It took a bit of doing—and some invaluable help from my lawyer friend Tim Susanin—but the Walt Disney Company has concluded that my book The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney is in fact eligible for sale at the Disney theme parks. Questions about the copyright status of a few of the book's illustrations had prevented the parks from placing any new orders, since Disney did not want its stores selling The Animated Man if any of the illustrations infringed on its copyrights. Now that cloud has been lifted. Whether the book actually goes back on sale will be up to the parks' buyers, of course, but at least that possibility is now open. If you visit any of the Disney parks this summer, please tell me if you notice that the park stores are selling The Animated Man.
Reading the Funnies In Bulk
Sometimes I run across interesting discussions on the Web that seem to deserve more than a quick link, and I make a note to write about them when I have the chance. Too often, those notes sit untouched for weeks. That's true of a note about a Terry Teachout post inspired by his unsuccessful attempt to read weeks' worth of Charles Schulz's Peanuts at a sitting, and Jaime Weinman's response.
Teachout found Peanuts wanting: "A daily comic strip whose installments are free-standing rather than connected by strands of plot is an endless series of moments. To read it once a day is a fleeting pleasure. To read dozens of installments in a single sitting is to realize just how ephemeral that pleasure was." Weinman thought that Teachout was missing the point: "The impact of any good serial is cumulative. If you read one a day, you get a chuckle or a rueful nod out of it, but as you keep reading it, [you become aware of ] the running themes and recurring ideas. It's like a ritual, and all the great comic strips from Krazy Kat on have been very ritualistic. As you read the instalments, one at a time, it adds up in your mind to something more than a bunch of drawings doing something silly."
In reading both these posts, I found myself saying, "Yes, but..." Teachout evidently started his Peanuts marathon by reading 1961 strips, and my first thought was, "That's too late." It was in the the '50s, and in the last half of that decade especially, that Schulz was at his best, which is to say at his most acid. By the '60s, Peanuts was already softening fatally. And, contra Weinman, I think that the best comic strips almost always hold up well when read in bulk. Pogo certainly does, at least its early years, when Walt Kelly was fresh from the rigors of comic-book work, and so does Thimble Theatre, where the occasional summaries of our-story-so-far are vital elements of the strip's sly comic rhythms. When I read Li'l Abner in bulk, though, the harsh mechanical qualities of Al Capp's strip force themselves on me, as they did not when I was reading it a day at a time, decades ago.
From Dan Briney: I enjoyed the posting on "Reading the Funnies in Bulk." There is no question to me that reading great comic strips in large chunks greatly enhances one's overall understanding of the strips and the artists behind them. In particular, I'm enjoying Peanuts more than ever before thanks to the ongoing Fantagraphics reprints. (Reading the strip in this manner offers far more insight into the character and nature of Charles Schulz than the bizarre David Michaelis biography.)
I must disagree with your claim that Peanuts had begun its fatal softening in the '60s; I think the strip was at its best during that decade, both in its draftsmanship and tone, and remained strong into the '70s. Peanuts didn't so much soften in the '60s as it began to shift its focus towards Snoopy's flights of fancy, probably too much—but still, the chronological books bring into stark relief the gradual changing of Schulz's interests and priorities. (The "fatal softening" did ultimately happen, of course, and I don't think there's any question that Schulz was past his creative prime by the '80s—the fatal blow coming when he switched from four panels to three, destroying the gag rhythm of the strip once and for all.)
Pogo reads beautifully in bulk; better, I think, than it does as a day-to-day affair. Walt Kelly was a genius at the art of the segue: his characters were excitable and easily distracted, and could be pulled, along with the narrative, from one absurd project or concern to another with such fluidity and ease that before you know it you've gone through several months' worth of strips at a sitting.
But just as Schulz's approach softened over the years, Kelly's became harsher and more didactic. Recently I was rereading my collection of the Simon & Schuster Pogo reprints (can't wait forever for that long-promised Fantagraphics collection), and since I'm missing most of the books covering the '60s, it was a startling leap from Pogo's early, whimsical period to its last few years, in which every key political figure of the early '70s was finding his way into the strip—some (Nixon) in more than one incarnation—and the sharp satire of the early years had become a bludgeon.
MB replies: I should probably start reading '60s Peanuts again, but I do think the softening I speak of was bound up inextricably with Schulz's increasing emphasis on Snoopy, and certainly that shift was well under way by early in the decade. I think that someone who started re-reading Peanuts with the strips from the early '60s, as Terry Teachout did, and with a general awareness of how the strip changed in later years, would inevitably see in the early-'60s strips the shadow of those later developments. Contrariwise, someone who started re-reading Peanuts with the strips of the middle '50s might be more likely to find in the strips of the early '60s a continuation of what was so good about the '50s strips. There's no ideal way to read old comic strips, I'm afraid.
I've always thought that Walt Kelly's increasing reliance on political caricature was just as unfortunate as Schulz's increasing reliance on Snoopy. In both cases, what was amusing and even thrilling at first—I remember very well the delighted shock I felt when "Simple J. Malarkey" first appeared in Pogo—turned into a crutch.
[Posted May 28, 2009]
From Vincent Alexander: I agree that the comics are best enjoyed in bulk. I sometimes read the funnies page in the newspaper, but it strikes me that I grew to love all of my favorite comic strips (Krazy Kat, Calvin & Hobbes, Pogo, Peanuts, etc.) from book collections. I think that when you get involved with the characters, you want to read more about them whether there's a continuing narrative going or not. And in response to Mr. Teachout's question, "even at its best, how good can a four-frame comic strip be?" I can only answer that in four frames Charles Schulz could leave a greater impression than most novels I could name. Nothing ephemeral about that. That's just an opinon, of course, but I think the millions of other people who have bought Peanuts books could vouch for me.
As for when Peanuts "jumped the shark", I think it started to lose its bite in the early '70s. I don't think that 1961 was too late, as you said, but Mr. Teachout definitely missed some classics from the late '50s.
[Posted May 29, 2009]
From Thad Komorowski: Re: Peanuts, in bulk or otherwise. It's not funny. It's whiny depressed humor. It's very stiff. It's not fun. The stylized characters are just cover ups for not being able to draw well. To sum up my feeling on Peanuts—I just don't care about it whatsoever.
[Posted June 1, 2009]
From Dan Briney: Thad Komorowski's dismissal of Peanuts as the product of a man "not being able to draw well" has me rather nonplussed. Whether or not one likes the strip—and to dismiss Peanuts as "whiny depressed humor" is akin to summing up The Great Gatsby as "wealthy debauched moping"—few serious, semi-serious, or casual students of the comic medium would state seriously that Schulz couldn't draw.
I wouldn't harp on it, as the remark seems designed to provoke a reaction, but my respect for Charles Schulz—who, Peanuts aside, was a truly decent and impressive man—compels me to refer Thad K. to the rich detail that figured into many of the Peanuts Sunday strips of the early '50s, and to the fact that this man who was "not able to draw well" fought the effects of Parkinson's Disease in the 1990s to continue producing the strip seven days a week, and did so without assistants.
MB replies: I share Dan's high opinion of Charles Schulz. A reminder: you'll find my interview with Schulz at this link, and my review of David Michaelis's biography of Schulz (which I despise) at this one.
[Posted June 2, 2009]
From Thad Komorowski: Re: Peanuts.
It's a stylized, scribbly look. Whenever I do spend my time reading comics, it's usually Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, and Floyd Gottfredson for substance, or one of the funny animal comics of the '40s and '50s by a Hollywood/New York cartoonist just to look at the pretty drawings. I can see why people would like Peanuts, but it just doesn't do anything for me. On the other hand, you have Al Capp, someone who unquestionably could draw well, but with characters just too stupid to identify with. People are free to like Schulz or Capp and call them geniuses, because for all I know, they probably are. But they just don't do anything for me, which is why I have a "I don't care" stance on this.
And I do find The Great Gatsby to be "wealthy debauched moping", so Dan Briney predicted my response to that.
[Posted June 4, 2009]
The phrase is Keith Lango's, which he uses in a thoughtful post about the need to harmonize "motion styles" with the "realishness" of CGI films. As he says:
The motion simply must "match" the visuals. This is why old classic Golden Era cartoons from the 1940's can get away with motion styles that—if transliterated without interpretation—would look absolutely out of place in your typical, "hyper-real," textured, shaded, lit, detail-oriented CG film. Folks have tried to marry the two with limited success. The reason for the lack of pleasing result is simple—the two styles are not harmonious.
