“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!”
Since the year 1305, visitors to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, are also entering a 14th century movie palace. On the chapel’s walls and ceiling a favorite Biblical epic, The Story of Mary and Christ, unfolds its narrative in a sequential series of compelling, innovative frescoes, which are among the most important breakthroughs in western art. They were created by the great Florentine master designer, painter — and, yes, director/animator –Giotto di Bondone (1266/67 – 1337).
Giotto had an intuitive genius for visual storytelling and connecting emotionally with his mostly illiterate audience. In his hands, the story’s characters look and act like real humans. They live in familiar-looking Italian hills, houses and meadows; they communicate directly with viewers, make them participant’s in the story. Viewing the paintings becomes a shared, immersive experience.
This was a profound change from Byzantine symbolism. Those remote, expressionless, cord-of-wood figures floating on gold backgrounds are beautiful, but cold and distant imagery compared to Giotto’s work. By contrast, his paintings are mirrors of the human condition. A farmer’s son, he plowed the field, as it were, of modern representational art for key figures of the High Renaissance, such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci; the latter artist, born over 100 years after Giotto died, once remarked that post-Giotto “art declined.”
Always impressive is Giotto’s staging of scenes containing multiple figures. Unerringly, with great clarity, he focuses our eyes like a movie director. His “actors” express a wide palette of emotions, among them love, hate, horror, anger, fear, pity and sorrow. It’s all there, expressed with subtle economy and understatement in the poses and staging. Giotto’s art is truthful and, therefore, believable. Or “sincere,” the word older Disney animators used to describe sensitive character animation.
A superb example of Giotto’s gifts is the “Kiss of Judas” fresco depicting the moment just after Christ is betrayed to the arresting soldiers by an identifying kiss from Judas Iscariot, one of Christ’s apostles. The scene takes place in the midst of a swirling, unruly mob whose spears, halberds and torches serve as directional arrows pointing toward the two men at the center. The embracing folds of Judas’ yellow cloak — the color a psychological tell for his cowardly act — lead our eyes toward an affecting “close-up” of Jesus and Judas.
Jesus’ expression is calm, compassionate, forgiving, as he gazes directly into Judas’ eyes. His betrayer, by contrast, shorter or lower in position, appears to be frozen with guilt. His eyes sink into his furrowed, simian-like brow; his lips are still puckered. He is locked in fear and self-loathing. Amidst noisy turmoil, the stare between the two men is quiet; a surreal, slo-mo, time-stopping moment of private thoughts.
The Scrovegni fresco “cinema” also offers romance and a full-on, physical expression of love. When Joachim and Ann (parents of the Blessed Mary) embrace each other after months of absence, their eyes and lips lock as their hands tenderly and passionately pull each other close.
For on-screen horror, few blood-and-guts film scenes can compete with Giotto’s shocking fresco of the Slaughter of the Innocents: babies torn from their agonized mother’s arms are slaughtered by King Herod’s goons, amid a pile of massacred children.
Giotto also possessed a sense of humor and wasn’t shy of displaying comic relief in otherwise serious contexts. Observe the scene-stealing, braying camel that startles its handler in the “Adoration of the Magi” fresco.
The artist’s personal humor endeared him to his friends. He was said to be a homely man, and legend has it that Dante (who apparently had no filter) once asked Giotto how he could create such beautiful paintings and such ugly children. The artist allegedly replied: “I make my pictures by day and my babies at night!”
Can today’s animators and filmmakers still learn from an artist who lived more than 700 years ago? Of course! One can always profit from analyzing Giotto’s visual communication techniques. I contend that Albert Hurter did precisely that in Walt Disney’s first feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937).
An excellent draftsman, Hurter (1883-1942) arrived at the Disney studio in 1931 at age 48 with an extensive background in fine arts training and study in Europe. With his encyclopedic knowledge of art history, he often regaled his cartoonist colleagues with descriptions of the art of Vincent Van Gogh, Herman Vogel, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Franz Stuck, and Heinrich Kley, among others.
Hurter became the Disney studio’s first “inspirational sketch” artist: he created hundreds of imaginative conceptual drawings, ideas for personality gags and visualizations that would inspire the studio’s directors, writers, storyboard artists and animators. In SNOW WHITE, his visual influence is all-pervasive. Of particular interest is a sequence that is a breakthrough in the art of character animation: the seven dwarfs grieving over the inert body of Snow White.
For Walt Disney, it was a daring gamble. For he hoped audiences would suspend their disbelief to find believable the emotions expressed by cartoon characters mourning the “death” of another toon. In dozens of sketches, Hurter relentlessly searched for the right body language and facial expressions for the dwarfs as well as suggestions for positioning the characters around the bier within a cottage setting, ideas for lighting, mood and so on.
His creative search, to my mind and animated eye, was similar to Giotto’s process in creating the Lamentation fresco in Scrovegni Chapel. It is reasonable to assume that Hurter, art history maven, knew of and may have found useful, the composition and gestures of the 14th century master’s painting. Giotto’s brilliant placement of individualized mourners, each grieving in their own way — quietly mournful to hysterical disbelief — as guideposts, leading our eye to the prostrate Christ embraced in his mother’s arms. Above, ten angels mirror the scene, and they behave in distinctively individual mourning poses and expressions, too.
Similarly, Hurter’s dwarfs each display sorrow in seven distinct ways: staring in disbelief, weeping openly, some so distraught they avoid looking at the radiant princess’ body, whose glow rivals the light emanating from the candles behind her.
When master animator Frank Thomas (1912 – 2004), with great subtlety, transformed Hurter’s idea sketches into animation drawings (see below), audiences wept at the final result.
As my friend, animation historian John Culhane, once said regarding Snow White’s lamentation sequence: “Moving drawings became . . . moving drawings.”
Today, I’d like to set our Time Machine back nearly four decades, for a visit New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art from June 24 through September 6, 1981, and its grand, large-scale exhibition titled “Disney Animations and Animators.”
But first, a little context.
Disney animation exhibitions had been occurring in art museums and galleries well before 1981.
In 1938, Guthrie Courvoisier, a fine art dealer in San Francisco, signed an agreement with Walt and Roy Disney granting him exclusive rights to market their original animation art. Original Disney Studio art sold through the Courvoisier Gallery came with a certificate that emphasized the authenticity and the select nature of the works being sold.
