"What's New" Archives: January 2010
January 30, 2010:
Richard Todd and Walt Disney, July 1952
January 25, 2010:
Audio to Think About Dumbo By
January 19, 2010:
January 14, 2010
Cliff Edwards, Ward Kimball, Jack Kinney, and the Crows
January 12, 2010
Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug
January 11, 2010
John Donaldson's Book
January 10, 2010
Frogs and Faith, Cont'd
And Then There's Race...
January 30, 2010:
Richard Todd and Walt Disney, July 1952
Last month I noted the death of Richard Todd, the fine British actor who was Walt Disney's first adult live-action star and his good friend. Todd's second movie for Walt (after The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men) was The Sword and the Rose, which was filmed in England in 1952 and released in the U.S. in July 1953. I recently acquired this publicity photo for Sword and the Rose that shows Walt with Todd, and with Glynis Johns, Todd's co-star, around the start of the shooting of that film at the Pinewood Studios. The occasion, according to the "snipe" attached to the photo, was the filming of costume tests.
The photo is undated, but it most likely was taken early in July 1952. Walt and Lillian Disney, their daughters, Sharon and Diane (the latter's name misspelled "Diana" on the official British list of incoming "alien passengers"), and Lillian's niece, Marjorie Sewell Bowers, sailed from New York on the Queen Elizabeth on Tuesday, July 1, 1952. They arrived at Southampton on Sunday, July 6, and proceeded to the Dorchester Hotel in London. The Hollywood Reporter for July 17, 1952, in a dispatch from London dated Friday, July 11, reported:
Walt Disney arrived in town this week and got right down to work on his new British picture, "The Sword and the Rose." Already he has visited Pinewood studios and had conferences with producer Perce Pearce and writer Lawrence Watkin, inspected art director Carmen Dillon's set designs and given artists' and make-up tests the once-over. After expressing his complete satisfaction with the pre-production planning and progress to date, he took a quick look at the sound stage where the first set is being built in readiness for interior shooting to start Aug. 5. This set, on which the opening scenes will be filmed, depicts part of the grounds and battlements of Windsor Castle in 1515 during the early years of Henry VIII's reign. Location shooting will be done by a second unit at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield, about 20 miles out of London, and will start next Monday.
The Disneys and Marjorie Bowers left Europe on Monday, August 25, 1952, sailing from Naples, Italy, aboard the Independence, and arrived in New York on Wednesday, September 3. I don't know if they flew or took the train to Los Angeles, but, in any case, Walt was back in his Burbank office the following Tuesday, September 9, the day after Labor Day.
Muriel Marjorie Sewell Bowers, daughter of Lillian Disney's sister Hazel Sewell and the stepdaughter of Walt's longtime employee Bill Cottrell, married Marvin Davis, one of Disneyland's key designers, in 1955. He died in 1998. Marjorie Davis died in December 1999, at the age of 83.
January 25, 2010:
Audio to Think About Dumbo By
[A January 26 update: Tom Carr has posted at his PilsnersPicks page two decidedly pre-Pinocchio and pre-Dumbo songs by Cliff Edwards, "When I Was a Son of Bee" (1927) and "I'm Going to Give It to Mary" (1931), the latter the cleanest dirty song you've ever heard, or maybe the dirtiest clean song, I'll let you decide. Tom has also posted the two-sided "Victor Minstrel Show of 1929," which makes for an interesting comparison with the Moran and Mack routine mentioned below. The name of one of the performers, Billy Murray, may be familiar, since he provided voices for early Fleischer sound cartoons.]
In his comment on my January 14 item about the crow sequence in Dumbo, Tom Carr mentioned early recordings by Moran and Mack, the duo billed as The Two Black Crows. Tom suggested that the film's crow dialogue had much in common with the routines of Moran and Mack, white performers who, like Amos 'n' Andy's Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, portrayed black characters in comedy routines.
Moran and Mack appeared on the vaudeville stage, on records, in revues like the Ziegeld Follies (1924) and Earl Carroll's Follies (1927), and even in a few movies. Their most famous routine was "The Early Bird Catches the Worm," which filled two sides of a Columbia record released in 1927. You can hear that routine, and others, at this link and judge for yourself how closely the banter of Dumbo's crows resembles what Moran and Mack were doing more than ten years earlier.
My own response is, racial considerations aside, what is it about the "Early Bird" routine that anyone ever considered so terribly funny that it became a big hit? Maybe you had to see it performed on stage to get the full effect? But then you'd have had to look at Moran and Mack, who in their stage garb appeared as in the photo at the right (which I've borrowed from Anthony Slide's invaluable reference The Vaudevillians: A Dictionary of Vaudeville Performers, published by Arlington House in 1981).
Pretty scary—but the costumes and makeup are so abstract, really, that it's hard to accept either man as the "shiftless darky" he was supposed to be. The connection with real black people is remarkably tenuous, and not just in the men's appearance but in how they sound in the routine itself. Gosden and Correll seem to have worked harder to make their voices sound "black." Moran and Mack are much closer to the minstrel show, in the way they look and sound, than to Amos 'n' Andy.
(Things were different back then, and not just where African Americans were concerned, as I was reminded when I ran across an item in the June 13, 1928, Variety about a popular Jewish vaudevillian: "Lou Holtz ... has been censured by Chicago's Catholic organizations because of a religious gag which he refused to eliminate until forced to do so by Balaban & Katz. The story ... concerned a boastful Hebe who bragged about meeting everyone of importance while in Europe. He wound up with a remark he liked the Pope all right, but his wife—!"And oh, yes, Holtz appeared in blackface early in his career.)
