Steve Brodner is an Honoré Daumier for our troubled times.
The avenging spirit of the prolific French cartoonist, who mercilessly roasted 19th century politicians and society, like pigs on a spit, lives on in Brodner’s drawing instruments. His pen and brush are razor-sharp weapons, lancing 21st century boils of fetid political animals.
Like Daumier, Brodner is a master draftsman. No matter how ugly the people being caricatured are, or how dastardly their deeds, you cannot take your eyes away from Brodner’s compelling and strangely beautiful imagery. He offers superb elegance of line, strong poses and clarity in his visual storytelling, to convey his powerful messages: empathy for innocent or hapless victims; disgust for villainous, stupid men and woman who abuse their power.
Animation plays a powerful part in showing the psychological side of the characters he depicts. Former CIA man George H. W. Bush removing his head, releasing hundreds of “bugs” escaping in a torrential spray; his son, George W. Bush as Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, attacking Saddam Hussein and giving rise to an endless army of jihadists; Jimmy Carter, in four sequential drawings, floating into a question mark; Donald Trump in mid-comb-over, revealing a Nazi swastika embedded on his bald dome; Rush Limbaugh as a cigar-smoking buttocks.
Perfect visual metaphors, all!
Brodner’s style often uses wild exaggeration, a far-out distortion, reminding me of the 16th century anamorphosis paintings, which could only be deciphered with an anamorphic mirror or lens to correct the distortion. Somehow, sans mirrors and lenses, Brodner maintains the look of the person and their personality.
Steve Brodner is being honored with a spectacular exhibition of 50 years of his amazing art — “The Master’s Series: Steve Brodner” — now through November 2, 2019 at the SVA Chelsea Gallery (601 West 26th Street, New York City).
It is a must-see celebration of a modern genius of graphic communication and a crusader for truth and justice in America’s latest Dark Age.
Run, don’t walk, to Karma Gallery (188 East 2nd Street & 172 East 2nd Street) to see ALEX DA CORTE’s exciting new show, Marigolds, now through November 3. Link here.
Alex Da Corte’s immersive art is often grand in scale and complex in concept: gorgeous color-saturated installations in large spaces, and provocative, elegant videos express the artist’s obsessive desires and interest, such as fantasy, horror films, sex, pop culture, and comic books, cartoons, and animation.
Marigolds is a walk-through puzzle, with subliminal messages to be deciphered on multiplane levels. “Decoding or seeing something that may not be readily present,” Da Corte comments. The viewer must “dig deeper. It is a call for empathy.”
Karma will publish a fully illustrated catalog of the exhibition, which will include newly commissioned texts by animator and historian John Canemaker and writer Tausif Noor, as well as the eponymous short story Marigolds by Dr. Eugenia Collier.
In continuing celebration of dancer/choreographer Marge Champion’s 100th birthday earlier this month, I am posting a video of her February 2012 visit to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she met with animation students and discussed her early work with Disney on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, as well as her long career in film, television and on stage.
This was her second generous appearance at NYU, the first being in 1994. Ms. Champion, born on September 2, 1919, was a vivacious, charming and articulate 92-year old who delighted her student audience for an hour and eight minutes. We are fortunate that it has been preserved for posterity.
“Celebrate what every decade gives
to you, not what it takes away.”
On September 2, Marge Champion, the
legendary and beloved dancer/ choreographer, begins a new decade in her life —
this time as a centenarian.
The advice quoted above, which she
often dispensed to me and other friends through the years, will undoubtedly
hold firm as she enters a new life journey.
Marge will also, I feel sure, be accompanied by her enormous reserves of
positive energy, kindness, down-to-earth practicality, and, most important, a great
sense of humor about herself and life in general.
She was born Marjorie Belcher in 1919, the
daughter of Hollywood dance instructor Ernest Belcher. Her earliest
experience in film was in the mid-1930s when she was a teenager. As many of her fans know, she was the live-action
reference model for the princess Snow White in Walt Disney’s first feature-length
cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937.
Eventually, Marge gained international
fame performing with her husband, the dancer/choreographer Gower Champion
(1919-1980), in a dazzling series of MGM
musical films. Their featured roles in Show Boat (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), Give
a Girl a Break (1953), among other films, led to lucrative engagements at
top nightclubs and early television variety show appearances. They even had their own TV series in 1957.
Marge and Gower Champion’s performances, both on screen and in
person, endeared them to audiences around the world. Critic John Crosby described them as, “Light
as bubbles, wildly imaginative in choreography, and infinitely meticulous in
execution. Above all, they are
One of my favorites of the couple’s screen performances is a surreal faux-ballet in the live-action 1955 musical, Three for the Show (1955).
To the classical strains of Swan Lake, Jack Cole’s sardonic choreography presents a most un-Snow White-like Marge as a distraught, jealous, elegantly gowned murderess (the number runs from 37:53 to 44:26). Both Gower and Marge are wonderful in the over-the-top piece; but Marge displays a wide range in this parody of Hollywood musical numbers: she’s sexy, athletic, funny and technically perfect.
On her own, Marge created
dances for films (The Day of the Locusts), theatre (Stepping Out;
Grover’s Corners) and television; her choreography for the TV special Queen
of the Stardust Ballroom won her a 1975 Emmy.
