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"What's New" Archives: December 2011

 

December 31, 2011:

Fred Moore's Three Caballeros

 

December 25, 2011:

Christmas Greetings II

 

December 24, 2011:

Christmas Greetings I

 

December 19, 2011:

Your Tour Guide, Bob Clampett

 

December 14, 2011:

Fraser MacLean's Setting the Scene

 

December 12, 2011:

Reviewing the Reviews

 

December 5, 2011:

Walt's 110th

More on MGM

 

December 31, 2011:

Fred Moore's Three Caballeros

Three Caballeros

Three Caballeros

To end a problematic year on a bit of an up note, here are three sketches of the Three Caballeros by Fred Moore. At the time I received color slides of these drawings from Ken Kearney, back in the 1970s, they were owned by Bob Carlson, a Disney animator of long standing and one of the industry's good guys. You can see another Moore drawing of the same vintage at Jenny Lerew's Blackwing Diaries blog.

Comments

From James Tim Walker: Thanks for ending the year on such a high note, sharing the wonderful Fred Moore Three Caballeros drawings. I'm a big fan of Moore's drawings and I bought the Moore drawing in the Icons of Animation auction. Keep up the great blog, I read it all the time.

[Posted January 3, 2012]

December 25, 2011:

Christmas Greetings II

Skipping ahead twenty-six years from yesterday's post of a 1933 Disney Christmas greeting, here's the cover of a 1959 Warner Bros. comic book. Odd how slick and "modern" this drawing seems by comparison with the Disney, even though it's from fifty-two years in the past, exactly twice as long as the chronological gap separating it from the Disney drawing; and, of course, the comic-book cover lacks the Depression-era gruesomeness of that very dead wolf on the floor. But what's really odd is how gigantic Bugs is, compared with the other characters. The idea, I suppose, was that Bugs had to be drawn that big, to emphasize that it was his funnybook. Bugs Bunny's Merry Christmas was, besides, the first ten-cent Bugs Bunny Christmas comic book, a demotion after nine years of twenty-five-cent "giants," so maybe it seemed to need an extra push. But it still makes one blink.

Bugs Bunny comic book

Comments

From Don Benson: Actually, Porky is rather out-of-scale too. He should be at least as tall as Petunia; here he's a midget . . . unless that's one of those non-canonical "nephews" that randomly infested the comics (even Road Runner had a few in the comics of my youth. He/she also spoke in rhymed couplets).

I miss those 25¢ giants—not just the funnybooks but those wacky themed DC titles—stories involving multiple identities of Jimmy Olsen, for example (Genie! Juvenile Delinquent!). The Batman versions especially were loaded with stories that already looked ancient to my untrained eye.

For nostalgia, especially enjoyed the Disney titles with some kind of linking story: Santa delivering presents to assorted short & feature characters to set up stories about them; tours of Disneyland—with amusingly inaccurate backgrounds—that frame adventures or recollections; or a back-to-school issue that casts characters as teachers in otherwise unrelated stories, smuggling in "Windwagon Smith" as something Clara Cluck reads aloud to class. Quality of the individual stories was all over the map, but it was fun.

MB replies: I'm sure that's Cicero, the nephew who originated in the comic books, rather than Porky.

[Posted December 28, 2011]

December 24, 2011:

Christmas Greetings I

1933 Disney Christmas

Comments

From Are Myklebust: Thanks a lot for some great postings lately, I especially liked the piece about Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, including the explanation for Walt's strange haircut at the time.

Just wondering; why wasn't the Christmas card from 1933 reproduced in colour?

MB replies: I picked up that illustration not from the card itself, but from 8 x 10 photo that was presumably distributed around the same time. Here's the card in color, as provided by Are:

Disney card in color

[Posted December 28, 2011]

From Mark Sonntag: I just wanted to point out the goofy grin the supposedly dead Big Bad Wolf has on his face. I find it oddly comical.

MB replies: I think the wolf's expression would be classified as a rictus, that is, "a fixed or unnatural grin or grimace, as in horror or death." Not a smile of pleasure, for sure!

[Posted December 31, 2011]

December 19, 2011:

Clampett map excerpt

Your Tour Guide, Bob Clampett

Back on June 6, 1969, Milt Gray and I recorded the first of our many interviews with Bob Clampett, the great Warner Bros. cartoon director, at his studio on Seward Street. Bob and I exchanged many letters in the months that followed, as I transcribed the interview and then prepared it for publication, with Bob providing lots of illustrations and other feedback, as well as a steady stream of newspaper clippings on various subjects. The interview was published in the fall of 1970 in Funnyworld No. 12, the first printed issue, after eleven I produced by mimeograph. You can read the interview here, at this link.

Clampett map coverIn April 1970, when our correspondence about the interview was accelerating, Bob sent me a Los Angeles road map heavily marked with the locations of historic animation sites, as well as what might be called historic Clampett sites—sites that were important in Bob's life if not necessarily animation related. Thanks to Mark Evanier and his scanner, you can see the relevant portions of that map by clicking on the excerpt above, the map cover at the left, or this link. This is a big file, and it may take a while to load and then come into perfect focus on your computer.

