Monday, October 1, 2012

Animating Character and Personality

Cartoon-blogging, essay 9 of 21 blog entries on
250 great animated short films

Donald's Tire Trouble (1943), directed by Dick Lundy.

This is the ninth of 21 essays inspired by a list of 250 great animated short films, composed in August 2012 by Scott Bussey, Jorge Didaco, Waldemar Hepstein, Bill Kamberger, Robert Reynolds, Sulo Vatanen, and Lee Price, with additional assistance from participants on the IMDb Classic Film message board.

My fellow panelist Waldemar Hepstein sent me two short pieces: one on a classic Donald Duck short, Donald’s Tire Trouble (1943), and one on a Porky Pig favorite, Kitty Kornered (1946). They seem to go together nicely and so I decided to round them out with a short piece on one of my favorites, Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) to comprise an entry on the art of animating character and personality.

Donald’s Tire Trouble (1943):  Disney was known for respecting and emulating the old live-action comedy greats in his cartoons, and he encouraged his animators to do likewise. This film is a kind of animated cousin to Chaplin’s One A.M. (1916) in that both are essentially one man shows — rather unusual in either animation or live action. (The Goofy ”How to” series is another kettle of fish.) Of course, both the Tramp and the Duck must have their adversaries for comical conflict, but here their antagonists are inanimate objects.

Donald’s Tire Trouble was one of a mere handful of shorts that Dick Lundy directed for Disney following a ten-year period as animator. In fact, Lundy is sometimes credited as being the creator of Donald Duck, which might seem something of an overstatement as there were several pivotal talents at hand in developing the Duck’s personality (Jack Hannah and Carl Barks are other names that come to mind, and we shouldn’t forget the original voice, Clarence Nash).

There’s no doubt, however, that Lundy was one of the most important Duck developers, being in on the screen legend’s image from the very beginning. For this reason, as well as the quality of Lundy’s work both as animator and director, his relative obscurity even among cartoon buffs is both sad and mysterious. In a letter to an animation historian, Lundy described his modus operandi:

When I was animating at Disney’s I was considered a personality animator. I always tried to give the personality a comedy twist, with a gesture, a body action or a twist of the mouth or head. When I animated dances I tried to put in the same thing. Now with a funny personality leading up to a physical gag which was funny (usually the way a character reacted) you usually ended up with something twice as funny.

Which is a perfect description of Donald’s Tire Trouble.

Waldemar Hepstein

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Donald’s Tire Trouble is available for purchase on Walt Disney Treasures – The Chronological Donald, Vol 2.

Kitty Kornered (1946):  Made in the year that director Bob Clampett ended his long tenure at Warner Bros., Kitty Kornered, while being as wild and Looney as any Tune, has an easy-going feel to it. It’s almost as if Clampett felt he didn’t have anything to prove anymore and could just have a ball with his inspired brand of Loonacy. In the process, he introduced a new character, Sylvester the Cat, later to become the special property of Friz Freleng and the team mate of Tweety.

The plot, such as it is, consists of a very familiar standby of the classic Hollywood cartoons: The hero has his home invaded by pesky animals and must do battle with them — in this case, it’s Porky Pig against some nasty cats who just won’t take no for an answer. Throughout the film, speed and silliness are the main watchwords.

At the finish, when the film has about a minute and a half left of its running time, Clampett pulls a couple of nice tricks out of his sleeve. The cats fake a Wellesian “Martian invasion” broadcast in a failed attempt to scare Porky out of his house. As he turns in for the night, at first he takes no notice that there are three Martians in bed with him, even after they fondly kiss him good night. (Somebody somewhere must surely have written a doctoral dissertation on all the kissing that goes on in the Looney Tunes!) It’s Porky’s delayed reaction that provides the standout moment, a frenzied split-second head-turning and eye-bulging — on a par with, though quite different from, the famous reaction shots from Clampett’s colleague Tex Avery.

Apparently, in modern TV screenings of this cartoon, not only have scenes of the cats smoking and drinking been censored out, but so have the establishing shots of the cats being kicked out of various homes.

Waldemar Hepstein

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914):  While the medium of film was still primitive in 1914, the artistry of Winsor McCay was anything but primitive.  A newspaper cartoonist of peerless skill, McCay threw himself into the new medium of film animation with tireless energy. A handful of animators had tackled the new craft before him, but McCay was the first to create animated characters who appeared to take up real space, breathe on screen, and display coherent and individualized personalities.

In addition to being a nationally famous cartoonist, McCay established himself as a vaudeville star in the early 1900s. He drew rapid sketches for adoring vaudeville audiences, amazing the crowds with his lightning-fast skills.  Gertie the Dinosaur is a vaudeville performer, too.  She bashfully enters the frame as if onto a stage, coquettishly playing to the audience.  Her self-confident walk as she strides to the foreground (the equivalent of the stage edge) practically flirts with the audience.  From outside the frame, McCay issues commands and Gertie either chooses to obey or follows her own whims.  When McCay reprimands her, she cries.  She’s part-toddler, part-puppy, and fully dinosaur.

McCay conceived of Gertie the Dinosaur as a film to accompany his vaudeville act, with McCay interacting with the dinosaur on the screen.  For these first vaudeville showings, there would have been no intertitles — McCay would have issued his commands from the stage.  When the film went into wider release, a live-action prologue and epilogue were added, along with the intertitles to the cartoon portion.

Maybe Gertie could have moved on to cartoon fame on the order of crowd-pleasing personalities like Felix, Mickey, and Bugs.  McCay planned a sequel called Gertie on Tour in 1921 and filmed some of it, but there’s no record of any formal release.  A tantalizing fragment remains.  McCay gave up filmmaking that same year.  He was a solo artist working in a medium that was quickly moving in the direction of factory production.  Over time, artists would learn how to work effectively within this new production system, but it wasn’t for McCay.  He was strictly a “one-man, one film” auteur.  Consequently, his films are one-of-a-kind achievements — masterpieces in a primitive medium.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Gertie the Dinosaur is available for purchase on Winsor McCay – The Master Edition.

© 2012 Lee Price

No comments:

Post a Comment