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Welcome to Burbank, Florida

A visit to Disney’s Orlando studio

(Originally published in Animato #19, Winter 1990.)

The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, which joined the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World last May, is a place where pieces of movie legend – from Dorothy’s ruby slippers to the piano on which Sam played it again to Hollywood Boulevard itself – have somehow magically landed in central Florida. Tucked in one corner of the place is one of the most significant Hollywood icons that has made the trip: an animation studio making Disney cartoons with classic characters like Mickey Mouse and new stars like Roger Rabbit.

While the attraction opened its doors to Disney World visitors only this year, in one sense its roots stretch back to the 1930s, when Disney first began having to explain that it did not offer tours of its animation studio. (An earlier stab at addressing this problem grew from a proposed playground on the Burbank studio property into Disneyland.) Planning for the Disney-MGM Studios project began not long after the present Disney studio management led by Michael Eisner assumed power, and the resulting park combines facets of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center into a theme park which complements its two neighbors on the Disney property (If the Magic Kingdom’s greatest appeal is to children, and EPCOT is of particular interest to grownups, Disney-MGM seems to be aimed most squarely at teenagers and young adults. Of course, all three parks are perfectly capable of captivating visitors of any age.)

The park’s attractions range from the purely fanciful–a Hollywood Boulevard inspired more by every movie fan’s dreams than the actual street, an elaborate ride through great moments in film history – to a working film production center where visitors can discover how movies are made. It is here that the animation studio tour is located, along with a “Backstage Movie Tour” built around soundstages and sets where live  action television programs, movies, and commercials are filmed.

The animation building really holds two intertwined operations: a Disney-MGM Theme Park attraction – “The Magic of Disney Animation” – and an animation studio – Walt Disney Animation Florida – that will be producing animated shorts and featurettes as well as other special projects. The attraction, which makes the actual animation studio the centerpiece of an experience that includes films and an art exhibit, does a fine job of taking visitors behind the scenes of Disney animation. While there is humor, in the form of a film and several short video presentations featuring Robin Williams, the overall tone is scholarly, almost reverent; the mood is reminiscent of Frank Thomas and Oliver Johnston’s Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life or one of the other big art books on the studio’s work. (Interestingly, the animation studio tour is much more serious and less glitzy than the live-action studio tour that sits next door on the Disney-MGM lot.)

Walt Disney Animation Florida’s staff had to be built from scratch, a not-inconsiderable task given that the state does not have a natural abundance of professional animators. (Although once upon a time there was another major animation studio in the state; see this issue’s “Koko Komments” for more information on the Fleischer studio’s period there.)

The staff includes eight animators from a variety of backgrounds: Mark Henn came to the studio after contributing to every Disney animated feature from The Fox and the Hound to The Little Mermaid (for which he animated many of the title character’s scenes). Brigitte Hartley arrived a veteran of the London TV-commercial industry and an animator on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And Alex Kuperschmidt has been working as an artist at Walt Disney World for several years, including as an animator for a small
animation group which has since been disbanded. The staff also includes artists “on loan” from the California studio for special projects, like Mark Kausler, whose past credits range from Yellow Submarine to early Ralph Bakshi features to Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters; he put his experience from
Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Tummy Trouble to use during several months at the studio spent working as an animator and storyman on the studio’s first theatrical cartoon, Roller Coaster Rabbit.

Much of the staff is made up of young artists new to the animation business, many of them graduates of Disney’s California studio’s internship program. Disney Animation Florida has also begun its own apprenticeship system, drawing on students from five art schools across the country, including CalArts and Sarasota, Florida’s Ringling School of Art and Design. Ten to fifteen seniors and juniors participate in each training session, working independently at first, and eventually graduating to inbetweening and other production work on the studio’s films. Some of
the best artists who have completed the program are offered positions as assistants; some of the most promising assistants are being groomed to become animators on future projects. “They’re all wildly talented as artists,” says Brigitte Hartley of the students in the program, “It’s great to have that around.”

The facilities these artists work in are new, nicely-equipped and organized, and attractive. “Well, it’s such a beautiful studio,” Mark Kausler says “It’s just a great place to work, a beautiful environment.” The studio, with a staff of about eighty, is small in comparison to the California Disney facilities, and compact enough that visitors can peer into each department from story to editing without tiring their feet. Mark Henn comments that “It’s nice being in a smaller group like this, where everything is at your fingertips: Camera, editorial…everything is close at hand. Being a tight group like this, hopefully you’ll have better communication, which is a major problem
not just in animation, but in any business of this size.”