Absolutely correct, I think, which is why the rare CGI film that does strive intelligently for such harmony through a complementary stylization of design and movement—I'm thinking, as usual, of Brad Bird's two Pixar features, and especially of The Incredibles—is so exciting. But, as Keith Lango says,
the predominant CG feature film style (as first defined by Pixar and subsequently copied by everybody else) is orders of magnitude too complex to pull off with anything less than a veritable army of artists, animators, technicians and machines. The style complexity—reflected in its realishness—absolutely demands visual harmony on all levels. Drop the level of complexity in any area and you create a sort of "off-key" feel to the animated film. General audiences understand this. When the visual harmony is well done they immediately perceive the animated film as having "quality." In the past we've made the mistake in thinking that this complexity was itself quality. This is a false dichotomy which has been bashed into our heads for almost two decades now. There is such a thing as animation that lacks complexity or realism or literalism but yet still has a high degree of quality, simply because all the pieces "fit." So complexity or literalism is not the equivalent of quality—visual harmony is. If you want to make something of real quality, then make something harmonious.
In that connection—and here I'm departing from Keith Lango's observations about CGI—I've been wondering if a somewhat similar lack of "visual harmony" accounts for much of my chronic dissatisfaction with the Disney hand-drawn features of the last twenty years. It has been that long since The Little Mermaid was released, and the anniversary prompted a recent evening of celebration in Los Angeles. I watched a little of Mermaid recently, when a couple of four-year-old VIPs were visiting me and requested "Ariel." It had been years since I last saw the film, and I was startled by the visual ugliness of the early scenes aboard the ship, especially. It later occurred to me that the ugliness I saw might be due less to the drawings themselves than to the juxtaposition of characters working a little too hard to be pretty (Ariel herself, the prince) and characters working a little too hard to be "cartoony" (almost every other creature on the screen). Characters can look radically different and still seem to be occupying the same screen space, as Snow White proved more than seventy years ago, but when I consider the Disney features of the last twenty years, it's hard to think of any whose directors and animators mastered that trick.
Of course, "visual harmony," in a CGI film or a hand-drawn one, isn't a cure-all. One might argue that Home on the Range, to cite one recent Disney feature, is visually harmonious, in an Ed Benedict-derived style, but it's still a bad movie.
From Thad Komorowski: Re: "visual harmony"... I think most of the classic Disney features do it well (I would say up through One Hundred and One Dalmatians), and that's one thing that most of them have in their favor. The contrast between the realistic characters and the cartoony designed characters made them that much more different. It separated Alice from her imaginary world, and what makes Pinocchio hanging around humanized animals believable. I agree that there are things related to contrast in Snow White and Cinderella that don't work as well as they could, where certain characters look like they're from a completely different movie, but it's not such a problem that it actually detracts from the value of the movie.
[Posted June 1, 2009]
Commencement Season, 1938
It's commencement season, 2009, and what better time to look back almost 71 years, to a month when Walt Disney picked up three nifty honorary degrees. One was an honorary master of arts that Harvard University presented to him on June 23, 1938. You'll find six photos from that occasion on the Essay page at this link, the seventh installment in my "Day in the Life" series. Each of those pages is devoted to photos taken the same day and often only minutes apart. While I'm at it, let me remind you about the first six "Day in the Life" photo essays:
On April 16 and 17 I was in Kansas City, Mo., to screen my films and
teach a class at the Art Institute.
On my way to the airport to return to NYC, my host took me by the old
McConahy Laugh-O-gram building.
I know you have been there and must have shared with me the feeling one gets when traveling to a historic site. By actually being there—at that building where Disney/Hollywood animation
in the neighborhood, in the town—you get a real sense of where Walt, Ub, Hugh, Rudy, and Friz came from and perhaps a tiny frisson of
what it was like in the 1920s. I was thrilled.
I can vouch for how evocative the Kansas City Disney sites are, even in their current dilapidated state, if one is willing to make the imaginative effort.
John sent several photos, taken by Doug Hudson of the Kansas City Art Institute's staff, that show the current state of the McConahy Building; I've included a couple of them here. In the smaller photo, the two windows visible above and behind John are where Walt Disney's Laugh-O-gram studio was located in 1922-23. The building is in much better shape than when I last saw it, in 2005; to see the photo I took of it then, go to this page.
The Kansas City organization called Thank You Walt Disney owns the McConahy Building now and deserves the credit for what has been accomplished so far in an arduous restoration. It says on its Web site: "For the first time in many years, the building is standing strong. We have removed the bracing, and have completed the walls and the floor of the building. Now we are launching our 'Raise the Roof' campaign. Winter is soon approaching, our goal is to have the roof in place before the first snowfall."
To that end, there will be a fundraiser on Saturday, May 30, which the Web site says "will take place at the Screenland building, 1656 Washington in the Crossroads area of Downtown Kansas City ... from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. The event will feature hors d’oeuvres, a cash bar and an auction of items donated by businesses and individuals to support the ongoing work to restore the site of Walt Disney’s first professional film studio. Among the items which will be auctioned are artwork done by major, nationally-known cartoonists and comic strip artists especially for Thank You Walt Disney, as well as dozens of other items."
Virginia Davis, who played Alice in the earliest of Walt’s "Alice Comedies," in Kansas City and Hollywood, will be a guest at the fundraiser.
Admission is $20.
Thank You Walt Disney's plans are nothing if not ambitious:
Walt’s office will be re-created the way it was in 1922, when he fed the mouse, which later inspired him to create Mickey Mouse.
Part of our programming for Laugh-O-Gram Studio includes an interactive animation lab that will educate kids of all ages on the art and history of animation. We will teach this art starting at the root of animation and move our audience through time to today’s technology. Our Laugh O Gram Studio will have a Café “House of da Mouse” as well as a merchandise area.
The addition of a production studio is in discussion with the Board of Directors and would
add a significant opportunity to draw more business into downtown Kansas City and provide earned income to continue our project down the road of success.
It's hard for me to envision so radically transformed a building in what is now a very rough neighborhood, but perhaps a revived Laugh-O-gram building will serve as a catalyst for revival generally.
Since John Canemaker's April visit, Thank You Walt Disney volunteers have been dressing up the McConahy Building with drawings derived from Walt Disney's earliest business card, as seen in the photo below.
From Dana Gabbard: John Canemaker's mention of Walt, Ub, Hugh, Rudy, and Friz reminds me what a remarkable number of animation pioneers came to the west coast from Kansas City. And don't forget George Stallings also lived there when he met Walt and eventually came out to help with the new Disney studio in L.A. Recently I have pondered what could be the reason so many creative people interested in animation gathered in Kansas City and then made their way west. I have no firm answer to this puzzle, but it is certainly noteworthy.
[Posted May 29, 2009]
Walt the Futurist: From Bill Benzon, a link to a New Scientist page that includes Walt Disney among "five of the most interesting future-movers and shapers." Bill writes: "This article puts Disney in some pretty interesting company, though I’m inclined to think he’s the most distinguished one on the list. Though perhaps H. G. Wells would give him a run for the money."
Robin Hood on DVD: I mentioned last month, in writing about the death of the director Ken Annakin, that The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, one of his four live-action films for Walt Disney, was not for sale on a generally available DVD. That has changed, and you can now order the DVD from amazon.com by clicking on this link. Unfortunately, the DVD uses the same master as the much earlier VHS and laserdisc releases; it's perfectly watchable but definitely inferior to most recent DVDs, not to mention Blu-ray discs. At least it's relatively inexpensive.
Sita Sings the Blues: I've seen only part of Nina Paley's feature on the internet, but I've loved what I've seen. I've resisted watching the whole feature on the Web, though, because I don't like watching films of any kind on my computer. I've kept hoping that the opportunity to see it on a big screen would come my way. No such luck so far. I've signed up to buy a DVD of the film as soon as one is released, and since I'll be traveling a fair amount this summer, who knows, maybe I'll luck into a theatrical showing somewhere. Anyway: to get to the immediate occasion for this post, you can find an illuminating discussion with Paley about her film at Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's exemplary blog.
As has been widely reported, copyright issues—specifically the persistence of copyright on some very old recordings that Paley used on her soundtrack—have complicated the release of Sita. Paley has responded by, in effect, abandoning most of her own rights in the film and granting a broad license to do almost anything one wishes with it.
I won't try to deal with the legalities here. Suffice it to say that in its current state our copyright law is a disgrace. It is nothing more than a vehicle to further Big Media's financial interests, in particular by bestowing on copyright owners the opportunity to profit further from movies made many decades ago by long-dead creators who had no reason to believe that copyrights would last longer than 56 years. Copyright protection makes sense, but only for a much shorter period than current law provides.
