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Who Killed Cock Robin?

From Chapter 3 of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age:

In the fall of 1934, Disney was still working with three directors—but Burt Gillett was gone, and Ben Sharpsteen had taken his place. Gillett had left the staff and returned to New York after his contract ran out at the end of March. Gillett was, Wilfred Jackson recalled, "a bit more stubborn in trying to have his own way" when he disagreed with Disney than the other directors were. Just as Ub Iwerks's departure four years earlier helped Disney, in a roundabout way, so too did Gillett's because now Disney was working only with directors—Jackson, Sharpsteen, and Dave Hand—who might try to change his mind, as Hand did about that painful gag in The Flying Mouse, but would never go behind his back, as Gillett sometimes did. It was under Disney's tutelage that Jackson had learned everything he knew about animation; Hand and Sharpsteen had found at Disney's the success that eluded them in New York in the 1920s.

The directors' loyalty was important because Disney's involvement in day-to-day production was still receding. Not only did he concentrate on both Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Golden Touch in the last half of 1934, but he had become a celebrity of sorts, and it's clear that much more of his time was devoted to welcoming famous guests to the studio and sitting for press interviews than had been the case a few years earlier. By way of compensation, though, he had acquired in what was called the "running reel"—a complete pencil-test reel for each cartoon— a tool that gave him and the directors a much stronger grasp of each cartoon as a whole, well before it was completed.

Pencil tests of each scene were spliced into the running reel as they were shot, and the reel was shown with a temporary sound track, made up of a piano score, any prerecorded dialogue, and the more important sound effects. (At first, blank film represented the scenes that had not yet been shot in pencil test, but film of story sketches, timed to the soundtrack, soon replaced it.) The running reel is surely one reason that several of the Disney cartoons released in the early months of 1935 have much more vigorous and assured story-telling rhythms than most of their predecessors. That is true especially of The Tortoise and the Hare, a Silly Symphony that Jackson directed in the summer and fall of 1934; it was released in January 1935.

Speaking to a studio audience in 1939, Jackson singled out The Tortoise and the Hare as the first cartoon in which "we depicted speed on the screen. Before that time nobody had dared to move a character clear across the screen in five frames," or less than one-fourth of a second; the Hare crosses the screen that fast several times. The Hare when running is usually blurred, and sometimes literally a "blue streak." With the Hare's running visible so briefly, what came before and after it assumed greater importance.

For all the growing emphasis on observation in the mid-thirties—the idea that, as Dave Hand said a few years later, animators should be "constantly storing up experiences and notes for future use"—the Disney animators continued to hone useful techniques comparable to those that Ferguson and Moore introduced. Dick Huemer talked about one such technique: "When a man put his hand in his pocket, it didn't ooze right into his pocket, he pulled his hand back first, sort of aimed for his pocket and then thrust in. Walt called it 'anticipation.'" Artists have for a long time exploited the human tendency to see movement in the anticipation of it. Its mirror image is follow-through, which Huemer described this way: "When a person ran, for instance, and then suddenly stopped, his coat kept going, ahead of him, independently, and then flopped back again."

As Disney and his animators had probably realized by the late twenties, anticipation and follow-through can clarify what a character is doing by pointing forward to it and back at it. In the early thirties, though, they began using those tools to serve a larger purpose: by compressing a character's actions, and emphasizing anticipation and follow-through instead, a director and his animators could not just clarify those actions, they could also enlarge their scope.

Ham Luske, who animated the bulk of the Hare's scenes—everything except the start of the race and the rush to the finish line—was the first to demonstrate fully the potential of this kind of animation. The awkwardness of so much of his earlier animation, of the Pied Piper and the Grasshopper, is nowhere evident in his animation of the Hare. What Luske shows the Hare doing is clearly impossible; but Luske makes it seem possible by bringing to his animation what he had observed of athletic action (he drew illustrations for the sports section when he worked at the Oakland Post-Inquirer), and what he knew from his own experience on the playing field. As the Hare prepares to run, or skids to a halt, or plays tennis with himself, he moves with the authority of realistic movement; but the exaggerated pattern of anticipation and follow-through, and the Hare's speed itself, are not realistic at all. Luske's analytical bent—his concern with how things really moved—thus eased audience acceptance of what might otherwise have seemed as tiresomely farfetched as the old "impossible things" that Disney had banished.

