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"What's New" Archives: March 2015

 

March 24, 2015:

In Brief

 

March 17, 2015:

Interviews: Gerry Geronimi

 

March 7, 2015:

Funnybooks in the Wall Street Journal

Michael Sporn on the Radio

 

March 2, 2015:

On Gunther Lessing

 

March 24, 2015:

In Brief

CBFC PictorialFunnybooks in Review. The fifth issue of the Carl Barks Fan Club Pictorial, published by Joseph and Barb Cowles, is out, with my piece titled "The Improbable Glories of Carl Barks." It's an expanded and revised version of the preface to Funnybooks, with a page of my photos of Barks taken between 1969 and 1998. There's also a gratifyingly positive review of Funnybooks by Barb, and lots of other Barks-related material, most of it about his comic-book work, rather than the paintings that have been a focus of fan interest in recent years. Kim Weston is an important contributor, writing in precise detail about Barks's single "Andy Panda" story for New Funnies, and restoring and reformatting a wartime "Barney Bear and Benny Burro" story so that it appears for the first time in the correct proportions. And there's more. The CBFC Pictorial is beautifully produced, in full color throughout. The list price is $15.95, but it's available from amazon.com for (as of this writing) $12.46. Highly recommended.

And for a review of Funnybooks written from a different perspective, that of "furry fandom," let me refer to you Fred Patten's review at this link. What is "furry fandom," you may ask? I'm really not quite sure how to describe it, even though the phenomenon has attracted growing media coverage. Best you visit Fred's "Dogpatch Press" site and explore "furry fandom" for yourself. Fred says of Funnybooks that it's "the story of the comic-book publisher whose works did more than any others’ to inspire furry fandom," and that should give you a clue as to what "furry fandom" is all about.

Tim Burton's Dumbo. Disney revealed early this month that a live-action/CGI version of Dumbo is in the works, with Tim Burton directing. I was reminded of something I wrote a dozen years ago, in a review of Lilo and Stitch. I didn't know it at the time, but Disney was then contemplating not a live-action remake of Dumbo, but a direct-to-video animated sequel. I suggested how a remake might look, given the priorities being observed by the Disney of 2003:

If Dumbo were being made by today's Disney studio, ... Dumbo (his name changed to Zumbo to avoid offending the stupid) would talk, of course, and he and Timothy would have a conversation in which Zumbo says something like "G-g-gosh, Timothy, isn't it wonderful that the magic feather will let me fly? D-d-do you suppose that I might be able to fly some day without the feather?" Timothy replies, a little nervously: "Nah—nah—let's stick with the feather, pal. No use gettin' fancy!"

And then, as Zumbo is plummeting to earth, his pink and cuddly little elephant girlfriend cries out, from where she has been imprisoned by the evil ringmaster, "Zumbo! I know you can do it! Fly, Zumbo, fly!" But Zumbo keeps plunging toward that tub, not knowing that when he hits it, that will be the signal for the evil ringmaster to grow to enormous size and unleash a horde of evil clowns on the world. And then ...well, enough of such morbid fantasizing.

Actually, my morbid fantasizing was probably not morbid enough.

Gordon Kent and Chris Barat. To my regret, I never met either of these men, both of whom died recently, and both much too young. Gordon and I corresponded occasionally, brought together originally by our shared affection for Roger Armstrong. I posted a dozen or more of his comments on comics and animation—he worked for many years at TV-cartoon studios—and they were always a pleasure to read. I last heard from him in 2011, which was, I have learned from Mark Evanier's warm and affectionate tribute, the year Gordon was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Chris Barat and I never exchanged any messages, as best I can tell, and I somehow managed not to be aware of the regard in which he was held by many fans of the Disney comic books. Probably that was because he devoted considerable attention on his blog, News and Views by Chris Barat, to subjects, like the Don Rosa stories with the ducks and the TV series DuckTales, that have never much interested me. But he wrote about them very well, enough to make me want to take another look. Late last year, he wrote a review of Funnybooks that I didn't see until after his death from complications attending a kidney transplant; I wish I had seen it in time to thank him for it.