If Moran and Mack's "Early Bird" routine sounds naggingly familiar, that may be because it's generally similar to the vocal track for the 1932 Van Beuren cartoon Plane Dumb, in which the white characters Tom and Jerry (not the MGM cat and mouse) put on blackface in Africa. That track was recorded not by Moran and Mack, but by a duo called Miller and Lyles—comedians who were themselves black, but who performed a blackface routine imitative of the two white comedians. For some background on Plane Dumb see this page at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site.
There is at least one other cartoon connection: The two black crows in The Early Bird and the Worm, a 1936 MGM Happy Harmony directed by Rudolf Ising, are unmistakably modeled on Moran and Mack. Wikipedia's page on Moran and Mack cites a line in Friz Freleng's Warner cartoon The Wacky Worm it says was picked up from the team's "Early Bird" routine, but I haven't looked at the cartoon again to confirm that attribution.
From Paul Reiter: I can confirm that The Wacky Worm as shown here at about time 6:55 has the line "Who wants a worm anyhow?" in it. The exact line is also in the end of The Bookworm and a variation, of sorts, is in The Bookworm Turns as "Who wants a brain anyway?" (both by Harman after his return to MGM). There are probably others but I'll need to do some digging at my library to confirm it.
Listening to Moran and Mack, I agree there's nothing funny about it, I find it bland and as likely to bore you as offend you. The crows of Dumbo at least have "energy" in their voices, even Edwards's, which gives them a sense of life by comparison.
[Posted January 2, 2010]
January 19, 2010:
As I noted here last November 5, my book The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney has been published in Italy, as Vita di Walt Disney: Uomo, Sognatore e Genio (Life of Walt Disney: Man, Dreamer and Genius). It seems to be attracting considerable interest there, and even some controversy. La Repubblica, the country's second largest newspaper, devoted a full page to the book on December 28. That's a compact version of the page above, sent to me by my Italian publisher; click on this link to go to a larger version.
I don't have a clear idea of what's being said about the book, in La Repubblica or elsewhere in print and online. Despite several visits to Italy, a country that I love, my knowledge of the language still doesn't extend much beyond bongiorno and arrivederci. But I'm a little irked by La Repubblica's headline, which I believe says, "The dark [or maybe the unknown] side of Walt Disney—he was a tyrant with his employees." That's certainly not what the book says (and I'm not at all sure that's what the article itself says), but I suppose, given how different labor relations tend to be in Western Europe from those in the U.S., he might be seen as a tyrant in Italian terms. Maybe.
My impression from some other Italian sources is that my biography is being perceived as a positive counterweight to Marc Eliot's hatchet job. That's a judgment I'd welcome.
And speaking of The Animated Man: I wrote last May 26 that the Walt Disney Company had concluded that my book was in fact eligible for sale at the Disney theme parks. "Questions about the copyright status of a few of the book's illustrations had prevented the parks from placing any new orders," I said then, "since Disney did not want its stores selling The Animated Man if any of the illustrations infringed on its copyrights. ... Whether the book actually goes back on sale will be up to the parks' buyers, of course, but at least that possibility is now open."
I was being circumspect. The complaint of copyright infringement was never much more than frivolous—it was based, I'm sure, on The Animated Man's status as an unauthorized biography, rather than any legitimate concern about the illustrations—but I felt obliged to hold my tongue while there was any chance of the book's reappearing at the Disney parks' stores. My apprehensions were well founded: The Animated Man has never gone back on sale at the parks. The book is doing just fine—it's still one of University of California Press' bestsellers, almost three years after it was published—but I regret that it's not available to park visitors, many of whom will never know of it otherwise.
The Animated Man isn't being sold at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, either, and presumably won't be, although the museum has for months declined to give UC Press an answer one way or the other. Neal Gabler's Disney biography, a dreadful misrepresentation of the man, is is being sold at the parks, and one of my correspondents told me he had seen it for sale at the Family Museum in November. Given Diane Disney Disney Miller's frequent and well-founded criticism of the Gabler book, I must assume someone made a mistake. An understandable one, perhaps, since, as the New York Times pointed out in an article about the museum, "Mr. Gabler’s work benefited from full cooperation with the family and the Walt Disney Company." As I have reason to know, that sort of official blessing can make all the difference.
From Joseph Smith: Wanted to comment on your post from January 19, 2010, specifically in regards to your book being available at Disney theme parks. Disney did decide to put your book back on the shelf. Unfortunately, the shelf was located at the Disney Character Warehouse store in the Orlando Premium Outlets near Downtown Disney. It's the store where Disney sells discontinued merchandise at a discount. I took this snapshot with my camera phone last November, meaning to send it you then, forgot about it over the Thanksgiving holiday, and only remembered now. (In 2008 I sent you a photo of your book when it was on sale at the now-closed World of Disney store in New York.)
Given many of the recent decisions the Disney company has made in its parks, your book being pushed off the shelves likely has less to do with its content and more to do with the Disney corporation's focus on franchises and inventory management. The inventory levels of parks merchandise are no longer decided with any regard to theme or guest satisfaction; they are managed the same way Walmart is. What sells in high volume—Fab Five, Cars, and Princesses—gets space; what doesn’t, gets tossed aside.
MB replies: All too believable, especially set alongside what I've heard from other sources who must remain anonymous.
Today's Walt Disney Company reminds me of a degenerate church, one whose arrogant clergy regard its doctrines and those who believe in them with utter contempt but insist that the faithful not betray the slightest doubt or raise the most timid questions. Sensing the contempt in which they're held, many of the faithful grovel all the more, terrified that the clergy might cast them into the outer darkness.
