"What's New" Archives: February 2010
February 25, 2010:
Disney and Tolkien
February 19, 2010:
More on the Stretched-Out Fantasia
February 17, 2010:
February 9, 2010:
Oscars and Annies and Such
February 4, 2010:
The Mysterious Dumbo Roll-A-Book
February 25, 2010:
Disney and Tolkien
About a year ago, Jeff Pepper, co-proprietor with George Taylor of the outstanding Disney fan site 2719 Hyperion, published an excellent piece examining (and demolishing) the persistent rumor that "Walt Disney held the film rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy for a period of ten years beginning sometime in the late 1950s, and was frustrated in his inability to bring a movie version to realization." Never happened, and was never at all likely to happen.
Jeff quotes one of Tolkien's letters (published in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1981) in which Tolkien, writing about illustrations for the American edition of The Hobbit, vows "to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)." What's remarkable is that Tolkien expressed that loathing in May 1937, when the only filmed works available as targets were Disney's short cartoons—films that had by that time reached a state approaching perfection, and were almost universally praised. For someone to dislike such marvelous films was unusual, to "loathe" them all but inconceivable. (What had Tolkien actually seen of the Disney output, I wonder?)
The few remaining references to Disney among Tolkien's published letters are brief but also dismissive. Gunnar Andreassen has pointed me toward another Tolkien letter, this one from 1964, that shows clearly that Tolkien's opinion of Walt did not mellow over the years. It was sold at auction by Sotheby's in London in 2001, for £17,500. Only part of the handwritten letter is reproduced on Sotheby's Web page, but the auction house's rather rough-and-ready description includes these paragraphs:
...I recognize his talent, but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the 'pictures' proceding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them is to me disgusting. Some have given me nausea...
he also accuses Disney of being in his business practices "simply a cheat: willing and even eager to defraud the less experienced by trickery sufficiently 'legal' to keep him out of jail"; he adds that his own affairs are in the hands of Allen & Unwin ("a firm with the highest repute"); that he is "not innocent of the profit-motive" himself (although "I should not have given any proposal from Disney any consideration at all. I am not all that poor..."
I can't imagine what Tolkien heard about Walt's business practices, and from whom, although presumably some disgruntled British author was the source. In any case, what he wrote is at odds with everything we know about how Walt and Roy Disney dealt with authors. Perhaps by this time Tolkien was getting a little resentful that Walt had not shown any interest in buying the screen rights to The Lord of the Rings. After all, there's no fun in saying "no" to an offer that hasn't been made.
From Peter Hale: I can understand Tolkien's sentiments in the 1964 letter—almost certainly he was referring to P. L. Travers's view of the way her attempt to remain in control of Mary Poppins via a contractual right of approval, which Disney managed to subvert (necessarily, from his point of view, for the success of the picture). See this article from The New Yorker. (The popular version—I don't know how true it is—is that she had a right of veto "until completion of the film," and that she expected to revise the final version, having not been shown the film in progress, but Disney pointed out that since it was now completed her right of veto had ceased.)
English literary intellectuals have always held American popular culture in contempt—both because it was popular (i.e., pandering to popular taste rather than being rigorously intellectual) and because it was seen to be replacing British popular culture, and hence ("intellectuals" actually being more sentimental and emotional than ordinary, pragmatic people!) destroying their heritage. (Which of course, is what has happened—but that's life!) This attitude was at its height in the '50s, but well entrenched (I believe) before the war. Hollywood's treatment of classic novels has always annoyed writers. Of course the huge popularity of American films with the UK's general public only fanned the ardour of those fighting for British Literary Integrity!
British critics—indeed the British middle class generally—have always resented the Disneyfication of books like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Winnie-the-Pooh because (inevitably) the Britishness is replaced with an American sensibility: unrecognisable to US audiences but alienating to British lovers of the originals.
(Let me hasten to add that I am completely supportive of the need for any film maker to entirely restructure his/her source material in order to make a satisfactory picture.)
The 1937 letter does seem more odd—I can only think that Tolkien was objecting to Disney's cartoon styling, which he would have seen as very crass as far as illustration was concerned. Although the Disney approach to source material (as was the general approach with Hollywood shorts) was to reduce the story to its simplest form, then develop the comic potential in the telling: this would have seemed unacceptable reductionism to Tolkien (and, I suspect, most authors!).
What I do wonder is whether the release of Snow White gave Tolkien any reason to doubt his previous stance. Whilst he would have still feared seeing his characters reduced to comic renditions of American personalities, like the dwarfs, the powerful dramatic possibilities that the feature revealed might have momentarily dented his resolve. However, the fact that Disney was never going to drop the humorous and sentimental elements, nor go beyond the American sensibilities of his audience (and himself) evidenced in the subsequent features would have soon reaffirmed his position.
[Posted February 27, 2010]
From Tom Carr: With all due respect to my friends in the U.K., I never could stand J.R.R. Tolkien's books, even as an adolescent, and I still can't. When I was in junior high school, the class was assigned to read The Hobbit, and I stopped at the third page, nauseated by the "cutesy" prose style of Tolkien's physical description of the Hobbits.
I had exactly the same reaction that my fellow American Dorothy Parker had to Winnie the Pooh," decades earlier: I wanted to "fwow up!" I practically begged the teacher to give me another book to read and write a report on, and he obliged— assigning me, instead, and early novel of Herman Melville's... which I enjoyed very much, and I turned in such a good report on it that I got an "A."
Maybe, in spite of the fact that our literary cultures spring from many of the same roots, British and American sensibilities are different in some ways that aren't completely reconcilable.
I'll admit that I share Tex Avery's (completely American) attitude toward "cute" creatures: they exist only so that an upstart character like Screwy Squirrel can take them behind a tree and beat the bejeezus out of them, and then get on with the mayhem at hand. If Bilbo Baggins had been flattened by a steamroller or thrown off a 5,000-foot cliff on Page Four, I might have kept on reading...
