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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: November 2007

November 30, 2007:

More on Coal Black

The Remote Colony (Theatre)

 

November 29, 2007:

The UPA Book

 

November 28, 2007:

La Bella Cucina

 

November 26, 2007:

Interviews...

...And Ideas

 

November 20, 2007:

Sporn and Mozart in Manhattan

Mickey's Birthplace Today

Hollywood Cartoons On Sale

 

November 7, 2007:

Sporn Weekend at MoMA

 

November 5, 2007:

The Return of the Scanner

 

November 30, 2007:

Coal Black model sheet

More on Coal Black

It's probably Bob Clampett's most famous cartoon, and it's certainly his most controversial. Visitors to the site keep wanting to talk about it. You can read the latest such communication, a thought-provoking message from Wayne Bryan, and my response, by clicking here to go to a Feedback page devoted to Clampett and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. That's Gene Hazelton's model sheet above.

The Remote Colony (Theatre)

When I wrote recently about my visit to the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan—the theater known as the Colony in 1928, when Steamboat Willie premiered there—I meant to remark on the theater's location, at 53rd and Broadway. Back in 1928, that location was a handicap, too far from the other theaters, legitimate and movie, clustered around Times Square. Universal, which leased the theater for a few years, had a devil of a time making any money from it. As I wrote earlier this year, Universal hired the famed publicist Harry Reichenbach to promote the theater, and he almost immediately talked Walt Disney into letting him run Walt's first sound cartoon.

Remarkably, the Colony/Broadway is still on the outer edges of the theater district. I'm looking at a map of New York's legitimate theaters, and the Broadway barely makes it onto the map, at the very top. Most of today's theaters are clustered almost ten blocks south. In Manhattan's real estate market, a crippled theater would have been pulled down long ago, so the Broadway's location must not be the handicap it once was.

November 29, 2007:

Inside UPA

The UPA Book

I received my copy of Inside UPA a few days ago. It's a collection of backstage photos from the UPA cartoon studio, all taken between roughly 1945 and 1959. Inside UPA was conceived and designed by Amid Amidi, co-proprietor of cartoonbrew.com and author of an excellent survey of '50s animation, Cartoon Modern. The new book is handsome, but very small; it measures less than nine inches by seven and a half inches, and it has only 64 pages. The photos total a few more than fifty. Inside UPA costs $45; figure in the $10 shipping and handling cost, and you're paying around a buck per photo.

Inside UPA is, in other words, a luxury item. You buy it either because you're a hopeless junkie for such historical material, as I am, or, more likely, because you've surrendered to the prevailing myth: that UPA was, as Amidi says in his introduction to the book, a "fearless group of artists" who "revolutionize[d] the animation medium." That myth—which, like many other myths, has some basis in fact—manifests itself in many ways. For example, a few UPA people were unquestionably members of the Communist Party, in some cases for years, but, in the eyes of UPA loyalists, to acknowledge that reality is a "smear," because no one on the UPA staff, as best we can tell, stole atomic secrets or blew up bridges.

Sales of Inside UPA will go toward propagation of the UPA myth, through support for what is billed as a documentary feature about the studio but will almost certainly be an uncritical celebration of it. I've always thought that the idea of UPA was more powerful than any film the studio actually produced, and I'm sure it's that idea—to quote Amidi again, "a place to experiment artistically with a relatively new and unexplored medium alongside a like-minded group of progressive artists"—that will dominate the documentary. There's a list of the people who've been interviewed for the feature on the UPA Pictures Web site, and I doubt that any of them departed from orthodoxy in their comments about the studio. If the film's producer, Tee Bosustow, had also interviewed a noisy iconoclast, someone like John Kricfalusi, I could take this project more seriously.

That said, UPA deserves a much better shake than it has gotten in recent years, when it has been difficult to see most of the cartoons, and even harder to see them in decent prints. Unfortunately, I can't find a hint on the UPA Web site that any restoration efforts are under way. A richly textured, subtly animated cartoon like John Hubley's Rooty Toot Toot, one of the very best UPA films, cries out for high-definition viewing, but only a handful of UPA films have even made it on to DVD, and then as a supplement to the two-disc "special edition" of Hellboy. Tee Bosustow may have to tread softly where the actual films are concerned—they're owned not by UPA, but by Sony, through its Columbia Pictures subsidiary—but that can't make the documentary seem like more than a peripheral effort.

In any case, the photos in Inside UPA are mostly good, and it's fun to see so many familiar names when they were young and enjoying their work. If you want to order the book, click on this link.

