This is the first part of a five-part series discussing the lives of five musicians and/or actors who used their talents to contribute to the films of the world of Disney. These men and women helped create the iconic characters and scenes which grace the movies, theme parks, and merchandise which millions of people over many generations love around the world. Their length of time and legacy with Disney varies, but undeniably enriched the work of animators and bolstered the longevity of classic Disney films.
There are many personas and celebrities who have contributed to the magic which permeates the world of Disney, without it necessarily being a lifelong passion. However, some celebrities of their time decided to carve out a portion of their lives to work for Disney and enrich the films which millions across many decades have come to love.
Ed Wynn — a vaudevillian and prolific actor on the stage, television, radio, and film — was one of the them. Most popularly voicing the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland and playing Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, Wynn also portrayed characters in several other live-action Disney films. Relying on clean and culturally sensitive comedy, Wynn delighted audiences on the Vaudeville stage, in the Ziegfeld Follies, on radio, television, and the movies. This was done through two World Wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and through the turbulent cultural changes of the 50s and 60s. As we continue to enjoy the original films, merchandise, various spin-offs and attractions, it is important we remember the talents who were crucial in making it all happen.
Isiah Edwin Leopold was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to prosperous milliners (hat makers) on November 9th, 1886 — to immigrant parents who found the idea of their son entering show business as tawdry and disagreeable. Isiah found an inherent love of making others laugh at a very early age and had a desire to perform on the stage and in the traveling troupes common at the time. Comedy, Wynn’s genre of choice for most of his 60-year career, was viewed as especially smutty by society’s middle and upper crust, and therefore Isiah used his middle name — Edwin — to forge his new identity as Ed Wynn and not cause his family embarrassment.
Wynn entered the vaudeville circuit first at the age of fifteen, essentially running away from home, and worked odd jobs such as distributing hand bills on the street until an opportunity came along. At the time, vaudeville relied heavily on imitating more successful troupes and comics, and knowing how to interface with an audience. What would be a hit one night in one town might result in being booed off the stage the next night in a different town. But a clever, bold mild could learn to read a room, as well as incessantly repeat jokes, in pre-mass communication days.
In 1902, Wynn did try an early shot playing a stereotyped and affected Hasidic Jew which was reviled by the audience, and he was hissed and booed off the stage. After this first unsuccessful experience, Wynn did not engage in acts which involved blatant racism such as wearing black or yellow-face, while also refusing to perform any vulgar humor. This sort of humor was utilized in revues in which he took part with regularity, but Wynn — who did almost all of his own writing of jokes and acts — did not.
Starting in 1914, Ed Wynn was a star of the Ziegfeld Follies along with those such as W.C. Fields and Fanny Brice. These were lavish (and that word probably does not do it justice) musical revues which were initially meant to be light entertainment. But from their premiere in 1907 till their decline in the mid-1930s, these revues were most-often discombobulated spectacles of beautifully and/or skimpily attired young ladies, music, a story with a plot unceremoniously interrupted, and comedy acts. This is where Wynn would come in, with his trademark goofy hats, billowing clothes, oversized shoes, along with a trademark lisp and animated hand gestures. Most ironically, the wonder of the Ziegfeld Follies and the visual splendor and gaiety of the stage began to feel serious competition from silent film in the early 1910s. Many of the celebrities of the stage quickly transitioned to the silver screen, such as Eve Arden and Marion Davies. Of note, revivals of the Ziegfeld Follies did occur for several more decades on film and the stage.
Wynn kept extraordinarily busy throughout his life: writing, directing, producing, and acting in many shows on Broadway, radio, television, and film. Significantly, this included a 1921 revue, The Perfect Fool, and hosting the radio show The Fire Chief on Texaco Star Theatre in the early 1930s — the latter helping Wynn adjust to radio. Without the symbiotic audience-performer relationship, and the immediate access to potentially millions of listeners at a time, vaudevillians such as Wynn had to write an exponentially higher number of jokes and find satisfaction in their work beyond laughs. While there were bumps in the road, Wynn was largely a hit and consistently received rave reviews.
Wynn’s celebrity attained such heights in the 1930s that he turned down the role of the Wizard in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, believing the role was too minor.
An arm’s length resume is too voluminous and crosses too many mediums to do justice here, but yet another transition occurred which had reasonable success in the form of The Ed Wynn Show. While it was admittedly quite short-lived, with a total of 39 episodes airing from 1949-1950, it had an impressive roster of guest stars every week, such as Hattie McDaniel, Lucille Ball, and Dinah Shore — many of whom made their television debuts on this show. While it was not renewed for a second season, it was a very early example of the comedy-variety show on television.
After another The Ed Wynn Show (1958-1959), a situational comedy which was also not a hit, Wynn decided to try dramatic acting at the urging of his son, Keenan, with whom he sometimes would work. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1959 for a role in The Diary of Anne Frank and also acted in episodes of The Twilight Zone in 1959 and 1963. These dramatic roles endeared Wynn to future generations and demonstrated an extreme versatility.
