Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Butler that didn't...


"Edgar" in Disney's THE ARISTOCATS is one of those great tour-de-fource Milt Kahl characters that shows off the animator's raw talent and skill in a less-than-excellent film. I've always liked the character tho, who was voiced by British comedian Roddy Maude-Roxby, and probably modeled more or less on Arthur Treacher, the gold-standard bearer of Hollywood character actor English butlers. Disney legend Burny Mattinson once mentioned to me that around the same time there was an ongoing interest to get Robert Morely, another great UK talent to do a voice for a Disney character over the course of several films, but Mr. Morley, whose mobile face was even more expressive than his spectacularly unique voice, was apparently completely dis-interested is seeing himself animated. Still, possibly Morley's paunchy frame and expressive face guided this character to some extent...

Michael Hordern, a less well known but every bit as wonderful actor always somewhat reminds me of "Edgar"as well, but I have no idea if he provided any influence. Hordern was a masterful UK stage actor, featured in many great Shaekspearean roles on stage and the small screen, but his movie appearances were generally 2nd or 3rd tier supporting character roles. One memorable such performance can be seen in Richard Lester's uneven but enjoyable adaptation of the Broadway burlesque A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1967), where Hordern plays the horny, hen-pecked head of a household next door to a tempting brothel. I have seen that show performed on stage many times and the father is always played as the broadest comic character in a show full of broad and comic types, but Hordern goes about it in his signature understated style that steals every scene he's in.

Co-incidentally a Netflix search of his name turned up an intriguing made for TV comedy from England called FUTTOCK'S END starring Ronnie Barker. I can't reccommend it, it is singularly lousy and boring, but in the story (played entirely in pantomime) Hordern plays a dodgy butler who goes about on a motor scooter, albeit one without a sidecar. I was kind of flabbergasted at some of the similarities to the ARISTOCATS' character even still. Here's a few frame grabs...
Butler Hordern in FUTTOCK' END





Did this influence the cartoon character? Not terribly likely: both films were made at the roughly the same time and released in the same year (1970). Although MONTY PYTHON would be a cornerstone of PBS a few years later, English comedy shows were rarely shown on TV in the USA back then so it is doubtful anyone laboring away in Burbank would have seen it. It still is a funny co-incidence. Almost as intriguing as this one was a model sheet I once saw for Milt Kahl's conception of "Flewder Flamm," the bumbling bard in THE BLACK CAULDRON. That design looked for all intents and purposes EXACTLY like Michael Hordern to me. Maybe Milt Kahl liked this actor too, but who knows? That design was unused, (I don't own a copy of it) and both men are long gone, alas. 

7 comments:

Michael J. Ruocco said...

Coincidentally, I just watched "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" the other day and Hordern reminded me of Edgar too. Listening to his voice singing "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid", I thought he WAS Edgar. But after watching it and checking the IMDB, I discovered that he wasn't and was kinda disappointed.

Don't get me wrong, Maude-Roxby does a very fine job with the character. To me, Edgar makes the movie a bit more enjoyable to watch.

Rooniman said...

Interesting bit of trivia.

Pete Emslie said...

Well this sure is a weird coincidence, Will. Just a week ago in my Sheridan class I was speaking on the topic of "Character Types", and I showed a Milt Kahl drawing of Edgar followed by a photo portrait of Arthur Treacher to show them how the stereotype of the English butler had likely evolved from Treacher's many portrayals of that role.

Regarding Fflewddur Fflam, though, I'd say he's loosely a caricature of his voice talent, actor Nigel Hawthorne (although a fellow I used to work with is convinced he looks like Bob Denver from "Gilligan's Island"!)

Will Finn said...

Haha. And to think i almost didn't publish this post because it seems an admittedly obscure observation...

Michael: i am glad to know an old favorite like FORUM is still finding viewers at this late date: not perfect but it has some wonderful assets, including wonderful casting, a solid script by comedy writing/producing legend Melvin Frank (derived from Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's stage version) and cinematography by Nick Roeg. And of course, Mr. Hordern is quite brilliant. He also appears in another rare Dick Lester gem: THE BED-SITTING ROOM, currently only available as a streaming rental from NETFLIX...

Pete, very amusing coincidence for sure, and A. Treacher, (who was still around at the time of course) was obviously the main inspiration for this archetypical character (you can really see it in Ken Anderson's rough sketches). One reason I wonder about other influences like Robert Morely and Michael Hordern however, is because Treacher was so spiffy, ramrod straight and stiff, whereas "Edgar" sports a pot gut (like Morley) and exudes some of Hordern's studied disheveled appearance....

Elsewhere online I stumbled across what appears to be a behind the scenes photo of the Woolie and the crew directing voice actor Dal McKennan for some rotoscope of the same character, indicating yet another influence...

BTW, the Milt Kahl models I mention here for BLACK CAULDRON were done after he retired and were, surprisingly, rejected by the directors of the film in favor of the ones done by other artists for the finished film.... If i can ever get my hands on a copy i will let you know...

Thanks all for checking this out...

Eric Noble said...

Very interesting article. I love watching FORUM. I still find it outrageously funny and great joy to watch. I love Buster Keaton as the old man who has to run the Seven Hilss of Rome seven times. Hilarious.

Stephen Worth said...

It's an odd movie to get on Disney's radar, but Geraldine Page's role in Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? Seems to have been the inspiration for Medusa in the Rescuers.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Reminded of Michael Hordern having done the narration to the classic stop-motion Paddington Bear shows that I used to see as a tyke! Such a great voice!