Pete Docter (seated at the computer) and Don Peri prepare to begin two days of perusing my research files. The gray boxes, filled mostly with comic books, were outside the scope of their research..
Visitors to the VBA
That's "VBA" as in "Vast Barrier Archives." But you knew that. The visitors were Pete Docter, Pixar director (Inside Out, Monsters Inc.), and Don Peri, author (Working with Walt). They're collaborating on a book about the Disney cartoon directors of Walt's day, and they asked permission to spend a couple of days reviewing my files related to those people. Since I hold both Pete and Don in high esteem, I was happy to say yes, and they spent what they assure me was a productive weekend, September 17-18, in Little Rock, reviewing my files devoted to the likes of Wilfred Jackson, Ward Kimball, and Dave Hand. They interviewed me, too, with a recorder running—a strange experience that made me freshly aware of how much I asked of all the hundreds of people that Milt Gray and I interviewed decades ago. Given Pete's and Don's thoroughness, the book should be very much worth reading. I'm looking forward to it.
I've stored most of the material that Pete and Don examined—interview transcripts, correspondence, clippings, documents of various kinds—in filing cabinets like these, in a workroom just off my home office.
The great bulk of Carl Barks's comic-book work was for Disney titles, principally Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, Donald Duck, and Uncle Scrooge. All of that work has been reprinted, some of it multiple times, most recently in the ongoing series by Fantagraphics. Of Barks's non-Disney work, the most important stories are the twenty-six "Barney Bear and Benny Burro" stories that appeared in Our Gang Comics in the mid-1940s; they have been reprinted acceptably by Craig Yoe in The Carl Barks Big Book of Barney Bear.
Ten remaining stories—one each of Andy Panda and Porky Pig, two of "Happy Hound" ( Barks's name for Droopy), three of "Benny the Lonesome Burro" (solo stories before Benny became Barney Bear's sidekick), and three script-only Droopy stories ilustrated by Harvey Eisenberg—make up most of Kim Weston's new book, The Unavailable Carl Barks (in color), which is filled out with restoration notes, alternative versions of a few other stories, and stray pages that have escaped the notice even of the most dedicated Barks admirers.
Let me emphasize how remarkable Kim Weston's achievement is. He located original materials (not artwork, but excellent proofs) for seven of the ten stories. He also came up with source materials for other stories that had been mistreated on the way to the printing press, and they have now been restored to a state that must be closer to Barks's intentions. The "Barney and Benny" restorations from Our Gang Nos. 18 and 21 are especially impressive, given the difficulties they obviously posed. All these stories have been recolored sensitively by Weston and Joseph R. Cowles. Three stories for which no original materials could be found (and almost certainly do not exist), for Andy Panda, Porky Pig, and Droopy, have been reproduced from excellent scans of the comic books in which those stories first appeared. Some of this material was published previously by Cowles in the lamentably discontinued Carl Barks Fan Club Pictorial, but Weston has more than picked up the baton.
It's now possible to own all of Carl Barks's comic-book work, in reproduction that is acceptable and usually much better than that. No admirer of Barks's Disney stories should pass up the chance to explore his handling of other characters by buying Weston's book and the Yoe Barney Bear book. The best Donald Duck stories surpass anything in the two new books, but since those stories are, for my money, the best comic-book stories ever, Barks can be forgiven for producing other stories that are merely excellent—and frequently hilarious.
When Plane Crazy was previewed, as a silent cartoon, on May 15, 1928—the first public exhibition of a Mickey Mouse cartoon—was that Mickey's "birthday"? Or are there other dates with as strong a claim to be the natal day? Walt Disney himself seemed to think so.
When Was That Darn Mouse Born?
Garry Apgar, author of Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, writes regarding Mickey’s birth date.
In the introduction to the section in my anthology A Mickey Mouse Reader titled “The Early Years (1928-1931),” I said:
Animation on Steamboat Willie—Walt’s first cartoon planned from scratch as a talkie—was completed by late August 1928. The soundtrack was recorded on September 30th. Which is why, throughout the 1930s, the studio fêted Mickey’s birthday on or about October 1. In the 1970s, the Disney Company began celebrating the event on November 18th, since it was on that date, in 1928, that Willie premiered at the Colony Theatre on Broadway, as part of a lavish bill featuring a live orchestra and the now-forgotten mob movie, Gang War.
In chapter 3 of Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, I dug deeper into the matter. There I quoted from a letter typed by Walt during his three-month stay in New York, desperately trying to get Steamboat Willie off the ground. He was staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel, at West 45th and Broadway, and the letter, dated September 30, 1928, was addressed to brother Roy “and the gang” back in Hollywood:
Well - we finally recorded the picture this morning……Everything went great…..It worked like clock works….The Orchestra kept synchronization throughout the entire picture….It didn’t get off one beat….. This was a big help to the Effect men and the result was they all hit on the dot. I am sure happy over the whole affair because it proves absolutely that it can be done.
The “Effect men” were the Green Brothers Novelty Orchestra, who counted among their hit records in the 1920s a catchy, syncopated version of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” When Mickey played the livestock on board Pete’s steamboat like musical instruments, the sounds he produced were furnished by the Green Brothers.
In another letter home, Walt rhetorically asked, “Do you realize what Powers paid the Green Bros. for their work on our picture? (Get ready to faint.).” In a follow-up report, he answered his own question, in all caps: “SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS.” A stupendous sum in those days, and of course, Pat Powers presumably found a way to pass the charges on to the Disneys.
Reiterating what I’d written in the Reader, I concluded: “In Walt’s mind, Steamboat Willie must have been ready to go at that point. Throughout the 1930s, the studio celebrated the anniversary of Mickey Mouse, privately and publicly, on or around September 30th.”
Also in Emblem, I had this to say with respect to Plane Crazy, the first Mickey actually made, although because it was conceived and produced as a silent picture it would not be released as a talkie until March 17, 1929:
Plane Crazy was informally previewed on May 15, 1928, at a theater on Sunset Boulevard—perhaps the West Coast Hollywood Theatre (later renamed the Oriental), at the corner of North Vista Street. Since this was the first public performance of a Mickey Mouse cartoon, May 15th may be considered Mickey’s actual “birthday.” On May 21st, the brothers Disney applied to the United States Patent Office to register “Mickey Mouse” as a trademark, thus unofficially recording his birth.
Nonetheless, as I said in the endnotes in Emblem (p. 302, n. 23):
The studio held a second birthday party for the Mouse on Oct. 4, 1930, at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles (“Ambassador Archive”). Mickey’s fourth birthday was fêted on the studio lawn (Moving Picture World, Oct. 1, 1932, p. 42). The fifth birthday, as noted by Jim Korkis, was celebrated Sept. 30, 1933, “with a Hollywood testimonial party where the speakers included Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Will Rogers.” Time saluted Mickey on his sixth anniversary in its Oct. 8, 1934 issue (“Milestones,” p. 40), and the New York Times (“Screen Notes,” Sept. 28, 1935, p. 13) said that his seventh birthday would be marked on that date at a New York City theater with an “all-Walt Disney program of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons.” The London Times, Sept. 25, 1936 (“Mickey Mouse’s Eighth Birthday,” p. 12), reported that the event would be honored (in England at least) on the 28th, and Mickey’s tenth birthday festivities were commented on by the New York Times on Sept. 25, 1938 (“Digest of an Indigestible Week,” p. 5). For information gathered by Korkis, see Korkis [Wade Sampson], “Walt Disney Celebrates Mickey’s Birthday.”
It seems clear to me that if Walt Disney himself celebrated Mickey’s birthday on or shortly after September 30th, that oughta be good enough for me, thee, and all our kith and kin. After all, it was in the wee small hours of the morning on September 30, 1928 that Mickey popped out of the womb, so to speak, of motion picture production and made his first funny sounds.
Walt’s willingness to expend so much time and money on Mickey Mouse, as he would later do to produce Snow White and build Disneyland, reflects his intense devotion to turning out a quality product, whatever the cost. The term “plussing,” a buzzword in recent years in Disney circles, reflects that devotion. It’s a term that speaks so well to Walt’s perfectionism that sometimes (wrongly, I think) it’s applied to his work in animation. However, he seems to have first used the word in conjunction with Disneyland. In a taped interview with Pete Martin in the spring or summer of 1956, from which you quoted in The Animated Man, Disney said:
… The park means a lot to me in that—something that will never be finished. Something that I can keep developing, keep plussing and adding to—it’s alive. It will be a live, breathing thing that will need changes.
A picture is a thing that once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through. Snow White is a dead issue with me. The last picture I just finished—the one I just wrapped up a few weeks ago—it’s gone, I can’t touch it. There’s things in it I don’t like? I can’t do anything about it.
I wanted something live, something that I could, that could grow, something I could keep plussing with ideas, you see? The park is that. Not only—can I add things but even the trees will keep growing. The thing will get more beautiful every year. And as I find what the public likes—and when a picture’s finished and I put it out—I find out what they like, or they don’t like, and I have to apply that to some other thing; I can’t change that picture, so that’s why I wanted that park.
Finally, and slightly off-topic, in Emblem of the American Spirit one of the illustrations (p. 99) reproduces a page from that Oct. 1, 1932, Motion Picture Herald article in which we see a group photo taken at the Hyperion studio. Among the dozens of staff in the photo must have been one “Frenchy” de Trémaudan. Recently I’ve unearthed some fresh biographical information about this relatively obscure Disney artist, more formally known as Gilles de Trémaudan (all too often, in print, the accent is dropped, the two last names run together, and the “de” mistakenly capitalized).
Gilles-Armand-René de Trémaudan was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, March 9, 1909, and died at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, near Napa, Nov. 24, 1988, which means he must have served the nation in World War Two. He became a naturalized citizen while he was at Disney. Before Walt hired Frenchy in 1930, he attended the Otis Art Institute (circa 1929-1930) and for a while in the early or mid 1930s he was married to an inker he’d met at the studio named Doris Westcott (1912-1995). On June 27, 2011, on MichaelBarrier.com you posted a photograph in which we catch a glimpse of her from behind (Barrier, “Inking at Disney, circa 1931”).
Oh, and one more thing. Thank you for your generous and informed review of my Emblem book and your comment that it is “available now from amazon.com at a bargain price, $26.58.” How true. In fact, there is a used copy currently on offer at Amazon (quality, “very good) for just $16.29. Copies of A Mickey Mouse Reader, published by the University of Mississippi Press, are on sale at Daedalusbooks.com for only $6.98.
Note: the online link for the Ambassador Hotel information cited in the endnote to my book (www.ambassadorarchive.net) is now defunct.
The front cover of the first Daffy Duck one-shot, from 1953, with Daffy's eyes merged.
Michael Hodous writes about a seemingly minor matter that may have somewhat larger implications...:
Already a seasoned professional writer and editor at the ripe old
age of twenty-three, Mark Evanier still encountered the occasional
unnerving experience. As Mark so well documents in a post from December
2015 describing two cover designs for Western Publishing:
On the Daffy Duck one, I committed what was then considered a mortal
sin: I merged Daffy's eyes together. This was the early seventies and
there was no active Warner Brothers Cartoon Department. The folks who
decided what those characters looked like—whether they were drawn
properly—were in some sort of Licensing Division at the Warner company
and they were furious if Daffy's eyes merged. There had to be black
Fortunately, they never saw my rough or I might have been forbidden to
ever draw (or even imagine) Daffy ever again. They didn't approve
roughs; just the finished art which in this case was done by Joe
Now, thanks to the many contributors to the Grand Comics Database, we
have evidence that the situation was even worse than Mark realized at
Mark's cover design was for Daffy Duck No. 98 (December 1975),
published by Western under their Gold Key label. Exactly as Mark writes, the final cover by Joe Messerli shows Daffy's eyes separated by a clear
black stripe. Now go here for a larger scan of this cover. Then work forward to issues No. 99, 100,
101, all the way to the final Western issue No. 145, if you like. On every
cover, except for when Daffy is drawn in profile, his eyes are always
Now work backwards from issue No. 98: No. 97, No. 96, No. 95, as far as you care
to go. With very few exceptions, Daffy's eyes are drawn, not like the
finished artwork for issue No, 98, but exactly as Mark drew them in his
preliminary layout for that issue.
Look at the cover galleries for earlier issues published under the
Dell label, for 1956-59 and 1959-62,
and at the first three Daffy comics, published as Four Color 457, 536,
Again, with very few exceptions, Daffy's eyes are merged, exactly as in
Mark Evanier's preliminary drawing that produced so much negative
comment so many years later.
Chuck Jones used this ocular oddity to indicate a character in
extreme emotional distress, as in his 1951 cartoon Drip-Along Daffy.
At 03:33 Daffy's double-pasteurized milkshake has just been shaken, not
stirred, by a passing bullet. At 03:44 members of the local gambling
syndicate realize that they're about to get caught in a crossfire. At
05:24 Porky and Daffy react to a conglomeration of alcoholic beverages
not often served in the best restaurants. Robert McKimson featured the
same depiction at 06:02 and 06:10 in the 1956 release The High and the
Flighty. A complete catalog of such moments calls for more research.
In the Dell/Western comic books of the 1950s through the mid-1970s
Daffy's merged eyes are the rule, not the exception, making Daffy's
usual appearance look ... well ... Daffyer, in keeping with his
personality. The comic book Daffy is no longer the malicious heckler and
saboteur of his early animated film roles. Nor is he the scheming but
incompetent curmudgeon of Chuck Jones's 1950s cartoons. Rather, Daffy on
the printed page is an insidiously cheerful free spirit whose sublime
obliviousness to social protocol makes him such a puzzle and an
annoyance to all those around him.
To add insult to injury, a few months before the Daffy Duck No. 98
cover caper Chase Craig called in Mark to help relaunch Looney Tunes as a thirty-six-page comic book. Besides writing most of the stories for
the first few issues, Mark supplied gags for several covers. The first
of these (penciled by Pete Alvarado), for the issue with an April 1975
cover date, includes not only Mark's Bugs and Tweety gag, but a small
strip at the bottom showing the faces of several other characters. Not
only are Daffy's eyes shown as merged, so are Yosemite Sam's. And all
the characters, including Sam and Daffy, are smiling happily.
It was only a few months after this cover was approved that the
licensing division at the Warner company started complaining
vociferously about an artistic convention that had been a generally
accepted accounting principle for Warner Bros. comic-book characters
for more than twenty years.
Did the licensing division at the Warner company only come into
existence in or slightly before 1975? Michael Barrier may have a few
thoughts on that subject.
MB here: I do, actually. Licensing Corporation of America (LCA) came into existence in 1960 and was bought by National Periodical Publications in 1966 (at the height of the Batman TV craze), shortly before National itself was acquired by Kinney Service Corporation, the Steve Ross conglomerate-aborning that ultimately became Time Warner. My own encounters with LCA started in 1972, when the project in question was a possible paperback book called The Films of Bugs Bunny. Not long after that, Warner Bros. Television got excited about the possibilities in a grandiose Looney Tunes art book like The Art of Walt Disney, which had been a big hit of the 1973 Christmas season. Warners, through LCA, corresponded with me for years about assembling such a book, which it was ultimately decided would be published by Warner Books. Never happened, needless to say, although the idea didn't die completely until Steve Schneider's more modestly scaled book about the Warner cartoons was published by Holt in 1988.