There is also the odd fact that, unlike any other animation artists in history, these ones work under the close inspection of hundreds of Florida tourists. (Not every nook and cranny of the studio is visible to guests, but neither are there great amounts of space that aren’t apparent to them.) The studio is
soundproofed off from the visitor area, so sound isn’t much of a problem, except for video monitors that continuously play the Walter Cronkite-Robin Williams loops. Some of the employees have taken to shielding these out with the help of Walkman-type tape players. Most artists adjust quickly to the faces watching them; their communications with visitors are mostly limited to a few funny signs taped to the window and the occasional suction cup-tipped dart shot at the glass.

Having decided to operate a cartoon studio as part of the Disney-MGM Theme Park, Disney was faced with the question of what to do with the animation it produced. At first, the plans were for the studio to make theatrical featurettes starring Mickey Mouse and other classic Disney characters, something the studio had intended to do ever since the success of Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983. Using Mickey and his crowd would serve another purpose: audiences are probably more interested in seeing artists at work on cartoons with famous characters than new ones they aren’t familiar with.

The studio will be doing this: its second major project is a retelling of The Prince and the Pauper with Mickey in both title roles and many of his
friends in the supporting cast. During the Summer of 1988, however, Who Framed Roger Rabbit opened and caused a sensation, and suddenly Disney had its new star in decades who was perfectly suited to short-subject parts. And so Disney Animation Florida’s first project for theatrical release became Roller Coaster Rabbit, a seven-minute Roger Rabbit cartoon which will reportedly open with Touchstone’s Dick Tracy next Summer. One Roger short, Tummy Trouble, had already been produced in California, with some ink-and-paint work done in the Florida studio; both it and Roller Coaster Rabbit were directed by Rob Minkoff.

Roller Coaster Rabbit’s story was conceived and storyboarded in California, along with Tummy Trouble and three other Roger stories which may be animated in the future: Hare in My Soup, Pressed and Impressed, and Beach Blanket Bunny. (The animation tour’s story room, incidentally, is the one
area that is at this time a mock-up rather than a real, operating facility; The Prince and the Pauper was also storyboarded in Burbank.)

The cartoon takes Roger, along with Baby Herman and his mother, to a county fair, the atmosphere of which Mark Kausler compares to the animated sequences of Disney’s So Dear to My Heart. As in Somethin’s Cookin’ (the Roger short that opened Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and Tummy Trouble, the storyline concerns Roger’s hapless attempts to save Herman and himself from perilous situations, of which the fair proves an extremely rich source. Roger pursues the baby through a dart game and shooting
gallery, around a ferris wheel (in a scene that may not make it into the final film), and into the bullpen home of a bull who resembles a more belligerent cousin of Disney’s version of Ferdinand. The climactic scene comes when Roger and Herman find their way onto the title’s roller coaster, which is computer animated a la the clockwork scene in The Great Mouse Detective; and as in Tummy Trouble, there is a surprise ending incorporating live-action footage. (During the cartoon, Jessica Rabbit makes a cameo as the operator of an understandably-popular kissing booth.)

Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s animation and Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit is done in the style of the mythical Maroon Cartoons studio, which Alex Kuperschmidt describes as “taking the best of American cartoon forms and combining them all in one…a hybrid of Tex Avery’s sensibility with a Disney quality.” Avery’s influence is felt in the visual style – the look somewhat resembles that of his early films for MGM – but most importantly in the; films’ gags. Every time Roger Rabbit does a take, it’s a loving tribute to Tex Avery and his importance in the history of American animation.

But Kausler says that the exaggerated gags are “the only thing that’s survived from the forties. Everything else is like a feature; Roger is really a feature character. Not just a crazy little character like Droopy
or the buzzards in What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard [Tex Avery, 1943], which he somewhat resembles. He’s got a little more depth to him than that.” (Although Brigitte Hartley, whose work on Roller Coaster Rabbit focused on Baby Herman, laughs that she “worked on Roger in the film [Who Framed Roger Rabbit], but he’s become too wacky. I can’t keep up with him.”

