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If the Fairy Godmother from “Cinderella” seems animated with a bit more magic than even the high Walt Disney standards, it’s because she was the result of a real fairy tale romance behind the scenes of the classic film.
“Cinderella,” the beloved 1950 film that marked Disney’s return to full-fledged, feature-length animation after a long break during World War II, is marking its Blu-Ray debut, and a captivating featurette included on the new Diamond Edition reveals the story of how now legendary layout artist Ken O’Connor conjured up the very distinctive look and warm, kindly spirit of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. He took a good, long look at his beautiful young wife Mary Alice and imagined how she would age – never really suspecting that he would perfectly capture both her future image and the generous spirit that defined her life.
“Dad was what they called a layout man and art director, so he would take scripts and he would stage the whole action for the animated film, whether it was a feature or a short,” the Australian-born artist’s daughter J.P. O’Connor tells NBC. “The staging is really the power part, because you can have a script that says, 'The boy is swinging on a little swing in a tree,' and if it goes side to side it's not powerful, but if the swing comes towards you and then back, that's very powerful because it has great perspective.”
“A lot of the scenes that you'll remember, like the marching cards in 'Alice in Wonderland'; the hippos and ostriches in 'Fantasia,’ which is considered one of the most powerful ever in animation; Snow White, when she stumbles on the rocks and there's this dramatic angle where she splashes down to the ground; the pink elephants on parade in ‘Dumbo’ and on and on,” remembers J.P. “Those are all my dad’s scenes, and they're very powerful and memorable. He came in after the Nine Old Men [Walt Disney’s legendary core team of animation artists] – he was kind of the tenth Old Man in the role and he outlived a lot of them.”
Character design wasn’t typically a part of O’Connor’s duties, but when his fellow artists were struggling to land on the right look for Cinderella’s magical benefactor, he volunteered to take a shot at it (he’d previously hand-built the model for the famed Pumpkin Coach in the film). He ultimately turned to his wife Mary Alice for inspiration – even though she was only in her early 30s at the time, his artist’s eye aged her by a few decades and infused the drawing with a sense of her innate warmth and increasingly well-known kindness.
Mary Alice had met her husband on a set-up date several years earlier and proclaimed immediately afterward that he was the man she would marry. In fact, their union was okayed by Mickey Mouse’s head cheese himself. “My mother's best friend through college is Walt's niece, Dorothy,” explains J.P. “When my mom was falling in love with this artist, Dorthy went to her uncle Walt and said, 'Is he all right? Is it okay if she marries this artist? Will they ever be all right?' Walt and his brother Roy said, 'Oh, he's a fine man. She'll be very good with him.' So Dorothy was our godmother, and so we were able on a number of occasions to meet with Walt and be with him and his family. The studio in the early days was like a big family.”
Mary Alice was fine with the imagined peek at her golden years. “Mom knew that my dad had a good imagination and she didn't mind,” chuckles J.P. “She might have thought perhaps that she didn't want to be dumpy as the character was, because she was a very slender, black-haired beauty when they were first making this movie.”
“What my mom really liked, and what I think people attach her to more than just the silver hair and blue eyes, which she definitely had, was the spirit. The Fairy Godmother really embodied someone who nurtures and she'll make your own dreams come true, but she liked that part. She lived that part, and so it didn't really bother her. She had a very calm, strong, self-esteem.”
In fact, Mary Alice – who’d once coordinated social calendars for famed actors of the era including Basil Rathbone, the screen’s Sherlock Holmes – had long pursued charitable and philanthropic activities, and over the years as she matured into a doppelganger for her onscreen alter ego, she also became known in the O’Connors’ Disney lot-adjacent hometown as “the Fairy Godmother of Burbank.”
“We again started adding up all the ways that she'd been involved in our town, and literally it's 50 or 60 organizations that she had a hand in – and not a casual hand,” recalls J.P. “For example 69 years ago, she helped found a family service agency in our town at a time when mental health definitely wasn't talked about – she had the foresight to realize that people needed counseling and guidance and helped get that off the ground, so she was kind of a pioneer.” Mary Alice was also the first female president of the local school board, created a children’s program with the Hollywood Bowl, and a trustee at a community hospital where all the employees knew her by name – and she knew theirs.
“She really, truly cared about people, and everybody had an important role,” says J.P. “And that sort of embodiment really encouraged a lot of people to try things and get involved in the community more.” The Mary Alice O’Connor Family Center in Burbank – with walls featuring Disney-donated artwork from “Cinderella” – stands as a lasting tribute to her reputation as a selfless, generous benefactor.