Mary Wickes: We Suspect She’s a Treasure

WICKES, MARY 5“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!”

It was the above marvelously misanthropic Yuletide declaration in the 1942 comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner that capped off the feature film debut of actress Mary Wickes. Re-creating her Broadway stage role as Miss Preen, the long-suffering nurse to (and target of constant insults from) acid-tongued author Sheridan Whiteside, Wickes met with immediate acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Over the next half-century she would cement herself in the public consciousness–even if few could put a name to the angular face–in a variety of appearances as wisecracking servants, no-nonsense schoolmarms, nosy neighbors, spinsters with a heart of gold, and–on more than one occasion–as a bus-driving nun.

Born Mary Isabella Wickenhauser in St. Louis in 1910, she proved to be a top student and entered Washington University in St. Louis at 16, graduating with a political science degree. Plans to attend law school were eventually replaced by acting, however, and Mary began appearing in area theater productions. It was during one of these plays, Solid South, in 1933 that the lanky performer caught the attention of stage director F. Cowles Strickland, who hired her to join his Berkshire Playhouse company in Stockbridge, Massachusetts the following summer (and also shortened her lengthy surname to Wickes).

Dividing her time between New England and New York throughout the mid-’30s, Mary made her Broadway debut in 1934 alongside Henry Fonda in the Farmer Takes a Wife and appeared the following year in Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s Stage Door. She also worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman’s Mercury Theater and co-starred with them in one of Welles’ first cinematic efforts, the 1938 comedy short Too Much Johnson. It was her work in another Kaufman work, The Man Who Came to Dinner, that led to Wickes making the transcontinental trek to Hollywood to officially launch her big-screen career.

WICKES, MARY 2 Following her turn as Nurse Preen opposite Monty Woolley, Bette Davis and Jimmy Durante in the Warner Bros. film version of the play, Wickes found herself cast as Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake’s overbearing new housekeeper in Blondie’s Blessed Event (1942), from Columbia’s perennially popular Blondie series. Later that year she also played Bonnie-Belle Schlopkiss, the love interest of Army sergeant Shemp Howard, in Universal’s wartime comedy/musical Private Buckaroo, and was featured in the Abbott and Costello romp Who Done It.

WICKES, MARY 3Wickes got a chance to display her dramatic range as well in ’42, when she returned to Warners as Dora Pickford (“My name’s Pickford…Dora, not Mary”), the nurse looking after browbeaten spinster Charlotte Vale’s (Bette Davis) domineering mother (former Scene Stealer Gladys Cooper), in Now, Voyager. It’s when the sympathetic caregiver tells Charlotte that she’s calmed her mother down–thanks to a little sherry and sleeping powder in her milk–that Davis tells her, “Dora, I suspect you’re a treasure.”

After small roles in five 1943 films–among them Higher and Higher, with a young Frank Sinatra–Wickes returned to stage work. She came back to Hollywood in 1948, where she was reunited with Davis in the romantic comedy June Bride. One of the more interesting facts about the film is that Mary’s line about updating the bride’s family’s old-fashioned home for a magazine photo shoot, “How can I convert this McKinley stinker into a Truman modern?,” was originally shown with Dewey’s name instead of Truman’s. When the Man from Independence claimed an upset win in the ’48 presidential election, the alternate version was rushed out to theaters.

By the start of the 1950s Wickes was regularly working on the stage, in motion pictures, and in the new medium of television. Her ’50s film credits (almost always as a domestic, landlady or teacher) included a trio of Doris Day musicals, On Moonlight Bay and I’ll See You in My Dreams (both 1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953);  The Actress (also ’53), with Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons; and the Yuletide classic White Christmas (1954). In White Christmas she was Emma, the sharp-tongued Vermont inn housekeeper who, when asked by a visiting Bing Crosby where all the snow is, replies “Well, we take it in during the day.” She also appeared in the Ma and Pa Kettle comedy Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954) and was re-teamed with Abbott and Costello in the duo’s final film together, 1956’s Dance with Me, Henry.

