Michael BarrierMichaelBarrier.com - Exploring the World of Animated Films and Comic Art - banner by Michael Sporn
Home  |  Capsules  |  Commentary  |  Essays  |  Funnyworld Revisited  |  Interviews  |  Books  |  Links  |  Bio  |  Feedback
   
MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: September 2009

September 30, 2009:

The Mystery Duck...

...And the Mystery Mouse

 

September 25, 2009:

A Day in the Life: Disney, June 12, 1935

 

September 23, 2009:

Where Walt Was: April 9, 1940

 

September 20, 2009:

From the Film Daily Year Book for 1927

 

September 16, 2009:

Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell

 

September 13, 2009:

Loose as a Seuss

Walt's People, Volume 8

 

September 10, 2009:

More on That Curious Case

 

September 8, 2009:

Behind the Li'l Eight Ball

 

September 6, 2009:

Weekend Roundup

 

September 5, 2009:

Shipboard With Walt and Family, 1949

 

September 4, 2009:

Curiouser and Curiouser

 

September 3, 2009:

The Curious Case of Mortimer Mouse

 

September 30, 2009:

The Mystery Duck...

Walt Disney's Comics May 1948I got a lot (for me, if certainly not for a site like Cartoon Brew when it posts about a noisome episode of Family Guy) of very interesting responses to my August 30 item about "The Mystery of Donald Duck." If you share my consuming interest in Carl Barks and his creations, you'll want to read those comments. One of the most interesting is also the most recent, from Akshay Patki, but I've found food for thought in all of them. I'm working on my Barks chapters now, and the comments from my visitors have helped steer my thinking in what I like to think are productive directions. More later.

Bill Benzon posted an item on The Valve about my quest for literary characters comparable to Donald—that is, highly mutable but always the same. It produced only three brief responses. Barks's Donald really may be unique, or very close to it, and that may be why almost no one has looked at him seriously so far. I did like Dave Maier's comment: "The only two that come to mind right off are Doctor Who and God."

Comments

From Dana Gabbard: Patki comments that "heroic traits of Donald appear in the slapstick stories, only to backfire, and ... his comic traits appear in the adventure stories for some slapstick."   That brings up the interesting point that by mastering two very different literary forms—short comedies (the WDC&S ten pagers) and longer adventures (the one-shots and Scrooge stories)—Barks's Donald has to stretch as a character to star in stories with such different purposes. On a craft level to make it work one can grasp that Barks's genius was being able to convincingly have a character serve such disparate purposes and that we as readers accept that it is the same Donald Duck who fills both roles. I noticed the difference some years ago when I ran across a website where a fan of Scooby Doo laboriously created an origin tale for the characters. Treating them so seriously just didn't work—the thin personages were just intended as excuses for Saturday morning cartoon antics and couldn't hold up to such treatment as being anything else but. Barks built Donald to where the traits and foibles can be complex and even at times contradictory.

[Posted September 30, 2009]

From Dan Briney: Your latest posting presents me with a problem: I am neither smart enough to offer a particularly insightful opinion on Donald Duck as a literary character (one of my primary worries about Barks' Donald has always been whether or not to imagine him rattling off those long stretches of dialogue in the voice of Clarence Nash), nor dumb enough to believe that Family Guy is even temporarily elevated above the level of roach turds by a few minutes of vaguely-full animation. Where does this leave me? Should I just skip my normal rounds of blogs for a few days and go watch tennis?

(I kid, of course. The Duck posts and reader comments are fascinating. And I appreciate Jerry Beck, though he should have trusted his initial instincts on this one.)

[Posted October 1, 2009]

From Ricardo Cantoral: I don't think Barks's Donald is terribly complex, I would say Uncle Scrooge is far more fleshed out. However, I think Donald is much more versatile than most literary characters because of his basic human personality of a working-class man, an ordinary man who desires, and occasionally lives out, his dreams of adventures. He does things for purely selfish motivations, so a storyteller could put him a variety of situations, reaching from the mundane to the extraordinary. Also, best of all, Barks made sure that Donald and some of his other characters, unlike all the overrated super heroes, has no sense of one dimensional self-righteousness. I turn to Barks's best story, "The Golden Helmet" [Donald Duck Four Color No. 408, 1952] as an example of this gray atomsphere. Everyone ends up being corrupted by the great power they hold, the temptation of becoming a dictator of North America. True, there are fine lines that are drawn between good and evil in the story, Sylvester J. Sharky as the former and the three nephews as the latter. However regardless of them, the character you have sympathy with, Donald, is the one that nearly gives in to temptation of power and makes the reader react in shock or delight. Again, you can't do this with many literary characters or any superheroes, their lines are drawn between good and evil.
 
But pertaining to the question at hand, the best comparison I can think of Ian Fleming's James Bond. Fleming, like Barks, didn't bother too much with continuity. As a matter of fact, even James Bond's looks have always been a subject of controversy. Some of Fleming's characters say Bond resembles Hoagy Carmichael, and he is often described as looking rather threatening. In The Hildebrand Rarity, Bond is caught up in a murder mystery on a yacht with an obnoxious American millionaire and his abused wife. Bond's character is very much a common man with a bit of a temper, possibly comparable to Donald, but he is a bit more discplined. Fleming always lets the reader know Bond isn't too much of a patriot—he is often fed up with his job and would rather indulge himself with fast cars, fine food, drinking, and women. You can even find plenty of humor. In Thunderball, for example, when Bond is sent by M to spend some time at a health spa which has some rather amusing happenings.

MB replies: Scrooge seems to me a far more limited character than Donald. Money always must be at the center of a Scrooge story, in one way or another, whereas many other things—not just greed but envy, sexual jealousy, inordinate ambition, and on down the list—can be the engine of a Barks story about Donald.

[Posted October 4, 2009]

From Ricardo Cantoral: I do agree that Donald's concerns and desires are generally more human, although I think Scrooge's are just as prominent but different due to the difference in age. Scrooge McDuck is an old, rich, and successful man who has led a very full life. So his only worries would understandbly concern preserving his empire. It's his pride he fights for when he battles Flintheart Glomgold; and when he is on those treasure hunts, it's as much about fullfilling his ego as it is for the money. And as so lovely and sentimentally illustrated in "Only a Poor Old Man" [Four Color Comic No. 386, 1952], Scrooge loves money because it's the symbol of his hard work.

And speaking of Glomgold vs. Scrooge, my favorite remains the very first one, "The Second Richest Duck" [Uncle Scrooge No. 15, Sept.-Nov. 1956]. Barks makes clear that Scrooge is very much lomgold, equally as tenacious and also as underhanded, but Scrooge has his loved ones to prevent him from being downright evil. Still, I think this exhibition of skullduggery added a bit of a dark side to ol' Scrooge and made the character even more complex. I think Barks didn't have the tenacity to make Scrooge that dark afterwards, he may have felt he went too far and as a result toned down Scrooge in the last two Flintheart affairs. Kind of a shame in my opinion.

[Posted October 5, 2009]

From John Benson: How about Harold Lloyd? In his films he went through many changes in a similar
fashion but he was always Harold Lloyd, in the same way. I never worried much about Donald's changes. Real people are like that; sometimes nice, sometimes nasty, sometimes successful, sometimes a klutz. There was something at the core of Donald's personality that was constant and I'll bet if you took those stories that seem different you could point to specific traits that they had in common. But I'm not going to try.

MB replies: I don't think Lloyd stands out in that regard any more than a lot of other actors with distinct screen personas. The biggest movie stars have always been themselves plus the character they were playing; John Wayne is John Wayne plus the Ringo Kid or Ethan Edwards. Donald in Barks's stories, it seems to me, is always Donald, nothing more or less.

[Posted October 16, 2009]

From John Benson: Lloyd isn't the same as Gable and some others mentioned in the comments. Although technically in each feature he was a different character, his name usually was Harold, and rather than a "personality" actor who appeared in films written and directed by others, Lloyd controlled every aspect of his films and saw them as stories about the same character. As did Chaplin and the other silent comedy actors in general. But whereas the Chaplin tramp was more consistent throughout the silent films, Lloyd showed more variety from feature to feature, while still retaining the same essential character the way Donald did.

MB replies: Lloyd was indeed essentially the same character in the movies he made after he adopted glasses as a defining feature, but he differed superficially in those movies, being a farm boy in one, a college freshman in another, then a spoiled playboy, and so on. Barks's Donald Duck was the opposite: a character who always looked the same and was depicted as living in the same general circumstances, but who revealed through his actions how much he differed from story to story.

Chaplin, not Lloyd, seems to me the closest screen analogue to Barks's Donald. Like Donald, Chaplin's Tramp always looked exactly like himself, and he always lived a marginal existence. It was through his actions that he revealed he was, as Walter Kerr wrote, no ordinary tramp, but a many-sided and even mysterious character (Lloyd's "glass" character is much more limited and predictable).

Likewise, Barks's Donald reveals—especially in comparison with the hackwork in so many other Disney comic books—that he is no ordinary duck. The Tramp and Donald are very different characters in most ways, but they overlap in this one critical respect.

[Posted October 17, 2009]

...And the Mystery Mouse

I heard from the animator Kevin Coffey, who got a sneak preview of the new Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and wrote to me about the "original drawings" of Mickey Mouse that will be on display there and were the subject of postings here on September 3, September 4, and September 10:

There are two sheets of two-hole animation paper on display as a matching set of Mickey's first drawings. There is the original folded and circled sheet that you have reproduced in your writings, and directly below that is displayed another sheet featuring most of the same drawings as the first, folded sheet. I didn't take notes, but the second sheet is described as a "copy," or a tracing, made near the time of the original. I have been an animator for many years, and have studied closely other animators' work—I believe the tracing (it is clearly a tracing) was done by the same artist that did the original drawings. It's beautifully done, using (in my guess) similar pencils with a similar pressure  on a similar sheet. As if someone was happy with the original folded sheet and wanted a cleaned up copy. Knowing when to stop is certainly an important part of the creative process! Not sure how this affects the "puzzle" that these drawings have created. The museum opens soon, so I'm sure before much longer you will have a chance to study photos and the actual descriptions that the museum provides.

As I mentioned on September 25, I'm not at all sure when I'll visit the museum, so, in the meantime, I'd welcome advice from those of you who, like Kevin Coffey, will see it before I do: What are the high points or, for that matter, the low points? Where should a visitor plan to spend the most time, and what can be passed over lightly?

Comments

From David Gerstein: Interesting to learn that the apparent first sketches of Mickey are displayed together with a "copy" of themselves. While I don't want to dismiss the idea that this "copy" was made by the same hand as the original, are we absolutely sure it isn't the tracing that we see being made in that later filmed recreation?

[Posted October 2, 2009]

From Peter Hale: While I expect the traced version of the "sheet of proto-Mickeys" was indeed used when making the TV special (I guess they might have made a few photostats of it with areas blanked out, for the hand artist—would that have been Ward Kimball himself?—to sketch on) but I think it likely to have been done earlier, probably for use in that UA "7th Birthday" promo (1935), but possibly earlier given Walt's eye to publicity: if you're going to keep something for its historic value you might as well have a version that will reproduce well! Whether Ub did the copy or it was the work of a later artist might be hard to decide—the purpose being a faithful rendering suitable for reproduction, and most of the staff would be good copyists.

(BTW, was the term 'copyist' much in use in animation in the '30s and '40s? I only ask because there's a wonderfully fanciful British-Pathe newsreel item purporting to show how George Moreno Jr.'s 1947 UK series Bubble & Squeek was made, in which George oversees his director/animator Harold Mack sketching what would effectively be a layout drawing, from which "copyists will then produce hundreds of separate progressive drawings"! The clip is full of the ususal mistruths—the "storyboard" shown consists of cel set-ups from the finished film!—but I just loved that dismissive "copyists": was this to simplify the process for the public, or to keep the [unseen] animators in their place?)

MB replies: "Copyists"! I can't recall the term's being used in Hollywood animation's golden age. Was it possibly used for inkers? Even then, "tracers" was probably the preferred term. But no doubt any number of animation producers would have used the term to help keep their employees on the leash if only they had thought of it. And how many are ready to use it today, I wonder?

[Posted October 5, 2009]

September 25, 2009:

A Day in the Life: Disney, June 12, 1935

Walt at the London ZooHere, in continuing commemoration of the opening next Thursday, October 1, of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, is the eighth in my series of "Day in the Life" Essay pages devoted to groups of photos taken on the same day (or, in one case, on two days). Most of those Essay pages, like this new one, are filled with photos of Walt Disney and his family and employees; you can find the list by making a Google search of "Day in the Life" above, or by looking through the list of Essay links in the right-hand column.

The new page shows Walt and Lillian Disney as they arrived in London on June 12, 1935, on the first day of their triumphant tour of Europe. You can go to it by clicking on this link. The picture at left was taken during that visit to England, at the London Zoo, but not, I'm sure, on June 12, since the Disneys arrived at Paddington Station late in the day.

