July 30, 2008:
July 28, 2008:
July 23, 2008:
July 17, 2008:
July 13, 2008:
July 8, 2008:
July 7, 2008:
July 30, 2008:
My career as an audio commentator (and occasional on-camera interviewee) for the DVD sets of Warner Bros. and Popeye cartoons has apparently come to an end. I'll not be represented in either the sixth installment of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection or the third set of Popeye DVDs when they're released this fall. I recorded commentary tracks for Porky's Duck Hunt and Porky's Hare Hunt when I was in Los Angeles early last year (with Clampett and Jones interview clips for the former, and a Tex Avery clip for the latter), but neither of those cartoons is listed for the next set of Warner Bros. DVDs. Too bad.
The Golden Collection series is ending with the sixth set, and a lot of other people who have been commentary regulars are not represented in this last set, either. The cartoons are what really matter, anyway, and there are some dandy ones in the last set, along with others that are historically interesting, to say the least. I'd probably buy it just for a restored print of Chuck Jones's Fresh Airedale (which looked terrible in its laserdisc release), but there are plenty of other reasons to place your pre-order at amazon.com.
I may yet turn up on a Disney DVD or two. A team working for Disney happened to be in town some months back, for some unrelated reason, and they interviewed me on camera for the forthcoming Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio deluxe sets. I have no idea if I've made the cut for either one.
Thinking back over my Looney Tunes commentaries, I wish more of them were better (although I don't know how I could have addressed the loudest complaint, that my voice is pitched too low). I can think of some—like the commentaries for Bob McKimson's Hillbilly Hare or Chuck Jones's Fast and Furry-ous—that turned out about as well as I could have hoped, but many of the others have left me dissatisfied for one reason or another. I sometimes hear myself rushing, for fear I'll run out of time, whereas in other cases I clearly had time to say a good deal more. Rehearsing too much for a commentary is not a good idea, because it reduces spontaneity (and a lot of fans think my commentaries are much too dry anyway), but I found it difficult to make just the right amount of preparation. And no one should ever consent to being interviewed about early Fleischer cartoons, as I foolishly did, just after driving through an hour of horrendous L.A. traffic, and with no time for lunch.
My biggest regret, I suppose, is that I never suggested to the people at New Wave Entertainment that I do an audio commentary in tandem with someone like Milt Gray or Mark Kausler, old friends with whom I've had many stimulating conversations about cartoons. Or wait a minute—John Kricfalusi and I did separate commentaries for Bob Clampett's Buckaroo Bugs. What if we had done one together? The mind boggles.
There's a complete list of my audio commentaries at this link.
Thanks to Jan Emberton for pointing out that I picked up a photo of Van Nest Polglase from that art directors' hall of fame page, instead of the photo of Anton Grot that I meant to pick up, when I posted my July 8 item about Grot. He had been identified as the "mystery man" in the phto I posted on July 7. I've now fixed that mistake, and that is—or should be—Grot you see below, with the July 8 item; that's Polglase just to the right.
I see a resemblance, but that's surely not Polglase in the photo I posted on July 7, since the photo is a Warner Bros. publicity still and it was Grot who worked for Warners; Polglase worked for RKO, where he is associated most enduringly with the Astaire-Rogers musicals. But as Jan suggests, the man in the July 7 photo is actually not a perfect match with the hall of fame photos of either Grot or Polglase.
Somehow, some day, I'll make an ironclad identification, but for now the mystery remains open, if just a crack.
July 28, 2008:
Last week's post in which I expressed my skepticism about WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda, especially the former, stimulated responses, here and at other sites, that were, to my surprise, more favorable than not. I've added comments by Mark Kausler, Thad Komorowski, and Ricardo Cantoral to my Feedback page on CGI films; you can go to those latest entries by clicking here.
Of course, I'm still very much in the minority in my low opinion of WALL•E and in my growing doubts about computer animation generally. A lot of people seem to have no trouble finding winning personalities in WALL•E's robots, whereas I see only a couple of machines behaving in extremely unlikely ways. (To read one of the more persuasive pro-WALL•E reviews—not that I'm persuaded—click on this link to Andrew Osmond's review for Sight and Sound.)
