October 31, 2008:
October 28, 2008:
The Wall Street Journal on Pixar and Disney
October 25, 2008:
From the Author of The Perfect American
October 24, 2008:
October 23, 2008:
Speaking of Pictures: Jones and Seuss, 1968
Still More on Directors and Directions
Williams and Deitch in San Francisco
October 21, 2008:
Directors and Directions, Cont'd
October 20, 2008:
October 18, 2008:
October 16, 2008:
Of Cabbages and Kleins, Cont'd
October 14, 2008:
A Novel That's a Good Deal Less Than Perfect
October 10, 2008:
October 6, 2008:
October 2, 2008:
October 31, 2008:
It finally arrived in today's mail, more than a year after I asked the FBI for a copy. I'll be away for the next few weeks, unfortunately, and so I probably won't be able to write about it until around Thanksgiving.
October 28, 2008:
Yesterday's Journal included a featured piece on how Disney animation has been affected by the 2006 acquisition of Pixar. The article touches on questions that I wrote about earlier this month. Some excerpts:
When Disney bought Pixar, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger set up the reverse of the usual post-merger integration challenge: Rather than finding a way for Disney to absorb Pixar, he gave Pixar honchos Ed Catmull and John Lasseter control of Disney's animation operations, with the mission to get the old studio's computer-generated efforts up to par.
Driving that change wasn't easy, as the bumpy evolution of "Bolt" illustrates. The movie -- originally called "American Dog" -- was first written and directed by Chris Sanders, creator of the successful "Lilo & Stitch" franchise, who just a few years ago was seen as Disney's newest star animator.
Upon taking over, however, Mr. Lasseter wasn't happy with the story and structure of "American Dog." Unable to see eye-to-eye on the film's direction, Mr. Lasseter, citing "creative differences," replaced Mr. Sanders with two new directors and sent the movie back to the drawing board. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Chris and he's a gifted and talented animator, but there were just differences there that couldn't be solved," Mr. Lasseter said.
Mr. Sanders didn't respond to requests for comment.
After Mr. Sanders left, "American Dog" was renamed "Bolt" and the new bosses issued the animation team a challenge: Finish the project in 18 months instead of the four years it normally takes to complete a computer-generated animation film.
Production of the film went down to the wire: It was just 80% finished when Disney previewed it for theater owners and journalists in September: "They had us all worried for just a little bit, but I think this is a group of folks over there that want to win and when faced with a challenge, they made it happen," says Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. ...
In the process of reshaping "Bolt," the Pixar executives attempted to transplant some of Pixar's successful processes from northern California to Burbank. That meant opening up spaces in the labyrinthine Burbank animation building to more closely resemble Pixar's operation in Emeryville, Calif. The idea is to allow more chance encounters between employees and to give animators and other creative types more input in overall story ideas and the direction of projects.
"Pixar operates with a key group of guys called 'The Brain Trust,' to discuss problems and issues and to nurture new ideas, so at Disney they established 'The Story Trust,' which is essentially the same thing," says John Musker, who co-wrote and co-directed Disney's 1989 hit "The Little Mermaid." "It's unusual for Hollywood, making the key creative people sort of in charge of the actual decisions and less the studio executives, to some degree."
This article summoned up some not especially pleasant memories from my years as a business writer. I looked forward to talking with small business people, because they usually said what they thought. I didn't look forward to talking with people who worked for big corporations—like the Walt Disney Company—because they were usually looking over their shoulders and hedging everything they said. Like Lasseter and, especially, Musker in the foregoing paragraphs ("sort of in charge ... to some degree").
But let's hope that Bolt, despite its unhappy history, is a happy surprise.
From Paul Sigman Lowery, in regard to the photo of Walt at a Western Union keyboard that I published here on October 24:
According to Ed Squair, manager of Disney's Photo Library, the first image transmitted by telegraph in the United States (on the New York to Buffalo line) was of Mickey Mouse. We assume this photo was part of the publicity around that event. (The first-ever image transmission by telegraph was done in Europe.)
The photo was surely published someplace, but so far I don't know where.
[An October 9, 2009, update: Paula Sigman Lowery adds that "some additional digging at the Western Union archives uncovered more clarification: Mickey was the first image transmitted by Western Union's new 'facsimile' process, and was sent on the Buffalo to New York line. It was sent on Walt's birthday, December 5, 1935."]
October 25, 2008:
Peter Stephan Jungk wrote in response to my review of his novel about Walt Disney. If you think you detect a trace of sarcasm in his message, you may be right.
dear michael barrier,
thank you for your kind, intelligent, wonderful review of my 'perfect american'. it proves that you are a perfect american too.
i'm certain sarah palin, another perfect american, would have been endorsed by walt, don't you think?
peter stephan jungk
October 24, 2008:
From Mark Sonntag, a photo of Walt Disney that's obviously a companion to the photo I ran on October 14, alongside my comments on Peter Stephan Jungk's bizarre novel about Walt, The Perfect American. It's clear here, as it's not from my photo, that Walt is at a keyboard—one used in transmitting wire-service copy, perhaps. I'd guess he had come to a news office of some kind for an interview and posed for some photos while he was there.
I identified my photo as having been taken in 1937, which is the date stamped on the back, but that's almost certainly wrong, since Mark's photo bears the date July 28, 1933. Walt was in New York around that time—Film Daily interviewed him on July 24 at United Artists' offices, where he was trying to persuade a skeptical UA to support his idea for a feature-length cartoon. Walt had evidently flown at least part of the way from Los Angeles to New York, since he was photographed at the Chicago airport with Elliott Roosevelt, son of the president, and Joseph M. Schenk, UA's president.
Gunnar Andreassen sends along the photo just below, another picture of Walt at a keyboard; I don't know the date or the circumstances, although it was surely taken in the early '30s. As Gunnar says, the presence of the Mickey doll and the Western Union sign suggests that this was a planned publicity shot.
Walt did know how to type—he typed his letters from New York in the fall of 1928, in his hotel room on what was presumably a rented machine—but I'd guess from the position of his fingers in the photo above that he was a hunt-and-peck typist. My father was that kind of typist, and I remember watching with some amazement as he'd knock out a letter almost as fast I could. To judge from the length and fluency of Walt's 1928 letters, he was at least as fast.