Photos are forbidden within the Walt Disney Family Museum, I'm told, but that didn't stop one pre-opening visitor from taking a lot of pictures and posting them on flickr.com; you can see them at this link. There are more photos (authorized ones) at SFWeekly.com and in this New York Times slide show.

In case you've wondered, I've had absolutely no involvement with the museum. I've never been asked for an artifact, or information, or advice, so I'm as curious about the museum as anyone. I have no idea when I'll visit it, though. Perhaps early next year, since I need to get to Los Angeles soon for some research at several area libraries for my book on comic books.

I'll be posting more Disney items over the next few days, as the museum's opening gets closer. Something on the 1938 Disney radio show, probably, and a considerably expanded version of my "Day in the Life" page on Walt's honorary degree from Harvard, based on the material I found in Harvard's university archives in early July. I've accumulated a lot of curious short Disney-related items, too, mostly in my forays to the Library of Congress, and I may post those in batches. And then there are the photos, some of them lending themselves to the "Day in the Life" treatment—Walt at the Hollywood Bowl just before Disneyland's opening, Walt with Ed Sullivan during the shooting of the 1953 Disney tribute show... There's no end to it, fortunately.

September 23, 2009:

Where Walt Was: April 9, 1940

Walt Disney Productions offered preferred stock to the public for the first time on Tuesday, April 2, 1940. Walt himself left for New York three days later, on Friday, April 5. He returned to Los Angeles on Monday, April 15, after making a stop in Detroit on the return trip. He lunched in Dearborn with Ford Motor Company executives, visited with Henry Ford, and saw Greenfield Village, Ford's make-believe town (see pages 152 and 212 of The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney).

But what was Walt's business in New York? The proximity of the stock issue and his visit suggests some connection, but evidently there was none. The veteran Disney director Ben Sharpsteen, in a fragmentary 1968 interview with Richard Hubler just published in Walt's People Volume 8, provided the answer:

Fantasia was in production and we got word of a demonstration of dimensional sound being put on at Carnegie Hall. Walt said to me, "Let's take the Super Chief, go back, and take that in." So we went back to New York, together with our wives, to this demonstration of dimensional sound. Walt decided at that time that he would apply that to Fantasia, naming it Fantasound. It was a very revealing trip. We saw a demonstration of what later became Cinerama.

That demonstration at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, April 9, 1940, was a rather big deal, as witness this New York Times article about it the next day:

New York Times article

Stokowski's involvement is particularly intriguing, of course. The Times piece says that recordings heard at Carnegie Hall were made by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939—the same year that most of the Fantasia soundtrack was recorded, in April—but I don't know how close in time those two sets of recordings were. There's no mention of Walt among the illustrious invited guests at Carnegie Hall, but thanks to Ben Sharpsteen, we can be sure that Walt was there. And then there's that reference to Cinerama...another little Walt-related mystery to be explored.

Sharpsteen also remembered the visit to Dearborn:

It was a terrific high point in my life that I should meet Henry Ford with Walt. We spent the day at Greenfield Village. Walt spoke to the school kids there. Henry Ford had a model school. ... I remember [Walt] saying [to Henry Ford] "I finally broke down and decided to issue stock." Henry Ford said, "Don't," and something to the effect of "You might find yourself buying it back again."

Walt himself, in his 1956 interviews with Pete Martin that were the basis of Diane Disney Miller's biography of her father, remembered Ford as saying to him, "If you sell any of it, you should sell it all." But he did in fact wind up buying back some of the preferred stock. When the Disney stock price plummeted during the studio's siege of bad news in 1940-41, Walt said:

As it started to go down ... I had about ten or fifteen thousand bucks in the bank. I said, "It's stupid that people are sellin' that stock at twenty." It was down to eighteen. I said, "That's stupid," and I [started] to buy. I bought some at fourteen and then it went down and I bought some more at twelve, then it went down and I bought some more at ten and I [ran] out of money. And it finally ended up at three.

Walt also remembered talking to the children at Greenfield Village:

All the school children from Greenfield Village came in the big auditorium and I got up on the stage and drew some pictures for 'em on the blackboard. And I was going along fine. Getting along swell with the kids and I happened to look up in the balcony and here was Henry Ford sitting up in the balcony all alone ... with his feet up on the railing.

Walt suffered a little stage fright as a result, but he kept going. A little later in the interview, he told Martin:

My dad was a great admirer of Henry Ford's. My dad was a great friend of the working man and yet he was a contractor and hired people. Still he was very much for 'em. ... I grtew up believing a lot of that and everything but I was disillusioned. I found that you had to be very careful giving people anything. I feel that people must earn it. They must earn it. You can't give people anything.

Comments

From Tom Carr: This early stereo sound system appears to be similar to the Disney "Fantasound" system that was supposed to accompany showings of Fantasia at major theaters. The presence and involvement of Stokowski almost proves it.

The writer of the article is a little mixed up about sound measurements, but if we can trust him, 40 to 15,000 cycles (known as Hertz, or Hz, today) was quite good for 1940. The electrically recorded 78 r.p.m. records of the same period had a frequency range of only about 100 to 7,000 Hz. That was still a great improvement over the pre-1925 acoustical recording method, which could only capture frequencies between 200 and 4,000 Hz! So bass instruments couldn't be recorded, nor could drums. Whenever a drummer played, he'd have to either use wood blocks or be placed as far away from the recording horn as possible so as not to jar the recording stylus right out of the groove. That's why there are so many acoustical recordings of tenors, sopranos, brass bands (minus drums), and banjo players: they happened to register well on the Edison cylinders and early Victor discs. If you want to hear some typical acoustical recordings, go the the "Older Than Dirt File" section at Pilsner's Picks.

And Sergei Rachmaninov was in the audience, too! He always went in for the "big" orchestral sounds and the grand, sweeping piano technique of which he was the master, so it's no wonder that he endorsed this demonstration. I wonder what kind of tests those Bell Labs engineers performed in order to discover that 100 decibels is painful— 110 db over any sustained period of time, and you start losing your hearing!

[Posted September 24, 20090]

From Paul Penna: Regarding your September 23 article on the April 1940 stereophonic sound demo at Carnegie Hall, Stokowski's earliest involvement with wide-range, stereo recording dates back to 1931-1932. The Bell Labs made experimental recordings with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Academy of Music during rehersals and live performances in December 1931 and April 1932. In 1979, the Bell Labs issued two limited-edition LP albums of these recordings, and I was lucky enough to get copies back then. They were never reissued on either records, tape or CDs.

They were not intended for commercial release, so complete pieces were not always recorded, some were recorded in mono, some stereo, and some switched back and forth. The sound quality is astonishing. Listening via headphones, when the switch from mono to stereo occurs you suddenly seem immersed in a three-dimensional space, sitting in the audience (whose rustlings and murmurs you can sense around you) in Philadelphia over 75 years ago. Truly a time-travel experience!

[Posted October 2, 2009]

September 20, 2009:

From the Film Daily Year Book for 1927

1927 Film Daily Year Book

When I was at the Library of Congress last July, for days at a time, I did a lot of catching up, searching out and often copying documents that had been on my to-do list for months or even years, like the copyright descriptions I mentioned in my September 13 item on the lost Dr. Seuss cartoons. I spent a fair amount of time, too, rooting around in the Film Daily Year Book, that annual directory of studio personnel and other information about the movie business. In doing so, I ran across the ad above. It's in the 1927 edition, which would have been published early that year. [A December 4, 2011, update: Thanks to David Lesjak for the improved copy of the ad page.]

If I ever knew that Charles Mintz ventured into live action in the '20s, I'd forgotten about it, but sure enough, the Internet Movie DataBase (IMDB) and the Catalog of Copyright Entries show four Mintz-produced two-reel live-action shorts released between August and December 1927. Two were directed by Hal Sintzenich (Toddles, starring "Buddy the Dog," and A Short Tail) and two by Andrew L. Stone (Fantasy and The Elegy). All were released by Paramount. I have no idea if any of them still exist.

Sintzenich, also known as Harold S. Sintzenich, is credited on the IMDB as a cinematographer for such high-profile silent features as Sally of the Sawdust, an early W. C. Fields vehicle, and D. W. Griffith's America. His two Mintz shorts appear to have been his last work in films, although the IMDB shows no death date. Stone, on the other hand, had a long career as a producer and director of live-action features, sometimes with animated inserts. One of his last projects, Song of Norway (1970), included animation directed by Jack Kinney, the former Disney stalwart, and there's animation by the Leon Schlesinger studio in Stone's Hi Diddle Diddle (1943).

But it's Stone's connection with Walt Disney, back when they were both making movies for Charles Mintz, that is, to me, far away the most intriguing animation-related phase of his career. Back in 1973, when Mark Kausler and I interviewed Hugh Harman at Bob Clampett's studio in Hollywood, we asked him about what happened when Mintz took Oswald away from Walt, early in 1928, and gave that character to a new studio formed by Harman, Rudy Ising and other former Disney animators. Harman said that there was a time, in the months before the breakup, when he saw little of Walt:

Harman: In this period, when I was working alone so much, seeing Walt so seldom, through 1927; I remember in the summertime, I just thought Walt had disappeared completely, I wouldn't see him. ...

Barrier: You said [off the tape] that you were in effect a producer [of the Disney Oswald cartoons] as well as a director.

Harman: Yes, I had to make these pictures, and I would get them out, somehow or another.

Barrier: Where would Walt go?

Harman: I haven't the least idea. I think I could find out. There's a man here, named Andrew Stone—he's a producer, he's made a lot of pictures—and he knew Walt in those days. The last time I saw Andrew Stone, about two years ago, he started talking a little about that. I'm going to ask him more, because he knew Walt, and he knew the Winklers [Margaret Winkler Mintz and her brother, George Winkler] very well, and knew Charles Mintz very well. He started to tell me something about Walt's going to studios here; he would visit studios, and talk to different people. I think, actually—this is just a guess—he was trying to pave the way for a new release to get away from Mintz, because he felt the axe was coming. They didn't get along; he didn't get along with George Winkler at all.

Barrier: What was Walt's quarrel with Winkler?

Harman: I think it was this, that Walt resented the very implication that Mintz was the producer, that Mintz's henchman, George, would attempt supervision in any sense, even by mild suggestion. That was Walt's constitution, to resent such things. He wanted to do everything himself. I don't blame him, but he was that way, and thus a friction developed between them.

My visits to California were lamentably few and far between in those days, but in 1978, with a couple of trips in prospect, I wrote to Andrew Stone, sharing with him what Hugh Harman had told me and asking for an interview. This is what he wrote in reply:

Stone letter

A tantalizing letter, to say the least. I finally got together with Stone on the evening of January 17, 1979; we sat by his swimming pool, as I recall. I started the tape recorder, and then...nothing much, so little of any substance that I never transcribed the tape. I listened to it yesterday for the first time. I heard a garbled, second-hand account of Disney's problems with Pat Powers, but nothing material about Disney's breakup with Mintz.

"I know the whole story, I know both sides of the story," Stone said. "I can understand Disney feeling the way he did, and I can certainly understand Charlie Mintz's side. I can understand both sides. It was just an unfortunate thing. It was something Charlie couldn't talk about." As it turned out, it was something Stone couldn't or wouldn't talk about, either.

"Disney would have stayed with Charlie if Charlie could have paid him more," Stone said. So what prevented Mintz from paying Walt more? Stone couldn't talk about that. Was it because, as he had seemed to hint earlier, Mintz had to kick back part of what Universal paid him for the Oswalds? "Well, I know the whole inside story of it, you know." Would it help if I turned the recorder off? "I don't know what to do about this." I turned the recorder off, and the rest of the tape is blank, but Stone said nothing more that I remember, except that I should talk with George Winkler.

(That sort of thing happened to me and Milt Gray, when we were recording interviews for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, more often than I care to remember. You could drive hundreds of miles, as Milt did on at least one occasion, only to learn that the man you've come to interview has decided—with the encouragement of his greedy and suspicious wife—that his story is so riveting and potentially lucrative that he should write a book of his own, therefore goodbye and good luck. Said book never gets written, of course, and the man's memories die with him.)

Stone spoke of George Winkler as an old friend, a man plagued by a stuttering problem and by his struggles in the '30s with Jimmy Bronis, who was variously identified as Mintz's assistant, the Mintz studio's production manager, or (probably most accurately) Mintz's yes-man. I can't remember now if I first got in touch with Winkler before or after I saw Stone, but, in any case, I spoke with Winkler by phone and we scheduled an interview for the evening of January 22; we then rescheduled, I'm sure at his request, for 8:30 p.m. two days later. Sometime before then, though, I had a call from Winkler's wife, who was in an somewhat agitated state—she was canceling my interview with her husband. Was Mr. Winkler ill? No, nothing like that, but he wasn't going to see me.

