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COMMENTARY

Disneyism

On November 28, 1973, Milt Gray and I recorded the first of several interviews with Jack Kinney, who directed most of the Goofy sports cartoons for Walt Disney in the forties. Over dinner at a San Fernando Valley restaurant, Kinney spoke of "one gag I was real proud of" in the 1941 cartoon The Art of Skiing.

"The Goof is standing right here," he said, "with his skis out like this, and the narrator went on and on . telling how you'd flex your arms, and how you'd do that—it was a dull piece of narration. On purpose. It was right from the book, a technical bit of stuff, and the Goof was yawning, and making faces, and scratching his head, and scratching his ass.and now, the narrator says, 'We're off!' and Goofy shoves his poles down in the ground, and leaps up with a joyous [noise]—and went over the back of the hill. The audience died at that thing, because it was a long buildup to it. . As soon as he jumped up in the air, you knew he was going to go [forward], but he didn't, he went down [backwards]. And the timing on that just caught them, just right, for some reason or other."

I realized when I saw the cartoon again later that Kinney had misdescribed the gag (he left that part of the transcript untouched when he reviewed it). There's not the long buildup that he recalled, and the gag would probably have been much funnier if there had been. There's no telling what happened. Did Kinney plan for the buildup and then cut it down because the cartoon was running too long? Did the buildup make it into a pencil reel, and did a studio audience react as Kinney remembered? Did someone else—perhaps Walt Disney himself—rebel at the length of the buildup and order it cut down? Or did Kinney simply realize, too late, that he had missed a chance to make the gag funnier, and over time let his mind meld the gag that could have been with the gag that was?

It was hard to make funny short cartoons at Disney's in the forties, on the laugh-at-any-cost Warner or MGM model, because the Disney people had for so long been concerned with many more things besides gags. Quite a few Goofy cartoons are just not as funny as they might have been, sometimes for reasons that can be pinpointed, as with that gag in The Art of Skiing, and sometimes for reasons that are more difficult to define. It's revealing that the best of Kinney's Goofy cartoons are probably the least "Disney" of any of that studio's short cartoons. There was at one point a live possibility that Kinney would go to work for MGM, making cartoons alongside Tex Avery and Hanna and Barbera, and the energy and single-mindedness of his best cartoons say he would have been a good fit at that studio.

Complete Goofy CoverFortunately, the best of Kinney's Goofy cartoons are very good indeed, and there are enough of them to justify packaging all the cartoons in the series on two DVDs, as one of the three sets released in 2002 in the second wave of "Walt Disney Treasures." Leonard Maltin, in hosting the beautifully produced Complete Goofy, singles out Kinney's Hockey Homicide (1945) for praise, a judgment in which I heartily concur. I would place How to Play Football (1944) near the top of the pile of Kinney's sports cartoons, too. Hockey Homicide has not much in the way of memorable gags, much less gags that build, but the violence in hockey, like the violence in football, was liberating for Kinney. In Hockey Homicide, the rules of the game are the thinnest pretext for mayhem. When the two teams' top players, Ferguson (as in the animator and director Norm) and Bertino (as in the animator Al) are let out of the penalty box, they immediately begin bashing each other and get put back in the box. They never actually play the game.

The hockey players are all "Goofy," but they're also not Goofy at all. Very early in the Goofy series, as the sports theme took hold and the cartoons embraced team sports like baseball and football, the character's appearance and personality as they had been established in the thirties Mickey Mouse shorts all but vanished. To quote myself, from Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, Goofy "filled the screen as player and spectator, in a range of sizes and shapes, but the dozens of Goofys were just extras in Kinney's comic spectacle."

