Strange to think that Ed Wynn only made twenty movies in his life, though I suppose it’s less strange that nearly half of those were for Disney. And in the Jerry Lewis movie The Patsy, he’s playing Ed Wynn. I haven’t seen it, on the grounds of really not liking Jerry Lewis, but I strongly suspect he’s playing a thinly fictionalized version of himself. He has quite possibly done more on the small screen than the big one. But I think that’s mostly because of another movie where he’s playing Ed Wynn—namely Stage Door Canteen. Because most of his career, no matter how famous he is, was radio and vaudeville.
There is a certain irony to the fact that a man who chose a stage name to avoid embarrassing his family would end up the founder of one of the more obscure Hollywood dynasties. (One grandson was a minor actor and another a screenwriter of, among other things, The Longest Yard and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. A great-granddaughter has done Broadway and the Clifford the Big Red Dog movie. We’ll be getting to his famous son in two weeks.) He’s definitely someone where, if you don’t know the name, you assuredly know the voice and probably the face.
And if you grew up with Disney, you know the voice and the face. Wynn is a fine way to introduce Disney-loving children to the concept of the voice actor, because Wynn had a very distinctive voice, and you can show your children both Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins, and, look, it’s the same guy! And, sure, Alan Tudyk is very much doing an Ed Wynn impersonation in Wreck-It Ralph, but then you can get into how people sometimes mimic others for all kinds of reasons.
All of this does tend to overshadow Ed Wynn the dramatic actor, and he’s also a prototype for the concept that comedians have to do dramatic acting to be taken seriously. It can be hard for a person raised on The Absent-Minded Professor and Babes in Toyland to really accept Wynn as Mr. Dussell in The Diary of Anne Frank. He got an Oscar nomination for it, losing to the brownface of Hugh Griffith in Ben-Hur, but it’s still jarring. I think even knowing more about his stage career wouldn’t change that whiplash.
He crammed a whole lot of movies into his last years. He was in poor health—he died of esophageal cancer before his final movie came out—and made a lot of movies because he needed the health care, I believe. Son of Flubber is particularly nice because he appears in a scene with his son and grandson, and that’s really charming. And Red Buttons said that his death was the only time he made anyone sad, which is an incredibly sweet thing to say.