What attracted me to Walt Disney in the first place, and has continued to attract me over the decades, is the core of seriousness in all the best things that bear the "Disney" label. The great animated shorts and features, of course; the comic books and strips by people like Barks and Gottfredson; and, for that matter, Disneyland, which Walt conceived not just as an amusement park but also as a sort of civilizing force. It's seriousness of that kind that I find lacking in today's Walt Disney Company. Not in all of the people who work there, but in the company as a whole, whose masters conceive of it, and their roles in it, in the narrowest commercial terms.
Serious books, produced under the company's auspices and at least to some extent under its control, used to have a significant place in the Disney scheme of things. They began with Feild's Art of Walt Disney in 1941 and continued through Bob Thomas's Art of Animation and Finch's Art of Walt Disney to John Canemaker's multiple volumes—all of these books have been valuable and illuminating in one way or another. We know that Walt himself cared about the accuracy, as he saw it, of what was in such books (he read and annotated the manuscript for the Thomas book, for instance). I can't imagine there's remotely comparable interest in the Walt Disney Company's upper reaches today in the books published as "Disney Editions," or, for that matter, interest in books as anything but marketing tools.
[Posted January 25, 2010]
January 14, 2010:
Cliff Edwards, Ward Kimball, Jack Kinney, and the Crows
Jim Korkis wrote in response to my January 10 item mentioning the voices of the crows in Dumbo, and specifically criticizing Cliff Edwards's performance as the leader of the five crows. That's Edwards wearing a derby in the publicity photo just above, with Jack Kinney, who worked on story for the crow sequence and then directed it. Here's what Jim Korkis said:
Interestingly, I am just finishing up an article on Cliff Edwards, who is best known today for his vocal work on Jiminy Cricket. Here's some background:
For a brief time around 1922, Edwards teamed up with Lou Clayton doing a blackface act (that while grossly inappropriate and insensistive today was common practice for entertainment at the time) and received some recognition for achieving what one reviewer called a faithful degree of black speech nuances.
That was one of the reasons that animator Ward Kimball cast Edwards as Jim Crow in Dumbo (1941). As Kimball remembered, "Cliff Edwards doing the voice of Jim Crow really made the whole sequence, because he was quite adept at doing kazoo solos on his old records, and he could vocally imitate other instruments. Many of the instrumental effects on the track were done by Edwards. Voice-wise, he really sounded more black than the blacks [from the Hall Johnson Choir] we had backing him up... The development and differentiation of the (crow) characters really began on the night that we started recording. I decided that Jim Crow would be the big, dominating boss crow with the derby... By the time the voices were set, you have a pretty good idea how they would individually look, react and even function in the sequence."
That Kimball quotation is from an interview by Ross Care in Millimeter for July-August 1976. Jim's message led me to wonder how much more of the story behind the crow sequence could be reconstructed at this late date.
Dumbo is the least documented of all the early Disney features—in particular, there are no notes from the many story meetings—but I have to doubt that it was Kimball who "cast" Edwards as Jim Crow, however much he may have approved or even recommended the casting. Also, Kimball may have been exaggerating a bit when he said, "I decided that Jim Crow would be the big, dominating boss crow with the derby." Such a character was always envisioned as a member of the cast.
In the original Joe Grant-Dick Huemer treatment of the story, which they fed to Walt Disney piecemeal during January-March 1940, Timothy Mouse has an indignant confrontation in Chapter XVIII with "a large, rusty-looking crow"; there's an audience of undifferentiated birds in attendance. The crow isn't described as wearing a derby, and there's none of Dumbo's clever business, but the general shape of the sequence is the same in the treatment as in the film.
Ralph Wright, who worked on the storyboards for the crow sequence with Kinney, told Milt Gray in 1977, in one of the interviews for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, that the sequence as it came from Grant and Huemer "was pretty much outlined." (The 102-page Grant-Huemer treatment is, by the way, yet another of those written documents that so often started story work at the Disney studio, but that, as I noted last December 15, various mountebanks and gulls like to pretend never existed.)
In a 1972 interview with Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkranz for Finch's book The Art of Walt Disney, Kimball remembered that the recording session for the crow sequence took place the night of election day, November 5, 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Wendell Wilkie. Everyone at the session was supporting FDR, Kimball said, except for the recording engineer Sam Slyfield. This was the session at which "When I See an Elephant Fly" was recorded; Kimball remembered that Oliver Wallace, that song's composer, was in charge.
Dumbo's supervising director Ben Sharpsteen, in a 1974 interview with Don Peri (which Peri incorporated into the Sharpsteen section of his book Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists), said of the recording session:
During the production of Dumbo, we had considerable problems between the story and the direction, and as a result it became necessary to have some new songs written that applied themselves better to the picture. When it came to recording these songs, one particular lyric writer [Ned Washington] wanted to be present.
This writer had written the lyrics to a song sung by the crows, which was an outstanding sequence in Dumbo. The singers suggested a change in the lyrics that seemed to be in character and to fit what we were trying to do, so we improvised the change. [In the original transcript, a copy of which is in the Disney Archives, Sharpsteen said that the black singers' leader "opposed some of the lyrics in it," for reasons that can now only be guessed at.] The lyric writer was greatly upset. One of our musicians [most likely Ollie Wallace] said, "Now take it easy. This isn't as serious as you think it is. You've got to realize how we do things here at Disney's. Everybody has his opportunity to say something. In other words, everybody chips in ten cents, and somehow it all seems to add up to a dollar."
