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Famous Voices For "Alice"—Now And Then

Features
by Leonard Maltin
March 4, 2010 5:00 AM
15 Comments
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If you attend the new production of Alice in Wonderland, you’ll not only see Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and other well-known performers onscreen; you’ll hear some familiar voices, especially if you’re fond of British actors. I pinpointed Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar right away; his delivery is unmistakable. But it was my wife Alice—the real Anglophile in the family—who identified Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat and Timothy Spall as Bayard the hound. (After all, she listened to Fry read the Harry Potter books; he’s on the British audiobooks while Jim Dale did the American versions.) Neither one of us could i.d. Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, nor did we realize that two distinguished veterans, Michael Gough and Christopher Lee, provided the voices of the Dodo Bird and Jabberwocky, respectively.

It’s believed that hiring popular stars to provide the voices of animated characters is a recent phenomenon. That’s only true to a degree: when Disney’s Aladdin opened in 1992, it was Robin Williams’ powerhouse comedy performance that generated interest from moviegoers of all ages. That in turn inspired Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was then supervising animated projects at the studio, to follow a star path when he set up shop at DreamWorks Animation. Others have followed suit.

But while Walt Disney never hired stars as popular (or as pricey) as Shrek’s Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz, he did call on prominent actors and entertainers. Just because they aren’t household names in 2010 doesn’t mean they weren’t famous in their day. Before he played Jiminy Cricket, Cliff Edwards, also known as Ukulele Ike, was a popular recording artist and movie personality who warbled “Singin’ in the Rain” in the early-talkie musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929.

Years later, Phil Harris’s voice and jazzy, colloquial approach to dialogue made Baloo the Bear a sensation in The Jungle Book—so much so that Harris was brought back as Thomas O’Malley Cat in The Aristocats and Little John in Robin Hood. Kids wouldn’t have known him, but grownups had been watching and listening to him for years, on radio (where he worked with Jack Benny for many years), in movies, and in a succession of hit records.

Sterling Holloway in his heyday

Neither one of those entertainers could have predicted that their bid for immortality would be their vocal work for Disney, but that’s just what has happened. Even once-familiar character actors like Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton wouldn’t stir much recognition today, but millions of people, young and old, know their voices. Holloway appeared in countless Disney cartoons, from Dumbo (as the stork) to The Jungle Book (as Kaa the snake); he also created the voice of Winnie the Pooh, which voice artist Jim Cummings has imitated since Holloway’s death. Mellow-voiced, woolly-headed Holloway had a string of Broadway credits before he came to Hollywood, where he appeared in scores of movies—alongside everyone from Bing Crosby to Will Rogers, even working as Gene Autry’s cowboy sidekick for a spell—and TV shows, including three episodes of The Adventures of Superman as a goofy mad scientist. Felton was Mrs. Jumbo in Dumbo, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, Flora in Sleeping Beauty, and introduced the song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. Felton costarred in an early TV sitcom I used to watch called December Bride, and turned up in two I Love Lucy episodes, but was better known for her prolific radio work than for anything she did on-camera.

Verna Felton, as seen on a collector's card from 1953.

Felton and Holloway both appeared on the soundtrack of Alice in Wonderland, she as the Queen of Hearts and he as the Cheshire Cat. But when it came time to cast two other key roles, Disney and his team cast a wider net than usual: they decided on two larger-than-life figures. Audiences of that time would have recognized the voices of Ed Wynn, as the Mad Hatter, and Jerry Colonna, as the March Hare, the minute they opened their mouths. In fact, their well-known personas helped to define their characters.

Ed Wynn was a Broadway star with a distinctive sing-song voice who headlined the Ziegfeld Follies back in the teens. He reached an even larger audience as one of the first major comedy stars of network radio in the early 1930s, and pioneered again in the early days of television.

Annette Funicello and Ed Wynn in Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland (1961)

He built an entirely new career for himself as a character actor in the 1950s and 60s, on TV and in such feature films as The Great Man, Marjorie Morningstar, and The Diary of Anne Frank. But his greatest latter-day success came in a series of live-action Disney films (The Absent Minded Professor, Babes in Toyland, Son of Flubber, et al.) and many people will most readily identify him with the character of Uncle Albert, who sings “I Love to Laugh” in Mary Poppins.

Jerry Colonna was a working musician in Hollywood who amused his fellow players with his natural sense of humor and his handlebar mustache. His bombastic, leather-lunged vocal performances eventually won him fame as a comedy performer, on radio and in the movies. Bob Hope made him part of his regular troupe, beginning in the 1940s on radio, and continuing through his overseas tours of the 1960s.

