Tag Archives: 1930s

They Drew As They Pleased: the 1930s

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I’ve been following Disney historian Didier Ghez since the mid-2000s, when he first started writing about old-style Walt Disney Studio goodness on his blog, Disney History. It was delightful to find that his labors have brought forth a fancy coffee-table-style book of vintage Disney studio art – the first of a series! The handsome 2015 hardback, They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age – The 1930s pays homage to overlooked artists who worked at the Disney studio in its prime.

They Drew As They Pleased gives a new spin to a familiar subject, shedding light on four particular artists with mini-biographies and a host of previously unpublished artwork. Even for those well-versed in what the Disney studio was working on in the ’30s – Mickey Mouse cartoons, Silly Symphonies shorts, the features Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia – there’s a lot of surprises within. Although the idea of using “concept artists” in film and TV production is pretty common today, back in the ’30s it was pretty rare. Indeed, Walt Disney was the first animation producer to realize the potential of hiring imaginative artists strictly for the purpose of inspiring the look and feel of the final product. The projects that these artists worked on included not just the classics listed above, but also films not released until much later (Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella) and shelved projects (Ballet de Fleurs, Streubel Peter, Japanese Symphony).

The artists profiled in They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age – The 1930s are pretty fascinating, especially given that I was familiar with just one (the brilliant Gustaf Tenggren). They are –

  • Albert Hurter (1883-1942), Disney’s first story artist. Hurter’s imaginative, spontaneous pencil drawings provided visual flair to many a Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoon. Some of his stuff reproduced here pushes the limits, going in a surreal, Dr. Seuss-like direction. Hurter’s life story was as unique as his talent (Disney kept him on the payroll, even as failing health had him in a convalescent home).
  • Ferdinand Horvath (1891-1973) lent his wide-ranging abilities to layouts, animation, gag drawings, illustration at the studio over a period of several years. Horvath had had a tempestuous relationship with Disney, although it doesn’t show in his whimsical, kinetic and polished work.
  • Gustaf Tenggren (1896-1970). Like Hurter, Gustaf Tenggren was an eccentric European expat whose visual flair left its mark on a variety of Disney productions. Most significantly, his gorgeous production art brought an immersive Old World sensibility to Snow White and Pinocchio. That celebrated art is reproduced here, along with some fascinating storyboard art and production studies. Tenggren’s bio, like Hurter’s, reveals a fascinating, quirky life (will someone do a long-form bio on this guy? I’d snap it up.).
  • Bianca Majolie (1900-1997). Besting Mary Blair by a few years, Majolie was Disney’s first female concept artist. A classmate of Walt’s from Chicago, Majolie endeared herself to Disney by contributing a feminine touch to a handful of short subjects (a few of which went unreleased) in the late ’30s. Unfortunately, the overtly macho atmosphere in Disney’s story department prompted Majolie to resign in 1940. Too bad – based on this book, her work was delightful.

They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age – The 1930s was published in 2015 by Chronicle. A follow-up volume, the first of two covering the 1940s, just came out last month. Ghez himself told me that there will be six volumes published, in total (yeah!). Both current volumes can be purchased at Amazon.com here and here.

Tenggren artwork for Ballet de Fleurs (L) and The Old Mill (R).

Tenggren artwork for Ballet de Fleurs (L) and The Old Mill (R).

Foreword spread with Horvath studies for The Fox Hunt (1938).

Foreword spread with Hovarth studies for The Fox Hunt (1938).

Majolie character studies for Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Majolie character studies for Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Hurter studies for a seductive hippo, possibly for Fantasia.

Hurter studies for a seductive hippo, possibly for Fantasia.

Tenggren concept art for Little Hiawatha.

Tenggren concept art for Little Hiawatha.

Horvath at the easel, from his biographical section.

Horvath at the easel, from his biographical section.

Each artist profile has a beautiful opening spread - here's part of  Tenggren's.

Each artist profile has a beautiful opening spread – here’s part of Tenggren’s.

Majolie ideas and drawings for the abandoned short Japanese Symphony.

Majolie ideas and drawings for the abandoned short Japanese Symphony.

Back cover, sporting some great Pinocchio concept art from Tenggren.

Back cover, sporting some great Pinocchio concept art from Tenggren.

The Kings of Cartoons

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It was a happy surprise when the folks at Thunderbean Animation sent along a couple of their vintage cartoon collections to us here at Chez Scrubbles. This is a company that’s guided by actual cartoon fans wanting to share their love of animation with others. The passion they have for top-quality product shows in their Blu-ray collections of digitally restored shorts, presented with all the trimmings cartoon fans love. Their latest offerings put the spotlight on Willie Whopper, a yarn-spinning little boy dreamt up by the legendary Ub Iwerks in the ’30s, and Private SNAFU, the hapless soldier created by Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) to instruct World War II enlistees on what not to do.

