Character Voice Acting In Classic Disney Animated Movies

One of the few glimpses I have into the personality of my maternal grandfather, who passed away in the early 1950s – over 25 years before I was born – was his love of movies and his apparent deep passion for some of the more obscure pleasures of movie-watching. In the years following World War II, where he had served in the army, movie-going became a main source of recreation for him, my grandmother, and their extended relatives; and one mid-summer evening’s viewing proved especially memorable as the weekend family outing took them to downtown Madison, WI’s Strand Theater and the comic-nostalgic delights of 1947’s Life With Father.

Life With Father (1947)

Some in the viewing party responded warmly to the Technicolor evocation of 1880’s New York while others praised a blustering, red-haired William Powell as the titular pater familias, Clarence Day. My grandmother in particular found a young, fresh-faced, and still largely-unknown Elizabeth Taylor, as a youthful love interest for young Clarence Day, Jr. (Jimmy Lydon), very appealing. The film also gave Irene Dunne one of her later career’s finest roles as the patient, understanding, long-suffering wife and mother to four redheaded boys, Vinnie Day. However, when asked what he enjoyed most about the movie, my grandfather’s response, characteristically, was quite unexpected: “ZaSu Pitts”.

ZaSu Pitts as Life With Father’s “Cousin Cora”

As the Day family’s fluttery, homespun Ohio relative Cora Cartwright, the venerable Miss Pitts – who had expertly played nervous spinsters for the better part of three decades in scores of films – brought a recognizably lived-in quality to every comic role, no matter how small, she essayed. Flamboyant silent-era director Erich von Stroheim recognized her dramatic range and cast her in pivotal supporting roles in his epic Greed (1924) and the devastating Ruritanian satire The Wedding March (1928).

ZaSu Pitts in Greed (1924)

Returning to comedy in the early sound era, producer Hal Roach paired her with fellow comedienne Thelma Todd, and later flint-tongued Patsy Kelly, for a fascinating female counterpart series to the producer’s Laurel & Hardy short subjects.

With Thelma Todd (right)

And, within her comic purview of the life-frustrated female, Pitts gave one of her most affecting and heartfelt performances opposite Charles Laughton in 1935’s Ruggles of Red Gap.

Opposite Charles Laughton (right) in 1935’s Ruggles of Red Gap

Undoubtedly aware of the various off-avenues of her storied career when he made his answer, I can only assume my grandfather was equally impressed by the crucial sense of reality – even when appearing on screen for less than half a movie’s running time, or in only a handful of scenes – that character actors like ZaSu Pitts brought to movies like Life With Father.

 

Also equally impressed by Hollywood’s gallery of great character actors was no less than Walt Disney, who early recognized the close and advantageous affinity between the supporting radio and movie personalities of the era and animated cartoons. Practically ready-made cartoon characters themselves, the comic likenesses of popular character performers ranging from W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, and Stepin Fetchit frequently shared a drawn-motion universe with Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. (Literally illustrating this point, pictured above is a caricature of ZaSu Pitts, as her likeness appears in the Disney 1935 Silly Symphonies short Broken Toys.) And, appropriately, when Disney courted ambitions in the late 1930s to expand his animated storytelling prowess to feature-length films, he increasingly came to rely on the vivid personalities of Hollywood and off-Hollywood personalities to breathe vocal life into his studio’s vividly-drawn characters.

With 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the 18 animated features that followed, up until his death in 1966, the performers who lent their voices to immortal Disney characters like Sneezy, Jiminy Cricket, Timothy Q. Mouse, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Baloo may no longer be household names, but their distinctive range and timbre as wavelengths on a sound graph still provide instant vocal recognition for now 80 years of American children. Like the memorable character role noted by my unknown, late grandfather 70 years ago, these now largely unknown, rarely recognized performers gave vocal shape and sonic substance to Disney animators’ creations. And like Timothy Q. Mouse whispering the name of that “little elephant with the big ears” into the sleeping ringmaster’s ears, these voices now share indelible aural space within our own popular culture.

