March 31, 2009:
March 28, 2009:
March 27, 2009:
March 19, 2009:
March 18, 2009:
March 11, 2009:
March 9, 2009:
March 5, 2009:
March 4, 2009:
March 3, 2009:
March 2, 2009:
March 31, 2009:
On January 29, I posted Walt Kelly's version of "The Three Little Pigs," from a 1943 Dell comic book called Tiny Tots Comics. That title lasted only one issue, but another Dell title to which Kelly contributed had a longer life. That was Fairy Tale Parade, and I'm posting here a story called "Prince Robin and the Dwarfs," from the ninth issue, published in 1944. Compare the two stories and you'll see immediately that the later story has a much more Kellyish flavor; by this time he had gotten his sea legs as a comic-book artist, and his writing and drawing are more spontaneous and assured than they were even a year or two earlier. This story will be included in the Toon Treasury anthology of classic children's comic-book stories, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, that I've mentioned here a couple of times before. The scans I'm posting here are the ones that I sent to Art when he was seeking candidates for the book; the published scans will lack my scans' rough edges.
My copy of Fairy Tale Parade No. 9 is in fact in Art Spiegelman's hands, for scanning of "Prince Robin," so as a link to the index page for that story I'm using the cover of Fairy Tale Parade No. 1, published in 1942 and illustrated entirely by Kelly, as some of his first work for Oskar Lebeck, the editor who packaged comic books for Dell at Western Printing & Lithographing Company's New York offices. The inside front cover includes this remarkable text, probably written by Lebeck, that embodies some unusual hopes and ambitions for a comic book:
"Fairy Tale Parade is an attempt to bring to young and old a series of picture books of folk tales and stories of many lands—not as a shortcut to reading but in the hope of instilling the desire to read and re-read the fairy taes, legends and myths of bygone days.
"Often we have longed for more pictures in our favorite fairy tale book. Now Walt Kelly, the artist who drew all the wonderful pictures in this book, makes our wish come true. So, let us go with him into the land of trolls and wicked witches.
"Let us tip-toe through enchanted palaces past deep dungeons where iron chains clank and rattle, meet giants and tiny dwarfs. Let's step into the fairy ring and meet the little people."
You can also get to the index page for "Prince Robin," and from there to the individual pages of the story, by clicking on this link.
March 28, 2009:
I mentioned earlier this year the Toon Treasury that Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly are assembling for Abrams; it will be a collection of classic children's comic-book stories, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. They're looking for a couple of comic books to borrow long enough to make high-quality scans of some of the stories. The comics in question are Jingle Jangle No. 6 and Laffy Daffy Comics No. 1, both from the mid-'40s. If anyone has either of those comics and is willing to lend, please let me know, and I'll pass the word to Art and Françoise.
There have been a couple of fascinating discussions under way about the re-use of animation by Woolie Reitherman (in his 1970s Disney features) and Bob Clampett (in his 1940s Warner cartoons) at Mark Mayerson's blog and Thad Komorowski's, respectively. In both cases, supporting videos document just how extensive such re-use was. As to why those directors resorted so heavily to re-use, the obvious answer is "to save money," and in Reitherman's case, at least, the figures seem to support that answer.
I have all the official budget figures for the Disney features from the "Walt era," and Reitherman's re-use apparently did pay off in those terms: The Sword in the Stone cost an official $2,961,196, about half of Sleeping Beauty's disastrously large total, and The Jungle Book cost $3,871,030, still a lot under Sleeping Beauty's cost. I don't have a precise figure for The Aristocats or Robin Hood, but the totals were probably comparable; publicity releases said that Aristocats had a budget of around $4 million.
I feel sure that what the Disney brass, Walt included, most liked about Woolie's re-use was not that it saved money (if in fact it did, given the extensive redrawing required), but that it seemed as though you could see money being saved. Walt and any number of other people who were passing judgment on Woolie's work would have recognized most re-use instantly, and we have to assume they liked what they saw. After all, Woolie's great talent as a director was not knowing how to make good films but knowing how to please the boss.
I'm still wrestling with the best way to post comments on this site, given that I want it to be something other than a standard-issue blog, and given too that I don't want to foreclose routing a comment to what seems to be the most appropriate of several possible locations—a Feedback page, a stand-alone item on this page, or an addition to such an item. In the meantime, let me direct your attention to some comments I've appended to items I posted here recently—by Dana Gabbard and Ricardo Cantoral in response to my post on Watchmen, and by Dan Briney in response to my post about animation acting and Bill Tytla. I don't get a lot of comments, but I flatter myself that most of the comments I do receive are far more intelligent and thoughtful than the average blog comment, and I think the comments I've just posted are excellent examples.
