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Art Babbitt

An Interview by Michael Barrier

[To hear a 90-second (1,434KB) audio clip from this 1986 Babbit interview, in which he talks about his animation for the Silly Symphony The Country Cousin, click here; MP3 player required.]

Recently Stephen Worth posted a reminiscence of the famed animator Arthur Babbitt on the Animation Nation Web site. "When Fantasia came out on home video," Worth said, "Roy [Edward] Disney [Walt's nephew] sent Art a copy with a short note that said, 'I want to give you long overdue thanks for your contribution to making Fantasia the classic film that it is.' Art was very proud of that note. He told me that any animosity that he had harbored all those years against the Disneys was cleared up by that simple act of kindness on Roy's part."

Art Babbitt in 1941It's tempting to think so. The Fantasia video was released late in 1991. Babbitt was a sick man by then; he died of kidney failure the following March, at the age of 85. I didn't see him in his last few years, and it's at least possible that he had mellowed considerably by the end of his life. But I have to doubt it. Babbitt was one of the highest paid Disney animators at the time of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, earning two hundred dollars a week, but he subsequently became a leader of the 1941 strike at the Disney studio. (Babbitt is speaking to the strikers in the photo at right, taken by the striker Don Christensen.) In later years he did not disguise the anger and resentment he felt at what he believed was his shabby treatment at the hands of Walt Disney and his brother Roy O. Disney, the studio's business head and the father of Roy Edward Disney.

When I saw Babbitt on the evening of December 13, 1986, he told me over dinner with him and his wife, Barbara, at his home in Hollywood that he was "still filled with bitter bile about the strike." By the time we cut into our steaks, that bile had already spilled over into our recorded interview. Somehow, when we began taping, thoughts of his close friend Bill Tytla—another leading animator and prominent striker—led without pause to a denunciation of Roy O. Disney (who was, with the Disney attorney Gunther Lessing, the target of Babbitt's most intense wrath).

I had recorded long interviews with Babbitt in 1971 and 1973, and I had been aware then that he was one of those people who tend to stiffen up when the tape recorder is on. Over lunch at the Smokehouse in Burbank in 1971, he was relaxed and outspoken. With the recorder on, back in his office at the Hanna-Barbera studio (where he headed the TV-commercial department), he was much more reserved in manner, even though his words could still be sharp. In 1986, though, I do not recall feeling that he was holding anything back.

I interviewed Babbitt the day after I interviewed Ward Kimball—excerpts from the Kimball interview can be found elsewhere on this site—and, as with Kimball, my interview with Babbitt was devoted largely to asking him to respond to what other people had said. Toward the end of the interview, though, we talked about his early years, and it was here particularly I felt that Babbitt's rare openness was paying dividends. He spoke on many other occasions of his resentment toward the Disney brothers, but rarely of his youthful escapades.

At one point, I asked Babbitt if he was the only Disney animator who received no bonus for his work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He didn't know. I subsequently learned from documents in the Walt Disney Archives that Dick Lundy also got no bonus.

Babbitt's comments about his 1942 suit against Disney, for bonuses he claimed he was due for work on Pinocchio and other cartoons, must be taken with a large grain of salt. Babbitt lost that suit, and the language of Judge John Gee Clark's opinion does not suggest that he was secretly sympathetic to Babbitt. In fact, Clark found that Babbitt owed $216.74 to Walt Disney Productions. (Babbitt had borrowed $400 from the studio, but part had been repaid from bonuses for his animation on Goofy's Glider.) As the judge noted, no one got bonuses for their work on Pinocchio and Fantasia, because those films lost money.

Babbitt's inflammatory accusation about false time cards is particularly questionable. The surviving records of the case show that it was not Babbit but the Disney studio that submitted time cards as evidence. I suspect that more than forty years of nursing resentments had distorted Babbitt's memories of a particularly painful period in his life. In 1942, he jousted with the Disney studio not just in Superior Court in Los Angeles but also in an acrimonious National Labor Relations Board proceeding. It is probably best to read his comments not as statements of fact, but as reflections of his state of mind.

