MichaelBarrier.com  - Exploring the World of Animated Films and Comic Art - banner by Michael Sporn

"What's New" Archives: November 2011


November 27, 2011:

A Bumper Crop of Comics Reprints


November 15, 2011:

A Day in the Life: MGM, March 4, 1953


November 8, 2011:

From the Poster File

Gunther Schuller on Fantasia

Speaking Truth to the Mouse

From Børge Ring

My Dog Tulip


November 27, 2011:

Pogo book

A Bumper Crop of Comics Reprints

I've been submerged for the last few weeks in a pile of new books reprinting classic comic books and comic strips, by such creators as Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, Floyd Gottfredson, and (odd man out) Alex Toth. I've emerged with a very long review, which you'll find at this link.

The review being as long as it is, and the internet being what it is, I'm sure almost no one will read this piece, but it certainly was challenging and stimulating to write. A quick summary, for those who can't take the time even to click the link: Buy the new Pogo book without delay, and save your pennies for the final volume of Segar's Popeye, promised in January. As for everything else—well, you'll just have to read my review.


From Thad Komorowski: Contrary to what you thought, someone read your review, and enjoyed it.

I'm not sure what to think about the new Fantagraphics Barks series. It's almost tiresome, even boring, to think of another Barks collection at this point. Contrary to your point of view (and apparently many others') I quite like the Another Rainbow library sets, censorship and alterations aside (which, aside from "Voodoo Hoodoo," are all on stories I'd never revisit). I would have vastly preferred if the new sets echoed those 1980s sets verbatim, with the necessary changes to make them perfect.

Barks, I'm afraid, is a subject that's been exhausted of all literary originality, and the Fantagraphics book probably could have used yours and Geoffrey Blum's input. It's hard to imagine anything profound ever being written about him again, which is sad given he's a twentieth-century figure. Thomas Andrae's Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book is the epitome of obsessive befuddlement in this regard, which dissects not just Barks's lesser work like Big Top Bedlam (Barks having fun by blowing a ten-pager out of proportion) to the point of sheer boredom, but the most inane of animated shorts like The Plastics Inventor, where there's only the slightest chance Barks had anything to do with.

This might be part of the reason Gottfredson seems to have been lavished more than Barks by the publisher. Most of the Gottfredson material hasn't been reprinted before and almost zero literature about him has been pressed out, whereas with Barks there will forever be a feeling of "I've seen this all before."

(I'm not sure if faulting Gerstein or Groth for making the strip out to be more than it is is a useful critique. You will never see "honest" editorializing in an officially sanctioned compilation of any kind. Otherwise the Looney Tunes Golden Collections would have had content warnings over the Harman-Ising and Speedy Gonzales discs.)

I don't think there's any "mandatory reverence" in most of the text, as it is indeed coming from the heart for most of these guys. We Gottfredson fans all loved the Mickey image growing up, but hell, those cartoons were just lame in every way, and I'm talking about through the character's whole existence. The daily at its best represents a vestige of originality and entertainment that the cartoons didn't deliver and we embraced it for all its worth. Perhaps Segar's Popeye is a more intriguing character than Gottfredson's Mickey, but Segar wasn't nearly as captivating a storyteller. (Plus, the onscreen Popeye—which everyone saw before the comics—delivered enjoyment and a unique gritty feel, which owed nothing to Segar, that audiences loved.) What would have been truly wonderful is if the Disney Studio aped the Fleischers' wildly successful two-reel Popeye adventure format and done the same with Mickey.

Yes, the first volume was trying, but I think the second volume is where Gottfredson really comes into his own, and we have at least two or three more volumes where he just keeps getting better. My patience is only tried when Gottfredson's bizarre social mores appear, as they do often in this period, like Mickey's irritating "wisdom" at the end of "Blaggard Castle." We get a bit too much insight into Gottfredson's head in these moments and it hampers the enjoyment of otherwise wonderful stories. Thankfully he started to keep it to himself as volumes three and four will show.

MB replies: I don't think Barks has been exhausted as a subject, by any means, otherwise I wouldn't be writing about him at length in my new book (and quite differently from the way I wrote about him more than thirty years ago in Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book). But certainly the default mode for most recent writing about him, the academic mode, has been exhausted, as the commentaries in the new Fantagraphics book make all too clear.

It may be that Segar wasn't as captivating a storyteller as Gottfredson—I'm not sure I agree with that—but, in any case, as I've suggested in my piece, I don't think the daily comic strip is a particularly good vehicle for storytelling anyway, at least for telling stories that have any more substance than Gottfredson's best Mickey Mouse adventures. The Gottfredson serials are kid stuff, good kid stuff—I loved them whenever I ran across them when I was a kid, in comic books and Big Little Books, mainly—but I don't think there's anything more to them than that.