The Clampett interview stirred up anger, frustration, and resentment among some of his old colleagues, most notably Chuck Jones, and I think the map offers a clue as to why that happened. Bob's memories of his animation and television career were extraordinarily detailed and for the most part unquestionably accurate, as you might expect from someone who was as passionately involved in his work as Bob typically was. The problem was that Bob took for granted the importance of his own role in the events he was describing. Often he was just as important as he thought he was, but not always, and the result could be an account of events that was firmly anchored in fact but somewhat misleading in its totality. The map is thus a detailed and accurate guide to the Hollywood animation landscape in the 1930s-1940s, but it is also Clampett-centric—not a problem here, since the map was not intended for publication but only to help me as I edited the interview, but that same Clampett-centrism could cause problems in print.

Bob was a little off when he marked the location of the MGM cartoon studio—it was, as you know if you've read my recent posts about that studio's geography, at the corner of Overland Avenue and the now-vanished Montana Avenue—but I can't think of any other mistakes he made. I carried the map with me on trips to Los Angeles for many years, using it as a guide as I visited the locations of the old cartoon studios. I finally retired it only when I'd finally fnished writing Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age.

[A December 26, 2011, update: I'm late in calling your attention to Mark Evanier's own memories of Bob Clampett, as stimulated by this map posting, but they're very much worth reading. Likewise Mark's memories of the recently deceased comic-book pioneer Joe Simon.]

Comments

From Paul Dushkind: In Funnyworld No. 12, Bob Clampett claimed he created every character he worked on. In Funnyworld No. 13, you argued so persuasively that he was truthful, that it's hard for me to believe what you wrote after you changed your mind. Today the consensus seems to be that Clampett told the truth about what people did and how they did it, but (maybe) not about who did what.

As you surely recall, you quoted two letters that you considered worthy of rebutting, but not deserving of publishing in full, from writers you declined to name. They implied that Clampett might be inaccurate, but gave no specifics. It gave the impression that these letters came from fans, who would have been unaware of what went on behind the scenes. But at that point in time, you must have known of the umbrage of other animators and directors, who said that Clampett was taking credit for their work.. I wonder if you would like to comment on this further now.

MB replies: I've written at length, in my introduction and comments on the Clampett interview and in a 1992 piece on letters Chuck Jones and Tex Avery exchanged in 1975, about the controversy that the Clampett interview aroused, so I don't think a lengthy response is required now. The letters I quoted in Funnyworld No. 13 came from Jones and Avery, and what I was doing in my editorial was challenging both of them to be more specific in their criticisms of the Clampett interview, instead of insisting that I take on faith their broad claims that the interview was inaccurate. The closest they came was that 1975 exchange of letters, which was, as I wrote in 1992, intended not to correct the record but to intimidate me.

[Posted December 21, 2011]

From Thad Komorowski: Regarding the Bob Clampett map, it's another example of what a unique and confounding individual he was. Much of what he said was shockingly accurate and he often remembered minutiae all the other directors long forgot, but in his recollections, there's also a smattering of bizarre grandstanding and outright bullshit. (He obviously was aware of the new Bob Givens model of Bugs Bunny since it's used in Patient Porky, but surely if he was so intimately involved in A Wild Hare, he'd have made sure the character had the new voice too, right?) The map, however, is, like Bob himself, mostly accurate, fun, and harmless (and the original Disney studio's uniqueness in being where he brought a Mickey Mouse doll is just hilarious). It should be cherished as a invaluable remnant of a priceless man.

MB replies: Wild Hare and Patient Porky were released just a few weeks apart, so they were almost certainly in production at the same time. I haven’t seen Patient Porky for a long time—as Thad reminds me, it's on a Golden Collection DVD, but I can't remember ever watching it—and my notes from long-ago viewings are ambivalent as to whether there’s any resemblance to the Wild Hare Bugs (who looks different from scene to scene anyway). I need to pull out that DVD and give Patient Porky a fresh look. My notes don’t show that I asked Bob about that cartoon, unfortunately.

[Posted December 23, 2011]

MacLean Book

December 15, 2011:

Fraser MacLean's Setting the Scene

I've only just received Setting the Scene: The Art and Evolution of Animation Layout by Fraser McLean, published by Chronicle Books with a list price of $60 (but available for much less online), and I've barely had time to page through it, much less read it with any care. I can say with assurance, though, that it's an extraordinarily beautiful book, full of fascinating photos and reproductions of original art, and it seems to have been laid out, appropriately, in a way that maximizes the impact of those illustrations. It is easily the most attractive animation book to come into my hands in many years. What I've seen of the illustrations and the little I've read so far in the text reflects care and an attention to detail that is lamentably rare in nonfiction books of any kind, much less a book in a field dominated by what amount to glossy press releases.

