On November 28, 1973, Milt Gray and I recorded the first of several
interviews with Jack Kinney, who directed most of the Goofy sports
cartoons for Walt Disney in the forties. Over dinner at a San Fernando
Valley restaurant, Kinney spoke of "one gag I was real proud
of" in the 1941 cartoon The Art of Skiing.
"The Goof is standing right here," he said, "with
his skis out like this, and the narrator went on and on . telling
how you'd flex your arms, and how you'd do that—it was a dull
piece of narration. On purpose. It was right from the book,
a technical bit of stuff, and the Goof was yawning, and making faces,
and scratching his head, and scratching his ass.and now, the narrator
says, 'We're off!' and Goofy shoves his poles down in the ground,
and leaps up with a joyous [noise]—and went over the back of the
hill. The audience died at that thing, because it was a long buildup
to it. . As soon as he jumped up in the air, you knew he
was going to go [forward], but he didn't, he went down [backwards].
And the timing on that just caught them, just right, for some reason
I realized when I saw the cartoon again later that Kinney had misdescribed
the gag (he left that part of the transcript untouched when he reviewed
it). There's not the long buildup that he recalled, and the gag
would probably have been much funnier if there had been. There's
no telling what happened. Did Kinney plan for the buildup and then
cut it down because the cartoon was running too long? Did the buildup
make it into a pencil reel, and did a studio audience react as Kinney
remembered? Did someone else—perhaps Walt Disney himself—rebel at
the length of the buildup and order it cut down? Or did Kinney simply
realize, too late, that he had missed a chance to make the gag funnier,
and over time let his mind meld the gag that could have been with
the gag that was?
It was hard to make funny short cartoons at Disney's in the forties,
on the laugh-at-any-cost Warner or MGM model, because the Disney
people had for so long been concerned with many more things besides
gags. Quite a few Goofy cartoons are just not as funny as they might
have been, sometimes for reasons that can be pinpointed, as with
that gag in The Art of Skiing, and sometimes for reasons
that are more difficult to define. It's revealing that the best
of Kinney's Goofy cartoons are probably the least "Disney"
of any of that studio's short cartoons. There was at one point a
live possibility that Kinney would go to work for MGM, making cartoons
alongside Tex Avery and Hanna and Barbera, and the energy and single-mindedness
of his best cartoons say he would have been a good fit at that studio.
the best of Kinney's Goofy cartoons are very good indeed, and there
are enough of them to justify packaging all the cartoons in the
series on two DVDs, as one of the three sets released in 2002 in
the second wave of "Walt Disney Treasures." Leonard Maltin,
in hosting the beautifully produced Complete
Goofy, singles out Kinney's Hockey Homicide (1945)
for praise, a judgment in which I heartily concur. I would place
How to Play Football (1944) near the top of the pile of Kinney's
sports cartoons, too. Hockey Homicide has not much in the
way of memorable gags, much less gags that build, but the violence
in hockey, like the violence in football, was liberating for Kinney.
In Hockey Homicide, the rules of the game are the thinnest
pretext for mayhem. When the two teams' top players, Ferguson (as
in the animator and director Norm) and Bertino (as in the animator
Al) are let out of the penalty box, they immediately begin bashing
each other and get put back in the box. They never actually play
The hockey players are all "Goofy," but they're also
not Goofy at all. Very early in the Goofy series, as the sports
theme took hold and the cartoons embraced team sports like baseball
and football, the character's appearance and personality as they
had been established in the thirties Mickey Mouse shorts all but
vanished. To quote myself, from Hollywood
Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, Goofy "filled
the screen as player and spectator, in a range of sizes and shapes,
but the dozens of Goofys were just extras in Kinney's comic spectacle."
But, of course, if a DVD set is to focus on a particular series,
it would be awkward to acknowledge that the best cartoons in the
series are ones in which the lead character essentially disappears.
The supplemental material in the set thus focuses not on Kinney
and the cartoons actually on the DVDs, but on the Goofy of the thirties.