I was delighted to discover what Willie Whopper was all about – despite enjoying all sorts of 1930s cartoons, I’d never heard of this guy! Iwerks made the Willies in 1933-34, shortly after his Flip the Frog series fizzled out. For those familiar with the workmanlike, dull Flip cartoons, the Willie Whoppers improve greatly on the simple visual-gag format of those with wild animation, clever stories, and jazzy soundtracks. Most of these shorts involve Willie attempting to impress his friend, Goofy, with a tall tale. His outrageous adventures involve daring plane acrobatics (Spite Flight), a surreal trip to the fiery depths (Hell’s Fire), and scrapes with bandits (Viva Willie) and savages (Jungle Jitters) – usually with his girlfriend Mary and a shaggy, perky pooch at his side.

Iwerks kept the Willie Whopper series running for a total of thirteen shorts before distributor MGM pulled the plug after the studio’s 1933-34 season. All of his cartoons are included on this DVD/Blu-ray set, along with an intriguing “pilot” short, The Air Race, which MGM passed on for not being funny enough (the story was eventually retooled and released as Willie’s second cartoon, Spite Flight). The cartoons as a whole have an effervescent, jazzy feel with surreal gags and constant motion – many feel a whole lot like the era’s Max Fleischer cartoons (Fleischer animator Grim Natwick had his hands in these). Early on, Willie himself got made over from a dark-haired ruffian into a roly-poly redhead, although he still had a distinct lack of personality. Another inconsistency comes with Willie’s girlfriend, Mary, who is shown as either an innocent little girl or a saucy, Betty Boop-like coquette depending on the cartoon. Overall, however, the set makes a good case for Willie as one of the more overlooked ’30s cartoon stars, best highlighted in two beautifully presented Cinecolor efforts (Hell’s Fire and Davy Jones’ Locker). It seemed as if Iwerks and company settled on a modern groove for the tightly-paced later cartoons, only to have MGM yank it all away.

Produced by Warner Bros. in 1943-46, the Private Snafu shorts are slightly more familiar to vintage cartoon lovers. Although Warner Home Video included a few scratched-up Snafu shorts on their Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs, Thunderbean’s collection improves on that by presenting all 26 of the original Snafu shorts, digitally restored and with a veritable knapsack-full of bonus materials. These brief films, each shorter than a standard one-reel cartoon, were produced as part of a package of “Stars and Stripes” educational films geared toward military personnel during World War II. With the dim-witted Private Snafu (“Situation Normal, All — Fouled Up”) and the cigar-chomping Private First Class Fairy as our guides, slangy dialogue and funny situations inform soldiers on topics such as security, malaria, proper use of firearms and the dangers of idle gossip. Since they were targeted for an audience of randy, adult-aged men, these films use the wildest and wackiest abilities of the top directors in Warners’ cartoon unit, including Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin. For Looney Tunes fans, it’s actually quite cool to see what the Termite Terrace crew did with the added freedom of more ribald gags – the results are quite non-PC but unequivocally hilarious.

Although the Snafu cartoons are loaded with WWII-specific gags that would likely go over the heads of most casual viewers, they hold up remarkably well as priceless bits of wartime morale-boosting. Probably the most iconic gag comes during Chuck Jones’ 1943 cartoon Spies – inebriated by a sexy seductress, Snafu blabs out confidential info to the alert miss, whose round boobs become superimposed with Nazi insignia-bearing microphones. Loose lips sink ships, indeed! Mark Harris’ recent book Five Came Back supplies a lot of fascinating background on how the Snafu series came to be, a story also included (in shorter form) in this Blu-ray’s booklet. In a nutshell, the cartoons were hugely popular with the troops, taking the U.S. government by surprise. Because the lessons they taught were cloaked in wild, wacky humor, the troops were hugely entertained often without realizing that they were being educated as well.

As with Thunderbean’s other releases, Private Snafu and Willie Whopper come with informative booklets with essays from cartoon experts Steve Stanchfield, J.B. Kaufman and Chris Buchman. While the Willie set is a dual Blu/DVD package, the Snafu cartoons are sold as separate Blu-ray or DVD products. They can be purchased at Thunderbean Animation or Amazon.com.

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Screen shot from Davy Jones' Locker (1933).

Screen shot from Davy Jones’ Locker (1933).

Screen shot from Reducing Creme (1934).

Screen shot from Reducing Creme (1934).

Back of a vintage Willie Whopper pencil case.

Back of a vintage Willie Whopper pencil case.

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Private Snafu cel and background setup.

Private Snafu cel and background setup.

Snafu and Private First Class Fairy model sheet.

Snafu and Private First Class Technical Fairy model sheet.

Cel and background setup from Spies (1943).

Cel and background setup from Spies (1943).

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Have a Happy Pappy

Merry Christmas 1930s style, courtesy of the Max Fleischer Color Classic Christmas Comes But Once a Year. This one stars Betty Boop’s gadget makin’ pal Pappy. The cartoon’s climax sports a 3D background that must’ve looked great in 1936:

And look at the very end — the 1936 Christmas seal!

Think About Your Safety in the Morn-ning

If you ever wanted to see something with Mother Goose characters using Streamline Moderne transportation, Once Upon a Time might be the cartoon for you. We caught this strange yet charming short on a budget DVD set called 150 Cartoon Classics. It was commissioned as a driving safety awareness campaign by Metropolitan Life Insurance in 1936, long before the company had Snoopy as their spokesdog.