As was my custom, I sent the transcript of our interview to Babbitt, so that he would have the opportunity to remove or revise any statements that aroused second thoughts. He returned the transcript to me unchanged. Excerpts from the transcript follow.

BARRIER: I'd never thought about it one way or another, but a couple of people have said to me, "Oh, yes, Art's Jewish."

BABBITT: Yeah; but nobody knows for sure, and I don't know for sure, either.

BARRIER: You don't?

BABBITT: No. Maybe I am; I know somebody who surprised the hell out of me the other day, telling me he was one-half or one-quarter Jewish, or something. But it doesn't make any difference. Let's say I'm 100 percent Jewish. So what? What the hell difference does it make? I've certainly contributed my share to the animation industry. And I've reached the point in life where if somebody wants to inspect my penis to find out whether I am or not, that's okay with me, too—as long as he's friendly. .

BARRIER: Something I don't think I've asked you before—Milt Gray and I have heard that Ward Kimball was out briefly on strike, but he denies it. Did he stay out at all?

BABBITT: For about two hours. He and Freddy Moore, too. Freddy Moore had no political leanings at all, but Ward had been brought up in a liberal household—his father was a socialist, or some evil thing. They decided, well, they'd better go in. And that was it. In a recent interview that Ward gave to somebody whose name I'm not supposed to mention . Ward claims that the strike was a good and proper thing, but the reason he didn't go out on strike was because he had so many people under him, so in reality he was a supervisor and a company representative. Well, that would seem logical to me, in a way, if I were not in the same position. In Pinocchio, for instance, I had twenty-two animators and assistant animators and so on under me, helping me with Geppetto. I didn't do it by myself, even though I did a huge portion of the picture.

BARRIER: Ward denies flatly that he was ever out at all during the strike.

BABBITT: Well, practically not. He was out for two hours and then changed his mind and went in.

BARRIER: Were you the only animator who did not receive a bonus for his work on Snow White?

BABBITT: I don't recall receiving a bonus on Snow White, but I received many bonuses on many shorts, including Country Cousin, of course; that was presented as evidence in my [National Labor Relations Board] trial, that I wasn't just being kept on. In fact, the Disney studio got out of paying me a total of twelve thousand dollars, which according to their bonus system—regulated and controlled by Walt—they owed me for several shorts and for Fantasia. The judge ruled at that time—there were two versions: One was that they had lost so much money on Fantasia and Pinocchio that they were not obliged to pay a bonus. The other version is my own, which is what I heard from the judge, and that was that morally and ethically, they owed me this money, since their own bookkeeper said that; their own bookkeeper presented the evidence that they did owe me this money. Morally and ethically they owed me this money, but since I did not have a written contract on that basis, he could not oblige them to pay it. But it was around twelve thousand dollars.

Another interesting aspect of that particular trial is that they got to talking about time cards, and I brought up the fact that the Disney organization had falsified their time cards in the early thirties, when the 48-hour week was changed to 44 hours; I forget just what year it was—'36, or something like that. Forty-four hours a week was considered the normal work week; after that, the employees were supposed to be paid overtime. They kept a separate set of time cards for those extra four hours, and the government was never apprised of it. The next year, I think it was, the 40-hour week was established. Well, they kept a separate set of time cards for those extra eight hours.

During this trial in '42, I presented those falsified time cards, and Gunther Lessing, the studio attorney and vice president, said, "Where'd you get those cards?" I said, "Well, when you've been in a place as long as I have, you know all the nooks and crannies." Actually, where I got those cards was from a gal [who] was assistant to Herb Lamb, who was the production supervisor at the studio at that time, and she located those cards and gave them to me for this trial. The Disney studio was bilking the government, and bilking the employees, because you can't imagine the fortune it would have amounted to, if they had paid up. [See my comments above on this part of the interview.]