I was introduced to Marge Champion on May 5, 1981 by Art Babbitt
(1907-1992) at his wife Barbara Perry’s opening of her one-woman show, Passionate
Ladies, on Broadway. Art, a great
Disney animator, met Marge during Snow White’s production and became her
first husband, briefly. “Our marriage
bumped into a career,” he once said of Marge’s desire to excel as a performer. He wanted a housewife, instead of a shooting
Some years later, Art married Barbara Perry (1921-2019), a gifted
dancer and actress, who often performed with the Champion’s in films, nightclubs
and television projects. They were all
show biz friends. Laughing, Marge once
recalled to me the day Barbara phoned her out of the blue to say:
“You’ll never guess what I’ve gone and done.”
“What?” said Marge.
“I’ve married your old husband!”
Through the years, Marge shared with me many anecdotes about her life and career, privately, but often publicly in interviews on film and stage. She was candid in discussing the tragic death of her third husband, director Boris Sagal (1923-1981). She held on to long friendships with artists she met at Disney, such as master animator Vladimir Tytla and his wife Adrienne; and for years she sent money to help sustain the designer Ferdinand Horvath and his wife Elly.
Her memories of her
varied and fascinating career were always sharp and accurate, including her
earliest experiences at Disney. She
recalled, for example, the small, unadorned stage at the Disney Studio, where
for two or three days a month for a couple of years, teenaged Margorie Belcher improvised
mime/dance movements that were shot on film.
Wearing a long skirt, she moved, danced and emoted as Snow White, sometimes
dancing with “gooney, really tall” musicians and animators pretending to be dwarfs.
animation supervisor [Ham Luske] would show me the storyboards,” she explained,
“a crude set, props, and they had the [soundtrack] playback . . . It was like
Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland’s musical films] — let’s put on a show! They’d show me this stuff and turn me loose
and I’d do it.”
The animators and Walt studied the films, noting the timing of
Marge’s actions, studying her pose-to-pose movements, the way her dress and
hair moved in every scene.
Preferred takes of Marge’s image were traced frame-by-frame
(“rotoscoped”) as a guide to aid the animators in transferring her image to their
drawing boards and ultimately the silver screen. For example, the sequence where Snow White
runs through a dark forest of grasping tree branches and clinging vines. To aid the animators, Marge acted frightened
and improvised a run through a forest mock-up — a clothesline hung with
dangling ropes, which she pushed aside while running.
“When I finally saw the finished product,” she says, “I realized
that every single movement was mine.” Her
pay was “the magnificent sum of $10 a day.”
But she enjoyed the experience, comparing the studio to a high
school or college campus. On camera Marjorie Belcher often mimed to the
singing of Adriana Caselotti, who provided the princess’ unusual voice. One animator couldn’t resist jumbling and
recombining their names into a playful burp: “Margiana Belchalotti.”
Disney and his team were so pleased with Marjorie’s performance, they next hired her as the reference model for the ethereal Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940). For Fantasia (1940), she became the stand-in for a huge, but dainty, tutu-clad hippo ballerina. She also directed eleven young women, from her father’s dancing school, as a chorus of Sally Rand fan-wielding ostriches and bubble-dancing pachyderms. “We did stuff with balloons,” she said.
A certain memory of Marge stands out to me: it happened at the 2007 Platform International Animation Festival, one of the best American animation festivals ever, thanks to Irene Kotlarz, the imaginative organizer. She invited me to interview Marge Champion on stage after a screening of a restored print of Snow White, honoring the film’s 70th anniversary.
Early in the day, Marge, a thorough professional, insisted that we
check out the theatre and stage where we would converse that evening. “I never step foot on a stage I don’t know,”
That night, we sat together in the audience, Marge watching the
movie she’d made over seven decades ago; me watching and listening to her
delighted reactions and whispered comments.
It was a lovely, strange feeling to sit next to Snow White, as she
watched herself on the screen.
On screen, as Snow White was awakening from the Prince’s kiss, an usher summoned us backstage to prepare for our on-stage conversation. In the dark, separated by a giant screen on which animated cartoon characters played their final scenes, with music swelling loudly on the soundtrack, Marge bid me goodbye as she was guided by flashlight across the stage, behind the giant movie screen. She would make her entrance after my introduction from the opposite side of the stage, as rehearsed.
While waiting for the film to end, I had the privilege to experience a wonderful, time-tripping sight. On the huge movie screen, a gigantic Princess kissed gigantic dwarfs goodbye, and a gigantic Prince carried her to his horse,rode into a shimmering sunset toward a castle emerging from mist, while a chorus with full orchestra sang “Someday My Prince Will Come.” I could see all that on the huge screen. Then, stepping to the left I saw Marge, age 88, way across the stage exercising, stretching, getting herself ready to meet another audience, as she did at Disney’s little sound stage, or New York’s posh Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, or the London Palladium, as she did before facing MGM’s Technicolor cameras, or audiences in Leningrad and Moscow.
Step to the right – there she was again as Snow White.
Step to the left: a little lady, a true professional, preparing herself to meet the public, to give the folks a great show.
On Thursday, October 18, I will be speaking at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, about one of Walt Disney’s most remarkable animated features, Pinocchio (1940).
Fresh on the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney spared no expense in creating a sumptuous showcase of his studio’s capabilities in animated storytelling. And his animators set out to outdo their own previous achievements by taking on the challenge of making the animation as vivid as possible.
I’ll be focusing on the work of two of Disney’s master animators on this film, Vladimir Tytla and Milt Kahl. Through a close analysis of several of their scenes, we will see how these virtuoso artists brought to life the characters of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and Stromboli.
With many behind-the scenes images of the production, you’ll get a taste of the state of the art of Disney animation, circa 1939-40. My talk will be followed by a screening of a restored print of Pinocchio, courtesy of the Walt Disney Company.