Through the efforts of Courvoisier, the prestigious Julien Levy, who presented the first exhibition of Surrealism in New York, was one of the first to exhibit Disney’s work in a commercial gallery. He offered the “First National Showing of Original Watercolors from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” from September 15 through October 4, 1938.
From March 21 – April 17, 1939, Levy presented “Original Watercolors on Celluloid Used in the Filming of Walt Disney’s Ferdinand the Bull.” On April 8 – 23, 1940, modernist Levy, who also exhibited films including Disney’s in conjunction with exhibits, presented “Original Watercolors for Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.”
Also in 1940, the Los Angeles County Museum’s director, Roland J. McKinna, arranged the first overview of Disney’s contributions to animation, “a new art form” from Steamboat Willie (1928) to Fantasia (1940). This early retrospective exhibition, a merging of high and popular art in a museum setting, revealed the artistic processes of animation through preliminary concepts sketches, story drawings, cels, backgrounds, model sheets, and maquettes. “In twelve years,” McKinney wrote in the exhibition catalog, “Walt Disney has elevated animated pictures from a crude form of entertainment to the dignity of a true art.” After Los Angeles, the exhibit traveled to seven museums across the country ending in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Back in New York, the Galerie St. Etienne, which specializes in Expressionism and Self-Taught Art (the Galerie gave Grandma Moses her first one-woman show in 1940) exhibited “Walt Disney Originals” starting on September 23, 1942.
On December 9, 1943, they presented a “Walt Disney Cavalcade”; and, on October 28, 1949, an exhibit simply called “Walt Disney.”
I begged my parents to drive me from Elmira, New York to Rochester. They indulged me, and I remain grateful. For what I saw — original cels and backgrounds, animation drawings, concepts from Sleeping Beauty and a slew of other films, including, as I fondly recall, the Disneyland TV program Mars and Beyond (1957) — continued to inspire me years later when I curated animation art exhibitions at the Katonah Museum (Winsor McCay; Vladimir Tytla) and the Walt Disney Family Museum (Mary Blair; Herman Schultheis; the art of Pinocchio).
Common to all of the above mentioned animation art exhibitions held during Walt Disney’s lifetime (he died in 1966) was that he received exclusive credit for what got onto the screen. The army of artists he employed were, for the most part, anonymous. The 1981 Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Disney Animations and Animators” exhibition changed all that.
In this high art venue, individual animators were named alongside drawings that they created. Specific animators were cited (e.g. Ham Luske, Vladimir Tytla, Fred Moore, Art Babbitt, and each of the so-called Nine Old Men, among others) for their special (nay, extraordinary) contributions to iconic Disney scenes; including crediting their participation in codifying essential animation principles, which certain animators either pioneered or developed to sublime expressive heights.
The exhibition also offered artwork from every phase of production – concept sketches, layout drawings, storyboards, background paintings — and their artists (where known) also received credit.
Ford’s selective connoisseurship focused on animation drawings — their wild, single-frame exaggerations necessary to make visual points read loud and clear to the audience; the use of space as a compositional element; the choreography involved in working out a gag or a dance; razor-sharp storytelling clarity seen in a flurry of sequential main pose drawings, a.k.a. “extremes.” And he specified who did what.
“Disney character animation represents the most successful and sustained realization of a world within the film frame,” wrote John G. Hanhardt, Whitney Museum’s Curator of Film and Video at the time.
Greg Ford’s selection of works highlights the drawings as discrete items and as part of a process. The process concludes in the film projected onto the screen, and many of the most important Disney short films and features are being shown as part of this exhibition. In addition, throughout the galleries videotape monitors present individual sequences, which illustrate the animation process. From this exhibition we can look again at the films and recognize familiar faces and actions — and appreciate what a rich and provocative body of drawings and film art Disney animations are.
To give you a flavor of the show, and how it was mounted, are black and white photographs that I shot on assignment as a contributing editor for Print magazine. (Print eventually published an article I wrote on “Disney Backgrounds” in the March/April 1982 issue, based on artworks in the Whitney exhibit.) I’ve also included a handful of color images of some of the art exhibited, with apologies for the poor quality of the black and white shots, which were taken in available light for reference purposes only.
Unfortunately, no illustrated catalog accompanied the exhibition; but in a concise, informative six-page handout John Hanhardt discusses the exhibit, and it contains all the films screened during the show’s run. Click the image at left to read a full-size copy and turn the pages.
In 1982, a goodly number of the artworks from the Whitney exhibition found their way into Treasures of Disney Animation Art, publisher Robert Abrams’ giant (16” X 13”) Abbeville Press tome. I wrote the book’s Introduction, concluding:
Herein is contained a small but delicious sample of the huge amount of research, analysis, and preparation that contributed over the years to Disney’s film accomplishments. The body of work, remarkable in its own right, is a tribute to the visionary power and leadership abilities of Walt Disney, and to the individual talents of his staff of artists and craftspeople [emphasis added], whose cumulative efforts made the visions real.
On April 19, this blog posted “A Tale of Two Gerties,” illustrated by two never-before-seen photographs of Walt Disney and Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence (nicknamed “Gertie” by her close friends). The photos were taken on February 7, 1942 backstage at the Alvin Theatre during the run of Lady in the Dark, the hit musical play in which Ms. Lawrence starred.
In one of the photos, grinning joyfully between Walt and Gertie, is a 17-year old self-taught, would-be animator named Robert N. Brotherton. In the late 1940s, Bob Brotherton rescued from destruction original negatives and prints of several films created by the great comic strip and animation pioneer, Winsor McCay.
Bob also played an important role in the life of another star performer named Gertie. This was McCay’s celebrated 1914 animated cartoon dinosaur, who possessed the personality of a petulant child. The naturalistic design and motion of McCay’s cartoon dinosaur predict Disney’s “illusion of life” personality animation by twenty years; also, McCay’s live interaction on stage with the film of his “trained dinosaur” is a superb example of early multi-platform, immersive entertainment.
Not only did Bob Brotherton save Gertie film prints and negative from oblivion, but he rescued and preserved a goodly number of McCay’s original Gertie animation drawings. Of McCay’s known ten films, only the Gertie drawings on rice paper and a few cels (drawings on celluloid acetate) from his 1918 masterpiece, The Sinking of the Lusitania, are known to survive.
In my 1987 biography, Winsor McCay – His Life and Art, I wrote briefly about Bob and his heroic efforts. But he has never received enough credit for his extraordinary salvaging and protection McCay’s animation legacy. Practically nothing been written about the life of this man who, in his own way, had the passion for film preservation and tenacity of Henri Langlois.
