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"What's New" Archives: October 2010

October 27, 2010:

South of the Border with Two Guys Named Joe


October 6, 2010:

The Book Nook


October 27, 2010:

South of the Border with Two Guys Named Joe

I've been accumulating lots of interesting stuff that I want to post, but the Remodeling from Hell (now deep into its fourth month) and other distractions have left my website an orphan for the last few weeks. I hope to remedy that neglect to some extent over the next few days, beginning today with a review of important new books by J. B. Kaufman and John Canemaker. I've been assembling that review over the last couple of months, and it's finally in a presentable state. You can read it by clicking on this link.


From Don Benson: One of the interesting sidelights is how the Approved Narrative has come to include what may be considered a list of approved saints. While animators at Disney tended to have higher profiles than counterparts at other studios—mainly through bits on the TV show and such—the image was generally Uncle Walt and his army of dwarves. It was some years after Disney's death that the studio began to actively "market" the Nine Old Men and others.

I'm speculating that three things drove this:

One, the desire to put friendly faces out there to replace Walt's, keeping up the image of a big family business. This trend peaked—or bottomed out—with Michael Eisner hosting the Sunday show.

Two, animators were beginning to register as celebrities, particularly through publicity-conscious stars like Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett with TV shows and specials to promote. To keep up appearances as the top animation studio, Disney needed to show they had star animators, too.

Three, the need to protect the Approved Narrative you describe. Newly-famous veterans of Warner and MGM peppered their books and interviews with stories about their talentless, contemptible employers (executives accepting Oscars for cartoons they barely knew about; boneheaded "creative" decisions; the sudden shutdowns of cartoon studios; etc.).

Disney had the sense—eventually—to help artists exploit their budding celebrity and gently assure their public recollections were happy ones. When they gave Carl Barks permission to resume selling Scrooge paintings, he was probably a bit less likely to dwell on the raw deal he and other freelance comic artists got. And the fact that Disney underwrote the Ub Iwerks documentary and publicly enshrined Ub as the "hand behind the mouse" must have made the Iwerks family more inclined to idealize his relationship with Walt. The ongoing Disney Legends campaign may have the side effect of encouraging niceness from potential honorees as well as past winners.

Disney may be the most invested in Approved Narrative, but they're hardly alone in trying to calm disgruntled talent. Warner kissed up to the animators it kicked out years ago, presenting them as stars in DVD interviews and commentaries and probably helping them sell those autographed cels. Warner also lavished money and fame on Superman's creators to quell an embarrassing story on the eve of the first big movie.

And over in live action, Universal evidently cut deals with the heirs of Karloff, Lugosi and perhaps Cheney, not only for the right to merchandise their faces but to get the families' public blessing for the ongoing exploitation of their films.

From Brad Bethel: I bought and read Two Guys Named Joe as soon as it came out in August. John Canemaker knows his research, and I learn new things about animation history thanks to his insight.

I've admittedly become so interested in Joe Grant only since he died. What I would say was his main strength as an artist, besides his longevity, was the fact that unlike many Disney artists, some of whom you mentioned died trying to keep up with the company, he was actually a successful artist beyond the Disney culture. He of course didn't have to spend his final years giving the animation department a much-needed link to its past, but that's what makes his story so impressive. It's not to say that Disney needed Joe Grant, but the company today needs a Joe Grant; someone who can produce an endless stream of creativity. Just like the company needs a Roy Disney; someone who can give the company clear focus, as it had during Walt's time.

Joe Ranft's story doesn't reveal a lot other than Disney's Renaissance not being perfect. But just like Disney with Grant, Ranft was a non-factor in Pixar's success story. The Incredibles was an excellent film without Ranft's involvement. Cars was co-directed by Ranft, yet ranks as one of Pixar's least popular films. So far, Ranft's absence hasn't even been brought up when placing blame on the possible problems Pixar may soon be facing.

They may not need a Joe Ranft, and they already have a John Lasseter; it's just that based on Disney Animation's consistent yet mild record under his watch, John is biting off more than he can chew.

[Posted October 29, 2010]

From Dana Gabbard: Very much found your comments on the approved narrative hit the nail on the head. Walt's bending of people often is presented as finding talents in people they didn't know they possessed or working to make people come to adopt Walt's approach after being brought around to believing in fact it was their own opinion. Your description of Gerry Geronimi's situation sounds more cold-blooded and harrowing than the foregoing.

I recall Carl Barks evidently joked with Roy Jr. when Carl was at the studio to get his Legend award  about what a scary person Walt could be to work for. Sadly not just the studio but many reverential fans prefer the sanitized view. Jim Korkis reflected on this years ago in one of his pieces for Duckburg Times by quoting The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Now we seem to be trying to erase the fact and leave behind only the legends...

