Margaret Kerry, the animation inspiration behind the fairy we all know and love, recently celebrated her 85th birthday this year.
Did you know that a live action actress played Tinker Bell? Kerry did, as a pantomime actor. Even though the feisty pixie never spoke to us with words in Peter Pan, the animators who brought her to life originally looked to an actual actress for guidance for how the character would look and act.
Why? Because during the early years of animation, artists were much more practiced in the art of bringing animals to life, while human beings remained a little more difficult.
As Walt Disney described the process of animating Snow White, “Everyone knows how humans stand and walk and move their heads. If we couldn’t duplicate that movement we wouldn’t have a convincing picture.”
This is why the task of bringing Tinker Bell to life was even more difficult: her figure was completely human, but her interactions with characters and objects was a larger-than-life experience because of her small body; Tink was just three and a half inches tall, to be exact.
That’s why it was essential to find the perfect model for Tinker Bell–a tiny humanlike character who never speaks in the Peter Pan films. As Marc Davis, the animator of Tinker Bell, described her personality in Tinker Bell: An Evolution, “Tinker Bell could jingle and she could sparkle, but she showed all the physical attitudes of an angry lady, an angry girl.”
Tinker Bell’s design was then half childlike and half adult–which is why her look was based on younger Kathryn Beaumont and a young woman by the name of Margaret Kerry. Kerry was already skilled in expressing the emotion and attitude of a hot-tempered sprite and knew how to demonstrate that naturally to an audience.
Kerry pondered the question: How do you play a three and half inch fairy who couldn’t talk? In her renowned audition, she acted out Tinker Bell’s famous scene where she lands on a hand mirror and is shocked after measuring her hips.
As Davis explained the communication between the actor and the animator, “Maybe somebody will come up with a way of doing something that’ll be kind of cute, and you say, ‘I want to use that.’”
So the animators used her personality, which was, as Kerry described herself in an interview with Autograph, a 12-year-old “tomboy approach with a comic feel.” She would eventually pantomime other favored scenes, such as when the frustrated fairy gets those same hips stuck in a drawer keyhole–Kerry had a life-size keyhole made to struggle getting through herself!
This was a time when animation required live action inspiration just as much as the world was mesmerized by the fantastical feats that only animation could bring. Without Kerry’s spot-on live action personalization, Tinker Bell wouldn’t be the charming fairy that we love today. In return, animation enhanced that realism to take Margaret Kerry and Tinker Bell to the screen in Peter Pan as well as numerous television specials and even her own franchise today.