-Writings on Disney History, along with insights on other films, animation, and cartoons
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Friday, January 24, 2014

Introduction and Caricatures of Life

-This will be a multi-part series of writings on subjects in direct relation to, as well as branching off from, Rhapsody in Blue from Fantasia 2000. It will cover everything from Al Hirschfeld to George Gershwin, as well as the Disney artists themselves.

Of all Walt Disney’s achievements, one of his most unique was Fantasia (1940). In some ways it may be the greatest piece the Studio ever accomplished. Many, including historian John Canemaker, label it as their favorite animated film.
         Fantasia was supposed to be the beginning of a new kind of art form, matching music and moving images on the screen. The lesser success of the film upon its release in 1940, however (along with a variety of other complications), effectively ended such plans in Walt’s day. Some successors have followed, including Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro non Troppo (1976) and Fantasia 2000 (1999). Yet still the lukewarm reception of the latter in particular proves that the concept of Fantasia remains vastly ahead of its time. Nevertheless, to those who “got it” upon viewing the film both then and now, Fantasia is an utter masterpiece. But there are also some strong moments to be taken from its sequel, Fantasia 2000.
         One such highlight of Fantasia 2000 proves to be a fusion of great American art, both musical and visual, the sequence of Rhapsody in Blue.  


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Al Hirschfeld, Disney Animation, and Caricature
Walt Disney by Al Hirschfeld, 1938

Rhapsody in Blue

Al Hirschfeld, Disney Animation, and Caricature

Part 1 “Caricatures of Life”

Al Hirschfeld was an artist all his own. In essence, all other work fails in comparison to his because his style was so unique. From across the room one instantly recognizes the lines, “that’s a Hirschfeld.”  “Whether on a poster, a marquee, a program, ad, or a postage stamp,” claims writer Larry Gelbart, “Hirschfeld’s unmistakable style triggers an automatic smile even before one takes in another example of his uncanny ability to externalize his inexhaustible energy and wit.”
Al Hirschfeld

         Though pure comparison fails, parallels can be drawn ‘tween Hirschfeld and others, in particular the works of Walt Disney and his team of artists. Early on, Disney pushed the visual and technical boundaries of animation, at times in directions that Hirschfeld himself called out in criticism. But the principles were similar, and no doubt the artful devotion. Gelbart claims “Hirschfeld came into a world he was to conquer with a pen mightier, more masterful, and filled with far more mischief than any sword imaginable…” So too did Disney, but instead with a camera, rather than a pen.
Walt Disney

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          Years after Walt Disney’s rise and full flowering and later death, these artistic forces came full circle to each other. Hirschfeld’s style would be directly adapted for a Disney film. Hirschfeld was a master caricaturist, and it seems appropriate for his style to be adapted in a Disney animated feature, which have been described as “caricatures of life” by Walt himself. In its early developments, Hirschfeld saw these similarities. “The animated cartoon started out as pure caricature,” he wrote. “A line appeared and it drew itself into a figure whose belly button danced in wild abandon. The audience loved this pure art form.” The purity of animation would one day meet the crisp and clarity of Hirschfeld ’s own pure line.

Born in 1903, by the 1920’s Hirschfeld had begun his career as an illustrator in the motion picture business. At MGM, he worked on preview picture books, which studio salesmen carried to theaters hoping to sell upcoming releases. These books came up to a year in advance of a film’s release, and illustrators had as a little as “a title, a general outline of the proposed story, and perhaps some idea of who might star in the film.” Like the animation crew on Fantasia 2000, working with little more than a piece of music and its title, Hirschfeld had to let his imagination run to create visual images that captured a film’s essence. “There were few illustrators who could handle this type of work,” commented Hirschfeld, “The idea was to communicate the kind of film to the viewer, to make it interesting and exciting.” He would later rise as a pure caricaturist, quickly finding his own iconic signature within an energetic art form.
The Marx Brothers, minus Zeppo

         According to historian David Leopold, “Caricature of the 1920’s [and in effect that of Hirschfeld’s] venerated celebrity instead of destroying it. The era’s caricatures were works of serious graphic composition, informed by a distinctly modern aesthetic and leavened by wit.” Hirschfeld was able to find and develop his iconic style in this very era, but was still able to separate himself from his contemporaries. While others “published much of their work in ‘smart’ magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Hirschfeld’s caricatures were much more democratic. They appeared on buildings, subways, and theater marquees, and landed in the hands of moviegoers in the form of heralds, programs, and other ephemera. His friends are credited with bringing caricature into the mainstream of graphic design, but Hirschfeld brought it to Main Street America.” Here we see a parallel with Walt Disney, who attempted to bring the wonders of classical music (along with other artistic styles such as abstract impressionism) to a mainstream audience with Fantasia (1940). Both Walt and Hirschfeld wanted their art to be accessible.

