March 28, 2007:
I first saw Mark Kausler's It's the Cat at the 2004 Annecy Festival, and in an essay on this site I called it "an expert recreation, set to a song from the early thirties [actually, Harry Reser's "The Cat" from 1927], of what is most enjoyable about the free-flowing Hollywood cartoons of those years." I noted that "Kausler's cartoon got only a tepid response from the apparently baffled audience," made up mostly of young Europeans. Considering the dreary stuff that the audience did seem to like, I took their lack of enthusiasm for Kausler's joyous cartoon as a backhanded endorsement.
In any case, you can now evaluate It's the Cat for yourself, and at very low cost ($2), by downloading it from Cartoon Brew Films, the new Web site from Amid Amidi and Jerry Beck, the proprietors of the indispensable Cartoon Brew news blog. This is an enormously promising site whose initial offerings have included Flat Hatting, the famous but rarely seen John Hubley film for the U.S. Navy, and The Lady Said No, the only surviving example of the three puppet films that Frank Tashlin made just after leaving Warner Bros. Each film's Web page includes detailed notes on its history and comments from viewers.
I've downloaded three films so far—Kausler's, Tashlin's, and the 2003 cartoon Boys Night Out— with minimal time and difficulty. I'm afraid I can't share the general viewer enthusiasm for Boys Night Out (it struck me as a "high concept" short whose premise has to do too much of the work), but I'm very glad I got to see it, and seeing it was certainly worth $2. I'm sure I'll be downloading and watching many more offerings from Cartoon Brew Films.
I've updated my Books page to include The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, and I've started a page for that book devoted to "corrections, clarifications, and second thoughts." Not a lot of those so far, but I'm sure they'll come.
On the Books page, I've also added a section listing my audio commentaries for DVDs, with (sigh) a page noting my slips of the tongue in those commentaries. I recorded ten more commentaries, for two new sets, when I was in L.A. in January, and I'll list those as soon as the sets are officially announced.
This from Don Draganski:
I ran across a charming little passage in The Constant Circle: H. L. Mencken and His Friends by Sara Mayfield (Delacorte Press, 1968, p. 190). It has very little to do with Disney, but it shows a tender side of Mencken that one rarely sees evidence of:
"One of the few times that I ever saw tears in Sara's eyes [i.e., Sara Haardt, Mencken's wife] was when she told me that a friend of hers, who brought her little girl to see Mencken, had somehow given the child the impression that she was going to see Mickey Mouse. When the Sage appeared instead of Mickey Mouse, the little girl burst into tears. Greatly distressed to find his small guest crying, Henry discovered the cause of her sorrow, hurried into his coat, and set off to find her a toy mouse. When he returned with a mechanical Mickey Mouse, he got down on his hands and knees to demonstrate the acrobatic tricks it could be made to do. Before she left, the little girl pleased him immensely by confiding to her mother that she would rather play with Mencken than with Mickey Mouse."
March 22, 2007:
As I noted earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books scheduled me and Neal Gabler, the two most recent biographers of Walt Disney, to appear together next month on a panel on "20th Century Lives." Yesterday I received an email from the Festival asking if I'd switch to another panel, called "Biography: Icons on the Page," and I agreed.
The official concern was that the "20th Century Lives" panel would be overloaded with Disney biographers, a point hard to dispute. I don't know what Gabler thought about the initial plan. Me, I'm a little sorry that we've lost the opportunity for a noisy brawl on the Bill O'Reilly-Al Franken model.
My new panel will include such literary heavyweights as Taylor Branch, Roger Friedland, and Ron Rosenbaum, so the switch entails no loss in prestige (for me, anyway; I don't know what the other guys think). The panel is on the same day, Saturday, April 28th, at 10:30 AM in Rolfe 1200 on the UCLA campus. I'll be in the audience for the "20th Century Lives" panel, of course; it's still scheduled for 3:30 PM in Haines 39.
Speaking of Gabler, B. Baker wrote after reading his recent essay in the Los Angeles Times, on what Gabler called the declining importance of movies, and Kristin Thompson's sharp response on David Bordwell's Web site. "Like Kristin Thompson," Baker writes, "I also didn't care for Gabler's piece, mostly because it was hard to miss the lazy 'all the great movies have already been made' attitude that used to pervade Peter Bogdanovich's writing on contemporary film. I realize that critics need not be rabid enthusiasts, but I don't see Gabler's love or affection for his subject; it's as though he was writing about, well, animation."