The production process on the short, too, bears little resemblance to the traditiona1 cartoon-making system, in which budgets were tight and the story was planned down to the last detail before animation began. Mark Kausler estimates that only one out of every four animation drawings done for Tummy Trouble ended up on the screen, and suspects the ratio on Roller Coaster Rabbit to be similar. “It’s much more of a live-action approach,” he says. “They think in terms of shooting ratios, how much stuff can be done over, rewrites at the last minute, just like in live-action filmmaking.”

Mark Henn agrees, and notes Walt Disney Studios’ Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg’s influence on how Disney animation is produced in both California and Florida. “It’s a kind of a hybrid of live-action and the way Disney used to make films. Knowing that in one sense nothing is ever locked, and there’s always room for improvement, but with this hurry-up, we’ve-got-to-get-it-done-yesterday kind of pace. In a lot of ways, it’s good, because you don’t have to wait four or five years to see your finished work. You don’t spend so much time on it that you lose your objectivity.”

The work pace is much brisker on the Roger cartoons and new features than the leisurely gait that Disney animation had settled into in the 1960s and 1970s, but in many ways the attention to detail on Roller Coaster Rabbit is exceptionally high. (The Roger shorts are by far the most expensive short
cartoons ever produced.) Mark Kausler: “Everything is on a higher level. The cleanup is a lot more refined; they don’t just take the animators’ drawings and Xerox them. It goes through a whole different stage:
the cleanup people have to make it very, very precise, and add all the little things – like his pants cuffs falling through, what happens to his ears and hair, the amount of delay on every part of his body. Essentially, you’re using two sets of animators for every scene.”

This painstaking work pays off: while the animation is filmed using the Xerox camera, which usually results in a rougher line quality, Roller Coaster Rabbit has a slick, hand-inked look straight out of the 1940s.

While much of what’s new about the approach to production taken on the cartoon is also taking place on the Disney animation features, there are some notable differences. On the features, animators are typically “cast,” with each animator spending most of his or her time on a particular character’s or characters’ appearances throughout the movie. Animation on the Roger Rabbit cartoons however, is assigned primarily by scene, with each animator being responsible for a scene and all the characters in it.

Mark Henn draws some further contrasts between animating on a Roger short and his work on the features: “It’s a very different style of animation. It’s very broad; it’s very action-oriented, very fast-paced. It’s kind of as if you were taking a very well-known dramatic actor and putting him in a comedy role, or vice-versa. It’s putting on a slightly different hat for me, which is good; I like the challenge of doing something different.”

“It differs from the other studio in that our organization is a little primitive, compared with California,” notes Kausler. “We’re still developing, and we don’t really have a smooth, efficient way to work, because we haven’t done enough pictures yet. I think when we get more production in, we’ll finally get it up to speed where everybody’s comfortable. Right now we’re going in fits and starts.” (At this time, the Orlando studio’s work must be approved in Burbank, necessitating plane trips back and forth for the directors and a certain amount of further delay.)

Chances are that the studio will get the opportunity to achieve the development Kausler refers to: attendance figures at Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park are said to have surpassed even the company’s immodest expectations, and that The Magic of Disney Animation attraction and Disney Animation Florida will be around for many years to come seems assured. Exactly what the studio will be doing is harder to say. There are as of yet no long-term plans (no public ones, anyway), and what projects the studio gets is likely to depend on what needs doing at any given time.

The immediate future, after Roller Coaster Rabbit and The Prince and the Pauper, will probably include more featurettes starring Mickey and the gang, and perhaps more Roger Rabbit cartoons, if Disney and
Spielberg choose to continue their collaboration on the character. As the need arises for commercials and other special projects involving Disney characters, they may be done there as well; a McDonald’s ad featuring characters from The Little Mermaid was the first job completed at the studio.

There may also be some work on feature films: the studio has already helped out on the the ink-and-paint for The Little Mermaid (and received its own set of credits in the film for doing so). Mark Henn will be doing some animation from Florida on The Rescuers Down Under, in addition to his work on The Prince and the Pauper, and studio officials have reportedly considered using the Florida studio as a unit on upcoming features.

The ultimate project for the studio, of course, would be a feature film of its very own. Such a task would require major expansions of both the staff and the studio facilities, neither of which is currently planned. Mark Henn for one, would like to see it happen, and calls it his long-term goal.