It was some time later that I learned what probably led to that abrupt and unexplained cancellation. Esther Winkler was, it seems, George Winkler's second wife, whom he married after losing his first wife to cancer (that information from Andrew Stone). The second Mrs. Winkler was the daughter of a businessman who had made his fortune in marine salvage. George Winkler, who left the Mintz studio after Charles Mintz's death in 1939—it was by then called Screen Gems and was wholly owned by Columbia Pictures—worked briefly as the head of ink and paint at the Schlesinger studio before joining his wife's family firm. Mrs. Winkler, I was told, thought it was beneath her husband's newfound dignity to talk with interviewers about his disreputable showbiz past, when he hobnobbed with lowlifes like Walt Disney. (I don't know how Andrew Stone made the cut.)

Sometimes Winkler's past did sort of catch up with him, though, as I learned from Mary Cain—who worked in ink and paint at Mintz in the '30s and was head of that department at UPA in the '50s—when I interviewed her in 1986:

Cain: Many years ago, when I was at UPA, for some reason I was looking in North Hollywood for some particular item, and a marine salvage company was recommended to me. I found the store, and walked in; it was fascinating, there were all kinds of wonderful things. And George Winkler owned it, or ran it.

Barrier: Somebody said that he married some rich junk dealer's daughter, or something like that. Marine salvage, that would be it.

Cain: I'm not imagining it, because I remember looking at him and thinking, why, that's George Winkler. But, you know, the years had gone by, and I wasn't sure. It certainly was a career very much remote from cartoons.

In 1990, by which time I was making extended visits to Los Angeles several times a year, I wrote to George Winkler again, asking for an interview but this time emphasizing my credentials as a business writer. I got no response, and so I reluctantly gave up my quest. It was probably too late by then, anyway. George Winkler died in 1995, at the age of 93. His wife—assuming I found the right Esther Winkler in the Social Security Death Index—died ten years later, at the age of 96. Andrew Stone died in June 1999, at the age of 98; his death went unreported for a year and a half, until Kevin Brownlow wrote an obituary in Variety.

One more intriguing thing about that 1927 Film Daily Year Book ad is the prominent photo of Nat. L. Mintz, who had what sounds like one of those meaningless movie-industry titles, "manager of production." Nathan L. Mintz was Charles Mintz's brother, younger by about nine years. Both he and Charles were living with their mother, Mary, in the Bronx at the time of the 1920 census, and the census listed the occupation for both men as "jeweler." (Charles Mintz had, however, identified his occupation as "film solicitor" when he registered for the draft in 1917.) Ten years later, Nat was married, with a daughter, and the census listed his occupation as "salesman - jeweler."

Nat may have moved back and forth between the two kinds of jobs, film and jewelry. Andrew Stone told me: "Nat Mintz worked for them out here for a while; he finally committed suicide. He was a tremendous woman chaser. He was a handsome-looking guy, younger than Charlie." By the time of his mother's death in 1937, Nat was, according to her obituary in the New York Times, living in New York. When Charles Mintz died a little more than two years later, at the age of 50 on December 30, 1939, Nat was not listed among the survivors, so presumably his suicide fell sometime between the other two deaths. I haven't found any record of it, however.

Nat Mintz and Walt Disney surely crossed paths any number of times in the '20s, but so far I've found evidence of only one such encounter. On December 26, 1926, Walt wrote to Charles Mintz about John Randolph Bray's claims that other cartoon producers had violated his patents: "Nat has explained situation to me and I would like to see copy of Bray's patents if it is possible to send same along with any other matter obtainable on this subject." It's clear from Walt's February 26, 1927, letter to Charles Mintz that Nat had explained the situation in person, after arriving in Los Angeles from New York.

I find in my files a photo of Nat and more than a dozen Mintz staffers, taken in the middle 1930s on the sidewalk outside the Mintz studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. They had gathered there for some unknown reason—a fire drill, maybe? I'll forgo posting it unless some of you out there really want to see it. This item has already run much longer than I expected.

Comments

From Mark Mayerson: The reproduction may be poor, but is that picture of Disney in the Mintz ad really Disney?  I would never recognize him from the picture.

MB replies: That photo looks to me like Walt, stiff and slicked up for a formal portrait, but it's a little curious that that photo has never turned up anywhere else, as far as I know. If a copy is in the Disney photo files, they surely would have used by now.

From Michael Sporn: Your article today on the Mintz connections was thoroughly absorbing. I think this odd period in animation history one of the most interesting. Looking at the ad for Winkler Pictures I began to think about Bill Nolan and his story. He's part of the "Mintz family" listed as producer of "Krazy Kat" comics. It'd only be a short time before he was working with Walter Lantz doing the "Oswald" comedies. I wondered if his dealings with Mintz turned as sour as Disney's did. Had Mintz somehow cajoled him into working on the Oswald shorts when Harman, Ising, and Freleng were pushed out? There's a somewhat dark chapter in all of this shifting back and forth, and the addition of sound didn't help enlighten things. Thanks again for the great detective work.

MB replies: Nolan had left Mintz and "Krazy Kat" in 1927 to make his own series called "Newslaffs" (see page 48-49 of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age). Walt Disney tried unsuccessfully to hire Nolan early in 1928, after his own breakup with Mintz, offering him the very handsome salary of $150 a week. Nolan apparently moved west in the spring of 1929, when Universal hired him and Walter Lantz to make the Oswalds, displacing Mintz, Harman, Ising, Freleng et al. Nolan was highly valued in the '20s and early '30s, because he was such a productive animator, but as his very personal and distinctive style of animation fell out of favor, so did he.

While I think about it, let me recommend Michael's extraordinary post of Paul Julian's beautiful illustrations for the children's book Piccoli, by Philippe Halsman. Piccoli is frighteningly expensive on the used-book market—why has it never been reissued, I wonder?—so it's a blessing to have Julian's work available in this form. Paul was a wonderful artist and a delightful person; I recorded interviews with him on several occasions, and we exchanged many letters as well. His work has been somewhat neglected, I think, because he worked mostly for Friz Freleng at Warners, but now that people like Hans Bacher are reconstructing his backgrounds electronically, he may begin to get more of the attention he deserves.

[Posted September 20, 2009]

From Tom Carr: Your comments here about the difficulties of trying to interview some of the early animation veterans are fascinating, and they certainly ring true. When I was an ambitious college journalism student in the 1980s, I had an idea that I might write a book about the Harlem jazz world of the 1920s and '30s; I was living in New York City and some of the old musicians were still alive then. I managed to track down Claude Hopkins, one of the great pianists and bandleaders of the period, who was living in an elder-care home in the Bronx, and I got his permission to visit him. I thought I'd really scored, because Mr. Hopkins had led the house bands at the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom and he knew everybody who'd been on the scene back then. Here was the nucleus of the book! What stories he would have to tell! But when I met him (bringing along a tape recorder, of course), I found that he was in such poor health that he was unable to say much of anything. At least he smiled at me and shook my hand because he was clearly glad to have a visitor, but he died only a couple of months later. I had a similar experience with the blues singer Alberta Hunter, who made her first recordings in the early 20's and was active nearly to the end of her life, singing in a Greenwich Village jazz club. I managed to contact her by phone, but she died before I could talk to her in person. So there went the book. Sometimes there's no greedy spouse involved, it's just the inevitable ravages of time that stop you cold.

MB replies: All too true. I remember interviewing Phil Eastman, for one, and sharing his intense frustration that illness was preventing him from putting into words what his still sharp mind wanted him to say. Happily, many more of the people whom Milt Gray and I interviewed were intact both physically and mentally, and their memories of what was often the most exciting time of their lives (as with the Disney veterans who worked at that studio in the '30s) were crisp and clear.

[Posted September 21, 2009]

September 16, 2009:

Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell

Saturday Evening Post coverAs I mentioned last month, one stop on my long summer driving trip was at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a highly enjoyable and interesting place whether or not you're a Rockwell devotee. One of the paintings in the museum's collection is the cover for the March 1, 1941, issue, of the Saturday Evening Post, seen at the right; Rockwell gave that painting to Walt Disney in 1943. He inscribed the painting: "To Walt Disney / one of the really / great artists- / from an admirer / Norman / Rockwell."

(The museum doesn't permit visitors to photograph its paintings, even with an iPhone, but the painting has been reproduced legitimately elsewhere on the Web, as at this link, which was my source.)

Walt wrote to Rockwell on May 21, 1943, thanking him for the painting and telling him that members of the Disney staff had been trooping up to Walt's office to admire it. "To all of them," Walt wrote, "you are some sort of a god."

Walt and Rockwell had by then known each other for some time, but it's surprisingly difficult to determine just when and how they came to know each other. As Corry Kanzenberg, the museum's curator of archival collections, told me, Rockwell's studio in Arlington, Vermont, burned in May 1943, around the time Walt wrote to him. Most of Rockwell's correspondence, financial information, and reference photographs were destroyed. On Walt's end, his correspondence has never been indexed, as the Disney archivist Dave Smith recently reminded me, so locating all of his correspondence with Rockwell would be impossible without going through the complete files. But they almost certainly met through Clyde Forsythe, a cartoonist and painter of the West who shared studio space with Rockwell from 1915 to 1921; their first studio was Frederic Remington's old place in New Rochelle, New York.

Rockwell and Forsythe remained close friends, and Rockwell was staying with Forsythe in Alhambra, California, south of Pasadena in the San Gabriel Valley, when Walt wrote to him in 1943. Walt and Forsythe were long-time friends, too; Walt mentions hearing from Forsythe in both of his letters to Rockwell in the museum's collection. (The second letter is dated January 4, 1962; Forsythe died later that year.) Walt and Forsythe may have first met when they rode together on some of the annual weeklong treks of Los Rancheros Visitadores in the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara. They traded practical jokes on those rides, as you can read on pages 134-35 of The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney.

Rockwell moved his studio to Stockbridge in the fall of 1953, but he was still living in Arlington when he received an unannounced visit that August from Walt and Bill Cottrell and their wives (Cottrell's wife, Hazel Sewell, was Lillian Disney's sister). Cottrell recalled the incident in at least three interviews. In the earliest such interview, with Richard Hubler in 1968 (just published in the eighth volume of Walt's People), he said:

We were traveling in New England and stopped for lunch in a little tea room with [paintings by] Norman Rockwell all over the walls. Walt asked the waitress if Norman Rockwell lived around there. She told him to go back three miles down the road and turn left at the covered bridge. Walt ended up spending a couple of hours with Rockwell. We just dropped in on him—it was nothing formal. He was mowing the grass when we drove up. He told us how he photographed people of the village and used them in his painting as he needed. He showed us the Saturday Evening Post covers and several other paintings. Later he did a portrait of Walt's daughters. They talked of many things like town meetings and Grange meetings.

Walk to Rockwell StudioWalt and Lillian had just returned to New York from Britain, where they had gone during the filming of Rob Roy the Highland Rogue. The Cottrells joined the Disneys for a driving trip in New England with this itinerary, which Dave Smith provided to me: August 14-15 at the Walloomsac Inn in Bennington, Vermont; August 16 at The Publick House in Sturbridge, Massachusetts; August 17-19 at  the Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham, Massachusetts; and back to New York City on August  20.

Most likely this was an informal research trip for Disneyland, with Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, which had been open for only seven years, as a principal target. Walt had just conducted such impromptu research in New York City, by spending a day on the rides at Coney Island with his friend the actor Richard Todd (see page 242 of The Animated Man).

Cottrell was evidently mistaken about when Rockwell made pencil portraits of Walt's daughters. Diane Disney Miller told Mark Sonntag last year that she and her sister, Sharon, went to Walt's office to be photographed for the portraits in 1943 or 1944 (Rockwell's standard practice was to work from photos). "I can't remember if the Post cover came before our portraits," she said. "Dad was invited to come to Rockwell's studio to pick out the cover of his choice, but couldn't spare the time to do it," so he sent someone else, possibly Clyde Forsythe, to choose a painting.

It's probable that Rockwell made the pencil portraits before he sent the Post cover painting to Walt, since the Rockwell Museum has no reference photos of Diane and Sharon. "If Rockwell had photographs of the Disney daughters taken," Corry Kanzenberg told me, "we would likely have them if they were taken after the fire." Since the museum has no such photos, they probably burned in May 1943.

Rockwell StudioThe Post cover painting and the pencil portraits hung in Walt's office until after his death, when the painting was moved to the offices of the Disney family company, Retlaw Enterprises, and Sharon and Diane took their portraits to their own homes. [An October 9, 2009, update: Paula Sigman Lowery, a former Disney archivist, says that "the painting actually hung in the Archives for many years. I can probably still recite the description Dave [Smith] and I would provide to our weekly tours for new employees. It was returned to the family circa 1984, along with Walt's awards and miniature collection, which had been housed in and cared for by the Archives since its establishment in 1970."] After Lillian Disney's death in December 1997, Diane wrote to Mark Sonntag, "we closed the family office, and I took possession of the cover for a time." When she and her husband, Ron Miller, visited the Rockwell Museum, "I decided that our painting belonged there, and that's where it is now .. on a sort of permanent loan." (The Rockwell Museum identifies the painting as a gift, rather than a loan.)