I'm looking forward to reading Setting the Scene in the weeks ahead, and I'm sure I'll have more to say about it when I've given it the full attention it obviously deserves. In the meantime, if you're looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for that animation person in your life, here's the answer.

December 12, 2011:

Reviewing the Reviews

A couple of follow-ons to my long November 27 review of a bundle of new comic-strip and comic-book reprint volumes...

* I said of Fantagraphics' new Pogo book: "The book is a triumph." But I should have said that the book is a triumph not just for Walt Kelly, and for Fantagraphics, but for its editors, Kim Thompson and Carolyn Kelly (Walt's daughter). Especially since I singled out for criticism, by name, the editors of another Fantagraphics book. I've made the necessary correction in my review.

Miser's Dilemma* In my comments on Fantagraphics' first Carl Barks reprint volume, Donald Duck "Lost in the Andes," I regarded skeptically Donald Ault's introduction, in which he writes about how Barks's stories

fundamentally altered millions of people's lives during their formative years and afterwards[,] infusing them with a love for reading, pointing them in the direction their lives should take, defining the codes of morality and excellence by which they led their lives (even inspiring them to enter specific occupations).

I found it difficult to believe that Barks had so vast and positive influence, for all that he was tremendously admirable as a person as well as a comic-book creator, but I set aside "the question of just how effective Barks was at instilling in his most ardent fans—some of the big-gun collectors of his duck paintings, say—those 'codes of morality and excellence.'"

A few days after my review appeared, I received the following anonymous message from someone who could probably be described as a person whose life was "fundamentally altered" by his encounter with Barks's work. I'm not sure what provoked his message; maybe my "Lost in the Andes" review, but more likely my 2001 essay "Thoughts on Carl Barks's Hundredth Birthday," in which I was highly critical of Barks's paintings of the Donald Duck family. In any case, the message came from someone whose email address led to a web page offering Barks paintings for sale for close to a million dollars each.

Your either ignorant about art or your just stupid not to recognize Carl barks painting as the best art of our times. The proof is that you never owned a Carl barks painting .. which I'm sure you could of bought one for a few hundred dollars. Which a collection just sold at heritage for 4 million .. and a single painting brought 265k. Your ignorance has cost you thousands or perhaps millions. You should keep your opinion to your self as its shows everyone what a complete idiot you are judging carls paintings as rubbish and trash.

Buyer BewareAs my correspondent's message indicates, people who are enthusiastic about Barks's work are not necessarily inspired to emulate his scrupulous use of the English language, or, for that matter, any of the other admirable things about him. I suppose you could try to draw a line between belligerent fans of the paintings, like my correspondent, and those of us who care about the stories, but has anyone ever come to feel genuine enthusiasm for the paintings—setting aside purely monetary motives—without reading and loving the stories first? How could they?

The value of Barks's best work surely must exist independent of whatever therapeutic effects it is supposed to have had on its readers, such effects being so often invisible or nonexistent.

And that brings to mind another question: Does anyone know of a real artist, or art critic, or scholar in the fine arts, who thinks Barks's duck paintings are any good, much less "the best art of our times"? Someone who's not on Steve Geppi's payroll, I mean. I can't think of any. Not that that's conclusive—Barks's duck stories don't have nearly as many admirers in high places as they deserve—but it's at least a fact to weigh in the balance against my correspondent's illiterate resentment.

The Barks paintings I've reproduced here are merely examples that I think resist being classified as good art, much less as some of "the best art of our times." And, for the record, I do own Barks paintings, two of them, a landscape that I bought in 1971 and a portrait of Scrooge that Carl and Garé Barks gave to me and Phyllis in 1973, as a wedding present. They're not for sale.

Comments

From John K. Richardson: I always wish I could jot down all my thoughts on all your posts, from the Disney park’s “commodification of delight” (or whatever the phrase was) and how heavy-handed it is now even compared to a year or so ago; through dead-serious Dali’s hilarious misbuttoning of his coat; to the fact that I love the corniest, most dated parts of Fantasia maybe the most.

But the subject of cartoonists who paint really grabs me, since I kind of are one. After reading this last post, I went back and read your farewell tribute to Barks. I’m not sure I can analyze what makes a cartoon painting stand as a cartoon on its own merit, but I think it does have a lot to do with line, as you pointed out. And with, well, whatever intangibles make other art so perfect when it’s perfect. You’ve probably heard of Mark Bodnar. Some of his works are at this link.

It’s funny; his paintings actually are stronger than the quick drawings I’ve seen on this site. Yes, the subject matter he deals with is part of why I love his paintings, but even when I saw them years ago—before they related so closely to some things I’m dealing with right now—his paintings just struck me as perfect. Pretty great, huh?

From Mike Goldberg: I too have for at least 50+ years enjoyed the comics and stories that Carl Barks produced. I even had a chance to have one of his paintings via a commision in the early 1970's but did not have $150.00 or so that it would cost. I have to totally agree with you that though the paintings are very interesting, they are not fine art. They are a commercial product, though in limited quantities! Fans and especially ardent fans of comics, SF, etc. somehow cannot see the forest for the trees, and they instill value either monetary or an idealistic intrinsic value into the things they collect and the creators, actors, and artists they admire.

