"What's New" Archives: May 2017
May 29, 2017:
The Writing Life, Cont'd
John Canemaker's New Blog
May 28, 2017:
May 9, 2017:
Partying at La Martinique
May 3, 2017:
As I Was Saying...
The Writing Life
May 29, 2017:
The Writing Life, Cont'd
My 2,500-word essay marking the 75th anniversary of Carl Barks's first comic-book work has been accepted and will be published in the souvenir book for this year's Comic-Con International at San Diego. If you share my love for Barks, I think you'll enjoy my piece.
The second volume of the collected Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales Sunday pages, with my commentaries, will be available July 25, according to amazon.com. If you liked the first volume, I'm sure you'll like the second.
I mentioned early this month that my literary agent failed to send me the royalties I earned on The Animated Man, my Walt Disney biography, over a span of several years. He hasn't responded to letters from my attorney, and I've been exploring what might be involved in filing a lawsuit. This is a difficult situation, because the amount involved, almost $11,000, is an awkward size. If I were owed $50,000, hiring an attorney to file suit on a contingency basis—that is, the attorney would get a large piece of whatever he recovered—would be the obvious course of action. If the amount were $3,000, writing it off as a bad debt would make just as much sense. But $11,000 isn't enough to interest most lawyers, and it's too much money to shrug off.
To state the obvious, almost no one goes into writing about animation and the comics, and about people like Walt Disney, in the expectation of making lots of money. (If they do, they're in for a disappointment.) To have even the modest royalties I've earned on The Animated Man stolen by someone I trusted is very painful. It turns out that I put my trust in an agent who is not even a a thief with a little imaginative flair, but just the moral equivalent of a pickpocket.
From Ralph Daniel: I just read your post about the $11,000 which wouldn't interest most lawyers since their percentage would be so low. It's your call, of course, but I would offer a lawyer the entire amount he/she could collect, which might be more than $11,000 considering punitive damages. That's only if you're interested in being punitive. And since you're unlikely to collect anything anyway, you would be no worse off.
MB replies: Most attorneys, presented with such an offer, would be justifiably suspicious, reasoning that a hundred percent of nothing is still nothing. My former agent's wife tells me that he has divorced her after leaving her and their children, and I've learned from her and another source that he has moved to what looks on the internet to be a caretaker's cottage or something of the sort on the edge of a public park in Connecticut. It's entirely possible that my former agent is insolvent—especially if his destructive behavior originated in drugs or alcohol—and if he is, any victory in court would be pyrrhic. I'm not giving up on the idea of a lawsuit, but I'm trying to be realistic about my prospects.
[Posted May 29, 2017]
From Garry Apgar: In The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Charles Dickens wrote: “If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.” No crooked agents either, I guess. In the Best of All Possible World, that is.
[Posted June 3, 2017]
John Canemaker's New Blog
Today is John Canemaker's seventy-fourth birthday, so what better time for a fellow septuagenarian to celebrate his new blog. John Canemaker's Animated Eye is already, and predictably, given John's track record as writer, scholar, and filmmaker, one of the ornaments of the internet. John posts rather infrequently, because each post is so rich in rare photos and fresh information about subjects close to his heart (Disney, McCay), but in contrast to yours truly, John has made it easy to keep up with his blog through email updates. Blogs like John's seem to be scarcer in these days of Facebook superficiality, and I'm very pleased that he is paddling against the tide with such a substantial offering.
From Christian Svenningsen: Send my late congratulations for John Canemaker's birthday, and tell him he has a Danish fan who would love to meet him if he ever comes to Denmark and gives a lecture. I even caricatured him with my drawing skills where he is greeting Pinocchio.
What are your thoughts on the E. G. Lutz book Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development? When I bought the Applewood Books edition over a year ago, I regarded it as the Holy Grail of animation.
MB replies: The Lutz book is a historical relic. I've written about it briefly in both Hollywood Cartoons and The Animated Man.
[Posted June 1, 2017]
May 28, 2017:
Richard Schickel died early this year, an event that seems to have attracted scant notice in Disney/animation circles despite the notoriety that Schickel enjoyed, if that's the word, beginning with the publication in 1968 of his sort-of biography of Walt Disney, The Disney Version. I find no mention of his death on the Cartoon Brew or Disney History websites, to mention a couple of sites that I visit often.
