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.
One of the many advantages of living in New York City is access to once-in-a-lifetime art exhibitions. A magnificent example is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now through February 12, 2018: Michelangelo – Divine Draftsman & Designer.
For the first (and perhaps only) time, this unique showcase brings together more than 350 artworks from 53 different museum collections, including The Royal Collection at Windsor Castle and the Vatican Library.
The main focus is the creative process as revealed in drawings by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) the great Italian Renaissance master artist whom his contemporaries described as “il Divino.” The divine Michelangelo used “drawing as a language,” according to the exhibition’s curator Carmen C. Bambach. “It’s what unifies his career,” which included sculpture, design, painting and architecture.
133 drawings and three marble sculptures display the artist’s ability to make graphic lines and blocks of stone come to forceful, vital life. Michelangelo drew like a sculptor. In fact, a chisel was his preferred tool rather than a brush. (“I am not a painter,” he said.)
Even the fragmentary anatomy of his sculpture “Young Archer” exudes movement: the slender, coltish adolescent strides off with a subtle torso twist, his confident, curly head tossed to one side. Art historian Francesco Caglioti suggests that the “incomplete, almost spherical element” of the archer’s twist of his body and head, expresses “in its principle of rotation the unmistakable signature of Michelangelo.” In a drawing rediscovered in 2003 of the complete statue (made by a follower of Michelangelo), the archer’s right arm reaches across his chest to join the left hand in retrieving an arrow from the quiver; but the dynamic body and head twist is the primary life-giving movement.
The carving of the sculpture is dated circa 1496-97, when Michelangelo was in his early twenties. “With this sculpture,” writes art critic Holland Cotter, “he had found what would be his favorite subject, and the one that would make his name: the heroic male body.”
Movement also defines seated figures. Here are two versions of one of the twenty athletic nude male youths, known as the Ignudi, used by the artist as narrative linking devices to direct the eye in the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos. The study rendered in red-chalk with white gouache highlights, and the final painted version show a twisting figure reaching behind himself. In the finished painting, his cloak billows in the wind, adding another element of motion.
Sharp, definite lines delineate Michelangelo’s forms, shaded by intricate cross-hatching. There is none of the smoky sfumato shading and chiaroscuro of his older rival, the other great multifaceted genius of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519).
However, Michelangelo’s art could also be delicate and tender, as in this unusually detailed portrait (1531-34) — a subtly animated three-quarter turn of the head of Andrea Quaratesi, a young man thirty-seven years Michelangelo‘s junior, who “captured the artist’s heart,” according to the curator. The picture is “not unlike the type of portraiture Leonardo da Vinci pioneered with his Mona Lisa.” Both artists sought to portray not only moti corporali (motions of the body), but how it relates to atti e moti mentali (motions and emotions of the mind).
This glorious exhibition showcases of one of pre-cinema’s greatest “animators.” I found it a joy and a deeply moving privilege to view and study up-close Michelangelo’s 500-year old drawings. Especially the rough, thumbnail doodles that search tirelessly for the correct pose and clarity in staging. These small-sized animated roughs contribute mightily to the complex action and overpowering dynamism of finished works.
Here, for example, a preparatory narrative drawing of tragic Phaeton, a Greek mythological figure similar to disobedient Icarus. As Zeus smites him and his steeds from the sky, Phaeton’s grieving sisters begin to morph into poplar trees.
Fall of Phaeton.In a final (and more balanced) layout, the master artist shows off his ceaseless imagination and superb draftsmanship by changing the actions of all the players. He re-positions Zeus astride his eagle companion, and shows the falling, doomed Phaeton and difficult-to-draw horses in even more virtuosic poses.
The personal restlessness of the artist comes through in the actions of his figural sketches. His “actors” express emotions through energetic movements. Adam and Eve flee in shame and despair after banishment from Eden, above; below,Hercules struggles vigorously with a lion, the giant Antaeus, and a dragon/ hydra.
Even inert forms shimmer with energy, such as the sleeping apostles’ uncomfortable, agitated Agony in the Garden.
In thumbnail sketch explorations for the Pietà and the Entombment, the feeling of weight is visceral in the figures handling of the deceased Christ’s body.
A glorious contrast is the Resurrection scene, shown above and below, as the now-vital Christ thrusts himself out of the tomb to the amazement and fright of the tomb’s guards. Much dazzling energy and visual narrative information is imparted in these two economically drawn, small, rough chalk sketches.
The Michelangelo treasure trove at the Met sheds intimate light on the mind of their creator. “We can see him thinking, having a conversation on the sheet of paper,” Ms. Bamback asserts. “We see him inventing, or just having fun, doodling. A sense of intimacy, of immediacy, it’s like glimpsing over the shoulder of this genius.”
His creative process and eclectic mind is seen on many work sheets of paper, including corrections he drew on his student’s practice sheets. They were often accompanied by sharp demands: “Copy this Madonna and breathe life into her!”, “Shape a leg, make an ear!”, “Draw me an eye and put expression in it.” The strict, hard-to-please master teacher could also be paternal: “Andrea be patient”; “Draw Antonio, draw Antonio, draw and don’t waste time.”
This exercise sheet features drawing lessons by the master. The profile at extreme left is by a pupil imitating the Master’s drawing next to it. The two poses of wrestlers are also by Michelangelo. The poorly rendered leg and other incidental sketches are by students.
This study by the Master over sketches of heads by a pupil, a ferocious dragon ensnared by its own tail might be a comment on the teacher’s frustration with his students.
One of only three surviving wood models for Michelangelo’s architectural projects. This model complimented his drawings of the Vault of the Chapel of the King of France.
My sincere thanks to Emily Sutter, Digital Learning Program Producer & Editor, Metropolitan Museum of Art — and former animation student of mine at NYU Tisch School of the Arts — for arranging a private tour of the exhibition, before it opened to the general public.