BARRIER: I asked Wilfred Jackson about what he remembered about your work on Country Cousin, and I specifically asked if this had been a situation where you expanded a scene as you did in Moving Day [which was released earlier the same year, 1936]. Jackson said:

"To the best of my recollection this sequence of the little drunk mouse was pictured in very complete detail on the storyboard, as was usual. What was a bit unusual about this particular picture as compared to most of them at about this time, and one of the things that comes to mind most readily about it, is that I was assigned to direct it way ahead of time, instead of abruptly finding out I was to direct it after the story work was nearly finished as so often happened when the studio was this large. This meant that I had more than the usual opportunity to be in on the details of the cartoon business throughout the story—including the drunk mouse scenes. And so, I had even more than a usually clear picture in my own mind of what we were after. This is why I think it likely I would recall anything substantially different in the final result from what we started out to get. I can recall the fun all of us had acting out for each other, our own versions of how the little drunk mouse would do the things we selected to picture on the storyboard. . . .

"When Country Cousin was okayed for production and moved into the music room, and while I was timing and planning it for animation, it seems to me there was about the usual amount of changing and reworking parts of it before Walt finally okayed it to proceed into actual animation. I believe Art was assigned to pick up the drunk scenes long enough ahead of time to be in on this stage of preparing his parts of it, and I'm fairly certain that after Walt okayed it for animation and Art came in to actually 'pick up' his assignment, each last little move the mouse was expected to make on the screen had been timed down to the exact frame on the exposure sheets, and a rough piano score had been composed by Leigh Harline, so it was possible for me to demonstrate for Art a pretty complete concept of the actions we all had decided on. Also, the staging, camera angles and scene cuts would have been predetermined and clearly nailed down by the layouts before Art began his animation—all that was standard procedure at the time.

"When Art came into the music room after all this conferring and preparation, for the purpose of getting his exposure sheets and layouts to take back to his own room and begin animating the drunk scenes, I'm sure he and I reviewed everything we expected the mouse to do in complete detail. And, I'm sure too, Art made the usual amount of new suggestions and requests for changes in our planning and timing, which required the usual amount of revising and re-timing on my part before he took the sheets and layouts away. This was par for the course in handling out work to an animator, and I believe I would remember it if we had done it much differently. For example, I do not recall handing out exposure sheets with an open end on the timing—but rather, each scene must have had a start marked on a particular frame relating it to the planned musical score and a cut marked on it to show when the scene was to end and how long it would be—just as was the usual thing. Nor do I recall any of Art's scenes with a carte blanche exposure sheet in which he would be turned loose to animate the mouse doing whatever might come into Art's mind for him to do. I'm certain I would remember the departure from our usual procedure if this sort of thing had been done.

"Instead, I believe each individual thing the mouse was to do, how he would do it, why he was doing it that way, how long he would take to do it, how large he would appear on the screen, which direction he was facing in relation to the camera, etc., etc.,etc., had all been agreed on between the two of us before Art took his drunk mouse scenes to his room to begin animating them. I'm sure, too, that it was understood between the two of us that all this pre-planning was not expected to result in dictating to Art exactly how he must animate each thing. It was only how we both thought, at that time, he thought he was going to do it.

"I do not recall it specifically, but I'm sure on the drunk mouse scenes there was a little more than the average amount of Art coming to the music room, or calling me to his animation room, to discuss changes in the agreed-on actions—and a little more than the usual amount of revisions of my own planning to accommodate them during the time he was making his rough animation drawings. This was the kind of action where more of that was to be expected, and Art was the kind of animator who could be expected to animate his scenes in his own individual way, too. .

"I believe I'm trying to say something like this:

"The things the drunk mouse was to do, and what his attitudes and reactions were to be, came from all of us who had been working on the picture. The extremely skillful way all of this was so effectively brought to life on the screen through his animation was Art's own personal achievement."