Although most people in the book's photos are identified, there's one curious exception, a group photo, shown below, that's identified simply as "c. 1950." That's almost certainly incorrect. According to both Paul Smith (who owned the photo) and Mary Cain (who identified most of the people in it), it was taken in 1948; Mary also said it was used for UPA's 1949 Christmas card. I'd guess that the photo was taken soon after UPA made its distribution deal with Columbia. To see a larger version, with the people in the photo identified, either click on the photo or on this link.

UPA group photo

November 28, 2007:

Italian magazine

La Bella Cucina

Walt Disney Pictures announced earlier this month that Ratatouille had grossed more than $600 million worldwide, making it the second highest-grossing Pixar release to date (the highest, not identified in the Disney press release, is presumably Finding Nemo). The domestic box office accounts for only a little more than one third of Ratatouille's total. Ratatouille has been extraordinarily popular overseas, especially in France, where it is, according to Disney, the most popular film of the year, in all categories.

I've been surprised by the scale of Ratatouille's success, but I think this Italian magazine cover (sent to me by my friend Patrick Garabedian, who recently returned from Italy) suggests why foreign audiences may have responded so warmly to the film. Despite the lamentable inroads made by fast food and supermarchés, people in countries like France, Italy, and Spain still take food more seriously, and prepare it better, than most Americans do. Ratatouille approaches cooking seriously—its restaurant kitchen looks real—in a way that Europeans have surely appreciated.

November 26, 2007:

Interviews...

I've done a few interviews lately to promote The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney—still a live topic, fortunately, even though the book has been out since last spring. (The paperback, whose price from amazon.com has recently dropped again, to $12.89, will be published in February.) You can hear one of my interviews, by Philip Adams of the Australian Broadcasting Company, by clicking on this link.

Over the years, I've interviewed a great many people myself, for books and as a business journalist, and I've only just figured out why I find it so uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of an interviewer's questions. It has nothing to do with the interviewer—I have not the slightest complaint about Philip Adams or my other recent interlocutors—and everything to do with my own cast of mind. I'm not just a writer but a rewriter; even entries on this page have typically been worked over heavily before I put them up. As I'm being interviewed, I often find myself thinking how much better I could say something if I just had the opportunity to go back and edit it, and, of course, those second thoughts all but guarantee that I'll stumble as I continue talking.

(When I was interviewing for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age and The Animated Man, I sent most of my interview subjects transcripts for their review. Sometimes they edited the transcripts as extensively as I might have edited a transcript of one of my own interviews, and sometimes the heaviest editors were people—Ward Kimball comes to mind—whom you might expect would have been the most casual about what they said.)

As clumsy as interviews make me feel, I'll continue doing them as often as I can, particularly since The Animated Man still has to fight for readers' attention in competition with Neal Gabler's much more heavily publicized biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. A friend recently wrote that "your emphasis on Disney's normality and positive outlook are among the things that most clearly set it apart from Gabler's book"—which paints a grossly distorted picture of a warped and tormented Walt—"and you should do all you can to underline the distinction." Exactly; that's why I'm happy to keep doing interviews as long as I'm being asked.

...And Ideas

Toot Whiste Plunk

There's another reason to do interviews, and that's because they sometimes stimulate your ideas about your subject. In one recent interview, I was talking about Disney's Sleeping Beauty, and Eyvind Earle's role on that film, when I suddenly saw some pieces fitting together that I'd never assembled in quite the same way.

In last half of 1953, the Warner cartoon studio was closed and Chuck Jones was working at the Disney studio. Walt assigned him and Ward Kimball to Sleeping Beauty. Earle, who was by then the film's background stylist, complained to me that Kimball and Jones produced nothing in their months together. He was no doubt correct. But in talking about that episode in an interview, I suddenly wondered if perhaps by assigning Kimball and Jones to Sleeping Beauty Walt was groping for a solution to his central problem with the film.

That problem was the story. The surviving evidence in the Walt Disney Archives includes a 1952 continuity that is very similar to Sleeping Beauty as it was released almost seven years later; even the characters' names are the same. But Walt was apparently uncomfortable with that version's resemblance to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In a February 11, 1953, story meeting, he worried aloud that a song sounded "too much like Snow White."

Walt frequently invoked Snow White in meetings on Cinderella in the 1940s, when the studio was struggling and a resemblance to Snow White worked in the new feature's favor, but even then he expressed some caution. "We can't have her go in and just doing a lot of work, and the animals coming in and helping her, because it's Snow White again." he said in a meeting on March 17, 1948. He was not a man who liked to copy himself.

