On the evening of March 31 in Manhattan, Michael Sporn's colleagues and friends—Phyllis and I were two of the latter—celebrated his life as an animation filmmaker, which was wonderfully creative and all too short. It was a lovely evening, full of reminders of just how much Michael accomplished and of what a remarkable man he was. There were tributes from fellow professionals—John Canemaker, Ray Kosarin, Candy Kugel, and Mark Mayerson, Mark's tribute read in his absence by Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings—and warm family reminiscences by Heidi and Michael's brother, Jerry Rosco. There were extended excerpts from some of the Sporn films, and appearances by Michael himself, in clips from the supplemental materials on his DVDs. It was mostly very upbeat and enjoyable, until, at the end, "Sunday" from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George played over a photo montage.Then it was time for a lump in the throat.
Sondheim was, as Heidi remarked, a particular favorite of Michael's—understandably, since Sondheim is as completely a New York artist in his field as Michael was in his. I liked the familial New York feeling of the evening, with its audience made up largely of people who, like Michael, have learned how to squeeze some artistic satisfaction out of the turnip that is today's animation industry. It's hard for me to imagine a comparable gathering in Los Angeles, where so many people in animation seem to know in their bones that they're hacks, unless they've talked themselves into believing they're much greater talents than they really are. It's even harder for me to imagine a Michael Sporn thriving there, and I'm glad he never made the move.
As everyone who visits this website knows by now, Michael was a master at transforming sponsored films on low budgets into strongly felt personal statements. Seeing the clips at his memorial renewed my awareness of how that ability manifested itself not just visually but also, perhaps even more so, in the soundtracks of his films, the voices and the music. There's The Marzipan Pig, for instance, a tender fable based on a book by Russell Hoban, a book read in its entirety on the soundtrack by Tim Curry, with music by Caleb Sampson. Both narrator and composer are completely in sympathy with the story, and with Michael's aims.. The animation by the late Tissa David is excellent on its own terms, but unavoidably more constricted than what we hear. Other Sporn films have equally distinctive narrators—James Earl Jones, F.Murray Abraham, Jake Gyllenhaall, Boris Karloff—chosen by Michael not because their names would look good on a poster but because their sensibilities harmonized with what he wanted in a particular film.
But see, and hear, for yourself. A dozen Sporn cartoons are available online, through a subscription site called Fandor, and others are available on DVD from First Run Features.
Back on April 21, 2008, I posted an item here titled "Walt's Skeptical Supervisor," about James Edward MacLachlan, whom Tim Susanin had just identified as the man Walt Disney was talking about when he told Pete Martin that his immediate supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad found the young Walt "a little too inquisitive and maybe a little too curious. ... He was kind of sore at me, because I think he felt the boss [A. V. Cauger] paid me too much." MacLachlan, misidentified by Fred Harman as "McLaughlin," can be seen in the accompanying photo of the Film Ad art staff from the Web site of the Fred Harman Museum in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
Writing in The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, I suggested a source of that skepticism: "Lower-level supervisors at resolutely mundane places like the Film Ad Company, protective of their own positions, usually regard bright ideas of any kind with suspicion, particularly if they call into question established methods." But now there's reason to believe that McLachlan's skepticism about Walt had another source. I've heard from Denise MacLachlan, who writes as follows:
My great grandfather was James Edward MacLachlan, who died December 24, 1924, so soon after that photo was taken.... His oldest daughter, my great aunt Marjorie, supported the family after her father died.
The understanding in my family is that Marjorie and Walt were taken with each other, and that Marjorie's father warned her away from Walt. James thought Walt wasn't steady enough for Marjorie. My family jokes about James's apparent lack of business sense, to dissuade his daughter from a man who'd turn out to be such an icon—but actually, his warning does make sense. James was supporting a wife and five children as a commercial artist. His oldest daughter was only 18 at the time of the photo, working in the same office with her father and with Walt, who was slightly older than Marjorie. James was going home each evening to a large family, with children ranging in age from 9 to 18. According to what I've read in your blog, Walt was spending his free time playing with the medium, making funny shorts and figuring out what he could do with film. He didn't stay long with the ad agency and he didn't stay long at his employment before the ad agency. At the time James knew him, Walt might not have been the kind of young man a father would want his daughter dependent on. James may have had sufficient reason to be "kind of sore" with someone who was flirting with his daughter.
There's no sense in my family of James's having tenuous employment with the ad agency. It's taken for granted that he was respected and held a solid position. We also know that he liked to draw. He taught all of his children to draw.
That sounds entirely plausible to me. As many a male cartoon fancier can testify, an interest in animation will not necessarily ingratiate a suitor with a young lady's parents.
And speaking of Tim Susanin, I hear that his excellent book Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years, 1919-1928 (University Press of Mississippi), published in hardcover in 2011, may soon appear in paperback. In either format, it's a mandatory purchase for anyone who finds Walt's personal history as endlessly interesting as I do.
The presiding genius of the wonderful Little Lulu comic book of the 1940s and 1950s was born a hundred years ago today in New York City, the son of Irish immigrants. He wrote all of the Lulu stories from the first issue, in 1945, until the late 1950s. Stanley drew almost none of the Lulu stories after the first few Four Color issues, but he always drew the front covers, one of which, for the September 1951 issue, is above. This cover intrigues me; in today's hyper-protective environment, would any publication for kids dare to suggest that bug spray might be a suitable weapon in warfare among children?
Michael Sporn. From Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings, comes word that a memorial celebration of his life will be held on Monday evening, March 31, at the Academy Screening Room at the Lighthouse, 111 E. 59th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues in New York City. The celebration will begin at 7 p.m., with a reception to follow at a venue not yet determined. Phyllis and I will be there.
Robin Allan. The British author of the landmark study Walt Disney and Europe died on January 6 at the age of 79, an event too little remarked in the animation world with the notable exception of Maureen Furniss' warm Animation Journal post. Robin and I met only once, at the Disney Studio in 1992, but we were in touch frequently over the years, by mail and occasionally by phone, and I always valued him as a friend and one of the very best Disney scholars.
Robin's story, as told by his wife, Janet, in a brief biography shared with friends, was more remarkable than I realized, beginning with a childhood in the African country of Malawi, when it was the British colony Nyasaland, and continuing with employment in places as diverse as Kuwait, Malta, and Iran, before he settled in as a lecturer at the Manchester College of Adult Education. His perseverance in pursuing what Janet calls "his Disney dream" resulted in the completion of his Ph.D. in 1993, on "European influences on the animated feature films of Walt Disney," and ultimately the publication of his book, in 1999. In the meantime, he had taken early retirement and set up what Janet calls "a theatre-going coach service 'Intertheatre' which took enthusiasts all over the country on theatrical and literary journeys." He was recurrently ill the last nine years of his life, but remained active almost until the end.
I have been occupied the last few months with work on Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, but with that book now finished and in production, I finally have time to think about this website again, and specifically about some of the few movies I've had time to see.
Frozen. When Phyllis and I saw this latest Disney animated feature, we sat in front of three little girls who had seen it before, probably more than once, and who sang along with it enthusiastically. I was charmed, but I knew then that anything I might have to say about Frozen would be utterly superfluous. The movie had connected with its target audience, and I was definitely not part of it. (I know people my age who loved Frozen, but they saw it with their granddaughters.) I'll make a few comments, anyway.
My lingering impression is that Frozen is the apotheosis of the "Disney Princess" movie. The girls in the film, Anna and Elsa, are not fairy-tale princesses but are instead, much more than their predecessors in other Disney features, idealized versions of the girls in the audience. The gap between the princesses on the screen and the "princesses" in the audience has been bridged. Not without a little awkwardness, to be sure. When Anna and Kristoff finally kiss, it's anticlimactic, the real climax having occurred when the sisters reconcile; but, of course, mending a breach with a sister would typically be more important to a little girl than a kiss from a boy. The Disney people seem to have realized that by making the movie appeal so powerfully to little girls, they could shrug off any concerns that a "princess" label might discourage boys from seeing it.
Throughout, Frozen is an expertly machined piece of entertainment. When Elsa sings "Let It Go," it's a dazzling commercial for the inevitable Broadway version., and no doubt many people will be tempted to see that show just to learn how Disney's theatrical wizards have translated all the snow and ice into stage machinery. But ultimately, the air of calculation, the sense that the commercial possibilities were weighed with a jeweler's precision at every moment during production, to the exclusion of possibilities of other kinds, makes Frozen tiresome as even other recent Disney animated features are not. For one thing, I saw not a hint of any progress toward making CGI human characters look more like real beings and less like plasticine dolls.
Movies manipulate; that's what they do. But usually not so relentlessly and single-mindedly. Unlike those little girls sitting behind me, I don't think I'll see Frozen again.
Saving Mr. Banks. This Disney movie's version of events surrounding the production of Mary Poppins is so obviously and clumsily fictional that I can't believe it will have any lasting impact. I don't think anyone in the future will call Tom Hanks to mind when the name "Walt Disney" is spoken. But I enjoyed seeing the exteriors shot at the Disney studio, where I spent a lot of time over the years, and trying to figure out how the action had been staged to avoid showing buildings that were not there fifty years ago. And then there were cute details like Hanks's Smoke Tree Ranch tie pin.
I also found myself speculating what it was about this story might have appealed to Disney executives, Robert Iger, in particular. The movie, is of course, about how Walt cajoles P.L. Travers into letting him make a movie of Mary Poppins by identifying and exploiting her weakness, her love for her drunken father. Her book passes into Walt's hands and becomes an enduringly popular film. On reflection, how could such a story not appeal to a man whose tenure as Disney's CEO has been distinguished most by his negotiations to buy other people's ideas—Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel Comics—and transform them into something more "Disney"? Who knows, maybe in 2064 there'll be a movie about how Bob Iger found the weak spot in George Lucas's psyche.
Gravity. Easily the best animated film of the year. Well, a combination film, actually, as much of one as The Three Caballeros, but wonderful, regardless (and with much better animation and much better acting than any other combination film I can think of). I've read some persuasive complaints about Gravity's lack of scientific accuracy, but this is a case, unlike Saving Mr. Banks, where any falseness is self-justifying.
Third Man on the Mountain. Not a new movie, of course, but rather a 1959 Disney live-action feature. There's a page on this site about the filming of that very good movie, and thanks again to Werner Schrämli, I've added another photo and some more information to it. You can go directly to the new material by clicking on this link.