My late father said, "Something is valuable only if someone is willing to pay you for it." These are just enjoyable and entertaining stories, paintings, sculptures etc. Let's just accept them as what they are and not make them into gods!

From Mark Sonntag: That's probably one of the rudest e-mails I've ever read and pretty ignorant considering the likes of Norman Rockwell who was a far better painter than Barks (different subject matter aside) was never considered a fine artist and still isn't. It's also quite telling that the comment is annonymous, I say to this person, stand up for your convictions and attach your name.

Now, that said, I love Barks's comics, his deceptively simple use of line communicates far more on a storytelling level than his paintings. I've seen high quality prints of his paintings and I'm just not a fan, they feel labored. But to each his own, I'd rather have an original ink drawing of his than a painting.

[Posted December 12, 2011]

From Kevin Hogan: Although not directly from Barks, the TV show “Ducktales” was inspired by the artist. The show led me (and I’m sure many children in the 80’s/90’s) into comics. While these shows seem less inspiring now when watching them (TV toons rarely if stand the test of time very well), they certainly left an impression. I think Barks influence on the show turned on my senses to adventure more than the actual show did. I’m certainly one of millions who watched.

From Don Benson: I think the real value of Barks' paintings was (past tense deliberate) that they gave freelancer Barks a chance to realize some personal profit on valuable assets he created for Disney; and that they allowed his early fans a way to own a Barks work—and to support the artist directly—through accessible, legal channels. Unfortunately, now that Barks is gone and the paintings, lithos, etc. are collector commodities, neither really applies.

For me, the same applies to almost any autographed object available for purchase, "strictly limited run" and/or "certificate of authenticity" notwithstanding. What used to be a souvenir of knowing—or at least meeting—someone you admire or whose work you enjoy is now a quasi-investment that allegedly passed through his/her hands long ago. There's no memory or connection. And where's the pleasure in something that exists only to be kept pristine until you resell it? Collectability takes all the fun out of a collectable.

While Barks' paintings are not high art (or even high Barks, really), they're no worse than the pop ephemera many of us—well, schlock fanciers like me anyway— hang on our walls. But when that kind of thing costs more than its ready-made frame, it's wrong.

From Ricardo Isidro Rodríguez Salas: When you reviewed Fantagraphics' Barks Library in your website, you revealed that both you and Geoffrey Blum were invited to collaborate, and both declined. Why? My question is born from my fascination with both of you guys' points of views on the works of Carl Barks. I bet you'd have made it a more rewarding read, a much richer view of the Duck Man's true essence. While I'm very happy with the final product, and I fully intend to support the Library in the future, I'm disappointed I won't get to see your peculiar style, nor Blum's, enriching its pages.

MB replies: I can't speak for Geoff Blum, but my reluctance to get involved with this book stemmed from a number of sources. For one thing, Fantagraphics doesn't pay well (although I'm sure it pays as well as its proprietors can afford); for another, I'm deep into work on a book of my own, about comic books, that has turned out to be much more challenging and rewarding than I expected, and I didn't want to take time away from it. Perhaps most important, I've become increasingly reluctant to take part in projects that bear the official seal of Disney and other big copyright holders. My priorities and those of the copyright holders often diverge, but it's hard, when you're doing audio commentaries or something of the sort for a Disney or a Warner Bros., not to find yourself bending in the direction your patron prefers. Better to keep your distance, I've decided.

From Jim Korkis: I knew Disney Legend Jack Hannah quite well and interviewed him many times over the years. He also did fine art painting, primarily landscapes, and had several gallery shows. When I talked to him about the paintings of Carl Barks, he hemmed and hawed a bit before finally saying that Barks was continually improving. Jack felt that Carl's wife, Gare, was a much better painter. Apparently, in the beginning, Jack also gave Carl some valuable painting tips, even fixing some things right on the canvas.

If Carl is such a great painter, then why don't his non-Disney paintings sell as well? In fact, is there any market for those at all? Even the book collecting those paintings, Animal Quackers, isn't a sought after collectible...certainly not to the extent that the Barks Disney Duck painting book is.

I never saw people aggressively trying to track down the Barney the Bear Barks stories with the same fervor that they did the duck stories. Nor do I see fans get misty-eyed over Benny the Burro done by Barks. I think the marriage of Barks and the Disney ducks was magical but that magic didn't transfer to other characters whether they were in comic books or paintings. I think the high prices for the Barks Duck paintings come from either people seeing them as an investment opportunity or more likely that the paintings bring back fond memories of the stories and the characters as well as being pretty much a one-of-a-kind item where the master did everything.

I am glad that Barks enjoyed painting and that his work brought him some income in his twilight years. I am glad that there are people who treasure those paintings. However, I do not believe that Barks was a great painter and that the high prices for his work are not reflective of his skill but his connection with the Disney ducks.

