July 22, 2011
I was shocked when a colleague told me the other day that she had never read the Winnie-the-Pooh books, and I suppose I should have hidden my surprise better than I did. That’s a conceit of mine – that everyone’s life experiences should be the same as my own. Then again, we’re talking about Winnie-the-Pooh, for heaven’s sake.
This conversation was occasioned by the fact that Pat and I went on Sunday to see the new Disney movie, Winnie-the-Pooh, with our daughter and our two grandsons. The film is well done with hand-drawn images and a story line that are true to the spirit of both A.A.Milne, who wrote the books, and Ernest Shepard, who illustrated them.
Milne and Shepard, of course, provided text and pictures, but they did not provide the voices of the characters. That was left to the Disney studio, where some genius cast Sterling Holloway in the title role of Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966. Holloway played the part in two more Disney short features, and his high-pitched, plaintive voice became the voice of Pooh for a couple of generations of kids and adults who, by the mercy of God, have not fully grown up.
Holloway retired in the 1970s, and the Disney casting office had another epiphany, choosing voice actor Jim Cummings – who can be heard in about a hundred films – to speak for Pooh, as it were. It was a tough assignment for an actor who, I’m sure, wanted to do his work without a ghost looking over his shoulder but also wanted to keep the character authentic in the minds of the audience. No problem. Cummings’ performance is distinctive, but it has the ring of a bear, and a hungry one at that, of very little brain.
Cummings knows something about following a tough act. He also took over the role of Tigger in the Pooh films after the retirement of Paul Winchell, who entertained audiences in the 50s and 60s with a ventriloquist act that featured the mannequin Jerry Mahoney, and who was also the first person to design and build an artificial heart.
I can’t say I missed Holloway while we were watching Winnie-the-Pooh, but I miss him in general. I first became aware of him when he appeared in the recurring role of eccentric but gentle Waldo Binney, a neighbor of the title family on the series The Life of Riley, which starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley.
Holloway was unique, sui generis, in the quirkiness of his appearance, his demeanor, and his voice, so it was always a pleasure to run across him in movies or TV shows – the latter including The Amazing Adventures of Superman. He appeared in about 150 screen and TV properties over all. In the 1970s, he also did voiceover commercials for Purina Puppy Chow dog food, and sang what was then a familiar jingle: “Puppy Chow / for a full year / till he’s fully grown.”
As often happens with performers who have long careers, two of Holloway’s landmark achievements are largely forgotten – namely the fact that he introduced two songs that became a permanent part of the American musical repertoire. This occurred when he was appearing on Broadway in the 1920s and the songs were “(I’ll take) Manhattan” and “Mountain Greenery,” both composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
Holloway, who never married because – he said – he liked his life the way it was, died in 1992 at the age of 87.
Click on THIS LINK to see and hear Sterling Holloway singing “A Perfect Day,” a song written in 1909 by Carrie Jacobs Bond. Holloway’s touching rendition occurred in the 1940 film “Remember the Night.”
This issue has been treated in literature – notably, as far as my limited knowledge goes, by Kenneth Grahame and by A.A. Milne. Grahame, who was the author of “The Wind in the Willows,”also wrote “The Golden Age” and its sequel, “Dream Days,” which consist of a collection of stories told from the viewpoint of a family of Victorian children. The best known of these stories is “The Reluctant Dragon,” but the whole body of work is remarkable for its portrayal of a world in which adults — the children refer to them as “Olympians” — have forgotten the experience of being young. This subject also concerned Sir James Matthew Barrie (“Peter Pan”) and P.L. Travers (“Mary Poppins”).
The connexion was not entirely broken now–one link remained between us and them. The Noah’s Ark, with its cargo of sad-faced emigrants, might be hull down on the horizon, but two of its passengers had missed the boat and would henceforth be always near us; and, as we played above them, an elephant would understand, and a beetle would hear, and crawl again in spirit along a familiar floor. Henceforth the spotty horse would scour along far-distant plains and know the homesickness of alien stables; but Potiphar, though never again would he paw the arena when bull-fights were on the bill, was spared maltreatment by town-bred strangers, quite capable of mistaking him for a cow.