It was so wonderful, on a cool, mid-November Sunday morning at 9 a.m., to wander at leisure through the exhibition rooms at the Met with only a few people – employees and sponsors — and to spend quality time looking and studying, up close, the art of Michelangelo.
I highly recommend the current exhibition “Charles E. Burchfield: Weather Event” at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, N.J. [Sept. 16 through January 7, 2018]. For me, it is always an event, and a privilege, to view up-close and in person the ecstatic, intense, mystical art of the great Burchfield (1893-1967).
This show was a special delight, for me and Joe Kennedy, for we shared an afternoon at the exhibition with our close friends Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, founders of the film distribution and production company Milestone Film & Video. https://www.milestonefilms.com
A more intelligent, enthusiastic, fun couple with whom to view art, you couldn’t find.
For many years, I have loved Burchfield’s awe of nature, as seen in his expressionistic landscapes painted in and around his Buffalo, New York, home.
During the Depression, he had a realist middle period; but in 1930, when the newly opened Museum of Modern Art chose Burchfield for its first one-person exhibition, curator Alfred H. Barr, Jr. focused on his artworks dating from 1917. Self-described by the artist as his breakthrough “Golden Year,” it opened his style to “a dream world of the imagination.”
Many images in the Montclair show, which focuses specifically on weather depictions, date from this seminal 1916-1917 period. His strong graphic design sensibility shines through in fascinating watercolor and gouache works of forests, gardens, plants, flowers, brooks, clouds, mysterious ravines, and abandoned houses. From 1920 to 1929, while building his reputation as a fine artist, Burchfield supported his wife and five children as a wallpaper designer.
In his notebooks, he developed a visual language for human emotions and sounds (“Conventions for Abstract Thoughts”). Embedded throughout his paintings are symbolic representations of forces of nature (wind, rain, snow, sun and moon light) and sounds (humming insects, bird song, church bells, train whistles, even reverberations from telegraph wires). In images of houses and other buildings, an anthropomorphism, or empathic visualization, comes through which (to me) makes Burchfield a kindred spirit close to animation.
“Look on a tree not only as a design,” Burchfield wrote in a 1916 journal when he was 23, “but also as a living growing object, which almost has emotions like ourselves.” His sentient sentiment reminds me of 25-year-old Walt Disney saying of his animated cartoon in 1927, “I want the characters to be somebody. I don’t want them just to be a drawing.” Years later, Disney maintained, “The most important aim of any of the fine arts is to get a purely emotional response from the beholder.” In a 2011 The New Yorker profile, Pixar director Andrew Stanton describes perfectly an animator’s sensibility: “I can’t remember not thinking that my bike was cold in the rain, that fish are lonely in their bowl, that leaves are frightened of heights as they fall.”
As it turns out, Burchfield did have an interest in animated films and other movies in his essential awareness of “transience” in seasonal transitions, invisible vibes, and motion.
In 2009, I had the pleasure of personally finding that out when I flew to Buffalo to talk with Nancy Weekly, the world’s leading Burchfield authority, Curator and Head of Collections at the spacious Burchfield Penney Art Center. The Center, which had opened the year before, holds the largest collection of the works of Charles Burchfield, including a facsimile recreation of the artist’s studio.
“I believe Burchfield’s sense of animation predates his exposure to animated films,” Ms. Weekly said as we looked at examples of Burchfield’s art from every phase of his long career. “In 1915,” she continued, “after seeing Chinese scroll painting, he created ‘all-day sketches’ which chronicle visually changes in the weather and time of day—the position of the sun and moon. In a way, they are similar to storyboards. While he put the idea aside for a while, he revisited it later in life to create season transition paintings.”
Ms. Weekly invited me into the museum’s archival section, restricted to scholars, where I was treated to a white-glove inspection of some of Burchfield’s hand-written journals and handmade albums and folders containing 25,000 preliminary drawings and studies.
“Also related to animation,” she explained, “are his developments in 1917: ‘Conventions for Abstract Thoughts’ for human emotions and what I call audio-cryptograms, which are visual patterns for nature sounds, particularly insects, birds and frogs—and later phenomenon such as the wind/telegraph harp.” The visual “conventions” in many of Burchfield’s early and late period paintings convey psychological emotions when realism proved “inadequate for that goal.” For example, the ‘fear’ icons, in the upper portion of the sketch at left, can be seen at the center of Church Bells Ringing, shown above.
Burchfield’s journals confirm his keen interest in moving pictures and animation, and are peppered with his straight-forward film critiques. Benjamin J. Townsend, editor of Charles Burchfield Journals: The Poetry of Place, notes that Burchfield “did not hesitate to point out artistic flaws, even in those films he otherwise admired.” His tastes ran to Westerns, historical epics like The Ten Commandments and War and Peace, and, above all, the animated films of Walt Disney.
“He saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at least three times and Bambi at least twice. Still, he objected to Disney’s distorted animation of animals and was outraged by the treatment of musical classics in Fantasia. Disney’s films came too late to have had a direct influence on Burchfield’s own use of ideographic conventions to animate nature, but there is no question that he found a reaffirmation of one aspect of his own art in Disney’s.”
After seeing Snow White for a second time on March 15, 1938, Burchfield wrote:
I enjoyed it more than the first time. Those flaws I noticed seemed to have lessened or disappeared. I had the thought while watching it that Walt Disney with his whimsical art will do more for the general peace & happiness of the world than all the propaganda and peace talk in the world; for to me it is inconceivable that a nation looking at such things could foster hate.
In an entry the next year (August 22, 1939) Burchfield commented that MGM’s The Wizard of Oz “was good, and delightful in spots, but it seemed to just fall short of greatness; nor could it be compared to Disney’s Snow White. The camera, when it comes to inventive fantasy, can never compete with the artist.”