March 27, 2009:
I've been away the last few days, revisiting New Orleans and making first visits to some other points south. That's Jackson Square in New Orleans above, in beautiful weather last Sunday. If you've never been to New Orleans, go soon, before the next hurricane.
I'd planned to watch Turner Classic Movies' March 24 binge of Chuck Jones cartoons by DVR after I got home, but as it happened, I was able to watch everything, Phantom Tollbooth excepted, at a Hampton Inn in Mississippi. The selection of cartoons was peculiar, to say the least. Why sandwich three real classics—the wonderful Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening and the overrated but impressive What's Opera, Doc?—between a half dozen mostly early, mostly weak Warner cartoons and the two most atypical of Jones's MGM cartoons? One of those MGM cartoons, The Dot and the Line, is more Maurice Noble's film than Chuck's (why wasn't Noble mentioned sometime during the evening?), and the other, The Bear That Wasn't, is simply dreadful (an opinion I share with Frank Tashlin, who wrote the book and hated the cartoon). I could never figure out who was the target audience for this very mixed bag of shorts. And why were so many of them presented in inferior, unrestored versions?
My attention wandered as I watched Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood, the half-hour documentary by Peggy Stern and John Canemaker that opened the evening. Jones in the extensive interview clips is considerably older than we've seen him in other films of this sort (he was interviewed not long before his death, at the age of 89, in 2002), but his anecdotes are almost all retreads from earlier documentaries or his own writings. What is most distinctive is the prevailing tone, which is amplified by the music and by Canemaker's animation based on Jones's sketches: soft and sentimental, rambling and nostalgic.
Jones certainly preferred to present himself as a sweet, kindly old gent, but he was, if anything, even more fiercely egotistical in old age than he was as a young director, when he harnessed his powerful ego to the making of brilliant short cartoons. It was my bruising encounters with Chuck's ego that led me finally to cut off contact with him during the last sixteen years of his life; I've written about the decisive episode at this link. At one point in the new documentary, Chuck offers what he says is a quotation from Gertrude Stein: "Artists don't need criticism, artists need love." Maybe Stein said it, maybe she didn't; I haven't found a reliable source. But Chuck certainly believed it. The problem was in his case, as I wrote more than a year ago, that he had ceased to be an artist, in any meaningful sense, long before his death.
Robert Osborne's introductions were for the most part accurate, but there seems to be no laying to rest the tired idea that the characters Egghead and Elmer Fudd were the same, or, more precisely, that Egghead became Elmer. They were always different.
March 19, 2009:
Back on January 4, I posted a couple of photos of Walt Disney on shipboard, and asked for help in establishing when and where they were taken. Subsequently, thanks to evidence provided by John Donaldson and other visitors to the site, it became obvious that both photos were taken aboard the Santa Clara, the ship that brought Walt and Lillian Disney and eight of Walt's employees from Valparaiso, Chile, through the Panama Canal to New York City at the end of Walt's triumphant two-month visit to South America in 1941. The Santa Clara left Valparaiso on October 4, 1941, and docked at 16th Street in New York on the morning of Monday, October 20; the two photos I posted were probably taken that morning. [A November 13, 2009, update: Later that day, according to an itinerary in the U.S. National Archives, RKO Radio Pictures held a cocktail reception for Walt and the other members of his party at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where they met Latin American consuls and members of the press.]
Walt was in New York for about a week (his desk calendar shows him away from the studio through Monday, October 27), and while he was in Manhattan he gave interviews to the New York Times (twice), Variety, The New Yorker, and no doubt other publications that I haven't seen yet. He told the Times that he had been particularly impressed by Buenos Aires, which he said had "the cleanest subways I've ever seen." But his most pressing business in New York was not to talk about his South American trip but to promote his newest film, Dumbo.
Dumbo followed Fantasia into the Broadway Theater, the old Colony, the theater where Steamboat Willie had made its debut in 1928. Fantasia closed its run of nearly a year with two showings on Tuesday, October 21, the day after Walt's return. I've wondered if Walt saw Fantasia one more time before it closed, but I don't know of any record that he did. To judge from his cool comments about the film in The New Yorker, he may have been ready to put Fantasia behind him. The advertising for Dumbo proclaimed it "Walt Disney's funniest full-length feature," not a statement Walt or anyone else would have made about Fantasia.
Dumbo had its world premiere the following Thursday evening, October 23, a benefit performance for a charitable organization called the Vocational Service for Juniors. (Did they move the Fantasound equipment out of the Broadway in less than two days? Evidently.) New York's governor, Herbert Lehman, and his wife were scheduled to attend, along with eighteen soldiers stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, all of whom had worked at the Disney studio. Continuous performances began Friday morning at 9:30, and, of course, Dumbo went on to become one of Walt's greatest successes, critically and financially as well as artistically.
