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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: July 2012

 

July 24, 2012:

Leon Schlesinger, Morale Builder

 

July 12, 2012:

Interviews: Phil Monroe (1987)

Brave

 

July 24, 2012:

Schlesinger

The soldiers with Leon Schlesinger in this photo taken at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, are, from left, Bob Givens, Lew Irwin, Irv Spector, and Chuck McKimson. Schlesinger told the Washington Post that 45 members of his staff had joined the armed services. Photo courtesy of Lew Irwin.

Schlesinger

From left, Chuck McKimson, Lew Irwin, Bob Givens, Leon Schlesinger, a Captain Smith, and Sid Katz; kneeling, Irv Spector. The sign above the door reads "Animation Camera Room." Photo courtesy of Lew Irwin.

Leon Schlesinger, Morale Builder

In December 1942, Leon Schlesinger, proprietor of the cartoon studio that made Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for Warner Bros., journeyed to the East Coast to seek government work. It was, he told a reporter for the Washington Post, his first visit to the capital in 45 years. "Schlesinger wants to do some technical animated work for the armed services such as Disney is doing," the Post said, "but what has he been given to do?" "Not one foot!" Schlesinger complained.

Citing the Bugs Bunny short Any Bonds Today, Schlesinger said: "I am the only one who has given the Government something for nothing. I want to help in the war effort, too." The immediate result was a commission for a five-minute short called On the War Bond Front, which was to be assembled in a matter of weeks from stock live-action footage. I have never seen the film—I wonder if it still exists, or was even finished—but a scenario that survived in John Burton's papers indicates that it was to contain very little or no animation.

The Motion Picture Herald reported in its January 16, 1943, issue that Schlesinger left for home with "contracts designating him as a prime contractor, at cost, of training films for the services, and other government agencies." The plum assignment was the Private Snafu series for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, which Schlesinger literally snatched out of the Disney studio's grasp while he was in the East. An Army major called Roy Disney on December 21, 1942, to tell him that the army was rejecting Disney's bid for the Snafu series because it had accepted a lower bid. The major evidently did not tell Roy who made the lower bid, but it was Schlesinger. The Schlesinger studio began work on the first Snafu cartoon by the end of the year, while Leon Schlesinger was still on the East Coast.

Schlesinger was gone from Los Angeles for around six weeks, until after the holidays, spending part of that time in New York City. It was probably then that he was photographed with Oskar Lebeck and other people associated with Western Printing & Lithographing Co., which was producing the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies comic book and other licensed merchandise.

While he was in New York, Schlesinger visited an Army Signal Corps facility at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he saw a number of former members of his staff; he saw others at a Signal Corps facility at 32nd Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The Screen Cartoonists Guild's newsletter reported in its January 18, 1943, issue that "Mr. Leon Schlesinger on his recent trip East visited the [Signal Corps] group and talked with Lt. Bob Leffingwell, Sgt. Dave Monahan, Cpl. Nick Gibson, Herman Cohen, Chuck McKimson, and Lu Guarnier and other cartoonists located there."

Schlesinger's visit to Fort Monmouth was memorialized in at least two photos, which I've reproduced above.

Comments

From Thad Komorowski: It's a shame such a terrific site as yours gets zero feedback. So much gossip in that Monroe interview, and you get zip. The Leon Schlesinger photos are wonderful. He was such a jovial lump, an extinct breed in today's entertainment world where everyone thinks they know everything and can't resign themselves to humanity. I think the fact that Schlesinger gave directing jobs to Avery, Clampett, Freleng, Jones, and Tashlin alone gives him one of the best track records in the history of Hollywood.

[Posted July 27, 2012]

From Keith Scott: What an informative post, thank you. I agree with Thad’s feelings about Schlesinger. I get the strong sense that Leon was a worldly-wise, if slightly lazy, man who was definitely smart enough from the very start to leave his creative folk alone, aside from a token rank-pulling comment every now and then. Unfortunately Chuck Jones did more than anyone to poison the reputations of the Warner cartoon “suits” with his bitter and inaccurate remarks about their galloping philistinism. I’m far more willing to trust the recollections of Avery (who often called Leon “a great boss,” including twice on camera) and Clampett, who of course knew his boss since he was a teenager. Lesser lights like Pete Alvarado (in an interview with Amid Amidi) painted a far more flattering picture of Ed Selzer too, even though the Jones damage lives on in the minds of non-critical cartoon fan-boys the world over.

Schlesinger was an old-time showman too, from his days as a candy butcher and vaudeville booker, before he entered the silent titling business. That’s why he’s so good in You Ought to Be in Pictures. I’d love to know if he did all his stuff in single takes—probably, for budget reasons...but also because he knew exactly what he was doing and was far from the troglodyte that Jones was so ever-willing to paint.

