Who Was Count Cutelli?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I remember Disney Archivist Dave Smith telling me, "Nobody can know everything…especially about Disney." It is a quote that I often bring up when someone purposely tries to stump me.
Of course, someone doesn't need to purposely try to stump me. I readily admit that I am learning new things every day about Disney history. In fact, until recently I would never have been unable to answer the question "Who was Count Cutelli?"
I constantly harp on the fact that Disney historians need to go back to the original sources rather than just trusting existing printed material. However, the caveat is always to triple check, because even someone who was there at the time might have a faulty memory or only saw part of the project or there is the infamous Disney Publicity Spin in effect.
For instance, when the Disney Institute closed its doors to providing enrichment programs for guests and laid off much of its staff, Disney claimed in its publicity that the Disney Institute was so overwhelmingly popular that it could not be contained to one single physical location and that the entire property was its classroom, as the remaining staff moved into tiny cubicles in Celebration.
Also new material is being discovered every day that changes our perspective on some things. It is difficult to accept that even history we all thought was set in stone can be pretty fluid at times.
In terms of newspapers and magazines, I have often found that instead of being a totally truthful account that sometimes the person being interviewed has another publicity agenda to puff up his accomplishments or was severely misquoted where the writer wrote what he "thought" he had heard.
For instance, here is an example from a newspaper that was recently brought to my attention because I had written The Book of Mouse that had an extensive section devoted to the many voices of Mickey Mouse over the decades and Count Cutelli is not even mentioned as an unconfirmed footnote.
In the South Eastern Times newspaper for Tuesday August 23, 1932, it states:
"Mickey Mouse, or rather his voice arrived in London recently. He is Count Mazzaglia Cutelli, an Italian, who can produce from his throat more than 2,000 sound effects.
"Count Cutelli has been Mickey Mouse's screen voice ever since the count went to Hollywood, and, since then, besides his Mickey Mouse work, he has been producing sound effects like the bulldogs' chorus in The Love Parade and the croaking of a bull frog in Condemned. 'I spent years learning the exact noises produced by every type of dog and cat and hundreds of other animals,' he told a reporter. 'I have supplied sound effects for Miss Mary Pickford's films and for Mr. Douglas Fairbanks and the voice of the crying Baby Abraham Lincoln in the film of that name was mine'."
OK, before we go any further, let's look at a few of the items in this newspaper article. For roughly the first year of his screen career, Mickey just squeaked. That squeak was provided by Walt Disney.
The Karnival Kid, released in July 1929, was the first time Mickey spoke words. His first words were "Hot Dog!" as he was shilling for customers to come to his hot dog cart. Walt Disney supplied Mickey's voice in the cartoon.
Musician Carl Stalling stepped in occasionally to do Mickey's singing voice, but not the dialog. He left by 1930, along with animator Ub Iwerks. Clarence Nash claimed that he often came in to do a pick up line or two as Mickey in the early cartoons when Walt was not available, but that it was indeed Walt who always did Mickey's voice, until it was taken over by Jimmy MacDonald
Count Cutelli is not mentioned in any other source other than that short newspaper interview as ever doing Mickey Mouse's voice and certainly never on any kind of a regular basis. Joe Twerp did Mickey's voice for 17 episodes of the Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air radio show in 1938.
The Love Parade (1932) was a live-action film that introduced singer Jeanette MacDonald to movies and featured Maurice Chevalier, who received an Oscar nomination. Condemned (1929) was a live action melodrama featuring actor Ronald Colman's character being sent to Devil's Island. Mary Pickford started doing sound films in 1929 with Coquette and only did a total of five sound films. Pickford considered sound a frivolous ornamentation to film, "like putting lip rouge on the Venus de Milo."
Douglas Fairbanks' first "talkie" was Taming of the Shrew (1929) with his wife Mary Pickford, and he only made three more sound films before he officially retired from acting.
Abraham Lincoln (1930) was a D.W. Griffith film with actor Walter Huston portraying Lincoln. Cutelli told The Pittsburgh Press newspaper on August 13, 1934:
"It was a scene in the little cabin where Lincoln was born. The baby Lincoln had just been born and there was a wolf outside the door.