The premiere was a black-tie affair, as you can see from the photo above, which was taken at a party, I don't know where, after the show. According to a "snipe" attached to my copy of the photo, the four Western Union messengers are delivering a singing telegram, "Happy Premiere to You," or some equivalent.
But check out the mugs on those messenger "boys"! Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall were a couple of wusses compared with these guys, and the one on the right must have given William Demarest lessons in how to be William Demarest. If I'd seen them converging on my table, my first impulse would've been to say, "Here's my wallet, please don't hurt me." And hey, Walt does have his hand in his pocket, doesn't he?
March 18, 2009:
Earlier this month, I posted an Essay page devoted to two 1931 photos of the "music rooms" at the Disney studio. In one photo a portrait of Victor Herbert hangs on the wall; in the other, a portrait of Franz Schubert. Both composers' portraits, I wrote, were probably painted by Emil Flohri, the principal Disney background painter in the early to mid-1930s.
Thanks to Gunnar Andreassen, I have removed the "probably" from that page. Gunnar located the image above at flickr.com. Hung in a place of honor at the Disney studio almost eighty years ago, Flohri's portrait of Schubert is now gathering dust in a Disney prop warehouse.
A photo of Flohri himself, in the company of his assistant Carlos Manriquez, turned up recently on eBay, but sold, alas, for a price beyond my reach. The copy of the photo on the eBay page was unfortunately fuzzy, but here it is, courtesy again of Gunnar Andreassen, looking as good as I could make it:
Flohri was, as you might guess from the photo, considerably older than most of his very young colleagues at the Disney studio. He was born in Roanoke, Virginia, on October 27, 1869, just four years after the end of the Civil War, and so was more than thirty years older than Walt Disney himself. He was well known as a political cartoonist in the early years of the twentieth century, and it was for that role he was remembered in obituaries in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, both papers saying that his cartoons had helped William McKinley defeat William Jennings Bryan in the presidential campaign of 1900. I haven't been able to find one of those cartoons, but here is a 1905 example of Flohri's cartooning, found again by the indefatigable Gunnar Andreassen on a Library of Congress Web page:
The cartoon appeared in Judge; here's what it's about:
"Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews!"
In this print, which appeared after a 1905 pogrom in Kishinev, a "Russian Jew" carries on his back a large bundle labeled "Oppression"; hanging from the bundle are weights labeled "Autocracy," "Robbery," "Cruelty," "Assassination," "Deception," and "Murder." In the background, on the right, a Jewish community burns, while in the upper left corner, President Theodore Roosevelt asks the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, "Now that you have peace without, why not remove his burden and have peace within your borders?"
According to the obituaries, Flohri joined the staff of Leslie's Magazine when he was just sixteen years old and became its Washington political cartoonist and illustrator, presumably not right away. Various publications bore the Leslie's label over the years, but Flohri drew for the one best known as Leslie's Weekly; his daughter married the son of the Weekly's editor in 1914. The Weekly (whose owners also published Judge) died in 1922, and its demise may have spurred Flohri to move to Los Angeles (the obituaries say, however, that he moved in 1920). Flohri worked as a portrait painter of silent movie stars in the twenties, and he joined the Disney staff on March 19, 1930 (the obituaries say, incorrectly, that he joined the staff in 1928). He died on December 24, 1938, at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys; he was 69 years old.
..with various subjects broached here recently.
Coraline: I've written a fair amount here about this remarkable stop-motion film, and now Bill Benzon has posted an exceptionally interesting short piece about it, pointing out its similarities—which have gone unremarked otherwise, to my knowledge—to Miyazaki's Spirited Away.
Color and 3-D: There's been some talk here and at other sites about 3-D, its virtues and shortcomings, and about the color changes—what Michael Sporn has called the grey-greening of the image—that occur when a 3-D film is viewed through polarized glasses. Oswald Iten wrote with some intriguing thoughts about those subjects, and I've added them to my Feedback page on computer-animated films. You can go straight to his comments by clicking here.
Impermanence: Michael L. Jones wrote in response to my recent post about the evanescence of the internet:
You and Jeff Pepper might both be interested to know about a couple of things if you haven’t seen them already. There is an nonprofit that runs a website whose job it is to catalog and store copies of the Web over time. It’s the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, online at web.archive.org. The Wayback Machine shows archived copies of michaelbarrier.com back as far as 2003, though it seems to have dropped off in early 2008 for some reason (though it takes about six months for new archives to show up. There are a few limitations, in that it doesn’t always grab copies of images, but in general most of it is there. Jeff’s blog doesn’t fare as well. I don’t know if that’s because it’s Blogger site, or what other criteria they use for it. They also offer a service called Archive-IT which is done in partnership with museums and such.