         Walt and Hirschfeld were born only two years apart (Walt in 1901), and in effect, both are “roughly the same age as motion pictures, and the evolution of his [Hirschfeld’s] style reflects the maturation of the films themselves.” So too did Walt’s development as a filmmaker reflect the very evolution of the animated cartoon. That development would come full circle, as many of Walt’s artistic ventures would influence and change the very evolution of animation. Both artists had roots in Missouri. Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis living there until “an art teacher informed his mother, ‘There is nothing more we can teach him in St. Louis.’” Walt spent crucial periods of his childhood in the small town of Marceline and later of his adolescence and young adulthood in Kansas City. Both Walt and Hirschfeld came to full flowering outside of their places of birth, Walt in Los Angeles, Hirschfeld  in New York.

         There were differences between these two artistic forces of course, the most obvious of which was in opinion. As Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs captivated audiences upon it’s widespread release in 1938, Hirschfeld was writing New York Times reviews in criticism of what he felt was an attempt to achieve pure realism in animation, “Snow White, with her full complement of fingers and fingernails, eyelashes, one-dimensional head, bare arms without solidity, and uninventive neck, is an awkward automation. These awkward symbols do not articulate, and the lovely voice with which she is endowed only heightens the effect of a ventriloquist’s dummy.” Such realism as he describes, would naturally be a great tragedy to a caricaturist. The article on Snow White was titled “Art or Taxidermy?”

For Hirschfeld, a very real fear of the Disney artists on Snow White had been realized, that of not achieving a convincing design for the leading heroine. Hirschfeld makes strong arguments, though he misses the mark in that Disney was going for believability rather than realism. The result is still ultimately a matter of individual opinion.

         Vast advancements were made, however, with such designs of caricature on Fantasia. Over 60 years before artists would adapt Hirschfeld’s style of caricature, the Disney artists were developing their own.
Dance of the Hours

The Dance of the Hours sequence stood out the most in this sense. Historian John Culhane comments:

As caricature of movement as well as pose, as the perfection of the comedy of gags, and as a triumph of the layout man’s art, Dance of the Hours is a milestone in the history of film. Through the story conference notes and the recollections of artists who worked on it, we can trace its evolution from Walt Disney’s hearing alligators in a few bars of Ponchielli to its ultimate caricature of the romantic ballet, a masterpiece of comic animation that extends the meaning of caricature.

No doubt Hirschfeld would not match Culhane’s overwhelming praise of Disney, but perhaps he still might have noticed such evolutions.

         Disney caricature went beyond the boundaries of Hirschfeld’s realms, “Walt was always on the lookout for the human attitude that could be caricatured in terms of something that wasn’t human.” “Anybody looking at this now can see caricature in it,” Walt said commenting on the designs of Hyacinth Hippo.

Hyacinth Hippo

         More of Walt on caricature:

We’re caricature…Animation is different from other arts. Its language is the language of caricature. Our most difficult job was to develop this cartoon’s unnatural but seemingly natural anatomy for humans and animals.

Disney’s greatest achievement in the realm of caricature was possibly that of animals anthropomorphized and adopting the personalities of humans. “The tradition of caricaturing human aspirations with animal analogies stretches from Grandville and Tenniel to T. S. Sullivant and Heinrich Kley. It is a tradition the Disney artists had been consciously studying since the early thirties.” In Dance of the Hours it went even deeper than just animals, “This is definitely ballet, a caricature of ballet,” Walt commented. The art of ballet is given a new approach as hippos, alligators, and ostriches achieve the “illusion of weightlessness.”

