Friday, March 4, 2011


One of the many positive and more obvious elements of The King’s Speech is the attention it has drawn to the always frustrating and sometimes debilitating speech disorder we know as stuttering or stammering. The movie obviously meant a great deal to a lot of people as it garnered twelve Oscar nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor Geoffrey Rush (astounding as Lionel Logue) and Actor for Colin Firth's amazing performance as King George VI who mostly managed his stammering (never was cured) to the degree that he was able to successfully lead his country through its greatest crisis. The King’s Speech ultimately won four Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, Direction, Best Actor and, yes, Picture of the Year, outstanding recognition especially considering their competition.

As I indicated in an earlier post, I was deeply moved by this movie and upon reflection realized that it contained elements present in my own life – some frivolous, some serious. They follow and probably offer nothing more than an insight to my psyche and early education and experiences though they certainly represent elements of our history.

When I was growing up the stammering Porky Pig ("Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-...That's all, folks”) was the first of many popular (my favorite) cartoon characters including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd (another stutterer), Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Pepé Le Pew, Gossamer and many others from Warner Bros. and their very popular and successful Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series.

Not so ironically Porky shared his stutter with Joe Dougherty the voice actor who originally played him. Dougherty, however, could not control his stuttering (in or out of the studio and with or without his mike) resulting in longer recording sessions and higher production costs prompting his inevitable replacement by the versatile and now iconic Mel Blanc in 1937. The unintended stutter had by then, however, become the trademark trait of the character and Warner Bros. and Blanc continued the stutter, but controlled it and “harnessed (it) for a more precise comedic effect.” Porky surely was a comedic figure who elicited laughs though at the expense of those so afflicted. With Dougherty it was a real and daily challenge. With Blanc it was a contrivance… As a young boy I demonstrated some talent at drawing and cartooning and always seemed to be drawing Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd

Another famous stutterer for we bairns growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s was the timid and seemingly always nervous, soft-spoken baby pig named Piglet who also happened to be best Friends with A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (I was a Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh kind of kid). Though Piglet didn’t get his voice until Disney’s Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), he was always presented in text with a squeaky stutter. Piglet’s occasional stammering ("Oh d-d-d-dear"), conveyed his nervousness and fear of the unknown and his occasional dive into Kanga’s pouch. Piglet’s generous, kind-hearted and humble demeanor always ultimately made up for his skittishness, worrying nature (always anxiously wringing his hands/hooves?) and his meager size. So, despite his shortcomings and stutter he always prevailed.
Another important lesson learned…

I am also reminded of my Lenox School reading of Herman Melville’s great unfinished and resurrected novella, Billy Budd, the allegorical story of a sailor of the same name who is the personification and embodiment of all that is innocent and good. Budd is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. Because of his stuttering in moments of distress he is unable to defend himself and blindly strikes out accidentally killing his accuser, the evil master-at-arms, Claggart who himself should have been hung from the yardarm. Instead, however innocent in this tale of Good vs. Evil - Truth vs. Justice, Billy willingly forfeits his life for the good of the many. "Struck dead by the angel of God!" exclaims (Captain) Vere (Truth or Pontius Pilate?). "Yet the angel must hang!" Melville’s heroic character dies because of his one tragic flaw - he stuttered. That morality play and iconic tragedy has literally stayed with me all my life.
More lessons…

Then there was the infamous and indefensible stuttering Reverend Dr. Cotton Mather (1663–1728) son of the Reverend Dr. Increase Mather, the most prominent puritan clergyman in New England - Pastor of Boston's original North Church, president of Harvard College and New England's ambassador to the King of England. Cotton was the assistant Pastor at Boston's original North Church under his father and later Pastor when called upon (the 2nd time) by his congregation. As a kid growing up in New England and with a seemingly endless array of Puritan ancestors, well, I was initiated to history in part via the Mathers.

Cotton Mather was a leader of the Puritans and author who wrote hundreds of books and pamphlets including the first book on stuttering in America. Mr. Mather tried many methods to treat his stuttering - some successful including speaking in a drawling or sing-sing fashion and some unsuccessful - such as fasting and prayers. Apparently he did not shout the vulgarities that seemingly worked for George VI.