But, of course, if a DVD set is to focus on a particular series, it would be awkward to acknowledge that the best cartoons in the series are ones in which the lead character essentially disappears. The supplemental material in the set thus focuses not on Kinney and the cartoons actually on the DVDs, but on the Goofy of the thirties. There are features on Pinto Colvig, Goofy's original voice, and Art Babbitt, the animator who defined the character in cartoons like Mickey's Service Station (1935) and Moving Day (1936). An actor reads aloud from Babbitt's 1935 analysis of Goofy's characteristics, one of several such memos written by senior animators as they moved from work on the shorts to work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Babbitt was a leader of the 1941 Disney strike and subsequently a bitter critic of Walt Disney, his brother Roy, the Disney attorney Gunther Lessing, and any number of other people who got in his line of fire. When I last saw Babbitt, late in 1986, I had barely turned on my tape recorder when he boiled over in an unprompted attack on Roy Disney, condemning him as "the worst kind of bigot. Walt went along with him. Walt was not much better."

For obvious reasons, Babbitt has long been a pariah in the eyes of many Disney loyalists. Although it was difficult to exclude him completely from official Disney histories—his name was too firmly attached to a few famous pieces of animation, in cartoons like The Country Cousin, Moving Day, and Fantasia—some books did it, and others came close. Babbitt is mentioned exactly once in the text of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, as "one of the early animators," although the book does reproduce a little of his animation, too, as well as his analysis of Goofy.

Now Babbitt, who died in 1992, is undergoing a sort of posthumous rehabilitation, if his respectful treatment in The Complete Goofy is any indication. Far from denying him credit, though, the new set gives him credit for animation he didn't do. Maltin identifies Babbitt as the animator of the Big Bad Wolf in Three Little Pigs, and Babbitt did in fact animate a few scenes with the wolf—but the clip that Maltin shows was animated by Norm Ferguson, who animated far more scenes with the character than Babbitt did.

Maltin originated the idea for the "Treasures" series, which on the whole has been executed remarkably well, so it's easy to forgive minor flaws like the misattributed Big Bad Wolf animation. There's nothing quite so stressful as trying to reconcile the demands of historical accuracy with the very different demands of a huge entertainment conglomerate. Maltin's introductions and supplementary features on all three 2002 "Treasures" sets, as on the four sets released in 2001, are mostly solid and reliable, if sometimes (and, I'm sure, unavoidably) a little cautious and superficial.

For instance, Maltin acknowledges that Pinto Colvig left Disney after a "falling out" with Walt, but he doesn't go so far as to say what really happened. Colvig was for all practical purposes fired, when Walt Disney, fed up with what he called Colvig's "crying attitude," decided in 1937 not to renew his contract. "I do not need his voice for the Goof badly enough to tolerate him any longer," Walt wrote to Roy.

There's no real error in what Maltin says about Colvig, but there are a couple of odd lapses—odd because I can't believe he doesn't know better—in one of Maltin's supplements to another "Treasures" set that I think demand correction because at least one of those errors might otherwise petrify into conventional wisdom.

In the 2001 set Mickey Mouse in Living Color, in his introduction to a set of pencil-test reels salvaged from Ben Sharpsteen's garage, Maltin says that "of course, the soundtrack had been completed"—music, dialogue, and sound effects—at the pencil-test stage. But that was almost never the case; scores were composed and recorded only when a cartoon was complete as a Technicolor answer print, not a pencil reel. (See p. 117 of Hollywood Cartoons for an example of a cartoon that Walt Disney revised even when it was complete as a color reel.) The three pencil-test reels, as they came from Sharpsteen—I've seen all three in their original form—didn't have complete soundtracks, as they do on the DVDs. There was only dialogue and sound effects, with piano accompaniment in a couple of cases. Otherwise the singing was recorded in advance, but not the accompaniment. The singers presumably listened to an accompanying pianist through headphones as their voices, but not the piano, were recorded.

There could have been a valid reason for attaching a complete soundtrack to the three reels on the DVD—the "angle" feature on DVD players permits switching back and forth between pencil reel and completed cartoon, and a disparity in the soundtracks could have been disconcerting. But to say that "of course" Disney had locked himself into a soundtrack at the pencil-reel stage makes him sound little better than Paul Terry, who recorded complete soundtracks before animation even began.