[Posted July 31,2012]

July 12, 2012:

Interviews: Phil Monroe (1987)

I've posted my second interview, from October 10, 1987, with Phil Monroe, a leading Warner Bros. animator in the 1930s and 1940s. You can read it at this link.

Comments

From Thad Komorowski: What a great surprise to see the second Phil Monroe interview this morning.

I have to say, what struck me more than the gossip is how off-the-mark a lot of his critical assessments are. He was dead wrong about Frank Tashlin's films, and unless Monroe was referring to the earliest days, there is no question, when comparing their animation on the Tex Avery B&W Looney Tunes, that Chuck Jones was a better animator than Bob Clampett.

They are not the opinions of a jaded artist, just truly awkward ones. I also have too much experience of interviewing animation people to not recognize a master at work just from the transcript. Hearing one either praise or shit all over a film or co-worker, while I think to myself, "You gotta be kidding me!" and only smile and let the interviewee continue.

Actually, I can understand where Monroe is coming from in his assessments. He was, like many in Hollywood animation, a top craftsman with many interesting things to say about his art and other people, but incapable of saying anything of value as a filmmaker.

Tashlin was far more advanced in his technique of stylized character layout than Jones was when they were both directors, and it's obvious Monroe resented its roots in print cartooning, feeling that it "wouldn't work" for animation. As angular as Jones cartoons got to be, they werealways grounded in Jones's sound knowledge of animation, and thus more acceptable to those like Monroe.

In spite of his desire to direct Looney Tunes, Monroe became an arbiter of industrial and commercial films. I have long maintained that these are not films, nor are they art; they are shills, plain and simple. An advertisement or government campaign can go no further than what the client wants it to. There are no arcs, characterization, nor captivation beyond selling the product/message. The industrials and commercials that populate 1950s animation are historical curios that tell us where some great artists were working at a particular time and nothing more. I am guessing so many people decided to take that route in the Golden Age solely because they would be able to direct without the burden that came with that position at the established studios.

Cynic that I am, I believe that it is a career route for people who are merely proficient technicians, not filmmakers concerned with character acting nor story. Obviously there were exceptions, like Tex Avery and John Hubley, but their diminutive shills did not change the world. Neither did Dick Williams nor will John K. with his.

Case in point: when Phil Monroe finally did get that chance at direction of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck at the very end, he turned out The Iceman Ducketh– easily the worst of all the classic era shorts with the characters. Perhaps Monroe might have been a great director in the late 1940s, and true, all of the Warner cartoons were bad at that point. Yet Ducketh has an incoherence to its story structure (why does a blackout gag occur before the exposition of Daffy explaining to Bugs why he's hunting him?) that even Bob McKimson, deep into his decline into hackdom, wouldn't allow. I think "director" is a title all people in animation aspire to achieve, but truly only a startlingly few are adept at embracing what it actually means.

More than you wanted I'm sure, but at least you can't say nobody comments...

MB replies: I think Monroe's comments about Tashlin have to be taken as referring to the 1930s, when Tashlin was first a Schlesinger director (not a very good one), and Monroe was one of his animators, and not to the early 1940s, when he was making some terrific cartoons. Likewise his comments about Jones and Clampett as animators; I'm sure he was most aware of their respective talents when he was learning to animate himself, and at that time Clampett probably was the better animator, or at least a step or two ahead of Jones.

[Posted July 13, 2012]

From Kevin Hogan: On Monroe’s comments about Tashlin: I think when reading an interview one must remember that Monroe is not a historian or critic evaluating after the fact like we are. He obviously felt a strong connection to Jones’ poses/character development, slightly less for Clampett’s energy/bodily distortions, and much less for Tashlin’s emphasis on camera. It is not reasonable to expect those who lived “in the moment” to have the same objectivity that we may have.

[Posted July 14, 2012]

From Børge Ring: Your talk of yore with Phil Monroe is one of those blessings that keep a blog addict happy to be a blog addict. Phil Monroe had worked for Friz Freleng at Warners and he for one threw a friendlly light on Freleng's directorship.

And so did Art Vitello, another Freleng animator. Art talked about Freleng with humor bordering on fondness. And he is the same Vitello who animated for Richard Williams in Hollywood on the Raggedy Ann feature and later at Dick's London studio. Returning to Freleng as one of the animation directors at what by then had evolved into the DePatie-Freleng Studio of Pink Panther fame, Art was in Europe for a month to supervise five minutes of
Pink Panther animation for a Blake Edwards movie title. On request he told us what Friz Freleng was like to work for.

You threaded your line test on the movieola. Friz sat down and started the machine. Wearing the face of a disinterested stone sculpture he watched the scene a couple of times. A curt silent nod indicated that you would live to animate another day. Once every three years Friz might utter a brief apreciative comment. "These occasions," said Art Vitello, "felt like a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall."

