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Forgotten Disney Legends: Ferdinand Horvath

Forgotten Disney Legends: Ferdinand Horvath

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"In 1921, I arrived in New York and when my forty dollars was spent I went to work painting window frames on Avenue A, hanging between the eleventh floor and the sidewalk, caulking and painting boat hulls on the Hudson River. After dozens of odd jobs, I went into stage effects, set designing, and finally into animated cartoons. In time I did some work for Harper's Bazaar and other New York publications, and finally found my way into book illustration. In 1933 I joined Walt Disney's staff in Hollywood and worked with Disney as a sketch artist, idea man, and model creator. After the outbreak of the Second World War, I went to North American Aviation and later to Howard Hughes in a technical capacity to work on confidential designs."

-- F. H. Horvarth from the book,"Illustrators of Childrens' Books: 1744-1945" (Mahoney, 1947)

Ferdinand Horvath, a Hungarian immigrant and book illustrator, was born in 1891 and died of a stroke in 1973. From 1934-1937, he worked at the Disney Studios on everything from advertising to illustrations for a pop-up book to painting backgrounds and doing layouts to constructing three dimensional models (such as making a windmill for study for "The Old Mill") to character designs and gags for over fifty Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse shorts.

Horvarth was a versatile self taught artist who was often the victim of teasing while he was at Disney for his European looks (where he was thought to look like a Dracula character) and his quiet, intense, often negative personality. He was apparently still haunted by his near-death experiences during World War I where he spent almost three years in various prison camps.

Before working at Disney, he spent six years working at Paul Terry's "Aesop's Fables" studio and after he left Disney, he worked for a year (1938-1939) designing models and layouts for "Scrappy," "Krazy Kat" and "Color Rhapsodies" shorts for Columbia/Screen Gems. In 1940, he sculpted puppets for George Pal's Puppetoons.

For those more interested in this troubled artist, John Canemaker devoted a chapter to him in his outstanding book, "Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney's Inspirational Sketch Artists" (Hyperion Press, November 1996) and a few copies at a discounted price are still available through www.budplant.com.

After Horvath's death, Bruce Hamilton was able to acquire from Horvath's estate a collection of his concept sketches. They were offered for sale in Russ Cochran's comic art catalog -- "Graphic Gallery #8" -- with fifty pages of art from "Snow White," "Practical Pig," "Brave Little Tailor" and many more Disney cartoons including unproduced shorts like "Mickey and the Sea Serpent." Some of those wonderful historical pieces sold for as little as twenty-five dollars! This is a wonderful collection of Horvath's work that does not appear anywhere else. Unfortunately only two of the pages are reproduced in color and most Disney collectors are unaware that this publication even exists since it was a small print run almost thirty years ago.

In those days before Disney scholarship, Bruce and Russ struggled to find information about the then unknown artist because of Disney's decades long policy of not giving credit to artists. Horvath is not credited with working on "Snow White," which was perhaps one of the reasons he chose to leave the studio. But his unusual penchant for signing every piece of artwork he did resulted in the then current Christopher Finch book, "The Art of Walt Disney," to showcase lovely colored pencil renderings of the dwarves and Huntsman from "Snow White" boldly signed by Horvath. Which helped Bruce and Russ validate that Ferdinand did indeed do significant developmental work on that particular Disney feature.

At the time, Bruce showed the artwork to Carl Barks who firmly stated that "I consider Horvath to be one of the two finest illustrators to have worked for Disney during the Thirties."

Horvath's personal notebooks list that he contributed to the following Disney films:

RELEASED:

  • MICKEY MOUSE SHORTS: "Mickey's Man Friday," "The Band Concert," "Mickey's Service Station," "Mickey's Garden," "Mickey's Circus," "Mickey's Rival," "Moose Hunters," "Boat Builders," "Clock Cleaners," "Brave Little Tailor," "The Fox Hunt," "Alpine Climbers," "Polar Trappers," "Lonesome Ghosts," "Mickey's Trailer," "Society Dog Show," "Mickey's Follies" and "Magician Mickey."
  • SILLY SYMPHONIES: "Father Noah's Ark," "Old King Cole," "Lullaby Land," "The Pied Piper," "Cookie Carnival," "Timid Elmer," "Three Little Wolves," "Broken Toys," "Three Blind Mouseketeers," "The Country Cousin," "Woodland Café," "The Old Mill," "Little Hiawatha," "The Moth and the Flame", "The Worm Turns," "The Practical Pig," "Farmyard Symphony," "Merbabies," "The Ugly Duckling" and "Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood."
  • OTHER FILMS: "The Hot Chocolate Soldier" (Disney's special segment for MGM's 1934 release, "Hollywood Party" ), "Radio City Ballet" CITY (for Radio City Music Hall in New York) & "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

UNRELEASED: (although some of the ideas and concept sketches may have been incorporated into other films):

  • MICKEY MOUSE SHORTS: "Mickey's Toothache," "Mickey and the Sea Serpent," "Mickey's Barber Shop," "Stone Age Mickey" (also listed on some of his concept sketches as "Prehistoric Mickey"), "Mickey in the Navy," "The Legionnaires" and "Mickey in Pygmy Land.
  • OTHER FILM PROJECTS: "The Shy Little Bear,"" Ballet des Fleurs," "Slovenly Peter," "Reynard the Fox" (which was planned as a feature film and Marc Davis later worked on the project), "The Eskimo Kid," "The Wise Little Owl," "Gay Nineties," "Easter Bunnies," "Santa Claus," "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," "Don Quixote" and "Sinbad the Sailor."