Date: Thursday, October 18, 2018 Time: 6:30pm, book signing; 7:00pm, lecture and film screening
Wexner Center for the Arts
1871 North High Street
Columbus Ohio 43210
I am pleased and proud to announce that my 1987 biography of Winsor McCay will be published this week in a beautiful Revised Edition by CRC Press.
New and updated information about the life and art of McCay, the great pioneer of both comic strips and animation, has been added to make his only existing biography current.
I’m happy that CRC Press — a premiere global publisher and member of Taylor & Francis Group, which publishes numerous books on hand-drawn and digital animation and art – is bringing my bio of Winsor McCay to a new generation of readers.
Last March, strolling through UCLA’s Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, my thoughts were focused on my upcoming lecture to the animation graduate students on master animator Vladimir Tytla (1904-1968). The five-acre garden is a serene open-air museum, filled with over seventy international sculptures by Arp, Calder, Smith, Noguchi, Lachaise, and . . .
Suddenly, a nude man, armless — and headless — strode by.
It was Auguste Rodin’s magnificent “Walking Man.” Despite lacking a few body parts, the statue breathed life; strong and confident, he swung into a gait with a contrapposto hip twist.
In a 1976 magazine article, I dubbed the great Tytla “Animation’s Michelangelo,” comparing the Renaissance master’s Sistine Chapel paintings of titanic Sibyls, and his powerful sculptures and drawings of male figures, to Tytla’s extraordinary animation during his brief tenure (1934 – 1943) at Walt Disney’s studio. (Click image at right)
Tytla brought a unique muscularity and power, a physical as well as a psychological dimensionality to his animated characters; for example, the giant devil Chernobog in Fantasia (1940), and bi-polar puppeteer Stromboli in Pinocchio (1940). Even Grumpy, the surly dwarf in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), possesses a dominant, bigger-than-life personality. “Tytla’s work has been a revelation,” Donald Graham, the Disney Studio’s influential art teacher stated on June 21, 1937, less than six months before Snow White’s premiere.
Michelangelo’s preferred art tool was a chisel rather than a brush, and he drew like a sculptor. Rodin’s powerful, rough-textured bronze, cast in 1905, reminded me again of Tytla’s affinity for sculpture. Tytla’s way of“drawing like a sculptor” artfully transferred sequential pencil drawings on paper into three-dimensions, lending them a feeling of physical weight and a range of true emotions.
Tytla also had a personal connection to Rodin. In 1929, taking time off from his work in New York City as a well-paid, facile and much-admired animator at Paul Terry’s studio, Tytla traveled to Europe to visit museums and take art classes. While in Paris, he briefly studied sculpture in a workshop taught by Charles Despiau (1874-1946), a fine draftsman who, in 1907, became Rodin’s assistant for seven years.
According to Tytla’s friend, animator Art Babbit, Despiau told the 25-year old Tytla, above, that his sculpture held a “Daumier-like quality.” The exigencies of animation production necessitate a certain streamlining, of form. Perhaps Tytla’s sculpting attempts pleased Despiau because he ultimately rejected his mentor Rodin’s style of intense Romanticism for the simplicity of Neoclassical sculpture.
In hand-drawn animation, paring down a character to expressive “animate-able” graphic forms is essential. This process is visible on a single sheet of Tytla’s preliminary sketches for a climatic gesture in The Sorcecer’s Apprentice section of Fantasia.
Nearly a dozen of Tytla’s expressive scrawls decipher Moses-like bodily actions (in long-shot, medium and close-up) employed by the Sorcerer (Yen Sid) parting the waters in his flooded cave, an accident of ill-used magic caused by a disobedient apprentice (Mickey Mouse).
Tytla’s dynamic spidery lines are X-rays revealing a superbly creative animator’s mind. His sculpting lines restlessly search for strong, active, storytelling poses. They contain a sculptural quality reminiscent of Wharton Esherick (1887-1970), who referred to his wood sculptures as “three-dimensional drawing.”
Esherick’s elegant conceptual sketch, circa 1930, for an unfinished sculpture of conductor Leopold Stokowski reaching for a high note and gesturing (sans baton, as always) is similar to Tytla’s search for Yen Sid’s magical water-quelling gesticulation.
Esherick’s imagination, wit and spontaneity are also found in Albert Hurter-like doodles for a colophon for the Centaur Press in 1924.
Tytla’s rough preparatory sketches for Chernabog, the giant Bald Mountain devil in Fantasia, impress with their virile shaping, as if they were ready to be chiseled in stone or whittled in wood, instead of drawn.
Tytla’s description (to animation historian John Culhane) of his creative approach to the magnificent devilish assignment is revealing: “I imagined that I was as big as a mountain and made of rock and yet I was feeling and moving.” Sounds to me like Michelangelo or Rodin or Esherick talking.
When Tytla began to animate his characters, “it is obvious that he does not animate forms, but forces,” noted Graham to a Disney art class in 1937.
Tytla is the first animator who has consistently carried this principle throughout his animation — drawing symbols of forces . . . As soon as these forces are under control it is possible to create feelings or emotions or reactions in the audience . . . It makes all the difference imaginable if theartist is thinking of his problem from the point of view of force or from the point of view of form. It is all in the conception.
Tytla’s earliest animation drawings of the dwarf Bashful playing a concertina is a fine example of his explorations of action and personality using barely-there symbolic lines to describe forces in the scene.
