Margaret Kerry is quite earnest in describing herself as Tinker Bell's alter ego. She is hardly the type to astrally regress to Never Land, or to fannishly emulate a character from a cartoon. If anything, it would be closer to the truth to say that Tinker Bell, instead, was the one to imitate Kerry.
Before Peter Pan's glittering sidekick ever fluttered to screen, Kerry had already gone through all her pixie paces. On a bare soundstage, wearing her own bathing suit as a costume, and assisted only by an occasional oversized prop or mattresses to pad a fall, the then-22-year-old Kerry, along with other actors, enacted the production's storyboards giving animators reference films for gestures, key poses and timing.
That old footage, used to help give life to the original animated 1953 "Peter Pan," is still preserved in the Disney archives and was pulled out nearly 50 years later for animators creating Peter Pan's newest adventure, "Return to Never Land."
"Lots of people don't understand all this," says Kerry. "They think the entire movie comes from the animator's head, but I say wait a minute--Marc Davis [Tinker Bell's animator] is a man's man--how does he know how a 31/2-inch sprite is going to move, get angry, or stamp her foot? And how does he know what kind of emotion would go behind that? How does he know how Wendy's skirt will wrap when she walks? Or flies for that matter? What Marc did was take something and then exaggerate it so it was more truly delightful."
This use of live action was by no means unique to "Peter Pan." In Disney's "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty," actual footage was not merely referenced but often painstakingly traced or "rotoscoped." Live action continues to be used in animation today.
Kerry easily recognizes her own body language in the 1953 film. So did her second husband, Jack Willcox, whom she once took to a "Peter Pan" screening. "I was so excited and nudging him," she recalls. "'There I am!' I said. 'Jack! Jack! Jack, that's me!' He just leaned over and said, 'Margaret, I'd recognize those thighs anywhere.'"
Kerry's legs had in fact been christened the "Most Beautiful Legs in Hollywood" shortly before "Peter Pan" went into production, a fact she now begrudgingly acknowledges. "Terrible thing! It was a real throwback from the early '30s. But my girlfriend wanted to do it if I'd go, so I did, and I won. She never spoke to me again."
During her audition, Kerry says, it was her pantomime of Tinker Bell standing on a hand mirror sizing up her hips that got her the part. Other scenes such as that of the pixie stuck in a keyhole, hips gratuitously wriggling in a rear-angle shot lent an uncharacteristically saucy element to this Disney classic based on the James M. Barrie story.
"You just didn't get shot like that in a family movie," Kerry admits. "There were a lot of people who thought Tink was just a little too sexy. But what Marc [Davis] told me--how he got away with it--was keeping the bottom half womanly but drawing the top half as a little girl." Perhaps owing something to this combination of mature allure and girlish innocence, an urban legend arose during the 1980s that Marilyn Monroe had been the model upon which Tinker Bell was based.
Kerry's fairyland work history dates back to childhood when, at age 4, she played a nymph in Max Reinhardt's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "We ran around to a playback, holding twigs covered with white paint and glitter," she laughs. "We had all kinds of cellophane icicles dripping off of us. It seemed pretty silly." There followed roles in the several "Our Gang" episodes, a part playing Eddie Cantor's daughter in the 1948 musical "If You knew Susie," and ongoing appearances in one of ABC's first sitcoms, "The Ruggles."
After "Peter Pan," Kerry returned to animation, albeit a form of animation far removed from Disney's graceful choreography. Working with her first husband, Ritchard Brown, she provided voices for the early syndicated cartoons "Clutch Cargo" (1959) and "Space Angel" (1962). Produced on a shoestring, and nearly as static as a comic book viewed through a movie camera, these productions featured Synchro-Vox, a weirdly effective technique for achieving lip-synced dialogue by employing live-action mouths projected onto animation artwork.
"They had us in white makeup with lipstick," Kerry recalls. "The white makeup would blur out, and all you had was the lips. But you could never do anything about that pink tongue. It was always this weird pink thing wiggling in the background."
Kerry went on to do other voice-over work, employing a repertoire of 21 dialects and 48 voices, but closest to her heart is the little fairy who speaks only through a tinkling bell. That character, she feels, is unique in children's literature and film. "She was curvy; she was jealous; she wouldn't stand for anything; she was courageous. People forget how courageous she was to drink the poison [in James M. Barrie's original stage version]. And she was probably the first character young boys had pitter-patter hearts for! At the same time," Kerry notes, "she showed a lot of little girls that it was OK to be a little girl."
Now, at age 72, an energetic Kerry is still working, using her voice. Her radio show, "What's Up Weekly" uses a variety/magazine format on Glendale's KKLA-FM (99.5) Christian radio.
And, she makes occasional public appearances in connection with her role in helping give human dimension to Tinker Bell. Over and over, she has encountered adulation for this diminutive creature.
"About a year and a half ago, a lady came up to me, and she was just absolutely trembling. She said, 'I never thought that I would ever meet the real Tinker Bell! You saved my life!'"
Kerry listened to the woman's story of a struggle with morbid obesity that confined her to a wheelchair and necessitated knee-replacement surgery.
Explaining her loss of more than 150 pounds, the now-healthy woman told Kerry, "I knew I had to pull myself out of this, and needed something with me every time dark thoughts would come."
Lifting her pant leg, she revealed an ankle tattoo of Kerry's alter ego. "Tinker Bell is just the happiest character that I know," she told Kerry.