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"What's New" Archives: February 2012

 

February 27, 2012:

Apologies

 

February 13, 2012:

The Imperfect Perfect American

 

February 6, 2012:

Where Walt Was: March 30, 1957

 

February 3, 2012:

Arrested Development, or Maybe Not

 

February 2, 2012:

Fire at Børge Ring's

 

February 27, 2012:

Apologies

I don't flatter myself that hordes of people are hunched over their computers waiting for me to post, but I know that I do have regular visitors, and I like to post something at least once a week to repay that gratifying interest in what I'm doing. Lately, though, I've been consumed with work on my still-unfinished (and endlessly fascinating, to me anyway) book on old comic books. When I have to choose between writing about Walt Kelly in my book and writing about, say, the Oscars here, it's no contest, I'm afraid. But I have a backlog of things I really want to say here, and I'm sure I'll get to them soon.

In the meantime, I hope you've taken the time to read some of the comments on my February 13 post on The Perfect American, book and opera, in particular. I pride myself on attracting more thoughtful and well-informed comments than most websites of this kind, and the current crop is a good example. Also, with the fabrications and distortions in The Perfect American in mind, let me recommend to you a fascinating review in the New York Times of a book called The Lifespan of a Fact, an account of the long-running conflict between an arrogant fabulist who presents himself as a nonfiction writer and a persistent fact-checker for Harper's magazine. It will no doubt peg me (once again) as a hopeless fuddy-duddy when I say that my sympathies are entirely with the fact-checker.

February 13, 2012:

The Imperfect Perfect American

Perfect American coverPatrick Garabedian has called my attention to an Associated Press story that appeared last week in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, among other places, and begins like this:

NEW YORK — Philip Glass’ ”The Perfect American,” imagining the final months of the life of Walt Disney, will have its world premiere at Madrid’s Teatro Real on Jan. 22, 2013.

The opera was originally commissioned by New York City Opera when Gerard Mortier was to become general manager. Mortier, who took over as the Teatro Real’s artistic director in 2010, announced the company’s 2012-13 season on Tuesday. The opera, commissioned in honor of the composer’s 75th birthday Jan. 31, is based on the novel by Peter Stephan Jungk.

The cast includes Christopher Purves (Walt Disney), David Pittsinger (Roy), Janis Kelly (Hazel George), Marie McLaughlin (Lillian Disney), Sarah Tynan (Sharon), Nazan Friket (Lucy) and John Easterlin (Andy Warhol). Dennis Russel Davies conducts and Phelim McDermott directs in a co-production with the English National Opera. There will be seven performances in Madrid through Feb. 6.

New York City Opera announced the commission in September 2008, saying it was to open its 2012-13 season. Mortier quit before he officially started, saying he wasn’t given a sufficient budget. The company left Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts last summer because of huge losses, and its 2011-12 season, which starts this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is limited to 16 performances of four operas.

I wrote about Jungk's dreadful novel in October 2008, when this misbegotten project was announced:

Considered simply as a piece of narrative carpentry, The Perfect American is very clumsily put together. The fictional narrator, Wilhelm Dantine—a Disney-obsessed, Austrian-born animator whom Walt supposedly fired in 1959—is superfluous at best and disappears from the story for long stretches. The book takes us inside Walt's head, but there's no suggestion that Walt has confided in Dantine or that Dantine has first-hand knowledge of the extended conversations and intensely private episodes he reports. Instead, there's the awkward pretense that he has excavated such information from other sources, most notably Hazel George, the studio nurse who was Walt's masseuse and confidante. I can't imagine why Jungk shunned that tried and true device, an omniscient narrator. His book would have gained greatly in plausibility if he had used one.

As it is, Wilhelm Dantine is so desperately unpleasant a character—especially during an unbelievable confrontation with Walt at his home in Holmby Hills—that it's tempting always to conclude that we're reading Dantine's delusions, and not what he actually knows about Walt. A good deal of what Jungk's Walt Disney says does indeed sound looney, but it's always clear that we're to take the looniness as Walt's, and not as Dantine's.

Contributing further to the intended sense of Dantine's reliability is the factual detail—loads of it, some of it accurate (Jungk studied Bob Thomas's biography closely, along with a lot of other sources), a lot of it inaccurate (to cite two small examples, Jungk doesn't understand what "drafts" are, and he confuses in-betweeners with inkers and painters), and a lot of it just made up, as with the nonexistent September 1966 visit to Marceline, Missouri, that opens the book. It's the emphasis on all this detail that is ultimately most disturbing; sometimes Jungk has Walt himself talking about his history for no other evident purpose than to make the author sound more knowledgeable and his book more authoritative.

