Of A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh

We’ve had numerous occasion to mention author A.A. Milne (Alan Alexander Milne, 1882-1956) on this blog, and as often as not, the references were NOT to his most famous creation Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne wrote humor, fiction (including mysteries), poetry, plays, screenplays, and non-fiction (usually on the theme of war; he’d served in WWI). Most of his other work has been forgotten by the public at large, however, eclipsed by the Bear of Little Brain.

Milne seems to have been destined for a literary career. His early education was at a school run by his father, where one of his teachers was H.G. Wells. He later went up to Cambridge, where (like that other great children’s author Lewis Carroll) his principal study was mathematics. His cricket team-mates included such other literary figures as Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie, and P.G. Wodehouse. Milne wrote and edited the school magazine Granta, which led to his being hired at the humor magazine Punch. Punch pieces got published in book form, and thus he became an author. His plays began being produced in the West End and on Broadway in the late ‘teens; when talkies arrived a decade later he wrote for them too. We’ve had occasion to mention Milne’s dramatic writing in posts about actors who played in his scripts including Leslie Howard, Nigel Bruce, Edmund Gwenn, Laura Hope Crews, C. Aubrey Smith, and George Brent. From a modern perspective, his most noteworthy stage work might be Toad of Toad Hall, a 1929 adaptation inspired by Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (also adapted into a film by Walt Disney 20 years later).

Milne’s son Christopher Robin was born in 1920, and it was for him obviously that the Winnie-the-Pooh stories were created. The boy had named his teddy bear after an ursine named Winnipeg who lived at the London Zoo. The character first appeared in a poem by Milne in 1924; he was properly named in a Christmas story a year later. These early appearances were followed by the books Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), both illustrated by E.H. Shepard. They were obviously terrifically popular and remain so to the present day. There were numerous early adaptations for the stage and other media, including a 1960 marionette version for television on Shirley Temple’s Storybook.

The rights to Milne’s Pooh stories were acquired by Walt Disney on 1961, and thus came the animated films Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974). I am old enough to remember the debut of the latter special and it caused much excitement in my fourth great class. There was many a playground impersonation of Paul Winchell’s Tigger voice, which surely we had vaguely recognized from various Saturday morning cartoons and The Banana Splits (we were too young to have seen his ventriloquism act). The cast for these shorts was stellar: Sebastian Cabot, whom we knew from Family Affair, as the Narrator. The sweet, lovable voices of Sterling Holloway as Pooh and John Fiedler as his little friend Piglet. Hal Smith (Otis from The Andy Griffith Show) was Owl; Howard Morris from Your Show of Shows was Gopher. Ken Sansom played Rabbit. Barbara Luddy, who played Kanga, had previously voiced Lady in Lady and the Tramp (1955) and was in several other Disney classics. Young Clint Howard was the original Roo! One of the kids who played Christopher Robin, Jon Walsmley later played Jason on The Waltons. And the distinctive and memorable voice of the depressed donkey Eeyore provided the acting debut of Ralph Wright, who’d been a cartoon writer and storyboard artists for decades. And there were songs by the Sherman Brothers!

Obviously there were countless new specials, films, and tv shows starring these characters in the decades following, but much like the real life Christopher Robin Milne, I had aged out of them, and they’ll form part of someone else’s memories.

Here’s an interesting coda. Milne’s house was later acquired by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and was the site of his famous early death. I don’t like that he died there, but I sure love that he lived there!