I was particularly intrigued by Sharpsteen's characteristically oblique reference to "considerable problems between the story and the direction," which I suspect meant in this case that the crow sequence had been planned without a song, but as the treatment was translated into storyboards it became clear that it needed one.
On Friday, November 22, a little over two weeks after the recording session, Sharpsteen sent a memo to Walt Disney telling him: "Kinney is finishing sketches and we are going to go into a leica reel presentation of this and can probably have it complete during the coming week." Leica reels were film strips made up of photos of story sketches, with a synchronized sound accompaniment, no doubt in this case using recordings from the November 5 session.
Kimball presumably began animation of the crow sequence not long after that—I would guess in early 1941—and he had live-action footage to help him, as I wrote in this note I made in March 1997, during one of my numerous trips to Los Angeles around that time:
Scott MacQueen's show of "Disney's Unseen Treasures" at the World Animation Celebration at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium included footage of two black dancers shot as reference material for Kimball's animation of the crow sequence. The two dancers are obviously improvising to the pre-recorded song, and there's almost nothing that suggests the animated sequence, except possibly for a few gestures—shoulder shrugs, foot shuffling—that are themselves so general that Kimball could easily have picked them up from his own observations, or simply been reminded by the dancers of what he already knew.
In our 1976 interview, I asked Kimball about what it was like to work with Jack Kinney as his director on that sequence:
Barrier: On Dumbo, you were paired with Jack Kinney on the crow sequence, and you have animation credit for virtually everything in that sequence. [An overstatement: Timothy and Dumbo were animated by other hands, notably Fred Moore and Don Towsley, and, for one scene, Bill Tytla; Walt Kelly also animated a few scenes of the crows.] In a case like that, where you have this one-on-one pairing, the director seems almost like a superfluous character.
Kimball: Jack did his work; he took care of the loose ends. He took care of making out the sheets. I liked him, because he'd say, "Do whatever you want here."He'd just rip off a pile of sheets, and I'd say, "I'll phone up the timing." I did that all the time. Jack was flexible about that; he didn't try to push his weight around. He was open, and he was good in that respect. He did exactly what he should have done with an animator. He set up the recording sessions, and we were invited to it. He talked over story points, and we made our suggestions, and we'd argue now and then. It was sort of a good relationship.
Barrier: It sounds almost as if he were an assistant, taking care of certain details.
Kimball: In a way, but all of these situations were quite different than any other studio.
(I seem not to have talked with Kinney about Dumbo, which surprises me greatly; or it may be that he didn't say anything substantial enough to warrant a cross-reference in my files.There's almost nothing about his work on that cartoon in his autobiography, and what's there is not particularly accurate. But when Milt Gray talked with Kinney in November 1976— this was not a recorded interview—Jack said, in Milt's paraphrase, "Kimball did a great job, but he had to be kept on a tight rein to achieve it." Given the the relative importance that Walt Disney assigned to directors and animators, I'd guess that Kinney's "tight rein" would have counted as a rather loose rein at places like Warner Bros. and MGM.)
Even though Kimball liked Kinney, he had told me in our 1969 interview that he and Ben Sharpsteen clashed over his animation of the crows:
I wanted to try something different, I wanted to make each crow a definite, separate character. One example was the little crow with the big horn-rimmed glasses. When he rolled his eyes, the eyes went out beyond the head mass, they rolled around inside the rims of the big glasses. Ben objected to that, and we had a hell of a fight. I said, "Look, Ben, some people wear magnifying glasses; they distort things." He couldn't quite see it. This was how dense he was about caricature in graphics. I refused to change my animation. Finally, Walt saw the sequence and thought it was great. He was the final Supreme Court.
The crow sequence (or, if you prefer, sequences, numbered 19, 19.1, and 19.2 on the drafts) was apparently one of the last to be completed, perhaps because of the story difficulties that Sharpsteen mentioned, or maybe even because of his clashes with Kimball. The drafts (that was the term used on the Disney studio's charts describing each scene, identifying its animators, and listing its footage) are dated June 23, 25, and 26, 1941—that is, during the strike, and later than the drafts for any other sequences.
To return to Cliff Edwards: As I said in my earlier post, I can't buy his imitation-black dialect for Jim Crow; it simply sounds phony to me—not insincere, necessarily, but unconvincing. As Jim Korkis mentions, Edwards did a blackface act in the '20s, and part of that act may have been preserved in a five-minute Metro short released in 1929. Variety said of it: "Cliff Edwards blacks up for this short and is in front of a silk drop, singing 'Half Way to Heaven" and 'Good Little Baby,' splitting the two with a half-minute gag that scores. Practically the entire short is taken in close-up, with Edwards photographing well and putting over his numbers with [ukulele] accompaniment in a very showmanlike manner." It would be interesting to see that short—well, interesting may not be the right word, but a comparison with Edwards's Jim Crow might be illuminating.
From Keith Scott: I was reading your interesting post on Dumbo and, specifically, its highly effective crow sequence, and wanted to add that I too find Cliff Edwards's black dialect hard to buy. It just sounds forced and lazy, adapted from various vaudeville sketch performers who preceded him due to seniority. Mel Blanc also adopted this style of voice in several cartoons (particularly in the starring role of L'il Eightball for Lantz); although he varied it in pace from cartoon to cartoon, it was still based on that thick molasses accent that is grating to listen to in today's changed world. It is simply a style of character voice that annoys, and to younger ears has no relevance, sounding almost alien. Note too that Mel did all the lazy Cliff Edwards-style black voices in Lantz's notorious Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat, recorded around the same time-frame as Dumbo's crow sequence, and that, when reissued in the late 1940s, raised the ire of the NAACP.