A Disney animated feature produced entirely in a state other than California is an odd thought, but no odder than the mere idea of a Disney studio outside of that state would have been a few years ago. Florida won’t even be the only home of a satellite Disney cartoon studio: the company recently announced plans for a second Disney-MGM park at Euro Disneyland outside of Paris, which will also have its own animation facility

Whatever the future holds, there will be a lot of cartoon fans watching with interest what goes on at Walt Disney Animation Florida. And possibly ducking a well-aimed plastic dart shot in their direction.

Sidebar: The Magic of Disney Animation: A Guided
Tour

The first thing visitors to The Magic of Disney Animation lay their eyes upon when entering the attraction is an imposing case filled with thirteen of the Academy Awards the Disney studio has won for animated films over the decades. The case is the centerpiece of a small but impressive museum of Disney animation art and other memorabilia from the studio’s origins to The Little Mermaid, the contents of which will change every six months.

The gallery also serves as a waiting area for Back to Never Land, a film starring Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams that introduces visitors to the basics of animated-film production. This film is a delight which, like the attraction as a whole, entertains and educates in equal parts. Williams gets changed into an animated character – one of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, to be exact – as Cronkite briefly explains each step of the animation process. The film’s animation, directed by Jerry Rees, is a nicely-done pastiche of the Peter Pan style. Williams is hilarious, and Cronkite is an agreeably avuncular host whose demeanor and voice bear a startling resemblance to those of another Walt who used to give similar presentations about Disney animation on TV. (Back to Never Land was, incidentally, produced outside the Disney studio by Bob Rogers.)

After the film is over, visitors enter the animation studio tour itself, which is conducted along a raised, glassed-in area from which each studio department can be viewed in sequence. The tour, accompanied by video monitors playing further Cronkite/Williams explanatory material, is almost unique among Disney theme park attractions in that it is self-guided; visitors are invited to stay as long as they wish and watch artists and other employees at work. Stops on the tour include story, animation, clean up, effects, backgrounds, photocopying process (aka Xerox), paint lab, ink and paint, camera, and editing. The studio is on a staggered work schedule, so that visitors will find employees at work during most of the park’s open hours, including nights and- weekends, although animation and ink and paint are the only two departments in which workers are almost always visible. These are also the departments in which park guests are most likely to want to take their time: watching the artists laboring over animation and cels for films which won’t be released for many months is fascinating, and like most animation studios, the place is filled with gag drawings, memorabilia, and other interesting clutter that’s fun to take note of. (Animation fans are especially likely to want to linger in the place and take in the little details to be seen, like model sheets, copies of books on the work of Disney and other studios, and even, on one artist’s desk, an inscribed sketch of Bugs Bunny by Chuck Jones.)

At the end of the touring area is a small theater area in which a video program featuring film clips and interviews with Disney animators is shown; like the art display, it also serves as a painless waiting area, this time for a concluding film show of classic Disney animation clips in an adjacent theater. (As is common with such compilations, the film – which oddly ignores the short subjects almost entirely in favor of brief snippets of the animated features -is not terribly satisfying. It would be nice to see it replaced with a complete Disney short, which might change on a rotating basis.)

From there, visitors exit back into the Disney-MGM park, by way, if they choose, of an elegant shop which sells mementos including books, posters, and greeting cards, authentic animation paper and pencils, and production art and limited-edition cels costing thousands of dollars. (Animation fans with long memories may grow nostalgic for the long-gone days when Disneyland’s Art Corner sold choice cels from the 1950s features for a few dollars apiece.)

Thank You, Fred Fredericks

mandrake

These days, generally speaking, I attend one comics convention a year. The big one: San Diego. As a Boston kid in the 1970s, however, I went to one almost every month. It was an event at the Howard Johnson 57 hotel called the Sunday Funnies, organized by Don Phelps and Martin Greim. They also spearheaded New Con, a remarkable annual event which, among other things, hosted the first con appearance by Carl Barks and the only one by John Stanley.

Another Sunday Funnies/New Con regular was Fred Fredericks. He had been drawing Mandrake the Magician–still written at the time by its creator, Lee Falk–for over a decade, and would continue to do so until 2013. He died earlier this month.

It was an era when cartoonists at comics conventions were a lot more likely to do sketches for fans for free, and Fredericks was one of the most generous with his time and talent. Here’s a drawing he did for me of Mandrake, circa 1976, at either a Sunday Funnies or a New Con.