There have been many tributes to Michael on the Web since he died on January 19, but one of the very best is Mark Mayerson's. He knew Michael well as both a friend and a cartoon maker, and that knowledge shaped his moving tribute. I could not agree more with what he has written: "Michael’s lack of profile with the general public will make his loss seem less than it is. Make no mistake: we’ve lost a great film maker who managed to create art with the sparsest of resources. Animation needs creators like Michael if it’s ever going to explore the full range of human experience."
Ray Kosarin, who also worked for Michael and knew him well, has written an equally impressive tribute for ASIFA East's website. If, after reading these tributes, you were to watch some of the films that Mark and Ray recommend, you would surely come away with some sense of just how special Michael was, and how much we have lost in his passing.
Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings, is keeping his wonderful "Splog" alive, and you'll find there more tributes to Michael from people who knew him. I'm grateful that Michael will continue to be with us through his blog, and especially through his films.
He died early this morning, more than three years after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He shared that diagnosis with only a few people even as he continued to work as an independent animator and an incredibly productive blogger. His widow, Heidi Stallings, sent me the following obituary, which was written by Michael's good friend John Canemaker.
Michael Sporn, an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short Film and the director of more than thirty television specials for broadcast outlets such as HBO, PBS, Showtime and CBS died on January 19th in New York City. He was 67.
The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, his wife the actress and director Heidi Stallings said.
Long a mainstay of New York independent animation filmmakers, Michael Sporn earned a 1984 Academy Award nomination for the short film Doctor DeSoto, adapted from the William Steig children’s book. It was one of fifteen short children’s films Sporn produced and directed for distributor Weston Woods, including Steig’s Abel’s Island (1988), which was nominated for an Emmy Award; The Amazing Bone (1985), winner of a CINE Golden Eagle; and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2005), winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video and Best Short Children’s Film award from the Ottawa International Animation Festival.
Sporn’s animated HBO specials adapted from children’s books and tales include: Lyle Lyle Crocodile (1987); The Red Shoes (1989); Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel (1990); The Marzipan Pig (1990); Ira Sleeps Over (1992, CableACE Award winner); Goodnight Moon and Other Stories (1999, Emmy winner); Happy to Be Nappy and Other Tales (2006); Whitewash (1995, Emmy winner); I Can Be President (2011).
He also created animated titles and inserts for live-action features, such as Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981) and Garbo Talks (1984), and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).
On Broadway, Sporn’s animation appeared as interactive elements in two musicals: Meet Me in St. Louis (1989) and Woman of the Year (1981).
Michael Sporn was born in New York City on April 23, 1946, the second child of William and Amelia Young Sporn, and grew up in Jackson Heights. His father abandoned the family when Michael was two, and his mother subsequently had three more children with her second husband, Mario Rosco.
Sporn drew cartoons “right from the beginning,” he told an interviewer in 2010, and, encouraged by his stepfather, made 8mm films at age seven. A self-taught animator, he gathered advice from the few how-to-animate books available in the late 1950s and from two television series, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Walter Lantz’s The Woody Woodpecker Show.
He attended the New York Institute of Technology from 1963 to 1967, then enlisted in the US Navy serving as a Russian language decoder in Alaska.
In 1972, he began working professionally in animation under several noted producers and directors. For John and Faith Hubley, he worked on the short film Cockaboody (1973); The Adventures of Letterman series for the 1971-77 PBS series The Electric Company; and the TV special Everybody Rides the Carousel ( 1975). He was an animator on the 1977 feature film Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure for director Richard Williams; and for R.O. Blechman, he supervised numerous TV commercials and the PBS special Simple Gifts (1977).
Sporn formed his own production company, Michael Sporn Animation, Inc., in 1980, and at the time of his death, was producing and directing Poe, an animated feature based the life of Edgar Allan Poe.
Michael Sporn gave a running start to many a young animator’s careers. He was not merely an employer, but a mentor, offering on-the-job lessons in the appreciation of animation history and its filmmakers, and candid, thoughtful opinions on the seven lively arts and artists of all stripes.
On December 5, 2005, not coincidentally Walt Disney’s birthday, Sporn launched a blog, Splog, which made him a teacher in the larger sense. Splog ran continuously almost every day for eight years, encompassing nearly 3,000 posts. His detailed analysis of films, their sequences, discussions and promotions of artist’s careers and new work, and his often emotional and sulfurous reviews attracted a wide international audience. The site was a tribute to Michael Sporn’s energy, imagination, and dedication to the art of animation in all its forms. “I think,” he once said, “animation has the potential of being the greatest of all the arts.”
In addition to Ms. Stallings, he is survived by his sisters Patricia Sherf and Christine O’Neill, and brothers Jerry Rosco and John Rosco.
What a sad day this is. I may once have thought that reaching an advanced age would provide some sort of immunization against the worst of grief. Not so; I cried earlier this month when my sweet mother-in-law died, and I cried when Heidi told me soon afterwards that Michael was very close to death. Tears insisted on barging into my life again today. Michael was a wonderful friend, a dedicated artist, and one of the very best people in a field, animation, that he loved with a consuming passion. Michael's genius, and his curse, was that he could do so much with such tiny budgets. I will never cease to wonder what he might have accomplished with the money that always seems to be available to people with only a fraction of his talent and none of his integrity.
Michael and I were continually in touch for almost forty years. We certainly didn't agree about everything; for instance, he loved UPA (I don't), and he once remarked to me that he couldn't remember ever laughing at a Warner Bros. cartoon. But disagreeing about such things was always a source of pleasure for us, not of rancor. I cannot recall a time when I did not enjoy his company.
I've written about Michael's films any number of times here, and in reviewing those commentaries I feel a certain satisfaction with a couple of pieces about the 2007 Sporn retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (the linked item is a preview of the retrospective; scroll up for a report I wrote after the showings), and also with a page I devoted to the DVD releases of some of his films. But more than reading about his films, you should try to see some of them. You might start with The Marzipan Pig and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. If you open yourself to such films, which are so unlike most animated fare these days, you may share some of my intense regret that we will see no more like them.
Gunnar Andreassen passed along the photo above, which originated on the D23 website. I haven't signed up with D23—that seems like an extravagance for anyone as far from Burbank and Anaheim as I am—and unfortunately I have no idea of the circumstances under which the photo was taken. That's the August 1950 issue of Walt Disney's Comics & Stories that Walt and the kid are inspecting, and it would certainly be tempting to seek permission to use that photo in my new book Funnybooks if there were a Carl Barks story in that issue, but there isn't. It was one of the nine 1950 issues with a lead Donald Duck story drawn by another cartoonist, in this case Paul Murry.
As for where the photo was taken, that was somewhere in the Disney studio, but I'm not sure where. I have vague memories of the studio store when it was in the same building as the commissary—to the left of the commissary as you entered the building from Mickey Avenue—but my memories date to around 1969, almost twenty years after this photo was taken. I'm sure there are visitors out there who remember that store better than I do.
There's another view of Walt just below, in a photo posted on Facebook by Jon Cooke and called to my attention by Thad Komorowski. The "Mouse-taches" are being sold at Walt Disney World. Wear one and see if anyone mistakes you for Tom Hanks.
The transformation of Walt into a “Disney character” is obviously well under way. Maybe candy Gitanes (unfiltered, of course) will be next.
And finally, a non-Disney photo that seems just right for the season. That's Phil Monroe, the wonderful Warner Bros. animator, drawing Porky Pig for his granddaughter, Kelly, more than twenty-five years ago (Phil died in 1988). Kelly, who is now Kelly Monroe Jenk, found the interviews with her grandfather on this site and was moved to share this photo with me. I'm very glad she did.
And although it's too late for me to wish everyone a merry Christmas, thanks to the down time inflicted accidentally by my website host (which somehow thought there were two Barriers, one still living in Virginia, and wouldn't let the one living in Arkansas renew the domain name), let me at least wish you a happy and prosperous 2014.
Walt Disney with his daughters Sharon (left) and Diane.
Diane Disney Miller
She died yesterday at the age of 79, as everyone knows by now, after suffering a fall in late September that left her in a coma. This is a terrible loss. Two great institutions—the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles—speak very clearly about the remarkable person she was, about her strength of character and her dedication to honoring her parents' memory as splendidly as possible. She left too soon, with much accomplished but with important work still to do. There is on the museum's website a full and admirably sensitive account of her life.
The Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, came first. It is a wonderful building that would not exist in its present form, and maybe not at all, if Diane had not made that possible through her determination and, of course, her financial support. The Walt Disney Family Museum is entirely her creation, and it is in its own way just as wonderful, for all the reasons I laid out here after a visit in March 2012. How amazing that one tiny woman—I was surprised when I met her last year by how small she was—could impose her will through such huge and disparate projects, and could do it in a way that left her all but invisible when you are in the concert hall and especially when you are touring the museum. The museum is unmistakably the Walt Disney Family Museum—it's about him, with no trace of self-aggrandizement by the museum's founder.
I wish I could feel confident that the Family Museum will long survive her, but institutions that are the product of one person's unique vision are inevitably vulnerable until enough other people have fully embraced that vision as their own. That was of course the pattern of Walt Disney's life, as he persuaded skeptics to see an exciting future first for animation and then for Disneyland. If Diane had lived I think it likely that she would have led the museum to the same sort of broad popularity. But now there is no telling what will happen. Cost-cutting often becomes the highest priority under such circumstances, and if it does, the museum's days may be numbered. Rare is the business or institution than can cut its way to success.
For now, though, the museum survives, and there can be no better time to visit it—and to say, as you enter, a quiet "thank you" to Diane Disney Miller for her wonderful gifts to all of us.
Has it really been two months since I last posted here? Yes, I'm afraid so. I've been busy.
In late August, Phyllis and I flew to our old home town of Alexandria, Virginia, for almost a month of cat sitting and house sitting for former neighbors. That visit permitted me to do some valuable research at the Library of Congress and the National Archives (just before the shutdown) for Funnybooks, my book on the Dell comic books. I tied up a few animation-related loose ends, too, and some of what I learned may come in handy if I ever have the opportunity to revise Hollywood Cartoons or The Animated Man.
Once back home, I was consumed for a couple of weeks by work on Funnybooks, which I delivered as a more or less final draft to University of California Press on October 7. I'm now plowing through a lot of material that I set aside earlier as of secondary interest, just in case there's something that deserves to be noted in the book. In this phase I've pulled off the shelves material I'd forgotten I owned (early 1960s issues of the fanzines Comic Art and Alter Ego, for instance), and it has been a wonderful nostalgia trip. But so far nothing has suggested that I need to rethink anything more than a few details in what I've written about the Dells.