I hope to rectify the oversight here:
Robert (Bob) N. Brotherton (1925 – 1989) was born in Philadelphia, the son of Thomas J.R. Brotherton. Bob described his father as “a well-known theatrical man who was associated with the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld for many years” as his box office manager. In 1933, Thomas produced a play titled Our Wife, featuring a young Humphrey Bogart; later, he became box office manager at the aforementioned Alvin Theatre on 52nd Street (now the Neil Simon Theatre)
Although Bob Brotherton grew up around theatre people, his talent for drawing led him at age 14 to make his own animated movies using a 16mm stop-motion Bolex camera. In 1943, at age 18, he left college to join the Armed Forces. In June 1944, he fought in the invasion of France at Utah Beach; in July, he was wounded during a critical battle at St. Lô.
After hospitalization in England, an Army agency placed him in a special GI program “Training with Civilian Agencies,” which prepared soldiers for a return to civilian life in the USA in a chosen field. In 1945, through Max Milder, a family friend who headed Warner Bros. International, Bob became the only GI in the United Kingdom Theatre of Operations to study and train for a film career with Associated British Pictures. For nearly a year, Bob was trained by English director Harold French, and learned cinematography techniques from Freddie Francis of the B.S.C. (British Society of Cinematographers). He also observed the production of five features in British studios before his 1946 discharge from the Army.
Back in New York, Bob studied at the Art Students’ League, and in 1947 worked briefly as a staff artist at Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics Group) on comic book art for Patsy Walker and Comedy Comics. In late 1947, 22-year old Brotherton and Arthur L. Goldman formed Television Cartoons, Inc., which produced hundreds of animated and live-action advertisements for Vaseline Hair Tonics, Hudson Autos, Sylvania Electric, Blatz Beer, US Bureau of Aeronautics, Four-Way Cold Tablets, among other products and services.
The firm started in a downtown (SoHo) loft, later moving to larger quarters on West 46th Street. The corporation closed in 1953, according to Brotherton, “due to the actors/agency strike that closed many film companies during the period.” By that time, he was a member of the Screen Directors International Guild and the Director’s Guild of America. Also, in 1953, Brotherton joined CBS News as a staff film editor, making an eventual switch to editing on videotape. In 1970, he took a leave of absence from CBS for nearly eight months to become involved, like his father, in the production of a Broadway show. The ill-fated musical played nine previews and closed opening night. He returned to CBS and was employed there until his death in 1989 at age 64.
Winsor McCay’s film legacy had already passed through a number of hands before Bob Brotherton became involved. In July, 1934, McCay died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He was 68 years old and still working full-time as an editorial cartoonist for William Randolph Hearst.
The McCay house was filled with hundreds of artworks from his long career, including original panels from his comic strips Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland; many of his editorial drawings and advertising illustrations; original animation drawings from the dozen or so short films he created between 1911 and 1922, and 35mm nitrate negatives and prints of these films.
These objects remained in the house until the late 1930s, when a fire in the living room damaged some of the drawings and films. McCay’s widow, Maude, decided to give up the house and move to an apartment, and their son, Robert, agreed to take the entire collection to his house for storage. But he did not have space for everything, so he culled the contents of some film cans and burned them in the Brooklyn city dump.
Eventually, Robert transferred the collection to a trusted McCay family friend, Irving Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn was a fabric salesman and longtime admirer of McCay’s work. He befriended McCay in the later years of the artist’s life, probably in the late 1920s.
“I was just an admirer of his. Just one of the public,” Mendelsohn told me in an interview on August 8, 1974 in his fabric loft on West 38th Street in New York City. Throughout his career, McCay had always earned top dollar, but spent lavishly on a very comfortable lifestyle for his wife, children and grandchildren. New sources of income would always be welcome, and Mendelsohn agreed to help McCay find additional work.
“I did have a letter from Mr. McCay permitting me to represent him,” he said, “even with a commission on it, so to speak. And I did go around to people, I tried.”
Regarding McCay’s working relationship with Hearst and his chief editor, Arthur Brisbane, Mendelsohn recalled, “There was a little friction there.” Mendelsohn attempted to find McCay work at a rival newspaper, The World Telegram:
We had a paper competitive to Hearst’s Evening Journal. When Mr. McCay was very unhappy, I figured I would go to them since I had the right to represent him. So I went over to Park Row, that’s downtown in the City Hall area …and I met one of the men to talk. He said, “Why we’d love to have Winsor McCay. Love to. [But] Mr. Hearst would put us out of business if we took him…away.
After McCay’s death, Mendelsohn continued his friendship with the family. In the mid-1940s, he and Robert McCay formed the McCay Feature Syndicate, Inc. and attempted to interest the Richardson Feature Syndicate in a revival of McCay’s famous strip, LittleNemo in Slumberland. The attempt was mercifully brief, but not before Robert cut and trimmed panels from several of his father’s original large-size Nemo strips to fit a modern smaller format, a ghastly mutilation of art difficult to contemplate.
Robert McCay subsequently relocated his family to California. Having failed to find any way to exploit his father’s original art, he left the bulk of it in Mendelsohn’s care, along with the film materials and animation drawings, which had essentially no commercial value.
Mendelsohn carted the artwork and films from Brooklyn to his fabric loft (then on White Street) in Manhattan, and finally to his home on Long Island.
In 1947, Mendelsohn’s son Jack (1926 – 2017) — then a 21-year old writer-artist who later worked on TV comedy series and was a screenwriter on Yellow Submarine (1968) — brought to the Long Island house a young friend named Robert Brotherton.
“Jack said, ‘My old man has got stacks and stacks of film out at Great Neck,” Brotherton remembered. “They’re rotting. Did you ever hear of Winsor McCay?’”
Knowledgeable about the history of animation, Brotherton was “eager to take a look at them.” During my first interview with Brotherton in 1974, he excitedly told me how Mendelsohn took the two young men out to his garage, and there, from floor to ceiling in a corner, were about 100 rusting film cans. “I opened one,” Brotherton said, “and saw it was turning to powder.”
These were old 35mm nitrate films. [The earliest was thirty-six years old.] When that stuff deteriorates, it first turns to jelly, then to powder, and then watch out — it explodes! It’s highly flammable, so I asked Irving to fill a barrel with water. All afternoon and part of the next morning I looked through every can. Most were rotten and I threw those immediately into the waterbarrel. I managed to save around sixty cans. Most were prints of Gertie, but there were examples of all of McCay’s animations represented, including the hand colored Little Nemo. Some films, like the second Gertie [Gertie on Tour], I could only save a small amount of footage and a few representative frames.