The crux of my complaint against The Perfect American is that it marshals this apparent expertise to portray a Walt Disney who is far removed from the real Walt, as many people have described him and as I came to know him when I was researching and writing The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Jungk protested to me four years ago that The Perfect American "is full of admiration for the man and comes very close to his persona, believe me, without leaving some of the darker sides unmentioned," but that protest is disingenuous at best. Jungk's Walt is a tormented creep who is not only romantically involved with Hazel George but is sexually obsessed with his adopted daughter, Sharon. He is, of course, a racist, a misogynist, and an anti-Semite, too. I came away from The Perfect American thinking that I had read not about a Walt Disney who in any way resembled the real man, but about Walt Disney as he might have been imagined by Nathanael West (if that brilliant writer had been as irresponsible as Peter Stephan Jungk).

The Perfect American didn't get a lot of attention when it was published four years ago, and its bizarre portrayal of Walt might have slipped quietly into the remainder bins if the book had not somehow been adopted by Philip Glass as the subject of an opera. That Glass could think well of so obviously bad a book baffles and disturbs me, but I guess by this point in my life I shouldn't be surprised by any expression of disdain for Walt and his works.

On the dust jacket there's this praise for Jungk's book from Kirkus Reviews: "Sharp as a razor: The Perfect American says more about Disney, and the seduction of megalomania, than a stack of biographies." The Perfect American may indeed say "more about Disney" than biographies like mine, but a great deal of what it says is false. I wish more people, including Philip Glass, thought that mattered. At least I can hope that Glass's opera will succeed as a piece of music, whatever its shortcomings as biography. I will certainly want to be in the audience when the New York City Opera presents it four or five years from now.

Jungk wrote to me about my review a few days later:

dear michael barrier,

thank you for your kind, intelligent, wonderful review of my 'perfect american'. it proves that you are a perfect american too.

i'm certain sarah palin, another perfect american, would have been endorsed by walt, don't you think?

all best,

peter stephan jungk

In sum: the book is terrible, the author is a jerk. Philip Glass is widely and justifiably esteemed as a minimalist composer, and I expressed the hope back in 2008 that his music might transcend its trashy source and render the book irrelevant. That was probably a foolish hope. There's no way that Glass could have attached his name to The Perfect American unless he had bought in completely to its false and distorted portrayal of Walt Disney, and it's hard for me to believe that great music can be summoned up from such a poisonous source. Perhaps the book's version of Walt is consistent with what The New Yorker's music critic Alex Ross, in an admiring essay in the February 13 issue, calls Glass's "radical politics." If you hear echoes of the Black Panthers' visit to Leonard Bernstein's apartment back in the '60s, you're probably not hearing things.

At least the mention of the Teatro Real brought back pleasant memories. On our first and so far only visit to the wonderful city of Madrid, in 2001, Phyllis and I stayed at the Hostal Valencia, a fourth-floor walkup across from the Royal Palace and diagonally across the Plaza Oriente from the Teatro Real. A lively but certainly not a glamorous location, since we heard the clanking of dishes from the Cafe de Oriente directly below us until late in the night (I don't think Madrileños ever sleep). We didn't attend a performance at the Teatro Real, saving that for another trip. I don't think that trip will be next January or February, and I don't think it will encompass a performance of The Perfect American. I can't imagine a better way to spoil a vacation.

My earlier posts about The Perfect American, book and opera, are at these links: August 24, 2004; October 2, 2008; October 14, 2008; October 25, 2008.

Comments

From Patrick Garabedian: Thanks for the mention on your site.

I have googled Jungk—he is an American-born, America-hating Kraut of some sort (has lived in a variety of places ). Junk about WD may never die—a facsimile of him has even been immortalized on The Simpsons as pro-Nazi , and you must know endless details more. Antisemitic, racist, misogynist, anti-proletariat, wife-beater, just because they are so nasty the accusations deserve a specific refutation beyond the passing one in your book, and I have suggested so in the past to you.

Advice is cheap if not worthless, but you really should take the time. Nobody must know the accusations, and their refutation, better than you. A dedicated article in some publication of record would be best, or otherwise a few pages in your forthcoming book; I assume you will take some space to refute or at least put in context various such racism etc. accusations against the various artists—I know they have been done against the various artists; such as against Barks (Dorfman, the Chilean Jungk, comes to mind—except, unlike the latter, he is not too proud to feed off the American manna). A discussion of WD could be included there.

MB replies: I think the Walt haters are beyond the reach of facts (as are, to take a recent example, the loathsome "birthers" who are convinced that Barack Obama was born somewhere other than Hawaii). Likewise with Barks, who is in fact currently the target of charges of racism thanks to the recent reprinting of "Voodoo Hoodoo" in its original form. If Barks was guilty of racism in the 1940s—an accusation I don't accept—he was no more so than American culture as a whole.

[Posted February 16, 2012]

From Mario N. Castro: I think it is a little unfair to call Dorfman the Chilean Jungk. I saw him at a recent conference in a Mexican university, and he seemed like a really nice guy. Also, he publicly apologized some years ago in regard to his criticisms of Barks's work. Something that is particularly interesting considering that he never actually mentions his name in How to Read Donald Duck, instead the semiotic analysis is focused on Disney as an abstract "idea," more than a figure or a real human being. It is an influential book in Latin-American cultural studies, but it is fundamentally flawed, to the point where it has been continuously rebutted by Latin-American writers and comic book artists, many of whom are ardent fans of Barks. It is quite fascinating in fact, that respect for the work of Barks greatly increased in the last decade (at least in this part of America), to the point where you can once in a while read passionate tributes to Donald Duck comics in serious literary magazines.