There are features on Pinto Colvig, Goofy's original voice, and
Art Babbitt, the animator who defined the character in cartoons
like Mickey's Service Station (1935) and Moving Day (1936).
An actor reads aloud from Babbitt's 1935 analysis of Goofy's characteristics,
one of several such memos written by senior animators as they moved
from work on the shorts to work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Babbitt was a leader of the 1941 Disney strike and subsequently
a bitter critic of Walt Disney, his brother Roy, the Disney attorney
Gunther Lessing, and any number of other people who got in his line
of fire. When I last saw Babbitt, late in 1986, I had barely turned
on my tape recorder when he boiled over in an unprompted attack
on Roy Disney, condemning him as "the worst kind of bigot.
Walt went along with him. Walt was not much better."
For obvious reasons, Babbitt has long been a pariah in the eyes
of many Disney loyalists. Although it was difficult to exclude him
completely from official Disney histories—his name was too firmly
attached to a few famous pieces of animation, in cartoons like The
Country Cousin, Moving Day, and Fantasia—some
books did it, and others came close. Babbitt is mentioned exactly
once in the text of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's The
Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, as "one of the
early animators," although the book does reproduce a little
of his animation, too, as well as his analysis of Goofy.
Now Babbitt, who died in 1992, is undergoing a sort of posthumous
rehabilitation, if his respectful treatment in The Complete Goofy
is any indication. Far from denying him credit, though, the new
set gives him credit for animation he didn't do. Maltin identifies
Babbitt as the animator of the Big Bad Wolf in Three Little Pigs,
and Babbitt did in fact animate a few scenes with the wolf—but the
clip that Maltin shows was animated by Norm Ferguson, who animated
far more scenes with the character than Babbitt did.
Maltin originated the idea for the "Treasures" series,
which on the whole has been executed remarkably well, so it's easy
to forgive minor flaws like the misattributed Big Bad Wolf animation.
There's nothing quite so stressful as trying to reconcile the demands
of historical accuracy with the very different demands of a huge
entertainment conglomerate. Maltin's introductions and supplementary
features on all three 2002 "Treasures" sets, as on the
four sets released in 2001, are mostly solid and reliable, if sometimes
(and, I'm sure, unavoidably) a little cautious and superficial.
For instance, Maltin acknowledges that Pinto Colvig left Disney
after a "falling out" with Walt, but he doesn't go so
far as to say what really happened. Colvig was for all practical
purposes fired, when Walt Disney, fed up with what he called Colvig's
"crying attitude," decided in 1937 not to renew his contract.
"I do not need his voice for the Goof badly enough to tolerate
him any longer," Walt wrote to Roy.
There's no real error in what Maltin says about Colvig, but there
are a couple of odd lapses—odd because I can't believe he doesn't
know better—in one of Maltin's supplements to another "Treasures"
set that I think demand correction because at least one of those
errors might otherwise petrify into conventional wisdom.
In the 2001 set Mickey
Mouse in Living Color, in his introduction to a set of pencil-test
reels salvaged from Ben Sharpsteen's garage, Maltin says that "of
course, the soundtrack had been completed"—music, dialogue,
and sound effects—at the pencil-test stage. But that was almost
never the case; scores were composed and recorded only when a cartoon
was complete as a Technicolor answer print, not a pencil reel. (See
p. 117 of Hollywood Cartoons for an example of a cartoon
that Walt Disney revised even when it was complete as a color reel.)
The three pencil-test reels, as they came from Sharpsteen—I've seen
all three in their original form—didn't have complete soundtracks,
as they do on the DVDs. There was only dialogue and sound effects,
with piano accompaniment in a couple of cases. Otherwise the singing
was recorded in advance, but not the accompaniment. The singers
presumably listened to an accompanying pianist through headphones
as their voices, but not the piano, were recorded.
There could have been a valid reason for attaching a complete soundtrack
to the three reels on the DVD—the "angle" feature on DVD
players permits switching back and forth between pencil reel and
completed cartoon, and a disparity in the soundtracks could have
been disconcerting. But to say that "of course" Disney
had locked himself into a soundtrack at the pencil-reel stage makes
him sound little better than Paul Terry, who recorded complete soundtracks
before animation even began.