Beyond Mandrake, Fredericks was a prolific comic-book artist. At another con, I asked him to draw two of the characters he’d done: Zorro and Bullwinkle. He did a charming piece of them meeting. I’m sorry to say I’m not sure what I did with that sketch, but I certainly wouldn’t have gotten rid of it, so I feel good that it will resurface eventually.

The Cantinflas Chronicles Revisited

In a small-but-satisfying way, some of the most fun I ever had writing anything was collaborating with my pal Kip Williams on a piece for Animato in 1997 about the animated cartoons of Cantinflas. With a new (live-action) biopic of the Mexican comedy great out, it’s as good a time as any to revisit our article. It’s been available on this site for years, but here’s a version that’s a million times better than that one–or the original print version–because it includes the cartoons themselves. (Thank you, YouTube.)


The Cantinflas Chronicles

(For this issue’s column, Harry joins forces with a co-author, fellow obscure-cartoon fanatic Kip Williams.)

Until now, this column has been plenty busy covering weird, forgotten cartoons produced in the United States over the past seventy years. This issue, however, we go south of the border to take a look at the animated efforts of Mexico’s greatest film comedian, Mario Moreno (1911-1993) — better known as Cantinflas.

If we gringos remember Cantinflas at all, it’s most likely for his supporting role as Passepartout in Mike Todd’s 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days, or perhaps for his one U.S. starring vehicle, 1960’s Pepe. (The latter film failed to give the Mexican comedian a toehold in the U.S. market, despite being quite possibly the most celebrity-packed film of all time; the cast featured Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Jack Lemmon, Greer Garson, Andre Previn, Tony Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr., Janet Leigh, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Shirley Jones, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Hedda Hopper, Ernie Kovacs, Edward G. Robinson, Ann B. Davis, Debbie Reynolds, Cesar Romero, Joey Bishop, Bobby Darin, Billie Burke, and Jay “Dennis the Menace” North, among others.)

In Mexico, however, Cantinflas was an enduring superstar from the 1930s until the 1980s. And just like a lot of U.S comedians — Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges Jerry Lewis — he lent his visage and schtick to an animated series, which was variously known as Cantinflas Show, Amigo and Friends, or Cantinflas y Sus Amigos. At least those are the titles it goes by on the Spanish-language cable channel Univision, which currently airs Cantinflas cartoons as part of a Saturday morning grab-bag called La Loca Pinata.

We know nothing about the background of these shorts, and aren’t even sure when they were made (the humor and general atmosphere suggests that they’re products of the early 1970s). Most of the films make some pretense at being vaguely educational: Cantinflas usually learns some facts about world history or culture, and often delivers a moral at cartoon’s end. The titles tend to be generic enough that you can figure them out without any knowledge of Spanish — “En El Japon,” “Romeo y Julia,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Madrid,” “Einstein,” and the like.

So are these films merely pedagogical little dramas? Far from it. The cartoon Cantinflas — an appealing, monkey-face little dude — smokes, chases girls, and drifts through history, usually with no visible means of support. Unlike his fellow time travelers Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Cantinflas is just there, with no explanation of just how he bounces from century to century and continent to continent (often more than once during the course of a single six-minute cartoon).

The cartoons’ Fleischer-like obsession with the female figure is perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic. Even when Cantinflas is busy learning about whatever country or century he finds himself in, he’s never too busy to flirt with anything in (or occasionally out of) a skirt. Abstraction of the feminine body tends toward a pipelike torso and plenty of cleavage; female faces are usually reduced to stylized, wide-eyed make-up and almost nothing else, like a Kewpie doll. There’s a fair amount of toplessness, tempered by absence of nipples.

As that suggests, these cartoons — like all the best ones — seem to have been made to tickle the funny bone of their own creators. It’s easy to imagine that they were popular with Mexican kids, but they never pander to an adult’s idea of what a child might find entertaining. And although they were presumably produced for whatever the Mexican equivalent of Saturday morning television is, they don’t have the mass-produced feel of nearly all U.S. TV animation — the artwork is limited but often quite lively, with loose, likable character designs. (Those of us without much knowledge of the Mexican cartooning tradition will probably be reminded of the work of Sergio Aragones.)