It seems that Dorfman's criticisms lightened with time, though. Oddly enough, he portrayed Barks in a positive, albeit quite ambiguous, light in his excellent novel about exile, La última canción de Manuel Sendero.

Jungk, on the other hand, quite obviously has some unresolved issues that he needs to deal with, with his therapist. He first mentions that the novel respects the figure of Disney, but later on he compares him to Sarah Palin? Classy gentleman, right there.

From Milton Gray: Just a quick note to say that I really agree with Patrick Garabedian. Even though I totally agree with your statement that "the Walt haters are beyond the reach of facts," refutation is still valuable because there are so many other people who simply are unfamiliar with the facts and can be swayed by lies in the absence of counter information. The lack of refutation is the very thing that makes many casual observers assume that the lies must be true. The Walt haters (I'm guessing) are relatively few in number, but the people they influence are many. I'm for anything that will protect Walt's legacy from malicious lies.

[Posted February 17, 2012]

From Dan Briney: I'd like to add my voice to Patrick Garabedian's suggestion that you publish something, on- or offline, to serve as the "definitive" debunking of the various character assassinations that have swirled around Walt for so many years. The absurdities have snowballed since he died (the low point was probably Marc Eliot's claim that Walt was born the illegitimate son of a Spanish prostitute sometime in the early 1890s and that his "official" bio of having been born in Chicago in 1901 was a studio cover-up) and Milt Gray is quite right in pointing out that since it's happening more or less in a vacuum, people such as Eliot and the appropriately-named Jungk have been free to set the anti-Walt narrative. Probably the most influential recent hatchet job against Walt was SNL's "Inside the Disney Vault" animated sketch from a few years ago, which reinforced for a whole new generation the ideas that Walt was a Nazi, a racist, an anti-Semite, had his head stored in a jar, etc.

What's needed is a high-profile, independent refutation of all of this, something coming from a published authority on Walt Disney who isn't connected to the studio, and that's you. Please consider it; I'm tired of watching the Peter Stephan Jungks of the world come along every so often to libel a man of far greater character and accomplishment than they.

MB replies: As I've said above, I think the Walt haters are beyond the reach of facts—are simply not interested in facts—so any decisive refutation of the lies about him is probably impossible. The attacks on Walt are based not on misinformation but on ideology, and as the bloody history of the twentieth century proves, for many people ideology trumps facts every time.

Beyond that, I think that any serious effort to explore and refute the lies about Walt would require the cooperation of the Walt Disney Company, and I doubt that the company has the slightest interest in supporting a "high-profile, independent" research effort.

Consider: just a few years ago, the company gave its blessing to a biography of Walt by an author who was already on record, in another book, as believing his subject to be antisemitic; who depicted Walt as haunted and driven rather than as the exuberant entrepreneur he unquestionably was; who completely misunderstood important aspects of Walt's life—his relationship with his father, his enthusiasm for trains—and who even relied on sources as suspect as Marc Eliot's hatchet job while getting a lot of facts wrong. When that biography was published, just so no one missed the point, there was a book signing at the store on the Disney lot, with hundreds of obedient Disney employees lined up to get the author's autograph.

My own biography of Walt—a far more sympathetic and accurate presentation of the man, I have no doubt—was written without company approval or cooperation. After the book was published a company official claimed falsely that several of its illustrations violated Disney copyrights. That claim was finally withdrawn, grudgingly, months later, but not before I had gone to considerable trouble and expense to prove that it was unfounded; and not before the book had been barred from the Disney theme parks' stores.

Doesn't sound like a company that's much interested in protecting the reputation of its founder from lies and slurs, does it?

[Posted February 18, 2012]

From Gunnar Andreassen: You have repeated that Walt Disney haters are beyond the reach of facts. This may very well be the case, whether this is for ideological or possibly other reasons.

However, this is not the main point here. The question is how people of good will—and knowledge—may be able to set the record straight. Here I believe that Milton Gray is very much right and expresses this better than I could have done, therefore I quote from his comment:

…refutation is still valuable because there are so many other people who simply are unfamiliar with the facts and can be swayed by lies in the absence of counter information. The lack of refutation is the very thing that makes many casual observers assume that the lies must be true. The Walt haters (I'm guessing) are relatively few in number, but the people they influence are many. I'm for anything that will protect Walt's legacy from malicious lies.

How can this be achieved? I think this probably will need the cooperation of several people: leading Disney historians/experts. Can a book project be the thing to make here—for as you say to make a serious effort to explore and refute the lies about Walt? If ten people (or more) each could write a chapter in this book and really go deep in the research, this will be a most worthy project.

I’m not so sure that the cooperation of the Walt Disney Company is necessary, probably a totally independent project is much better and not having as a sponsor or publisher a company that may have an agenda of some sorts for its support.

