Walt Disney’s nose for trouble was growing longer by the day. It was the summer of 1938 and the animator, fresh from revolutionising cinema the previous year with his first feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was flat-out trying to save from the chopping block his adaptation of a grim Italian children’s novel.
The issue, as Uncle Walt saw it, was that Pinocchio, the toy who becomes a boy, had too much of a hollowed-out personality. In the script he’d hammered out with animator Ted Sears, Pinocchio was a charming naif.
Their vision represented a radical departure from the mean-spirited marionette of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s bestseller, The Adventures of Pinocchio. Alas, now that test animation was rolling in, it was obvious to Disney that his shiny new Pinocchio was perhaps too naive. The little guy was wooden by nature – and personality. The character needed a mentor, a companion, a spirit animal. “Jiminy Cricket!” said one of his team in exasperation.
Jiminy Cricket was, in the Thirties, a euphemism for “Jesus Christ!”. So it was apt that the outburst provided Disney with his own Come to Jesus moment. He was inspired to create the all-new – or practically all-new – character of a roguish yet good-hearted cricket.
Jiminy would provide the Walt Disney Company with its unofficial anthem, When You Wish Upon A Star. But the story would also end tragically, in a Hollywood home for indigent actors in 1971. Because if this is the ballad of Disney and Pinocchio, it is equally the sad tale of Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike, aka the first, last and always Jiminy Cricket.
Pinocchio is having a chipper 2022 with two adaptations coming to the screen. A Disney remake starring Tom Hanks as kindly wood-carver Geppetto has already hit Disney+. Meanwhile, a more gothic take by Guillermo del Toro is bound for Netflix on December 9 (following a short cinema run).
Each of these retellings brings a modern-day twist to the tale of the puppet who gains a soul. And neither would exist without the 1940 Disney original – which brought Collodi’s novel to a global audience.
It also introduced the original character of Jiminy, the wise-cracking insect appointed by the Blue Fairy to safeguard the naive Pinocchio and who serves as the puppet’s conscience. Jiminy, it should be pointed out, didn’t quite arrive in a thunderclap. There is a talking cricket in The Adventures of Pinocchio, though he is killed early on by Pinocchio (a bit of a sociopath in the novel) and returns later as a ghost.
Jiminy, by contrast, is the film’s most engaging protagonist: a wise, witty foil to his wide-eyed ward. He has also carved out a place in Disney history by singing When You Wish Upon A Star – the corporation’s signature song to this day.
Disney’s Pinocchio is a dark film – nightmarish by 21st century standards of children’s entertainment. A scene in which Pinocchio and his friend Lampwick transform into donkeys has, for instance, become notorious for its body horror. There’s a jump cut in which Lampwick turns around and is revealed to be a man-mule that will send a chill from your nose to your toes.
But those horrors pale against the true-life tragedy of the voice behind Jiminy Cricke. By his death in 1971 Cliff Edwards, who had breathed such craggy charisma into Jiminy, was a forgotten figure in Hollywood. His fame was scattered to the winds, the fortune he’d earned long since splurged on drugs, booze and alimony for his four wives.
Once he had been one of the most famous musicians in America. Yet he lived out his final years penniless at Virgil Convalescent Hospital in Los Angles, his bills quietly paid by the Disney Company.
Such was his obscurity that, when he died aged 76, news of his passing wasn’t reported until a week afterwards. Initially, his body was unclaimed and donated to the University of California medical school. But when Disney executives caught wind they offered to purchase the remains and cover the cost of burial. In the end, the corporation paid for his small grave marker at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood.
It was a long and rocky road to oblivion for Edwards – one he’d been on at least half his life. Thirty-three years prior to his death, when Disney hired him to voice Jiminy, he was already spiralling. A case can be made that the success of Pinocchio served only to accelerate that decline.
He’d come up through the Jazz Age vaudeville circuit and is credited with popularising the ukulele, the Portuguese stringed instrument that caught on in Hawaii in the 19th century. His stage name ‘Ukulele Ike” had been coined in Chicago, where a club manager, unable to remember Edwards’s name, referred to him as “Ike”. The musician tacked on “Ukulele” and an unlikely star was born.
With the arrival of the talkies, his career took off in earnest. Fast-talking and with a sweet and expressive singing voice, Edwards was hired by Samuel Goldwyn and put on contract. He made history immediately. Starring in 1929’s The Hollywood Revue he became the first performer to deliver an on-screen rendition of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown’s Singin' in the Rain.
Edwards went on to star opposite Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in Laughing Sinners in 1931. He soon found his niche as roguish sidekick, appearing in 33 features alone in 1933. Yet if making a splash on screen, off it he was on the road to hell.
He’d fallen in with his regular co-star Buster Keaton: soon they were brothers in debauchery. Booze, heroin, cocaine – if you could drink it, smoke it or snort it, Edwards and Keaton were up for it (in 1933 Keaton married a nurse while blacked out after a binge – he later claimed to remember nothing of the incident). Amidst the benders, Edwards bounced between marriages – tying the knot four times in the Thirties and Forties.
He was in his 40s and on the way down when Disney asked him to test for Jiminy Cricket. The animator had already auditioned more than 20 actors, but none had that elusive mix of hangdog charisma and melancholy. He saw it instantly in Edwards: the washed-up star's homespun style was exactly what Pinocchio required.
Disney did more than cast Edwards, however. He created Jiminy in the image of the actor. The cricket sings and dances, a rogue with eyes that reflect a bottomless sadness. He’s Cliff Edwards in miniature.
There was one favour Disney would not do his star. He did not put Edwards's name on the credits – or on the recording of Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s When You Wish Upon A Star, which went on to win the 1940 Academy Award for Best Song.
Still, facing down the gunnel barrel of 45, Edwards knew he had a shot at redemption. He went on to star in another Disney feature, 1941’s Dumbo. Alas, the “Jim Crow” character he voiced is less fondly-remembered than Jiminy. Jim Crow was an unfortunate African American stereotype, named after an old Minstrel Show caricature. Later it became a byword for white supremacy in the American South. The charming Jiminy never felt further away.
Even without the racism, Dumbo fell a long way short of the heights achieved by Pinocchio. Still boozing and spending money faster than he made it, Edwards's decline accelerated. By the Forties he was in New York, scraping a living on what remained of the vaudeville scene. To save bills, he lived in a renovated navy boat on the East River, christened Ukulele Lady.
Pinocchio is an iconic chapter in the Disney story. For Edwards, though, Jiminy Cricket was a final chirrup in the darkness. Back in LA and unemployed, in the Sixties, he would visit the Disney lot in the hope of picking up voice work. He died forgotten and bankrupt.
“I made some work for him on records which we really didn’t need,” said Jimmy Johnson, who ran Disney’s music division. “Toward the end, royalties from records were his only source of income. The last time he came into my office, he didn’t seem to know where he was or who I was. He was a sad and sorrowful sight that brought tears to my eyes.”