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An interesting face (and some talent) go a long way: Sterling Holloway

“Sterling Holloway brings a new type of comedy to the screen as different as he himself is in the Hollywood galaxy.”

Where there are leading men and women to light up the marquis and draw in the audiences to a film, there are the equally important, sometimes more important, supporting cast that complete the picture. These supporting actors, oftentimes uncredited, were regular scene stealers. Although they may have not had the matinee idol looks or dapper gentleman qualities, many originated from the stage, took their craft seriously, and knew how to act. Studio era Hollywood character actors were unique. Each one had a certain quality, a unique voice, comedic tic, or bizarre physical features that made them the perfect counterpart for the leading men and women. Some of the greatest character actors of the studio era include Aline MacMahon, Buelah Bondi, Eve Arden, Eric Blore, Ward Bond, Edward Brophy, James Gleason, Edward Everett Horton, Allen Jenkins, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh, Ned Sparks, William Demarest…and Sterling Holloway.

“There is something pathetic in his anguished yearnings that clutches the heart, and his characterizations invariably are invested with a gentle, tear-tearing quality. His high falsetto voice and aimlessly wandering air of detachment add to his appeal. He’s a masculine Zasu Pitts.”

-Whitney Williams

Sterling Hollway, ca. late 1920s<br />Courtesy: Everett Collection
Sterling Hollway, ca. late 1920s
Courtesy: Everett Collection

Sterling Price Holloway, Jr. was born in Cedartown, Georgia, in January 1905. Although some sources claim he was born on January 4th, the Disney Legends website indicates the 14th. In an article/interview titled “Funny Face from Georgia” from Picture Play magazine in 1934, Holloway recalls some of his life story including how he made the journey from a small Southern town to Hollywood. For as long as he could remember, Holloway wanted a theatrical career. When he was a young teenager, he was enrolled in the Georgia Military Academy in College Park, Georgia (now the Woodward Academy) but was suspended for habitually skipping out to attend theater performances in nearby Atlanta. Holloway said that his father, who was a cotton broker, was very supportive of his dream to become an actor. Holloway’s father sent his son to New York to attend dramatic school. In 1923, Holloway became involved with the Theater Guild and productions of The Failures and Fata Morgana. Several of his classmates at the Guild, like Pat O’Brien and Spencer Tracy, would go on to have successful careers in Hollywood. Of own his acting, Holloway remarked:

“Of course, I thought I was going to burn up the world with my acting. I first considered being a tragedian, but my teacher asked ‘Have you ever regarded yourself in the mirror?’ That decided me on comedy.”

Although Holloway had made the decision to pursue a comedic path, his first major role was quite dramatic. He was Petie in a stage production called Shepherd of the Hills. Holloway described his character as a “half-wit”. The play toured throughout the west as part of a Chautauqua tent show. Holloway on his performance as Petie:

“I died every night for months, and every old lady in the audience as well as some of the younger ones, would weep buckets of tears. I was a ‘huge success’.”

In 1927, Holloway made his featured-length screen debut in the silent film Casey at the Bat alongside Wallace Beery and Zasu Pitts. The film was not very good and Holloway was critical of his performance. He returned to New York just as the Theater Guild was casting a new revue, Garrick Gaieties. Holloway was cast in a prominent role for what was only to be a one-time production. Its success led to an eleven month run and four more editions of the revue with Holloway having featured roles in each one.

<em>Casey at the Bat </em>(1927) directed by Monte Brice. Shown: Wallace Beery, Sterling Holloway, Ford Sterling Mandatory Credit: Paramount/Photofest
Casey at the Bat (1927) directed by Monte Brice. Shown: Wallace Beery, Sterling Holloway, Ford Sterling Mandatory Credit: Paramount/Photofest

Holloway had no intention of ever going back to making films and even said he “didn’t take the screen seriously.” However, he realized that some of the best actors on the stage were acting in films, and he thought he could hone his craft by working with some of the top directors in Hollywood. His plan was to put together a list of all the directors he wanted to work with and only seek work with those on the list: Frank Capra, William K. Howard, Frank Borzage, Henry King, and Ernst Lubitsch. The first opportunity came as an uncredited role in Frank Capra’s American Madness (1932). It was after this role that he decided to give Hollywood a go. Although most of Holloway’s film performances were uncredited and brief, he was memorable. One of his great uncredited roles is in Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933. His appearance is extremely short, but key. Carol (Joan Blondell) and Trixie (Aline MacMahon) have taken the liberty of ordering some rather expensive hats and having them delivered C.O.D., putting prospective sugar daddies Lawrence (Warren William) and Peabody (Guy Kibbee) in the position where they have to make the purchase. “Second messenger boy with hat” is none other than Sterling Holloway.

