Copyright (c) Mark Mayerson
From Apatoons #75
Jack Hannah's recent death reminded me of something I've been meaning to do for some time. When I was in college back in the '70's, I was heavily influenced by a book called The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris. Sarris was the leading exponent of auteurism in North America, adapting the point of view put forward by Francois Truffaut when he was a writer for the French magazine Cahier du Cinema. Auteurism had to do with recognizing the styles of directors and establishing a hierarchy of quality. Sarris's book ranked directors into groups like the Pantheon (Ford, Hawks, Griffith, Chaplin, Keaton, etc.) and The Far Side of Paradise (Capra, and others). I've always meant to do the same thing for animation directors. I tried applying Sarris's categories, but I found them getting in the way. I'm just going to rank directors by levels.
I expect that some of my rankings will be controversial, as will the idea of ranking itself. I'd encourage people to disagree with me, so long as they defend their positions. So without further ado, here's how I seeAmerican theatrical animation.
Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin and John Hubley.
I expect that the first three names above are beyond controversy, so I won't bother to comment. I do think that Frank Tashlin is the single most under-rated director. His posing and camera angles are unique. Chuck Jones has credited Tashlin's Columbia cartoon The Fox and the Grapes with inspiring the Roadrunner series. I think that Jones reliance on poses and his cinematic cutting were also influenced by Tashlin. Tashlin's sense of humor, including satire, is distinctive. While I'm not as familiar as I'd like with Tashlin's live films, I'm impressed with what I've seen. Hubley is the director in the group with the smallest filmography. However, I love his UPA cartoons and am a huge admirer of Moonbird.
Friz Freleng Jack Hannah Jack Kinney, Bob Cannon, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
These directors are certainly solid craftsmen who have made many fine cartoons. I think that what separates them from the above group is their personalities. They don't have a point of view that's individual enough to take them beyond the level of entertainers.
Of this group, I have the highest opinion of Freleng for his longevity and range. Kinney and Hannah come next. Both were strongly tied to single characters, but when they escaped they turned out some very interesting work, leading me to believe that they were not used to their fullest ability by Disney. Kinney did cartoons like Hockey Homicide and Duck Pimples that hint at great things. He got a shot at segments in features of the '40's like After You've Gone and Bumble Boogie which have a vitality that's rarely been matched. Hannah never got that feature shot, but did get away from the duck once in a while in cartoons like Double Dribble and he developed strong supporting characters for the duck like Chip and Dale and Humphrey Bear.
Bob Cannon, like Tashlin, is another under rated director. Slapstick was not his strong point but he did have a way with whimsey and with children. Christopher Crumpet, Gerald McBoing Boing, Ballet Oop, Willie the Kid, and Georgie and the Dragon are all wonderful cartoons. It's too bad that Cannon's days as a director were fairly short, but I don't think there was a place for him outside of UPA. Before directing, his animation for Chuck Jones and Tex Avery was great stuff, too.
Hanna and Barbera were good at formula, but most of their ideas came from elsewhere. My favorite cartoons of theirs are the ones that break the pattern. Mouse in Manhattan, while a rip-off of The Country Cousin, shows they were capable of being lyrical. Kitty Foiled was one of the most savage Tom and Jerry's. Heavenly Puss expresses panic and desperation better than anything else they ever did. However, Tom and Jerry as a series was far from original. The maid was a steal from the Disney short Three Orphan Kittens. The cat and mouse were a steal from The Country Cousin. When Hanna-Barbera got to TV, they used Daws Butler after Tex Avery had developed the characteristics to go with the Huck Hound voice. What is Yogi Bear but a remake of Jack Hannah's Humphrey cartoons, mixed with a stolen Art Carney voice? The Flinstones are a steal of The Honeymooners, and H-B appropriated the voices of Bert Lahr and other vaudevillians for their early TV shorts.
Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy, Bob McKimson, Art Davis, Charles Nichols, Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising, Pete Burness, Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton.
The directors in this group lack consistancy in their output. They were capable of turning out a good cartoon, but not with the consistency of the directors in level 2.
Shamus Culhane needs to be looked at more closely. His work at Lantz is ambitious and in my opinion he's the second best director that Lantz had after Avery. I wish that I could see the '60's Paramount cartoons that he was involved in. There is no question that Culhane has a strong intelligence that he applied to making cartoons. Unfortunately, his list of credits is relatively short and he never sat still long enough to build up any momentum. He may also have been handicapped at Lantz by low budgets and Ben Hardaway's stories. It's clear that Culhane and Hardaway were not a natural match in their tastes.