Bill Benzon. He's the scholar who posts remarkable "close readings" of animated cartoons, some of which you'll find elsewhere on this site if you run a search for his name. They're always worth a serious fan's attention. His most recent is of Bob Clampett's Porky in Wackyland, on the academia.edu site. Bill also posts a wide variety of material, most of it unrelated to cartoons, on his own New Savanna blog (I particularly recommend the item about the extinction of the woolly mammoth). I think Bill qualifies as a polymath, and it's good to know that cartoons have attracted the interest of at least one such person.

Coming attractions. I have let a lot of worthy books pile up, again, and I hope to post another "book backlog" item soon that will give them their due. I'll be writing separately about the most important recent book, John Canemaker's The Lost Notebook.

Comments

From Donald Benson: One of the earlier DVD releases of Dumbo had a sort of featurette about the planned direct-to-video, talking to creative staff and showing concept art. Apparently a now-talking Dumbo would acquire a bunch of animal friends and learn a valuable lesson about teamwork, or something like that. Casey Jr. would also talk. I guessed that the long-term plan was another Disney Afternoon series.

In the early days of the Disney Channel there was a Dumbo series, with Krofft-style costumes and puppets. There was a similar Winnie the Pooh series; both targeted very small children.

There's some comfort in observing Burton's money-printing Alice in Wonderland did not displace the animated Alice in Disney's synergy machine—no Johnny Depp lookalikes prowling the parks as the Mad Hatter; no skinny blondes in armor replacing the little English girl on the ride or the princess merchandise. With any luck Burton's take will roll through one summer's box office and then hold a catalog spot by the live action Dalmatians.

[Posted April 9, 2015]

 

March 17, 2015:

Fleischer luncheon
Gerry Geronimi is seated at the left in the photo above, next to Walt Disney. Wilfred Jackson, another Disney director, is seated at the far right, and he described the circumstances of this photo in a 1971 letter to Bob Clampett: "This was the day Max Fleischer, who made the 'Out of the Inkwell' cartoons I admired so much when I was a boy, visited the Disney Studio. I had the privilege of showing him all around the studio in the morning, then we had lunch with Walt and some of the oldtimers in the studio cafeteria." The "oldtimers," some of them mentioned in the Geronimi interview, include, from Walt's left, Ben Sharpsteen, Ted Sears, Max Fleischer, Dick Huemer, George Stallings, Max's son Richard Fleischer (who directed the Disney live-action feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and Andy Engman. Facing the camera at another table in the background are the Disney executives Bill Anderson and Card Walker.

Interviews: Gerry Geronimi

Milt Gray and I interviewed Geronimi, the most controversial, not to say reviled, of the Disney animation directors, in 1976, and you can read the complete transcript of that interview at this link.

My interviews require a lot of work before they're suitable for publication—especially the earlier interviews, like Geronimi's, that exist only as typescripts that must be scanned, and not as computer files. Unfortunately, the work required doesn't seem to be diminishing over time, despite my occasional wishful thinking that I've found a magic bullet of some kind. I'm often prey to doubts that the audience for the interviews is large enough to justify so much work, but I know that at least a few people share my interest in them. There's Didier Ghez, of course, who in his ongoing Walt's People series has collected hundreds of vintage interviews, including a number of mine. Pete Docter of Pixar likes them, too, and I invited Pete to suggest some priorities once I had the Geronimi interview posted. He proposed two Disney directors: Wilfred Jackson, whom I interviewed at length in 1973 and 1976, and Jack Kinney, whom I interviewed in 1973, 1976, and 1986. Excellent choices, and I'll post some or all of those interviews. Probably not real soon, but keep checking back.

Comments

From Thad Komorowski: Many thanks for posting the Gerry Geronimi interview. I'm really grateful you and Milt talked to him at length about his early days in New York, too, because there aren't many anecdotes published about the period. I never knew Geronimi worked for Sullivan!