Magoo's Christmas Carol: Darrell Van Citters writes:
I’m pleased to report that the book on the making of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol has now gone to press. If all goes well, advance copies will be available at the 2009 San Diego Comic Con, July 23-26 with a wide release in the fall. Events to support the book launch are in the works on both coasts with the intent to reach as wide an audience as possible. If you know anyone who would be interested in receiving updates on the book, please have them forward their e-mail address to me.
You can write to Darrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can't recall seeing this television show (which preceded the first Peanuts Christmas special by three years), but I'm impressed by the work Darrell has put into this book, and I'm looking forward to reading it.
I've tried to adhere to a middle path, adopting the practices of blogs when I could do so without compromising the fundamental character of the site, which is reflected in the stand-alone pages devoted to reviews, essays, interviews, and the like. I want this site to feel more like a library than a newspaper. I've decided to pick up one blog practice, though, by adding a link that leads to comments after each item that has inspired those comments. You'll find the first such link following my March 11 item called "Watchers of Watchmen." The comments themselves are on the "What's New" archive page for the current month. I'll continue to add messages to my Feedback page, too, when they seem to fit better there.
I haven't seen the new superhero movie Watchmen, and I doubt that I will. I've read the Alan Moore graphic novel on which the movie is based—read it twice, actually, the first time month by month as the original comic books appeared in the 1980s, and again in 2004, when Watchmen was being cited as an inspiration for Brad Bird's Incredibles. I disliked Watchmen intensely both times, and since the movie is from all reports an awkward attempt to be faithful to its source, I can't think of a reason to waste almost three hours of my life on it.
A lot of critics have been cool to the film, but what has been most gratifying has been that some of them have looked past it to the graphic novel, and instead of nodding to the book as a "classic"—another form of the condescension so familiar where the comics are concerned—have scorned it as the piece of pretentious junk that it is. Here, for example, is A. O. Scott in The New York Times:
The infliction of pain is rendered [in the film] in intimate and precise aural and visual detail, from the noise of cracking bones and the gushers of blood and saliva to the splattery deconstruction of entire bodies. But brutality is not merely part of [the director Zack] Snyder's repertory of effects; it is more like a cause, a principle, an ideology. And his commitment to violence brings into relief the shallow nihilism that has always lurked beneath the intellectual pretensions of [the Moore] “Watchmen.” The only action that makes sense in this world—the only sure basis for ethics or politics, the only expression of love or loyalty or conviction—is killing. And the dramatic conflict revealed, at long last, in the film’s climactic arguments is between a wholesale, idealistic approach to mass death and one that is more cynical and individualistic. This idea is sickening but also, finally, unpersuasive, because it is rooted in a view of human behavior that is fundamentally immature, self-pitying and sentimental. Perhaps there is some pleasure to be found in regressing into this belligerent, adolescent state of mind. But maybe it’s better to grow up.
Likewise Anthony Lane in The New Yorker:
“Watchmen”... harbors ambitions of political satire, and, to be fair, it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear—deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation—is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along. The problem is that Snyder, following Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon. The result is perfectly calibrated for its target group: nobody over twenty-five could take any joy from the savagery that is fleshed out onscreen, just as nobody under eighteen should be allowed to witness it. You want to see Rorschach swing a meat cleaver repeatedly into the skull of a pedophile, and two dogs wrestle over the leg bone of his young victim? Go ahead. You want to see the attempted rape of a superwoman, her bright latex costume cast aside and her head banged against the baize of a pool table? The assault is there in Moore’s book, one panel of which homes in on the blood that leaps from her punched mouth, but the pool table is Snyder’s own embroidery. You want to hear Moore’s attempt at urban jeremiad? “This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard; either way, it makes it directly into the movie, as one of Rorschach’s voice-overs. (And still the adaptation won’t be slavish enough for some.) Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights. In the end, with a gaping pit where New York used to be, most of the surviving Watchmen agree that the loss of the Eastern Seaboard was a small price to pay for global peace. Incoherent, overblown, and grimy with misogyny, “Watchmen” marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?
The idea of a serious superhero story, in a comic book or as a movie, is hopelessly oxymoronic. We've had plenty of evidence of that over the last fifty years, starting with the solemn pseudo-science of the DC "Silver Age" titles of the '50s and '60s, on through the socially self-conscious Green Lantern-Green Arrow series in the '70s, and then, as the Comics Code died, and its taboos with it, the horrific violence in the Moore and Frank Miller titles, among too many others. All to no avail. Superheroes are to have fun with; give them serious work to do, and they simply look foolish, or repulsive, or, as in Watchmen, both.