MB replies: I agree on all points. I love my Barks landscape painting, "Hayday," not because it's a wonderful piece of art but because it evokes for me, more effectively than Carl's paintings of the ducks themselves, the special atmosphere of his duck stories. I paid seventy-five dollars for it, forty years ago last summer, and probably its value has since risen by more than the rate of inflation, but not by much, and certainly not as much as the value of the ducks paitnings. But I'm still very happy to have it hanging above my desk.

From Vincent Alexander: I just wanted to say that I very much agree with your opinion on Carl Barks' duck paintings, although I admit that I've never seen one of them in person. From what I gather, the coloring is very nice in the paintings, but the ducks themselves have so much more life to them in the earlier comic book covers. That's not to say that I think Carl Barks' paintings are terrible—I've seen a few that I can even say that I liked—but I feel the same way about his paintings that I do about the later artwork of Chuck Jones. Look at a Chuck Jones drawing or painting from the '60s on and you can still find traces of genius, but there's still no comparison to the brilliant sketches he did back in the '40s and '50s.

It's unfortunate that the later work of some great artists is more accessible than the work they did in their respective heydays (do a Google Images search of either Chuck Jones or Carl Barks and most of the pictures will be of their later art). Even George Herriman suffers a bit from this. He did his best work in the '20s and early '30s, but a lot of comic strip anthologies use Krazy Kat strips from the late '30s and '40s to showcase the strip. Herriman's layouts and writing were both still outstanding at this point, but his drawings of the characters had clearly suffered. I don't blame Herriman for this in any way, but, again, there's no point pretending the later work is as good as the earlier work.

Still, I'm very glad to hear the new Pogo book is a winner. I've been waiting years for a really good reprinting of the strip (the previous Fantagraphs paperback versions were out of print by the time I really started getting into Pogo), so I'll definitely be picking up a copy.

[Posted December 14, 2011]

From Thad Komorowski: I'll go with the general consensus and agree that the Barks paintings are not fine art by any stretch of the imagination, and also add that I thoroughly loved Jim Korkis's comment too. Still, when I went to Steve Geppi's puzzling museum in 2009 and saw the display of Barks's paintings, I couldn't help but smile at the mere sight of most of them. There were some, of course, that made me wonder what was going on in his head that made him think they should be made public, like one wholly repulsive painting of Daisy Duck as a cheerleader that David Gerstein and I guffawed at. I certainly can't say I'm overcome by the same "magic" about most of the "limited editions" of Chuck Jones, a creative figure I've revered even longer than Barks (I only started reading duck comics as a teenager, whereas I knew most of my favorite Looney Tunes were by "Charles M. Jones" by age seven). For me, the deterioration of his style notwithstanding, Jones's later work almost always works better in pure sketch-form, whereas Barks's later style works better with the colors. But I digress...

[Posted December 15, 2011]

From Brent Swanson: I was relieved to see that the new Fantagraphics book contained no oil painting reproductions whatsoever. While I have my favorites too ("Fair Wind off Bora Bora" in particular), the paintings and spinoff bric-a-brac became a major distraction in the '90s. Dana Gabbard and I were viewing the "Barks 96th birthday video" a few years ago and we both had the same question: how many of those people "celebrating Barks" really knew what he and his art were all about? The majority of the testimonials sounded eerily similar to a Thomas Kinkade sales pitch. And I guess the U.S. and Canadian governments just weren’t all that impressed with the idea of putting a "Klondike" painting on a joint issue postage stamp. If some of these folks had seen something that was truly vintage Carl Barks, like the "swimming pool" story or better yet, the "rare coin" story where Uncle Scrooge undercuts the value of Donald’s newfound collectibles, would they have been startled, or would they have even bothered to read them? I guess what I like most about the new Fantagraphics volume is the complete absence of any of the paintings. It’s time to forget those, or at least put them aside for awhile, and let the integrity of the stories speak for itself.

MB replies: I agree that Fantagraphics deserves applause for not reproducing any of the paintings in the new book. I only hope that their omission was for the right reason—skepticism about the paintings' artistic worth—and not for some more mundane reason, like the cost of color separations.

[Posted December 16, 2011]

From Brian Roberts: I was kinda blown away by the quote from Ault. Wow! So Barks is where my morality came from? My Catholic school upbringing had nothing to do with it? He certainly reinforced it, but he added all kinds of dimensions. For instance, virtue has to be its own reward because it may not be acknowledged or compensated. Donald usually made out OK at the end of the story, but sometimes it was because he caught a lucky break after having failed hilariously at trying to do the right thing. And Barks let you know that evil would continue to prosper. Gladstone Gander (not evil, but certainly a worthless bag of dross) never did anything for anyone but still cruised through life without working.

I agree with your assessment of Barks's painting Miser's Dilemma that you reproduced. Really, the tongue hanging out? Barks seems to have forgotten his own characterization of Scrooge as someone who, yes, loves money but will (usually) choose the good of his fellow man—er, duck—when the choice must be made. The only dilemma I see in this painting is which hand—right or left?