Overreaching by Big Media copyright owners, more than "piracy" by people posting clips on YouTube or sharing songs on the internet, has created the current copyright crisis, one in which copyrights are freely disregarded by millions but the occasional creator, like Nina Paley, feels the full, arbitrary weight of an indefensible law. I can easily imagine that in a few years everyone will be suffering from the current stupidity and its consequences, truly creative artists perhaps most of all. The sobering picture that Keith Lango paints, in which the internet reduces "filmmakers, artists and creators to perpetual hobbyist status," is all too plausible.
From Thad Komorowski: I saw Sita Sings the Blues at Cornell last week. It worked surprisingly well in 35mm, and that's saying something for an entirely Flash animated product. I guess it's because Nina at least utilized the program to make it personal rather than just an attempt to grind out sausage for TV, or fart jokes on NewGrounds. I think that she only had one or two 35mm prints made, and I have to say it was amusing to see emulsion damage on something Flash animated. The print looked to be in rougher shape than the one of The Graduate they screened right after.
[Posted May 16, 2009]
From Mark Kausler: There was a recent discussion on your website about copyright as it applies to the Annette Hanshaw recordings used in Sita Sings the Blues. Isn't the Disney empire complicit in this copyright extension miasma? I thought that they lobbied to extend copyright renewals from the late 1920s to protect the Mouse's earliest shorts, such as Steamboat Willie, for another 25 years or so. Protest letters to our senators and representatives did no good, so if we want to use any post-1923 musical composition, we have to pay. Are all types of copyright affected by the Mouse decision, or just motion pictures?
MB replies: All types of copyright have been extended. In the case of Steamboat Willie, Disney's copyright now extends for 95 years, until 2023. I'm sure the company will be busy in the halls of Congress long before that date to secure another indefensible extension, although the split Supreme Court decision upholding the present law suggests that getting that extension may not be as easy as in the past.
There's an interesting complication in Willie's case, though. As I've noted in The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, that film was infringing when it was initially released, because the song "Steamboat Bill" was under copyright and Walt hadn't obtained a license to use it. Columbia, as Walt's distributor in 1931, ultimately licensed the use of the song for $150. But what were the terms of that license? Is the song or some version of it still under copyright, as conceivably might be the case, given the multiple extensions of the copyright term? ("Steamboat Bill" was copyrighted in 1910, but a "stomp" bearing the same title was copyrighted in 1930. It's not clear if the two "Steamboat Bills" are connected, or if the "stomp"—whose sheet music is not at the Library of Congress—has any connection with Steamboat Willie.) Is it possible that Disney, by selling DVD copies of Steamboat Willie, is opening itself to lawsuit and to millions of dollars in damages? Well, almost certainly not; but what a lovely thought!
[Posted May 20, 2009]
May 14, 2009:
Disney and Columbia, Walt Disney and Harry Cohn
Jim Korkis, who was recently laid off by Walt Disney World despite (or maybe because of) his exceptional knowledge of Disney history, has written to offer a possible explanation for a cameo appearance by "Walt Disney" in the 1944 Columbia feature Once Upon a Time, the subject of my May 6 post.
What Is Walt Disney doing in Once Upon a Time?
The short answer is, I don't have a clue. Was he trying to mend fences with Columbia? When he dropped Columbia as his distributor in 1930, there were hard feelings and even some veiled threats by Harry Cohn's brother, Jack, who ran the New York branch of Columbia, to Roy O. Disney.
I certainly never found any documentation of Walt agreeing to the use of his image for such and such compensation.
Walt had been impersonated by announcer John Hiestand on the Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air when he was unable to get to the RKO studio for rehearsal or recording but then it is probably easier to impersonate someone on radio. (I haven't tracked down the radio play that Once Upon a Time was based on, but somehow I suspect the character of Walt Disney wasn't it in and that Walt was only put in when it had to be expanded for the screen.)
So, I am going to go out on a limb and take a guess that it was a "thank you" to Columbia for helping out in a matter concerning the never-made Disney animated cartoon of Roald Dahl's The Gremlins, which was being worked on at the same as Once Upon a Time.
The Disney brothers were frantic that they couldn't get the Gremlins project off the ground and even more frantic when they discovered that other animation studios had gremlin projects in the pipeline that would come out before the Disney feature.Roy Disney, who was by all accounts more diplomatic than Walt, leveraged his Hollywood friendships to discourage competition atother studios.At Universal, Walter Lantz willingly withdrew his proposed titles, as did Fred Quimby at MGM. Leon Schlesinger at Warners had two cartoons, both directed by Bob Clampett, too far along to stop, although he removed "gremlin" from the titles and agreed to drop any future gremlin projects. Falling Hare was originally to be called "Bugs Bunny and the Gremlin" and Jerry Beck actually has a title card with that name on it. "Gremlins from the Kremlin" became Russian Rhapsody.
At Columbia was Dave Fleischer, who had become the head of the cartoon department soon after being ousted by Paramount from Fleischer Studios.
Roy informed Walt in a memo dated March 25, 1943, that "Dave Fleischer stated that he did not have the final say in his plant but promised his utmost cooperation not to use the title and not to make pictures on Gremlins.He discovered two story ideas in the preliminary stages of work."Behind the scenes, though, Fleischer apparently continued development of the cartoons,forcing Roy on April 16, 1943, to send this plea to the president of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn:
Excuse me for bothering you with this problem; but it's one that I think probably only you can understand and decide.It's in regard to the title and subject matter of pictures on the idea of "Gremlins".
Walt picked up this idea in connection with some RAF flyers many months before it was commonly tossed around in this country.We made a deal with one of them and a working arrangement with the RAF.We had a story written and had it published in Cosmopolitan.We put out publicity and launched on the making of a feature cartoon motion picture using the "Gremlins".
"Gremlin" publicity, as a result of our activities in a large part, has reached such proportions that the entire cartoon industry started to pick up the idea for short subject cartoons. Warners, MGM, Universal and your cartoon unit all started subjects in work and registered titles that ran afoul of our registrat ions. However, on technical grounds, the Title Registration Committee ruled against us.
Following this, I appealed to the different organizations personally, asking that in view of the fact that we had started early, had already a substantial investment in the project, and that we intended making a feature picture, that they refrain from using the subject matter of "Gremlins".... Within your organization, however, somebody still persists in the idea, and I understand plans are going ahead for the making of "Gremlin" subjects.
Harry, you know Walt and me well enough to realize wewouldn’t give two hoots about competition, short subject to short subject.But I am very worried when we start to make a feature that takes us at least a year to produce and costs us at least $600,000 to $800,000—I’m worried at the thought of having a property of this size undermined and hurt by a lot of single reels that may saturate the public’s desire to see a "Gremlin" feature and really do us considerable harm in the marketing of it.
If we were where we could drop it, I would rather do that than proceed under such circumstances.However, we are already in pretty close to $50,000; so that is the reason I’m bothering you with this—to earnestly and seriously request that you persuade your cartoon department to drop the "Gremlin" idea.Sometime the shoe may be on the other foot; and you know us—we’d be more than happy to return the favor.
B.B. Kahane replied for Cohn that Columbia would not do anything with gremlins. So possibly Walt and Roy "returned the favor" by permitting the impersonation of Walt in Once Upon a Time.
The first entertainment biography that Bob Thomas wrote was King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn, published by Putnam in 1967. As part of the research for that book, Thomas very briefly interviewed Walt about Cohn on May 25, 1965. Here is an excerpt from that interview:
I never had any business dealings with Harry Cohn, just saw him socially.I understand he was a bastard to work for, but they say that about every head of a studio.They say it about me sometimes, too.Once, I was on the Riviera with my daughters, and I ran into Harry Cohn.He said I should give one of them a screen test.I said that was the last thing in the world I wanted.
From Hans Perk: "Once, I was on the Riviera with my daughters, and I ran into Harry Cohn. He said I should give one of them a screen test. I said that was the last thing in the world I wanted." Sharon appeared in Johnny Tremain anyway—here is a quick scan from a Belgian magazine supplement from January 26th, 1957, five months before its domestic release. The subtitle reads in Dutch "Walt Disney's daughter Sharon as actress."
MB replies: Sharon's screen career lasted about as long as her time on the screen in Johnny Tremain—that is, almost no time at all. I've seen that film several times, and I always have trouble spotting her. Her character is called "Dorcas."
[Posted May 16, 2009]
From Jim Korkis: Actually, it was Diane that Harry Cohn thought deserved a screen test. She was about 15-16 years old at the time and was wearing an orange bikini (and in those days the bikinis were much more modest). Whenever Walt tried to film Diane in the bikini, she immediately jumped into the ocean. Diane wrote to me and said, "Harry Cohn and his wife were always sitting by the pool in the sun, and he was very friendly. Dad told me that he had said 'You've got a beautiful daughter. You should give her a screen test.' Even then I didn't believe it." Diane thought Cohn was just saying it to be nice and to "bond" with Walt who was a peer. Diane never had any interest in being in front of the camera.