From Don Benson: Started in on the Pogo volume, and it does go down easier than the amusing but still unstable Mickey Mouse. Kelly may not have reached his ultimate sairic/comedy heights, but the comic books and the pre-syndication version enabled him to hit the ground running. The only character who wasn't quite complete was Porky Pine, who needed a few appearances to settle into his affable, philosophical grumpiness. At one point I was surprised to see Porky being verbose and dialect-free, a voice that lasted only a few days. But the first Christmas brings Porky as the character I remember from the 60's. It's a bit surprising, because many strips are more like Mickey: They stumble around a bit before they find themselves.

MB replies: If I'd had the nerve to make my review even longer than it is, I'd have written about how quickly and well Kelly made the transition from comic books to comic strips. Well before the end of Pogo's brief New York Star run, Kelly seems wholly comfortable in the four-panels-a-day format, more so than he ever was in comic books. For me, his Pogo stories in Animal Comics (and a few other places) are less satisfying than most of his other comic-book work, and the Star strips and the early syndicated strips quickly make clear why that was true: those characters (and their creator) needed the relatively loose confines of a newspaper strip to be at their best, not comic-book stories that required a real beginning, middle, and end to be truly successful.

[Posted November 29, 2011]

From Mark Kausler: I enjoyed your long review of the latest comic strip reprint books. For those of us who don't want to spend money, however, these new books seem like an endless attempt to get us to spend more for essentially the same material that's already been reprinted. I'm very tempted by the Pogo volume, and would like to read the Toth, that's where the public library comes in.

MB replies: It's the same old dilemma, replicating with books what we've all gone through with movies: first videotapes, then laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays. I've lost track of how many versions of Dumbo I've bought in the last twenty-odd years, but it certainly exceeds a half dozen (and I still have at least four). But if a new version is unquestionably superior to earlier versions, as is certainly true with the Blu-rays, and with the reprints of Pogo and Popeye strips that Fantagraphics has published in the past, whatcha gonna do? I do draw the line at buying the Blu-ray versions of latterday Disney features like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, though. Since I tend to show such DVDs only when small children are visiting, my incentive to move up to Blu-ray is small.

From Thomas Andrae: I think Mike is right about Barks. We have barely scratched the surface in understanding the man and his work. Much new information has surfaced of late and needs to be assimilated into a new study on Barks. I'm eagerly awaiting Mike's new book on Western Publishing and am certain that he will break new ground in our understanding of Carl's stories and the man himself.

About Thad Komorowski's comments about the "obsessive befuddlement" in my Barks book. I think he is dead wrong in his critical estimates. I consider "Big-Top Bedlam" to be a quite complex story despite its appearance to be akin to a ten-pager—which themselves can be quite intricate. I think just on a factual level it has to be acknowledged that the story is quite innovative graphically for Barks and that the visuals require careful analysis. Even the plot is quite complex when you try to explain what's going on in it. I'm not the only one who thinks that this story is significant. Barks scholar Don Ault has done a brilliant analysis of the tale based on Lacanian psychoanalysis.

About "The Plastics Inventor" showing little involvement by Barks. Again this is just factually wrong. Barks was co-author of the story. I also think Thad is wrong that we shouldn't analyze a tale if it is a minor work, which I agree this is. Such works can reveal the worldview of an author which is quite important in discussing the themes in his work. We shouldn't just stick to the rigid formula of only dealing with Barks' most brilliant stories. In this case I pointed out that the story did reveal important elements of Bark's preoccupations/assumptions/biases that prefigured motifs in his comic book stories,e.g., the interest in technology, masculinity, the mass media and radio, etc. If Thad is not happy with my analyses of Barks work then he should offer a counter-interpretation, not just resort to name calling.

MB replies: I hope Tom Andrae is right about my next book (which I wouldn't say is exactly a book about Western Publishing, although Western's Dell comic books will certainly be at the center of my attention). I agree with Thad that "Big-Top Bedlam" has more in common with the ten-page "Donald Duck" stories than with most of the longer Barks stories, but, as Tom says, those ten-page stories can be surpringly intricate. Barks attached tremendous importance to plausibility, and what that meant in practice was that he constructed his stories very carefully indeed. I mentioned in my review the ten-page story in the October 1951 Walt Disney's Comics—like some other Barks stories, it is packed with coincidences that would seem ridiculous in other hands, but that Barks makes seem like a wholly natural progression.