Can a project like this be a start of something new when it comes to Disney history and research, a cooperation of experts that has never before been attempted? AND as a result of this, could this be a start of something that I started thinking about a couple of years ago: A Walt Disney Society ?

In Norway, where I live, there are several societies that are founded to honor the memory of famous musicians, authors and scientists. In other countries in Europe and in the USA there are a lot of such societies.

I have never heard of a Walt Disney Society, but to me it would be a great idea to form such a society.

I would think that a lot of people, both experts on Disney and amateurs/enthusiasts like myself could be interested in joining this.

Could many people be interested in supporting an initiative in order to found a Walt Disney Society?

Could the mission statement for the society be something like this?:

The Walt Disney Society is an independent and non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the understanding and appreciation of the life and work of Walt Disney through research, commentary, sharing of information and educational activities.

The Society must have no affiliation with The Walt Disney Company, but may cooperate with The Walt Disney Family Museum on a regular basis.

I would think that a cooperation with the Museum could be of importance, for instance the publishing of books like a yearbook (annual), with interesting articles for a wider scope of people, among them those who visit the museum, and also more scientific works/books. Arrange special guided tours in the Museum, trips to important Disney related sites, etc.

The society (and the Museum) could issue a medal/reward in recognition of extraordinary contributions to the appreciation of Walt Disney and his work.

The society must have its base in USA.

Arrange a yearly gathering/meeting with lectures by Disney historians/experts.

A magazine for members (on paper) in addition to the yearbook.

A web page.

If a lot of Disney historians/experts would join such a society, this could really be an organization for cooperation and sharing of information.

[Posted February 19, 2012]

From Dana Gabbard: Since mention has been made of How to Read Donald Duck I should mention that fifteen years ago Geoffrey Blum and I collaborated on the definitive debunking of that tome, titled "The Color of Truth is Gray," which appeared in Gladstone's Uncle Scrooge Adventures in Color album No. 24. Not that it seems to have stopped many from unknowingly still citing the Dorfman/Mattelart book as if its myopic analysis has any relation to reality. The only thing Blum and I didn't really get into is the hypocrisy of Dorfman engaging in just the sort of cultural appropriation he decried in How to Read Donald Duck when he portrayed a "Carl Barks" in Manuel Sendero that other than the vague outlines of Barks' career is created from whole cloth to suit Dorfman's dubious artistic goals. Plus the book isn't all that good, based on what parts of it I have read.

Why do we need a Disney society (and one at that already becoming bloated just in Gunnar Andreassen's initial description)? Your blog comments seem to be sufficent to aid those who are looking for accurate information. You can fill a bucket, but if people don't choose to drink in the end it isn't worth getting tied in knots over their behavior.

[Posted February 20, 2012]

From Mario N. Castro: I do not want this debate to deviate into petty discussion or superfluous name calling, especially because I highly respect the work of Danna Gabbard and Geoffrey Blum. That said, the last comment by Mr. Gabbard bothered me. I find it incongruous, to say the least, that he considers Dorfman’s work as detached from reality when part of his comment is not supported by true facts and is filled with prejudice and false assumptions. Dorfman’s project was intended for a Latin-American audience, a project that was systematically forgotten to the point where How to Read Donald Duck is irrelevant in contemporary cultural studies. It is still in print, but is not particularly well known or quoted. It is not part of any semiotics or cultural studies coursework that I know of. My classmates were not even aware of its existence until one teacher mentioned it in passing in a discourse analysis class. However, it is historically valuable in Latin-American history.

Dorfman had a difficult life. Like many intellectuals, he was persecuted and forced to exile after Pinochet’s coup d’état, only two years after the publication of the book. Like many other Marxists, he was justifiably angered and frustrated, but it was misguided anger, I believe. If we can accept that Disney's and Barks’s racism was clearly product of is time, then we can accept that How to Read Donald Duck is a book defined by its particular context: a semiotic analysis written by an author trained in cultural studies in the United States and Chile, advisor to Salvador Allende, admirer and friend of Harold Pinter. In the sixties! To call him the Chilean Jungk is as condescending as comparing his work to that of Marc Elliot. He was blinded by a “rigid” doctrine and his analysis ignored obvious logical holes (the tendentious translations of Barks’s work, the assumption that Disney’s input affected every production and story in the company). Yes, he had a clear ideological agenda, like many intellectuals and writers of that decade, which was needed at that moment in history and in that part of the world; but his intentions were never aimed at morbid marketing or historical fabrication (it is quite obvious that he never intended the book to be translated or sold as a best-seller). Mr. Gabbard never addresses any of my points and instead affirms that the novel (that he didn’t even finish) is fueled by “dubious artistic intentions” in the representation of Barks. Please, explain to me, what is dubious about a personal recollection of exile and a criticism of a brutal dictatorship? I can accept your opinion about the novel, which is valid, but “dubious intentions”? Perhaps "personal" or "political" or even "idiosyncratic," but dubious? Why?