[Posted May 17, 2009]
And Here's "Roy Walley"
"Roy Walley" is the parody version of Walt Disney who has been mentioned here in connection with the various screen impersonations of Walt. "Roy" (it is surely no accident that his name is that of Walt's brother) is played by Eddie Bracken. He turns up at the end of National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), the vacation in question being a disastrous driving trip by Chevy Chase and his screen family from Chicago to "Walley World," a parody Disneyland in southern California. Just so there's no doubt about the parody's target, the park's presiding divinity is "Marty Moose." The YouTube segment you can watch here is all there is of "Roy" in the film.
Eddie Bracken has been made up to suggest Walt's appearance—dark hair, mustache—but there isn't much else about him that recalls Walt. Probably there wasn't much of an effort made to summon up memories of the man. It had been seventeen years since Walt's death, and even though he was still visible in television reruns and otherwise, he was by no means the familiar presence he had been when he was alive. A vague resemblance was probably more than enough to satisfy the director Harold Ramis and his colleagues.
(Thanks to Larry Varblow and the other visitors who caught my misidentification, in this item as originally posted, of the actor portraying "Roy Walley" as Eddie Albert, rather than Eddie Bracken. Needless to say, I'm sure, I deliberately insert such boneheaded mistakes just to make sure that you're paying attention.)
From Donald Benson: The movie was based on a text story from the magazine itself—written by John Hughes, I think—that was set in the 1960s and had the family actually headed to Disneyland. It was narrated by the preteen son.
After some random adventures the family finds Disneyland closed. Dad, pushed too far, buys a gun and a map of the stars' homes. He then drives the family to confront Disney in person. Uncle Walt, looking and sounding like the affable Sunday night host, gets a bullet in the leg while fleeing for his life. Dad goes to jail. The rest of the family flies home—the son really enjoying that part of the vacation.
The movie moved the setting to the present and covered much of the same ground, but shifted the focus and sympathy to Chevy Chase's character—and, of course, offered a much lighter ending (getting the guards to turn on the rides instead of exacting revenge).
Noting that the movie portrays Walley World and its founder in a pretty good light (at worst, ubernerd Chevy thinks it's really cool), one wonders if they actually tried to get permission to use the real Disneyland (without, obviously, an actual Walt Disney character).
MB replies: It's not inconceivable that the filmmakers approached the Disney company about shooting in Disneyland, since I can think of at least one other movie (the Tony Curtis vehicle, 40 Pounds of Trouble, 1962) that uses Disneyland as a setting, but I suspect one look at the script for National Lampoon's Vacation would have had the Disney suits saying "No way!"
From B. Baker: Yep, National Lampoon's Vacation featured the Disneyland-parody park "Walley World," and an appearance by beloved park founder "Roy Walley," but the basis for the film, John Hughes' hilarious late '70s National Lampoon short story, "Vacation '58," went much further.
It's a boy's nostalgic—if twisted—memoir of a 'fifties family vacation gone a little wrong. The first sentence of the story: "If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever!" (After thirty years, this remains one of my all time favorite opening lines of any work of fiction.)
The quite different film, scripted by Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, has its fans and adherents, but the original story is fresh, finely observed, and far superior.
Hughes discusses the genesis of the story at this link.
The text of the story (probably posted without permission) is at this link.
From Vincent Alexander: Since there seems to be a discussion on your site about various onscreen portrayals of Walt Disney, I have to bring up Fred Willard's performance as Milt Appleday, a blatant parody of Walt in the 2006 Cartoon Network movie Re-animated.
From Jim Korkis: Since people are so interested in "Walley World", I can share that it was actually Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California (near Cal Arts). In fact, I was working there part time as a street magician in the Spillikin Corners section at the top of the park to help pay off my college loan when they filmed and it was a pain to try and get around the area as an employee when they blocked off areas for filming.
By the way, besides 40 Pounds of Trouble that features nearly twenty minutes of footage at Disneyland, to the best of my knowledge, the only other non-Disney film allowed to shoot in the park was Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do for a short segment near the end of the film.
MB replies: I was impressed by "Walley World's" roller coasters, and I'm glad to know where they were.
[Posted May 14, 2009]
May 13, 2009:
In the Court of the Sun King
Cartoon Brew has posted an item about John Lasseter's receiving an honorary doctorate on May 2 from Pepperdine University, the conservative Christian institution in Malibu where Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton's tormentor, is dean of the law school. Lasseter's late mother graduated from Pepperdine in 1946. His honorary degree inspired some predictably adulatory comments at Cartoon Brew, but easily the most remarkable was this one from Mike Gabriel, a Disney veteran who co-directed Pocahontas and The Rescuers Down Under:
Congratulations, John. You are a legendary leader and visionary. It is an honor to work with you and try to live up to all that is in your brilliant head. Thanks for putting passion for excellence above all ego and studio competition. You honor the profession and the art form by your devotion to excellence wherever it may be found. You do all you can to inspire greatness in everyone in the industry. Because of one simple fact—-you love good animation. You get fired up wherever true believers kick in their honest passion to create something special. Thanks for coming back home to Disney to lead us not to crush us, which you could have easily done if you were a spiteful lesser man. Let’s take it to the next level if people are willing to admit they have much to learn and far to grow. We all need to keep the mind set of wearing robes of learning and being educated about how to make it better yet. This is your attitude and it permeates the new Disney.
I guess Gabriel hasn't seen Bolt. No, wait...he worked on it.
One of Dave's first jobs for Walt Disney [after he was hired in January 1930] was to animate
Clarabelle Cow. She wore a skirt carrying a pattern of dots drawn as
circles. Dave animated the scene—inbetweens and all—then added the
dots at random, not knowing that random would make them "explode"
when projected. Walt probably had the circles deleted. At least I
have never found them.
You can find them, or what I believe to be them, in The Shindig [delivered July 11, 1930, as the fifth of Disney's Mickeys for Columbia]. In thisYouTube version, the scene starts at about 3:15. Walt definitely didn't have them deleted. I even notice a confused YouTube viewer wondering why Clarabelle's "clothes are spinning so fast."
Warning: I haven't checked an original draft on this one, so I'm not absolutely certain this is the scene, nor am I sure it's Hand's
work. But it does match the date.
I don't believe a draft for The Shindig with animators' credits even exists. Back in 1990,on a visit to the Walt Disney Archives, I spent several days making notes from all the drafts for the Disney shorts from the '20s and '30s, and I have no notes for The Shindig. David writes:
My notes show that the "draft" Disney holds is a later thing, typed
up long after the fact, evidently meant to substitute for a missing
real one. It doesn't have animator IDs in it.
Another source for authentic credits on Shindig, though, would be notes from the 1939 Mickey's Revival Party conference—where Walt,
Hand, and Riley Thomson were going to make a clip-show featurette,
and screened and commented on some nineteen BW Mickeys, identifying animators for the secretary's minutes as they went; if you can believe it, Walt was specifically
looking to highlight Horace and Clarabelle's development as part of
the clip show. In those notes, Walt speaks of "Dave's stuff" in The Shindig, referring to Clarabelle and Horace's dance and directing the others
to look at the dots.
You can read more about the unmade Revival Party and a great many other Disney films, made and unmade, in David's beautiful and indispensable book, Mickey and the Gang. See especially, on Revival Party, page 230.
Hare-um Scare-um is a Warner Bros. cartoon directed by Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton and released in August 1939. It's not much of a cartoon, its animation lacking in punch and its staging uniformly dull and unimaginative. But its star is the earliest version of Bugs Bunny, and it was with this cartoon that Bugs got his name (he is identified by name in the copyright description and in a review in the Motion Picture Herald for August 13, 1939). That's why Hare-um Scare-um draws more attention than it deserves on its own merits.
Back on January 18, 1979, at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Mark Kausler and I watched what I would imagine is the same nitrate print of the complete Hare-um Scare-um that David saw at an archive he doesn't identify. I was in California to gather artwork for my ultimately unpublished Warner Bros. book, and to see as many cartoons as possible that I hadn't already seen, including a number of nitrate prints with original titles from the Warner vaults. My handwritten notes for Hare-um Scare-um read in part:
At the end of the original version, the rabbits jump on the hunter, there's a fight in a dust cloud and the rabbits disappear in a streak of dust (actually, we haven't seen the rabbits for the dust from the start of the fight). There are shots offscreen, then Bugs comes back with the hunter's battered gun and tells him he ought to have it fixed, then bounces away on his head, whooping like Daffy. The frustrated hunter does the same.
