Friday, June 09, 2006

King Edwards

by Geoff Collins

It's World War One; and tough little Sergeant Brophy (played, appropriately, by tough little Ed Brophy) is appalled by the sorry state of the new recruits. This lamentable shower includes bowler-hatted idiot Victor Potel, effeminate ukulele-clutching superannuated collegian Cliff Edwards, and young millionaire Buster Keaton who joined the army by accident when he went to hire a chauffeur. Sergeant Brophy is far from impressed.

Brophy [giving Potel a silent once-over]: Now there's a picture! Get back inna ranks!

Cliff [steps forward and bursts into song, accompanying himself on his ukulele]: "Here am I, broken-hearted!" [He follows this with a bit of falsetto scat-singing, which dwindles as he realises that Brophy is glaring at him with murderous ferocity. Cliff is wearing a garish collegiate cardigan and a straw hat.]

Brophy [slowly, after a long pause]: What's your name?

Cliff [embarrassed]: Er....

Brophy [snarls]: Don't you know who y'are???

Cliff [pathetic attempt to lighten the situation]: I'm not myself today...

Brophy: I got your number!

Cliff [brightens up considerably; he really means this!]: Will ya call me up sometime?

Brophy [immediate burst of rage]: GET BACK INNA RANKS!!!

This little gem is from the 1930 MGM comedy Doughboys, the most tolerable of the four movies Cliff Edwards made with Buster Keaton. Four, I hear you ask? I also hear you ask: Cliff who?

Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, 1895-1971, was a major vaudeville and Broadway star in the 1920s, a small, beaming fellow who played the ukulele and indulged in a unique type of high-pitched scat-singing which he called "effin". Fortunately he chose not to be billed as Cliff "Effin" Edwards. He was the original Singer in the Rain, and MGM attempted to build him up to movie stardom in the early 30s, during which time he made his four appearances with Keaton - thus beating the accepted record set by You-Know-Who. [There will now be the briefest of pauses while Durante says "Ah'm mortified! What a catastrascope!"]

Three years younger than Eddie Cantor, Cliff had a similar high, clear voice, but that three years makes all the difference. Whereas Cantor brought a whiff of 1910s vaudeville to everything he did, Edwards was firmly rooted in the 1920s, the Jazz Age. Although generally considered more of a popular entertainer than a jazz musician, ukulele virtuoso Cliff made many recordings with his Hot Combination, which was, in effect, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies; and his records often featured a chorus of his screechy scatting. His friendly if effete persona would seem perfectly suited to the early talkies, but he was mostly in the supporting cast (let's face it, he was no Clark Gable) with an occasional showcase in ensemble pieces such as George White's 1935 Scandals. Doughboys is the most watchable of his four Keaton movies [four?] and the one in which he has the nearest thing to a leading role. He has a good solo musical number, "Sing (a Funny Little Thing)" which leads into Buster's apache dance; and earlier in the movie he joins forces with Keaton and the film's director Edward Sedgwick (unbilled, chubby and Ronnie Barker-like, playing the role of the camp cook - although he's not as camp as Cliff) for the only appearance of what we shall be pleased to call the Buster Keaton Trio.

This is as cherishable as Keaton's double-act with Chaplin in Limelight; an unrepeatable one-off. Initially Sedgwick is disgusted with Cliff's romantic, slow-tempo crooning; then it all speeds up and turns hot, and he joins in for a fantastic three-minute scatathon. Cliff plays the ukulele with a pair of drumsticks while Buster holds it and does the chord changes, and they all scat away like a demented jug band until Cliff's howling - the only discernible lyrics being "I want my mama!" - becomes too much for Sergeant Brophy who storms in and breaks the whole thing up. It's all performed in a single continuous take and may be the most joyous moment in all Buster's talkies; just three talented friends having fun.

Let's return briefly to an earlier question: Cliff Edwards was in four Keaton talkies? Yes, if you include the finale of Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which Cliff warbles "Singing in the Rain", and Keaton, sad and silent, is amongst the gallery of uncomfortable-looking MGM stars on display. (His face says it all: "What am I doing here?") Of course, Gene Kelly's Singin' In the Rain went beyond brilliance, but here we have this great song in its original late-20s setting; and Cliff Edwards sang it first.

Doughboys would seem to indicate that MGM intended to team Cliff with Keaton. They certainly worked well together, so who knows what happened? Cliff has hardly more than a running-gag bit part in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath; and then they quietly brought in Jimmy Durante, if such a thing is possible. Yes sir! Yackety yackety yak! I got a million of 'em! Ha-cha-cha-cha-cha ! etc. etc. etc. Poor Buster.