I've read only part of Tom's book on Barks, Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book, so I'll forgo any comments on it here (I will certainly finish reading it well before I've finished writing my own book). For now, let me say that my fundamental problem with academic writing about creators like Barks—and, for that matter, Walt Disney—is that it too often strays from direct engagement with the people and the works that are the ostensible reason for the writing having been undertaken. I wrote about this tendency in the afterword to The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney:

The common tendency is for scholars to rush past the facts of Disney's life and career, frequently getting a lot of them wrong, in order to write about what really interests them, which is what other scholars have already written. It is this incestuous quality, even more than such commonly cited sins as a reliance on jargon, that makes so much academic writing, on Disney as on other subjects, claustrophobic and difficult to read.

There's nothing inevitable about such failings. I have been a subscriber to The New York Review of Books for many years, and its typical review is written by an academic who does not let his or her gaze stray far from what is in fact the subject of the review. That's what I strive for in my own writing about the comics and animation.

From Thad Komorowski: I don't have Thomas Andrae's book on me, but it was the last extensive piece of Barks literature I've read, so that was the freshest in my mind. "Obsessive befuddlement" isn't particularly flattering, no, but such a phrase springs to mind when anything directed by Jack King is dissected beyond "he liked to use cool camera angles." I know that Barks wrote The Plastics Inventor, but how valuable could his contribution really have been if he's one of three (that I know of) writers and it was completed well after he left the studio? Frank Tashlin, in my mind just as distinctive a creative mind as Barks, had story involvement in Mr. Duck Steps Out and Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip but I'll be damned if I see any of his earmarks in those cartoons (and I'm not going to go looking for them, because they're not there). Beyond the occasional, discernible kernel of Barks (i.e. Donald's wonderful speech in Truant Officer Donald), his Disney shorts work isn't worthy of the same kind of academic attention as his comics work, as anything traceable to his hand got diluted in the studio environment.

I agree with Thomas that every work of a great creator's is open to analyzation, I just sometimes think what he's seeing isn't really there—which is the problem with the analyzation of creative works in general. I should have added that I do like Thomas's book in spite of my many reservations about his conclusions. Hmm, sounds familiar...

[Posted November 30, 2011]

From Thomas Andrae: Barks did not work on Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip. Also, Barks and his co- scripters on the Duck shorts, Reeves or Hannah, were the primary authors of the Duck cartoons in my filmography, so even though the finished product was diluted by King and others a claim to Barks authorship to them can be made. I also traced consistent themes in his cartoons that reveal his hand as well as many recurring instances of these themes in his comic book work. These are not just chance occurrences. I also analyze some story meeting notes.

I'm glad Thad likes my book. I was trying to achieve a crossover between academia and a popular audience (I'm an academic), but this is treacherous ground to traverse. I think that it's important that we not build walls between scholarly material and more popular works. I hope we can benefit from the best of both worlds, although I admit that academic cultural studies is prone to using to an abstruse and forbidding language. I tried to minimize its use in my book but still utilized it too much for many people's tastes. I think a combination of literary analysis plus visual criticism is called for in the analysis of comics but the language is still evolving. David Kunzle's book on Topffer is an example of a good balance.

MB replies: To be fair to Thad, I don't think he was saying that Barks worked on Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip, only that Frank Tashlin's story work on that cartoon did not leave enough traces to permit thinking of it as in any way a Tashlin film.

As for the divide between writing for academic and popular audiences, I think the appropriate test is whether there is, in writing of either kind, clarity and precision of thought and expression. It seems to me that a great deal of academic writing on popular culture uses scientific-sounding jargon as a mask to conceal woolly thinking. The indiscriminate enthusiasm in so much fan writing serves the same purpose.

[Posted December 2, 2011]

From Robert Fiore: The Barks book does have a reason for not having a volume number, and that is to avoid a certain death spiral effect that afflicts comics reprint series. What more than one publisher has found is that volume one of any series will invariably be the best seller, or perhaps more relevantly, all subsequent volumes can be expected not to sell as well as the first, even when the later material is far stronger. Therefore there has been something of a trend towards avoiding openly numbering series. If you look at Drawn & Quarterly's reprints of Tove Jansson's Moomin or the John Stanley Library you will notice that no volume numbers appear anywhere on the covers. The problem becomes even more acute when the first volume to be published would actually have a volume number somewhere in the middle, which would have people looking for the other however many volumes.

I don't know if it's altogether fair to compare a deluxe variorum edition sold by subscription only and a popular reading edition without at least considering that distinction. On the other hand, design decisions were consciously made with an eye to pushing the book into broader channels of trade than the normal Fantagraphics publication, and such accommodations are always subject to criticism. If you're doing a book that is intended to appeal to both grown up and child readers then you have to do a book that looks like fun for children. It's easier for an adult to understand that children's literature has something in it for him than it is for a child to reach for a book whose design proclaims that it's not for him. There is as well a certain Dad-monopolizing-the-train-set-at-Christmas aspect to trying to take Barks out of the realm of children's literature. Coloring can be improved between volumes (you might have noticed that the Sunday coloring was tweaked a bit between the first and subsequent Popeyes), and so can cover design (and when they illustrate the content—which as you are well aware they don't always do—Barkss' covers are worlds better than what they're doing here).

