Cliff Edwards

January 03, 2010

by Elizabeth
Guest Blogger

Very few people are aware of the film career of singer-songwriter Cliff Edwards beyond his voice work at Disney. His name won’t pop up in the history books next to the film greats. He probably won’t even be featured in a book about famous musicians. Yet there is no reason for him to have to suffer through such obscurity – he acted in over 100 films, sold 74 million records, and had over 30 chart topping hits. Careers like that don’t come around every day!

Cliff got his beginning in vaudeville and Broadway during the 1920s. He introduced some of the most popular songs of the decade and was almost always at the top of the charts. Unfortunately, he was placed at a disadvantage when it came to acting. His problem was similar to the one that many silent stars went through when the “talkies” rolled around – his voice didn’t suit his face. Except that his predicament was the REVERSE of what the silent stars were plagued with. The leading men of the silents were handsome and masculine, but a surprising number of them had squeaky or effeminate voices, speech impediments or bizarre accents. Our Mr. Edwards had a stunningly beautiful singing voice with a large vocal range, and a pleasant Midwestern accent. His voice could have guaranteed him regular parts in musicals as the dashing Romeo, but his figure was another story. Even in his first starring role in “The Hollywood Revue of 1929” it is painfully obvious that he was short (in most of his movies he was noticeably smaller than the leading lady), slightly bug-eyed, well on his way to being bald, and bearing an extra chin or two – and he was only 32 at the time. So while he could continue performing his romantic love songs on the 78s, on celluloid he was confined to character acting. And while character acting can get a person a good amount of jobs, it doesn’t make superstars.

At first he received his roles with great regularity and the parts were good. He never got lead, but he did get fairly high billing on the credits, and he had the privilege of playing sidekick to some of Hollywood’s best talent. His first major pairing was with none other than Buster Keaton from 1930-1931. He and Keaton become close friends, but they were split up by MGM after making only three films together. Part of the reason was that they were getting difficult to handle, as Keaton was a depressed alcoholic and both men were suffering from the shattered remains of nightmare marriages, and their troubles show in their work.

His personal life was now collapsing around his ears. He ended his marriage with second wife Irene Wylie in 1931 with an alimony that would give her one-third of any income that he made for life. He was now appearing in fewer movies, and as the 30s continued his parts became smaller and his credits less significant. He was bleeding money what with alimony, tax troubles, budding alcoholism, and some rather bad choices in gambling. In was inevitable that he should declare bankruptcy multiple times. Even through all that he did appear in some major films, such as “His Girl Friday” and “Gone With the Wind”, and received high praise for many of his parts.

Then came the role that resurrected his failing career. Walt Disney, in search for big talent to voice his films, hired him for the part of Jiminy Cricket in his second feature-length animated film, the highly anticipated “Pinocchio.” Disney must have been very impressed with Cliff’s performance, as during the course of the two years that it took to make “Pinocchio” the part of Jiminy Cricket was increased multiple times from only having only a few lines and the performing one song, all the way up to the part we know now, with Jiminy narrating and performing several numbers. The film was released in February 1940, and turned out to be a terrific hit, and “When You Wish Upon a Star” won the Oscar for Best Song. It was the fifth best selling song of 1940, and was recorded by several other performers, such as Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, and Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. As a final crowning achievement, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Even though the average person is much more likely to know who Bing Crosby is, it is still Cliff Edwards’ version that is remembered today.

One would assume that such a successful role and yet another chart topping hit would save his career and bring him out of his poverty. Not true. In fact, he filed for bankruptcy for the second time in 1941, just one year after the release of “Pinocchio” and the same year that he returned to Disney to do the voice of Jim Crow in “Dumbo”. In the mid to the last half of the 1940s he played the sidekick to cowboy Tim Holt in a series of B-westerns (and as any film historian knows, B-western sidekick generally means that an acting career is dead and buried.)