From Didier Ghez, word that Volume 7 of his invaluable series of collected interviews, Walt's People: Talking Disney with the People Who Knew Him, is now available through Xlibris. You can order by clicking on this link. The book will be available through amazon.com in a few weeks; the earlier volumes are still available through both Xlibris and amazon.
The interviewees in the seventh volume include Ken Anderson, X. Atencio, Billy Bletcher, John Carey, Adriana Caselotti, Marc Davis, John Ewing, Carl Fallberg, George Goepper, Hazel George, John Hench, Wilfred Jackson, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Bob Kurtz, Jimmy Macdonald, Tom McKimson, Clarence Nash, Grim Natwick, William Rast, Paul Smith, Art Stevens, Frank Thomas, Harry Tytle, and Grace Turner.
As someone who has spent a lot of time interviewing Disney veterans and tracking down copies of other people's interviews, I am constantly amazed at the wealth of material Didier Ghez has assembled in these books. As I've said before and can't say often enough, no one who cares about Walt Disney and the history of his studio should be without Walt's People.
When I wrote yesterday about Chuck Jones's hostility toward Edward Selzer, head of the Warner cartoon studio from 1944 to 1957, I said: "I have to wonder if Ed Selzer's presence was not a spur to Jones in ways he did not understand (and certainly would not have wanted to acknowledge if he did)."
But as Vincent Alexander has reminded me, Chuck actually acknowledged Selzer's influence on his cartoons, on page 94 of his autobiography, Chuck Amuck:
Nevertheless, our producers served an occasional purpose—inadvertent, as in the case of Leon Schlesigner and Daffy Duck. Intentional, as in the case of Eddie Selzer and Bully for Bugs and Sahara Hare. But perhaps their most valuable service to us was as someone to actively dislike; creativity without opposition is like playing polo without a horse. Contempt comes naturally when the artist is opposed by someone who can't write, draw, or laugh, and whose prime creative impulse is to say no. Fortunately for us, Leon Schlesinger was usually too lazy to even say no, but Eddie Selzer amply made up for this entrepreneurial deficiency. If Eddie was forced to reduce his entire vocabulary to one word, it would have been no contest—"no" would have won adverbially down. Anybody who hated camels, bullfights and French-speaking skunks can't, I suppose, be all bad. As I look back, it seems to me that some of our best pictures emerged out of our constant fight against negativism. Aristotle, I think, wanted to be "a gadfly on the rump of the universe." Stimulating creativity is an admirable function, I suppose if the result is the same, the intentions of the fly are immaterial. So, even though I am reluctant to say it, Eddie Selzer, for all the wrong reasons, did all the right things to keep our creative nerves on edge and therefore active. If there is a puff adder loose in your house, you seldom get lazy.
I suspect Selzer's influence was subtler and more pervasive than Chuck suggests. Chuck invariably cited Bully for Bugs as an example of the positive effects of Selzer's negativism, but I've always thought that Selzer had a point: most bullfight cartoons, Bully for Bugs included, tend to be disappointing, probably because the antagonists, bull and matador, are locked into what is really a very confining format. If a bullfight is going to look like a bullfight, even a comic bullfight, the opportunities for gags are limited, which is why the gags in most bullfight cartoons are so much alike, and the cartoons themselves boring.
In that case and in others, Selzer may have functioned most importantly as a surrogate for the great theater audience, the people who wanted only to laugh at cartoons, and not to admire the elegance of their design or the subtlety of their wit or anything else about them. Chuck preferred to think he could ignore that audience—thus his frequent remarks about making cartoons only for himself—but he really couldn't. His cartoons benefited from his attending to the audience's demands—his funniest cartoons, like the cream of the Road Runner series, are the best in other ways—but Selzer, as a vehicle for those demands, would naturally have been the target of Chuck's resentment.
October 23, 2008:
From my files, this photo, probably taken a little over forty years ago, of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Chuck Jones at a recording session for the 1968 TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The men at the console are an engineer, Thorne Nogar, and a producer for MGM Records, Jesse Kaye.
Chuck was at the time head of MGM's Animation/Visual Arts Department (or, sometimes, Division). I've been struck, in looking at my photos of him from that brief period (1963-69), at how relaxed and happy he seems, in contrast to his demeanor in photos taken earlier and later. When MGM re-entered cartoons, Chuck was the man in charge, for the first time in his career. He had bosses at MGM, of course—and they ultimately closed down his department—but they were not equivalent, especially in annoying physical proximity, to Leon Schlesinger or Edward Selzer, his first two bosses at Warner Bros. He clearly enjoyed his new status.
But here's the odd thing: Chuck spoke of Schlesinger with amused contempt; he was mildly positive about John Burton, who succeeded Selzer; but he was acid in his disdain for Selzer, who was in charge of the cartoon studio from 1944 to 1958. And yet, when one surveys Chuck's output at Warners, the cartoons that are by general consensus his best—including the cartoons he showed when he was touring college campuses—were all made when Selzer was in charge. The earlier Warner cartoons are mostly too Disney-influenced, the later cartoons too self-consciously arch. And I don't know of anyone who thinks the MGM cartoons—which included a revival of Tom and Jerry and the feature Phantom Tollbooth—measure up to Chuck's best work at Warners, however happy Chuck himself may have been when he was making them.
Other factors, like the presence of Mike Maltese, probably contributed more to the quality of the Jones cartoons in their golden years. But I have to wonder if Ed Selzer's presence was not a spur to Jones in ways that he did not understand (and certainly would not have wanted to acknowledge if he did).
"Rubi-kun" writes in response to Tuesday's post:
I'd have an easier time buying your thesis that Disney/Pixar is growing increasingly formulaic if it weren't for the fact that, after The Princess and the Frog (which, as formulaic as it looks, sadly counts as "experimental" in this 2D-phobic industry), the first new film greenlit under the new regime is The King of the Elves, an adaptation of (of all things) a Philip K. Dick story. Disney and Dick aren't two things I've ever associated before, so I'd hope that means it'll be something new.
