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December 30, 2007:
I suppose it's because I've devoted so much time and effort to establishing the facts of Hollywood animation's history that deliberate falsehoods about that history annoy me so much. To see a current example of such falsehoods, click on this link. The baloney peddler who runs that site has for some time been retailing the notion that scripts for cartoons were unknown before 1960, that all "writing" took place in the form of story sketches. That's silly on the face of it—is it really conceivable that until 1960 no one working in Hollywood animation ever wrote a script for a cartoon comparable to the scripts for live-action films?—but it's also provably wrong. I cite some of the abundant evidence in this post.
Perhaps the gentleman didn't see that post? Not likely, since he borrowed the image above (story sketches for Bob Clampett's Tortoise Wins by a Hare) from another of my posts on the same subject. I'm sure he's simply indifferent to facts that don't fit his agenda, which is to promote himself and his former employer, John Kricfalusi. The real mystery is why ASIFA-Hollywood, which once had some claim to be a serious organization, has allowed itself to be converted into the Spumco Annex.
December 28, 2007:
Where's Walt, No. 3
Everything about this photo of Walt—the date, the radio program, the identities of the other two people, perhaps a recording of the show itself —is surely on record somewhere, but so far I haven't found it. The girl appears to be the child actress Margaret O'Brien; the date, to judge from Walt's appearance, and O'Brien's—she was born in 1937—is the late 1940s (note the Dumbo doll, probably keyed to the film's reissue in 1949). But other than that, I'm stumped.
O'Brien was to be the voice of Alice in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, until she withdrew in June 1949 because of a family crisis, and I'd guess that this photo was made during some early publicity for Alice, probably shortly after O'Brien was signed. Ultimately, of course, Alice's voice was provided by the young English actress Kathryn Beaumont, a much better choice for that character.
December 24, 2007:
December 23, 2007:
Other sites have noted the passing last week, at age 99, of Jack Zander. His career in animation extended back to the early thirties in Hollywood—that's him second from the left in the front row, in a photo from Ted Eshbaugh's short-lived studio—and encompassed a leading role in New York commercial animation for decades. The New York Times obituary is at this link, and you can read more personal remembrances in several posts at Mark Mayerson's site.
I met Jack in March 1978, when he was not quite 70. Thanks to Michael Sporn, I was in those days hosting occasional screenings for the New York chapter of ASIFA, driving up from Virginia with a trunk full of 16mm cartoons—this was when videotape was in its infancy. Jack attended a program of cartoons from World War II; I think it was at that same show that I met Mark Mayerson, Jerry Beck, and Leonard Maltin. Jack and I recorded a long and very enjoyable interview in the spring of 1982, and he later gave me a pile of union newsletters and other such things.
We stayed in touch after that, and I sent him a copy of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age when it was published in 1999. His response was one of the most gratifying I received from anyone in the business, especially since Jack himself made only two brief appearances in the book: "Busy reading and rereading the book. It should go over only half as good as it did in this house! I am amazed at how you captured the characteristics of all the individuals so accurately! Both Carl Urbano and I remarked on that."
Jack turns up in The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, too. He never worked at Disney, but he was a student at the Chouinard Art Institute when the Disney animators were first being pushed by Walt into taking night courses there. He said in our 1982 interview that as a duty under his working scholarship,
I had to walk around and monitor the classes and be sure everybody was there. It was my job to stay there at night and check on the Disney guys. He had about twenty guys there, and nobody wanted to go to the goddamn art classes. ... I'd go into a class, and there'd be eight or ten guys standing around. I'd read off the list of twenty names, and every one would answer 'here.' We'd send a report back to Walt that twenty guys showed up to get their art instruction.
Jack wrote after I sent him the book:
Wasn't it a great period for all of us? I can remember a polo game with Walt and Hugh and Rudy at some cheap stable on Ventura Boulevard. Polo ponies by the hour, of course, with feet as large as dishpans! Walt rode his up on the porch of that office. Some game.
I don't recall anyone else ever mentioning that Walt played polo with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, who had left the Disney studio under strained circumstances in 1928. But Jack worked at the Harman-Ising studio after stints with the Romer Grey and Eshbaugh studios, and Walt had certainly taken up polo by then, so, maybe...
Yet another subject for research. I wish I'd pursued that point with Jack, but like many other people, I somehow assumed that he'd make it to his hundredth birthday and beyond. This was, after all, a man who'd ridden a motorcycle across the country in his eighties. There seemed to be no rush; but, sadly, there was.
