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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 moira finnie » November 21st, 2015, 8:15 pm

Thanks for filling in the background, J.B. It seems that Cliff Edwards was enormously lucky to have found this role. He's such an odd, interesting figure in early talkies, recordings and shorts. Of course, with that catch and chuckle in his voice, I can see how the tone of the cricket's role in the story must have changed because of that poignant cheerfulness that the performer captured so well. The only physical similarity I could see in Edwards and Jiminy is a shared large forehead, so it does seem that his cartoon self was not drawn from life.

(BTW, When we had Steve Taravella here for a visit he mentioned that the subject of his biography, Mary Wickes: I Know I've Seen That Face Before, was the animation model for 1961's 101 Dalmatians' Cruella de Vil for Disney productions decades later, so I guess it was a longtime practice for the animators to use themselves and professionals as a template for their creations!)

Two other voice actors behind the animation in Pinocchio are among my favorite character actors. Could you please relate how the talented Frankie Darro, who is perhaps best remembered for his dynamic performances in Depression era films, Wild Boys of the Road and The Mayor of Hell came to be cast as Lampwick the boy who was transformed into a donkey? Was Mickey Rooney originally considered for the role?

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The first time I saw this movie, the most vivid character in Pinocchio for me may be the fox, J. Worthington Foulfellow, voiced by comic veteran, J. Walter Catlett, a fast-talking actor fondly remembered for his roles in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Bringing Up Baby (1940), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and numerous other films. Seeing Pinocchio (1940) for the first time as an adult I have always wondered if the actor and the filmmakers may have had the late career, self-parodying John Barrymore in mind while crafting this character's oily, flowery speeches and outrageous behavior (or perhaps one of Barrymore's many imitators, such as John Emery?)? I recently read a translation of the Collodi story for the first time--found online here--and discovered that the Fox character was devious and manipulative, but Catlett's personification of him seems to be so sly and full of mischief, I can't help wondering how much he (and ham actors everywhere) influenced the creation of the animated version.
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I am really looking forward to reading your book since you go into such interesting depth about the (often) unsung people who made Disney films from this period into classics. I really appreciate learning about the roots of such cultural touchstones--even though I must admit most of them were unknown to me until I went to college--I blame Mom and Dad and a serious lack of distribution of the Disney library before VCRs changed the shelf life of older films forever!! ;-)
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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby JB Kaufman » November 21st, 2015, 9:36 pm

Thanks for these questions, Moira, and may I say that you and I are very much on the same page regarding those great character players. The Frankie Darro pictures you picked as examples are two of my own favorites. To answer your question, some of the writers did have Mickey Rooney in mind as a model for the character, but Walt pulled away from that idea. This is another case where we can specifically document Walt's words -- of course he was always firmly in control of a picture's development, but here we have a story meeting transcript in which he specifically pushes for Frankie Darro, both as a type and as the voice for the character. When the conversation starts to wander to other names, Walt pulls it back: "I tell you Darro is a good actor and we need a good actor." Of course this was several years after Wild Boys of the Road and Darro's voice had changed in the meantime -- less the tough little punk and more the bad older influence, which is in line with Lampwick's character. (Like Edwards, Darro provided the voice but not the model. Believe it or not, the live action model for Lampwick was Clyde Cook! If you look at Cook's usual character type that seems counterintuitive, but if you watch the way he moves, it's a casting decision that makes sense.)

About the Fox, you're right again: the writers started with the basic idea of the Fox but then developed his personality along their own lines. For a time Walt pictured the Fox as a classic con man -- literally running a shell game and so on. Then someone came up with the idea that the Fox would tempt Pinocchio toward Stromboli's marionette theater by promising him a career as an "actor" -- and that led to the idea of the Fox himself as a faded actor -- which seemed to offer even more and richer story possibilities. And yes, the subtle suggestion of John Barrymore, especially at the stage where Barrymore's career stood at that time, was intentional. I believe all of this development took place independently of Catlett's casting, but of course his wonderful performance fit beautifully into place with that conception of the character. He really made the most of it.

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

Postby Lzcutter » November 21st, 2015, 10:02 pm

JB,

You mentioned earlier that you are working on a book about actress Blanche Sweet. Can you talk about how you became interested in her and her career?
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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » November 21st, 2015, 11:03 pm

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J.B., I adored the Blue Fairy. Can you tell us about her character's conception, and how the animators created such a lovely image? And any special stories concerning her episodes?
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Evelyn Venable voiced the Blue Fairy, and was a happily married mother of two, eventually earning a master's degree in Classics at UCLA where she taught and organized dramatic productions of Greek dramas in the Classics department.

