June 10, 2008:
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June 10, 2008:
I'll be in the Washington, D.C., area for the next few weeks, visiting my old haunts in Alexandria and doing some comics-, Disney, and animation-related research at the Library of Congress. There'll be no new posts here until sometime in July.
Before I go, though, let me alert you to the just-announced availability through amazon.com of the sixth volume of Walt's People: Talking Disney With the Artists Who Knew Him, the latest of Didier Ghez's indispensable interview collections. If you have any sort of serious interest in Walt Disney and the history of his studio, you need to own all of these handsome trade paperbacks; I'm proud to have my own interviews represented in each volume.
Didier's Disney History blog is one of my daily stops, too. He links to lots of fascinating material that I wouldn't see otherwise, and he sometimes reproduces important items like today's Disney 1940 meeting notes on possible sequels to Fantasia.
June 9, 2008:
I'm in the very early stages of work on Funnybooks, a book on comic books that will pay much less attention to superheroes than the usual comic-book history and much more to the likes of Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, and John Stanley—that is, to the mainstays of the Dell line, as well as to such significant creators as Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman. (For very preliminary versions of what I expect to be in the book, see essays I've posted on Eisner and Barks.)
I've accumulated a lot of information on some of the Dell artists, and on Western Printing and Lithographing Company, which actually produced most of the comics that Dell published, but I'm sure there's a lot more out there that I should know. I'd like to know more about Oskar Lebeck, for instance—he edited Dell titles in New York in the '40s—and I'd love to track down a copy of the photo of Lebeck and some of his artists that appeared in the program book for the 1976 Newcon convention at Boston (a convention I missed, to my lasting regret).
Some of the better Dell-related Web sites seem to have disappeared. I've bookmarked others, like those of such Dell-savvy people as Mark Evanier and Maggie Thompson, but I'm wide open to suggestions as to where else I might look . There is so much on the Web now that even a Google search using multiple filters can't find it all.
One thing I haven't found is a trace of any archival collection of Western Printing's paper records, at least none that's generally available to researchers; is there any such? Random House acquired what was left of the company in 2004 and then apparently sold off bound comic books from Western's files the next year; did it dispose of Western's paper records, too?
June 6, 2008:
If you had been scanning the Kansas City Star's classifieds in April and May of 1922, looking for some office space to rent, you would have seen this ad:
That "new building" was what has become known as the McConahy Building, where Walt Disney went into business as Laugh-O-gram Films. Walt had rented offices and was looking for help by May 28 and 29, 1922, when he ran this ad in the Star:
The McConahy Building is still on that southwest corner of 31st and Forest, although considerably the worse for wear since Walt was on the premises. To see it as it appeared in 1922, click on this link; to see it as I saw it in March 2005, click on this one. And to see more recent views, visit Jeff Pepper's excellent Disney site 2719 Hyperion.
The McConahy Building is now owned by an organization called Thank You Walt Disney, which has been raising money to restore the building. According to Thank You Walt Disney's Web site, the building—in danger of collapse when I last saw it—is now "standing strong. We have removed the bracing, and have completed the walls and the floor." The goal now "is to have the roof in place before the first snowfall."
To that end, Thank You Walt Disney will hold a fundraiser next Thursday, June 12, at the Screenland Armour Theatre at 408 Armour Road in North Kansas City. Admission (available at the door) costs $35; a silent auction, cash bar, and hors d'oeuvres at 6 p.m. will be followed at 8 p.m. by a special screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For more information, visit the Web site.
Let me confess to some longstanding skepticism about Thank You Walt Disney. While I was writing The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, one of its officers made an unsolicited offer to help me, an offer that I feared was—and soon turned out to be—utterly insincere (that person gets a lavish thank-you in Neal Gabler's acknowledgments). But the McConahy Building is being restored to life, and that's what matters. If I were going to be in Kansas City next week, I'd show up at the Screenland Armour Theatre, and not just to see Indiana Jones.
I've added a couple of very interesting messages, from Ricardo Cantoral and "Rubi-kun," to my Feedback page on Japanese animated features. Click on this link to go directly to them. Some intriguing ideas here, especially Rubi-kun's invocation of Stanley Kubrick as a prime influence on Japanese animation. Makes sense to me; does anyone know if that connection has been made anywhere before?
I rely so heavily on RSS feeds that I sometimes forget how valuable links can be. In case you've missed them, here are some outstanding recent posts:
* David Lesjak on Walt Disney's long association with the Boy Scouts.
* Hans Perk on "Walt's Field Day."
* "Wade Sampson" on what happened to Uncle Robert Disney's garage.
* Jaime Weinman on Friz Freleng's Racketeer Rabbit.
* Jenny Lerew on the menus at the Disney Commissary.
* Eddie Fitzgerald on Charlie Chaplin's The Rink.
* Mark Sonntag on Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell.
June 4, 2008:
[A June 6 update: This from Eric Homan: "Actually, while the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission recommended the Felix Chevrolet sign and showroom be designated a city landmark, the City Council in October tabled the the decision after heavy lobbying by the dealership's owner, Darryl Holter. The sign is not a declared monument and is not protected."]
Bob Cowan, proprietor of the excellent Cowan Collection sites devoted to animation and the comics, has pointed out the connection between Pat Sullivan's cartoon character Felix the Cat and Winslow Felix, the auto dealer and polo player whose accidental death I mentioned yesterday in an item about Walt Disney and polo .
Winslow Felix's Chevrolet dealership is still in business, after more than 85 years, and Felix the Cat is still the dealership's mascot, as he has been since 1923. The Felix sign above, at 3330 S. Figueroa Street, south of downtown Los Angeles (and across the street from the University of Southern California), dates only from 1959, so it is a mere stripling by comparison, but the city declared the sign and the showroom beneath it a Historic Cultural Monument in 2007. Loss of the sign during redevelopment is now less likely.
To read the full story of the two Felixes, visit this page at the Web site of the L.A. preservation group called the West Adams Heritage Association. And here's another look at the Felix sign, this time an aerial view at night:
June 3, 2008:
Although this item is mainly about Walt Disney's involvement with polo, the photo above is of the Harman-Ising polo team, circa 1933. Polo was all the rage in Hollywood in the early to mid-'30s, at cartoon studios as well as with the flossy live-action set. From left, the H-I horsemen are Mel Schwartzman (who later changed his name to Mel Shaw), Rollin "Ham" Hamilton, Paul Smith, Tom McKimson, and Bob McKimson.