From "Rubi-kun": I'm not a fan of Watchmen's influence on superhero comics, but neither is Alan Moore. In an interview with Wired, he stated this about the current state of the superhero: "I have to say that I haven't seen a comic, much less a superhero comic, for a very, very long time now—years, probably almost a decade since I've really looked at one closely. But it seems to be that things that were meant satirically or critically in Watchmen now seem to be simply accepted as kind of what they appear to be on the surface. So yeah, I'm pretty jaundiced about the entire 'caped crusader' concept at the moment."
I think Moore's a pretty good writer. Watchmen's not my favorite work of his, I probably prefer For the Man Who Has Everything or V for Vendetta, but I wouldn't call it "pretentious junk." The whole alternate history is filled with clever ideas, and Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are very interesting characters, albeit disturbing in the former's case and strange in the latter's case. I liked that it was more of a "What would real people be like thrown into a crazy superhero world?" rather than the "What would superheroes be like thrown into the real world?" thing that's been overdone. I can't say it's the most entertaining book in the world, but it's smart enough to criticize rather than revel in the "foolishness" and "repulsiveness" of its characters.
Frank Miller's work is pretty bad over all, but I do defend The Dark Knight Returns. A lot of the fun of superheroes is their craziness. Miller didn't so much as add "seriousness" to Batman as much as use more serious elements to highlight the craziness of the scenarios. I guess it could be considered a guilty pleasure, but I'm not the type to be guilty about what I like, especially when it's so artistically impressive.
MB replies: I think Anthony Lane's review, quoted above, says all that needs to be said about the "satirical" content of Watchmen. And I will concede this much about Miller's Dark Knight, it is at least more honest than the film that resembles it so closely. Miller's Batman kills the Joker with his bare hands; the film's Batman adheres to a no-killing code of conduct that makes absolutely no sense under the circumstances, except as a means of preserving the Joker intact for a sequel (ironically so, in the light of Heath Ledger's death).
[Posted March 18, 2009]
From Dana Gabbard: I appreciate your thoughts (and those of A.O. Scott you quote) in re Watchmen the comic book. I haven't seen the movie and am not overly worried if it vanishes from theaters before I bestir myself to do so. I remember being very unimpressed with the storyline, especially the "big secret" as revealed in the last issue. I agree with Scott's qualms about the underlying philosophy and must add it just seems rather far-fetched that a transparent stunt would change history. Only someone of an immature mindset would accept such could happen. My theory is the middle issues and their successive biographical studies of the core characters are the reason the series is remembered despite its flaws. They carry you along even as you grow to suspect the plot is fizzling out.
If you have to point to an example of mature handling of Superheroes that deserves respect I would say Kingdom Come of some years ago is a better choice. It has many of the trappings and probably is overly impressed with its cleverness but does touch on some authentic human emotions and asks questions about the very idea of beings of this sort. It didn't leave me disappointed the way Watchmen did.
From Ricardo Cantoral: I was just reading your reply to Rubi-Kun and I need to correct you on a few things. In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman does not kill the Joker. During that final confrontation, Batman was about to break the Joker's neck and he couldn't go through with it so Joker finished the job himself so he could frame Batman for his own murder.
Also Christopher Nolan was definitely not following Miller's graphic novel. His Batman films drew heavily from Jeph Loeb's The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, in both of which Batman upheld his no-killing policy. Nolan used the title The Dark Knight because he wanted to show that Batman was not a hero; heroes are admired, and he was anything but, so Batman's being dubbed a "Dark Knight" was more fitting: someone who strives for justice but is not popular with the public he protects.
MB replies: I appreciate the correction on The Dark Knight Returns—I should have taken the time to pull that book off the shelf rather than trusting to my memory of that final confrontation between Batman and Joker. I haven't read the Loeb stories, both of which are available in trade paperback at amazon.com's Jeph Loeb Store, but I don't doubt that Ricardo's description is accurate.