Looking at Pixar's slate, it almost seems to be split in two between "safe," less interesting projects like Cars 2 and Toy Story 3 (though TS3 might actually be good given that Michael Arndt, writer of the wonderful Little Miss Sunshine, is in charge) and some much more unique and creative films like WALL•E (no matter what you thought of it, it took risks) and Up (which looks more like a Miyazaki movie than anything Disney or Pixar has ever made). Newt and The Bear and the Bow could go in either direction but I'm hoping for the best.
I really don't know what to think about the American Dog situation, but I have a pretty easy time believing Rapunzel was troubled from conception even before Keane became director (really, it's not the best story to make into a feature film, since once she's stuck in the tower, I can see how the film's momentum could come to a halt).
I can't attach much significance to the choice of a Philip K. Dick story as source material for a Disney film. Always, it's what's done with the source material that matters; Bambi, for instance, is vastly different from the Felix Salten novel on which it's based. I don't see Disney making an animated feature that has anything in common with Blade Runner, which was based on a Dick novel.
And I don't think WALL•E was a particularly risky project, any more than Pocahontas was, since both films were released in the wake of several very popular features from their respective studios, and their audiences were essentially built in. But as I indicated in my review, I won't be surprised if audience dissatisfaction with WALL•E shows itself in a disappointing box-office response to future Pixar features; Up, whose premise is at least unusual, could be the first victim.
From Karl Cohen of ASIFA-San Francisco, word of two programs that I would certainly attend if I were going to be in San Francisco next month.
On Sunday, November 2, at 7 p.m., Richard Williams will appear at the Balboa Theatre, 3630 Balboa Street (at 37th Avenue), in a benefit for ASIFA-SF. Tickets are $9 ($6.50 for seniors and kids); advance tickets are for sale at this link. This from Karl's press release:
Williams has been in the animation business for over 50 years. He created the Oscar-winning A Christmas Carol, directed the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (two more Oscars), created memorable opening titles for features (The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, What’s New Pussycat, Casino Royale, The Charge of the Light Brigade), award-winning TV commercials, and other projects including the feature Raggedy Ann and Andy.
As the head of an award-winning studio producing animated commercials for many years he constantly strove to improve the quality of his art. This resulted in his hiring retired Hollywood animators to teach a new generation of artists the craft at his studio. For years copies of lecture notes from these classes were passed around from animator to animator. Then in the 1990s he toured the world presenting The Richard Williams Masterclasses. That resulted in his best-selling book The Animator’s Survival Kit (2001) that is a standard reference for any animator today. Now a 16-disc DVD boxed set of his classes taped as he presented his lectures to employees at Blue Sky Studios in New York is about to be released. It includes 412 new animated clips by Williams and other features.
Tonight Richard Williams will be talking about the principles of animation and illustrating them with excerpts from his new DVD set The Animator's Survival Kit – Animated. His wife Imogen Sutton writes, "We have had terrific reactions to this program at Blue Sky Studios (all animators) and at Pordenone where there was a general film audience of historians, archivists, academics etc. Dick usually tries to demonstrate by acting things out where necessary—he doesn't like to just stay seated. We expect the show to run between 90 minutes to two hours including lots of Q and A." Everyone will get a complimentary DVD about Williams’s new work.
No mention of The Thief and the Cobbler, Williams's most famous/notorious project.
Gene Deitch will appear on Thursday, November 20, at 8 p.m., at the Coppola Theater (room 101) in at San Francisco State University's Fine Arts Building. This event, sponsored by San Francisco State's animation society and ASIFA-SF, is free and open to the public. Here again from Karl's press release:
Gene, who has received five Oscar nominations and one Oscar, will be visiting from Prague as the San Francisco International Animation Festival has invited him here to do two retrospective programs. The festival suggested Gene might do a special seminar event for students and ASIFA-SF members while he is here.
Gene has spent decades adapting the best children’s books for Weston Woods including faithful versions of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1973) and In the Night Kitchen (1987), Shrek creator William Steig's Sylvester And The Magic Pebble (1993), Crockett Johnson’s Harold's Fairy Tale (1974) and A Picture for Harold’s Room (1971) and over 50 others. He also did the storyboards and other pre-production work on an un-produced animated version of Charlotte’s Web and will discuss how the best-laid plans can go astray with front-office interference. Another significant adaptation was his Oscar winning short Munro, a Jules Feifer story about a 4-year-old boy drafted into the Army (1960 for Rembrandt Films).
Gene says, “I will play a few films in two versions, with my original soundtrack and then substitute tracks imposed by the producers for weird and illogical reasons...As an example of what we who are paid to make films often have to put up with. It should be very revealing, with the stories behind the changes. These examples have never been shown publicly before!” Animators can learn a lot from seeing what has happened when executives mess with literature.
Actually, we could all learn a lot from "seeing what has happened when executives mess with literature," but, speaking from experience, I'm not sure it's knowledge that's very easy to put to good use.
October 21, 2008:
In response to yesterday's post about recent developments at the Disney studio, "Rubi-kun" writes:
Chris Sanders resigned from American Dog because he wasn't coping well with criticism. Pixar's method does involve hiring individual directors but they still have to work with the "Brain Trust" when they run into story problems. From what I can gather, American Dog's story was pretty much the exact same as Cars but with an even less likable main character. Not that Bolt looks that good (I wish they had at least kept Chris's character designs), but there is a chance it could be the best they could do with a troubled project. Lilo and Stitch's success may have had as much if not more to do with Dean DeBlois. We won't know for sure until Dreamworks' experiment of having Sanders direct Crood Awakening by himself followed by co-directing How to Train Your Dragon with DeBlois.
As for Rapunzel, it seemed pretty clear this was a problem project for a while now. The average production time for an animated film is about four years, right? It's been six years since this project was announced and there's still two more until release. I'm wondering if Glen Keane is more like Richard Williams in that he can animate as well as the best but has loads of trouble trying to get a story to work. Early screenings of Rapunzel came with reports that the first act was brilliant but the last hour was a total bore. Keane was given a co-director last year to help work out story problems and that still didn't seem to work out, so both left the project. I seriously doubt the final project will be good for much more than eye candy (they're still keeping Keane as animation director), but at least it'll be finished now.
