An Interview with John CaneMaker and a look at Walt Disney's Nine Old Men
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That one flaw aside, it is an exceptional book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough for both its historical value and the author's expert writing on nine fascinating subjects. Without this and Canemaker's other efforts such as Before the Magic Begins and Paper Dreams, most serious scholarship on this medium would be sequestered away in the stacks of university libraries. Fortunately, Canemaker managed to get his research published and made it accessible through his archive at NYU. "I love research," says Canemaker, "and Im privileged to be a conduit for passing on these histories to people. I have my own archive here at NYU that anyone can access. I encourage folks to visit it, and theres information on it online at www.johncanemaker.com. Its housed in the Bobst Library of New York University. Its all there. All my notes, all the tapes and transcripts from all of these books." Further proof that Canemaker is a treasure.
As we wrap up our visit, the sun is surrendering its amber to the softer incandescence of a single desk lamp and I ask that author what he has not yet written that he would like to write. He laughs. "Oh it takes so long to write these, but I'd love to write a real biography of Vladimir Tytla. I just took over three huge binders from an article I wrote on Bill Tytla," referring to material he took over to add to the archive. "I have the privilege of knowing his widow and talking to her at length. And Id love to write a double biography of John and Faith Hubley, the husband and wife animating team. Do you know them? I love their film Tender Games." John Hubley was a former Disney artist who began work on Snow White and left after the 1941 studio strike. Together, Hubley and his wife Faith formed their own studio where they made 21 films together, three of which (out of seven so nominated) won Academy Awards. Faith Hubley died in December of 2001, at the age of 77, nearly twenty-five years after her husband, John. In the twenty-plus years between their reunion she managed to make an animated film every year!
"I was very luck to have spent a lot of time with Faith Hubley. Thankfully, I have a lot of transcripts from interviews with her. We'd visit and after a while, I'd say 'let's have our little talk' and I'd take out my tape recorder and she was an endless fount of information. She brought out a diary she had kept and shared such wonderful details with me." His eyes wander for a moment to a quiet corner of the office. Something almost tangible seems to float gently over the room. A few seconds later he comes back from this remembrance. "Id also like to write a biography of George Dunning, and Norman McLaren" he says. "There are so many."
I ask him about the book he is writing on Mary Blair, and what he's discovering. "There's an emotional quality to her work. She puts a lot of herself into each work. It's very difficult to separate the work from the person. I'm discovering that there were great conflicts in her life, some of which I touch on in 'Before the Magic Beings.' There was such a push and pull in her life with Lee (Blair.) And you know, many of the animators found her work pretty but thought it wasn't something that could be animated. There was a lot of envy about how much she was favored by Walt. But Walt saw something in her that he liked, and he championed her. I think he saw the joy." Canemaker almost apologizes when he says "It won't be very big, this book. Only about 128 pages or so." That will be plenty so long as the author delivers the same loving and objective work as he typically has in the past. No doubt, it will be a treasure and I personally can hardly wait.
On the flight back to Los Angeles I sit down for a fifth consecutive reading of Walt Disney's Nine Old Men, and I consider for myself the influence of the Nine Old Men's work in the films produced since their departure (Eric Larson was the last to retire, in February of 1986.) Woolie Reitherman has a very capable challenger in the guise of John Pomeroy, whose swashbuckling, heroic and physically powerful performances one could argue have gone beyond where Rietherman himself was at the same age. So Ruben Aquino's facility and his steady maturation as an actor have seen him do brilliant work with characters under his direction -Ursula, Jake, Powhattan, and Li Shang. He showed similar facility with characters not under his supervision. Aquino is credited incidentally for "additional animation" on the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but in fact he had responsibility for two very powerful moments for Frollo, both in the film's third act. This makes him heir apparent for the broad range of assignments requiring the kind of solid draftsmanship and earnest performances previously delivered by John Lounsbery, and in Walt Disney's Nine Old Men we learn how Lounsbery had an amazing facility for being able to follow just about anyone's style. I'd dare say Aquino has surpassed him.
Almost from the start both Nick Ranieri and Ellen Woodbury, along with the sorely missed Eric Goldberg have displayed superb comedic timing and a rare gift for the most irreverent and absurd characters that reflect the influence of Ward Kimball. Both Glen Keane and Andreas Dejas have proven themselves masters of the kind of emotional complexity and sincerity ascribed to Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, and so Keane and animator Marc Henn have shared some very compelling scenes similar to the work Johnston and Thomas did on The Jungle Book. No doubt Marc Davis was smiling his knowing smile when Dale Baer sat down to bring Yzma to life in The Emperor's New Groove and Alex Kuperershmidt did the same for the pack of dysfunctional sycophant hyenas in The Lion King. For my money, it is the less publicized Ken Duncan (Thomas in Pocahontas, Meg in Hercules and Jane in Tarzan) and Ron Husband (Djali in Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Elk in Firebird Suite/Fantasia 2000 and Dr. Sweet in Atlantis) who have accomplished such extraordinary graphic facility and beauty in their work that even Milt Kahl couldn't find fault. Clearly, it is not difficult to find proof that the Nine Old Men's is a lasting legacy that is affecting audiences everywhere.
But it is Glen Keane and the recently (and abruptly) retired Dave Pruiksma that elected the role of mentor and coach that made Eric Larson the father of the reigning generation of Disney animators. And in Walt Disney's Nine Old Men, it is Larson's story that rises like cream to the top. The other eight careers seem more substantial at first glance, and surely Kahl's stormy presence dominates the book. However, though Larson's chapter barely fills 28 pages, long after you finish the book his story haunts you. He is ever present in his silent observation and loyalty to Walt's vision. His place in the pack seems to be the moderator and peacemaker who had his eye most squarely on the task at hand, and wisely, on its future beyond himself and his colleagues. He is still spoken of with a sort of misty-eyed, sentimental reverence by the current generation who worked under his tutelage. That is true vision, as both an artist and a man. So it is that Keane's accomplishments in building Disney's recently dismantled Paris studio, and Pruiksma's repeated but ultimately failed attempts to convince management to strengthen artist development and the internal mentoring process must be mourned for having not taken hold. It makes it even sadder that the direct impact of the founding Nine is at risk of being diluted as a result. The previously carefully built repertory company that grew to reach well beyond the gates of Burbank now risks being further dismantled and sent to the four corners of Southern California. I have to believe that keeping the remaining talent together and mentoring a younger generation is something of value and importance recognized by the present management of the company. Surely, they are not blinded by a belief that it can all be done more cheaply by the television animation unit, and with equally satisfying box-office results. Somebody tell me I am not just a hopeful fool.