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Art Babbitt Interview

[Click here to go the Art Babbitt interview.]

From Karin Babbitt, daughter of Art Babbitt, who took issue with my introduction to the interview with her father: Trying very hard not to use my father's shoot-from-the-hip reaction, I think it is ungracious at best to describe him as the resentful cur you've made him out to be in your commentary. By the time you got to him, he was very old and very sick. Would you like to be immortalized via the Internet with your final musings? Where is the part about the brilliance of his work? Granted I am biased, but he had over 100 awards on his wall for his talent. How many people can say that? Not I, that is for certain.

Of course he was Jewish. Do you know anything about the Auschwitz survivor he married and brought to America? No. You know nothing about my mother or his two children. And you may not know why he chose to keep his heritage a personal matter.

There was a lot more than bile and bitterness in Art Babbitt. He truly felt that Roy had fixed everything. As he languished in pain on the ward in the Veteran's Hospital (he was a wonderful brave Marine and was given a 21 gun salute at his funeral) I couldn't help but wonder what we could have provided for him if he hadn't taken a stand for all animators. But you see, my dad wouldn't have had it any other way. It was his pleasure to leave this world with the best that the service and my beloved stepmother could provide for him because he knew he had done something for many others with his life.

Can we say that?

Art Babbitt was not "very old and very sick" when I knew him. I interviewed him for the first time in 1971, again in 1973, and for the last time in 1986, more than five years before his death. He was old in 1986, certainly, but not sick. He was indeed resentful—not a "resentful cur," as his daughter puts it, but a resentful man who made himself unhappy by dwelling on how badly he had been treated by people who had long since died. He voiced such resentment not just in his interviews with me but on other occasions as well. I limited my contact with Art in his last years because I was distressed by the extent to which he had allowed himself to be consumed by such resentment. He deserved better of himself. If a token gesture from Roy Disney defused that resentment and gave Art some peace at the end of his life, I'm glad of that.

Babbitt told me of his marriage to an Auschwitz survivor for what he described as fourteen unhappy years. It was his second marriage; his first was to the dancer Marjorie Belcher, later known as Marge Champion. His third marriage, to Barbara Perry in 1967, lasted until his death in 1992.

In regard to his attitude toward his Jewish origins: Babbitt called me the day after our last interview, and I made these notes immediately following our conversation: "Babbitt called me the afternoon of Dec. 14 [1986], obviously deeply concerned that he would be identified in print as a Jew. He said, in effect, while always dancing around any positive statement that he was Jewish, that he was completely removed from any kind of Jewishness-—he said he was unaware of religious holidays, apparently referring to Hannukah—and was married to a Methodist and had various other religions represented among members of his extended family, including even Mormonism. He expressed concern for his stepdaughter singing in Austria, 'the hotbed of Nazism.' The clear message was that members of his family would be distressed if my 'provocative questions' led to his being publicly identified as a Jew."

As I told Art then, causing him or members of his family such distress was the last thing on my mind. It was not until I published my 1986 interview on this site in 2003—more than ten years after his death—that there was any reference to his Jewish origins in anything I wrote about him.

As the introduction to the Babbitt interview makes clear, my 1986 interview was not a career-embracing retrospective, but more a tying up of various loose ends. Anyone who wants to read a fuller account of Art Babbitt's career and accomplishments will find one on the forty pages of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age where I write about Art and his work as an animator and union leader.

I can't speak to Karin Babbitt's motives, but her message reminds me of why I rarely try to get in touch with relatives of the deceased people I write about. Too often, those relatives scrutinize everything written about their beloved ancestor with a microscope, so that they can rise up in righteous wrath when they find something that they consider less than 100 percent favorable. Usually, they're not really concerned with their relative's accomplishments—many times they know little or nothing about his work—but only with basking in reflected glory, and anything that casts the slightest shadow on that glory is unacceptable.

We've seen more and more examples of this possessiveness as more and more of the giants of animation's "golden age" have left the scene. It's a dismal phenomenon, and not only because of the pettiness and jealous rancor that the heirs of great artists so often display. Artists' reputations thrive on constant examination and re-evaluation of their work, and of how their lives and their work intertwined. Trying to freeze in place a particular assessment of an artist—especially a superficial, adoring assessment—amounts to trying to snuff out interest in that artist altogether. To cite just one prominent example, I think it's no coincidence that the hundredth anniversary of Walt Disney's birth passed with a great deal of drum-beating by the Walt Disney family and the Walt Disney Company—and with almost no attention from the outside world, and certainly with no consideration of Walt Disney's stature as an artist.

[Posted January 23, 2006]

From Steve Worth, a producer at John Kricfalusi's Spumco studio: I just saw your interview with Art Babbitt. Great stuff. Art didn't particularly mellow in his last few years. He could still get his dander up for Jules Engel claiming the Mushroom Dance [in Fantasia]! But the interesting thing about Art was that he was principled. He didn't hold irrational grudges like so many other people I've met in animation. His passion was very logical and focused. Someone at the Afternoon of Remembrance held after he died described him as being so principled that he was the sort of person who would go to the mat over a ten-cent overcharge on his electric bill. That was the perfect description of Art.

The flip side to that was that as soon as the wrong was corrected to Art's satisfaction, he let it go. Roy's letter to him came completely out of the blue. Art kept it in his briefcase and took it with him everywhere, showing it to anyone who asked him about Walt. To him, it was the proof of the recognition that he had been cheated out of for so many years of Disney "corporate history." I got a chance to talk with Art a lot at FilmFair. He was perfectly willing to call Walt a bastard for the way he let Lessing handle the strike, but he also praised him for the way he made films. His grudge was all about what he believed was right and wrong. It wasn't a personal thing.

One interesting example of Art's ability to be honest about his own personal grudges was when I asked him about Country Cousin. He mentioned that "Walt's boy" animated some of the scenes that he didn't have time to get to. He was referring to Les Clark, "Walt's Finisher." I asked him whether the scenes were inferior to his own. Art scowled for a moment... He really wanted to say something bad, but he knew that it wouldn't be true. He finally said, "No. Les Clark did a fine job. I couldn't have done any better." I learned a lot about Art as a person by hanging out with him. He wasn't different inside than he was on the surface, but the reasons he was the way he was just weren't always apparent to others.

[Posted July 17, 2004]