The other people in the photo? In the first row, a man whom Jack remembered as possibly named Wolper, a "money man"; Jack, Ted Eshbaugh, the composer Carl Stalling (in one of his many short stints between his important work for Disney and Schlesinger), and the animator Cal Dalton; in the second row, a woman named Frances, whom Jack remembered as "very nice"; the animators Pete Burness and Andrew "Hutch" Hutchinson, "Mother Eshbaugh," the Eshbaugh brothers Bill Russell and Jack Eshbaugh, and an unidentified woman.
December 22, 2007:
I heard from Tee Bosustow in regard to the UPA book and film project that I wrote about on November 29. (That's Tee's father, Steve Bosustow, UPA's co-founder and longtime president, in the photo above.) Here's what Tee wrote:
I meant to reply to your comments on the UPA book earlier, but, well, I didn't, for many boring reasons. First of all, I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the book as much as most people have. The reasons you give are quite understandable, albeit personal. But, there are a few facts I would like to correct. It disturbed me that a person of your caliber would make statements without checking facts first.
You state that the documentary will "almost certainly be an uncritical celebration" of UPA. This is just not true. We (although I'm spearheading the project, I'm far from alone) are making a documentary after all, not a promotional film. We (I'm not the only one doing interviews) have recorded a number of very critical comments about UPA, in the interviews listed on our site and in others not yet up there, and I'm certain there will be more in interviews we have yet to do. Plus, we intend to include critical, as well as complimentary, comments in our documentary. I'd love to interview John Kricfalusi, and you, too, for that matter. We are doing this documentary, not to be cheerleaders for UPA, but because we think the UPA story is interesting, dramatic, and entertaining. The Communist era, the union movement, the financial problems, the ego struggles, the comings and goings of various artists, are all grist for the mill, along with comments about the bad animation in Tell Tale Heart, among other things. All this we hope will contribute to a lively documentary about a flawed, but fascinating, chapter in animation history.
Then, the fact that you don't see "any hint" of restoration efforts on our site doesn't mean we aren't working on that. Again, your assumption is incorrect. Had you done just a little bit of research, you would have found many people who know about our quest for finding, restoring, and preserving the films of UPA. We started soon after we began working on the documentary, already finding films that were thought to be lost, and we are hoping to start assembling them all in one permanent, climate-controlled site.
Next, your apparent assumption that all UPA films are owned by Sony is not true, either. Sony owns the Columbia releases, roughly 100 films, and in fact we are working with Sony to produce a UPA box set, which if all goes well, is that asking too much, will be released in 2009, the 60th anniversary of the first Mr. Magoo film. But many of the remaining films, about 1,000 in all, such as the highly acclaimed CBS show, are owned by the company that owns the UPA characters, and all the television films, Classic Media, in New York, now under Entertainment Rights, in London. Plus, there are many more films that are industrials or commercials, which are all over the place. We are looking for the best copy of each one, and dealing with getting the rights to include them in our documentary, as well as getting the owners to produce high quality DVDs, with hi def digital masters. It's a long process, but it has to be done before it's no longer possible.
Finally, I wish I had had the IDs to the group photo you cite, we went to many veterans to get the few we did, but regrettably didn't get nearly as many as Mary Cain did. This is our lack of research this time, although, Paul Smith was not the only person who owned a copy of that photo, all the old timers I talked to have the same photo, unless, of course, Paul Smith had the negative, which I doubt. So, I hope I speak for all of us on the UPA Project (documentary, podcast, and film search) that, I'm glad you took the time to talk about the book on your site, your comments are valid, just a few checked facts would have made it perfect.
MB replies: The best news in Tee's message, of course, is that a UPA box set from Sony is a possibility for 2009. I didn't mean to suggest that Sony owns all the UPA cartoons, but it does own the theatrical shorts on which UPA's reputation is based. I watched a great many of UPA's TV shows, commercials, and industrials when I was writing the UPA chapter of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, and as attractive as some of them are, theatrical cartoons like Gerald McBoing Boing and Rooty Toot Toot are simply better. It would be marvelous to have all those UPA theatricals, and all the other UPA cartoons, for that matter, available on DVD—in good transfers, of course, which is why I'm glad to hear, too, that preservation and restoration are a priority. That surely should be emphasized on the UPA web site, as should the intention to make a UPA documentary that is more than an "uncritical celebration" of the studio.
December 20, 2007:
David Germain asks: "Where did Rod Scribner learn how to draw and animate like he did? Did he attend an art school or was he mostly self taught?" The short answer is that the great animator did have some formal training, but it may not have amounted to much. A 1939 biography in the Leon Schlesinger studio's in-house newsletter, The Exposure Sheet, says that drawing was Scribner's chief interest in high school, and that drawing was one of his subjects (along with English and political science) when he attended Denison University in Ohio for three years. Later, after an interlude spent as the manager of a "hunting marsh" (Scribner, who grew up in the small town of Joseph, Oregon, was very much an outdoorsman), he studied art in Toledo, Ohio, and at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, before joining the Schlesinger staff.