By bringing Kimball and Jones onto Sleeping Beauty, alongside Eyvind Earle, Walt may have been expressing a vague hope that lightning would strike, and that a story would emerge that was "Disney," but in a bright new modern sense. Kimball and Earle had just collaborated successfully on Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom, which Kimball co-directed and whose backgrounds Earle designed. Toot Whistle was the first animated short in CinemaScope (it was released in November 1953), and in its visual style and wry tone it differed sharply from Sleeping Beauty as it eventually appeared. What kind of film might Sleeping Beauty have been if its lineage could have been traced back to Toot Whistle, and even to Jones's Warner cartoons, rather than Snow White?

Kimball and Jones worked together on what emerged years later as Sequence 6, the cake-baking and dress-making sequence with the three fairies; Bill Peet had already worked on that sequence, until Walt pulled him off of it, for reasons that are unclear but probably owe more to Walt's unease with the film than to anything Peet did.

Before long, Kimball too left Sleeping Beauty and went onto the space installments of the Disney TV show; Jones went back to Warners. Earle continued as Sleeping Beauty's stylist, a role he filled intermittently for years, bouncing back and forth from Sleeping Beauty to the TV show and the Disneyland park. He encased Sleeping Beauty in backgrounds that are beautiful on their own terms but often stifle the character animation, which had to conform to Earle's dominant style. That was not what Walt Disney had in mind, but he was struggling with many distractions in the 1950s—the park, TV, a swelling roster of live-action films—and he never gave Sleeping Beauty the attention it required.

Even if he had, there's no reason to assume that a better film necessarily would have emerged; as a filmmaker, Walt was by the '50s increasingly inclined to play it safe, and nothing could have seemed safer than echoing Snow White. But it's tempting to wonder if maybe a true engagement with Sleeping Beauty might have stirred in him some creative urges that were gradually dying—particularly if he had allowed himself to give free rein to another Kimball-Earle collaboration.

November 20, 2007:

Sporn and Mozart in Manhattan

The Magic FlutePhyllis and I got back late last week from a thoroughly satisfying and all too short stay in New York, our first visit to the Apple in almost two years. The immediate occasion for the trip was the Michael Sporn retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which was as enjoyable as we'd hoped, but we also loaded up on culture of other kinds, most notably the Julie Taymor production of Mozart's Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera (see the photo at right). Taymor designed the striking puppets that have contributed so much to the success of the stage version of The Lion King, but for my money, her Mozart production is much more inventive and visually appealling. (Needless to say, the music is a lot better.) Happily, we didn't buy any tickets in advance for any Broadway shows, so the stagehands' strike didn't affect us at all.

We got to New York in time to see just one of the three MoMA programs of Sporn cartoons, but it was the one under the umbrella title "A Peaceable Kingdom," the one I most wanted to see. It included The Marzipan Pig and a couple of other book adaptations I hadn't seen, The Dancing Frog and Ira Sleeps Over.

Michael Sporn and Heidi StallingsWhen you've known and liked someone for as long as I've known and liked Michael (that's him at the right, with the actress Heidi Stallings), you have to wonder if you've developed a warped opinion of his work—warped in his favor, of course. The MoMA program was immensely reassuring in that respect.

Most of Michael's films are faithful adaptations, in their narratives and their visual style, of very good illustrated children's books. I wondered, as the program began, have I been right in thinking that he transforms those books into films that are truly his own? He does; a tongue-in-cheek production number in The Dancing Frog, in which the frog and Fred Astaire perform together on a Broadway stage, is not just graceful and charming and funny, as a book might be, but it's also triumphantly animated. Ira Sleeps Over is a very small-scale story reconceived by Michael as a highly amusing, Sondheim-flavored mini-Broadway musical. The Marzipan Pig is the kind of book that would scare the pants off most Hollywood animators, skating as it does along the very edge of preciosity—and Michael uses every word of the book—but the Sporn version is mysterious and touching, and often beautifully animated.