And that's just about how David describes the ending, too—but with the terrific added advantage of screen shots he made with a digital camera (one of which I've borrowed above right). I'm a little sorry that I never did something with my knowledge of that original ending, instead of sitting on it for thirty years, but perhaps that's just as well, since David's screen shots add so much. As to why the ending was truncated, I think my reference to Daffy Duck may provide the best lead. As David himself suggests, that ending may simply have made the two characters, and their cartoons, seem too much alike.
A footnote: there's a restored 35mm print of Hare-um Scare-um at the Library of Congress, but like all the other prints that I know of, except for the version David, Mark, and I have seen, it is missing the original ending.
May 6, 2009:
The Ersatz Walt
Yesterday's item about an appearance by "Walt Disney" at the Kansas City Public Library generated some fascinating responses about the various impersonations of the man; you can read them by clicking on this link.
Jenny Lerew, proprietor of The Blackwing Diaries, wrote to let me know that Once Upon a Time, the 1944 Cary Grant vehicle in which "Walt" makes a very brief cameo appearance, is available in its entirety on YouTube; I've embedded the segment with that cameo just above. "Walt" appears at 8:55 in this clip. And below is the segment in which Dunhill (the uncredited Paul Stanton), supposedly a Disney representative, tries to buy Curly, the dancing caterpillar, from its owners, played by Cary Grant and the young boy Ted Donaldson, starting at 5:12.
I haven't watched the whole movie yet, but these Disney-related segments feel odd to me. Once Upon a Time was a Columbia picture, and the film's version of Walt, and of the Disney operation in general, smacks more of Harry Cohn than of the real Disney. Dunhill is hardnosed at first, but then Walt gets caught up in the enthusiasm for Curly and calls to pay Grant his asking price, $100,000. That's a laughable figure, especially considering that the wartime Disney studio didn't have a dime to spare, but the transition from an icy bargaining stance to something like hysterical panic—this wonderful dancing caterpillar I've never seen might get away, give me the checkbook quick!—has what strikes me as an authentic Hollywood flavor. So equivocal is Walt's part in the story that he is sometimes described as one of the film's villains.
"Wade Sampson" wrote about Once Upon a Time and other Disney portrayals for MousePlanet in January 2007, in a piece called "The Man Who Was Walt," but, unfortunately, he offers no information about any negotiations between Disney and Columbia over how Walt would be portrayed. Columbia had been Disney's distributor, more than a decade earlier, and the two studios had parted company with lots of hard feelings on both sides. Disney surely had some control over the script—or was this use of Walt's name and likeness simply waved through, as a favor to one of Walt's peers? I can't find any references to Once Upon a Time in my notes and photocopies from the Walt Disney Archives. The answers to my questions may be somewhere in the Disney studio's "main files," those files of continuing legal significance.
This is, by the way, my first stab at embedding YouTube videos. Either YouTube has made that easier for sites like mine, which fall outside the usual blog boundaries, or I didn't understand YouTube's instructions earlier. In any case, I'll be posting videos from now on.
From Dan Briney: Just watched the clip of Once Upon a Time... I'm wondering whether it's possible permission wasn't granted to Columbia for usage of the ersatz Walt? Could it have been justified as fair usage of a public figure? What was the law regarding such things at the time? Because I sure have a hard time imagining that Walt Disney would have granted Columbia permission to use him and his studio in such a way, particularly with the past history between them.
There is a 1956 Mad parody entitled Dizzyland, in which a very good likeness of "Walt Dizzy" struggles to conceal huge vaults full of money he accidentally reveals while attempting to host his TV show. That's obviously a parody, while this film uses Walt's actual name, but I wonder if the same protections would have applied.
Am looking forward to seeing if any more info on this comes to light. (I've never even heard of this movie...)
MB replies: I asked Dave Smith, the Disney archivist, about Once Upon a Time (which is, he reminded me, listed in his book Disney A to Z) and he replied: "I certainly would expect that the portrayal was authorized, but we don’t have such contracts in the Archives. Movie companies were very diligent about such things."
As I've said, I would guess that the documents related to Disney's involvement are locked away in the company's "main files."
[Posted May 7, 2009]
From Thad Komorowski: I'm amused by all the talk about ONCE UPON A TIME on your site. I've known of this mediocre thing for years, and I never thought it would generate such discussion. I found the vague similarity to ONE FROGGY EVENING weirder than anything about the Disney portrayal personally. And you know, keeping in mind this is Harry Cohn's studio we're talking about, would he have bothered with such legal negotiations for a movie like this? The guy had hired goons beat the shit out of the Three Stooges on a regular basis to keep them in their contracts, so my guess is no.
MB replies: As for why Once Upon a Time has stimulated more comments than I usually get, I think the short answer is that talking about that film, and about "Walt's" role in it, is fun. Sometimes, too, such discussions generate ideas and answers that might not have come to light otherwise. Me, I'd rather be talking about Once Upon a Time than The Princess and the Frog, the forthcoming 2D Disney feature that has generated so much feverish anxiety at Cartoon Brew. Given its pedigree, and what little we've seen of it already, it is all too easy to predict what Princess will be like, but I'll wait until I've seen the finished film to pass judgment.
[Posted May 8, 2009]
From Stephen Del Signore: I am surprised nobody mentioned A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story, a TV movie from 1995, where Len Cariou plays Walt Disney.
MB replies: Actually, that film was mentioned, in the other thread on this subject, but its title wasn't mentioned, and it should have been.
From Galen Fott: Two quick comments on your recent posts about Disney portrayals:
1. I remember enjoying Eddie Bracken's homage to Walt as "Roy Walley",
the proprietor of "Walley World" in National Lampoon's Vacation. The
likeness was quite good, as I recall.
MB replies: I was astonished to read that New York City Opera had dropped the Glass commission. That commission got tons of press last September, but I've not found any references to its termination other than one paragraph deep in the Times story that Galen references, which is about the resignation of Gerard Mortier as City Opera's director. City Opera, like many other arts companies, is suffering in the current economy, and the Glass commission is just one of the casualties. Too bad, sort of. I'm sure a Glass opera about Walt Disney would be worth hearing, however infuriating it might be on biographical grounds. I can't find anything to suggest that any other opera company is thinking about picking up the commission, but maybe that will change when the economy improves.
As for National Lampoon's Vacation, do parodies of Walt (like "Roy Walley" in Vacation and "Walt Dizzy" in the Mad takeoff of the '50s) qualify as portrayals of the man, comparable to the ones in Once Upon a Time or the Funicello biopic? Well, probably not; but I've added National Lampoon's Vacation (which I missed on its theatrical release) to my Netflix queue.
From Hans Perk: A quick note re: the "Walt" in Once Upon a Time:It appears that the makers of Once Upon a Time" at least have done their homework, as the view from Walt's desk is correct! Rather a lot of work for such small clips, and who could even check it? Did they really build it on a sound stage?Attached the view as it was in 1968, before the formal office was taken apart and shipped to Disneyland. By the way, with Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln being reopened, the office is now being carefully shipped back to the care of the Archives.
The view in the camera direction, if it really was Walt's office, would also be: from the right, a cabinet, a door, a pole as part of a side table, the sofa in a dark wood-paneled alcove, and then Walt's grand piano—all exactly as in the movie! We also feel his desk is at the right angle. Well, I feel it is clearly identical—and I have studied the pictures from his office a lot.
MB replies: That the Columbia people would have taken such pains seems implausible, and yet... I'll let all of you look at the film and at the photos above and draw your own conclusions.
[Posted May 10, 2009]
May 5, 2009:
"Walt" on Stage
From the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library about an event this evening:
Kansas City Public Library Director Crosby Kemper III interviews Walt Disney, portrayed by Dr. Bill Worley, as part of the Library’s Meet the Past series on Tuesday, May 5, at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. ... Worley is an instructor in history at the Metropolitan Community Colleges of Kansas City – Blue River and a longtime Kansas City historian. He is the author of J.C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City. He has performed as Disney countless times and has earned several honors for his portrayals of Disney, President Harry S. Truman, basketball inventor James Naismith, and others. Worley portrayed Tom Pendergast in the first Meet the Past event.
The "Meet the Past" series is being "filmed," the library says—I assume that means taped—for prime-time showings on Kansas City's public television channel 19 next fall. Admission is free, but if you want to attend, the library asks that you RSVP online; here's a link to a page with the details.