Mark Mayerson—who has reservations about WALL•E but not computer animation in general —has posted a rejoinder to my views and the similar views of Michael Sporn, and Mark's post has provoked a vigorous debate at his site. I've been tempted to add to it, but Mark's thoughts are consistent with the ideas he expressed last year in his master's thesis, which I've recently re-read, and I want to tackle them in a full-blown essay. I've been threatening to write such a piece for more than a year, and I hope to finally get around to it this month. Not that many people will read it, but Mark and Michael will read it, and, to paraphrase Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike, that may not be much of an audience, but it's cherce.
Every Disney geek knows the story of the petrified stump—ten feet tall, eight feet around, and five tons in weight—that Walt Disney bought as a 31st wedding anniversary gift for his wife (who wasn't thrilled) in Colorado in July 1956 and then installed in Disneyland. What is probably the fullest account of the stump's history is on page 55 of Disneyland: The Nickel Tour, the excellent—and, alas, very hard to find—history of the park by Bruce Gordon and David Mumford.
Now there's a page on the Web that tells the story from the viewpoint of the vendor of the stump, the late Jack Baker of Colorado Springs, Colorado, with a variety of interesting photos and documents, including Walt's letter (probably written by his secretary, Dolores Voght) ordering delivery of the stump. You can go to it by clicking on this link. The photo at the right is from that page. The Nickel Tour account doesn't sync up precisely with the documents on the Web page, unfortunately. For one thing, Walt's letter on the Web page speaks of delivery in July 1956, but Gordon and Mumford say that delivery actually took place in July 1957. Probably moving a five-ton tree turned out to be a good bit more difficult than anticipated.
Thanks to Mike Ausec for letting me know about Jack and the Web page.
I won't be attending this year's Ottawa International Animation Festival, which runs September 17-21, and I'm rather sorry about that. The lineup of features in competition sounds much stronger than last year's (when Persepolis was easily the class of the field). I'm looking forward to seeing both Sita Sings the Blues and Waltz with Bashir when they come to my local art house, but I'm sure they'll get better projection and sound at Ottawa. I've heard good things about the lineup of shorts, too.
A number of the retrospectives and special programs sound very promising. If you missed last fall's Michael Sporn retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you'll have a second chance to catch up with Michael's work at Ottawa. John Canemaker's interview with Richard Williams will be fun, I'm sure. And one of the bonuses of the Ottawa Festival always is that it's held in Ottawa, a highly walkable and enjoyable city.
To get complete information about the festival, click on this link.
July 23, 2008:
I'm still behind in a lot of things, but I did manage to see both Kung Fu Panda and WALL•E a few days ago, and you can read what I thought of them by clicking here. This is, I'm afraid, one of my grumpy reviews.
I saw Kung Fu Panda in Imax, two days before it yielded the screen to The Dark Knight, but it was a close thing. When my wife and I got to the theater five minutes before show time, we were told that the 2 p.m. show had been canceled due to "technical difficulties." We had driven ten miles to the theater, though, and Phyllis was not about to accept that excuse without asking some sharp questions. It turned out that the theater didn't want to go to the expense of showing the film for a very small audience—namely, Phyllis and myself—but its management finally decided it had no choice but to do so. So we had what amounted to a private screening in an Imax theater.
I've had a few other private or semi-private screenings of that kind in recent years, but they were kind of sad, since I was seeing Disney features that were dying rapidly at the box office. Kung Fu Panda has done very well, though, so we could enjoy the luxury of an empty theater without a whisper of melancholy.
And speaking of Kung Fu Panda: Bill Benzon sends along this link to a page on how the Chinese are receiving that film set in their country.
He was, to my mind, the greatest of all of Walt Disney's animators, but I never had the chance to meet Bill Tytla—he died in 1968, before I began interviewing veterans of the "Golden Age"—and I never so much as heard his voice. Until this week, that is, when Didier Ghez posted a link to an audio clip from a 1967 Tytla interview on his Disney History Web site (the July 22 entry).
As Didier explains, he learned about the existence of the interview from John Culhane, who also interviewed Tytla. The interview was conducted by the late Louise Beaudet, for many years the director of the Cinémathèque Québecoise in Montréal; she talked with Tytla when he was in Montréal for the stupendous 1967 animation retrospective, which attracted dozens of Hollywood animation's greatest names. Didier obtained a digital copy of the tape, and now you can hear an excerpt in which Tytla talks about his animation of Joe Carioca for Saludos Amigos.