That said, I do love the way he shaded it. It looks like film noir. A bit overdone, maybe, but I think he was compensating for all those years of flat panels. Even if the art was flat, his themes, with their ambiguity, wryness, and twists, might be called comiques noir.

A footnote on my Catholic school upbringing: I was delighted in the first grade when Sister let us bring comic books to school. But only three were allowed: Disney, Kelly, and New Funnies.

Another footnote re Ault's statement about Barks inspiring his readers to enter specific occupations: Sorry, that didn't work with me. For years I dreamed of working at the Disney studios, but my drawing was too pedestrian. Instead I became a lawyer. And you know what Barks thought of lawyers! (e.g., Sharkey in the Golden Helmet story)

[Posted December 17, 2011]

From Thad Komorowski: I guess the response to your Barks post has been predominantly positive because what you wrote is, well, the truth. The Barks paintings aren't fine art and well below his best comics work. I was rereading your "Accentuating the Negative" and it seems people take umbrage with you and your opinions for the same reasons I see Shamus Culhane disparaged—what you write is articulated well and actually makes sense. Sometimes, though, as with the Barks paintings, everyone will see a spade as a spade, and you'll get praised for calling it such.

MB replies: I’m sure there are any number of Barks painting collectors who take umbrage at any suggestion that their insanely overpriced purchases are not fabulous investments in great art. They just haven’t made their case online, since there is no case to make. But my anonymous correspondent has no doubt expressed their sentiments precisely.

[Posted December 23, 2011]

From Robert Latona: Some anecdotal input for your Barks/paintings thread:

A few weeks ago, following an episode of intolerable paleo-adolescent obnoxiousness, my youngest son was made to walk all the way to his school, deprived of the chauffering that ordinarily spares him a 40-minute early morning trek. It was hours late for the opening bell. So what happens. By dint of being justly punished for his bad behavior, and thus passing by a place where he had no business being, at a time he had no business being there, the kid spots 55 euros (say 75 bucks) lying on the ground and pockets them gleefully, the little rat. You may well imagine that news of outcome this produced multiple thunderclaps of “Waks!!” and ejected pinfeathers at home.

Having been properly brought up on Barks, the elder brother could not but make the anguished comment that Gladstone Gander, the world’s luckiest but least deserving duck, had pulled off yet another one. Did someone mention life lessons from Duckburg?

I would not have had a problem if instead of Barks, my son had quoted an equally apposite author such as Ecclesiastes (“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all”), as both authors evidently coincided on this point and considered it one worth making. But if you ignore the silly hyperbole, I think maybe this is what Don Ault was getting at.

MB replies: Well, maybe, but I doubt it. Certainly, Barks and the author of Ecclesiastes offer comparable assessments of what the world is like. But if the question then is how to respond to that reality, I don't think Barks offers an answer, except for the explicit moralizing in some of his flabbiest stories. Don Ault seems to attach great weight to those stories, and to the moral prescriptions he finds in Barks's stories as a body of work, but I think such a reading diminishes Barks.

[Posted January 2, 2012]

December 5, 2011:

Walt's 110th

Walt and Dali

Walt Disney was born 110 years ago today, on December 5, 1901, and I've wanted to post something about him a little different from the usual tributes. So I thought about his October 1957 visit with Salvador Dali, at Dali's home in Spain, and I thought, more specifically, about Walt's haircut on that day. It seems not to have provoked much comment, but if you examine the photo above, and the other photos from that visit that are floating around the web, you'll notice that Walt's haircut is...well, different from his usual careful grooming. It is what Walt himself called a "butch haircut"—maybe it would qualify as a flattop?—and he told the Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, in a piece published on November 5, 1957, that he'd adopted it for a seven-week trip to Europe as a sort of disguise.

"I got by with my butch haircut and registered under William Edward Jones, so nobody bothered me," he said. "Only in England was I spotted. But we didn't go to Paris or Rome, we traveled thru [that's the Chicago Tribune's spelling] Belgium, south Germany, Austria into Italy, into part of the Mediterranean, and Spain, where we visited Salvadore [sic] Dali who lives in a tiny fishing village near Barcelona. ... He has the answer to living: spends six months there and the rest in New York."

Hopper was, by the way, not a "gossip columnist" of the Walter Winchell sort, but rather an earnest apologist for the Hollywood studios. She was a Disney fan and wrote about Walt often. Her papers at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills reflect the reporting she and her staff put into her longer pieces, especially, including some on Walt. Hopper wasn't an objective reporter, by any means, but she seems to have gotten her facts right most of the time.