Also, don't read too much into Brad Bird deciding to do a live-action movie. He still clearly enjoys working in animation. He just seems to think that this story would work better in live-action, just as Tim Burton occasionally decides some of his stories would work better in animation. At least, I hope he still does animation (I'm still dreaming of what he could do with Ray Gunn, that adult-oriented 2D film he planned out so long ago, or if he had gotten the rights to The Spirit before Frank Miller did).
I think such explanations raise as many questions as they answer. Sanders wasn't "coping well with criticism"? How justified was the criticism? Was American Dog's story really "pretty much the exact same as Cars," or did the lead character's "even less likable" personality give the story a distinctly different flavor? Was "likability" of the standard Disney/Pixar kind what was demanded of Sanders, and did he resist? Sanders co-directed Lilo and Stitch, and the first half of that film—in which Stitch is anything but conventionally likable—is wonderful. Disney formula takes command in the second half, when Stitch becomes "likable," and that half is not wonderful at all. Was Sanders refusing to go along with a similar dilution of American Dog?
Likewise, to what extent were the delays in Rapunzel's production Glen Keane's fault, and to what extent were they caused by the turmoil at Disney attending the Pixar acquisition and indecision over whether to make the film hand-drawn or CGI? And here again, was the last hour of the film a "total bore" because it was really boring, or because it departed from Disney formula and some important people resisted that?
All of which is to say, I think it's just as plausible that Sanders and Keane were dimissed for their refusal to accept the suffocating thinking visible in Pixar's Cars and in such recent Disney drek as Meet the Robinsons as that they were dismissed for failing to come up with satisfactory stories.
To give John Lasseter and Ed Catmull the benefit of the doubt, I suppose they believe they're acting on behalf of the films and their audiences when they make such personnel decisions. The best I can say is that the jury is still very much out. What I really think is that Lasseter has bought completely into a formulaic sort of filmmaking, and that the films coming from both Disney and Pixar are likely to get steadily worse. I doubt they'll do very well at the box office, either.
The irony is that Lasseter's ascension at Disney was regarded as a positive development, a break with the worst of the Disney past; as Cars should have warned us, it is turning out to be anything but that. I can hear the echoes in the halls at Disney Feature Animation: "Yeah, John, you nailed it—too quirky for its own good, yeah, that's it, you nailed it."
Perhaps in twenty or thirty years, when many of the people involved are retired and ready to talk, some enterprising writer will assemble the full story of this dismal period in Hollywood animation's history. That writer won't be me, thank goodness; if I'm still around I'll be much too old for such nonsense.
Oh, and if Brad Bird ever makes another animated feature for Pixar, I'll be very much surprised.
Still no definitive answer as to the identity of one of the two men I asked about in that publicity photo for The Reluctant Dragon, but ace caricaturist Pete Emslie has identified the man on the left as Larry Clemmons, the longtime Disney writer. As for the man on the right, directly behind Robert Benchley, I thought briefly that he might be Claude Coats, but he's older than Claude was in 1940 and doesn't look all that much like him otherwise. So the floor is still open for suggestions.
Speaking of Pete Emslie, his excellent caricatures adorn the cover of Volume 7 of Walt's People, the indispensable Disney interview collections edited by Didier Ghez, just as they've adorned the first six volumes. I'll post a note about Volume 7 and its contents as soon as the book is available for order from XLibris, which should be any day now.
October 20, 2008:
I've been fascinated by some recent Disney-related items over at Cartoon Brew. Once again, a Disney star—in this case the animator-turned-director Glen Keane—has been removed from the helm of a feature (Rapunzel) midway in production. The circumstances echo those of the removal two years ago of Chris Sanders as director of the feature originally called American Dog and now to be released next month as Bolt. In both cases, if I've been reading correctly, a star director has been replaced by a faceless two-man team like those that have directed almost all the Disney features of the last few decades.
The rationale for such teams, going back to the Katzenberg days, was that Walt did it that way—until his last few years, when Woolie Reitherman became the sole director (with less than outstanding results). Walt's directors were pretty much anonymous during his lifetime, and the same has been true of the co-directors of the more recent Disney features, who have labored as well under the burden of oversight by people who are not exactly Walt Disney reincarnated. Thus the typical Disney feature: an all too obviously commercial a product that offers only glimpses of better things, some of which have originated with Keane (as with his animation of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast) and Sanders (as with his co-direction of Lilo and Stitch).
So, it's hard to avoid the thought that two directors with distinctive visions for their films may have been replaced by co-directors with much lower profiles and, presumably, a greater willingness to bend the knee, in what has now become a Disney tradition. (Anonymous directors tend to be less expensive, too.) What's odd is that such changes have been initiated by John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull, who at Pixar have been receptive not just to direction by a single person but to directors with distinctive screen personalities.
Brad Bird is a director of that kind; you could make the same case for Andrew Stainton—even though I don't care for his films—and maybe for Pete Docter. All very different from what seems to be going on at Disney (although Bird's move into live action may be an omen). Perhaps Lasseter is responding to pressure from the top; or maybe this is just another case of an alien culture swallowing up the people who have been brought in to change it. Lasseter and Catmull may be finding the usual Disney way of doing things increasingly congenial.
The latter explanation is the one I find most persuasive—especially when I think about the lamentable Cars, which Lasseter himself directed—but we really don't know what's going on; how seriously to take Keane's supposed health problems, for instance. In any case, there's less and less reason to feel much interest or anticipation when a new Disney or Pixar feature is about to come out.
And then there are the plans announced last week for a makeover of Disney's California Adventure, the theme park adjacent to Disneyland, so that, in Cartoon Brew's summation, it is "themed literally around Walt Disney’s personal California adventure. For example, the entrance will resemble Hollywood in the 1920s and, as you make your way through the park, you'll encounter rides and attractions themed around milestones in Disney’s life: The Mickey Mouse 'Fun Wheel'; the 'Silly Symphony Swings' [seen the illustration below]; a re-creation of the Carthay Circle Theatre where Snow White premiered; a Wonderful World of Color water show, and so on."