The really substantive issue, and the thing they're most likely committed to, is the editing strategy of grouping the stories according to length. I dunno how well this plays out as I haven't sat down to read the book yet (I had nothing to do with it beyond writing one of the squibs at the back). My initial sentiment would favor maintaining the original context at least in the full length comics. I remain mildly irritated that they put Sappo below Thimble Theater on the Sunday pages. I think it's meant as an hors d'oeuvre and not a dessert. Why they decided to package the Captain Easy Sundays in the equivalent of a plain brown wrapper I have no idea. On the other hand I think it is an open question as to whether the Barks material ought to be bound to the way it was originally published. They don't maintain the serial format in Dickens novels.

You might be somewhat amused by some of the back and forth with Disney about the back matter. I originally described "Nature Boy" composer Eden Ahbez as looking like a particularly dolorous Renaissance Christ. Disney says no deities, please. Gary Groth e-mails me asking if I could change it. I write back "No, you have to abandon the whole license on a matter of principle." After having my little joke I at first suggest describing Ahbez as looking like a Sunset Boulevard hippie on an acid trip so profound it cast him twenty years back in time. Soon after sending this proposal it occurred to me that if we were to replace a religious reference with a drug reference Disney's reaction would likely be "Now you're screwing with us." So I followed up saying that if Gary thought it was the better part of valor he could go ahead and delete the reference altogether. And so it came to be.

How do you feel about the Drawn & Quarterly approach to reproduction of newsprint matter? The paper on the Gasoline Alley books is almost canary yellow and on the Stanley books approaches ochre, which I think might be taking it a bit too far, but I don't suppose you could say that without seeing the alternatives.

MB replies: I can acknowledge the challenges inherent in publishing a comprehensive edition of the works of Barks or any other comic-book artist without feeling that Fantagraphics' solution is at all satisfactory. As I've suggested, it's a solution that smacks of snobbery and condescension, more than of an honest effort to present Barks's work most effectively. And in many of its particulars—presenting "Voodoo Hoodoo" without any prefatory material, bundling all the one-page gags together, patching together a cover from individual panels instead of using Barks's excellent drawings for the original comic book covers—it makes no sense at all.

That "back and forth with Disney about the back matter" makes me all the more pleased that I turned down the opportunity to be represented in that back matter.

I have a number of the Gasoline Alley and Stanley books, and I really hadn't thought much about their approach to reproduction—which tells me that their publishers probably made some pretty good decisions. Looking at those books again now, I think Bob Fiore's assessment is correct, the Stanley books going a little too far in mimicking the look of newsprint. But better that than pages of glaring white.

From Mario N. Castro: A fascinating piece, Mr. Barrier.

I have to agree with Thad Komorowski that the reprint of the Mickey Mouse strip is invaluable. The fact that this material is available in such a lavish edition is quite an achievement (even if it's deeply flawed). Your comparison to Barks's work feels undeserved, though—the style of the two authors is very different and as you mentioned, Gottfredson's style was severely limited because of the restrictions of the strip format. On the other hand, I have to agree with your comments on the Barks reprint. The final product is probably [the product of] a marketing strategy by Fantagraphics. A simple reprint aimed at casual buyers or families. Now, that is not a bad thing per se, but is quite clear that the material deserved a much better treatment.

Regarding the Pogo reprint, as a a foreigner (and English not being my first language) I've always felt that the strip is too impenetrable. The swamp-speak, the literary allusions, the puns and political references are like a "cultural barrier" that prevents me from emotionally connecting with what is being told. The art is marvelous and it is fascinating from a cultural standpoint, but it definitely lacks the universal appeal of a Barks or even a Gottfredson. It is impossible to translate without losing the inherent charm of Kelly's dialogue. Anyway, just take this as the perspective of an outsider and nothing else.

MB replies: I doubt that Kelly is "impossible to translate," but certainly translating Pogo effectively would require a translator who was immensely sympathetic to what Kelly was doing, as well as exceptionally fluent in English and a second language. A daunting combination, and I have no idea the extent to which Pogo has been translated in the past—or, more to the point, translated well.