As early as 1915, Burchfield drew on 19th-century aesthetics of synesthesia and symbolist theory (“… composing rhythms and colors” with designs “thrown upon a large screen to a large audience who could watch and receive the same sensations as on listening to notes”). Burchfield was “unconsciously parallel[ing] the association of abstract rhythm and color with musical tones and states of mind by Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay, and Morgan Russell,” Townsend observes. “More precisely, he anticipates Walt Disney’s use of the device in his animated films, especially Fantasia (1940).”
However, when he reluctantly did see Fantasia in 1941, his
. . . rage was so great that I was literally beside myself. There is no artistic need or justification for such a collaboration as this, in the first place—but even if we should agree it was worth trying—the cheap, low vulgarity of over half of the episodes, was simply incredible … The treatment of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony was pure destructive burlesque. Many writers have tried to excuse Disney on the grounds of ignorance — but it is more than that—it is a deliberate aim to besmirch and degrade everything that is fine & noble in our culture — It is like revolutionists throwing rocks thru cathedral windows.
Although he viewed Bambi (1942) twice in 1948, he found it:
Somewhat of a disappointment — although the thunderstorm in the woods, the transition of autumn to winter, and the forest fire were still enchanting. Hard to take were the background music and the cloying sweetness of spring effects, and the “cuteness” of the animals with the enormous hard stylized eyes, and bulging foreheads. The humanizing of the animals was not a happy thought.
Burchfield preferred the stylized designs of the UPA cartoon studio. In 1954, after attending a Mr. Magoo Festival, four or five cartoons of the feisty comic character strung together, he wrote:
Equally fascinating as the comic situations arising out of his near-sightedness, are the highly decorative and conventionalized backgrounds and scenes. A golfing and hunting sequence had utterly fantastic trees & woods, yet somehow having the inner character of the woods much more than a more realistic or sentimental approach (such as Disney does to death).
The backgrounds he complimented may have been in Grizzly Golfer, a 1951 Mr. Magoo short, above and below, directed by Pete Burness and designed by Abe Liss. (Thanks to Adam Abraham, author of When Magoo Flew, for suggesting the title.)
A final journal entry regarding Disney, in 1957, praises the time compressing fast-motion processes used in the True Life adventure documentary Secrets of Life (1956):
Of especial beauty for me, of course, was the incident of showing hepaticas pushing up out of dead leaves, and growing into full bloom. Apparently such plants are never [quiet], but move [too] slowly for us to see with the unaided eye. By speeding up the process, they were seen to sway back and forth as if in ecstasy. The speeded up picture of wild cucumber vines, made them apparent like serpents, swaying and writhing, looking for a place to fasten to.
Burchfield damned the accompanying (unnamed) cartoon as “incredibly bad,” concluding, “An amazing man, Disney, full of contradictions.” The shorts released by the Disney studio on Nov. 6, 1956 that accompanied Secrets of Life included a live-action short, Cowdog, and the cartoon was A Cowboy Needs a Horse.
In 2010, Nancy Weekly found a telegram sent to Walt Disney in regards to a 1965 exhibition beginning April 28 of “100 recent drawings by Charles Burchfield” from Dr. D. Kenneth Winebrenner, a professor of design at Buffalo State University, newspaper columnist, and later one of the founders of the Burchfield Center. Winebrenner wrote,
Burchfield, now 72 years old . . . modestly disclaims that his early work inspired your animations of nature in any way, but rumor persists. Exhibition program will feature about a doz. one of two paragraph statements, trib [sic] and greetings on his 50th anniversary as noted artist. If he inspired you in any way he would like to include a short message from you . . .
Ms. Weekly noted there was no response found in Dr. Winebrenner’s file, “so I don’t know if he ever received one.”
Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966. Charles Burchfield died on January 10, 1967.
If you’re interested in more context regarding the art of Charles Burchfield, here are three videos: one with Nancy Weekly from the Burchfield Penney Art Center; and two from The Whitney Museum of American Art on the 2010 exhibition, “Heat Waves in a Swamp – The Paintings of Charles Burchfield.”
In Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s, the vibrant and beautiful Miranda sisters — Carmen (1909-1955) and Aurora (1915-2005) — performed solo and often together in stage shows, film, radio and recordings.
One of their joint appearances was the 1936 Brazilian revue film Alô Alô Carnaval, (above) in which Carmen and Aurora performed “As Cantoras do Rádio.”
The sisters became enormously popular in Brazil and Argentina, and throughout their professional and personal lives were always supportive of each other. The sisters’ generosity toward each other and loving bond continued even after Carmen became internationally famous in Hollywood films as the spectacularly vital star nicknamed “The Brazilian Bombshell.”
By the mid-1940s, Carmen Miranda was the highest paid woman in the United States, a world-famous symbol (albeit a stereotypical one) of America’s World War II Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America. During her career, she always maintained strong ties with her family in Brazil, especially Aurora.
For example, in 1940 Carmen presented her sister with a gold-trimmed wedding dress, and then gifted the newly-married Aurora and her husband, Gabriel Richaid, a businessman, with a honeymoon in America – and they ended up staying for a dozen years. Carmen was delighted to have them, and her mother, sharing her spacious Beverly Hills home; once again they were a close-knit family, just like in Rio.
Encouraged by Carmen, Aurora began appearing in Earl Carroll revues in Los Angeles and in films such as Phantom Lady and Brazil, both of which were released in 1944.
In October 1942, Aurora filmed a screen test for The Three Caballeros (released in 1945). It was Walt Disney’s second feature film promoting the government’s “Good Neighbor” initiative for positive hemispheric relations. (For definitive information on Disney’s Good Neighbor films 1941-1948, read South of the Border with Disney by J.B. Kaufman, Disney Editions, 2009)
The Three Caballeros was a major breakthrough for a special effect that originated in cinema’s earliest days: combining live-action and animation.
Now using Technicolor and new camera technologies the studio had developed, Disney artfully mixed cartoon fantasy and human performers in complex ways never attempted before.
For Aurora’s screen test, Carmen supplied her sister with a skirt she wore in Weekend in Havana (20th Century Fox, 1941), and for the final soundtrack recording, she provided Disney with her personal samba band, Bando da Lua (who were under contract with her at Fox).