In all my dealings with LCA, I don't recall any question arising about how the characters were to be depicted in any newly commissioned art. There wasn't to have been much, of course, except on the dust jacket designed by Milt Gray, who drew the characters in an authentic 1940s style. So who were those enforcers at LCA who evidently knew with religious certainty how Daffy's eyes were to be drawn? Why did they come down on Western Publishing but not on me and Warner Books? Damfino, as Buster Keaton might put it. Arnold Lewis, my principal contact at LCA over the years, always struck me as too reasonable a man to be in thrall to such bad ideas, and who knows, maybe he was running interference.
So, what does it all mean? Not much, probably, except as one small example of the kind of warped thinking that has so often ruled the comic-book world and damaged the comics themselves. Daffy does look a hell of a lot better with those merged eyes, after all.
I last wrote on May 24 about my long struggle to get the FBI or the National Archives to yield up Walt Kelly's FBI files. Although there was evidence that such files existed, or had existed, the FBI had told me that it couldn't find them. A Norwegian visitor to the site wrote the same day, providing me with file numbers he had found through a Google search. I wrote to the FBI again, filing an appeal from its earlier rejection of my request.
Still no luck, and this time I'm afraid I really have reached a dead end. Christina D. Trolani of the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy did not refer to the information my correspondent had provided, but simply said, "I have determined that the FBI's action was correct and that it conducted an adequate, reasonable search for such records."
Well, maybe, although my experience with such bureaucracies, from my years on Capitol Hill, is that once they have settled on a position, however unreasonable, nothing short of dynamite will work a change. (Don't get me started on the Army Corps of Engineers...) Perhaps Kelly's files were destroyed, but if so, why not say so? All that seems certain is that the files are inaccessible, whether they exist or not. It's fortunate that the files' contents seem to have been of limited interest, but I remain disgruntled that I wasn't able to see them.
He was at the Burbank studio, where at 3:30 on that Wednesday afternoon he received a visitor, the British baronet Sir Thomas Beecham, who was not just a great conductor but also a colorful celebrity musician like Leopold Stokowski. Fantasia had opened in Los Angeles on January 29, and it is probably part of its score that Walt and Sir Thomas are examining in this publicity photo. [An August 18, 2016, update: Alexander Rannie has identified the score as "a conductor's score of the Stokowski arrangement of 'Night on Bald Mountain.""] Beecham had arrived in Los Angeles on the Santa Fe Chief on Sunday, February 23, to conduct two concerts by the L.A. Philharmonic on February 27 and 28, in place of its ailing regular conductor, Otto Klemperer. That's Mrs. Leiland Atherton (Florence) Irish, the Philharmonic's executive vice president, secretary, and manager, at the left.
Beecham knew how to fill seats in concert halls by stirring up controversy. In the words of his biographer John Lucas, Beecham was a "wily and skilled ... self-publicist...he ensured wide press coverage of his arrival in a town by insulting some well-known local institution." On a preliminary visit to Los Angeles in December, "he told the Los Angeles Times that Hollywood falsified all values and that the whole idea of musical pictures was artistically preposterous"—an opinion that, as he later acknowledged, did not stand in the way of his accepting an invitation to visit the Disney studio.
In February, the day before he visited the studio, Beecham spoke at a luncheon for 300 members of a women's group supporting the symphony, and once again he was provocative, decrying America's lack of culture. The Times' banner headline read: "Beecham Blast at America Brings Storm of Protest Here." Concertgoers took the bait. The Times reported "a record audience" and a long ovation for Beecham. In John Lucas's words, "The publicity did wonders for the orchestra."
The Times critic Isabel Morse Jones, reviewing the first of Beecham's two L.A. concerts, wrote that he "conducts in a manner only to be described as picturesque. He mirrors the music in movement. His conducting is photogenic to a degree that should be called to the attention of Walt Disney. His back may not be as effective as Stokowski's, but his heel and toe work and especially his arm gyrations tell a music-story that is fascinating to watch."
By then, of course Walt and Beecham had already met, and I know of nothing to suggest that any sort of collaboration was ever discussed. For that matter, Beecham's visit to the studio may have gone unmarked by the local press; I've found no mention of it in the Times or the Evening Herald and Express, the two Los Angeles newspapers I was able to consult.
(Thanks to Becky Cline and Ed Ovalle of the Walt Disney Archives for their help with this piece.)
I've mentioned this important book a few times before but never given it a proper review, so here goes.
I received Garry Apgar's Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit (Walt Disney Family Foundation Press) when I was reading the eighth volume in Fantagraphics' Floyd Gottfredson reprint series. That volume is made up in large part of Mickey Mouse daily strips from the 1940s, written by Bill Walsh, who was later an important producer of live-action Disney features. The Mickey of those strips is amorphous, wildly inconsistent from day to day, completely in service to Walsh's gags and hardly a character at all.
That's why Apgar's title, and his book itself, are so apt, because he does indeed emphasize Mickey Mouse's role as an "emblem," a powerful, essentially abstract design that he suggests evokes the "American spirit," rather than a real character on the order of Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny. We all know what Donald Duck is "like," within broad bounds; but it has not been since the early days of the Mickey Mouse cartoons and comics that anyone could say with the least assurance that Mickey is a certain kind of creature.
Thus the emphasis in Apgar's book on Mickey as design. Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit is above all an art book, not a movie book, not a cartoon book, much less a book about the Mickey Mouse comics (although Apgar pays homage to Gottfredson).You won't find an entry in the index for many of Mickey's film roles, not even Fun and Fancy Free (1947), his last starring role in a feature made in Walt Disney's lifetime. What you will find is a thorough survey of how fine artists have responded to Mickey Mouse as a graphic stimulus over the years, how that "emblem" has worked its way into their minds and then into their work.
Have the artistic results been substantial enough to reward so careful and well-informed an examination as accorded them by Apgar, an art historian with impeccable credentials? I can't say with any certainty. I found it hard to avoid the sense, at some points in the book, that the author was straining to find artistic significance in work that not only lacked it but was poking fun at the whole solemn idea of such significance. No matter; this is a book that needed to be written, and I can't imagine that anyone could have written it better, or that it could have been illustrated more richly or produced more beautifully.
It was another aspect of the book that was for me, given my own obsessions, even more absorbing. Apgar's previous book, A Mickey Mouse Reader (University Press of Mississippi), is a compilation of many of Mickey's most significant appearances in print, in reviews, interviews (with Walt Disney), journalism and criticism of various kinds. Thanks in part to his immersion in such material, Apgar is able not just to offer well-informed speculation about how Mickey was created but to trace how the accounts of his creation changed over the years.
That there were changes in the official accounts, and especially in who got credit for what, is undeniable, and, I think, understandable. There was, first of all, the scramble in 1928 to come up with a new character; then, when that new character was successful and the press was clamoring for more information, there was the scramble to remember and codify just how that character came to be—and, starting in 1930, work around the awkward reality of Ub Iwerks's critical role. The creation myths that resulted, like Lillian's naming of Mickey on the train ride back from New York, probably have more truth in them than there is in most Hollywood fables. In the long (eighty-plus pages) chapter titled "Making the Mouse," Garry Apgar makes as much sense of this crucial passage in the studio's life as anyone is ever likely to do. That chapter alone makes the book indispensable to anyone who cares about Walt Disney and his works.
Mickey Mouse would no doubt be a different and perhaps even better book if it had been published under something other than a Disney imprint—and it surely would have received more attention—but it's remarkably good as it is. And it is, by the way, available now from amazon.com at a bargain price, $26.58.
How to Be a Disney Historian
I'm represented in Jim Korkis's How to Be a Disney Historian (Theme Park Press), an anthology of essays by more than a dozen writers with some claim to be "Disney historians." I balk at that label myself, and I didn't write a new piece for the book, but rather slightly updated a piece I wrote for this website a few years ago, called "The Approved Narrative" (retitled in the book "The Disney-Approved Narrative"). The substance of that piece is that writing about "Disney history" in today's environment is a dfficult and sometimes impossible job because the Walt Disney Company's posture toward independent writers—writers who are not being paid by Disney, and whose work is not under the company's control—is essentially adversarial. That has always and inevitably been the case to some extent, but it was much less so back in the nineties, when I shared space in the Walt Disney Archives with writers who were, like me, there at the company's sufferance but not expected to submit to its censorship.
The Korkis book is in part a compendium of advice on how to get around the obstacles that the company throws up in the path of people who want to write about it. Disney is an exceptionally interesting company with a long, rich history, which makes it all the more frustrating that good writers are so often excluded, or subject to debilitating treatment when the company hires them for its own projects, while the doors are thrown open for the likes of Neal Gabler and Sarah Colt. Much of the book's advice, like preparing thoroughly for interviews, seems obvious, but no doubt there are aspiring historians who need to hear it. More interesting and enjoyable to me were the mini-memoirs by people like Korkis, Leonard Maltin, and Jerry Beck, recounting their own adventures as long-time researchers and writers about Disney history.
A quibble: there's an essay by the retired Disney archivist, Dave Smith, in which he says: "One of the things I did was to officially determine in 1973 that Mickey Mouse's birthday was November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York." Actually, that date had been established in 1971, through my Carl Stalling interview in Funnyworld No. 13. I pointed out in a note to that interview that the September date for Mickey's birth that Disney had used for years was incorrect. The interview included as evidence a Powers Cinephone ad with dated quotations from multiple newspapers and trade papers, all clearly identifying November 18 as the premiere date.
Another quibble: Jerry Beck says that "transcribing interviews is the worst part of writing and researching. It is worth paying someone to do this for you." After transcribing more than 500 tapes, I can agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly, even while rejecting the advice. I tried hiring a transcriber a couple of times, but the transcripts were filled with errors, and correcting them and having them retyped required more of my time than simply making the transcripts myself. That's not to mention the cost. All of my own transcribing, until sometime in the nineties, was done on an IBM Selectric, and that was indeed tortuous; transcribing on a computer is, if no fun, much easier, especially because errors are so much more easily corrected.
The Walt Kelly panel, minus Scott Shaw!, who arrived later. From left, Mark Evanier, the moderator, Leonard Maltin, Maggie Thompson, Mike Barrier (who is grinning at the photographer, his wife), and Eric Reynolds.
Return from Comic-Con
Phyllis and I wound up spending only four nights in San Diego for Comic-Con International, instead of the scheduled five, when Southwest Airlines' computers crashed systemwide while we were waiting for our plane to arrive from St. Louis. We eventually flew out Thursday morning on Delta, via a circuitous route that took us to Atlanta and then back across the country to San Diego. We are still waiting for an explanation or apology from Southwest.
Fortunately, we did reach the convention center in plenty of time for my two Friday panel appearances. The Walt Kelly hour went especially well, thanks to a strong panel that included Mark Evanier as moderator, Leonard Maltin, Maggie Thompson, Scott Shaw!, and Eric Reynolds, co-editor of Fantagraphics' outstanding complete reprinting of Pogo. Everyone on the panel loved Kelly's work, but with an adult sort of love that would probably baffle devotees of, say, Harley Quinn.
The problem with enjoyable panels is that they tend to evaporate from my mind almost immediately, leaving behind only a faint and evocative perfume; I could tell you a little of what I said, but I remember almost nothing of what my fellow panelists said, except that I liked it. Perhaps someone was recording the session and it will turn up eventually on the Web, but I'm not hopeful, not least because the convention center's sound system did not take kindly to my deep voice (Mark Evanier chastised me twice for not speaking up, but I'm not sure what more I could have done other than swallow the microphone whole).
My "spotlight" panel, near the end of the day, was not nearly so well attended, but it was at least as memorable in its own way, because it was the occasion for me to receive an unexpected Inkpot Award. As Comic-Con's website says, the award is "given to individuals for their contributions to the worlds of comics, science fiction/fantasy, film, television, animation, and fandom services." That covers a lot of ground, and the list of award winners from the last forty years or so is imposingly long; but if you read through the list of names, you may be struck, as I was, by how many of them are familiar. Now I have something in common with Steven Spielberg and Ralph Bakshi!
The inkpot statuette itself is a lovely piece of hardware; I believe it was designed by Rick Geary, a Comic-Con mainstay, but my first thought when I saw it was of Daumier. I'm very happy to be recognized for, as the plaque on the statuette says, "achievement in comic arts." I'll certainly never get any comparable recognition for my work in animation history—too many heretical opinions, alas—but the Inkpot Award makes up for that.
One of the side benefits of attending Comic-Con is that it can give you a different perspective on your own work. I devoted most of my spotlight session to a Power-Point review of my fan career, by way of explaining how it was that I had diverged so widely from the main track, with its emphasis on superheroes and science fiction. I showed the cover of the first Dell Beany comic book as an example of how vivid and precise were my memories of seeing particular comic books when I was a kid. In this case, I remembered the store and even the rack where I first saw the Beany comic book, but I also remembered that I had not a clue at the time as to who Beany and Bob Clampett were. When the first Beany comic book was published, late in 1951, Little Rock was a year or two away from getting its first TV station. I don't think Time for Beany, the Clampett puppet show, was ever shown on any local station.
As I skimmed through my history for my spotlight audience, I made a point of not mentioning one of my books, Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book. I remain angry and disappointed about that book because the publisher (who also wrecked Funnyworld) produced it shoddily and priced it exorbitantly; then, when it went into a second printing, he corrected none of the errors his typesetter made (and none of the errors that I made and subsequently listed on this website).
The next morning, though, as I wandered through the exhibit hall, I ran into a Swedish Barks fan who spoke to me warmly of the book. I realized that however much I resented my publisher's slovenly handling of the book, its substance—my critical biography of Barks and detailed bibliography of his work—had been only damaged and not destroyed. Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book has been superseded in many respects by my most recent book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Boooks, but it has not been rendered obsolete. I should have included it among the slides in my PowerPoint presentation.
I'd had another revelation earlier that morning, when I attended a panel discussion devoted to books reprinting the work of cartoonists like Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Charles Schulz. The panelists were Serious Names in the comics world—Paul Levitz of DC, Denis Kitchen, the designer Chip Kidd, and Charles Kochman of Abrams ComicArts—but the attendance was, if not as sparse as for my spotlight session, not much greater. That surprised me at first, but then I realized that the small crowd was just a measure of how the convention has changed over the years. In small sessions like mine, Comic-Con is not a pop-culture extravaganza that draws more than a hundred thousand people, most of them obsessed with the latest movies and TV shows. It is instead still a comics convention, in direct line from the much smaller gatherings of thirty or forty years ago. It's remarkable, I think, that Comic-Con's organizers still pay homage to their roots in this fashion. I hope they continue to do so.