Several people who pre-ordered The Animated Man from amazon.com have complained to me that amazon still shows a shipping date of mid-April for their orders, even though it is already filling current orders—at the pre-order price. I don't know what's going on, although I suspect that amazon didn't order enough books initially and is pushing the pre-orders aside until it refreshes its stock. My recommended solution, which has already worked a couple of times: cancel your pre-order, then place a new order. That should get you a book a lot faster.
March 21, 2007:
Visitors to Mark Mayerson's site are familiar with the remarkable "mosaics" he has assembled from frame grabs of Disney cartoons, recently and most notably Pinocchio. The mosaics consist of one frame from each scene in the cartoon, with the animators identified from the drafts posted on the outstanding sites of Hans Perk and Michael Sporn.
Now I'm getting into the act—not through my own efforts, but through those of Jeff Watson, a good friend of this site since its inception. Jeff has prepared mosaics for Who Killed Cock Robin?, the Disney Silly Symphony whose draft I posted few days ago.
Following Mark Mayerson's example, here are thumbnails for each mosaic; click on each one to go the full-size version. You can also link to the mosaics through the Capsules page devoted to Cock Robin. I used a template when I posted the draft, but I've not done so here, so that each mosaic can be as large as possible (too large, maybe). I like templates—I always like knowing where I am in a site, and how to move around—but they eat up space, and I won't use them for future postings of drafts and mosaics and the like.
On to the thumbnails:
March 20, 2007:
This from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: "I am writing to inform you about the last confirmed author on the panel, 'Biography: 20th Century Lives.' Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, is now a panelist. The final panel includes Moderator A. Scott Berg, Michael Barrier, Walter Isaacson, Harold Zellman and Neal Gabler. The date and time of the panel remains the same: Saturday, April 28th at 3:30 PM in Haines 39 [on the UCLA campus]." Should be interesting.
The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney is now available, from amazon.com and, I assume, other retailers, even though the official publication date remains April 15. Such dates no longer mean much, it seems, except when a blockbuster like the last Harry Potter book is involved.
March 18, 2007:
Amazon.com still lists The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney as a forthcoming item, with a publication date of April 15, but it seems to be shipping copies now to everyone who has pre-ordered. So, if you've been hanging back, you need to make your move! If amazon adheres to form, it'll raise the very good pre-publication price ($19.77) once it declares the book officially available.
I've been fortunate to have Bill Benzon, a regular contributor to the literary blog called The Valve, take an active interest in this site in recent weeks. Now Bill has come up with what I think is his best effort yet, an essay on Dumbo that illuminates aspects of the film that those of us who live with animation daily quite likely have neglected; I certainly have.
The abruptness of the film's ending, for example. Once Bill pointed that out, I realized that Dumbo's triumph is necessarily short-lived: once he grows even a little, he surely won't be able to fly any more; and then what happens? I was reminded of Joe Adamson's interview with Dick Huemer, the Dumbo portion of which I published in Funnyworld No. 17. Joe remarked on the "preponderance of villains" in Dumbo, and its "very sardonic view of the world," and Dick said, "Well, you must admit that's how the world is." This seemingly so sunny a film doesn't encourage us to think that Dumbo has a happy future awaiting him once he's too big to fly.
I realized, too, while reading Bill's piece, that it's because the best Disney features are such well-constructed narratives (see Bill's paragraphs on how Dumbo gets up in that tree) that they invite the exploration of broader themes. Read Bill's essay, then watch Dumbo again; it's an even richer film than you thought.
I was pleasantly surprised to get a message from Kip Williams commenting on my postings of two and a half years ago on "ViewMaster Animation": "I have to agree on the resemblance between CG animation and some of the model photography they used in ViewMaster reels. Every time I'm in the next room while my daughter watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, the resemblance smacks me in the mush. ... One error: the word 'stereopticon' instead of 'stereoscope.' A stereopticon was a slide projector that had two lenses so they could show slides more quickly. Instead of waiting while the operator fumbled with the next slide, the next slide could be changed while the first one was showing. About a million people make this mistake every year."
Nicolas Roudier writes from France: "For two years now, I've worked hundreds of hours to make a database, accessible through a Website, that classifies in an exhaustive way the duck stories of Carl Barks and Keno Don Rosa, and that makes possible detailed searches using multiple criteria. The Web site is now up, at this URL (English version): http://duckstories.free.fr One or two sections are still in development."