[Posted March 28, 2009]
March 9, 2009:
...or emails, actually, on a variety of subjects, among them:
Walt on the Radio. Andrew Leal wrote in response to my March 4 update on the photo of Walt Disney with the child actress Mary Lou Harrington and the NBC announcer Joy Storm. I assigned a date of December 8, 1941, to the photo, on the basis of the date in a listing of the photo on eBay, but as Andrew explains, that was not the date of the broadcast involved:
Mary Lou Harrington's name instantly rang a bell; she was an active radio performer who frequently played little girl roles on Lux Radio Theater. I did some checking, and the broadcast with Harrington and Walt Disney matches collector/historian J. David Goldin's description of The Treasury Hour for November 18, 1941. The Treasury Hour, which was government sponsored and indeed designed to sell defense bonds (as they were still termed at that point), premiered in July 1941, five months before Pearl Harbor. It was broadcast over NBC's "Blue Network." Supposedly appearing "from the Walt Disney Studio in Hollywood," Walt and Harrington interacted in a segment that also introduced Casey Jr., the Dumbo train, as well as established characters like Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Grumpy. They promoted Dumbo with songs and skit excerpts.
John Dunning's invaluable On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio yields the additional information that The Treasury Hour was first broacast over CBS, as a variety hour called Millions for Defense; it was a summer fill-in for Fred Allen's Texaco Star Theater. When Allen returned to the air in September, Millions for Defense changed its name to The Treasury Hour and moved to the Blue Network, where it was broadcast on Tuesdays until December 23, 1941. So now you know.
Ten Years of Hollywood Cartoons. On March 3, I noted that it had been ten years since publication of my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I received congratulatory messages from several people, including Harry McCracken and the wonderful Danish animator Børge Ring, whose messages always make me smile. He wrote: "I met your book in Gene Deitch's home in Prague. Gene handed it to me, I opened it and was lost to the business meeting we were there for. They ripped me loose when we had to go to the airport." Daniel Hegarty sent me a thoughtful message that I've added to my Feedback page on Hollywood Cartoons, with some thoughts of my own.
I think Coraline is a marvel of technology—it is truly astonishing. I also think that they used the 3-D effect well to establish a world that existed beyond a two-dimensional plane. I loved the environment Selick created. The trees, the skies, the grounds... I felt the characters themselves were less appealing—especially the boy who was Coraline's friend. The way he moved and stood and held his head to the side, he seemed to be "broken." But there was incredible nuance and subtlety in the style of facial acting. I loved that there weren't a billion characters on the screen at all times. I liked the "smallness" of the story, although I wasn't convinced by the story itself. I felt that there were too many easy answers and, even though I thought the film was too long, it seemed that it wrapped up too quickly and easily. As a film experience I felt Coraline was astonishing. As a film I found it less impressive. I am mostly curious to see Coraline in 2-D.
Me, too, actually (although I suspect I'll wait for the Blu-Ray). As a practical matter, for the time being and maybe for quite a while, films conceived and shown in 3-D will be seen after their initial theatrical showings almost entirely in 2-D. That's a bigger change, I suspect, than the now-familiar transiition from the theater screen to the video screen. Of the films I've seen in 3-D, I can't recall seeing any of them subsequently in 2-D, either in a theater or on video; none of them were good enough to make me want to see them again in any format. But Coraline certainly warrants a second look, and it'll be interesting to see how well it holds up in 2-D.
Impermanence. I fretted the other day about the impermanence of the Web, compared with print, and about the danger that we will lose the valuable research done by people like Jeff Pepper, David Lesjak, Hans Perk, and "Wade Sampson." Jeff responded thusly:
Thanks as always for your support and encouragement. I was flattered and humbled to be considered among the likes of David, Hans, and Wade. But unlike each of them, I was born wholly out of the online world; I have no non-Internet tear sheets in my personal archive. Thus your comments concerning the longevity and permanence of our online efforts hit especially close to home.
Yet, I have to say, I wouldn't be where I am today without the Internet. It has created an accessibility to resources that I would in the past never have been able to tap into otherwise. It has also given birth to a community of very generous individuals such as yourself, Hans, David, Wade, Didier Ghez, Michael Sporn, and numerous others who share their resources for the education and betterment of us all.
Yes, as you state, the online world is by its very nature evanescent, especially since someone such as myself can close up my virtual press at any time and with no notice. That is why I personally archive nearly everything of value that I find. But while printed media does inherently seem to have a greater degree of permanence, its physical tangibility is only made valuable by its accessibility. Such permanence is of little value when you cannot gain access to it, or have to have to pay an often very high premium to dealers and eBay merchants to wrestle the material away from many collectors not inclined to share.
In relation to that accessibility, the Web has been a godsend. Google Books (and especially magazines), the Life photo archives, archives for periodicals such as Time and the New York Times, to your own archived material from Funnyworld that you yourself make available, demonstrates just how valuable the Internet has become in relation to the preservation and hopeful continued permanence of these resources. And with a few mouse clicks, I can send it to the printer and reinstate its physical tangibility, at least to some degree. In regard to my own personal efforts, thankfully Blogger now allows you to completely back up your efforts. But your point is still very, very valid. My digital archive is always held hostage to the possible failures of technology. I could lose it all in a moment due to a faulty hard drive.