So, too, are a selection of rough scribbles and a second pass of more refined lines and details clarifying a scene in which Grumpy is violently carried to a bathtub. The vitality of the actions depicted is palpable even in still drawings. On the screen, it explodes.
“Vitality in a single drawing is something you don’t buy in a drug store,” Tytla said in 1936. “The whole thing in animation, as in any of the arts, is the feeling and vitality you get into the work.” He also believed that the function of animated cartoons is “not to make the stuff look too damned naturalistic.”
In a Graham art class on June 28, 1937, Tytla suggested to the new studio recruits:
You must phrase, or force or define so that the eye always follows. Very often you must do things you might call bad drawing in order to accent or force . . . to get a certain mood or reaction across . . . In itself [one drawing] is nothing – just a continuation of a vast whole. . . If you always try to keep perfect form you will not get the feeling across — it will be something . . . without any flavor.”
Exaggeration, one of animation’s basic principles, Tytla touted this way:
You can force or accent a hand and throw it way out and bring it back down . . . You can give a drawing an accent – you can twist an eyebrow or a mouth — you can force or accent it – you can do something to the little character’s shoulder or chest; but it is a continuous flow, and it always comes back to its original shape.
That is what Tytla did: after wild distortions defining the emotional state of mad kidnapper Stromboli, he brings the character back to his original shape.
Tytla also looks for, and usually finds, ways that give his character someplace to go. Moving Stromboli from one side of the screen to the other in most scenes adds visual variety and texture to the moving composition. His work is not static; it is progressive.
With Mozartian directness, emotions flowed from Tytla’s brain into his pencil and onto paper. He was a great and unique animator who brought a sculptor’s sensibility into graphic lines, which are, as Donald Graham described it, “full of movement . . . the rhythmic movement of line . . . this stuff has vitality!”
Frederic Franklin, the great, high-spirited, charismatic, British-born dancer and ballet master, performed from his teens into his 90s, and inspired numerous choreographers to create for him, including Léonide Massine of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, George Balanchine (Danses Concertantes) and Agnes de Mille (Rodeo).
I first encountered him in a film: Ballets Russes (2005), one of the most beautiful and poignant documentaries about dance ever made. It is an intimate portrait of pioneering 20th century dance artists, who were then in their 70s, 80s and 90s, who birthed modern ballet under the Ballet Russe banner.
“Freddie,” as he liked to be called, practically steals the documentary, not only in vintage footage of him as a major star dancer. But also by virtue of his uncannily detailed memories, delivered in juicy anecdotes with authority, wit and candor. Franklin was, as the film’s producer/directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine put it, “possibly the most active octogenarian we’d ever encountered and certainly one of the most fabulous raconteurs.”
As an animator, it is a wonderful film to study, not only from a movement analysis viewpoint, but also to observe these brilliant dancers over a wide span of time, from vigorous youth to old age.
Frederic Franklin, born in Liverpool, England in 1914, was among the dance world’s most revered and beloved figures, known for his ebullient can-do personality and extraordinary vitality and versatility. He was a dance pioneer who took on — and dazzled audiences in — a remarkable interpretive range of roles and styles, among them the elegant Prince in Swan Lake, a hoedown-happy cowboy in Rodeo, and loutish Stanley Kowalski in Valarie Bettis’ balletic version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
“Comedy, drama or the intricacies of Balanchine’s neoclassicism — all were at his command,” dance historians Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick wrote of Franklin in No Fixed Point (2003). Leslie Norton in Frederic Franklin: A Biography of the Ballet Star (2007) described his physical beauty: “This handsome lad had eyes of sapphire blue, golden hair, and a skin of milk and roses . . . altogether the round-cheek English choirboy.” Agnes de Mille called him “the first great male technician I had ever had a chance to work with. And I tried everything I thought the human body could accomplish. He was strong as a mustang, as sudden, as direct and inexhaustible.”
In his later years, Franklin’s sharp memory, and his history of working with great choreographers and dancers, made him an invaluable resource as a teacher and stager of revivals. His phenomenal recall of dance steps, dancers and events past is vividly demonstrated in the Ballet Russe documentary.
I had the pleasure to meet Frederic Franklin in person in 2012, seven years after seeing him on film. (From here on, I’m going to refer to him as “Freddie,” because he said that I could.) My friend Mindy Aloff, the esteemed dance historian/author — whom animators will know from Hippo in a Tutu, her superb 2009 book on dance in Disney animated films — invited me to sit in when Freddie addressed her Barnard College “Dance in Film” seminar students.
Soon after, on June 4, 2012, Mindy, a friend of Freddie’s for many years, arranged for us both to chat with him at his penthouse apartment on West End Avenue on New York’s Upper West Side, where he and his partner, William Haywood Ausman, lived for 45 years.
He was 98 years old at the time, but full of energy, warmth and charm. I was in awe of his ability to answer, with sharp recall, inquiries about his fabled career. During a second visit, on August 16, I wisely brought a tape recorder, with Freddie’s permission. For each time, he took us on a personal journey through nearly a century in the dance arts.
Dressed in a white cable-knit sweater and slacks, Freddie sat ramrod-straight looking like a grand egret, his long arms and hands making expressive movements abetted by spot-on vocal mimicry. Through his verbal and mimetic gestures, I saw him dancing at age six at his home in Liverpool, listening to a gramophone and jumping around in front of a mirror after seeing a production of Peter Pan.
His first teacher, Marjorie Kelly, ran a local classical ballet school. “Oh god, she was a tough lady, but a very good teacher,” he recalled. “I was terrified of her.” At their first meeting, she commanded, “Young man, do something!” So the tot got up and . . . jumped around. After a brief discussion with his mother, the prescient Mrs. Kelly announced, “I’ll take him. He’s good!”