Among Horvath's personal papers was a memo he had written for the Disney Studios in 1937. For historical purposes -- and to bring further recognition to this often un-recognized contributor to the magic of Disney during one of its brightest periods -- I am reproducing it here:

SURPRISE IN GAGS
By Ferdinand H. Horvath
February 22, 1937

In my modest opinion the most effective gags are those that will take the audience by complete surprise. The absurdity of the situation is an important factor.

Take for instance Captain Noah (in an old Fable Cartoon) diving overboard his ark to save his crew. Nobody in the audience knows what his purpose might be going overboard. We follow him to the bottom on the waters-keying up suspense. He reaches the bottom and without much fumbling, pulls out a plug. The flood waters start to whirl and to drain off rapidly in the best bathtub fashion, and the water running from beneath the ark leaves it high and dry atop a convenient cliff. I have never seen any gag yet in all these years that went over in a bigger way.

This in my modest opinion, is a typical example of a surprise gag: it seems logical, there seems nothing impossible about it, it is easily put over, clearly comprehensible to anyone, and yet the audience would expect anything else in the world to happen but that. There was no prop visible that would have given the gag away. It is for this reason that I think that gags of this sort are always superior to gags that necessarily need a lot of planting. Gags around convenient props that naturally lend themselves to gag situations are more or less anticipated by the audience. Take a sack of potatoes spilled on the cellar floor, and you will expect some character to take a spill when coming in contact with them. Flypaper ditto...precariously balanced dishes...garden rake to be stepped upon.

Referring to some outstanding gag sequences, which were also mentioned in the "gag tip sheet", as for instance Pluto's skating sequence, Mickey with the rubber nipple, and Pluto's flypaper sequence-all of these in my modest opinion are only mildly funny as gags themselves but they do offer good chances to the animator. However it depends on the animation whether a sequence of this sort will appear funny or not. Pluto is known as a clumsy dog. Add Pluto, plus skates, plus ice-and it takes no imagination to expect him to slide about, tumble, and do most of the things he actually did. Introduce Pluto and the flypaper and you know that he is apt to get tangled up with it. Anticipation gratified to the nth degree. Mickey with the overworked nipple gag is another example.

It has become more or less a rule to take any awkward character to place him near enough to something that might trip him, or punch him or cause him other bodily discomforts-the audience will anticipate such, and it will be dished out to them ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

Good surprise gags, well timed, and not being touched off to order when the audience expects it---are laugh getters, because they keep you on edge in expectant mood, they keep you guessing and fool you in the end. (As a fine example I want to mention the little pig unexpectedly reopening the door to pull the "Welcome" mat in.)

Take a gag situation in one of our recent pictures (The Clock Cleaners-which at the writing of these lines has not been released yet). The Goof, after being knocked coocoo by too much Liberty, walks in a daze over exposed scaffolding, narrow ledges, etc. He finally walks toward the camera on a horizontal ladder, on which very evidently one of the rungs is missing. Everybody chuckles in advance waiting for the Goof to step into space when he will have advanced far enough to set his foot on the missing rung. Sure enough the Goof does exactly that. It is funny as it is, because the whole sequence is so very well animated, and it surely won't misfire, but in my modest opinion, we passed up a completely ideal surprise gag situation. It might have been so much funnier if one of the rungs, two or three notches ahead of the gaping hole would have given away, and the Goof would have dropped quite unexpectedly. Or---after stepping safely over the hole caused by the previously established missing rung when naturally everybody expected him to drop into space, have him negotiate this dangerous spot successfully, keep him going for one or two more steps and then have a rung break afterwards when nobody would expect it. Here would be surprise, because people kind of expect him to fall where he won't. There would be a laugh at being knowingly kidded, and then there would be immediately another laugh-probably a much heartier laugh, after the Goof promptly broke through when everybody thought him safe. This, I believe illustrates clearly how a gag can be improved by its unexpectedness and correct timing.

Outline No. 10 dealing the Fox Hunt pointed out as an example one of my gags in that picture: the fox, hard pressed by the pack of dumb hounds, suddenly slides to a top (I hope without screeching brakes this time), and starts to scratch. The dogs do the same. If I am not dead wrong---this gag should get a laugh because it comes as a complete surprise, is natural action and totally absurd at the same time. The audience does expect the fox to outwit the pack, to dive, to dodge, to double back and trick the dogs in numerous ways but they will hardly expect him to play follow the leader.

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