On that 1957 trip, Walt and his wife Lillian sailed September 5 for Southampton, England, on the S.S. United States. They spent a week in London before moving on to Brussels, and then (presumably by car the entire time) Bonn, Heidelberg, and Munich in Germany; Bolzano, Venice, Milan, and Portofino, in Italy; and Juan-Les-Pins, Avignon, and Carcassonne in southern France. These were mostly one- or two-night stops. The Disneys' grand tour ended in Spain: Cadaqués (near Dali's home at the village of Port Lligat), Barcelona, Zaragosa, Madrid (an uncharacteristic four nights), Bailon, Granada, and the port of Algeciras, before sailing for home October 19 on the S.S. Constitution, which arrived in New York on October 25. The visit with Dali apparently took place on October 6 or 7. It sounds like an exhausting itinerary—in my own travel experience, nothing is worse than pulling up stakes every day and heading for someplace new—but, of course, Walt and Lilly had lots of help along the way.

Walt may have found the trip a bit too much, though. He told Hedda Hopper: "I'm not a good tourist—there's too much of everything."

Comments

From Kevin Hogan: How did Dali and his worldview/ artistic leanings ever lead to potential collaboration with Disney (conservative/ cartoon “realism” leanings)? It just seems like such a strange match… Maybe the strangeness of it led Disney to consider it?

MB replies: I'm struggling to remember where I've read this, but I recall Lillian Disney's attributing her husband's favorable opinion of Dali to Dali's draftsmanship. (Lilly herself didn't care for the man or his paintings.) As always with Walt, exceptional talent could outweigh a host of sins.

[Posted December 7, 2011]

More on MGM

Ising, Allen, Barbera

To follow up on my essay on the MGM cartoon studio as photographed by Ed Benedict on March 4, 1953, I've pulled a caricature from an earlier moment in that studio's history.

As you know if you've read my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, MGM broke with Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising in 1937, when it ended its distribution deal with the independent Harman-Ising studio and built its own up-to-date studio—staffed in large part by defectors from Harman-Ising—across Overland Avenue from the main MGM lot. The new studio's Captain and the Kids cartoons were not well received, and after a year MGM had to eat humble pie and ask Hugh and Rudy to join the cartoon studio's staff and produce cartoons like those they'd been making as independents. It was a rather awkward situation, as exemplified by the caricature above, which shows Heck Allen, on the left, and Joe Barbera, on the right, clinging to Rudy Ising; both Allen and Barbera were members of Rudy's story crew when he became an MGM producer, and the message from the drawing (by Bob Allen, Heck's brother and an MGM animator and director) is that they were predictably anxious to secure the new producer's patronage.

MGM erected its cartoon studio at Overland and Montana Avenues in Culver City, but as you know if you've read the comments on my earlier posting, Montana Avenue no longer exists. (There's a Montana Avenue in nearby Santa Monica, but it's a completely different street.) David Nethery did some probing on the internet and came up with information that permits a more accurate siting of the studio than that simple street address. David has pointed me to this authoritative site about the MGM lots. As he says, "The Main Lot, Lot 1, is the present- day 'triangle' piece of property bordered on three sides by Washington, Overland, and Culver. That's where Sony Pictures is now." The website mentions other MGM lots on surrounding property, including this one:

Across Overland Avenue to the west from Lot 1 was Lot 2.This 37-acre parcel was purchased specifically for studio expansion and some of the first films to use it were King Vidor's "The Big Parade" (1925) and "Quality Street" (1927). Many of the standing sets from the early backlot built on the west end of Lot 1 were moved here to form "Waterfront Street." The prison set from "The Big House" (1930) was built here, as was "New England Street," a curved street of well maintained, middle class homes used extensively throughout the "Andy Hardy" series. The swimming pool, stables and mansion from "The Young Philadelphians" (1940), the exterior Chinese set from "Green Dolphin Street" (1947) and the "Verona Square" set from "Romeo and Juliet" (1936) where among the many others built here.

The Animation Department where cartoon characters "Tom and Jerry," "Droopy," and "Barney the Bear" were drawn and filmed was located in a streamlined building on the northeast corner of Lot 2.

So, was that building actually on the MGM lot, as it says here, or not, as I was told by people who worked there? The answer almost certainly is, both. The MGM cartoon studio was on MGM's property, on Lot 2, but anyone visiting there entered not through the lot itself, but through a door at the corner of Overland and Montana. The cartoon studio's situation was evidently analogous to that of the Walter Lantz studio at Universal: that studio was on the Universal lot, but the entrance was on Lankershim Boulevard, as Roger Armstrong has explained in an essay I've posted on this site.

In digging through my files of photos from MGM, I've found two early photos that show the studio entrance. In the first photo, Fred Quimby, Hugh Harman, and Rudy Ising greet a visiting group of some kind at the front door, marked "M-G-M Cartoon Studio." That's Overland Avenue at the left. The photo was taken sometime between 1938 and 1941, when Harman left MGM.

Overland Avenue

The next photo may have been taken in August 1941, when Rudy Ising had just married Cynthia Westlake, a young actress to whom he was married for the rest of his life, and was leaving on his honeymoon. (Rudy had been married at least once before, to an actress named Maxine Jennings, but that marriage lasted only a few years.) I can't account for the other women in the station wagon, though. The photo was taken looking across Overland Avenue, with Montana Avenue—like Overland a public street—on the right.