More teachers and training followed through the years. In 1931, jobs in ballet were scarce in England, so 17-year old Freddie began his career as one of ten chorus boys at the Casino de Paris, a large music hall on rue de Clichy.
Under the name The Jackson Boys, they performed in the revue Paris qui Remue with the African-American performer who became an international sensation, Josephine Baker (1906-1975).
“She was a lovely lady and I remember we did a number with her,” he said, and then sang a refrain from two of Baker’s signature songs, La Petite Tonkinoise and J’ai deux amours. The 24-year old Baker had changed her image from her “Danse Sauvage” performances of 1925, in which she performed a frenzied Charleston dressed only in a girdle of bananas. Now she was sleek and polished, still bare-breasted but cloaked in huge ostrich feathers and accompanied on stage by her pet leopard, Chiquita.
“She was chocolate brown and she glistened, and her hair was covered in [here Freddie affected a French accent] Bah-kair Feex [Baker Fix], a kind of pomade for her hair sold in the stores.”
Here is a short film clip (silent) of Josephine Baker performing at the Casino de Paris in 1931 (Freddie does not appear in this clip):
I was curious about Mistinguett (1875-1956), the legendary French performer, who followed Baker’s show at the Casino. Freddie, of course, knew and worked with her, and offered first-hand information.
Though little known today in America, the saucy chanteuse was once the world’s highest paid female entertainer. Jean Cocteau affectionately described her voice as “slightly off-key [like] that of Parisian street hawkers — the husky trailing voice of the Paris people.”
Here is Mistinguett, performing in a 1936 French film at age 60, a few years after Freddie worked with her:
Filling in for an ill performer, teenaged Freddie sang a duet with 56-year old Mistinguett, as she draped her shapely legs across a piano that Freddie was also playing.
“When we worked with her, she was an old lady,” he said of his youthful perspective, but “very, very well-preserved. Very carefully made up. Always knew where the light was. The audience adored her. She was a big, big star. Oh, I was so thrilled.” He then croaked out, à la Mistinguett, the then-popular American song they sang together, “You’re Driving Me Cra-a-a-a-zzzz-eeee.”
The finale of her show, Paris Qui Brille, (“Paris Which Glitters”) was spectacular. On stage, two live horses galloped on a giant treadmill with Mistinguett in a chariot holding the reins. “She wore a lovely helmet and something streaming in the back,” Freddie recalled. “The horses were on rollers and they galloped! And we’re all below [dancing and singing] as she’s leading the horses. I mean it was a sensation!”
In 1935, Franklin joined the Markova-Dolin Ballet in London. Three years later, Massine hired him for a new company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where he stayed until it disbanded in the 1950s. There, he was often paired with the exquisite, glamorous Russian, Alexandra Danilova (1903-1997), prima ballerina of Massine’s company. Franklin and Danilova became, wrote dance critic and historian Jack Anderson, “one of the great partnerships of 20th century ballet.”
Their vibrant, sparkling charisma is exemplified inGaite Parisienne, with Franklin as the ardent Baron and Danilova as the effervescent Glove-Seller. The footage below was made by Victor Jessen, who secretly filmed with a 16mm camera over multiple performances, and edited the takes to an audio recording of an actual performance:
Danilova, who was eleven years older than Franklin, had a career that extended from the Imperial Russian Ballet of St. Petersburg to Sergei Diaghilev’s original Ballet Russe in the 1920s. At their first rehearsal, she told Franklin, “You have to learn where my curves are.” “With Danilova,” said Freddie, “Oooh, I was terrified!” They did become friends, “but it took time.” Eventually, she allowed him to call her by her nickname Choura.
He imitated her rehearsal demands: “‘What happened? Why you not push? Why you not pull?’ I’m pushing and pulling, I hope in the right places! Little by little, she said, ‘You know, you are like young horse. I train you.’ She did. That’s how they talked to you, the Russians.”
During World War II, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo mostly toured America on grueling schedules for little money; but their dedication to their art brought the magic of classical and avant-garde ballet to hundreds of towns and cities. Whenever they played Hollywood, movies stars swarmed to their performances, even to a Warner Bros. sound stage where, in 1941, the ballet dancers shot three Technicolor featurettes: The Gay Parisian (1942); Spanish Fiesta (1942); The Blue Danube (never released). Freddie befriended many of the stars, especially Ginger Rogers, famed as Fred Astaire’s dance partner.
“Freddie, I think The Ginger, she is here!” Choura whispered during a break filming Spanish Fiesta when Rogers was seated near the camera, the better to observe the ballet dancers. “We go. We go to The Ginger,” said Choura, as they were beckoned for introductions to the movie star. Some evenings, at the theatre where the Ballet Russe was performing, Rogers sat off-stage, observing. After Freddie’s performance, they’d dash to her limo. At her home, Leila Rogers, her mother, cooked them supper. “We were pals,” Freddie said of Ginger. “But she wanted so much to be a [classical] dancer. She’d get up and show me things. And I’d say, ‘No, Ginger, not like that. Let your arms go. We had a really good time.”
After ceaseless financial troubles caused the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to briefly disband, Freddie formed his own company in 1950 with ballerina Mia Slavenska (1916-2002). (He rejoined Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1954, staying until 1957.) One of the most daring pieces in the Slavenska-Franklin Company’s repertory was an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s AStreetcar Named Desire choreographed by Valerie Bettis (1919-1982), with the sensuous Slavenska as Blanche DuBois, Lois Ellyn as Stella, and Franklin as Stanley. “Mia was in ecstasy,” he said. “‘Oh, it’s wonderful for me,’ she said. ‘Just right!’”