I can't recall ever hearing before of Worley's "countless" portrayals of Walt. Such impersonations are evidently rare. I've read about (but not seen) a cameo impersonation in one film made while Walt was alive—Once Upon a Time (1944), starring Cary Grant, with, according to Internet Movie Data Base, an uncredited Walter Fenner portraying Walt—and IMDB lists a very few from the years since his death. There have been a few plays with a character who is called "Walt Disney" but who from all reports bears no resemblance to the real man. Probably the forthcoming Philip Glass opera based on the wretched novel called The Perfect American will give us an equally farfetched "Walt."
From Donald Benson: Maybe the lack of Disney portrayals is in the fear of Disney lawyers. If they're that protective of the mouse, it's a reasonable guess they'd be equally protective of this other valuable character. Or even if a performance as Walt is fair game, there's little of interest he could say without stumbling over copyrighted material. Ironically, that sort of limits the field to negative satires and fantasies.
I recall a Disney television special many years ago that was framed as a biography. It was a strange piece of work. There was never a performer playing Disney, but there were scenes of Carl Reiner, standing in for all the doubting bankers and Hollywood moguls, talking to the camera as if it were Disney. It was like religious epics where Christ or Mohammed is implied but never shown, or movies where living celebrities are only offscreen voices. The show also featured Marie Osmond singing an ode to audio-animatronics, but that's another story.
So far as I know the only portrayal of Disney by his own studio was a strange short film they used to show at Disney World. In the style of Roger Rabbit, Mickey Mouse goes to a big live-action studio for a screen test conducted by Mel Brooks and other celebrities in fleeting cameos. In the end Walt Disney—played by nephew Roy with a lot of backlighting—appears and hires the mouse.
[Posted May 5, 2009]
From Floyd Norman: Some years ago, when nephew Roy still had his mustache and smoking
habit, he would occasionally prowl the animation department in the
early morning hours.
On one such morning, this solitary, hunched figure with cigarette in
hand came walking toward me. I swear, Roy Edward Disney nearly scared
the hell out of me.
What threw me is that this is a film that was one of those mysterious
Holy Grails of my childhood, something my older brother and dad always
talked about enjoying, but which I'd never seen. (Another for years was The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T; when you have some of these rare—and
often bizarre—films described to you, it almost seems like they really
couldn't have existed. I didn't see Dr. T until I was probably 20.) I've skimmed Once Upon a Time now, looking for the Disney references. It's
gossamer thin, but Cary Grant is watchable in literally anything.
He's a master of reactions.
The generic title doesn't help make this memorable, but what can you
call a fantasy about a dancing caterpillar—Yes Sir, That's My Baby?
And did you happen to note the plot? It seems like it must have been
the direct inspiration for One Froggy Evening—the coincidence is
just too great to ignore. Assuming he did use it, it's interesting to see
how Jones decided to twist and play with the idea in the original
film's premise: there, everyone else can see the caterpillar
dance, though we in the audience never get to.
I made a quickie screen cap for you of the scene with Walt's
impersonator. This being a Columbia film, it's rather bare bones but
they did make a stab at his office, placing some dwarf figures, a MM
doll, etc. around a nice moderne set.
MB replies: My thanks to Jenny (whose excellent blog is well worth your time) for making up for my sloth where YouTube is concerned and tracking down Once Upon a Time. I've resisted watching anything of consequence on my computer, but that's a prejudice I need to overcome.
I saw The 5,000 Fingers when I was a kid, and it mesmerized me. Many years later, I saw a beautiful 35mm print at the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C.—the ideal place to see movies back in the '70s and '80s—and my childhood memories crumbled into dust. 5,000 Fingers is, alas, a Stanley Kramer movie. As a kid, I saw only the fantasy; as an adult, I couldn't help but see both the fantasy and Kramer's usual lead-heavy direction [A 5/8 update: I was wrong; Kramer produced but didn't direct; see below]. Such are the hazards of growing up.
Actually, according to the Turner Classic Movies database, Yes Sir, That's My Baby was one of the titles considered for what eventually became Once Upon a Time. Even stranger, the film's stars were originally supposed to be Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth. As much as I love Cary Grant, I think the idea of Bogart standing up to Walt Disney on the phone is even more charming.
From Barry Rivadue: Regarding actors portraying Walt Disney, the only full-out impersonation I can recall of Disney was by Len Cariou in the 1995 TV movie about Annette Funicello. Did it seem a reasonable fascimile to you?
MB replies: I haven't seen it, unfortunately, and it seems not to be available on YouTube.
From B. Baker: I've always been curious about the relationship between the Disney
studio and this Columbia movie. It doesn't really portray Walt in a
very favorable light—the Grant character is a bit cold and ruthless,
and, as I recall, Walt is made to seem nearly as ruthless in his
impatient desire to get hold of the caterpillar at any price. Yet the
film readily uses Walt's name and that of the studio; permission must
have been granted. It's a comedy, of course, but still.
MB replies: My thoughts, exactly. There's a story hidden here that's probably more interesting than the movie.
From B. Baker: Regarding The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., you describe it as "alas, a Stanley Kramer movie. As a kid, I saw only the fantasy; as an adult, I couldn't help but see both the fantasy and Kramer's usual lead-heavy direction."
Kramer did produce the elaborate Dr. Seuss fantasy, but he didn't direct the film; Roy Rowland did. Kramer didn't make his directorial debut until two years later, with 1955's Not as a Stranger.
I met Stanley Kramer in the early 'eighties, and I asked him about the picture... after telling him that I admired it. "What! You want to talk about that thing? It was a big flop!"
From Mark Sonntag: Another film which has an actor playing Walt is RKO 281, released in 1999, with Walt played by an actor named Roger Allam. The film is really about the controversy around Citizen Kane. The scene Walt appears in is where where the studio heads meet after Hearst (James Cromwell) threatens all the moguls with refusing to publish any adverts for upcoming films and a general lack of support in the media through Hearst publications if the film wasn’t destroyed. Walt looks a little older than he should in this time frame and as I never heard of the meeting taking place, at least in any Disney biography, it may be fictional. The threat was real.
MB replies: This was a made-for-TV HBO movie; I've not seen it.
[Posted May 6, 2009]
From Pieter Baert: I wanted to add something about the film RKO 281 (the HBO movie)
Overall, it's a good accurate piece about Citizen Kane (hands down, greatest film ever) and its controversies, but if you're looking for Walt Disney, it's just rubbish. Walt Disney is mentioned/seen three times in this film:
1) William Randolph Hearst's wife/mistress mentions that her husband "is fond of mice, just like that Disney."
2) When Louella Parsons, a columnist working for Hearst, starts threatening several producers with controversial photos, she says that Hearst owns every studio now "Warner Bros,...Disney."
3) In a meeting with several movie bosses we actually see Walt. As Mark Sonntag has already mentioned, the actor doesn't really resemble a 40-year-old Walt. More like Walt in his early fifties. This didn't really irritate me until they mentioned Walt's relationship with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. It seems screenwriters only use Marc Eliot's book.
[Posted May 17, 2009]
May 3, 2009:
Monsters vs. Aliens
I finally got around to seeing it the other day, in Imax 3-D. Monsters is a handsome film (and I thought the 3-D was effective, especially on the huge screen), and it's not offensive in the snotty-adolescent manner of earlier DreamWorks Animation films like the Shrek series. Unfortunately, it's not very good, either. Like many other CGI films, Monsters feels unfocused; the technology has absorbed so much of the filmmakers' attention that more important matters, like the story, have been neglected.
The fundamental mistake was to make the central character Susan, an attractive (theoretically, at least) young woman who accidentally becomes a giant; such casting works against comedy, because you can subject a vulnerable girl to very few indignities before they cease to be funny. Reese Witherspoon's voice performance is excellent, but it boomerangs by making Susan too intensely sympathetic a character. And are we supposed to believe, at the movie's end, that Susan will prefer to remain Ginormica, in the company of her monster buddies, as opposed to living a normal life? That makes sense only as the set-up for a sequel, one in which Ginormica will no doubt meet an appropriately scaled guy.
Perhaps the fear was that a male lead and a stronger emphasis on comedy would invite unflattering comparisons with the likes of Futurama, although DreamWorks has not shrunk from such comparisons before. As it is, the film feels so much like a rather odd science-fiction melodrama that the jokes sometimes come as not especially welcome surprises.
This is yet another CGI film with two directors (always a bad sign), many more screenwriters (a worse sign), and an obsession with mottled surfaces that left me wondering if any of these people ever noticed that one reason Brad Bird's Pixar features look so good is that Bird shunned such pointless refinements. And did anyone in that horde of screenwriters ever read Gulliver's Travels, specifically the part about the voyage to Brobdingnag? If they had, and if they had thought about how unattractive even the most attractive woman might be if she were blown up to many times her normal size, they might have been able to turn that obsession with surfaces into something interesting.