The photo above, which I first reproduced in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, shows Scribner at his desk in January 1945, at what was by then Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc. (Schlesinger had sold his studio to Warner Bros. six months earlier). Manny Gould, who was with Scribner one of the two animators most in tune with the thinking of their director, Bob Clampett, is standing beside him. Scattered around Scribner's desk are drawings and model sheets for some of the great Clampett cartoons, like Kitty Kornered and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery. My copy of this photo was made from the original negative, which had unfortunately been damaged by the time I had a print made.There's still a lot of interesting detail discernible in the photo, however, and you can examine it by going to a full-size scan, either by clicking here or by clicking on the small version above.
December 17, 2007:
[A December 20 update: Michael Sporn has posted on his "Splog" a correction to one of Børge Ring's statements below about Michael's film Doctor De Soto: "I was pleasantly surprised to see myself mentioned in the piece. Many people have said nice things about me, but this is the first truly poetic quote I’ve read. Børge is a poet of an animator. He made a small error though in commenting on my film, Dr. De Soto. Børge said I made the film for $4,000. In fact, it was $3,500 per minute. I don’t think I could have gotten it photographed for $4,000. I’m sure I miscommunicated, as usual, way back in 1984 when we spoke of that film. I hope he doesn’t like the film less."]
I was delighted to hear from Børge Ring, the Danish animator who directed Anna & Bella, the lovely Dutch film that won the Oscar for best animated short of 1985. I particularly like what Børge says at the end of his message about another filmmaker, one who hasn't yet won an Academy Award but certainly deserves to.
Your writing is one of the good things in life and your lively blog has become a fireplace to all of us who miss the Golden Years of Animation. During my first encounter with Funnyworld in the 1970s I sometimes held my breath when you re-analyzed some holy house. "They will pounce on him," I thought. They did, but you were a masterful swordsman defending your views. D'Artagnan smote all of the cardinal's men. Your very honest articles on film fired my interest and were lively good writing to boot. Some turns of phrase have stayed with me. "Men who could once make a pencil line dance now had no higher ambition than to retire" or "John and Faith Hubley: A serious couple with more answers than questions." At times your views surprised and annoyed me,such as your sober assessment of Ub Iwerks as an expert auto mechanic with a pencil or Babbitt's (to me) holy animation showing "sweaty" effort.
My own personal hero was and is Norm Ferguson. His animation reminds me of Count Basie the jazz musician. Basie does not play as much piano as Oscar Peterson does, but his notes steal my heart.
Your masterful biography of Walt Disney has clarified many things to me. The fact that you were once a business journalist has been an asset in writing the book. All along you keep the reader conscious that economics played the same weighty part in shaping Walt Disney the man's odyssey as they do in the general history of countries and peoples and in the life of your reader. I was relieved to learn that the early Alice films gave Disney's small studio financial warmth for a while.
I love the encouragement your blog keeps giving to people like Michael Sporn. His film about William Steig's Doctor De Soto was made on a budget of $4,000. In the Swiss Alps I once saw snowdrops growing up through a newly hardened asphalt road. Michael Sporn is like them.
If you haven't seen Anna & Bella, you should, and you can, because it's on YouTube. To watch it, click on this link, which will also lead you to two other Ring-directed shorts, Oh My Darling and Run of the Mill. Like Anna & Bella, they explore the passage of time and the pleasures and perils of family life—subjects all too rare in mainstream American animation—with a freedom and inventiveness that testify to Børge's passion for his medium. His films are warm and human, and they're often very funny, too. You'll enjoy them.
To read more about Børge Ring himself, you can go to this page at Mark Mayerson's site (from which I borrowed the photo of Børge).
Hans Perk was Børge's assistant director on Anna & Bella. Hans's A. Film L.A. site has for some time been a magnet for lovers of Golden Age animation, most recently because he has been posting the drafts—the records of who animated what—for Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Such important documents don't seem to attract a lot of fan attention (as compared with things like the forthcoming live-action version of, God help us, Speed Racer), but that makes me all the more grateful for Hans's dedicated efforts.
December 16, 2007:
Speaking of anime: Bill Benzon has called my attention to an arresting example available now on YouTube. Although I've criticized Japanese animation for its stiffness, I don't think any such criticism is appropriate here. You can judge for yourself by clicking on this link.
December 15, 2007:
Sites, New and Revived
° David Lesjak, proprietor of Disney - Toons at War, the valuable site devoted to the Disney studio during World War II, has launched a second site, Vintage Disney Collectibles. Both are well worth a visit by anyone with a more than superficial interest in Disney matters.