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Venable with Shirley Temple in The LIttle Colonel...
Can't you relate any of Evelyn Venable's experiences while involved in the filming of Pinnochio?
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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 12:33 am

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:Can't you relate any of Evelyn Venable's experiences while involved in the filming of Pinnochio?


The Blue Fairy's live-action model was Marjorie Belcher (later known as Marge Champion), who had also modeled for Snow White. (And her principal animator was Jack Campbell, who had been part of the team working on both Snow White and the Prince in the earlier film.)

As for Evelyn Venable, there don't seem to be any anecdotes about her recording of the Blue Fairy's voice. The studio had tested other actresses, but decided that her voice was perfect for the character, and after that her work was pretty straightforward. There is a note from a sweatbox session after she had first started recording the dialogue, saying that some viewers had misgivings about her "husky" voice, but that "Walt felt that it was good for a motherly character, such as she is intended to be." That's the closest thing I've got to an anecdote about her.

I can tell you, though, that in the course of my research I got interested in Evelyn Venable and started looking into her film career before Pinocchio. (I always say that writing a book is mainly a great excuse to do the research!) One of her earlier films, a relatively obscure picture called Vagabond Lady, especially intrigued me, and I took the opportunity to write about it on my website. I hope you won't mind if I post the link here:

http://www.jbkaufman.com/movie-of-the-m ... -lady-1935

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

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 12:51 am

Lzcutter wrote:You mentioned earlier that you are working on a book about actress Blanche Sweet. Can you talk about how you became interested in her and her career?


Thanks, Lynn -- and yes, of course! Years ago, and I mean decades ago, when I was first getting serious about pursuing film history, I had an idea of doing something on the career of Lillian Gish. Someone pointed out that several people, including the lady herself, had already written books about Lillian Gish; but there was another major Griffith actress, alive and well in New York, who wasn't getting any attention at all. Why didn't I devote that energy to Blanche Sweet instead?

I don't change my plans easily, but the more I thought about what he'd said, the more I got intrigued with Blanche and her career. One thing that's especially interesting about Blanche is that she was, indeed, one of the top actresses in Griffith's company at Biograph, so she's one of the first names encountered by a newcomer just discovering silent film. But then she left Griffith in 1914, just as he was preparing The Birth of a Nation, and went out on her own -- and continued an active and successful film career for the next twenty years, and that part of her career is practically unknown today. It struck me that she was one of the best-known, least-known silent stars. And that was so intriguing that I couldn't abandon it.

So I decided that was good advice after all, and started getting serious about Blanche Sweet. Thanks to a very kind assist from Kevin Brownlow, I had the opportunity to go to New York in the summer of 1984 and meet Blanche in person. I did a long interview with her then; and continued to do additional interviews, both in person and by phone, for the next two years, until her death in 1986. After that I was hooked! I've done a good deal of the archival research since then, off and on, but there's still plenty of work to do -- Blanche was such an independent spirit that she wound up working for half the companies in the business. But by now, I think I'm past the point of no return.

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

Postby Professional Tourist » November 22nd, 2015, 4:44 am

Mr. Kaufman, as an admirer of South America, geographically and culturally, I find myself most interested in your "South of the Border" book. Somewhat familiar with other US artists' participation in the Good Neighbor Policy of the 1940s, such as Orson Welles' film-making expedition to Brazil and his radio series back home "Hello Americans," I was eager to find out about Disney's contribution.

So I've done some online research tonight and learned a bit about Walt and "El Grupo's" two-month adventure south of the equator.

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Wow, they had a great time! They soaked up plenty of local color and produced some wonderful animated shorts and features. I watched Saludos, Amigos tonight and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, including the live-action sequences that El Grupo shot on location. This is South America fifty years before I knew it, but is much the same especially in the remote areas. [Though I must admit, unlike Donald Duck in a reed boat, I explored Lake Titicaca aboard a hydrofoil. :wink: ]

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I'm planning to seek out the documentary produced a few years back by one of the animators' sons, but wanted to ask you if you had any anecdotes or tidbits about the trip or its output, from your own research, that you could share with us here. Thank you.

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

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » November 22nd, 2015, 9:04 am

Thanks so much, J.B.! Blanche Sweet seems like such a fascinating subject, too! Can't wait to hear more about the development of her biography.
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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 11:57 am

Professional Tourist wrote:I'm planning to seek out the documentary produced a few years back by one of the animators' sons, but wanted to ask you if you had any anecdotes or tidbits about the trip or its output, from your own research, that you could share with us here. Thank you.