Maltin also refers to the pencil animation as cleaned-up, but it's obviously a mixture of rough and cleaned-up in all three reels.For whatever reason—tight production schedules, confidence in the people involved—pencil tests of cleaned-up animation weren't always shot, or at least weren't always incorporated into the reel. The reels themselves are fascinating. It's evident, for example, that some of the pencil animation was bottom-lit when it was being photographed and some was top-lit, the latter possible when everything being shot was on a single sheet of paper. The drawings of Goofy in On Ice are Babbitt's roughs; in one scene, it can be seen how he erased Goofy's head and moved it to a different position.

On Ice itself, the finished cartoon, is also part of the Mickey Mouse in Living Color set, which contains the other best examples of Babbitt's animation of Goofy. The most conspicuous examples of Babbitt animation in the Complete Goofy set are in Goofy's Glider and, especially, Baggage Buster, both released in 1941. Babbitt animated all of Goofy in the latter cartoon, over a span of about four months in 1940. He shot live action as an aid to his animation, but it turned into a crutch—the animation has a deadly literalness. Goofy's proportions are distinctly human, and there's very little caricature in the drawing or the movement.

Walt Disney, so often the target of Babbitt's wrath, was astute in his assessment of the animator and his animation. In March 1941, when Babbitt was animating the stork in Dumbo, Disney wrote to Wilfred Jackson, who was directing Babbitt's scenes:

"What I meant regarding Babbitt's animation was that we all should see it and check with the guy, and not let him go on and give us the stiff old-fashioned stuff like we got on the Goof in BAGGAGE BUSTERS [sic]. . Babbitt is capable of good results if you work very closely with him and not let him have his way too much. He's a very stubborn punk, but we've got to get him out of the groove he's in."

The classic Goofy—the one shaped by Babbitt in the mid-thirties—disappears from the Complete Goofy set after the first couple of cartoons. The distinctive animation of the character in cartoons like Goofy and Wilbur (1939) and Goofy's Glider is by Woolie Reitherman rather than Babbitt. In later cartoons, like Jack Kinney's How to Be a Sailor, the most inventive and amusing animation is not by any big name, but by John Sibley.

It's too bad that Maltin's supplemental material doesn't say more about people like Kinney and Sibley, much less approach Babbitt's claims on Goofy with a bit more skepticism. In one respect, though, Maltin's contributions are absolutely unimpeachable: in brief introductions to a few cartoons, he defuses the political correctness question with great deftness.

Many Disney films of all kinds are vulnerable on that score, probably far more than most people realize. At the Library of Congress recently, I watched a Walt Disney Presents TV show from the late fifties that included a preview of the first "Texas John Slaughter" episode. The preview was amazingly violent—the hero plugged and presumably killed five men and threatened to kill another. A male chorus sang godawful lyrics that exalted such violence ("Texas John Slaughter made 'em do what they oughter, 'cause if they didn't they died") and a narrator declared, "At the end of the trails he followed, a man had a choice of throwing down his guns or being killed."

Maltin is not dealing with psychotic material of that kind, but he acknowledges right off the bat that the depiction of American Indians in the 1945 Kinney cartoon Californy or Bust is not "enlightened." He immediately points out that the cartoon is "a broad parody of western movies . and their many clichés," with "deliberately silly" gags. The Indians, he notes, are "caricatures of caricatures." "If you don't take anything in the cartoon too seriously," he concludes, "I think you'll have a good time." How sensible, and how rare. (To read a fuller and equally levelheaded discussion of the touchy question of racial and ethnic stereotyping in the movies, click here for this page at Maltin's Web site.)

In other respects, too, the Goofy set sends the message that it is not a plaything for children. There is no "play all" button, so small children cannot park themselves in front of the TV and watch all the cartoons—including those few with racially sensitive material—one after another. Instead, a viewer must choose to watch each cartoon in turn.

