“Clean cups! Clean cups–move down!” cries the Mad Hatter as he and the March Hare gallop through the frenzied fun of fiction’s most famous tea party. In Walt Disney’s animated classic “Alice in Wonderland” (1951), the Hatter is a tempest with a teacup–making his appearance as part of the “Disney Fab 50 Character Collection” all the more remarkable – for once, he is standing still! Everyone joining The World’s Most Magical Celebration in Walt Disney World can now admire the Mad Hatter in all his golden glory as a whimsical statue positioned, naturally, in view of the dancing dishware of the Mad Tea Party attraction.
While the Mad Hatter himself is now golden, it is well worth mentioning that the occasion of Walt Disney bringing Alice’s “golden afternoon” Wonderland adventure to the screen was something to celebrate, as well. Long before the birth of Mickey Mouse, young Walt had loosely based his first successful film series, the silent “Alice Comedies,” on Lewis Carroll’s premise of a little girl journeying through a fantastic realm–in this case, placing a live-action actress in an animated environment. As he found Hollywood fame and built his studio, Walt’s thoughts were never far from creating a “Wonderland” adaptation in earnest. Luminaries like Mary Pickford and Ginger Rogers were interested in the project, but eventually, Walt opted for a completely animated approach. Story, design and song ideas were developed intermittently across two decades.
The Party Begins: Story art by Disney Legend Bill Peet
Once the film was underway in earnest, a cast of versatile voices was assembled, led by Kathryn Beaumont as Alice, with well-known radio players like Verna Felton (the Queen of Hearts), Bill Thompson (the White Rabbit, the Dodo) and Jerry Colonna (the March Hare). For the showcase role of the Mad Hatter, though, Walt cast the biggest celebrity he’d ever used in an immersive, non-narrating character role: Ed Wynn.
A vaudeville, Broadway and radio star of the first magnitude, Wynn’s comedic presence, distinctive speech and irrepressible giggle would be instantly recognizable to audiences. Indeed, Wynn received the top talent billing in all of the finished picture’s original promotional materials.
Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter … or the Mad Hatter as Ed Wynn?
Filming early live-action reference footage.
The inventive actor’s brilliant, silly spontaneity proved a delightful “problem” for the Disney staff. While filming live-action reference footage to inspire the Hatter’s drawn incarnation, Wynn would never perform a scene the same way twice. Therefore, portions of the finished tea party sequence dialogue were lifted directly from the staged filming sessions, as the team opted to capture Wynn’s brilliant delivery as it happened over trying to re-create it later within the more fidelic confines of a recording booth.
Ed Wynn would go on to host another memorable tea party–this time, one held on the ceiling! As Uncle Albert to Julie Andrews’ “practically perfect” nanny in “Mary Poppins” (1964), Wynn literally soared to new heights as an on-camera Disney talent. Among his co-stars were some of Walt’s other favorites, each a Disney Legend in their own right. Wynn worked with Fred MacMurray in both “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1961) and its sequel “Son of Flubber” (1963), as well as with Annette Funicello on the big screen in “Babes in Toyland” (1961) and on television in “The Golden Horseshoe Revue” (1962). He also memorably appeared with Hayley Mills in “That Darn Cat!” (1965).
Ed Wynn is caricatured in his role as the Toymaker on this “Little Gem” record sleeve from Walt Disney’s musical fantasy “Babes in Toyland.” (Author’s collection)
Wynn was himself awarded Disney Legend status posthumously in 2013, an honor that would have doubtlessly pleased him. “Disney is one of the most creative men in our profession,” Wynn remarked of Walt in the 1960s, “and I never dispute his judgement when he offers me a part. I love working for him.” The friendly respect was certainly mutual. Walt admired Wynn greatly and kept an elegant photo portrait of the master clown (taken by Dave Iwerks, son of Walt’s old friend Ub) on display in his working office, where it remains to this day.
The legacy of Ed Wynn still looms large for creative entertainers; the kindly, bumbling persona of King Candy in “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), for example, is a direct tribute to Wynn’s signature stage character (“The Perfect Fool”), as is the king’s voice, performed by Alan Tudyk.
Although Wynn also excelled at dramatic acting, it is for his jubilant, boundless good humor that he is most remembered–a humor that fills all of his Disney roles. The Mad Hatter, being the first, has remained the most iconic of Wynn’s contributions. The mirthful milliner can be found in Disney Parks around the world, presiding over turbulent tea tables, baffling hedge mazes, hat shops and even interactive quests over the years. With May 21st designated as International Tea Day, what better character could there then be to propose a toast to several important “Ts.”
So, here’s to Tea Time … to treasured memories across 50 years of The Most Magical Place on Earth, Walt Disney World … and to Talents–particularly those of Ed Wynn, and of his friend, Walt Disney.
This vintage Disneyland hat label speaks to the timeless appeal of the
To see more developmental art of the Mad Hatter and other characters from Wonderland, we recommend “They Drew as They Pleased – Volume 4, The Hidden Art of Disney’s Mid-Century Era, The 1950s and 1960s” by Didier Ghez (Disney X Chronicle Books, 2018)