Billy Gilbert (1894 – 1971). A veteran performer since the age of 12-years-old, Gilbert came out of vaudeville and regional musical performance before landing in Hollywood in the early sound era. Discovered by Stan Laurel and comedy producer Hal Roach, Gilbert played a wide variety of character roles in comic shorts – in 1932, playing both an apoplectic professor in Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box and an insanely jealous husband in their simian/circus classic, The Chimp – and gradually transitioned to comic supporting roles in hundreds of features up through the 1960s. One of Classic Hollywood’s most familiar faces, 1940 saw Gilbert in two of his most memorable movie roles – as Tomania’s Minister of War Herring in Charlie Chaplin’s anti-Nazi satire The Great Dictator and as befogged/befuddled process server Joe Pettibone in the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday – but his voice was already vastly familiar to children audiences everywhere as the hyper-allergic Sneezy in Snow White. Gilbert repeated his virtuosic sneezing fits once more for Disney, this time to menacing comic effect, as Willie the Giant in 1947’s Mickey and the Beanstalk.

Cliff Edwards (1895 – 1971). Like Gilbert, Edwards came from a vaudeville performance and musical background, and it was in the latter capacity that Edwards became one of the first recorded jazz artists. An early master of the vocalizing technique later known as “scatting”, Edwards almost single-handedly popularized the mid-1920s craze for the ukulele, by which he earned his musical cognomen on records and the radio of “Ukulele Ike”. Versatile on self-headlined radio programs, supporting roles in films, and later as both musical performer and character actor on television, Edwards’ greatest show business triumph was undoubtedly the folksy, vocal-musical “presence” imparted to a three-inch-tall, green and top hat/coat-tailed insect “conscience” of a naïve, living wooden puppet boy named Pinocchio (1940). As Jiminy Cricket, Edwards’ soulful opening rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star” is one of the defining pop cultural moments of the 20th century. Somewhat less iconic, but no less skillful from a vocal-performing standpoint, is Edwards’ scat-croon of “When I See An Elephant Fly”, as a literal blackface Jim Crow in 1941’s Dumbo, but any racial discomfort from a latter-day perspective is, I believe, dispelled by the veteran jazz singer’s infectious performance style.

Edward Brophy (1895 – 1960). Balding, heavy-browed, often dim-witted and loud-voiced, Brophy’s is one of those faces, voices, and personalities that gave shape, reality, and interest to even the most indifferent effort of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (An exercise in futility for ambitious IMDB and Wikipedia-ists out there would be to offer and/or compile a complete list of credits for a character actor of Brophy’s stature and omnipresence: it would simply be impossible.) “Personality” this outsized obviously couldn’t be contained by mere physical presence alone, and Brophy’s uncredited vocal performance as film-length unnamed Timothy Q. Mouse (as finally revealed by a signed talent contract at the end) gifted the silent, jumbo-eared Dumbo (1941) with the steadfast, small animal companion against which all future Disney Studio companions would be judged. Brash, outspoken, and a verbal master of the vernacular – along with its articulation – Brophy provided the pitch-perfect vocal complement to the indelible animated image of the loyal little mouse leading the big-eared little elephant, grasping his tail by the trunk as the inseparable pair trudge their weary way across the circus midway.

Sterling Holloway (1905 – 1992). As possibly the most recognizable voice in animation history, very few might immediately associate Holloway’s distinctively tremulous tenor with the bushy and red-mopped, rail-thin, sharp-nosed, and rubber-legged performer – dancing across the screen in a smart sailor suit – in 1932’s International House. Or, indeed, with the countless blink-and-and-you’ll-miss-’em screen appearances as a soda jerk, farmhand, office boy, milkman, or second-reporter-from-right – invariably named “Slim”, “Pinky”, or “Red” – across five decades of films and television. First considered for the voice of Sleepy in Snow White, before the role ultimately went to Goofy voice actor Pinto Colvig, Disney made up for this early rejection with iconic voice roles in Dumbo (as Mr. Stork), Bambi (as the grown Flower), Alice in Wonderland (as the Cheshire Cat), and The Jungle Book (as Kaa the snake); in addition to providing practically Disney-trademarked narration for animation shorts like Peter and the Wolf (1946), The Little House, Susie the Blue Coupe, Lambert the Sheepish Lion (all 1952), and later re-recording Edgar Bergen for a feature re-issue of Mickey and the Beanstalk. After Disney’s death, Holloway gave a later Disney feature performance as the mouse Roquefort in The Aristocats, but had already earned vocal immortality – the physical shape of his silky-sheen voice apparently destined for a fussy, tubby stuffed bear – as Winnie-the-Pooh.

