Welcome to Jim Hill Media - Entertainment News : Theme Parks Movies Television

"Cartoon Modern" takes a witty & informed look back at animation's not-so-distant past

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

"Cartoon Modern" takes a witty & informed look back at animation's not-so-distant past

Rate This
  • Comments 6

This past Friday, Amid Amidi (Who -- along with noted animation historian Jerry Beck -- rides herd on the always-entertaining-and-informative Cartoon Brew) was singled out for a pretty amazing honor.

You see, the Theatre Library Association declared that Amid's latest book -- "Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in 1950s Animation" (Chronicles Book, August 2006) -- to be 2006's Best Book about Film, Television and Radio.

Copyright 2006 Chronicle Books. All Rights Reserved

And as I read this handsome 200-page hardcover yesterday, I could understand why the TLA would single "Cartoon Modern" out for recognition. For not only is this book beautifully designed, but it also tells a compelling story about a crucial though often ignored era in animation history.

Though -- truth be told -- the seeds for the explosion of stylized animation in the 1950s were actually sewn back in 1941. Back when hundreds of artists and animators walked in that infamous picket line just outside the gates of Walt Disney Studios.

 Copyright 2006 Chronicle Books. All Rights Reserved

In the weeks, months and years that followed this bitter strike, dozens of talented employees wandered away from the Mouse Factory. People like animation pioneer John Hubley, who had grown tired of Disney's rigid house style and longed to try something new.

So -- joining together with other Mouse House ex-patriots like Bill Hurtz -- Hubley helped form United Productions of America (UPA), an animation studio that was known for its flat, modernistic style. Which would then go on to have a huge impact on Toontown for the next decade or so.

Copyright 2006 Chronicle Books. All Rights Reserved

And UPA ... It turned out dozens of delightful little films. Including charmers like that studio's 1953 short, "The Unicorn in the Garden." Not to mention hundreds of television commercials that are sure to be familiar to all you baby boomers out there. Take -- for example -- those ads where Marky, that obnoxious little cowboy, cried "I want my Maypo !"

Copyright 2006 Chronicle Books. All Rights Reserved

But Hubley ... He dreamed bigger than that. John wanted one day to do just what Walt did. Which was create full-length animated features.

Mind you, Hubley came pretty close to achieving this dream. In the mid-1950s, John started work on an animated version of the Broadway hit, "Finian's Rainbow." Characters for the film were designed and Hubley even went so far as to hire Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to provide voices for the picture. But then John ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And -- as a direct result of this unfortunate event -- the financing for "Finian's Rainbow" fell apart and this ambitious animated feature was never completed.

Copyright 2006 Chronicle Books. All Rights Reserved

That's the beauty of "Cartoon Modern." Amid's ability to ferret out great untold stories like this. Or notice something that hadn't really been noticed before. By that I mean: Check out this concept drawing that Ed Benedict did for Hanna Barbera back in the 1950s. Back when Quick Draw McGraw's sidekick's name wasn't called Baba Looey. But -- rather -- Poco.

Copyright 2006 Chronicle Books. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, there's lots of great Disney-related stories to be found in this book as well. One of my favorites deals with how animation designer Tom Oreb basically "borrowed" the look of Samson (I.E. Prince Phillip's horse in "Sleeping Beauty") from earlier equines that noted British illustrator Ronald Searle had drawn.

As the story goes, Searle dropped by Disney Studios in 1957 after production of this animated feature had officially gotten underway. And as Ron toured the animation building, he came across the office that Tom was sharing with Victor Haboush, another animation designer at that studio. And then (As Victor tells this tale) ...

It was just Tommy and I in this room, and Tommy had all the character drawings on the wall ... Ronald Searle came in with an entourage ... (Searle) didn't say a word, he just walked around the room, looking at everything. Everybody had left before him and (Ronald) just lingered at the door, stuck his long finger out, pointed at his horse, said to Tommy 'My horse,' and walked out. And Tom fell off his stool. He loved that.

 Copyright 2006 Chronicle Books. All Rights Reserved

You may also learn some other things about the Mouse House that you never knew before. Like how Walt hated the look of "101 Dalmatians." So much so that Disney didn't speak to Ken Anderson (I.E. The art director of that 1961 animated feature) for a year after this film's release. And the resulting stress caused Ken to suffer two strokes in 1962.

Copyright 2006 Chronicle Books. All Rights Reserved

This is the sort of stuff that you'll learn as you read through "Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation." Which has page after page of beautiful illustrations that pay tribute to all of the studios and/or individuals who helped make this artistic revolution happen. Not to mention Amid's informed & often quite witty observations.

So if you're an animation fan and/or would like to learn about this very under-reported era in animation history, then you have to pick up a copy of the TLA's choice for the Best Book about Film, Television and Radio for 2006. For "Cartoon Modern" really is this wonderful look back at animation's not-so-distant past.

Your thoughts ?

Blog - Post Feedback Form
Your comment has been posted.   Close
Thank you, your comment requires moderation so it may take a while to appear.   Close
Leave a Comment
  • * Please enter your name
  • * Please enter a comment
  • Post
  • Thanx a lot, Jim! I'm going broke on all the great books you recommend!

  • I shall indeed endevour to purchase this book at my nearest shop in Chelsea as soon as pos. This is a must read!!!

    I absolutely adore 50's style post modern art.

  • I can see why Walt hated 101 Dalmatian's look. I personally like the look of the characters as they are very 60's and the picture is a modern picture. However, the backgrounds are horrible. It's just a bunch of sketches and stuff, very different from Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and other early classics.

    It seems that the Disney animation went through a tranisition period beginning with 101 Dalmatians. I believe they started using the new Xerox technique, and although it may have been easier and cheaper than the traditional hand-painted cels, the results were much less of an impact. Just look at Snow White or Bambi today and a movie like The Jungle Book or The Fox and the Hound which also used the Xerox. Today DVD makers can clean up the picture and whatever, and after doing this Snow White, a film made 30 years before The Jungle Book looks so much better.

    I think if Walt had lived to see any of the Disney films that were produced in the late 60s to late 80s between The Jungle Book and The Great Mouse Detective he would have hated them all. The films ahve great stories and I love a lot of them in that period, but the animation quality is the worst IMO compared to the early classics, Disney Renaissance, and post renaissance films.

  • Amid won an award?  Was it for "Biggest Blowhard in Animation Criticism." Seriously though, as talented as Amid is, that guy always acts like his $#!+ doesn't stink.  He can be so snobby compared to Jerry and really needs to get over himself.

  • Why did Walt hate the look of 101 Dalmations?  Besides Snow White that movie (with adjusted gross) was the most profitable animated movie for Disney Studios.  Right?  

  • Walt hated the style of "Dalmatians" because it wasn't the warm illustration style that his studio had spent 30 years perfecting. It was bold and flat, much like the modern art of the 50's.

    But Walt also knew that the animated films were out-pricing themselves. They were far too expensive to make if they wanted to see a return on the initial box office release. In Brian Sibley's book, "The Disney Studio Story" and Canemaker's "9 Old Men", it is clear that Walt battled with decisions and choices daily to keep the animation studio running in the 50's & 60's. The xerox line style of "101D" was one of those decisions.

Page 1 of 1 (6 items)