BABBITT: I think that's a very honest appraisal. As I recall, everything was pretty much agreed upon. There might have been slight variations in timing, and things like that, but I don't remember having any difficulties with Jackson at all—none—on that mouse thing. In fact, I was so dismayed by my own efforts on that picture that I couldn't wait for vacation time to come around, because I wanted to get the hell out of there. I thought it was so bad, the stuff that I was doing.

There's an anecdote that goes with this Country Cousin. Walt came into the room as I was picking up the work from Jackson, and he said, "You know what I would like to see you do in this Country Cousin"—he had just seen Moving Day—"I'd like to see you get that same kind of personality, that same kind of invention," or whatever words he used, "that you did in Moving Day." "Yeah, Walt, but there's one hitch." "What's that?" "If I'm going to do a drunken mouse, I have to have a research fund." "Jesus Christ, the front office is complaining about expenses already." One eyebrow went down, one went up, and he left the room. Three or four months later, when the picture was previewed at the theater, and people fortunately liked it, he was waiting for me at the boxoffice. He nudged me and said, "Hey, Art, about a cocktail?" I said, "No, thanks, Walt, I've got a date with a blonde." It wasn't a blonde, it was a brunette, but I didn't want to be involved.

I never had a problem with Jackson. The one thing that irritates me about Country Cousin is that so many bad books give credit for directing that to Dave Hand. Dave Hand never entered the room; he had nothing to do with it.

Let me just settle this Jackson thing. He was the top director; I agree with whatever he says. He's been very generous, and very honest, in his report. I don't claim credit for creating it all; of course it went through many, many channels before it got to him, and he gave me the information as thoroughly as he was able to, and if anything was added it was because of my own personal quirks. But I don't claim any additional credit for it.

BARRIER: Bill Hurtz said, in an interview Milt recorded with him, that you had used live action for Rooty Toot Toot [a 1952 UPA cartoon].

BABBITT: I didn't use any live action. There was some live action shot—I don't recall the girl's name, the dancer, ballerina, who did live action for the business of picking the flowers, and so on. I don't know who animated it; I don't recall now.

BARRIER: Grim Natwick?

BABBITT: No, no. Grim did several scenes of this gal getting all twisted up in knots, and so on, but I don't know who animated that scene of the gal picking the flowers. But it was done by somebody else, and there was this gal who furnished the choreography. Nothing was furnished to me in the way of choreography; it all comes out of my noggin, and bad or good, I'm responsible. The idea that I had to keep in mind was that all the action was on toe, was balletic, supposedly, and I knew very little about ballet. The defense attorney, for example—who the hell choreographed that? And who choreographed the mad pianist? It just didn't exist.

BARRIER: Another cartoon that I've heard you used some live action as reference for, or used in some way, was when you were at Warner Bros. briefly, in the Clampett unit, and animated the fan dance with Daffy Duck [in The Wise Quacking Duck, released in 1943].

BABBITT: I was there for only a month, and that's a little story in itself. Dave Hilberman got this job for me, and I didn't want the job, because I knew I was going to win my case against Disney. Whatever I earned elsewhere would be deducted from the final settlement, so I wanted as little deducted as possible. When the guy who handled the payroll there at Warners wanted to know how much I wanted, I said, "Minimum." He said, "You know you can get more." I said, "No, I just want minimum." The next week he called me in again and said, "You can get more." I said, "I don't want more, I just want minimum."

BARRIER: Was that Henry Binder?

BABBITT: I think so. I did this duck—God, I don't have any live action for that. I mean, where the hell am I going to get live action for a duck doing a strip tease?

BARRIER: But you could have had live action of a real strip teaser.

BABBITT: But I didn't.

BARRIER: Obviously not to copy it, but just as a reference—

BABBITT: No! I never even looked at any. .