Freddie, however, worried about his ability to do justice to the role made famous on stage and screen by Marlon Brando. The distance emotionally and physically from an elegant, dashing noble in Gaite Parisienne to Stanley Kowalski, a brute in a wife-beater tee shirt “was a big thing,” he recalled thinking. “Because everybody said, ‘Franklin? Nev-vah!’”
Bettis disagreed. She believed there were dark depths and strengths within Freddie that had never been brought forth before. “If you’ll do everything I ask you,” she bargained with the dancer, “I will go inside and I will take something out. We can make this work. Just do.” To which Freddie replied, “Valerie, I’m wide open.”
When the ballet opened in New York on December 8, 1952, Frederic Franklin’s performance as Stanley “startled the ballet world” because, wrote his biographer, Leslie Norton: “A sensitive and endearing personality, long noted for his boyish charm, Franklin left behind his engaging ways to create a brutal, loutish character.”
Influential contemporary dance critics attested to the success of the Bettis/Franklin collaboration. John Martin wrote of Freddie’s “tremendous force” in the role:
As Stanley, Mr. Franklin gives the performance of his life . . .
When the angry Stanley chases the hapless Blanche through
a series of shuttered doors . . . it delivers a wallop that you are
not likely to forget.
Walter Terry wrote of his performance:
. . . the most telling characterization in his illustrious career . . .
He dominated the ballet throughout. Never was there a false
gesture, never a moment when conviction seemed lacking.
Alexandra Danilova, after attending a performance, asked, “Freddie, what they do with you? Is new. Is just new. Perfect. Wonderful!” Perhaps the greatest compliment came from Marlon Brando. In a note, he wrote that he wished he could have done with his voice in Streetcar what Freddie did with his body.
Little more than an hour passed during our time conversing, but, thanks to Freddie’s wonderful memory and precise descriptions, so had decades of a special artist’s life lived to it’s fullest. Years of dancing with joy, zest and consummate skill, despite a vagabond life of long train journeys and one-night stands in theatres large and small, shabby and grand. Audiences adored him, and their imaginations and lives were enriched by the repertoire and productions he starred in.
In later years, Freddie focused on coaching and directing, launched the National Ballet in Washington, created and staged dances for Dance Theatre of Harlem and Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, among other venues. In 2004, Queen Elizabeth II invested Frederic Franklin as Commander of the British Empire. He never fully retired from the stage. In his 90s, his remarkable vitality intact, Freddie continued to dance character and pantomime roles in American Ballet Theatre productions.
“Oh, there’s been the ups and downs like everyone,” he told me. “But I’ve been fortunate. I’ve met and been around lovely people. And, of course, there have been some . . . [pause, grimace] . . . other people and difficult moments. There was one moment I woke up and I didn’t have any money. It had all gone. So, up by the bootstraps, once again!
“So it’s been a wonderful life. It has. And I’m very, very grateful for all of it.”
Soon after my last meeting with Frederic Franklin, I wished I could see for myself how that genial gentleman morphed into monstrous, brutish Stanley. As an animation teacher, I often suggest that students invest personality into characters basically through the way they move, like the great silent film actors and clowns did.
Fortunately, New York’s Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, has two black-and-white videos in its collection: bits and pieces of a few scenes shot on film by Ann Barzel of the original 1952 Bettis ballet; and a quick demonstration in 1959 by Franklin from NET’s first dance series, ATime to Dance.
Though truncated and all-too-brief, both videos reveal Frederic Franklin’s star presence and transformation into his Streetcar role through strong, virile poses, explosive energy (as in the card game scene), and an aggressive sensual presence throughout — truly a masterfully acted performance expressed in pure movement, sharp timing, and a dominating control of space.
Even the most skilled animator has nothing on the liquid transformations that Frederic Franklin conjured on those videos and in person during my magical meetings with him.
Films in this collection of brilliant experimental films by Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967), the great pioneer and master of abstract cinema, include:
his black and white Studies #2, #5, and #8, all made in the early 1930s;
Koloraturen (1932), animated abstractions to the voice of popular German operetta singer Gitta Alpar;
Muratti greift ein (1934), the first of Fischinger’s famed “marching cigarette” commercials;
Swiss Trip (Rivers and Landscapes), edited footage from Fischinger’s 1934 walking tour vacation in Switzerland;
Komposition in Blau (1935), a stunning color ballet of solid, moving objects in an imaginary blue room, is “one of Fischinger’s most satisfying and memorable creations,” according to his biographer, Dr. William Moritz;
An American March (1941), an abstract meditation on America as melting pot supported by a rousing John Philip Sousa score.
Bonus Features hold more rare treasures, including early animation tests from the 1920s, 30s and 40s made in Berlin and Hollywood, and home movies from Los Angeles, circa 1961.
“This art emphasizes the effect of music,” Fischinger said of his films in 1948. “It is to music what wings are to birds.” The new DVD joins an earlier release, titled Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films. Both must-have collections are available, along with books and other Fischinger objects and ephemera at: http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/store/StoreFisch.htm
Dali and Disney Destino – The Story, Artwork, and Friendship Behind the Legendary Film
by David A. Bossert (Disney Editions, 2017)
Over the Christmas holiday, author David A. Bossert dropped by New York City with a “special limited edition” of his informative book about Destino, the unusual film collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, and their subsequent Odd Couple friendship.
