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JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » November 22nd, 2015, 4:45 pm

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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 4:45 pm

Thank you, Moira, these are great questions.

moira finnie wrote:Were there specific lessons learned during the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that made the making of Pinnochio less stressful for the creators of the later movie?


It's certainly true that having produced one animated feature was invaluable experience when they tackled the second one. Having improvised a general overall system, and having seen how well it worked, they could simply follow the same broad template. On the other hand, no two of those features are alike, and each brought its own challenges that required unique responses. Ward Kimball, who worked on both films, felt that the success of Snow White actually made the artists too complacent, lulling them into thinking that production of Pinocchio would be a simple matter. In fact, it was anything but.

moira finnie wrote:I have read that studios such as Warner Brothers and Universal often ran into serious trouble distributing their films in Europe as fascism grew. Were Disney cartoons and films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Fantasia scrutinised for storylines or subtexts by governments in Germany, Austria and elsewhere at that time?


No, I don't think they had that kind of trouble in Europe. This was at the time when everybody, everywhere, loved the Disney films -- and apparently Hitler was no exception -- and tended to give them a free pass, as far as story material was concerned. The Disneys' problem in Europe was distribution. Snow White, released overseas in 1938, was very successful in Europe, but by the time Pinocchio came along, the war was in full force and most of the European markets were closed to U.S. films. Most European audiences had to wait until the end of the war to see the Disney features -- in some cases, several years after they were produced.

moira finnie wrote:One of the remarkable aspects of the Disney studio's existence that has emerged in books about it in recent years was the narrow profit margin and sometimes almost empty coffers within which the studio product now appears to have been a marvel of creativity and innovation. Was that made possible by the differing temperaments of Walt and Roy Disney? Was the distribution of Disney products through RKO a convenient or an uneasy alliance?


Yes, the Disney studio was on a real financial roller coaster for a number of years there. Snow White was a tremendous boxoffice success around the world, but Pinocchio and Fantasia both lost money in their initial releases -- partly because of the loss of the European markets, but they were also less successful domestically. If you're asking whether Walt's temperament made it possible to keep aiming for the highest artistic standards even during hard times, the answer is emphatically yes. He certainly had a practical side and recognized the need to deal with the financial problems, but not at the expense of quality. Dumbo is a great example. It was deliberately produced on a small scale and a low budget, so it doesn't have the extravagant lushness of Pinocchio -- but it's still a classic film because it adheres to the studio's real core strengths: storytelling and character animation.

As far as RKO is concerned: as early as the early 1930s, the Disney studio had such a high profile that major studios competed for the contract to distribute the Disney cartoons. United Artists won the contract away from Columbia in 1932; RKO took over in 1937 -- and when the Disney product started to include feature-length films, the competition only became more intense. Roy wasn't always completely satisfied with RKO's performance, but they were so anxious to keep Disney's business that they kept expending extra effort to do a good job. Then, of course, by the early 1950s Disney had enough of a backlog of films to form its own distribution company: Buena Vista.

moira finnie wrote:Aside from shifting the focus of work at the Disney studio to combat training and propaganda work as well as the South American market after Pearl Harbor, did the lead up to WWII affect Disney animation thematically and stylistically?


I don't think the time leading up to the war -- that is, leading up to Pearl Harbor -- had a great effect on Disney themes and style. Of course the atmosphere of the times was reflected in the films, so you could find little isolated gags and references. (For example, the fanciful newspaper headline about the "Dumbomber" in the closing scenes of Dumbo.) And if you wanted to, you could claim that one pacifist character (Ferdinand the Bull) was treated more sympathetically in 1938 than another pacifist character (The Reluctant Dragon) in 1941. That's a bit of a stretch, though, and I'm not comfortable indulging in too much academic second-guessing -- I think there's been too much of that already.

What I do find striking is the thing you already alluded to: the transformation, almost literally overnight, of the Disney studio into a war plant after Pearl Harbor. One long-term effect of the war, which continued after the war ended, was the creation of a whole new side business in nontheatrical films. Up to this time, almost all Disney films had been made for theatrical showing, but that all changed during the war. Not only did they take on an extensive program of training films for the armed forces; I learned while working on the Latin American project that they also produced a tremendous number of health- and education-related films to be distributed in 16mm in Latin America -- again at the behest of the U.S. government. Of course this idea of 16mm distribution to the educational market rolled on after the war was over. It was never a huge moneymaker, but it did become a healthy sideline that helped to sustain the studio through those lean times.

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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 5:02 pm

Moira, let me add a PS to your question about scrutiny of Disney stories and films in Europe with the rise of fascism. In general, as I said, there wasn't much concern over that with the Disney films. On the other hand, after the U.S. joined the war effort, Disney produced some very hard-hitting propaganda cartoons, some of them explicitly lampooning Hitler and other Axis leaders. (The most famous of those propaganda cartoons was Der Fuehrer's Face, which won an Academy Award in 1942.) There's a story, which I can't confirm, that a number of those shorts were in a distributor's vault in France when the Nazis invaded and occupied the country. The story claims that someone in the occupying army got wind of those films and went to investigate -- which certainly would have been bad news for somebody -- but that the distributor was warned in advance, got rid of the offending reels, and replaced them with prewar Mickey Mouse titles before anyone showed up. That may not be exactly what you were asking about, but it's the closest thing I know.