I'm not sure what's intended here, but the inevitable result, it seems to me, will be that some conventional amusement-park attractions get dolled up in trappings that mean nothing to most of the intended customers. I love the Silly Symphonies, for instance, but they no longer have broad audience appeal; they have for all practical purposes become art films, just as Chaplin's and Keaton's once very popular comedies have become art films, with a small but dedicated and knowledgeable following. Attaching the Silly Symphonies name to an amusement-park ride is an invitation to regard the cartoons not as vital works of art but as camp relics (the sort of thing that's already familiar from Disneyland itself, if on a smaller scale). The cartoons will survive, of course; it's the Silly Symphony Swings that will probably come to be seen as a superfluous embarrassment, sooner rather than later.
Walt Disney's life is probably not a "theme" that large numbers of thrill seekers are going to respond to, and trying to make it such looks like a desperate effort to salvage a park that was a bad idea to begin with. Walt's life deserves to be celebrated, but through films and exhibits like some of those that have been part of Disneyland and Walt Disney World over the years, and not through misconceived amusement-park rides that trivialize the man they supposedly honor.
October 18, 2008:
You know if you've read The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney that the Disney studio restricted women to certain jobs in the late 1930s and early '40s. As a handbook for potential employees put it:
All inking and painting of celluloids, and all tracing done in the Studio, is performed exclusively by a large staff of girls known as Inkers and Painters. This work, exacting in character, calls for great skill in the handling of pen and brush. This is the only department in the Disney Studio open to women artists.
I write on page 130 of the book: "The boundaries were not as rigid as that statement might suggest—Dorothy Ann Blank received screen credit as one of Snow White's writers, for instance—but the assumption was widespread that women were suited only for 'exacting' work, and not for animation."
As with almost everything else in the Disney studio, that assumption was rooted in Walt's own ideas. Was he a simple misogynist, or was something else involved?
He explained his thinking to the Washington Post columnist Hope Ridings Miller for an article published in that newspaper on December 2, 1943. It may be the fullest expression of Walt's attitude toward his women artists. He had arrived in Washington the day before, on his first visit to the capital in more than a year. (He had visited Washington five times in 1942, no small matter when cross-country travel was mostly by train and air travel much slower than today.) Miller wrote:
Mr. Disney is a living refutation of the the theory that all geniuses are high-strung, temperamental and generally "difficult" people. He's as natural, as easy to talk to, as warmly sympathetic as the proverbial boy next door to whom you used to tell your troubles. He speaks in measured tones, and he smiles with his eyes as well as his dark-mustached lips.
Proudly, he said that 170 of his former artists were now in the armed services and that 10 former women artists were either WACS or WAVES. Yes, there had been great difficulty in keeping his plant in production during wartime. He had taken on more women artists to replace the men ("There about 300 women on my staff now") but that step hadn't solved the problem.
"Very few women are good cartoonists, you know," he observed. No, I didn't know; hadn't thought about it, in fact. I wondered why.
Mr. Disney didn't know exactly why. "Women artists are wonderful at putting on those delicate finishing touches that are so important to animated cartoons," he said, quickly. "But the men handle the caricature part of the job much better."
Seems as if women artists have given Mr. Disney trouble in more ways than one. There's the problem—not only of getting competent ones, but also those who will stay on the job. "This is the way it works," he explained. "I hire a capable woman artist and put her to work. She turns out a nice job, and the men working around her begin to sit up and take notice. Soon they're taking too much notice ... and before I know it I can hear wedding bells ringing in the offing. In due course there's a marriage ... and then my able woman artist has her mind more on a home than on animated cartoons."
Now I wasn't to get him wrong, said Mr. Disney. He thought women—some women anyway—were mighty able at their jobs ... only they're apt not to stick with them long enough. And that was that.
(All of the ellipses are in the original article, by the way.)
There was a certain irony in what Walt said, because "caricature" of the sort he was talking about was already starting to diminish in the Disney cartoons, and "caricaturists" like Bill Tytla (who had left the studio ten months earlier) and Fred Moore were giving way to the likes of Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas, wonderful animators whose work tended to be straighter. But the full effects of that change would not be felt for years.
And the photo above? It was part of the advance publicity for The Reluctant Dragon. The caption reads in part: "To select the six best-looking studio girls for parts in his forthcoming 'The Reluctant Dragon,' which combines both live action and animated pictures, [Walt] held a contest among his girl artists, the six winners of which are to receive prominent parts in the live action sequences of the film. Helen Bradbury is shown as she stepped through the cut-out model as Walt Disney checks the list."
I was looking at the publicity still below, from the final sequence in the projection room, when I noticed Ted Sears, the veteran story man, sitting in the middle of the row behind Walt and Robert Benchley. The two men on either side of Sears are both maddeningly familiar, but I can't come up with their names. I'll keep trying to think of them (and I won't embarrass myself now by making any guesses), but in the meantime, if you can tell me who they are, please do.
This is probably old news, but what the film presents as rooms in the studio, like this one, were actually sets constructed for the live-action shooting; lighting problems foreclosed shooting in the studio itself.
October 16, 2008:
Harvey Deneroff, who is among other things an authority on labor relations in the animation industry, wrote in response to my October 6 item about Phil Klein:
Just a brief note to thank you for your piece on Phil Klein, which I very much enjoyed. I also interviewed him, though I had the pleasure of doing it at his home in New Jersey, which he built himself. I have never fully transcribed it, though I have recently digitized it, in preparation for doing so.
I agree with you [about] his view of the relationship between animation artists and the studios they work for. However, you must realize that animation artists during the 1930s were, on the whole, fairly young and perhaps a bit more susceptible to the glamor of working in the animation industry; older workers are more likely to have more family responsibilities and, of necessity, have to look at their job as a job.
That's an interesting thought, but I'm not sure how well it applies to the 1941 Disney strike, in particular, since many of the strikers were younger than their counterparts who crossed the picket line. I don't think that was because the older people who stayed in had stars in their eyes; I'm sure they were as worried about their livelihoods as the people who went out. But many of them had grown up in the business alongside Walt, and they knew what a difference he had made (especially if they had worked in other studios). Staying in was as much a vote of confidence in him and his future prospects as it was an expression of gratitude for his past accomplishments. The young strikers, on the other hand, had seen the studio's prospects, seemingly so bright in the wake of Snow White's success, nosedive in 1940-41. They had good reason to be more concerned about their jobs than about the future of the art form, especially given Walt's truculent refusal even to acknowledge the legitimacy of their fears.