In fact by 1944, with the Warner Bros. entry Angel Puss (a cartoon Chuck Jones conveniently sidestepped when it was brought up in conversation), the characterization simply didn’t work. Interestingly Amos 'n' Andy remained on radio until 1960. Of course, on that show 80 per cent of the supporting characters were done by genuine African-American actors—Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll took great pains to provide constant employment for blacks, even though they played the title characters themselves throughout their 31 year-radio run. Yet Blanc occasionally turned up on that show as well, playing that same cartoon voice! One wonders what the black performers really felt, watching people like Mel do a lazy, almost Stepin Fetchit-type voice in the same room! It was probably accepted simply because a) that was the way things were back then, and b) because Mel was known as a specialist comic interpreter of everything from mock-black to mock-Scottish. (This situation was mostly different in animation, where for most cartoons, the actors were recorded separately—however, as you note, in Dumbo the Hall Johnson singers were at the same session as Cliff Edwards, because it was a musical piece.)
To be fair, though, it must be stressed that the type of dialect that Edwards, Blanc and a couple of other 1940s voice artists like Harry Lang appropriated was then the time-honoured and accepted vaudeville version of a black "comic accent," just as other commonly accepted vaudeville comic accents (stock Swedish, stock Italian) were also still-prevalent. Note, too, that in today’s so-called enlightened age, there are still a couple of accents it is considered okay to mock—outrageous French send-ups spring to mind as being waived of all charges by liberals.
I should have prefaced my comment by saying that I admire Cliff Edwards's main body of work—I own two of his jazz song CDs, and I still think Jiminy Cricket works very well as a soft, sincerely acted cartoon voice. Interestingly, another stereotype he did was a mock-German for, I believe, the Donald Duck Der Fuehrer's Face.
From Tom Carr: The nature of the "Crow" characters in American entertainment is beyond my ability to untangle (I've tried), so I'll confine my remarks mainly to Cliff Edwards as a musical performer. It's possible that Cliff originated "scat singing" even before Louis Armstrong did, at least on records. His first recordings were made for the Pathé company in 1924-25, and some of them feature an odd "vocalise" which could be described as early jazz singing. Edwards called it "effing."
It's not done with a kazoo, because he couldn't have played the kazoo and the ukulele at the same time. There was no studio overdubbing in those days, so everything that went into the grooves was captured in real time, and if an artist "blew a take," it would have to be recorded all over again from the beginning with a fresh wax disc.
In spite of the poor sound quality of the acoustical recordings, the "Cliff Edwards and His Hot Combination" sides are still very enjoyable listening today, and though he's best remembered as Jiminy Cricket, they're evidence that his recording career and his popularity went back much further than that. It must have been those 78's that made young Walt Disney a fan of "Ukulele Ike" in the first place. And so, Walt cast him—years later—as a prominent singer and voice actor in Disney films and television shows.
Blackface and "Crow Jim" comedy is hard to understand and to excuse in modern terms, at least for anyone born after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. I'll confess to liking Al Jolson, but only because (like Edwards), he happened to be a great singer and entertainer in spite of that particular blind spot. There were many other white American performers who "blacked up," including Billy Murray, Eddie Cantor, Emmett Miller, and even Buster Keaton (in College, 1925, where in one scene he portrays a "black" waiter in burnt cork).
Also, the crows in Dumbo seem to be modeled not so much on the then highly popular Amos 'n' Andy (number one in the radio ratings for well over a decade) as on the earlier white comedy team of "Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows." These men specialized in the "shiftless darky" routine, which hasn't held up over time... not at all. So, their times were not ours, and that's sort of a half-excuse for their racial insensitivity, at best. But it's the only one I can think of.
From Jim Korkis: Wow! Great post on Dumbo. Filled with lots of stuff I didn't know. Yes, Dumbo is one of my favorite animated features and I have been frustrated at how little documentation there exists about it, especially in comparison with the other animated features of the time.
When I interviewed Kimball, he indicated that he was the one who chose Edwards and I guess I always assumed it was because Kimball was probably familiar with Edwards's records since this was the type of music that intrigued Ward. So, Ward may have wanted that type of "style" and knew that Edwards could deliver it but maybe was unsure about the vocal acting abilities of the Hall Johnson Choir to do the lead.
Now, I am thinking that maybe Edwards, always the performer and always "on," might have been goofing around when he was recording the voice for Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and might have done some of his old blackface act and that caused a light bulb to pop up over somebody's head to use him as Jim Crow. As a theater major, I know that at the time even African-American performers had to "black up" their faces and talk like their Caucasian counterparts in blackface because that is how audiences expected "blacks" to sound and act. Certainly, at the time Amos 'n' Andy was still popular being done by two Caucasian radio actors (who did public appearances and one movie in blackface).
So, maybe Edwards was picked because he sounded more like what people at the Disney Studio thought a black performer was supposed to sound like. Just a guess, darn it. So many of the primary sources who could confirm or deny these things are long gone and we never thought to ask them those questions, but we never tired of asking Kimball over and over how Jiminy Cricket was created.
[Posted January 15, 2010]
From Grayson Ponti: Your post really attracted my attention because not only is Dumbo my favorite animated feature but Ward Kimball also happens to be my second favorite animator (after Bill Tytla, of course.) I have never thought of the crows as being racist, and that scene is so brilliant and amazing in so many other ways that I never would think that political correctness would be something worthy of notice. I do agree that Cliff Edwards did a less-than-adequate job on Jim Crow's voice, but Ward's animation really covers that one fault. The fact that the crows are supposedly black to me actually seems very fitting because they represent having pride and spirit despite, like Dumbo, being outcast by the rather cruel white characters in the film. It would have been better if the voice for Jim Crow was more along the lines of the ones used in Bob Clampett's Coal Black, but still, the crows are shown with passion and dignity.