Walt Disney poses with Jerry Colonna, who performed "Casey at the Bat" for his animated feature Make Mine Music in 1946, and came back to voice the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland.

And if Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna are remembered only by older people and show-biz buffs, their presence on the soundtrack of the animated Alice in Wonderland will keep them alive in our popular culture for many years to come.

I wonder if the actors, both on-camera and off-, will enjoy the same long-term recognition from this latest incarnation of Alice.


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15 Comments

  • Matt S | June 1, 2012 8:09 AMReply

    Mr. Maltin - Once again, you give us a great informative article. However, how can you forget mentioning along with Phil Harris in "Jungle Book" Louis Prima? He was definitely a big star by the time he did his voice over for the film.

  • Sofia P | May 4, 2012 2:31 AMReply

    Disney did hire Eddie Murphy for the voice of the Dragon in Mulan.

  • Donald Neely | April 16, 2010 11:00 AMReply

    My wife and I were just discussing this subject. It seems now that the celebrity is more important than the voice. Cliff Edwards and Sterling Holloway were not megastars, but what voices. Johnny Depp is out of his league in this current adaptation.

  • Ben Ohmart | March 11, 2010 7:18 AMReply

    We just published a huge book on Verna Felton!

    http://bearmanormedia.bizland.com/id474.html

  • JUGL11@aol.com | March 7, 2010 9:53 AMReply

    Going back even farther, there was a 1935 version of "ALICE" featuring many stars of the day, including the great W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty!!

  • Anne-Marie | March 7, 2010 9:23 AMReply

    While this is a great piece for those of us who recognize the voices from the 1951 version, it seems a pity that you overlooked Richard Haydn. Haydn has a one-of-a-kind voice and look, providing the voice of the caterpillar. I also remember him in Sound of Music, Ball of Fire, and in one episode each of Dick Van Dkye and Twilight Zone. I'm sure he did more than this, but I remember his distinct voice in Alice.

  • mary | March 7, 2010 7:37 AMReply

    I so fondly remember all these wonderful guys. Nothing today compares as they had such fabulous decentive voices! Some today, even Robin Williams I find annoying at times. And the money they spend is crazy for what they get in return. Like the commercials the "stars" make.... I say who cares... and don't get me started on "their" products. Let someone else make some money will ya?!

  • AV | March 7, 2010 6:50 AMReply

    How about Louis Prima in Disney's Jungle Book!

  • Dave N | March 6, 2010 3:00 AMReply

    Not a word about Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of ALICE.
    Also Wendy Darling in Peter Pan.

  • Nina | March 6, 2010 1:10 AMReply

    Enjoyed this article. I'm 55 but know and remember all the people mentioned. Thanks so much for supplying a picture to go along with the names. Wish animated films now would supply a picture to go along with the character they are voicing.

  • Ashley | March 5, 2010 11:03 AMReply

    Wow that is really interesting and thats so cool how they kept the people on! :) I hope the actors in this reincarnation of Alice will have as successful careers as the past Alice stars!!!

  • Lola | March 5, 2010 4:11 AMReply

    Remember too, that Disney hired James Earl Jones for the voice of Mustafa, the king, in the blockbuster Lion King. That movie also included stars like: Whoopi Goldberg and Jeremy Irons.

  • Allen Blank | March 4, 2010 11:22 AMReply

    Verna Felton was an elephant voice in Dumbo, but not Mrs. Dumbo. She was one of the nasty female elephants that made fun of Dumbo. Her last Disney role was once again as an elephant as she voiced Colonel Hathi's wife Winefred in The Jungle Book. She also was the voice of Mrs. Flaghoople, Fred Flintstone's mother-in-law on The Flintstones.

  • Greg Ehrbar | March 4, 2010 8:26 AMReply

    Here's a bit of trivia I just learned -- Sterling Knight, Disney Channel star or "Sonny with a Chance" and "Star Struck," told Bonnie Hunt on her show that his mother named him Sterling after Sterling Holloway.

  • Nathaniel Lippiett | March 4, 2010 3:12 AMReply

    Hi there - I'm with ITN a UK broadcaster, and we interviewed Leonard on the red carpet before the Oscars last year and are keen to do so again if he's around? I'd be grateful if you could email me at nathaniel.lippiett@itn.co.uk - many thanks, Nathaniel

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