At this point, Cliff was broke and alone. His only form of regular work was because of his personal friendship with Walt Disney, and that was only voice work. He released a couple of children’s records, but they were as Jiminy Cricket, and not as himself. Even his autographs read “the voice of Jiminy Cricket.” He now had no identity that was not related in some way or another to Disney Studios. He spent all of his spare time hanging around the Studios, looking for a free lunch and someone to talk to. Whenever he was sick, Disney kindly paid all of his medical expenses. He did his final movie, a Jiminy Cricket short, in 1970 which was made 41 years after his first appearance on the big screen and 47 years since he made his first vocal recording. Cliff Edwards died in the hospital in 1971 at the age of 76.

Today he is bizarrely remembered and forgotten. Many people still fondly remember his “I’m No Fool” series of Jiminy Cricket shorts from the 1950s-1970s. Just about everyone could recognize his voice, all thanks to Disney. During his lifetime he was constantly employed in some form or another, which is not something that many actors can say. Besides that, he was an incredibly optimistic person, and refused to dwell on his own troubles. His greatest misfortune is that very few people know his name or his groundbreaking work in music, television, radio, and film apart from his cartoon voicing, which perfectly sums up how one little cricket both destroyed and preserved his career. So the next time you hear Jiminy singing “When You Wish Upon a Star”, remember the triumphs and struggles of the incredibly unique little man behind the kindly little cricket.


NoirGirl said...

What a phenomenal post this is!

Kate, that drawing is amazing! You've really captured the kindly personality of Cliff Edwards. I love his eyes in particular. :)

And Elizabeth! You nearly brought me to tears with your recounting of Cliff's life story. I never knew about all his misfortunes after his Pinocchio days. I always think of him as the wisecracking 30's sidekick, never before realizing what a hard life he had. I'm going to buy "When you wish upon a star" from iTunes right now if they have it. I feel like I need to listen to his amazing version after reading this.

Kudos to you both, this is a fantastic post!

pjowens75 said...

What a great post, Elizabeth, and a very well done portrait, Kate. Walt Disney was, to my mind, one of the only 2 or 3 true geniuses of the 20th century, and when he died I was deeply affected and decided to put faces to the voices behind my favorite Disney characters. First on my list was Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards. And although he had a successful singing career in the early days, it is his rendition of "When You Wish Upon A Star" that guarantees his immortality.

Elizabeth said...

Oh Kate he looks wonderful! You did a fantastic job! I love it!

Robby Cress said...

Wonderful post! I love the music of Cliff Edwards and of course his role as Jiminy Cricket. I didn't know about all his troubles later in life. I think the most interesting tidbit you share is about his relationship with Walt Disney and how he paid his medical expenses.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Cliff's career was a very sad one. And I do think the studios sold him short on his acting career. Not only did he have that marvellous voice, but he had a good deal of acting skill. True, he did not look like the dashing leading man, but then neither did Bing Crosby, yet Bing had a very healthy film career! Given a chance, I think Cliff could have been one of the best remembered leading men in musicals.

Lolita of the Classics said...

A superb post, and a superb portrait! You are great, both of you!
How I laughed sadly when I read that he signed "the voice of Jiminy Cricket"... That just shouldn't be!

Unknown said...

A great look at Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards' career. He was a major singing star in the 1920s, & even introduced some big hits, including Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" & "Singing in the Rain." Love Kate's drawing, too.

Tom said...

I enjoyed this post; I never realized he acted in so many films.

I have a question for the guest blogger, that is allowed: what film of his do you recommend, and/or are your favorites? (Besides the Disney ones) Thanks, Tom.

KC said...

Though I know his face and voice, I didn't really know anything about Cliff Edwards until I read your post. Knowing his life story makes all those songs so much more poignant. The portrait is lovely, because it clearly portrays his gentle, optimistic soul.

David F said...

Being Elizabeth's Dad, I'm a bit biased about her work but, I wanted to say how pleased I am with the post. He really was a fascinating man. Also, Ms Gabrielle, I thought your drawing was rather good and I wanted to say thanks for applying your talents to its creation. Great teamwork!

Jonas Nordin said...

Elizabeth, Superb! Everyone should write posts about Cliff Edwards! To me he symbolizes the early talkies - Almost completely forgotten but still eternally great. Have you seen Cliff in Starlit Days At The Lido (1935) it is one of his few appearences in glorious 3-strip Technicolor.