By the mid-1930s, Bing Crosby dominated all, and Cliff's ukulele-accompanied singing style seemed like a bit of a relic, although he continued to star in Broadway shows and on radio, with good supporting roles in movies. He's outstanding as a cynical-but-friendly reporter in His Girl Friday; and he's somewhere in Gone With the Wind, I suspect as just a voice-over; I don't relish having to sit through all four hours of it to find him. Sorry, Cliff, another time maybe.

Cliff was rescued by,of all people, Walt Disney. Yes, readers, if you didn't know this already, and there's no reason why you should, CLIFF EDWARDS IS THE VOICE OF JIMINY CRICKET. I consider his rendition of "When you Wish Upon a Star" to be a thing of beauty; and of course he also sang "Give a Little Whistle". Cliff's association with Disney continued; he's Jim Crow in Dumbo and gets to sing "When I See an Elephant Fly", which allows him to do his scat stuff in a swingier setting than usual. But what good did it do him? Neither movie gives an on-screen credit to the voice artists; so very few people know that in Dumbo, Cliff is reunited with his old adversary Sergeant Brophy. Ed is the voice of Dumbo's pal Timothy the wise-guy little mouse. The deplorable truth is that Cliff received hardly any credit for his exceptional Disney work during his lifetime. According to the Disney organization's commercial soundtrack albums, "Jiminy Cricket" sang his own songs. Disney kept Cliff on the payroll but otherwise didn't do a lot to prevent his decline.

Why did Cliff have such a slide into oblivion? What was he really like? The dialogue he has with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and the dazzling smile he gives her, provide a clue to the real Cliff. It's all there, and more, in He was married three times, and bankrupted three times - not apparently cause-and-effect. He was fond of chorus girls and, let's admit it, quite keen on alcohol, drugs and gambling. His starring career should have continued into the 50s, but it didn't. It's easy to blame Disney - actually, that seems like a good idea - but the truth is that over a long period, Cliff sank his own boat. His death certificate, reproduced on the Garrick website, tells the tale. Cliff died alone and unrecognised, his body unclaimed for days because nobody knew who he was. Where was his family? Few people can be more forgotten than this; and yet this was the man who was Jiminy Cricket.

It's hard to watch Doughboys without reflecting on the fate of its two stars. Both went into the abyss. Buster Keaton eventually found recognition and respect, but it was a close finish. Cliff Edwards slowly disappeared from sight. But somehow, from what we know of Cliff, what his movies tell us, is that he knew exactly what he was doing. Divorced and bankrupt three times? He decided not to learn from his mistakes. So not such a sad life, was it, Cliff? He had a good time. You could probably have a great night out with Cliff Edwards, but it wouldn't be memorable - because the next day you wouldn't remember any of it: "Did we do that?"

Our oft-stated policy on this site is to renew interest in neglected comedians. Cliff, like Cantor and Jolson, is more in the category of a funny singing entertainer, but there's no question that he's a Third Banana; and as proof, you can enjoy his musical talents on

All this should be part of Funny Faces on the Films, part 3, but, like Eddie Cantor, Cliff deserves an article to himself. Unlike Eddie, though, he wasn't pushy. Can you imagine Eddie as Jiminy Cricket? Yes, he would be wonderful, almost perfect voice-casting (and have you ever noticed how much Kermit the Frog sounds like Eddie?) but the opening credits would have to be:

Walt Disney

No, thank you. I'll take Cliff Edwards. He'll always be Jiminy Cricket; and a whole lot more.

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Anonymous Greg Glienna said...

So glad you chose Cliff Edwards to write about. I've been a fan of his since I owned the Pinnochio soundtrack as a kid. Later, I picked up a record of Cliff with a small jazz combo doing their stuff and I was hooked. He was a great talent and should not be forgotten.

5:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've always liked Cliff Edwards. He's like a chorous that runs through every early Metro talkie. A very likeable performer and a good companion to Buster in their pics together, as he never overwhelmed the comedian like Durante would. Wonderful posting --- all your stuff is great!

8:22 AM  
Blogger Trombonology said...

A most enjoyable and insightful tribute to one of my heroes. Cliff the musician, singer and actor has been an inspiration to me for years. Thank you for spotlighting him. I recently did a piece on him and one of his recordings at my blog, as well.

12:49 PM  

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