"What's New" Archives: November 2017
November 29, 2017:
Move Along, Nothing to See Here
November 27, 2017:
Walt in the Dominican Republic
November 8, 2017:
More Barrier Books
Books in Review (or Not)
November 29, 2017:
Move Along, Nothing to See Here
I've been working my way through the five-DVD set of more than a hundred (mostly) black and white Porky Pig cartoons from Warner Home Video. For my opinions on the cartoons themselves, let me refer you to my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I've enjoyed revisiting the cartoons in the set. I saw them all, many of them multiple times, when I was writing the book, but most of those viewings are now twenty years or more in my past.
The source of contention where the new set is concerned is not the cartoons themselves but the quality of their presentation. This is, unfortunately, not a Blu-ray set, and even though many of the cartoons look just fine, a fair number of them have flaws that are difficult to excuse. Thad Komorowski has listed a few dozen lapses on his blog, most of them corruptions of the soundtracks.
While I've confirmed such problems in my own viewing of the cartoons, I've been more disturbed by the evident variable quality of the sources used. I don't understand why, for example, Porky's Badtime Story, the first Looney Tune directed by Bob Clampett, looks so bad. It can't be because satisfactory source material is lacking; I would have been happy to lend Warner my own 16mm print of that cartoon if anyone had asked.
The only excuse I've seen for such quality lapses is that the money to do better wasn't there. That excuse is entitled to some respect, because there's no doubting that the sales of conventional DVDs have slid in recent years; also, the sales of any series of DVDs will almost certainly decline as new sets in the series are issued, and a lot of Looney Tunes have been made available on video.
I licensed dozens of audio clips from my interviews to Warner's contractor for use in supplemental materials on earlier Golden Collection sets, and the amount the contractor was willing and probably able to pay fell with each new installment. I didn't question that; I knew what was happening in the market, and I could understand why a set with a lot of Bosko cartoons might not be a robust seller. But that doesn't explain why cartoons that may have been issued on video a few years ago should look much worse now in new versions.
What I find particularly disturbing is that George Feltenstein and Jerry Beck, who were principally responsible for the new set, seem not to have addressed the complaints in any substantive manner. The people who restore old films and recordings are typically quite open about what they're doing and how and why they're doing it, but that has not been the case here. The idea seems to be that if you're a fan of the Warner cartoons, you should accept whatever scraps are tossed your way without complaining, and cartoon fans, being for the most part pathetic toadies, have been all too eager to comply. Komorowski's posts have attracted a great deal of hostility, directed not at his admittedly harsh tone but at the very idea that he might question any aspect of Warner Home Video's [a correction, thanks to Thad Komorowski: shold be Warner Archive, not Warner Home Video] performance.
Despite my disappointment with aspects of the Porky Pig set, I'm still glad I bought it (at a price considerably higher than what amazon.com is now asking for it). Please forgive me if I don't urge you to do the same.
November 27, 2017:
Walt in the Dominican Republic
Back on April 16, 2013, I posted a "Where Walt Was" item about his brief visit to what was then called Ciudad Trujillo (long since restored to its original name, Santo Domingo). He sat for an interview with a Dominican journalist on February 28, 1957. Two Dominican journalists, actually, as evidenced by a second photo that recently came into my possession. I've added it to that post. To see both photos, and read about Walt's visit to the Caribbean, click on this link.
I have been lax in not saying more here about some exceptional books from John Canemaker and Didier Ghez. It took me quite a while to figure out what I wanted to say about both.
The Lost Notebook: Canemaker's The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic is as thorough and meticulous as we've come to expect from any Canemaker project. It is also, as a sympathetic friend who works in the business said to me, "a little dry." That was probably inevitable given the book's origins as a commission from the Walt Disney Family Foundation and its publishing arm. The Lost Notebook is in large part part a reproduction of the notebook that Schultheis compiled to document how effects were achieved at the Disney studio when great films like Pinocchio and Fantasia were being made. It is now part of the Walt Disney Family Museum's collection.