From Harvey Deneroff: I very much enjoyed your most recent posting, especially the Disney assembly-line quote. It's too easy to forget the industrialized nature of much animation production which all too often calls on artists to suppress their own creativity in favor of the greater whole, especially for entry-level workers.

From Børge Ring: The review of Joe & Joe is one of the best commentaries you ever wrote—and you have a lovely knack of coining phrases that are characterization in [capsule] form: "Ben Sharpsteen was Walt's man on the ground" or "Betty Boop was a travesty of compliant femininity." The captionless photographs that  accompany your article sustain [it] powerfully.

From J. B. Kaufman: Just a quick note to thank you for the swell review on your website! From the time I first discovered your writing in Funnyworld, one of the things I always appreciated about it was your long, serious, thoughtful reviews. Where other reviewers were satisfied to make quick, careless comments about superficial aspects of the book or film or whatever it was, you took the time to delve into something, put some thought into it, and then share the results with your readers. So I'm honored to see South of the Border with Disney getting the same treatment. So we don't always agree on everything—that's to be expected.  Even when your opinions don't agree with mine, I still respect them and figure I can probably learn something from them. 

[Posted November 1, 2010]

October 6, 2010:

The Book Nook

The Vault of WaltThe Vault of Walt:Jim Korkis's new book The Vault of Walt:  The Unofficial, Unauthorized, Uncensored Disney Stories Never Told bears on its cover this blurb from someone named Barrier: "Disney history is full of unexplored byways, and no one has done a better job of mapping many of them than Jim Korkis." But wait a minute, you quite reasonably might ask, if those byways are unexplored, how is that this fellow Korkis has done such a good job of mapping them? Well, the blurber Barrier says, the idea was to get across two ideas, actually, the first being that there's lots of unexplored and downright mysterious Disney history, and the second being that Korkis has been whacking away at this intriguing jungle for a long time, through dozens of essays on the Web and in print, some under his own name and some under the nom de plume Wade Sampson, a name borrowed from the Walt-like character in the comic novel called The Rat Factory. A pretty feeble rationalization, you snort. Trust me, the blurber says, turning purple, the book is better than the blurb.

Truth to tell, I haven't seen the book yet, but over the years I've read preliminary versions of many of its three dozen essays on various websites. Jim is in fact no stranger to this site, as a quick Google search of the site for "Jim Korkis" will tell you. He is steeped in Disney history, which is no doubt why his erstwhile superiors at Walt Disney World have given him such a hard time.

Here's a capsule description of the book from a press release: "The book is divided into four sections:  stories about Walt Disney’s life, stories about the Disney Films, stories of the Disney Theme Parks and finally stories about out of the ordinary Disney History from the Mickey Mouse radio show of the Thirties to why the FBI was upset with Walt and everything else in between.  Each section is composed of chapters that are self contained stories featuring anecdotes, quotes and facts that have never before appeared in print."

And, from the same press release, this explanation of the book's title from Korkis himself:

“The book is called The Vault of Walt because these are the ‘lost’ stories that have been locked away for decades and forgotten.   Now is the time to open that vault and share them with a wider audience because they provide a fascinating perspective on Disney achievements and events. In addition, they are an awful lot of fun.”

There's also a foreword by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller. You can read an interview with Jim about his book at Didier Ghez's Disney History blog.

Felix bookFelix the Cat:The indefatigable Craig Yoe, who has been bringing old comic-book stories back to life in handsome reprint volumes like those devoted to Milt Gross and "children's comics," has struck again, this time with Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails, a book made up of reprints of Otto Messmer stories from the Felix comic book published in the 1940s and early 1950s by Dell, and subsequently by Toby and Harvey.

Messmer was one of the great figures of silent animation. The Felix cartoons he directed and animated under Pat Sullivan's name are remarkably witty and ingenious, especially considering the pressure-cooker conditions under which they were made. But I've never been able to work up a lot of enthusiasm for the Felix newspaper strip Messmer wrote and drew starting in the 1920s, or for the comic-book work he did later. There's nothing wrong with the Felix stories reprinted in the new book, but they're extremely simple, in drawing and as narratives: Felix rides his magic carpet to a planet where he's attacked by angry talking vegetables, but when potato bugs appear, Felix and his carpet rout them with a bug spray, and the vegetables become his friends. You get the idea. The Felix stories are true children's stories, told in the uninflected comic-book equivalent of a monotone, as one panel trudges after another: this, then this, then this, then... I'm happy to have a sampling of the series, but nothing in the book makes me sorry that it isn't longer.

That is, however, the reaction of a reader who is much older than the audience that Messmer probably had in mind. If I were a parent or grandparent looking for a comic-book story to read to say, a five-year-old, Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails would be an excellent choice.