This is not a blind defense of Dorfman’s work. As you can tell, I like his literary work and admire his political resistance, but I have a lot of issues with his essays, particularly with How to Read Donald Duck. In that sense, I can accept a rebuttal of a “myopic” and misguided analysis that is done under facts and cogent arguments, but not when is fueled with the same myopic resentment as the original work he is trying to criticize. After all, the color of truth is gray, isn’t it?

[Posted February 21, 2012]

From Ricardo Cantoral: I haven't read many personal recollections of Walt Disney but the most negative one I have come across was by Richard Fleischer in his autobiography Just Tell Me When To Cry. According to Fleischer, Disney had no shame in taking credit for other people's work and often fired and re-hired people to keep them scared and productive. Other than that, Fleischer found Disney to be rather easy to work with and practically a saint compared to some of producers he recollects in his book. I think people who spread the rumors about Disney being some anti-semitic monster are not really "haters" at all; They just want to seem hip and the best way to do it is lampoon, tarnish, or distort a clean image.

MB replies: For those who want to check for themselves, Dick Fleischer's not-altogether-credible memories of Walt are on pages 102-105 of Just Tell Me When to Cry.

From Rick Petersburg: Man, I wish you'd start reviewing movies again. I know a lot of people often disagreed with your conclusions—myself included—but there's nothing in the world as satisfying to read as a critical disembowling and you're one of the best in the world at delivering them, as this post reminds me. You DESTROYED that poor stupid bastard.

[Posted February 25, 2012]

MB replies: Actually, it's more enjoyable for me to write about a movie I liked than one I disliked—about The Incredibles, say, than Rango, which I loathed (but not heartily enough to make me want to take the time to explain why I thought it was so bad).

From Robin Johnson: I’ve been following the discussion on the Not-So-Perfect-American with great interest. On the issue of Disney-hating, academic historians are all too familiar with the “dead white males” syndrome—the vogue for trashing the reputation of famous historical figures, especially if they fit those three categories. But it’s just as important for independent scholars such as yourself to talk back—the way online fact-checkers rate political speech, which has taken an equally wild downturn in our time. Biographers also need to give out Pants-on-Fire or Pinocchio awards (the last having a particular appropriateness in this case).

But I want to return to this crazy Glass opera! Speaking simply as an opera fan, I am fascinated by the cast list as announced in the AP article. Who is “Lucy”? Why isn’t Diane Disney included among the family members? (Obvious answer: she’s alive, and she would sue.) Where are other important characters from Disney’s life, like Ub Iwerks? (Plenty of possibilities for drama there.) Will the animators come on as a chorus, singing “Hi-ho, hi-ho?” (Obvious answer: no, copyright problems. Pity.)

But above all—what, please, is Andy Warhol doing in an opera about Walt Disney? The minute you stick Warhol in there, even the dumbest audience member will surely get the idea that this is not sober biography. It also suddenly hit me that Warhol would have made a much better subject for a Philip Glass opera than Disney. Warhol’s famous prints of iconic celebrities, repeating over and over and over again, fit Glass’s music perfectly. And if the story was full of fabrications, who would care? Everyone would expect a Warhol opera to be scandalous and strange. Seems like a lost artistic opportunity to me...

MB replies: Yes, a Glass opera about Warhol would certainly make sense, maybe in the way that John Adams's Nixon in China makes sense: as a sort of fantasia whose tangential relationship to reality is immediately obvious. But since Walt Disney's life is a blank to most people (even though almost everyone knows his name), it will be all too easy for even sophisticated operagoers to assume that Glass' Perfect American has more than a kernel of truth in it, especially since Jungk's lousy book is the source and it has been praised, absurdly, by people who should know better, and probably do. As I wrote back in 2004 about Richard Schickel's glowing review of The Perfect American in the Los Angeles Times: "Such is, alas, today's world of book chat, in which, too often, a review consists of one literary charlatan ruminating or rhapsodizing over the offenses of another."

[Posted February 27, 2012]

From Gene Schiller: I’ve been reading The Perfect American (your comments piqued my interest) and though I’m no Disney scholar, it appears, even to a layman such as myself, that research has been minimal; there’s not much here I haven’t heard elsewhere, one way or another, though he makes an interesting observation on the authenticity of Walt’s signature (I’ve always had doubts about celebrity ‘autographs.’) Actually, the best written, best conceived episode in the book is that totally fictitious trip to Marceline.

Dantine, serves perhaps too obviously, as proxy for any and everyone who held a personal grudge against Disney; and his claim of being exploited, and then denied screen credit for Sleeping Beauty is ludicrous, as Disney was unusually fastidious, even magnanimous in this regard.

However, the author’s gift for characterization cannot to be denied; the Disney clan, not only Walt, but Roy and Lillian, really come alive—and it’s not an unsympathetic portrayal, or even a particularly controversial one. Disney’s biases and ultra-conservatism, at this point, should come as a surprise to no one, and can be forgiven at least to some extent, as a product of the times. For instance, Disneyland’s ban on long hair seems ridiculously over the top today, but in the '60s it provoked no special outrage. In all things, at all times, Disney was the perfect representation of mainstream America.

