When a company has been in the entertainment industry for as long as Disney (who celebrate their one-hundredth birthday this year) it’s inevitable that there will be forgotten or abandoned projects. Kingdom of the Sun is one such project, a story based on Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper which was ultimately transformed into The Emperor’s New Groove.
While the finished product bears some similarities to what the public eventually saw, they were fundamentally different films, and there will always be a sense of “what could have been” when it comes to thinking about it (even if The Emperor’s New Groove did turn out to be one of the most delightful film’s in the company’s history).
Perhaps the greatest sense of loss comes in the form of “Snuff Out the Light,” the song that the character of Yzma (as performed by Eartha Kitt) was to sing. Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a deep dive into the history of the song, including the history of the abandoned movie and the song’s composition by rock and roll icon Sting.
This week, we’ll take a closer look at Eartha Kitt, who took Sting’s music and words and brought them brilliantly to life.
From Humble Beginnings
A biography of Kitt on the Internet Movie Database paints a stark picture of her difficult early life, stating, “An out-of-wedlock child, Eartha Kitt was born in the cotton fields of South Carolina. Kitt’s mother was a sharecropper of African-American and Cherokee Native American descent. Her father’s identity is unknown. Given away by her mother, she arrived in Harlem at age nine. At 15, she quit high school to work in a Brooklyn factory. As a teenager, Kitt lived in friends’ homes and in the subways. However, by the 1950s, she had sung and danced her way out of poverty and into the spotlight.”
She first gained recognition as part of the Katherine Dunham Dance Group, where she became a featured dancer and vocalist. A world tour soon followed, and she was subsequently offered a job at a Parisian nightclub. While there, she began to amass a notable fan base, including Orson Welles, who cast her in a production titled, “An Evening With Orson Welles” and would later refer to her as the “most exciting woman in the world.” A review in the Stars and Stripes newspaper said, “Eartha Kitt, whose haunting rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Hungry Little Trouble” blends beautifully with the poetry of “Faust,” quite literally steals the show. The petite 22-year-old South Carolinian invariably draws applause by her singing of “Yo Creo Yo Tengo un Amor” (I Think I Have a Love), a song she wrote herself. Her brief recital between the dramatic portions of the production is certainly worth the price of admission.”
Kitt eventually returned to New York and found success at the Village Vanguard and Broadway. Soon, best selling records followed with titles like “Love For Sale,” “I Want to Be Evil,” and the perennial holiday favorite “Santa Baby.”
By 1960, she had earned a walk on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but her biggest contribution to pop culture would come seven years later when she appeared as Catwoman in the classic series Batman. Unfortunately, her career would soon make a massive turn after she spoke out against the Vietnam War while at the White House. As a result, she became blacklisted in the United States.
Despite the consequences, Kitt’s daughter Kitt Shapiro stated that she never regretted the decision to speak out. In an interview, Shapiro stated, “ She said she would have done it a thousand times. She was asked her opinion, and she said, “I thought when someone asked my opinion, they actually wanted to hear what I have to say. Especially in the house that represents our rights to have freedom of speech.” She never regretted it, but she always was disappointed in the outcome.”
Over the years, Kitt published a number of memoirs. The first, Thursday’s Child, was published in 1956. The second, Alone With Me, was released in 1976, and Confessions of a Sex Kitten followed in 1989.
While theatre remained her lifelong passion, her performance for Disney would introduce her to a whole new generation of fans.
Pull the Lever, Kronk!
According to the Oral History of the Emperor’s New Groove, Michael Eisner originally wanted Barbara Streisand to play the role of Yzma. While Babs would have brought an undeniable flair to the role, I think Disney fans would agree that Kitt was the woman born to play the role. Kingdom of the Sun director Roger Allers was thrilled to have her as part of the project, recalling, “…I was so happy to cast Eartha Kitt in the role. With these older divas, you can be a little afraid of getting in the room. With Eartha, at our first meeting, I’d just come back from a research trip to Peru, and I brought her back a bunch of Peruvian textiles — these wonderful geometric patterns — as a gift, and she immediately opened up.”
Allers later recalled his sorrow about losing Kitt’s performances in Kingdom of the Sun.
“I mean the one song “Snuff Out the Light,” we were almost done with that in animation,” he said. “Sometimes I just think, Oh, just for curiosity’s sake they should just release it, to show people this song with Eartha Kitt as the Yzma character. It’s locked away in the archives somewhere. It kind of drives me crazy.”
Even when Kingdom of the Sun fell apart, Disney decided that Kitt would remain part of the new film. Storyboard artist Chris Williams stated, “We recognized that two things were really working well from Kingdom of the Sun: David Spade as Kuzco and Eartha Kitt as Yzma. “Well, what if we just started with those two things? Just hold on to those two things and build from them.”
Despite the difficulties associated with Kingdom of the Sun, Kitt adored playing the part of Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove. According to director Mark Dindall, “Yzma always kind of grew out of Eartha’s wonderful personality. I do remember thinking when we were first going to pitch her the new idea, I wonder if she’ll think this is too silly, just nonsense and ridiculous. We had the scene where they go down to the Secret Lab, on a storyboard in the story room….She instantly locked in. Nothing like that’s ever happened to me with an actor.”
It was a role that she adored according to her daughter.
“…as she got older, she played Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, Kronk’s New Groove, and The Emperor’s New School on television on Disney and ABC,” Shapiro said. “That was a character she truly enjoyed playing because it was so much fun.”
The love for role was returned from audiences and critics, with Kitt eventually winning two Daytime Emmy Awards for her performance in The Emperor’s New School.
And to think, it all began with a project, and a song, that was scrapped.