Maltin also refers to the pencil animation as cleaned-up, but it's
obviously a mixture of rough and cleaned-up in all three reels.For
whatever reasontight production schedules, confidence in the
people involvedpencil tests of cleaned-up animation weren't
always shot, or at least weren't always incorporated into the reel.
The reels themselves are fascinating. It's evident, for example,
that some of the pencil animation was bottom-lit when it was being
photographed and some was top-lit, the latter possible when everything
being shot was on a single sheet of paper. The drawings of Goofy
in On Ice are Babbitt's roughs; in one scene, it can be seen
how he erased Goofy's head and moved it to a different position.
On Ice itself, the finished cartoon, is also part of the
Mickey Mouse in Living Color set, which contains the other
best examples of Babbitt's animation of Goofy. The most conspicuous
examples of Babbitt animation in the Complete Goofy set are
in Goofy's Glider and, especially, Baggage Buster,
both released in 1941. Babbitt animated all of Goofy in the latter
cartoon, over a span of about four months in 1940. He shot live
action as an aid to his animation, but it turned into a crutch—the
animation has a deadly literalness. Goofy's proportions are distinctly
human, and there's very little caricature in the drawing or the
Walt Disney, so often the target of Babbitt's wrath, was astute
in his assessment of the animator and his animation. In March 1941,
when Babbitt was animating the stork in Dumbo, Disney wrote
to Wilfred Jackson, who was directing Babbitt's scenes:
"What I meant regarding Babbitt's animation was that we all should
see it and check with the guy, and not let him go on and give us
the stiff old-fashioned stuff like we got on the Goof in BAGGAGE
BUSTERS [sic]. . Babbitt is capable of good results if you work
very closely with him and not let him have his way too much. He's
a very stubborn punk, but we've got to get him out of the groove
The classic Goofy—the one shaped by Babbitt in the mid-thirties—disappears
from the Complete Goofy set after the first couple of cartoons.
The distinctive animation of the character in cartoons like Goofy
and Wilbur (1939) and Goofy's Glider is by Woolie Reitherman
rather than Babbitt. In later cartoons, like Jack Kinney's How
to Be a Sailor, the most inventive and amusing animation is
not by any big name, but by John Sibley.
It's too bad that Maltin's supplemental material doesn't say more
about people like Kinney and Sibley, much less approach Babbitt's
claims on Goofy with a bit more skepticism. In one respect, though,
Maltin's contributions are absolutely unimpeachable: in brief introductions
to a few cartoons, he defuses the political correctness question
with great deftness.
Many Disney films of all kinds are vulnerable on that score, probably
far more than most people realize. At the Library of Congress recently,
I watched a Walt Disney Presents TV show from the late fifties
that included a preview of the first "Texas John Slaughter"
episode. The preview was amazingly violent—the hero plugged and
presumably killed five men and threatened to kill another. A male
chorus sang godawful lyrics that exalted such violence ("Texas
John Slaughter made 'em do what they oughter, 'cause if they didn't
they died") and a narrator declared, "At the end of the
trails he followed, a man had a choice of throwing down his guns
or being killed."
Maltin is not dealing with psychotic material of that kind, but
he acknowledges right off the bat that the depiction of American
Indians in the 1945 Kinney cartoon Californy or Bust is not
"enlightened." He immediately points out that the cartoon
is "a broad parody of western movies . and their many clichés,"
with "deliberately silly" gags. The Indians, he notes,
are "caricatures of caricatures." "If you don't take
anything in the cartoon too seriously," he concludes, "I think
you'll have a good time." How sensible, and how rare. (To read
a fuller and equally levelheaded discussion of the touchy question
of racial and ethnic stereotyping in the movies, click here for
page at Maltin's Web site.)
In other respects, too, the Goofy set sends the message that it
is not a plaything for children. There is no "play all"
button, so small children cannot park themselves in front of the
TV and watch all the cartoons—including those few with racially
sensitive material—one after another. Instead, a viewer must choose
to watch each cartoon in turn.