I'm appreciative, too, that you tried to get all sides in those days, which of course causes you to catch flak from the fans and artists. J.B. Kaufman, to his immense credit, does this, too, as when discussing the Geronimi-Kimball friction on Three Caballeros in South of the Border. People seem to like to take the Kimball side without reservation because, "Oh, he's the funny, wacky guy with the glasses, and he did all that cool stuff!" Versus Geronimi, just some old guy who did whatever Walt told him. (Does it occur to anyone that Kimball was just as much one of Walt's "bitches," if not more so? I mean, he stayed his whole career there!)

I'm pretty sure he had more on the ball than those guys gave him credit for. As you're well aware, there was a stigma against the guys from the east, and I think that underlies a lot of the criticism. Consider that Jack Kinney directed almost all of Ichabod and Mr. Toad—the film is lighthearted, even in the serious sequences—until Geronimi comes in with the Headless Horseman. As much as I love that movie, I can't deny it's the only part of that feature anyone talks about with any real esteem (the Popeye-Bluto stuff between Ichabod and Brom Bones that precedes it is never mentioned).

Anyway, it's good to see the discussion opened up again, although I don't need to tell you it'll be a very poorly attended forum.

[Posted March 17, 2015]

From Pete Docter: Thanks for posting your excellent interview and finally giving Geronimi a chance to speak his side. I’ve always been intrigued and mystified by the disparity between the venom with which animators speak of him versus the high quality of his sequences. It’s interesting to hear Geronimi talk about how animators would try to expand their scenes, unaware how their shot fits in context... I’ve been on both sides of this, even today. It’s amazing how little has changed!

I love his stories about daily operations at the studio. It really brings it all to life for me — skirmishes with Peet, defending Eric Larson as a director, the director vs. nine old men in front of Walt… Great photos, too. I’m already looking forward to your Jaxon and Kinney interviews!

From Mark Mayerson: I want to thank you for the Geronimi interview, and especially for your introduction.

I think the Les Clark comment you quoted is very important in the feelings that animators had towards Geronimi. You mention that Wilfred Jackson escaped all the animator complaints, and I'm sure that's because he meticulously prepared each shot before handing it to an animator. He was able to articulate exactly what he expected, so that when an animator sat down to work, he knew what he had to put on screen in order to get the shot approved. Geronimi, according to Clark, didn't know what he wanted until he saw the first test. This puts the animator in a terrible position. He has to develop a conception of what a scene should be and commit to it in order to put anything on the screen worth watching. If it will inevitably be savaged by the director in a rude way, which seems to be Geronimi's pattern, it means the animator knows he's in for a painful experience even before he starts work. That's hell on morale.

Geronimi probably resembled live-action director William Wyler. Wyler drove actors crazy because he could not articulate what he wanted and shot dozens of takes waiting to recognize something in the performance that he liked. As animators work more slowly than actors, there would be more time for an animator to be cursing Geronimi under his breath while trying to give the director something he approved of.

From Don Peri: I just finished reading your interview with Geronimi. It is great to hear him describing his history and analyzing the various people he worked with. As usual, you and Milt did a super job. What was Geronimi like after he stopped pacing awaiting your arrival? Was he on his best behavior? He sounds more thoughtful in his answers than I would have expected. Could you sense the cruder Gerry that so many people talked about or alluded to or had he mellowed as so many did?

MB replies: I don't trust completely my almost-forty-years-old memories of that occasion, especially since I was at the end of my research trip and was no doubt falling-down tired, as I always was under such circumstances. (I was tired enough that I accidentally left the first of my two tapes behind; Geronimi mailed it to me.) I don't recall that the "cruder Gerry" surfaced in the interview, but I'm struck now, reading the transcript, by how I tried to tread softly when we got into territory that was obviously sensitive, like his relations with animators like Kimball. Those were the points at which I sometimes tried to keep things cool by asking more questions about his early work on silent cartoons. For obvious reasons, I didn't ask about his departure from Walt Disney Productions until the very end of the interview, and I got, as I expected, a muffled answer.

From William Coates: I have been following your website for about a year now and your interview with Geronimi finally prompted me to comment.

Thank you for posting this interview. It revives the great question you once prompted about the significance of the Nine Old Men's contribution to Disney animation and animation in general.