Wynn specialized in situational and physical comedy, relying on his massive collections of hats, floppy clothes, and other props. This was a style that did not evolve much over time, and while it delighted generations and gave him a trademark persona, it sometimes was seen as a bit stale, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Fortunately for this comedian, new mediums for entertainment and opportunities for work were consistently available throughout his life and Wynn was undoubtedly what we would refer to today as a workaholic, working as long as his health permitted. Above is but a small sample of the non-Disney work Wynn completed, and it is difficult to articulate 60 years of work without essentially writing a book.
Wynn had one son, Keenan Wynn, who became quite a successful character actor on television and movies in his own right. While there is no need to elaborate as to the details here, Wynn had somewhat of a troubled relationship with his family and his silly care-free persona did not often reflect his personal life. Ed Wynn died on June 19th, 1966.
Now, we are here to learn about this man’s life and work, but of course, an already rich career was lent to Walt Disney Productions. Wynn lent his talents to the studio in the 1950s and 1960s. He voiced the Mad Hatter in the 1951 feature Alice in Wonderland, animated by a team led by Ward Kimball. As was standard for Disney animation, live actors or animals were used to directly model characters and costuming, such as the animals in Bambi. Wynn’s the Mad Hatter was no exception. While beloved today, Alice in Wonderland was not well received at the time of its release. While predictable, literary critics did not care for the film, even the animators such as Frank Thomas admitted it lacked the continuity and spirit expected from Disney animation. The Mad Hatter, however, was well-received and Wynn’s familiar comedy delighted audiences.
He also starred in the coolly received, but glittering Babes in Toyland (1961) as the Toymaker. As per usual, Wynn — and to be fair, others in the cast — were well received. He played the typical lisping bumbler with a comically small hat, and an especially delightful scene with what is now becoming the ubiquitous 3-D printer.
With the exception of Alice in Wonderland, Wynn’s most well-known role for the world of Disney would be that of Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins. In the books which inspire Mary Poppins, the titular character has several relatives, and Wynn’s Uncle Albert plays this role deftly, floating up in the air in contagious laughter. This 1964 film was a much-needed smash hit for Disney and has remained as one the most beloved Disney films ever made. Wynn’s role was described as “grand.” This is one of those films whose production has many captivating stories, and transformed Disney — infusing much needed capital into Disneyland and the Florida Project, later to become Walt Disney World. While Wynn does not appear to have been involved in the drama, the story of the making of this film was further immortalized in the 2013 film, Saving Mr. Banks. For more on the fascinating making of Mary Poppins I would kindly direct anyone to the Disneyland Edition of the Disunplugged to learn more.
Wynn’s work in live-action film for Disney continued through the 1960s. This included The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961 as the Fire Chief , a direct homage to his radio role in the 1930s. This film was a huge success, leading to the 1963 Son of Flubber, with Ed Wynn as Agent A. J. Allen. Wynn acted with his son Keenan in both of these films. In the 1965 film That Darn Cat! Wynn had a supporting role as Mr. Hofstedder, a shy jeweler.
Those Calloways (1965) was a significant departure in terms of film roles, as this film is a drama. This drama follows a family in Vermont, fighting to create a bird sanctuary. Conflict in the film centers around the Calloway family, and the townsfolk who are wooed by the offer to instead built a hunting resort. Wynn co-stars as Ed Parker. Ed Wynn’s last movie role before passing away was in the 1967 comedy (released after his passing) The Gnome-Mobile. He stars as Rufus the Gnome-King. This is a delightful but somewhat forgotten film, which was well-received at the time.
He also was a performer in The Golden Horseshoe Revue in 1962. Based on the show in Disneyland — a particular favorite of Walt Disney’s — this involved Wynn using his trademark lisp and swapping wisecracks with Betty Taylor. Walt Disney loved this show and the corny jokes, and Wynn starred in the 1962 made-for-television movie about the revue.
Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins have stood the test of time, and while many of the live-action films of the same era have faded somewhat, Wynn still had a major impact on Disney film at the time. His clean, simple style of comedy was beloved by Walt Disney, and included humor and gags which were also a mainstay of Disney film and comedy. Walt Disney attended Wynn’s funeral and had Wynn in mind for a role in The Jungle Book. Ed Wynn was inducted as a Disney Legend in the category of film in 2013.
Ed Wynn, who changed his name to avoid causing his family embarrassment, achieved his ambition of making several generations of Americans laugh. Not every joke or act was a success, but Wynn’s unique style was a hit with critics and audiences alike. It says a lot about simple laughs and props that they were a crowd-pleaser through the first half of the twentieth century. Just think about the changes which occurred in society and technology from the time Wynn ran away from home at the turn of the century to the lamentable changes of the 60s and the Cold War. These talents found a wonderful and endearing home in the world of Disney which have helped keep the memory of the life and work of Ed Wynn alive.
Sources: For a sampling of the sources used in the article, please see the links; as well as Perfect Fool: The Life and Career of Ed Wynn by Gary Berman.
Featured Image: Zimbio.com