I came away from Comic-Con much better disposed toward the whole con idea than I was before. I have no idea if I'll ever attend another one, but I'm glad I attended this one.
I shared the speakers' table for my "spotlight" session with Randy Duncan, who teaches and writes about comics at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Randy fed me questions and kept me on track as I paged through slides covering the rise and fall and rebirth of my serious interest in comics. Jerry Beck took this photo.
It has been a good long while since I posted. This is what happens when a long-running family crisis refuses to resolve itself. As I've mentioned, my 91-year-old father-in-law broke his hip last November, and for the last eight months Phyllis and I have been dealing with the consequences, most recently the need to sell his house and its all too plentiful contents, and his 2000 Ford Crown Victoria. (He was still driving, without issues, until his accident, and he found the sale of his car far more distressing than the sale of the house where he'd lived for more than forty years.)
We've been able to break away only briefly since the crisis began, and we'll do so again this week. We'll be at San Diego for Comic-Con International, starting tomorrow. I'll be the subject of a "spotlight" session, and I'll be one of a half dozen participants in a Mark Evanier panel on Walt Kelly. Here are the particulars on both presentations, starting with the earliest:
Walt Kelly and Pogo
The greatest newspaper strip of all time? Some would call it that. Even if you aren't one of them, you've gotta love the wit and whimsy of Walt Kelly's magnum opus, Pogo, now receiving its first-ever complete reprinting in an Eisner Award-winning series from Fantagraphics Books. Remember this great artist with comics historian Maggie Thompson (Comics Buyer's Guide), film critic Leonard Maltin, historian Michael Barrier, cartoonist Scott Shaw!,Eric Reynolds (co-editor of the Complete Pogo series), and moderator Mark Evanier (Groo the Wanderer).
Friday July 22, 2016 12:30pm - 1:30pm
And on my "spotlight" session:
Spotlight on Michael Barrier
Author Mike Barrier (Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books) will talk about the challenges and rewards of pursuing an interest in comic books that bypasses superheroes in favor of artists like Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, and John Stanley. Randy Duncan (author of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture) will moderate, with PowerPoint visuals.
Friday July 22, 2016 4:00pm - 5:00pm
Randy is a fellow Arkansan who teaches at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. We collaborated on a PowerPoint show at the Akansas Literary Festival last year. This one will be better, I think, my grasp of PowerPoint having gotten much stronger in the interim.
I'll be available to sign books in the autograph area after my session.
For reasons mentioned in the text below, using frame enlargements from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad seemed impractical, so I've illustrated this piece with two model sheets from February 1941, when The Wind in the Willows (released in 1949)was first in production. This Toad sheet is by Jim Bodrero (thanks to Didier Ghez for correcting my earlier misattribution). Courtesy of Eldon Dedini (who worked on the story after World War II with Homer Brightman and Harry Reeves).
Frame by Frame with Michael Hodous
Back about a hundred years ago, in the very earliest days of the Betamax and the laserdisc player—and long before I could afford to buy a machine of either kind—I spent many hours at the Library of Congress' motion picture section hunched over a Steenbeck editing machine, looking at films on a small screen. I had lots of company in the viewing room in those days, academic types and freelance writers who were there for the same reason I was, to see films that in many cases it was difficult or impossible to see any other way. Scheduling time at a Steenbeck then could be as difficult as snagging a table at a hot new restaurant. No more. It has been a few years since I watched films at the LC, and I don't recall that any other viewers were there the last time I did.
One of the small pleasures of watching cartoons on a Steenbeck was the opportunity it offered to watch part of a cartoon frame by frame, repeatedly if I wished to do so (as I sometimes did). I'd want to see just what was happening at some point in a cartoon, how some effect was achieved, and the Steenbeck made that easy. My own frame-by-frame viewing mostly ended after I finished my book Hollywood Cartoons in 1997, but frame-by-frame viewing is easier than ever now, thanks to DVDs and Blu-rays. As Michael Hodous recently told me, such close study can still yield puzzling and amusing surprises:
Back in 1979 when you made a thorough study of The Adventures of
Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) at the Library of Congress, did you notice that
the camera department photographed two cell setups out of sequence?
approximately 0:32:08 according to my Blu-ray disc player, Mole has just
gotten the deed to Toad Hall away from Winky. Mole makes a mad dash down
the Long Hall of Toad's ancestral family home, pursued by the entire
pack of weasels determined to let Mole experience a close encounter with
a bullet, a knife, or a blunt instrument. Then, attempting to pass
through an archway halfway down the Long Hall, Mole discovers that the
Long Hall isn't as long as it looked as he crashes into a
floor-to-ceiling mirror, resulting in considerable destruction of
property, not to mention seven years bad luck, which Mole proceeds to
use up at an alarming rate.
Just a few frames before Mole hits the mirror, he speeds up
slightly, jumps back slightly, then jumps forward again. You won't
notice it unless you step through the sequence frame by frame, but those
two frames photographed out of order must have been there forever, which
makes me wonder why nobody ever noticed it in a sweatbox.
Or could that be a more subtle version of some of the effects in Bob
Clampett's Kitty Kornered, where the old drunk cat crashes into a door,
which suddenly changes shape and color? Just two frames out of order,
just enough perhaps to induce a slight feeling of unease a tiny fraction
of a second before the payoff when Mole crashes into the mirror?
often during the course of your work do you end up feeling like the
German Kaiser informed that the Russian Czar has just died:
"But what could have been his motive?"
And there's more:
In the words of an old public service television commercial from sixty years ago, "This accident should not have happened." If you step through the last ten or twenty frames before impact, both the viewer and Mole should have seen Mole's reflection in the mirror before the mirror became no longer a mirror. But wasn't that the title of a Disneyland TV show first broadcast on October 31st, 1956: "The Plausible Impossible"? The crash happens so fast that you never have a chance to notice that little detail, and after the crash you're laughing too hard to worry about such a mere bagatelle. After all, great art should improve on reality, not be bound by it.
My notes don't show that I picked up on such details, although I must say that I did notice a lot of other stuff. Here again, I must defer to Mike Hodous on what he saw when Mole crashes into the mirror, keyed to the frame captures he sent to me:
The frames named Mole_001 through Mole_064 document Mole's close encounter of the worst kind. Note that 019 and 020 [the frames mentioned above, just before Mole hits the mirror] are shot out of sequence.
Mole crashes into the mirror in frame 032. All this stuff is fast action, so it's animated with a separate drawing for every frame. This continues up to frame 035. From there Mole is still animated one drawing per frame, but the broken glass that's flying in all directions is often exactly the same in two successive frames.
Besides saving time, paper, and money, this may be even better artistically. It gives the viewer more time to make order out of chaos, rather than shards flying too fast to recognize as such if the glass were animated with separate drawings for each frame. Frank and Ollie mentioned this effect on page 65 (and a more extreme case on page 230) of the first edition of Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.
I've wanted to show some of Mike's frame captures here, although posting enough of them to illustrate the points he makes would consume a lot of pixels, but, in any case, they haven't proved amenable to transfer to my web authoring program. Better, perhaps, that you buy the Blu-ray, if you don't already own it, and explore it on your own. Ichabod and Mr. Toad is not one of the greatest Disney cartoons, but as what Mike Hodous has discovered should suggest to you, it holds much more to enjoy than most contemporary features.
This "temporary Rat model" was initialed by Campbell Grant and drawn by him. Courtesy of Gene Hazelton.
The Jungle Book: I was warned away from this new Disney feature because, I was told, it simply reproduces the 1967 cartoon in synthetic live action (and with a live boy as Mowgli). Yes and no. I've never much liked the cartoon—too sloppy and jokey for my taste—and although the new movie tracks the old one pretty closely, it's darker and even a little scary. That's an improvement, I think, although Jon Favreau, the director of the new version, would have won more of my tepid applause if he had scrapped King Louie's musical number (or been allowed to scrap it, who knows), since it's now grotesquely incongruous.
What Disney needs to do, to keep this particular ball rolling, is to start making cartoon versions of some of its live-action movies. How about a CGI version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with seals and porpoises as the lead characters? And then, in cross-pollination with Pixar, there could be a sequel called Finding Captain Nemo. Or how about a slapstick cartoon version of Old Yeller in which the dog sneers to the camera, in Seth MacFarlane fashion, about his owners' cluelessness, and springs back to life after he has supposedly been doomed by rabies. ("Fooled ya! Hey, you know I always get my shots!") Lots of possibilities, all of them dreadful, which should recommend them to Disney's current management.
Muto: No doubt many of the visitors to my site are aware ofMuto, summarized on YouTube as "a short film by Blu: an ambiguous animation painted on public walls," apparently in Argentina. I'd missed it until Andrew Keegan called it to my attention. An impressively strange film. Andrew says, "It reminded me a bit of an
Out-of-the-Inkwell cartoon—one that escaped the studio and wandered the
city. I wonder what the Fleischer brothers would have thought of it."
It reminded me even more of a lot of cold, impersonal, essentially abstract European cartoons, but it somehow made a very different impression on me, I'm sure because it's so fascinating to watch the animation's progression across those public walls. Very much worth a look. This is yet another occasion when I wish Michael Sporn were still with us—I always wish that, but especially when I'd love to know what he thought of a particular film. Muto dates from 2008, six years before Michael's death, but I don't find anything about it on Michael's Splog, which is, happily, still with us even though Michael himself is not.
Bugs Bunny in 1949: When you write books about comics and cartoons and post on a website like this one, it's particularly gratifying to learn that some people read what you write, understand what you're saying, and find your writings useful as launching pads for their own thoughts. That's how I felt when I read Joshua Wilson's blog, F for Films: Essays on the Movies. One of his first offerings is a comparison of four Bugs Bunny cartoons from 1949, one each by Davis, McKimson, Freleng, and Jones. My book Hollywood Cartoons has served Josh as a starting point, but his thoughts are his own. I enjoyed reading his essay, and if you share my intense interest in the Warner Bros. cartoons, I think you will, too.
From Bob Barrett, who shares my admiration for one of the mainstays of Oskar Lebeck's Dell comic books of the 1940s:
Did I ever send you a scan of this Morris Gollub painting? I bought
this back in 2008 from two brothers living in Missouri. The brother I
dealt with stated that his father, an antique dealer, found the painting
in an old theater in St. Louis that was being demolished. His father
liked the painting and kept it until he passed away and his sons
The sons heard that Antiques Roadshow was going to be doing
appraisals for their television show here in Wichita, Kansas. They
purchased tickets and brought the painting here to be appraised. The appraisers had no knowledge of who Morris Gollub was and refused to
even speculate what it might be worth.
I didn't find out about the
painting until a week after Antiques Roadshow had left. The
brothers contacted a website on Jesse Marsh to ask if they would happen
to know of anyone that would be interested in buying the painting. The
website manager emailed me with the brothers' story and I contacted them
and negotiated to buy the painting.
Since Moe Gollub left St. Louis in 1937 to join Disney, I have
speculated that he painted this before he began working for
Disney. He was probably commissioned by the theater manager to execute
the painting to hang in the lobby of the theater. But that is only
speculation on my part.
The painting is signed on the reverse, "Gollub," but it is obvious to me
that it is his work.
Back on February 25, I wrote about the difficulties I'd encountered in trying to pry Walt Kelly's FBI file out of the clutches of either the FBI or the National Archives, whoever might have it. I wrote again to the FBI a few weeks ago, summarizing the frustrations I'd encountered in trying to locate that file, and last week I got what is probably the final word. David M. Hardy of the bureau's records management division told me:
Based on the information you provided, we conducted an additional search of the indices to our Central Records System. We were unable to identify main or cross-reference file records responsive to the [Freedom of Information Act].
So much for that. If there ever was an FBI file on Kelly—and I'm sure there was—it no longer exists, or it is so completely lost that it might as well be nonexistent. As to what was in that file, there's a summary on page 120 of the 1992 book Pogo Files for Pogophiles, by Selby Daley Kelly (Walt's widow) and Steve Thompson. No startling revelations there, really no revelations of any kind, but it remains frustrating that the primary material is out of reach, probably permanently.
Phyllis and I have been pinned down for the last six months, at first by daily visits to her 91-year-old father, hospitalized with a broken hip, and then, once he was settled in the comfortable retirement home where my own parents ended their lives, by all the duties attendant on selling his home and otherwise wrapping up most of his affairs. Everything has taken much more time and been much more difficult than we hoped, and this website has been one of the casualties. We have taken only a few short breaks—never more than a day's drive away from home—one of which was a two-day swing for Phyllis's birthday to a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma. (Wright's only completed skyscraper, in the oil town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is now in part a hotel, the Inn at Price Tower, where we spent the night.) On the way home we spent a couple of hours at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma, a place I'd always wanted to visit but had never seeen. It's well worth a detour if you're passing through Oklahoma on I-40.
The very helpful docents confirmed what I suspected: as celebrated as he once was, Will Rogers is no longer even a name to many of the Memorial's American visitors. The foreign visitors tend to be more Rogers-aware, the docents said, but it may be that a European or Asian tourist who makes his or her way to Claremore is just more likely to be there specifically to visit the Memorial; I'd guess that many American visitors wander in on their way to someplace else.
And. truth to tell, I'm not surprised that Rogers's celebrity has faded. Much of his humor, whether heard on old radio broadcasts or read on the page, has held up no better than most topical humor, and some of his most celebrated sayings, robbed of context, can seem downright simpleminded. (His most famous saying, and I would say the most embarrassing, is the one carved on the base of the statue in the photo above.) Rogers was a very popular movie star in the first half of the 1930s, and John Ford, who directed him in three features, spoke of him warmly, but he was no actor, and his movies, at least the ones I've seen, are not much good. His early success in vaudeville as a fantastically skillful trick roper, documented in silent movies, is even more remote. So, Will Rogers is likely to be known today, more than eighty years after his death, less for his own accomplishments than as someone whose fame was once so great that his home state placed his statue in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection.
If Disney fans are aware of Rogers, it may be mostly because he played polo with Walt and other people from the studio. (He was to have been caricatured as one of the players in Mickey's Polo Team, but he was replaced by Charlie Chaplin after his death in a 1935 plane crash in Alaska.) Despite Rogers's prominence as a polo player, there is no polo memorabilia on display at the Memorial, and nothing to link Walt Disney and Will Rogers. A docent me told that the Memorial does own one very ordinary polo-playing outfit, but that preserving it would be outrageously expensive, who knows why.
One of the Disney polo players—Roy Disney, I think, although I can't lay my hands on that quotation—spoke of Rogers coolly, as a rough and unpleasant competitor, but after visiting the Memorial I could understand why he might seem that way. The entrance hall at the Rogers Memorial is devoted to displays of mounted saddles, and a docent told me that after Rogers left Oklahma for New York and Los Angeles, he took a horse with him wherever he went. He was a man who was completely at home on a horse, and he surely regarded many of his fellow polo players as dilettantes.
