“Everybody Wants to be a Cat!” Kicking off the Summer with Walt Disney’s The Aristocats
A Classic Hollywood Blog
We kicked off the official start of summer with an Outdoor Movie Night! It was the first in-person program the Sheboygan County Historical Museum has hosted since before the COVID-19 shutdown and we were thrilled with the turn out! We took precautions for our first time out of the gate with masks and social distancing squares for families and guests to sit in. It was a fun, safe event for our community, and we look forward to hosting more Outdoor Movie Nights as the summer goes on. Check out our Events Page for more information!
As most of you know, I am an avid film buff! I love Classic Hollywood history and one of my favorite aspects our movie nights, is the opportunity to share what it took to make the film, behind the scenes information, and fun facts. If you missed the chance to hear it in person or would like even more details, keep reading!
Chloe’s Fun Facts for The Aristocats:
Walt Disney’s The Aristocats, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year! It was first released Christmas Eve, 1970. The 20th Disney animated feature film, and the last film project to be approved by Walt Disney personally before his death, The Aristocats took almost a decade to come to fruition.
In 1961, Walt suggested they find an animal story that could be adapted as 2-part live action segments for his immensely popular television show Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. The writers found a children’s story about a family of cats in New York City. After the success of 101 Dalmatians in 1961, which took place in London, the location changed to Paris. They eagerly sent in the script to the studio executives… and it was “rejected.” They didn’t give up though and sent it directly to Walt himself who liked it and recommended they keep working on it.
By the summer of 1963, Walt recommended that the story be produced as an animated feature film vs. live action. The project would have to be shelved though until the animation department had finished with The
Jungle Book. Once The Jungle Book was completed and scheduled for release in 1967, the animation department started storyboards which Walt officially approved just before his death.
Walt Disney died December 15, 1966 at the age of 65. Walt had been a heavy smoker since WWI and would die from lung cancer as a result. While the studio grieved the loss of their leader, founding father and friend, they continued forward on The Aristocats.
Voice Cast –
Similar to The Jungle Book, the characters were patterned after the looks and personalities of the voice actors that played them.
Phil Harris who had just voiced Baloo in The Jungle Book was brought back to voice Thomas O’Malley. In early storyboards and sketches, Thomas O’Malley was supposed to have strips. This was dropped after the animators learned how difficult, time consuming and expensive it was to draw moving stripped animals after animating Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Phil Harris was already at this time a well-established film and television actor, comedian, singer and jazz musician for over 50 years. His back to back work with the Disney studio continued with another role directly after finishing The Aristocats, voicing Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood which was released three years later.
Duchess was voiced by the glamorous Eva Gabor, one of the famous Gabor Sisters. Gabor was a Hungaian-American actress, businesswoman, singer and socialite who relocated to the US with hopes of a film career. She had a successful career in Broadway, television and film, but she is by far the best remembered for her role on the hit sitcom Green Acres where she starred as sweet and zanny Lisa Douglas from 1965 – 1971. Eva and her sisters Zsa Zsa and Magda were also famous for landing in the society and gossip columns regularly. Particularly their reputation for serial matrimony. Eva was married 5x, Magda was married 6x, and Zsa Zsa was married 9x! More than Elizabeth Taylor’s famous 7 marriages! Like Harris, Gabor would be invited back for another Disney project as the voice of Miss Bianca in The Rescuers released in 1977, as well as the sequel The Rescuers Down Under in 1990.
There are many other familiar voices in the film too.
The dogs Napoleon and Laffette – named after the French generals Napoleon Bonapart, the emperor of France, and Marquis de Lafayette, the nobleman that helped the Americans in the Revolutionary War – were played by Pat Bertram and George Lindsey. Bertram co-starred with Gabor on the show Green Acres playing Mr. Haney. George Lindsey was famous for playing Goober Plye, Goomer Plye’s cousin on The Andy Griffith Show. The actors were such a hit as the farm dogs during the filmmaking process, the animators decided to add another scene to showcase their talents. Thus, the fantastic, funny scene where Edgar returns to retrieve his hat and umbrella was included.
Sterling Holloway plays the mouse Roquefort (which is a certain kind of cheese by the way). A veteran Disney voice actor, he would become most famous as the voice of Winnie the Pooh a few years later.
The character of Scat Cat was originally supposed to be played by jazz great Louis Armstrong but he was unable to record due to illness. Scatman Crothers, the actor and jazz/blues musician, was brought on to replace him. He was instructed to pretend he was Louis though which is why the character still sounds similar to Armstrong.
Thurl Ravenscroft is the voice of the minor character, Russian Cat. His voice might be very familiar to you though! His two most famous roles were that of Tony the Tiger for Frosted Flakes for over 50 years, and recording the song “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” for Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. A song we hear a lot at the Museum during Holiday Memories!
Speaking of songs, this was the last animated feature that Robert and Richard Sherman worked on as staff songwriters for Disney. The duo wrote more motion-picture musical song scores than any other songwriting team in film history. They had been writing songs for Disney since the late 1950s and had already won two Academy Awards for songs in Mary Poppins. They composed two of the songs in The Aristocats – The title song and “Scales and Arpeggios.”
The title song captured the essence of France and sets the tone for the film. They really wanted Maurice Chevalier, known as “Mr. Paris,” to sing the song but he was in retirement and hesitant to do any more recording work. Producer Bill Anderson suggested that the Sherman Brothers make a demo of the song imitating Chavalier and still send it to him. It worked, and the demo brought him out of retirement. It would be his last professional work before his death.
They also wrote a song for Madame Bonfamille (which means “good family” in French by the way) called “Pourquoi” that was supposed to be reprised by Duchess as “She Never Felt Alone.” The songs were cut, but the opening lyrics of the reprise were turned into dialog that you hear Duchess say as she explains why they must return to Paris. You can hear both songs and see original storyboards that went with them on YouTube. https://youtu.be/exIOVsVEQbY
The popular “Everybody Wants to be a Cat” was composed by two other songwriters though – Floyd Huddlestong and Al Rinker. The song provides the swingin’ show stoppin’ moment in the film. Fun Fact: Al Rinker started his music career in his teens when he performed with a young Bing Crosby. Bing Crosby was considered to voice Thomas O’Malley at one point.
Release and Reception –
The Aristocats was released to overall critical praise as a fun, family movie with a fantastic voice cast. It became popular around the world, and by the end of 1971, it was also fittingly the most popular movie in France. It is still the 18th highest grossing film of all time in France.
It has continued to be popular over the decades, introducing new generations to the feline adventure with theatrical re-releases. And it was released on VHS for the first time in 1996 as part of the Masterpiece Collection (which is how I first saw the film as a young girl and it is currently sitting on our movie shelf at home…Yes, we still have a VCR to watch all of my priceless VHS tapes), and later on DVD and now through streaming. We have come a loooong way in technology!
After 50 years, The Aristocats are still the swingin’est cats in town! After all, “Everybody wants to be a cat!”
Contributed by Chloe Seider, Program Coordinator and Classic Film Buff