"I was there making the baby cry with one hand and the wolf howl with the other. Griffith came in and said, 'Why, you are crying yourself'. I said to him 'It's because I'm making the first earthly sound of the great Abraham Lincoln. I am awed by the great honor.'"
Hopefully, that will set the stage for the following discussion.
Cutelli was adept at doing voice work for cartoons and did some for producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Brothers.
Cutelli claimed he did some work on the early version of Porky Pig, which would have had to have been augmenting some of the original work done by Joe Dougherty, who had an actual stuttering problem but couldn't control it.
As a result, some recording sessions took hours and added to the costs so Cutelli could have been brought in for some additional lines. Dougherty only voiced the character for two years from March 1935 to March 1937. He was replaced in early 1937 by Mel Blanc, who could provide a more consistent stutter.
Cutelli, of course, claimed that he was the one who voiced the original "That's ALL Folks" tag at the end of Looney Tunes cartoons. He may be right, but there is no one left or any documentation to definitely confirm his claim.
Voice artist and historian Keith Scott has in his collection a photo of Leon autographed to Cutelli with an inscription calling him a "great artist and a fine fellow."
Gaetano Mazzaglia dei Conti Cutelli was born in Sicily, Italy and grew up on his father's estate near Mount Etna. He was raised as a nobleman within the Italian aristocracy. He came to the United States in 1923.
He was notoriously adept as a self-promoter, which perhaps helped him earn his nickname of "The Big Noise". Actually, the nickname referred to his versatility in doing sound effects.
In 1931, he told American Magazine:
"I began to imitate sounds when I was a small boy in Sicily. Then I became a sea captain and learned the sounds of the sea.
"I went on stage at Palermo just for the fun of it. I gave some of my sound imitations and the audience seemed to like them. Finally, I came to America. Gloria Swanson's manager called me and asked me to cry like a baby as I had on a radio broadcast he heard. It registered so realistically that I was engaged. I had found an outlet for my childhood hobby."
His repertoire of sounds included not just animals, but mechanical and weather effects. He developed devices to replicate these sounds for radio and film and sometimes hosted seminars with producer Leon Schlesinger about these machines which were smaller, cheaper and with more variety than the other models of the time. In 1935, he developed the sound effects machine used at station WGN in Chicago.
You can actually see and hear Cutelli perform on this 1932 Pathe newsreel clip.
In the newsreel the introductory inter-title reads: "Introducing Count Cutelli, whose imitative efforts only begin with a multi-motored aeroplane." There is a close-up of the Count who has his hands placed over his mouth in order to make a whirring sound in imitation of an aircraft.
Another title declares: "His 'lion' is very realistic, but 'you can't deceive dem lions." The count stands in front of a lion's cage with a megaphone and torments the lions with his impersonations. One of the lions gets angry and roars at the Count from the cage. There is a closeup of the Count roaring at the lion and the lion roaring back.
Another title states: "A family party." The count sits by a water pump with a collection of farmyard animals. He is making the clucking sound of a chicken towards an actual chicken he is holding in his lap. He then changes it to the sound of a rooster. The chicken jumps off his lap and walks off. The Count then does his goat impression followed by a donkey and another chicken rendition.
The next title says: "An elephant makes a noise in inverse ration to its size." The Count is seen in a garden when an elephant is led in by a zoo keeper. The elephant has a drink of water while the Count does his impersonation of the sound of an elephant.
Finally: "Parrot-like" The Count talks to two parrots and impersonates their cries and imitations of human speech.
He died of a heart attack while at a Seattle railway station waiting for a train to Vancouver at the age of 55 on July 16, 1944. According to a clipping he carried, the Berlin Anthropological Institute had offered his heirs $2,000 for his head and throat after his death for research work. The Chicago Tribune on July 17th declared "Genius of Sound Effects Dies".
Did Cutelli ever do the voice of Mickey Mouse in the earliest cartoons?
