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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

COMMENTARY

Albert Hurter

Albert Hurter draws an uncharacteristically straight portrait of a penguin in a publicity photo for the 1934 Silly Symphony Peculiar Penguins. Note the cigar in his left hand. Courtesy of Dick Huemer.

Drawings, Please

Twenty years ago, when I was visiting the Walt Disney Archives for weeks at a time, I spent many hours looking at thousands of drawings. My notes from the '90s show me reviewing not just the "story sketch" books composed of sketches and preliminary layout drawings for the short cartoons of the 1930s, but also such things as folders of Albert Hurter's fanciful drawings and ten large boxes packed with mostly loose sketches for Pinocchio. One whole Pinocchio box was full of very handsome sketches plausibly attributed to Walt Kelly. So thorough (if that's the word) was work on Pinocchio that even unused story sketches were bound together with metal rings, and carefully labeled as discards.

I believe that most such drawings have now been moved to Disney's Animation Research Library, but even in the '90s, the drawings in the Archives must have been far outnumbered by the drawings in the ARL (which I did not see). As Martin Provensen told me when I interviewed him in 1983, the Disney studio in the 1930s was a "drawing factory," a place where drawings were generated in immense quantity. "Drawings were everywhere; the walls were plastered with drawings. ... The animators didn't think in terms of individual drawings, they thought in terms of feet, which involved a great, great many drawings. And we [the artists in Joe Grant's model department] didn't think of individual drawings, either; we thought of them as a storyboard that would be put up. People like [Jim] Bodrero and Bill Peet, who were unbelievably brilliant at this, could, in a day, do a whole sequence—just grind it out, the way a brilliant typist can type a manuscript. Their pencils would never leave the paper."

The drawings of all kinds, whether animation extremes, inbetweens, layout drawings, exploratory sketches, or something else, were not intended to be enjoyed in themselves, but to serve as building blocks for what really mattered: the animated cartoons.

The Pixar director Pete Docter, in his intensely realistic introduction to Didier Ghez's new book They Drew as They Pleased : The Hidden Art of Disney's Golden Age: The 1930s (Chronicle) writes about how strange the whole idea of assigning a few artists to produce "concept" drawings was, even in the Disney studio's heyday:

Imagine what happens when you put [a] unique, sensitive, independent person into a factory setting—for that largely describes an animation studio. The days are regimented, the hours long, and the deadlines never stop. And of course, one's work is always under scrutiny, subject to others' tastes and opinions. ...Ironically, in many ways the Disney studio system may have unwittingly quashed the very qualities it looked for in the concept artist to begin with.

However disposable such drawings may have been in the larger Disney scheme of things, many of them were executed with great skill. That is evident immediately just in paging through the new book. It includes hundreds of drawings not only from the Disney studio's holdings—now inaccessible to most researchers—but also from private collections. All of this material is reproduced much better than in earlier books, like John Canemaker's pioneering and still invaluable Before the Animation Begins (Hyperion), that Disney published under one of its own imprints.

But are surpassing skill and beautiful reproduction enough? I was reminded, as I read the book, of something the late Martin Williams said to me many years ago, when I showed him Maurice Noble's concept art for Chuck Jones's What's Opera, Doc? At the time, I was pulling together illustrations for my never-to-be-published book on the Warner cartoons, and Martin and I were collaborating on A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. I was thrilled by Noble's richly colored sketches—you can see some of them in a book on the Warner cartoons that did make it into print, Steve Schneider's That's All Folks!—but Martin was not. He dismissed the sketches peremptorily: "Greeting-card art."

Harsh, but not all that far removed from the truth. Noble's sketches, like the Disney drawings reproduced in Didier Ghez's book, were intended for use, and in that respect they much more resemble greeting cards than drawings in museums. The most compelling reason for paying close attention to drawings like those in They Drew as They Pleased is not to admire them as self-contained works of art, but to learn from the drawings more about the films for which they were exploratory tools. If you believe, as I do, that the best Disney short cartoons of the 1930s and the early animated features are uniquely valuable and fascinating, then the "inspirational" drawings and paintings that preceded production are potentially of great interest for what they tell us about the creative thought that went into the films.

