Walt Disney’s nose for trouble was getting longer by the day. It was the summer of 1938, and the animator, fresh out of the cinema, who had revolutionized cinema with his first feature-length animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the previous year, was trying to save a relentless Italian children’s adaptation from the chopping block. Novel.
The problem, as Uncle Walt saw it, was that the toy Pinocchio, who turned into a boy, had too much of a hollow personality. In his script with animator Ted Sears, Pinocchio was charmingly naive.
Their vision represented a radical departure from the moody puppet of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s bestseller, The Adventures of Pinocchio. Unfortunately, now that the test animation is starting to arrive, maybe Disney’s shiny new Pinocchio more naive The little man was wooden by nature and personality. The character needed a mentor, a companion, a spirit pet. “Jiminy Cricket!” said one of his crew angrily.
Jiminy Cricket, in the Thirties, was the euphemism for “For God’s sake!” So it was fitting that the explosion provided Disney with its own Come to Jesus moment. He was inspired to create an entirely new – or almost entirely new – character of a grumpy but kindhearted cricketer.
Jiminy would provide the Walt Disney Company with its unofficial anthem, When You Wish a Star. But the story would also tragically end in a Hollywood home of poor actors in 1971. Because if this is Disney and Pinocchio’s ballad, it’s equally the first, last, and always sad story of Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike. Jimin Cricket.
Pinocchio is having a smashing 2022 with two adaptations coming to the screen. A Disney adaptation starring Tom Hanks as the gentle woodcarver Geppetto has already hit Disney+. Meanwhile, a more gothic version of Guillermo del Toro will be released on Netflix on December 9 (after a short theatrical release).
Each of these retellings brings a modern time period to the story of the puppet who won a soul. And neither would have happened without the 1940 Disney original that brought Collodi’s novel to a global audience.
It also introduced the original character of the wise bug Jiminy, who was appointed by the Blue Fairy to protect the naive Pinocchio and serves as the puppet’s conscience. Jiminy, it should be noted, did not sound like a thunderclap. There is a talking cricket in The Adventures of Pinocchio, but he is killed early by Pinocchio (a bit of a sociopath in the novel) and later returns as a ghost.
Jiminy, by contrast, is the film’s most compelling protagonist: a wise, humorous hindrance to his big-eyed ward. He also earned a place in Disney history by singing the company’s signature song to date, When You Wish Upon A Star.
Disney’s Pinocchio is a dark movie – a nightmare by 21st century children’s entertainment standards. For example, a scene in which Pinocchio and his friend Lampwick transform into donkeys is notorious for body horror. There’s a jumping cut that turns out to be a male mule that Lampwick turns his back on and will send chills from your nose to your toes.
But that horror pales in comparison to the real-life tragedy of the voice behind Jiminy Cricke. Cliff Edwards, who gave Jiminy such a steep charisma, was a forgotten figure in Hollywood when he died in 1971. His fame swept to the winds, his long-earned fortune hurled on drugs, booze, and alimony for his four wives.
He had once been one of America’s most famous musicians. Yet he lived his last years penniless at Virgil Convalescent Hospital in Los Angles, the bills being quietly paid by the Disney Company.
It was so obscure that when he died at the age of 76, news of his death was only reported a week later. Initially, his body was unclaimed and was donated to the University of California medical school. But when Disney executives caught wind, they offered to buy the remains and pay for the funeral. Eventually, the company paid for the small headstone at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood.
For Edwards, it was a long, bumpy road to oblivion—a road that he had traveled for at least half of his life. Thirty-three years before his death, he was already in a spiral when Disney hired him to voice Jiminy. It could be argued that Pinocchio’s success only served to accelerate this decline.
It came from the Jazz Age vaudeville circuit and is credited with popularizing the Portuguese string instrument ukulele, which was captured in Hawaii in the 19th century. His stage name ‘Ukulele Ike’ was invented in Chicago, where a club manager who can’t remember Edwards’ name referred to him as ‘Ike’. The musician hit the “Ukulele” and an unexpected star was born.
With the advent of talkies, his career began in earnest. With a fast-talking, sweet and expressive singing voice, Edwards was recruited and contracted by Samuel Goldwyn. He just made history. Playing the lead role in The Hollywood Revue in 1929, she became the first actress to perform an on-screen interpretation of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown’s Singin’ in the Rain.
Edwards starred in Laughing Sinners with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in 1931. hell.
She fell in love with her regular co-star, Buster Keaton: they soon became brothers in debauchery. Liquor, heroin, cocaine—if you could smoke, smoke, or sniff it, Edwards and Keaton were ready for it (in 1933, Keaton married a nurse while fainting after an orgy—he later claimed he didn’t remember anything about the event). In the midst of the Benders, Edwards alternated between marriages – tying the knot four times in the Thirties and Forties.
He was in his 40s and on his way when Disney asked him to test for Jiminy Cricket. The animator had already selected over 20 actors, but none of them had that elusive mix of charisma and melancholy. He saw this instantly in Edwards: the stark, gasping star’s understated style was just what Pinocchio needed.
But Disney did more than just pick Edwards. He created Jiminy in the image of the actor. The cricket sings and dances, a bandit with eyes that reflect a bottomless sadness. Cliff Edwards in that miniature.
Disney had a favor he wouldn’t do for his star. He didn’t put Edwards’ name on the credits or on the recording of Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s When You Wish Upon A Star, which won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Song.
Still, looking at the 45-gun barrel, Edwards knew he had a shot at surviving. He starred in another Disney movie, Dumbo, in 1941. Unfortunately, his voice over “Jim Crow” isn’t as fondly remembered as Jiminy. Jim Crow was an unfortunate African-American stereotype named after an old Minstrel Show cartoon. It later became a proverb of white supremacy in South America. Charming Jiminy had never felt so far away.
Even without racism, Dumbo lagged far behind Pinocchio’s heights. Still drunk and spending more money than he earned, Edwards’ decline accelerated. In the forties he made a living in New York on what was left of the vaudeville scene. To save on bills, she lived on a refurbished navy boat on the East River and named it the Ukulele Lady.
Pinocchio is an iconic chapter in the Disney story. But for Edwards, Jiminy Cricket was one last chirping in the dark. Back in Los Angeles and unemployed, in the ’60s, she would visit a Disney party in hopes of getting a sound job. He died forgotten and bankrupt.
“I did some work on the recordings that we didn’t really need for him,” said Jimmy Johnson, who runs Disney’s music division. “Toward the end, royalties from recordings were his only source of income. The last time he came to my office, he didn’t seem to know where he was or who I was. It was a sad and sad sight that brought tears to my eyes.”