One unexpected side effect of my inactivity has been that not posting has become rather enjoyable. If you get into a regular posting rhythm it's tempting to think that a lot of people actually want to know what you might have to say about, say, The Croods; and so when you don't post anything for a while you get a little anxious about losing your audience. But I've come to believe that the most important reason for posting on a specialized site like this one is to put one's thoughts in order—not to try to attract an inevitably small number of visitors—and so I've suppressed the urge to say something, anything, just to freshen the site.
I expect to have a lot more to say in the coming months, though. Funnybooks is requiring less and less of my attention, and for the first time in many years I don't have another book in the pipeline. Among other things, I'll be reading or re-reading some important recent books, like Thad Komorowski's Sick Little Monkeys, and figuring out what I think about them. I expect that to be a pleasurable and stimulating exercise, and I'll post the results here, for my own benefit and I hope yours. I may even get around to seeing The Croods.
I've been spending a lot of time with Walt Kelly recently, in his papers at Ohio State for a couple of days in June and for the last few weeks at home while I've been finishing my book on the Dell comic books, Funnybooks. It has been a pleasure—Kelly is one of my two favorite cartoonists, in tandem with Carl Barks—but I've left myself with not enough room for a suitable centennial tribute. So, I'm posting the cover of a Kelly comic book, the second issue of Pogo Possum, from 1950. This was the first Kelly comic book I bought with one of my own dimes (I'd had Animal Comics bought for me in previous years). I remember trying to share with my parents at the dinner table some of the hilarity I found in this comic book, only to meet a stone wall of resistance. My father became a convert eventually, but my mother never did, alas.
Two years ago, shortly after the death of Cornelius “Corny” Cole, I published here the interview that Milt Gray and I conducted with Corny in 1991. That interview covered Corny’s career from his earliest days as an in-betweener at the Disney studio up through his work as a production designer on many animated features, shorts, and TV shows. Along the way, Corny talked about his friend Willie Ito, who worked with him at Disney and Warner Bros. in the 1950s. Willie read the interview recently and wrote me to say that Corny had exaggerated a bit in describing a couple of episodes in which Willie was involved. I’ve posted Willie’s very enjoyable message on this separate Feedback page. I interviewed Willie not long before I interviewed Corny, and with any luck I’ll get that interview (and others) posted before too many more years.
Floyd Norman, who had the privilege of working alongside Walt Disney fifty years ago—and whose opinions always command respect for that and many other reasons—has seen Saving Mr. Banks, the Disney movie I wrote about on July 17. It's the Christmas release based on the making of Mary Poppins, and starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Floyd wrote:
As always, I enjoyed your post on the new Disney film, Saving Mr. Banks. You might be surprised to hear that I thoroughly enjoyed the film and think that audiences will be surprised how good it is.
I count myself lucky to have been in meetings with the Old Maestro back in the sixties. On set, I even related to Mr. Hanks that he was playing Walt somewhat young. No worries, however. I think Tom Hanks has captured in his performance the essence of Walt Disney. His enthusiasm, his incredible optimism, and his ability as a canny salesman. No, he doesn't look like Walt and he doesn't sound like Walt. Yet, much to my surprise he is Walt Disney.
That's good enough for me. I'll buy a ticket, or maybe two. But here's an odd thing. Saving Mr. Banks, with a winning impersonation of Walt, will be the opening round in what I'm sure will be a year-long celebration of Mary Poppins' fiftieth anniversary, with the film being hailed as Walt's greatest achievement. But as Mark Sonntag has pointed out, the packaging planned for the Blu-ray 50th anniversary edition doesn't identify the film as "Walt Disney's Mary Poppins" but as "Disney Mary Poppins." This is the same sort of depersonalized packaging we've seen on other reissued Disney features in the past year.
Conflicting impulses seem to be at war here. Perhaps these are the questions being posed in that big building on the Disney lot, the one with the Seven Dwarfs on the pediment: Do we celebrate Walt as an individual, perhaps to the point of transforming him into a new sort of "Disney character," or do we work at converting "Disney" into as innocuous a brand name as "Ford"?
Henry Ford was a controversial man, after all, but no one now decides to buy or not to buy a Ford automobile on the basis of Henry's antisemitism. Walt has been a magnet for controversy, too—unjustifiably, if I need to say that yet again, but I wonder if that matters to the people who are now managing the brand.
I'm in the final stages of work on my next book, Funnybooks, so I've done very little movie-watching this summer, whether in a theater or via Blu-ray or otherwise. I did finally see Wreck-It Ralph, the Disney CGI feature in which video games come to life, on Blu-ray a few weeks ago. When I discussed it the next day with my seven-year-old friend John—a theatrically savvy kid who saw Mary Poppins onstage in New York last year with his mom—I told him I didn't much care for it. He was shocked—shocked!—by my failure to appreciate what he was sure was the best movie he'd ever seen. Happily, we found common ground that afternoon by watching a dozen color Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1930s.
Wreck-It Ralph felt to me like just one more Hollywood animated feature made by committee, so that when the story started getting too convoluted, the impulse wasn't to simplify but to add another layer of complication. More dialogue, more plot twists, more stuff, so that everyone on the committee could point to something that was theirs. Today's Disney features remind me powerfully of treatments and continuities I've read for much earlier Disney features, films made during Walt's lifetime. Many of those treatments were more complicated, sometimes much more complicated, than the stories that wound up on the screen. The reason the films were so much better than the treatments was because Walt Disney's dominant drive was toward simplicity and directness. I detect no comparable cast of mind at John Lasseter's Disney studio, or almost anywhere else in the Hollywood animation industry
Which isn't to say that kids like my friend John are wrong to enjoy movies like Wreck-It Ralph, only that they're finding enjoyment in them that differs fundamentally from the enjoyment I found as a child, and still find as an adult, in movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Dumbo. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, writing about Despicable Me 2, remarked of the script that it was "erratic, to put it generously. Yet the 3-D animation is so stylish and, from time to time, so downright beautiful, that you hardly notice when the storytelling loses track of itself." Indifference to poor storytelling is surely characteristic of a large part of the audience for most new animated features. I haven't seen Despicable Me 2, but I have to believe that its lapses in storytelling would bother me a lot more than they would bother John. That's why it's pointless for me to go see it, and the other animated features like it. They were most emphatically not made for people like me, who grew up with movies of a very different and, I think, vastly superior kind.
Walt Disney's judgment wasn't perfect, of course, as I was reminded by one of the characters in Wreck-It Ralph: King Candy, a dithering old soul whose voice and mannerisms have been borrowed from Ed Wynn, a famous clown who starred in vaudeville and on radio in the 1920s and early 1930s. Wynn, who died in 1966, appeared in a lot of weak Disney live-action movies toward the end of his life, usually miscast (as, for example, a deaf Vermonter in Those Calloways), but he's present in The Absent-Minded Professor, otherwise a stupefyingly dull, laugh-free "comedy," in a reprise of his radio role as the Texaco Fire Chief. Thanks to Wynn, there's suddenly an invigorating whiff of eccentricity and unpredictability in what is otherwise a flat, predictable film. There was, alas, no opportunity, for him to enliven other Disney duds in the same way, and King Candy too is a pale shadow of the original.
But, to end on a positive note, I did love Sarah Silverman's voice work in Wreck-It Ralph.
It is, of course, much too early to pass judgment on Saving Mr. Banks, the Disney feature dramatizing the making of Mary Poppins. It won't be released until December. All we have to go on so far is a trailer, available on Cartoon Brew, with a few glimpses of Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney. (I've appropriated the frame grab above from that source.) Those glimpses are not encouraging. Hanks is fine actor but in the American movie-star mode made familiar by John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda...the list is a long one. What those excellent actors had in common was that they expertly blended their own personalities (or what seemed to be their own personalities) with those of the characters they were playing. At least, that is, when they were well cast. Ask one of them to play a part whose dimensions couldn't be expanded gracefully to accommodate the actor's personality, and you've got trouble, or maybe much worse, as with John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. What I see in the trailer is Tom Hanks distorting his actor's persona in unattractive ways, trying to give us Walt's dynamism but losing his—and Hanks's—warmth and charm. I hope the feature itself is better.
What is most interesting about Saving Mr. Banks at this point is that it is one more step in what seems to be the gradual transformation of Walt Disney himself into a Walt Disney character, fundamentally similar to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I've written about this transformation before, in connection with the remaking of Disney's California Adventure theme park, but I don't think I ever envisioned Walt's becoming the principal character in what will inevitably be a largely fictional account of one part of his life.
If Saving Mr. Banks is successful at the box office, we can no doubt look forward to similarly fictional Disney movies, about the Hyperion days, perhaps, the making of Snow White, the construction of Disneyland, and so on. Some if not all of those movies could resemble Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in their mingling of more or less real people with ’toons who behave as if they were real people. One possibility: a live-action Walt is betrayed by an animated Oswald, who is presented as a typical Hollywood back-stabber, conniving with a live-action Charlie Mintz. Then Walt finds an animated Mickey, out of work since he was a child bit player in the Alice series, rummaging through the trash behind the Hyperion studio in search of a bit of cheese. Etcetera.
Or, think about Walt's habit of prowling through the studio at night and looking at what's on the storyboards or the animators' desks. He picks up a sheaf of Bill Tytla's animation and as he flips it Grumpy comes to life and complains to Walt about how Tytla is drawing him: "Tell that dadblasted Cossack he's makin' my fingers too big! They look like bananas!"
I need to quit. I'm entirely too good at this. Bob Iger, you have my private number.
That's the headline on the Wall Street Journal's review of the opening on June 1 in London of the English National Opera's production of The Perfect American, Philip Glass' opera based on the execrable novel about Walt Disney by Peter Stephan Jungk. I've written here about the opera, which had its first performances in Madrid in January and has already been available on streaming video. The Journal's review, which may be behind a paywall, is at this link.
Heidi Waleson, in her Journal review, notes that Rudy Wurlitzer's "scathing libretto" presents Walt as "a megalomaniac: racist, antiunion and determined that only his name, rather than those of the thousands of artists who labored to bring his visions to life, will endure. He doesn't demur when an awestruck child compares him to God, and he orders his family to preserve his body by freezing after his death so that he can be resurrected." The Perfect American is, she writes, "a deeply subversive piece, whose Walt seems emblematic of many powerful contemporary figures, [but] nonetheless evokes some sympathy for its uniquely American protagonist, with his small-town roots, affection for animals and passion for trains that drove the creation of the whole Disney magic kingdom. The opera is not an anti-American screed, but rather a takedown of a ubiquitous American type."