One discarded film was “an original negative to a film entitled Performing Animals. Hand-examination showed that the animals were playing musical instruments,” recalled Brotherton of a film that may have been a test of a planned cartoon for McCay’s vaudeville act. “In connection with this negative, there was an incomplete positive reel in a very early stage of decomposition.” Both were destroyed. A hand-colored version of Little Nemo, McCay’s first film made in 1911, based on his epic Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip, was mercifully saved.
Brotherton realized, and convinced Irving Mendelsohn, that “something had to be done” to preserve these seminal works from disappearing. “We needed editing rooms to air the footage, inspect it and remove the deteriorating parts. And we needed storage rooms at controlled temperatures to keep the films. Irving agreed to put up his own money for this.”
Before that happened, Robert McCay had 16mm reduction prints and negatives made at his own expense in 1947. Duplicate negatives and positives of Little Nemo, Gertie, and some of the Rarebit Fiend series were made in a Long Island laboratory and taken by Robert to the West Coast. “It was understood,” said Brotherton, “by Mendelsohn and myself that MGM was to look into the idea of doing a Passing Parade short for that John Nesbitt series about famous people and incidents. This never came to pass. Those 16’s are most likely lying in the basement of the [MGM] studio at the present time, overlooked and forgotten about.”
Thus began a twenty-year tragicomic odyssey in which Mendelsohn and Brotherton were thrown out of editing rooms and storage houses when it was learned the film treasures they were tending were made of nitrate. In the middle of the amateur conservators’ misadventures, a tribute was paid to Winsor McCay on national television.
On November 30, 1955, on the Disneyland television series, Walt Disney included a dramatization of McCay’s vaudeville act with Gertie the Dinosaur, on a program called “The Story of the Animated Drawing.”
Writer/animator Richard Huemer had witnessed McCay’s act years before in New York, and, with Robert McCay acting as the segment’s consultant, he was able to reproduce for the actor who played McCay the exact dialogue and movements of the artist (cracking a whip, tossing a fruit, and so forth). This historic overview of the history of character animation was the first time a new generation had ever heard of Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur.
During Robert McCay’s visit to the Disney Studio when the program was in preparation, Walt Disney acknowledged his debt, and that of all other character animators, to the experiments and films of Winsor McCay. He gestured out the window toward his bustling studio complex and said, “Bob, all this should be your father’s.”
Meanwhile, back in New York, some McCay nitrate films caught fire in a couple of storage vaults, destroying more of the material and again getting Mendelsohn and Brotherton into trouble. Finally help arrived, but not from an American museum or a grant from the United States government. These rare film masterpieces, the beginnings of the art of American character/personality animation, were rescued by Canada. (As Maurice Sendak has ruefully observed, America “still doesn’t take its great fantasists all that seriously.”)
The 1967 World Animation Film Exposition in Montreal and La Cinémathèque Québéçoise tracked down the McCay films and offered Mendelsohn and Brotherton the chance to have the troublesome nitrates preserved on safety film and stored properly. This the two men gratefully allowed. And so the existent 35mm filmography of Winsor McCay resides today in Montreal at La Cinémathèque Québéçoise. They are distribtuted on DVD by Milestone Film & Video.
In the early 1960s, Mendelsohn returned the original McCay comic strips and related paper drawings to Winsor McCay’s daughter Marion. Her brother Robert died of cancer in 1962.
Robert Brotherton was also responsible for the preservation of the largest amount of animation drawings by McCay known to survive: approximately four hundred of the original Gertie the Dinosaur drawings. By 1947, McCay was an artist from a bygone era, whose accomplishments in comic strips and animation had been largely forgotten by the general public. Brotherton explained how he found the drawings:
Irving wanted to give me a gift for helping him with the films. So he told me to go up to the loft of his fabric shop on White Street. There on the floor — I’ll never forget it — strewn from one end of the loft to the other among bolts of fabric, were all these Gertie drawings. Irving said to take whatever I wanted, so I spent the entire afternoon picking up every one.
Bob carefully preserved the delicate drawings for nearly three decades, selling some to private collectors, and also donating some to museums, such as La Cinematheque Quebecoise, MoMA, and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, among other venues.
I met Bob Brotherton through Louise Beaudet, then head of the animation division at La Cinematheque Quebecoise in Montreal. At the time, I was beginning to research Winsor McCay and people who knew him, which eventually led to my writing the cartoonist’s biography in 1987. My first interview with Bob took place on July 29, 1974 at his editing room at WCBS studios on West 57th Street on the night shift. I later conducted interviews with him at his mother’s apartment on West End Avenue and 76th Street. He was divorced at the time with a young daughter who lived with her mother in the midwest. Bob later married Heneriette (Betty) Adam, a vivacious French woman who brought great joy to his life.
This past weekend I was delighted to attend the sold-out premiere of Dear Basketball at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. The short film is directed by master animator Glen Keane, based on sports legend Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem about the game he loves, and played brilliantly, for twenty years.
Narrated by Bryant, with a subdued yet majestic music score by five-time Oscar-winning composer John Williams, this deeply personal film is six minutes of captivating, whirling, non-stop motion and emotion. To put it in the vernacular: Dear Basketball is a power dunk by three super players.
The hand-drawn film smoothly alternates between the child Kobe dreaming of playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, his achievement of that goal as an adult, and the inevitable process of moving on to a new life challenge. Sounds like a lot to pack into a short, but Keane’s elegant production combines clarity and lyricism.
Significant moments in Kobe’s life morph from a boy’s point-of-view shooting hoops in his bedroom with a “ball” of tube socks, and practicing “foot mechanics” by setting up chairs as obstacles, to the sports giant he became during a career of glorious triumphs and physical pain.
The film opens with a scoreboard countdown, a roaring crowd and we, the audience, running on the court with Kobe. Tearing through the competition toward the basket, we soar with the ball through the hoop, its netting an abstract splash dissolving dreamlike into a transition of time and space.
There is an experimental expressive freedom in Keane’s direction and animation, which he rarely had the opportunity to venture into as a Disney animator. The films immersive quality is achieved primarily through sequential drawings on single sheets of paper.