In The Three Caballeros, Aurora Miranda gives a saucy, joyful performance singing “Os Quindins de Yayá,” while dancing with a Brazilian parrot named Jose Carioca and ignoring a lustful Donald Duck (though, eventually, she kisses him). The entire sequence is a technical tour de force set to a samba beat involving numerous musicians, singers and dancers including two men who morph into fighting cocks.
For the finale, Aurora casts a sexy sorceress’ spell on the entire city of São Salvador in the Brazilian state of Bahía, literally bringing the streetlamps, road and buildings of the town alive in some of the giddiest, most surreal, and iconic imagery in the Disney canon.
Here is a selection of original story sketches that shows how the Disney artists visualized this sequence, along with notations indicating when live-action and animation were to be combined (“process”) , and when only animation was to be used (“cartoon”) :
In the summer of 1995, film historian/curator Fabiano Canosa, a true Carioca (native of Rio de Janeiro), invited me to guest curate a program for the Mostra Rio Film Festival, celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Three Caballeros. The screening would also salute Aurora Miranda, by then a beloved Rio legend. Thanks to Disney’s indispensible Howard Green (my Patron Saint of Animation Historians), the studio provided both The Three Caballeros and Ms. Miranda’s screen test.
I first met Aurora Miranda in New York on Thursday, August 24, 1995, at the West 95th Street townhouse of filmmakers Helena Solberg and David Meyer, producers of the Carmen Miranda bio/documentary, Bananas is My Business.
The occasion was a buffet dinner for entertainers performing the next evening at an outdoor concert in Lincoln Center called Brazil Fest. The program featured contemporary Brazlian artist singing songs from the samba era ofthe 1930s and 40s, including a special commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the death of Carmen Miranda (in 1955 at age 46) – the highlight of which was a rare singing appearance by her sister.
Aurora Miranda was sitting quietly on a sofa, unassuming and charming, and Joe Kennedy and I spoke briefly with her. Her English was not fluent and we spoke no Portuguese, but with Fabiano’s help we communicated that we would see her again very soon — in fact, within a few days, in Rio de Janeiro.
Aurora was 80 when we met, but was amazingly young-looking and glamorous. Graciously, she signed a photo I brought of her in Three Caballeros, and we all enjoyed the party and warm hospitality of Helena and David.
The next evening, at Brazil Fest in the outdoor theatre of Lincoln Center, it seemed like New York’s entire Brazilian community was there. The large audience knew all the songs and sang the lyrics along with the stage performers and bands. Their feelings were upfront about the performers: cheering wildly for those they loved, but also baying like dogs in mockery of certain crooners.
The evening’s high point came at the finale, when noted Brazilian actress Marília Pêra (1943-2015) appeared. Dressed as Carmen Miranda, Pêra performed a medley of songs associated with her.
Then Pêra introduced her “sister”: Aurora Miranda walked elegantly onstage, and the audience lost it, pouring out their love for her and Carmen with tremendous shouts and cheers.
Especially exciting was the duet Aurora and Pêra sang — “As Cantoras do Rádio,” the very same song Aurora and Carmen had performed on film together some 60 years earlier. People wept openly, filled with saudade — in Portuguese, an expression for feeling nostalgic melancholy and joy at the same time. It was a wonderful evening, and Joe and I hurried home right after the finale to pack for our own trip to Rio the next day.
We arrived in Rio late Saturday night, exhausted, and awoke the next morning to the beauty of Ipanema Beach. There followed five days of parties, restaurants and visits: O Jardim Botânico; Museu de Arte Moderna’s film department; The Carmen Miranda Museum; a theatrical revue, A Era do Radio, consisting of 1930s/40s Brazilian songs; a tour of Sugar Loaf Mountain; a screening of Buster Keaton films presented by his widow, Eleanor Keaton.
I also visited the balcony of the Hotel Gloria to see where, in 1941, Mary and Lee Blair painted local scenes for Saludos Amigos, which had its world premiere in Rio de Janeiro in 1942.
On Thursday, August 31, I introduced Aurora Miranda from the stage of the grand, ornate Rio de Janeiro Theatro Municipal, built in 1909. She looked radiant and chic in a patterned black dress. After I told the full house about the film salute to Aurora we would present later that week, she rose from the audience to clamorous applause, stood alone in the spotlight and spoke briefly. Then she laughed and reached out to me to escort her off stage.
The next morning, Joe and I joined the throngs of Caroicas and tourists strolling along the beachfront promenade at Ipanema. Still a bit overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the setting, we had a sudden surprise when we saw Aurora in the crowd ahead, walking directly toward us from the opposite direction, on her own morning constitutional.
Immediately, we three joined forces and went to breakfast at the Caesar Park Hotel, where we were staying. Aurora and I also participated that week in several press interviews at various locations. Although I did not formally interview her, I did ask her (through an interpreter) about Walt Disney. She was very positive about her experiences with him. A phrase she said more than once was “Disney was full of ideas!”
I said I’d read a quote, supposedly from her, that she “didn’t like to kiss the duck.” She laughed, neither confirming nor denying the anecdote.
The tribute to Aurora took place at Rio’s Cinemathque, and she attended with her family (her son, his wife and children). We screened her Technicolor Disney test without sound, but “Os Quindins de Yaya” was heard in the audience as Aurora sang a cappella to her movie image — a memorable thrill for all in attendance.
Later, she gave me original George Hurrell publicity photo negatives of her posing in costume on a Three Caballeros set, in which an empty space was reserved for a later insertion of a drawing of Donald Duck.
She also gifted me with her personal copy of a large illustrated book on Carmen Miranda, published in 1985 in Brazil inscribed, “To John, Carinhosamente. Aurora Miranda, Rio, Sept. 1, 1995.”
