On the Other Hand...
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A colorful and incident-packed life makes its own case for a biography,
but most cartoonists don't live such lives. Their claim to a biography
must rest on the impact of their work. By that standard, who among
the important figures in Hollywood animation's history really deserves
a full-length biography? Walt Disney, of course, but otherwise the
choicesgiven that animation is a highly collaborative medium,
and given that so many of its best films are miniaturesare not
I have a shelf full of animation biographies and autobiographies,
and few of them fully justify their presence there. Somehow, people
who loom quite large when their accomplishments are seen in the
context of the cartoon industry shrink when they demand attention
for themselves alone. I can't say I'm sorry that we have the autobiographies
by Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, and Jack Kinney, or Joe Adamson's biography
of Walter Lantzto mention only a fewbut none of those books
persuaded me that their subjects contributed more to the medium
than I already thought they did; closer to the reverse. Shamus Culhane's
autobiography succeeds modestly not because he was a major figure
but because he uses the history of which he was a part as an attractive
frame for his own career.
Chuck Jones is probably the cartoon maker, other than Disney, with
the strongest claim to full biographical treatment, but his two
autobiographical volumeswhich are not just self-serving but also
poisonously condescending toward many of his most important collaboratorshave
preempted the field. It may be decades before anyone attempts an
Another biography I'd like to see would be of Bill Tytla, my choice
as Disney's greatest animator and a fascinating character in his
own right, one whose life followed a tragic arc. John Canemaker,
in his catalog for an exhibit of Tytla's work, gave us the outline
of such a biography, but, as in Jones's case, I would not be surprised
if the artist's family were to complicate efforts to write a reasonably
objective book-length biography.
And what of Ub Iwerks? He is at best a marginal case. Certainly
he was an important figure at the Disney studio in the twenties,
but he may not have been Disney's best animator, even then (that
title may belong to Hugh Harman), and his work after he left Disney
quickly petered out into insignificance, at least to animation.
He was a technical wizard at Disney's after he returned there in
1940, to be sure, but does anyone watch Three Caballeros
or Mary Poppins to see Ub's work?
Not only were Iwerks's contributions of secondary importance to
the success of the films, but they have been superseded by much
more sophisticated technology. There's nothing dated about Bill
Tytla's animationor Frank Thomas's, or Ward Kimball'sbut
Iwerks's special effects are plainly the products of another era.
All of this is not to say that a biography of Iwerks is a non-starter,
only that the authors carry a heavy burden of proof. Unfortunately,
I don't think Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy come close to meeting
that burden in The
Hand Behind the Mouse (Disney Editions, $24.95), their biography
of Leslie's grandfather.
There's fresh information in the book, most notably about Ub Iwerks's
family background, and the authors have otherwise drawn on a reasonably
impressive body of research, conducted by themselves as well as
others. But there are no notes that identify sources, and it's often
impossible to determine the basis for particularly questionable
statements from evidence in the text alone.
Beyond that, the research is constantly mishandled; bits of information
from various sources are pasted together without much regard for
whether they are even minimally consistent with one another. The
authors have Iwerks playing a central role in critical episodesthe
creation of Mickey Mouse, the use of a bouncing ball to keep the
Steamboat Willie orchestra playing in sync with the imageseven
though the best evidence is that he played no such part.
As one consequence of such carelessness and special pleading, the
book is loaded with factual errors, large and small, most of which
could have been easily avoided. It has Carl Stalling seventeen years
old in 1922 (Stalling was born in 1891), and it has Grim Natwick
working for Iwerks in 1936, after Iwerks's Comicolor series ended
(Natwick left Iwerks and went to work for Disney in 1934; he was
animating the Snow White character in 1936).
I was particularly disappointed in the treatment of Iwerks's independent
years. I was hopeful (although not very) that there might have survived
in the Iwerks family some business records that permitted Leslie
Iwerks and John Kenworthy to describe what really happened to the
Iwerks studio in the thirties. No such luck; The Hand Behind
the Mouse is not just cavalier about chronology, but its account
of the studio's ups and downs is scrappy and vague when it is not
If, as I suspect, Ub Iwerks destroyed any studio records long before
he diedand otherwise put that whole decade behind himthat would
be consistent with his personality as depicted in the book. I think
we can trust The Hand Behind the Mouse this far, that Iwerks
was indeed a man who, once he'd mastered something (archery, for
instance), dropped it and left it behind. Although the book presents
this trait as evidence of Iwerks's superiority, the lesson I take
from it is that he was a man who never really enjoyed himself.
Whenever there's a glimpse of Iwerks that rings truewhenever
he seems to have been observed as a human being, rather than as
some gleaming automatonhe almost invariably emerges as cold and
unappealing. My favorite example is what he supposedly said when
his ne'er-do-well father died at ninety-two: "Throw him in
a ditch!" No matter how ample the provocation, there is no
gainsaying the harshness.
The writing is amateurish throughout. Constantly, some long-dead
person "recalls" this or that. Perhaps this abuse of the
present tense arose by analogy: we say "Tolstoy writes in War
and Peace," so why not say that Ub Iwerks "recalls"?
But, of course, it's Tolstoy's book that speaks to us in the present;
there's no such intermediary for Iwerks.
What I find most disturbing about The Hand Behind the Mouse
is the attitude I detect behind it. It's not just a mess, like
so many other animation booksit seems to be a willful mess.
It's as if Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy were so determined to
exalt Leslie's grandfather that they bulled their way past normal
standards of historical accuracy, clear writing, and simple fairness.
Their book does no service to Ub Iwerks's memory.
Hand Behind the Mouse is also the title of a documentary
film about Ub Iwerks by Leslie Iwerks; it has been released on videotape
by Walt Disney Home Video. The film suffers from many of the book's
flawsit suggests very strongly that Ub Iwerks was responsible
not just for the creation of Mickey Mouse but for that character's
enduring popularitybut it is so obviously superficial that
it is somehow less offensive.]
[Posted May 2003]