From Paul Dushkind: I presume you're familiar with the original Dumbo story. I found quite a bit of info at this link, and this image of a book cover on Amazon, for a paperback edition published in 1941, the same year as the movie. I'm a little startled to see that the elephant looks the same as the Disney version. I would guess that this book was actually an amalgam of the original "Roll-a-book" and the Disney version. It's said that Disney shares a copyright notice inside.
There must be tales to tell about every change the animation studio made from Helen Aberson's story. I wonder why they changed the robin to a mouse. Was it just to be cute, because everybody knows that elephants are supposed to be afraid of mice? Or did the story work better with a mouse? The owl is considered a quack. The exchange with him suggests cynicism towards psychiatry. But then the elephant essentially follows his advice and does fly through positive thinking!
[Posted January 16, 2010]
From Thad Komorowski: I never had a problem with Cliff Edwards's burlesque vocal characterization in Dumbo. For me, the whole scene is all about caricature, especially the animation, so a white man imitating a black man just fits in. There is no real regard for continuity in it either, with the non-Edwards crows changing voices several times, yet everything in that scene feels so organic and real. There are very few scenes that are just as refreshing in Disney film history that I can think of. Keith Scott mentions Mel Blanc's black voices; oddly, I don't see any comments bandied about on your site taking issue with the three or four voices Blanc does in Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.
MB replies: If Blanc's "black" voices for Bob Clampett's Coal Black were as prominent as Edwards's in the crow sequence, the effect would be quite different, and more questionable. But since the most important voices are those of black performers, and the cartoon as a whole gives new meaning to the words "exaggeration" and "burlesque," any shortcomings in Blanc's performance aren't a problem for me. As for the crow sequence, Edwards's voice doesn't spoil the sequence for me, not at all. It took a number of viewings for me to identify the source of my discomfort, and now that I've done so, and I can compartmentalize it, I expect that I'll enjoy the sequence more the next time I see it.
The question is always the same with any cartoon (or film, or whatever) that uses stereotypes: when does the stereotype become so offensive that it curdles its surroundings? In the case of Dumbo, the consensus seems to be that however awkward the stereotypes may be in some respects—especially where Edwards's voice work is concerned—the film as a whole is so delightful it would be churlish to reject it on those grounds.
Where Coal Black is concerned, the voices are the least of the problems; but then, defining such problems is inevitably a highly subjective exercise. I've watched Coal Black with black people who loved it, and with white people who hated it.
Likewise, I remember using a clip from the 1937 Silly Symphony Woodland Cafe in the 1978 Disney exhibition I curated for the Library of Congress, and feeling some worry that the Cab Calloway number might offend African-American visitors. I asked several black employees of the Library to look at the clip and tell me what they thought; they smiled, shrugged, and uniformly acted as if they thought my question was silly. There was never a hint of complaint throughout the exhibit's run. But when I showed Woodland Cafe in a class at Washington University more than thirty years later, one white woman in my audience immediately questioned how the cartoon portrayed black musicians (as grasshoppers, although that wasn't the source of her disapproval).
The line between the acceptable and the unacceptable will always be changing; I can imagine a future in which Coal Black is acceptable, but also one in which Dumbo is not. Given that fact, I think the sane course is to demand the continuous public availability of even the most questionable cartoons, allowing only for fencing off certain films, as much as possible, from very young audiences.
[Posted January 17, 2010]
January 12, 2010:
Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug
That short-lived (eleven issues) satire magazine has been revived in a meticulously assembled two-volume set from Fantagraphics, more than a half century after Humbug's demise. I've written a review that you can read by clicking on this link.
We are in the midst of a modest Kurtzman boom: not only is Humbug back with us, but another Kurtzman magazine, Trump, will be published in a single volume in March (it lasted only two issues). Abrams Comic Art published The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle, last year. I recently acquired that lavishly illustrated volume, and I hope to post a review sometime soon; but no guarantees.
From Mark Kausler: I enjoyed reading your review of the collected Humbug. I haven't read it, really, but I'm confused by the difference between satire and parody. Is there a difference? Webster says that satire is: "A literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn." Parody is defined as: "A literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or ridicule." By these definitions, they overlap a bit in the "ridicule" department. Parody may or may not contain elements of satire or ridicule. A lot of what Mad, Cracked, and other such comic magazines did I believe falls in to the parody line, with real satiric elements, or embedded commentary on human frailties or society's ills, muted or suppressed into the background. I may be wrong, but a lot of what Kurtzman wrote was more parody than satire, although some commentary slipped through the cracks. Al Capp used a lot of satiric elements in L'il Abner, but he could be heavy-handed with the cudgel, especially in the "Joanie Phoanie" story. The point here is, do you see any significant difference between satire and parody, and is it important to tell the difference? Among literary satirists, I love Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels, but I haven't been able to get into the language rhythm of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. Maybe it suffers in translation.