<em>Gold Diggers of 1933</em> (1933) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Shown: Sterling Holloway Mandatory credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Shown: Sterling Holloway Mandatory credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest

Holloway’s most prolific live-action film career was undoubtedly in the 1930′s and early 1940′s with small roles in Blonde Venus (1932), Dancing Lady  (1933), When Ladies Meet (1933), The Merry Widow (1934), When Love is Young (1937), Of Human Hearts (1938), and Meet John Doe (1941). A few film roles stand out from the rest during this period. In 1933, Holloway starred in Paramount’s live-action adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as Frog. This production featured many of Paramount’s contract players (and soon-to-be-stars) Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields, Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Roscoe Karns, Edna May Oliver, Ned Sparks, Jack Oakie, and Edward Everett Horton. In 1935, Holloway co-starred in two films with the great humorist Will Rogers: Doubting Thomas and Life Begins at Forty. In both, Holloway had significant roles. On working with Rogers, Holloway said:

“As far as making movies, I don’t think Rogers liked the regimen imposed by scripts and shooting schedules. He was always changing the original written lines to fit his own purposes. And everyday at four o’clock, he’d say, ‘This is the window shot for me. I’m quitting. Put the camera on the boy.’ Lucky for me, I was that boy.”

<em>Life Begins at Forty</em>, Sterling Holloway, Will Rogers, 1935 TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection
Life Begins at Forty, Sterling Holloway, Will Rogers, 1935 TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection

Another great role for Holloway came in the holiday themed romantic drama Remember the Night, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. In it, Holloway is Willie Simms, a member of John’s (MacMurray) loving family. In one particular scene in the film, Holloway shines with a touching rendition of the song “A Perfect Day” while Stanwyck accompanies him on the piano. Another significant live-action role in Holloway’s career was in the war drama A Walk in the Sun (1945), from 20th Century Fox. Although this role was against type for Holloway, he was very good. In later years he recalled being quite proud of the work he did in the film. In real life, Holloway was a solider in the Army. He was in the ” Special Services Unit” and performed for those serving near the front lines. When he returned from his service in WWII,  he co-starred with Gene Autry in a number of westerns.

 

In 1941, Holloway was cast in his first animated feature for Walt Disney, Dumbo. Although the part was small (the uncredited Mr. Stork) it was memorable, and Walt Disney wanted to cast him in more animated shorts and feature length films. Although he made his debut in Dumbo, Disney had his eyes (and ears) on Holloway for several years prior. According to Disney Voice Actors: A Biographical Dictionary by Thomas S. Hischak, Holloway was first considered for the role of Sleepy in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The role eventually went to voice actor Pinto Colvig. After his work on Dumbo, Holloway returned to Disney with a part in Bambi (1942) as adult skunk Flower and then in 1944′s The Three Caballeros as Prof. Holloway. In 1951 Holloway was given a great opportunity to play the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, one of his finest voice performances. In the 1960s, Holloway created two of his most memorable characters for Disney: Kaa the snake in The Jungle Book (1967) and the lovable bear Winnie the Pooh. Holloway’s Pooh made his debut in 1966 in the short Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, with two more shorts released in the years following: Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974). The three of these shorts were put together in a feature-length film titled The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), with narration by Sebastian Cabot (as an aside: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has just been released on Blu-ray and if it’s anything like the other recent Disney releases, it will be stunning). In 1991, Holloway became an inductee in the Disney Legends Program.

Sterling Holloway and Walt Disney (possibly during the filming of <em>The Jungle Book</em>)
Sterling Holloway and Walt Disney (possibly during the filming of The Jungle Book)
Holloway must be made of honey.
Holloway must be made of honey.

In addition to all his work with Disney, Holloway also found steady work in television. He had a semi-recurring guest role as Waldo Binney on the sitcom The Life of Riley from 1953-1956, and memorable one-time guest starring performances on The Twilight Zone and Gilligan’s Island. A personal favorite Holloway performance is his guest starring role on The Andy Griffith Show in the episode “The Merchant of Mayberry” (1962). Seeing two country boys, Andy Griffith and Sterling Holloway together is truly delightful. You can tell by their performance they must have enjoyed working with one another.

<em>The Andy Griffith Show</em>, Andy Griffith, Sterling Holloway,”The Merchant of Mayberry”, (aired 3/5/62-Season 2), 1960-68<br />Courtesy: Everett Collection
The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith, Sterling Holloway,”The Merchant of Mayberry”, (aired 3/5/62-Season 2), 1960-68
Courtesy: Everett Collection

Holloway was an avid art collector, mostly of contemporary art. When he retired, he started to amass a very impressive and expensive collection. In 1965, Holloway held an art exhibit for children where adults were ”not admitted unless accompanied by a child.” It’s obvious that his wonderful demeanor in his films and animated characters (well, with the exception of the villainous Kaa) carried over to his real persona. Holloway led a fairly quiet personal life, a self-described recluse. As such, there is little verifiable information about him outside of his career. However, he occasionally returned home to Georgia and other points in the South to make public appearances. Holloway appreciated his fans and was grateful for his success. Sterling Holloway passed away at the age of 87 on November 22, 1992.