From Bradley Bethel: I had mostly avoided DreamWorks' films since Shrek 2, because of their gratuitious anti-Disney shots (which really only serviced Katzenberg's screaming vendetta against Disney at a time when Disney couldn't have been in worse shape). Also, Shrek is the prime example of the chef expecting his customer to eat a giant bowl of goulash when the customer might only want a plate full, where you can't watch DW's films without their threatening to dump a truckload of sequels along with the original. Ironic how, looking at the newest Nickelodeon series, and at a time when Disney is recently recovering from their sequel/TV spinoff fetish, DreamWorks is now undergoing the same case.
For Monsters vs. Aliens, it sounded interesting enough that I was willing to give it a chance. I pretty much agree with your assessment that the story wasn't strong enough, because by the end of the film, I kept wanting to know more about the four monsters. Though, I liked their decision to make Susan/Ginormica the main character. Aside from the other three monsters being in captivity for 50 years, there was a lot more about Susan, maybe her pre-monster life, that they could've gone into as there could've been more to her decision to stay as a monster than just having a shallow boyfriend. Concerning the Gulliver's Travels association, I kept thinking the other reason why Susan's relationship failed after becoming a monster was that Derek figured out without hesitation that he could not feasibly keep a relationship with a giant(ess). Another bit that was only barely touched upon.
Not enough to change my mind about DreamWorks' Animation in general, but I enjoyed it.
[Posted May 17, 2009]
More on Stanley's Stories
Dana Gabbard writes, in regard to the great Little Lulu artist/writer John Stanley and Frank Young's Web postings about him, which I praised on April 25:
Frank Young got bogged down in the complexities of doing a website and eventually stopped, only to re-start Stanley Stories this time as a blog. The first blog post explains the transition.
The Wikipedia entry I created has the most complete biography of Stanley extant. I can vouch for that—Lord knows I spent a year researching it. A friend said with some surprise, "I'd have thought there was as much written about Stanley as there is about Barks." Such is not the case. In fact my bibliography for the Wikipedia entry essentially lists everything in English dealing with Stanley except the mentions of him in comic book histories.
From B. Baker: I gather Drawn & Quarterly is about to begin to reprint
John Stanley's Nancy & Sluggo stories. I've been to the D&Q website, and
I can't seem to find any hard information about the program. Could you
possibly point me in the right direction?
I've had trouble communicating by email with Børge Ring the last couple of weeks, thanks apparently to Comcast's berserk spam filters, but he has managed to tell me, via Hans Perk, that the photo of Dave Hand I posted on April 26 is not the one he had in mind, the one that he thought showed Dave as a "pasteurized missionary." The correct photo, Dave's official portrait as head of the J. Arthur Rank animation studio in England, is just below. And under that photo you'll see depictions of Dave by some of his former colleagues. At the left, Hand as depicted by Jack Kinney in his memoir, Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters; next, Hand as caricatured in the internal Disney publication from the '30s called The Mousetrap; and at the bottom, a menacing Hand as depicted by, probably, Nick George, advancing on Carl Barks and George when they were writing Donald Duck stories and Dave was in charge of the Disney shorts.
And speaking of the Rank cartoons...I had forgotten about Bob Egby's remarkable Web page devoted to his memories of the Moor Hall Studios. Lots of photos and model sheets, and links from that page to other pages devoted to the Rank cartoons and Dave Hand himself. A tremendous resource.
Thanks to Gunnar Andreassen and Hans Perk for their help in assembling the images below.
May 1, 2009:
"The Animation Michelangelo"
That was the title of a centennial celebration of Milt Kahl's life and work at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' theater in Beverly Hills a few days ago. Kahl was, of course, the animator who defined the "Disney style" for more than three decades, starting with Pinocchio and Bambi in the early '40s and continuing at that studio through The Rescuers (1977). The Academy's show was so wildly popular—and the Academy so ill-prepared for that popularity—that more than 150 ticket holders were denied seats. You can read responses to that mishandling, and to the Kahl show itself, on Cartoon Brew. Hans Perk offers scans of the program (there were too few copies of that, too).
It's encouraging, I suppose, that so many people should turn out for such a tribute, and certainly I wish I could have attended. But I'm puzzled by the evening's title. "The Animation Michelangelo"? Surely Kahl was not that, but "The Animation Raphael" instead.
As it happened, I got to spend a good bit of undisturbed time with both those Renaissance giants at the Vatican last November. The crowds were thin, the Sistine Chapel was all but empty for an hour, and there was time and quiet enough to think about what I was seeing. Michaelangelo, especially in "The Last Judgment," painted with an overwhelming passion and physical energy, so much so that the restored "Last Judgment" disturbs the chapel's harmonious proportions. If any animator has ever merited comparisons with Michelangelo, it has to be Bill Tytla. Raphael—his famous Stanzas at the Vatican weren't overcrowded, either—was a very different kind of artist: an intimidating draftsman whose paintings' dominant characteristic is not passion and energy, but cool, exquisitely balanced perfection. Kahl was more like that.
I can't say that I've ever felt any great enthusiasm for Kahl's animation, or for his broader influence on the Disney features. It was Kahl's version of Pinocchio as a wide-eyed innocent, barely a puppet, that Walt Disney adopted in one of his most unfortunate decisions, and Bambi's deer as Kahl envisioned them are much too sugary. Those characters, and others that Kahl designed and animated later, have what seems to me not real warmth but a calculated appeal whose artificiality Kahl's beautiful drawings can't quite conceal.
Ironically, it is "sincerity," that Disney shibboleth, that is most conspicuously lacking in Kahl's work. I have to think it was others' awareness of that shortcoming (as well as appreciation of Kahl's superior draftsmanship) that led eventually to his being assigned almost exclusively to realistic human characters in later decades. I can think of any number of other Disney animators whose work I would rank above Kahl's—Tytla, of course, but also Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson...a long list.
There's no question, though, but that for the moment Kahl's animation is the gold standard, at least in the Hollywood studios. Certainly it's understandable why an outstanding contemporary animator like Andreas Deja would admire Kahl so much. Their work has much in common, especially the high quality of their drawings. But what is it about Kahl that makes him attractive to so many other people in today's animation industry?
I met Milt Kahl only once, in the fall of 1976. Milt Gray and I interviewed Kahl at his home, a penthouse apartment on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City. It was, as I recall, a beautiful place, furnished in exquisite taste in a modern style. Kahl himself was friendly but forceful, very much as others have described him. He had only recently been pushed out of Disney, after run-ins with Woolie Reitherman during production of The Rescuers, and he was resentful and contemptuous of some of his former colleagues.
I remember feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the interview when Milt and I were driving away, but Milt was not, because, he told me, he had been so impressed by Kahl's integrity. I think Milt was right—Kahl did have a great deal of integrity, which took the form of an unyielding dedication to his conception of the art of animation, well-drawn animation above all. But it seemed to me that as an animator, Kahl lived inside a sort of cocoon in which nothing mattered except the high quality of his animation, with "quality" rather narrowly defined. (Grim Natwick, whom I also interviewed on that trip, struck me as the same sort of animator.)
Perhaps it's that very cocoon that is attractive to today's animators, because what's outside the cocoon is so often disagreeable. If one is working on, say, The Princess and the Frog—Disney's return to hand-drawn animation—I would imagine that one can't help but be aware of the swamp of political correctness that has threatened to swallow up that film long before it is completed. And as for the people working on most computer-animated films, well... Given the alternatives, living inside a cocoon and aspiring to become the next Milt Kahl may actually have a great deal to recommend it.
Needless to say, probably, that's Milt Kahl at the center of the Bambi publicity photo above, leaning over (from the left) Ollie Johnston, Peter Behn (the voice of Thumper), and Frank Thomas. In the publicity photo below from the Disney TV show of the '50s, Kahl is at the left; the others are Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Walt Disney, Wilfred Jackson, and (seated at the easel) Ollie Johnston.
From Michael Sporn: Your post today was an excellent one. I'm intrigued by the absolute dedication so many have toward Milt Kahl's work. I suspect it was because Dick Williams placed him at the very acme of the art—in his, Dick's, mind. Art Babbitt went right there with him.
I find both animators similar. Studied, tightly drawn and flawless in execution. All they lack is emotion. Oddly, Dick Williams also falls into this category (as do most of the best animators working today). The down-and-dirty types who wrenched real (as opposed to saccharine) emotion out of their pencils seem to have fallen to lesser positions on most of the pedestals.