While a mostly fanatical though sometimes cautious supporter and advisor of the hysterical fiasco known as the Salem Witch Trials (really about money and land) he was later publicly unrepentant despite heavy criticism. He justifiably suffered mightily the slings and arrows of contemporary scorn for his involvement in the trials. That continues and I have Friends from Massachusetts who still today rightly curse his name despite all the good he did. Mather seemed to take the opportunity to rededicate himself after the trials and despite overwhelming positives, his mostly negative place in history persists (see Three Sovereigns for Sarah). Father Increase Mather did not support the Salem Witch Trials.

Both Increase and Cotton were good Friends with one of my august ancestors, the Rev. James Keith of Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Cotton Mather delivered the sermon and eulogy at Keith’s funeral in July 1719. Despite his stuttering Cotton was known for his fire and brimstone sermons. Ironically, on his fifty-sixth birthday, Cotton preached on Ecclesiastes 9:10a, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might”, the motto of the Buxton Family. Needless to say we Buxtons have nothing more in common with Cotton than that sermon and his friendship with Keith which we hope in retrospect was more a matter of liturgical convenience. Cotton’s stuttering no doubt increased (no pun) his fervor for writing in such abundance .

There are many well-known and successful celebrities and other folks of some notoriety – from all walks of life - who have stuttered and been very successful. Caution: I do cringe (and I certainly mean no disrespect) when I see myriad “Lists of Famous Stutterers” and I am NOT going to include one here.

While I don’t want to remove even the remotest inspiration for those with a speech impediment, I see celebrities and figures in world history (most deceased) alleged to have stuttered with absolutely no documentation of the disorder. These highly suspect lists seems to grow daily and are then in non-scholarly fashion embraced and perpetuated on the Internet compounding the issue. In our celebrity-driven, instant gratification culture the presence of these pin up boys/girls appears to be there mostly for therapeutic or marketing value in order to raise money for research and public relations. Next I fully expect to see multiple choice PR material that matches celebrities with their disorders. Having said that, those truly afflicted and willing to lend their support to these causes are to be commended.

While I am not trying to underplay the seriousness of this disorder, those so afflicted shouldn’t use it as a crutch, an excuse for failure, letting it rule their lives. George VI sure didn’t and pushed towards the light. George’s civilian partner, Winston Churchill (he had a lisp), addressed his issue and is considered by many as one of the greatest orators of all time. Some state that Churchill even had a stammer though there is great disagreement on this issue (I am lock step with the Churchill Centre & Museum in London). That he did have a speech defect is well documented. Churchill turned that lisp and “word groping” into his famous and dramatic “loaded pause” and with his defiant, jowly, baritone delivery gave even greater credence and power to his words. He was and remains (with or without a list/stammer) one of my heroes with his life an example and tribute to courage and perseverance. Same song, different verse

Would that those with this speech disorder could turn it off as easily as Mel Blanc did. I have one close Family member who has suffered from this ailment for most of his life enduring a wide variety of treatments. He has learned to cope and is doing well, but sometimes regresses when in distress. We in the Family have learned to be more empathetic, patient and understanding. He has walked the walk, proved his worth, paid the proverbial piper and earned a special place on this planet. He has made us better.

So, this speech disorder hits close to home for me and other Family members hence part of my fascination with the movie. Statistics from I don’t know where estimate that one percent of the world’s population stammers or stutters. When part of that one percent is the King of England in wartime, then you have a great tale though the real story (probably far more complicated than this simplistic tale) wasn’t told until 70+ years later per the request of the Queen Mum.

The humanity of that episode in history and this triumph over adversity is the point, among others, of the movie and the essence of this post. Please be patient, encouraging and relaxed when you relate to individuals so challenged. They are us and we them, part of that by the grace of God thing. Yes, they/we have a voice… And, maybe you didn’t know that David Seidler who wrote The Kings’s Speech screenplay and won the Oscar has been part of that voice. You see, Seidler stuttered badly until he conquered his own speech disorder nearly 60 years ago giving George VI and his valiant example the credit. Seidler became a writer hoping to one day chronicle the King’s tale and we say, well done.

Renowned movie critic Leonard Maltin opines for me, “There are times when I look around me and get the feeling that civilization, as I know it, is coming to an end. Then a film like this arrives on the scene and restores my faith, not only in movies but in humankind itself.”


Ned Buxton

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