Walt's Stump: Back on July 28, I wrote about the petrified stump that Walt Disney picked up in Colorado (as a rather unromantic anniversary gift for his wife) and installed in Disneyland. Now there's some evidence that that stump may be shrinking. I'm not sure how far I want to pursue this mysterious development, but you can learn the latest at this link.
Invitation to the Dance: B. Baker writes about my October 10 posting about the Gene Kelly MGM feature for which Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna provided animation:
I get your point about movie ballets—and even agree about the unctuous preciousness of the live action stuff in Invitation to the Dance—but I must insist that the genuinely entertaining "The Girl Hunt" ballet in The Band Wagon, which includes so many glimpses of Cyd Charisse's legs, not to mention Astaire's line, "Killers must die!" cannot be so readily dismissed as "pretentious."
I haven't seen The Band Wagon for a while—and my opinion of it goes through a 180-degree turn every time I see it—but, in any case, I didn't say "The Girl Hunt" was pretentious. I only said it was a "ballet" like those in An American in Paris and Invitation to the Dance. That seems to me indisputable, whether or not one considers any or all of those "ballets" to be pretentious.
Roy Lichtenstein's Lifts: I've only recently become aware of the remarkable research done by the artist David Barsalou in identifying almost all of the comic-book panels that served as sources for the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's famous paintings. You can see the evidence by going to Barsalou's Web site or to this Flickr page. To a remarkable extent, Lichtenstein simply copied his sources, producing canvases that now sell for millions of dollars—quite a bit more, if it need be said, than artists like George Tuska and Mike Sekowsky got for drawing the original panels. None of the comic-book publishers ever invoked copyright law against Lichtenstein, either.
There has always been an air of fraudulence clinging to most Pop artists, and Barsalou's detective work demonstrates perfectly why that has been so. What Lichtenstein did, by way of selection and minor alternation, seems like a very slender basis for assigning a value in the millions to his work; but, of course, since the art establishment has already done that, dislodging Lichtenstein and his colleagues from their pedestals will undoubtedly take decades, if not longer. I'm going tonight to the opening of a big Andy Warhol show at the Arkansas Arts Center, and Barsalou's "deconstruction" of Lichtenstein, as he calls it, will undoubtedly sharpen the inevitable skepticism of my response to Warhol's paintings.
And Speaking of Comics: Larry Latham, the animator and director who now lives in Oklahoma, and who has contributed his thoughts to this page occasionally, has launched a Web comic called "Lovecraft Is Missing." It's a handsome piece of work, beautifully colored and in its drawing style instantly evocative—for me, anyway—of luxurious, adult-themed European comic albums. Larry writes about it:
There will be six 24-page issues in all, and I'll be putting a few pages up every week for awhile. Later I think I'll switch to more pages every two weeks, but I'll cross that bridge when I get there. ... Even if you are not a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft, I think you will get a kick out of the story. It avoids all the hoary cliches of other Lovecraft comics, yet is grounded solidly in his work. He wrote a lot of stories without Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, and those play key roles in my adventure.
Lovecraft has never interested me at all, but Larry's story looks promising, and I've added it to my RSS feeds. So far as I can tell, Web comics haven't really caught on yet—at least not Web comics like this one, whose intended ultimate destination is surely print—but "Lovecraft Is Missing" may find an audience that other Web comics have missed.
Disney Animated Shorts: Patrick Malone, proprietor of the useful site called The Encyclopeda of Disney Animated Shorts, has launched a companion blog. You'll currently find there his ranking of the ten best Disney shorts. Your list would probably be different, but that's what's fun about lists.
WALL•E: I gave Pixar's latest feature a failing grade in my own review, so it seems only fair to point you toward a very thoughtful and much more sympathetic review by Stephen Rowley of Cinephobia. He raises some points that I hope to address in an essay here before long, although writing such longer pieces for this site is turning out to be frustratingly hard. Short pieces (like this one) tend to crowd out the time that I'd otherwise spend on something longer. That's not necessarily bad from a visitor's point of view—I hear complaints that my longer pieces, like the interviews, take too long to read—but it bothers me, since the longer pieces are usually much more satisfying to compose. There's a pleasure to be found in putting your thoughts in order in a long piece that piling up a lot of short items can't equal.
October 14, 2008:
I've now read The Perfect American, the Peter Stephan Jungk novel about Walt Disney that Philip Glass will transform into an opera, per my October 2 item. It is, to say the least, a strange book.
Considered simply as a piece of narrative carpentry, The Perfect American is very clumsily put together. The fictional narrator, Wilhelm Dantine—a Disney-obsessed, Austrian-born animator whom Walt supposedly fired in 1959—is superfluous at best and disappears from the story for long stretches. The book takes us inside Walt's head, but there's no suggestion that Walt has confided in Dantine or that Dantine has first-hand knowledge of the extended conversations and intensely private episodes he reports. Instead, there's the awkward pretense that he has excavated such information from other sources, most notably Hazel George, the studio nurse who was Walt's masseuse and confidante. I can't imagine why Jungk shunned that tried and true device, an omniscient narrator. His book would have gained greatly in plausibility if he had used one.
As it is, Wilhelm Dantine is so desperately unpleasant a character—especially during an unbelievable confrontation with Walt at his home in Holmby Hills—that it's tempting always to conclude that we're reading Dantine's delusions, and not what he actually knows about Walt. A good deal of what Jungk's Walt Disney says does indeed sound looney, but it's always clear that we're to take the looniness as Walt's, and not as Dantine's.
Contributing further to the intended sense of Dantine's reliability is the factual detail—loads of it, some of it accurate (Jungk studied Bob Thomas's biography closely, along with a lot of other sources), a lot of it inaccurate (to cite two small examples, Jungk doesn't understand what "drafts" are, and he confuses in-betweeners with inkers and painters), and a lot of it just made up, as with the nonexistent September 1966 visit to Marceline, Missouri, that opens the book. It's the emphasis on all this detail that is ultimately most disturbing; sometimes Jungk has Walt himself talking about his history for no other evident purpose than to make the author sound more knowledgeable and his book more authoritative.