[Posted December 4, 2011]

From Robert Fiore, responding to MB's reply to his earlier message: I don't know this for sure, but I believe the reason they went with the collage covers rather than adapting a Barks cover was that they didn't want a cover that announces "this is an olde tyme comic book." In a time when the public is quick to dismiss anything that seems "dated" (as if the past were defective for failing to anticipate the present) this is a commercial concern. Obviously this will not change your (quite valid) point of view one iota, but it does point up something about the difference between Barks and Gottfredson. While there are any number of cues to the period they were created to be seen, Barks has the quality of seeming completely contemporary. Much of the appeal of Gottfredson's adventure-era Mickey Mouse is the feeling it gives you of the sensibility of a different time. Gottfredson's later work (which I've read he preferred himself) does have more of a timeless quality, but nobody's much interested in it.

With a lot of strips if somebody botches the reprint you figure it's a tragedy because nobody's going to do it again and the spoiled version is all you've got. Barks on the other hand is part of a family of comics whose appeal is so general that they are perpetually reprinted. This group would include Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, EC horror comics, The Spirit, Little Nemo, maybe Krazy Kat. With these there's always another reprint on the horizon.

The millennium arrives when/if someone develops a color electronic ink reader that is as good as printing on paper. When this is perfected you can have large displays that can be rolled up like a scroll. I don't know if you'd have one as big as a broadsheet newspaper but I would bet you'd have one as big as an old Life magazine. When this happens the problem of reproducing newspaper strips at their original size disappears, as does the problem of keeping 30 or 40 years of a comic strip in print. Then you would likely have a true variorum edition of Carl Barks, where you would have a choice of reading it in black and white, in a photographic facsimile of the original comics, in flat color, or in garish ghastlycolor if you insist. You'd probably be able to adjust the color intensity yourself. Of course, when everything becomes digital content then Disney takes it all in-house, and you're at their mercy. In an age of digital delivery it's going to be a great advantage to have a wide and deep pool of content to sell.

MB replies: Wait...we can't let Barks seem "dated" when his stories are being reprinted, but being "dated"—that is, seeming to have "the sensibility of a different time"—is a plus for the Gottfredson strips? Well, maybe so...maybe it's a matter of accepting the creakiness of the early Gottfredson strips, which is too conspicuous to be hidden, whereas the Barks stories are "dated" only in incidentals (typewriters instead of computers). The stereotypes in "Voodoo Hoodoo" aren't incidental, however. Moreoever, I can't accept the notion that there'll always be a next time even if a reprint is botched this time around, as with the new Donald Duck volume. I think bad reprints can do a lot of damage—in this case, by cementing in place the already widespread notion that Barks was nothing more than a "humbly eccentric" (to adopt Douglas Wolk's bizarre characterization) children's author.

[Posted December 5, 2011]

November 15, 2011:

Tex Avery

A Day in the Life: MGM, March 4, 1953

That's Tex Avery at his desk in the MGM cartoon department on that date, in one of a set of color slides of the MGM staff taken by Avery's layout artist, Ed Benedict. I've posted all of the slides, which Ed permitted me to copy for publication back when I was writing Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, on an Essay page. That page is one of a series of such pages devoted to groups of photos taken on the same day, sometimes minutes or seconds apart. You can find other Day in the Life pages, whose subjects range from Walt Disney in Kansas City in 1922 to Walt Kelly in New York in 1955, under the Essays tab in the right-hand column, and you can go straight to the MGM page by clicking on this link.


From Darrell Van Citters: That’s an awesome post! I’ve seen a lot of pictures of the MGM cartoon studio but never in color. It’s funny how color makes an image look more contemporary while black and white makes it look ancient. Great to see all those guys in their heyday. I also enjoyed seeing the studio itself in context to the backlot. So many shots are framed in so tightly that it’s been difficult to understand how it fit into the grand scheme. You can see some aerial shots in the new MGM Backlot book but nothing shows its place quite like this shot does. Thanks for another great article!

From Brian Olson: Agreed. It's interesting how the black-and-white image of Hanna-Barbera compared to the color shots make the former appear antiquated. On the flip side, Fred Quimby in color does nothing to liven his image up. Thrilling to see these images and thank you for finding them a home that can be shared with the world

[Posted November 16, 2011]

From Mark Evanier: Those Tex Avery photos are terrific. Great find. But I have two questions...

I was under the impression that Harvey Eisenberg did do occasional layout work for Tex during that period; that he was on staff here and there for weeks or months, moonlighting on comics and then going back to full-time comic book work when he got sick of the studio grind. I'm pretty sure his son Jerry told me that and I know Chase Craig did. Tex may even have said it because I know we talked about Harvey a few times. Am I confused here?

And I'm puzzled about the corner of Overland and Montana. I know Overland Avenue fairly well. The elementary school I went to was on Overland, albeit somewhat north of Culver City. I don't know of any intersection of Overland and Montana. The only Montana Ave. I know of in L.A. (or can find on a current map) is nowhere near either Overland or Culver City. It's obviously possible that a street name was changed or that a street was totally eliminated by some real estate development...but it's probably more likely that the street name is wrong. Do you know of any specific address?