Maltin's skillful defusing of this particular land mine is a good omen for the 2003 set that is to be devoted to wartime films. Perhaps the commercial and critical success of the first two years of "Treasures" sets—and the apparent lack of any backlash against the "unenlightened" cartoons—has strengthened Maltin's hand in the selection of new subjects. We may yet see a Three Little Pigs with the original Jewish stereotype or a Fantasia that has not been mutilated to expunge its black characters.

Behind the Scenes CoverThe other two 2002 sets lack both the completeness and the peculiarities of the Goofy set, but they are highly valuable on their own terms. In his introduction to Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio, Maltin warns, "Walt Disney was a showman first and a documentarian second." True enough—and I confess that I frequently felt a sort of amused irritation at the pervasive falseness of so much of what was presented, in The Reluctant Dragon and various TV shows, as a guided tour behind the otherwise closed gates of the Disney studio in Burbank.

But on any guided tour there's plenty to see besides what the guides want to show you. I never fail to enjoy The Reluctant Dragon, for example, because for all the hokiness of the "tour," the film offers tantalizing glimpses of the new Disney studio in the months just before the 1941 strike. (The cast is made up of both real Disney employees and actors impersonating them, and Maltin is very much in his element, in his introduction to the film, as he identifies the future stars and obscure bit players who play story men and messengers and cel painters.)

I realized, while watching a few dozen old Disney TV shows recently, how often Walt Disney revealed—or seemed to reveal—the mechanics of his illusions, whether those illusions were in cartoons, live-action films, or theme parks. It was as if great Oz himself were constantly pulling back the curtain—a strange thing for him to be doing, one might think, especially considering how heavily the word "magic" began to weigh in Disney self-promotion in the fifties and sixties. And it's true that many people don't really want to know how their entertainment is produced. (Take a devoted TV watcher to the taping of a sitcom or a talk show, where the studio audience is a mere prop, and see if they enjoy the experience.) But Disney understood that for a substantial segment of his audience, taking them "behind the scenes" was a way to encourage their loyalty to his TV show and to "Disney" in general.

By sanitizing and softening the production processes he was supposedly depicting, Walt turned the typically arduous (and boring) work of filmmaking into entertainment; but, most important, he seemingly took his audience into his confidence. We have no secrets from you, he seemed to say as he escorted his viewers into "Audio-Animatronics" workshops or staged story meetings; we think you'll enjoy our "magic" even more if you understand how it is manufactured.

It was through TV, with its natural intimacy, that Disney first successfully put such thinking into practice, most notably in an hour devoted to the filming of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and in a succession of shows about the construction and expansion of the Disneyland theme park. It's with DVDs that excursions "behind the scenes" have truly come into their own, especially in Disney competitors' offerings like the first two installments in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, boxed in multi-disc sets whose "extras" overwhelm the film itself in length. The Disney Behind the Scenes set is thus a compilation of pioneering efforts that have been superseded, in complexity if not in inherent interest. (And it's a safe bet that most new DVD "extras" are no less prettified than the old Disney TV shows.)

One problem with officially sanctioned versions of what goes on "behind the scenes" is that they can complicate or foreclose efforts to write more accurate versions. Once a studio has a vested interest in a particular version of its history, it may resist efforts to determine how close to the truth that version is. Thanks in large part to DVDs, movie studios are learning what the Disney studio has always known, that their history can be translated into dollars. I will be pleasantly surprised if this new awareness spawns film scholarship of real substance.

Where Disney is concerned, the existence of an official point of view—one that multitudes of Disney fans echo reflexively—is evident not just where the studio's history is concerned but in evaluations of its animated films. Visit a Disney-oriented "forum" on the Web, and you will most likely find that any departure from received opinion is denounced in terms that mimic Stalinist rhetoric.