The Hare was solidly characterized in Bill Cottrell's writing: he was a star athlete, tremendously talented, and just as vain and cocksure. As Dick Huemer told Joe Adamson: "If [any other studio] had done The Tortoise and the Hare it would have been a series of assorted gags about running, one after another. But not all this clever, boastful stuff like stopping with the little girls and bragging and being admired, and showing off how he could play tennis with himself." This time, though, the writing did not have to carry most of the load. Luske depicted the Hare's boastfulness through gestures, poses, and expressions that were markedly more pointed and precise than those in Fred Moore's animation for The Flying Mouse, just a few months earlier.

In another 1939 lecture, Jackson spoke of how he fitted music to the climactic rush to the finish line, in a way that built excitement; as he cut back and forth from Tortoise to Hare, he switched from an accelerated version of the Tortoise's theme, "Slow but Sure," to a siren sound effect for the Hare that was itself musically phrased: "We tried to phrase it so the peaks of the siren would fall naturally on the peaks of the music, and still give us time to cut back and forth." To make the phrasing come out right as he shortened the intercut scenes of the two racers, he inserted shots of the excited crowd.

Jackson delighted in such aural puzzles; that was why he was a natural for the Silly Symphonies and directed more of them than anyone else. But it was not in a Silly Symphony but in his next cartoon, The Band Concert, a Mickey Mouse that was animated late in 1934 and released in February 1935, that Jackson's inclinations found the most congenial task. A conspicuous cartoon, as the first Mickey Mouse in Technicolor. It was in some ways an anomaly: departing from the pattern set in the Mickeys of the previous three years, The Band Concert was a musical cartoon; one made, moreover, just as the Silly Symphonies were starting to slip out of their musical leash.

In its basic structure a throwback to the plotless, musical Mickey cartoons of the very early thirties, The Band Concert is virtually a remake of one such cartoon, The Barnyard Concert (1930). The climactic action, in which Mickey Mouse's band is scooped up by a tornado but continues to play Rossini's overture to William Tell as it spins through the air, originated in an even ruder source: a 1930 Max Fleischer cartoon, Tree Saps, one of the last on which Ted Sears received credit (as an animator) before he joined the Disney staff. The Band Concert surpassed its predecessors many times over, especially in the final sequence, where music and action are far more wittily and intricately intertwined than in the Fleischer cartoon. It was in the marshaling of such details that Jackson was visible as a director, as in no other cartoon before it. "The more details there were to be worked out," he wrote in 1978, "the more fun it was for me."

David Hand, by contrast, delegated. Lacking Jackson's lapidary instincts, he approached the director's job in the spirit of a business executive, farming out detail work—the kind Jackson thrived on—to subordinates, and concentrating instead on broader issues, which at the Disney studio entailed primarily an intensive reading of Walt Disney himself. Hand's first really strong cartoons—Who Killed Cock Robin? and Pluto's Judgement Day—followed Jackson's by a few months. Both cartoons shared many of the virtues of The Tortoise and the Hare, and had besides a more sophisticated tone than was typical of Jackson's work. That was especially true of Who Killed Cock Robin? By the time that cartoon was written, late in 1934, the Disney story men, like everyone else in the studio, had become more specialized. Bill Cottrell was by then unquestionably the lead writer for the Silly Symphonies; he had been working for about a year with Joe Grant, a newspaper cartoonist who came to the studio to provide caricatures of Hollywood actors for a cartoon called Mickey's Gala Premiere and stayed on to work in story. Cottrell and Grant were probably the first Disney story men to work together regularly as a team. Cottrell wrote but did not draw; Grant drew story sketches and, from all appearances, contributed less to the writing of the stories than Cottrell did. (Bob Kuwahara worked with them, too, strictly as a sketch man.)