Such problems tend to generate solutions, and Stephen Rowley writes about one:
On your page today you mentioned your anxiety about the impermanent nature of information on the web. You may find a partial solution to that problem is zotero, which is a free citation maagement program (from www.zotero.org). I use it for citation management on my uni work (I'm doing a PhD), but one of its functions is a very neat webpage capture system: it basically takes snapshots of pages and then stores them as you found them, including storing a link to the original web address and also indexing it so you can do full text searches of all your captured pages. Even if you had no interest in the broader reference database and citation stuff it does, my hunch is you would find this function very valuable. Obviously information can still be lost to wider audiences, but at least it's one way of grabbing hold of it for your own use!
I haven't tried zotero yet, but I must say that it does sound like a tidier solution to the broader problem than simply printing and filing Web pages of interest, as I now do routinely.
March 5, 2009:
Almost eighty years ago, Walt Disney gathered key members of his staff in the two newly built "music rooms" at his Hyperion Avenue studio for some group shots. To see two such photos, and another photo of the exterior of the new building where the group photos were taken, click on this link.
And speaking of Disney studios: to see some recent photos of the Kansas City building where Walt had his Laugh-O-gram studio in the early 1920s, as well as some historic photos of the neighborhood, click on this link to go to Louis J. Tofari's Web site. I've relied upon Louis's findings in revising my own page devoted to Walt and friends in Kansas City in 1922.
March 4, 2009:
[Click on this link to go to a March 9 update on this item.]
You may remember that I posted this photo of Walt Disney a little over a year ago, in December 2007, and asked for help in identifying the other people and the circumstances. The girl seemed to be the child actress Margaret O'Brien, but when, where, and why was the photo taken? Now we know: another copy of the photo has turned up on eBay, and it seems that the girl is not Margaret O'Brien but a child actress named Mary Lou Harrington, who had small parts in a few movies in the 1940s. The second man is an NBC announcer named Joy Storm (that name may sound odd, but I've found his photo elsewhere on the Web). Harrington evidently appeared with Walt on an NBC show the day after Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941, to promote the sale of war bonds; she was carrying a Dumbo doll because that Disney feature had just been released.
March 3, 2009:
Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age was officially published by Oxford University Press in April 1999, but I received my author's copy on February 25, 1999, so, as far as I'm concerned, the book is now entering its second decade. It has been in print continuously for the last ten years, except for a few months after the hardcover went out of print and before the paperback was available. There have been four printings all together, two of the hardcover and two of the paperback.
Hollywood Cartoons has thus been, certainly by university press standards, a modest success, but there is no way it could have been a large enough success for me, considering that I spent twenty-five years on the research and writing (with invaluable help from Milt Gray). Some measure of disappointment was always a given. But I'm not at all disappointed with the book itself. When I re-read parts of it now, I always see things I wish were different, but they're mostly minor (for one thing, I used way too many semicolons). I'm particularly pleased that the book is virtually error-free, especially the second paperback printing. I'd love to do a revised edition some day, but I can't imagine I would make radical changes. Hollywood Cartoons is a very good book, and I'm proud to have my name on it.
About a year and a half ago, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to review a study of Tex Avery's MGM cartoons for a Europe-based publication called The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. I approved a proof of my review more than a year ago, but as far as I know, it has never been published. I haven't received a copy of the issue in which it was supposed to appear, and the editor has not replied to my queries. So that the review won't go to waste, I'm publishing it here, on a Commentary page you can reach through this link. I hated the book, which is "academic" in all the worst ways, but at least it gave me the chance to write about Avery, who is always a fertile subject.
When I called up my review of the book, I discovered to my acute chagrin that I had misspelled the author's unusual (and hyphenated) last name, by adding an "e" to it. I've corrected that inexcusable error in the version that appears here. The weird thing is, I remember checking my spelling to make sure it was correct. But what did I check it against? I wish I knew. Not the book, obviously. I've otherwise left the review as I submitted it, including punctuation to the editor's specifications.
The photo at the right is, of course, of the man himself, at the beginning of his tenure as MGM's greatest cartoon director.
March 2, 2009:
Expensive Voices: From Bill Benzon: "You might be amused at this Freakonomics column in the NYTimes [by Steven D. Levitt], which is about star power in voices for animated features. I'm appalled that Cameron Diaz and Mike Meyers each got $10M for their roles in Shrek 2. The column is a plea for a rational explanation of this phenomenon. Here's the fourth (and favored) hypothesis: "A fourth hypothesis is one that sounds odd, but will be familiar to economists. Under this hypothesis, it isn¹t that famous actors are better at doing voices, or even that moviegoers like to hear their voices, or that stars are cheap. Rather, big-time actors are hired to read these parts precisely because they are expensive." Sounds right to me.
