when one of her professors suggested she go to an open audition at a local theater. Mary auditioned and got the part and at the end of the production, the director asked Mary to join his summer theater troupe to see how she would stack up opposite professional actors. He also suggested she might want to change her name because Mary Isabella Wickenhauser would not likely fit on a marquee. The task of figuring out what she wanted her stage name to be proved one of the few she would ever fail at. She simply couldn’t think of one. But when the publicity materials for her first play had to be printed Wickenhauser received a wire that read, “Your name will be Mary Wickes for the season.” And it stayed that way forever.
Mary Wickes went on to appear in over 200 productions in summer stock and regional theater. Her love of the stage lasted her entire career and she would travel to New York between movies for decades. Through the years she dazzled audiences in revivals of “The Wizard of Oz” wherein she played Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West, “Damn Yankees,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and “Oklahoma!” – all of which I would have killed to see.
While we’ve come to recognize Mary Wickes simply by the types of characters she played in movies and television, her stage credits demonstrate quite the acting range. She was prone to playing comedic roles that demanded more than the occasional deadpan delivery she excelled at. Orson Welles thought so too as he recruited her to be part of his famed The Mercury Theatre and cast her in his production of “Too Much Johnson” in 1938. A few years ago footage previously thought lost was discovered of this production to include prologues. I would love to get a look at that too.
Mary’s entrance onto The Great White Way was as smooth as her start as an actor. Wickes was in New York for less than a week in 1934 when she secured a part as understudy to Margaret Hamilton in “The Farmer Takes a Wife” starring Henry Fonda. As Steve Taravella explains in his fantastic 2016 biography, Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before, “The Farmer Takes a Wife” tried out in Philadelphia where Mary was asked to go on for Margaret Hamilton for the first matinée. That usually happens only once in…pretty much never. It was most certainly a sign as the Variety critic happened to attend that very performance and opined that Mary Wickes was “more than okay.”
Among her other notable Broadway shows are Philip Barry’s “Spring Dance” and Kaufman and Edna Ferber‘s “Stage Door,” the first of five Kaufman plays in which she originated parts and her first Broadway hit. Kaufman later called her his favorite comedienne. Mary Wickes adored working with George S. Kaufman and would forge a life-long friendship with the Kaufman family.
Mary’s signature stage role was in the original Broadway production of the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman comedy, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in 1939. She played the nurse, Miss Preen in hilarious fashion opposite the show’s star, Monty Woolley. She and Woolley reprised their roles in William Keighley’s film version in 1942. In 1972, Mary played Miss Preen again in a TV version directed by Buzz Kulik. Orson Welles played Sheridan Whiteside (the Woolley role) in that production.
Steve Taravella dedicates an entire chapter of his Wickes biography to Miss Preen, also known as “Miss Bedpan.” He explains how the success of the show, which ran for more than 700 performances, facilitated Broadway connections that helped Mary her entire career. And of course Miss Preen also cemented one of her signature character roles – the scene-stealing nurse. The movie version of The Man Who Came to Dinner was as successful as the play and it resulted in Mary becoming a favorite of directors, co-stars and audiences. And all because of a relatively small part opposite major screen gravitas also known as Bette Davis with whom Mary made three pictures. Given the popularity of Miss Preen it’s no wonder Mary Wickes was asked to bring other nurses to life on screen with the most popular example in our circles being nurse Dora Pickford in Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager (1942). Mary’s depiction of Dora is particularly important because she provides the only comic relief in an otherwise very serious movie. Anyone familiar with Now, Voyager has probably recognized that making people smile playing opposite Gladys Cooper‘s Mrs. Vale could not have been an easy task.
