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

sterling holloway
Sterling Hollway, ca. late 1920s Courtesy: Everett Collection

“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 marquee 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 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 prestigious 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.

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 1933His 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.

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.”

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 Wonderlandone 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 was recently released on blu-ray and it’s absolutely stunning). In 1991, Holloway became an inductee in the Disney Legends Program.

Sterling Holloway and Walt Disney (possibly during the filming of The Jungle Book)
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.

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. Image courtesy of Larry Bell and the Frank J. Thomas Archives

 

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About Jill Blake 39 Articles
Jill Blake is a co-founder & senior editor at  The Retro Set and the film editor at the pop culture website CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, and a featured guest on the TCM podcast in 2013. In her spare time, Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries. Follow Jill on Twitter at @biscuitkitten

1 Comment

  1. Nice piece on Holloway. His looks really never changed. I didn’t know about his voice-over work. Thanks for posting.BTW your auto-correct had its way with you. Marquee is misspelled.

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