° Another specialized Disney site worth visiting is Kurtis Findlay's Covering the Mouse, which is devoted to non-Disney performances of songs from Disney films. I've sent Kurtis some curios from my own collection, like an early cover of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," and you may want to do the same.
° Harvey Deneroff's site, quiet for several years, has sprung back to life as a vehicle for analysis and commentary, primarily on animation and other kinds of film. "It still is a bit of a work in progress," Harvey says, "but the essentials are there and I hope you have time to check it out."
° If you want to read some intelligent discussion of Beowulf and its shortcomings—besides my own review, that is—let me recommend these pages at the Cinephobia and David Bordwell-Kristin Thompson sites.
° I wrote a few weeks ago about Dick Huemer, one of my favorite people from the Golden Age of Animation. Bob Latona has written to remind me about a posting at Stripper's Guide, an excellent site devoted to comic strips, about Buck O'Rue, the short-lived comic strip that Huemer and Paul Murry, another Disney cartoonist (best known now for his comic-book work), launched in 1951.
I get few items for review (maybe somebody's hacking my Site Meter statistics), so it would be a double shame not to acknowledge my review copy of the book called Troubletown Told You So, by Lloyd Dangle. This is the most recent collection of Dangle's Troubletown comic strip, which runs in alternative weekly newspapers in places like Austin, Portland, and San Francisco. It's one of a number of left-leaning strips (another one I like is Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World, which runs in my local alternative paper) that are thriving in today's miasmic political climate. Dangle's drawings are crude and direct, his comedy unsubtle and often very funny. To enjoy this book fully you probably should share my low opinion of the Current Occupant and his administration, but if you do, you'll get more than a few chuckles out of Dangle's jabs.
The Amazon Link
Like so many other sites, this one includes links to amazon.com and to specific products offered there, including my own books. If you have a site or a blog with amazon.com links of your own, you already know that they don't generate a lot of cash, but that may be a point worth making to other visitors. In my case—and I don't think I'm at all unusual—the amazon links usually generate enough income over the course of the year to cover the annual fee to my ISP and part of my other expenses (like a $199 software upgrade last January). I'm still way short of covering the more than $2,200 in costs I incurred when I set up the site.
That's why it does make a difference when you click through to amazon.com from my site, or from others you like. Very few people set up a site like mine expecting to get rich (if they do, they've almost certainly been disappointed), but simply not losing money makes it a little easier to continue to put stuff up.
And when you do click through, don't forget to consider The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney as one of those last-minute Christmas gifts. Remember our motto: The Animated Man—it's half as long as the competition, and twice as good.
Well, I see a lot of other people have chimed in about the photo. The larger version of it does certainly identify the activity as ink and paint, for the reasons already pointed out by your other respondents on the blog. I was also going to say that the absence of pencil sharpeners and the absence of character model sheets or other drawings pinned up around the artist's desks made it seem unlikely that the people in the photograph were assistant animators or inbetweeners.
Good point made by David Lesjak about the large Smoking Prohibited signs on the wall. That would have been a definite no-no around the highly flammable celluloid they used in those days. However, I've almost never seen a photo of an animation or inbetween bullpen from the 30's through early 70's where at least one person was not smoking a cigarette or a pipe in the photo. Paper is flammable too, of course, but it doesn't blow up in your face like nitrate cells! Smoking in cartoon studios used to be commonplace but NOT in the ink and paint departments.
December 14, 2007:
Posting that full-size scan of a photo from the Fleischer studio did the trick, stimulating responses that have definitively identified the "mystery" department shown in the photo as ink and paint. Only the year remains in doubt, but the photo was surely taken in the early to mid-1930s. Here's what I heard from some visitors to the site, who also shed some light on the workings of ink and paint and of the Fleischer studio as a whole:
From Mark Mayerson:
I'm more convinced than ever that the people in the foreground are cel painters. Note how the art on the shelves is not stacked but is spread out. That was done because cels that were wet with ink or paint could not be stacked until they were dry. Everyone in the foreground seems to have the artwork spread out on the shelves.
It also appears that everyone has something that looks like cotton batting next to their light boxes. In later years, painters would wear cotton gloves while working so that the oil from their hands would not adhere to the cels. I can only guess that this cotton would be used to either polish the cels to remove fingerprints or to blot up paint that that ran outside the ink lines.
Those jars of paint seem to be on many of the desks in the foreground and the woman with the Betty Boop doll appears to be holding a brush, as does the man with the glasses in the right foreground. He also has a cloth on his lap, which wouldn't be necessary if he was working with a pencil and not with ink or paint. The woman behind and to the right of the man with glasses appears to be wearing a smock, another indication of working with some wet medium.
