✧･ﾟ: *✧･ﾟ:* *:･ﾟ✧*:･ﾟ✧
When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you…
✧･ﾟ: *✧･ﾟ:* *:･ﾟ✧*:･ﾟ✧
Cliff Edwards (AKA “Ukulele Ike”) was born Clifton Avon Edwards in a small river town called Hannibal, Missouri on June 14, 1895 to Edward and Nellie (Farnum) Edwards.
Edwards dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and relocated to the St. Louis, Missouri area around 1910, where he took up singing in saloons.
Because these establishments often had pianos that were in bad shape or no pianos at all, Edwards had the great idea to teach himself to play the cheapest instrument he could find: the ukulele.
According to an interview Edwards conducted with writer Richard Lamparski in 1969, he adopted the stage name “Ukulele Ike” after a waiter gave him the nickname “Ike” because he couldn’t remember his name while they were working at a cafe together. Edwards said that he took that moniker and added “Ukulele” to it, and the name stuck.
In 1918, at the age of 23, Cliff Edwards started to make a name for himself while performing songs at the Arsonia Cafe in Chicago, IL. The Arsonia’s pianist, Bob Carleton, wrote a song called “Ja-Da”, Edwards sang it there, and then they took it with them to the vaudeville circuit.
Edwards was asked to perform in an act at the Palace Theatre in New York City, which was where every hopeful vaudeville performer dreamed of performing. He performed there with comedian and singer Joe Frisco and in 1921, he performed there with Lou Clayton, a singer and dancer who would go on to team up with Jimmy Durante and Eddie Jackson. He was also featured in the great Ziegfeld Follies.
By the late mid-1920s Cliff Edwards had become a star. He began recording popular songs in 1919 to be distributed on phonographic records and infused jazz scat singing in his songs in the early ’20s, which became one of his greatest trademarks.
According to the interview he gave in 1969, Cliff Edwards was discovered by Irving Thalberg, a major producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) in 1929 when he was performing at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, CA. MGM quickly hired him to appear in small roles in some of their early talking pictures. He often got the opportunity to sing and play his ukulele onscreen.
Edwards made his film debut in the 1929 Pre-Code romantic musical drama Marianne, which starred Marion Davies. (This version of the film is a remake of a silent film of the same title released earlier that year and it was Marion Davies’s first talkie.)
1929 brought two more films for Edwards. One was So This is College, a comedy featuring an ensemble cast…most notably Robert Montgomery in one of his early film roles.
Edwards plays a character called Windy. It’s a minor role, but as you can tell from the clip below, he at least gets a bit of screen time to show off his musical talent and vivacious personality. Look out for him; he’s sitting to the right of the character who is singing and dancing in the center. He scats and plays his ukulele.
Edwards’s third and final film of 1929 was The Hollywood Revue of 1929, MGM’s second ever musical (preceded by The Broadway Melody earlier that year) and one of their first sound films. Unlike The Broadway Melody, which told a structured story, The Hollywood Revue consisted of variety acts put on by nearly all of MGM’s stars.
In The Hollywood Revue, Cliff (also billed as “Ukulele Ike”) sings “Singin’ in the Rain” along with the Brox Sisters and uncredited chorus members, seen in the first clip below.
He then joins the rest of the MGM stars previously featured to end the film by singing the same song; this time the sequence is filmed in two-strip Technicolor.
If you recognize that song, it likely makes you think of the 1952 film which shares its title.
“Singin’ in the Rain” pops up in several other movies, too, including 1940’s Little Nellie Kelly, in which Judy Garland sings it. Her rendition is styled differently, and it’s delightful.
But I think it’s important to acknowledge and remember that “Ukulele Ike” was one of the first musicians who first popularized the song.
Cliff Edwards made a total of thirty-three films during his time at MGM, which lasted through 1933.
Three of those films paired him up with legendary silent film comedian and former vaudeville star Buster Keaton, although unfortunately MGM would prove to be detrimental to Keaton and his creative control. Their first film, Doughboys was released in 1930 and was followed by Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) and Sidewalks of New York (1931).
According to TCM.com, Edwards and Keaton struck up a longtime friendship while working on the film. They both enjoyed “eccentric old vaudeville songs” and often retreated to the corner of the studio between takes to play music on Edwards’s ukulele together.
Buster Keaton is still remembered today as one of the greatest silent film actors.