You are always aware that the visuals are drawings — some beautifully rendered with detail and fully animated, even to the sweat trickling down Kobe’s brow; some drawings are wild scribbles, lines that coalesce into, and out of, recognizable shapes. The action and “camera” point-of-view takes place within drawings of moving backgrounds that quickly, freely, fluidly change locale and time periods, as storyteller Keane desires.
As with other great animated cartoons, no matter the style, audiences become deeply involved with the story through the characters. Keane mastered “illusion of life” animation’s power and charm at Disney, and brings it with joy to his free-form storytelling here.
Expressive sequential graphite-penciled story sketches are essential to Keane’s creative process; for example, his dramatically expressive thumbnail storyboards for The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas, among other films. Rough story and animation drawings are rarely seen in their nascent form in his Disney oeuvre, but their raw vitality pulses in this film. Dear Basketball is a “pencil test” writ large and beautiful, reminiscent of John and Faith Hubley’s experimental films.
In an on-stage interview conducted by Michael Strahan on Sunday, April 23, Bryant and Keane talked about their collaboration on the project. ( A video of the complete Tribeca Talk conversation can be seen at Cartoon Brew.)
Bryant said he insisted that animation of his poem be hand-drawn, “not CG,” and “in one with the game;” that is, a tactile match for his tangible sense of touch and the smell, sound and feel of “a basketball in the game.” He also noted certain abstract things can be best expressed through animation, such as “emotion, conscious and sub-conscious thought, ideas.”
“A drawing with a pencil is an expression of your soul,” Keane said. “A seismograph of your soul. You put a line down – it’s a feeling and emotion.”
Both men discussed recent profound changes in their lives and how they dealt with it: Kobe leaving basketball as one of the best athletes in NBA history; Glen leaving the Disney Studio after an illustrious 38 years as one of its greatest animators. (Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and Tarzan.)
Bryant formed Kobe Inc. a multi-media content creation company to help athletes learn the process of excellence and maximizing potential. He asked of himself and the Tribeca audience, “What can you control” in seeking your goals. Cited as an “inspiration” was his friend Michael Jackson, who advised Bryant, when he was with the Lakers, to up his game by seriously “studying the game,” as deeply as Jackson studied entertainers he admired; for example, Jackson pored over sheet music and recordings of The Beatles, and analyzed the dancing of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
In addition to persistence, Bryant noted that his career was “built piece by piece,” not by focusing on the top of a personal Mount Everest he wanted to reach, but instead on “each step, one foot after the other, and perfecting those steps” to reach the mountaintop.
When Glen Keane left Disney, he no longer had an army of “clean-up” or ink and paint artists to transform his drawings into a uniform Disney style. Now, the independent Glen Keane Productions has a small crew in Hollywood helping the master animator/storyboard artist retain the aliveness of his personal “signature” on the screen.
“This Kobe project certainly has me feeling like a new animation student trying to figure out what end is up,” Keane wrote to me last summer. “I told Kobe that he has the worst basketball player on earth animating him. But fortunately, observation and imagination are not limited by my athleticism.”
The crew on the nine-month production of Dear Basketball includes producer Gennie Rim; production designer Max Keane; animators Minkyu Lee and Bolhem Bouchiba; effects animator Phillip Vigil; and animation assistant Aidan Terry.
On a personal note, Glen Keane, master animator, story artist and major mensch of great integrity, honor, and humility, has been a friend for many years. I first got to know him as an essential, articulate and witty interviewee for my periodical articles and my 2001 book on Disney’s Nine Old Men. We corresponded via email for years.
When we were both honored with the Winsor McCay Award at the 2007 Annie Awards ceremony, I boldly asked Glen if he might sign and send a sketch of the Beast to me.
In 2013, a splendid drawing arrived and, as you can see, it was a treasure worth waiting for:
In 2015, Glen was in New York screening Duet at the Museum of Modern Art, and he generously found time to visit NYU Tisch, meet our animation students, and to give a spellbinding lecture (with spontaneous drawings).
Last June, Gennie Rim, Glen’s producer on Duet and other projects, contacted me, seeking “any stand-out students or alumni” for a new 2-D project. I saw it as an opportunity to reciprocate Glen’s generosity, and suggested young Aidan Terry, a brilliant 2016 graduate and mainstay of our NYU Tisch School of the Arts/Kanbar Film and Television’s animation program. Equally adept at hand-drawn character animation and the digital realm (including VR), Aidan joined Glen’s team last summer on Dear Basketball.
“I am already impressed with this young man,” Glen wrote to me in July.
On Saturday, February 7, 1942, Walt Disney attended a performance of the hit Broadway musical Lady in the Dark at the Alvin Theatre, now the Neil Simon Theatre, on West 52nd Street, and went backstage to meet the show’s radiant star, Gertrude Lawrence.
As I noted in my earlier post on The Square World, Disney was facing a difficult period in his career. The attack on Pearl Harbor exactly two months earlier had plunged America into the Second World War and deprived Disney of much-needed revenues from the European and Asian markets. His fifth animated feature, the long-delayed Bambi, had been in pre-production since 1937, at a cost of nearly $2 million, and would not be released until August of 1942.
I asked Michael Barrier, esteemed animation historian and Disney biographer (The Animated Man), why Walt was in New York at that time. “I think the principal reason for Walt’s visit to the East that month,” he replied, “was government business in Washington.” Barrier also noted
[My records] show him arriving in New York from Washington on Thursday, February 5 , and leaving New York for L.A. with a stopover in Kansas City on Wednesday, February 11. He seems to have tacked on visits to New York on a number of occasions when he visited D.C. — no doubt to confer with RKO [his film distributor] people and Kay Kamen [Disney’s merchandising executive], among others . . .
Disney had already cut back significantly on studio staff in early 1941, after the initial box-office disappointments of Pinocchio and Fantasia. Now facing an even greater financial crisis, he wasted no time in seeking war-related projects. Indeed, during the years 1942-1945, the Disney studio would be engaged extensively in making training and propaganda films for the Armed Forces and the home front, and this stream of government work was essential to the studio’s survival.
On this particular day, then, Walt must have looked forward to escaping his mounting worries for a couple of hours with Lady in the Dark, which had been playing to turn-away business for more than a year.
Lady in the Dark opened on Broadway January 23, 1941, and Broadway, frankly, had never seen anything like it — a lavish, innovative musical play about psychoanalysis, written and directed by Moss Hart, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and starring the legendary Gertrude Lawrence.