A few days ago, Thad Komorowski posted on his blog a card from the 1985 Disney edition of Trivial Pursuit, which included this unusual question: "How many people died from injuries incurred playing polo with Walt Disney?" Trivial Pursuit's answer: two. Thad asked me to provide some more details, and I did, at this link. The two deaths were those of Gordon Westcott, an actor, in October 1935, and Winslow Felix, an auto dealer, in May 1936. Both men were fatally injured during matches at the Riviera Country Club.
If you've read The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, you know that I don't devote a lot of space to polo in that book, and none at all to the two fatal injuries that Walt witnessed. Neal Gabler, in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, mentions only the first incident. He writes in his Disney biography that Walt's interest in polo "waned after an accident at the Riviera Country Club on October 28, 1935. During a match there between MGM and the Disney studio, the horse of a thirty-one-year-old contract player at MGM named Gordon Westcott apparently collided with Walt's, and Westcott fell; by one account Walt's horse then toppled onto the young man."
This is the kind of writing, at once slovenly and devious, that infuriates me every time I pick up Gabler's book. "By one account"? Which one? Not the three Los Angeles Times articles Gabler cites in his endnotes, or, for that matter, a New York Times article he doesn't cite; both newspapers said that Westcott was crushed under his own horse. (I doubt that there's anything different in a Hollywood Reporter article Gabler cites but which I haven't checked yet, but I'll find out and let you know.) [A June 7 update: I now have the Reporter's stories on Wescott's accident, from October 28 and 31, 1935; neither story (both are very brief) supports the notion that Walt's horse fell on Westcott.] Was the "one account" Harry Tytle's? He's cited in the endnotes, but he wasn't even working for Disney in 1935. I've read Richard Hubler's 1968 interview with Tytle, and what Harry says about Westcott's death is all secondhand. He doesn't say anything about Walt's horse "toppling" onto Westcott.
Walt's interest in polo "waned" after the Westcott accident? Not as measured by his continuing active participation in the Riviera matches reported in the L. A. Times. Typically, Gabler doesn't cite any source for that statement. And for the sake of completeness: Westcott's fatal accident occurred on October 27, 1935, not the 28th.
I don't think I'm reading too much into those few sentences in Gabler's book when I suggest that their intended effect is to leave the reader with a slightly queasy feeling about Walt and his participation in polo: Walt is involved in a violent death at a brutal sporting event, and he gradually recoils from the implications of what he has seen. The Knopf publicists sensed that undertone, as witness this bogus "fascinating fact" from the publisher's Web pages for Gabler's book:
• Walt Disney was an avid polo player until his horse fell on an opponent during a match; the man, a contract player at MGM, subsequently died from the injury.
The whole damn book is like that, casting everything Walt does under a vaguely disapproving shadow, and frequently doing so with the help of "facts" that turn out to be half-truths at best.
To state the obvious: polo is a rough and dangerous game (and expensive, which is why its leading players in the '30s were rich guys who'd suffered a lot of broken bones). But many other sports are dangerous, too, and most people who enjoy them don't give them up when someone dies in an accident. I don't recall a mass exodus from skiing after Sonny Bono slammed into a tree, or from auto racing after Dale Earnhardt died. Walt Disney, a highly energetic and competitive man, didn't shrink from polo when one of his fellow players was crushed by a horse. His brother Roy did, and in this case, as in too many others, Gabler's book has been written more from Roy's perspective than Walt's.
There is simply no reason to follow Gabler in ascribing special significance for Walt to Gordon Westcott's death—or, for that matter, to Winslow Felix's. I'm sure Walt regretted both deaths, but I know of no evidence that witnessing those fatal accidents changed his own polo playing or his attitude toward the game. Walt quit playing polo after he had suffered an injury himself and when his small studio had become a much larger force in the film industry (and a much larger employer) than it was when he started playing in 1932. Those were reasons enough to quit.
I'll be adding a few polo-related items to my list of the errors in Gabler's book (which has been growing steadily), but not because I have any illusions about how competitive The Animated Man ever can be with Walt Disney. Gabler's book has outsold mine by at least 10-1. It's not sales figures but figures of another kind that most concern me now.
At the public library in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt Disney's home town, readers have available nine copies of Gabler's Walt Disney, including one on CD. The library also offers four copies of Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, the worst Disney biography ever. And how many copies of The Animated Man are on the Kansas City library's shelves? None.
I have not the slightest doubt that my book offers a far more sympathetic and accurate portrait of Walt Disney than either Gabler's or Eliot's, but no one who relies on the Kansas City library will ever have the chance to make that judgment themselves. The same is true at libraries across the country.
Gabler's book has become the standard Disney biography, and it will certainly remain such for years to come—even though it is a very bad book. There's no way I can hope to change that. All I can do is keep a tally of his errors, do my best to correct the mistakes I find in my own book, and hope that over time, a growing number of readers will come to realize just how smug and false Gabler's Walt Disney really is. Maybe then Walt will finally get the biography he deserves.
Above, a publicity still from Pixar's forthcoming feature Up, lifted from Cartoon Brew. I wrote five years ago about what I thought was the unfortunate tendency of John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and their colleagues to turn to the great Japanese filmmaker for inspiration. They've obviously chosen to disregard my warnings. In the immortal word of Duck Twacy: Unbelieva-bul!
June 2, 2008:
Responding to my May 27 post, two visitors to the site—Andrew Osmond and a visitor who prefers to be known as Rubi-kun—have reminded me that I have indeed seen Only Yesterday, the 1991 Isao Takahata film that Gregory Williams proposed as one of three impressively adult Japanese features. I didn't recognize Only Yesterday from his brief description, and I have no clear memories of it now that I've read my crisp dismissal of the film in a January 2006 entry. But at least I've learned that I should use the Google search engine for my site before I write that I haven't seen something. I've added Andrew's message to the Feedback page on Japanese animated features.