On the small screen she played Miss Preen in a 1949 Ford Theater Hour production of The Man Who Came to Dinner with Edward Everett Horton and Zero Mostel (she would come back to the role once more in a 1972 TV movie opposite her old colleague Orson Welles), and in 1954–10 years before the Walt Disney movie–she brought magical nanny Mary Poppins to life in Studio One’s adaptation of the P.L. Travers book. Mary was featured in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, played neighborhhod “old maid” Miss Cathcart on Dennis the Menace, and had recurring roles in such series as The Danny Thomas Show (aka Make Room for Daddy) and two Disney shows, Annette and Zorro. Wickes also earned an Emmy nomination in 1961 as the landlady on The Gertrude Berg Show.

WICKES, MARY 4Her best known ’50s TV appearance, however, has to be as Madame Le Mond, the demanding ballet instructor who tried–with little success–to turn Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) into a dancer in a 1952 I Love Lucy episode. The two women formed a friendship that lasted for decades (“Mary was just like one of the family,” recalled Lucie Arnaz years later. “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.”), and Wickes made several guest turns on Ball’s later sitcoms, The Lucy Show and here’s Lucy.

Wickes’ connection to the Disney company at this time extended behind the scenes as well, when in 1961 the studio’s animators used her as a live-action model for the movements of Cruella De Vil, the fur-obsessed villainess of 1961’s 101 Dalmatians (she also did some background voices for the film, but Mary’s chance to play a major character in a Disney cartoon feature was still several years off, however).

Moviegoers in the 1960s, on the other hand, could see Wickes as Mrs. Hefner in the 1960 remake of Cimarron; as Mrs. Squires in 1962’s The Music Man; as Eddie Mayehoff’s secretary in How to Murder Your Wife (1965); and as Sister Clarissa, the gym teacher and bus driver for St. Francis Academy, a Catholic girl’s school,  in The Trouble with Angels and its 1968 follow-up, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. In the 1970s she was back at work for Disney in such live-action fare as Napoleon and Samantha and Snowball Express (both 1972).

It was hard to turn on one’s TV in the 1970s and ’80s and not find Mary’s sharp-featured face staring back at you. Viewers saw her in several episodes of Diahann Carroll’s groundbreaking ’60s sitcom Julia as Dr. Chegley’s wife, and Baby Boomers who watched ’70s Saturday morning programs may remember her as Jonny and Scott’s Aunt Zelda in the Sid and Marty Krofft series Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. She was a decorated Army nurse (a role written especially for Wickes, who had done volunteer nursing work for many years) who tried to seduce Major Frank Burns (!) in a memorable 1975 M*A*S*H episode, along with turning up on Sanford and Son, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Love Boat and (as a nun) Punky Brewster, among other shows, and she was also an occasional panelist on the ’70s incarnation of The Match Game. What’s more, Mary was still active on the stage (she co-starred in a 1979 Broadway revival of Oklahoma! as Aunt Eller), and even taught acting at her alma mater of Washington University, as well as William and Mary and other schools.

WICKES, MARY 6A hilarious performance alongside Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine as the feisty grandmother in 1990’s Postcards from the Edge was followed by the role that introduced Wickes to a new generation of fans, that of the stone-faced, no-nonsense Sister Mary Lazarus (who, when “nun” Whoopi Goldberg tells her fellow choir members “We will always be together,” replies “That’s what Diana Ross said!”), in the comedy hits Sister Act (1992) and Sister Act II: Back in the Habit (1993). Mary had a recurring role as crime-solving priest Tom Bosley’s housekeeper in the 1987-91 TV series Father Dowling Mysteries and played Aunt March in the 1994 remake of Little Women, with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon.

Her final film credit was as the voice of Laverne, one of the cathedral gargoyles looking out for bellringer Quasimodo, in Disney’s 1996 animated adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. By this time, however, the octogenarian performer was suffering from a variety of ailments, including respiratory problems, kidney trouble and breast cancer, and she passed away from complications following surgery in October of 1995, eight months before Hunchback’s release.

In looking back on her multifaceted acting career, Wickes took her lack of public recognition in stride. “They may not ask for my autograph,” she said, “as long as they sign my paycheck.”