The next year, 1996, Joe and I were again invited to participate in the Mostra Film Festival. This time I curated and hosted a program of Felix the Cat, the cartoon feline whose popularity as a silent film star of the 1920s rivaled Chaplin and Keaton.
Aurora attended the festival’s opening looking radiant. At the lavish party afterward, held in the cavernous cultural center Fundição Progresso in the Lapa district, there were great amounts of food and drink, and a wonderful samba band continuously playing 1930s Brazilian music.
We sat with Aurora and her family. Knowing so many of the standards being played (and probably having recorded many of them) she sang along spontaneously.
As crowds swirled through the huge space, Ms. Miranda treated our small group to a private “concert.” With a beaming smile, she sang quietly so only we could hear. She was delightful, and, too soon, she wished to leave. Walking, with her family and us following, toward the exit, Aurora moved rhythmically through the crowds swaying to the music and continuing to sing quietly.
As she descended an underlit translucent glass staircase to a samba beat, I followed behind. For a moment, I had the strange and wonderful sensation that I am Pato Donald, following the beautiful YaYa, dancing through the streets of Salvador, as she magically brings a sleeping city to life.
Later that week, Joe and I saw Aurora for the last time. She invited us for coffee at her apartment in the upscale Leblon district, adjacent to Ipanema.
Her housekeeper, who Aurora affectionately called “my child,” served us the strong delicious brew. Her apartment was comfortable and sunny, and the walls were filled with pictures of her sister Carmen, the great entertainer. In spite of our mutually halting ways of communicating, we understood how sad Aurora was regarding her sister’s tragic early death in 1955, and how much she still missed her.
She showed us albums of photographs from the 1930s and 40s: her performances with Carmen, and herself as a solo singer and recording artist; Aurora’s brief years in Hollywood (she returned to Brazil in 1952); and her happy, fifty-year marriage to Gabriel Richaid, and their two children Maria and Gabriel.
After I returned to New York, we had a brief correspondence. I was deeply saddened to read of her death in 2005.
Aurora Miranda was a warm, joy-filled spirit and a unique presence on screen and in person. She was an entertainer who brought happiness to many around the world. Though I knew her only briefly, I think of her often, for she made me understand the true meaning of saudade.
They Drew As They Pleased – The Hidden Art of Disney’s Late Golden Age: The 1940s – Part Two
by Didier Ghez Chronicle Books, 2017
On October 10, Chronicle Books will publish a third volume in an informative series about Walt Disney Studio concept artists and their art: They Drew AsThey Pleased – The Hidden Art of Disney’s Late Golden Age: The 1940s – Part Two.
Author Didier Ghez (Disney’s Grand Tour; The Disney History blog; Walt’s People book series) again displays formidable skill as a researcher and animation historian. His is an amazing, Sherlockian investigatory ability to sleuth out “lost” Disneyana artworks, and info about its artists, in unexplored private collections, as well as the vast holdings of the Walt Disney Archives and Animation Research Library. Selective excerpts from private diaries and personal correspondence especially illuminate artists’ lives and the day-to-day workings of Disney’s dream factory in its Golden Era of the 1930s and 40s.
The book series has sparkling reproductions of photos and color/black-and-white drawings, and imaginative layout designs by Cat Grishaver, showcasing a treasure trove of little-known “inspirational sketch artists.”
In the Disney Studio film production pipeline (and other studios), the inspirational or conceptual artists were (and continue to be) among the earliest creative personnel to visualize characters and stories for now-classic Disney animated films. Many were part of the Character Model Department in the late 1930s, a so-called “think tank” that encouraged exploration of a film’s visual/narrative possibilities through character designs (“idea sketches”) drawn in their own styles, using watercolor, oil, pencil, pastel, even plaster maquettes.
Many artworks showcased in the They Drew As They Pleased series, selected by Ghez from hundreds of examples, are stunningly inventive and beautiful; and often more interesting than the imagery that finally appears on the screen. The hand (graphic “signature” or style) of an individual artist is apparent within the still art; but assembly-line production exigencies to make the drawings move (e.g., cel techniques involving multiple artists and artisans), and commercial considerations (audience appeal), favor uniformity in setting a final look.
The current volume encompasses the work of Eduardo Sola Franco, Johnny Walbridge, Jack Miller, Campbell Grant, James Bodrero, and Martin Provensen.
Some Animated Eye thoughts:
Johnny Walbridge (above) impresses with his versatility: from graceful, precise designs of balletic flowers, mushrooms, and goldfish for Fantasia; to mechanically exact railroad equipment for Dumbo’s circus train and outrageous circus clowns’ sight gags; to wildly imaginative monsters for Alice in Wonderland (my fav: a badminton racket-tailed ostrich whacking a small, beaked shuttlecock).
Jack Miller and Martin Provensen were both superb character designers, blessed with an always appealing, deceptively simple, graphic line expressing a character’s many moods. I love their work, but think due to their close proximity in the Character Model Department hothouse, they developed similar styles, sometimes making it difficult to tell them apart.
Disclaimers throughout the book regarding several artworks of uncertain origin (“in the style of”) allude to my point. Provensen is quoted regarding “Disney tricks in drawing which I found I didn’t like . . . [such as] A certain facility toward expression; a too-facile approach toward gesture, toward expression, toward posture . . .”
Campbell Grant held a facility for mimicking other artist’s styles. His continuity sketches (pastel on black paper) for Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” match closely the dark, decorative style of famed illustrator Kay Nielsen, the sequence’s art director. Grant’s ostrich-ballerina-ala-Degas pastels are brilliant; but were it not for his initials on the character’s model sheets, one might think they were drawn by Provensen or Miller. Interestingly, when all three artists left Disney’s employ in the 1940s, each explored a more personal stylization in the children’s book illustration field.
James Bodrero, a worldly bon vivant, brought a sensuality and urbane wit to his easily identifiable story/concept drawings for Fantasia’s “Pastoral Symphony” section. His swarthy, lusty centaurs, bare-breasted (with nipples) centaurettes, never made it intact to the screen, although fat Bacchus’ tumescent state is implied by his donkey’s strategically placed horn.
