His bushy reddish-blond hair and trademark near-falsetto voice made him a natural for sound pictures and very popular to American audiences. A long career as a beloved character actor led to enjoyable onscreen performances to world-wide familiarity as the voice of numerous Walt Disney animated films. There’s simply no mistaking it when you hear that voice, a completely unique whimsy delivered in that instantly recognizable rasp.
Sterling Holloway was born January 4th, 1905 in Cedartown, Georgia. Holloway was a graduate of Georgia Military Academy, but left his native Georgia at age 15 to study acting in New York City. He enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts working alongside Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien. Holloway became serious about acting at a young age when a performance with the theatrical group gave him the sweet taste of applause. He soon was playing comic juveniles on the stage in the East and West.
Holloway later joined the Theatre Guild in New York, appearing in several revues before landing a pivotal role in the first Broadway production of songwriters Rodgers and Hart, David Garrick’s Garrick Gaieties. He would star in four editions, introducing the Rodgers-Hart standard “I’ll Take Manhattan,” in 1925 and in the 1926 version he introduced the hit “Mountain Greenery.” Assured of his success, he decidedly went West again to act in Hollywood.
Holloway made his picture debut in 1926 in a two-reel silent film comedy entitled The Fighting Kangaroo. He followed with a role as Putnam in the silent Wallace Beery vehicle Casey at the Bat (1927) for Paramount. However, the higher-ups at Paramount didn’t like his looks, deeming his face “too grotesque” for Hollywood fare. So he returned to New York and became a steady hit in revues and vaudeville but deep down he knew the place to be was Hollywood.
Sterling Holloway with Constance Cummings and Pat O’Brien in Frank Capra’s American Madness.
He joined the Pasadena Playhouse, a well-known venue for actors who strived to make the move to motion pictures. Agents and producers often frequented the Playhouse and he soon received a call from director Frank Capra. Capra invited Holloway to take a roll in his film American Madness (1932) and shortly after, Holloway appeared in von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, playing a student who discovers a nude Dietrich in the woods taking a bath. He would appear in an impressive 21 films throughout 1933, his most memorable role as the Frog in Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland (1933), which also featured a young Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. Yet from 1934 through the late 1940’s, his image and voice allowed Hollywood to consistently cast Holloway in films with a stereotypical role as soda jerk or messenger boy, including Capra’s now classic Meet John Doe (1941).
In spite of this, his greatest personal reward came from the assignments he got from Disney. Walt Disney had been a devoted follower of the actor’s vocal work as early as 1934 when the producer was first developing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). According to a memo dated August 9th, 1934, Disney suggested Holloway as the voice of Sleepy. Although Holloway didn’t get the part, Holloway would make his debut for Disney in 1941’s Dumbo, voicing the messenger Stork who delivers baby Dumbo to Mrs. Jumbo and then delightfully sings “Happy Birthday”. He lent his talent to the next Disney feature in a lesser-known performance a year later. A keen ear could recognize his brief vocal appearance as the adult Flower the skunk in Bambi (1942).
But Disney story developers noticed something about the unique quality of Holloway’s vocal tone. His uncanny ability to express mood and emotion intertwined with his ear-pleasing voice made Holloway the perfect candidate as a narrator. His first chore as a narrator was as “Professor Holloway,” recounting the story of “Pablo the Cold-Blooded Penguin” in The Three Caballeros (1945). His effectiveness as a narrator led Walt Disney to suggest that he be used for Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” – a part of Make Mine Music (1946). Prior recorded versions of the famous “fairy tale with music” had included narration before, but Disney animators were hoping their animation and Prokofiev’s grand score would tell the story effectively. Critics later lambasted Holloway’s effort, deeming it too flamboyant for the piece. Disney’s trust in Holloway’s verbal ability, however, was not swayed and knew he could still give an appropriate performance when requested. So, Holloway was the narrator on a number of other short films – The Little House (1952), Lambert the Sheepish Lion (1952), Susie the Little Blue Coupe (1952), and Goliath II (1960).
As noted prior, Holloway had appeared in Paramount’s 1933 interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. Nearly two decades later, he would be cast in the Lewis Carroll tale again, as the Cheshire Cat. Recognizing the Cheshire Cat’s cool ‘mad’ness as the movie’s highpoint, those who worked on and most loving fans of Disney’s stunning animated masterpiece cite Holloway fitting the animated character quite well.
Holloway also takes much of the credit for making Kaa in The Jungle Book (1967) such a curious and disturbing Disney villain. In a candid interview Holloway noted “Walt was a stickler for voices. He came to me and said, ‘When you’ve finished what you’re doing today… See what you can do with the snake. I can’t find the right voice.’ So I went in and decided to make Kaa have a distinct ache in his back.” As Disney historian Jim Fanning once observed, “Holloway not only delivered the lines with a mixture of menace and misplaced self-confidence but also ad-libbed dialogue that sparked the imaginations of the artists.” Walt Disney was so impressed that he commissioned that Kaa be brought back later in film for a humorous war of words with The Jungle Book’s other villain, Shere Khan. Sadly, Walt wouldn’t see the finished product before he passed away.
Although Holloway is remembered for those unforgettable character vocalizations, his most embracing and endearing work for Disney was the sprightly, huggable “bear of very little brain”, Winnie the Pooh. His vocal incantations smartly captured the whimsy A.A. Milne intended for his classic reads. Three Winnie the Pooh featurettes starring Holloway’s celebrated voice — Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974) – were done for Disney Studios and later combined for 1977’s feature length The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh. Walt Disney’s intent was to emulate Milne’s vision by not making full-length presentations, but as shorter films. When the first featurette was released, it received wide popular acclaim for keeping so close to the short story structure already familiar to the British. Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day garnered an Academy award for its magical animation and the legacy of Winnie the Pooh still survives in hearts of all ages today. In fact, Winnie the Pooh became Holloway’s most favorite of his Disney vocal roles because Pooh showcased his greatest asset, his true acting ability.
When Holloway wasn’t doing work for Disney he still appeared in other films. Going against type, Holloway convincingly played a reluctant soldier in director Lewis Milestone’s classic war drama A Walk in the Sun (1945). He also starred in various two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures from 1946 to 1948, mostly Westerns like 1947’s Robin Hood of Texas. But perhaps his most odd acting job took place in 1956’s low-budget musical Shake, Rattle and Rock as a hipster who tries to open a judge’s eyes to the reality of rock ‘n’ roll music.
Television was also a good acting medium for Holloway. He appeared in the 1950’s on Adventures of Superman as Oscar Quinn and Professor Twiddle and was a semi regular on The Life of Riley. Later in the 60’s he starred in various episodes of The Twilight Zone and Gilligan’s Island and even lent his narrative quality to a 1986 episode of the cult classic series Moonlighting. He also was the original voice of the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee before Billy West took over after his death.
Today we at filmbuffonline.com celebrate the 100th birthday of Sterling Holloway, one of the most recognized voices in the magnificent Hollywood industry. His unique voice deservedly reached worldwide familiarity, varied and unique with each performance. Touching our hearts and imaginations in every way from The Stork in Dumbo, to the groovy beatnik in Shake, Rattle and Rock, to the beloved voice of Winnie the Pooh, Sterling