It was an early concept musical, which abandoned the then-standard Broadway format of chorus lines, love ballads and comic turns. Instead, the narrative integrated a series of dazzling musical “dream” tableaux, each of which revealed a different aspect of the heroine’s psychological state. In abandoning a linear plot for musical vignettes connected by a theme, Lady in the Dark anticipated what would be realized more fully and brilliantly three decades later in the Hal Prince/Stephen Sondheim musicals Company (1970) and Follies (1971).
Lady in the Dark, with a company of 101, massive sets and elaborate costumes, has never been fully revived on Broadway. However, in a 1981 PBS television special, the late Lynn Redgrave accurately recreated Ms. Lawrence’s show-stopping number, “The Saga of Jenny,” with the original staging, and with Danny Kaye, who played The Ringmaster in the 1941 production.
Lady in the Dark opened to superlative reviews. It was the “greatest triumph” of Lawrence’s career, writes Bruce D. McClung, author of a marvelously detailed 2007 book about the show, Lady in the Dark: Biography of a Musical. The New York Herald Tribune called Lawrence “the greatest feminine performer in the theatre.” TheNew York Times proclaimed her a “goddess.” Another critic hailed her performance as “incredible in its virtuosity.”
A huge hit, the musical often played to standing room only, sometimes 100 standees for each performance. After a summer hiatus (most Broadway shows closed for the summer in those pre-air conditioned days), Lady in the Dark closed on May 30, 1942 after a run of fifty-eight nonconsecutive weeks.
Ms. Lawrence then headlined the show on an eight-city tour, which returned to Broadway for a limited engagement (February thru May 1943), then toured the west coast, finally closing in Los Angeles in July 1943, racking up a grand total of 777 performances.
Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952), British actress and musical comedy performer, was a legendary star of the West End and Broadway. She is little known today, but earlier generations, who saw her on stage, never forgot her. Though not a conventional beauty, Lawrence possessed, according to her biographer Sheridan Morley, “a radiance which could hold theatre audiences spellbound.”
Her professional relationship with longtime friend Noel Coward, the great playwright/actor, was often tempestuous. But he wrote starring roles for her and himself in Private Lives and Tonight at 8:30.
“Sometimes, in Private Lives,” Coward wrote of his co-star “Gertie,” “I would look at her across the stage and she would simply take my breath away.”
Two photographs taken of Walt meeting Gertie — celebrity to celebrity — are offered here for the first time. In the image at the top of this page, Lawrence is in full stage make-up and dressed in a dark brocaded wrapper. She holds a small eye make-up brush in her right hand and has looped her other hand through Disney’s arm, drawing herself close to him. She smiles warmly, looking up at him, and Walt is literally open-mouthed at his proximity to this glamorous actress.
In the photo directly above, Gertie and Walt toast each other. She, grinning widely, still clutching her make-up brush, hoists an empty water glass; he, a bit more composed, holds a glass of bubble-less “champagne” (probably water), gazes directly into Gertie’s eyes and strikes a dashing Noel Coward-ish pose.
In the middle of that photo, grinning joyfully, is a 17-year old self-taught, would-be animator named Robert N. Brotherton (1925 – 1989). Bob loved Disney films, and it was obviously a great thrill to be so close to his idol, Walt Disney. Brotherton’s father, manager of the Alvin’s box office, arranged for his son to meet Walt.
Bob Brotherton was a sweet, generous man with an innate sense of history and a love for the art of animation. It was Bob who gave me the two original prints of the above photos. And it is appropriate that he shared a photo frame with Walt Disney, since Bob Brotherton also made a very significant contribution, albeit indirectly, to animation history.
Five years after this photo with Disney and Ms. Lawrence was taken, Bob had a fateful encounter with another star performer named Gertie, namely pioneering animator Winsor McCay’s celebrated 1914 animated cartoon dinosaur. For it was Bob who, in 1947, rescued the original 35mm negatives and prints of the films of Winsor McCay, which otherwise would have been lost forever. Not only did he save McCay’s Gertie film, and others, from destruction and oblivion, he also rescued and preserved a goodly number of McCay’s original Gertie animation drawings.
I wrote briefly about Bob and his heroic salvaging efforts in my 1987 biography, Winsor McCay – His Life and Art. But he has never received enough recognition for his extraordinary salvaging and protection of the film legacy of Winsor McCay. Practically nothing has been written about the life of this man who, in his own way, had the passion for film preservation and tenacity of Henri Langlois.
I will rectify that oversight soon, in a future blog posting of John Canemaker’s Animated Eye.
In 1944, the Walt Disney Studio was struggling to survive. World War II, with no end in sight, cut off essential income from Disney’s European film markets.
Substantial debt lingered from lavishly produced, pre-war box office failures, Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940), the construction of an expensive new studio in Burbank, and a 1941 labor strike. The huge financial problems of Walt Disney and his business partner and brother, Roy, necessitated that they produce, almost exclusively, Armed Forces training films and home front propaganda shorts for the duration of the war.
During this difficult period, Walt also optimistically planned numerous post-war film productions. To whet the public’s appetite for his future filmic dreams, he previewed them in, of all places, a children’s book titled Walt Disney’s Surprise Package, published by Simon & Schuster in July 1944.
Surprise Package is a historical document of sorts — a fascinating glimpse into the Disney Studio’s creative process at a crucial time in its history. Uncle Remus Stories; Happy Valley (later titled Fun and Fancy Free); The Wind in the Willows (later The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad; Alice in Wonderland; Peter Pan, were priorities among the hoped-for future projects, and all eventually reached movie screens in 1946, 1947, 1949, 1951 and 1953, respectively.
Adapting classic stories, such as above, for a children’s book was the formidable and thankless task of H. Marion Palmer, wife of Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel. The text is predictably bland and succinct.
Much more interesting is Surprise Package’s illustrations. They show designs for now-familiar characters, settings and actions in their earliest conceptual stages of development, far removed from their finalized appearance in films.
For example, the dog story titled “Lady,” which was finally produced in 1955 as Lady and the Tramp. In Surprise Package, she appears in appealing sketches, perhaps by J. P. Miller (all the artists are unidentified), as a generic pooch — a mottled Springer Spaniel, not the honey-colored, glam version seen on the screen. Though there are two mischievous Siamese cats, she is a Lady without her Tramp, the charming mutt with whom, eleven years later, she shared main-title billing and a spaghetti dinner.
Equally fascinating in Surprise Package are the illustrated stories that the studio never produced, including three by Hans Christian Andersen, for a feature comprising a collection of tales explored in sketches as early as 1937: The Little Fir Tree; The Emperor’s New Clothes; and seventeen pages devoted to Through the Picture Frame, adapted from Ole Lukoie.