It is curious that two of the most highly-regarded of the Nine Old Men, Kimball and Kahl, would take umbrage with Geronimi. It sounds like issues of pure artistic control where two artists feel that they would shine better if they weren't constantly deferring to a director. Also both men seemed to resent conflict. Certainly, Kahl seemed to value agreement and harmony with his directors. Kahl says as much about Jackson in your interview with him. I wonder if this is why so many of the Nine Old Men and other veteran animators were bitter about their directors. Did they simply resent any sort of check and balance system? Each director took orders from Walt, these animators point out, and each of them tried to curb their abilities. It's no wonder that Kahl would call Geronimi a "drone" and Jackson an "old lady." Yet it was a drone like Geronimi and an old lady like Jackson that brought out the best in these men. Also Geronimi’s sequences, as you have pointed out, are almost always well-executed. He must have been doing something right.

I'm still a little confused as to what prompted Geronimi's resignation or firing. After reading the Geronimi interview, I decided to reread your interviews with Kahl and Kimball. In your interview with Kimball, you mention the Guild and a committee that consisted of "the supervising animators." Kimball says that "we began censuring the directors we didn't like, especially Gerry Geronimi, and it got so none of us would work with him any more." He then goes on to mention that "the final blow came when [John] Lounsbery, who was on the committee also, refused to pick up work." Is this what contributed to the firing of Geronimi? I assume this refusal to pick up work must have occurred during production on Sleeping Beauty. But why would that be the case? Geronimi didn't seem to hold any grudges against Lounsbery. Finally, Harry Tytle claims that the firing occurred during production of The Magnificent Rebel. Could you elaborate on this?

MB replies: I don't have a definitive answer as to the significance of the "censuring" of directors by the Disney animators. Kahl said in his interview, though, that "I wasn't in on that." That suggests to me, given Kahl's important role at the Disney studio, that Kimball's version may be, at the least, colored by his long-term hostility to Geronimi. I would guess that any "censuring" was more informal and limited than Kimball's interview suggests, and I doubt very much that it had anything to do with Geronimi's departure from the studio.

Geronimi was the supervising director of Sleeping Beauty, a film that was released in the spring of 1959; then he directed parts of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (notably the opening scenes in which the dogs meet, and the birth of the puppies). The other directors were Ham Luske and Woolie Reitherman.

It could only have been in work on Dalmatians (a film with which Kimball was not involved) that any "censuring" occurred. In skimming Mark Mayerson's mosaics of the sequences for which Geronimi was credited (in one case sharing credit with Luske), I don't see any scenes credited to Lounsbery. Lots of Kahl, Thomas, Johnston, and Davis, though, so any "censuring" must have been of limited effectiveness, unless it precluded Geronimi's working on any more animated features.

By the fall of 1959, more than a year before Dalmatians was released (in January 1961), Geronimi was deep in live-action work in Europe, on the ill-fated trip that led to his break with Walt and the end of his Disney career.

From Vince Martin: I enjoyed reading your interview with Geronimi. I've been curious about it for some time, because he's been so vilified by his former colleagues and by most Disney history books, that I've wondered what his side of the story was. This answered all of my questions about the man.

I always enjoy reading your interviews with animation veterans. Yours are my favorite to read and reference for my research. I look forward to reading your interviews with Wilfred Jackson.

From Joakim Gunarsson: Just wanted to thank you for the Gerry Geronimi interview!
After reading so many negative words about him I was happy to finally hear his
version.

[Posted March 19, 2015]

From Hans Perk: There is little I can add to what the other commenters have said: thank you very much for posting it, it is a fresh look on what has become a rather stale tale. Like Pete Doctor, I, too have been on both sides of the argument, and controlling "runaway animators" does not necessarily put you in the best of standing with them, even though what you do is in the film’s best interest. As Frank Thomas said in the Thames TV program from 1978, "the animator hates the layout man, the layout man hates the background man, and everyone hates the director!"