The Disney Version, the first unauthorized book-length examination of Walt's life and work, has been in and out of print since its publication, more often in than out, each new paperback edition equipped with excerpts from admiring reviews. As best I can tell, none of those reprintings have incorporated any significant corrections. Years ago, for reasons I don't now recall, I decided to go through the book (the hardback original, which I bought in 1968) and identify as many of Schickel's sources as possible—not a daunting task, as it turned out, because he had relied heavily on sources anyone could find in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. I quickly decided that his use of those sources was careless and error-prone. He did talk to some former Disney employees, but not very many, and here again his "research" was remarkably thin, as I learned when I examined his notebooks and other materials at the University of Wisconsin.
As with Disney, so, evidently, with other Schickel books. I actually bought his 1984 D.W. Griffith biography on the strength of some rapturous reviews, only to be brought back to earth by Tom Gunning's review (sympathetic but ultimately damning) in American Film. I never did finish reading that book.
Schickel was of course a prominent talking head two years ago on the misbegotten two-part PBS show about Walt, along with Neal Gabler, and the two writers' casual attitude toward mere facts seems similar. Gabler's Disney biography was loaded with significant (and avoidable) errors, and when the paperback edition came out, exactly one of those errors had been corrected, most likely by the publisher (because it was mentioned in a prominent review) rather than the author. Schickel, like Gabler, seems to have proceeded with a limited interest in factual accuracy. More important to both authors, I'm sure, was the opportunity to say what they thought, and when facts got in the way of their opinions, so much the worse for the facts.
That's not necessarily a terrible thing, but proceeding in that manner places a very heavy burden on the quality of your opinions. With Schickel and Gabler, the salient characteristic of their opinions is not their intellectual substance but that they coincide with the prejudices of their target audience—urban sophisticates who have long regarded Walt and his works with comprehensive disdain. Such congruence guarantees some good reviews, even when the authors involved are lightweights compared with Schickel and Gabler. (Among other writers on Disney and related subjects, Marc Eliot and Stefan Kanfer come immediately to mind.)
Where Disney is concerned, I've often been acccused of having opinions myself, or, more specifically, "strange opinions," the kind that don't square with the stale incantations by so many Disney-blessed writers. I'm rarely called out for inaccuracies, more often for being accurate in inconvenient ways. (Was Dave Hilberman, the Disney strike leader, a communist? Well, yes, he said so, but let's pretend he wasn't.) When there are errors in my books, you'll find them corrected on this site, and, whenever possible, in subsequent printings. Sometimes the expense of fixing a mistake makes a correction in the printed books impractical, and then especially I feel the chagrin expressed so well by the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt: "[S]cholars find it extremely painful to be caught out in even small factual errors. I have made my share, and I can bear witness that they burn, in Shakespeare's phrase, like the mines of sulphur."
It's hard for me to understand writers who don't feel that urgent need to avoid and correct errors, but there are a lot of them around, some of them in exalted places. Greenblatt was reviewing a book by an author who seems to be a Shakespeare-scholarship equivalent of Richard Schickel or Neal Gabler but whose book was published by a prestigious academic press and has enjoyed praise in many of the right places—but, at least, not in the New York Review of Books, where Greenblatt's review appeared.
I feel obliged to add that Schickel was, in my sole exchange of brief letters with him, gracious and friendly (I offered to put him on Funnyworld's mailing list, and he accepted the offer, in a reply that I have regrettably lost). That was probably in 1967, before The Disney Version. I've since heard of other people who had similarly pleasant encounters with him. With Neal Gabler, not so much. I think Gabler revealed himself most tellingly in a piece in the May 2016 Atlantic Monthly, titled "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans." Yes, it is indeed possible to boast and whine in the same breath.
From Donald Benson: I got the first edition of The Disney Version as a kid; it was the only bio out there at that moment in history (there were a few official books before, but I don't remember seeing them around). I easily brushed aside much of Schickel's criticism and focused on the positive stuff. When he summed up Disney as personifying the virtues and vices of his audience, the latter I dismissed as "well, yeah, we're only human."