[Posted March 22, 2012]

February 6, 2012:

Walt and James P. Reinhold

Where Walt Was: March 30, 1957

On March 16, 2011, I posted one of my "Where Walt Was" items, that one about Walt Disney's participation in an Independence Day parade in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, on July 4, 1957. I cited a Chicago Tribune story that explained how Walt came to take part in the parade, a small-town affair that wasn't an obvious place for him to be.

As so often in such cases, it was a matter of what the Tribune called "a chain of friends." A member of the North Evanston association [which sponsored the parade] had a friend named James Reinhold, who was assistant to the president of the Santa Fe railroad and who knew Walt, perhaps through the Santa Fe's involvement in Disneyland or maybe even earlier, since Walt rode the Santa Fe frequently on his trips across the country. The Evanston association's "show committee" approached Walt not only through Reinhold and the Santa Fe, but also through Myron Cox, an executive of Swift & Co., the Chicago-based meat packer that was also a Disneyland concessionaire. That was in 1956. Walt pleaded a prior commitment—he would be in his hometown of Marceline, Missouri, that July 4, along with his brother Roy and their wives, for the dedication of a municipal park and swimming pool in his honor—but he asked for a rain check.

The next year, the Tribune reported in June 1957, "the association again called on its friend, Reinhold, friend of Disney—and Cox, another friend. But it was Reinhold who posed the second invitation to Disney several months ago, when he was in Hollywood on business in Disneyland where the Santa Fe operates all the railroads. ... 'Walt,' he reminded, 'it isn't too late to say you'll be on hand this year for the Evanston Fourth of July show.' 'You must have caught me in a weak moment,' replied Disney. 'I'll be there.'"

And he was, more than honoring his word by bringing with him Fess Parker, Jimmie Dodd, the Mouseketeers, and a gaggle of costumed Disney characters.

That earlier post caught the eye of Sandy Hilburn, James P. Reinhold's niece, and Bill Reinhold, James's grandson. Bill has provided this photo, taken at Disneyland on March 30, 1957, during what a note on the back of the photo calls the 1957 "directors trip." It was surely during this visit to the West Coast that James Reinhold got Walt's commitment to appear in the Evanston parade.

From the left, the people in the photo are Bob Waller, a Santa Fe Railway Co. attorney; Hank O'Leary, special representative of the public relations department of the Santa Fe; James P. Reinhold, assistant to the president of the Santa Fe; Ralph Thomas, manager of communications for the Santa Fe; Walt Disney; Jack Sayers, chairman of Disneyland's park operating committee; and Tommy Walker, Disneyland's director of entertainment (for more about him, see my original post).

Bill Reinhold is a professional comic-book artist whose website is at this link.

February 3, 2012

Arrested Development, or Maybe Not

My January 21 post "I don't think we can continue" produced a gratifying number of thoughtful comments, not just here but on Michael Sporn's Splog. If you haven't read some of the latest comments on both sites, I think you'll enjoy them.

I've been intrigued by how often those of us who most enjoy animated cartoons invoke our response to whatever films were among the first to delight us. In my own case, I've always loved the Toad half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which was one of the first Disney features I saw as a child. Nothing wrong with that, surely; but it troubles me that people who were stirred as children by, say, The Jungle Book so often seem unable to look at beloved films with an adult's eye and say: "Yes, I loved that cartoon, and I still love it because it meant so much to me, but I've learned a great deal since I first saw it, and I now have a much more realistic understanding of its flaws as well as its virtues." As for Mr. Toad, even though I still love it, I've long since reconciled myself to how shallow a film it is, especially compared with Kenneth Grahame's original, The Wind in the Willows, which is infinitely richer.

Hans Perk's comment on my January 21 post may be especially pertinent here; I wonder if the young animators he describes, fixated on reproducing Milt Kahl's animation in their own work, will ever have much interest in moving on to work distinctly their own.

I don't think Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston can be absolved of blame for the current state of Disney animation and its offshoots. There's a passage on page 18 of The Illusion of Life that has always bothered me. Frank and Ollie are writing about how humans and animals communicate through universally understood actions:

The actor is trained to know these symbols of communication because they are his tools in trade. Basically, the animator is the actor in animated films. He is many other things as well; however, in his efforts to communicate his ideas, acting becomes his most important device. But the animator has a special problem. On the stage, all the ... symbols are accompanied by some kind of personal magnetism that can communicate the feelings and attitudes equally as well as the action itself. There is a spirit in this kind of communication that is extremely alive and vital. However, wonderful as the world of animation is, it is too crude to capture completely that kind of subtlety. [Emphasis supplied.]

My thought when I read this again back in the '90s, while I was completing Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, was, OK, if that's the case, why bother? If there are absolute limits on what you can achieve in character animation—if what you're able to do will inevitably seem crude compared with the subtlety of live acting—why not find some better way to spend your time? But what if you can't help yourself, and you must continue animating? In that case, does it make a certain kind of sense to imitate the work of those animators, like Milt Kahl, who might be said to have pressed against the limits of their medium most forcefully?