The crux of my complaint against The Perfect American is that it marshals this apparent expertise to portray a Walt Disney who is far removed from the real Walt, as many people have described him and as I came to know him when I was researching and writing The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Jungk protested to me four years ago that The Perfect American "is full of admiration for the man and comes very close to his persona, believe me, without leaving some of the darker sides unmentioned," but that protest is disingenuous at best. Jungk's Walt is a tormented creep who is not only romantically involved with Hazel George but is sexually obsessed with his adopted daughter, Sharon. He is, of course, a racist, a misogynist, and an anti-Semite, too. I came away from The Perfect American thinking that I had read not about a Walt Disney who in any way resembled the real man, but about Walt Disney as he might have been imagined by Nathanael West (if that brilliant writer had been as irresponsible as Peter Stephan Jungk).
The Perfect American didn't get a lot of attention when it was published four years ago, and its bizarre portrayal of Walt might have slipped quietly into the remainder bins if the book had not somehow been adopted by Philip Glass as the subject of an opera. That Glass could think well of so obviously bad a book baffles and disturbs me, but I guess by this point in my life I shouldn't be surprised by any expression of disdain for Walt and his works.
On the dust jacket there's this praise for Jungk's book from Kirkus Reviews: "Sharp as a razor: The Perfect American says more about Disney, and the seduction of megalomania, than a stack of biographies." The Perfect American may indeed say "more about Disney" than biographies like mine, but a great deal of what it says is false. I wish more people, including Philip Glass, thought that mattered. At least I can hope that Glass's opera will succeed as a piece of music, whatever its shortcomings as biography. I will certainly want to be in the audience when the New York City Opera presents it four or five years from now.
The photograph above is of Walt Disney in 1937. I'm welcome your thoughts on the circumstances of the shoot; I can't even guess where he was.
October 10, 2008:
I've been organizing my photos recently—they fill five file drawers—and I keep coming across things I think would be fun to share. This publicity still taken during the filming of Gene Kelly's MGM feature Invitation to the Dance (1956), for instance. MGM's caption says it shows Kelly on the set, "explaining an intricate detail of his unique 'Sinbad the Sailor' cartoon sequence ... to a group of technical experts working with him on the film set." Two of those unidentified "technical experts" are, from the left, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, who directed the animation for the "Sinbad" sequence. I don't know the names of the other two "experts."
Kelly appears to be holding story or layout sketches for the "Sinbad" sequence. In that sequence, he dances to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade in combination with about twenty minutes of impressively expert animation. There's no sign of Tom or Jerry, and "Sinbad the Sailor" isn't as purely ingratiating as the combination sequence in Kelly's earlier MGM musical Anchors Aweigh, but it certainly succeeds better than the other two sequences in Invitation to the Dance. Those sequences are wholly live-action "ballets"—both of them rather pretentious—like those in An American in Paris and The Band Wagon.
October 6, 2008:
Last summer I read a New Republic review of a book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by the left-wing journalist Naomi Klein. She is a Canadian writer and activist, the leader for years now of the extreme left's resistance to globalization. The reviewer, Jonathan Chait, said that her achievement "has been to revive economicism—and more grandiosely, materialism—as the central locus of left-wing politics," after years in which such politics withdrew "almost entirely into academica and other liberal enclaves, which it ruthlessly policed for any dissent from the verities of multiculturalism dogma and identity politics."
Chait identified as "the distinctive thing about Klein's style ... that it was very Old Left. She has a classic Marxist-materialist analysis, arguing that economic conditions, rather than bigotry or ideology, are what shape the world," so that the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, becomes a product not of centuries-old religious and ethnic antagonisms but of Israeli corporations' determining that "building blast walls and bomb detectors" was "more profitable than living in peace."
As for where that distinctive style came from, Klein herself suggested an answer in her earlier book, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, in which she wrote: "My late grandfather, Philip Klein, who worked as an animator for Walt Disney, taught me a valuable lesson early in life: always look for the dirt behind the shine."
Phil Klein was the younger brother of the better-known animator I. Klein, who worked for Disney in the '30s but spent most of his career in the New York studios. Phil worked at Disney's from 1937 to 1942, and he had just become an animator at the time of the 1941 Disney strike. He was among the strikers and lost his job—he was "declared surplus," as he put it—soon after. He eventually wound up animating for Famous Studios in Manhattan and having lunch with his brother (by then a writer for the Famous cartoons) almost every day.
I interviewed Phil by phone in 1997, when I was wrapping up Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I didn't make a full transcript, and my notes don't reflect this directly, but I have a strong recollection that Phil was unique among the animation people I interviewed in this respect: he seemed to take for granted that an unbridgeable gulf separated the interests of the workers at a studio like Disney's from the interests of the studio's owners. Not even Dave Hilberman spoke in such stark terms. More often, the people who criticized Walt harshly, like Art Babbitt, were giving voice to a sense that he had betrayed their shared ambitions and ideals. (Walt felt the same way about the strikers, of course, but if you've read The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, you'll understand why I think the strikers had the better of the argument.)
Most of the people working at Disney's—and no one more than Walt himself—cared a great deal about what wound up on the screen. When owners and employees share that kind of commitment, the inevitable sources of friction in a vast collaborative enterprise diminish in importance. The goals were less elevated at studios like Leon Schlesinger's, but there was much the same willingness to accommodate one another's needs. For leftists like Phil Klein, though, bosses of any kind were the enemy, no matter how benevolent or creative.
Curiously, thinking like Phil Klein's would seem to fit today's animation industry better than it fit the animation industry of 1941. Does anyone at DreamWorks Animation feel a real community of interest with Jeffrey Katzenberg? Does anyone at the Disney studio think that Robert Iger dreams of making great animated films, as many of his employees do? Pixar has always seemed the exception, but how much of that exceptionalism has been hype? We really don't know the answer yet, but in any case, the steady deterioration in Pixar's output, Brad Bird's films aside, has made it ever more difficult to think of John Lasseter as any sort of inspirational leader. When Lasseter turned up earlier this year shilling for what looks to be a perfectly awful new movie starring Tinker Bell, I couldn't feel the least surprise or disappointment.
Whenever I read the Animation Guild's invaluable blog, my thought always is this: However enjoyable the work itself may be for today's animation artists—and that's not at all a small thing—I can't imagine that anyone employed in the Hollywood studios can feel anything like the sympathy and respect for the boss that was the norm at Disney's seventy years ago. The problem is that a lot of people come into the field having a pretty good idea of what it was like to work for Walt Disney then, and hoping or even expecting to find a similar environment at today's studios. They never do.