Well, in the November 1932 Decca records Catalogue supplement, it lists a 10-inch blue label record titled MICKEY MOUSE DISCOVERS A NEW LAND backed with MICKEY MOUSE ON THE ISLAND OF THE POLAR BEARS, [by] Count Mazzaglia Cutelli of Mickey Mouse Fame (Novelty Cartoon Record). It was listed as Record No. F3175
The description states:
"At last the effects side of the Mickey Mouse cartoons have been recorded by the originator of the effects, Count Cutelli. Indeed this unique record should have universal appeal, irrespective of age and class. It should be stated that all effects are devised and performed by Count Cutelli, and they are exactly as they appear in the series of talking films under the general title of Mickey Mouse."
However that same catalogue also includes the following added notice:
"This record has been withdrawn as it has come to the notice of the Decca Record Co. Ltd. that Count Mazzaglia Cutelli is not connected with and has no authority from Mr. Walter Disney the originator of Mickey Mouse to use the name of Mickey Mouse or make any record purporting to reproduce the sound effects employed in the Mickey Mouse pictures. The Decca Record Co. Ltd. begs to announce that at the request of Mr. Disney all copies of this record have been destroyed and takes this opportunity of expressing to users of Decca Records the company's regret that this record should ever have been issued as representing or reproducing the sound effects of the Mickey Mouse cartoons."
Now, that is not to say that Cutelli never worked at the Disney Studios. He apparently did supply some background sounds in the early Disney cartoons, but probably primarily background animal noises the Silly Symphonies series.
A memo to Roy Scott from Walt Disney dated December 23, 1935 states:
"Here's a fellow, Count Cutelli, who might have something we could use in Snow White. He did some stuff for us several years ago and he's really pretty good. I know he does a good frog. But there's one thing about this fellow you'll have to watch and that is he's inclined to publicize whatever he does.
"If he works with us, though, we'll straighten him out on this angle. Might take him into Pinto (Colvig who was handling voices at the time) and see what he can do. Anyway, have a talk with him and see if you figure out anything."
I can't locate any even unofficial credit for Cutelli in Snow White.
In the final perspective, Cutelli, if he is remembered at all, will receive recognition not for his vocal work in animated cartoons but for the installation of his sound effects equipment (personally installed by him) in the radio stations in the countries of France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Spain, and Holland and the motion picture studios throughout Europe, as well as the top radio stations in the United States.
He performed on the Redpath Chautauqua Circuit and supplied venues with the following publicity material:
WHAT THE PRESS CRITICS SAY ABOUT COUNT CUTELLI
American Magazine: "When sound-effects experts are stumped, they summon Count Cutelli, Hollywood's chief wizard of sound."
Screen Play Magazine: "He is one of the best-known odd-noise men."
New Movie Magazine: "The answer to a talkie director's prayer."
Popular Mechanics Magazine: "He has given the art of sound making a new technique."
Film Weekly, London: "The most amazing man in the world! Author of many of Hollywood's cleverest and most mystifying talkie effects.
Hollywood Citizen: "He is tops in his own particular sphere."
L. A. Daily News: "Nature has supplied him with marvelous equipment."
Chicago Tribune: "He has simplified the production of sound to an exact science."
Paramount News: "The very striking bit of work you did for us has aroused an unusual amount of comment."
Detroit News: "The Count is a professor of sound and its application."
Miami Daily News: "Developer of a new scientific method of producing sounds."
San Francisco Life: "The Count is a one-man sound effects department."
Dallas News: "Count Cutelli has been honored with recommendations in every known language and country."
Baltimore Sun: "Count Cutelli reproduces the most majestic sounds in nature."
Boston Traveler: "Has versatility and accuracy in the production of sound effects."
London Daily Mail: "Count Cutelli can produce more than 2,000 sounds with his throat."
Literary Digest: "Count Cutelli's specialty is making noises neatly and to order."
New York Herald: "The Big Noise in talking pictures."
Egyptian Mail, Cairo: "Count Cutelli is the greatest film synchronist in the world."
Pittsburgh Press: "World's Biggest Noise Maker."
His touring program was also approved for school presentations by the Preview Committee of Los Angeles City School District, the Los Angeles City High School District, the University of California, and by private schools and military academies. They found his performances entertaining and educational.
Just remember that while Count Cutelli may have many accomplishments to his career, legitimately doing the voice of Mickey Mouse is not one of them.
Many, many thanks to my fellow historians Brian Sibley and Keith Scott who helped me fill in many, many gaps in the story of Count Cutelli.