Now— this may be semantics, but when I read the sentence "Les Clark said of Geronimi that his handout of an animation scene "was really your first test," it doesn’t necessarily sound denigrating to me. It could also mean that, even though at the beginning of the handout Geronimi might or might not know what he wanted, after you left Geronimi’s music room you had “done so much work” that you knew exactly what you were to do. This, then, would essentially mean it was a successful handout. Are you sure it really was meant as negative as we kind of want it to sound based upon the negative stories we heard from, say, Kahl or Kimball?

Of the photos, I enjoyed especially the one with Ed Plumb, because of its giving us a clear view of the box on top of his piano. As I mentioned somewhere on my own blog where I have a photo of George Bruns with a similar box, it seems to have contained click loops that the musician could use in his Moviola, to give him the timing as chosen by the director, or to suggest a beat for a specific piece of music to the director. As far as I can make out, they go from 6 beat to 24 beat (left to right) in eights (top to bottom).

MB replies: Here's the full text of what Les Clark told me when I interviewed him in 1973:

Some directors were very loose in their directing, like Gerry Geronimi. His handout was really your first test. Where Wilfred Jackson would just patiently sit down and tell you everything he wanted, to every frame, or every foot or so. That was the difference between the two. Now, I don't mean any disparagement against Gerry Geronimi; he got some results. So did Jackson. I'm speaking of the years they were directing; say the forties or so. I don't think that Gerry Geronimi actually had a visual idea himself of what he wanted as much as Jackson did. So, when he saw the first pencil test, then he got an idea what he wanted, and what he liked, and what he didn't like. Uusually, working for Jackson, you came out pretty much right the first time. And yet Gerry turned out awfully good pictures; that was just his way of working. Jackson was slower, and took more time, so I guess economically, they were both about the same.

What Les said, in his gentlemanly manner, was echoed in different ways, and invariably in much stronger language, by people like Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Rudy Larriva, and Fred Kopietz, to name only a few. The particulars differed, but the gist of the complaints was the same. Here, for example, is Ed Love, when I interviewed him in 1990:

The only time I said no to Walt was when they made Gerry Geronimi a director. He was so impossible to get along with. ... I'd get a sequence, and I'd do it, and he'd throw it all out. I'd do it again, and he'd throw it all out. Then I'd shoot the first sequence, and he'd okay it. Honest to God, that's the way it would work. After that one picture [with Geronimi], they wanted me to go on another picture, and I went and told Walt, "I won't work with him." I absolutely refused to work with him. I said, "I don't have any trouble with anybody, but that man doesn't know what he's doing."

Such turmoil usually eventuated in very good cartoons, the problem being, from the animators' point of view, that Geronimi put them through hell to produce results that Jackson and other directors achieved with much less strife.

A critical element in Geronimi's successes was, I'm sure, that he was working at the Disney studio, where there was more time (and money) available to tame story and animation problems than was true at other studios. Geronimi was comparable to Friz Freleng, who also became notorious as a director who didn't know what he wanted until he saw an animator's first pencil test. Freleng's Warner Bros. budgets were tighter than Disney's, and as a result, as I wrote in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, "Freleng's animators ... had to bear in mind while animating every scene that they might have to redo their animation—with no extra time allowed—if Freleng decided when he saw it that he wanted something else. Their quandary is surely one reason so much of the animation in Freleng's cartoons is dull and literal, the sort of animation that could be easily altered."

Happily, the sequences that Geronimi directed for the Disney animated features are rarely if ever vulnerable to such criticism, but that may be no thanks to him.

[Posted April 14, 2015]

From Hans Perk: Thanks for your answer. I find this stuff fascinating as well, and I think it may be even more so since I “have been there.” I do like to be well-prepared when handing out a scene, though. Also when being handed out to, it was always more positive when the director was well prepared. I remember that, on Ferngully, Bill Kroyer sent tapes with him describing each scene in detail, acting out the characters’ bits in detail, so we could animate the scenes in Denmark without too much confusion.

I guess Geronimi was what I have heard call a Moviola director. First time I heard that expression was with reference to Woolie Reitherman.