So Dear to My Heart: Michael Sporn has posted scans of a lovely Bill Peet-illustrated Golden Book version of the Disney combination feature So Dear to My Heart. The film itself has been difficult to find on DVD, so this might be a good time to recommend the Brazilian version, which is usually available through third-party sellers at amazon.com. This is an official Disney release that is playable on Region 1 DVD players; the jacket copy is, as you can see, entirely in Portuguese, but all you have to do is click "English" on the introductory screen, and everything after that is in English, with no subtitles or other distractions. So Dear was released last year through the Disney Movie Club, but according to amazon reviewers, that version lacks the behind-the-scenes bonus feature that is one of the highlights of the Brazilian issue, with lots of deleted footage and illuminating commentary by Scott MacQueen (who was in charge of film restoration at Disney until the studio drove him away, in one of its more appalling personnel spasms). As for the film itself, it's not a major Disney landmark, but I'm very fond of it. It's sweet-tempered and low-key, and it's perhaps for that reason that Disney has never given it a proper U.S. release on DVD. Kids who are lapping up The Dark Knight might very well find So Dear more than a bit pokey. It's hard to imagine that any political-correctness problems are lurking in it, though, since there are just a couple of very incidental black characters.
Unsung Heroes: It's tempting sometimes to take for granted the wonderful stuff that turns up on the Web but doesn't attract the flood of fanboy comments you'll find at some of the most popular sites. People like Hans Perk, David Lesjak, Jeff Pepper, and the mysterious "Wade Sampson," to name four of the most productive toilers in the Disney-history vineyard, deserve our constant applause and encouragement.
Hans, for one, has posted a growing number of fascinating Disney documents, most recently the transcript of Don Graham's February 20, 1936, Action Analysis class—one of the first such classes—at which Dick Huemer talked about timing. Work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was just beginning and the Disney studio was bursting with ideas and artistic ambition, and so the Huemer transcript is a window into that immensely fertile period. It's also a great rarity: I located many hundreds of pages of such class notes when I was doing research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, but I never saw this document. I don't think Dick Huemer had a copy, either.
As for David Lesjak, let me recommend his Vintage Disney Collectibles and Toons at War sites, but especially his recent post on Walt Disney's brief career as a substitute mailman in Chicago. As you know if you've read posts like my essays on Walt's Goldwater button and his 1934 visit to Hawaii, I find it immensely enjoyable to explore such slices of Walt's life, and David's richly illustrated post on Walt as mailman is in the same vein, as is his post on Walt's 1931 vacation to Cuba. Walt was tremendously energetic, active, and curious, and so when you try to follow in his footsteps you almost invariably make fascinating discoveries.
But will all this good work survive? A serious question, I think, since the Web is, compared with printed books and magazines and even newspapers, so evanescent. I wish I had more confidence in the permanence of writings for the internet.
Coraline Again: From Bill Benzon again, a link to a typically excellent piece by David Bordwell on Coraline's ingenious use of depth cues. And there are links within Bordwell's piece to other intriguing articles, including one in the February issue of American Cinematographer. Whatever else one might say about Coraline—and I do think its story problems are ultimately very damaging—it is certainly far more intelligent and interesting than just about any other recent animated film.
While I'm at it, let me also recommend Stephen Rowley's Cinephobia piece on 3-D animation, which was prompted by his viewing not of Coraline of the 3-D version of Disney's Bolt. Stephen himself offers this one-sentence summary: "In practice, I think the 3-D effect is actually subtly distancing, because it makes you more aware of surface razzle-dazzle and sensation, and thereby distracts you from true immersion the characters and story." He is, then, one of the large number of skeptics where 3-D is concerned (as is David Bordwell), but I have to wonder how much of their skepticism is owing to shortcomings of 3-D itself, as opposed to failures by exhibitors (not throwing enough light at the screen) and by the filmmakers themselves. For example, Beowulf is a terrible film for reasons that have nothing to do with its being in 3-D.
If 3-D survives as a filmmaking tool this time, as it did not in the '50s, I won't be at all surprised if creative filmmakers are making use of it, in five years or so, in ways that make even the best of today's 3-D films seem clumsy and crude by comparison. That's what happened with sound when it was introduced more than eighty years ago, after all. I doubt that Coraline will turn out to be our era's 3-D equivalent of The Lights of New York, but there are plenty of other candidates for that role.