And if you're wondering what a Frank Lloyd Wright skyscraper might look like, that's the Price Tower at the right.
Ward Kimball, the only Disney animator present, signed copies of the catalog for the "Building a Better Mouse" exhibition at the Library of Congress for guests at the black-tie banquet on November 20, 1978. The exhibition opened to the public the next day. Yes, I still have my autographed copy of the catalog.
When We Celebrated Mickey's Fiftieth
We are barely more than two years away from the ninetieth anniversary of the premiere of Steamboat Willie at the Colony Theatre in New York City—Mickey Mouse's ninetieth birthday, that is, although I doubt that the Walt Disney Company will make a big deal of it. After all, ninety is pretty darned old. Paying too much attention to Mickey's birthday might even prompt some rude questions about whether there is any justification for extending the copyright term for Steamboat Willie yet again, and, still more to the point, just how it is that extending an existing copyright term stimulates the creativity of people who are long dead. Would Walt have made Steamboat Willie or a much more ambitious and riskier film like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs if the copyright term at the time was only twenty-eight years (fifty-six years with a renewal)? Wait—that's exactly what he did. Next question.
I've been put in mind of Mickey's impending anniversary by the recent publication of Garry Apgar's splendid tribute, Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, a book about which I hope to say considerably more later this spring. That book has also reminded me of the high-decibel celebration that accompanied Mickey's fiftieth anniversary, in November 1978. I played a minor role in that celebration, as the curator of an exhibition at the Library of Congress, titled Building a Better Mouse: Fifty Years of Animation. (The title I proposed originally was Building a Better Mouse: Fifty Years of Disney Animation, which was exactly what the exhibit was about. As best I can recall, the "Disney" was scrapped because one or more people in authority thought it sounded too commercial, or something.) The exhibition, which combined video, items from the Disney Archives, and books from the Library of Congress' collection, opened on November 21, 1978. It was preceded the evening before by a black-tie banquet in the Library's Great Hall; the photos here were taken on that occasion.
The exhibition was so popular that its run was extended by a month. But the Library of Congress is a rather curious institution, a cross-breeding of government and academia, and having curated a very popular exhibition about Walt Disney did me no good at all with many people there, notably at the Library's high-toned Swann Foundation for Cartoon and Caricature Studies. At the time, I needed work and, especially, money to help me finish the book that became Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, but there was none of either to be found at the Library. I don't recall, if I ever knew, just how the Library came to put up a Disney exhibition in the first place, but it does seem curious in retrospect.
Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, spoke at the black-tie banquet in the Library's Great Hall. I'm the dark-haired and bearded man at the table at the lower right. This was the Monday before Thanksgiving, so members of Congress were scarce, but Clare Boothe Luce was there. I didn't meet her, but I did meet Lillian Disney Truyens, for the one and only time.
Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, with the birthday boy at the banquet.
A glimpse of the Pinocchio and Fantasia sections of the exhibition.
As a senior citizen and a former business writer, I tend to be more interested these days in the Walt Disney Company as a very large and very active corporation than as the source of anything of artistic interest. When Tom Staggs dropped out of the running to succeed Robert Iger as Disney's CEO, my first thought was of Iger's own strategy, which has been based above all on acquisitions: Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar. Staggs, I thought, must have figured out that there was nothing left for Disney to buy, and so his own performance as CEO would inevitably suffer compared with Iger's.
Most of Disney's homegrown products, like Frozen, have been conceived in the same intensely commercial spirit as the acquisitions, as "franchises" that can generate not just sequels but many other sources of earnings. I assume such thinking was not absent during work on Zootopia, the most recent Disney animated feature, but here, for once, it's not controlling, and so Zootopia is, for me, the most purely enjoyable Disney feature in many years.
The movie is endlessly clever and inventive in exploiting its basic conceit, that mammals have somehow evolved to the point that carnivores and herbivores live together peaceably (and wear clothes) in what might be called a human city, if there were any trace of humans in it. There are plenty of echoes of human society, in the lemming bankers and sloth bureaucrats, but never any sense that the animals are simply stand-ins. As Walt Kelly once said, a cartoonist "can do more with animals"; they lend themselves to vigorous comedy better than human characters do. The feeling I got from Zootopia was that the people who made it understood what a gift they had in their cast of animal characters, and they relished putting their animals to work.
As always with modern-day Disney cartoons, a few footnotes are in order. The story itself—Judy Hopps, a young female bunny policeman, solves a budding crime wave with the help of Nick Wilde, a fox con man—could have been lifted from the scripts for any number of live-action movies, everything from low-budget crime movies of the 1940s to the Eddie Murphy-Nick Nolte pairing in 48 Hrs. Likewise, the very slow-talking sloths at the DMV quite likely owe their existence to a wonderful old Bob and Ray routine. Such resemblances don't bother me in the least; probably we're supposed to notice them, and why not, since they're not imitations but sly variations on the originals.
Zootopia is a little too long, and there is too much talk. This is another of those Disney movies with multiple directors (Byron Howard and Rich Moore, plus Jared Bush as "co-director"), and hundreds of other credits, and I have to believe that the credit overload has some connection with the movie's excesses; it's almost as if everyone who worked on it had to have a piece they could point to as theirs. But then, Zootopia benefits from a richness of visual detail, in shots of city streets that are full of animals, and surely that detail was introduced into the movie through a process similar to what led to the verbal overload.
If any one thing about Zootopia annoyed me, it was the flashback in which we learn that the fox was mistreated by other young animals and, thus embittered, embarked on a career of petty crime. Simply to say, "Hey, that's what foxes are like" would presumably be unacceptable as species discrimination, even though other animals behave as they might be expected to behave if they wore clothes and talked but were still animals of a particular kind. The sentimentality embodied in that flashback says "John Lasseter" to me, although I have no idea if he was directly responsible for it.
That's a minor quibble, like every other quibble I could raise about Zootopia. It's a very good movie—and a very handsome movie, made with a mastery of CGI animation that I haven't seen in earlier Disney features. The leading characters will surely have long and happy lives as stuffed animals in many children's bedrooms, and they'll deserve the affection bestowed on them.
A Fred Moore model sheet for The Brave Little Tailor (1938), bearing Jack Kinney's credit for story. By the time this sheet was prepared, Bill Roberts (initials "W.O.R.") had replaced the original director, Burt Gillett, the subject of Kinney's less than favorable memories from work on the cartoon. Courtesy of Ross Wetzel.
In the "Kitchen" with Jack Kinney
I've published here two transcripts of interviews with Jack Kinney, from 1973 and 1976, and now I'm offering something a little different: extensive notes from my two interviews with Jack in December 1986. These notes are more rambling and informal than the interview transcripts, and I've paraphrased a good bit of what Jack said. In effect, I'm taking you into my "kitchen" and letting you sample some of the ingredients I gathered for my books on Walt Disney and the Disney cartoons. You can read those notes, and a fuller explanation of just what they are, by clicking on this link.
The good people at Comic-Con International have invited me to attend next July's con in San Diego as their "special guest" in the company of such luminaries as Howard Chaykin, Daniel Clowes, Paul Levitz, Trina Robbins, Jeff Smith, and Maggie Thompson, to mention only a few of the other special guests. D. Fae Desmond, the con's executive director, explained to me what being a special guest involves:
As part of your participation as a Special Guest, we ask that you appear on at least one program, a spotlight on you or your work, so your fans will have a chance to see you at the convention. Additionally, you may be asked to be on a separate panel with other guests of the show. Most guests also do an autograph signing after their spotlight program.
Sounds like fun. The Comic-Con's website, with a complete list of special guests, is at this link.
I've had some interesting—well, more frustrating than interesting, maybe—correspondence with the FBI and the National Archives in regard to an FBI file on Walt Kelly that may or may not exist.
That such a file exists, or did exist, seems likely, because Kelly had the effrontery to depict J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog in the Pogo comic strip, back in the early 1970s. If the Russians could complain about Kelly's depiction of Nikita Khrushchev as a pig—and they did—then surely the FBI did not take kindly to a depiction of "the director" as a canine. That episode in the strip was published long after Kelly's comic-book work had ended, and it was of course his comic books that were of greatest interest to me when I was writing Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books; but considering that Pogo had political content almost from beginning, it seemed possible that Kelly had fallen under FBI scrutiny as early as the early 1950s.
I wrote to the FBI, and here's what happened, to quote from a letter I sent last October to the National Archives (NARA):
Several years ago, as part of my research for a book published by University of California Press, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for copies of any records related to Walter Crawford Kelly Jr., known as Walt Kelly, the cartoonist who created the “Pogo” comic strip that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The FBI replied that “a search of the Central Records System maintained at FBI Headquarters indicated that potentially responsive records have been sent to NARA ... using file number 36-HQ-682 as a reference.”
I wrote to NARA, asking if the FBI’s records related to Mr. Kelly had been preserved at the National Archives and citing the file number the FBI had given me. I subsequently heard from Martha Wagner Murphy, chief, special access and FOIA staff, who wrote: “We located this file [36-HQ-682] in RG 65, Classification 36 (Mail Fraud) Headquarters Case Files; microfilm reel 10. This is a 1924 investigation of one E. C. Busey. The name you provided appears nowhere in the file. We have determined, therefore, that this file is not responsive to your request.”
Ms. Wagner suggested that I file another FOIA request with the FBI, asking for a search of FBI name indexes, but it was just such a search that yielded the incorrect file number in the first place.
I know that an FBI file on Walt Kelly almost certainly exists, or has existed; I have seen several references to it on the Web, although those references seem not to be based on firsthand knowledge. My question is, how might I best go about locating the missing file, considering that filing another FOIA request with the FBI would probably be futile?
It took some prodding, but NARA finally replied this month:
Unfortunately, at this time, we can only provide you with information specific to the case file number you provided. The FBI investigation case files in our custody are not arranged by name nor do we have a main file index to search by name. Our case files are arranged by Headquarters and Field Office thereunder by case file number. If you would like to locate files responsive to an individual, you will have to contact the FBI for a specific case file number.
I'm tempted to say the hell with it, but I'm wondering now if a Kelly FBI file ever existed, and if it still exists, what has happened to it. If you know, please tell me.
A guest post by Garry Apgar, author of the important new book Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit:
The Italian intellectual and fiction writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016), best known for his historical novel The Name of the Rose, died on February 19th. Eco had a thing for the classic Disney of the 1930s. The names of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, and Clarabelle Cow, for instance, playfully crop up in two other novels by Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004).
In an October 12, 2002 article in The Guardian, “Signs of the Times,” Eco told journalist Maya Jaggi, “I’m not a fundamentalist, saying there’s no difference between Homer and Walt Disney. But Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.”
If there is any truth in that remark, the American humorist and sometime cartoonist James Thurber may, by over sixty years, have beat Eco to the punch—on one point at least. In “The ‘Odyssey’ of Disney,” an essay in the March 28, 1934 issue of The Nation, Thurber said that his purpose in the piece was “to put forward in all sincerity and all arrogance the conviction that the right ‘Odyssey’ has yet to be done, and to name as the man to do it no less a genius than Walt Disney.”
One of two classic Mickey-themed images reproduced in Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.
Patrick Garabedian contributes these thoughts on Bart Beaty's Comics Versus Art (University of Toronto Press, 2012), a significant book that escaped my notice when it was published a few years ago:
Notwithstanding its pleasures—Beaty uses the outing of Carl Barks as the "good artist" as an example of comics fandom's importance in discovering an anonymous artist and validating him as truly an artist—I think the central premise of the work is wrong. Beaty sees a basic importance in the acceptance of comics by the museum-centered art world, to give them a place in the "legitimizing hierarchies" of "the serious or consecrated visual arts." He comes close to the truth of the matter on pp. 186-87, where he mentions the argument that "the appropriate place for comics [is] on the printed page, not on the bare white walls of the museum," that putting comics there [undermines] "the specificity of the form" (because the comics are not merely a visual art).
The first modern museum is supposed to have been established in Haarlem, Holland, just before the French Revolution, and for practical purposes the modern museum's birth can be dated to the establishment of the Louvre shortly afterwards. It was specifically designed to display objects that could be seen at one time by more than one person, principally painting and sculpture of the grand tradition—large objects, viewable by many from some distance, generally accepted as valuable and worth admiring.
These are limitations on what museums can legitimize by themselves. Even art forms of considerable antiquity and monetary worth, "minor arts" such as tapestries, furniture, jewelry, and illuminated manuscripts, can have a hard time gaining a presence in museum displays, especially if they cannot be seen by more than one person simultaneously.
Even today, generally accepted art forms such as music, opera, ballet, literature, and film can no more be displayed in this setting than comics without changing the museum venue into that art's venue (i.e., a film theater) or acknowledging that the visual art displayed is only a secondary aspect of that art form. That's absolutely true for comics, too.
These other art forms have to establish their validity by achieving their own popularity and longevity outside the museum setting, if their occasional forays into that setting are to be justified.
Such forays themselves are not what gives them validity as art forms.
The essence of comics—and comic books—is one person mentally immersed in the sequence of panels of the work, both the narrative (mainly text) and the art. Much more than by any presence in the gallery/auction house/museum worlds, comics must be validated as an art form by their widespread appeal (which right now,is being expanded by graphic novels and, somewhat sadly, by manga) and by their permanence (this is where I think their availability in book format , also as reprints and in libraries, becomes important). Foreign comics have not won acceptance in their cultures through the extent by which they are featured in museums, but through their wide popularity among adults as well as youngsters, and by generally more permanent publication formats than in the U.S
I like to say that this website doesn't generate the volume of comments that others do, but the comments tend to be far more thoughtful and articulate than what you find on other animation- and comics-related sites. Cases in point: when I posted a review of Didier Ghez's They Drew as They Pleased the other day, along with a notice about Garry Apgar's equally outstanding Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, I heard from both authors. You'll find their full comments by clicking on the link for comments on my January 26 item titled "A Winter of Discontent," but I'll quote from both of them here. First, Didier:
To be honest, I never thought of the drawings featured as masterpieces in themselves, the same way I never perceive single animation drawings as masterpieces. What really fascinates me is the behind-the-scenes of the creative process. Which is why I wanted to fill the book with large amounts of never-seen-before drawings. Each drawing, in itself, might not be a masterpiece, but the drawings taken as a whole give an idea of the richness of the options that the concept artists explored (and often discarded). This is especially true of Horvath and Hurter. When it comes to Tenggren, of course, some of his drawings are masterpieces in themselves. As to Bianca Majolie: I was able to uncover so little artwork that I really cannot tell. The chapter about her, as you certainly noticed, is more a justification to be able to write a whole chapter about women in the Story Department at Disney in the '30s (a story that will be completed in Volume 2) than anything else.
You say "Horvath's drawings, and his personal story, do not in themselves take us very far toward understanding why the cartoons turned out so well." You are absolutely correct, of course. The intent of They Drew As They Pleased was not to explain how Disney cartoons became the masterpieces that they are. This has already been done in the past and never better than in your own Hollywood Cartoons. With They Drew As They Pleased, I attempted to do three things:
- Give a sense of how rich the pre-production creative process was.