Likewise abandoned were Bodrero’s slyly sexual ideas for the “Dance of the Hours,” e.g, a zaftig elephant wearing round her ample hips a “tutu” made of live linked alligators (!), and his violent story sketches of giant predatory rodents, for a proposed “The Mouse’s Tale” section in Dumbo.
Most interesting of Ghez’s discoveries in the current edition is Eduardo Solá Franco (1915-1996), a gifted Ecuadorian painter of distinctly personal, loose, imaginative watercolors, who had the briefest of tenures at Disney. Hired in May 1939 to create concepts for Don Quixote (ultimately abandoned), he was gone by October, leaving behind a slew of detailed ideas for scenes and characters from Cervantes’ novel in highly refined, kaleidoscopic, colored and black and white watercolors, reminiscent of Florine Stettheimer.
I am grateful to Didier Ghez’s book for ending my ignorance of this special artist. A selection of quotes from the artist’s illustrated diaries offer an intimate glimpse into his emotional peaks and valleys while at Disney.
Ghez inspired me to investigate the life of Eduardo Solá Franco. I believe he deserves a comprehensive biography of his own, to include all of his illustrated diaries. Disney was only a tiny part of his restless, yet prolific creative life. He was a painter, sculptor, illustrator for magazines and film, designer of stage scenery (for the Joffrey Ballet), choreographer of his own ballets in Lima, playwright, director of award-winning experimental short films; he was also a closeted gay man who struggled with accepting his sexuality, and, for a time, served as the Ecuadorean Cultural Attache in Rome.
Disney Legend Wilfred Jackson – A Life in Animation by Ross Care
Theme Park Press, 2016
In-depth books abound detailing the lives and analyzing the films of live-action directors. Similar in-depth studies about animation film directors are rare. This is partly due to the anonymity and collaborative nature of the animation process. Even longtime fans are hard pressed to come up with names of the directors of favorite Disney features and shorts. Also, the general public doesn’t know what animation directors do, or how they do it. George Cukor directing Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor is easily explainable; but how David Hand coaxed a performance out of Bambi and Faline is a bit more problematic.
Ross Care’s recent biography of Disney director Wilfred Jackson (1906-1988), published last year by Theme Park Press and edited by Didier Ghez, is a fine animation biography, with detailed critiques of animated films and cogent descriptions of how they were made.
Jackson, nickname “Jaxon,” is considered by many to be Disney’s finest, most exacting/details-oriented director of shorts and feature film sequences. He began in 1928 as a lowly assistant animator, and immediately proved his worth by inventing a method of pre-timing animation used in Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse short to incorporate sound.
Jaxon’s intelligence, organizational gifts, creativity and punctilious work ethic soon led to dozens of directing assignments on shorts (three won Academy Awards). During thirty years at the studio, Jaxon’s stand-out sequences, often involving music, enhanced Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and seven other features.
Care is a composer and among the first writers to publish serious critiques and histories of classic era Disney music and musicians. (Full disclosure: Ross Care composed scores for my films The Wizard’s Son (1981), Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat (1977), and adapted Mendelssohn’s scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Bottom’s Dream (1984).)
He benefited greatly in this book from seven years of correspondence between himself and Jackson. Jaxon’s letters to Care, and a diary also published in this book, contain the director’s intimate thoughts, opinions and eyewitness accounts about making Disney films. Truly revelatory, they form an invaluable core for the book, augmented by Care’s cogent discussions of Jaxon’s life and films.
Ross Care will speak on Wilfred Jackson and sign books at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 23 at 1 p.m. Ticket information: http://waltdisney.org/
Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud – The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen
Plume (Penguin Random House), 2017
A sharply written, timely book celebrating the increasing visibility and power of contemporary women who shatter walls and glass ceilings by challenging age-old perceptions of what constitutes “acceptable” feminine behavior. The election of our unhinged, unethical president and his regime’s backward agenda of resentment and prejudice sparked strong grassroots resistance, particularly among women. Examples include the amazing Women’s March in Washington and other cities across the country after the inauguration; the “Nevertheless, she persisted” rallying cry of a movement of feminists and supporters of Senator Elizabeth Warren, forced into silence during Senate hearings for a racist attorney general; and the three female GOP senators (Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) who pulled the rug out from under testosterone-fueled senators attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act with no backup plan.
Author Petersen examines women perceived to be “too queer, too strong, too honest, too old, too pregnant, too shrill, too much,” focusing on eleven powerful pop culture celebrities with kick-butt attitudes, and why they are loved and hated, including Serena Williams, Melissa McCarthy, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Hilary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, Jennifer Weiner, and Lena Dunham. This book accounts, writes Petersen, “for the ways in which unruliness has been historically censored, and the ways in which it is more necessary than ever.”
Recommended reading for both sexes in the animation industry, where women continue to be underrepresented.
“Mr. Astaire is the nearest approach we are ever likely to have to a human Mickey Mouse,” wrote Graham Greene reviewing Fred Astaire in Follow the Fleetin 1936. “He might have been drawn by Mr. Walt Disney, with his quick physical wit, his incredible agility,” Graham continued. “He belongs to a fantasy world almost as free as Mickey’s from the law of Gravity.”
Each semester in my Action Analysis classes at NYU, I screen at least one performance by the great dancer Fred Astaire (1899-1987), and it’s not just for my own pleasure (though I admit it is an exquisite pleasure to see such perfection in motion). I believe that animators are, in essence, choreographers. When the students and I break down Astaire’s dances frame-by-frame, we see the superb clarity of his movements demonstrating all the basic principles of animation; and, equally important as mechanics, his intricate and entertaining choreography is always in support of the sequence’s acting goals.
The course is an opportunity to introduce students to the work of performers like Astaire. Most of these avid 19- and 20-year old emerging filmmakers will never have heard of him before, and it is always fun to watch a new generation respond with amazement and delight to his timeless talent.