It's not clear when Walt and Rockwell last saw each other, but it may have been during that encounter in August 1953. Late in 1961, Rockwell—newly remarried after losing his wife in 1959—visited Clyde Forsythe in California. He didn't see Walt, but he did visit Disneyland, and he sent Walt a note from Stockbridge saying he'd enjoyed the park. Walt, in that January 4, 1962, letter, asked Rockwell to call the next time he was in Los Angeles: "I'd like you to come and over and have lunch with me and some of the artists who I know would enjoy meeting you." Walt also said in regard to Disneyland, in words I'm sure would send a chill down the spine of any Disney theme-park executive: "So far as the Park goes, it's worth a trip about every other year because, then, you always see new attractions."

Every other year? Surely, Walt, you meant to say "every other month"! Or "every other week"...or maybe "every other day"? And what about all the Disneyland freaks who want to live at the park? You can't mean to suggest that they're...a little bit over the top? Say it isn't so!

The photos show my wife, Phyllis, walking from the museum toward Rockwell's studio (which was moved to the museum grounds in 1986), along with another view of the studio. Yes, the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts really are that beautiful; Norman Rockwell knew what he was doing when he chose a place to live.

Comments

Hat Check GirlFrom Are Myklebust: After the March 1, 1941 issue of the Saturday Evening Post was published, many readers wondered about what the girl really looked like, since her face is covered by a Post cover (a non-existent cover specially made for this painting).

The answer to this was that the girl who stood model for this painting, also was the model for the painting on the cover of the issue published on May 3, 1941 (“Hat Check Girl”).

MB replies: For more on Disney and Rockwell, with some details that didn't make it into my post, you can go to this 2004 piece by the pseudonymous "Wade Sampson" at Jim Hill Media.

[Posted September 17, 2009]

From Gunnar Andreassen: Just a little note re: Rockwell and Disney. I have never seen Rockwell's drawings of the girls published anywhere, have you? I have only seen the drawing of Diane on a video from WD's formal office.  I made some frame grabs, see below.

Rockwell drawing[Posted September 18, 2009]

From Dave Mason: In response to your article about Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell…it appears that when the Rockwells visited Disneyland over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend (Sunday, November 26, 1961), Walt was not available to host them (as you mentioned).  In his place, Bud Coulson (a member of Walt’s management team at Disneyland) and his wife escorted the Rockwells through the park that day. Before the day was concluded, Norman Rockwell wrote the attached note to the Coulsons' teenage daughter, Catherine, commemorating the occasion. In addition to Rockwell’s reference to the Disneyland visit, he inscribes and signs the card in his own hand, as well as with his famous artist’s signature (as obtained through Catherine Coulson). Thanks, as always, for the continuing good work.

Rockwell note

[Posted September 19, 2009]

September 13, 2009:

Loose as a Seuss

Chuck Jones and Dr. SeussBack in 1967, in connection with the great animation festival in Montréal (another of those occasions, like the 1976 Comicon in Boston, that I've always regretted missing), there was published a "family tree" of American animation. I haven't seen it for years, and I'm sure I would find it laughably inaccurate in many particulars if I were to see it now, but one detail has stuck with me for decades: the "family tree" asserted the existence of a couple of Dr. Seuss cartoons released by Warner Bros. in the early 1930s.

Sure enough, the copyright catalog shows two such cartoons, both copyrighted in 1931: 'Neath the Bababa Tree and Put on the Spout. The credits are the same for both: story (or, for Put on the Spout, adaptation) by Irving A. Jacoby, animation by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), and music score by Philip Scheib.

Seuss we know; Scheib was the longtime composer for Terrytoons; Irving A. Jacoby was, to judge from the fragmentary listings on the Internet Movie Database, a screenwriter who never worked on anything more substantial than some low-budget musical shorts made in New York.

The Seuss cartoons were made a year or more after Warners gave up on a New York-based cartoon series of its own, but they were most likely made in New York, at Warners' studio there; there's no reason to believe they were made in Hollywood. Warners had tried to start an animation unit in New York shortly before it struck its deal with Leon Schlesinger (and, through him, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising) early in 1930. Dave Hand remembered working for Warners in New York on an unsuccessful sound cartoon with the comic-strip character Joe Jinks before he headed west to the Disney studio in January 1930.

Barrier, Seuss, and SpicerIt was at Warners' New York studio that Edward Selzer, Schlesinger's successor as the head of Warner Bros. Cartoons, had his first brush with animation, as Treg Brown reported in the Warner Club News for September 1948: "In 1930 the late Lewis Warner, son of Harry Warner, persuaded Mr. Selzer to join Warner Bros. to work on Bob Ripley's 'Believe It or Not' series of shorts, and also, believe it or not, to start an animation unit. When the bottom fell out of the picture business in August of 1930 he was transferred to the Publicity Department while still continuing on the Ripley shorts, to writing publicity for the Warner Bros. pictures appearing on Broadway."

Those dates are suspect, but that early connection perhaps explains why Jack Warner thought Selzer was the man to run the cartoon studio after Warners bought it.

And the Seuss cartoons? They may be languishing in some archive, but more likely they've vanished. What we have now is the copyright descriptions, which I decided to look at while I was at the Library of Congress in July.

The copyright descriptions are seven-page scenarios, which break down each cartoon into scenes. In 'Neath the Bababa Tree, the lead characters are two lions, Henry and Angostura, and a panther who tries to abduct Angostura; in Put on the Spout, the protagonist is a whale. In both cartoons, the greatest peril comes from something called a Prongobeekus, evidently a huge insect, and in both cartoons the Prongobeekus is routed by, what else, the insect spray Flit. The female lion Angostura summons help by crying, "Quick, Henry, the Flit!"—the advertising slogan that Seuss' cartoons made famous. The whale, under attack by the Prongobeekus, cries, "Quick, Jonah, the Flit!"—and Jonah puts his Flit gun to work from inside the whale's mouth.

Sherman and JonesThese were probably advertising films, pretty crude ones, I'd guess (who knows what that animation credit for Dr. Seuss means). That may account for their disappearance; once they'd served their very limited purpose they probably seemed as disposable as yesterday's newspaper. There's no mention of the animated cartoons in Judith and Neil Morgan's biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel; I haven't made much of a search of other possible sources, but I'd be surprised if there's much to be found.

In the absence of a portrait of the Prongobeekus, I'm reproducing a few snapshots from the only occasion when I met Ted Geisel. It was June 1969, and Bill Spicer and I were finishing up one of our two interview sessions with Chuck Jones at his MGM studio in Hollywood. Geisel arrived, very natty and cheerful, I suppose to talk with Chuck about some project to succeed How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Horton Hears a Who, both of which had been telecast very successfully by then. I begged for a few photos before we left, and these were the results. Needless to say, probably, that's Chuck at the left in the top photo, and Geisel at the right; in the second photo, I'm at the left and Bill Spicer is at the right. I don't remember who was behind my cheap and unreliable camera, but it was probably Chuck or his secretary, Connie Sherman. That's Chuck and Connie in the third photo, at her desk.

[A September 15, 2009, update: Mark Kausler has sent me scans of pages 111-116 of Charles D. Cohen's book The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing but the Seuss, published in 2004 by Random House. Cohen describes in detail the history of the two Seuss cartoons and the theatrical context in which they were released (at the tail end of a brief spurt in such advertising films). He seems not to have seen the copyright descriptions that I describe above (he says that "little is known" about the content of 'Neath the Bababa Tree), but otherwise his research has been remarkably thorough. I think we can now say with certainty that both cartoons are lost; I'm sure Cohen would have found them if they still existed.

I remember being aware of Cohen's book when it came out, but I was too deeply immersed in buying and reading Disney-related stuff (as I worked on The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney) to spare time or money for it, and I then forgot all about it. (Just as well, I suppose, since my very good local library system has two copies but both are checked out for the next few weeks.) I'm excited now about what might be in the rest of the book, particularly as related to Clampett's Horton, the Snafu cartoons, and the Jones TV specials. Rather than quiz Mark on those points, I've ordered a copy from amazon.com. I'll report back later.]

Comments

From Steven Swalley: Read your article on the Dr. Seuss Flit cartoons...wish they still existed! Seuss had a long running relationship with Flit bug spray, doing numerous magazine ads for them...as can be evidenced by this Google Image search. Also, you may want to note the wonderful surviving Warners Bob Clampett Dr.Seuss cartoon adaptation of Horton Hatches the Egg.

From Tom Carr: I love your Dr. Seuss-Chuck Jones article, especially the photo of them together. Was there some kind of rule back then that in order to be a cartoon genius, you had to wear a bow tie? If so, it seems to have worked.

[Posted September 14, 2009]

From Harvey Deneroff: Much enjoyed your piece on Dr Seuss and was reminded of Lillian Friedman's recollection of her encounter with him before she went to Fleischer.

In January 1931, she got a job as an inbetweener at Audio Cinema in The Bronx. "We were a small animation unit in a company that mostly produced documentary-type films. Studio space there was shared by Terry-Toon animation company. Now, we made a cartoon commercial advertising Listerine. Now imagine how before the times this was, with germ characters designed by Dr. Seuss. I remember he used to come and be so frustrated because even though he designed these marvelous characters, he couldn't animate. He used to try, but he couldn't. Anyway, this picture, intended for theater showing, also has no takers.Exhibitors were afraid of offending paying audiences with ads. So we were laid off on and off again until July 1931," when she was hired by Fleischer.

For what it's worth, I checked my copy of the 1967 Family Tree and found only one reference to a Seuss cartoon released by Warner Bros., 'Neath the Bababa Tree (1931), with the following credits: mus: Philip Scheib, an: Tom McKimson, Bob McKimson, Jack Zander, Bob Allen.

MB replies: Someone must have thought that since Warner Bros. released Bababa Tree, the Harman-Ising studio must have made it.

[Posted September 16, 2009]

Walt's People, Volume 8

Walt's People Vol. 8I said I'd let you know when the eighth volume in Didier Ghez's exemplary series of collected interviews, Walt's People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him was available through amazon.com, and that has come to pass. You can order the book by clicking on this link.

As to whether you should order it, I can only suggest that you go to the top of my home page and do a Google search for Walt's People, then read my comments about the preceding volumes. These are books—Didier expects to publish a total of at least ten volumes—that no one with a serious interest in Disney history should be without. I've contributed in some way to every volume (the eighth one includes Milt Gray's interview with Jim Bodrero for Hollywood Cartoons that I published here last year), and I plan to continue doing so.

The eighth volume is very thick (451 pages) and includes some exceptionally rare and interesting interviews. Dave Smith's with Ruth Disney Beecher, Walt's little sister, is one, but the ten interviews conducted by Richard Hubler are almost as noteworthy. Hubler was the writer commissioned by Walt Disney Productions to write a biography of Walt soon after his death; he interviewed dozens of Disney employees and family members in 1967 and 1968, when memories were still very fresh. His manuscript never saw print, but his interviews survived in the Disney Archives and at Boston University, which has Hubler's papers in its very large manuscript collection. Earlier volumes in the Walt's People series have included Hubler's interviews with people like Lillian Disney, Walt's daughters, his brother Roy, and Roy's wife, Edna; the new volume includes interviews with people like Walt's secretaries Dolores Voght and Tommie Wilck and the live-action director Robert Stevenson.

I spent several days in Boston one January (lotsa snow!) in order to read these interviews, but you, you lucky dogs, can read them at home at a price a lot lower than the cost of a ticket to Logan Airport. I hope you take advantage of the opportunity.

September 10, 2009:

More on That Curious Case

Hans Perk writes: "Here is, attached, a page from the UA-issued 'Join Mickey Mouse in his Lucky Seventh Birthday Party September 28th 1935'"—a page that, as you can see, juxtaposes what I've called the "Fauntleroy Mouse" (see my posts for September 3 and September 4) with Mickey as he'd evolved by 1935.

UA booklet

Mickey on the screen never looked like "Fauntleroy," but you can guess at the thinking involved here. Mickey's (alleged) birthday was coming up and the United Artists people wanted something to show how Mickey had changed in those seven years, so someone at Disney—maybe even Walt himself—pulled out that old sheet of drawings and had a copy made of the drawing that looked the least like the "modern" Mickey.

Hans also writes: "When I look at the drawings, some of them have the appeal of Iwerks's drawings, but several do not seem to have his facility. It was, of course, a stressed period, and they were feeling their way towards the new character, that could be a factor. My first impressions on the blue circles is that Walt would have been more forceful in drawing these. The handwritten sheets I have with ideas on Blue Rhythm show that when he put a pencil to paper, you could probably hear it in the next room.