The cartoons we describe above might be deemed Cantinflas Classic. Others in the series – later ones, apparently — were produced by a couple of Yanquis known as Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, and if you’re familiar with any H-B product of the late 1970s and early 1980s, you can pretty much envision what they’re like. Cantinflas still looks more or less like himself, but both the comedian and the films have a tired look. There’s no raunchy humor, and the quirky artwork of the earlier films is replaced by standard-issue H-B character designs. It’s a little like the difference between an Otto Messmer Felix the Cat silent cartoon and a Joe Oriolo Felix of the 1960s.

Herewith, capsule reviews of four Cantinflas animated extravaganzas. Take note that Kip speaks only some Spanish, and Harry’s knowledge of the language is so rudimentary that he has trouble following Speedy Gonzales cartoons. Would we like these cartoons more or less if we always knew exactly what was going on? We may never know.

MUSEO ANTROPOLOGICO

Cantinflas watches as a female tour guide escorts a group of tourists through exhibits featuring the pre-Columbian history of his land, starting with stylized indios carving their stone gods. There’s a nudie cutie who seems to be modelling, but they ignore her: the natives carve gods, and Cantinflas idolizes himself. The tourists are duly impressed by the ancient gods, all except for an obvious Yankee who keeps saying “I don’t believe it.” Each time he does, Cantinflas gives the idol a “Lights, Camera: Action!” cue, and another whammy is put on the doubting gringo. It’s a mere inconvenience when a divine rain shrinks his clothes, but when the god of the dead reduces him to a skeleton, his doubtfulness becomes truly inexplicable. When he’s still unconvinced by a rain of fishes, the agriculture god pulls out the big weapon: _salsa picante_ on a taco turns the doubting skeleton into a flaming believer, and when he bows to the old gods, another rain restores him. His clothes are still shrunk: for humility? Cantinflas delivers some moral, but the real lesson here is: REVERE THE ANCIENT ONES! OR ELSE!

— K.W.

CLEOPATRA

The title barely hints at the ground this short epic covers: beginning in the fog of England, we see the start of the Suffragist movement, jumping ahead to the “mod” scene of London’s Carnaby Street where Cantinflas (here’s an archetypal 1960s joke) just can’t tell the girls from the boys, because they parade about in near-identical pairs. A brief detour to the Garden of Eden, where little big-nosed Adam succumbs to kewpie-cute (and naked) Eve’s apple while the angel is lighting his sword. Now we finally cut to Egypt, where Cleopatra, with an ultra-stylized birdish face that denotes ultimate femininity in this series, parades her beauty, and bathes (naked, of course) in leche de burra. Cantinflas drinks a little from an ewer, and sprouts big ears. Taking a break from Asterix, Julio Cesar enters and is promptly smitten with Cleo’s minimalist features. He woos her on a barge, scrubs her back in the bath, and gives her horsie rides until he collapses. It doesn’t take Sigmundo Freud to see why Caesar promptly sails away. His place is taken by Marco Antonio. Regretfully, my Spanish is not up to the task of translating the complex moral Cantinflas gives us, so I don’t know what I have learned from this cartoon, but it’s a real favorite of mine.

–K.W.

NAVIDAD

This holiday mini-special has it all: Music, merriment, tradition, tobacco products, and a much healthier dose of religion than you’d see in a stateside production. As Cantinflas trudges through the snow, Santa passes by; Cantinflas, mistaking him for a cab driver, hops a ride on his sleigh. We then segue into a series of Christmassy interludes starring Cantinflas and a troupe of toy-like, brightly garbed children — the general effect is one of Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride gone haywire. They chirp festive songs, bash open a pinata, and engage in the Mexican ritual of taking a figurine of the Virgin Mary from house to house, seeking shelter. An adorable, well-scrubbed Baby Jesus makes a cameo appearance; Cantinflas serenades him on the trumpet. Towards the end, Santa reappears to parcel out gifts to the boys and girls, so Cantinflas puts out the cigarette he’s been smoking and feigns goo-goo noises in order to get a present. The kids then form a choir to sing a snippet of the Hallelujah Chorus, and the cartoon closes with Cantinflas’s heartfelt, bilingual seasons’ greetings: “Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas, and Happy New York! (sic)”

–H.M.