A fun fact that I learned awhile back is that Cliff Edwards portrayed the “Reminiscent Soldier” during one of the hospital scenes in Gone with the Wind (1939). Listen closely next time you watch it.
In the picture below, he is being tended to by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (Olivia de Havilland).
In 1940, Cliff Edwards appeared in eight films.
The first one released that year was the hit screwball comedy His Girl Friday, in which he portrayed a reporter named Endicott, as seen in the photo below.
Directed by Howard Hawks, based on the play and film The Front Page (written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), and starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, it boasts one of the wittiest screenplays of all time. The dialogue is rapid-fire and darn near perfectly executed by its stars and supporting cast. His Girl Friday remains one of the most beloved films of all time and one of the most well-known in classic film.
Below is just one scene that features Edwards along with a fabulous supporting cast and the great Rosalind Russell.
A month later, Pinocchio, the film that Cliff Edwards is best known for, was released in theaters. He provides the voice for the character Jiminy Cricket.
Pinocchio became the first animated feature film to win a competitive Oscar award (it won a total of two), which happened to be awarded for Best Music, Original Song (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) and Best Music, Original Score.
Let us not forget that Cliff Edwards sang the song “When You Wish Upon a Star”, which not only won an Oscar, but later became the theme song for Disney. It is one of the most recognizable songs in the Disney catalog.
Even better, “When You Wish Upon a Star” was adopted as its theme song.
In recent years, there has been some interest shown in Hannibal to remember Cliff Edwards and make his legacy more well-known. I don’t think many people (in Hannibal and elsewhere) have any idea as to how popular he was in his prime. (He reportedly sold about 74 million records in his career, among many other accomplishments.
Edwards passed away in 1971 at the age of 76. He was broke and was admitted as a “charity patient” to the Virgil Convalescent Hospital in Hollywood, CA for two years, which was partially (and quietly) funded by the Disney corporation. He spent the money made in the early days of his famous career recklessly while having to pay off debts and alimony to his three ex-wives, forcing him to declare bankruptcy four times throughout the ’30s and ’40s. In his later years, he fell victim to alcoholism and drug addiction.
It’s said that Edwards often made visits to the Walt Disney Studios, trying to find work. Because of his condition, Disney and other employees had to be careful not to give Edwards a false hope of returning to work for them, which was a tough task because of their fondness for him. They instead helped him by offering meals and listening to the many stories he told them of his early career on the stage.
On July 17, 1971, Cliff Edwards passed away from cardiac arrest, due to arteriosclerosis. His body was unclaimed and donated to the UCLA Medical School. However, Disney reportedly offered to take responsibility for his body, but the Motion Picture Television Relief Fund and the Actor’s Fund insisted on claiming his remains and eventually buried him at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, CA. Then, in 1984, the Disney Corporation became aware of the issue of Cliff’s grave not being marked and provided one so that he could be properly recognized.
Awhile back, I found this video, which looks like it was filmed in the late ’90s or early 2000s, in which someone interviewed several people, presumably locals, and nobody could place his name.
My goal, ultimately, is to help people learn about this man. I’ve only provided a small amount of information on his life, and I encourage you to read more about him if you are interested. (And if you ever find yourself in Hannibal, be sure to check out the Hannibal History Museum, which has an exhibit dedicated to Cliff Edwards.)
I’d like to end the post with his rendition of the greatest songs of all time:
To hear the entire interview Cliff Edwards conducted with Richard Lamparski in 1969, click on this video.
This post is the first in a series dedicated to Hannibal’s relationship with film history.
To find out more about Hannibal, MO’s Bicentennial celebration, visit the official website.
Happy birthday, Cliff Edwards!
Thanks to jazzage1920s.com, ragpiano.com, and redhotjazz.com for providing some of the information I collected.
4 thoughts on “Hannibal + Film History, Part 1 : Cliff Edwards (“Ukulele Ike”)”
This is Ken Marks, co-founder of the Hannibal History Museum. Unfortunately, the last news clip hasn’t aged too well, for we have had a display for Cliff Edwards since 2011, and about 20,000+ people are able to learn about him and other prominent Hannibalians (not named Twain) annually. So rest assured, his achievements are being promoted…. Thank you for posting about our charismatic entertainer!
Thank you for your comment and for reminding me! Thank you for dedicating space to him. I will revise this post with that information!
Thanks for the follow, I appreciate that. 🙂
You’re welcome – and likewise!