This is how it works: If you enter, say, "dog" and "Donald" in the appropriate blanks in the "Stories and Gags of Carl Barks" search field, four stories pop up, in each of which Donald and one or more dogs are centrally involved. You get the date and number of each comic book, the date of the story in Barks's own records, the other characters involved, and so on. At this point the plot summaries are machine translations, but that's a minor drawback. This site is obviously a labor of love, an impressive tribute to Barks and Rosa. If you're a fan of either artist, you'll have fun with it.
March 17, 2007:
The official publication date for The Animated Man is almost a month away, but evidently amazon.com has begun shipping copies to at least some of its customers. I don't know if that's a mistake or if amazon simply decided not to worry about the publication date.
To practice what I've preached, I'm posting the draft for the Disney Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin? There are six pages, and rather than post miniatures of each page—which requires more patience and expertise with PhotoShop than I have—I'm posting links as follows:
I've chosen this draft because Cock Robin was one of the first two—and so far only two—"Capsules" that I posted, brief essays on individual cartoons. I fully intended to write more Capsules, but somehow I never got around to it. I hope that posting the draft for Cock Robin, and probably some related documents as well, will spur me to post more Capsules for cartoons whose history is reasonably well documented, in the way that Cock Robin's is. I've added links to the draft's pages on the Capsule page for Cock Robin.
The scans for most of the draft's pages are a little cockeyed, the fault of both my photocopies and my inexperience with my new all-in-one's scanner. I'll try to do better with future drafts.
It's probably preaching to the choir to remind anyone visiting this site that Hans Perk is just now wrapping up the posting of the complete draft for Pinocchio on his A. Film L.A. site. Mark Mayerson has used that draft as the basis for "mosaics" that illustrate each scene of the film with a frame grab, with accompanying credits for the animators. Even better, Mark is using the draft, and his mosaics, as the basis for exceptionally intelligent commentary on the film. There's more: Michael Sporn, who got this ball rolling by reproducing the draft for the film's early scenes, is now reproducing what appear to be elaborate presentation storyboards for Pinocchio. This is an astonishing wealth of material, and anyone who cares about classic Hollywood animation is in debt to Hans, Mark, and Michael.
You may find it instructive to compare the Cock Robin draft with the Pinocchio draft, which is, shall we say, just a tad more elaborate. I'm not sure the greater elaboration is entirely for the better.
In regard to those storyboards, I seem to recall that they were prepared for some elaborate, limited-edition book, but my memory may be faulty. They're certainly not production storyboards, in any event. Back in 1997, I went through the Disney Archives' holdings of Pinocchio story sketches, and here's what I said in my notes:
What's striking about these sketches is, first of all, their sheer quantity (10 large boxes full of mostly loose sketches) and the facility of the drawings (most in black and white, although there are a few unimpressive watercolors), including a whole box full of very handsome sketches attributed, quite plausibly, to Walt Kelly. For the most part, these appear to be true story sketches, too, as opposed to the layout drawings that make up a substantial part of the Snow White boxes. There are more drawings, and more clearly differentiated roles than before—all in keeping with the heavy spending that followed Snow White's success. So thorough (if that's the word) was work on this film that even discarded story sketches were bound together with metal rings, and carefully labeled as discards. Some of the discarded sketches (like some of those for sequence 10.5) show a Geppetto based on the Spencer Charters voice, with a Pinocchio who looks more like the wooden puppet of the earliest model sheets and a Figaro who is more the old tomcat of of the earliest conception of the story.
A few weeks ago, I gave a nod to Neal Gabler for what I thought was a very interesting piece for the Los Angeles Times, a welcome change from the dry waste that is his biography of Walt Disney. Gabler's thesis, briefly put, was that the movies' importance in American culture had diminished significantly, for reasons ranging from an obsession with celebrities, unhooked from their film appearances, to the popularity of video games.
Kristin Thompson, who shares David Bordwell's website on Cinema—a terrifically stimulating site for anyone who cares about movies—has now taken Gabler to task, at length, demolishing each of his arguments with the authority of the leading film scholar that she is. I titled my item "The Good Gabler," but, alas, it seems that this Gabler isn't any better than the one who wrote the Disney book.
March 12, 2007
As I've written before, I know of no basis for the implausible story (retailed most recently by Neal Gabler and Charles Ridgway) that Walt Disney wore a Barry Goldwater button to the 1964 White House ceremony at which he received the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson. (This was when Goldwater was the Republican candidate for Johnson's job in the November presidential election.) Just to cover all the bases, I asked a professional researcher to check the relevant records at the LBJ presidential library at Austin, Texas, to see if there was any trace of such an incident. She found none.