That it is also, in its depiction of Walt, almost totally false and malicious seems not to matter in the least. One might think that shortcoming was worth at least a mention in passing.
Most Disney fans are not operagoers or, for that matter, playgoers (unless the play is something like The Lion King), so I'm sure it's tempting to shrug off bizarre distortions like The Perfect American and the off-Broadway play called A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney. But I see in them the shape of the future. What the opera and the play and their like tell us is becoming what "everybody knows" about Walt Disney, and about what a terrible man he was. You can expect much more amoral drivel like Heidi Waleson's review when The Perfect American opens in New York and Los Angeles, as I'm sure it will.
I have been immersed for the last few months in work on Funnybooks, my next book, which is taking longer to wrap up than I expected. In researching and writing it, I've been reminded repeatedly that when I’m writing a book (or anything else), it's important to ask myself first, “Am I being accurate?” Once that’s settled, my second question to myself is at least as important: “Why would anyone want to read this?” The normal reader asks that second question first, of course, and if there’s no good answer, the question of accuracy never even comes up. For Funnybooks I’ve pretty much disposed of the question of accuracy, at least to my own satisfaction, although there remain a few frustratingly sketchy areas. I’m now addressing the second question, through extensive revisions.
I'm looking forward to completing those revisions soon, so that, for one thing, I can write about a number of other people's books that deserve my attention, and yours, including Thad Komorowski's Sick Little Monkeys, J.B. Kaufman's magisterial book on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Jim Korkis's latest compilations of his Web columns on Disney subjects.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've posted on amazon.com my eBook called Furr and Purr, a story for children about a couple of cats with a passing resemblance to two long-deceased members of my household. (That's them in the photo at left, which was taken in 1977.) When I wrote that book, around 1980, I put it through a long series of revisions as I tried it out on a host of adult and child friends. Everyone said they liked it, so I was taken aback by the dismissive reaction I got when I sent the book to editors and agents. They left me wondering if the book was really that bad.
Last year, when I read about amazon's self-publishing program, I decided to take a look at Furr and Purr for the first time in years. Enough time had passed that I could read it almost as if it had been written by someone else. I was pleasantly surprised. It's a good little kids' book, cute and funny and suspenseful, with some charming characters. So, why was it received so poorly?
Perhaps Furr and Purr is too far removed from what for the last few decades has been considered appropriate reading for children. I wrote it simply to entertain my audience, using as one model Walter R. Brooks's Freddy the Pig stories, my own favorite books when I was a child. Back when I was borrowing those books at Little Rock's wonderful old Carnegie library (destroyed decades ago in a fit of madness), the children's librarian could not quite disguise her skepticism about them, or about talking-animal fiction in general. I'm sure that bias has persisted.
As with the Freddy books, there's nothing to be learned from Furr and Purr, no uplift; but, also, nothing to flatter the child reader, no insinuation that he or she must be a smart little cookie to be reading this cool book. Fun is my only aim, and maybe that's not enough. But attitudes can change. The Freddy books stubbornly refuse to stay out of print, and children keep discovering them. Furr and Purr may have a future yet.
Since I first mentioned Furr and Purr here, there has been some small but gratifying feedback. No royalties yet, though! The book's future is no doubt limited in its present format; for one thing, it would benefit immensely from illustrations (the photo above is the only one, on the book's "cover"). At this point, I can't justify that expense. I can only hope that the book will eventually attract a large enough audience to make illustrations feasible.
So, if you're on the fence, take the plunge! After all, it's only 99 cents (or zero, if you're an Amazon Prime member), and you can download a book onto an iPhone—and, I assume, an iPad—as well as a Kindle. You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Animation by Milt Gray: There has been animation on this website by Milt Gray, my invaluable collaborator on Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age and a veteran of more than four decades in the Hollywood animation studios, from the beginning. That's his cycle animation of a cartoon dog amid the links in the right-hand column. There is even animation by Milt in Hollywood Cartoons, in the form of several "flip books." Now Milt has posted a minute of animation of a very different kind on his site devoted to his character Viagri Ampleten. Milt says: "It's far from perfect, mainly due to not having a way to pencil test
it. But it's about 90% of
what I was hoping for." Milt is a tough critic. One may find Viagri herself either sexy or terrifying—I lean toward the latter view, especially after watching "Cyber Cafe"—but you'll certainly have to look very hard to find new animation this accomplished anywhere else on the Web.
Identifying Visitors to the Third Man Set: Last February, I posted an essay made up of photos taken by Werner Schrämli during the shooting of the wonderful live-action Disney feature Third Man on the Mountain in Zermatt, Switzerland. Both Werner and I were uncertain of the identities of some of the people in the photos, but now Michael Kirby has come to the rescue. I've added his identifications and some additional information on that essay page; you can go directly to the caption with the new information by clicking on this link.
Identifying a Mystery Man: Back in October 2008, I published a publicity photo for The Reluctant Dragon in which three members of the Disney staff were seated behind Walt and Robert Benchley in what was supposed to be, but wasn't, a screening room at the studio. I recognized Ted Sears instantly, and Pete Emslie identified Larry Clemmons as the man on the left. The third man remained unidentified, but in February 2009 Gunnar Andreassen offered the very plausible suggestion that he could be Al Perkins, one of the five writers on the film. Now Gunnar has provided another such publicity photo, this time with four Disney writers visible, and, thanks to Gunnar, positive identifications for all of them: from the left, Clemmons, Sears, Perkins, and Bill Cottrell. (Benchley is holding a maquette of one of the centaurettes in Fantasia.)
Al Perkins visited Norway in 1972, and Gunnar has sent me a scan of a newspaper interview with him. The Al Perkins in the photo accompanying the interview is clearly the same man as in the Reluctant Dragon photo. Perkins was by 1972 not working in animation but was instead an author of children's books. He was an alumnus of Dartmouth College, where he was a classmate of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, and it was through Geisel that he entered the children's field, writing for Beginner Books. A half dozen of Perkins's books, obviously intended for very young children, are still in print and will come up if you search amazon.com for "Al Perkins." He had some impressive collaborators, including Rowland B. Wilson and Eric Gurney.
And Speaking of Children's Books: I mentioned some time ago that I once tried my hand at writing such a book, an animal fable modeled on the "Freddy" stories of Walter R. Brooks. The characters were cats, the title Furr and Purr. The book found no takers, and I consigned it to the proverbial drawer. Last year, when I learned that I could offer a self-published Kindle version on amazon.com at no cost, I thought, what the hell, and did it. An electronic version of Furr and Purr can be yours for 99 cents, or for nothing, if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber. So, if you're curious and have 99 cents to spare, here's the link. But no refunds!
...and how strange it feels to write that! I met Bob in 1969, when he had just turned 56 and so was considerably younger than I am now. He died on May 2, 1984, just before he turned 71; again, younger than I am now. But what makes it really hard to embrace the idea of a Clampett centennial is that he is still such a compelling presence in my memories. Almost thirty years after his death, I have only to think of Bob Clampett and he appears instantly in my imagination—not just as an image, but as a deep, chuckling voice, as sly and quizzical facial expressions, as a whole person. I remember with unusual clarity how he looked when I first saw him, sitting behind his desk at his Seward Street studio in Hollywood, and I remember all too well how I felt when my friend Larry Estes called to tell me that Bob had died.
I think Bob made such a strong impression on me because he was in the best sense a character—not a character in the funny-peculiar sense, as in "he's a real character," but a character like the ones he brought to life on the screen. That is, a personality that was vivid and distinct, unlike the personalities of most of the people we encounter. He was great fun to be around, much more so than most his contemporaries at the Warner Bros. cartoon studio, although I don't recall ever feeling truly relaxed in his company. He was too bright a light for that.
Bob enriched my life through his presence as well as his cartoons. It was a great privilege to have known him.
From "Land Beneath the Ground!" in Uncle Scrooge No. 13 (1956).
Barks on Ice
Ralph Wright was a story man for the Disney cartoons for many years. Milt Gray interviewed him for me, as part of the research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, and I sent Ralph the transcript in September 1982. When he returned the edited transcript a few weeks later, it was with a letter in which he recalled an incident involving Carl Barks. Here is what he wrote, with my minimal editing:
There is something that I have never heard about Carl Barks that stayed with me all these years. He sort of took me under his wing when I arrived at the "annex." Carl had a hearing aid which he could "turn off" when he wanted to concentrate.
I was born in Grants Pass, Oregon. (Dad had a gold mine which he sold—for five bucks.) Carl came from a town due east of Grants Pass: Klamath Falls [actually, Merrill, which is near Klamath Falls]. One day we got to talking about Oregon and we got around to the lava beds (a national park) just south of Klamath Falls across the border in California. Carl nearly lost his life there when he was a kid (don't know what age). I had been there and went down under the desert (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) into an ice cave. Its floor was wall to wall ice and it moved— you could set a lantern on the ice until it left a ring, mark it, and come back a week later, and the ring would have moved six inches or so. A river of ice—it flowed downhill and the roof of the cave was just a foot or so from the ice in some spots. Carl and another kid crawled down one of these narrow openings, explored for a while, then tried to crawl back up the ice, a pretty steep climb. But the heat of their bodies melted the ice and they almost didn't [get] out. So Carl's career almost ended right there.
You should go see it some day. It's called Lava Beds National Monument. There are mountains of "glass" obsidian there, and it's where the last Indian war (Modoc) was fought. [Actually, the Modoc war was fought in 1872-73, before later engagements like the massacre at Little Bighorn.] It was a natural fort and the Indians nearly won. They even had their own deep freeze (ice caves). It was called Captain Jack's stronghold (he was the Modoc Indian chief). ... Old Scrooge would never have been invented if Carl had of slid a few feet farther.
Grants Pass, as any Barks fan knows, is where Carl and Garé Barks lived in their last years.
You can read about Lava Beds National Monument, and its caves and the Modoc Indians, at this National Park Service website. With rare exceptions like "In Old California," Barks's stories resist any autobiographical interpretation, but reading Ralph Wright's letter, it was hard for me not to think about Barks stories set underground, like "Christmas for Shacktown" (Donald Duck Four Color No. 367, 1951) and "Land Beneath the Ground!" (Uncle Scrooge No. 13, 1956). I wish I'd asked Carl about that connection, but I seem not to have done so. There was a lot of turmoil in my life in the fall of 1982, so I can't be surprised that I dropped that particular ball, but even so...