MB replies: I remember reading all or part of the Rings trilogy three times. The first time I was a teenager; I read the second and third volumes after stumbling upon The Two Towers at my local library soon after it was published in the U.S. The second time was seven or eight years later; I had forgotten about the books until I heard Gilbert Highet talk about them during the intermission of a Boston Symphony broadcast (I remember his saying something to the effect that having Frodo as the hero was like having Mickey Mouse lead the D-Day invasion). I read part of the trilogy for a third and I'm sure last time when the 1978 Ralph Bakshi version was on the horizon.
I know I enjoyed the books the first two times I read them—I found their fantasy consoling during rough passages in my life—but something about me had changed by 1978. That year wasn't a particularly happy time for me, either, but now I found Tolkien turgid and all but unreadable. It wasn't simply that I had grown older and more jaded—many books (and, of course, comic books) that I first read when I was young have become more treasured companions with the years. But good fantasy has to be grounded very firmly in reality, and perhaps the problem for me with Tolkien's trilogy was that the passing years had made it impossible for me to believe that it met that test. The heavy, overworked language, seemingly intended to make me believe in the story's seriousness, had exactly the opposite effect, emphasizing the pretentiousness and artificiality of a fundamentally lightweight fantasy.
[Posted March 1, 2010]
From David Parsons: For years, I tended to believe (or wanted to believe) the myth of the Disney / LOTR connection—and for a very plausible reason, which Jeff Pepper does not mention.
If you compare the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty with the original story by Perrault (or the ballet by Tchaikovsky), it becomes quickly apparent that Disney "Tolkien-ized" the story. The "bad fairy" is now a mighty sorceress, fit consort for Sauron, himself. Her minions are goblins and "orclings" (my word). Her fearsome castle could easily pass for Barad-dur. And the thunderous climax between the prince and the dragon owes nothing to Perrault and everything to Tolkien (or, at least, to the Nordic tradition which inspired Tolkien).
My point is, Disney may never have owned the rights to LOTR, but the writers and artists at his studio definitely read it, and it influenced them. That would explain why some versions of the myth suggest that Sleeping Beauty was meant to be a "warm-up" for a grand, animated version of LOTR.
Personally, I think that a Disney version of LOTR, done in the Sleeping Beauty style, would have been quite respectable. Tolkien never understood (or was loathe to admit) that Disney's earnest storytelling style was a perfect match for his "cosy" vision of Middle Earth.
MB replies: I recall a friend who, years ago, owned a 16mm print of Sleeping Beauty and edited it to remove as many traces as possible of the three good fairies, which he loathed. I never saw the result, but I'm sure it was an even more Tolkien-like (and, of course, much shorter) version of the film.
From Greg Ehrbar: It should be ironically noted that in 1977 and 1979, Disney’s record company produced and released soundtracks and adaptations for vinyl records and audio cassettes from the Rankin/Bass versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King. The complete Hobbit soundtrack album, a two-disc boxed set, was nominated for a Grammy.
MB replies: Greg is the co-author, with Tim Hollis, of Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records.
[Posted March 2, 2010]
From Tom Carr: Getting back to the point I started with vis-a-vis Tolkien, the main question in my mind regarding his works is whether a very poor writer can produce a good and compelling story that sells large numbers of copies. Maybe the answer is yes; I refer you to Mark Twain's wickedly funny 1895 dissection of James Fenimore Cooper, who appears—at least from Mr. Clemens's critique—to have been a sort of 19th-century Tolkien.
This is a very long essay, so for those who don't want to read the whole thing, I'll quote the conclusion:
I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens. A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.
That sounds awfully familiar, at least to someone who once choked on The Hobbit and almost immediately spat it out like a mouthful of bad food.
[Posted March 5, 2010]
February 19, 2010:
More on the Stretched-Out Fantasia
John Benson has submitted an exceptionally interesting comment about my November 17 item titled "When Fantasia Spread Out." Since you'd likely miss it otherwise, I'm providing a direct link here.
February 17, 2010:
Geoff Blum and I were exchanging emails recently on Carl Barks-related matters, as we often do, when Geoff wrote:
I realize on the whole how lucky I’ve been in being able to meet my heroes, at least the ones whose lives have overlapped mine: Carl Barks, Eyvind Earle, Ross Martin, Leif Ove Andsnes, a slew of modern writers—cripes, I even had a minute to talk with Borges about Flann O’Brien. Aubrey Menen I never had a chance at, and I think we might have found things to talk about. As for the people whose lives haven’t overlapped mine—James Stephens, Dvorak, W.S. Gilbert, William Beckford—well, I can’t do anything about that. If only one could reincarnate backward in time.
That set me to thinking about the people I've met, or didn't meet, or never could have met, who might fall into the "hero" category. I'll limit my lists to comics and animation people; otherwise they would go on forever, and who wouldn't want to have met Dickens and Mark Twain, anyway?
Barks is at the top of my comics list, and I feel tremendously grateful to have spent many hours with him. I got to spend a few hours each with Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, and Charles Schulz, but I never met Walt Kelly, my greatest comics hero alongside Barks, or John Stanley. Probably I could have met both Kelly and Stanley if I'd made the effort, and I wish very much that I had.
Walt Disney is of course the animation hero I most wish I could have met, and I would love to have known other great Disney names like Bill Tytla, Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, and Ham Luske. Among the Warner Bros. people I never met, I think first of Rod Scribner. But the list of heroes that I did meet, and often interviewed, is, happily, quite long, beginning with Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Bill Peet, Art Babbitt, Preston Blair, Frank Tashlin...there are quite a few more names that come to mind, even when I limit myself to people who were my heroes based on what I knew of their work before I ever met them. Other people, if not quite my heroes before I met them, quickly became such after I did—I think immediately of Rudy Ising, Wilfred Jackson, and Dick Huemer. And then there were a few people who were my heroes until I met them, but not afterwards. I won't mention any names in the latter category.