- Treat some of the men and women who worked on those animated cartoons and features as individual artists and not just as shadows hidden behind Walt.
- Reveal some of the drawings that history books have been discussing for years but that we had never seen.
I hope I succeeded.
As, of course, he did. For his part, Garry Apgar wrote about my reference to Martin Provensen's description of the Disney studio in the '30s as a "drawing factory."
In the conclusion of Emblem I quote Ray Bradbury, who called WED Enterprises Walt's "Idea Factory." In an earlier chapter, I link Andy Warhol's nickname for his studio operations, "The Factory," to the informal appellation of the Disney operation, the "Mouse Factory." Amusing wordplay, to be sure, involving the parallel, coincidental use of the term factory. But, I think, there's more to it than that.
Walt referred to the Disney studio as a "plant." The industrialization of entertainment and art for mass consumption in the 20th century, exemplified by Disney, was, most famously—among intellectuals and academics, anyway—addressed by Walter Benjamin in his study The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1933). Richard Schickel, in his often ungenerous volume, The Disney Version (1968) spoke, with grudging approval, of Walt's "appreciation of the possibilities inherent in technological progress."
I'm curious about the "industrial" innovations at the Mouse Factory in the '30s: the ways they fit into the bigger picture of how the Hyperion and Burbank studios functioned and grew during that period, and, by extension, Walt's vision for what he was trying to do. By innovations, I mean things like the invention—or perfection—of storyboarding (and the use of leica reels), model sheets, in-betweening, pencil tests, concept art, rotoscoping, and the institution of an educational and training program for rookie and veteran animators in the form of art classes, live model sessions, and lectures by senior men like Don Graham, Dave Hand, and Bill Tytla and guest speakers like Robert Feild and Leopold Stokowski.
They Drew As They Pleased, and the recently published books by Andreas Deja, Nine Old Men, and Don Hahn, Before Ever After: The Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio, touch upon key aspects of these matters. But, unless I'm mistaken you're the person who, in your books and in posts and interviews on michaelbarrier.com, has most often and informatively dealt with them.
That said, it would be nice to see someone, some day, focus on the totality of Walt's "industrial" innovations and (to quote you) his "openness to experiment" in an in-depth, sustained, and comprehensive fashion. Properly done, and properly illustrated, that would truly be the Disney book of the year, maybe even of the decade.
That would indeed be an outstanding book, which I hope someone else (certainly not me!) will write some day.
I also heard from another exceptional author, Jenny Lerew, whose comments illuminated for me the process by which "art of" books like The Art of The Good Dinosaur come into being. She's the author of one such book, on Pixar's Brave.
I noticed, when visiting Didier's Disney History blog, that he had gotten double duty out of his review there of Garry Apgar's new book, by posting a five-star review of Emblem on amazon.com. I've posted very few reviews there, preferring to concentrate my efforts on this website, but that has probably been shortsighted of me, especially since I recently encouraged my visitors to post favorable reviews of my own books on amazon.com if they were so inclined. Amazon reviews and tweets and Facebook posts and the like seem to have more to do with awareness of a book than the longer reviews that I like to read, as in the New York Times and New York Review of Books. Athough I'll continue to put my greatest effort into reviews for this site, I'll try to cut more of those reviews down to a size that makes for a good amazon review.
Also, I'm now editing my 1976 Jack Kinney interview, and I hope to post it within the next couple of weeks. I expect you'll agree that this is one of most entertaining interviews I've posted here.
This has been a dreadful winter, not so much because of the weather—which has been better in Little Rock than in my former home in Virginia, as you know if you've watched the reports on winter storm Jonas—as because of illness and injury. Thanks to my father-in-law's broken hip, Phyllis and I have been living in an atmosphere of perpetual crisis since we returned from England in November. You may have heard or read dire warnings about just how serious a broken hip is in an elderly person (my father-in-law is 91). Those warnings are not exaggerated.
This website has been a casualty mainly of my preoccupation with the continuing family emergency, and secondarily of the long-lived virus or bug or whatever it is that and Phyllis and I have been fighting, in the company of any number of friends and neighbors, since late last year. I have a lengthening list of short and long items that I look forward to posting here, starting with my 1976 interview with Jack Kinney (a followup to the 1973 interview that I've already posted).
Despite the distractions, I haven't been entirely inactive this month. I've wanted to write more about Didier Ghez's new book, They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Golden Age: The 1930s (Chronicle Books)—I posted a brief review, really not much more than a notice, in September—and I squeezed out enough time to write a more substantial piece than I thought might be possible. You can find it at this link. If you're not already aware of the book, it presents a generous sampling of the work of four of Disney's earliest concept artists, beginning with Albert Hurter and continuing through Gustav Tenggren, Ferdinand Horvath, and Bianca Majolie. That's Hurter in the photo at the left.
They Drew as They Pleased, which Didier Ghez expects to be the first in a series of five books covering Disney concept art from the 1930s to the present day, is in many respects a continuation and elaboration of John Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins (1996). Both books belong on the shelves of everyone who takes the great Disney shorts and features seriously.
The Ghez book is just one of a number of new books that command attention from people who care about animation. At the top of the pile is Garry Apgar'sMickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit (Walt Disney Family Foundation Press), a lavishly illustrated history of the Mouse in his various incarnations (not neglecting his prehistory in the Alice and Oswald cartoons). I was privileged to observe some of the work that Apgar put into assembling this book, and I suspect that only other authors who've labored to get the necessary permissions for an illustrated book can appreciate the extraordinary quality of Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit. Simply tracking down the illustrations for such a book is hard enough; obtaining permission to reproduce them, in an age when the law bends decidedly toward the copyright holder and away from the author, can be immensely frustrating as well as ruinously expensive.
And then, of course, there's the need, when a book is published under the Disney umbrella, to meet what may be, or probably will be, unreasonable demands of one kind or another, even the best books being decidedly subordinate to corporate priorities. (You'll find in Emblem a reference to Wally Wood's infamous "Disneyland Orgy" for The Realist, but not a trace of the drawing itself.) That Apgar's book has survived with so few scars is simply miraculous. I expect to have more, probably much more, to say about the book in the near future.
Giannalberto Bendazzi's name will be familiar to serious animation buffs thanks to his 1994 book Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (published in the U.S. by Indiana University Press), easily the most comprehensive account of animation's history throughout the world. Until now, that is. It has been superseded—or so I must assume, without having had time to read the new books yet—by three volumes collectively titled Animation: A World History (Focal Press). The first volume may be of the greatest interest to people who, like me, care most about the Hollywood animated cartoons of the 1930s through the 1950s (the first volume cuts off at 1950); or perhaps the later volumes, with their extensive coverage of the relatively unfamiliar animation of Europe, Asia, and Africa, may be of greater interest, since the American cartoons have been the subjects of so much research and writing. It does seem to me that a reader might have more confidence in a book's handling of unfamiliar material if its handling of the familiar is trustworthy, and I'll approach the new books in that spirit. Bendazzi had lots of collaborators on the new books, and that may be a good sign, since the world history of anything is probably too much for one person to handle. More later.
Since I gave Pixar's The Good Dinosaur a tongue-lashing in a review last month, it seems only fair to acknowledge that Chronicle Books has sent me review copies of both The Art of The Good Dinosaur and The Art of Sanjay's Super Team, that being the short that accompanied Good Dinosaur in theaters. Like earlier Pixar/Chronicle "art of " entries, the new books are handsome, and in the case of the feature rather more interesting, I'm sorry to say, than the film itself. But maybe that's because, cynic that I am, I can't help wondering how much of this art was created with the books in mind, rather than the films. It's all too easy to imagine an art director at the publishing house telling someone at Pixar, "We really need better coverage on the dinosaurs' tea party," and someone at Pixar obliging with a handsome new drawing. Not that it would make much difference—would it?
In Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, I write on pages 226-27 about Story Book Records, the little 78 rpm children's "picture records" from 1946 on which Walt Kelly told sixteen familiar stories, playing the parts of all the characters in vigorous, uninhibited performances. I own five of the eight records, and digital copies of all of them, but I was foreclosed from posting any of the records here, first by my agreement with the collector from whom I bought my digital copies, and second, where my own records are concerned, by my technical incompetence. I've posted clips from my interviews here, but those interviews are on cassette tapes; digital copies of 78 rpm records are beyond me. So, Kelly fans who've wanted to hear the master's voice haven't had many good options.
Mark also provides an illuminating comparison with the "Song of the Pogo" LP that Kelly made a decade later: "What I love about these records is that I got to experience the younger Walt Kelly when he had his full range of bass and treble and could do squeaky mouse voices or grumbling, roaring lion voices and narrate the story in his 'normal' tone of voice. As you listen to these, imagine you are watching Kelly pitch a storyboard, his pitching style was probably quite a lot like these records sound. His voice changed considerably by the time he recorded 'Go Go Pogo' and 'Lines Upon A Tranquil Brow' for the 1956 record album, 'Songs of the Pogo.' His energy fell considerably, he can barely bellow out 'Break Out the Cigars, This Life is For Squirr’ls. We’re off to the drugstore to whistle at girls.'"
I've never been able to warm up to the 1956 record, on which everyone, Kelly definitely included, seems strained and uncomfortable. Kelly's voice had indeed changed by then, diminished by a decade's worth of alcohol and cigars. The younger Kelly is much more fun to listen to.
I saw Pixar's latest feature the weekend that Disney's new Star Wars feature opened. I was one of four people in the audience for The Good Dinosaur. We saw a movie that was, I'm sure, considerably odder than the vastly more popular movie that was playing in an adjacent auditorium.
The alternative reality of The Good Dinosaur is one in which most of the dinosaurs were not wiped out by an asteroid's collision with the earth 65 million years ago, but survived instead for unspecified millions more years, ultimately sharing the planet with primitive human beings. An amusing premise, really, if you consider the comic possibilities in a dinosaur evolution that was not interrupted by a catastrophe. What if the remaining dinosaurs did not mutate eventually into birds—as scientists tell us—but changed in a different direction, becoming creatures more like us? Something like that is the premise, I gather, of the series of books under the title Dinotopia.
Perhaps it was to avoid any uncomfortable comparisons that Good Dinosaur's director, Peter Sohn, and his colleagues severely limited the number and species of the movie's dinosaurs. Arlo, the title character, his parents and his siblings are apatosaurs, close kin to the more familiar brontosaurs. Arlo encounters a trio of friendly tyrannosaurs and a somewhat larger number of raptors and pterodactyls, variously unctuous or merely vicious, but for the most part The Good Dinosaur's world is vast and empty.
Whatever his exact intentions, the story Sohn tells is unmistakably a creationist fable of the sort peddled by people who choose to read the Book of Genesis as if it were a science textbook. Slice away the opening few minutes, so that there's no mention of "millions of years," and you have not just a creationist fable but a young-earth creationist fable. Young-earth creationists believe not only that the earth and all its creatures, dinosaurs included, were created by a supreme supernatural being, but that the act of creation occured just a few thousand years ago. There's even a well-funded museum in Kentucky devoted to promoting young-earth creationism. I was tempted to visit it when I was in the vicinity a few years ago, but I decided I would almost certainly find it more sad than ridiculous.
What we see inThe Good Dinosaur—young apatosaurus and human child bonding as they elude perils in a pristine wilderness; dinosaurs and other animals from eras separated by millions of years living side by side—is exactly the sort of thing that young-earth creationists would have us believe really happened. The Good Dinosaur is set in a vivid, freshly created world in which dinosaurs have not evolved to have the opposable thumbs that would make agricultural pursuits conceivable (because evolution has never happened, you see), but have become farmers and ranchers anyway. It's probably an antediluvian world—the few human characters are in a state of nature—although creationists would argue that a healthy sampling of dinosaurs must have made it onto Noah's ark, surviving long enough to be remembered by humans as...dragons.
Well, and so what? Young-earth creationism may be silly—I certainly think so—but there's no reason a silly idea can't be the starting point for an entertaining movie. (See, for example, the 1977 movie that ignited the whole Star Wars phenomenon.) To judge from the noisy previews I saw with The Good Dinosaur, most of today's cartoon producers have embraced silliness with gusto. The Good Dinosaur is, however, a somber and exasperatingly serious movie about a stubbornly foolish subject. Its embrace of creationism smothers the imagination rather than unleashing it, and so there's none of the fun that could have been had from a movie about sentient dinosaurs who evolved to become something like people. Such a movie might have resembled Pete Docter's Monsters, Inc., one of the few truly successful Pixar features, and one of the few (Brad Bird's are others) to blend comedy with real feeling. The Good Dinosaur is instead cold and glum at its heart.
That's the title of a new book from Craig Yoe, collecting most of Walt Kelly's stories for Fairy Tale Parade, a comic book published by Dell from 1942 to 1946. Here is some of what I say about Kelly's fairy tales in my book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books: "Kelly's stories ... combine charm with the emotional openness and immediate appeal that Walt Disney's animators sought and that was such a lively novelty in early comic books. ... Kelly did not mock the fairy tales he illustrated, but he found a great deal of fun in them. That was especially true in stories whose writing was recognizably his, wholly or in part, as when he embraced the comic possibilities in a giant with two quarrelsome heads."
Thanks to Craig Yoe, it's now possible for readers without large Kelly collections to gauge such comments against almost all of Kelly's Fairy Tale Parade stories, reproduced in color—as faithfully as possible, I have no doubt—from the original comic-book pages. The comic books themselves are the only source material available, the original art having been destroyed long ago, and the photographic negatives and plates almost certainly scrapped years before Western Publishing, which produced the comic books for Dell, left the comics field in the 1980s. Add in the substandard printing that afflicted many Dell comic books during World War II, and you have some idea of the challenge that Yoe faced. He has by this time, though, published many other books from similarly difficult sources, sources that are either in the public domain (like the Kelly stories) or "orphaned" (that is, someone may own the copyright, but no one can be sure who), and that experience is visible in the new Kelly book's pages.
Walt Kelly's Fairy Tale Parade, from IDW Publishing, is a beautiful product—the title page properly credits Clizia Gussoni for that aspect—with gilt-edged pages and a markedly luxurious feel. It's a triumph, and even Kelly collectors who have the comic books on their shelves, as I do, should buy a copy. There's a foreword by Dean Yeagle and an introduction by Yoe himself, both fine as far as they go, but, truthfully, you can learn a lot more about Kelly and his comic-book work by reading Funnybooks.
As much as I like Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales, I do have one quibble, and a complaint.
My quibble is that there's no mention of the Story Book Records, the sixteen 78 rpm sides each of which was devoted to a familiar children's story narrated by Kelly in a most distinctive manner (in Funnybooks, I write of "his broad, emphatic vocal acting that is an aural equivalent of his most boisterous comic-book stories"). Only a few of the Story Book stories are true fairy tales, but exactly the same is true of most of the stories in Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales. Like his fairy-tale burlesques of the 1950s, Kelly's high-powered spoken-word versions make for interesting comparisons with his Fairy Tale Parade stories.