I recently acquired the photo above, which shows Walt Disney being interviewed by a Dominican Republic journalist on February 28, 1957. It was taken at the Dominican capital, Ciudad Trujillo, a city named for the bloody dictator whose thirty-year rule would end in an assasination four years later. The capital's original name, Santo Domingo, has since been restored.
The photo was probably taken aboard the cruise ship called the S.S. Alcoa Cavalier. Walt, his wife, Lilly, and their friends the Welton Beckets (he was a celebrity architect, famous enough to be the subject of a profile in the Saturday Evening Post) were near the beginning of a Caribbean cruise aboard the Cavalier that would last more than two weeks. Becky Cline, the director of the Walt Disney Archives, shared with me their itinerary. On Thursday, February 21, the Disneys and the Beckets flew to New Orleans, where they stayed at the Pontchartrain Hotel. On Saturday, February 23, they embarked on the Alcoa Cavalier, arriving in the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, February 27. Their stay in Ciudad Trujillo was short. On Friday, March 1, they arrived at La Guaira, Venezuela, where they left the ship and a driver took them to Caracas for an overnight stay at the Tamanaco Hotel. The next day, the driver returned them to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, to reboard the ship. After a stop at Guanta, Venezuela, on Sunday, March 3, they arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on Monday, March 4.
Trinidad was the prinicpal destination, as Welton Becket explained in a 1968 interview with Richard Hubler for his never-to-be-published Disney biography:
We went to the Mardi Gras down there on an Alcoa boat—it was a three-week trip. He was supposed to have a rest, and I was, too. We tried to avoid talking business but constantly, at dinner or lunch, he drifted off into his future plans and I guess I did, too. But in Trinidad he immediately wanted to join the natives out in the street so we found ourselves in a big march down to the town—and he really enjoyed it. He enjoyed mainly how happy these people were with their drums. We all bought steel drums and we had a ball. …
I think what he enjoyed most was just walking around the streets and mixing with the people. They didn’t know him and they didn’t crowd around him like the other cities. It was hard for him to get around. But there they didn’t even recognize him because they don’t have television.
From Trinidad the Alcoa Cavalier sailed to Kingston, Jamaica, arriving there on Friday, March 8, and finally disembarking at Mobile, Alabama, on Monday, March 11. The Disney party drove from Mobile back to New Orleans, staying at the Pontchartrain before returning to Los Angeles on Thursday, March 13.
Years later, Becket traveled again with Walt to the Caribbean:
We took his plane, and went to most of the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, etc. It was an interesting thing there on that trip, there again, personal research he was doing. He had read a book, he was then working up the pirates of New Orleans [sic], and he had heard that there was an island down in the Caribbean—almost opposite Cuba—on which pirates actually lived, hidden from any ships that came by. So, we found it. It’s a volcano. It has a winding valley that goes down to a dock and there are probably twenty houses—it’s an English-owned island.
On Walt's trips with Becket, the architect said, “he was not relaxing (except when we played dominoes—he plays dominoes quite well—that got his mind off things), but he was always constantly planning—new ideas and new things ahead—and every time he saw something he was trying to relate it to the present Disneyland or something. I was with him when he got the idea of the Tiki Room. He bought a bird cage—where was this? I guess it was Puerto Rico at an antique shop (because Lilly was always going into antique shops). But this was part of his organized mind, he was then just thinking about this. Many of his things in the apartment [at Disneyland, presumably] he’d pick up on these various tours. Lilly, she was a great collector."
Fittingly enough, the S.S. Alcoa Cavalier was an odd and interesting and ultimately even rather sinister ship. It is described on this web page that Becky Cline called to my attention. Some excerpts:
The SS Alcoa Cavalier was built for the Alcoa Steamship Company by the Oregon Shipbuilding Company of Portland, Oregon. Launched in March of 1947, she was originally intended to be a “Victory Ship” for the transport of war material. Instead, the vessel wound up serving as a cruise liner, making runs out of New Orleans to various Caribbean ports. The Cavalier was in service until 1963; she was ultimately scrapped in New Orleans five years later.
Asbestos insulation was used extensively throughout the construction of seagoing vessels prior to 1980. The reason was because of fire danger, which is perhaps the most catastrophic event that can occur at sea. This was driven home in a most graphic way in September 1934, when the cruise liner S.S. Morro Castle caught fire at sea off the coast of New Jersey, killing nearly 140 passengers and crewmen. ...
Congress ... passed regulations requiring the use of asbestos insulation aboard seagoing vessels, particularly in the fire room, around boilers and in the engine room. Although the legislature's intentions were good, the fact is that asbestos product manufacturers were well aware of the health hazards of their wares. Medical researchers had long suspected the toxicity of asbestos; their suspicions were confirmed by the mid-1930s. ...
Eventually, the government did issue “advisories” to shipyard workers in 1943, recommending that respirators and ventilation be used at job sites. By then however, the asbestos producers had done their jobs well; such warnings were not taken seriously, which is why mesothelioma navy cases are most common.
That page is from the website of a law firm that represents plaintiffs in asbestos suits (and would obviously like to represent more), so caution is in order. Still: could Walt's exposure to asbestos in 1957 have contributed to his death from lung cancer almost ten years later? His chain smoking was undoubtedly a much more important cause, but maybe that two and a half weeks on the SS. Alcoa Cavalier didn't help.
Just for the record: those four dots in the upper left-hand corner are from damage to the photo.
I've been consumed lately with work on Funnybooks, which has gotten in the way of putting up posts that I very much want to write, like a review of Sick Little Monkeys, Thad Komorowski's book about Ren and Stimpy and the ongoing artistic train wreck that John Kricfalusi's professional life has become. Yes, if you care about animation, and specifically about what is probably the only television animation of the last few decades that is worth a minute of your time, you should buy the book. I'll try to explain why sometime within the next few weeks.
As it happened, I read Sick Little Monkeys immediately aftering reading Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and in both cases, as I thought about the people who made the cartoons and the comic books, the phrase "deranged adolescent egomaniacs" came rushing to the surface of my mind. I won't be reviewing the Howe book, since my interest in Marvel comic books evaporated in the early seventies—that is, around the time they began to be edited, written, and drawn by people who had grown up as superhero fans and who took their heroes, and themselves, entirely too seriously. But if your interest is stronger than mine, Howe does an admirably thorough job of writing about the comic books and the people who made them.
In the meantime, if you're thirsting for substantive postings about animation and, occasionally, the comics, there's no better source than Michael Sporn's Splog. I am constantly amazed that Michael posts so much, and that so much of it is really good. Today, for example, you can read his review of The Croods, a DreamWorks Animation feature that I plan to do my best to avoid, for all that I've admired Chris Sanders's work in Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon. It seems that not even a talent as great as Sanders can escape being chewed up in DreamWorks' cliché machine. I've enjoyed Michael's posts on Bill Nolan and Grim Natwick, too, posts enriched not just by Michael's insights as a seasoned animation professional but also by lots of well-chosen frame grabs; and then there are his posts about good people I knew or wanted to know, like Mary Eastman and Hardie Gramatky. I visit Splog every day, and you should, too.
Les Trois Petits Cochons
John McElwee is the proprietor of another remarkable blog, Greenbriar Picture Shows, an ongoing source of detailed and fascinating information about the Hollywood movies of decades past, animation sometimes included, and he has shared with me the advertisement at the right. John writes:
I came across, just now while indexing theatre ads from the 30's, a very unusual Broadway playdate for The Three Little Pigs in November 1933. The Disney cartoon was presented in French as an "exclusive showing." The Globe Theatre was not an ethnic or foreign language house, having opened originally in 1910 as a legit venue. It later closed, then was reborn as the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1958. It seated 1,415.
If nothing else, the engagement, and this ad, demonstrates the enormous and ongoing appeal of Three Little Pigs as it ran late into 1933. Perhaps the novelty of hearing Disney's Pigs in French drew repeat patronage eager for another helping of the animated hit.
I knew that the French-dubbed version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs played a Manhattan engagement, but I don't recall knowing that the French version of Three Little Pigs did.
If, back in 1933, you wanted to see Les Trois Petits Cochons but didn't care about the feature, you might have had to think hard about the cost in that Depression year. Twenty-five cents then was the equivalent, according to one inflation calculator, of $4.38 today. A dime or fifteen cents would have been manageable, surely, but a quarter? Maybe a bit rich.
Fess Parker in Norway
I know that Disney live-action movies are of limited interest to many of the people who visit this site, but I can't resist posting an item that Gunnar Andreassen recently sent me. I'm a Fess Parker fan, and I count my acquaintance with him as one of the best things I carried away from work on my Walt Disney biography, The Animated Man. An opportunity to revisit my memories of Fess is always welcome.
I've known for a long time about Fess' 1956 visit to Europe, when Davy Crockett mania was striking there after ebbing in the United States, but I don't recall ever seeing a contemporaneous newspaper report from one of the countries Fess visited. But here, thanks to Gunnar, is a translation of an article in the largest Norwegian newspaper, on April 27, 1956, about Fess’ visit to Oslo:
"I came as soon as possible after school," said one of the boys who stood in line at the Fornebu Airport yesterday . Along with a few hundred others with similar interest, mostly boys, but also many girls, he waited for the American children’s— and therefore also the Norwegian children’s— new "hero," comic book hero, adventure book hero and American Indian film hero Davy Crockett. The plane arrived from Copenhagen with Fess Parker himself, who plays the title role in the film Davy Crockett.
The kids who pushed against the fence and yelled "Davy," were probably slightly disappointed as Parker stepped out of the plane and it turned out that he was not in "uniform." He was one meter and ninety-six cm., but he wore an ordinary gray coat. He had neither gun nor buckskin shirt and fur cap made of "coon," as the small American raccoon is called. But on the other hand, nine-year-old Terje Christensen of Kampen School had a complete "Davy Crockett" equipment, and he was allowed to stand near the plane and be the first to greet the popular guest when he set foot on Norwegian soil. Parker pleasantly greeted both Terje and the hundred other fans in the front row along the fence. By the way, it seemed as though he modestly tried to get away from fame and hero glory of his film role. His first words were: "Davy Crockett died 120 years ago!"