Rubi-kun also posed this question:
What do you mean by finding a "non-quirky, mainstream" serious animated film? Aren't quirks what make most movies, both animated and live-action, enjoyable? Sylvain Chômet and Satoshi Kon make films that are uniquely stylized, true, but so do the Coen brothers, Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro, etc. Besides, it seems as of late the mainstream is more interested in fantasy, science fiction, and wacky comedy than anything else if the box office is anything to go by, so your request for a "mainstream realistic" film is almost oxymoronic. I guess Grave of the Fireflies (an animated war drama by Takahata, which is an amazing piece of animation but one requiring a fair amount of tissue paper to get through) might count towards what you're thinking of, and maybe Waltzing With Bashir (an Israeli animated film which got raves at Cannes and will be released by Sony sometime this year) is up there as well, but I'm really confused what you're looking for.
Both Andrew Osmond and Bill Benzon also mentioned Grave of the Fireflies, which Andrew said "perhaps comes closest to fitting your criteria. It's a drama about two kids trying to survive in World War II, except we know at the outset that they die." Fireflies is a serious film, obviously, and it's one that I've always intended to see. It's now high on my Netflix list.
What makes it difficult for me to to think even of such serious Japanese animated films as "mainstream" is what Thad Komorowski calls the "soulless and unappealing" anime style, which he suggests gets in the way of what is often very effective storytelling:
The problem is not so much the style's look (Miyazaki has the same damn girl in every picture) but the fact that it violates so many principles of animation—where's the squash and stretch? the secondary action?—that it would make more sense to just shoot it in live action.
I wrote about that anime style in one of my first posts here, more than five years ago, when I described the characters typical of Japanese animation as "little more than ciphers, their appearance and their actions almost wholly dictated by formulas."
Good Hollywood animators have always used the animation principles Thad mentions, and others like them, not for their own sake, but to bring characters to life, in ways that have no parallels in Japanese animation, or, for that matter, in live action. When I said, "Where animation is concerned, the problem is that the medium has never been allowed to compete with live action on the playing field that I think matters most, the mainstream narrative film," I was assuming that such competition would have to take place through animation rooted in the classic Hollywood cartoons, however different that animation might look from anything in a 1945 Looney Tune.
As for what "mainstream" means—A. O. Scott, writing recently in The New York Times upon the death of the director Sydney Pollack, suggested that what used to be "mainstream" features, "the kind of movie everyone wanted to make (and to see), may be slipping into obsolescence. ... The blend of big stars with meaty, serious themes; lavish production values; and unstinting professionalism" may have become "anachronistic," displaced by "action franchises, raunchy comedies and"—needless to say—"family-friendly animation."
In writing about Pollack's kind of mainstream filmmaking, Scott cited his ability "above all to harness the charisma of movie stars to great emotional and dramatic effect." The best cartoon directors have always done something like that, through their animators, in the talking-animal comedies and fairy tales everyone knows and loves. How exciting it would be now, I think, to see a director of real talent and taste "harness the charisma" of his animators in a feature that invited direct comparison not with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Dumbo but with, say, Pollack's wonderful Tootsie. Who knows, maybe the "mainstream" that A. O. Scott describes as dying could enjoy a rebirth—in animation.
May 29, 2008:
In one of the more contemptible passages in his consistently contemptible biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, Marc Eliot writes: "Dolores Del Rio, a comely actress of Spanish descent, became a frequent dinner, dancing, and drinking companion [of Walt's]. Rumors of an affair between them circulated throughout Hollywood, although not a word found its way into the gossip columns."
Del Rio was Mexican, not Spanish, and there's nothing in Eliot's endnotes (which are so flimsy they would embarrass a less embarrassment-proof author) to support his citation of "rumors" about an affair, or to support the idea that Walt and Del Rio were "frequent" companions. Neither is there any reason to believe that Walt ever had an affair with Del Rio or anyone else. He and Del Rio did know each other, though. There's a photo of the two of them together (from the early '60s, I'd guess, in a setting that is clearly innocent) in Eliot's book, and I recently acquired another, which I've reproduced above.
This photo was taken in Mexico City in December 1942, when Walt was on a highly publicized, government-sponsored research/good will trip to Mexico that lasted almost three weeks; he left Burbank on December 3 and returned on the 23rd. The photo was taken, according to the only published version that I've seen (in the New Castle, Pa., News for December 28, 1942, oddly enough), at the opening of a Mexico City night club owned by a wealthy American, A. C. Blumenthal.
The man between Walt and Dolores? He's Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, Communist Party member, husband of Frida Kahlo, and randy wild-man genius. Was Del Rio introducing him to Walt, whose opinion of such vocal leftists was, shall we say, not particularly high? Rivera evidently admired the Disney cartoons of the early '30s, but what did he think of the Disney whose studio had been wracked by a strike the previous year? And what was a Mexican Communist doing in a monkey suit at a fancy nightclub, anyway?
As you may have noticed, the photo was tinkered with for its original publication—I don't know where this version appeared—with lines added to separate similarly colored areas; Rivera's eyebrows were enhanced, too. But as best I can tell, all of the changes were innocent.
Back on May 10, I said this about the internecine warfare among the Warner cartoon directors, which their admirers have continued even after their deaths: "All of those directors, like all good film directors, were in some way egomaniacs, and all of them suffered, some more than others, when they couldn't channel their huge egotistical energies into good cartoons, but only into bad cartoons and self-promotion. Chuck Jones suffered the most, I think, and so behaved the worst."
Exchanges with Thad Komorowski and John K. Richardson have left me thinking that's a little too compressed a comment on Jones's later years. He was, after all, only 52 years old when Warner Bros. fired him in 1964, and he subsequently had more to work with, at MGM and ABC, than any of his former colleagues and competitors did. There were great animators working at places like Hanna-Barbera and DePatie-Freleng, there just wasn't the money to let them do great animation. Jones, on the other hand, not only had great animators on his staff but also, on the evidence of what made it onto the screen, had enough money at his disposal to make better cartoons than those he did make.