SUPER AGENTE 777

Years before Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Cantinflas starred in his own racy James Bond parody. As the film opens in swinging London, our hero accidentally makes a pass at a kilted Scotsman. Next, he spots a couple of sexy British policewomen and introduces himself as a Mexican secret agent. Instantly swoony, the lady cops cry — in English — “Mexico! The land of romance!” and plaster him with smooches. (Except for that line, these British law enforcers speak mostly in what seems to be a mocking approximation of Cockney-accented Spanish.) From there on, the plot gets increasingly difficult to discern. Senor Flas and a ravishing, purple-haired female spy get sent to Paris, apparently on a mission to discover what happened to the Venus de Milo’s arms. They visit the Lido and the Louvre and discuss French culture and Greek art; one suspects that this is mostly an excuse to show dancing girls and topless statues. Eventually, Cantinflas finds Venus’s arms and reassembles her — it turns out that she’s swinging a baseball bat. The triumphant agent says something suggestive to his co-spy — just what, I’m not sure, but he assures her that it’s “muy carnale.” She responds by shouting “Darling!” and jumping him, and this confusing but amusing spoof irises out.

–H.M.

My Work, Elsewhere

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on anything like a regular basis–which means that it’s been a long time since I’ve reported on my doings, workwise. I think I forgot to mention that I joined the staff of TIME in 2012. I know I didn’t write about deciding to leave the staff of TIME in May of this year.

At the moment, I’m writing about technology for Technologizer–a site which I’m pretty sure will always be willing to have me, since I started it. But in less than three weeks, I’m starting a new job as technology editor for Fast Company, a magazine and website I’ve long admired. I’m pretty excited about it.

I also believe that I never formally mentioned that Scrappyland, which I started ten years ago and then let fester, is no longer festering. It’s now a blog, and while I don’t write there as much as I might in an ideal world, I’ve had lots and lots of things to say about Scrappy over the last couple of years, with more to come.

Jack Kirby Draws Jack Ruby

The May, 1967 issue of Esquire–this was during the period when it was edited by Harold Hayes and was probably the best magazine in the history of magazines–featured an article by Garry Wills and Ovid Demaris about Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald. That piece, published after Ruby’s death in January 1967, was complemented by something remarkable: “46 Hours and 36 Minutes in the Life of Jack Ruby,” a three-page comic strip beginning with Ruby learning of JFK’s assassination and ending with him shooting Oswald. The strip was written and drawn by Jack Kirby, inked by Chic Stone and annotated with references to the Warren Commission hearings.

Giving Kirby the assignment was a stroke of genius–despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it was so atypical. There’s virtually no action–the shooting of Oswald takes place in the next-to-last panel–and even though Esquire‘s pages were roughly twice as large as those of a comic book, everything is broken into tiny, cramped panels, each with a caption, and mostly depicting a scene in its entirety.

Ruby looks like a dissipated, angry version of Kirby’s later creation, Goody Rickels. He’s a small man who thinks he’s big, and other than brooding over the president’s assassination and killing Lee Harvey Oswald, he spends most of the three pages doing things such as ordering cold cuts, placing advertising for his club, going for a swim, demonstrating something called a “Twistaboard,” and having a Coke.

If you’re reading the story in 2014 and are familiar with the comics Kirby was drawing for Marvel in 1967, his association with heroic fantasy somehow makes the details of the crime depicted in “46 Hours and 36 Minutes in the Life of Jack Ruby” even more shockingly banal, and therefore more powerful. But it must have been potent stuff in 1967, even if you didn’t know who Jack Kirby was and were not a reader of Fantastic Four.

Anyhow, here’s the strip. It’s available elsewhere on the web, but I didn’t know about it until I happened to buy the issue at an antique store. It should be famous. Maybe it is, and I somehow didn’t know.

kirby1

kirby3

The Noble Approach

What's Opera, Doc? art from The Noble Approach

First, an apology: It’s taken far too long for me to shower praise on The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design, by my friend Tod Polson. It’s not just the best animation book of 2013; it’s among the most memorable ones on the subject, period.

Back when I hung out with Maurice — from the early 1990s until a few days before his death in 2001 — he frequently talked about the book which he was going to write. He did provide notes behind which Tod drew on, but they weren’t anywhere near enough to complete the book. So Tod drew on his own deep knowledge of Maurice’s approach, which he learned as one of the young “Noble Boys” who worked with Maurice at Chuck Jones Productions and elsewhere in the 1990s. He also interviewed others who Noble mentored, and quotes extensively from interviews with Maurice (including, I’m honored to say, the one I did). Essentially, he put together a jigsaw puzzle for which Maurice had only left a few pieces behind. And it works.