My overriding problem with the book—and what has discouraged me from writing about it sooner—came into focus as I read the chapter titled "He Took Credit for Everything." In those pages, notably in quotations from interviews with the Disney veteran Bob Broughton, the book opens up, and the sense is not that we're reading about one man's record of mechanical solutions to mechanical problems, but about how creative people worked together to achieve those solutions. It's the functioning of that collaborative spirit that I've always found most absorbing in my own study of the Disney studio's operations.
As Canemaker notes, Schultheis was stingy with identifications of his co-workers when he mounted photos in his notebook, and he was, more than that, seemingly uninterested in those co-workers generally. (They probably returned the favor. When I asked George Rowley, who was deeply involved with the effects animation for Fantasia, about Schultheis, he didn't recognize the name.) There is ultimately far too much Schultheis in the book, and not enough Canemaker, and there's no question as to who is the more sympathetic guide to those Disney "secrets."
As for those secrets, I came away from the book wondering how much of what Schultheis put into his notebook could be reverse-engineered. That is, can we tell how, say, a multiplane scene in Pinocchio was shot by examining the film (and maybe some of the surviving documentation, like drafts), as opposed to relying on Schultheis's description? I lack suffiicient expertise to make a definitive judgment on that point, but my guess is that the notebook's entries are not exactly an animation equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.
I've wondered, too, about just how special the Schultheis notebook is, as a notebook/scrapbook. There are other such paste-up books extant, and at least one has been published. Much of the Schultheis notebook is composed of publicity photos and printed material; his technical descriptions, the heart of the notebook and really the only justification for its publication, take up a relatively small percentage of its pages.
If you haven't bought the book yet, should you? I'd say yes, if with some hesitation, given its hefty price. But my strongest feeling when I finished The Lost Notebook was fresh regret that Canemaker was not commissioned to write the official Disney book on Fantasia, a plum assignment that fell instead to John Culhane. Given how long it has been since the Culhane book was published, perhaps it's not too late for a Canemaker book on Fantasia yet to materialize..
One quibble: Canemaker's annotations add enormously to the value of the book, but he missed the chance to give a nod to Paul Satterfield, a leading Disney effects animator and director of much of the "Rite of Spring" section of Fantasia. In the top photo on page 247, that's Satterfield pointing at the storyboard for Mickey's Surprise Party, the 1939 commercial cartoon for Nabisco.
They Drew as They Pleased: That's the umbrella title for a series of beautifully illustrated books from Chronicle Books devoted to the "hidden art" generated during work on the Disney cartoons, with chapters on individual artists, some relatively well known, like Albert Hurter, and many others known only as names at best. I reviewed the first volume, covering the work of Hurter, Gustav Tenggren, and two other artists, at this link. Two more books have now been published, and Didier Ghez, the author and editor of the series, warns that it may be cut short if sales (which were excellent for the first volume) don't pick up. That would be a great pity. The books are much more substantial than most books devoted to concept art for cartoons—John Canemaker's are the exception—and they belong on your shelves if you have any kind of serious interest in the great Disney cartoons.
And yet: what I wrote about the first volume applies as well to the second and the third. Open the books and you're immediately confronted by the question of whether these drawings are of interest primarily (or exclusively) as gateways to better understanding of the films, or if they invite admiration for their own sake. Ghez himself refuses to make such distinctions. "What really fascinates me," he wrote in response to my earlier review, "is the behind-the-scenes of the creative process. ...With They Drew As They Pleased, I attempted to do three things:  Give a sense of how rich the pre-production creative process was.
 Treat some of the men and women who worked on those animated cartoons and features as individual artists and not just as shadows hidden behind Walt.
 Reveal some of the drawings that history books have been discussing for years but that we had never seen."
The sheer volume of Disney drawings—at the studio and in private collections—is so enormous that reproducing even a small percentage of the plausible candidates for a book would be impossible. What I think Ghez has tried to do is recognize that reality while still being as generous as possible in his judgments as to what to include or exclude. As a result, some of the drawings are highly appealing as stand-alone works of art (Kay Nielsen's in the second volume, for instance, and many of the sketches originating in the character model department, in the third), whereas other sketches don't have as much to offer. And then there's the matter of giving recognition to neglected individual artists. The second volume devotes many pages to Sylvia Holland, and it's hard for me to see how the weight assigned to her work—more than fifty pages, many more than for any of the other artists in that volume—can be justified on its artistic merit alone.