The building in the photo looks familiar to me...like something we drove past many times. The tall spire in the background looks to me like the Veterans Memorial Park building at Overland and Culver. I just can't figure out where this studio building was.

MB replies: I'm hopeful that what Mark has written about Harvey Eisenberg will flush out some more information about him. Because Einsenberg died so young (in 1965), there was no opportunity to interview him, and precious little information about him turned up in my other interviews. I have a feeling he was one of those guys who worked way too hard, to his own detriment, without leaving a trail of colorful stories behind. What Mark says about his moving back and forth between comics and animation certainly sounds plausible, although I would guess that happened more after MGM closed and Hanna and Barbera went into business for themselves. I can think of other cartoonists who went back into animation from comic books when TV cartoons created new jobs. I don't associate Eisenberg with Tex Avery at all, but maybe so.

On Overland and Montana: That address is the one in MGM's in-house magazine, announcing the opening of the cartoon department in 1937. There was indeed such an intersection, although it's apparently gone now. Back in 1970, Bob Clampett sent me a Mobil map with all sorts of historic animation sites (and historic Clampett sites) marked in his very cartoony hand-printing. I carried that map with me on each trip to L.A. for many years, and I used it when I was driving around the city in search of animation landmarks. Bob noted the location of the MGM cartoon studio on Overland Avenue, and Montana Avenue is on that map, too, running alongside Oregon and Arizona Avenues on the south side (or southwest side) of Overland. I'm not sure if Montana was eliminated by a real estate development or if it was renamed—I haven't tried to synchronize Bob's map with Mapquest—but it used to be there.

I wish I could scan that Clampett map and post it on my site, but it's too big for my scanner to handle. I'll have to work on that.

[Posted November 18, 2011]

November 8, 2011:

From the Poster File

"Bosco" poster

Another relic from my unpublished book on the Warner Bros. cartoons. I can't find my note of who owned this poster back in 1978, when I had it photographed for the book, but I think it was Tom Bertino.

Gunther Schuller on Fantasia

Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's theater critic, wrote last week about the first volume of Gunther Schuller's autobiography, Schuller being the highly distinguished composer, author, and performer who, as Teachout noted, "is the only musician in the world who can claim to have played with Maria Callas, Miles Davis, Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini." Teachout continued:

I was especially interested in what Mr. Schuller had to say about "Fantasia," Walt Disney's 1940 animated feature film about classical music, which he saw for the first time when he was 14: "That film masterpiece truly changed my life, particularly its Stravinsky 'Rite of Spring' sequence, which, as far as I can remember, was the first time I heard that remarkable music. It completely bowled me over. I knew then and there that I had to be a composer."

Needless to say, snobs of all kinds have long taken a dim view of "Fantasia," with its dancing mushrooms and cavorting hippos. Not so Mr. Schuller: "I hope [Stravinsky] appreciated that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of musicians were turned onto 'The Rite of Spring' (and by implication lots of other modern music) through 'Fantasia,' musicians who might otherwise never have heard the work, or at least not until many years later."

I'm with Mr. Schuller. Hollywood used to do a lot to introduce youthful moviegoers to the joys of classical music. I first encountered Rossini, for instance, in Chuck Jones's "Rabbit of Seville," which made brilliantly apposite use of the "Barber of Seville" overture as background music for one of the looniest of all Looney Tunes cartoons. I can still close my eyes and see Bugs Bunny whacking away at Elmer Fudd's lather-covered face with a straight razor ("There, you're nice and clean / Although your face / Looks like it might have gone / Through a ma-chine").

Back in the days of middlebrow culture, the movies weren't the only way for children to get a taste of the classics. I initially made the acquaintance of such literary gems as "Macbeth" and "Moby-Dick" in comic-book form, courtesy of the unjustly mocked Classics Illustrated series ("Featuring Stories by the World's Greatest Authors"). A few years later I graduated to Reader's Digest's Best Loved Books for Young Readers, whose first volume contained condensed versions of "The Call of the Wild," "David Copperfield," "Madame Curie" and "Treasure Island."

The key to grasping the effectiveness of these unpretentious little objets d'art is that they yoke the familiar with the unfamiliar, in the process implicitly suggesting that it's no big deal to move from the one to the other. Bugs Bunny is funny, and so is a Rossini crescendo. "Macbeth" may be a poetic masterpiece, but it's also a blood-drenched ghost story. And as Howard Dietz reminds us in "That's Entertainment," all art, be it great or crude, aspires at bottom to do the same thing, which is to thrill us: "It might be a fight like you see on the screen / A swain getting slain for the love of a queen / Some great Shakespearean scene / Where a ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat."