"But that's a cross-section of one man's opinion...."

[A September 12, 2009, update: In my first version of this post, I incorrectly attributed the "cross-section" quote above to Walt Disney, through a bracketed insert. As Hans Perk quickly reminded me, that statement was addressed to Walt, by Ken Darby, as quoted (in a drawing, actually) on page 156 of Jack Kinney's Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters. Kinney has a cartoon Walt saying to a cartoon Darby about a piece of music for "Johnny Appleseed," "It sounds like New Deal music." Darby replies: "That is just a cross section of one man's opinion."]

Comments

From Peter Hale: The touch that makes [the sheet of "original Mickey" drawings] so convincing—rather than being a later "what would a sheet of proto-Mickeys have looked like?" reconstruction—is the way the legs of the main ringed mouse have been altered, from what looks like long pants and shoes (giving his legs some of the weight of Oswald's construction) to the spindly barefoot legs more akin to the typical cartoon mice (of Aesop's Fables and the Disney studios own versions). It looks too purposeful to be a fake, and would anyone roughing out random mice bother with such a detail? Rather they'd leave the trousered mouse and then draw the final selected Plane Crazy mouse...or even blue-pencil a very Steamboat Willie mouse!

 I've always felt that the Plane Crazy Mickey was designed to carefully avoid comparison with Oswald (whose proportions they would have wanted to keep, having honed them down to something that was easy to animate and had appeal). The ears are not just round, they are flattened slightly to be distinct from Oswald's long ears (previous Disney mice —especially, I think, those drawn by Hugh Harman—tended towards longer, petal-shaped ears) and the retaining of the complete circle of the eye, without the drop-out that Ub normally employed (and which was used subsequently—perhaps the double-line was devised to retain a difference). The thin legs (in keeping with recent mice, but thinner than those of the rodents in the Alice comedies) seem to tie in with this idea. As to the binning of the drawing, don't forget that Ub would probably have kept it on his desk while he was working on the final version of Mickey, and might then have tucked it away himself. If so, by the time he came to leave, whilst it would have become unimportant to him and left behind in his desk, it would already have achieved some small historical significance, making it worth keeping for Walt. Perhaps.

The "Fauntleroy" mouse is the first drawing, if you read it from top left like a continuity (the other sketches fill in at random, but top left is a common starting point) and it is the most finished. This could be read as Ub's initial but considered idea of how the mouse should look - "What about.. something like… this.." - which is then rejected by Walt—"No, no, too fancy.. More like the little mice we draw on the publicity stuff..." So Ub starts to sketch ideas in a more tentative way…? If that were the case it would actually explain why Walt might pinpoint that version as Mickey's origin: not only was it the furthest from the final 1929 copyrighted Mickey, it actually was the first version drawn by the man whom Walt had openly credited as the designer of the Mouse. (And maybe there was a touch of "THAT is what Mickey would have looked like if it hadn't been for ME!" in the choice?)

Well, I have an imagination if nothing else!

The trouble with the Disney mantra along the lines of "never let the facts get in the way of the storyline" is that along with resenting the fabrication I keep having a sneaking sympathy for the thinking behind the fakery! Whoever first thought of condensing the origins of Mickey in that 1968 TV show tried to be thorough! Mice go right back to the Alice days, and they were going to go right back there! So—a slick sequence is conceived linking the opening of Alice in Cartoonland with.. an Alice cartoon featuring those mice, you know.. Alice the Piper, or Alice Rattled by Rats. But maybe they can't find a good enough print or maybe the animation is too crude.. Either way the clips lack quality—so, hey! Rattled by Rats was remade as a Mickey Mouse cartoon—and there's this shot that looks just like the old-fashioned mice! Perfect! This is going to work so well!

 MB replies: It has often seemed to me that too many of the people in charge of things like that 1968 show and the reissued Disney features have felt an irresistible urge not to get things right but to be "creative"—by tinkering with history, by "restoring" what doesn't need be restored, and so on. Thus we have embarrassments like that 1968 travesty of the historical record and significant color changes in the successive "restored" versions of the Disney features, each new version an indictment of the competence of the previous version's restorers. It seems all but miraculous that the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs turned out as well as they did, and I'm sure we have Leonard Maltin to thank for that.

UA press bookFrom David Lesjak: I've been banging my head against the wall for the past month, trying to locate the image of the two mice that you featured on your blog September 3. I've been through every reference book a hundred times to no avail.  Then you post the image from Hans—voila!  That's it!!

A copy of that "Mickey's 7th" mimeograph press book currently resides in the collection of my friend Dennis Books in Seattle. It's a cool little booklet, loaded with the usual stuff—ideas for newspaper stories, advertising, general background, and offers of publicity stills. I've always been curious as to why the studio celebrated the Mouse's birthday in September and October. Now they've changed that date to November. I plan a big story on my vintage blog about the seventh birthday, which will include numerous magazine and newspaper articles from September and October 1935.

MB replies: David actually runs two excellent blogs (I have trouble maintaining this one), Vintage Disney Collectibles and Toons at War, both worthy of frequent visits if you share my strong interest in the Disney studio's history.

[Posted September 12, 2009]

From Dana Gabbard: David Lesjak in a comment notes: "I've always been curious as to why the studio celebrated the Mouse's birthday in September and October. Now they've changed that date to November." Years ago I did an article for Duckburg Times on visiting the Disney Archives. Dave Smith was kind enough to supply some articles he had written on its history to provide background information I drew on. In one of them, I remember, he explained how establishing Mickey's real birthday after it had been celebrated on various dates over the years was among the early tasks the Archives undertook. Maybe a way can be found to post the explanation Smith wrote up all those years ago?

MB replies: Given Disney's current very restrictive policies, I wouldn't dream of asking Dave Smith for that piece, or for permission to post it if it did turn up in my files. I don't think I have it, in any case, although I do have a copy of the piece on Steamboat Willie that Dave wrote for delivery at the 1993 Disneyana convention.

From David Lesjak: Further to the most recent comment re: Mickey's birthday, Smith told me the same thing years and years ago—to paraphrase him, theatre owners would just pick a sunny day in the fall and declare that day to be the mouse's birthday.

[Posted September 14, 2009]

September 8, 2009:

Behind the Li'l Eight Ball

New FunniesOver at his wonderful blog Stanley Stories, devoted to the great Little Lulu cartoonist John Stanley, Frank Young has posted the last Li'l Eight Ball story as it appeared in the August 1947 issue of Walter Lantz New Funnies.

Eight Ball was, you'll recall, the grotesquely stereotypical black boy who appeared in three late-1930s cartoons that are pretty awful even by the low standards prevailing at the Lantz studio then. Like other Lantz characters (Oswald the Rabbit, Homer Pigeon), he survived as a comic-book character long after his last screen appearance. That's the cover of the August 1947 issue, with Eight Ball still a part of lineup, at the right.

All of the Dell comic books with animated characters differed considerably from their screen equivalents, but New Funnies may have set the record. By the end of his run, Eight Ball bore no resemblance to the screen original—he speaks standard English, not some white writer's notion of black dialect, and his race is incidental—but his name and his hopelessly stereotypical appearance made him a natural target for indignation.

The indignation arrived more or less on schedule, and possibly that's why Eight Ball vanished from New Funnies in 1947. When I was at the Library of Congress a few weeks ago, I ran across this story in the Amsterdam News, a New York African-American newspaper, for May 10, 1947. It reproduces a letter from Oskar Lebeck, who edited the Dell comic books (then including New Funnies) originating in Western Printing & Lithographing Company's New York City office:

Amsterdam News

(The National Negro Congress was evidently a communist-front organization, at least in the 1930s, but I don't think one need to have been a communist to find Eight Ball objectionable.)

Reading Oskar (not Oscar) Lebeck's letter, it would be natural to wonder a little about his sincerity when he says he is dropping Eight Ball in response to the children's complaints. The September 1947 issue of New Funnies, the first without Eight Ball, was probably published sometime in the last half of July, perhaps three months at most after Lebeck's exchange of letters with the children at the Little Red School House. Did Lebeck scrap Eight Ball on what looks like very short notice? Or was Eight Ball already headed out the door, and did Lebeck just tell the kids something that would make them feel good?

Either is possible. Carl Barks submitted his ten-page Donald Duck story for the September 1947 issue of Walt Disney's Comics & Stories in late April (Western accepted it on May 1), so it's certainly conceivable that Lebeck was assembling the September issue of New Funnies around the same time. If, as seems likely, he got the kids' letter in late April, and he was still assembling the September issue's contents then, their letter may have tipped the balance against Eight Ball.

Eight Ball was by then a pretty easy call, though. The more interesting case, and one I don't believe has yet been documented at all, is what happened in Our Gang Comics/Our Gang With Tom and Jerry as the children in the "gang"—including the black boy Bucky—grew older in Walt Kelly's hands. Not only did stereotyping vanish from Kelly's stories by 1946, but by late in 1947, most notably in a story about a cross-country race in that year's November issue, there was no mistaking that he was presenting adolescent black and white boys—and a white girl—as if they were equals. Dangerous territory in 1947, and I doubt it was accidental that after that issue, the only black characters to be seen in the Our Gang stories, until the series ended in 1949, were very young children.

Were there complaints from white parents, especially in the South? Did some executive at Dell or Western get cold feet? Did Kelly himself have any input? It would be good to know. Since I already have all the comic books, I haven't yet bought the Fantagraphics reprints of the Our Gang stories, but perhaps Steve Thompson will shed some light on such questions in his introduction to Volume 4.

Comments

From David Gerstein: It does seem like Western was trying to clean up, or otherwise do  something, about Li'l Eight Ball as early as 1944, so perhaps some  protests began earlier on. Had I lived at the time I might have well  been among the protestors. In fact, just looking at the stories and their evolution as a whole,  one finds rather interesting changes sweeping over the feature, almost  certainly suggesting outside influence.

The earliest stories are set in a rural environment and show Eight  Ball and his "Mammy" living among a mix of rural "white" animal  characters and fellow jet-black-skinned, dialect-speaking African-American humans. The African-Americans vanish early on, leaving only the animals. How come? In issue 94 or thereabouts (I don't have 93), new African-American  human characters debut, though their skin is now left unshaded; the  idea, obviously, was to color them lighter than Eight Ball, i. e., brown. How come? (Ironically, the colorists in 94 and 95 leave them  pure albino white.) The new African-American characters include Eight Ball's on-again,  off-again girlfriend Honeysuckle, his rival Shadrack Paducah, and, from issue 97, adult officials and professionals as the environment  becomes a city.

At first the city adults speak in dialect, yet include  cops with Irish names; from issue 102, the dialect is only  occasionally used, leaving Eight Ball, Honeysuckle, and their friends/relatives as the only African-Americans who speak it regularly. From issue 107, white humans begin to appear, usually speaking  without dialect. In issue 117 or 118, Eight Ball and his black friends/ relatives begin speaking without dialect, too; the decision seems to  have been made after some stories' production was completed, so a few are visibly relettered, two by machine (NF 120, 121). The story in 118 gives Eight Ball a dumb sidekick named Sidepocket,  who is clearly drawn with Caucasian features although the colorist  made him brown. (Thanks to Thad Komorowski for giving me the issue  number on this one, which I didn't have handy.)

Clearly there was some sort of pressure going on externally or internally at Western to make the Eight Ball feature more progressive  before it was killed; one can't not see it when one looks at the  stories. Seemingly related would be changes that were made to a number of non- Eight Ball Western stories in 1948-49, all containing dialogue in  dialect, where editors visibly relettered "de," "dat," and "dis" to  "th'," "that," and "this," perhaps under the belief that it made the  dialect less "black" and more generically Southern.

Most interestingly, this affects both "Voodoo Hoodoo" and "Lost in  the Andes"; the Plain Awfultonians' "th"es are either crammed in or tilted differently than the words around them, revealing the  relettering of "de" by a hand other than Barks. Even speech written as sound effects ("Theah they blows," page 29) has been visibly doctored. Perhaps the original intent had been to make the characters sound  "black," sadly. It's surely true of the Brer Rabbit stories that were  affected (in Four Color 208). And on "Andes" page 21, Donald notes how  the Awfultonians "speak our—uh—Southern dialect." It does seem like  the gag here is that Donald is about to say some word to suggest  "black," but corrects himself!

MB replies: In "Andes," the Plain Awfultonians have learned English from "Professah Rhutt Betlah, frum the Bummin'ham School of English," who was presumably white. It seems likely to me that if Barks had anything specific in mind, it was that Donald was hesitating about using some term derogatory to Southerners in general. "Hillbilly" maybe, or some equivalent (think Li'l Abner here, and Bob Burns, and Lum and Abner, as well as Li'l Eight Ball). Donald does say to the nephews that the Plain Awfultonians speak "straight cornpone," which isn't exactly flattering. I see only a few places where "dat" has probably been changed to "that" (or "dey" to "they"), and I think it's possible that Barks made those changes on his own, for the sake of consistency, since he cared about such things much more than the average cartoonist. He didn't achieve consistency—the Plain Awfultonians' dialect is really kind of a mess—but, to say the least, it doesn't matter.