Maltin's skillful defusing of this particular land mine is a good
omen for the 2003 set that is to be devoted to wartime films. Perhaps
the commercial and critical success of the first two years of "Treasures"
sets—and the apparent lack of any backlash against the "unenlightened"
cartoons—has strengthened Maltin's hand in the selection of new
subjects. We may yet see a Three Little Pigs with the original
Jewish stereotype or a Fantasia that has not been mutilated
to expunge its black characters.
other two 2002 sets lack both the completeness and the peculiarities
of the Goofy set, but they are highly valuable on their own terms.
In his introduction to Behind
the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio, Maltin warns, "Walt
Disney was a showman first and a documentarian second." True
enough—and I confess that I frequently felt a sort of amused irritation
at the pervasive falseness of so much of what was presented, in
The Reluctant Dragon and various TV shows, as a guided tour
behind the otherwise closed gates of the Disney studio in Burbank.
But on any guided tour there's plenty to see besides what the guides
want to show you. I never fail to enjoy The Reluctant Dragon,
for example, because for all the hokiness of the "tour,"
the film offers tantalizing glimpses of the new Disney studio in
the months just before the 1941 strike. (The cast is made up of
both real Disney employees and actors impersonating them, and Maltin
is very much in his element, in his introduction to the film, as
he identifies the future stars and obscure bit players who play
story men and messengers and cel painters.)
I realized, while watching a few dozen old Disney TV shows recently,
how often Walt Disney revealed—or seemed to reveal—the mechanics
of his illusions, whether those illusions were in cartoons, live-action
films, or theme parks. It was as if great Oz himself were constantly
pulling back the curtain—a strange thing for him to be doing, one
might think, especially considering how heavily the word "magic"
began to weigh in Disney self-promotion in the fifties and sixties.
And it's true that many people don't really want to know how their
entertainment is produced. (Take a devoted TV watcher to the taping
of a sitcom or a talk show, where the studio audience is a mere
prop, and see if they enjoy the experience.) But Disney understood
that for a substantial segment of his audience, taking them "behind
the scenes" was a way to encourage their loyalty to his TV
show and to "Disney" in general.
By sanitizing and softening the production processes he was supposedly
depicting, Walt turned the typically arduous (and boring) work of
filmmaking into entertainment; but, most important, he seemingly
took his audience into his confidence. We have no secrets from you,
he seemed to say as he escorted his viewers into "Audio-Animatronics"
workshops or staged story meetings; we think you'll enjoy our "magic"
even more if you understand how it is manufactured.
It was through TV, with its natural intimacy, that Disney first
successfully put such thinking into practice, most notably in an
hour devoted to the filming of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
and in a succession of shows about the construction and expansion
of the Disneyland theme park. It's with DVDs that excursions "behind
the scenes" have truly come into their own, especially in Disney
competitors' offerings like the first two installments in the Lord
of the Rings trilogy, boxed in multi-disc sets whose "extras"
overwhelm the film itself in length. The Disney Behind the Scenes
set is thus a compilation of pioneering efforts that have been
superseded, in complexity if not in inherent interest. (And it's
a safe bet that most new DVD "extras" are no less prettified
than the old Disney TV shows.)
One problem with officially sanctioned versions of what goes on
"behind the scenes" is that they can complicate or foreclose
efforts to write more accurate versions. Once a studio has a vested
interest in a particular version of its history, it may resist efforts
to determine how close to the truth that version is. Thanks in large
part to DVDs, movie studios are learning what the Disney studio
has always known, that their history can be translated into dollars.
I will be pleasantly surprised if this new awareness spawns film
scholarship of real substance.
Where Disney is concerned, the existence of an official point of
view—one that multitudes of Disney fans echo reflexively—is evident
not just where the studio's history is concerned but in evaluations
of its animated films. Visit a Disney-oriented "forum"
on the Web, and you will most likely find that any departure from
received opinion is denounced in terms that mimic Stalinist rhetoric.
opinion's power is evident, in a curious way, in the third of the
2002 "Treasures" sets, Mickey
Mouse in Black and White. This set is generally similar
to the wonderful 1993 laserdisc set of Mickey Mouse cartoons from
the late twenties and early thirties, but with one added cartoon
(The Karnival Kid) and other mostly positive changes that
David Gerstein has detailed in an excellent
review at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research Web site.