Walt's affinity for Goldwater was, moreover, no secret to Johnson; it came up in one of his recorded telephone conversations on September 6, 1964, eight days before the Medal of Freedom ceremony (the recording is available online). LBJ was talking with Edwin L. Weisl Sr., a New York lawyer, about raising campaign money from Weisl's "movie friends." "Balaban will go on, Warner will go on," Weisl told him. "All but Disney." LBJ: "Is Disney against us?" Weisl: "Yeah." LBJ: "Why is he against us?" Weisl: "He likes Goldwater."
When I wrote yesterday about Americans' tendency to buy oversized biographies as pieces of furniture, I hadn't seen a Yahoo! item about the book-buying habits of Britons:
"Although the average reader spends more than 4,000 pounds (5,890 euros, 7,760 dollars) on books in their lifetime, 55 percent admit they buy them for decoration and have no intention of reading them."
Fine by me. This is authors' dirty little secret: We love you when you read our books. But we love you even more when you buy them. And that's why the jacket and binding of The Animated Man are in the latest designer colors and patterns...
March 11, 2007:
I received my first copies of The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney last week, and I can report that it looks and feels more like a book than a doorstop. I think that's good, even though a lot of American book buyers seem to feel uneasy about a biography that can't double as a piece of household furniture.
A nationwide promotional tour is not part of the plan, but I'll participate in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books the last weekend in April, on the UCLA campus. The festival organizers tell me that I'm to be a member of a panel tentatively titled "Biography: 20th Century Lives." Along with one or two other smallish fry, I will fill out a lineup whose big names are A. Scott Berg, the Pulitzer-winning author of Lindbergh, and Walter Isaacson, whose biography of Albert Einstein, to be published next month, will have a first printing of 500,000 copies. Five hundred thousand copies! I don't know how many copies were in The Animated Man's first printing, but I'm sure it wasn't quite that many.
I'm more than happy to play a supporting role to Messrs. Berg and Isaacson, actually, since some of the people who come to hear them and buy their books will probably decide to pick up my Disney biography, too. The panel will take place on Saturday, April 28th at 3:30 p.m. in Haines 39. Admission to the panel will be free, as with all other festival events, but you'll need a ticket.
March 6, 2007:
If, like me, you find old Disney documents endlessly fascinating, you shouldn't miss the transcript of a 1941 meeting on Peter Pan that the blogger who calls herself "Tinker Bell" is scanning and posting on her Disney-themed blog, The Sacred Tree of the Aracuan Bird. What makes this transcript especially valuable is that there seems to be no copy of it in the Walt Disney Archives. I went through a ton of prewar Pan material at the Archives back in the '90s, and my very extensive notes reflect nothing like this transcript, which is dated January 28, 1941. Walt, Ham Luske, and a few other people were looking at a Leica reel.
March 5, 2007:
Thanks to Steve Hulett at The Animation Guild's blog for linking to the first review I've seen, by Roger Moore in the Orlando Sentinel, of my new book, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. (I heard from University of California Press last week that the book now exists as a physical object, but I still haven't received a copy.) Moore's review zeroes in on some of the differences between my book and Neal Gabler's Walt Disney—exactly the kind of comparison I hope many reviewers will make.
I was also glad to hear this today from UC Press: "Michael Barrier's The Animated Man will be featured in May as Turner Classic Movies' book of the month. As TCM's 'Book Corner' selection, The Animated Man will be promoted as a sweepstakes on TCM's website, in TCM's newsletter, program guide, and in an on-air promo entitled 'Movie News.'"
March 2, 2007:
Jim Korkis has gently reminded me, in regard to my March 1 item on Walt Disney's 1965 visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, that he got there first, in a 2003 article on Jim Hill's site. You can read the Korkis piece, "The Other Walt Disney Space Story," by clicking here.
You may also want to visit the page on the Marshall Space Flight Center's site devoted to a carefully documented article by Mike Wright on the Von Braun-Disney collaboration. The article covers the 1965 visit as well as the three 1950s TV shows. I read it some time ago, but it simply slipped my mind when I posted yesterday's item. Here is what Wright said about the 1965 visit:
In 1965, 10 years after "Man in Space" first aired, von Braun invited Disney and others involved in the 1950s films to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center. Von Braun and his employees clearly hoped that the reunion might rekindle Disney's enthusiasm for space exploration. One Marshall official wrote, "Out of this we would at least establish good will, and maybe (if we play our cards right) we could get something going that would be of tremendous benefit to MSFC, Apollo, NASA, and the entire space effort." Von Braun himself wrote that the Disney tour "may easily result in a Disney picture about manned space flight." On April 13, 1965, Walt Disney, his brother Roy, and other Disney executives visited the Marshall Center. In an interview with The Huntsville Times, Disney said, "If I can help through my TV shows... to wake people up to the fact that we've got to keep exploring, I'll do it." In reality, the tour at Marshall and other NASA sites did not inspire Disney to use the 1950s television series as a model for a new film about space exploration.