From Tom Carr: Your contributors certainly come up with some interesting stuff! "Anti-negro riots" in Greenwich Village in 1947? I've never heard of that at all. The Village, as far as I know, was nothing like Birmingham, Alabama, not even in the '40s. As a native, white  Manhattanite born in the '60s, I can certainly say that there were some Archie Bunker-type bigots in my own family, but they didn't go around terrorizing members of minority groups— they just yelled a lot (like today's right-wing radio and TV ranters, who somehow manage to get paid major bucks for frothing at the mouth). The blackface "problem" won't ever go away, because it's a basic part of American cultural history, and so it can't be ignored. I happen to like Al Jolson's singing and his sense of humor, so am I going to ban him from my web page because he sometimes performed in blackface? Of course not. I've got a hilarious Jolson-Bing Crosby duet there right now, and next month I'm going to post a rare recording of Jolie accompanied by Oscar Levant at the piano. I also think that Tex Avery's Uncle Tom's Cabana is one of the funniest cartoons of the Hollywood classical animation era... it never fails to crack me up. None of this comedy is about race, per se, it's about the racial attitudes of the time. W.C. Fields once said that Bert Williams was the most talented comedian he ever worked with. Poor Bert, the African-American man who wasn't allowed to sit in the audience at the Ziegfeld Follies, where he was one of the headliners right alongside Fields. When Bert died in 1922, Bill Fields commented on his gallantry in the face of so much mistreatment. If matters didn't improve between then and 1947, it's news to me.

[Posted September 9, 2009]

From Jeet Heer: That was a great posting on Li'l Eightball. I think you might be right that there could have been white southern pressure on this issue as well. In 1942 Harold Gray had Orphan Annie befriend a little black boy, and got protests from a newspaper editor in Mobile, Alabama, and other white southerners.   I think the anti-racist protest against Li'l Eightball was fully justified but like other similar protests it had a bad side-effect: cartoonists became so terrified to draw any black characters that comics became much whiter and more monocultural, at least till the cultural changes in the 1960s. The comic strips of the 1920s had many more black (and ethnic) characters than the comic strips of the 1950s, however stereotyped they might have been in the earlier decades.

[Posted September 10, 2009]

From Russ Handelman: Another example of how the discontinuing of Li'l Eightball at that time was a sign of an overall growing discomfort with "stereotyped" black characters in comics is Will Eisner's gradual "retirement" of Ebony White as The Spirit's partner. Ebony had a rather ambiguous history in The Spirit , starting out as a cab-driver, but then being depicted as a young boy, maybe around 12-14 years old at most. While he did speak in dialect, he wasn't shown indulging in usual stereotyped activities (e.g., craving watermelon, shooting dice, showing excess fear of ghosts), but was usually a steadfast and useful assistant to The Spirit, and was well-regarded by the other white adult characters (Commissioner Dolan, Helen Dolan, Officer Klink, etc.). Ebony was also shown as a member of gang of kids his own age, who always treated him as an equal, and often as their leader.  At around this time, however, Eisner began using Ebony less and less, and eventually packed him off to boarding-school.  The Spirit then took on a new assistant, a bucktoothed white boy named Sammy (briefly, when Ebony was away on a long trip, The Spirit had as an assistant an Eskimo boy named "Blubber"; presumably, there were few Eskimos around to protest, but the character was soon dropped anyway).  And, significantly, one recurring adult character added to the cast was "Lieutenant Grey," a black  police detective from the next town who periodically worked with The Spirit and was drawn "naturalistically," (by that I mean, not in a caricatured or exaggerated way), and who spoke in standard English, not dialect.

And it should also be noted that all this was occurring at about the same time as Jackie Robinson's starting to play major-league baseball began increasing nationwide sensitivity and awareness of negative attitudes about blacks in America.

[Posted September 11, 2009]

From Tom Carr: The most recent comments by Mr. Handelman are a great addition to this somewhat strange topic. When I was a little kid in the '70s, the Lantz cartoons were shown regularly on TV, so characters like Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, and even the less popular Buzz Buzzard were well-known to me and my contemporaries. But Li'l Eight Ball had already disappeared. In fact, I'd never even heard of him until this comic-book cover appeared on Mr. Barrier's page. As I've been saying, the problem of "racist" depictions in American popular art and music is not really such a problem— just put it out there and let present-day audiences decide what might be offensive and what's not. Many of the African-American musical performers of the early 20th century made fun of themselves (Bert Williams, Clarence Williams, Jelly Roll Morton, and later Fats Waller) and they sold a lot of theater tickets and records. Laurel and Hardy portrayed two middle-aged white guys who were complete idiots, so were they being "predjudiced" against other Caucasian men, by depicting them as being totally clueless? Well, no...they were just pointing out that we all play the clown at one time or another. And if I ever have to move a piano, I'll hire someone else. This discussion has led me to listen to some of the early "Amos 'n Andy" radio shows, and you know what I think? That this most famous of all blackface comedy teams was popular not so much because of the racial element, but rather because the scripts were often hilarious, full of puns, non-sequiturs, unexpected plot twists, and malapropsims. It's no wonder that they were number one in the radio ratings for decades. My theory is that the vast audience tuned in not so much for their minstrel-type dialects, but to hear what Correll and Gosden and their cast of zanies were going to say next. Minstrel records were still popular as late as the mid-'30s, and I have some examples. If anyone's interested, I'll post some of them next month on Pilsner's Picks.

MB replies: My basic problem with Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden is that their "blackface" routine wasn't good enough. Their shortcomings as imitators are most brutally obvious in Check and Double Check, the creepy movie based on their radio show, in which both men are in literal blackface, but the radio show is no prize, either. I can imagine white performers coming at blackface from the inside, so to speak, immersing themselves in the joys and sorrows of Negro life in the early 20th century and producing art that speaks of that life in respectful and affectionate terms, even while the white performers never pretend to be what they are not. You could argue that that's what the greatest white jazz musicians did. But who else? Correll and Gosden? No way. I think it would be easier to make a case for Al Jolson, who actually played a whole movie in blackface, although for my money Big Boy is at least as weird as Check and Double Check.

[Posted September 12, 2009]

From Tom Carr: Whether or not one thinks that Amos and Andy are funny is of course a matter of personal taste. However, the fact remains that they captivated an enormous audience in the early years of radio broadcasting, and early TV. Some of the old-time comics don't seem funny at all to me...Fred Allen, for example. If just sneering at people in a nasal voice is funny, then Allen was a genius. But not funny...what made his audience laugh? I have no idea. The point I've been making is that there should be no censorship, and that those of us who are alive today should be permitted to judge the past as it was—and is, thanks to films and recordings.

MB replies: No censorship—yes, I agree completely. However awful I might think Check and Double Check is, I'm glad I had the opportunity to see it, and I don't think anyone else should be denied that opportunity.

[Posted September 13, 2009]

From Michael J. Hayde: Not to belabor an off-topic point, but to judge Amos 'n' Andy by the dubious merits of Check and Double-Check is a lot like defining Bugs Bunny's popularity by relying on his Dell comics appearances. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were not happy with the picture, believing it did no justice to their creation; an opinion they also shared with the later Van Beuren cartoons (which is why they discontinued them). The "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show for which America stopped whatever it was doing—even movie programs—to listen, was a daily 15-minute serial that went beyond stereotyped dialects and malpropisms to depict characters and situations that people cared about, especially during the Depression. When that tragic event morphed into wartime industrial prosperity, the serial became less relevent, and was reintroduced as a weekly sitcom that was perhaps less heart-tugging, but was certainly funny (thanks to the writers who later brought us "Leave it to Beaver" and "The Munsters"). Elizabeth McLeod's The Original Amos 'n' Andy (McFarland, 2005) is must-reading for anyone desiring the full story of how and why Gosden and Correll's characters reached a level of popularity that cannot be explained away as an audience of latent racists.

MB replies: One problem with absolving Gosden and Correll of blame for Check and Double-Check is that they star in it, and they are all too obviously middle-aged white men wearing blackface. I hope that they were in fact unhappy with the film, and that if they were, it was because they realized that what might have been deemed acceptable when their characters were only being heard was not at all acceptable when they were being seen, too.

From Tom Carr: Maybe Check and Double Check is a terrible film, but at least some good music came out of it, namely Duke Ellington's "Double Check Stomp" (now posted in the "Special Requests" section of Pilsner's Picks). Expertly recorded in Victor Orthophonic sound, the '20s-'30s equivalent of the later high-fidelity, it features, strangely enough, an accordion player—and this just might be the only Ellington recording that does. At least it's the only one I've ever heard, and whoever the accordionist is, it's probably not Lawrence Welk. The highlight is a great alto sax solo by young Johnny Hodges, who had only recently joined the band and hadn't yet made his name as one of the greatest of all jazz reed players, and Wellman Braud's "slap" bass comes through beautifully. So even if the movie is lousy, it wasn't a total loss.

[Posted September 14, 2009]

September 6, 2009:

Weekend Roundup

Disney and Marvel: I try to think about Disney's acquistion of Marvel Entertainment no more than necessary, but I can't help but recommend a couple of analyses that go beyond the obvious (How is Disney going to make money out of this deal, considering that the best Marvel properties are tied up so thoroughly for years to come? Why is Bob Iger making such a big gamble when the wisdom of the Disney-Pixar deal is still very much in question?) and explore larger questions. Mark Mayerson finds in the deal persuasive evidence of the creative exhaustion of both companies, and in the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein writes:

The Marvel deal, like the $7.4-billion 2006 pact Iger negotiated to bring Pixar into the Disney fold, is another sign that Disney's top brass realizes that the company's reign as an original creative engine for mass entertainment is over. Once an idea factory full of brilliant animators and imagineers, Disney is now a mass merchandising machine in search of exploitable product, whether it comes from Marvel, Pixar or DreamWorks, which will be releasing its upcoming slate through Disney as well.

Exactly right, I think. There is simply no resemblance between the Walt Disney Company as it's presently constituted and the Walt Disney Productions that Walt himself presided over, a half century ago. Today's Walt Disney Company is just another large manufacturing company, and the only reason to follow its fortunes with any interest is that it holds hostage, through copyright, films and comic books and the like that were made by far more creative people than any who now seem to be on the Disney staff.

Barks in Boston: One of the great regrets of my life is that I didn't attend the 1976 Newcon comics convention in Boston. It was a unique occasion, with Carl Barks, John Stanley, and Harvey Kurtzman among the honored guests, but I felt I had no choice but to use my limited vacation time for what I hoped would be a grand final round of interviews for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. (It didn't work out that way—my last interviews for the book took place almost twenty years later.) Bill White, a freelance cartoonist who lives in Massachusetts, attended Newcon as a fifteen-year-old, and he has written a charming memoir of his encounter with Barks for his blog. You can read it at this link. It'll make you sorry you weren't there, too.

Walt and Hitchcock: Pieter Baert writes: "As I was browsing through the Internet Movie Database's biography pages, I stumbled on something rather odd. Funny, but odd. I'm talking about this anecdote: He [Disney] refused to allow Alfred Hitchcock to film at Disneyland in the early 1960s, because Hitchcock had made "that disgusting movie Psycho (1960)." The weird thing is that you can find this anecdote on Disney's biography page, Hitchcock's page, in the trivia-section of Psycho... Actually, you can find it all over the internet, but nobody ever mentions a source. I started to look in some Disney biographies and I couldn't find any connection between Disney and Hitchcock in your biography, or Gabler's, Watts's, Thomas's, or  Eliot's. The only thing I can remember is that you can see a bit of Who Killed Cock Robin? in Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936). I was curious if you knew more about this. For all I know, this is just an urban legend." That story sounds vaguely familiar, but I can't come up with a source, either. Can anyone help? [See below]

Børge Ring on Norm Ferguson: Comcast's spam filters have been interfering with my communication with Børge Ring, the Oscar-winning Danish animator, but I do hear from him occasionally, most often via Hans Perk, and I wanted to share his comments on Norman Ferguson, one of the greatest of Walt Disney's great animators: "My undying fascination with Norm Ferguson's work stems from the fact that Fergy retained the clear round naivete of Harold Knerr's Katzenjammer Kids, one of the groundwaters of American cartooning. Gideon the cat (for one) who recurred so many times in shorts had the spirit of Harold Knerr and smacked of Mack Sennett. Tytla, Babbitt, and Luske studied and harvested from it. Fergy remained intuition and common sense. The combination gave what he did a Knerr-like crude innocence. I asked Art Babbitt if he thought Ferguson felt a mental affinity with Stan Laurel. No, said Art, 'Fergy was basically a naive man, though not in the sense that you could fool him.' Norman Ferguson could draw very badly at times but was probably without vanity in this respect, and he knew a lot about movement. Kaj Pindal asked his railway playmate Ward Kimball, 'Ward, give me the magic feather.' Kimball said: 'Timing is everything.' Ferguson was nothing if not timing." A 9/10 update: As I meant to mention when I first posted this item, two of my Essay pages are devoted to Ferguson—specifically, his very rough "Fergy ruffs," and his famous flypaper sequence for Playful Pluto.