In the parlor-game vein...I've been re-reading a great many Barks stories lately, as I've immersed myself in comic books in preparation for my next book, and it occurred to me that it's at least a little strange that no one has ever tried to make a live-action feature with characters based on Barks's ducks and their supporting characters. Not that the actors would be walking around without pants, but Barks's ducks are so intensely human that I can't believe they couldn't be translated into live action. As for casting, let's see...maybe Vince Vaughn as Donald Duck, Owen Wilson as Gladstone Gander, Ian McKellen as Uncle Scrooge, Jack Nicholson as Grandpa Beagle, Anjelica Huston as Magica De Spell...the possibilities are endless. There's got to be a role for Will Ferrell in there someplace.
If either of these parlor games makes you want to join in, feel free.
From Bill Peckmann: Back in the 1960's when my good friend "Big John" Verpoorten and I played the Carl Barks live action casting game we came to the unanimous conclusion that the role of Donald was made for Dick Van Dyke.
MB replies: I remember someone—Joe Grant, I'm pretty sure—saying that the young Van Dyke reminded him of the Walt Disney of the 1930s. I can see that, but I can't quite see Van Dyke as a live-action Donald. Actually, it's really hard for me to see any one actor as Donald, for the reasons I suggested in my postings about "The Mystery Duck" last fall: Barks's Donald is too multi-faceted, too interesting, for any contemporary actor to measure up to the requirements of such a role. (My suggestion of Vince Vaughn was semi-tongue-in-cheek, although I think a Vaughn version of Donald would work for some stories that are not Barks's best.)
From Michael Sporn: What a great thread of a game you've come upon.I've met most people I would have liked to have met, and keep meeting more. I got to shake hands with Robert Kennedy Jr. two nights ago at an event celebrating the overcelebrated James Cameron.
In animation, Walt Disney, Max Fleischer and Paul Terry come to mind quickly. Bobe Cannon and Marc Davis also fall in there for me. I came close to meeting Max Fleischer in the last days of his life. I learned that Hal Seeger, who I was working for, was going to visit Max in a nursing home and asked if I could come along to be part of the wallpaper. Seeger told me that Max had dementia and wouldn't be able to figure out what I was doing there, and it might be more upsetting to both of us if I went. How could I push any further? It's probably better that I remember him as the guy in those B&W photos from the '30s.
MB replies: I wrote to Max Fleischer myself, near the end of his life, and asked for an interview. I got a very nice note from Vera Coleman, his long-time secretary, telling me, in effect, that it was too late. (I did get to meet Dave Fleischer, unfortunately, and record one of the weirdest interviews I ever did.)
From Grayson Ponti: I really know how it feels to have all these people who you wish so badly you could have met but died before you got a chance. I'm only fifteen and I would have love to have met the greats of animation. I'm a little curious, though, why you didn't interview Rod Scribner. Scribner was still alive when you did a lot of your interviews for Funnyworld and Hollywood Cartoons so I would have assumed you would have contacted him. There seem to have been very few people who met or interviewed Rod almost like there seem to be very few that met Bill Tytla. It frustrates me that my two favorite animators seem to be some of the ones least talked to. I know Tytla had severe problems towards the end of his life, but I don't know what happened to Scribner. Can you please share what you know about this subject.
MB replies: Tytla died in 1968, before I began interviewing animation people. Scribner died in 1976, but he had deteriorated mentally and physically long before that (he was hospitalized for tuberculosis in the '40s). Milt Gray met Scribner when they both worked on Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat, and Scribner told Milt then that he didn't remember anything about working on the great Bob Clampett cartoons. Possibly Milt or I could have persuaded Scribner to be interviewed, but there is no reason to believe that anything worthwhile would have come of it. Most likely it would have been a painful experience for all concerned. When I say I wish I could have met Scribner, it's the Scribner of the '40s that I'm thinking of.
From Thad Komorowski: I've personally resolved not to have any "heroes,", at least as far as animation and comics go. There are lots of people I would like to meet in modern animation, but would I really consider any of them really heroes? Nah.
And god, Vince Vaughn as Donald Duck?! Mike, I thought you were the one championing the humanity in Barks's Donald. Why would you cast an actor who can never be remotely human as him then? (Unless you had this in mind, making your casting ironic, then kudos.)
MB replies: Actually, I've been re-thinking that casting idea, and now when I think of the right actor for Donald, Dwayne Johnson keeps coming into my mind...
[Posted February 18, 2010]
From Jim Earp: Not really on point, but I've always had a very strong suspicion that the Hammond character as interpreted by Richard Attenborough in Spielberg's Jurassic Park is based primarily on Scrooge (though not in a good way). There's the wealth, the white integumentation, the whiskers, etc, the Scottish accent (I've never read Scrooge with a Scottish accent, but Disney chose to animate him that way), and more to the point, the whimsical enterprises (the flea circus) that he's supposed to have engaged in prior to his wildlife park. In any event, Spielberg's Hammond bears no resemblance to the character in Crichton's book. I'm just curious if that might have occurred to you as well. I'm no great fan of either the book or the movie, but Barks is certainly one of my primary heroes in American arts and letters.
MB replies: I must confess that I've never seen Jurassic Park all the way through, I've only seen large chunks of it when I've been doing some channel-hopping. But I guess I'll have to take a closer look. Speaking of Spielberg...I know that Raiders of the Lost Ark has been cited as a Barks-derived movie, but I don't see any similarities except in the famous opening sequence borrowed from the Seven Cities of Cibola story in Uncle Scrooge No. 7.
From Tom Carr: I'd guess that the reason there's never been a feature film based on the Carl Barks Donald Duck Stories is that one of the most disastrous Hollywood flops in the industry's recent collective memory was Howard the Duck. So the thinking, ever since, must be that "Ducks just won't fly!"
