Legacy Content

Frank Thomas (1912 - 2004)
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by Rhett Wickham (archives)
September 10, 2004
Rhett remembers one of the greats - animator Frank Thomas.

It will be difficult to imagine the world without Frank Thomas. Nearly impossible, in fact. The news is barely a day old and still the sting is fresh and the sadness almost overwhelming for the countless number of people who loved him. I believe, once we’ve mourned his death, that in good time we will come to realize that Frank Thomas managed an astounding 92 years by actually having shed his mortal coil more than seventy years ago. While Heaven wasn’t looking, by way of a sort of tortured mastery and some private relish for reinventing himself entirely from graphite and paper, Frank Thomas traded his human form for a chance to live inside of a parade of iconic characters where he stayed for more than half his life, and where he will surely live forever.

As much as I’d like to convince everyone everywhere that heaven is on earth so long as you’re watching a Frank Thomas performance, such platitudes are almost too easy. It’s clear that Frank Thomas was an authentic American genius who made us cry and laugh and cheer and shudder in the dark of theatres and the comfort of our family rooms, longing for more of the heroes we loved and the villains we loved to hate. That genius will survive so long as a record of his performances is kept safe and made available to the countless audiences yet to meet him in his many guises. It seems a fairly safe bet that there will be dozens of generations who will yet be allowed to discover and fall in love with Frank Thomas long after the paper on which he rendered has turned to powder and the original film become brittle and outdated in some future, post-digital century. By carefully educating future generations, and working with love and honor to see that his great film performances are kept in-tact and not plundered and over-franchised to their last gasping breath, the legacy of this actor/artist who ranks with Chaplin and Barrymore and Olivier is unlikely to be forgotten - no matter what becomes of the traditions he pioneered with the use of a mere pencil. Talent this great not only helped to build the palace standing on the corner of Buena Vista and Riverside, it stands and excellent chance of being remembered long after the latter day kings of Disney have abdicated or been overthrown.

Founding artistic director of The American Conservatory Theatre, the late William Ball, wrote of actors that they are “always in a state of becoming,? that is never really settled and happy until they have fully assumed the identity of a character, living within her or his skin and breathing and walking and talking and feeling and reacting as someone other than themselves. Ball even refers to them as great blank sheets of paper waiting to be written upon. No more compelling an argument in support of such a theory ever graced the American cinema than Frank Thomas.

To look at Thomas’s work in its purest form – his rough pencil animation – is to see raw and knotted tangles of thought under which are buried the purest intent, the most thoughtful and specific actions, and some of the most original and memorable performances in the history of western drama. His cold, calculated and truly wicked Lady Tremain is a masterpiece of economy. Contrasted with the dithering, frantic, emotionally overcome Fauna – a fairy so good and so loving that she can barely contain herself. Not since Elizabethan drama has a male actor so fully inhabited female characters – not merely ingénues, but truly complicated women – with such conviction and satisfaction. Similarly, his foppish Captain Hook is performed with a delicious range of dandy disdain and ruthless fury. And when it comes to matters of the heart, are there any more heartbreaking examples of the pleasures and pitfalls of romance as Tramp pushing his meatball to his Lady fair, or the befuddled Girl Squirrel who can never have the fuzzy object of her affection once he’s returned to his human form as Wart?

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