BARRIER: I'd like to take one minute to make sure I have some of your personal data, like your date of birth. You said you're 79, which means you were born in what, 1907?

BABBITT: I was born October 8, 1907, in Omaha, Nebraska.

BARRIER: What did your father do? You said [off the tape] that he was not a success.

BABBITT: He tried everything. He tried to open a cleaning shop, and the cleaning fluid blew up and blew up the shop, too. He survived that. His most successful days, which meant that he probably earned fifteen dollars a week, which was five times his normal earnings, were when he would go to the game wardens, who were cleaning out the lakes at that time, taking out fish like carp, buffalo, and so on, so the trout could survive. He and a distant uncle of mine would buy these fish from the game wardens for nothing, pack them into barrels of ice, and ship them to some Fulton Street market in Chicago, where they were sold for peanuts. But that didn't last long.

My father injured his spine jumping out of a wagon. A man was not supposed to stop his horse and wagon completely; you would say whoa, and while the wheels of the wagon were still turning, you stepped on the hub and hopped off. Well, the hub slipped under his shoe, and he slipped and broke a vertebra. Nowadays, they would have some means of taking care of it; at that time, they didn't. Eventually, this grew together and started pressing on his spinal cord, so he suffered for fourteen years, gradually becoming more and more paralyzed. He died as a relatively young man, when I was at Disney in '34, I guess. Everything had become paralyzed on him; it started with his fingertips and his toes and so on. The only thing that remained alive was his brain. This is very sentimental, but as he was dying, he told me, "You know, Art, there's only one woman I have ever known in all my life, and that's your mother. I loved her from the start, and I love her now."

BARRIER: How long did you live in Omaha?

BABBITT: Just until I graduated from kindergarten. There was a big tornado in Omaha in 1912; I was about five years old. My father figured that God, if you believe in God, was trying to tell him something. That's when he decided that we should move away from tornadoes, and we moved to Sioux City, Iowa. It was in Sioux City that I went through public school and high school; I was a little over 16 when I graduated from high school. I had a choice between graduating from high school or going to San Quentin prison, because I was this strange dichotomy of really being a good student in school, but a hell-raiser every spare moment. The only reason I didn't wind up in prison is because I could run faster than the cops.

BARRIER: Where did you go after you finished high school?

BABBITT: I stayed in Sioux City for a short time. I had made up my mind when I entered high school in Sioux City that I was going to be a psychiatrist; I don't know how to spell it now, and certainly didn't know how to spell it then. But I had determined what teachers I was going to study with in Vienna. . I knew that I had to have a medical education ahead of time, and that's when I headed for New York, where I was going to go through Columbia pre-med. It never occurred to me that it might take a little money, which I didn't have. Just about the same time, my father's paralysis started becoming real bad, so I had to give up my grandiose ideas of psychiatry. I thought there were enough people in this world I could fool with my alleged artistic abilities, and I became a half-baked commercial artist, a very, very bad one, which led to very primitive animation—silent, of course—which led to my first authentic animation job with Paul Terry. I gave up pretty good earnings to go with Paul Terry, because he was going to make cartoons with sound.

BARRIER: Which studios did you work at before you went to Terry's?

BABBITT: I was free-lancing.

BARRIER: For various animation studios?

BABBITT: No, not for animation.

BARRIER: Oh, this was still commercial art.

BABBITT: Yeah, for myself. I did magazine cartoons; one of my accounts was Sylvania tubes, for example, and they would have cartoons in their advertising. There were several other companies that I did cartoons for. And I did very primitive animation for medical films.

BARRIER: So you had done some animation before you went to Terry's.

BABBITT: Yeah, but very, very poor, and very primitive.

BARRIER: What kind of hell were you raising in Sioux City?