But let's not forget the 1980's/90's made-for-TV series Duck Tales, which is really very good in spite of the fairly low budget, and the fact that the animation was farmed out to some overseas studios. The scripts and characterizations are about as close to Barks as we're ever likely to see on the screen. Not the big screen, but then a feature production couldn't become an extended series, either... for a number of reasons, even if it did well at the box office.
And check out this voice cast list:
Hamilton Camp, Peter Cullen, Jim Cummings,
Brian Cummings, Miriam Flynn, June Foray, Kathleen Freeman, Joan Gerber, Chuck McCann, Terry McGovern, Hal Smith, Russi Taylor, and Frank Welker. Just get them together again, with or without trousers, and you're all set to make a hit feature! But it's too late for that.
MB replies: I probably should have been clearer about what I had in mind when I spoke of a live-action Barks movie. Not one in which the characters are called Donald and Scrooge, or wear costumes suggesting Barks's characters, or anything of the sort. Rather, a movie in which the characters' personalities and their relations with one another and their adventures resemble the same things in Barks's stories. So, you have a character who's like Donald in certain subtle ways, and he happens to be in charge of three bright kids, of mixed gender, who may or may not be his own kids, or maybe one or two of his own and a niece or nephew, or a friend; and he is close—as a relative or through some other intimate connection—to an older man whose wealth becomes the pretext for a far-ranging adventure involving the two adults and the kids. A tough script to write, I think, since it would require thinking "Barks" up to a certain point and then forgetting all about Barks from then on. The idea would be to have your audience caught up in the film and not thinking about its origins until, after leaving the theater, a few people, those who have loved Barks's stories since childhood, start to smile and say to themselves, "Wait a minute..."
From Milton Gray: As I know you know, although I've never heard you speak or write about
it, meeting one's heroes can be tricky. The whole point, I think, is to gain some insight into who they are, what their influences were, and their creative process. In most cases, when I've met my heroes in comic books and animated cartoons, they come off as little more than
congenial people. The really creative people can usually say little more than, "Well, you just do it by feeling." The people who are not
my heroes, because they are just hacks, can (and often do) easily describe how they approach their work because to them it is all
mechanical, made up of arbitrary rules, usually involving physical
measurements of things.
I know that you and I have worked long and hard over the years to interview some people several times, always trying to think of the kinds of questions that will jog the right
memories, to bring out of those people what their creative thinking actually was.
MB replies: Absolutely true. Milt's comments bring up a raft of memories about the interviews he and I did, separately and together, and how much the people we interviewed differed in their responses to our questions. I'm tempted to start spinning out anecdotes here, but I'll refrain. One of these days, though, I should do a sort of retrospective article about our interview experiences. For instance, there was this old story guy whose basement office smelled like a thousand cat boxes and who claimed with a straight face to have directed all of Fantasia...stop me, please!
[Posted February 19, 2010]
From Tom Carr: I think you should go ahead with publishing all the interviews that "didn't work out" on your site, or maybe even as a small book if you have enough of them. I know that I'd find the subject entertaining. Have you ever seen this film?
"Based on a true story," as the saying goes. Joe Gould was a familiar character in Greenwich Village in the '40s and '50s; he's also mentioned in some of the writings of William S. Burroughs. As far as I know, Gould never claimed to have directed Fantasia, but he claimed just about everything else, including how to interpret what he called the "language" of seagulls. As he's depicted in the film, his baths and changes of clothes appear to have been few and far between, but he was a champion talker who could persuade almost anyone that he was a neglected genius. Not everyone's as fascinated by such oddballs as I am, but I'm betting that you and Mr. Gray have met more than a few in your travels.
MB replies: I've long been aware of Joseph Mitchell's pieces about Joe Gould, but I've never read them (or seen the movie). Something else to do before I die...
The problem with posting all of my interviews is that getting the things ready for publication takes a lot of time; and to spend a lot of time preparing an interview with someone who turned out to be a liar just doesn't make sense to me. In such cases I've already spent hours not just conducting the interview but transcribing it, in the hope that seeing their lies in print would encourage the liars to amend their statements. Never happened. In the most egregious case, the one I mentioned, I actually included the correct information in brackets, so that the liar would know I knew he was lying. When he reviewed the transcript he simply crossed out the material I'd added.
[Posted February 21, 2010]
February 9, 2010:
Oscars and Annies and Such
I can't recall ever paying much attention to either the Oscars or the Annies. I've always had trouble taking them seriously, the latter especially, but it doesn't surprise me that the Annies, ASIFA-Hollywood's awards in various animation categories, have become steadily more prominent over the years. Hollywood loves awards of all kinds and, especially, the opportunities they bring for publicizing not just the winning films but those that are nominated. (Years ago, the Los Angeles Times, I think it was, published a devastating report on the Golden Globes, documenting just how ridiculously phony those awards were. Didn't make a bit of difference.)
The Oscar race is unusual this year, because there are five nominees for best animated feature, not just three, and one of the five, Pixar's Up, is also one of ten nominees for best picture. Up has already won the Annie for best animated feature, and it's the front runner for the Oscar in that category. I'd be delighted if Up snuck through and won for best picture—not because I think it was the best movie of 2010, or even a good movie at all, but because the shock value of such an award might encourage at least a few people to look at Pixar and its films with a less indulgent eye.
In the past year, I've been struck not just by the uniformly adoring reviews for Up (The New Yorker's review comes first to mind, probably because that magazine's reviewers are so much tougher on most films), but also by such cultural signifiers as a long and completely uncritical piece about Pixar—titled "Pixar Genius"—in the October 8, 2009, issue of The New York Review of Books, probably the leading American literary/intellectual journal. I've read NYR for many years, and its Pixar piece was, I believe, its first article about animation of any kind since Robert Craft's dismissive review of Christopher Finch's book The Art of Walt Disney, more than thirty-five years ago.