So how do you get young people to appreciate high art? The indispensable, irreplaceable first step is to expose them to it, and to do so in a way that doesn't lead them to assume that they're not going to have any fun. Do that and there's no telling what will happen next. One day in 1940 a 14-year-old kid from New York City went to the neighborhood movie house to see a Disney cartoon. A couple of decades later, he composed "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee" and wrote "Early Jazz." If the gatekeepers of American culture don't find equally effective new ways to introduce today's teenagers to Stravinsky, Rossini and Shakespeare, the next Gunther Schuller may not be so lucky—and neither will we.

Cheering words, but I was left wondering how many other young people really were stirred by Fantasia to embrace classical music. It seems strange to say, since I saw Fantasia multiple times as a kid, but I don't think that film had anything to do with my decision last Saturday afternoon to pay $22 to see a high-definition telecast in a movie theater of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's Siegfried. Classical music wasn't a part of my family's life (we owned few records of any kind), and musical resources were generally scarce in Little Rock fifty years ago, so if after seeing Fantasia I had been on fire to hear more Stravinsky and Beethoven, I probably would have been out of luck.

If I can credit any person with my love for classical music, it's not Walt Disney but my freshman roommate at Northwestern, a flautist from North Dakota. We didn't get along at all (which was almost entirely my fault), but I remember hearing his LPs of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet and a couple of Haydn quartets as we both studied, and I remember gradually realizing how much I enjoyed the music. By the end of my sophomore year, I had joined a couple of classical record clubs and actually owned two sets of the Beethoven symphonies (Toscanini's and Bruno Walter's).

So, I'm happy for Gunther Schuller that Walt Disney opened the doors to a life in music for him. But as for me, I owe my love of classical music to that flautist, Kenneth Malvey.

And Speaking of Fantasia...

Bill Benzon, who has co-authored essays on that film with me on this site, has been writing about it on his own blog, working his way through each section of the film and describing what's really happening on the screen—including, most recently, the soundtrack segment. Only the "Pastoral Symphony" is left. Stimulating reading, as always.


From Kevin Hogan: I have only read this small sample you give from Teachout, so I may have limited understanding of the full context of his statements. I do not think that he is saying that he loves classical music because of Fantasia, but that he was introduced to his love through the film. I think there is a subtle difference.

I love history and art. My first introduction to this passion was Indiana Jones (through his hunting of ancient pieces). Thus I can thank George Lucas for leading me to an interest in ancient history/ art. However, without the awesome work of the ancient civilizations, I would not have maintained my interest.

Cartoons have fostered, in my opinion, many a love for people like myself… film history, WWII history, comic art, etc. Those 6 or 7 minutes of film gave just enough to grab your attention and leave you wanting more.

Perhaps I am over-thinking your comments… I have been guilty of it before!

MB replies: I must say that the love cartoons fostered in me was for cartoons themselves, and not for anything else, but that's not to say that other people couldn't have responded differently.

[Posted November 9, 2011]

Speaking Truth to the Mouse

Geoff Blum has called my attention to an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle with Trevor Allen, who played Pluto and the Mad Hatter at Disneyland back in the '90s and has converted his experiences into a one-man show called Working for the Mouse. You can find several clips from the show on YouTube. The Chronicle's interviewer asked Allen if he was "anti-Disney," and he replied:

When I was working 12-hour days plus a four-hour parade rehearsal, I loved it. There was a sense of being part of the magic and a sense of esprit de corps. I appreciate there are children who love Mickey Mouse and people who love the Disney thing. I don't mean to diminish any of that, but Disney has perfected the commodification of imagination and hope and wishful thinking. I do take that to task in my show. If you really love Disney, you don't want to go backstage. Once you've seen how the trick is done, you can never go back.

That's true, I think, not just of the Disney parks but of Disney in general—with this qualification, that Disney lovers are more than happy to go backstage if what they find there is an iteration of an orthodox account of the backstage activities involved, whether they're the mechanics of the park's shows or the history of the Disney company. Walt himself took his TV audience "backstage" many times in the '50s and '60s, showing how his cartoons and the Disneyland rides were made, but that audience was of course seeing exactly, and only, what Walt wanted them to see; and the true Disney lover didn't want to see anything else.

Disney is now a much larger (and colder) company than in Walt's day, and even more determined to control how it is perceived. If you're reluctant to embrace the orthodox version of whatever Disney wants you to believe, it doesn't matter how favorable your independent assessment turns out to be, it will be judged fatally deficient by those people, both Disney employees and Disney lovers, who feel threatened by the most tentative departures from orthodoxy. Disney is hardly unique in its desire for such control, but it does seem to work exceptionally hard at it.