MB replies: There's not a distinct difference between satire and parody, either in my own mind or in the literary dictionaries on my shelves, but I think there is a difference, even though there's a lot of overlap. For example: Kurtzman's "Superduperman" is a parody, but it's also a satire, since it implicitly criticizes the premises of the whole Superman myth. That Barks story I mentioned, in the June 1951 Walt Disney's Comics, is unquestionably satirical, but there's no element of parody in it, no outside source that Barks was imitating. As for parodies with little or no satire in them, wonderful examples that come immediately to mind, but not from comics, are the movie parodies on Carol Burnett's great TV variety hour, like the takeoff on Gone with the Wind. Ditto for Sid Caesar's parodies, like the one of The King and I in which Caesar, as an imperious Yul Brynner, brings his bare foot down on a cigarette butt ("OK, who's smoking in the palace?"). Satire is always in some sense critical of what it's portraying, which is why a lot of people don't like satire; parody isn't necessarily critical, but may be imitating only for "comic effect."
[Posted January 14, 2010]
January 11, 2010:
John Donaldson's Book
If the name "John Donaldson" rings a bell, that's because he has on a number of occasions provided answers to perplexing questions I've raised here about Walt Disney and the people who worked for him. John writes now to say that he will soon be putting his expertise between the covers of a new book:
If you've ever wondered as to my ability to identify a photo you have posted, or another particular of Disney history, it comes from having had a thirty-year friendship, of family, with Herbert Ryman.
My memoir biography, Warp and Weft: Life Canvas of Herbert Ryman is about to be published.
As you know, there is a great deal of important personal Walt Disney history that has never been known, going back to Kansas City. This book—400 pages, with 46 pages of notes—will finally help fill in those gaps. A website about it can be found at this link.
There have been so many Disney-related books published in recent years that it can be hard to get excited about any of them, but I'm excited about this one. I'm looking forward to reading it and reporting on the revelations it contains. I'm sure there will be quite a few.
[A March 17, 2010, update: I've now read John's book, and I'm sorry to say that I cannot recommend it. In my view, he presents a great deal of speculation as fact, and he devotes far too much space to redressing personal grievances. A pity.]
January 10, 2010:
Frogs and Faith, Cont'd
Disney's The Princess and the Frog has been limping toward $100 million in boxoffice receipts, overwhelmed not just by Avatar but also by the part-CGI Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. That's a shame; Princess is by no means a good movie, but as you know if you've read my review, I think there are enough good things in it to make it well worth your time if you have any feelings at all for that wonderful medium, hand-drawn animation.
Although fewer people have seen Princess than one might wish, it has stirred up more discussion than many movies do, such discussion centering most often not on its animation but on its racial and religious dimensions. I mentioned one such article in my December 29 post. A more substantial piece appeared in last Friday's Wall Street Journal: "What Walt Wrought" by Mark I. Pinsky; it's online for free (unlike most of the Journal) at opinionjournal.com. Pinsky, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is the author of The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust (2004); his Journal piece is in some respects a highly condensed version of that book.
Pinsky's focus is on the complaints raised by conservative evangelical Christians about Princess' voodoo practitioners, but he also recalls attacks from the same quarters on earlier Disney films. I have always had trouble taking such complaints seriously, since they most often are the products of either a cynical play for media attention (pick a big target, make a ridiculous charge, get a headline) or the sort of credulous mind that thinks the Bible should be read as literally as a telephone directory. Some self-proclaimed Christians do seem to be convinced, though, that their children will be warped for life by a few minutes' exposure to Mama Odie. If Princess and the Frog were bigger at the box office, perhaps it might be the target of something as spectacularly foolish as the unsuccessful 1996 Southern Baptist boycott of all things Disney, but the prospects for such a lucky break for the film are pretty dim.
There are actually two books titled The Gospel According to Disney, the earlier of which, now out of print, boasts an introduction by the revered Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. I haven't seen that book yet, but I hope to do so soon.
From George Taylor: I have been following your reviews of The Princess and the Frog very faithfully. I walked away from the film with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the music and I felt the standout animation was the first scene where Tiana sings with her mother about the restaurant. I realized that the scene was very reminiscent of earlier Disney animation that used bolder colors and a surprisingly different animation style to set a feel. It was very art deco and very yellow. I thought it was one of the nicest scenes in the film.
My two boys (the 6-year-old is a 1940's animation fiend) enjoyed The Princess and the Frog but still left the theater rather unenthusiastically. There was no wish to see it again nor any discussion about favorite characters. When they saw the Chipmunks sequel, they talked about it for days.
I did enjoy it, but I wanted so much more from the film.
Anyway, the discussion about faith and film really piqued my interests. Where was the discussion about the witchcraft in the "classic" films? What about Rafiki [in The Lion King] and his mysticism? Seems rather akin to voodoo. Not to mention Pocahontas and the forest magic.
So many questions, so few answers!
Thanks for the time you have spent on the reviews. I really enjoy getting your perspective on current animation.
MB replies: I liked that musical number near the beginning of The Princess and the Frog, too, and I'm sorry I didn't find some way to mention it in my review. It seems to me that such elaborate musical sequences may lend themselves to what I've called (and complained of) as filmmaking by committee better than almost anything else, because the challenges they pose—marshaling all that color and movement so that it's coherent on the screen—are so overwhelmingly technical. The song shows us Tiana's ambitions in concrete form, but it goes well beyond making a story point. Her fantasy restaurant may serve whites and blacks together in a decidedly unlikely fashion, but the lack of anything approaching realism is not at all troubling in so highly stylized a sequence.
From Jonah Sidhom: The title of the book you mentioned is actually The Gospel in Disney. I bought it a couple of months ago off of Christianbook.com, for a really great price, too - $1.99 plus shipping.
Being a Christian, I really appreciate this book. It doesn't try to read too much into the movies or make ridiculous claims, like Mark I. Pinsky's The Gospel According to Disney. All it does is summarize the plot and lessons/morals being taught in the early animated Disney films and makes comparisons to the lessons/morals taught in the Bible.