There's scant evidence in the Pixar article that its author, Christian Caryl, has seen many other animated films, or knows anything about animation other than what's in the three books listed at the head of his piece: Amid Amidi's The Art of Pixar Short Films, Karen Paik's authorized history, To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, and David A. Price's The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. But Caryl, whose expertise is in foreign policy, does mention his five-year-old daughter, twice. (It seems she "had no trouble at all following the story" of WALL•E.) Caryl also says, ludicrously, that Pixar's films have been "attacked" by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. What I've read about Pixar in both newspapers could be construed as attacks only by the most thin-skinned (which the Pixar people quite likely are).
Pixar's films are often mentioned in the same breath as the great Disney shorts and features of the late '30s and early '40s, but I think a more accurate comparison would be with the MGM live-action features of the same period. There were some good MGM movies then—although at the moment I'm struggling to think of one (OK, yes, The Philadelphia Story)—but the representative features were smug, well-upholstered, and manipulative; that is, cold, sleek industrial products like Test Pilot and Mrs. Miniver. When I glance back over Pixar features like Finding Nemo, Cars, WALL•E, and Up, and the shorts released alongside them—all of the Pixar films of the last ten years or so, setting aside Monsters, Inc. and Brad Bird's two features—they look to me like films that might have emerged from a miniature version of the MGM factory.
Like Pixar, MGM won lots of Academy Awards, and its big movies still have their fans, but does anyone take very many of those movies seriously? Not any more; and I think that will be Pixar's ultimate fate. Not that it matters to John Lasseter and Pete Docter and their colleagues, and not that it should, given the priorities in today's Hollywood and especially at today's Disney, where there is not a trace left of Walt Disney's kind of seriousness. (The Disney studio's current proprietors are very serious, of course, but only about money.)
For the record: I haven't seen The Book of Kells, but of the four nominated animated features that I have seen, I'd vote without hesitation for Coraline.
An afterthought: Perhaps the tide is turning at The New York Review insofar as Walt Disney himself is concerned. In the December 3, 2009, issue, in a review of Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Depression, Robert Gottlieb criticized that book's failure to mention Walt, "the most revolutionary film talent of his time." I can't imagine such a remark appearing in an NYR review even a few years ago, and it's good to see Walt recognized in that way now.
From Thad Komorowski: I don't know if it's fair to compare Pixar to late 30s/early 40s MGM. Some of the similarities you point out are certainly present, but I'd still much rather watch Pixar (and that sounds like heresy coming from me) than a lot of MGM's slick but soulless output that expanded throughout the 40s, only saved by the occasional Freed musical. I actually really disliked The Philadelphia Story when I first saw it (when I got sick of classic cartoons in high school and started asking, "what are the really good movies from that same period") and I still do. Surely Wizard of Oz counts as one of the good movies though, right?! I won't begin to explain my love of the Thin Man movies (at least the first three anyway) though.
MB replies: As for The Wizard of Oz, I dislike almost everything about it (the "sincerity" Walt Disney invoked is notably lacking) except for Bert Lahr's performance, which is wonderful. How I wish I could have seen him on the stage! I haven't seen The Philadelphia Story for a few years, and it's about time I gave it another look. I'm very fond of the first Thin Man, but it's really from earlier than the period I was talking about.
[Posted February 10, 2010]
From Tom Carr: I have to disagree somewhat with your harsh opinion of The Wizard Of Oz. What about the musical score? It's at least as good as that of Snow White. Maybe better, being brisker, jazzier, and less laden with treacly sentiment—except of course for "Over The Rainbow." But every fantasy Princess (whether she's Walt's or Louis B. Mayer's or anyone else's) needs at least one such romantic theme song; that's how the good old story convention works.
Besides, Judy Garland was technically a much better singer than Adrianna Caselotti, whose heavy vibrato warbling I find hard to listen to without wincing. I can't help but wonder if Prince Charming knew what he was in for if he couldn't get Snow White to pipe down once in a while!
Disclaimer: I'm a collateral relative of Harold Arlen (Arluck), even met him a few times when I was a small child, and so of course I'm biased in his favor.
MB replies: There's no disputing Judy Garland's vocal superiority to Adrianna Caselotti, but I think the Snow White score is superior, as a film score, to The Wizard of Oz score—not better music, but better integrated into the story, more supportive of the action, and so on. Oz would have worked just fine on the stage, I think, but the film's highly theatrical artificiality gets in the way of the kind of enjoyment I want from a fairy-tale movie.
From Vincent Alexander: I don't exactly share your opinions about Pixar (or The Wizard of Oz, for that matter), but I wholeheartedly agree with you about how ridiculous the Academy Awards are. They have never been an accurate guide to which movies are worth watching, and it strikes me that most of the films they give awards to have little or no entertainment value. Frankly, I still haven't forgiven them for ignoring all of those brilliant cartoons from Warner Bros. in favor of shorts like The Milky Way and The Two Mouseketeers. (I mean, seriously, no nomination for Duck Amuck? What were they thinking?)
Either way, though, I'd certainly be happy to see them give the Best Animated Feature award to Coraline. It was an amazing movie, and the visuals were fantastic. But I don't think there's any question that the award will go to Up. The fact that it got a nomination for Best Picture when no other animated films did is a pretty strong clue. Not that I really have a problem with that—I loved Up—but Coraline has received a lot less attention, which I think is a shame. I'd certainly take Coraline over a mindless film like Avatar any day.
As for MGM movies, you're probably right about most of them, but didn't you like Gaslight?
MB replies: Gaslight...well, I know I've seen it, but I can't call up any strong memories of it. Like The Philadelphia Story, it's probably one of those MGM movies I should try to see again.