Michael has relied heavily on Tissa David, who was once Grim Natwick's assistant and has long been an outstanding animator in her own right, but his invariably microscopic budgets have firmly limited just how much animation as good as David's he can put on the screen. There are, accordingly, rough patches in his films, animation that would be better if he'd had the money to fix it. (He makes his films with domestic crews; he doesn't send work overseas and thus doesn't have the luxury of grousing, like some Hollywood TV-cartoon directors, about how those miserable Koreans screwed up his fabulous layouts.) Michael acknowledged those rough spots in a Monday-night colloquy with John Canemaker and Josh Siegel of MoMA's staff; but, he said—and I'm paraphrasing freely here—he believed that if he made his films as strong as possible in every other way, they could survive shortcomings in their animation. And that's true.

He said he wasn't interested in lingering over a film, in Disney fashion, and trying to make it perfect. Instead, he wanted to make as many films as possible. He wasn't saying, though, that he wanted to crank out cartoons like so many sausages. Michael's training was in the fine arts, rather than in animation (which he learned on the job, with John Hubley), and his posture is instead closer to that of an artist like Picasso, who poured out an enormous number of sketches and paintings, few of them "finished" in any traditional sense, as he explored new ideas. I would guess that Michael's natural inclinations were reinforced by his work for Richard Williams on Raggedy Ann & Andy, Williams being the prime recent example of how deep a hole an animation director can dig when he strives for perfection.

Michael is now working on his first feature, based on the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe. Like everything he does, it's being made on a shoestring. But I'm looking forward to watching it, which I can't say about most of the industrial-strength films coming off the assembly line at Disney and DreamWorks and the other Hollywood factories. I've always been skeptical of the snobbery and solipsism I associate with New York-based independent animation, but Michael's films don't just have the intimate, personal scale of such films, they also have genuine audience appeal.

A few of his films (not always the best ones, alas) are already available on DVD; you can read my comments by clicking here and here. Besides the films I've discussed there, Scholastic Video has issued the lovely Man Who Walked Between the Towers and two very funny William Steig adaptations (Doctor De Soto and The Amazing Bone) on DVD in the company of cartoons by other filmmakers. More of Michael's work will be appearing on DVD soon; The Marzipan Pig will be out next spring, he says. Perhaps through DVDs he'll enjoy more of the recognition for his work that he so richly deserves.

Mickey's Birthplace Today

Broadway TheatreI'd planned to spend some of my time in New York at the local branch of the National Archives, but the Disney-related documents I wanted to see couldn't be retrieved in time (they're stored in Missouri, but accessible only in Manhattan; go figure), so I'll be trying to get copies of some of them by other means.

I did make a Disney-related photo stop, though, at the southwest corner of 53rd and Broadway, to take a picture of the theater once known as the Colony but long known as the Broadway. It's now a legitimate theater—the resident musical, its run interrupted by the stagehands' strike, is The Color Purple—but it was showing movies when Steamboat Willie premiered there, seventy-nine years ago last Sunday. (November 18, 1928, was a Sunday, too.) The Broadway's facade has obviously changed since 1928, but inside it's still the same theater, or so I'm told.

The Broadway has very rich Disney associations. In November 1940, it was the scene of Fantasia's premiere; Dumbo followed Fantasia into the Broadway in October 1941. If you look closely at the photo, under the marquee, you may be startled, as I was, to see the word "Fantasia"—but that's not a reference to the film. It is instead the name of the actress starring in the musical. I wonder if anyone associated with the Broadway or The Color Purple has enjoyed the accidental connection between the actress and the Disney film that adorned the theater's screen for almost a year. I doubt it, but there's no reason that we can't.

Hollywood Cartoons on Sale

Hollywood CartoonsWhat? You still haven't bought a copy of my Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age? If so, you're in luck, because amazon.com is offering that book for $14.74, or a little more than half the current price ($27.95). It's one of more than a thousand Oxford University Press titles on sale. This is the second printing of the trade paperback, with all the errors eliminated that I could find. Even if you already have the hardcover, you may want to pick up the paperback—at least, if you're as obsessed with accuracy in details as I am. And what better Christmas gift could you give? None (unless, of course, you added in a copy of The Animated Man).

For a list of the errors in the Hollywood Cartoons hardcover that I've fixed in the paperback, click here. And to read a description of the book itself, click here.

November 7, 2007:

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Sporn Weekend at MoMA

A reminder to all who'll be in the New York area next weekend (November 9-12) that the Museum of Modern Art's Michael Sporn retrospective gets under way Friday evening. For the full schedule, ticket information, and the like, click on this link. Phyllis and I will definitely attend the Monday evening show, when Michael will share the stage with John Canemaker, the author and filmmaker, and Josh Siegel of MoMA's staff. If Northwest Airlines is willing—an open question these days—we'll attend at least one of the shows on Sunday afternoon, too. I've seen most of the films in all four programs, but I've not seen any of them on a big screen, and I'm looking forward to that.