The real David Crockett was known as an American hunter and forest man who fought the Indians in the early 1800s. He later became a politician and was elected to Congress. In the struggle to liberate Texas, which was then a Mexican province, he was captured by the Mexicans and shot. The hero's death after fortress Alamo fell, however, proved a bit of a problem for film producer Walt Disney one hundred years later. The television film series about "Davy" ends—completely historically accurate—with this sad event. Complete national mourning broke out in the U.S.A. Disney received 15,000 maudlin protest letters every week and thousands of boys walked in a demonstrations with posters: "Don’t let Davy Crockett die at the Alamo." The result was that Disney had to wake Davy to live again and the television series about him continued.
Film star Fess Parker, who in almost all Americans' eyes now is identical with Crockett, is 29 years old. He was born in Texas, where his parents have a farm, and he has from his film revenues bought a farm next to his father’s. Actually, he had thought himself to have an academic career, he earned a university degree and wanted to study theater history. In order to get some practical experience of theater life, he tried his hand in acting and got a role in the play Mister Roberts, which incidentally recently was shown here as a film. After he came to Hollywood, he got some minor jobs while he as a living sorted underwear in a large department store on the night shift. Among the few films he ever participated in was a "horror movie" with eerie giant ants [Them]. ... One day Disney went through some old movies to try to find an actor that he could use for the planned film series about the national hero Crockett. When he saw Parker among giant ants, he cried: "There is Davy Crockett! Who is that guy?"
Before he came here, the boys and girls in Oslo knew him only from comics, books, etc., but on the occasion of the star's visit the color film Davy Crockett was shown in a special showing at Eldorado Cinema yesterday, and Parker was presented to the youthful audience from the stage—in buckskin and coonskin cap. And not just that, he also talked and played the guitar and was one of the nicest movie stars who have visited Oslo to this date.
My interview with Fess Parker, from 2003-2004, is at this link, and my post after his death in 2010 is at this one.
An April 6, 2013, update: From Gunnar Andreassen, a few frame grabs from Norwegian television coverage of Fess Parker's 1956 arrival in Oslo:
Gunnar has also sent this link to a very brief, silent clip of Fess Parker's arrival in London that year.
From the Madrid production of The Perfect American. The figure at the center of the stage is supposed to be not Walt, but Andy Warhol. What is Andy Warhol doing in this opera? You'll just have to watch it.
Watching The Perfect American
Philip Glass' opera The Perfect American, which is ostensibly about Walt Disney, can now be seen streaming on the internet, through the site called medici.tv. (Thanks to Brent Swanson for the link.) You can find video of a live February 6 performance from the world premiere engagement at Madrid's Teatro Real at this link. Medici is a subscription service, but you can for the time being see The Perfect American for free, simply by registering (and providing a minimal amount of information about yourself). The opera is in English, and there are no subtitles—not necessary for some of the singers, like those who play Walt and Roy Disney and who enunciate clearly, but subtitles would be welcome in other cases. Not that you really need them to follow what's going on. The music has its moments, although if I'm going to watch an opera by a minimalist composer, I'll go with John Adams (Nixon in China).
Like the Peter Stephan Jungk novel on which the opera is based, Rudy Wurlitzer's libretto for The Perfect American is insanely stupid, but it's hardly the first opera of which that can be said. The basic idea, as so often with efforts to diminish Walt Disney, is that just about everything he did and said was the product of a neurotic obsession, a bogus idea that permeates even an ostensibly sympathetic biography like Neal Gabler's. (He loved trains? How bizarre! He must have been sick in the head!) And so we have Walt, a man whose warm feelings for animals were evident whenever he was photographed around them—in all the photos and film I've seen, he is smiling and unmistakably happy—not just regretting the childhood incident in which he panicked and killed an owl, but haunted by it for the rest of his life. And there is of course Walt the tyrannical boss, reducing his employees to interchangeable ciphers (here wearing eyeshades and identical plaid clothing) and depriving them of credit for their work. There's the Walt who wants to be cryogenically frozen; there's Walt the bigot, telling the audio-animatronic Abe Lincoln that maybe he went overboard with that equality business. There's even Walt the philanderer, carrying on a most unlikely romance with Hazel George, the studio nurse.
It's tempting to shrug off this absurd opera, which will of course be seen by a total audience much smaller than any that ever saw a popular Disney film, much less visited Disneyland in a single week. The problem is that the opera will be seen by precisely that educated, sophisticated audience that is already disposed to look down on Walt and his works, and that will find its prejudices reinforced and validated by The Perfect American. For proof, you need look no further than the February 1 issue of Time, and its three-page feature article about Glass and The Perfect American. (Thanks to Are Myklebust for scans.) The magazine quotes Glass as speaking sympathetically about Walt—sympathy not evident in the opera itself—but with unmistakable condescension: "People were more conservative then. You have to consider the context." Time, for its part, describes Walt "as much a bully as he was a genius."
"What makes this opera interesting," Glass told Time's Lisa Abend, "is that it shows the best of American character—and some of the worst." Anyone looking for the "the best" in The Perfect American should be prepared for a long search.
I've posted another of my essays based on a group of photos taken on the same day, or sometimes, as in this case, within a short span of time. The subject in this case is Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, who was photographed in Hollywood in 1969 for publicity for The Pogo Special Birthday Special, the misbegotten TV show directed by Chuck Jones.
The self-caricature of Kelly at the right was also distributed as part of the promotion for the show.
You can read about The Pogo Special Birthday Special—and, of course, see the photos—by clicking on this link.
You may have heard that Dave Fleischer worked on the famous "Let's All Go to the Lobby" trailer, which was added to the National Film Registry in 2000. Thanks to John Owens of the Chicago Tribune, here's proof: a couple of ads from the early 1950s, from the Filmack Trailer Co.'s trade magazine Inspiration, that use Dave's involvement as a selling point. Filmack, a Chicago-based company, has an interesting history extending back almost a century. John Owens has written about Filmack's story for the Tribune; you can read his article at this link.
As John writes, "The artists who worked on these films are, for the most part, unknown"—with the obvious exception, of course, of Dave Fleischer. John continues with appropriate caution: "It's been said that Walt Disney may have worked in a freelance capacity for Filmack in the early 1920s, but that hasn't been determined." Probably Walt's early involvement with Kansas City Film Ad, a company making similar trailers, led to someone's associating him with Filmack. It is unlikely, to say the least, that Walt ever had anything to do with Filmack.
It's remarkable how many odd stories have sprung up depositing Walt in jobs he never held or in towns he never visited. My favorite recent example is an email I received from a lady in Pecos, Texas, who wrote as follows. I've altered her message to conceal identities:
In your research of Walt Disney did you discover the relationship he had with C-- C-- (her married name)? I understand the two were friends in high school in either Kansas or Missouri. In the 1960s Mr. Disney would come to Pecos, Texas, to visit Mrs. C--. It was said they had been high school sweethearts. I met him once at her home when playing with my cousin, her grandaughter. Although I did not know he was an important man and there was no fuss about his visit I've always remembered him playing with us and my new "Susie Homemaker Oven." I sat in his lap and fed him cake.
It was while talking about that event with M-- C-- that I was told he was very fond of Mrs. C--. I understand he visited her many times there in Pecos. I am sure this is [an] occasion Mrs. Disney would have been uncomfortable with but I am sure it was all harmless.
All harmless, I'm sure, as far as the real Walt Disney was concerned, since I don't think he ever set foot in Pecos, much less made multiple visits there. (If you doubt me, find Pecos on the map.) As for the cake-eating "Walt," perhaps he had good reason to conceal his real identity and the nature of his relationship with his "high school sweetheart." Maybe his wife would have been "uncomfortable"?
When I wrote Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, I made no reference to any number of well-known cartoons, including Cat Concerto (Hanna and Barbera, MGM), Rhapsody Rabbit (Freleng, Warner Bros.), and Walky Talky Hawky and Crowing Pains (both McKimson, Warner Bros.). Not because there wasn't anything worth saying about those cartoons, but because I didn't have enough pages to say what I wanted to say, about those cartoons and many others. And just as well, perhaps, because if I had written about those four cartoons I might be posting corrections and clarifications now, thanks to the new information that some diligent researchers have just revealed.
Thad Komorowski has posted an exceptional examination of how Cat Concerto and Rhapsody Rabbit, two remarkably similar cartoons, happened to go head to head at the Academy Awards for 1946. Keith Scott, the great expert on cartoon voices, has written an equally impressive account of just how Foghorn Leghorn got his distinctive voice. Thad wrote his piece for his own blog, with input from Keith Scott, David Gerstein, and Kurtis Findlay, but both of these wonderful essays have been posted on Jerry Beck's revived Cartoon Research site. There are nits that could be picked—I'm sure Thad has Irv Spence and Dick Bickenbach returning to MGM later than they actually did—but no serious flaws that I've detected.
As Thad makes clear, it was probably coincidental that Rhapsody Rabbit and Cat Concerto were in production simultaneously. It may seem odd that cartoon makers at MGM and Warners (and Lantz, where Dick Lundy directed Musical Moments from Chopin around the same time) should have hit upon the idea of presenting their characters as concert pianists, but it really wasn 't. For one thing, the mid-1940s were the heyday on film of the Spanish pianist José Iturbi, who was so well known that he was one of the first guest stars on Amos 'n Andy when that radio show returned to the air in the fall of 1943, after a hiatus of more than six months. Iturbi was an MGM star, and he appeared in two movies that also included animation by Hanna and Barbera: Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Holiday in Mexico (1946). That's Iturbi in the 1940 publicity photo at left, with the MGM lion, from the website of the José Iturbi Foundation ("Popularizing Classical Music...One Note at a Time!").
What's truly odd is that directors at both Warners and MGM thought it was a good idea to shove their leading characters onto the concert stage. Rhapsody Rabbit has always seemed especially problematic in that regard, since it presents Bugs as an overbearing bully, at war with a much smaller and weaker creature. If audiences thought that Warners was copying MGM, that surely was true in part because Bugs in Rhapsody Rabbit is much more like Tom Cat than he is like the Bugs of, say, Hare Trigger (1945), coolly confronting a blustering, stupid but still dangerous adversary, Yosemite Sam.
I've written here more than once about the beautiful Swiss town of Zermatt, where Walt Disney found inspiration for Disneyland's Matterhorn and filmed one of his very best live-action films, Third Man on the Mountain. Now a Swiss visitor to the site has shared with me some photos he and his family took during the filming of Third Man in July 1958. You can see them by going to this Essay page. [An April 6, 2013, update: I've added correct identifications of the people in one of the photos.]
Oskar Lebeck (seated), with four of the cartoonists who wrote and illustrated Dell comic books for him. From left: Mel Crawford, Dan Noonan, John Stanley, and Dan Gormley.