In my estimation, though —I've written about this in Hollywood Cartoons, on pages 540-43—Jones had already seriously undermined his cartoons by the time he left Warners. He had assigned too much weight to Maurice Noble's designs, a mistake that made his characters seem more like drawings; as an ineffective sort of compensation, he had begun drawing the characters as if they were acutely self-aware. When he went to MGM, Jones made Tom and Jerry cartoons that were like his late Warner cartoons in such respects, only worse.
In 1976, Jones began making cartoons with the Warner characters again, mostly for television but eventually for theatrical release, too (the example above is from the 1978 TV special A Connecticut Rabbit in King Arthur's Court). It soon became painfully clear that he had lost his grip on the characters. I don't know of any of his latterday cartoons that aren't slack in every detail, but especially in how the characters look and move. Jones himself acknowledged no such deterioration, and so to point to it, especially in print, could seem like disrespect for his great cartoons of the past. In that way, Jones trapped his admirers in a macabre minuet that has not ended yet, six years after his death, as witness the undiscriminating tributes that litter animation blogs.
More than any of his former colleagues, Jones suffered a decline that was largely self-inflicted, the product of his own bad decisions. Maybe he knew that; maybe he didn't want to admit it to himself. I think it likely that his awareness of what he'd done contributed significantly to his irascibility. There's something perverse about many of Jones's drawings and films from his later years, when he could neither do anything good nor admit that anything he did was bad. If you don't cringe a little when you think about things like those manufactured cels in his galleries, your standards are very different from mine—and very different from Chuck Jones's, when he was doing his best work.
May 27, 2008:
In a May 17 posting I said, in part, "Where animation is concerned, the problem is that the medium has never been allowed to compete with live action on the playing field that I think matters most, the mainstream narrative film. Can animation can tell an absorbing story that isn't a fantasy of some kind, or that isn't as quirky as The Triplets of Belleville or Persepolis? Maybe it can't—let's go further and say that probably it can't—but, who knows?"
In an exceptionally interesting response, Gregory Williams cites three Japanese animated features that he thinks pass the test I've suggested; I've posted his message on a new Feedback page devoted to Japanese animated features. There are already Feedback pages devoted to two of the leading Japanese makers of animated films, Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon.
More Sporn on DVD: I've written favorably about any number of Michael Sporn's animated films, which are in regrettably short supply on DVD. A partial remedy for that neglect is coming on July 22, with the release of a DVD including one of Sporn's most haunting and appealing films, The Marzipan Pig, along with A Jazztime Tale, which I'm looking forward to seeing for the first time. The DVD is available for pre-order for $12.99 from amazon.com.
The Ten-Cent Plague: I've just finished reading David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, and I'll post a Commentary page about it soon (pocket review: readable but superficial.) In the meantime, you may want to click here to listen to Bob Andelman's podcast interview with Hajdu. The author was late in getting to the interview, but don't give up, he does appear eventually. Andelman has done other interviews with comics/animation people, all available online, and he has one with Jules Feiffer scheduled for 11 a.m. EST tomorrow, Wednesday, May 28.
Strange Brew: Back on May 15, I remarked on how Cartoon Brew's "essentially neutral quality," as a sort of community bulletin board, resulted from the good cop-bad cop pairing of Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi, with Beck the sympathetic pal and Amidi the sarcastic bully. Thanks to that balance, I suggested, Cartoon Brew " has become a useful meeting ground for people with sharply conflicting interests."
Not everyone agrees. I was surprised and amused by a vigorous back-and-forth last week in which Amidi was the target of complaints about his "negativity and bias." Cartoon Brew has quite a few visitors with tender egos, evidently. I particularly enjoyed the fatuous calls for "constructive criticism," by which is always, always meant something like this hypothetical example:
Candor compels me to say this: Farrell Fanboy's new 30-second Flash short Breaking Wind in a Crowded Elevator falls somewhat short of the artistic magnificence of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. There. I've said it. Forgive me, Farrell, I could not help myself. Resume your good work, and lift our weary souls even closer to the empyrean.
And then there was this baffling comment: "It's important to always respect the creator, no matter how large or small." I'm afraid I can think of quite a few creators whose claim on my respect is tenuous at best.
HAFF: From the Holland Animation Film Festival, word that the deadline for entries for the festival is July 15. The festival will be held November 5-9. For more information, visit www.haff.nl.
May 22, 2008:
From the Canadian animator Bill Perkins, these wonderful photos of Bob Clampett and these warm memories of him:
With all the discussion on your site about Bob Clampett, I thought I'd chime in and forward these photos from my personal collection. These were both taken in 1976. In the winter of 1975/1976 I was doing a minor in film studies at Sheridan College [in Oakville, Ontario] and also pursuing an independent study project on Warner Bros. cartoons when I was asked by the animation dept to extend an invitation to Bob (with whom I had had some correspondence) to lecture that spring. The details were worked out, and he and his wife, Sody, came up that March. It was a very big deal at the time, inasmuch as he was the first figure of any prominence from Hollywood to visit Sheridan; the vast majority of the student body had grown up with Beany and Cecil and was familiar with him. His presentation became part of the inauguration of a new wing of the school, including a lecture hall, and I'm sure the entire student body was present. There were literally people wall to wall, front to back.
The first photo is of Bob and Sody—who told me later years later it was one of her favorites of Bob and herself—and the second photo is of Bob and the then Sheridan College animation faculty: from left, Jim McCauley, Dick Freisen, Bill Matthews, and Tom Halley.
I have to concur with Reg Hartt’s assessment of Bob. He was the most generous individual I have ever encountered. On my first visit to L.A. that June (at Bob’s invitation), he not only provided contact information at every major studio, he had called them all in advance of my trip to ask for their time and told them when they could expect to hear from me. He kept tabs on me as the week went on and treated me to dinner at El Coyote, where we discussed the week, my meetings, and my future plans, based on options that had presented themselves during the week. That week started me on my career path in animation and would not have happened at all without Bob’s generous initial offer and all that he did to help as much as he could. I knew him to be, as others have written, only generous, interested in what you were doing, and enthusiastic.