And what of the structures visible behind the cartoon studio's building, in this photo and in Ed Benedict's 1953 photo? Presumably they're frameworks for sets or something of the sort, on Lot 2, but I can't be sure. [A January 13, 2012, update: Thanks to Dan Briney, I can now be sure that those are indeed frameworks for sets. You can go directly to his comment by clicking on this link.]

MGM Cartoon Studio

And as for what the location of the MGM cartoon studio looks like now—here's a screen shot, courtesy of David Nethery:

MGM Studio's location

David elaborates:

Attached find what Google Maps Street View shows in present day Culver City on Overland Avenue at the corner of Overland and Palm Court Way. (Palm Court Way is just a bit south of Oregon Avenue, which you mentioned is on the Bob Clampett map , near where the now nonexistent Montana Avenue was.) If the camera turned to the left in this Google Maps screen grab you would see the entrance to Sony Pictures on what is left of the original MGM Studio lot.The same spire from Veterans Memorial Park is in view in both the Google Maps screen grab and the original Ed Benedict photo of the MGM Cartoon Studio. Of course there is no way to duplicate the exact same perspective or position that Ed Benedict was in when he took the photo, but I think this is more or less the location. So the location of the MGM Cartoon Studios building is now occupied by one of the many condos/apartments put up when Kirk Kerkorian sold off large chunks of the MGM lot.

Here's the entrance to Sony Pictures:

Sony Pictures Entrance

And speaking of the Clampett map (which I described in the comments on my original post about the MGM studio): Mark Evanier has generously offered to scan it on his scanner, which can accomodate much larger documents than mine, and I hope to post it here soon.

Comments

From Mark Mayerson: I'm greatly enjoying the MGM photos you've been posting, but I'm frustrated that they're not bigger. For instance, that shot of Rudy Ising in the station wagon might reveal other identifiable MGM animation artists if it was larger.The photo of Tex Avery at his desk is full of interesting background material such as a turntable for soundtrack recordings. The book that Avery is looking at or working on might be exposure sheets, though it looks small for that, or bar sheets of a type. Is the art on the wall by John Johnsen? Are the photos Avery's children? I don't know if the software you're using allows click-throughs to larger versions of the photos, but if so, I'd certainly appreciate the chance to examine the photos in greater detail.

MB replies: My software does indeed permit such click-throughs, which I've posted on a number of occasions, most recently the spread of Looney Tunes comic books on October 20, 2011. So I've posted larger versions of both the Avery and Ising photos, both accessible by clicking on the smaller versions. I've cropped the Ising photo more tightly than the small version, since it's the people in the photo, and not the setting, that are of interest in the large version.

From Peter Hale: Wikimapia defines the site of MGM Lot 2 as shown in the first photo below. The building marked 4095 is the Culver City Senior Center. It is a new building, part of the redevelopment, but it could be considered to occupy the NE corner of the site, and its footprint, with parking area opposite, looks very similar to the Ed Benedict photo, as does the Google street scene of it, the second photo below.

MGM Lot 2 aerial view

Culver City Senior Center

[Posted December 7, 2011]

From Paul Penna, who, like me, did some Photoshop tinkering with the Avery photo in an effort to bring up more detail: The main problem with getting fine detail from the shot is its lack of sharpness, due to shallow depth-of-field and slight camera motion due to a low shutter speed. That really shouldn't be considered a serious criticism, though; given the low sensitivity of transparency films of the time, things like that were well-nigh unavoidable. The photographer [Ed Benedict] pretty much nailed the exposure, though. Interestingly, if taken today as a casual snapshot with a digital camera, it probably would have been much worse, as the camera's auto exposure probably would have overcompensated for the bright window and left the rest in impenetrable murk. All in all, a priceless image, thanks so much for publishing it!

[Posted December 8, 2011]

From Dan Briney: I've been catching up on your site and was very interested in your "More on MGM" article from December 7. You were wondering, "And what of the structures visible behind the cartoon studio's building...?" and I can answer—thanks to maps and aerial photos in the truly remarkable book advertised on the site David Nethery pointed you toward—that they were indeed the frameworks of sets, specifically, of the "Waterfront Street" assemblage of false fronts that were used for An American in Paris (and which were lost in a fire in 1967).

The aerial photos show that the Animation Dept. building backed up directly onto this series of sets that ran along Montana Ave. The map of Lot #2 provided in the book—which appears to be from sometime in the '60s, as it labels the building housing the Animation Dept. the "Filmways Building" (Filmways Television having moved into the space after MGM shut down its cartoon division)—also shows that there was a very short road named "Cartoon St." that ran along the south side of the building, providing access from an entrance on Overland to Waterfront Street and the neighboring collection of sprawling New York Streets.

I can't recommend this book highly enough; its authors seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to document what existed where on all three main MGM lots (including Lot #3, further down Overland), and it's given me a much clearer picture of this real estate whose history is by far the most compelling of that of any (live-action) studio.

[Posted December 30, 2011]

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