Phil Harris (1904 – 1995). Big Bandleader and hep-jivin’ radio foil to comedian Jack Benny and musical star Alice Faye (his wife of 54 years), Harris’s booming and boisterous bass-baritone had been prominently featured on music, radio, film, and television for over 30 years before being tapped by Disney for the laid-back sloth bear Baloo in The Jungle Book (1966), which turned out to be the final animated film personally overseen by Disney. Returning to Disney Studios for similarly bigger-than-life, laconic animal kingdom roles in 1970’s The Aristocats (as alley cat Thomas O’Malley) and 1973’s Robin Hood (as brown bear Little John), Harris had by this point provided the studio with recordings of three of their biggest hits, including his unforgettable rendition of “The Bare Necessities”, a much-admired dueling duet with Louis Prima’s King Louie in “I Wanna Be Like You”, and Robin Hood‘s rousing anti-tyranny protest song, “The Phony King of England”. But I know at least one two-year-old who considers The Aristocats‘ “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat” the greatest song she has yet heard (rather adorably dubbing it the “Kitty Song”) and Harris’s vocal work opposite the Scat Cat himself – Scatman Crothers – is undoubtedly nonpareil in the anthropomorphic annals of Disney musical animation.

As Harris provides a convenient point of transition between the Disney and post-Disney era of Disney Studios animation, having appeared vocally in both the last Disney animated film in which Disney was involved and the first animated Disney animated film in which he wasn’t (The Aristocats), the focus in the remaining half of this article on Disney Voices will be on a film that appeared 11 years and 2 animated films after the studio founder’s death: 1977’s The Rescuers. And, more specifically, the focus will narrow to a suitably smaller and significantly less discussed though thematically appropriate aspect to both animated films in general and The Rescuers in particular: the vocal delivery style of one performer as being emblematic of Walt Disney’s “personality” style of animated character voice acting.

The effortless Everyman quality that Bob Newhart brought to his stand-up routines, comedy recordings, and classic starring role on The Bob Newhart Show (1972 – 1978) found its gently hesitating, appealingly unassuming, and unlikely romantic animated expression in a custodial, rescuing Everymouse named Bernard. Opposite the exotic Eva Gabor’s Miss Bianca, the mice pair are dispatched by a diminutive animal kingdom version of the United Nations, the Rescue Aid Society, to find and help a kidnapped six-year-old orphan named Penny (Michelle Stacy), who has sent a distress call by a message in a bottle. Their investigation takes them to Devil’s Bayou in the swamplands of deep Louisiana, where they arrive by a small passenger-carrying albatross named Orville (Jim Jordan) and are there assisted by an assortment of backwoods animal characters (many of whom, like George Lindsey, John Fiedler, and Pat Buttram, had provided similar character voices in Robin Hood) against the cowardly Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn) and the nefarious Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page).

As Bernard the mouse, Bob Newhart imparts that similarly crucial aspect of lived-in reality to his timid though ultimately heroic negotiation of countless Disney animated threats; which include a priceless diamond lodged inside a pirate’s skull, two fearsome crocodiles named Brutus and Nero, and the smitten attentions of a Hungarian-accented white mouse in a fur hat. Rarely has a character so small been called upon to perform deeds so large or overcome obstacles so overwhelming!

But we as viewers (and listeners) are with Bernard every nerve-wracking step of the way, and though his voice is continuously colored by uncertainty, he nonetheless manages to hold miraculously on to his janitor’s cap through perilous water-chases on a dragonfly-powered leaf-vessel, the ungainly take-offs and crash-landings of a particularly clumsy albatross, and the last-second retrieval of the aforementioned Devil’s Eye diamond through the rising tide of an underwater cave. And most miraculously of all, this timorous, unlikely adventurer – superstitiously afraid of the number 13 – ultimately proves worthy of even the redoubtable Miss Bianca; creating a pocket-sized power pair who earned the studio its very first sequel in 1990’s equally engaging The Rescuers Down Under. (Appropriate enough, one might venture, for a company that was itself built on the rising fortune’s of an animated mouse and the falsetto voice of studio founder Walt Disney.)