That's not quite the same as Card Walker's version, but pretty close.
Also from Jim Korkis, an excerpt from an interview he did with Bill Scott, the creative force behind the Jay Ward cartoons, in August 1982. This excerpt is possibly relevant to the current religious warfare at various blogs over whether cartoon stories can be written or can only be drawn.
The entire interview, focusing on Scott's time at Warner Bros. in the 1940s, will appear in Didier Ghez's interview collection Bugs' Buddies later this year. Jim writes: "Here I was asking Scott about his time as a story man at Warners. He was there only one year but had very clear memories. Phil Monroe, who got to know him during World War II, recommended he be brought on as a story man. During the war, Scott worked with Monroe, Frank Thomas, and others in an animation unit. He started off washing cels and worked his way up through default to be an animator."
JK: Do you think the background you had in animation during the war helped you as a storyman? BS: Of course. A good animation writer needs to have an awareness of the medium, what is capable of being done. It's also useful to know how to draw. It's not vital. There are some writers who can't draw worth a darn but it is easier to sketch out little stick figures than type a page and half of instructions and directions. My background in animation also helped me develop a sense of animation timing, how long a scene should be to work for an audience. I couldn't draw worth a damn when I was an animator. People like Bill Hurtz and Phil Monroe would cover up my mistakes for me and they would do the work when I couldn't do it. The one thing that saved me was that when anything happened that was the least bit humorous or notable, I could sketch up a whole series of gags about it. Little panel gags and everyone would laugh. I couldn't draw worth a pinch but I was good enough to draw these funny ideas about situations and would drop them on people's desks and they'd just laugh and laugh and pass them around. I think that was why I got recommended to be a story man at Warners.
Scott's essential point, as Jim says, seems to be "that a good animation writer doesn't need to be an animator but needs to understand animation." That's surely right. I'd add that there's no necessary connection between being a good cartoonist and being a good animation story man. The example everyone cites: Virgil Partch, who was as individual and funny a cartoonist as you could hope to find, but who was also by general agreement a dud in the Disney story department.
March 1, 2007:
Since official Disney photos were foreclosed to me, I had to look for illustrations for The Animated Man in a great many other places. Happily, I turned up far more than I could use. The photo above was one of them. It shows Walt visiting the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama on April 13, 1965. The man just to his right is Wernher Von Braun, director of the center—and, of course, a familiar face on the Disneyland "Tomorrowland" TV shows in the 1950s.
In March 1961, when Walt talked with reporters about his new color show on NBC TV, he said that he wasn't going to make any more shows of the "Tomorrowland" kind because they were just too expensive. Donn Tatum, Disney CEO's in the 1970s, confirmed that in one of the interviews Richard Hubler conducted in 1968 for his suppressed Disney biography: "Our experience was that they don't have as broad an appeal audience-wise and they are expensive to do and generally speaking the networks and the advertisers, while they didn't have any direct control over what we did, they would prefer things that got a bigger rating."
So what, I wondered, were Von Braun and Walt doing together in Alabama in 1965?
I found what seems to be the answer in another Hubler interview, this one with Card Walker, who succeeded Tatum as Disney's CEO: "[Walt] made a trip down to Houston, down to Cape Canaveral and all that through Wernher Von Braun to see the space program, the astronaut training and all that, and then went down to the space program at Kennedy and what they were doing. He was mulling this thing, we hadn't got it started, but he was ready to make a film to show the peace benefits that would come with the development of atomic energy. The government was interested, Wernher was interested—[Walt] just didn't get around to it. But that would have been the next step."
Donn Tatum also shed some light on a curious aspect of the weekly Disney TV show: "Walt insisted on doing a certain number of programs every year that, while they might not have as big ratings, did have a larger appeal to the opinion-making element in the audience ... did things like the story of Beethoven, of Tchaikovsky, and a program with the Vienna Boys Choir, a couple of programs about [Johann] Strauss."
I've found it hard to imagine how the surprisingly adult Strauss biopic, "The Waltz King," might have been received by the audience that on the previous two Sunday evenings in the fall of 1963 saw a Ludwig Von Drake lecture on manned flight and one of Disney's many trained-animal stories, "The Wahoo Bobcat." But now I know: Walt really had a different audience in mind.