[Posted April 16, 2015]

March 7, 2015:

Funnybooks in the Wall Street Journal

Will Friedwald's wonderful review of my latest book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books, is on page C10 of the Review section in today's Wall Street Journal. Here's a link. Happily, Will's review doesn't seem to be behind a paywall.

Comments

From Garry Apgar: "Funnybooks in the Wall Street Journal"?

What's next, comic strips in the New York Times?

Are you pondering what I'm pondering, Pinky?

[Posted March 13, 2015]

 

Michael Sporn on the Radio

Michael SpornThad Komorowski has produced an outstanding six-minute tribute to Michael Sporn that was broadcast earlier this week as a segment of the WBGO Journal and is now accessible at this link. The Sporn tribute is about as long as a classic animated short, and like the best of those shorts it's bright and compact. The listener learns a lot about Michael Sporn, and about what made him special, in a very short time.

Several of Michael's friends and colleagues—John Canemaker, Mark Mayerson, Ray Kosarin—and Michael's widow, Heidi Stallings, speak on the show about what made Michael so distinctive and admirable a filmmaker: his deep New York roots, his devotion to animation as an art form, the artistic sensibility that he expressed with so much integrity while working on a remarkable number of subjects in a wide variety of styles.

Michael really was a marvel, and he deserves to be remembered as fully and as sympathetically as he is in the WBGO segment. Thank you, Thad.

 

March 2, 2015:

Lessing

According to Art Babbitt, who lent me this photo for copying, Gunther Lessing, at the right, hosted this party early in 1940, long before Babbitt and Lessing collided in the runup to the 1941 Disney studio strike. Babbitt is at the far left, seated by his wife, Marjorie Belcher; the animator Les Clark and his wife, Mimi, are across the table, next to Lessing. The writing on the cover of the program on the table is "Carl Laemmle Theatre."

On Gunther Lessing

I've added a sentence to my essay called "Walt's Adventures in the Ivy League" to take into account that Gunther Lessing, for many years Disney's general counsel, was a 1908 graduate of the law school at Yale University, one of the two Ivy League schools that gave Walt Disney an honorary degree in 1939.

Lessing's colorful personal history, as a native of Waco, Texas, and a lawyer in El Paso, was recounted in an article by Ballard Coldwell Shapleigh in the April-May 2011 issue of the El Paso Bar Journal. That article includes the first confirmation I've seen that Lessing's family background was not only German but also Jewish, as Ward Kimball told me back in 1986, in an interview that I posted here in 2003. I was skeptical, but it seems that Kimball was right. Here is what the Bar Journal says about Lessing's family history:

Gunther Rudolph Lessing was born in Waco, Texas, on July 20, 1885, three years after his sister, Hannah. His father, Rudolph Lessing, came from the state of Hessen in Germany. Rudolph was a prominent merchant and cotton factor in Waco doing business with three partners under the name of Lessing, Solomon and Rosenthal.

Rudolph Lessing was a charter member of the Temple Rodef Sholom congregation founded in Waco in 1879, and reputed to be the oldest Jewish reform congregation in central Texas. He was also that congregation's first president.

Rudolph died when Gunther was age 10. Gunther's mother, Bertha Bouger, was also a native of Hessen but nine years younger than her spouse. She died in El Paso in 1911.

There are any number of loose ends here, some of which it may be possible to tie up with research in the online sources that have become available in the last few years. For example, was Gunther Lessing's mother Jewish? If she was not, that would have some bearing on whether Lessing regarded himself as Jewish, since Jewish identity is traditionally regarded as inherited through the mother.

This scrap of information about Lessing's ethnicity is another strike against the persistent notion that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic. Walt and Roy Disney worked closely with Lessing for more than thirty years; it's impossible for me to believe they were unaware of Lessing's Jewish heritage, any more than they were unaware of Joe Grant's or Maurice Rapf's or Kay Kamen's.

The Disneys were certainly aware of the more notorious aspects of Lessing's past, such as his involvement with Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, and Dolores Del Rio, the Mexican actress, and his headline-making divorce in 1932. They valued him for his loyalty and pugnacity; nothing else mattered very much.

(Thanks to Garry Apgar for alerting me to Lessing's Yale connection.)

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