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Toon Tuesday: The Beatles were going to be " ... a flash in the pan"?! Or said Walt Disney

Toon Tuesday: The Beatles were going to be " ... a flash in the pan"?! Or said Walt Disney

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A meeting with Walt Disney always guaranteed one thing. After it was over there would be little doubt if you had succeeded or failed. Lucky for me, my teammate was one of Disney's best. Vance Gerry pitched the Kaa sequence in his own casual manner. There was none of the showmanship and pizzazz that some story guys exhibit. Vance simply walked us through the sequence letting the drawings speak for themselves. Vance knew that Walt hated being bamboozled. If the story wasn't working, he would know it soon enough. Our office was pretty crowded that day. You'll note I said, our office and not conference room. In those days, the meetings were held in the story man's office. No need to drag storyboards down hallways to a meeting room. I still wonder why this sensible system was abandoned?

 Mentor and friend, Vance Gerry. He was an awesome Disney storyman.

The Old Maestro was not known for handing out compliments. I remember songwriter, Richard M. Sherman speaking of an incident where he and his brother played a new song for Walt some years ago. Disney listened for a bit, and then said, "That'll work." The Shermans' were delighted. That simple statement was a pretty good indication they had "hit one out of the park."

At the conclusion of Vance's pitch, Walt turned to our director, Woolie Reitherman and said, "We could use a song here. I'll get the Sherman brothers to write something for you guys." And with that, the boss excused himself, and moved on to other matters. Woolie, Larry Clemmons, Don Griffith, Frank Thomas and "the boys" shuffled out of the room delighted that the meeting had gone so well. Vance Gerry had a slight smile on his face. That was pretty much all the emotion my laid back partner was going to show.

Many years ago, my mom took me to see Walt Disney's "Dumbo" at the Fox Theater in Santa Barbara. Sterling Holloway voiced the stork that delivered little Dumbo to his mom, and it's a voice I'll never forget. Over the years I would hear that same voice in numerous Disney features. Holloway, in his own way was a Disney legend. So, you can imagine how I felt that day in Recording Stage A as I watched and listened to Sterling Holloway record the song, "Trust in Me." The quirky actor sat on a tall stool in a pool of light. There was a music stand in front, and a boom microphone looming above in the large recording stage.

 The quirky Sterling Holloway.
Without a doubt my favorite Disney  voice actor.

George Bruns scored the music for "The Jungle Book." Disney, like most film studios of the day kept creative people on staff, and George had become part of the Disney family. He also played in Ward Kimball's jazz band, The Firehouse Five plus Two, and I was lucky enough to jam with these talented musicians one Saturday afternoon. I was playing a borrowed saxophone that had seen better days. Whenever the battered horn squawked, Kimball would yell at me. "Play whole notes, just play whole notes!" Today, it was back to business, and Bruns lifted his baton, and the music began. Holloway weaved on his stool as he sang. He was quite a sight with his red hair and wide eyes. Sterling Holloway suddenly became Kaa the Snake, and I watched him intently, eager to incorporate much of his mannerisms into my boards. Yet, time has a way of moving on, and I did not see the talented actor again until the early nineties when he returned to the Disney studio to be honored as a Disney legend. Sterling Holloway passed away in the early nineties. His distinctive voice replaced by Jim Cummings in "The Tigger Movie," a Winnie the Pooh feature directed by Jun Falkenstein. I did story on that film as well, and I'll always regret not getting to work with Sterling Holloway one last time.

While we're on the subject of music, did you know we were going to do a Beatles number in "The Jungle Book?" That's right, the song, "We're Your Friends" initially had a rock beat not unlike a popular singing group recently imported from the U.K. As the popularity of this longhaired group continued to soar, we thought, why not incorporate this pop style into our film? However, Walt Disney was no fan of the fab four. He saw them as a flash in the pan, and said they would be forgotten in a few years. Walt suggested we stick with something that would never go out of style, such as a barbershop quartet. I confess I didn't totally agree with Walt on this one, but I did get to take home a handful of Beatles albums that the studio had paid for. As for the singing group, I think Walt Disney might have been surprised. Rather than being forgotten, the Beatles went on to achieve some degree of popularity for a few more years.

 Sure they look depressed.
They must have heard Walt say the Beatles had no future.