I have no trouble at all believing Phil Monroe’s account of Bob’s handouts to animators and his willingness to walk through an entire film playing out all the parts at the slightest provocation [as mentioned on page 453 of Hollywood Cartoons]. That would be consistent with my experience of him. I don’t believe Bob was a racist but was instead a great admirer of black music and culture. Coal Black is a stellar example of Hollywood cartoon making at its prime. It is, however, populated with unfortunate caricatures, which though accepted at the time would be an affront to present sensibilities. I would like to think that a way could be found to present it in proper context—as a period piece—without inflaming public outrage.
As for criticism leveled at Bob personally, nobody’s perfect and in most cases criticism says more about the critic than the criticized. I’ve ended a lot of Clampett/Jones, Clampett this and that discussion by saying that the guy was OK in my book.
May 21, 2008:
For the latest installment in my Day in the Life series, I've gone back almost exactly seventy years, to the morning when Walt and Lillian Disney arrived in Manhattan by train, in the company of an unexpected fellow passenger. Walt and his studio were on top of the world that day. You can read about Walt's day, and see photos from his arrival in New York, by clicking on this link.
May 17, 2008:
Here's the answer to the question I posed in my May 16 post: Walt Disney visited his boyhood hometown, Marceline, Missouri, sixty-two years ago yesterday, on May 16, 1946.
Unlike me, David Lesjak, proprietor of Disney: Toons at War and Vintage Disney Collectibles, did not accept Dave Smith's assertion that there wasn't any time in May 1946 when Walt and Lillian Disney could have visited Marceline. David did some digging that turned up a couple of Associated Press articles showing that Walt was in Saint Louis for a Boy Scouts ceremony on May 17, 1946; I've reproduced one of them above, from the Joplin (Missouri) Globe for May 18, 1946. The Disneys visited Marceline on the day preceding the Saint Louis ceremony.
Walt and Lilly probably took the train from Los Angeles to Kansas City on the evening of May 15, 1946, arriving there on the morning of Thursday, May 16. As the Marceline News story that I reproduced indicates, they rented a car and driver, drove to Marceline and spent an hour or so there, then drove on to Saint Louis, in plenty of time for the Boy Scout ceremony the next day.
There is, curiously, no mention of the Saint Louis ceremony in the book called Walt Disney's Missouri, although it does mention (without specifying a date) Walt's 1946 visit to Marceline. In this case, as in others, the authors seem to have relied on clippings, some of them misdated, rather than using the clippings in tandem with microfilm of Missouri newspapers. I haven't yet checked microfilm of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch for May 18, 1946, but I suspect that it includes extensive coverage of the Scout ceremony, especially given how many illustrious persons joined Walt there.
...this is not me. (Thanks, Vincent Alexander.)
...and this is what has happened with Glenn Bray, the fabled comic-art collector who was directly responsible for Carl Barks's embarking on his highly successful post-retirement career as a painter of ducks. (Thanks, Geoff Blum.)
As usual your comments today, in response to David Levy's notes, are informed, incisive, and obviously correct. However, you did make one small exclusion. You wrap all of animation in the studio system.
Are there any animated films in prospect that will be "adult" not in the R-rated sense, but in subject matter that doesn't echo dozens of kid-friendly feature cartoons from decades past? I don't know of any, and I doubt there will be any, not any time soon and maybe never.
Two recent features: Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley, and, more specifically, My Dog Tulip by Paul Fierlinger are definitely adult films (and not of the "R" rated type). Paul's film has more of a chance of a larger distribution because of its producers. I also have hope for Sylvain Chomet's next film, The Illusionist, which is adapted from a script by Jacques Tati.
As for the product in production and ready for release from the big studios, I see nothing to look forward to that its remotely adult.
Exactly right on all points. I should have added a qualifying phrase or two to make it clear that I was writing about the Hollywood studios' product, which is of course what defines "animation" in the public's mind. I'm not a Jacques Tati fan, but I'm looking forward to the Chomet film far more than I'm looking forward to anything from Disney or DreamWorks.
But then there's this food for thought from Thad Komorowski:
If animation is so damn capable of a "broader range of subject matter" than live action, then why the hell do most cartoon fans' lists of favorite cartoons consist mostly of Looney Tunes and MGM Tex Avery shorts and Disney features? Face it, when we're going to pick the animated films that have influenced us the most, and our favorites, it's going to be of the "funny" variety, not the admirable attempts at seriousness by independents.
Actually, every art form has its limitations. That's why I watch even the best film adaptations of Charles Dickens's novels, like David Lean's Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, only as supplements to the novels themselves. Where animation is concerned, the problem is that the medium has never been allowed to compete with live action on the playing field that I think matters most, the mainstream narrative film. Can animation can tell an absorbing story that isn't a fantasy of some kind, or that isn't as quirky as The Triplets of Belleville or Persepolis? Maybe it can't—let's go further and say that probably it can't—but, who knows?
Which is to say, I wish Brad Bird, easily the most accomplished and creative of today's big-studio animation directors, were making 1906 as a serious CGI film, and not as live action. But simply to state the wish is to reveal how preposterous it is.
And on Frank Tashlin: Speaking of directors who moved from animation to live action, Thad also offered a riposte to my skeptical comments about Frank Tashlin's live-action feature comedies:
I don't know if Tashlin's live-action work is "painfully" inferior to his animation direction. Certainly he made more of an impact in his previous line of work (I would argue he had the most consistent quality of that time period), and only about two of his movies (Son of Paleface and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) are truly great films, but I still admire him for trying something different even if he, in retrospect, wasn't successful. (Remember, back in the day, Tashlin was regarded as Paramount's #1 comedy director.)
I can't regard either of the Tashlin features Thad mentions as a great film of any kind. Tashlin's films seem to me uniformly cold, which is not in itself disqualifying; but a cold film has got to be executed very precisely to make up for its lack of warmth. Although any number of Tashlin's Warner shorts pass that test, I have yet to see a Tashlin feature—I've seen most of them—that comes close to meeting it, including Son of Paleface (the source of the frame grab above). He was no Buster Keaton. More often, as with the Jerry Lewis comedy The Disorderly Orderly, the effort to feign warmth is embarrassing to watch.
May 16, 2008:
Actually, the question isn't where Walt was, but when.