Full disclosure: The Rescuers was released in theaters exactly a month after I was born; and having been exposed to the film in subsequent theatrical re-release, on the mid-1980’s The Wonderful World of Disney program, and on multiple home video formats – from BetaMax and VHS to DVD and Blu-ray – it remains one of my favorite Disney films. And even before I was aware of Bob Newhart as a stage, sitcom, or late-night TV performer, my own early childhood speech impediment of an ever-so-slight, nervous stammer found comfort and encouragement in Bernard the rescuing mouse’s similar struggle with expressing himself. If Bernard could outwit antagonists 10 times his size, stand up to wild-eyed dragon ladies, and rescue cute little orphans – despite his constant fumbling for words – well, so could I. Even the smallest and most self-doubting of creatures – who sometimes has trouble saying what he means, or completing a thought – could still be a hero.

And it occurs to me that the early example of Bernard may very well have provided later inspiration to pursue interests in reading and writing throughout school; the careful consideration of words, their meaning, impact, and effect becoming something of a lifelong obsession. Coming full circle, as I reach the midway point of life, it’s possibly very appropriate that I should now be reflecting on this movie and the vocal delivery of one of its performers during the 40th anniversary of The Rescuer‘s release.

Even if Mr. and Mrs. Newhart of Oak Park, Illinois hadn’t named their first-born son “Bob” (and they actually didn’t: his birth name was “George”), Bob Newhart himself would never have been able to shake the essential “Bob”-ness of his entertainment persona on TV, stage, and screen. Whether an historical press agent advising President Lincoln on his “image”, a hapless security guard describing King Kong’s ascent up the side of the Empire State Building, or a Chicago psychologist left to fill a hemming-and-hawing hour of broadcast airtime after his panic-stricken therapy group has long-since fled, the Button-Down Mind of comedy’s original deadpan stand-up obliterated any distance between performer and audience, inviting total identification with each endearing stammer and vocal blush of “uhhh…”

Essentially, then, Bernard is Bob and Bob is us – the viewer/listener – in, I’d argue, the culmination of Walt Disney’s first great ambition to impart full, lifelike reality to motion-drawings. The Bob Factor, retroactively-speaking, is for me the best descriptor of Disney’s well-documented pursuit of character voices like Billy Gilbert, Cliff Edwards, Edward Brophy, Sterling Holloway, and Phil Harris over the studio’s first three decades of animated feature filmmaking. And if Disney himself, prior to his mid-60s passing, was not aware of the young nightclub and TV stand-up, his successors need only have seen any isolated moment from The Bob Newhart Show – Bob’s drunken, over-the-phone Thanksgiving repetition, to a Chinese takeout, of the word “moo goo gai pan”, say – to recognize the sort of character-driven humor and personality that could potentially bring great comic life to a nervous, animated mouse.

More than merely vocally describing the efforts of animators to draw and animate figures realistically, a great character voice can actually shape a viewer/listener’s interpretation of the character, and the Bob Factor as applied to the great Disney character roles – from Sneezy and Jiminy Cricket to Winnie-the-Pooh and Baloo – is similarly inseparable from the viewer/listener’s visual/auditory memory. And precisely as Classic Hollywood relied on personality-driven performers to breathe welcome reality into countless romances, musicals, and melodramas, the voices of many of these same character actors are still instantly recognizable – long after their careers, accomplishments, and even their names have been forgotten – thanks, in part, to the reality they gave to the great Disney animated features.

Wrapping up this article where it began, the name “ZaSu Pitts” may not mean much to anyone beyond film historians and classic movie lovers, but it makes me feel closer in a way to a grandfather I never knew. If he was the type of movie-goer to remember and recognize the contribution of a performer who many even then might not have noticed, then I am sure he would have been equally as aware of how character roles and voices add to the success and enjoyment of a film. Less noted though as crucially important, the thematic resonance of small creatures overcoming great odds is only more so when enacted by modest performers overcoming total obscurity. The Bobs of voice and character acting may not impose themselves needlessly on an audience’s attention, but they ultimately prove a good deal more memorable when they do: the lifelike vocal reality of countless Disney animated voices being the very life and breath of the Disney animated film.