My complaint goes to the omission from the book of the best story in Fairy Tale Parade No. 1, "Little Black Sambo." There's no doubting why that story was omitted; it's for the same reason that the book includes a paragraph on the copyright page disavowing "representations" in its seventy-year-old stories that have become unacceptable in our "more enlightened" culture. The use of American blacks as the human characters, rather than the Asian Indians of the original version, was presumably one such "representation," but those black characters speak standard English, not in dialect, and they are drawn without offensive distortions. Kelly drew many other stories that are open to complaint on racial grounds, but "Little Black Sambo" is not one of them. It can only be the title of the story, and its unfortunate associations, that led to its condemnation. Until someone has the courage to reprint "Little Black Sambo," you can read about it, and see one page from it, by turning to pages 62-65 of Funnybooks.
This is a golden time for admirers of the cartoonists at the heart of Funnybooks—Carl Barks, John Stanley, and, of course, Walt Kelly—because so much of their work has been reprinted or soon will be. Those reprints have varied greatly in quality, because reprinting comic-book pages successfully is so difficult, especially when the original printings are the only available source material. For example, I've seen only the first volume of Hermes Press' reprinting of Kelly's complete Dell Pogo comics, but—a binding error aside–the color in that book strikes me as too bright and harsh. Walt Kelly's Fairy Tales captures more successfully the sense of what the stories looked like in their original pulp-paper incarnations.
Phyllis and I went to London for ten days earlier this month to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It was our first visit to England since 2004, when I interviewed Richard Todd and other worthies for my Disney biography. We returned home this year just a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and also, as it happened, just a few days after my 91-year-old father-in-law fell and broke his hip. A steady stream of translantic phone calls left no time to visit the British Museum or, more relevant from the vantage point of this website, to visit the Cartoon Museum or the Forbidden Planet bookstore. Maybe next time. For now, my father-in-law's health takes precedence.
That's not to say there's no time for other matters of consequence, like the lingering question of how and why Carl Barks's late-1950s stories were damaged by the inferior paper that Western Printing provided. We're closer to answers, thanks to Joakim Gunnarsson. You can read about this latest development by following this link to my page devoted to corrections and additions to my book Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books.
(Speaking of that book, it has just gone into a second printing by University of California Press. The new printing corrects errors I've identified in the first printing.)
Barks is my favorite cartoonist, and also a cultural figure whose name and work have become familiar enough that they can be cited in a wide variety of contexts with no need for a lot of apologies or explanations. The Fantagraphics reprints, which are looking better and seem to be selling well, to judge from the amazon.com rankings, are presumably contributing to that broad awareness of Barks and his work.
Patrick Garabedian sent me an editorial from the November 2 issue of Barron's, the weekly Dow Jones magazine, titled "Duckburg Economics." In warning of the danger of price controls, the editorial cites the lead stories from Uncle Scrooge No. 5 and No. 6, both published in 1954, and identifies Barks as their author. Those are the stories, you'll recall, in which the ducks visit two mythical lands, Atlantis and Tralla La. The editorial's author, Thomas G. Donlen, trusted too much to memory when writing about Tralla La—surely he owns Fantagraphics' Uncle Scrooge reprints!—but his summary is close enough.
Barks's best stories are endlessly rich, as I was reminded when for some reason my thoughts turned to the "Donald Duck" lead story in Walt Disney's Comics & Stories No. 109, October 1949. That issue was, as I wrote in 1982 in Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book, the first issue I received on the subscription to Walt Disney's Comics that was a ninth-birthday present. That "made it something special. Perhaps that was why I noticed that the ten-page Donald Duck story ... stood apart from the others.... I was very much aware of the specific California setting of the story, with, for example, its references to the Los Angeles aqueduct and desert hot springs."
The aqueduct enters the story because the nephews are trying to prove to Donald that their witching stick really can find water. When the stick tells the ducks to drill in the desert, they do so; Donald is trying to wean the nephews from their obsession, and he has attached what he calls a "power digger," one of Barks's wonderfully solid and authentic-looking tools, to the rear of his car. But when Donald does drill into water, it's by piercing the aqueduct.
As I failed to note in 1982, that was undoubtedly a criminal act when the story was published, but Donald's response is not to try to explain his mistake to someone in authority but to get away as quickly as possible ("We daren't go back to the highway! Cops will be swarming this way like flies!"). Not the honorable thing to do, obviously, but exactly what most people would do in those circumstances. And when Donald is finally persuaded of the stick's powers, he responds not by apologizing to the nephews for his skepticism, but by appropriating the stick for his own uses, and shutting the nephews out of his new business.
Would that story, with its unmistakable lapses in the behavior of its principal character, pass muster with today's moral guardians if it were being offered not to adult collectors but to children? I doubt it. But even though there's nothing particularly admirable in anything that Donald does, there's much more substance to him in this story, and in many others by Barks, than there is to any other comics character I could name. In a medium that has always been dominated by shallowness and falsity, Donald is that great rarity, a real person.
A representative page from the 48-page story that fills Zane Grey's Wilderness Trek, Dell Four Color Comic No. 333, 1951. Adapted by Gaylord DuDois, illustrated by Moe Gollub (who hated to letter, thus the unfortunate mechanical lettering in this and other stories).
Reading Gaylord DuBois
A few weeks ago, I posted an item asking that my visitors consider posting a favorable comment about one or another of my books on amazon.com, if they were so inclined. A number of people responded as I hoped, with substantial comments that showed they'd actually read the books. I particularly enjoyed Harry McCracken's comment about Funnybooks, not just because he liked the book but also because he disagreed with some of what I said in it: "I'm still not entirely clear on why he devoted as much space to a writer named Gaylord DuBois as he did, and I wished for a little more on Paul Murry than the one passing mention he got." I'm happy to have the opportunity, thanks to Harry, to revisit what I've written.
I have no regrets about giving so little attention to Murry, who was, like so many of his "funny animal" peers, a terribly limited cartoonist compared with Carl Barks (whose work Murry scorned). Murry relied on a set of stock poses and expressions, executed with an emphasis that partly concealed how ordinary they were. A direct comparison of the two cartoonists is possible, since Murry illustrated panel-by-panel copies of at least two Barks stories, including a 1960 version of "The Gilded Man" from Donald Duck Four Color No. 422, 1952. The comparison is not flattering to Murry.
It's a little more difficult for me to justify the attention I pay to DuBois—a full defense would require that I quote too much from the pages I devote to him in Funnybooks. For me, tracing DuBois's career was a way to understand what life was like for a comic-book writer in the 1940s, and, more than that, a way to distinguish the Dell line from its competitors. As I write near the start of a chapter I devote to DuBois, his scripts "set the tone for the whole Dell line, which was free of almost everything that was lurid and morbid and generally excessive in competitors' comic books. ... [B]ecause DuBois's scripts were more archetypally 'Dell' than anyone else's—because they established a baseline—they opened the way for other creators who preferred to work in the same vein. There was in the Dell comic books the opportunity to make much better stories than the comic-book industry usually permitted."
That's exactly right, I still think. Since I wrote Funnybooks, I've revisited a number of stories with DuBois scripts, and I've come away with my respect for his work enhanced. I like the stories in Gene Autry Comics that Jesse Marsh illustrated, and I realized when I read one of them recently that it fit perfectly my description of the DuBois stories in which "his characters calmly work through practical problems." And, sure enough, the listing of DuBois's work compiled from his own records shows that he wrote a few Gene Autry stories at just the right time. I like the DuBois scripts illustrated by Moe Gollub, too, such as those for the early issues of Lassie and some of the Zane Grey adaptations. The best of those stories, written and drawn almost seventy years ago, have what is for me an appealing nineteenth-century flavor: calm and ordered, script and drawings speaking together as if in a strong and measured voice. DuBois was, after all, born in 1899, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne.
Another prominent writer for Western Printing's comic books (excluding writer-cartoonists like Barks and John Stanley) was Paul S. Newman, who was twenty-five years DuBois's junior and began writing for Western about ten years after DuBois. Newman is best known, probably, for his scripts for The Lone Ranger and Turok Son of Stone and the Gold Key title Doctor Solar. He was prolific, and like DuBois, he documented his work. We know what Newman wrote; my problem was, when I was writing Funnybooks, that I couldn't identify anything he wrote that I found particularly interesting. I remember disliking The Lone Ranger, both the writing and Tom Gill's drawings, when I was buying all the Dell comics in the 1950s, but surveying the list of Newman's work now, I don't see anything that sticks out, either good or bad. Perhaps it was just that Newman's timing was unfortunate; he came aboard as it was becoming more and more difficult to write really good comic-book stories of the kind Western had been publishing.
I wound up not mentioning Newman at all in Funnybooks, and I didn't mention any number of other writers and artists whose work I don't dislike, exactly, but that I think offers too little to admire (Dan Spiegle comes immediately to mind). No one has challenged me on Newman's omission, or on other points that I thought might provoke discussion. Testimony, perhaps, to the clubbishness that prevails in comic books as in animation, and that weighs against serious efforts to separate the four-color wheat from the four-color chaff. (If Tony Strobl is, as I've read, a great cartoonist, what does that make Carl Barks?) So, thanks again to Harry McCracken for breaking the silence.
Garry Apgar, editor of A Mickey Mouse Reader and author of the forthcoming Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit, has written this guest post on the Disney artist James Bodrero, the subject of multiple posts here in the last few months. Bodrero was a fascinating character, and as Garry has learned, his brother was a very interesting fellow in his own right.
As you said in your lead-in to Gray’s interview (posted in 2008),
Jim Bodrero differed considerably from most of the other people who worked at the Disney studio when he did (1938-1946). He was older—older than Walt Disney himself—and vastly more sophisticated and socially well connected.
Among his contributions to the production of Disney feature-length cartoons were character sketches and concept drawings like the pastel (above) for the “Pastoral Symphony” segment of Fantasia, auctioned by Howard Lowery in 2013 (hammer price: $1,560.00).
As you noted, too, in your intro to Gray’s Q&A, Cornelius “Corny” Cole, who worked for a while as an in-betweener on Lady and the Tramp,was Bodrero’s nephew by marriage. But Jim Bodrero had another, even closer family tie to Walt’s operation in the person of a younger brother named Alessandro.
An online death notice in the Los Angeles Times (December 18, 2002) states that Alessandro S. (“Vee”) Bodrero was born on May 1, 1909 in France, and died in Malibu on December 5, 2002. Jim, as you learned from his daughter, Lydia Hoy, was born in 1900 in Belgium.The Times notice also had this to say about Alessandro Bodrero:
Beloved husband for 65 years of the late Jean Strachan, who passed away in Oct. 2001, father of Alexa, John and Victoria, grandfather of three and uncle of seven. Vee was a pioneer air pilot in Southern California. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the Marines during WWII. After the war Vee worked as a cameraman in the film and TV industry beginning at Disney Studios in the early days, then Desilu and Paramount, and USO Tours with Bob Hope. Vee will be remembered with much love and affection by his family and friends. He was a uniquely talented individual, a great storyteller and a fine craftsman.
There is a short entry on Alessandro Bodrero on the Internet Movie Database website, although, like the Times obit, it makes no mention of Jim, which—if the two men were related—is odd . . . unless, perhaps, they or their families were estranged.
Another website, Wikitree, does, however, list a sister and two brothers for Jim Bodrero: Lydia, Gian, and Alessandro. In addition, records from Ellis Island indicate that a Catherine Bodrero, age 35, arrived in New York from England on April 11, 1910, aboard the SS Minnewaska with four children in tow: James (age nine), Lydia (eight), Gian Giacomo (three), and Alexander (eleven months). The mother, née Spalding, was an American citizen. She made the voyage having by then, presumably, separated from her spouse. In its March 31, 1939 edition, the Palm Beach Daily News reported that Catherine had divorced her Italian husband, Alessandro Boldero, “some years ago.”
I’ve found just one photograph of Vee Bodrero (apparently also nicknamed “Vitty”). The description of the image reproduced below right, in the collections of the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif., identifies him as “assistant to Jim Algar in the making of the Disney motion picture 'Ten Who Dared'.” The snapshot, taken by J. Ballard Atherton in June 1959, is among the Papers of Otis R. Marston at the Huntington. Otis “Dock” Marston was a technical advisor on this live-action film produced by Algar, which premiered on October 18, 1960. Ten Who Dared may have been one of Vee Bodrero’s last assignments at Disney.
Precisely when Vee’s relationship with Disney ended is unclear, but it began far earlier than indicated by the Times death notice. He was hired on April 13, 1939, six months after brother Jim, who joined the studio on October 3, 1938. Prior to the war, Alessandro worked in the Camera Department (“Production Camera”). That might be him standing in the background of the George Hurrell publicity shot of Walt above left, taken in the early 1940s. Both figures have the same lean physique and the same longish shape and subtle tilt of the head.
Alessandro’s position in “Production Camera” is mentioned in a wedding announcement in the September 8, 1939 issue of the studio’s mimeographed in-house newsletter, The Bulletin (vol. 2, no. 10, p. 1):
Like his brother, Alessandro Bodrero was one of many fascinating people employed by Walt Disney over the years. There must still be much to discover about him.
For instance, the Findagrave website offers no indication regarding where he or his ashes may have been laid to rest. But it does give Vittorio as his middle name—as opposed to the middle initial “S” reported in the Times death notice, in Disney personnel records, and in military records as well—which might explain the origin of the nickname Vee. Findagrave.com, incidentally, also specifies Jim Bodrero’s birthplace in Belgium as Liège.
Regarding Vee’s military rank during World War II, the L.A. Times notice also got that wrong. He was never a Lieutenant Colonel. Nor was his wartime service his first stint in the Marines. According to official records, he first enlisted in the Corps in Los Angeles on January 7, 1935 and underwent recruit training in San Diego. He then served with Service Squadron 2M, Observation Squadron 8M, and Utility Squadron 2M. Presumably, these units were stationed at Camp Kearny in San Diego, future site of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Vee Bodrero was, it seems, discharged soon after December 1938, following a four-year tour of duty. The comment in the Times obit that he “was a pioneer air pilot in Southern California” may reflect an interest in aviation developed during his service at Camp Kearny. It also might indicate a passion for flight that predated and prompted his enlistment in the Marines in the first place.
According to Marine Corps documents, Vee re-enlisted in January 1943 (one year and one month after Pearl Harbor), with the rank of Staff Sergeant, and was sent to Quantico, Virginia, for officer training. The first issue of the in-house wartime studio publication Dispatch from Disney’s (1943) reported that he was stationed at Quantico in the Animation Unit of the Marine Corps Photographic Section. He subsequently served as an intelligence officer in Marine Bombing Squadron 611 (VMB-611), which reached the South West Pacific Theater of Operations in late October 1944 on board the SS Zoella Lykes. He is listed as “Boderero” on the unit’s website, with the rank of 1st Lieutenant.