From Milt Gray:
Now that I can see more detail in your Fleischer photo, I have to say that it is definitely of the ink and paint department. The giveaways are the jars of paint on each desktop (and the cotton wads for wiping up spills wilthout scratching the cels), and also the multiple shallow shelves on the desks. Inbetweeners don't need multiple shallow shelves, but inkers and painters do because they need to let several cels dry while they are working on more. Painters especially need lots of shelf space because typically they paint only one color on a cel at a time, then let that color dry before applying a second color next to the first color. If the paints of both colors were still wet, then there would be a tendency for the paints to run into each other and create some unwanted middle color.
From Michael Sporn:
I looked at your enlarged photo today, and they are definitely working on cels in the picture. Everyone. I don't see any inbetweening going on. The desks are interesting. There are the uniform shelving desks—the outer skin. On top of these they have simple pine wedges to do the inking/painting.
I was told that animators' desks (I had assumed it applied to others as well) had a rigged clamping system. The animator would operate a lever with his foot. By stepping down he would release the paper from the pegs; by lifting his foot he would clamp the paper onto the pegs. This would prevent holes from getting too worn and would keep the animators' hands free of trying to lift paper off the pegs (which were the equivalent of Signal Corps pegs). I, of course, was looking for this contraption on the desks. Not there. However the lamps are built into the side of the desks. I think they might actually have moved the furniture to Florida since these desks were specially made for them.
The interior of the building looks like the Brill Building at 1600 Broadway. I'd always enjoyed the fact that my last studio had stanchions throughout the space as does the old Fleischer studio. I've spent a lot of time in that building editing and mixing my films.
From David Lesjak:
Nothing shattering, but here are my observations...that picture looks like an ink and paint department...almost all of the desks have what look like paint jars on the top shelf and most of the people have what appears to be paintbrushes in their hands, plus they almost all seem to have cloth rags or tissue crumpled on their desks. There are also two big smoking prohibited signs on the walls.
It appears that perhaps each person's name is listed on the side of the desk as well in the white rectangle.
Besides the Boop doll you mentioned, on top of the desk behind the fellow with the glasses in the foreground appears to be a figurine of Betty Boop's dog Pudgy. That same fellow with the glasses also has a towel or apron on his lap, perhaps to catch ink or paint drips.
As David's comment suggests, one of the most enjoyable things about old photos of this kind is the details they reveal as you spend time with them. After a while, you can feel yourself entering into the everyday life of the studio and sensing what it was like to work there. There's a photo on page 462 of my Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age that I immediately think of in that connection; it shows Rod Scribner at his animation desk in 1945, with Manny Gould looking over his shoulder and lots of artwork for great Clampett cartoons pinned up around them. I couldn't reproduce that photo large enough or well enough in that book, but I'll pull it out of the file and reproduce it large here sometime soon.
December 13, 2007:
My posting a couple of days about a photo of a "mystery studio" didn't generate a lot of response, but one of my correspondents, David Nethery, has identified the studio as the Fleischers', in Manhattan. Look at the desks in the photo, and then at this frame enlargement from the Paramount Popular Science short on the making of a Popeye cartoon at the Fleischers' Miami studio, showing the inbetweeners' desks:
The desks—dark wood with white outlines—appear to be the same, which stands to reason: it would almost certainly have been cheaper for the Fleischers to move the desks from New York to Miami, rather than have new ones made in Florida, assuming that was even possible.
(The frame enlargement is from a copy of the film on YouTube, but a much better version is part of Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean DVD called Popeye Original Classics, still a worthy acquisition even now that Warner Home Video is bringing out all the Popeye cartoons on DVD.)
Mark Mayerson raises another question: What exactly are the people in the photo doing? The original caption, attached to the back of the photo, says that they're inbetweeners, but are they? Are just some of them inbetweeners? Mark writes: " I wish that you had offered a larger scan of the image. I may be wrong, but it appears to me that the jars of paint are on the top shelves of several of the foreground desks. Is it possible that the ink, paint and inbetween departments shared space?"
A good question, one that I haven't been able to resolve by examining the photo with a magnifying glass. There are lots of women in the photo, but, after all, Edith Vernick was the head of the Fleischers' inbetween department for many years, and the Fleischers even had a woman animator, Lillian Friedman; they were far advanced over Disney in that regard. Men typically started at Fleischer's as cel painters, and then became inkers—both jobs were female preserves on the West Coast—before becoming inbetweeners. It couldn't have seemed terribly strange for there to be female inbetweeners at Fleischer's, but I haven't found any evidence that there were any.
The people in the photo appear to be doing different things, and I wondered briefly if the presence of paints and ink pens might even date this photo to the 1920s, when the Fleischers were still inking and photographing the animators' drawings on paper, rather than cels. But no, it's from the 1930s: It took me a long time, but I finally noticed the Betty Boop doll on one woman's desk
I've posted a full-size version of the photo at this link, and you can also get to it by clicking on the smaller version of the photo below. Take a closer look, and let me know what you think these people are doing.