In that connection, there's another question that intrigues me.
A few months before the 1941 Disney strike, Walt Disney spoke of Holland and two other female artists, Ethel Kulsar and Retta Scott, in highly positive terms, bracketing them as talented artists who could hold their own with the men on the staff. Scott, like Holland, gets a chapter to herself in the second volume, her drawings preceded by the full biographical detail that Ghez provides for all the artists featured in his books, but Kulsar is visible through only a few drawings and photos, and she is mentioned only in a supporting role to Holland. I came away from the book wondering why that was, and wanting to know more about this artist who attracted Walt's praise. The little I know about her, thanks to Kevin Carpenter, is that she was a 1932 graduate of the Cleveland School of Art and was, in the words of a Cleveland Plain Dealer article, "the first 'inker' in the history of the Disney studio to be promoted to the story and production department," as "assistant story supervisor."
Unless I simply missed it, I don't find any explanation in Ghez's text for Kulsar's almost complete omission.
As for the future of the series, some falling-off in sales is inevitable with any series of books, absent a subscription plan, and that is probably what is at work with the Ghez books. The Wall Street Journal devoted a half page to the third volume (which is titled, rather awkwardly, The Hidden Art of Disney's Late Golden Age, The 1940s—Part Two), and surely that has helped. "Disney books" tend to be seen as suitable only for the denizens of a ghetto reserved for Disney fans, and so they mostly don't get reviewed at all. The Ghez series deserves much better than that.
From Didier Ghez: A million thanks for your very kind review of the second and third volumes of They Drew As They Pleased.
To answer your question about Ethel Kulsar, there is actually a very simple explanation: each of the chapters in the series is only as good as the amount of material I have been able to locate about the artist. The families of Sylvia Holland and Retta Scott had preserved a tremendous of documents (in fact, it took six months to scan the Sylvia Holland collection alone). Sadly, the family of Ethel Kulsar had saved only a few photos and nothing else (and I found close to nothing about her career at the Disney Archives). I wish I had been able to write more about her, or about Fini Rudiger-Littlejohn for that matter. The issue with Fini was similar to the one with Ethel and this explains why she only appears in the periphery of the Eduardo Sola Franco instead of getting her own chapter.
[Posted November 27, 2017]
From Thad Komorowski: With the volume of Disney literature and art being published, I just have to wonder: who is buying all of this? It's not ruffling feathers to say the only audience for, say, Didier Ghez's books is geeks like us, and if they keep printing them they have to be making enough money to justify it. I'm just at a loss for how, given the limited audience and because at this point, how many more books about the minutiae of the Disney Studio do we really need? That's not a knock at anyone writing about Disney, just expressing how perplexing it is that so much is coming out. I just wish there was even a fraction of similar books on the other studios.
As an aside, I agree that the lack of a John Canemaker Fantasia book is lamentable, but John once told me the book he really wants to write is a biography of Bill Tytla, and I think you'll agree that'd be a must for the animation library.
[Posted December 6, 2017]
November 8, 2017:
More Barrier Books
As I've mentioned before on this site, I'm contributing annotations to a series of books from IDW reprinting the Sunday page Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales. Most of those comics are adaptations of Disney feature films from the '50s and '60s, both animated and (mostly) live action. Two volumes have been published so far, the most recent in September, with a third—the one whose jacket I've reproduced above—scheduled for next March. If you're not familiar with the Treasury page, and with how it fit into the Disney scheme of things way back in the middle of the last century, let me refer you to the following comments from Donald Benson, which he sent to me just after he got his copy of Volume 2:
On my porch from Amazon this morning. Flipped through and read the intros, then perused the artwork. Good stuff all around. Some surprises: Perri, not my idea of an adaptable film, looks impressive. Johnny Tremain joins the movie literally halfway through (the first half, climaxing in the Boston Tea Party, had all the melodrama of Johnny trying to claim his birthright and burning his hand in molten silver). Especially intriguing is how you put the strips in the context of the films and the studio.