The latter story’s free-form pastel drawings, filled with gentle, inventive whimsy, are by Bianca Majolie, who, in 1935, was the first woman story artist Disney hired. In a 1987 correspondence with me, Ms. Majolie said she drew the illustrations, plus a couple more included in a September 1944 book, also titled Through the Picture Frame, one of the first titles in the Walt Disney Little Library series.
The most unusual entry in Surprise Package is The Square World, an original story by Disney Studio’s star writer/artists at the time: the prolific Joe Grant and Richard (Dick) Huemer, who produced Fantasia and developed Dumbo. During the war, the team wrote/produced numerous film stories for the home front, such as the Oscar-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943). See my 2010 book, Two Guys Named Joe, for more about the extraordinary life and careers of Joe Grant.
The Square World was Grant/Huemer’s protest against totalitarianism, racism, and loss of personal freedom. In the text, adapted by Palmer from Huemer’s original pun-filled rhymes, the allegory concerns people in the land of What’s-It’s Name (“Wotzitsname” in Huemer’s version), who, like everyone, have many shapes.
Mighty-Highty-Tighty (“Hi-Mucki-Muck”), the megalomaniacal ruler, is squat and square. He declares, “I do not like so many shapes. My shape is the right shape!” His soldiers set forth to remake the entire world into square shapes, including people, buildings, cars, trees, even chickens and their eggs. When babies continue to be born in a diversity of shapes, Mighty-Highty-Tighty commits suicide.
Six color drawings on two pages accompanying the story, drawn for Surprise Package by Joe Grant, are in a modernist stylization unusual for Disney. They resemble European poster graphics, which United Productions of America (UPA) later adopted for their short cartoon films, such as Gerald McBoing Boing (1951).
Children could relate to the small, soft and round creatures of the story put upon by aggressive, sharp-cornered bullies. But the real target of the two writer/artists were adults who’d understand the story is, in Richard Huemer’s words, “bitterly satirizing totalitarianism, á la Hitler or Mussolini, or any other aspiring dictator.”
Why was the film not produced? “It was in the waning days of the war that the storyboards were ready for presentation to Walt for okay to go ahead on production,”Huemer explained in a Foreword to a 16-page rhyme he wrote “based loosely” on the cartoon story.
Walt was not there. Instead (which was most unusual) Roy Disney, who very seldom had any connection with the creative mechanics of the studio, was in charge. After the storyboards had been read and explained to the group, Roy lost no time in stating that we ought not to make this picture. Not that it lacked merit. Far from it. But that now, that the end of hostilities was definitely in sight (at least in Europe) we perhaps ought to soft-pedal any slaps at our erstwhile enemy. We are going to have to do business with whatever government takes over in Germany, so we oughtn’t create any further ill will,” said he. And that was that, and an opinion that was reasonable enough.
The boards were put away . . .
Another reason why The Square World disappeared was offered by Joe Grant. Interviewed by animation historian Michael Barrier on October 14, 1988, when asked who did the Surprise Package drawings, Grant said:
Those are my drawings. I have quite a few of them that I did that weren’t published. I wish we had made that picture. I told you I have the letters from the legal department that they thought it was too communistic.
Thanks to Jim Hollifield, Richard Huemer, Jr., Didier Ghez, Michael Barrier.
Last night at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Disney Legend Floyd Norman, age 81, the first African-American animator at the Walt Disney Studio, and his wife Adrienne, screened their wonderful 2016 documentary, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. Afterward, they and the film’s co-directors, Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey, participated in a Q&A that I moderated.
Norman’s extensive career in animation began in 1956 at Disney, where he worked on classic features, such as Sleeping Beauty, The Sword and the Stone, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book — sometimes as an animator or layout or story artist, and sometimes in Disney Publishing as a book illustrator and comic strip writer. During his sixty-plus years in the animation industry, he has also worked at Hanna-Barbera, (Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby-Doo, and The Smurfs, among other series) and Pixar (Toy Story 2). In the mid-1960s, he was co-owner of his own animation studio, Vignette Films, focusing on educational shorts about Black history.
The 94-minute film is, by turns, funny, deeply moving and inspirational, and candid about Norman’s personal life, and his professional encounters with racism and, especially, ageism.
Floyd is a prolific blogger (MrFun’s Journal), whose hilarious gag-filled illustrated books on animation industry politics and business policies –available on Amazon.com – not only bite the hand that feeds him, but chomps it off at the shoulder.
Floyd and Adrienne, a gifted Disney publications artist in her own right, held forth for a Q&A that lasted nearly an hour. Both are articulate raconteurs, and the audience of students and faculty were held by their charm, candor and ready humor. They spoke truthfully about their lives, and the audience responded with respectful attention and many questions.
The Normans obviously love what they do. Adrienne and Floyd’s positive, upbeat attitude was catnip to students starting on the road of their own careers in film.
The gist of their message can be found in this passage from one of Floyd’s blog posts:
Here’s the good news. Beginnings don’t have to end. If you’re smart, resilient and resourceful you can create your own beginnings. Reinvent yourself. Redesign yourself and screw the corporation you worked for. Walk away and move forward on your own. If you’ve been booted out take this as a cue to get started. Begin a new task.
In 1988, I was the Guest Curator of an animation symposium held at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, the second in a series of three annual conferences on “The Art of the Animated Image.” Each was financed through the generosity of cartoon producer Walter Lantz (1899-1994) and the American Film Institute.
For “Storytelling in Animation,” the topic selected for the one-day conference held on Saturday, June 11, 1988, I wanted to offer attendees a wide-ranging overview of the subject. Looking back, after nearly thirty years, it was a never-to-be-repeated moment, when animation stood on the cusp of radical change.
The conference drew together, on stage and in the audience, veterans of the silent film era and the golden age of the Hollywood cartoon; experimental animators; animation historians and authors; and newcomers finding their way at the dawn of CGI and what would be the final burst of Disney hand-drawn animation. Film clips illustrated the discussions.
Still photos illustrating this post show some of the event’s participants and audience members. Though the symposium was not videotaped or filmed, an anthology that I edited (Storytelling in Animation: The Art of the Animated Image, Vol. 2) was published in conjunction with the conference. It contains articles on aspects of animation storytelling, as well as selected transcripts of speeches, panel discussions and interviews.