Vitello's intuition kept whispering that the Freleng gruffness was a protective facade like that of Jack Kinney, who once informed a friend that "if you were a director [at Disney] you had to be a hardnosed guy, or the animators would step on you."

Art became curious to see the real Friz Freleng, and he performed an experiment. At the beginning of the next sweatbox he said: "Friz, I need to go to the toilet. But you can see the test alone." Friz sourly activated the Movieola. Art Vitello walked audibly to the door, opened it, paused, and closed it again, but without leaving the room. Standing idly against the wall he watched with interest how Friz Freleng of Kansas City scrutinized a line test.

Friz felt unobserved. He relaxed, sat back, and watched the scene go by. At a certain moment he chuckled, stopped the machine, and replayed the passage that had made him chuckle. This time he chuckled louder and longer. And looking well pleased he played the scene for a couple of encores while rubbing his hands contentedly

Art Vitello feigned impending "re-entry" by opening the door. It took Friz less than ten frames' time to morph back into his standard stony, hard-to-please, imperator's mold. "Well, what do you think of it, Friz?" Freleng nodded curtly and got up and left.

[Posted September 24, 2012]

Brave

Brave BookI have never felt so totally disengaged from an animated feature as I did while watching the first hour or so of Brave, the new Pixar offering. I gave up very quickly paying much attention to the story, which is as hopelessly and needlessly complicated as what passed for a story in Tangled. Visually, Brave impressed me as a stupefying accumulation of CGI clichés, with all the slam-bang cutting, grotesque character designs, heavy-handed slapstick, anachronistic gags, fancy camera movement, and elaborate surfaces we've come to take for granted in computer animation, with a snot gag in place of the seemingly inevitable fart gag. (Take that, DreamWorks! Or have there been snot gags in the DreamWorks features I've been avoiding?) There was of course the ballyhooed heroine-as-a-rebellious-teenager, but we've seen that sort of thing before in Disney features, and the merger is now complete: Brave echoes any number of Disney cartoons of recent decades.

The last 20 or 30 minutes of Brave are much better because like some other recent Disney/Pixar features, Brave climbs out of its rut long enough to grasp at a fundamental human emotion—in this case the love that binds parents and children—and clings to it for dear life. It makes more of those very human feelings than, say, Finding Nemo did, and deals with them cleanly and honestly, in some very exciting action. The contrast between the opening hour or so and the rest of film left me feeling better about Brave at its close than I thought I could. I was also left wondering just what happened to make the film seem so bipolar.

The answer surely lies in Brenda Chapman's displacement as the film's solo director, a credit she ultimately had to share (in second spot) with Mark Andrews. I don't expect to find a straightforward account of what happened in Jenny Lerew's new book The Art of Brave, the latest in Chronicle Books' handsome series documenting the development of Disney and Pixar features; that's no reflection on Jenny, an excellent writer, but only a statement of the obvious, that such books are valued by the proprietors of Disney and Pixar not as historical records but as promotional pieces. That's why, for example, Jeff Kurtti's book on the making of The Princess and the Frog dances around the question of race, just as that film does. It's probably hoping for too much that The Art of Brave will tell me more than what Disney and Pixar want me to know, but at the least, I'm sure that Jenny Lerew will keep me entertained while I admire the artwork.

(My other lingering question about Brave is why its heroine should bear the name of the largest city on the Yucatan peninsula, a very boring city, as I recall from my tedious few days there thirty-odd years ago. I don't expect an answer to that question, either.)

Comments

From Kevin Hogan: Brave felt like it was forcing along the “mother/daughter” relationship to me. Night one: Mother is a bear. Next morning: The mother and daughter are “understanding each other” catching fish. I didn’t buy it… Maybe if the three obnoxious boys were eliminated more time could have been devoted to the primary relationship and its evolution.

MB replies: Oh yes, the fishing interlude with the icky download-ready song. I was really referring to what comes after that, although I can't identify a precise dividing line.

[Posted July 14, 2012]

From Gonzalo León: It's true that Merida is the largest city of the Yucatan peninsula, but it is named after the Merida in Spain, as was customary of names for many cities in Mexico. Wikipedia says of Merida, Spain: It was founded in the year 25 BC, with the name of Emerita Augusta (meaning the bachelors—discharged soldiers—of the army of Augustus, who founded the city; the name Mérida evolved from this)

Which also doesn't make much sense as to the name of a teen heroine, either. Maybe someone decided it had a a nice ring to it...

[Posted July 23, 2012]

From Andrew Chung: As I was trolling through some animation blogs, I happened across Brenda Chapman's and there I found the post about how Chapman chose the names for Merida and her mother Elinor, two primary protagonists from Brave. Apparently, they were named after the people she had known and admired personally in her youth and she thought that Merida was a unique name suitable for her heroine. For full explanation, here is the link.

[Posted May 17, 2013]

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