December 12, 2007:
We're in the inbetween department of a cartoon studio, almost certainly in New York, almost certainly in the 1930s—but which one? Fleischer? Van Beuren? Anyone recognize it? Probably there are obvious clues I've overlooked, or maybe there have been similar photos published that I haven't found yet. In any case, I'd welcome your input, including your educated guesses.
December 11, 2007:
I finally dragged myself to a theater to see the most widely reviled (among animation fans, at least) feature of the year; you can read my thoughts on Beowulf by clicking here.
On December 1, I posted an item about the Japanese animation filmmaker Satoshi Kon. That item stimulated a vigorous correspondence among a couple of visitors to the site and myself, and you'll find the results (including some material from the December 1 post) on a new Feedback page devoted to Kon and his films. Please feel free to add your two yen's worth.
The photo above was taken during the shooting of Treasure Island, Walt Disney's first all-live-action feature, in England in 1949. The director, Byron Haskin, and his assistant, Mark Evans, are seated at the right, in front of the wheel. On the crane at left are Freddie Young, the cinematographer (or "lighting cameraman," as RKO's caption has it), and camera operator Skeets Kelly. Haskin was the subject of a book-length interview by Joe Adamson (Byron Haskin, published by Scarecrow Press in 1984), in which he spoke of Walt Disney's disengagement during the shooting of Treasure Island. As I wrote in The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney:
In that interview, Haskin described a Disney almost wholly detached from the film, the writing and editing included. Such a Disney is radically at odds with the Disney seen by other people in work on other films, a Disney intensely concerned with details. It is thus easier to credit Gus Walker, the Scot who was in charge of building the sets for Treasure Island. He remembered that Disney had trouble believing that the tiles on a roof in the Bristol harbor set were painted, and not the real thing: "I had to get a ladder for Walt to go up ... and have a look. ... He hadn't had a lot of experience of construction for films. It was something new for him."
Joe Adamson—the author of books on Tex Avery, Walter Lantz, the Marx Brothers, and Bugs Bunny as well as the Haskin volume—read The Animated Man recently and wrote to me about Haskin:
You've certainly added dimensions to my understanding of Disney. [But] I do "take exception" (to use Friz Freleng's phrase) to your dismissal of Byron Haskin's description of Disney's involvement on Treasure Island , athough I think you're right in taking his comments with a grain of salt. His basic perception of every production he worked on was that the producers he was working for had no real grasp of what they were doing, and in Disney's case he was disappointed at the absence of "magic"—something the rest of your book does a pretty good job of accounting for ([through] the presence or absence of personal involvement on any one project). [Haskin's] upbeat intro to the Scarecrow volume was written after he read the initial transcript and perceived it as a series of downers—but I don't think Disney's inspection of the tile on a single set contradicts his basic point, that Walt was in over his head when it came to character and narrative development of the Stevenson original, and he was in effect [depending on] Haskin (and the screenwriter [Lawrence Watkin]) to make the film work.
One problem with what Joe says is this: By the time of the shooting of Treasure Island Walt had a fair amount of experience making narrative live-action films (Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart), and in making those films he hadn't shown any reluctance to assert himself. He fired H. C. Potter as the director of Song of the South shortly after it went into production and replaced him with an assistant director, Harve Foster. I think it likely that in important respects Walt actually directed that film (he was in Arizona during the shooting of the exteriors). He was certainly deep into the details of his later English-based features, as witness his memorandum about The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men that I quote in my book.
As I discovered when I was doing research for both Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age and The Animated Man, getting a grip on how Walt spent his time can be very difficult, especially when he was filming away from the studio, as on his trips to England in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If detailed records of his activities in England exist, I haven't seen them, and I don't know of anyone else who has. He certainly didn't hang around the set a lot, but instead showed up only occasionally and never interfered with the director's work. So what did he do? He traveled in Europe a good bit, certainly, with locations for future films in mind at least some of the time. Undoubtedly he spent time at the Disney offices in London and elsewhere, and he dined and visited with friends and business acquaintances. He probably looked at dailies from the films that were shooting when he was nearby. The one thing I'm sure he didn't do was turn loose the reins on any of his significant projects. But it would be good to know a lot more.
Eddie Fitzgerald and Paul Dushkind have written to me about the great Bob Clampett cartoon; you can find their comments on the Feedback page devoted to Clampett and Coal Black. You can click here to go straight to their comments on that page. Paul raises some interesting questions about the film's production history that I've tried to answer, but Eddie is concerned with the larger questions about its use of racial stereotypes. I particularly like this remark: "Really, there is no way to be funny without risking insult." Absolutely true. If we have to choose between laughter and avoiding hurt feelings, I vote for the laughter.