If one is to describe Mary Wickes’ overall specialty it was playing the prim, sarcastic woman who looked down her nose at those who failed to meet her standards. Her characters were either professional women like secretaries (and nurses) or smart-alecky commoners, which brings me to yet another of her staples – the housekeeper. The movies that come to mind where she plays a domestic are Roy Del Ruth’s On Moonlight Bay (1951) and its sequel, David Butler’s By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953). These delightful family musicals feature Leon Ames, Rosemary De Camp, Billy Gray and Doris Day who make up the Winfield family and Mary Wickes as their maid, Stella. Gordon MacRae also stars in both as William Sherman who falls in love with Doris’ Marjorie. You must take a look at the trailer for By the Light of the Silvery Moon because it features Mary as Stella breaking the fourth wall to explain the movie’s plot. These movies are as sweet as candy and I absolutely love the cast, but it’s Wickes I look most forward to even though her friend George S. Kaufman had written her from New York urging her to return to do stage work. Of On Moonlight Bay Mr. Kaufman said, “you’re too good for that sort of thing.” That’s probably true, but it’s what we have of Mary Wickes and if Kaufman doesn’t mind I will celebrate it by mentioning one of my favorite lines in either movie, which comes early in On Moonlight Bay. Stella is complaining to Mr. Winfield that the kitchen is too big and it tires her out so in pure Wickes style she says, “I’m bein’ paid to be a cook, not a cross-country runner!”
I think of Mary Wickes’ movie career as made up of many special moments as is the case with many of our favorite character actors. After all these actors didn’t star in their own movies. And like the best of ’em Mary had a lot stored in her talent cannon. For instance, her physical prowess was unique. She said a lot with her eyes, used her hands beautifully to emphasize eccentricity and her lanky frame allowed for more than a few memorable slapstick moments on film. It was her timing, however, that made her a standout like Eve Arden, Thelma Ritter and a few other top-notch actors of the supporting kind. If you want to check out a few of Mary Wickes’ other movies, you might try Edward Cline’s fun put-on-a-show Private Buckaroo (1942) or Erle C. Kenton’s Who Done It? (1942) with Abbott and Costello. Then there’s Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas (1954) in which she plays housekeeper Emma, one of her most enduring roles. She portrayed another Emma in George Cukor’s The Actress (1953) and you might also like her portrayal of “Pick-a-little lady” in Morton DaCosta’s The Music Man (1962). And…and…there are simply too many.
If none of those make you slap happy you can also enjoy another of Mary’s famous on-screen depictions – the nun – in Ida Lupino’s The Trouble with Angels (1966) and its sequel, James Neilson’s Where Angels Go Trouble Follows! (1968), both starring Rosalind Russell. I assure you Mary’s religious types are as fun as her nurses and maids. Three decades after the movies with Russell in which she played Sister Clarissa Mary enjoyed a career resurgence as Sister Mary Lazarus in the hugely popular Sister Act (1992) and its sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993). By that point Wicks was in the seventh decade of her career and her timing was still on target.
The more mature Mary Wickes also portrayed the cranky old relative role to perfection. She did so in Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge (1990), which broke a dry spell for the veteran actor who hadn’t been offered feature parts for quite some time. Mary’s work on television never ceased, but movie parts were few and far between after her appearance in the Angels movies. It’s nice to know that the 1990s were good to her. Following Edge and the Sister Act movies she played Aunt March in Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994). Her final movie performance was as the voice of the gargoyle Laverne in the Disney animated feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and her final performance on television was as the voice of Grandma in the animated series Life with Louie.
I’ve left the discussion of Mary Wickes’ career on television for last because it’s how I first met her. Also, it brings this full circle since I began this Wickes journey with a mention of The Gertrude Berg Show, which is highly recommended. Mary received her only award nomination for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actress for her work in that show. She didn’t win the award, but she makes me laugh like all heck and so she has my heart. Her reactions and comebacks are priceless at every turn.
Mary made her acting television debut as Mary Poppins in a 1949 episode of the anthology series, Studio One in Hollywood. Yes, she was the original Poppins anywhere at any time!