[Posted February 11, 2010]
From Tom Carr: You make a good point in saying that the music of Snow White is better integrated into the film's story line. The Wizard comes off as more like a series of vaudeville sketches (not surprising, since all three of the male leads were vaudeville veterans, as was Billie Burke). One of Walt Disney's greatest strengths was his innate ability to seamlessly match music up with pictures, which is kind of surprising since there didn't seem to be any discernible musical talent in his family before him.
Harold Arlen had about a decade as a professional composer behind him before he went to Hollywood. Like George Gershwin, he was a Jewish-American songwriter who was strongly influenced by the jazz and blues of 1920's and 30's Harlem. Before "Yip" Harburg, his frequent collaborator was Ted Koehler, a partnership that's now about as forgotten as Rodgers and Hart's, before Rodgers and Hammerstein. In both cases, the earlier collaboration was the better one (at least to my ears).
An Arlen cartoon connection: Harold wrote "Blues In The Night," with lyrics by Johnny Mercer (another fine talent of that golden age, so jam-packed with talent), featured in one of the greatest Chuck Jones WB cartoons, My Favorite Duck, with Porky being endlessly tormented by Daffy:
"My mama done told me,
When I was in knee pants..."
There are dozens of recordings of this number, but my favorite is Jimmie Lunceford's from 1941, taking both sides of a 78.
I still can't believe that I met Harold Arlen, a true musical genius, especially since I was only about ten or eleven years old at the time. I really didn't know who he was, and so I didn't understand his eminent place in American culture. Unfortunately I'm not a blood relative, so I inherited none of his musical talent.
[Posted February 12, 2010]
From Dan Briney: You've really got something with your comparison of Pixar's features to the MGM features of the '40s. You've articulated very well what's always nagged at me about the output of post-Thalberg MGM, and made a good argument for why Pixar's output is similar to it.
Since Toy Story, I have never failed to catch a new Pixar feature upon release (and even found much to admire in Cars and WALL•E), but your MGM comparison caused me to realize something: though I enjoyed the Pixar films during those theatrical viewings, with the exception of the two Toy Storys I have never watched any of them again, and find I have never had any desire to watch any of them again. Like the "smug, well-upholstered" MGM product, they are satisfying but disposable; there's little reason to see any Pixar movie twice. Compare them to the prewar Disney features (and they often are), which stand up to countless viewings...will anyone really still be talking about Finding Nemo seventy years from now?
Up was the first Pixar film (not counting the dreadful shorts) that failed to resonate with me on any level, and the first that sorely tempted me to get up and leave. That it seems to be the most critically acclaimed of all the Pixar features is bizarre, and unfortunate.
MB replies: I used to buy routinely the DVDs of new Disney and Pixar features, until I realized, a few years ago, that my DVDs of Cars and Home on the Range and some other such duds were going to sit untouched on my shelf for the rest of my life. So, I've passed on Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons and WALL•E and Up. Perhaps there will be circumstances in which I want to see those films again, but I can't imagine now what they might be.
[Posted February 15, 2010]
From Tom Carr: I suppose that I'm biased by my age (in hailing distance of fifty), but computer animation has never impressed me very much. I saw the very early experiments of Pixar, although I'm sure it wasn't called Pixar at the time, in the 1970's— shown at Foothill College in northern California.
Everyone in the audience "oohed and ahhed," but if we'd known that the end results were going to be the Toy Story films, we might have been less impressed, because Art Clokey had already done that, years before, with no computer assistance at all. He used real toys! And put a lot of sweat-equity into his work. Making a stop-motion film is incredibly labor-intensive.
I'll cast a lonely vote for the 2-D pencil animator sitting at his drawing board and looking down at a blank sheet of paper: whether it's one of Disney's "Nine Old Men," or the still under-appreciated Fleischer guys. Even some of the animators who worked for second-rate studios like Terry's and Lantz's could still get a bit of what they wanted to express onto the screen, and get a few good laughs.
There won't ever be a computer-animation Bob Clampett or Ken Harris or Preston Blair or Willard Bowsky, because the software always demands that the artist has to obey its pre-set rules: "It is written."
[Posted February 16, 2010]
From Gordon Kent: Just caught up a little with some of your latest writings... always well written... which why your choice of Coraline surprises me. I've seen it twice—once in 3-D and once many months later in 2-D. I remember walking out of the theater feeling very disappointed by the story. Over a several months period I'd forgotten what it was about the story that didn't work for me....so I watched it again. I find it to be very forgettable as a story. I almost can't remember it again—but what I do remember is the simplistic nature and ease that Coraline goes through to play the game and win...no surprises whatsoever. I think the best part of Coraline was the music. Very inventive and quirky while still conveying a wonderful atmosphere for the visuals...
I still haven't seen everything and I'm pretty sure I'll never see some of the films from 2009—but for me, the most charming of the ones I did see what Fantastic Mr Fox—which kind of surprised me... I liked the story a lot, I liked the characters and the acting and I loved that it didn't depend of eye candy of the sort that fools most people these days.
MB replies: I had trouble with Coraline's story, too, but everything else about the film was so strange and memorable that for me the story problems faded in significance. I want to see both Coraline and Mr. Fox again, though, on Blu-ray. I'm troubled by how little I liked Mr. Fox, considering how much some people I respect greatly, such as Michael Sporn, loved the film. Maybe one problem is that I've never found stop-motion particularly interesting or enjoyable. Coraline surmounted that prejudice, but Mr. Fox didn't. I'm curious now why that was the case.
[Posted February 19, 2010]
February 4, 2010:
The Mysterious Dumbo Roll-A-Book
I was putting together what I thought would be a short item on the mysterious Roll-A-Book version of Dumbo—the original version of the story that became the famous Disney film—when it mushroomed into a full-blown Essay page. You can read it by clicking on this link.
From Jim Korkis: I wanted to compliment you on another enjoyable essay, this time on the origins of the Dumbo story.