Incidentally, I've begun to tinker with my Feedback pages to make them look a little more like the comments on standard-issue blogs—putting the newest comments at the end (but with a quick link to them), and so on. I've also added a link on this page to make it a little easier to comment. I'm always glad to hear from visitors to the site, but I'm not jealous of sites like Cartoon Brew, whose postings can stimulate dozens or even hundreds of comments. See, for example (and with Coal Black in mind), this item about a silly list of the "9 Most Racist Disney Characters"; as of this writing, 72 comments had been posted in response.
The comments are the usual mixed bag, but it's their sheer quantity that discourages me from giving very many of them a careful reading, even though a few of them clearly deserve it. This is the curse of the Web: to get to the good stuff, you have to plow through too many posts from dolts who think the correct spelling is "characature" (and who frequently have the gall to call other people "morons" or "idiots").
So: what I'm trying to do here is establish what are in effect two filters for comments, one by having the comments submitted to me as emails rather than standard blog comments, and the other by forcing myself to "moderate" comments (that is, I have to read the emails and decide what to do with the comments, instead of just letting them pile up). I think most of the visitors' comments I've posted on my Feedback pages and this home page have far more substance than most of the comments posted at other blogs, and I think this is the best way to extend that record.
December 5, 2007:
What better time than Walt Disney's 106th birthday anniversary to run another mystery photo of the man himself, this time with his wife, Lillian? The photo, one of my recent acquisitions, shows a credit for Len Weissman, a Hollywood photographer and publicist who died at the age of 83 in 1997. According to his obituary in Daily Variety, "In the 1930s and '40s, Weissman and his brother Art (who died in 1995) were freelance fanzine photographers who covered such star nightclub hangouts as Ciro's, the Mocambo, the Moulin Rouge and the Coconut Grove in pursuit of candid celebrity shots."
Presumably this photo was taken at one of those places. It's dated October 1939, and my notes from Walt's daily journal for that month, which I made at the Disney Archives in the 1990s, aren't of any help. Neither is there much evidence in newspaper stories from that year of Walt's social life (in contrast to some earlier years in the 1930s). Surely there are clues in the photo to the place and even the occasion—I'm assuming Walt didn't always wear a tux when he dined out, like a character in a Fred Astaire movie—but they're eluding me.
December 4, 2007:
There was a flutter of interest this year in the 1977 Richard Williams feature Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. The film's thirtieth anniversary served as the pretext.
I reviewed Raggedy Ann thirty years ago, in Funnyworld No. 17, dated Fall 1977. That review was a combo, its first half devoted to another thirty-year-old item, Ralph Bakshi's Wizards. The Bakshi film's anniversary seems not have provoked any nostalgic celebrations, but at least it has been released on DVD. Raggedy Ann is still awaiting that honor.
I've scanned the three pages of my review and posted them in the Funnyworld Revisited section of the site. This is a departure from my past practice, which has been to offer Funnyworld articles and interviews in freshly set type. If this scanned version seems readable enough, I should be able to speed up my offerings from the magazine.
Click here to go to the first page of my review, from which you can navigate to the second and third pages.
December 3, 2007:
From Michael L. Jones, this photo taken just after Thanksgiving, of Disney books on display at the Art of Disney store at the east end of Downtown Disney in Walt Disney World. (That's a heap of "Disneys," isn't it? That's how you get people to remember a name.)
Michael reports that my Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney was on display in the midst of other books about Walt—including some good ones, I see from the photo, by people like John Canemaker, Dave Smith, David Gerstein, and Bob Thomas. Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, a book I've criticized severely, was nowhere in sight, even though it was reissued in paperback in October. As Michael says, there's no telling what that means—"Maybe Diane's letter [criticizing Gabler's book] got some attention, or maybe it's just a fluke of publishing." Maybe Gabler's book was just temporarily out of stock. But, in any case, I'm delighted that Walt Disney World has given its guests the opportunity to read my book about the great man whose name adorns the place.
Also on the biography front, I now have a copy of David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts, and I hope to read and review it before the end of the year. In the meantime, let me recommend Bob Andelman's interview with Michaelis, in which the author seems no less wrongheaded than he has in some other interviews and reviews, but is at least a little more of a sympathetic character.
Michaelis's book has been named one of the New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2007. (Gabler's Walt Disney didn't make the Times's list, despite all its glowing reviews; it was eligible, even though it was published in 2006.) Here's how the Times summarized Schulz and Peanuts: "Actual 'Peanuts' cartoons movingly illustrate this portrait of the strip’s creator, presented here as a profoundly lonely and unhappy man"—which I'm sure he wasn't, but we're no doubt stuck with that characterization for the foreseeable future, thanks to Michaelis and his uncritical reviewers.