Also have a 1997 book, The Magic Kingdom by Steven Watts. It's been years since I dipped into it (aside from a few minutes just now). He refers to Schickel's "left wing critique" of Disney, but now and again his own mostly favorable book serves up a version of Walt Disney as dark or darker than anything Schickel wrote. Never bothered with the Dark Prince book [Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince by Marc Eliot], but somewhere have a paperback titled Disney's World [by Leonard Mosley]. On the one hand, it looked like the author scored a lot of important interviews. On the other, I recall it felt like a peculiar hatchet job: He seemed set on "debunking" Uncle Walt. At the same time, he painted the young Roy Disney as hissable villain out to erase Uncle Walt's presence from the company (this was before he joined the aggressive marketing of Uncle Walt, to the point of impersonating his uncle for a lavish Disney World short).
Was poking through your archives and found the 2004 piece on Magic Kingdom in Florida. It was fair and accurate; the key innovation you missed—and it's an easy one to miss, now that Disneyland's ideas have permeated so many public spaces—is that you're INSIDE that shop window. A little in the rides, but seriously so in the semi-immersive environments ("theming") surrounding them. All the theme parks have simulated streets and communities, pretending to be real places instead of mere shops and fast food. Roller coasters are disguised as mountains. The Mark Twain and the Jungle Cruise commit major real estate to persuade you you've been somewhere. (The acclaimed Harry Potter areas at Universal ironically top Disney with an old-school Disney commitment to immersion)
A comic memory of the Animal Kingdom park: Seeking a restroom in the elaborate African village, ventured down a weatherbeaten alley decorated by faded signs, rusted pipes and other ominous indicators. Through the door was a gleaming modern steel-and-tile facility. Exotic climes made safe for non-adventurous tourists.
Even cooler from my perspective is that the hotels—the pricier ones—are dressed to belong to a different region or era. The room you sleep in is almost a stage set, reminding you this is not a Hilton by the airport. And in stunning contrast to the real world, surprisingly few eating places overlook parking lots.
Much of the impact on both coasts has been diminished by success, the way a good band is diminished when it moves from intimate venues to arenas where logistics dominate every aspect of the experience. And much of what was novel and innovative is now commonplace outside the parks. Old enough to remember when seeing a complete reel of silent comedy was huge.
And that's it from Insomnia Corner.
[Posted May 31, 2017]
From Mark Mayerson: I've read Shickel's biography of D.W. Griffith and came away with the same impression as I did of his Disney bio. In both cases, Shickel clearly thought himself superior to his subject. It's one thing to write a critical book about someone, as Joseph McBride did about Frank Capra, but criticizing and belittling are not the same thing. Schickel's distaste for Disney and Griffith colors both books.
[Posted June 8, 2017]
From Garry Apgar: I still have the hardcover edition of The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney, by Richard Schickel, that I bought in 1968 when it first came out.
In its time, if you didn’t know better, it was a good read. Schickel was a talented, occasionally insightful, but sometimes lazy and self-indulgent writer. He was a veteran film critic for Time magazine. He was smart, cultivated, and knew a lot about how Hollywood worked—though he seems to have been disinclined to sully his hands doing serious research. He also seems to have relied almost exclusively on the close-at-hand riches of the Time-Life archive and resources at the film library of the Museum of Modern Art, the latter exploited perhaps, on his behalf, by his research assistant.
In big picture terms, Schickel’s biography, certainly communicated the sense that Disney was a major figure in American culture, despite his visibly conflicted take on his subject. According to several reports after Schickel’s death, he was inspired to become a film critic by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which he’d seen as a boy of five or six.
However, he was certainly no great friend to Walt in print. In The Disney Version, the first book-length study of Walt’s life and body of work as a whole, Schickel was both mean-spirited and factually wrong about very basic things, including the misspelling of the name of the man who conducted the orchestra during the soundtrack recording for Steamboat Willie. His name was Carl Edouarde, not Edwardi.
Schickel’s hostility to Disney may be explained in part by personal pique. After the two men met for lunch at the studio to discuss Schickel’s project, in 1965 or 1966, Walt refused to give him his blessing. He had taken an immediate dislike to the headstrong, often abrasive critic and told his daughter Diane that he would never want to have anything to do with the guy.