The clip above is from the Marceline, Missouri, News, for May 24, 1946; the clip on the right below is from the Chariton Courier (published in Keytesville, Missouri, a few miles south of Marceline in Chariton County) for May 31, 1946. The Courier almost certainly lifted and rewrote the News story from the week before. No surprise there, just lazy small-town journalism as it has been practiced for centuries, in this case contributing to confusion about which "Thursday" was involved. It wasn't May 30, of course—but neither was it May 23, the day before the News story appeared, since Walt's desk diary shows him with a full schedule at the studio that day. Go back a little earlier in May and you bump into the week-long ride in Santa Barbara County, starting May 5, that Walt took as a member of the well-heeled group of horsemen called the Rancheros Visitadores. According to Dave Smith, the Disney archivist, there simply isn't any date in Walt's May schedule where a visit to Marceline might fit.
So, what happened here?
According to Dave Smith, Walt's desk diaries show him at Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs from April 11 through April 21, 1946, but with no more detail than that. He was there at least part of that time, surely; Joe Grant addressed a letter to him at Smoke Tree on April 12 (I saw it in Walt's interoffice files). The diaries show no appointments on April 22, the day after Easter, but they indicate Walt was back in his office on Tuesday, April 23.
There is nothing in the desk diaries to show that Walt went to New York for the premiere of Make Mine Music on Saturday, April 20, 1946, but, if I've understood correctly what Joe Grant told me in our 1986 interview, Walt was there. It certainly would not have been out of character for him to have made such a trip on short notice.
If Walt and Lillian left Pasadena on the Santa Fe Super Chief on the evening of Wednesday, April 17, they would have been in Kansas City early the next morning, and they could have rented a car and driver for the day there. They could easily have reached Marceline from Kansas City by 10 a.m., visited the town for an hour, and then driven to Saint Louis in time to catch another train, probably to Chicago or maybe all the way to New York. In either case they would probably have traveled overnight for arrival in Manhattan on Good Friday, April 19.
If that chronology is correct, "Thursday" was April 18, and the News story was written weeks before it was published. My best guess is that the News, like newspapers everywhere, had stories sitting around in "overset" for weeks, and that this story was one of them.
A month is a long time for a newspaper story to sit in "overset," and most papers would have killed the Disney story rather than run it so long after the fact—and with no correction as to the date. But if I'm right, the Marceline News had no scruples in that regard (for which I suppose we can be grateful).
It may seem odd, given Walt's prominence in the '40s and the amount of paper generated by modern corporations, that tracking his movements should ever be difficult. But in my years of writing about Walt, for Hollywood Cartoons and then for The Animated Man and this blog, I've found that such is often the case. Even the desk diaries maintained by Walt's secretaries must be approached with caution; when I went through the diaries for 1934-43, during my research for Hollywood Cartoons, I found them to be surprisingly scrappy.
Of course, there may be documents somewhere that permit dating the Marceline visit precisely. If they surface—and even if they blow my own theory to shreds—I will happily call attention to them.
May 15, 2008:
I heard from David Levy, author of Your Career in Animation, in response to my item the other day about the continued suppression of eleven Warner Bros. cartoon because of their use of racial stereotypes.
My feeling is that the largest force at work keeping the ban on the censored 11 WB cartoons as well as editing out smoking from a Goofy cartoon is the fact that, to the majority of this country, animation remains a children's medium. Nobody is trying to edit smoking out of Casablanca, and that's because nobody considers that film to be a children's film. That powers that be ensure that a historic children's film will have to edited to reflect today's attitudes about what is appropriate for children. Animation still has a long way to go to be accepted as something more than a video babysitter or safe bet for a whole family trying to agree on a movie at the multiplex. Until that changes, we can look forward to more edited content and continued censorship in animation.
Randy Watts wrote in a similar vein:
In this country, comics and animation are still generally considered to be the domain of children, not of adults, and it's simply easier to shelve problematic "children's" films rather than to try and present them in some sort of historical context. Warner has been willing to release racially problematic features such as Cabin in the Sky and Green Pastures, but then the audience for those movies is an adult one.
Mark Mayerson recently posted an item along the same lines, titled "The Lure of Live Action," in which he remarked on the migration of animation directors like Brad Bird and Chris Wedge to live action: "As much as we want to believe that animation is a medium and not a genre, maybe everybody outgrows it after a while. Which isn't to say that animation isn't capable of more than it's currently doing, but looking at what's out there now, it's not hard to sympathize with directors who want to try something new."
It's mostly a matter of marketing, isn't it? If it's easier to sell cartoons as children's fare—and it is, both for historical reasons (most having to do with Walt Disney) and because the medium's directness and immediacy make it highly accessible to children—that's what the movie studios will do, and filmmakers will have to fall into line or look for another kind of work.
On the rare occasions when cartoons, new or old, are marketed with an adult audience clearly in mind, there tends to be much less squeamishness about racial stereotypes and other sensitive subjects. I don't know that anyone worried about Goofy's cigarette (which is missing in the frame grab to the right) when Saludos Amigos came out as part of the great archival laserdisc set it shared with Three Caballeros. But, of course, laserdiscs were never the mass-market item the movie studios hoped for (the archival Disney sets in particular appealed to a tiny niche market, which I'm happy I was a part of). If laserdiscs had been successful with consumers in the way DVDs are, the censors' hand undoubtedly would have been heavier. When cartoons appeared simultaneously on laser and the vastly more successful VHS format, as with Fantasia and Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, laserdisc was no sanctuary.
As for the animation directors' working in live action, I can't disagree with Mayerson's comment. Are there any animated films in prospect that will be "adult" not in the R-rated sense, but in subject matter that doesn't echo dozens of kid-friendly feature cartoons from decades past? I don't know of any, and I doubt there will be any, not any time soon and maybe never. It's understandable that an ambitious, creative director would prefer a live-action assignment to directing something like, say, Meet the Robinsons.
There's no guarantee, to say the least, that a cartoon director's move into live action will produce good films—to cite a famous example from the past, almost all of Frank Tashlin's live-action features are painfully inferior to his best Warner cartoons—but I like to think that if Brad Bird returns to animation, he'll be an even better director because of his live-action experience.
Mark Mayerson's post provoked a vigorous response not on his own blog but on Cartoon Brew, through a link; the last time I looked, only ten comments had been posted on Mayerson's site, but more than fifty on Cartoon Brew.