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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby Lzcutter » November 22nd, 2015, 5:33 pm

JB,

Good afternoon from the sunny (and warm) City of the Angels.

Quick question for you- why are drawn to silent films?
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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 6:44 pm

Hi, Lynn - and thanks for the reminder that it's warm where you are! (Actually, at the moment it's not bad here either.)

Lzcutter wrote:Quick question for you- why are drawn to silent films?


That is a quick question, but I don't know that I have a quick answer. The best I can do is a two-part answer. First, I love the form itself -- there's a kind of unique beauty and purity about a form that's completely visual. (Not to minimize the importance of the right musical accompaniment, which I also love, but you know what I mean.) Like a lot of us, I came into silent film by way of the comedies, and you don't need me to tell you what a luxury it is to discover and savor the beautiful visual comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and other great comedians. It's like a great delicacy that can't quite be duplicated in any other medium. And, of course, having started with comedy, it was a short step to enjoying and appreciating other silents. The best films of Griffith, Vidor, and a few other directors -- not least the great pictorialists like Tourneur and Ingram -- are as great as they are partly because they don't have the handicap of sound.

(And don't get me wrong, there are quite a lot of sound films that I love too -- but it really is a very different medium, and the great silents speak a language of their own that is unique to the form.)

Second, just about any film, made anywhere at any time, will reflect the qualities of its own time and place. And the silent era reflects a period of history that I find endlessly fascinating. I know that the world wasn't a perfect place in the 1910s and 1920s; those decades had their share of social and other problems, and people's lives weren't necessarily easy. The popular culture was a big improvement on our own, in some ways, but in other ways I know that wasn't perfect either. But, still, what a fascinating time! And it's captured forever, usually unintentionally, in its films.

Does that answer your question? I could go on at greater length -- and you know I've done it before -- but this answer is already far from quick!

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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby moira finnie » November 22nd, 2015, 8:11 pm

Thanks very much for answering my questions so fully this weekend J.B.

Before you dash off, could you please mention some of the essential Blanche Sweet performances you would recommend to the uninitiated viewer?

Also, have you been surprised by the number of "lost films" from the silent era that have been found around the world in recent years? Is there reason to hope that more are out there?

Please don't wait another five years to return here--the door is open and we would love to hear about the new worlds you have uncovered in your research in the future.
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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » November 22nd, 2015, 8:23 pm

Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your expertise here, J.B.
Til we meet again!
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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby Lzcutter » November 22nd, 2015, 9:47 pm

JB-

Thanks so much for spending the weekend with us here at the Oasis!

Best of luck on all your upcoming projects and, as always, we'll be talking!
Lynn in Lake Balboa

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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 10:56 pm

moira finnie wrote:Before you dash off, could you please mention some of the essential Blanche Sweet performances you would recommend to the uninitiated viewer?


By common consent, the two celebrated highlights of her career are Judith of Bethulia (1913) and Anna Christie (1923). Both films are extant (although, frankly, I think they're both due for better restorations). I've always found it interesting that these two roles -- the Biblical (Apocryphal) heroine and the embittered prostitute -- are Blanche's best-remembered performances. I think it indicates something of her impressive range as an actress.

Beyond that ... during the years of the Griffith Project at Pordenone, I became much more familiar with Blanche's work with Griffith at Biograph. And she was one of the most important players in his Biograph company between 1911 and 1913, and appeared in a LOT of films. Some of them, like The Lonedale Operator and The Painted Lady, are well-known -- with good reason -- but there are plenty of others. Some of my personal favorites are The Lesser Evil, One is Business, the Other Crime, and Death's Marathon. Blanche had a mature appearance at a very early age, but she was actually in her mid-teens when she appeared in these films, and her emotional power at such a young age is astonishing.

That fascinating post-Griffith period holds a lot of surprises too, but it's hard for the viewer to find very many of those films. One of her Jesse Hampton features, The Deadlier Sex, was recently preserved by the Academy Film Archive and shown last spring at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It's really nothing more than a program picture, but Blanche was a true professional and turned in a good, solid, subtle performance. I was proud of her! As I continue my work on this project, it will be interesting to see whether we can find a way to bring more of those later films to a wider audience.

As for Blanche's sound films, I'd recommend Show Girl in Hollywood, which is fairly widely available. In this one Blanche plays support to the film's real stars, Alice White and Jack Mulhall, and I'm not the only one who thinks she steals the picture. It takes a certain insensitivity to ask Blanche Sweet, in 1930, to appear in a sound film as a washed-up silent film actress who can't get a break in the talkies -- but that's exactly the role Blanche plays in this film, and she turns in an unforgettable performance.

moira finnie wrote:Also, have you been surprised by the number of "lost films" from the silent era that have been found around the world in recent years? Is there reason to hope that more are out there?


I sure have, and there sure is. I am utterly in awe of the film-preservation community, around the world -- I think they're pulling off miraculous things on a regular basis, and we're all better off for it. My hat is off to the National Film Preservation Foundation and its partner organizations. This is very much related to the above, because so much of Blanche Sweet's film career has been presumed "lost" for so long. Now some of those longed-for titles actually have resurfaced and have been restored to view, and I have reason to hope for more -- along with all those other finds that we've been enjoying recently!

Finally ... thank you all, so much, for hosting me here this weekend. I've thoroughly enjoyed spending this time with you. And I agree, five years is too long to wait. Let's talk soon. Till then, see you in the movies!


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