The musical animated short, based on original designs by Dali, was worked on intensely before being abandoned in the late 1940s. In 2003, decades after the deaths of both creators (Disney in 1966, Dali in 1989), the Walt Disney Studio completed Destino by referring to Dali’s storyboards and concept art. For the reconstructed film, which became an Oscar nominee, Bossert served as Associate Producer, which gives his book a unique personal perspective.
Newfangled technological packaging augments the text and illustrations on the limited edition version, making it pricey ($250). Imbedded inside the front cover is high-def screening apparatus that allows the reader to play the entire 7-minute color film on video with sound, and then read the backstage story of the film’s production. (The merely “deluxe” edition — that is, sans video — is $40.)
The next Bossert book to get the embedded video treatment, he told me, may be Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Disney Cartoons, the detailed history published last August about of Disney’s pre-Mickey character. In the near future we will likely see more books with implanted videos. Experimental technology is now being tested by Disney and other publishers to allow moving pictures with soundtracks to be “printed” on individual book pages.
Brave new world, eh, Edna Ferber?
Ink & Paint – The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation
by Mindy Johnson (Disney Editions, 2017)
This large format book truly catches the zeitgeist of today’s progressive Women’s Movement. Historian Mindy Johnson’s scholarly, entertaining, profusely illustrated tome focuses on the important contributions made by women at the Walt Disney Studio.
Deep research and fresh documentation offer detailed descriptions of the work and lives of formerly anonymous female artists and artisans, and their impact on Disney’s oeuvre. Johnson names many of these women, and thoroughly examines the development of their artful production techniques in applying ink lines and opaque color to celluloid animated film characters through the years.
Delving chronologically into the Jazz Age, Great Depression, War Years, Civil Rights Era, and other historical references, the author places women and their jobs within a wide world context. She also offers a succinct history of women working at hand-tinting pre-cinema photos, as well as the earliest film productions (e.g., coloring films for Méliès and Pathé), and she recognizes unsung female animators in studios before and after Walt Disney came on the scene.
In her main focus on women’s contributions to art occupations that were once exclusively male domains at Disney — animation, design, background painting, film and sound editing, storyboarding, Imagineering, voice artists, actresses, dancers and models –she includes accomplishments of women within other Disney employment structures, such as publicity, publications and advertising.
Mindy Johnson’s Ink and Paint is a comprehensive treasure trove of fascinating information celebrating “women’s work” in the art of animation, one that is long overdue and much needed.
A shout-out to Tamara N. Khalaf, the gifted book designer who created appealing designs and cogent layouts illustrating Ink and Paint, as well as the Destino and Oswald Rabbit books.
How To Read Nancy– The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels
by Paul Karasik, Mark Newgarden (Fantagraphic Books, Inc. 2017)
When I was a kid in the 1950s, I loved Harvey Kurtzman and his Mad magazine cohorts: cartoonists who drew wild, satiric action panels lobbing parodic grenades of ridicule at Eisenhower-era complacency and conformity. I thought, by contrast, Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy was so . . . booorrring. I disliked the minimal, bland design, the lame jokes, the going-nowhere lead characters: chubby Nancy with her porcupine-hair and concrete hair bow, and her chubby pal Sluggo wearing his eternally stupid hat.
But now, in the 21st Century of my dotard-ness, my mind has been radically changed toward Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy strip and characters!
Yes, I have seen the light due to Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s mesmerizing, brilliant, master class of a book on the art of cartooning: How to Read Nancy – The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels. This entertaining, highly informative approach to good ol’ Nancy, promises that “everything that you need to know about reading, making, and understanding comics can be found in a single Nancy strip by Ernie Bushmiller from August 8, 1959.”
It’s all true and it’s all there: how to stage a gag for maximum impact; how to draw strong storytelling poses; how to write succinct dialogue; what to leave in and leave out of a drawing; the staging of action; Bushmiller’s place in the history of comic strips. Their fascinating book is a clarion call for clarity in art — the foundation without which, as Stephen Sondheim says, “nothing else matters.” Cartoonists: buy this book, read it, and live it!
Michelangelo – Divine Draftsman & Designer
by Carmen C. Bambach (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2017)
Fret not if you missed visiting in person the recent grand, magnificent exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This large book has illustrations of all the art displayed in the show, accompanied by cogent essays written by the show’s curator (Ms. Bambach) and five other Michelangelo experts.
My personal awe of the once-in-a lifetime exhibition was registered on John Canemaker’s Animated Eye blog posting on December 1, 2017, here:
Apologies, dear Readers, for the delay in posting on the Animated Eye. It was a busy holiday season, part of it spent traveling, a highlight of which was an all-too-brief visit to Havana, documented below in text and photos by me and Joe Kennedy.
A copper collage of a distorted saxophonist stands on a corner at the Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana. The fragmented, silent musician holds a strong pose, strenuously reaching for unheard, deeply felt music. Strikingly ravaged, he reminds me of Ryan Larkins’ CGI shards in Ryan, the 2004 Oscar-winning short.
Weathering and oxidation lend a green patina to parts of the Cuban copper sculpture, same as the colored patina on America’s Statue of Liberty. I’d like to think the unknown Cuban artist meant this as a subtle political comment.
To me, this passionate, mute street musician represents the Cuban people’s struggles to survive through the years, and their durable adaptability despite severe changes in living conditions and politics. It also symbolizes their innate musicality — for music is heard in all corners of the large island of Cuba — and their high quality artistic imaginations and accomplishments.