When I saw Jerry Beck, one of Cartoon Brew's two proprietors (Amid Amidi is the other), at Ottawa last fall, he surprised me by saying that he didn't consider it a news site. I understand now what he meant. As the outpouring of comments about Mayerson's post demonstrates, Cartoon Brew resembles most closely not a newspaper but a community bulletin board. Its two-headed personality has contributed to its success in that role. Where the Hollywood studios' films are concerned, Beck is the good cop (Kung Fu Panda is going to be terrific!) and Amidi the bad (Bolt is going to stink on ice!). Cartoon Brew as a whole has an essentially neutral quality lacking at most blogs, mine included, and so it has become a useful meeting ground for people with sharply conflicting interests.
The downside of the bulletin-board format is that some topics, like Mayerson's post, produce a flood of comments that are largely windy and repetitive, and sometimes ludicrously self-serving. "A dog chasing its own tail" is the metaphor that suggests itself. Such "democracy" on the Web has its virtues, I suppose, although they're not clearly visible to me. Perhaps I'm a natural-born authoritarian; call it a weakness.
John K. Richardson, whose comments on "El Gaucho Goofy" I quoted a few days ago, wrote again about that cartoon, but it's his larger observation that I think is of most interest:
Even though "El Gaucho Goofy" is more like Kinney's later cartoons than the early ones, it's not the same level of dilution and it belongs in a different category. I think they went too far [in the later Goofy cartoons], but "El Gaucho Goofy" is just about perfect, to me. I seem to love that transition stage in the Goofy cartoons in a way that's similar to how I enjoy the transition stages in many individual artists' careers. My favorite stage of Will Eisner's work, the golden balance of old inking style and newer character design, is from September to December of 1947! I ravenously tried to track down more of that era that I thought began in 1947, and I found that it went no further! It was a golden transition stage that I wish had lasted years. Sure, I love the newer "hollow" inking lines that are hatched in—it's a novelty I wouldn't have thought could work so well, and plenty of my favorites are from that later era—but I wish I had more of that transition stage. As a cartoonist myself, I've wondered how blind I am to my own excesses of style. Not many cartoonists can be like like T.S. Sullivant and just keep getting better with no trade-offs, I guess. Why do so many of us not know when to stop?
A good question, I think, and probably we can all think of artists whose work struck a certain kind of balance and then fell off to one side or the other. Chuck Jones comes immediately to mind.
May 14, 2008
Didier Ghez has just released the sixth volume in his invaluable series of interview compilations, published under the umbrella title Walt's People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him. You can order it from Xlibris by going to this link. Didier has been extraordinarily industrious at tracking down people who recorded interviews decades ago and persuading them to release transcripts that otherwise would probably never have seen print. His work, and his books, deserve the enthusiastic support of everyone who is aware of the importance of preserving the history of Walt Disney and his studio.
Among the interview subjects in the new book: Ken Anderson, Roger Broggie, Larry Clemmons, Claude Coats, Marvin Davis, Diane Disney Miller, Edna Disney, Lillian Disney, Roy O. Disney, Sharon Disney, Joe Fowler, Joe Hale, Bud Hester, Steve Hulett, Ken Hultgren, Dick Irvine, Wilfred Jackson, Fred Joerger, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, I. Klein, Eric Larson, Ron Miller, Ken O'Connor, Maurice Rapf, Frank Reilly, Carl Stalling, Iwao Takamoto, and Frank Thomas.
If some of those names don't make your eyebrows rise a notch—Edna Disney? Lillian Disney?—you haven't been paying attention.
The Cowan Collection: Robert Cowan, who has been sharing items from his impressive collection of animation art with sites like Didier Ghez's and Michael Sporn's, has launched a blog of his own, appropriately titled Cowan Collection: Animation. (As I failed to note when I first posted this item, he also has a blog devoted to his collection of comic art.) Lots of beautiful stuff on display here, predominantly from Disney films (especially Sleeping Beauty, and especially by Eyvind Earle), but other studios aren't neglected, going all the way back to Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur. Bob's comments on each piece are fun, too; he obviously enjoys his collection, and he has carefully documented each piece that he puts up for online display.
Toon In! ... to the World of Animation!: Tee Bosustow, associated most strongly with the UPA Pictures Web site, is also the proprietor of the weekly podcast blog—is that what we should call it, or is the technology outstripping our vocabulary?—called Toon In! ... to the World of Animation! I've only sampled a few of the almost three dozen audio interviews available so far, but the lineup of guests is impressive, including Brad Bird, Mark Kausler, the late Dave Hilberman, Lou Romano, and Bill Plympton, to name just a few. I'm looking forward to hearing what those people had to say.
May 11, 2008:
The flurry of speculation about what Walt Disney really thought about his character Goofy (see my posts of April 23, 25, and 29) has died down, but John K. Richardson has written to nominate an often overlooked Goofy short for special attention:
I just thought I'd mention "El Gaucho Goofy" (from Saludos Amigos) as one of my all-time favorites. Since it isn't one of his official solo shorts, it often seems to be ignored in discussions of this type. I always love a great slow-motion demonstration when it's done as brilliantly as here, and I think this counts as an instructional film that retains Goofy's character. In some of the earliest of these educational offerings, he's not a cipher at all. I've always seen it as the same old Goofy, good-naturedly helping out this guy who's trying to make a serious instructional film. His diving demonstration and horseback riding demo are both examples of good old Goofy just trying to help out. For me, it started to be a mistake later on, with whole teams and crowds full of Goofy. Some of those are great fun to watch, but a move in the wrong direction. And then from about 1950 on, I find them almost unbearable to watch. Anyway, back to my main point: don't you think his sequence in "Saludos Amigos" should be considered one of his all-time best "shorts"? How could any rational being possibly not agree with me on this? (Just curious.)