Tytla in this excerpt is a quarter-century older than the passionate young animator who made such an impression on his Disney colleagues in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but some of the old exuberance is still evident. And as Michael Sporn has remarked, Tytla still sounds like the New Yorker he was.
I've had some very interesting communications recently from visitors to the site—as usual, much more substantial than the typical blog comments—and you can go directly to them by clicking on these links:
¶ Bill Benzon writes about WALL•E on the page devoted to Pixar, DreamWorks, and other computer-animation studios.
¶ Vincent Alexander writes how Bugs Bunny differed, or didn't, in the hands of the different Warner directors, on the page devoted to Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, and the Warner Bros. cartoons.
¶ Andrew Osmond adds to the ongoing discussion about the adult animated features made by Japanese directors (and others).
Speaking of Andrew Osmond, he will have two new books out next month, one on Miyazaki's Spirited Away and the other on the director Satoshi Kon. I've ordered both books from amazon.com, and you can do the same by using the form on this page.
July 17, 2008:
...on July 17, 1943, Walt Disney's Victory Through Air Power premiered at the Globe Theatre in New York. That's Walt at the left above, of course, shaking hands with Major Alexander de Seversky, whose book was the basis for the Disney film. I don't know the name of the Boris Karloff lookalike between them, or, for that matter, when and where the photo was taken.
...on July 17, 1955, as every Disney geek knows, Disneyland opened to invited guests (and thousands of gate crashers). The photo above was taken three days earlier, just before a Hollywood Bowl concert in tribute to Walt and in anticipation of the park's opening. From the left: Fred Gurley, chairman of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company; Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper; Walt; George O'Brien, honorary chairman of the Bowl's Family Night; Lillian Disney; and Dorothy "Buff" Chandler, wife of Norman Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
Hopper and the Times were idefatigable boosters of all things Disney, and Gurley's name was given a few years later to a Disneyland locomotive; the Santa Fe itself was one of Disneyland's first sponsors (for details, see Michael Broggie's excellent book Walt Disney's Railroad Story). The George O'Brien in the photo is, I think, the actor of that name who starred in such notable silent films as Sunrise, and later in 1930s westerns, but I'd welcome confirmation or correction of that. [An update: The George O'Brien in the photo is not the actor, but George J. O'Brien, a vice president of Standard Oil of California and of the Hollywood Bowl Association; Chandler was the Association's president.]
July 13, 2008:
When I was in Washington, D.C., last month, I visited the Library of Congress's Manuscript Division to see if I might examine some of Dr. Fredric Wertham's papers there. Wertham, who died in 1981, is best known for his ferocious criticism of crime and horror comic books in the late 1940s and early 1950s, through magazine articles, congressional testimony, and, especially, his famous/notorious 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent. I was surprised to learn that his papers are not yet freely available to researchers, but that approval for access must come from the executor of his estate.
I filled out the necessary form and was surprised (again) to hear by email, a few days later, that my request had been denied. When I asked why, since my credentials seemed to be in order (and Wertham and I even had some cordial correspondence many years ago, when he was writing his strange little 1974 book on fanzines), I received this reply from Leonard C. Bruno of the Library's staff:
For quite some time now, the Wertham executor has consistently rejected any and all requests for access. These are rejected outright, with no explanation, and apparently without consideration of the requestor's intent, affiliation, explanation, supplication, or anything else. Even requests that have been limited or targeted to only certain containers, rather than for total access, have failed. Unfortunately, you have joined a growing group of scholars unable to gain access.
Very odd—but, as Bruno added, the executor's arbitrary sway will soon end:
The Wertham Papers will come open May 20, 2010.
At which point, I'm sure, a lot of irritated researchers will join me in trying to figure out just what it was that the executor was trying to hide.
I've been recuperating from minor surgery, and a result I've put off seeing Kung Fu Panda and WALL•E. I hope to see both of them later this week. I can't say that my expectations are high, since I've heartily disliked all the DreamWorks features except Madagascar, and my skepticism about Pixar (the Brad Bird-directed features aside) has been deepening with each new release (as witness my reviews of Finding Nemo and Cars). The ecstatic reviews for WALL•E, especially, have activated my b.s. detector.