First, I can definitely confirm that the image you have up there of the Dumbo book is indeed the very first printing of the story that I could ever find, and I have a copy of it in my collection. While the seller lists it as a "paperback," it is only that in the sense that it is not a hardcover. It is a softcover, approximately the size of a Golden Age comic book from that time period (which is larger than the dimensions of the later Silver Age comic books) and counting covers thirty-four pages long. My copy has "10 (cent mark)" in pencil at the top but I have no idea if that was the original price or something added later for a garage sale.
This book does indeed have both the copyrights, which I don't think is true of later editions.You are also right that the interior has artwork similiar to the artwork reproduced in the Feild book. It is very loose, appears to have been done with black charcoal or chalk. The story is basically the same as the cartoon but with some significant differences and I wonder if it was rushed into print to secure a copyright on this original story.
I have tried for decades to track down the Roll-A-Book version or any Roll-A-Book version and have been unsuccessful. If Roll-A-Books were produced, they don't seem to have survived at any of the countless toy and book shows I frequented in Los Angeles, or the countless auction catalogs I browsed or the countless book sellers I have contacted. Doesn't mean they weren't produced, just that I couldn't locate them after decades of specifically searching for them.
Actually, I am surprised they were able to get a patent since it seems to me the concept has been around almost as long as flip books. Even the early Sunday Mickey Mouse newspaper comic strips of the '30s included something similar where there would be an image of a Disney character like Mickey riding a pig and at the side a strip of different facial expressions and children were directed to make two slits on the original face and then slide the strip threw one at a time to change the expression of the character. It seems to me when I was growing up there were toys that used the concept of turning a plastic dial to advance to another picture in a story.
John Rose was also involved in the production of the first original Donald Duck comic book "Pirate's Gold" and I remember clearly Jack Hannah telling me that he and Carl Barks were approached by Rose and he was unclear what Rose's exact position was but that he talked like a big shot. When I told Jack that Rose was supposedly in charge of story development, Jack looked puzzled and said he and Carl were doing story work and had never heard of him or seen him involved but thought he worked in the bungalow devoted to the comic strip department.
I, too, had heard that Harold Pearl and Helen Aberson had been married. I know Helen developed a handful of other animal stories for children but don't think they were ever published. Always wondered if "Helen Durney" was another incarnation of Helen Aberson Pearl Mayer, but someone else claimed that Durney was a next door neighbor who illustrated other children's books. I had also been told that Helen visited the Disney Studios but was not a consultant but could find no verification for that statement.
Lots of mysteries and I hope someone out there has some of the other puzzle pieces.
From Donald Benson: I don't know if they were actually licensed under that patent, but in the dim past I do recall items very much like the Roll-A-Book. One was a little television set with knobs on the side. There were three or four rolls of short color comic strips with panels arranged vertically. Pretty sure they were reworking of comic books—the one I remember had Ludwig Von Drake visiting Donald and the nephews, placing it in the early '60s. It was your basic mounted-on-cardboard-under-clear-plastic supermarket toy.
In the late '70s I picked up a small toy viewer where you looked through a lens at black-and-white cartoon panels printed on actual 16mm. It was Star Trek merchandise, and I later found out the content was was from the already vintage Whitman comic book version (Spock eulogized a crew member by saying, "He was a good spaceman").
Finally, there were the Happy Meals from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (so many "What were they thinking?" aspects to that whole project). They had a very small and very simple version (one piece plastic, no color or back) designed to suggest a communicator. It had the two knobs and a very crudely rendered comic.
I think there are still toys out there that look very much like the Roll-A-Book—the last one I saw contained a roll of coloring pictures and simple puzzles instead of a story.
[Posted February 4, 2010]
From Tom Carr: The Roll-A-Book seems to have been the original version of the Amazon Kindle. Granted, the content was a lot more limited, but it didn't need batteries. Also, it didn't cost $259.00!
I'm only half-joking about this.
From Milton Gray: I've been following your articles and readers' comments regarding the
Dumbo Roll-A-Book and the ongoing incarnations of it years later. My
own story is so unimportant that I hesitated to even mention it, but I
thought you might be mildly amused by it. Around 1954, when I was about 12 years
old, there was an illustrated article in one of the pages of the Sunday newspaper comics section of how to make a homemade contraption out of a cardboard shoe box and two pencils. The idea was to cut out
the Sunday comics in horizontal strips, tape the strips together into
a long extended strip, and then roll that up on a pencil. Then cut a square hole in the shoe box, insert the pencil with the roll into one
end, and another pencil in the other end, and by turning the pencils
with the roll attached to both, pulling the comic strips under the
square hole to make a kind of "movie in a box." It didn't work too well because the panels of the comic strips varied in size, so they frequently didn't match the size of the hole in the box. So then I
got the idea of making my own comic strip on a roll of paper, with the
panels all the same size. I bought a roll of adding machine paper at
the dime store and, if I remember right, I filled the entire roll with
hundreds of cartoon panels, all colored with colored pencils. The
story I made up was not very good, and it rambled a lot to make it long enough to fill the roll of paper. I also made the box a little
more elaborate, adding Tinker Toy parts to make it work more efficiently. It was an elaborate homemade production.
[Posted February 6, 2010]
From Tom Carr: I never thought I'd find any relevant internet information on this subject, and it took a fair amount of poking around (you can imagine how many web listings there are for the word "panorama"), but Wikipedia has a good description, at this link.
These hand-painted scrolls were presented to paying audiences in theaters, as early as the mid-19th century. There was an obvious desire for some kind of motion pictures on the part of those audiences, long before Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers gave them the real thing. The Roll-A-Book was a pocket version of these panoramas, which must have been about the same size and weight as heavy floor carpets, when rolled up for transport (and how did they keep the paint from cracking and flaking off the rolls)? But the cranking mechanism that moves the pictures is essentially the same as the toy version's.