It's surely for that reason that so many posts at animation blogs and message boards range in tone from naïvete to childish resentment to the nastiest sort of cynicism, or, worse, all of the preceding combined. Compared with that sort of angry and self-pitying noise, Phil Klein's cold hostility toward his bosses, the kind of hostility that led him always to look for "the dirt behind the shine," seems almost admirable.
I've been digging in my files without success for a photo of Phil Klein. He's probably in one of many photos from the Disney strike, but I can't identify him. So the illustration here is a caricature of Walt and Gunther Lessing, the Disney studio's attorney, from the strikers' mimeographed newspaper, On The Line. The drawing—there was one like it in every issue—is most likely by Dan Noonan.
° Comments from visitors continued to come in while I was away last month, and you can find some of the most interesting of them on the Feedback pages devoted to Japanese features and Pixar and DreamWorks features. Clicking on the links will take you to the most recent postings on those pages.
° Filmation, producer of lots of forgettable television cartoons in the '70s, is not a studio mentioned here very often, but the blogger with this email address, proprietor of the "Daily Gripe" blog, is seeking some answers about Journey Back to Oz, a Filmation theatrical feature released in 1971 and seen on TV soon thereafter. I couldn't be of any help, but maybe you can. You'll find his questions, and a lot of information about Journey Back to Oz, at this link.
° Another request for information, this one from Mike Tennant: "Do you happen to know for whom Ludwig von Drake was named? There seems to be some confusion on the Internet as to whether he was named for economist Ludwig von Mises or composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Of course, it's possible he wasn't really named for anyone in particular." I'd guess that the latter is correct, but I can't recall ever hearing one way or the other.
October 2, 2008:
My computer has been doing strange things lately (losing files, for example), perhaps as a result of the way local power and cable lines got kicked around by a couple of passing hurricanes. I've been running various diagnostic/repair programs in the hope of curing what ails the machine and heading off any worse problems; that's why the site has been so quiet the last few days.
[October 10 update: Here's a functioning link to reviews of The Perfect American.]
The New York Times ran this item on Wednesday:
When you think of great pop artists known for serving up cheerful, Technicolor slices of Americana, the name of Philip Glass ... is perhaps not the first that comes to mind. Nonetheless, New York City Opera has commissioned him to write a new work about Walt Disney, City Opera announced on Monday. The work, “The Perfect American,” will be an adaptation of Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel “Der König von Amerika,” an account of the life and career of Disney told from the point of view of a fictional animator named Wilhelm Dantine. The premiere is scheduled to open the 2012-13 season of the City Opera; a production of Mr. Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach” is scheduled for its 2009-10 season.
Perhaps that title, The Perfect American, rings a bell with a few of my longtime readers. Here's some of what I wrote about the book in August 2004:
The Perfect American, a "fictionalized biography" of Walt Disney by Peter Stephan Jungk, was published last spring and has been receiving fitful attention from reviewers. A selection of those reviews, including Ron Charles's in the Christian Science Monitor and Richard Schickel's in the Los Angeles Times, is available at this [no longer functioning link].
I haven't read the book, and don't intend to. I don't object to "fictionalized biographies" in principle—Disney himself made any number of films, like the Davy Crockett TV shows, that fall squarely in that category—but I've read nothing to indicate that Jungk's intention was to revivify Walt, by imagining what the real human being was like. Instead, he seems to have erected a straw man, one who recites this utterly preposterous prayer each morning in bed: "I am a leader, a pioneer, I am one of the great men of our time. More people in the world know my name than that of Jesus Christ. ... I have created a universe. My fame will outlast the centuries."
Predictably, Schickel has taken the bait, writing this of Disney as he was late in his life: "[N]ow, a few grouchy intellectuals aside, everything he touched seemed wonderful to the world. And everything he touched turned to gold—nevermind [sic] that the fairy tales he retold on the screen had been robbed of their essential darkness and terror. Or that his nature films replaced the animal kingdom's Darwinian struggles for survival with the chipper cuddlesomeness that was the Magic Kingdom's hallmark. Or that his theme park rubbed the rawness out of human experience and drew mouse ears and smiley faces on the resultant blank spots." And so on, and on.
Such is, alas, today's world of book chat, in which, too often, a review consists of one literary charlatan ruminating or rhapsodizing over the offenses of another. Where Walt Disney is concerned, the pattern is always the same: exaggerate Disney's importance to American culture, minimize or ignore his real accomplishments, and over-simplify, to make dismissing it easier, everything in his work that invites doubt or question. (For example, the True-Life Adventures are open to criticism on many points, but if there's any "chipper cuddlesomeness" in White Wilderness, it's certainly not in the chilling footage showing a savage wolverine scaling a tree to kill a helpless fledgling osprey.) Finally, of course, Disney must be condemned, on scanty evidence, for anti-Semitism and a multitude of other sins.
To my surprise, I received this message a couple of months later from the author:
dear mr. barrier, i just read your remarks re. my book on your blog. i truly believe that you should have a look at my novel, you will see that it portrays walt in a much more appealing manner than you seem to think. it is
full of admiration for the man and comes very close to his persona, believe me, without leaving some of the darker sides unmentioned. but it certainly isn't a marc eliot-revisited. ... so, perhaps you will give it a second thought. kind regards, peter stephan jungk
I suggested to Jungk that he ask his publisher to send me a review copy, but I never received one. I had forgotten about the book until I saw the reports of Glass's opera project, first in Variety and then in the Times and the New York Post (thanks, Robin Johnson). Used copies are plentiful now on amazon.com, fortunately, so I can satisfy my curiosity without enriching either Jungk or his publisher. Perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised when I read The Perfect American, although the amazon reviewers' comments (see especially those by Don Peri, author of the outstanding interview collection Working with Walt) suggest that my 2004 misgivings were fully justified. Stay tuned.
Oh, and the opera? I'll reserve judgment. Even if Jungk's book is a stinker, that doesn't mean Philip Glass won't be able to make something wonderful out of it. I'll certainly want to see his version of The Perfect American when City Opera offers it four or five years from now.