...And Tytla's Stromboli: Børge Ring also wrote: "Michael Sporn's painstakingly done exposition of Stromboli is a gift to all and everyone. And it ought to be rewarded in some way or other."  Michael's outstanding five-part presentation of Bill Tytla's animation drawings of that Pinocchio villain, with Michael's well-chosen comments, can be accessed through this link.

Comments

From Reijo Laaksonen: I found this in Patrick McGilligan's Hitchcock biography (2003):

Or when Walt Disney publicly declared that he wouldn't let his children watch Psycho, "nor would he allow Hitchcock to make a movie about Disneyland," according to [Greg] Garrett.

Greg Garrett's "The men who knew too much: the unmade films of Hitchcock and Lehman" appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Spring 1993, and tells how Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman were developing a script about a blind jazz pianist. A scene or sequence would take place in Disneyland. Was Disney commenting  to the press or was Garrett just quoting Ernest Lehman, whom he probably had interviewed, I don't know. This story clearly needs more research.

[Posted September 6, 2009]

From Harry McCracken: I'm happy to report that I attended Newcon '76—one of the greatest comics-related events ever, and probably the best comics convention. I was 12 at the time. (Organizer Don Phelps put on some remarkable shows: Newcon '77's star guest was Bob Clampett.)

I met Carl Barks briefly and had him autograph the program book and a couple of the Western Publishing Dynabrite reprints of his work. He was mobbed during his appearance, and so  I spent more time hanging out in the general vicinity of John Stanley. Stanley attracted plenty of fans, too, but he wasn't the icon that Barks already was--he kept expressing astonishment that anyone cared about his work. He also wasn't operating under limitations about what characters he could draw (and, since he was dealing with a smaller crowd, had enough time to do sketches).

Stanley gave me two sketches of Lulu which I posted at this page, along with some other Newcon '76 ephemera.

From Robert Holmen: The "creative exhaustion" you mention in regard to Disney isn't even limited to entertainment companies. I used to work for the telecom company Nortel Networks, whose CEO would openly say "we don't have to be innovative ourselves, we can just buy innovative companies." So, many acquisitions followed, all in the search of some magic missing piece to internet infrastructure domination. But they always seemed to pay too much for the second best players. Nortel, which once made up a third of the value of the Canadian stock exchange, is now being parted out in bankruptcy. (I got out before the end.) I don't know that Disney will go bankrupt on all this, but it seems like a high price to pay for five thousand characters most of whom are not even as well loved as what Disney already has. I think creative exhaustion is more the rule in western business than an occasional malady.

[Posted September 7, 2009]

From Dave Abston: On Hitchcock and Disney: Looks like you've already gotten some confirmations on this story, but I just wanted to point out that another source—and the first place I ever heard about this—is Donald Spoto's bio The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, which originally came out in the '80s. According to Spoto, Jimmy Stewart was supposed to play a blind man who receives a cornea transplant from the eyes of a murder victim (pps. 446-47) Ernest Lehman actually spent the summer and autumn of 1960 working on the screenplay, but reluctantly gave it up when he couldn't surmount numerous "plot difficulties." According to Lehman, the bulk of the sighted-man sequences were supposed to take place in Disneyland.

[Posted September 14, 2009]

From Dave Abston: I found the section in Spoto's book on Disney nixing the Hitchcock film. From an interview with Ernest Lehman, describing the difficulties he was having with the script for "The Blind Man": "...then, one fateful day, Walt Disney, after viewing 'Psycho,' announced to the press that he would never even let his children see that film, much less allow its director to shoot a picture in his amusement park." Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, p. 446.

MB replies: I have to wonder: when and how did Walt "announce to the press"? I'm not aware of such an "announcement," although it could be tucked away in one of the interviews Walt did in the early 1960s, in some of which he spoke rather harshly about contemporary culture. I'm skeptical, though, especially given the reference to "his children," since both Disney daughters were grown women by the time Psycho was released.

[Posted September 15, 2009]

September 5, 2009:

Shipboard With Walt and Family, 1949

Here, via Gunnar Andreassen, is a YouTube clip of Walt Disney and his wife and daughters being interviewed on their way to England for the filming there of Treasure Island, in June 1949. They were sailing aboard the Queen Elizabeth, which arrived in Southampton on June 20. They left England aboard the same ship on August 13, arriving in New York on August 18. I can't help but believe, watching this brief interview, that Walt must have thought he'd escaped such unwelcome attention when he boarded the ship, and he wasn't thrilled to find it had followed him. Did he ever hook up with Edgar Bergen, I wonder?

Comments

From Tom Carr: I've never posted anything here before, being much more of an expert on old music than old animation. That said, the shipboard interview with Mr. Disney is fascinating. It's clear that Walt doesn't like being subjected to an unwanted interrogation, and that his wife and daughters like it even less (they all move quickly out of camera range and have very little to say). I've often read that Walt Disney had no personal sense of humor, and that all the gags in his films were supplied by his writers and animators. But this clip shows that it's not true—he had the dry, laconic wit of an early 20th century midwestern American, and he makes several remarks that are very funny, in the same way that Will Rogers and W.C. Fields were funny: Interviewer: "Like most people, I'm quite naive about those characters. How do you get them to animate?" Walt: "We draw 'em." Interviewer: "Then how do you keep them moving?" Walt: "By making more drawings." Score one for Uncle Walt! "It's quite a racket." Yes indeed...

MB replies: I enjoyed Walt's joking reference to hair dye, too, which is the kind of thing a man of his generation would never say if he was actually using it.

From Brittney Hackett: You might have already seen this; however, I had no idea about this video until a couple of weeks ago.

 

MB replies: Walt's appearance on What's My Line on November 11, 1956, turned up on Cartoon Brew last year, but it's certainly worthy of an encore here. I particularly enjoy seeing Walt in relatively informal settings, as opposed to his necessarily more formal introductions to the weekly TV show. Donald Duck's voice Clarence Nash was a WML guest, too, in 1954; you can find that show by searching for Nash on either Cartoon Brew or YouTube.

[Posted September 6, 2009]

September 4, 2009:

Curiouser and Curiouser

Following up on my September 3 item about what are supposedly the earliest drawings of Mickey Mouse, David Gerstein has called my attention to this YouTube clip, the opening minutes of the 1984 "Limited Gold Edition " videotape devoted to Mickey Mouse:

 

David notes: "At 1:09, one sees footage, originally created for a 1950s or 1960s TV  show, featuring a staged recreation of someone's hand drawing that  first sheet of sketches (actually tracing or closely copying the  original)."

At the least, this staged recreation tells us that the existence of that sheet of sketches was well known many years ago, and that some significance was attached to it. But whose hand is tracing or copying the original drawings, and for what purpose? I haven't yet checked Disneyland episodes like "The Story of the Animated Drawing," but, in any case, I'm a little doubtful that I'll find the staged recreation there. I'd welcome suggestions as to where this footage may have first appeared, and where I might be able to find it now, in its original context.

I still have that 1984 tape—on Beta, actually (and I just watched it on my antique Betamax, for the first time in many years). I had forgotten how disgracefully silly those old introductions were. There are too many howlers in this one to count, but I'll follow David's example and cite just one, the pretense that a scene from The Cat's Away, a 1929 Mickey cartoon, is actually from an Alice Comedy.

Comments

From Brandon Pierce: That intro from those 1984 Disney tapes came from a 1968 special called "The Mickey Mouse Anniversary Show." The narration was originally done by Dean Jones. What I've always been wondering is when was that recorded interview of Disney discussing Mickey's creation done? And does a full version exist? I always thought it sounded like there was a cut in the soundtrack right after Disney says, "... about a rabbit called Oswald."

[Posted September 4, 2009]

From Gunnar Andreassen: The footage of the hand drawing: Since we see Walt sitting at his drawing table just before the hand sequence, I guess this is meant as a recreation of him drawing Mickey. What we actually see is not the hand tracing the original drawings, but drawing a Mickey that wasn’t originally there. Most of the old drawing has been traced, except Minnie hasn’t been completed.

The recorded interview with Walt is also to be found on YouTube:

 

The comment for this on YouTube: In 1958, film historian Tony Thomas met with Walt Disney for this rarely heard audio interview. Walt shares his beginnings in film and the evolution of his most famous characters including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy.

The drawing-hand sequence has also been shown here:

"Mickey’s 50" (The Wonderful World of Disney) November 18, 1978

The Disney Channel special Happy Birthday Mickey, celebrating the Mouse’s 55th birthday. (I just got this VHS from my friend Are Myklebust).

The Walt Disney Story, distributed by Walt Disney Attractions, Inc. 1994, and probably in the parks in the '70s, as a Disney historian told me:

I believe (although will have to go double check) that [the drawing-hand footage] was also used in the documentary The Walt Disney Story that used to be run at Disneyland and Walt Disney World...which again, would put it in the Seventies. The documentary was sold for a time on videotape at the Disney parks.

If we can assume that this sequence was made for the 1968 show, that would make sense since it was the year the sheet of drawings was put in the safe at Retlaw. Ward Kimball was one of the producers of the show, and he could have remembered seeing the drawings back in the 1930s. Could the preliminary work on this show have been done in Walt’s lifetime ? And could he have proposed that it could be used? Or, since it was shown two years after his death, was this too long a period for the making of a TV show?

When it comes to David Gerstein’s pointing to the Oswald drawing, I really can't see much resemblance between this and ”Fauntleroy.” The inspiration for "Fauntleroy" must have come from somewhere else. The question of ”frills” or ”no-frills” doesn’t seem to me to be of relevance here. The posters for a lot of shorts—and features—often had more elaborate drawings/paintings, probably as a consequence of their size. The Tenggren Snow White posters—the painting on the Sleeping Beauty poster—and so on.

To me these first sketches—as they probably were, because of their different looks—show which were rejected and which were used. The ”Fauntleroy” therefore isn’t really the first drawing of Mickey, but just a sketch of a mouse that probably Walt himself didn’t like and rejected. The one in the middle of the drawing in the blue circle is probably the prototype of Mickey.

MB replies: I have the Tony Thomas interview on a 1975 LP called "Voices from the Hollywood Past," and the liner notes say that the interview with Walt was recorded in January 1959. The other "voices" on the LP are those of Edward G. Robinson, Basil Rathbone, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Stan Laurel. Quite a lineup. I haven't listened to that record for years, but since I have a working turntable again, I should do so.

I used to have The Walt Disney Story as one of three videotapes that were sold only as as set through the Disney Stores, but, alas, I sold that set years ago. The Walt Disney Story videotape is readily available through eBay, though, and I've just ordered a new copy at a mercifully low price. I will report on its contents soon, if they add anything to what we already know. [A September 12, 2009, update: The drawing-hand footage is indeed part of that tape, but there's nothing on the tape that sheds any light on the footage's origin.)

Thanks to Gunnar for the very full listing of how that drawing-hand footage was used. He mentioned to me more than two weeks ago that YouTube was showing the 1984 video introduction that David Gerstein also called to my attention, but I simply overlooked that part of Gunnar's message when I was putting together my September 3 item on "Mortimer Mouse."

The questions remain, of course, as to when that footage was shot—was it shot as late as 1968, as Gunnar suggests, for the fortieth anniversary show?—and whose hand we see drawing that early version of Mickey. Not Walt's, surely, but whose? And as for the purpose served by the original drawings...Gunnar's hypothesis is certainly persuasive, but Donald Benson's message below offers an intriguing alternative.

From Donald Benson: Is it possible that, at some early point in Mickey's success, Disney had Iwerks draw some "rejected Mickeys" for use in publicity materials or a magazine article? That is to say, a counterfeit of the original sketches, but done from memory fairly shortly after the fact? That would explain early appearances by the mock mice. And such a sketch, found much later by somebody noting Iwerks' hand and the age of the paper, could easily look like THE drawing. Or maybe whoever put it in the safe knew its later origins, but preserved it as the earliest and closest approximation they'd ever have.

The real experimental Mickeys (or Mortimers) probably went right into a wastebasket once they had a model sheet. I'm guessing that Disney—at that moment in history, anyway—lacked the resources and maybe the foresight to save that kind of stuff.

[Posted September 6, 2009]

From Gunnar Andreassen: Some comments to Donald Benson’s theory: Well, it’s not impossible, but I don’t find it very plausible.