A couple of negative reviews have actually made me eager to see both films, though, to test the reviewers' thoughtful comments against my own reactions. That's the best kind of review, I think, one that makes you want to enter into a dialogue with the review and the film itself. The reviews I have in mind are by Mark Mayerson, onWALL•E, and Stephen Rowley of Cinephobia, on Kung Fu Panda. Both reviews are well worth your time, whether or not you have seen the films, and no matter how you feel about them.
Speaking of links: My recent posts on Anton Grot, the Warner Bros. art director, prompted John McElwee of the Greenbriar Picture Shows site to send me this link to a page devoted to Grot and other Warner Bros. set designers. John's site is one of the wonders of the Web, packed with fascinating and consistently reliable information about the films and people of Hollywood's Golden Age. Try it, and you haven't already made it one of your RSS feeds, I'm sure you'll join me in doing so.
July 8, 2008:
It's hard to think of anything good to say about being stuck in the Cleveland airport for eight hours, as I was last week, but I did use that long delay to finish reading the "roundtable" on David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts in The Comics Journal No. 290. I've already expressed my low opinion of Michaelis's biography of Charles Schulz in a review on this site, but it's Monte Schulz, "Sparky's" eldest son, who demolishes the book in an extraordinary fifty-two-page essay, really a short book in itself, that is the central element in the Journal's coverage.
Monte's essay is not some indignant outburst. It is instead a calm recounting of how the Schulz family cooperated with Michaelis, and of how he betrayed their trust. Monte offers carefully documented examples of how Michaelis distorted the facts, embroidering incidents as freely as a novelist. My own sense of the book, that Michaelis was dead set on shaping his account of Schulz's life to conform to the prejudices of a parochial literary culture, was more than confirmed by Monte's essay.
Accompanying Monte's essay are two pieces each by R. C. Harvey, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester, one piece written before the writer read the essay, and one written after. Harvey comes off best here, by far; his first piece is shrewd, skeptical, and well-informed, and so he really has nothing to apologize for in the second round. Heer and Worcester, on the other hand, have both praised Schulz and Peanuts so extravagantly ("a great work," Heer says in his first piece, describing the book, incredibly, as "wonderfully well written") that their followups read like limp excuses for their gullibility.
Worcester tries to justify himself by writing: "It is difficult to imagine that an incompetent biography would generate anything like the attention that Michaelis' study has received." Unfortunately, in this case as with Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, unwarranted attention is very easy to imagine. Michaelis, Gabler, and their kindred writers know their audience, as represented by such blinkered reviewers as John Updike and Michael Dirda, only too well.
Yesterday's item about the photo of a man who wasn't Walt Disney prompted messages from Mark Mayerson, Alexander Rannie, and Jerry Beck, all of whom believe—correctly, I'm sure—that the man in the photo is Anton Grot (1884-1974). Grot was an art director for important Warner Bros. features for twenty years, starting in 1927. In the words of an online biography (thanks for the link, Alex), "He did as much to set the style of Warners musicals as did its more famous choreographer, Busby Berkeley. Grot is known for his outstanding designs in realism during the 1930s and '40s and also for creating special effects with water. His creative contributions with water effects—by creating water ripple and wave illusion machines—led to his receiving an honorary Academy Awardin 1941. Grot was additionally nominated for five AcademyAwards for Svengali (1931), Anthony Adverse (1936), Life of Emile Zola (1937), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Grot was the first Art Director to present a sequence of sketches showing all of a film’s sets."
No cartoon connections that I know of, although that reference to a "sequence of sketches" is certainly suggestive. And I have no idea which film Grot is working on in the photo.
July 7, 2008:
I got back last week from an extended visit to the Washington, D.C., area, and the next evening I found myself drinking beer on a backyard deck with about twenty friends and acquaintances. We were there to visit with General Wesley Clark, who lives a few miles down the road from my house, and to talk about his book called A Time to Lead. General Clark was in the midst of being chewed up by various media blowhards for what he hadn't said about John McCain's military record, and the conversation turned to a somewhat similar episode when he was a West Point cadet. He had gotten in hot water with the military academy's superintendent over an honest expression of opinion, and that had led to his getting advice from another officer that went something like this:
If you're going to say what you think, be careful what you think.
Wes Clark has obviously had difficulty following that advice, especially in recent weeks. I've always had the same problem in the much narrower sphere represented by this Web site. You can be sure I'll continue to have it.