In his flawless performances, Fred Astaire seems otherworldly. His film performances are miracles of sharp timing, strong poses, and charming inventiveness. He is always elegant and perfectly turned out whether dressed in formal tux, tails and top hat, or in casual garb. A romantic poet in motion, Astaire’s style — in dance and his appearance — continue to be envied and emulated.
Everything he did on screen could become a dance, even a simple walk — see Funny Face (1957), when an ordinary stroll down a Parisian boulevard becomes one by virtue of a subtle change of energy and timing, as he sings a jaunty “Bonjour, Paris!”
His incredible mastery of props is showcased in another clip from the same film, in which Astaire woos Audrey Hepburn by miming a matador, using only his raincoat, hat and an umbrella to fight (and flee) an invisible bull.
One particular favorite film clip for animation students to study repeatedly is the “Pick Yourself Up” number, from Swing Time, the delightful 1936 musical featuring Astaire’s iconic dance partner of the Thirties, Ginger Rogers:
The animation principle of Squash and Stretch is visible in the elongation and compression of the couple throughout the dance; “anticipation” is seen in the necessary preparatory movement that precedes Astaire lifting of Rogers, while “follow-through,” a secondary movement trailing a main action, is present in the way Roger’s skirt and hair and Astaire’s coat tails, follow and arrive late after the primary body movements.
I could go on, including the principle of Arcs (an organic as opposed to a mechanical trajectory); “easing” into and out of movements; exaggeration and staging for clarity and entertainment value; and “overlapping action,” in which certain actions occur at different times. Note, too, the “texture” of the timing – the couple’s varying of staccato, hard, sharp steps with creamy-smooth flowing movements.
Astaire and Rogers also give an acting performance within the dance that drives the narrative. For they dance with a purpose — in this case demonstrating to a curmudgeonly boss (Eric Blore) that Ginger Rogers, a dance instructor, has just taught Fred Astaire this intricate routine. Such were the suspension-of-disbelief plots of 1930s Hollywood musicals. Throughout their demonstration, Astaire and Rogers continually look toward Blore, miming, “See? Look how easy it all is.”
For the finale, dance critic Arlene Croce wrote “the music has switched to a new riding theme that creates a wave of exhilaration – and anxiety: they’re going out but they can’t possibly get out that fast. Yes, they can, and calmly: clear across to the other side [of the room] and out. They walk away leaving everything in flames.”
Another thing I love about Fred Astaire: even in films that are near misses or outright duds, he always has at least one number that transcends the plot material and ascends to artistic heights. Yolanda and the Thief (1945) is precisely such a lavish failure, a fantasy musical that had everything going for it: gorgeous Technicolor styling and direction by Vincente Minnelli, a wonderful cast, backed by the full production values of the extraordinary Arthur Freed unit at MGM. Unfortunately, the script is full of soggy whimsy and artsy pretension. Yolanda has, however, become a cult favorite primarily because of two Astaire dance sequences; one, an extended Dream Ballet stuffed with Dali-esque surrealist imagery. Like the film itself, the dance number is fascinating, but ultimately fails to live up to its promise:
But the second dance routine, “Coffee Time,” is simply great. It’s a rare instance when everything works beautifully, from designer Irene Sharaff’s stand-out color choices (Astaire’s perfectly tailored grey jacket and creme-colored pants and his partner Lucille Bremer’s bright yellow dress, with red sash, set against the coffee-colored costumes of the chorus) to the zig-zag floor design derived from Rio de Janeiro’s sidewalks.
As the film clip below notes, the pulsing jazz-oriented musical arrangement is in 4/4 time to which the dancers, choreographed by Eugene Loring, move in 5/4 time. It is mesmerizing. Minnelli’s signature fluid camera moves become yet another dancer, and the editing adds to the excitement of performance, especially after a false ending, when music and dancers build again to an intensely satisfying crescendo.
Leading the way with dynamic energy and star power is Fred Astaire. He is the sun around which everything else revolves; his dynamism brings essential magic to the sequence. Reviewing the film in 1945, The New York Times noted that “Coffee Time puts movement and color to such use as you seldom behold on the screen.” Behold it and Fred Astaire in all their glory at the link below. See if you can keep yourself from cheering at the finale of this dance routine:
Even Mickey Mouse imitated him. In Thru the Mirror (1936), one of Disney’s best color shorts, the agile cartoon mirrors the dancing man. Mickey cavorts atop at giant silk cylinder hat parodying the title costume from Astaire’s Top Hat, a feature released the year before (1935) by RKO, which was to become Disney’s film distributor in 1937. Wearing a smaller version of the topper, Mickey partners with an anthropomorphic matchstick. While no match (sorry) for Ginger Rogers, who was Astaire’s film dance partner at the time, the stick literally adds fire to the mouse’s toe-tapping steps until it’s replaced by a pair of strutting white gloves carrying (again) a top hat and large walking stick.
It wasn’t the first time Disney tipped his hat in a toon tribute to Astaire. In 1935, Disney’s Silly Symphony Cock o’ the Walk used the rhumba “The Carioca” from the first Astaire/Rogers teaming, Flying Down to Rio (1933), to stage an elaborate barnyard musical number with hens, roosters, ducks, geese, and even peacocks for a splash of extra color.
None other than Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, found the cartoon “an inspired satire on a Busby Berkley super-duper, but its color and fantasy were incidentally beautiful in themselves.”
(The Carioca runs from 1:55 to 5:15 and also at the finale, from 7:30 to end 8:23)
Vladimir Tytla animated the dancing rooster and hen, and it marked a breakthrough in the quality of Disney animation. Walt Disney always sent detailed, generally scathing critiques to the animators after every short film was completed. Of Tytla’s work in Cock o’ the Walk, however, he conceded that the animation “was a big step forward…As far as the dancing of the characters is concerned, a good result was obtained.”