Thank you, Professional Tourist. Actually, writing the Latin American book was a HUGE learning curve for me -- there are so many fascinating things to know about that subject. I wound up writing a whole chapter about El Grupo's 1941 South American trip, filled with anecdotes and tidbits! So it's hard to know where to start. Basically, the group concentrated most of its time in Brazil, then in Argentina, then in Chile, then broke up into smaller splinter groups that individually worked their way back north. (So, exactly the opposite of the continuity in Saludos Amigos!) The trip had been carefully coordinated by the government (Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) and RKO (Disney's distributor), very much for the purposes of goodwill and public relations as well as picture research. So Walt and company were strategically on hand for local openings of Fantasia, among other things. Wherever they went, they were mobbed by appreciative fans and were a smash success from a goodwill standpoint. (Again, that sounds like PR, but I went through a ton of trade-press coverage and internal communication from the Coordinator's office, and there's no doubt -- Walt was a rock star in South America.) At the Buenos Aires opening of Fantasia Larry Lansburgh, one of the tour group, tried to film Walt and the others arriving at the theater, but they were so packed in and overwhelmed by the crowd that he had to stand on the hood of a nearby parked car to get anything.

As for picture research, the team had thoroughly researched all the major South American republics before embarking, so they were well prepared -- but they were also open to new discoveries. In Brazil they made a point of meeting the great classical composer Villa-Lobos, because there had initially been some thought of producing a Fantasia-style Brazilian short -- but on arrival they were captivated by the popularity of the samba and in particular the music of Ary Barroso. Ultimately they contracted for the rights to three of Barroso's compositions, and as you've seen, their Brazilian pictures are suffused with his irresistible music. You may also have seen that Mary Blair, who has become something of a cult figure today, was one of the artists in the group and had her real artistic breakthrough in South America. She had already established herself as a skilled painter, but everyone was impressed with the way she suddenly found her unique artistic voice on that trip.

One of the things I'd never heard of before starting my research: while Walt and his party were on their way back to the U.S., arrangements were made for him to stop in Panama and meet the president of the country -- as he had been meeting dignitaries and officials in all the other countries. What no one anticipated was that the president, a Nazi sympathizer (remember, this was October 1941), would be deposed in a coup one week before El Grupo's arrival! By the time Walt reached Panama he was being introduced to a new president (one friendly to the Allies), the old president was in jail, and El Grupo, on their special train to the capital city, were being warned to watch out for gunfire!

Here's one I didn't have room for in the book: when the group arrived at one of the remote Argentine locations, the local government, anxious to welcome their distinguished visitor, had a brass band present for the occasion. As the Disney artists got off the plane, they were greeted with a spirited rendition of "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man"! Of course it was an innocent mistake and no one took offense or anything, but evidently it was pretty funny.

I'd better stop there for now, but that's still less than the tip of the iceberg. I think, when you see Walt & El Grupo, you'll really enjoy it. Ted Thomas and his wife, Kuniko Okubo, are a great filmmaking team and they did a wonderful job with that documentary. (Their film and my book were produced as sort of parallel projects.) I'm also glad to hear you enjoyed Saludos Amigos; it's a personal favorite of mine. It's shorter and less spectacular than The Three Caballeros and therefore not as famous, but in some ways I think it's a more satisfying little film. Among other things, it was produced within a few months of El Grupo's return to the studio. So the exhilaration of their South American visit was still fresh, and I think it's practically palpable as you watch the film.

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

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 12:09 pm

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:Thanks so much, J.B.! Blanche Sweet seems like such a fascinating subject, too! Can't wait to hear more about the development of her biography.


Thank you, Christy -- and stand by! Yes, Blanche was a pretty wonderful lady and I only hope I can do her justice. She was both a popular movie star and a very good actress -- and, as we know, that's not always the same thing. One of the things that I find especially interesting about her is her independent attitude, and what often seemed to be an indifference to movie stardom. She frequently pursued projects, and took roles, that weren't necessarily good for her career, just because she liked a novel or play or saw a potentially interesting acting challenge. After the talkie revolution, Hollywood didn't treat her very well -- she could have had a much longer career in sound films and it would have been fascinating to see -- but while the silents lasted, she had a great run and covered a wonderfully varied range of film roles. And, of course, after leaving the movies she did extend her career for decades in theatre, radio, and television.

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

Postby moira finnie » November 22nd, 2015, 1:02 pm

Thanks for returning today, J.B.

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?

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?

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?

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?