From then on Wickes’ TV roles never stopped. She was a regular on such notables as Make Room for Daddy, Zorro, Julia, The Jimmy Stewart Show, Doc and Father Dowling Mysteries. She also had a recurring role on Dennis the Menace, which I’ve been watching lately and in which Mary Wickes is a hoot. Mary plays Miss Esther Cathcart, a single woman out to get a man at all costs. Miss Cathcart often uses Dennis in her schemes to hilarious effect. So far my favorite moments on the show are when Miss Cathhart sings, which she does to impress, but which results in broken mirrors, barking dogs and the like. If you have an extra moment be sure to check out Miss Cathcart’s rendition of “Love’s Old Sweet Song.” She really had such ease with comedy and clearly did anything asked of her with aplomb.
As a guest Mary Wickes appeared in every type of show imaginable from variety to mystery to everything in between. I can only mention a few standouts. When Gloria Swanson kicked off her The Gloria Swanson Hour she asked Mary Wickes to be her very first guest. Mary also guested on two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1956, the first of which, “The Baby Sitter,” directed by Robert Stevens is quite special. The episode stars Thelma Ritter as a baby sitter who gets involved in a murder. I wouldn’t say the story here is particularly noteworthy, but watching two of the premier character actors of the last century together is a thrill for film geeks like me, not to mention appropriate for this blogathon event. It’s Ritter and Wickes for crissakes.
One of my favorite of Mary Wickes’ TV guest spots was her small but hilarious part as the second murder victim’s landlady in Columbo “Suitable for Framing.” Her exchange with the Lt. alone is worth several admission prices. In this episode Wickes’ talent for playing characters that danced to their own beat so they easily carry on their own conversations despite who else might have been talking to them is in full bloom. If that sentence didn’t make sense, then good. This picture says it all…
I have to stop talking about Ms. Wickes at some point so it might as well be with a mention of Mary and Lucy. As most of you probably know Lucille Ball and Mary Wickes were close friends. Among Mary’s effects at Washington University are several letters from Lucy and Lucie Arnaz refers to Mary as family. I get a bit of the chills thinking about the two legendary comediennes laughing together behind the scenes, telling each other secrets and comforting each other as friends do.
Lucy and Mary were also frequent co-stars. Everyone remembers the classic first season episode of I Love Lucy, “The Ballet” with Mary playing the part of a ballet teacher, Madame Lamond. The episode begins in familiar fashion – Ricky is working on a show and needs a ballet dancer and Lucy tries to convince him she is a ballet dancer. In order to hone her skills Lucy goes to see Madame Lamond, the French premiere ballerina who is staging Ricky’s number. Lucy also tells Madame Lamond that she’s experienced. You know how well that turns out. But the important thing are the laughs and there are plenty of them here thanks to Lucy’s hijinks and Mary’s unforgettable reactions and her affected French accent.
Mary only appeared in that one episode of I Love Lucy, but she appeared regularly in both of Lucille’s subsequent shows, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. Wickes made a total of seventeen appearances on both shows always as different characters. You’ll be happy to know that a few were nurses, a few were maids, a few were nuns and one was named Mrs. Wickenhauser.
Mary Wickes knew that she excelled at comedy, which she called “very serious business.” And she loved what she did, which makes her story a particularly happy one. There were times when the going was a bit tougher than other times, but she worked most of her career because her talent was recognized as indispensable. When Mary gave her speech at Washington University she was 77 years old and ended the speech by paraphrasing St. Augustine in charming and endearing fashion. She said, “He said, ‘give me chastity and continence, O Lord, but not yet.’ And me – ‘I want rest, retirement, and quiet, O Lord, but not yet. And maybe never.”’
Mary Wickes, What a Character!
The great Ms. Wickes is my choice for this year’s What a Character! Blogathon, which I am co-hosting with pals Kellee Pratt and Paula Guthat. Be sure to visit all three days of entries.
Day 3 at Paula’s Cinema Club (still to come)
For more about the incomparable Mary Wickes visit:
It’s important that you are aware of how seriously I take research on this blog. As part of my ceaseless efforts I tweeted Whoopi Goldberg and asked about her experience working with Mary Wickes in the Sister Act movies. Ms. Goldberg never responded, but that’s the kind of dedication I’m talking about.