In January 1946 Alessandro was a member of the Wing Service Squadron 1 in Tsingtao, China, By July 1946, he’d been assigned to the 11th Reserve District in San Diego, where—still a 1st Lieutenant—his active duty came to an end. As recorded in the Register of Retired Commissioned and Warrant Officers, Regular and Reserve, of the United States Navy and Marine Corps (Bureau of Naval Personnel, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), upon his retirement from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1959, the rank of Captain was the highest grade he attained during his career.
Ironically, roughly three years after Vee left the “rapidly thinning ranks of the studio’s” bachelor corps and, in 1943, rejoined the ranks of the United States Marine Corps, he found himself almost literally at war with his father and namesake. Alessandro Bodrero the elder—who bore the honorific title of Commendatore—was an army general and high-level diplomat in the service of Hitler’s chief European ally. In the words of historian Luca de Caprariis, Generale Bodrero (1865-1953) had once been “Mussolini’s personal emissary to King Alexander of Yugoslavia and from 1924 to 1928 Minister in Belgrade, was one of the few hard-liners” in the Italian diplomatic service. In 1939 the Palm Beach Daily News reported that Bodrero held “an important position in Ethiopia,” which Italy had occupied in 1936.
The Camera Department at Disney spawned at least one other Marine Corps officer during the war. On September 22, 1942, Walt signed a “To Whom It May Concern” letter on behalf of Clyde W. Batchelder, in support of his application for a commission in the Marines (he eventually rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel). In Walt’s letter, he stated that Batchelder had “been with our organization since June, 1934,” and gave his current position “as head of our Camera Department.” If the man standing behind Disney in that George Hurrell photo is not Vee Bodrero it might be Clyde Batchelder.
I am grateful to the following individuals for their help in establishing many key facts in this post about Bodrero’s career in the Marine Corps and at Disney: Dr. Luca de Caprariis, Professor of Modern European History, John Cabot University, Rome, Italy; David Lesjak, author of Service with Character: The Disney Studios and World War II (Theme Park Press, 2014); LtCol Dennis “Lloyd” Hager II, USMC; and Annette Amerman, Branch Head, Historical Inquiries and Research Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, Va.
I was in Chicago for a few days last week, on a trip that had no animation/comics connections at all—until, that is, I was walking up North Clark Street, a few blocks south of the Newberry Library, and this sign jumped out at me. Not a bad hotel, either, to judge from the Trip Advisor reviews.
Geoff Blum, Michael Hodous, and I have just concluded a wonderfully geeky email conversation about Carl Barks's late-1950s work, specifically when and how his drawings showed the effects of the clay-coated paper about which Carl complained on multiple occasions. You can go directly to my post about our exchange, on my errata page for Funnybooks, by clicking on this link for page 326.
I'm very pleased with that errata page in general, not just because it has given me the opportunity to correct my mistakes (very few of them so far, I'm happy to say) but also because it has provided a venue for additional information about the comic books and creators that interest me most.
And speaking of Barks, it has been a while since I recommended the Carl Barks Fan Club Pictorial, published by Joseph and Barbara Cowles, Barks fans of very long standing. The CBFCP has reached its eighth issue (plus a separate "potpourri" compilation of material from a predecessor newsletter), all available through amazon.com. These are beautifully produced books, and if you're a Barks fan and not familiar with the series, you owe it to yourself to sample at least one issue.
Contrary to my expectations, I did wind up watching most of the first part of PBS' two-part American Experience extravaganza on Walt Disney—at my wife's insistence, since I make two very brief appearances in it. As I first feared and then expected, it was awful. Sloppy, distorted, inaccurate—all of those adjectives could be called into play, with no fear of contradiction from me. Some aspects of the show, like Ron Suskind's prominent role, were simply bizarre. An occasional bright spot, like a bit of unfamiliar archival film, could not come close to making up for the show's shortcomings. I didn't see the last two hours, which may have been a little better. For full evaluations of the show by writers more knowledgeable about Walt Disney, and sympathetic to him, than American Experience's producers, I can recommend posts by Jim Korkis and Todd Pierce. [An October 21, 2015, update: I overlooked an excellent commentary on the PBS show by Floyd Norman, the veteran Disney animator and writer. It's on his blog, at this link.]
I sat for another TV interview ten days ago, in New York—I flew up for the day from Washington, where Phyllis and I were house-sitting for our former next-door neighbors—and I thought it went better than my PBS ordeal. (For one thing, my stomach was much more cooperative.) But as with PBS, I came away thinking that most and maybe all of what I said was destined for the trash.
When I was conducting interviews myself, hundreds of them, for my books and Nation's Business magazine, I always tried to prepare thoroughly, so that I had a lot of questions in mind, and I tried to make the tape recorder as inconspicuous as possible during the interview (I've never interviewed anyone on camera). A good interview, to my mind, was like an extended conversation whose shape was not foreordained, and that just happened to yield words suitable for publication. In my experience, TV people usually approach interviews very differently: they come into an interview with a story line already firmly established, so that your job, if you're the person being interviewed, becomes to provide pithy comments that will amplify what the producers think they already know. Add the bright lights and cables and technicians that TV requires, and when you're being interviewed you can feel like a gangster getting the third degree in an old movie. It's all a matter of money, of course; those machines and those people cost a lot of it, so for a TV producer minimizing uncertainty easily trumps coddling superannuated authors.
TV interviews are made to order for someone like Neal Gabler, who is adept at spotting opportunities to serve up pungent morsels about, say, the darkness in Walt Disney's soul. If, however, in responding to questions you tend to address directly what you think are misconceptions or inaccuracies, you create problems for the producers that they are likely to resolve by eliminating you from the show. In my latest interview, I was so impolitic as to suggest, among other things, that Elias Disney was not an ogre, that the Disney studio was not in financial distress in the 1930s, and that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not a daring gamble that many people believed would fail.
On the latter point, the interviewer rather triumphantly pointed out that Walt and Roy had put up their library of cartoons as collateral when they borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Bank of America to finish Snow White. Didn't that prove something? I was too flummoxed by the question to answer adequately, but of course that transaction proved, if anything, that the bank had a lot of confidence in Walt and in the value of his cartoons, the older shorts and the new feature alike. And there was certainly nothing strange about a bank's wanting collateral for a large loan.
I'll hope for the best from the new show (whose particulars may not have been announced yet, so I won't announce them here). What I won't expect is to see or hear much of myself.
That misbegotten PBS show "Walt Disney" has on its website a list of "related books and websites." It's a rather peculiar list that includes only one book by John Canemaker (and that one not directly concerned with Disney) and only one by J.B. Kaufman. My first thought when I skimmed the list was that "authorized" books like Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe (2010) and Kaufman's South of the Border with Disney (2009) had been excluded because of their Disney affiliation, but that's not the case. The list includes a number of such books, some of them manifestly inferior to excluded Canemaker and Kaufman titles. So who knows what eccentric or peevish principles of selection were at work.
I wrote a few years ago, in a review I titled "The Approved Narrative," about the constraints under which the authors of Disney-authorized (and, increasingly, Disney-published) books now operate, and about how a few authors, Canemaker and Kaufman chief among them, have managed to produce estimable work despite those constraints—and, it must be added, despite limited interest among most reviewers and book buyers outside the claustrophobic world of Disney fans. It's no wonder that so many official Disney books simply recycle the same facts and illustrations that previous authors have used, and it's a cause for rejoicing when a few authors break free of those constraints,discovering and publishing neglected artwork and performing original research that refreshes our awareness of what we may have thought was overly familiar. It's wonderful to be reminded of just how extraordinary Walt Disney's studio was in its heyday.
Three new (or in one case, recent) books deserve extended reviews that I can't give them yet—I've been spending too much time doing other things, like preparing interviews for publication here—but that's no reason not to buy them as quickly as you can. Thanks to their authors' credentials and the richness of their illustrations, all these books are self-recommending.
At the top of my list is Didier Ghez's They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Golden Age (Chronicle), a gorgeous book that reproduces hundreds of pieces of concept art from the 1930s by Albert Hurter, Gustaf Tenggren, Ferdinand Horvath, and Bianca Majolie. I've done no more yet than skim the text, but Didier's record for comprehensiveness and accuracy, established beyond cavil in Disney's Grand Tour (2014), his account of Walt and Roy's 1935 visit to Europe, appears to be completely intact. The interesting question is how his new book measures up against Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins (1996), which covers much of the same ground, and I can't answer that with any confidence yet. My best guess is that anyone with a serious interest in the Disney studio's history will want both books, and will be very satisfied with both purchases.
My one reservation, which I've voiced about some of Canemaker's books, is that I'm not sure a biographical approach is always the most productive when dealing with a collaborative medium like animation. But I'm open to persuasion, and looking forward to spending much more time with Didier's book than I've been able to so far.
J.B. Kaufman's Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic (Walt Disney Family Foundation) is devoted not to a group of artists, but to a single film, as with his The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (2012). Like the earlier book, Pinocchio is richly illustrated, but considering how much artwork from Pinocchio has already seen print, the greatest weight of interest falls necessarily on the text. I read the book in manuscript a few years ago and found very little to complain about. In Pinocchio, as always, Kaufman is a researcher non pareil, piecing together the story of the film's making from countless bits of information in the Walt Disney Archives, Disney's Animation Research Library, and many other sources. A more complete and accurate account of Pinocchio's production is impossible to imagine.
My reservations go less to Kaufman's performance than to the film itself. As I've argued in my own Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, Pinocchio is problematic in a number of crucial areas, especially in its handling of the title character. Unless Kaufman revised his manuscript after I read it—and I don't think he made any significant changes—he didn't address any of my concerns. That's his author's prerogative, and the book remains excellent on its own terms. I can't help but regret, though, that it was published not by an "outside" company, like Chronicle Books, the publisher of Didier Ghez's book, but by the publishing arm of the Walt Disney Family Foundation. That affiliation has probably ruled out very much serious attention outside the Disney biosphere.
Now we need a full-scale examination of Fantasia, preferably by John Canemaker. That's not to say Kaufman wouldn't do an excellent job, only that Canemaker's devotion to the film, and his own strengths as a researcher and author, make him the ideal choice to write a Fantasia book that would supplant John Culhane's unsatisfactory effort from 1988. In the meantime, I still need to finish reading Canemaker's most recent and possibly most important book, The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic (2014). With any luck, I'll have all three of these important new books read and reviewed within the next few months.
Not that I think that anyone is waiting desperately to learn what I think of them. Anyone besides me, that is. I often don't know what I think about a book or a film until I've reduced my thoughts to words, and that will certainly be the case here. I'm looking forward to reading my own reviews.
I met Jay Ward twice, both times at the Ward studio on Sunset Boulevard. Both times, I was there to interview Lew Keller, and the studio was, as best I recall, empty except for Jay and Lew. (Jay's wife Billie was still
running Dudley Do-Right's Emporium, which sold licensed merchandise with the Ward characters next door.) The first meeting was in December 1986, and I remember Jay coming into the room where Lew and I were sitting, seeing that an interview was in progress, and beating a very hasty retreat. He was highly allergic to interviews, even, I suppose, other people's.
That interview with Lew Keller, about his studio work before he went with Ward, was a disaster. Electrical interference of some kind filled most of the tape. I got together with Lew again two and a half years later, in 1989, again at the Ward studio, although we adjourned to a coffee shop across the street to reduce the risk of electrical problems. I spoke with Jay again, this time making of a point of saying to him, as I stuck my head in his office, that I'd seen Lloyd Turner in Oregon just a couple of weeks before. This time, Jay smiled and didn't bolt from his desk, and we talked briefly about Turner, whom we both liked very much, before I returned to Lew.
I thought about those visits to the Ward studio when I first saw Darrell Van Citters' beautiful book, The Art of Jay Ward Productions (Oxberry Press, 2013). That book is filled with model sheets and other drawings that I'm sure I saw as yellowed photocopies on the studio's walls. As Darrell says, those drawings are greatly superior to what wound up on the screen, after the cartoons were animated in Mexico. I think I'd say that thanks to those model sheets and such, Darrell's book is not just more pleasing to look at than the cartoons, but funnier, too. I loved the Ward cartoons when both they and I were new, decades ago, but when I've seen them again more recently, I've been disappointed.
Probably they're a little disappointed in me, too.
If you haven't shared my disappointment, you should seek out this excellent book, and, while you're at it, Keith Scott's classic history of the Ward studio, The Moose That Roared (2001). I haven't lined up the two books for close comparison of their accounts of Ward history—I'm just not that interested in the Ward cartoons—but I'm pretty sure they're complementary. Anyone who enjoys the Ward cartoons as much as I used to should probably have both.
I've never wanted to beg for favorable reviews on amazon.com, but saddled as I am with publishers who recoil at the thought of promoting or selling my books, I don't think I have much choice. (As one example, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney has been "temporarily out of stock" for weeks, coincidentally since just about the time I alerted my editor that I would make a cameo appearance on PBS's "Walt Disney.")
So, if you've enjoyed Funnybooks or The Animated Man or Hollywood Cartoons, and you feel the urge to tell the world about it through a comment on amazon, please do so. I would truly appreciate it.
That's all for the next few weeks. See you in early October, probably.
Here's a link to a review I think you can trust. Thank you, G. Michael Dobbs, for giving me back the four hours of my life I might otherwise have spent watching this blighted documentary. Ken Burns, where were you when we needed you?
I'm sure everyone who visits this site is aware by now that PBS' American Experience will devote four hours to a biography of Walt Disney, spread across two nights, September 14 and 15. I was interviewed for the show, which is titled simply "Walt Disney," early last year in Boston. I haven't seen "Walt Disney," but the producers say that I'll be in the September 14 installment—very briefly, I gather, from what I've been told by a person who has seen the whole thing. I was unwell the morning I was interviewed, thanks to something I ate the previous evening, and if the recorded interview betrayed my unease, that would have been reason enough to minimize my contribution.
Other considerations may also have been at work. The promotional clips that have turned up on Facebook and American Experience's website, totaling perhaps twenty minutes so far—that is, a fair sampling of the whole show, especially since the idea must have been to make it seem as attractive as possible—have been disappointing, to say the least. My fellow interviewees seem to have included a surfeit of fatuous academics, including at least one Marxist crank. It was understandably hard, almost fifty years after Walt's death, to round up a few people who knew him personally, but, rather than rely on archival footage of important Disney employees and friends, the show offers new interviews not just with reliable sources like Floyd Norman and Richard Sherman but also with the barely marginal, like Ruthie Tompson and Bob Givens.
To judge from the clips, "Walt Disney" will also serve up more than enough Neal Gabler and his factitious view that Walt was a strange man with "darkness" at his core. Gabler is a skilled TV performer, chipper as a chipmunk—he has put to good use his experience as the liberal punching bag on a Fox News show—and it's no wonder that the American Experience people found him an attractive interview subject. It's too bad that so much of what he writes and says is simply wrong.