Disney added that “something was started…which is what we are striving for. That is, doing things in the dance which humans are unable to do.”
On June 22, an elegant, imaginative, interactive Google Doodle celebrated the 117th birthday of Oskar Fischinger (1900 – 1967), the great visual music/abstract animation film pioneer. Visitors to the Doodle homepage were invited to create both music and accompany it with non-objective imagery — a visceral, tactile homage to Fischinger, “the Kandinsky of cinema.” You can try it here:
It was very gratifying to me, to see a new generation discovering Fischinger and his enchanting, hand-drawn, pre-digital moving art. I was a close friend, over the course of three decades, of his widow, Elfriede Fischinger (1910-1999) and her associate, Dr. William Moritz (1941-2004), film historian and Fischinger’s biographer.
For years, Elfriede and Bill traveled the world screening Oskar’s films and curating exhibitions of his paintings, keeping his name and reputation alive. I met Elfriede and Bill at the 1976 Ottawa Animation Festival and wrote a candid and affectionate article about them, their adventures and our friendship in the Summer 1978 issue of Funnyworld, Michael Barrier’s brilliant and long-lamented magazine.
In 1977, I was the on-camera host of a CBS Camera Three program, “The Art of Oskar Fischinger,” the first national exploration of his life and work. On the show, I interviewed Mrs. Fischinger and Dr. Moritz.
How thrilled Elfriede and Bill would be to see the Google Doodle; Angie Fischinger, youngest of Oskar and Elfriede’s five children, wrote a touching tribute to her father, noting “It’s impossible to deny true talent, and so it stands the test of time and will continue to do so.”
Oskar Fischinger was a fiercely independent, freethinking filmmaker, who began making exquisite film art in the 1920s in Germany. By the 1930s, his fame had grown due to his series of “studies”: geometric shapes and patterns synchronized tightly to classical music and jazz, first in black and white, later in glorious color.
In America in 1936, he and his family sought refuge from the Nazis, who vilified his prize-winning abstract films as “Entartete Kunst”,or “degenerate art”.
Fischinger found little support for his non-commercial films in this country, and there was virtually no market for the theatrical advertising films that had sustained him in Europe. To survive, he sought employment at commercial Hollywood studios, and worked, always briefly and always unhappily, at Paramount, MGM, and Disney, where his films inspired Fantasia’s semi-abstract “Toccata and Fugue” section.
Fischinger was frustrated by the American studio system, where his distinctive personal vision was subject to modification and adaptation by production teams.
With the help of small grants from the Solomon R. Guggenheim foundation, Fischinger continued creating short non-objective films, completing his last in 1947: the mesmerizing Motion Painting No. 1. His final twenty years were spent painting stunning abstract canvases.
Fischinger’s artworks, both filmed and painted, have inspired generations of artists, including John Cage, Norman McLaren, Orson Welles, Len Lye, Hy Hirsh, Jules Engel, Sara Petty, Larry Cuba, John and James Whitney, Steven Woloshen, Vibeke Sorensen, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, Edgard Varese, Alexander Alexeieff, Jeff Scher, Mary Ellen Bute, among others.
As I wrote in a New York Times article about “A Fischinger Centennial Celebration” at MoMA in 2000, Fischinger’s films and paintings “easily and joyfully communicate with all sorts of audiences around the world. Far from dry intellectual exercises, his symbols and colors in motion are witty, whimsical, and beautiful as well as profound.”
In addition to the Google Doodle project Fischinger’s film work continues to amaze contemporary audiences around the world, thanks to the diligent efforts of the Center for Visual Music (CVM), under the direction of Cindy Keefer, in Los Angeles. http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/
The non-profit archive is dedicated to visual music, experimental animation, and abstract media. The CVM online store sells Fischinger DVDs, books, objects and ephemera, and curates Fischinger exhibitions and screenings around the world.
Last fall, for instance, CVM loaned its 2012 reconstruction of Raumlichtkunst(1926/2012), Fischinger’s 1920s multiple-projector work, to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s vast exhibition, Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016. The huge triptych was presented as an HD three-channel installation; elsewhere in the exhibition, CVM also showcased five Fantasia concept drawings by Fischinger from the CVM collection.
William Moritz was a co-founder of CVM, and his archives form an important part of the Center’s research collection. Bill died in 2005, at age 63, after a long battle with cancer. His last years were spent completing his long-awaited biography of Oskar Fischinger, Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fiachinger, which was published just weeks before his death.
Until her own peaceful death in May 1999, a few months shy of her 89th birthday, Elfriede Fischinger continued to restore her husband’s films, promote them, and present them at international screenings. She remained a vital link and witness to the European film avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s. It was my pleasure to know her and work with her, and just to be with her on numerous occasions through the years.
She never changed, I am pleased to say. Her enthusiasms, passion, sense of fun, vibrant personality, and overwhelming childlike energy remained the same, even as her frizzy hair turned from wren brown to snow white.
The last time we were together was in New York in November 1998, a few months before she died. She and Bill Moritz appeared as the star attractions of Anthology Film Archives’ First Light festival of abstract films. Because of Anthology’s ever-precarious finances, Elfriede and Bill agreed to third-rate hotel accommodations, a second-rate airline, and a tiny honorarium, offering it all up for the greater glory of Oskar.
That final visit left me with a memorable image of Elfriede. I can still see her standing joyfully smiling in Times Square as electric neon lights flashed on and off, whirled, zigzagged, twisted in space, exploded and burned with colors that would embarrass a rainbow; and as rows of blurred human forms crossed streets, dashed dynamically through the concrete corridors, twisted, turned and nearly colliding with each other and Elfriede. She beamed through it all, standing solidly at the center of a real-life three-dimensional Fischinger canvas: a gigantic Kreise, a cosmic Optical Poem, an Allegretto without limits, an eternal Motion Painting.
It was a beautiful and unforgettable sight. As she used to say when referring to the ultimate of any and every thing: “It vas IT!”