If you want to see some of the Sporn films but your time is limited, which program or programs should you try to fit into your schedule? The Monday evening program, which will range across Michael's career (with appropriate film clips), is self-recommending, but that's a hard question where the other three programs are concerned, because there are lovely films in all of them.

I'll miss the first program, five shorts under the umbrella title "New York Stories," and I'm sorry for that, because I especially like The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2005; see the still above). It demonstrates very impressively how touching an animated film can be in the absence of histrionics of any kind. That program will be shown Friday evening at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m.

Doctor De SotoThe second program, "Fables," to be shown at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, includes the charming and funny Doctor De Soto (1984; see the still at right), the only Sporn film to date to be nominated for an Academy Award, and another William Steig adaptation, Abel's Island (1988). Shrek too was based on a Steig book, of course; I'm not alone in thinking that the Sporn adaptations are superior. The program also includes The Hunting of the Snark, one of Michael's most personal films and an excellent example of his art.

Marzipan Pig If I had to choose just one of the first three programs to attend, though, it would probably be "A Peaceable Kingdom," which will be shown at 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. It includes another Steig adaptation, The Amazing Bone (1985), and, best of all, The Marzipan Pig (1990; see the still at left), based on a book by Russell Hoban. Marzipan Pig is a beautiful film in all respects, its design and animation testimony to how much a sensitive director can accomplish within the limits of a tight budget.Tim Curry is the narrator, and he does a marvelous job, like all the narrators of Sporn films. Most of the voice actors Michael uses are highly accomplished stage actors, chosen not for their star power but for how well they fit a particular film's requirements.

I don't want to oversell these films. Hardcore cartoon fans will find them fatally lacking in explosions, potty jokes, and simulated nervous breakdowns. More sophisticated viewers may complain that his hand-drawn films have no photo-realistic computer animation, motion capture, or other up-to-the-minute technical wonders. People who prefer that the makers of animated films nurse their grievances loudly and publicly will find Sporn's positive outlook disturbing. He tends to write on his "Splog" about what he enjoys—films, books, New York itself—instead of bitching about life's injustices, and the same personality, biased toward enjoyment, is clearly visible in his films.

I can sum up Michael Sporn's career by saying that he has for almost thirty years made children's films whose excellent literary sources he has treated with the utmost sympathy and respect. He has preserved the integrity of the original stories even as he has stamped his films with his own artistic sensibility. Compared with most animated cartoons, his work is elegant and understated—and, if you permit yourself to enter his world, tremendously persuasive.

See you this weekend at the Modern, I hope.

November 5, 2007:

The Return of the Scanner

My all-in-one was in the shop for about three weeks, a good excuse to cut back on blogging. Especially combined with a shortage of promising subject matter; I hope no one is waiting for me to tell them what I think of Bee Movie, because the odds are pretty good that I'll never see it. (I'm looking forward to seeing Beowulf, though.) I've been cleaning up my photo files in the interim, and here, to celebrate the scanner's rebirth, is a curious RKO publicity still for Disney's Reluctant Dragon of 1941. The caption reads as follows: "It's getting so a man isn't safe a minute at the Disney Studios. Artist Ward Kimball, an inveterate caricaturist, made the smaller sketch as a take-off on Bob Benchley and was in turn cartooned by a fellow artist [unidentified, unfortunately]. It was all part of day's work in production of 'The Reluctant Dragon.'"

Kimball and Benchley

 

And as another scanner treat, here's a photostat of the first page of a Johnny Gruelle story from Good Housekeeping for April 1921. Click on it to go a larger version:

Gruelle story:

What's interesting about this antique (which the late Martin Williams sent to me decades ago) is, of course, the reference to "Mickie" and "Minnie Mouse." It has long been a popular sport, as evidenced by a recent thread on Cartoon Brew, to claim that Walt Disney's Mickey was really a copy of an earlier mouse; but here is not just "Mickie" but also Minnie, four years earlier than the supposedly purloined "Micky Mouse" of 1925.

What really mattered was not the alliterative name—probably "Mickey," spelled different ways, was attached to a mouse, whether toy or fictional character, any number of times before 1928—but the total package: the name, the character, the gags, the music, and so on. No one will ever persuade me that anyone other than Walt (and certainly not Ub Iwerks) was most responsible for the total package that made the Disney version of "Mickey Mouse" uniquely successful.

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