It’s too bad Schickel did not, or could not, chat up someone like Frank Nugent about Disney. Nugent, the film critic for the New York Times in the 1930s, loved Snow White and Pinocchio. In the late 1940s he even worked for Disney for a while. Nugent also worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, for John Ford, among others, on The Searchers and The Quiet Man, which earned him an Oscar nomination.
Nugent died almost a year before Walt, and before Schickel began serious work on his book. They might well have crossed paths at some point professionally, though they were based on opposite sides of the country. If they did meet, it’s possible they did not get along. Nugent was of an older generation, and Schickel, given his immense ego and prickly personality, might have been jealous of him.
In “More on the Disney Version,” in the September 1968 issue of Film Fan Monthly, a magazine Leonard Maltin founded and edited in his younger days, Leonard had this to say about Schickel’s book:
Richard Schickel, we are told on THE DISNEY VERSION’s dust jacket, is a ‘recognized authority on films.’ In his last film book, THE STARS, Mr. Schickel regaled film buffs with such authoritative information as the fact that W.C. Fields never made any silent films (he made about a dozen), DUCK SOUP was a Marx Brothers play on Broadway (it wasn’t), and Buster Keaton worked in the comedy studio of Mack Sennett (he didn’t). He even credited a Marx Brothers photo to a film that never existed!
This trend continues in Schickel’s new work, THE DISNEY VERSION, a cruel book which is a study in propaganda.
The cartoon of the crucified Mickey was drawn by Al Kilgore, a friend of Leonard's. Kilgore's own review of The Disney Version, "The Disney Assault," was the lead article in the same September 1968 issue of Film Fan Monthly.
[Posted June 9, 2017]
From John Richardson: Your mention of Schickel, et al, reminds me of a 1995 New Yorker article I'm reading online (slowly, on my work commutes) on Lewis Carroll. It discusses a biography that was about to be released—one that ended up, apparently, dispelling some of the "dark myths" that had begun to arise around Carroll (or Dodgson, his actual name). One quote from the review: "The new picture of Dodgson is achieved honestly—by the slow accumulation of detail rather than by a willful 'rereading'." Made me think of your Animated Man bio.
MB replies: Morton N. Cohen, the author of that book, Lewis Carroll: A Biography, died last month. I've not read the book, but I still hope to do so.
[Posted July 8, 2017]
May 9, 2017:
Partying at La Martinique
Back in March 2009, I posted this photo taken in New York on October 23, 1941, the evening of the premiere of Dumbo at the Broadway Theater; Fantasia had ended its run there two days earlier.
The premiere was a black-tie occasion followed by a celebratory party at which Walt and Lillian Disney were serenaded by rough-looking Western Union messenger boys. I didn't know where the party was held, but now Dave Mason has come to the rescue. The matchbook on the table points to the answer: La Martinique, a nightclub at 57 West 57th Street, a few blocks away from the Broadway. (That theater was, and still is, as far as I know, at 53rd and Broadway.)
There was a Hotel Martinique in Manhattan, too—it's still there—and when I was writing Funnybooks, and writing a caption for the photo just below (it's on page 27), I thought it likely that it was taken at the hotel, which was at 32nd Street and Broadway, not far from Western Printing & Lithographing's offices at 200 Fifth Avenue (at 23rd Street, where Broadway crosses Fifth). Someone, probably Oskar Lebeck's wife, Ruth, wrote "Martinique" on the back of the photo, along with the names of some of the people there. But it was almost certainly taken at the nightclub; the décor visible in both photos, and in other early '40s photos from the nightclub that Dave Mason has shared with me, argues that both photos were taken at the same place, La Martinique.
The photo below, which was given to me by Oskar Lebeck's daughter, the late Letty Edes, is dated on the back 1943, and was probably taken during Schlesinger's expedition to the East Coast in December 1942 and January 1943. You can read about that trip, and see other photos taken then, at this link.
|Oskar Lebeck (at right), the New York-based editor of Western Printing & Lithographing's Dell comic books, entertains a group at La Martinique that includes, from left, his wife, Ruth Lebeck; Leon Schlesinger, producer of the Warner Bros. cartoons; Mary DuBois, wife of Gaylord DuBois, Lebeck's star comics writier; Harold Spencer, general manager of Western Printing's Poughkeepsie plant; Spencer's wife, Todd; and Gaylord DuBois. The woman with her back to the camera may be either Schlesinger's wife, Bernice, or Helen Meyer, vice president of Dell Publishing.