I don't remember in any detail what I said in my own interview, but I can't imagine that it fit very snugly with what people like Gabler had to say. I'm sure, for one thing, that I rejected the popular view that Walt's father, Elias, was a brutal ogre. That may be one big reason I wound up on the cutting-room floor. No doubt I departed from orthodoxy in other ways.
I'll record both installments of "Walt Disney," but as it happens I have conflicts that will prevent me from watching "live." Phyllis and I will leave for our old home town of Alexandria, Virginia, on September 16, and we won't be home for much of the following few weeks, so I have no idea when I'll see "Walt Disney," or if I'll see the show at all. I've watched myself on TV before, so that's no lure—quite the opposite—and certainly I can't get excited about seeing more of Gabler. Not watching the show is more attractive the more I think about it.
The American Experience website speaks of gaining "unprecedented access to the Disney archives," and the show's executive producer, Mark Samels, says that PBS insisted on, and got, complete editorial control. I thought all that sounded familiar, and sure enough, when I pulled Gabler's Walt Disney off the shelf, I found claims of exactly the same sort. "Gabler is the first writer to be given complete access to the Disney archives," the dust jacket announces, and in his acknowledgments Gabler thanks the Disney executive Howard Green for sparing him from having "to submit the manuscript to the studio for approval. ... I did not seek nor did I receive a company imprimatur." In both cases, as we know for certain with Gabler's book and as seems likely with the PBS show, this hands-off posture effectively endorsed a badly distorted portrait of Walt.
That's not to say that either Gabler or PBS should have been locked out of those fabled Disney archives, only that other independent writers and filmmakers should have been allowed in, as I was back in the 1990s. There's something odd about a situation in which people like Gabler and the PBS producers—that is, people with an entirely predictable skepticism about Walt Disney and his creations—are welcomed into the company's treasure rooms, while people who have written sympathetically and accurately about Walt are regarded with suspicion and hostility, and made to pay handsomely for what little help they get. One might almost think that the current Disney management is happy to see Walt denigrated by respectable sources like PBS, because such criticism discourages invidious comparisons with his successors. A sad thought, but draw your own conclusions.
Nine years ago, I posted ten pages of drafts—the scene-by-scene records of who animated what—for cartoon portions of the Disney feature Song of the South, with a promise to post more later. I wondered at the time how much interest there was in such things, although my own interest has always been high. Back in the 1990s, I waded through many hundreds of draft pages at the Disney Archives, before outside researchers were banned, and I've always found drafts highly illuminating, not just about who animated what but about how cartoon producers and directors marshaled their talent.
My skepticism about other people's level of interest in drafts seemed to be justified by the silence that greeted my publication of the Song of the South drafts, but in the last few years I've had a trickle of inquiries about when I'd post more of the drafts, and other people have posted other drafts on their own websites, attracting at least a modest response. Hans Perk has been far and away the most prolific, posting many Disney drafts, and Devon Baxter, at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site, has been posting drafts for short cartoons from many differerent studios and directors, most recently—and most intriguingly—the draft for The Night Watchman, the first cartoon Chuck Jones directed at the Schlesinger studio.
November 2014: Funnybooks struggles into print, Frank Frazetta's animation art, Bob Hope and Bugs Bunny, what jazz's history has to say about animation's, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston interviewed in July 1987.
October 2014: Reviews of new Disney books, including A Mickey Mouse Reader, how animation became the confusion of life, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston interviewed in October 1976.
September 2014: Being puzzled by Deja and Keane, the difference between Disney and "Disney."
August 2014: More on the Dell pinups, vintage photos from my 1971 visit to Disneyland.
July 2014: The Dell Comics Club, a batch of book reviews, the passing of Sody Clampett, a better picture of Carl Barks, "internal" versus "instrumental" motives in the animation industry.
June 2014: The Fairest One of All reviewed, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Carl Barks's first published work, Walt and Diane Disney in Chicago in 1943, more on "concept art," the myth of the missing Disney credits, Felidae.
May 2014: Disney's Grand Tour, "concept art," Little Lulu's cinematic debut.
April 2014: Sick Little Monkeys, a Funnybooks update, a memorial celebration for Michael Sporn, Walt Disney's skeptical supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad.
March 2014: John Stanley's 100th birthday, remembering Michael Sporn and Robin Allan, seeing Frozen and Saving Mr. Banks.
August 2011: New collections of classic Disney comics, the Corny Cole interview, Chuck Jones enshrined at a casino, Dave Hand on ones and twos, is innocence bliss when watching cartoons?
July 2011: Mystery men at Disney's Hyperion studio, The Illusionist.
June 2011: Inking at Disney's in 1931, the Fred Kopietz interview.
May 2011: New Disney books, problems with interviews, the passing of the great collector Bill Blackbeard.
April 2011: More on Walt's church in Chicago and the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Lynn Karp interviewed.
March 2011: John Hubley and Milt Kahl interviewed, Roger Armstrong remembers life at the Lantz studio in 1944-45, Walt Disney visits Evanston, Illinois, on the Fourth of July 1957.
February 2011: Tim Walker and Mark Kausler, the Bob McKimson interview and more McKimson matter, the Huffington Post stirs up a storm.
January 2011: Flogging the Dell/Disney comic books, Tangled, potpourris of items about Walt Disney and Bob Clampett and new books, Glen Keane speaks about Tangled in French, a "Flying Gauchito" mystery, Walt meets Princess Margaret and suffers under a double standard.
November 2010: Carl Stalling on acetate, lost Laugh-O-grams found, Børge Ring on Alice in Wonderland, Tim Susanin's book.
October 2010: Books: Jim Korkis's Vault of Walt, Craig Yoe's Felix, John Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe and J. B. Kaufman's South of the Border with Disney.
September 2010: John Benson on Avatar and IMAX 3-D, Mike Maltese and his Bugs Bunny painting, Craig Yoe writes, Satoshi Kon, The Ducktators in the flesh, Chronicle Books' animation volumes.
July 2010: Toy Story 3, Milt Gray's web comic strip, sad news about Roy Rogers and Harvey Pekar, my 1997 interview with John K., more on the mysterious Mortimer Mouse, reprinted comic books.
June 2010: Dave Smith retires, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Barks on a T-shirt, Waking Sleeping Beauty.
May 2010: "Mickey Mouse" and D-Day, animation: the delusion of life, Børge Ring on Jack Kinney, my visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, George Sherman's Barks painting, more on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book.
April 2010:How to Train Your Dragon, Carl Barks tells how he worked, Fantasia and the fundamentalists
March 2010: More on the Dumbo Roll-A-Book, questions for Walt Disney, the "family tree" of animation, a 1967 gathering of pioneers at Montreal, Dumbo's premiere, Dumbo in print, Walt's adventures in the Ivy League, Fess Parker remembered.
February 2010: The mysterious Dumbo Roll-A-Book, Oscars and Annies, Disney and Tolkien.
January 2010: More on The Princess and the Frog, Kurtzman's Humbug, Dumbo's crows, The Animated Man in Italy, Richard Todd and Walt Disney on the set.
December 2009:The Princess and the Frog and Fantastic Mr. Fox, a cel fire at the Mintz studio, Richard Todd, Roy Edward Disney, Hal Sintzenich's diaries, more hot air from an "archivist."
November 2009: On the sidewalk with Charlie Mintz, a visit to Saint Louis, when Fantasia spread out, on the barricades with Art Babbitt.
October 2009: "Sincerity," Ward Kimball photographs R. Crumb, Walt Kelly writes to Walt Disney, losing illusions in today's Hollywood animation business, more on Walt Disney at Harvard (and Yale), Art Spiegelman in Arkansas, the Walt Disney Family Museum opens its doors.
September 2009: What Walt Disney was doing in London in 1935 and New York in 1940, George Winkler and Andrew Stone and Charlie Mintz, Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell, Dr. Seuss' advertising films, Li'l Eight Ball's disappearance from comic books, shipboard with Walt and family in 1949, the curious case of Mortimer Mouse.
August 2009: Carl Barks on exhibit in Baltimore, the mystery of Barks's Donald Duck, Lillian Disney speaks in public, early omens on The Princess and the Frog, Classic Children's Comics, Walt Disney in Ireland, home again from a long summer journey.
June 2009: Taking a summer break, Egghead and Elmer, more on Sita Sings the Blues, Pixar's Up, the role of words and drawings in early Disney story work.
May 2009: Reading the funnies in bulk, Keith Lango's ideas about "visual harmony," Walt Disney goes to Harvard, John Canemaker goes to Kansas City, Sita Sings the Blues, Disney and Columbia, fictitious "Walt Disneys" on stage and screen, David Gerstein's blog, Monsters vs. Aliens, more on Dave Hand, Milt Kahl as "the animation Michelangelo."
April 2009: Easter greetings from Warner Bros. Cartoons, Børge Ring on David Hand, Ken Annakin, Dick Huemer, Floyd Norman, Ferguson's flypaper sequence revisited, Disney's walled garden, Don Bluth, the Walt Disney Family Museum, Bob Clampett's secret life.
March 2009: Walt Kelly comics from Fairy Tale Parade, Chuck Jones on TCM, Walt Disney at Dumbo's premiere, Emil Flohri, Coraline, Watchmen, in the Disney music rooms in 1931, a case of mistaken identity, ten years of Hollywood Cartoons.
February 2009: Acting in animation, with a riveting memory of Bill Tytla, Coraline, 3-D pro and con, cartoon cocktails, the first Disney annual report, Marceline faces from Walt Disney's time, a Marceline myth.
January 2009: "The Three Little Pigs" as drawn by Walt Kelly, Ted Eshbaugh's studio in 1931, "card check" in 1941 and 2009, The Tale of Despereaux, Walt Disney sails from Chile to New York on the Santa Clara.
December 2008:The Spirit on the screen, cartoon directors' Christmas cards, trying to identify a mystery man, books: Spirited Away, Popeye, and The Animated Man, Bolt and Madagascar 2, Dave Hilberman's FBI file.
November 2008: Back from Italy, live-action Disney on Turner Classic Movies.
October 2008:The Wall Street Journal on Pixar and Disney,Walt at the keyboard, Chuck Jones and Eddie Selzer, Chuck at MGM, "Directors and Directions," salvaging Disney's California Adventure, Walt Disney's attitude toward women, "Of Cabbages and Kleins," The Perfect American as novel and opera, on the set of Invitation to the Dance.
September 2008: Visiting J. R. Bray, Ben Sharpsteen and his museum, Elias Disney in his own words, the ancestral Disney lands in Ontario, a book ban in Burbank.
August 2008: Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising remembered, Michael Sporn's role on The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, more on Wertham, Sporn DVDs.
July 2008: More Looney Tunes on DVD, WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda, Walt Disney's stump, Bill Tytla's voice, Disney anniversaries, Wertham's locked vault, Schulz and Peanuts demolished, more on Walt and Dolores.
May-June 2008: Walt Disney's Kansas City building, Walt and polo (and polo-related deaths), Japanese features, Walt and Dolores Del Rio, late-period Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett in Canada, Walt Disney meets Robert Taylor in 1938 and visits Marceline and Saint Louis in 1946, the post-modern Goofy, The Colored Cartoon.
April 2008: The Jones-Avery letter, what Walt Disney really thought about Goofy, the "Censored 11," Borge Ring on Hans Perk, remembering Ollie Johnston, Two Days in the Life: Kansas City, 1922, more on Walt Disney's 1922 want ads, Walt's skeptical supervisor at Kansas City Film Ad, Bob Clampett and Ollie Johnston share a table, the Schulz kidnaping, Nick Cross and The Waif of Persephone.
March 2008: Walt Disney's want ads in 1922, Dick Huemer's Buck O'Rue, A Day in the Life: Disney, January 1930 and February 1927, A Day in the Life: Walt Kelly, 1955, The Animated Man in trade paper, Walt Disney meets Yma Sumac and visits Atlanta, responding to complaints about negative criticism, Bob Clampett at work, "What Would Bob Do?"
February 2008: Walt Disney and Joan Bennett in 1942, an interview with Elias and Flora Disney, debate about Buckaroo Bugs, Emery Hawkins at Lantz, Walt Disney in England, Carl Barks's first issue of Uncle Scrooge, Jim Bodrero interview, photos of Warner story man Lloyd Turner, remembering Roger Armstrong.
January 2008: Dell comic books, Ward Kimball, Chuck Jones, Joe Grant and hero worship, more on writing for animation (and why some people spread falsehoods about it), Walt Disney's 1934 trip to Hawaii, Hanna-Barbera celebrated in a book, Bob Clampett, Satoshi Kon, more on the voices of Walt's Alice.
December 2007: Writing for animation, Margaret O'Brien and Walt Disney's Alice, Jack Zander, more on UPA, Rod Scribner at work, Borge Ring, a "mystery studio," Byron Haskin and Disney's Treasure Island, more on Coal Black, Walt and Lillian on the town, revisiting Raggedy Ann & Andy and Wizards, Satoshi Kon's budgets.
November 2007:Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Mickey's birthplace in New York, the UPA book, the Michael Sporn retrospective at MoMA, the ideas that interviews can stimulate.
October 2007: Carl Stalling interviewed, Dick Huemer remembered, more on Walt Disney and Zorro, the controversy over the Schulz biography, Joe Penner and the "Agony, agony!" catchphrase, Walt and The Art Spirit, Walt in Hawaii, the Ottawa International Animation Festival, The Jungle Book revisited.
August 2007: Walt and the librarians, independent animators, the mystery of Walt's Goldwater button solved, Diane Disney Miller blasts Neal Gabler, Paprika, interviews with Clarence Nash, Jim Macdonald, and Billy Bletcher, Pete Emslie's guidelines for animal characters, Ratatouille.
July 2007: More on Harry Reichenbach, Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky, Surf'sUp, Walt at Smoke Tree Ranch, Dave Hilberman, The Iron Giant revisited, Michael Sporn and Walter Lantz on DVD, Ratatouille.
June 2007: More on Walt Disney's Goldwater button, more on the flypaper sequence, Roger Armstrong, Disney in Deutschland, Ratatouille, Walt and Zorro, more on Walt and T. H. White, Harry Reichenbach and Steamboat Willie, the auctioning of Carl Barks's estate.
May 2007: UPA wars on the blogs, Ferguson's flypaper sequence, Walt Disney's employment contract, Harry Reichenbach, Disney art at Montreal, Walt writes to T. H. White, selling The Animated Man in L.A.
April 2007:The Animated Man, Fergy ruffs, Meet the Robinsons.
March 2007:The Animated Man, Cartoon Brew Films, a Cock Robin mosaic and documents, a Dumbo essay, the Goldwater button again, Walt and the space program.
February 2007: More on writing v. drawing, Paul Hindemith meets Walt Disney, Fantasia, Van Beuren dolls, Bob Clampett and Edgar Bergen.
January 2007: Walt's Goldwater button, Neal Gabler's errors, writing v. drawing cartoon stories, a Disney exhibition at Paris, Happy Feet.
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