Seen in that light, slavish devotion to a great animator like a Kahl (or a Thomas, or a Johnston, or, for that matter, a Rod Scribner) is not a sign of arrested artistic development but is instead a perfectly rational response to circumstances that otherwise invite frustration and ultimately despair. But if, like me, you believe that the great character animators of the past have only begun to show us what is possible, in hand-drawn animation or perhaps even in cgi, it's the widespread and unquestioning devotion to the Kahls and Thomases and Johnstons that invites despair.

Comments

From Don Benson: It's been said a lot better by many others, but here goes:

The quote from Frank and Ollie could be applied to all film. A lone performer talking on a bare stage can mesmerize an audience; the same performance aimed at a camera will never capture that. But film CAN create a different magic by using its unique strengths: Editing, angles, closeups, and other cinematic devices that shape audience response in a way particular to film.

Likewise, traditional animation can't perfectly simulate the impact of a live actor, or even a live action film, but it can create a persuasive reality of its own. The scribbly little girls in Hubley's Windy Day aren't realistic or even smoothly animated, but you willingly accept them as they turn into animals and go bounding over the countryside. Bugs Bunny & Co. can't match the performing artistry of Chaplin or Keaton, but they can deliver a speed and exaggeration that's unique to them. And Beauty and the Beast makes us care about the relationship between two drawings not through perfect imitation of live performers, but through design, staging, expressive movement (or stillness), and everything else within animation's power.

Art is not about cloning reality; it's about facing the impossibility of that and running with what art CAN do. And when artists apply themselves, they can do a lot that's beyond reality. Perhaps the future of traditional animation is to strip away the gloss and return to the basic magic: making a scrawl vibrate across a screen and making an audience pay attention and care about what it's doing.

From Kevin Hogan: Perhaps the rather soulless films that Frank and Ollie had to work on post 1960 influenced their rather narrow view of animation’s potential. As I stated in my recent post, these two seemed quite happy giving life to empty characters in the 60s and 70s. As they tried to make entertainment out of the “actors” in place of an involving story, I feel they may have become overly obsessed with the character, loosing sight of the film’s influence as a whole.

I simply disagree with Frank and Ollie’s assessment—they lost sight of what an animator as "actor" is challenged to do: Just as actors in live action film need to blend into the film instead of overpowering it, animated "actors" should be working toward the total/ singular vision of the director. I wonder if these artists lost sight of that, working with such a detached director as Woolie Reitherman.

[Posted February 3, 2012]

From Mark Mayerson: One of the things that Walt Disney got bang on was the need for caricature. What caricature does is to strip away everything that doesn't contribute to a statement and exaggerate what does. An artist like Al Hirschfeld could portray someone with a minimum number of lines and often capture not only a likeness but the essence of the person. Caricature will never achieve the subtlety of the live person, but it can produce a more incisive statement.

Caricature, whether we're dealing with single drawings or with movement and acting, is damned hard. It's harder when an entire crew of artists has to caricature in the same way, especially if that way has to be original for each project. It's far easier to point everyone to an established approach that can be used as reference.

The Disney features are commercially successful and are a handy reference point. The work of certain artists like Kahl is easily identifiable and of high quality, so it's natural that they become the standard.

Also, don't underestimate the artistic desire to emulate one's heroes. Every artist starts out inspired by something and seeks to be able to duplicate it. Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and Milt Caniff spawned dozens of imitators, not only due to their commercial success but because other artists genuinely admired their approaches.

The animators who started in the 1930s were blessed by having nobody in animation they could imitate. They were forced to invent. Everyone who has entered the field since 1960 has done so with a head stuffed full of childhood memories of animation that inspired a career. That exerts a strong gravitational pull that's hard to escape. Combine that with Hollywood's desire for proven elements and you get modern animated films.

MB replies: Walt in his 1935 memo to Don Graham used a phrase I've always loved: "a caricature of life"—not of appearance or movement, but of life. (That was the title I wanted for my book that was eventually published as Hollywood Cartoons, until I foolishly bowed to my publisher's concern that the book would be mistaken for a volume about political caricature.) When there's full commitment to that kind of all-encompassing caricature—to caricature as a true re-creation—caricature becomes a more than adequate substitute for the kind of subtlety that Frank and Ollie wrote was beyond animation's reach. There was a diminishing sense of caricature of any kind in the Disney animated features of the '60s and '70s, especially, and in its absence animation was indeed a crude instrument. I suspect that Frank and Ollie, writing in the shadow of those features, mistook those peculiar circumstances for a more general truth.

[Posted February 4, 2012]

From Garry Apgar: Mr. Toad, … “shallow”? As Angus MacBadger might exclaim: “This time your manias have taken you too far!” I call before the Committee on Unserious Cartoon Animation, Messrs. Groucho Marx and Bugs Bunny, who, under oath, shall solemnly declare: “Of course, you know, this means war!”