Mickey Mouse CoverReceived opinion's power is evident, in a curious way, in the third of the 2002 "Treasures" sets, Mickey Mouse in Black and White. This set is generally similar to the wonderful 1993 laserdisc set of Mickey Mouse cartoons from the late twenties and early thirties, but with one added cartoon (The Karnival Kid) and other mostly positive changes that David Gerstein has detailed in an excellent review at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research Web site.

Among the new supplemental features is a Maltin conversation with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the two veteran Disney animators, both now very old and frail, but blessedly untouched in their keen minds. At one point, Maltin asks Thomas and Johnston how they can distinguish the work of different animators. "Is it like a fingerprint?" he asks. "Can you tell whose mark is on that drawing?"

Maltin seems genuinely intrigued that animators' personal characteristics would stick out despite everyone's trying to adhere to a model sheet and draw Mickey Mouse in the same way. Johnston responds: "We were all trying to do something that expressed the inner feelings of a character for that particular thing, and how it related to other characters, so you couldn't help but draw it a different way."

But to someone without a "skilled eye," Maltin says, the animation in a Disney cartoon is "seamless. There's no difference in the drawing style from the beginning of a Mickey Mouse cartoon to the end. There could have been six, eight, twelve people working on it, but I would never know from looking at it."

Watching this, a question immediately occurred to me: If Disney animation really is "seamless," if the work of one animator cannot be distinguished from the work of another, how can we say that one animator is better than another?

The usual answer comes from what I might call the "everybody knows" school of animation criticism. In his LA Weekly review of Hollywood Cartoons, Charles Solomon scolded me for "report[ing] which animators drew which scenes in various cartoons." A few paragraphs later, he was righteously wrathful because I had expressed reservations about Bill Tytla's animation of Tchernobog in "Night on Bald Mountain" in Fantasia. How, I wondered, can you write intelligently about an animator's work if you don't believe in paying attention to what he actually animated—that is, to individual scenes? The only answer can be that "everybody knows" that Tytla's animation of Tchernobog is great stuff. Actually looking at it closely, much less examining a draft or other evidence of which scenes Tytla animated, is therefore not just unnecessary, it's impertinent.

But Disney animation really isn't "seamless," any more than any other animation is "seamless," not just because drawing styles differ, but also for reasons suggested in what Ollie Johnston said. Good animators, as they dig into their characters, will inevitably come up with results that look different on the screen. The differences may not be—and usually should not be—obvious, but seeing them, and understanding them, can add immeasurably to the pleasure animation provides. The question is, how do you make use of those differences in ways best for the film? Do you let a dozen people animate the same character, and rely on the director to smooth out the differences, if you smooth them out at all? Do you cast animators by character, and endure the complications of shared scenes, in the hope of greater consistency and depth in the animation? Or do you, as Thomas and Johnston themselves prefer, make certain animators sub-directors of a sort, giving them control over substantial chunks of the film and entrusting all the characters in those chunks to them?

Those are questions of the kind that I address in Hollywood Cartoons, and that I think are central to any discussion of Hollywood animation. They're complex questions of a kind that can't really be addressed on a DVD; the problem I have is that there's no hint, in Maltin's conversation with Thomas and Johnston, that such questions even exist. Instead, we learn that only the "skilled eye" of a Thomas or a Johnston can distinguish among drawings that are otherwise truly indistinguishable.

This is a variation on the "everybody knows" principle, and an example of what I have come to think of as Disneyism: defining the best qualities of the Disney films in terms that foreclose discussion of what actually makes the films worth watching. In this case, it is, implicitly, their "seamlessness" that is to command our admiration, even though accepting that "seamlessness" renders superfluous any evaluation of the work of individual animators.

Again, I suspect—I hope—that Maltin knows better. And, in any case, what really matters is that the films themselves are coming available, looking better and in greater quantity than ever before. I look forward to the May 2004 "Treasures" sets—Mickey Mouse in Living Color Volume 2, The Chronological Donald Volume 1, Tomorrowland, and On the Front Lines—as I look forward to no other DVDs that will be released this year.

[Posted September 2003]

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