More than most of its predecessors, Who Killed Cock Robin? has the air of being "written"—that is, based on a real script (one of Cottrell's continuities runs seventeen pages, much longer than usual). But it also shows how the writing could benefit from the new emphasis on visualized possibilities. Cock Robin's all-bird cast includes, for example, a character named Jenny Wren, a caricature of Mae West. She is plainly in the film because of her "visualized possibilities," first as a caricature by Joe Grant and then as animation by Ham Luske. Even her tail proclaims her curviness: concave, it swings back and forth in a way that emphasizes its contours. (Luske worked from a three-dimensional model of the tail: "We could not conceive how the tail would go around until we made a tail and turned it," he said in 1938.) The tail's movement serves in turn to bring out the pivoting of Jenny's hips, and that in turn brings out the counter-motion of her shoulders—the movement in each of three parts of her body emphasizes the movement in the other two. The total effect is less to make Jenny seem like a piece of intricate machinery, although there is some of that, than to make her comically voluptuous.

Jenny is, however, more than an animator's bosomy delight. Cottrell gave her parodic dialogue, too, and the cartoon is organized around her "testimony" at the trial, where she sings, "Somebody rubbed out my robin." Who Killed Cock Robin? is, for Disney, uncharacteristically satirical. At one point, a bird jury, confronted with three potential murderers of Cock Robin (all of them innocent, as it turns out), sings merrily, "We don't know who is guilty, so we're going to hang them all." The operetta style of earlier Silly Symphonies returns to soften the satire's sting; the resemblance to Gilbert and Sullivan is unmistakable.

Cottrell and Grant probably wrote Pluto's Judgement Day, too, although there is no contemporaneous record of that; it is a courtroom cartoon, too, with Pluto dreaming that vengeful cats have put him on trial in a hellish cavern; the feline jurors deliver their "guilty" verdict after passing through a revolving door. There is no satirical undertone but rather a deft blending of horror and comedy; and, again, cheerful, witty music, combined with rhyming and rhythmical dialogue, serves as an emollient.

Both cartoons required their director to respect the balance the stories struck between competing elements—a task of a kind that had not been imposed on a Disney director before—and Hand met that requirement fully in both cases. He may have been most advanced as a Disney director, though, not in what he put on the screen, but in how he put it there. The "drafts"—the scene-by-scene records of who animated what—for both Cock Robin and Pluto's Judgement Day suggest that he found ways to exercise a great deal of control over who worked on his cartoons. Cock Robin is cast very carefully by character: Luske animated Cock Robin and his paramour Jenny Wren, Norm Ferguson the owl judge, and Bill Roberts, another skillful animator, the parrot prosecutor. For Pluto's Judgement Day—a cartoon most of whose characters are, unlike Cock Robin's, intentionally shallow—the animators were cast by sequence. The crew was again a strong one, including Moore, Luske, Roberts, and Dick Lundy.

The directors by no means had the final say on who worked on their cartoons ("It wasn't too infrequent that somebody would just be dumped in on me, all of a sudden," Jackson said), and Hand was not very illuminating when he talked about casting. "There was a sort of working back and forth," he said, "until you got a crew that could pretty much handle the kind of picture that you were working on." That "working back and forth" was the special province of Hand the delegater and organizer; rather than devote himself to the kind of painstaking labor that Jackson thrived on, Hand spent his time assembling teams of strong animators and organizing their assignments so that he would not have to submerge himself in details.

In working as he did, Hand was acting upon his knowledge of Walt Disney; he had seen the value that Disney attached to a more systematic kind of filmmaking than he was usually able to practice. When Disney directed The Golden Touch, with only Moore and Ferguson as his animators, he cast that cartoon with a thoroughness that no other director had ever approached. Hand followed his boss's lead—and gave Disney better films than Disney had been able to make himself.

[Footnotes omitted]