Jerry and Esmeralda might shed their limbs and their stuffing, by slow or swift degrees, in uttermost parts and unguessed corners of the globe; but Rosa’s book was finally closed, and no worse fate awaited her than natural dissolution almost within touch and hail of familiar faces and objects that had been friendly to her since first she opened her eyes on a world where she had never been treated as a stranger.
“Yes?” said Pooh.
“Yes, Christopher Robin?”
“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”
“Well, not so much. They won’t let you.”
Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.
“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Pooh helpfully.
“Pooh, when I’m–you know–when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”
“Will you be here too?”
“Yes, Pooh, I will be, really. I promise I will be, Pooh.”
“That’s good,” said Pooh.
“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”
Pooh thought for a little.
“How old shall I be then?”
“I promise,” he said.
Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.
“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I–if I’m not quite—-” he stopped and tried again—”Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”
“Oh, nothing.” He laughed and jumped to his feet. “Come on!”
“Where?” said Pooh.
“Anywhere,” said Christopher Robin.
I have hung onto some shreds of my childhood, and I wish I had kept more. Fortunately, I wasn’t reared by Olympians. On one occasion many years ago, when I was delivering a homily to a class of children who were about to receive First Eucharist, I brought along an admittedly silent friend for moral support. At the end of my sermon I told the kids, “Some day grownups are going to tell you that you are too old for toys, and that you’ll be getting clothes and other boring things for gifts from then on. When they tell you that, you tell them that when the deacon was 50 years old, his mother gave him this Howdy Doody doll.
As we turned to go, the man in the moon, tangled in elm-boughs, caught my eye for a moment, and I thought that never had he looked so friendly. He was going to see after them, it was evident; for he was always there, more or less, and it was no trouble to him at all, and he would tell them how things were still going, up here, and throw in a story or two of his own whenever they seemed a trifle dull. It made the going away rather easier, to know one had left somebody behind on the spot; a good fellow, too, cheery, comforting, with a fund of anecdote; a man in whom one had every confidence. – Kenneth Grahame, “Dream Days.”
April 29, 2009
The death of character actor Peter Dennis calls to mind the seemingly inexhaustible appeal of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” books. Although, I often wonder how many people know Milne’s characters – which have been thoroughly exploited – without knowing them in their original context. Peter Dennis used to tour with a one-man show that consisted of him reading from the Pooh books and other works by Milne. He maintained – and the large crowds he drew seemed to confirm – that Milne’s stories weren’t just for children. That’s certainly true. Superimposed on the tales themselves is a kind of harmonic of humor and philosophy that only adults are likely to perceive. The same is true of Kenneth Graham’s “The Wind in the Willows.” It is so much true of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books that there probably is more for adults in their pages than there is for children.
Or, at least, there would be more for adults if adults are still reading these books. It’s prophetic that in the last scene of the second Pooh book, Christopher Robin tells Pooh that they can’t continue their previous relationship because “they won’t let you” – the “they” being humorless grownups. There is a similar passage in another of Graham’s books, “Dream Days,” in which a family of children go out in the dead of night and bury in the yard some toys that the adults – the narrator calls them Olympians – have packed away because the children, in the view of grownups, have outgrown them. “As we turned to go,” the narrator says, “the man in the moon, tangled in elm-boughs, caught my eye for a moment, and I thought that never had he looked so friendly. He was going to see after them, it was evident; for he was always there, more or less, and so it was no trouble to him at all, and he would tell them how things were still going, up here, and throw in a story or two of his own whenever they seemed a trifle dull. It made the going away rather easier, to know one had left somebody behind on the spot; a goodfellow, too, cheery, comforting, with a fund of anecdote; a man in whom one had every confidence.”