Dick Lundy never had a strong enough comedy sense for me. When he had good animators he turned out exceedingly slick cartoons, but his stories were very standard in their humor. Bob McKimson is a study of deterioration in my opinion. His early cartoons are solid, but he seemed to lose his enthusiasm as he went along. As Greg Duffell pointed out to me a long time ago, after the temporary 3D-related shut down at Warners, Jones and Freleng put their units back together. McKimson did not. He was stuck with a completely new crew and several of them animating for the first time. This certainly didn't help him deal with the shrinking budgets of the '50's.
Art Davis is something of a mystery to me. I'm not clear if I like his cartoons because of his direction, the scripts by Bill Scott and Lloyd Turner or the animation by Emery Hawkins. I like the cartoons too much to rank Davis any lower, but I don't know enough about Davis's own style to rate him any higher.
Charles Nichols was mainly a Pluto director. I respect these cartoons for their pantomime more than I enjoy them. However, Nichols did make Plutopia, the weirdest Pluto short ever and one of the most sexually off the wall shorts in history. There are other Pluto's like The Wonder Dog, that I like a lot.
Pete Burness is the UPA version of Freleng, the bread and butter director. He made a few choice Magoo's, but none of them could hold a candle to Hubleys.
Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, separately and together, made some great cartoons but they emulated Disney without ever really understanding him. Still, with cartoons like The Field Mouse, Bottles, Tom Turk and His Harmonica Humdingers and Romeo in Rhythm, I can't put them any lower.
Hardaway and Dalton probably have the fewest number of good cartoons in this group. My favorites are Katnip Kollege and Hobo Gadget Band. Maybe Hardaway and Dalton really belong in the next level.
Alex Lovy, Norm McCabe, Seymour Kneitel, Izzy Sparber, Bill Tytla, Eddie Donnelly, Mannie Davis, Connie Rasinski, Burt Gillett.
I think of these directors as traffic cops. If they made a good cartoons, it was a once in a blue moon occurrence. Can anybody really tell the difference between Terry directors? Or between Kneitel and Sparber at Famous? Tytla's cartoons may have been a notch or two higher than Kneitel and Sparber, but they really don't stand out from the run of the mill Famous product. When I see Alex Lovy or Norm McCabe's name on a cartoon, I don't look forward to what follows. Burt Gillett could make a good cartoon with the Disney organization to back him up, but was unable to do anything at Van Beuren or Lantz. Jack King is another one who could occasionally do justice to Disney's resources, but didn't bring too much himself to the table.
I personally can't think of a worse theatrical director. The Level 4 guys could make cartoons that were inoffensive or mildly amusing. Paul Smith was not capable of that. The drawing in Smith's cartoons was plain ugly.
Subjects for Further Research
Sid Marcus, Don Patterson, Gil Turner, Bob Wickersham, Howard Swift, Harrison and Gould.
I don't know enough about the directors above to assess them. I know that Leonard Maltin has good things to say about Marcus and Patterson at Lantz, but I'm not familiar enough with their cartoons to make a judgment.Since Columbia cartoons are one of the biggest holes in my knowledge, Wickersham, Swift, Harrison and Gould are all just names to me.
Gil Turner is a little different. Turner directed two Magoo cartoons.I've seen Gumshoe Magoo (1958) with a French soundtrack. It's a very
vigorously directed cartoon and stood out from the run of Magoos from the same time period. It clearly made enough of an impression on me that I've kept Turner's name in my head for years.
While there are lots of directors I don't know enough about, I'm very frustrated about the two major studios of the 1930's: Disney and Fleischer. At Disney, Disney himself was the main driving force during the period, but I sense that some directors were more reliable than others. Wilfred Jackson and David Hand are at the top of my list. Ben Sharpsteen and Clyde Geronimi are the middle ground and Burt Gillett and Jack King bring up the rear. I admit that Gillett's non-Disney work is coloring my attitude towards him. It may be that Dave Hand's work at GB animation should also lower my opinion of him. Jackson, Geronimi and Sharpsteen never directed anywhere besides Disney, so it is impossible to assess them without Disney's input or resources. Geronimi's cartoons seem pretty tame, but what can you expect from Pluto cartoons? On the other hand, he also directed Education for Death and Chicken Little and had his name on several great features.
The situation at Fleischer is a little different. So far as I know, Dave Fleischer directed the soundtracks. The head animators took care of the visuals, but did they have any input into story? I have a preference for the Popeye cartoons from the Willard Bowsky - Orestes Calpini unit, but who knows if the stories or soundtracks reflect them in any way?
That's my summary of cartoon directors. What do you think?