Which is probably why the Chronicle's reporter asked Allen—whose show is from all appearances very mild in its depiction of Disney—if he worried "about the corporate behemoth stomping on the show." He replied: "When you write from what you know, it gives you a sense of fearlessness that speaks truth to power. They can't argue with what I experienced under the fur in the Magic Kingdom. My life experience is not something they can say is copyrighted."


From Børge Ring

The great Danish animator writes:

The interesting thing about your Don Christensen photo [July 27] is the table behind him. It shows that Christensen is animating. According to Dave Hand, the Disney animators had a table with a lightbox AND a second table where they could have their jumble of preliminaries, colour crayons, reference material and what not. That way the "operation area" on the lightbox was uncluttered. A simple turn of the chair made contact.

And also:

Dave Hand told about training new people in the thirties. "We sorted them out according to their varied talents—some went into background. The animation talents went through a 9 months schedule. Later we cut this to 3 months. Then we discovered that if we put a promising neophyte in with an animator of the same type of talents, he would be animating in no time." Could one of these have been Dick Lundy?

Lundy began animating in 1930 after just a few months as an assistant to Norm Ferguson, so—could be!

My Dog Tulip

My Dog Tulip This independent animated feature by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger was in and out of my local art theater too quickly last year for me to see it, but I finally caught up with it on DVD a few days ago. The timing seemed right. After Phyllis and I returned from Europe in late September, we house- and dog-sat for two weeks for former neighbors in our old home town, Alexandria, Virginia. The dog in question was the estimable Louie, a sweet-tempered dachshund. So we were exceptionally dog-conscious when we saw My Dog Tulip.

I haven't owned a dog since I was ten years old, and I have never wanted one, not only because I enjoy cats' company more but also because a dog imposes a rigid rhythm on your life that a cat doesn't. No matter what, you've got to walk the damn dog. And the reason you've got to walk him, of course, is so that he can empty his bladder and his bowels. The title character in My Dog Tulip does a lot of both. Some fastidious people have been put off by the film's emphasis on urination and defecation and their rhyming cousin, fornication, but Louie would find such daintiness misplaced. When we took him out, usually four times a day, he instantly became a hound, absorbed in smells and devoting intense deliberation to the choice of just where he should write his own urinary signature. To suppress so important a part of his life would surely be insulting to him, if he had the capacity to feel such an insult.

So, I liked the film for its portrayal of a dog that seems almost too real—more real, perhaps, than the film's version of J. R. Ackerley (the real Tulip's owner and the author of the book on which the film is based), although Christopher Plummer's voice-over provides all the life the character needs. There is much more to like about this modestly scaled, low-key film, which looks hand-drawn even though it was created entirely on the computer, but it's the connection with reality that most firmly separates it from the fancy schlock that dominates theater screens.


From David Nethery: About "My Dog Tulip" you said that it "looks hand-drawn even though it was created entirely on the computer."

I think I get what you intended by saying it "looks hand-drawn": the film looks like traditional cel animation, although no pencils, paper, paint, or cels were used in the making of the film; however, I think it would be more accurate to say that "My Dog Tulip" IS entirely hand-drawn and hand-painted—on a computer rather than on an animation disc with pencil and paper. Paul Fierlinger drew every frame by hand, using a Wacom tablet to draw directly into a remarkable software called TVPaint Animation. Sandra Fierlinger painted every scene (characters and backgrounds ) using a Wacom tablet to paint directly into the TVPaint Animation program. The tools were different from traditional animation, but the methods were fundamentally the same. The animation disc has been replaced by the Wacom tablet , but the method of animating is essentially what would be done by a traditional animator drawing on paper. (In addition to his own personal work and his commercial work done with TVPaint Animation , Paul Fierlinger teaches a university course in animation using TVPaint, called "Hand Drawn Computer Animation." ) A glimpse of Fierlinger's workflow is provided in a brief "making of" video that was made to promote the film:The Making of My Dog Tulip Part 1.

I have seen work-in-progress clips from the Fierlingers' next feature-length project "Slocum at Sea with Himself" based on the book "Sailing Alone Around the World" , by Joshua Slocum (1899) and from the clips I've seen it feels even more "organic" and hand-crafted than Tulip , but is also drawn and painted entirely with Wacom tablets in the TVPaint Animation interface. As I understand it the Slocum film will be self-released in installments as an "animated e-book" for devices like the IPad or Android tablets , bypassing the old style theatrical distribution system.

MB replies: Thanks to David for correcting my lazy wording. I did indeed mean to say something on the order of "looks like traditional cel animation."

[Posted November 13, 2011]