Once again I have to largely agree with what you've written in regards to UPA. This documentary (really propaganda piece) can't be taken seriously since no opposing viewpoints are in it (much like most of the documentaries featured on the Warner DVDs). Why weren't modern animation veterans like Milt Gray, Bob Jaques, or Will Finn interviewed if it's unbiased? (All of whom I've heard speak very negatively about UPA.)
I agree with your statement of liking the idea behind UPA than UPA itself slightly. It's true that the funny animal cartoon had hit its peak around 1947 (as well as the art of animation in general), and not much more could be done with it. So you can't blame the UPA for trying something new.
But all but scant few films show disdain for what makes animation a unique medium, much like most of anime or any modern work really. Where is the squash-and-stretch or the secondary actions? These are main principles of animation that UPA disregarded and made "cool" not to use.
I don't see the point in this documentary really. The UPA films have gotten more than enough praise and coverage considering they only did about six cartoons worth watching. More coverage on the Warner and Disney studios please. Hell, even a Famous Studious documentary would be more useful at this point (and I'd contribute hilarious commentary for that one).
December 2, 2007:
The year "1949" is emblazoned in red letters in a weird geometric shaped box placed in the rather blank space between Bill Hurtz and Spencer Peel. Furthermore, the picture was hacked down into the exact same geometric shape as the 1949 box, meaning that all the people are there, but in some cases just barely.
Off to the left of the picture in red lettering it reads "United Productions of America bids you Merry Christmas." And festooning all the borders/blank areas are simple line drawings (in red) of the characters from the earliest UPA cartoons (including the primitive/early Mr. Magoo).
Comically, my copy was originally sent to Bob Clampett! I can only suspect it was sent to him by one of the former Warner animators in the photo (maybe Paul Smith, who worked for him on It's A Grand Old Nag).
So: how about a scan of the card?
And thanks to Tom Minton for catching my misspelling of Spencer Peel's name, which I've now fixed on the page with the staff photo.
December 1, 2007:
I wrote favorably a few months ago about Paprika, the Japanese animated feature directed by Satoshi Kon, and I expressed some concern about whether it would be released here on DVD. Not to worry—the Paprika DVD has just appeared, in Blu-Ray as well as the standard format. If you haven't seen Paprika in a theater, I certainly recommend that you take a look at the DVD.
I've since seen my second Kon film, Millennium Actress—also available on DVD—which I enjoyed but found too easily imagined as a live-action film. I've been corresponding with Aaron Cumberledge—who admires Millennium Actress but thinks Paprika is "eye candy"—and he has explained that I wasn't imagining things:
I completely understand what you are saying with regards to anime films often seeming like live action. In fact, Satoshi Kon's first feature (the ambitious but fatally flawed Perfect Blue) was originally slated to be made in live-action. Why the switch to animation? Budget. I've never managed to locate budget numbers for any of Kon's films, but he has repeatedly stated that the budgets for his first two films (Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress) were incredibly low. Granted, any filmmaker is likely to complain about budgets, but it's fairly clear from some of the more limited animation in the films that Kon is not dealing with large budgets.
Furthermore, even mainstream, high-budget anime films are usually made for less than $20 million US (I believe the record is around $21 million US), and Millennium Actress was certainly not expected to be a blockbuster. If one were to compare Millennium Actress with Tim Burton's Big Fish (a contemporary live-action piece with a similar premise), the budgetary deficiencies in the former become clear. I would estimate, based on other productions from the same animation studio, that Millennium Actress probably cost between $3 million and $4 million US, while Big Fish cost $70 million. Granted, I'm comparing the budgets of a Japanese film and a Hollywood film, which is hardly fair, but the financial difference is staggering. (If you'd like a Japanese-only comparison, perhaps the CGI-heavy Casshern at $6 million—still double the cost of Millennium Actress—will suffice.)
The choice for a filmmaker like Kon is not whether the film should be made in live action or animation. The choice is simply whether to make the film or not. If it does get made, he'll have to use animation, because his limited audience and relatively limited budget won't allow the film to be produced any other way. I assume you'll agree with me that if the drawn version is the only possible version of the film that can be made, it's better than nothing. One of the reasons that I find your commentary fascinating is that, unlike myself, you seem to consider yourself an animation fan, first and a film fan, second; I often find myself looking through questionable animation to examine the film underneath. In the case of Millennium Actress, I found the film to be superb (I will admit that some of my enjoyment may be due to my love of Japanese films and their history), even if the animation was not.
I remember the days when it was taken for granted that animated features were inherently more expensive than live action (the Disney features setting the standard, of course). The idea that animation could be a low-cost alternative to live action still seems a little strange, but what Aaron says certainly makes sense in today's context.