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.
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.
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.
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.
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.