Finally, there remained the little matter of getting Mowgli back to the Man Village. That was the all-important scene that wraps up the film. And, here we have another instance where the answer is right in front of your face, but you fail to see it. We had gone around and around trying to find a reason that would motivate Mowgli to leave the jungle, but nothing seemed to resonate. "It's simple," said the Old Maestro. "He sees the little girl and follows her." "But, Walt," we sputtered. "He's a little kid. He wouldn't have any interest in girls at that age." "Do it," said Disney. "It'll work!" If you've seen "The Jungle Book," I think you'll agree with Walt Disney, that it does work.

By the way, the cute little girl at the films' end is the work of Directing Animator Ollie Johnston. It's just plain adorable. Is there any doubt the man is a genius? My favorite line in the movie is when the trio sees the little girl. Baloo warns Mowgli to "Stay away from those things. They ain't nothing but trouble."

I guess I could go on and on with more stories. Frank Thomas animated most of that sequence that Vance and I boarded, and boy does he make us look good. On another note, one of the actors doing a vulture's voice in the movie was Digby Wolfe, a producer I would later work for as a writer on television shows, "Laugh-In" and "Turn On." Although we didn't think that much of "The Jungle Book" at the time, Vance and I continue to be amazed at how much this film is loved by Disney fans. Many young artists tell me this movie inspired them to seek a career in animation.

Finally, there's the little matter of screen credits. Did you notice that Disney story legend Bill Peet doesn't have a credit on "The Jungle Book" even though he labored on the film for over a year? As a matter of fact, not one story artist (with the exception of Vance Gerry) has a credit on the film. Unlike today, screen credits were not automatic, and one often waited for years to finally see their name on the screen. Many artists never received a Disney screen credit. My first credit was garnered for "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" in 1996 even though I had started at Disney decades earlier. No matter. I was given the opportunity to work with Walt Disney on his final film. That alone is all the reward this animation old timer will ever need.

I'm often asked the question, what's your favorite animated film? For a lot of reasons it always comes back to "The Jungle Book." Back in the fifties and sixties, cartoon making was fun. Unlike today, where animated features represent an investment of millions of dollars, we were unimportant, and consequently we were left alone. And being left alone is what allows creators to do their best work. Even a hands-on boss like Walt Disney understood that. When something failed to work, he simply said, "fix it," and left us alone to solve the problem. If only today's producers had the wisdom of Walt Disney, and were smart enough to trust their talent.

 Baloo's "death" at the end of the movie.
You didn't really believe he was dead, did you?

When I watch "The Jungle Book" today, it's difficult to believe I was ever part of this animation classic. It was so long ago, yet somehow it still feels like yesterday. Most of the "Old Boys" have since passed on, and a new generation of animation artists is hard at work building their own legacy. As these new kids labor over their drawing boards and computer screens at such studios as Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky and Pixar, I can only hope they're having lots of fun.

We sure the hell did.

Did you enjoy the final installment of Floyd's four-part series about the production of "The Jungle Book"? ... Speaking of multi-part stories, Mr. Norman has three (count 'em -- three!) great collections of his cartoons currently on the market. All of which take an affectionate look at his career in animation.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo.com) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

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  • Thank you oh so much for sharing these stories and anecdotes with us Mr. Norman.  I can honestly say I've loved each and every article I've seen of yours that you've posted here.

    I can't imagine how wonderful a thing it must've been to not only work for Walt Disney but to also work with him rather close-up (even if you did rarely speak).  The fact you were a storyman on the last animated feature he oversaw is both a beautiful and bittersweet thing.

    At the same time, I think it was wonderful that Walt Disney had such talented individuals at his studio, like yourself.  From the Nine Old Men on through every department -- artists/animators/storytellers/musicians -- He couldn't have done it without you guys.. . .  Thank so much Mr. Norman for keeping the memory of Walt and all those artists alive!
  • This article is completely not true... John Lennon said no to Walt Disney

    You can read more about it here.
  • As a big Beatle fan I can tell you this isn't true according to books on the Beatles.  At this time John Lennon didn't want to make any more movies and was tired of doing gimicks and etc.
  • Y'know, usually the truth is some odd combination of facts.  Perhaps John Lennon didn't want to do it...but perhaps Walt also thought the Beatles were a flash in the pan.  It doesn't have to be either/or.
  • Thank you, Mr. Norman, for the excellent article and series!  I wish it were a 100-part article!  It's so interesting "hearing" you tell what it was like behind the scenes.  It's amazing that you work(ed) for Disney!  I had no idea you worked on such recent movies as THOND and TTM.  Your career span and work is amazing!  In regards to the Beatles, I'm a Beatles fan, but I'm glad that their music or style of music wasn't included- Disney movies should have that "timeless" appeal.  Sure, the Beatles are timeless, but it's just not the same (I can't articulate any better, but I'm sure you know what I mean!).  
    And, I don't want this to turn into an argument on these boards, but Mr. Norman knew Walt Disney, and he knew what he said in regards to the Beatles.  Walt was an older man and maybe didn't like that kind of music to begin with.  My point is is that Mr. Norman was there, so it's not fair for people to say "You're wrong" (in whichever way you put it).  I agree with Anonymouse.
  • You know, I have to say, I am a huge Beatles fan, but as I have grown older and researched more, I've found the luster on the Beatles as individuals has worn off a bit. I still think the music is brilliant, but the individuals were just people. People with their own set of faults. Now, I am not saying John Lennon was lying or Walt was lying. But people sometimes lie. It is just as likely John was lying (or reinventing the past) as Walt was.