What I've Been Doing
I've been a long time away from this site, thanks to my book on comic books, Funnybooks. I submitted a semi-final draft to the publisher, University of California Press, yesterday, and I'll consider the book finished after a few more months of reviewing and re-reviewing source material, choosing illustrations, and so forth. It's turning out well, I think, although I'm sure I'll get a lot of flak from those people who know that Tony Strobl was a much better cartoonist than Carl Barks, that the Archie comic books far surpassed Little Lulu, and so on. As I keep reminding myself, you can't please everybody, and sometimes you can't please anybody.
Speaking of the illustrations: The photo above, of Oskar Lebeck with some of the cartoonists whose work appeared in the Dell comic books he edited, was published in the program book for the 1976 NewCon comics convention at Boston. This was the fabulous convention at which Barks, John Stanley, and Harvey Kurtzman were guests, along with other luminaries. I missed it, for what seemed like good reasons at the time, and I've been kicking myself ever since. The photo must have been taken around 1950, not long before Lebeck left his job with Western Printing & Lithographing, and my best guess is that it was intended to illustrate an article about Western's New York-based comic-book operation in the company's house organ, The Westerner. An article about Western's Los Angeles office appeared in an early issue of The Westerner, but no companion article about the New York office was ever published, maybe because Lebeck left the company in 1951 and his successor died within a few months.
I've hoped to use the photo in Funnybooks, but at this point I have no idea where to find an original print or a high-resolution scan from one. I thought the photo might have come from John Stanley's family, since it illustrates an article about Stanley, but that was not the case, and I have no idea how to get in touch with Don Phelps, the convention's presiding genius and author of the Stanley article. I can use a descreened scan—that's what you see above—but that would be a last resort. So I'd welcome any suggestions.
I have a backlog of material that I hope to have posted in a few more days, including some by very patient visitors to the site who have shared their finds with me. In the meantime, there is of course lots of other good animation- and comics-related stuff on the Web, posted by people whose productivity shames me. Michael Sporn, for one, has something new and stimulating up every day, including, recently, a fresh look at my own Hollywood Cartoons. Believe me, it's very flattering to have people like Michael and Thad Komorowski and Bill Benzon returning to my book and finding more food for thought in it. I hope I eventually have the opportunity to revise that book and take another long look at Bill Tytla's animation, in particular, although that may be hoping for too much.
The Philip Glass opera based on Peter Stephan Jungk's execrable novel about Walt Disney opened last night at the Teatro Real in Madrid. It opens at the English National Opera in London in June. You can see stills from the production at this link, and a brief video clip that shows Walt in dialogue with the audio-animatronic Lincoln at this link. The latter site is in Spanish, but the opera itself is sung in English. To judge from the video clip, Glass' Perfect American will be generally similar, in tone if not in aims, to Satyagraha, his opera that took Gandhi's life as a starting point but not much more than that.
I've posted several times about Jungk's novel and Glass' unfortunate decision to make an opera from it, most extensively on February 13, 2012.
A sign advertising the Chuck Jones Experience at the entrance to the Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas. Note the size comparison chart that includes those decidedly non-Chuck Jones characters Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil.
As I Was Saying...
I didn't intend for this site to stay dark for so long, but a number of things got in the way of fresh posts. A lot of snow and ice, for one thing; the evening of December 25 brought to Little Rock a foot-deep white Boxing Day and a loss of power that lasted four days, until just before we caught a flight for Kansas City, there to make connections with a train heading west.
The 24-hour train trip to Winslow, Arizona, was part of a bargain-priced package Phyllis found on the Web from a company that specializes in rail travel. Part of the package's attraction to me was that not only did we catch our train at Kansas City's magnificent old Union Station—as Walt Disney did in 1923—but the route we followed was identical with that of the Santa Fe Railway's Super Chief, which Walt and lots of other Hollywood people rode many times. (Amtrak's route diverges from the Super Chief's at both ends, outside Los Angeles and outside Chicago, but not on the long stretch that we traveled.) I'm sure our roomette accomodations and our meals in the dining car were a notch or two, or more, below what Walt experienced in the 1930s and 1940s—and the echoes of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest were rather faint—but there was a pleasing general resemblance to train travel in its heyday.
Winslow was immortalized in the Eagles' 1972 hit song "Take It Easy," whose lyrics, you may recall, include a line about standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. There is now in Winslow a downtown park (on a corner, of course) complete with a statue and a mural, dedicated to the song, which can be heard there all...the...time. But that's OK; Winslow doesn't seem to have a lot going for it, other than the song, so why not milk it for all it's worth?
There is also in Winslow, to be sure, a marvelous hotel, right on the railroad tracks, called La Posada, a former Harvey facility that has been beautfully restored. Most of its rooms are named for movie stars who stayed at the hotel in its heyday, when it was a jumping-off point for visits to "Indian country"; we had the James Cagney room. La Posada was our own jumping-off point for the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, and then for another train, from Williams, Arizona, to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
From the Grand Canyon we made our way—not by train, alas, but by bus, although for much of the way on old Route 66—to Las Vegas, which Phyllis and I hadn't visited for about twenty years. We had been content to stay away, but probably every American should visit Las Vegas every few decades. It's as much a monument in its own way as Mount Rushmore and the Washington Mall.
We were impressed by how advanced the Strip's fantasy architecture is now, compared with the early 1990s. Back then, the Excalibur was a hot new casino hotel and the most Disneyland-like, its design aimed at pleasing children as well as their parents. Now it seems rather quaint compared with a phantasmagoria like the Paris, a mash-up of every French icon you've ever seen or heard of, starting with a huge replica of the Eiffel Tower.
I understand that any number of Disney Imagineering people pitch in on Vegas projects when there's no work for them at the Disney theme parks, and the Paris in particular certainly reflects that kind of expertise. We stayed across the street at the Bellagio, whose evocations of Italy are subtle by comparison, if subtlety is what you want in Las Vegas (but why would you?).
Not every hotel on the Strip shows the Paris's kind of ingenuity—the Venetian strives for the same effect but is rather tacky, and we found New York New York disappointingly pedestrian once you got inside—but the shabbiest and most depressing casino on the Strip is surely Circus Circus. That casino was once famed for its acrobats performing above the gamblers—I remember reading about it many years ago, not long after it opened in 1968, when Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was being serialized in Rolling Stone—but now it's a sad kind of place where, a friend suggests, you should wipe your shoes on the mat as you leave the building so that you don't dirty the rest of the Strip. I think the acrobats are still there, someplace, but I didn't seek them out.
When you work your way across the ground floor to the very back of the casino, past the slot machines and the very ordinary gift shops and fast-food joints, you come to the Chuck Jones Experience. I'd had no intention of ever visiting the Chuck Jones Experience, but since we were in Las Vegas anyway, I couldn't pass it up.
I won't bore you with a detailed account of my visit, since you can learn as much as you need to know from the website—which, I can't resist pointing out, might lead one to believe that Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil were Chuck Jones characters. What a pity that Friz Freleng and Bob McKimson aren't around to pay the Experience a visit! Perhaps the Experience is best described as a tiny theme park without any rides; or maybe a museum exhibit assembled without any purpose except to glorify Chuck.
The Chuck Jones Galleries in California and Santa Fe are temples of the same sort, but for some reason I didn't find the Experience quite as distressing as the galleries, at least as long as I could put the rest of Circus Circus out of my mind. But it's distressing enough. What bothered me most, I think, is what always bothers me about the glorification of Chuck, the stubborn refusal by his disciples, taking their lead from the great man himself, to acknowledge any distinction between the Good Chuck (the director of wonderful cartoons in the 1940s and 1950s) and the Bad Chuck (the director whose work fell off a cliff around 1960, or a little earlier, and never hit bottom). The original drawings on the walls, an indiscriminate mixture of both Chucks, all but decree that you must ignore the difference.
The pop-culture connections elsewhere in Las Vegas are most noticeable in the slot machines, many of them "themed" with licensed properties. You can waste your money on John Wayne slot machines, Tarzan slot machines, Superman slot machines, and Elvis Presley slot machines. If you loved a movie like Ghostbusters, The Hangover, or The Wizard of Oz, there's a slot machine waiting for you. I'm not sure how many of those machines offer inducements other than their themed decorations, but at the John Wayne machine, if the reels stop at the right place, you get to hear a pretty good imitation of the Duke's voice tell you to "Cough up some more money, sucker," if not in those exact words. As Wayne fans we responded in Pavlovian fashion and wasted a couple more dollars, hoping the Duke would favor us with a few more good words and maybe even a little cash. No such luck. We spent about five dollars on such themed slots and didn't get nearly enough entertainment from them to be lured into spending more.
The slot machines that most surprised me were the Star Wars machines (the ones shown here are at the Las Vegas airport, but there are some on the Strip, too). Now that Disney owns Star Wars, I've been told, these machines will vanish when the contract runs out. I'm puzzled, though, by what George Lucas was thinking when he approved a slot-machine deal. Star Wars, needless to say, appeals to kids, and there are lots of kids in Las Vegas these days, since so many of the casinos have followed Excalibur's lead and made themselves "family-friendly." But if you cared at all about those kids, why would you let your famous logo be slapped on machines that so easily could tempt kids (and, through them, their parents) into foolish and destructive behavior? Surely I don't need to point out that if you're going to gamble, slots are the worst way to do it, apart from buying a lottery ticket.
From Las Vegas we flew to Los Angeles for a very brief (four nights) visit, my first there in almost six years. That interval still surprises me when I think about it, because I spent weeks at a time in L.A. in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was working on Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age and The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. On this trip I was tying up loose ends for my comic-book book, with stops at a couple of libraries. Phyllis and I also had dinner with Milt and Katie Gray in Santa Monica, and I had lunch the next day with Mark Evanier at the Tam O'Shanter, where we occupied Walt's favorite booth. It really was his favorite, as verified by Becky Cline, the Disney archivist, when I had lunch the following day with her and her predecessor, Dave Smith, at the Burbank burger joint called Mo's. And then we flew home.
I think this is the first time I've ever visited L.A. that I didn't leave behind some significant research that I just didn't have time for. I still haven't made it to the Musso & Frank Grill, another of Walt Disney's hangouts, but I'll probably have trouble talking Phyllis into making a trip west just to have lunch on Hollywood Boulevard. But I'll give it a shot.
August 2011: New collections of classic Disney comics, the Corny Cole interview, Chuck Jones enshrined at a casino, Dave Hand on ones and twos, is innocence bliss when watching cartoons?
July 2011: Mystery men at Disney's Hyperion studio, The Illusionist.