         This principle of caricature was reflected ultimately in the choice of directors for Dance of the Hours: Norman Ferguson and T. Hee. Both were “keen caricaturists.” Ferguson was the master behind Pluto, “a cunning caricature of the human adolescent.” Hee had originally been hired at the Disney Studio specifically for his skill as a caricaturist, working on the short Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938).
Norman Ferguson

Norman Ferguson by T. Hee

T. Hee

         Another Fantasia segment presented advancements in caricature thet would take on a life of their own beyond the initial film. The Pastoral Symphony is often the more criticized of Fantasia’s segments. Many cite the overly “cartoony” quality of the animation, and ultimately the vainness of any attempt to match visuals with Beethoven’s beloved Sixth Symphony. Nevertheless, Walt and the team gave it a swing, creating characters and designs that would later find their way into Hercules (1997).

         One animator, the celebrated Freddy Moore, credited with giving Mickey Mouse a rebirth of design, lent his own style to the female centaurs, dubbed by Disney “centaurettes.” As John Culhane comments, though “they didn’t fit an ancient Greek and/or mythological setting,” they still proved quite memorable and effective. The style of these four-legged ladies was of “typically American nubile adolescents,” culturally known as “Lolitas.” The Disney artists then, along with historians and enthusiasts today, know them as “Freddy Moore girls.” The designs were successful and iconic.

         Perhaps in response to similar criticisms to those of Hirschfeld’s, the famed British caricaturist Sir David Low remarked on the centauretttes, “Compare the play of human expression in the face of Snow White with that of the centaurettes in Fantasia and mark the striking improvement. Subtlety is now possible.” As much of an improvement as these designs were, they were still better suited in “an American high school setting.” And that’s exactly where the designs ended up, in one of the more memorable segments of the 1946 package feature, Make Mine Music. Package features like Make Mine were in essence a result of economic need, but were also a branch from the Fantasia tradition, though not anywhere near the level of artistic quality, and instead featuring popular tunes of the day rather than classical standards. Audiences would have to wait for Fantasia 2000 for the tradition to be renewed. Though the segment of interest from that film, Rhapsody in Blue, straddled the line effectively between classical giants and American hits.

In All the Cats Join In from Make Mine Music, quintessentially American teenagers, drawn in the distinctive Freddy Moore style, drop their work and dance their hearts out to the music of Benny Goodman and his Orchestra. The piece explodes as a strong sample of the postwar era, ripe with optimism. The segment itself was subtitled “A Caricature” (the “c-a-t” being highlighted in yellow, a touch of dry wit to reflect the title).
Sheet Music Cover for Cats, featuring a slight caricature of Benny Goodman.
Shared by Disney Historian Ross Care http://careaboutmusicandfilm.blogspot.com/

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “caricature” as the “grotesque or ludicrous representation of persons or things by exaggeration of their most characteristic and striking features.” Certainly this description fails somewhat in the sense of Hirschfeld, whose work is hardly “grotesque or ludicrous.” The second definition proves a bit more effective, “A portrait or other artistic representation, in which the characteristic features of the original are exaggerated with ludicrous effect.” Again, ludicrous is thrown in at the end, though this definition allows the works of Walt Disney to apply. A sub-definition, though short, moves even closer to a more appropriate spirit, “of literary or ideal representation.”

         The true testament to both Disney and Hirschfeld is that one may attach as many descriptions or definitions as they so wish, but the very likes of the two have become their own unique descriptions. Whether it’s the “Hirschfeld line” or the “Disney touch,” they’re both unmistakably products of their creators.

-Stay tuned for “Part 2,” discussing Eric Goldberg’s work on Aladdin (1992) and when Hirschfeld himself came to the Disney Studio. 

-"Al Hirschfeld - Biography." Al Hirschfeld - Biography. Ro Gallery, n.d. Web. Jan. 2014. <http://www.rogallery.com/Hirschfeld_Al/hirschfeld-biography.htm>.
-"Al Hirschfeld." Spartacus Educational. N.p., n.d. Web. Jan. 2014. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ARThirschfeld.htm>.
-Culhane, John. Walt Disney's Fantasia. New York: Abradale/H.N. Abrams, 1987. Print.
-Fantasia. By Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski. Prod. Ben Sharpsteen. Walt Disney Studio, 1940. DVD.
-Leopold, David. Hirschfeld's Hollywood: The Film Art of Al Hirschfeld. New York: H.N. Abrams, in Association with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2001. Print.

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