Holloway at his home with the Larry Bell painting Little Blank Riding Hood (1961–62). Photo by Frank J. Thomas.<br />Image courtesy of Larry Bell and the Frank J. Thomas Archives
Holloway at his home with the Larry Bell painting Little Blank Riding Hood (1961–62). Photo by Frank J. Thomas.
Image courtesy of Larry Bell and the Frank J. Thomas Archives

Resources:

 This post is conjunction with the What a Character blogathon. You can find more excellent entries for this blogathon over at Once Upon a Screen.

Related posts:

Jill Blake

Jill Blake is the owner of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Black Maria and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.

Comments

Jennifer
Reply

Great piece! I love Holloway’s live action appearances in films – he turns up in some unexpected places but always proves memorable.

Jill Blake
Reply

Jennifer,
That is what’s so great about Holloway. Always had the most random appearances, but always sticks in the mind.

Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)
Reply

Lovely warm-hearted and detailed article.

I recall seeing Sterling Holloway as a guest on “The Mike Douglas Show” and he had a very droll sense of humour. I think he may have been as fun to hang out with as he is to watch in the movies.

Jill Blake
Reply

Patricia,

Yes, I think Sterling would have been a blast to spend time with. I imagine he was probably a great storyteller, too.

silverscreenings
Reply

I LOVED your tribute to Sterling Holloway. I always feel a film is a “quality” film if he’s in it — it’s somehow funnier and more worthy of being a classic. (If that makes sense…?)

The quote from Whitney Williams is brilliant.

Jill Blake
Reply

Ruth,
Thank you so much. He was in so many films and his parts were so small, but man. He really made an impression with every single one. That voice!

My daughter just turned 3 and I just showed her The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I had showed it to her when she was about 1 1/2, but she didn’t remember it. Anyway, she absolutely loved it. Which I’ll say this: the new Pooh film, Winnie the Pooh (2011) is very good, and in the same style as the original. And although it’s not Sterling (or the other original cast like Howard Morris, John Fiedler, Hal Smith, Paul Winchell), Jim Cummings does a splendid job…and I think would make Sterling proud. And it’s narrated by John Cleese, so that’s double, extra special bonus points right there.

joe
Reply

I listened to him narrate the Disney Peter and the Wolf read along records back in the late 1950s. It help to teach me how to read! “Oh, this is bad. This is verrrry bad. Do you want to know how bad it is? Turn the record over.”

Jill Blake
Reply

Joe,

That is wonderful! Weren’t those read along records the best? I still have some! I really should play them for my daughter. I think I may have Pete’s Dragon, Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh…I should try to find Peter and the Wolf.

Thanks for stopping by!

Aurora
Reply

Great post, Jill! I never gave much thought to how long and varied Holloway’s career was. You did it great justice. And I must take another look at Gold Diggers of 1933 to seek him out b/c I’ve never noticed him. One last thing – SO happy he’s behind Wallace Beery in the “Casey at the Bat” picture. Looks like Beery would have torn him to shreds.

Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon!

Aurora

Jill Blake
Reply

Thanks so much, Aurora. There’s not a lot of information about Holloway out there, but I had a lot of fun researching for this piece. I had hopes of driving out to Cedartown to see if they had anything special at the library there, but I couldn’t work it out. He was a really interesting person!

Le
Reply

I agree that character actors of Old Hollywood were unique. Holloway had an unforgettable face and I laughed with the “female Zasu Pitts” part.
So cool to know he was the voice of Winnie the Pooh! I’ll look for the original one, since I know the character re-dubbed to Portuguese.
Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
Kisses!

Josh G.
Reply

Great piece! Knowing Holloway through his Disney work, it’s nice to hear about his live-action Hollywood career. Makes you wonder what roles he might have taken if he hadn’t done the voice-over work.

Wendy Merckel
Reply

A wonderful piece! Thank you SO MUCH for spotlighting Sterling Holloway, and giving us information about his life. I’ve loved him for years, and never knew the first thing about him.

My daughter and I watch classic films together. I love seeing her wide eyed, sudden realizations, like when I told her that that funny guy with the hair on the screen is the voice of Winnie the Pooh… you could see the ‘click’ of recognition as the voice, taken out of context, dawned on her. She loves to find out these things.

Perfect Day never fails to make me cry because it’s such a shining moment for the unsung (sorry for the pun) Holloway.

For those interested in seeing the role (though not Holloway himself) that brought him his first Broadway success, I highly recommend the movie The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), directed by Henry Hathaway. Petie is indeed a tear jerking part, though in the film the role is conveyed by a surprisingly mild Marc Lawrence!

Anne
Reply

I love Sterling so much! I never saw his face as repulsive. I think he was gorgeous, he had this presence that just made you feel happy. I have a tumblr dedicated to him, I’d love to learn more about him. If anyone has anything more about him, I’d love to know! One day I’d like to see a webpage dedicated to him.

Wendy Merckel
Reply

Anne, do you have that tumblr page open for everyone to see? Can you post a link?

Talk to me!

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