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Drawing a Warm Bath

[Mary Blair's work, as gentle and childlike as it is, arouses strong passions in many of its admirers, two of whom have put their praise into exceptionally interesting words. I encourage you to read the favorable comments of Amid Amidi, at his invariably enjoyable Animation Blast site, and Bill Wray, in a forum at Shane Glines's stimulating site.]

Mary Blair made many hundreds of small paintings—some no more than rough sketches, others considerably more finished—as the principal designer for the Walt Disney animated features in the forties and early fifties. Her style, which I describe in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, as "soften[ing] and smooth[ing] away contemporary art's harsh edges," crystallized during work on Disney's Latin American features, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, and then dominated the postwar features. Her last work as a feature designer was on Peter Pan, although she worked for Disney occasionally after that. She made her major contribution in later years through conceptual paintings for "It's a Small World," the attraction conceived for the 1964 New York World's Fair and subsequently transplanted to the Disney theme parks. She died in 1978.

John Canemaker wrote about Blair first in his 1996 book about the Disney stylists and conceptual artists, Before the Animation Begins (Hyperion). Now he has written a 110-page monograph, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair: An Appreciation (Disney Editions, $40), that brings together nearly two hundred beautifully reproduced examples of Blair's work, both Disney and non-Disney.

Canemaker is only one of a large number of discerning and intelligent people—Robin Allan, author of the splendid study Walt Disney and Europe, is another—who admire Blair's work. Canemaker writes of Blair: "At its core, her art represents joyful creativity and communicates pure pleasure to the viewer. Her exuberant fantasies brim with beauty, charm, and wit, melding a child's fresh eye with adult experience."

If we take Canemaker's argument for Blair seriously, as I think we should, it points toward the conclusion that Blair succeeded as well at designing settings and color schemes for the Disney cartoons as any number of earlier artists succeeded at their tasks. I've never thought Blair's paintings were particularly good as film designs, however, and they seem to me especially unsuited as designs for Disney cartoons. The fundamental flaw in Blair's art is that it is deeply unserious. It was, I suspect, that very quality that recommended her work so strongly to Walt Disney himself in the postwar years.

Blair's undeniable skill with color is at the heart of Canemaker's case for her work. He quotes the Disney director Mike Gabriel (Pocahontas) on one way in which Blair exercised her skill: "Primary color, secondary color with a complementary accent against a muted complement in the background. When you do that, [the image] sings like a million bucks." Such comments, measured against the book's reproductions, ring true; but where Blair falls short is in the very prodigality of her color. Too often, a painting draws freely on too wide a range of colors, or the dominant colors are too bright and rich, "straight from the tube," as one colleague quoted by Canemaker puts it. The inevitable effect, because the paint is not allowed to be much more than a vehicle for color, is to push the paintings toward mere decoration.

Frederic Remington and Mary Blair were artists who worked decades apart, in very different circumstances, and who were, not insignificantly, of different genders. But Remington's best paintings say something about Blair's. He began as an illustrator of western incidents, but he rose to a much more rarefied level, as demonstrated by the paintings recently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in an exhibition called "The Color of Night." Remington was a far more daring painter than Blair, trusting a narrower and subtler palette—here dominated by a twilight blue, there by an ashy moonlit white or the shadowed gold of a disappearing sunset. Because his surfaces are not busy, and his color draws the eye into the paintings, his most intense focus is on the people he has painted. Usually, they are taking part in a human drama that is simultaneously ambiguous and intense.

There is no such human drama in Blair's paintings. What really sinks her work is her indifference to the human figure. Typically, the characters in her paintings are simply elements in a buzzing color scheme. But when you put people into a painting of any kind, you've got to do something with them; they resist being treated simply as decoration. The painters of any number of elaborate Baroque ceilings proved that such resistance can be overcome, but doing so requires more effort than Blair put forth. Her human figures are almost always conspicuously vacant—in posture, in expression, in everything that might suggest an individual existence. In her freelance advertising work in the fifties, Blair stylized that emptiness, but in her Disney work the characters seem like afterthoughts.

Blair's job was to design settings, and only secondarily to design characters, but her flat, decorative designs were at odds with the nature of Disney character animation as it had evolved through the thirties and into the forties. Canemaker acknowledges "a design disconnect between characters and settings. … Usually … rounded human and animal characters were incongruously placed against flat color or stylized backgrounds." The suggestion—amplified in quotations from the animators Marc Davis and Ward Kimball—is that the films would have benefited if the characters had shared more of the characteristics of Blair's paintings. But the "disconnect" was not simply graphic, and ceding more ground to Blair did not end it.

When Blair's styling dominated a Disney film's characters as well as its backgrounds, the characters shriveled. In the "Once Upon a Wintertime" and "Johnny Appleseed" segments of Melody Time—probably the film that most successfully translates Blair's styling to the screen—the characters are not just simple in design. Compared with the characters in earlier features, they are remarkably bland and inexpressive—and that despite the presence in both segments of some of the Disney studio's best animators. Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Eric Larson animated most of "Appleseed," each of them turning out less than ten feet of animation a week. But as "Appleseed's" director, Wilfred Jackson, realized, more assertive animation would have called into question the shallowness of Blair's designs.

