Sometimes a gem can be hiding in plain sight—or within hearing distance. A few weeks ago I turned on Turner Classic Movies (my go-to channel) and watched part of Alexander Korda’s 1942 production The Jungle Book, starring Sabu. I hadn’t seen it in a while and it’s very entertaining. But when Mowgli encountered the giant snake Kaa, I listened carefully to the voice and realized it belonged to Mel Blanc. It had never occurred to me before; he’s speaking in a very low register so it isn’t immediately apparent. Then I thought of him performing his parody of a popular radio commercial in a Warner Bros. cartoon, saying, “Beee-Ohhh” and I was certain.
The best way for me to confirm this, since neither Mel nor any other voice performers received onscreen credit, was to contact my Aussie pal Keith Scott. Aside from being a talented comedian and voice artist himself, Keith is recognized as the expert on cartoon voices from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He checked his Blu-ray disc of The Jungle Book and e-mailed me his verdict all the way from Sydney: “Hidden under all that breathiness IS Mel Blanc as the snake Kaa, and I believe the other voice-over for the Cobra King was Martha Wentworth.”
In April of 1941 Blanc signed an exclusive contract with Leon Schlesinger Productions, where he made his mark as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and other indelible characters. As a freelancer he worked at all the animation studios, including Columbia, MGM (you can hear him in Peace on Earth) . and Walter Lantz, for whom he originated the voice of Woody Woodpecker in 1940. His contract with Schlesinger didn’t cover live-action films (like Korda’s Jungle Book) or the field of radio, where Blanc was active, working with Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and countless others. Nor did it prevent him from doing recordings or appearing on television, where he voiced the character of Barney Rubble on The Flintstones.
By the time Walt Disney made his animated version of The Jungle Book in 1967, he drew on an all-star cast including Phil Harris, George Sanders, Louis Prima, and as Kaa, the inimitable Sterling Holloway. But Mel Blanc was just a working stiff in 1942 and no doubt happy to be hired, even without proper credit.