I was very curious to see what Frank and Ollie had to say about it, but the foreword is really nothing special. It's pretty short (about a page and a half I believe,) and basically says Rev. Philip Longfellow Anderson knows a lot about the Bible and is very good at making Biblical comparisons to the movies.
[Posted January 11, 2010]
And Then There's Race...
There was a lot of pushing and shoving while The Princess and the Frog was in production, as various people tried to influence the film's portrayal of its black characters, but since it was released there has been less complaining and congratulating than might have been expected. Probably the film simply hasn't been a big enough success to make grasping its coattails seem worth the bother. It was, however, the subject of a New Year's Day interview on National Public Radio with Scott Foundas, film critic for L.A. Weekly, the gist of which was that Disney was so deeply stained by its sins in regard to race that making one semi-enlightened film couldn't come close to making up for the past. You can read a summary of the interview (and listen to it) at this link, where there's also a link to the Village Voice article by Foundas that led to the interview.
In his interview, although not in the Voice piece, Foundas cited the crows in Dumbo as yet another instance of Disney's racial insensitivity. I was reminded that Dumbo most often gets a pass, or at best a mild spanking, in such discussions. That's curious, really, because there is something about it that I think is genuinely offensive, and that is Cliff Edwards's vocal portrayal of Jim Crow, the crows' leader. The other four crows are voiced, wonderfully well, by blacks, members of the Hall Johnson Choir; Edwards's Jim Crow is, by comparison, much cruder, straight out of Amos 'n' Andy. A pity, really, because there were undoubtedly plenty of outstanding black singers who could have provided a more persuasive voice.
Even with Edwards's unfortunate participation, the crows are, as a group, among Dumbo's very few sympathetic and likable characters. Literally all of the film's white characters—the ringmaster, the boys who taunt Dumbo, the clowns, and, by extension, the unmistakably "white" female elephants—are cruel or, at best, cold and unfeeling. They're stereotypical white people, one might be tempted to say if Dumbo had been made by African Americans rather than by artists who were themselves white and governed not by any racial agenda but by what they saw as the requirements of their story.
Stereotypes are tricky. The problem usually isn't that they're false, but that they tell only a small part of the truth, even as they pretend to tell all of it. Here is the saving grace of Dumbo's crows: these characters are, the film makes clear, far more interesting and complex than their superficial characteristics—which are undeniably stereotypical—might suggest. The crows' voices, Cliff Edwards's aside, do not sound like second-hand imitations, but like sly caricatures of the Southern black speech the singers had heard all their lives; they are the voices of real people. In Ward Kimball's endlessly inventive animation, the crows have the sort of individuality that can't be reconciled with stereotypes' leveling of differences.
There is nothing in The Princess and the Frog—which tiptoes so timidly in its handling of racial questions that it asks its audience to accept one absurdity after another—that is nearly as good as Dumbo's sequence with the crows. Could one problem have been that the people making the film were simply too far removed from its subject matter to ever get comfortable in their handling of it? There's one possible answer in an amusing post by Mark Liberman at Language Log, stimulated by Princess heroine Tiana's use of "y'all" as a singular form of address. Liberman writes:
Both the Wikipedia article for the movie and the IMDb page give screenwriting credit to Ron Clements (born in Sioux City, Iowa), John Musker (from Chicago, Illinois), and Rob Edwards (origins unclear). The character of Tiana is acted by Anika Noni Rose, who "was born in Bloomfield, Connecticut to Claudia and John Rose, Jr., a corporate counsel for the city of Hartford". Thus it's not clear whether anyone associated with writing or acting that scene has native intuitions about the likely distribution of y'all in the speech of a young African-American woman from New Orleans. So it's a reasonable guess that the sprinkling of y'alls in Tiana's speech is a bit of southern spice added by northern chefs.
Thanks to Bill Benzon for the link; and for more on the role of race in Dumbo, see Bill's piece on this Essay page.
From Floyd Norman: Oddly enough, I found myself hanging out with the film makers over the
weekend. Reaching for a positive note, I told the guys I enjoyed their
film [The Princess and the Frog] very much. As an old Disney story guy, I wish I could have
contributed to the film—but who can explain the decisions made by
Back in the fifties, I had the opportunity to meet Cliff Edwards.
Plus, I was able to speak with Ward Kimball at length concerning the
crows in Dumbo. I've heard so many complaints concerning Kimball's crows speaking like Southern blacks. I simply thought they were funny voices. Plus, I knew a black man from the south. My grandfather, John
Davis didn't sound anything like the characters in the movie, so as a
kid I never made the connection. As I said, they were simply very
I suppose this Race Thing isn't about to end anytime soon. I still
think we make way too much of it.
MB replies: I think we can all wish that Floyd Norman had had a hand in writing the story for The Princess and the Frog.
On Dumbo's crows, an important point is that, as Floyd says, there are many Southern blacks whose speech is nothing like that of the crows; but then, there are some Southern blacks who sound exactly like that. (Likewise, I encounter Southern whites almost every day whose speech fits them perfectly for roles in The Beverly Hillbillies.) I think the question is, when we encounter such characters, whether the filmmaker is saying, "They're all like this," or is saying instead, "These characters are like this." I don't sense in Dumbo the disparagement of a racial group, but rather the enjoyment of funny characters with, as Floyd says, funny voices. Cliff Edwards's voice isn't as good as the others—isn't good enough, period—but I don't think it's intentionally disparaging
[Posted January 13, 2010]