Among the new supplemental features is a Maltin conversation with
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the two veteran Disney animators,
both now very old and frail, but blessedly untouched in their keen
minds. At one point, Maltin asks Thomas and Johnston how they can
distinguish the work of different animators. "Is it like a
fingerprint?" he asks. "Can you tell whose mark is on
Maltin seems genuinely intrigued that animators' personal characteristics
would stick out despite everyone's trying to adhere to a model sheet
and draw Mickey Mouse in the same way. Johnston responds: "We
were all trying to do something that expressed the inner feelings
of a character for that particular thing, and how it related to
other characters, so you couldn't help but draw it a different way."
But to someone without a "skilled eye," Maltin says,
the animation in a Disney cartoon is "seamless. There's no
difference in the drawing style from the beginning of a Mickey Mouse
cartoon to the end. There could have been six, eight, twelve people
working on it, but I would never know from looking at it."
Watching this, a question immediately occurred to me: If Disney
animation really is "seamless," if the work of one animator
cannot be distinguished from the work of another, how can we say
that one animator is better than another?
The usual answer comes from what I might call the "everybody
knows" school of animation criticism. In his LA
of Hollywood Cartoons, Charles Solomon scolded me for
"report[ing] which animators drew which scenes in various cartoons."
A few paragraphs later, he was righteously wrathful because I had
expressed reservations about Bill Tytla's animation of Tchernobog
in "Night on Bald Mountain" in Fantasia. How, I
wondered, can you write intelligently about an animator's work if
you don't believe in paying attention to what he actually animated—that
is, to individual scenes? The only answer can be that "everybody
knows" that Tytla's animation of Tchernobog is great stuff.
Actually looking at it closely, much less examining a draft or other
evidence of which scenes Tytla animated, is therefore not just unnecessary,
But Disney animation really isn't "seamless," any more
than any other animation is "seamless," not just because
drawing styles differ, but also for reasons suggested in what Ollie
Johnston said. Good animators, as they dig into their characters,
will inevitably come up with results that look different on the
screen. The differences may not be—and usually should not be—obvious,
but seeing them, and understanding them, can add immeasurably to
the pleasure animation provides. The question is, how do you make
use of those differences in ways best for the film? Do you let a
dozen people animate the same character, and rely on the director
to smooth out the differences, if you smooth them out at all? Do
you cast animators by character, and endure the complications of
shared scenes, in the hope of greater consistency and depth in the
animation? Or do you, as Thomas and Johnston themselves prefer,
make certain animators sub-directors of a sort, giving them control
over substantial chunks of the film and entrusting all the characters
in those chunks to them?
Those are questions of the kind that I address in Hollywood
Cartoons, and that I think are central to any discussion of
Hollywood animation. They're complex questions of a kind that can't
really be addressed on a DVD; the problem I have is that there's
no hint, in Maltin's conversation with Thomas and Johnston, that
such questions even exist. Instead, we learn that only the "skilled
eye" of a Thomas or a Johnston can distinguish among drawings
that are otherwise truly indistinguishable.
This is a variation on the "everybody knows" principle,
and an example of what I have come to think of as Disneyism: defining
the best qualities of the Disney films in terms that foreclose discussion
of what actually makes the films worth watching. In this case, it
is, implicitly, their "seamlessness" that is to command
our admiration, even though accepting that "seamlessness"
renders superfluous any evaluation of the work of individual animators.
Again, I suspect—I hope—that Maltin knows better. And, in any case,
what really matters is that the films themselves are coming available,
looking better and in greater quantity than ever before. I look
forward to the May 2004 "Treasures" sets—Mickey
Mouse in Living Color Volume 2, The
Chronological Donald Volume 1, Tomorrowland,
the Front Lines—as I look forward to no other DVDs that
will be released this year.
[Posted September 2003]