Disney character animation was serious; Blair's designs were not. Why then, was Walt Disney himself so enthusiastic an advocate for Blair's work? (Jackson made a particular effort to incorporate Blair's style into Melody Time after Disney expressed disappointment that her style had been compromised in the animated portions of Song of the South.)

It was not as if examples were lacking of the ways in which intelligently conceived backgrounds could enhance character animation of the Disney kind. Paul Julian's settings for Friz Freleng's cartoons at Warner Bros. in the forties were solid and three-dimensional, filled with light and air, but were never overly realistic. They had the same qualities as good Disney animation—they were simultaneously subtle and straightforward, complex in structure but simple in effect. The contemporaneous Robert Gribbroek-Pete Alvarado backgrounds for Chuck Jones's Warner cartoons were successful in much the same way. (Julian was a better designer than Blair of "modern" backgrounds, too, as he demonstrated in John Hubley's Rooty Toot Toot and other UPA cartoons.)

Blair's paintings, in their decorative insubstantiality, must have recommended themselves to Walt Disney as a sort of weapon he could wield—no doubt unconsciously—against the serious character animation he had almost singlehandedly brought into being as a new art form in the thirties. Partly through circumstance, but thanks largely to Disney's own actions, such animation stalled in its development in the early forties. By late in the decade it had become a sort of ghost at the feast, a painful reminder of lofty ambitions that Disney had no choice but to put aside. I believe that at some level Disney, proud man that he was, wanted to punish character animation for the pain he felt. One way he did that was by trying to subordinate character animation to Mary Blair's attractive but incompatible designs.

In the fifties, Disney submerged himself in projects that were—compared with his great work of a decade and a half earlier, and regardless of the new projects' scale and complexity—trivial pursuits. It was then, thanks to the Disneyland theme park and the Disney TV shows, that "Disney" became synonymous in the public's mind with "warm bath." As Walt Disney devoted less and less time to his films, he continued to turn design against the art form he had nurtured, most notoriously through Eyvind Earle's somber, emphatically vertical designs for Sleeping Beauty. He even threatened in the late fifties to abandon animation altogether.

Walt Disney remained a fundamentally serious man, though, and in the last years of his life that seriousness reasserted itself—not through character animation, but through ideas that were variously questionable (the California Institute of the Arts) or simply terrible (his plans for a ghastly "experimental prototype community of tomorrow," or EPCOT). Those ideas were locked in time, as the animated cartoons of the thirties were not. CalArts, which brought art and music schools under the same roof, was born in the sixties alongside such huge performing-arts venues as the Lincoln and Kennedy Centers, and a monstrosity like EPCOT could have been conceived only when arrogant bureaucrats all over the country were ripping old cities apart in the name of "urban renewal." Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was, by contrast, the product less of its times than of one man's glorious vision.

EPCOT survives as, fortunately, no more than another theme park, part of the Walt Disney World complex in Florida. For all the lip service paid to the serious Walt Disney, and to his great films and bad ideas, it is the "warm bath" Disney, as exemplified by the theme parks, that is everywhere triumphant. I recall a poll of hardcore Disney fans, taken in 2001 around the time of the centennial of Walt's birth, that overwhelmingly identified Disneyland as his greatest achievement.

Disney's death in 1966 effectively ended Mary Blair's association with the Disney studio. In one sense, her job was done: by then, Disney animation had been thoroughly neutered. It never really recovered, and now pencil-and-paper animation is to be banished from the Disney studio in favor of computer animation. The latter medium so far shows few signs that it will ever be capable of what I call, in an addendum for the paperback edition of Hollywood Cartoons, "the subtle, life-giving variations available only to a hand holding a pencil."

This new environment would seem to be hospitable to Mary Blair's influence, and as Canemaker notes at the very end of his book, it is. He quotes Pete Docter, director of the Pixar studio's computer-animated Monsters, Inc., on Blair's impact on conceptual art for Pixar's films: "In every production, there's a phase where we say, 'Let's look at Mary Blair's stuff!'"

John Canemaker's beautiful new book will certainly make it easier for computer animators at Pixar and Disney and elsewhere to do that. That better films will result seems to me most unlikely.


John Canemaker is a filmmaker as well as a writer (and a professor at New York University), and an hour's worth of his short films, made between 1978 and 1998, have been collected on a DVD, John Canemaker: Marching to a Different Toon (Image Entertainment, $26.99). The DVD includes Canemaker's valuable documentary, Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat, as well as such highly personal animated films as Bottom's Dream and Confessions of a Stardreamer. Canemaker's influences—Fantasia, the Hubleys' collaborations—are sometimes unmistakable, but it is always clear that he is speaking in the language of films he loves, and that makes all the difference. How much more rewarding it is to spend an hour in the company of these lovely, gentle films than to watch almost any recent animated feature.

[Posted August 2003]