    And I don't think Walt Disney was alone in thinking the Beatles were a fad that would fade quickly. I think a lot of people thought that. It just makes it that much more impressive that they accomplished all they did.
  • If the Beatles had kept performing, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," over and over, they would have been a flash in the pan. They kept changing, and more importantly, the public kept accepting them. I always got a kick out of marijuana connoisseur Paul McCartney being an acceptable wholesome Super Bowl replacement after Janet Jackson's assault on public morality.

    I can't see a 64 year old Walt being impressed with a rock and roll band, and I can't see a 24 year old John thinking it would be cool to lend his voice to a Disney cartoon - especially in the mid 60's. I certainly wouldn't want to be in the position of getting them to record their lines. "My vulture wouldn't say that. Do I have to be a vulture? I'd rather be a bulldog. Why does Paul have more lines than me?"

    Regardless of whose decision it was, it worked out well for the Jungle Book. Instead of the Disney publicists having to answer why they used voice actors who had declared they were "more popular than Jesus," they could promote it as Walt's last animated feature.
  • I might be wrong, but I read the article as saying that the Disney writers were thinking about using  a song with a "Beatles" beat, not that they were going to use the Beatles.
  • This has been an excellent series of articles - thank you! I look forward to seeing more of your writing.
  • I might be wrong, but I read the article as saying that the Disney writers were thinking about using  a song with a "Beatles" beat, not that they were going to use the Beatles.
    That's the way I interpreted it as well.  Maybe there were some discussions with the Beatles, even if they said no, the movie certainly could have had a rock song in a similar style without their cooperation.  Things like that happen all the time.
  • The article says the vultures wanted to SUGGEST the Beatles (like just about every other sitcom on TV was making the same "moptop" imitation-jokes about, in 1964-65)...

    And althought Walt may have been no judge of musical longevity, think he also felt that vultures singing MerseyBeat would've made even less sense in the Indian jungle than the Frankie Fontaine rhino--
    Walt had decided to throw out the Kipling on "Jungle Book" early on (probably because of all the more faithful versions they'd had to abandon), but the downside was that Story kept going off the rails with their own volunteer "funny animal" ideas that just didn't have anything to do with Mowgli, Baloo and Bageera...Give Walt credit that he still had his talent for knowing what to -cut-, and how to keep a story's focus from gettting too distracted.
  • I greatly appreciated and valued this series.

    Wonderful insight, wonderful anecdotes.  

    JimHillMedia at its finest.
  • Great read.

    I too wonder what's the deal with so many people not getting screen credit for films, even with a significant contribution. I never would've known of your involvement on this film until just this year.

    You gotta agree with Walt's decision to can The Beatles (who's idea was it to have them perform for the film anyway?). Though, his animated films were leaning in that direction during the 1960's; it's almost like today's Shrek, which INSISTS on incorporating every pop culture fad imaginable.

    As for the final scene, it's truly awesome. Ollie Johnston was every bit as good at designing women as Marc Davis. In fact, I partially learned how to draw the human figure by trying to simulate the characters Davis and Johnston drew from some earlier films.

    I could ask (for the millionth time) what Walt would've thought of the finished film, but since we can't get a definite answer to that question, it's still comforting to know that his repetoire went out with a bang.
  • Bill Peet has no story credit because Walt lost faith in Bill Peet after the abysmal THE SWORD IN THE STONE. After seeing boards for THE JUNGLE BOOK, Walt knew he had to step in to save the movie.

    Bill Peet was no martyr. He failed. End of story.
  • Thanx again for an insightful article article, Mr. Norman!

    The Jungle Book was the first movie I ever saw (and on it's initial realase, mind you!) I think I fell in love with that little Indian girl even at the tender age of 4.

    - T
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