By Maureen Lee Lenker
May 20, 2021 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Long before Emma Stone went to the dogs in Cruella (out May 28), Mary Wickes helped animators to envision a most devilish dame.

Disney often brought in live-action models for inspiration (see: Marge Champion as Snow White; Eleanor Audley as Maleficent), but using an actress of Wickes' stature was rare.

The droll character actress had made a name for herself playing housekeepers, caretakers, and busy-bodies in films such as White Christmas and The Man Who Came to Dinner (though modern audiences likely know her best as Sister Mary Lazarus in the Sister Act films).

"She had very distinctive features," Steve Taravella, author of Mary Wickes: I Know I've Seen That Face Before, says of Wickes' "casting" in 1961's 101 Dalmatians. "She was tall, lanky, and had exaggerated expressions; she was very limber and could easily contort her body. She wasn't afraid to do physical comedy."

Cruella in 101 DALMATIANS; Mary Wickes
Cruella in '101 Dalmatians'; Mary Wickes.
| Credit: Everett Collection (2)

When she was tapped to be the model for Cruella, Wickes already had an association with Disney. She was part of the cast of Annette, a series starring Mickey Mouse Club darling Annette Funicello. Wickes played — what else?— the family housekeeper.

But why would someone of her stature agree to being an uncredited animator's model? That was just Wickes' work ethic. "Mary wanted nothing more than to work constantly," Taravella says. "She loved work. She would take almost anything she was offered, that she didn't find offensive. She was a real old school working actress."

So, in January 1959, Wickes reported for two weeks of work on a Disney soundstage, donning a a black satin dress, a half-black, half-white "fright" wig, and a fur coat to vamp as Cruella. She assumed she'd be taking still photographs, but instead, animators asked her to fit her body language to Cruella De Vil's already recorded dialogue. While they played the dialogue through a speaker, Wickes struck poses and gave an exaggerated performance along to what she was hearing.

Left to Right: Barbara Luddy (Nanny) and Mary Wickes (Cruella De Vil) perform live-action reference for Walt Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).
Credit: ©Disney

Rumors have persisted for years that actress Tallulah Bankhead was the original inspiration for Cruella, but Taravella says he doesn't believe Wickes was aware of such an influence if it's true. Instead, she just made Cruella her own.

Wickes died at the age of 85 in 1995, but she remained proud of her association with 101 Dalmatians her entire life, even though, ironically, she was a huge dog lover and regularly advocated for animals. Indeed, her relationship with Disney animation continued until the end of her life, considering her final role was as the voice of gargoyle Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

While to see Cruella is to take a sudden chill, you come to realize Wickes' undeniable impact — after time has worn away the shock, naturally. "Cruella is unorthodox," Taravella reflects. "That was Mary. It's not an accident that Disney chose somebody with such an unconventional aura."

What a perfectly wretched legacy, darlings.

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