President Barack Obama restored diplomatic ties with Havana in 2015, including increased commercial relations and expanded travel to Cuba. In November 2017, the Trump administration and a lickspittle GOP congress — in keeping with its white supremacist, racist bias against people of color (Muslims, Haitians, Africans, African Americans, Mexicans, among others, including LGBTQ people of all colors), and its delight in cruelly tearing families apart and using children as pawns (DACA, CHIP) in a nod to its hard-line political base — reversed the Obama administration’s normalization with the communist-ruled island. “Persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction” who wish to travel or do business with Cuba now face tighter restrictions.
Travel is allowable under specified categories; for example in licensed groups on cruise ships. So, in early January, Joe Kennedy and I boarded the MS Veendam in Fort Lauderdale for a Caribbean tour because it concluded by docking overnight in Cuba’s capital city, Old Havana (La Habana Vieja).Following are some images and thoughts from our visit. Though brief, it allowed a tantalizing glimpse of the island’s cultural heritage in art exhibitions, architecture, music, and dance, and it left us hungry to return for more.
Old Havana’s four main plazas have been restored, and one is located on the harbor, directly across from the pier.The wide Plaza de San Francisco de Assis features baroques structures, including the old customs house and the Basilica, built in the late 1500s, with its high bell tower dominating the space with imposing grandeur.
The Plaza de la Catedral’s eponymous structure, above, with its two asymmetrical bell towers completed in 1778, is one of eleven Roman Catholic cathedrals in Cuba. Designed by Italian architect Francesco Borromini, the building has been described as “music set in stone.”Inside, the cathedral is filled with artworks painted and sculpted, and a huge, stunningly beautiful chandelier. There is whimsy, too: on giant, wooden front doors two delightful anthropomorphic objects — a door knocker and a keyhole – are straight out of Tenniel’s (and Disney’s) Wonderland.
The majestic space once contained the human remains of Christopher Columbus until they were removed in 1898 to Seville Cathedral in Spain. Goodbye, Columbus.
Nearby streets offer museums and gift shops, experimental graphic arts workshops, bookstores, cigar and liquor stores, and restaurants with live bands.
The spirit of Ernest Hemingway is alive and well in Old Havana; bars and hotels the famed writer frequented in the 1930s remain popular tourist attractions. Including the renovated pink Ambos Mundos, above, where, in Room 511, he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, and one of his favorite watering holes, La Bodeguita del Medio.
“Cuba has three icons,” said Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel, “Che, Fidel and my grandfather.” In addition to loving women, cigars, mojitos and daiquiris, Hemingway held a fondness for abandoned cats.He and his wife, Mary, shared a large property with about 50 cats, many of them of the polydactyl variety, at Finca Vigia, his home ten miles outside Havana .
Stunning classic cars from the 1950s (“coches Americanos” or “máquinas”) are everywhere in Old Havana, the same ones Cubans were driving before the 1959 revolution.The fantastic exteriors are authentic, but maintaining the cars’ motors and finding various mechanical parts to keep the fantasies going requires great ingenuity from the owners. At times, the streets resemble a Hollywood studio backlot for Guys and Dolls or Grease.
This “mouth of truth” was once a letterbox in Havana’s main post office, built in the 1700s, now restored as an art gallery. Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953) did the Bocca della Verita bit much better than I.
We enjoyed a mesmerizing late afternoon performance at the Danza Teatro Retazos [Dance Theatre Remnant], founded in 1987 under the direction of dance master Isabel Bustos. Andares, which means a gait or walk, is a new work by Ms. Bustos.Expressionist dance movements delineate “deities, ceremonies and rituals in a classic Cuban look that recreates typical characters of the Cuban identity [Cubanidad].”The sensuous, continuously moving “walk” of Cuban history by 16 elegantly costumed performers on a small, imaginatively lit stage was excellent. The free form experimental presentation reminded me, with delight, of Rudy Perez and Meredith Monk. For more information: http://www.lahabana.com/content/isabel-bustos-dancing-retazos/
Since opening in 1988, the beautifully designed Museo Casa de Mexico Benito Juarez is an important center promoting Mexican culture, and its links with Cuba. On display are modern and popular artworks alongside ceramic pieces from Mexico from the 17th and 18th centuries found in archeological excavations in Old Havana.
The art is housed in courtyards and multi-colored, spacious rooms in an 18th century refurbished building in Obrapia Street.
In the current exhibition, large-scale sculpted phantasmagorical creatures stand tall to stare at you with multiple eyes, tongues and heads. Inspired by Mexican mythology and folklore, the designs are scary/zany, the colors dazzling.
At the far end of the gallery, one passes under arches to enter a courtyard of unpainted, crumbling walls and remnants of a ceiling. The area is not under repair, nor sectioned off from visitors. It is, I believe, purposefully symbolic, representing in contrasting texture and form, the realities and difficulties of life today in Cuba, politically and financially.
Museo Casa Mexico is but a few blocks from streets filled with tightly packed, over-crowded, decaying buildings, and the day-to-day hard realities of life. Last fall, category 5 Hurricane Irma smashed and flooded homes and businesses throughout the island; then Trump’s “hurricane” of new travel restrictions battered hopes of the Cuban people that they no longer would be pawns in a U.S. domestic political debate.
The corroding room at the Museo Casa Mexico may, in fact, be an artistic beacon, a light of determined hope that a future of positive change for Cuba and its people may be possible, sooner or later.
In the meantime, visit this amazing country and see for yourself.