The '50s and '60s were when the Disney machine was going full tilt. Even so, by the time I was reading the Classic Tales, the art was literally sketchy and Dean Jones and Dick Van Dyke were indistinguishable from each other. I read it for clues about upcoming movies, the way modern kids study stills and trailers on them thar computers.
There probably wouldn't be a huge market for it, but I could imagine a coffee table book that followed Disney's development as a synergy juggernaut from the postwar years up until the '60s. The scale and unity of Disney as a cultural presence—the television shows, comics, records, books, cereal prizes, tie-ins, etc., topped off by an actual Land—gave Disney a unique position in the boomer psyche. We grew up with Mickey Mouse Club (already syndicated reruns for me, but with a fresh wave of merchandising and promotion); drooled over Disneyland on TV; and read books and comics that not only sold new films but kept older films alive between re-releases.
Disney synergy was and is often imitated with mixed results. But I don't think you'll ever see it so broadly applied again—even at Disney.While pop culture was trying to hold out against the '60s, Disney even followed us into adolescence. I was too young and geographically removed for "Date Nights at Disneyland," but very aware of grown-up Annette and Hayley Mills.
To this day I'm not sure if I ever saw all of Peter Pan and a few others before adulthood; I know my first complete viewing of Pinocchio was in my late teens. But as a kid I was thoroughly familiar with the stories and characters from an array of Disney products and programs. Disney was a brand like Holiday Inn or McDonald's or Sears. Familiar and safe, with a reliable baseline of quality. (I don't think it's an accident all those outfits were treated with mockery or contempt by a generation rejecting conformity as a virtue.)
I think I've seen mention of four Classic Tales volumes in all; the completist in me is fighting the reader. I may call it a day at Volume 2.
Four volumes is indeed the plan. That will take the series past Mary Poppins and up almost to the end of Walt Disney's life. The Treasury continued for more than twenty years after that, but, despite what amazon.com seems to say on its page for the third volume, I know of no plans to reprint any of those post-Walt pages.
Books in Review (or Not)
I realized some time ago that I should save myself trouble by not posting reviews of items that I've purchased with my own money. I get very few comp copies these days, no books from Fantagraphics or Disney Editions, no DVDs or Blu-rays from anybody, except on those rare occasions when I've given the author or publisher some help, and not always then. (Don Hahn asked me to read and comment on the manuscript of Before Ever After, and I did, and I got thanked for my trouble, but I saw the published book only by ordering it through interlibrary loan.)
My shelves are so full that I now buy animation- or comics-related books only on rare occasions, and I feel the urge to review one of them even more rarely. For instance, I've not laid eyes on that gargantuan Disney book from Taschen, much less bought it. Movies are different, and when I write about one here you'll know that I think it's interesting enough for me to have paid for my own ticket. I'll go see Coco in a few weeks, and I'll probably write about it, but that will be it for the rest of the year.
There are always exceptions, of course, and one of them is Warner Home Video's new Porky Pig DVD set, which I paid for in advance. I'm still working my way through it, but I'm sure that by the time I finish I won't be able to resist the urge to write about it, and not just because Warner is recycling (again) a couple of my audio commentaries.
I must add a good word for Bob McLain and his Theme Park Press, a remarkable operation that is putting into print rare and unusual Disney-related material. Some of it is so highly specialized that it is hard to imagine the nature of its audience, except for people (like me) who are always looking for untapped sources for their own writings. But then there are the books from familiar and well-regarded names like Didier Ghez, Jim Korkis, Paul Anderson, and Floyd Norman, and the new editions of worthwhile books that have passed out of print, in some cases decades ago.
The quickest way to survey Bob McLain's offerings is to go to amazon.com and do a search for "Theme Park Press." A lot of titles about the Disney parks will come up, but also books about Disney movies, Disney people, and even Disney comic books. You'll probably find something you can't resist buying.
There are some important books, by Didier Ghez and John Canemaker, that I've really wanted to review, but I'm only now figuring out what I want to say about them. With any luck I'll finally post a review in the next few days.