BABBITT: Well, it was the usual bit of breaking into a schoolroom, climbing up three stories on the underneath side of a fire escape, hand over hand, to get to an open window or an open door up at the top of the school. There was some sort of a screwball sense of morals that I had. The idea was not to destroy anything, or to steal anything, but to confuse everything. We would take all the stuff in each guy's desk and move it over to somebody else's desk, and so on. That sort of thing. We didn't write dirty things on the blackboard, we didn't set any fires. We weren't vandals.

We used to sneak up to the rich part of town, called The Hills. In those days there were no electric refrigerators, there were iceboxes, which they usually kept out on a porch, a screened-in porch. I led a gang of blacks, Negro kids, five or six Negro kids, and I was their leader. We never stole anything, we just confused everything. We would go to these screen porches, and we would slit the screen, get our hand in there, unlock the door, get to the icebox, take everything out of the icebox, go next door and do the same thing, and take the stuff from one icebox and put it in the other one. It was just mischief.

I was supposed to be so delicate at the time that a normal bath would be the end of my life, so my mother, who couldn't afford it, really—none of us could afford anything, we were so poor—had to give me alcohol sponge baths for years. I'd have to go to bed very early, and then, as soon as everybody was sound asleep, I'd open the window and sneak out, and a gang of us would play a game called "Run, my good sheep, run," until two o'clock in the morning. It's a sort of a tag game, with signals and so on. It's a rather involved game.

We'd go down to the railroad yards where the fruit cars would come in from Texas; there'd be all these freight cars loaded with watermelons. Now, it's a federal offense to break the seal on a freight car. We would do that, and we would each steal a watermelon, and then we would take the watermelon and sneak into the ballgame with the watermelon, which is quite a trick, and then get up in the bleachers—that was the most convenient place—and break the watermelon on the bleacher seat ahead of us, and scoop it out with our hands. And if anybody made any fresh remarks to us, we'd throw a watermelon at them.

BARRIER: Was your father able to work in Sioux City?

BABBITT: He was trying to work. That's where he made his contact with the game wardens. It was a pretty desperate life. We would get cow bones, and my mother would make some kind of a soup out of it, with garlic and so on, a Russian dish. See, essentially, I'm Russian, really. Of Russian extraction.

BARRIER: From your mother's—

BABBITT: From both sides. I'm a Russian, a communist Russian.

BARRIER: Babbitt must not have been your family's original name, then.

BABBITT: Way, way back, it had a "ski" added on to it. The "ski" simply means "the residence of" or "the son of." There are many Russians today who have a "ski" added on to their name. If you look up my family history, you will find that there was an American balloonist in World War I, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, there were members of my family who settled parts of Colorado and Wyoming; I just found out that I have members of my family who are pretty well hunkered down in Brazil, in Rio. So they're all over the place. I'm not the typical Disney cartoonist. But I would say that essentially, if you want to nail it down to something ethnic, I am of Russian extraction.

BARRIER: Would that account in part for your compatibility with Tytla?

BABBITT: Possibly. But we had so many different types in our group that it wasn't even funny. We had everything from a big, hulking Irishman to a little Jewish Russian in our group—Oskar Barshak [phonetic spelling] was his name. Wherever I'd go in this world I'd run into him—and I've done a lot of traveling.

BARRIER: And he worked at Disney's?

BABBITT: No, he was a commercial artist, a very good one.

BARRIER: The only question I have left is about Dave Hilberman's description of your strike roles, but I can ask that in a letter. [Hilberman, who was with Babbitt one of the principal leaders of the Disney strike, described Babbitt as "important in terms of contacts with all the other areas of Hollywood . whereas I concentrated on the internal organization—picket lines, getting the leaflets out."]

BABBITT: Actually, Dave was not such a great influence on me. He did bring me into contact with Herb Sorrell, who was a great man, regardless of what the Disney brothers might have thought. It was never proven that he was a communist. Actually, Herb Sorrell taught me how to handle communists in a meeting; they will outwait you, you know.

[Posted October 2003]