the tragic descent into oblivion of the real Jiminy Cricket

Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio in the 1940 Disney film – Alamy

Walt Disney’s flair for trouble grew day by day. It was the summer of 1938 and the animator, who had revolutionized cinema the previous year with his first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was trying hard to save his adaptation of a sinister Italian children’s film. novel.

The problem, according to Uncle Walt, was that Pinocchio, the toy who becomes a boy, had too hollow a personality. In the script he had worked out with animator Ted Sears, Pinocchio was charmingly naive.

Their vision represented a radical departure from the petty puppet of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s bestseller, The Adventures of Pinocchio. Alas, now that the test animation was coming, it was obvious to Disney that maybe its shiny new Pinocchio was too naive. The little guy was wooden by nature – and personality. The character needed a mentor, a companion, a spirit animal. “Jiminy Cricket!” said an exasperated member of his team.

Jiminy Cricket was, in the 1930s, a euphemism for “Jesus Christ!”. So it was only fitting that the explosion provided Disney with its own Come to Jesus moment. He was inspired to create the all-new – or virtually all-new – character of a mischievous but good-hearted cricketer.

Jiminy would provide the Walt Disney Company with its unofficial anthem, When You Wish Upon A Star. But the story will also end tragically, in a Hollywood home for destitute actors in 1971. Because if it’s the ballad of Disney and Pinocchio, it’s also the sad story of Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike, aka the first, the last and always Jiminy Cricket.

Pinocchio has a 2022 chipper with two upcoming screen adaptations. A Disney remake starring Tom Hanks as the kind woodcarver Geppetto has already hit Disney+. Meanwhile, a more gothic take from Guillermo del Toro is bound for Netflix on December 9 (after a short run in theaters).

Each of these tales brings a modern twist to the story of the soul-winning puppet. 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 insect appointed by the Blue Fairy to protect the naive Pinocchio and who serves as the puppet’s conscience. Jiminy, it must be emphasized, did not quite arrive with a bang. 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 later returns as a ghost.

Jiminy, on the other hand, is the film’s most engaging protagonist: a wise and witty foil to his wide-eyed ward. He also carved out a place for himself in Disney history by singing When You Wish Upon A Star – the company’s signature song to date.

Disney’s Pinocchio is a dark film – nightmarish by the standards of 21st century children’s entertainment. A scene in which Pinocchio and his friend Lampwick transform into donkeys, for example, became famous for its body horror. There’s a skipped cut in which Lampwick turns around and reveals himself to be a mule-man who’ll send a shiver from your nose to your toes.

Cliff Edwards records the voice of Timothy Mouse in Disney's Dumbo - Getty

Cliff Edwards records the voice of Timothy Mouse in Disney’s Dumbo – Getty

But those horrors pale in comparison to the true tragedy of the voice behind Jiminy Cricke. When he died in 1971, Cliff Edwards, who had instilled such charisma in Jiminy, was a forgotten figure in Hollywood. His fame was scattered to the winds, his long-earned fortune splurging on drugs, alcohol and alimony for his four wives.

Once, he had been one of America’s most famous musicians. Yet he spent his final years penniless at Virgil Convalescent Hospital in Los Angles, his bills quietly paid by the Disney corporation.

His obscurity was such that when he died at the age of 76, news of his passing was not announced until a week later. Initially, her 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 cover burial costs. In the end, the company paid for her small headstone at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood.

It was a long and rocky road to oblivion for Edwards – a road he had traveled at least half his life. Thirty-three years before his death, when Disney hired him to voice Jiminy, he was already going in circles. It can be argued that the success of Pinocchio only served to accelerate this decline.

He came through the Jazz Age vaudeville circuit and is credited with popularizing the ukulele, the Portuguese string instrument that spread to Hawaii in the 19th century. His stage name “Ukulele Ike” had been coined in Chicago, where a club manager, unable to remember Edwards’ name, called him “Ike”. The musician added “Ukulele” and an unlikely star was born.

Guilty Conscience: Jiminy Cricket - Alamy

Guilty Conscience: Jiminy Cricket – Alamy

With the arrival of talkers, his career took off for good. Speaking fast and with a smooth, expressive voice, Edwards was hired by Samuel Goldwyn and put under contract. He immediately went down in history. Featured in The Hollywood Revue in 1929, he became the first performer to deliver an on-screen rendition of Singin’ in the Rain by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Edwards then starred opposite Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in 1931’s Laughing Sinners. He quickly found his footing as a mischievous sidekick, appearing in 33 feature films by 1933. Still, if he was a sensation on screen , he was on the road to hell.

He had fallen in love with his usual co-star Buster Keaton: soon they were brothers in debauchery. Alcohol, heroin, cocaine – if you could drink it, smoke it or snort it, Edwards and Keaton were in for it (in 1933 Keaton married a nurse when he had passed out from a binge – he later claimed remember nothing of the incident). Amid the benders, Edwards bounced between marriages – marrying four times in the thirties and forties.

He was in his 40s and about to come down when Disney asked him to test Jiminy Cricket. The host had already auditioned more than 20 actors, but none had that elusive mix of doggie charisma and melancholy. He saw it instantly at Edwards: the faded star’s homespun style was just what Pinocchio needed.

However, Disney did more than cast Edwards. He created Jiminy in the image of the actor. The cricket sings and dances, a rascal with eyes that reflect bottomless sadness. It’s Cliff Edwards in miniature.

There was one favor Disney wouldn’t do its star. He didn’t put Edwards’ name in the credits – or on Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s recording of When You Wish Upon A Star, which won the Oscar for Best Song in 1940.

Still, facing the 45-gun cannon, Edwards knew he had a chance to redeem himself. He then starred in another Disney feature, 1941’s Dumbo. Alas, the “Jim Crow” character he voiced is less well known than Jiminy. Jim Crow was an unfortunate African-American stereotype, named after an old Minstrel Show cartoon. Later, it became synonymous with white supremacy in the American South. Charming Jiminy never felt further away.

Even without the racism, Dumbo is nowhere near the heights reached by Pinocchio. Still drinking and spending money faster than he did, Edwards’ decline accelerated. In the 1940s he was in New York, making a living on what was left of the vaudeville scene. To save his bills, he lived in a refurbished navy boat on the East River, named Ukulele Lady.

Pinocchio is an iconic chapter in Disney history. For Edwards, however, Jiminy Cricket was one last chirp in the dark. Back in Los Angeles and unemployed, in the 1960s he would visit the Disney lot in hopes of returning to voice work. He died forgotten and bankrupt.

“I worked for him on records that we really didn’t need,” said Jimmy Johnson, who ran Disney’s music division. “Towards the end, record royalties 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 painful sight that brought tears to my eyes.

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