An Interview with John CaneMaker and a look at Walt Disney's Nine Old Men
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The book is never sensational in its approach. This is not a "You'll Never In-Between In This Town Again." But the candor the author has mined from interviews, including the surviving three (or four, as Davis was still alive and accessible to the author during the research for the book) is sometimes very surprising. Often at the center of much of the internal power-struggles was Milt Kahl, of whom the opinions range from praise:
"I haven't seen a bad drawing of Milt's ever," says (Andreas) Dejas. "Every pose holds up as a still, as a design, the way it sits on the paper, the way it's composed, the way it's drawn."
Says Frank Thomas, "I was very appreciative that his drawings would make my scenes work so much better."
To accounts of a terrible shift in loyalties.
Milt Kahl was no match for the nimble, determined duo of Thomas and Johnston, who formed a veritable flying wedge of purpose. While they "maneuvered" and fought for juicy characters and sequences, Kahl sat in his Ivory Tower office and took on whatever he was given. He may have bellowed loudly about animating difficult-to-draw princes and princesses, but his massive ego blindly welcomed the challenge of drawing what others could not. "Milt could have put his foot down, but he didn't realize what was happening," said Marc Davis. When he finally did - and in the 1970's, there were open confrontations about the usefulness of Kahl's drawings and his animation - an acrimonious rift developed between Kahl and the Thomas-Johnson duo that never healed. "I don't think it was because I was better at doing that sort of thing [drawing human characters], " said Kahl, "I think it was because I was outmaneuvered." Kahl became "rather bitter" about "some of the people who I thought considered that we were working together and I find we really weren't."
The chapter on Milt Kahl sits squarely in the middle, the fifth of the Nine in his order of arrival at the studio, so it makes clear that it was not by chance that his arrival heralded a visible (and sometimes palpable) shift in the look of the Disney features. His influence on the design of the character of Pinocchio, for instance, marks the start of his rise to power and not coincidentally the decline of the great Fred Moore.
Chapters on Frank Thomas and Ollie Jonhston open up fascinating veins of information and opinion of their work that succeeds in making them true individual personalities, not just the magical single entity of "Frank'n'Ollie." That is one of the book's most important accomplishments. Though Canemaker's personal friendship with these two men has undoubtedly influenced him, he does not shy from making important critical observations. What we might be losing in objectivity, were the author not so close to his subjects, we gain from Canemaker's seat of privilege at this table. That privilege pays off in the other chapters, as Thomas and Johnston are the most frequently sited sources in the book. Canemaker has done his level best to balance their criticism of those who are not around to defend themselves. So, in turn, it can't be ignored that criticism from the living of Frank and Ollie - at least as they've become mythologized - would be like criticizing Santa Clause. One particularly ironic comment comes from master animator and director Richard Williams, who says of Thomas:
"Frank Thomas is as cuddly and innocent as a roll of barbed wire."
A comment that Canemaker notes Thomas always enjoyed. Later in the chapter, Canemaker offers important insights on Thomas:
Because Thomas played the game so well, some coworkers saw him as "a Cardinal Richelieu personality," referring to the seventeenth-century French statesman known for his iron will, cunning, and ambition. "He would work behind the wings," says John Pomeroy. "If someone was displeasing him he could work to get them demoted or fired or dismissed from the production or moved to another animator. He never would come right out and confront." After Walt's death, however, during the making of The Aristocats, Thomas did confront another animator and apparently pulled rank. Eric Cleworth, a character animator from Peter Pan on, animated two comic dogs and a villainous butler in a slapstick chase in the first half of Aristocats; the sequence was successful and a follow-up was requested from the front office. "So," says Thomas, "we wrote a sequence in for the dogs to come back and I said, 'Hmmmm. Incidentally, that's the kind of stuff I like to do.' So I kept trying to make a deal with Eric, but wanted to do them because he enjoyed doing them the first time around. 'Halvers? You take half and I take half? Huh?' Well, his spirit finally broke and I got all of it and then he left the studio. I don't know if that had anything to do with it or not," says Thomas disingenuously.
If you are at all like me, that passage will make you run to pull your copy of The Aristocats off the shelf and shuttle between the two Napoleon & Bonaparte sequences.