Shallow? I invoke the response by Boris (Woody Allen) in Love and Death to the ingenuous Sonja (Diane Keaton), and her statement that “Sex without love is an empty experience.” “Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”

I will stipulate to the following: The Disney features in the late ’30s and early ’40s all involve a solitary child—an orphan, for all intents and purposes—forced by Life to Grow Up. The Adventures of Mr. Toad, like Mickey’s great cartoons, from Steamboat Willie to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” is about a “kid” (unburdened by parents or siblings) simply trying to have fun, … and, à la Peter Pan, avoid growing up. Judged on those terms, Mr. Toad is childishly inferior, … or shallow. It plainly lacks the narrative, psychological or moral gravitas of Snow White or Dumbo.

However, Toad, MacBadger, Mole, Ratty, Cyril Proudbottom, and Mr. Winky, are, I think, as “sincere” as any other Disney cartoon character, … and more incisive, as caricatures of character types (to borrow Mark Mayerson’s insightful commentary), than the vapid heroine of Snow White, even though her life-and-death struggle with the Evil Queen is infinitely more compelling. (Lock the Queen, Winky and the weasels in a room and I know who my money is on to emerge alive.)

Some of the greatest sequences in cinema history are both profound and “sincere.” The American-flag speech to the troops in Patton, for instance, and the framed-in-the-doorway parting shot of John Wayne in The Searchers. The dénouement of the just-released Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, set to a disco version of “La Mer,” by Julio Iglesias, comes close, although that ironic musical selection may call into question its “sincerity.”

But what of those ineffably magical moments of pure entertainment like the raw joy of James Cagney bouncing off the walls in the title number of Yankee Doodle Dandy? Or Fred and Ginger dancing and singing their way through ”Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat? Are they shallow, or insincere?

Patton     Yankee Doodle Dandy

Then there are those rare instances in film of pure beauty, “Beauty” once having been the clichéd basis for judging Art. Take the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick (like Disney, and Woody Allen, a master of synchronizing screen action with music), in which the space station rotates like a carousel to “The Blue Danube”—a stroke of genius inspired, perhaps, by the sylphic creatures spiraling across the ice in the “Waltz of the Flowers” segment of Fantasia.

The five-minute stretch in Mr. Toad, starting with the incorrigible J. Thaddeus driving his canary-yellow gypsy cart over hill and dale, is another example of first-rate movie magic. It includes Mole and Rat’s meet-up on the road with Toad and Cyril (“I’m a bit of a trotter, a bit of a rotter, How do you do? how do you do? how do you do?”), Toad’s intoxicating first encounter with the red motor car, that reduces him to bouncing about on his bottom, sputtering like a Model T, eyes spinning in concentric circles of white and pink, and culminates in his confinement, by Rat and Mole, to chambers at Toad Hall.

I don’t know how sincere, or true, or authentic, that wondrous sequence is. But it is enormously entertaining, and as well animated, and voiced, as anything else in the Disney oeuvre.

Toad        Toad

MB replies: I don't think shallowness and sincerity, in the original Disney sense, are at odds, not at all. An example from the Disney shorts: Woodland Cafe (1937) is "sincere" in the sense that the characters all seem self-propelled; it's "shallow" in the sense that it's about nothing except what we see on the screen; and what we see on the screen is endlessly ingenious and perfectly delightful. Toad isn't that good. It's an impressively economical and efficient piece of movie-making, but it would be better if it were less so, and if characters like Rat and Mole and Badger, so fully present in the book, were not flattened and drained of interest. Even the action sequences could be much better. Let me quote from the notes I made when I saw The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad at the Library of Congress in 1979:

The sequence leading up to the fight in Toad Hall—sneaking in, lowering Mole to get the deed, the intercutting of the weasel guard as he discovers the passageway—is well done, but ... it could have been built up and sustained at greater length. This could have worked as a feature [instead of half of one], in other words, if more effort had been put into it.

[Posted February 7, 2012]

February 2, 2012

Fire at Børge Ring'sBorge Ring

From Hans Perk's blog A. Film L.A., this dismaying report:

The devastating news just reached me that the home of my old mentor, now 91 year old Oscar winner Børge Ring and his wife Joanika has been completely laid in ashes by fire only some four hours ago! A fire in the chimney ignited the thatched roof of their old farm in the south-east of Holland.

Børge and Joanika are safe and cared for, but they have reportedly lost EVERYTHING. Art, memories, even the Oscar went up in flames. A fund is being set up to help them. Check borgering.com where you can find information on how you can help. In the meantime I wish them all the strength in the world!

As do we all. Børge has been a wonderful friend of this site, as evidenced most recently by his memories of Stan Green in my January 30 post.

You can read more on Cartoon Brew (and watch a couple of Børge's excellent short cartoons, including the Oscar-winning Anna and Bella). According to Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew, "Børge and his wife ran a bed and breakfast from their home, so in addition to losing all their possessions, the fire also eliminated their primary source of income." I'll be donating through the PayPal button on Børge's site, and I strongly encourage you to do the same.

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