Of course, they're all brilliant of their kind, but my preference will always go to the flawed yet emotional animation.
From Milton Gray: Kahl's animation is technically "correct," and superbly so, and yet
Tytla's seems to go beyond "correct" to feel the unrestrained power of animation (vs. literalism). I could be wrong, but I fear what we could have lost if "Night on Bald Mountain" had been assigned to Kahl
instead of Tytla. And I am equally overwhelmed (in a positive way) by Tytla's last scene at Disney's, the jitterbugging chickens in
Chicken Little. That scene is such a pure cartoon, on such a high
level of expertise. On the other hand, a couple years ago, Mark Kirkland handed me a set of xeroxes of Kahl's original animation
drawings of the dancing llama in Saludos Amigos , and it was as awesome at Tytla's jitterbugging chickens. It's hard to realize how
really great animation is until you see the actual drawings in your
hands—at least in my experience.
From Thad Komorowski: I can't say I completely agree with you on Milt Kahl. I think his un-utilized niche was for comedy, as evidenced in CHICKEN LITTLE, HOCKEY HOMICIDE, SONG OF THE SOUTH, and ICHABOD & MR. TOAD. Perhaps it's not really "acting", but few other scenes contain such pure fun in Disney films.
In actuality, his best work (his best in my opinion, SWORD AND THE STONE and JUNGLE BOOK can take a hike to hell) has a lot in common with Jim Tyer or those crazy Irv Spence scenes in Hanna-Barbera's Tom & Jerrys... what it lacks in substance it makes up in pure entertainment. I get the feeling from interviews and anecdotes that Disney might have been a bit more fun had Kahl gotten his way more (which would have been preferable to the fake "heart" that dominated Disney from the mid-'50s onward). Anyone who could say to Walt Disney's face, "What sane man would put his own money into a piece of shit like that?" after seeing JOHNNY APPLESEED is okay by me.
Michael Sporn has something there on Dick Williams being responsible for mythologies behind animators like Kahl, Art Babbitt, and Grim Natwick.
I too would place Frank Thomas, Bill Tytla, and Ward Kimball ahead of Kahl in a ranking of Disney's best animators, but I'm not so sure about Marc Davis, but maybe I just need to be educated. (I have nothing but love for Tinker Bell though, and I think it's astounding that his Bambi skeletal studies are the product of a human being.) I sure don't agree about ranking him behind Fred Moore or Norm Ferguson though, whose work I think is made up mostly of stock gestures and softness. It all looks nice though.
[Posted May 1, 2009]
From Hans Perk:Having been in the animation business these many years, I have found that for many artists it is nice to be able to measure their and others' abilities, so that "this animator is 13.7% better than that one." Milt Kahl's fabulous technique invites this empirical approach, as the gold standard to good draughtsmanship. But a good animator should be more than a good draughtsman, and this is where the lines get hazy. We can all extoll the virtues of, say, Frank Thomas or Ollie Johnston, as animators, but it is much harder, if not impossible, to measure their abilities. We just feel good about seeing their work. I think that this is a reason for the adoration of Milt. It is easy to tell oneself "I wish I could draw like Milt" and forget to add "and add feelings like Ollie."
At the event, Andreas Deja, himself an excellent draughtsman, celebrated Milt Kahl, the draughtsman, with a 59-minute presentation of Milt's drawings. Single drawings. Beautiful drawings, one after the other. They were, however, not in motion or in context. Thus, we were there to celebrate Milt and his drawings with Andreas, assigning beauty by measuring their merit, without going into the emotional context; this was left for all of us to watch on our home systems, where we can draw our own conclusions, if we had not done so already. As such, the evening was a great success.
Regarding the title, I agree that Milt and Raphael would be a better match. Then one asks: how many Academy visitors know Raphael in contrast to Michelangelo or Leonardo? Probably just a few. The name may well have been chosen because it is more easily recognizable, not because it fits aesthetically.
[Posted May 3, 2009]
From Peter Emslie: I'm certainly not going to give any ranking of the veteran Disney
animators, as I believe that they all had their personal strengths
that they brought to the table. If pressed to name my favourite, it
would have to be Ollie Johnston's body of work that most resonates
with me for its warmth and appealing proportions. There is a
genuinely "cuddly" look to Ollie's characters, yet never cloyingly
cute. However, add me as well to the legion of Disney animation fans who are fascinated with the work of Milt Kahl, and I can tell you
exactly what it is about it that I love so much.
As you know, I myself am a longtime caricaturist, and there is a certain delight in being able to get inside a subject and bring out
their individual personality in a drawing. For me, that is the
fascinating aspect of Milt Kahl's animation, as I see him as Disney's
version of the satirical caricaturist or editorial cartoonist, able to
bring out some of the quirks of human nature and not always in a
flattering way. There is often an influence from Ronald Searle in his later work and, like Searle, Kahl is terrific at depicting the egotists and pompous asses of society. It's no wonder that his most
critically acclaimed animation tends to include such characters as
Medusa and Shere Khan, and I personally have a high regard for his handling of Edgar the butler in the, admittedly pedestrian, The
Aristocats too. All of these characters can be appreciated in two
ways: as the self centered egomaniacs that well deserve their
comeuppance, yet I dare say we also recognize some of these negative yet laughable quirks in ourselves, and can therefore identify with
them to some degree. (In the same way I suspect most of us identify with and sympathize with Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote.)
Like the editorial cartoonist and the politicians he deflates, Milt
Kahl is similarly unafraid to show the ridiculous side of these villains and does so through a high degree of humourous distortion, sometimes stretching a jaw so wide and bearing the teeth and gums to
the point of grotesqueness, as he does with Edgar and Medusa. In the
case of Shere Khan, Milt Kahl has a particularly deft knack for caricature of the human type in his translation of voice actor George Sanders into his lookalike and equally pompous tiger counterpart. In
one of my Character Design classes in the Sheridan College Animation
program, I show some examples of Disney's use of caricature of actor to animal, including showing a clip of George Sanders followed by the clip of Shere Khan when he first confronts Mowgli. I tell the class to pay particular attention to Sanders' rather nasal vocal quality and his habit of taking a pronounced intake of air through his nose after
a line of dialogue. Because Milt Kahl was such an astute caricaturist, he picked up on that odd physical quirk and plays it up in the
humourous quiver of the tiger's nostrils as Sanders snorts, adding to
the pompous stereotype.
Incidentally, I defend Disney's tendency to caricature the voice
actors, be it Ed Wynn's "Mad Hatter" or any of the human-to-animal
translations in The Jungle Book, etc., as there is a practical
reason for it aside from the obvious novelty factor. A character's
physical design has to work convincingly with the voice coming out of
it of it will not be accepted by the audience. The reason such characters as Baloo, King Louie, and Shere Khan work so well is that the physical aspects of their vocal performers were so well analyzed that the mouth/jaw structure, expressions in the eyes, were adapted so
convincingly that the voices and visual designs were completely unified. And Milt Kahl, in my opinion, may have been the most astute caricaturist of them all, being unafraid to show the less flattering
aspects of the human condition in his animation. Perhaps, like the
editorial cartoonist though, this may require stepping outside of the character in order to skewer the type effectively, which may explain
why you feel a certain clinical detachment from his work when compared
to that of his colleagues.
MB replies: I can't work up much enthusiasm for Kahl's work in The Rescuers. His Madame Medusa is the best thing in that film, but it is such a dud overall that no one really shines. I do agree, though, that Kahl had a gift for pointed, satirical comedy that was not exploited nearly as well as it might have been. If, as I've suggested, Kahl's animation was lacking in the vaunted Disney "sincerity"—the trait so conspicuous in animation by Johnston and others—that lack need not have been a liability, any more than it was in Ward Kimball's. The challenge was to give animators like Kahl and Kimball assignments that not only did not require "sincerity," but for which "sincerity" was simply beside the point. Kimball got assignments like that, as with Melody Time and The Three Caballeros, but I think Kahl might have bristled at the notion that he was a similar sort of talent. He told me and Milt Gray in 1976 that Kimball "didn't have the feel for getting the character's personality and making him believable that Frank or Ollie or I did." And so he wound up animating straight characters and trying to make them "believable." A waste.
It seems to me that unifying voices and visual designs becomes the more important the more dialogue there is; and the more dialogue there is, the more an animated film is likely to be tugged toward literal timing and literal movement, which is what I see in The Jungle Book. As much as I admire Kahl's animation of Shere Khan—and there again he did the best work in a weak film—I find much more to admire in dialogue-free cartoons like the best of Jones's Coyote and Road Runner series, and in those cartoons where the vocal performances as well as the animation are steeped in caricature.