This ”counterfeit drawing" must have been made before Iwerks left the studio early in 1930. At that time I don’t think discarded sketches of mice were the most obvious items to use in publicity material or magazine articles—and even more important: There has never been seen such material from the late 1920s—at least not to my knowledge. It’s more understandable that there was made a publicity drawing in the mid 1930s—probably in connection with the celebration of Mickey’s 6th or 7th birthday. At that time he was a very established movie star, and details of his creation could have been considered of interest to moviegoers.

Donald Benson writes: "I'm guessing that Disney—at that moment in history, anyway—lacked the resources and maybe the foresight to save that kind of stuff."

According to Dave Smith—as I recollect it—Walt Disney did save a lot of stuff from very early in his career—even before he began with animation. I therefore guess that he had that foresight and that it’s probable that it was him that kept this drawing. He must have had a feeling at that time that it would be of historic interest.

[Posted September 7, 2009]

From Peter Hale: Fascinating! I first saw the "Fauntleroy" image in a late ;60s book on animation from Focal Press. 8 or 9 years ago I sent a copy to Dave Smith asking if he knew anything about it. At the time his reply was that it had been drawn for a '60s TV show about the creation of Mickey, and was probably drawn by Ward Kimball. This could well apply to the copy seen in the sketching clip, but the original paper, with its two-peg registration holes and especially the six-panel frame, does seem very authentic. I don't really see Walt spending that train journey back from New York actually spending time actually working on a real design for a mouse—he would have expected to get Ub to do that—but he could have scribbled a mouse after the fashion of those on that birthday card to his father (what date was that card? the mice are very Mickey-like in dress) to show Ub what he had in mind. I think he would have spent more time thinking how a mouse would work as a star character.

There seems some agreement that he, Roy and Ub had a brainstorming session about what their new character would be—and I can imagine that Walt may have held his idea of a mouse back until he'd let the others make their suggestions (both to see if they had any better ideas, and to let them feel they'd had a say before he sold them his own idea). So I can credit them being Ub's roughs. The interesting corollary to that is that Walt would seem to have gone for the unsophisticated, bare-foot country boy look, rejecting the shoes that Ub obviously favoured (and would get accepted for the second film!) Of course, this is all conjecture!

Re: your mention of a '30s UA publicity pic, could you fill in the context? It's just that it seems a bit early in the day to be looking at Mickey's antecedents—you'd think Walt would be trying to consolidate the image of the Mouse rather than diffuse it?

MB replies: Happily, Hans Perk supplied an answer to Peter Hale's final question in the same day's email, as you can see by clicking on this link.

[Posted September 10, 2009]

September 3, 2009:

The Curious Case of Mortimer Mouse

If you've visited the Walt Disney Family Museum on Facebook, you've no doubt come across this fascinating sheet of drawings:

Early Mickey Mouse drawings

The sheet is captioned "The Earliest Known Drawings of Mickey Mouse." But what are these drawings, exactly? What purpose did they serve? Are they sketches of alternative versions of Mickey, drawn before Plane Crazy went into animation, and do the circles around two of them signify that Walt Disney had chosen those versions for further refinement?

Gunnar Andreassen wrote to Dave Smith, the Disney archivist, after the drawings appeared on the Web, and received this reply:

The only thing I know about those drawings is that they were found in a safe at Retlaw Enterprises, the Disney family corporation. In a 1993 letter to me, the vice president of Retlaw stated that they had been in the safe for 25 years, in a folder labelled “Mickey Mouse Original Drawings,” and he asked my opinion as to whether they really were original drawings or what the source of them might have been. I was unable to provide any information to him. There is absolutely no factual history or provenance associated with the drawings, so everything is speculation.

In other words, there appears to be no way to test any hypothesis about the drawings against external evidence—with one very limited exception.

If the drawings were in that Retlaw safe for twenty-five years, that would have been since roughly 1968, two years after Walt's death, when Walt Disney Productions observed Mickey's fortieth anniversary. It seems likely that the anniversary stimulated awareness of the drawings, on someone's part, and led to their transfer to Retlaw. Who had custody of the drawings before that? Were they in Walt's personal papers, or Ub Iwerks's? Perhaps there's no way to know.

One thing we do know is that someone knew about the drawings and put one of them to use long before 1968, always with the idea of illustrating Mickey's evolution to whatever his current design was. The drawing in the upper left-hand corner of the Family Museum sheet, of what might be called a "Little Lord Fauntleroy" or Johnny Gruelle version of Mickey, was surely never seriously considered as a design for the character—it is simply too fussy to be plausible as a Disney character design in the 1920s—but it turned up repeatedly in later decades, always presented as what Mickey had evolved from.

Here, to work backward, is an illustration from Robert Benayoun's French-language survey, Le Dessin Animé Après Walt Disney (The Animated Film After Walt Disney), published in 1961 and presenting the "Fauntleroy Mouse," if I may call him that, as Mickey's original incarnation, with the Mickey of the 1930s and the Mickey of Fun and Fancy Free vintage (circa 1947) following to the right:

Benayoun book

The caption says something like this: "Since 1928, Mickey has never stopped becoming more middle class." A rather odd thing to say, considering how "middle class" the mouse on the left looks, but never mind.

As Mark Kausler has reminded me, the "Fauntleroy Mouse" had appeared thirteen years earlier in another French book, Lo Duca's Le Dessin Animé, this time identified not as Mickey but as Mickey's phantom predecessor, Mortimer, and appearing on the same page as a photo of Ub Iwerks, :

Lo Duca book

(Walt Disney contributed an introduction to Lo Duca's book, which is surprisingly comprehensive for a book published in 1947, but I've made only a first stab at translating Walt's introduction with my clumsy French. Dave Smith says he's not aware of any correspondence about Walt's contribution to the book. An update: As Didier Ghez has reminded me, he published a translation of Walt's introduction on his Disney History blog three years ago; you can read it at this link. This piece was surely ghost-written, I have no idea by whom, perhaps someone in Disney's Paris office or a Burbank staff member like Robert Spencer Carr, if he was still on the Disney staff then.)

The "Fauntleroy Mouse" had appeared even earlier, in a publicity drawing from United Artists when Disney's cartoons were being distributed by that company in the 1930s:

Two Mice

No doubt the "Fauntleroy mouse" appeared in other contexts in the 1930s-1950s, probably offered usually if not always as an early version of Mickey. If you're aware of such appearances, please share them with me.

What do all these drawings tell us about Mickey's creation? In particular, do they suggest that Ub Iwerks, rather than Walt, contributed the most to the new character? Not to me. Given Walt's consistency over the years in his accounts of his early years—and given especially how verifiably accurate so many of those accounts were—I have no difficulty in accepting the basic accuracy of his (and Lillian Disney's) versions of Mickey's creation, including Lillian's role in discarding the name "Mortimer." That those accounts may have been somewhat simplified and even embellished, I have no doubt—journalists of the time would have demanded nothing less—but I also have no doubt that Walt Disney was, in every important respect, the man who brought Mickey Mouse into being.

Comments

From Michael Sporn: Just thought I'd drop off a note to say I loved your post this morning. Of course that "Fauntleroy" mouse has been familiar to me over the years. I guess Lo Duca was the first place I'd seen it. However, your Sherlock Holmes attempt has been a good one. It's also interesting that the central mouse circled has been erased and colored in. Since it was done on animation paper, my guess would be Ub Iwerks rather than Walt who had drawn it. Especially since some of the poses are well constructed with at least some art training particularly the one on the bottom left. Any drawing I've seen of Walt's has no real sense of life.

From Mark Sonntag: One thing that I think is interesting is the sheet of paper itself, the six panels look very much like the "storyboard" pages used on Oswald and the early Mickeys.

MB replies: Gunnar Andreassen made the same point about the six-panel page when he and I were exchanging thoughts about these drawings soon after they were published on the Web. As with so many other aspects of these drawings, it's hard to know if any significance should be attached to the paper itself; I'd guess that it was simply handy, but who can be sure?

It's almost too easy to construct appealing scenarios about how these drawings came to be. For example, I can imagine Walt's returning from New York with nothing more than a few rough sketches and a name, then sitting down to talk about the new character with Ub Iwerks and Roy Disney; as they talk, Ub, who was of course famously fast, sketches several different versions of Mickey. Walt folds the paper (as Gunnar has noted, it was definitely folded at some point), puts it in his pocket, takes it home to show to Lilly (maybe it's then that she recoils from "Mortimer"), and circles the version that he likes, the one that Ub animates in Plane Crazy. It could have happened that way, but who knows if it did.

Gunnar has raised a very interesting point, one I don't recall being raised before: when did the "classic" account of Mickey's creation—in which Walt thought of a mouse character on the train returning to Los Angeles and Lilly rejected the "Mortimer" name—first appear in print? Sometime soon I'll make a search of my Disney clipping files from those early years to see what I can find. Those files have grown quite thick, but I'm sure they're still less than comprehensive, so I'd welcome your candidates for first-in-print.

[Posted September 3, 2009]

Trolley Troubles posterFrom Dan Briney: I agree with Michael Sporn: this "earliest Mickey" sheet was definitely done by Iwerks (and it sounds like you've figured the same). In particular, the mouse at bottom center of the paper and the head at top right have his style all over them. As for the "Fauntleroy Mouse", he's a strong echo of Iwerks' Oswald; compare him with the figures appearing on Ub's poster for Trolley Troubles [right].

There is a Time Magazine article from 1933 that asserts Mickey's original name was Mortimer Mouse, but doesn't mention the train trip or Lillian's role in changing the name (and makes a complete hash out of Disney's early career besides).

From Mark Sonntag: Back to the paper, it could be that Ub had a pile of pre-drawn story pages at his desk. There seem to be some other drawings present, could be that he was in the midst of prepping one of the last Oswalds when he, Walt and Roy discussed the idea. He then returns to his desk, starts to scrawl down ideas, he could have done more of them. I know myself, I tend to take scraps of paper to try initial ideas before moving on to the next level. It’s like the old restaurant napkin concept where empires are conceived.

It is a tantalizing window to that day. I was wondering when discussion would begin on this image. It is like finding a new Da Vinci drawing and trying to figure out its purpose.

Oswald stencil setFrom David Gerstein: Is it just me, or is "Fauntleroy" posed  rather similarly to the main drawing of Oswald here [left], even to the way that putting sleeves on proto-Mickey's matchstick  arms makes them function as if they were as thick as Oswald's arms. (Anyone who's ever said Mickey is just Oswald with round ears has  never really compared the proportions of the two characters very  closely, but I digress...)

You suggest that Fauntleroy Mouse "was surely never seriously  considered as a design for the character—it is simply too fussy to be  plausible as a Disney character design in the 1920s..." And yet look; of the five completed proto-Mickeys on that sheet of  sketches, four have that shirt and tie, and one is circled along with  the Plane Crazy design, as if chosen for further development.

I'd like to posit the theory that in the mid-1920s, Disney had  "frills" and "no frills" versions of its characters; the frills intended to refine the characters for detailed publicity art, the no-frills versions meant for actual animation, where losing the frills  was a shortcut. So some Oswald publicity art gives the "frills" Oswald whiskers, a cane (The Banker's Daughter poster), pie-cut eyes (The Old Swimming Hole poster), gloves (Africa Before Dark poster), and a porkpie hat or  derby (The Fox Chase poster, The Banker's Daughter poster, the basic Oswald title card), while the "no-frills" Oswald in the cartoons  rarely has any of these features. And while I've observed no evidence of a "frills" Mickey with a shirt and tie in 1928-29, I do observe a "frills" Mickey with an eyebrow line, pie-cut eyes, and gloves (Celebrity title card, all cartoon- specific publicity/poster art), a porkpie hat and cane (title card), striped or checkered shorts (title card, early 1929 Powers  distribution ad), and spats (Opry House publicity/poster art, early  1929 ad).

It would seem as if the initial idea may have been for "frills" and  "no-frills" versions of Mickey to coexist as they had with Oswald; the  distinction broke down as the "no-frills" Mickey gained shoes  (Gallopin' Gaucho ), gloves (midway through Opry House ), an eyebrow line and pie-cut eyes (The Plowboy ) on screen as well.

Maybe the shirt and tie on "Fauntleroy Mouse" and his peers was an  initial attempt to demarcate a "frill" that didn't make it. Or, more prosaically, maybe it really was just an out-there, but nevertheless seriously considered "no-frills" design feature that got  junked. If legends can tell us that "Mortimer" became Mickey to avoid  Lillian's charges of pomposity, then a Fauntleroy shirt and tie could  have been tossed aside for precisely the same reason. They do seem to  go together.

MB replies: Or was the presence or absence of "frills" largely accidental, a result more of how much time there was to make a drawing, and of an animator's preferences, than of any considered policy? I'm inclined to think that was the case, with some "frills"—departures from the model sheet—establishing themselves because they simply looked better.

[Posted September 4, 2009]

Home  |  Capsules  |  Commentary  |  Essays  |  Funnyworld Revisited  |  Interviews  |  Books  |  Links  |  Bio  |  Feedback