Available through out-of-print online dealers, here are the book’s chapters:
Introduction – John Canemaker
Disney’s Pigs Is Pigs: Notes from a Journal, 1949-1953 – Leo Salkin
Some Observations on Non-Objective and Non-linear Animation – William Moritz
In the Matter of Writers and Animation Story Persons – Harvey Deneroff
Frustration – Shamus Culhane
Storytelling as Remembering: Picturing the Past in Caroline Leaf’s THE STREET – Thelma Schenkel
A Conversation with Caroline Leaf – Moderated by John Canemaker
Computers, New Technology and Animation – Moderated by James Lindner, with John Lasseter, Tina Price and Carl Rosendahl
Studio Approaches to Story – Moderated by John Canemaker, with Bill Peet, Joe Ranft, Jerry Rees and Peter Schneider
Still is the Story Told: Disney and Story – Robin Allan
Animation is a Visual Medium – Charles Solomon
Who Framed Roger Rabbit: The Presence of the Past – Susan Ohmer
The Little Girl/Little Mother Transformation: The American Evolution of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Karen Merritt
Walt Disney’s Peter Pan: Woman Trouble on the Island – Donald Crafton
It was an exhilarating, informative, fun day. I recall, with great fondness, Hicks Lokey (1904-1990) showing Don Crafton and me some of his animation sketches for Dumbo’s Pink Elephants and Fantasia’s Dance of the Hours; and meeting Frank Paiker (1909-1989), cameraman at J.R. Bray’s studio in the 1920s — where he met Walter Lantz — and later became a technical supervisor at Hanna-Barbera Studios.
It was a thrill to meet Bill Peet (1915-2002), one of Walt Disney’s greatest story artists. On his panel (“Studio Approaches To Story”), he spoke in a raspy whisper, due to throat cancer, but everything he said was pure gold.
The first thing you have to have is a set of characters that can carry you through the story once they’re established. That’s the most important part. It’s like a train leaving the station without passengers: if you don’t have characters from the word go, you don’t have the story really started . . .
. . . for animation, you need strong, definite personalities, so that you can have broad and explicit action, and they’ll be no doubts what your characters are thinking. In animation, we’re not trying to duplicate live-action or realism. We’re trying to make it larger than life. We want exaggerated actions and attitudes.
Peet often disagreed with Disney when they worked together, and he did so again on the Lantz/AFI panel:
One thing I want to say here today: after Walt Disney had made a big success with Snow White, his next thought was to make films more realistic,more impressive, and more pretentious. And I think he was going in the wrong direction. What makes Snow White is the marvelous personalities, and not its attempts at getting more conventional.
I remember he tried multi-plane camera work, and all the technology available at the time, but I still say the charm of animation is the obvious appearance of it. It always has been, no matter how elaborate you can make it. Animation stands alone.
Also on that panel, and in awe of Peet’s creativity, was Joe Ranft (1960-2005), then age 28, who became my close friend. Joe would join Pixar and Toy Story four years later, but he was already considered one of his generation’s finest story artists.
When I asked him “how sacred” should the original story material for a film be, Joe responded:
I see it as a jumping-off point, and I try to maintain fidelity to the original material in spirit while . . . exploring the possibilities of entertainment. We really see that as a storyman’s job; to get as much entertainment as possible. You can veer away from the material, but sometimes you’ll break the essence of what this story is if you go too far away. So you have to go to the edge, and come back.
The storytelling power of Caroline Leaf and her award-winning films were honored in a special film tribute. On-stage, she discussed with me The Street (1976), her extraordinary, dark, emotional animated short, which was painted with her fingers frame-by-frame on underlit glass. The story, she recalled, based on a Mordecai Richler book,
was maybe twenty pages, and at first I thought that to be respectful to the writer I should put everything onto film. And I found as I was working, the more I could pare away the words and just work with the imagery and be true to the feeling I was getting in the story, the better it worked on film.
For The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (1977), Caroline focused on one area of the complicated Kafka story:
(H)ow horrible it would be to have a body, or the external part of one’s self that’s seen by the world be different from what’s inside one’s self, and not be able to communicate that.
John Lasseter’s comments on the “Computers, New Technology and Animation” panel are fascinating to read today. Here’s a sample:
With computer animation you can do anything if you have the time and the money, but, to me, there are some very strong limitations when you’re dealing with a character. Luxo Jr. (1986) came about when we were learning the system, and I modeled this character of a Luxo lamp . . .
The success of Luxo Jr. was a real surprise to us, to be honest . . . When we premiered it at SIGGRAPH, the computer graphics conference, it got a tremendous reaction, and it was scary in a way.
Jim Blinn, who’s one of the premiere scientists in computer graphics, came running up to me after the screening, and he goes, “John, John, I have a question for you.” And I thought, “Oh boy, umm – I don’t know much about the shadow algorithm or something like that.” And he said, “John was the parent lamp a mother or a father?”
That excited me more than anything else in the world because the film had achieved what I wanted it to: let the story and the characters be the important aspect, not the technology.
During the conference, a couple of aesthetic gauntlets were figuratively thrown. Good grist for discussion, I say.
Dr. William Mortiz (1941-2004), esteemed scholar, teacher, champion of experimental film, and Oskar Fischinger biographer, noted in his sly essay that “No animation film that is not non-objective and/or non-linear can really qualify as true animation.”
. . . watching a drawn coyote crash through walls, fall down stairs, be crushed by falling objects or burned to a crisp by the explosives he holds is certainly not as amazing or funny as seeing Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd of the Keystone Kops do those same stunts live right before our “camera-never-lies” eyes.
Shamus Culhane (1908–1996), animator (he marched the seven dwarfs “Heigh-Ho” in Snow White), successful TV commercial director/producer, could not attend. But he insisted that his brief essay be read aloud before the panel he was invited to participate on. Based on an epiphany Culhane experienced after watching the free-form techniques used in animated films produced at the National Film Board of Canada (sand, clay, pin screen, paint-on-film stock, etc.) his essay attacked what he called the “mind-shackling cel system,” and concluded “it will be a great day for the art form when the last film using cel animation is finished.”
Culhane’s confession/diatribe was read in front of and tolerated with icy silence by panelists Lantz, Tendlar, Johnson and Thomas, all traditional hand-drawn, cel technique animators, like Culhane.
But the feisty Irish-American native of Manhattan’s Yorkville proved prescient — two years after the 1988 conference, Disney replaced cels with the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), and three years after that, John Lasseter started production at Pixar on the CGI feature Toy Story.