I spent six days at the Library of Congress while I was in Washington, and the fruits of those visits will be turning up here and elsewhere in the months ahead. To begin, here's an item I particularly enjoyed, an article from the December 7, 1930, Los Angeles Times that is one of the earliest reports on the Looney Tunes that Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising began making for Leon Schlesinger that year. Despite the author's difficulty in spelling Bosko's name correctly, it's not a bad piece. I especially like this: "The most difficult part of the whole business is to present a logical story in a ridiculous manner, at the same time making it entertaining." I would reverse the positions of "logical" and "ridiculous" in that sentence, but it's still a pretty good summation of a task that has always faced cartoon makers. Click on the image below to go to a much larger version of the article.
It occurred to me, as I was scanning this article, that we are less than two years away from the eightieth anniversary of Looney Tunes, and that next month will mark the 105th anniversary of the births of both Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. Time flies.
I'm sure I don't have to explain how much I enjoy seeing The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney on sale in bookstores; every author feels that way. But considering that the Walt Disney Company held me at arm's length while I was writing the book, it's especially gratifying to know that The Animated Man is now on sale at such highly official Disney sites as Walt Disney World in Florida, the World of Disney on Fifth Avenue in New York (see below; thanks, Joseph Smith)...
...and even the studio store on the Disney lot (see below; thanks, anonymous friend).
So, if you're a Disney loyalist, and you haven't bought The Animated Man yet—what's your excuse? Now the book even has Robert Iger's blessing (well, sort of).
From Barry Carr in Melbourne, Australia:
I just came across your May 29, 2008, post about a photo of Walt Disney with Dolores del Rio and Diego Rivera at the opening of a night club in Mexico City. In your comments on the photo you mention that the night club was owned and launched by A. C. Blumenthal. I can fill in a bit of detail on Blumenthal.
Alfred Cleveland Blumenthal was indeed a wealthy man. He had been a successful movie investor and entertainment industry figure in the 1920s and 1930s and was married to the Ziegfield "showgirl" Peggy Fears. Sometime in 1939 or 1940 he got into trouble over a tax issue in the U.S., and this appears to have been the cause of his departure in late 1940 or early 1941 for Mexico City, where he lived for most of the 1940s. A. C. Blumenthal—"Blumey,"' as he was known in Mexico—seems to have had close links with President Manuel Avila Camacho (1940-1946), as did several other U.S. and European figures who had had "troubles" with their respective national governments.
(Bruno Paglia was another; he was an Italian-born industrialist who managed the fabulous new race-course in Mexico City called the Hipodromo de las Americas, which opened in the early 1940s with the strong support of President Camacho, a horse-racing fanatic. Paglia was married to the actress Merle Oberon in the 1950s.)
Blumenthal's warm reception in Mexico was almost certainly tied to his commitments to invest in the country. He invested in the hospitality and tourism industry. The December 1942 photo was taken at Ciro's, a restaurant and nightclub that was part of the Hotel Reforma, one of the few luxury hotels then functioning in Mexico City; it had opened in 1936. Ciro's was the center of glamorous night life in the wartime and postwar years in Mexico City, and it attracted wealthy Mexicans as well as foreign tourists and visiting personalities in the entertainment industry. Blumenthal later opened another Ciro's nightclub in a new hotel in Acapulco—the Casablanca (I think). So, my guess would be that Walt Disney knew and possibly met A. C. Blumenthal in Hollywood or New York during the 1930s.
Diego Rivera was not a member of the Communist Party in Mexico (PCM) at the time this photo was taken. He had been expelled from the PCM in the summer of 1929, and during the mid and late 1930s had moved in Trotskyist circles. He continued, of course, to be a Marxist. But in December 1942 Mexico was already an ally of Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union, and Mexican leftists of all persuasions were warmly in support of what had now become The Great Patriotic War. In addition, Rivera did some murals for the nightclub! So Rivera's presence at Ciro's is not so surprising after all.
The photo below turned up on eBay identified as a photo of Walt Disney. I knew that it wasn't, but now I'm wondering who this man was. He was a set designer, to judge from the stuff on his desk, and the photo bears a Vitagraph copyright, which indicates that he worked for Warner Bros. But beyond that I have no idea of his identity. I'd welcome that information, or even serious guesses. I know of someone he resembles, but "George Orwell" doesn't count as a serious guess.