On this day in 1886 (!), Isaiah Edwin Leopold was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he would later run away from home to join the vaudeville circuit, he would change his name to Ed Wynn to save his family the embarrassment of having an actor in their midst. While Disney fans will know Wynn for his later work with the studio, the actor had already lived through several careers before he came to Disney to voice the Mad Hatter for Alice in Wonderland in 1951.
Wynn rose through the ranks of vaudeville to star in the Zigfield Follies as early as 1914; he continued to write, act, and produce on Broadway for decades. He was a popular radio show host in the 1930’s and a TV host in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, winning an Emmy in 1949. As Wynn prepared to retire, his son Keenan persuaded him to try serious acting and he made his debut in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight on the anthology series Playhouse 90. He would continue to work in film and television until his death in 1966.
Wynn’s vaudeville fame no doubt appealed to Walt Disney, who had grown up while Wynn was a big star on Broadway. Disney was obviously a fan of the old vaudeville stage, and Wynn would appear in Disneyland’s own “Golden Horseshoe Revue” for its 10,000th performance in 1962. Wynn would make eight films for Disney, most prominently Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins, but also The Absent Minded Professor and Son of Flubber, Babes in Toyland, Those Calloways, That Darn Cat!, and The Gnome-Mobile.
This long list of Disney credits gets to something I often think about – the fact that for a great portion of the 1950’s and 60’s, Disney had a fairly steady stock company of actors and filmmakers creating a constant stream of live-action films for the company. While the old studio system was dying elsewhere, Walt was running a shop that centered around contract players and in-studio production talent. While such a system has its benefits and its shortcomings, at its best it can result in a consistent supply of familiar faces producing dependably entertaining films. It requires constant quality control and the occasional freshening though; Disney’s own system would return to bite the studio after Walt was gone. When his eye for quality and urge to push the envelope was lost, decay set in and what was comfortable and familiar in the 1950’s became trite and threadbare by the 1970’s.
Every film geek knows the thrill of seeing some favorite character actor show up in a bit part, and for me that experience began with watching these films as a kid. A lot of actors from this period in Disney history tend to pop up as character actors in other major studios’ films in this and previous eras. Similarly, as a budding film geek it was fun to spot familiar composers, writers, directors, and even set designers and effects technicians from film to film.
While I would never suggest that Disney eschew the urge to continually explore new material and bring in new talent, I’ve always rather hoped that they’d make a return to these early roots and establish a small internal production group that could foster new talent and produce a series of films with a similar continuity. Even an anthology television program, produced for ABC or the Disney Channel and centering on the fictional town of Medfield could provide a reliable source of entertainment and a touchstone with Disney’s past. Keep it interesting, avoid cliche and general cheeseballery, and hire talented people with good ideas – actually think about what you’re making and you can avoid the stream of tapioca that most people think of when they think of Disney post-Walt. How else are kids of the future going to know about 121-year-old vaudevillians?
Happy Birthday, Ed!