From John Canemaker: The La Martinique story is great fun. That "upholstered basement" nightclub is where Danny Kaye performed before, during and after Lady in the Dark. Numerous photos online show him in the room doing his act.
[Posted May 15, 2017]
May 3, 2017:
As I Was Saying...
I last posted here in January. I don't think I've ever before let so much time pass without posting. The reasons for my silence have been mostly related to health, my own and my father-in-law's. I hesitate to post about personal matters here, but I know that some people have continued to check the site frequently, and they may appreciate an explanation of what's going on.
My wife is an only child, and the full import of that status is probably felt most keenly when a very old parent (he is 92, a World War II veteran, and a widower) is sick. Especially, I might add, when that parent has been highly self-sufficient for many years and has had to adjust, grudgingly, to a much more limited existence after breaking his hip a year and a half ago.
His other ailments, piled atop that central injury, have limited our travel and interrupted other plans. Last fall, we were four hours away from a flight to California (and a visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum's Pinocchio exhibit) when a call came from the assisted-living home: my father-in-law had fallen again. We had to cancel the trip. Last week he was back at the VA hospital in the midst of yet another crisis. It's always something, and, of course, Phyllis and I have no choice but to respond.
As for me, I was diagnosed late last year with Parkinson's disease. That diagnosis probably sounds dire, but maybe more so than is really the case. I don't have any tremors, the disease having manifested itself most visibly in a slouching posture that Phyllis noticed before I did. There are drugs and therapies available to retard the disease's progress, and I am taking full advantage of them.
These complications haven't consumed all of my time, but when a few hours do open up I've had to weigh my desire to spend an hour or two with this website against the need to keep family and medical demands under control. (Do I dare take time to update the site when I could be working on my father-in-law's income-tax return instead?) In March, Phyllis and I made a brief driving trip to the Carolinas that gave her a blessed break from the near-constant attention she feels obliged to give to her father—but we did stay in touch with him daily by phone.
My own medical situation seems to be settling into a satisfactory routine, and I'm hopeful that I'll be able to post here with some regularity soon. I have a tremendous backlog of good material, such as a Will Eisner interview from 2000, my second with him, that I originally hoped to post in March to mark the hundredth anniversary of Will's birth. With any luck, I'll have it up in a week or two. This website is a source of great pleasure to me, and I'm looking forward to bringing it back to life.
The Writing Life
I've done a little writing while the site was dormant, including notes for the second volume of IDW's reprints of the Sunday page called Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales. I've also written an introduction for Theme Park Press' reprint of Gerald and Danny Peary's pioneering 1980 anthology The American Animated Cartoon.
I won't be attending the San Diego Comic-Con in July, but I was asked to write a piece for the con's souvenir book marking the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Carl Barks's drawings in a comic book, Four Color No. 9, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold. I could hardly refuse that invitation. I don't know yet if my essay has even been accepted—it certainly departs from the superhero orthodoxy that dominates the San Diego con's proceedings—but I'll hope that it passes muster. I enjoy nothing more than reading and writing about Barks's stories, and I think my enjoyment is evident in the new piece.
No new books of my own are on my work schedule, and that's just as well, I'm afraid. I am feeling decidedly sour about book writing.
I learned a few months ago that my literary agent, the man who represented me in negotiations with University of California Press for The Animated Man and Funnybooks, has been sitting on money that he owes me. The royalty checks from UC Press for The Animated Man, my Walt Disney biography, were mailed to him twice a year, normal procedure when an agent is involved. He was then to send the money to me, retaining his 15 percent commission. Instead, he cashed the checks and kept all the money
As far as I knew, since my agent never sent me the royalty statements, my royalties never covered my advance. This went on for several years, until I finally got suspicious, fired my agent, and began getting royalties from UC Press directly.
UC Press has been very helpful, providing me with copies of all the royalty statements and cashed checks. The amount I'm owed is not huge, but it's large enough to make a lawsuit an attractive next step, even at a distance of more than a thousand miles (my agent—my former agent—lives in Connecticut). Stay tuned.