Thanks for your insights.
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Re: JB Kaufman Visits the SSO on 11/21 & 11/22

Postby Professional Tourist » November 22nd, 2015, 1:17 pm

JB Kaufman wrote:I'm also glad to hear you enjoyed Saludos Amigos; it's a personal favorite of mine. It's shorter and less spectacular than The Three Caballeros and therefore not as famous, but in some ways I think it's a more satisfying little film. Among other things, it was produced within a few months of El Grupo's return to the studio. So the exhilaration of their South American visit was still fresh, and I think it's practically palpable as you watch the film.

Thank you, Mr. Kaufman. :) I agree with you regarding the freshness of their visit as manifested in Saludos Amigos. One such moment that struck me was when Donald Duck and Jose Carioca are first acquainted. Donald stretches out his arm to shakes hands, but Jose, please as punch to meet the legendary Donald, will have nothing less than a long embrace -- which takes aback the tourist from the north. :D

This put me in mind of my first experience attending a church service in Buenos Aires. During the 'sign of peace' a man walked over and leaned in to hug me; automatically I leaned backward and put out my arm to shake hands, which he did a bit reluctantly. Then the women came over, and would accept only hugs and kisses -- even though I was obviously coming down with a terrible headcold. In the spirit of peace I had to let them. :P As a north american who had visited europe before, I was accustomed while abroad to seeing acquaintances kiss and hug upon saying hello and good bye, but south americans -- even heads of state -- will embrace complete strangers!

Anyway, I'm sure you enjoyed your research into El Grupo's journey, and if you haven't yet had opportunity to visit the south yourself, I hope you'll get there one day. As much natural beauty as we have here in the north, the south in its way can be even more spectacular as it is less disturbed by man. Disney's production of animations like Saludos Amigos was an absorbing and entertaining way to encourage young people to think globally and form interest in and respect for other cultures. In my opinion, we need more of this today. In the 1980s Barry Levinson produced a live action television series based on world folktales, called Storybook International, which was filmed on location all over the world, using local actors. I think it was terrific, and is still available today, but sadly mostly forgotten.

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Now that might make a subject for a new book! :wink: :wink:

As I continue to explore Disney's participation in the Good Neighbor Policy, I hope to have opportunity to read your book, Mr. Kaufman. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention. 8)

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

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » November 22nd, 2015, 3:32 pm

Thanks, again, J.B. A few years ago, I took a trip to Disneyland with one of my goddaughters and her young children, and we enjoyed the Pinnochio-themed ride. I was struck by how evocative of the film the experience was, and how faithful the renderings of all the characters were. Any comments concerning the Disneland theme park and its connections with Pinnochio?

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

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 3:41 pm

Thank you, Professional Tourist, for your followup thoughts.

Professional Tourist wrote:Donald stretches out his arm to shakes hands, but Jose, please as punch to meet the legendary Donald, will have nothing less than a long embrace -- which takes aback the tourist from the north.


The scene you cite was animated by the great Bill Tytla, who put a lot of thought and concentration into every scene he animated. He was from New York and later told fellow animator Marc Davis that he was thinking of seeing Latin or Italian friends in New York greet each other on the street with "a lot of back-patting and slapping." Wilfred Jackson, who directed the sequence, recalled that Tytla acted the scene out with him when Jackson handed it out. Jackson later told animation historian Michael Barrier: "It was a workout to hand a scene out to Bill."

Yes, a greater understanding of and respect for other cultures would be a very healthy thing in the world right now! It was certainly the goal of the Good Neighbor program in the 1940s. Subsequent postwar events have brought many of us to view the Good Neighbor program in a cynical light -- i.e. the government was only interested in South America as long as it served our own purposes -- but I think Nelson Rockefeller, who started the initiative, was absolutely sincere in his interest in Latin American cultures and his wish to promote better relations. And the Disney studio certainly entered into the spirit of the program with great enthusiasm.

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

Postby JB Kaufman » November 22nd, 2015, 3:50 pm

Thank you, Christy, and at the risk of repeating myself, it's absolutely my pleasure to be with you folks this weekend. People have been asking some really good and thoughtful questions.

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:Any comments concerning the Disneland theme park and its connections with Pinnochio?


I have to confess that my knowledge of Disney history is mostly focused on the great films of the 1940s and earlier -- I like the parks, but I can't claim to know much about them. I can tell you, though, that fidelity to the films -- in both theme and design -- is very much on the minds of the folks who design those attractions. They don't do anything by accident; everything is carefully analyzed and reworked until they're satisfied with it. I had the same thought on my first visit to Disneyland: the castle at the facade of the Snow White ride isn't just a generic fairytale castle; it's faithful to the design of the specific castle in that film.


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