June 2011: Inking at Disney's in 1931, the Fred Kopietz interview.
May 2011: New Disney books, problems with interviews, the passing of the great collector Bill Blackbeard.
April 2011: More on Walt's church in Chicago and the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Lynn Karp interviewed.
March 2011: John Hubley and Milt Kahl interviewed, Roger Armstrong remembers life at the Lantz studio in 1944-45, Walt Disney visits Evanston, Illinois, on the Fourth of July 1957.
February 2011: Tim Walker and Mark Kausler, the Bob McKimson interview and more McKimson matter, the Huffington Post stirs up a storm.
January 2011: Flogging the Dell/Disney comic books, Tangled, potpourris of items about Walt Disney and Bob Clampett and new books, Glen Keane speaks about Tangled in French, a "Flying Gauchito" mystery, Walt meets Princess Margaret and suffers under a double standard.
November 2010: Carl Stalling on acetate, lost Laugh-O-grams found, Børge Ring on Alice in Wonderland, Tim Susanin's book.
October 2010: Books: Jim Korkis's Vault of Walt, Craig Yoe's Felix, John Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe and J. B. Kaufman's South of the Border with Disney.
September 2010: John Benson on Avatar and IMAX 3-D, Mike Maltese and his Bugs Bunny painting, Craig Yoe writes, Satoshi Kon, The Ducktators in the flesh, Chronicle Books' animation volumes.
July 2010: Toy Story 3, Milt Gray's web comic strip, sad news about Roy Rogers and Harvey Pekar, my 1997 interview with John K., more on the mysterious Mortimer Mouse, reprinted comic books.
June 2010: Dave Smith retires, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Barks on a T-shirt, Waking Sleeping Beauty.
May 2010: "Mickey Mouse" and D-Day, animation: the delusion of life, Børge Ring on Jack Kinney, my visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, George Sherman's Barks painting, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book.
April 2010:How to Train Your Dragon, Carl Barks tells how he worked, Fantasia and the fundamentalists
March 2010: More on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, questions for Walt Disney, the "family tree" of animation, a 1967 gathering of pioneers at Montreal, Dumbo's premiere, Dumbo in print, Walt's adventures in the Ivy League, Fess Parker remembered.
February 2010: The mysterious Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Oscars and Annies, Disney and Tolkien.
January 2010: More on The Princess and the Frog, Kurtzman's Humbug, Dumbo's crows, The Animated Man in Italy, Richard Todd and Walt Disney on the set.
December 2009:The Princess and the Frog and Fantastic Mr. Fox, a cel fire at the Mintz studio, Richard Todd, Roy Edward Disney, Hal Sintzenich's diaries, more hot air from an "archivist."
November 2009: On the sidewalk with Charlie Mintz, a visit to Saint Louis, when Fantasia spread out, on the barricades with Art Babbitt.
October 2009: "Sincerity," Ward Kimball photographs R. Crumb, Walt Kelly writes to Walt Disney, losing illusions in today's Hollywood animation business, more on Walt Disney at Harvard (and Yale), Art Spiegelman in Arkansas, the Walt Disney Family Museum opens its doors.
September 2009: What Walt Disney was doing in London in 1935 and New York in 1940, George Winkler and Andrew Stone and Charlie Mintz, Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell, Dr. Seuss' advertising films, Li'l Eight Ball's disappearance from comic books, shipboard with Walt and family in 1949, the curious case of Mortimer Mouse.
August 2009: Carl Barks on exhibit in Baltimore, the mystery of Barks's Donald Duck, Lillian Disney speaks in public, early omens on The Princess and the Frog, Classic Children's Comics, Walt Disney in Ireland, home again from a long summer journey.
June 2009: Taking a summer break, Egghead and Elmer, more on Sita Sings the Blues, Pixar's Up, the role of words and drawings in early Disney story work.
May 2009: Reading the funnies in bulk, Keith Lango's ideas about "visual harmony," Walt Disney goes to Harvard, John Canemaker goes to Kansas City, Sita Sings the Blues, Disney and Columbia, fictitious "Walt Disneys" on stage and screen, David Gerstein's blog, Monsters vs. Aliens, more on Dave Hand, Milt Kahl as "the animation Michelangelo."
April 2009: Easter greetings from Warner Bros. Cartoons, Børge Ring on David Hand, Ken Annakin, Dick Huemer, Floyd Norman, Ferguson's flypaper sequence revisited, Disney's walled garden, Don Bluth, the Walt Disney Family Museum, Bob Clampett's secret life.
March 2009: Walt Kelly comics from Fairy Tale Parade, Chuck Jones on TCM, Walt Disney at Dumbo's premiere, Emil Flohri, Coraline, Watchmen, in the Disney music rooms in 1931, a case of mistaken identity, ten years of Hollywood Cartoons.
February 2009: Acting in animation, with a riveting memory of Bill Tytla, Coraline, 3-D pro and con, cartoon cocktails, the first Disney annual report, Marceline faces from Walt Disney's time, a Marceline myth.
January 2009: "The Three Little Pigs" as drawn by Walt Kelly, Ted Eshbaugh's studio in 1931, "card check" in 1941 and 2009, The Tale of Despereaux, Walt Disney sails from Chile to New York on the Santa Clara.
December 2008:The Spirit on the screen, cartoon directors' Christmas cards, trying to identify a mystery man, books: Spirited Away, Popeye, and The Animated Man, Bolt and Madagascar 2, Dave Hilberman's FBI file.
November 2008: Back from Italy, live-action Disney on Turner Classic Movies.
October 2008:The Wall Street Journal on Pixar and Disney,Walt at the keyboard, Chuck Jones and Eddie Selzer, Chuck at MGM, "Directors and Directions," salvaging Disney's California Adventure, Walt Disney's attitude toward women, "Of Cabbages and Kleins," The Perfect American as novel and opera, on the set of Invitation to the Dance.
September 2008: Visiting J. R. Bray, Ben Sharpsteen and his museum, Elias Disney in his own words, the ancestral Disney lands in Ontario, a book ban in Burbank.
August 2008: Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising remembered, Michael Sporn's role on The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, more on Wertham, Sporn DVDs.
July 2008: More Looney Tunes on DVD, WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda, Walt Disney's stump, Bill Tytla's voice, Disney anniversaries, Wertham's locked vault, Schulz and Peanuts demolished, more on Walt and Dolores.
May-June 2008: Walt Disney's Kansas City building, Walt and polo (and polo-related deaths), Japanese features, Walt and Dolores Del Rio, late-period Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett in Canada, Walt Disney meets Robert Taylor in 1938 and visits Marceline and Saint Louis in 1946, the post-modern Goofy, The Colored Cartoon.
April 2008: The Jones-Avery letter, what Walt Disney really thought about Goofy, the "Censored 11," Borge Ring on Hans Perk, remembering Ollie Johnston, Two Days in the Life: Kansas City, 1922, more on Walt Disney's 1922 want ads, Walt's skeptical supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad, Bob Clampett and Ollie Johnston share a table, the Schulz kidnaping, Nick Cross and The Waif of Persephone.
March 2008: Walt Disney's want ads in 1922, Dick Huemer's Buck O'Rue, A Day in the Life: Disney, January 1930 and February 1927, A Day in the Life: Walt Kelly, 1955, The Animated Man in trade paper, Walt Disney meets Yma Sumac and visits Atlanta, responding to complaints about negative criticism, Bob Clampett at work, "What Would Bob Do?"
February 2008: Walt Disney and Joan Bennett in 1942, an interview with Elias and Flora Disney, debate about Buckaroo Bugs, Emery Hawkins at Lantz, Walt Disney in England, Carl Barks's first issue of Uncle Scrooge, Jim Bodrero interview, photos of Warner story man Lloyd Turner, remembering Roger Armstrong.
January 2008: Dell comic books, Ward Kimball, Chuck Jones, Joe Grant and hero worship, more on writing for animation (and why some people spread falsehoods about it), Walt Disney's 1934 trip to Hawaii, Hanna-Barbera celebrated in a book, Bob Clampett, Satoshi Kon, more on the voices of Walt's Alice.
December 2007: Writing for animation, Margaret O'Brien and Walt Disney's Alice, Jack Zander, more on UPA, Rod Scribner at work, Borge Ring, a "mystery studio," Byron Haskin and Disney's Treasure Island, more on Coal Black, Walt and Lillian on the town, revisiting Raggedy Ann & Andy and Wizards, Satoshi Kon's budgets.
November 2007:Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Mickey's birthplace in New York, the UPA book, the Michael Sporn retrospective at MoMA, the ideas that interviews can stimulate.
October 2007: Carl Stalling interviewed, Dick Huemer remembered, more on Walt Disney and Zorro, the controversy over the Schulz biography, Joe Penner and the "Agony, agony!" catchphrase, Walt and The Art Spirit, Walt in Hawaii, the Ottawa International Animation Festival, The Jungle Book revisited.
August 2007: Walt and the librarians, independent animators, the mystery of Walt's Goldwater button solved, Diane Disney Miller blasts Neal Gabler, Paprika, interviews with Clarence Nash, Jim Macdonald, and Billy Bletcher, Pete Emslie's guidelines for animal characters, Ratatouille.
July 2007: More on Harry Reichenbach, Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky, Surf'sUp, Walt at Smoke Tree Ranch, Dave Hilberman, The Iron Giant revisited, Michael Sporn and Walter Lantz on DVD, Ratatouille.
June 2007: More on Walt Disney's Goldwater button, more on the flypaper sequence, Roger Armstrong, Disney in Deutschland, Ratatouille, Walt and Zorro, more on Walt and T. H. White, Harry Reichenbach and Steamboat Willie, the auctioning of Carl Barks's estate.
May 2007: UPA wars on the blogs, Ferguson's flypaper sequence, Walt Disney's employment contract, Harry Reichenbach, Disney art at Montreal, Walt writes to T. H. White, selling The Animated Man in L.A.
April 2007:The Animated Man, Fergy ruffs, Meet the Robinsons.
March 2007:The Animated Man, Cartoon Brew Films, a Cock Robin mosaic and documents, a Dumbo essay, the Goldwater button again, Walt and the space program.
February 2007: More on writing v. drawing, Paul Hindemith meets Walt Disney, Fantasia, Van Beuren dolls, Bob Clampett and Edgar Bergen.
January 2007: Walt's Goldwater button, Neal Gabler's errors, writing v. drawing cartoon stories, a Disney exhibition at Paris, Happy Feet.
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