I've always liked "El Gaucho Goofy," especially because Jack Kinney so obviously enjoys making us aware of the mechanics of film (as when Goofy and his horse are shoved offscreen by a background painting; see the frame grab above). But for me, such reflexive devices tie that cartoon firmly to Kinney's later Goofy cartoons, the ones with the teams and crowds full of Goofy. The insistent artificiality of "Gaucho" (see the frame grabs below, in which Goofy is pushed across the screen by a diagonal wipe and the screen rolls up like a window shade) dilutes Goofy as a character, just as his multiplication does in the later films. Think of the "classic" Goofy, in a '30s cartoon like Moving Day; then think of the Goofy of '40s cartoons like "El Gaucho Goofy" and How to Play Football. Which two are more alike?
A reminder: Saludos Amigos (with Goofy's cigarette still edited out, alas) and The Three Caballeros are now available together on a single budget-priced DVD. The best way to see both films is still via the wonderful old laserdisc set, many of whose extras have not migrated to DVD (and which comes complete with Goofy's cigarette), but you can't beat the price of the new disc.
Christopher Lehman, the author of The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, has responded to my review of his book. You can read his comments and my response by going to this Feedback page on The Colored Cartoon.
In that connection, I heard from Joe Brancatelli, whose name will be familiar to longtime comics fans (Joe was a very active fan publisher , back in the day). He saw my quotation in the New York Times' piece on the "Censored 11," the Warner Bros. cartoons suppressed because of their use of the racial stereotypes that are the subject of Lehman's book:
Long, long, long gone from the comic art scene as I am (and chose to be), I was fascinated to see the Times piece earlier this week--and to see you, once again, as virtually the lone voice of reason on the issue.
It also led me to review some of these old cartoons (which, once again, have disappeared off YouTube US—but not the HK version!), from Warner, but also from Lantz and Disney, etc. And what I find fascinating is that we have NO SUCH CONTROVERSY in releasing any of Hitler's racist stuff. All of Goebbels' racist crap is freely available—because you can't understand the era unless you can see what was being seen then. But comics and animation, those arts most influential because they were most freely available to the most people and most corrosive because they weren't meaning to be, continue to be censored. Those seminal things we are NOT allowed to see and discuss.
It's insanity. Insane that Warners won't release it. Insane that the NAACP wouldn't DEMAND their release to remind people of the stupidity and viral hatreds and stereotypes of the era. And insane that academia seems afraid to broach these topics.
Sigh. So little changes.
Joe is now the proprietor of Joe Sent Me, a site for business travelers.
May 10, 2008:
Phyllis and I were in Dallas last weekend, to see the fabulous J. M. W. Turner retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art (it'll move on to the Metropolitan in New York in a few weeks). One of the works on display, which I'll call Snow Storm—the full title is a lot longer—has always been rather controversial because Turner claimed that his painting, reproduced in miniature at the right, was actually a record of what he saw when he had sailors lash him to the mast of a ship for four hours during such a storm. Critics and fellow artists were understandably skeptical, but they directed even more skepticism at Turner's claim to have created Bugs Bunny... No! Wait! I'm thinking of another great artist and the many critics of his veracity!
Whether posterity will ever rank Bob Clampett up there with Joseph Mallord William Turner is anybody's guess, of course, but most of today's cartoon fans seem to have made up their minds about Clampett one way or another, either dismissing him as an outrageous fibber who made a few good cartoons or embracing him as an infallible genius. I think the real story is considerably more complex, as I indicated in my April 30 post about the Jones-Avery letter, but I'm afraid most cartoon fans shrink from complexity like vampires from garlic. I did get a couple of interesting responses to that post, though, one from Thad Komorowski—whose posting of Chuck Jones's 1975 letter stimulated my own piece—and the other from Reg Hartt, an extended riff on his encounters with three of the Warner Bros. cartoon directors (Clampett, Jones, and Friz Freleng). You can read their comments by going to newest additions to the Feedback page on Clampett and his greatest cartoon, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.
I've said that I think that there's a complexity to what happened among the Warner directors that isn't reflected in the typical fan chatter, but I also think that what happened can be summarized pretty accurately this way: All of those directors, like all good film directors, were in some way egomaniacs, and all of them suffered, some more than others, when they couldn't channel their huge egotistical energies into good cartoons, but only into bad cartoons and self-promotion. Chuck Jones suffered the most, I think, and so behaved the worst.
May 2, 2008:
I've written a review of The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954 by Christopher P. Lehman. You can go to it by clicking here.
I'll be away for a few days, starting today, so I won't post again until the middle of next week at the earliest.
May 1, 2008:
The New York Times article earlier this week on the "Censored 11," the Warner cartoons locked away because of their racial stereotypes, has predictably spawned a flood of blog comments, as at Cartoon Brew, where, last I looked, more than sixty comments had been posted, with Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs the center of interest in many of them.
The irony here, as one of my site's visitors, Stephen Cooke, points out, is that this fresh burst of interest in the banned Warner cartoons has occurred just after the release on DVD of a number of Walter Lantz cartoons, in the second Woody Woodpecker set, that are arguably just as racist as any of the notorious eleven. (Li'l Eightball, anyone?) The NAACP gets worked up about the Warner cartoons, whose copyright owner won't release them, but, as far as I can tell, says nothing about the Lantzes, which are on sale everywhere. What's strange about this picture?
An important point made occasionally (and usually obliquely) on the blogs is that Coal Black is particularly notorious because people actually want to see it. There has been no pent-up demand for Li'l Eightball cartoons, and therefore no uproar when they're released, but there is plenty of pent-up demand for Coal Black.
The same is true for Walt Disney's Song of the South. Features with far more questionable racial content turn up frequently on Turner Classic Movies and on DVD, but it's Song of the South that is the lightning rod. That's so, again, because a lot of people actually want to see it.
For the copyright holders, it's a no-win situation. If Coal Black and Song of the South continue to be withheld, the films will leak out anyway, through the internet and otherwise, with no money paid to the legal owners; but if they get a legitimate release, Warner and Disney will be pilloried as accomplices to racism, suffering abuse that will almost certainly outweigh even the predictable large profits.
I think the happiest solution would be for Warner and Disney to release those films on DVD, swaddled in solemn nonsense about how we've moved beyond such wacky portrayals of black people (maybe Dave Chappelle could be the narrator?), and with all the proceeds going to some unimpeachable charity. That way, the films would be off the shelf, the copyright holders would be off the hook, and the money paid for the DVDs would go to somebody who needs it, instead of the usual pirates.