Maybe it's a basic human instinct to want to see objects and landscapes in motion (it certainly is for animation fans). In that light, it's interesting that Mr. Gray, as a boy, made his own "Roll-A-Book" out of the materials at hand. How many kids tried something similar? Quite a few, that's my guess.
[Posted February 8, 2010]
From Alyssa Manley: I happened to stumble upon your site while researching the 1941 Aberson/Pearl edition of Dumbo, the Flying Elephant (I'm the Amazon customer who uploaded the image on that site, and I have scans of the back cover and all internal pages as well). Ever since reading about the mystery of the original Aberson story in April (and stymied by the lack of information on it available online), I started a daily ritual of searching eBay and poking through thrift stores, book shops, and anywhere else that sold secondhand goods in an effort to find a copy of the book. Astonishingly, against every conceivable odd there is, I actually managed to find one in a local shop!
My copy, at least, is a large paperback, with advertising material for the Fern Furniture Company of Albany and Schenectady, New York printed on the back (which makes some sense if Ms. Aberson was from Syracuse). Although I've read an estimate that less than 1,000 copies of editions featuring the Aberson text were printed; without any sort of source other than "copies hardly ever turn up" I am unsure of how accurate that is, or whether or not the book is more or less widespread (although this tidbit lends itself to an interesting theory, which I will get to shortly). In my personal research, I've only ever seen pictures of one other copy of this book, which was also paperback and also featured the Fern advertising.
Based on these factors—possible low print count (the two separate Fern stores seem to be the only establishments handing these things out); the fact that advertising is printed on the back covers of the two known copies; the local connection between Ms. Aberson and Fern Furniture; and the fascinating statement mentioned in your article that there was some issue with how marketable or successful this book could be because of its great differences from the resulting movie—an idea has sparked in the back of my mind that the Aberson story was published not to be sold but solely to be an advertising premium—something that was given away to kids to promote both interest in Disney's Dumbo and Fern Furniture Company (as a curiosity, the details of the advertising on the back cover mentions that boys and girls should "bring Mother and Father" with them to "Dumbo's Toyland" that winter; the internet is silent on just what Dumbo's Toyland actually was, however). If commercial copies of this book were actually printed (you seem to recall the copy in the Disney Archives as a hardcover); perhaps Fern merely licensed the title for advertising purposes; which simply begs the question of where all those hardcover copies vanished to...
On the issue of Roll-A-Books, while I, like you, am doubtful that the Dumbo story was ever published in this manner, I can verify through library research that at least one Roll-A-Book was published and perhaps sold, back in 1938 (indicating that production did start before their patent was granted!). No pictures and virtually no information about it exists beyond what I can find on the WorldCat database, but it is titled The Lost Stone of Agog: A Fast Moving Adventure Story. Written by Gertrude Smith Buckland and with "Roll-A-Color" illustrations by Eleanor Schaefer, it is listed at the front of the roll as "Roll-A-Book For Boys and Girls, No. 1." The fact that any Roll-A-Book at all was produced gives a little boost to the idea that Dumbo might have been one as well; but based on your sterling investigation I severely doubt it went anywhere beyond the prototype stage.
Thank you for writing such a wonderfully detailed and interesting article! While I am no Disney historian (or a historian of any kind—I am only 24 years old!); I love the lure of a mystery and of old, dusty forgotten things, and the saga of Dumbo's history and the elusive Helen Aberson really fired my imagination. It's great that there are people out there who are willing to embrace the obscure and shed light on the dusty corners of memory.
MB replies: Alyssa has sent me her scans of the 1941 Whitman book, and I'll post them soon. Dave Smith confirms that the two copies in the Disney Archives are also in paperback, with a "somewhat stiffer cover than the interior pages." That fact should have been reflected in my notes from the Archives, but wasn't, for some reason. (Neither was the page count—there are thirty-two, plus covers, with the inside front and back covers blank. I must have been in a hurry).
Dave also says that neither of the Archives copies has any advertising on the back cover, adding: "It seems like this may have been a case where copies were bought up and had additional material printed on them, so they could be used as promotional premiums."
Dave also pulled a "book royalty card" that records the printing of 1,430 copies of the book as of March 31, 1942, and includes this notation: "This book was made to comply with contract."' The contract with Aberson and Pearl, that is, which must have required Disney to publish the book as they wrote it, possibly for distribution only near Aberson's home town of Syracuse. (The book had a retail price of ten cents. With a printing of only 1,430 copies, distribution of so inexpensive a book could not have been widespread.)
As to why publication of the original version might have been important to Aberson and Pearl—or maybe just Aberson—the reason surely is that the original version would never have seen the light of day otherwise. The 1939 Roll-A-Book version was either never published, despite the claim to publication on the copyright registration, or produced only in prototype copies. In the 1941 Whitman book, the Disney name appears only in the copyright notice, and Aberson and Pearl are identified as its authors on the cover.
The 1941 book's story, differing as much as it does from the film, is certainly Aberson and Pearl's, and quite likely the text is the same as the Roll-A-Book's, or very close to it. The illustrations, though, have a Disney look to them; I don't recognize the hand, but they bear a general similarity to the story sketches reproduced in Feild's The Art of Walt Disney. That division of labor would account for the two copyright dates: 1939, by Roll-A-Book, for the text, and 1941, by Disney, for the illustrations.
(The Disney Archives doesn't have an exact publication date for the 1941 book, but, Dave Smith says, "one of our copies was checked out by Walt from the Studio Library on
November 26, 1941." That was, curiously, exactly a week after he was scheduled to meet with Helen Aberson at his office.)
If I'm right, and the 1941 book's illustrations came out of the Disney studio, that means that the Helen Durney materials at Syracuse University were made for the Roll-A-Book. The Durney materials may in fact be all that's left of the Roll-A-Book. When someone finally visits the university library and brings those materials to light in some way, we'll probably have a reasonably clear picture, at last, of how Dumbo progressed from Roll-A-Book to animated classic.
[Posted February 27, 2010]