Maurice NobleSo this book isn’t exactly the same one which Maurice would have written if he’d completed it, but that’s O.K. It’s wonderful. And some of what’s good about it likely wouldn’t have been part of a 100-percent Noble version, such as the biographical section near the start, which takes us from his youth through his work at Disney, Warner, and elsewhere all the way to his final years as an éminence grise.

The book is presented as advice to those who wish to create animation, but it’s equally satisfying if all you’re looking is insight into what made Noble’s collaborations with Chuck Jones so special. For animation fans, it’s not necessarily even all that clear what a layout artist does; this book explains what Maurice did, and how it involved so much more than drawing backgrounds. His work helped set the mood; it influenced the humor and led to specific gags; it was a custom job each time, tailored to the needs of each film.

This is the best in-depth insider look ever published at how the Warner shorts were made from the perspective of someone who was there — it’s a far better read than Chuck Jones’ own Chuck Amuck and Chuck Reducks. And even though the book isn’t actually by Maurice, it does a perfect job of telling us what he did, and why.

Maurice had so many interests, and could talk entertainingly about so many subjects, that I spent surprisingly little time with him talking about animated cartoons. So for all the instances in which the book brought back pleasant memories, it also taught me things about his work which I didn’t know. For example, I wasn’t aware that he sometimes began by writing about what he hoped to accomplish with his layouts. The Noble Approach includes some of his longhand notes, as well as vintage photographs and a profusion of choice artwork from Warner and Disney as well as lesser-known stuff like his work on industrial films.

The Noble Approach is not the last book that anyone will ever need to write about Maurice Noble and his art. It’s a how-to which aims to put Maurice’s philosophies and techniques on paper, not an appraisal of his work. So it doesn’t explain why the best cartoons which Jones and Noble worked on together — mostly in the mid-1950s — or why, later on, even before the Warner studio closed, their partnership didn’t always result in magic.

It seems obvious to me that their work benefited from the tension present when both Jones and Noble were deeply and intellectually emotionally invested in a project; later on, when Jones handed over so much responsibility to Noble that Maurice sometimes got a co-director credit, Maurice’s designs no longer served to support the needs of a strong director, which is what he always said he was trying to do all along. When the most striking thing about a cartoon is the design, rather than the characters and storytelling — as is true of many later Jones/Noble films — something’s wrong. (The Dot and the Line is one exception, in part because it really was a tale told through design.)

Anyhow, objectivity was never the goal of this particular book. Tod has pulled off a spectacular feat. Reading this book made me smile in exactly the same way I did when I spent time with Maurice.

What’s Opera Doc? art at the top from The Noble Approach. Photo of Maurice Noble by me, taken in 2000 after we had lunch together in LA’s Chinatown; I think that’s Maurice’s leftovers in the bag he’s clutching.)

It’s a Dean Martin Marshmallow World Christmas

I’m not sure if this is my favorite song of the season, but as my wife will tell you, I never tire of hearing it. And Dean Martin apparently never tired of singing it — with Frank, with Beverly Sills, with girls in Santa suits, in front of a group of young people, and often while smoking…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAEqsnOQrxY
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qndaGVvoDsM

BONUS MATERIAL

Two guys unknown to me channeling Dean and Frank:

And a somebody’s reconstruction of what it would have looked like if Darlene Love — whose version of the song remains definitive — had sung it on TV:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlm_RJDwuLg

The Art of the Cartoon-Character QSL Card

I don’t know much about QSL cards, but I do know this: ham-radio operators have swapped them for many decades as a way of recording where their signals reach. The custom spread to CB radio, and cards with cartoony caricatures of the operators in question became popular. In some cases, the cards just used unauthorized versions of well-known characters. These are some of those cards. I believe they date from the 1970s.

Most of these were done by a person or organization known as Runnin Bare. I love ’em — especially how they make everyone from Porky Pig to Blondie look kind of like a trucker.

card-porky2

card-porky

card-roadrunner''

card-daffy

card-donald

card-figaro

card-pinoke

card-huck

card-tramp

card-pebbles

card-magoo2

card-magoo3

card-magoo

card-woody

card-casper

card-annie

card-speedy

card-dagwood

card-abner2

card-abner

card-popeye

There seems to have been a long tradition of using famous characters on QSL cards — here, borrowed from an eBay auction, is a 1934 example.

card-mickey