But if all or almost all of the Disney drawings in They Drew as They Pleased were intended for use, the book makes plain that some of them were more useful than others. The work of the four artists represented in the new book is highly variable. Albert Hurter's drawings easily pass the test, anticipating as they do so much of what wound up on the screen in the Silly Symphonies and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially. Hurter was a tremendous resource. Watching the cartoons with his drawings in mind, it's impossible not to see other Disney artists responding to the stimulation they provided.

Gustav Tenggren was also clearly important, if not as central to the Disney cartoons' success as Hurter. Tenggren's value lay in his creation of enchanting storybook environments. His achievement with settings was secondary compared with Hurter's inventiveness with both characters and settings, but he was still a major contributor to Pinocchio and The Old Mill in particular.

The work of the other two artists, Bianca Majolie and Ferdinand Horvath, is more problematic. I don't find any windows onto what is most important about the films in the drawings by Majolie, who is allotted many fewer pages in the book than the other three artists, or in the work of Horvath, the artist most heavily represented. As Didier Ghez notes, Horvath's drawings, in contrast to Hurter's, "tend to be much more detailed and to make a deliberate effort to suggest precise story ideas or the final look of characters." What that means in practice is that Horvath's drawings are more confining than inspirational. That Walt Disney hired Horvath in the first place, and rehired him despite behavior and attitudes as eccentric as his drawings—and as little likely to be of use in the production of the Disney cartoons—is testimony to Walt's openness to experiment in the 1930s.

Horvath's drawings have always struck me as more peculiar than inspiring, ever since Russ Cochran devoted a whole issue of his Graphic Gallery to them decades ago. Horvath remains a troublemaker even in Didier Ghez's text, which includes quotations from a number of his letters, newly discovered and translated from the Hungarian. Horvath wrote in great excitement about the "bank holiday" that occurred at the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, but there's no indication in the quotations from his letters, or in the connecting text, that the "holiday" was a very short-lived and much less important episode than it might seem to be.

So, even if the drawings by Majolie and Horvath don't tell us much about the films, do they at least offer the enjoyment that comes from viewing beautiful drawings of any kind? Not for me. Looking at Horvath's drawings, I thought of artists like Heinrich Kley and T. S. Sullivant—who were not Disney artists, of course, but were artists whose work was not just superior to Horvath's by any reasonable standard, but also more useful to the Disney people. (Sullivant's cartoons, from early in the twentieth century, were grouped on large photostatic sheets given to Disney artists as reference material.) That usefulness is wonderfully evident in "The Dance of the Hours" and other cartoons.

Although Horvath's drawings, and his personal story, do not in themselves take us very far toward understanding why the cartoons turned out so well, they're an important part of the book as a whole. It's impossible to read They Drew as They Pleased without coming away with a stronger sense of what the Disney studio and the people who worked there in the 1930s were like. If the lesser artists like Horvath were to be subtracted from that story, it would be incomplete. Albert Hurter is the subject of a wonderful old book of his drawings, He Drew as He Pleased (the inspiration, obviously, for the title of the Ghez book), but he shines even brighter in the company of Tenggren, Horvath, and Majolie.

Didier Ghez writes in his preface of the "beauty and endless creativity of Disney's concept artwork. ... Looking at concept art allowed me to become aware of the thousands of creative ideas and designs that the Disney artists explored before settling on the ones that made it to the screen. It revealed a critical, and often hidden, part of Disney history whose richness was almost overwhelming."

There's a faint suggestion in those words that the concept art might equal or even exceed in interest what wound up in the films. I can't imagine ever accepting such a judgment, but if Didier Ghez has come to feel that way, that would be more than understandable, considering the many years and the tremendous effort he put into this book, and considering especially that to complete it he had to run the gauntlet of today's Walt Disney Company. He plans five more volumes, covering Disney concept art from the 1940s to the present day, and paying special attention to artists who have not received as much attention as luminaries like Mary Blair and Joe Grant. The complete set promises to be an extraordinary resource, whether enjoyed for its own sake or as a companion to the films.

Hidden Art

[Posted January 26, 2016;corrected, January 30, 2016]

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