More on Michael Sporn

Michael Sporn’s celebration at the Academy’s Lighthouse International screening room was last night. The large gathering of friends and admirers should have been for a screening of Poe with Michael in attendance, but as the adage goes, life isn’t fair.

It was a lovely ceremony, an appropriate mix of clips of Michael and his films (Dr. Desoto, my personal favorite, was screened in its entirety) and remembrances from Michael’s widow Heidi Stallings, his brother Jerry Rosco, and his longtime friends John Canemaker, Candy Kugel, and Ray Kosarin. Mark Mayerson, who regrettably couldn’t be there, also contributed a speech.

I didn’t see many people I know, other than John Canemaker, Howard Beckerman, Michael Barrier, J.J. Sedelmaier, and Greg Ford. But I certainly didn’t feel out of place, as Heidi enthusiastically greeted me, knowing exactly who I was. She assured me she’s keeping Michael’s Splog alive and even asked if I’d help contribute posts to it. I’d love to help in any way, although it’s odd to think of that site written by anyone other than him. Even when he was highlighting the work of other people, the Splog, like his films, are all Michael.

I had a quick drink with Mike B. and his wife Phyllis a few days before the celebration, where he reminisced about the interviews he conducted with Michael present, Otto Messmer, Johnny Gent, and Eyvind Earle among them. He also mentioned how it seems impossible to imagine Poe being finished by someone else, unlike notorious commercial projects that were overtaken after the irresponsible directors squandered millions because they don’t know how to finish a picture.

The night’s program, though, says that Poe is “currently in production.” However inconceivable it is to imagine a Michael film without Michael, the outpouring of genuine admiration last night assures a completed Poe would simply be an act of love. Probably an act of inherited stubbornness too, as John Canemaker made clear was one of Michael’s endearing qualities, when Michael struggled for years financially. I doubt Michael would want to let something like his death get in the way of finishing a film, or even continuing his Splog. Certainly anything that keeps Michael Sporn’s name and memory alive is to be desired.

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BookMouse-160Oh, yeah, hey.

I’d been meaning for some time to get around to reviewing Jim Korkis’s The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, but if you’re like me, you’ve probably already gotten it. As is always the case with Jim’s books, it’s yet another fantastic resource for Disney history that makes even the most mundane trivia readable and entertaining. (My only caveat is that Jim didn’t go into detail about the other reason Riley Thomson’s unit was called the “Drunk Mickey Unit”; namely that its star players Fred Moore, Walt Kelly, and Ken Muse were all famous for their drinking.)

It’s one of several Korkis books published by Bob McLain’s Theme Park Press, a small-time player specializing in Disney history. You won’t find these lushly illustrated like those of Chronicle or Disney Publishing, but I think you’ll overcome the lack of pretty pictures once you dig into the books. McLain is also printing new installments of Didier Ghez’s important series Walt’s People. If you haven’t read the earliest volumes (shame on you), you can pick them up from Theme Park, as it’s reprinting the entirety of the series.

lifeMouseHouse-260I personally was anticipating Ghez’s assemblage of Homer Brightman’s memoir Life in the Mouse House: Memoir of a Disney Story Artist, and can heartily recommend a purchase of this breezy read. Brightman was a storyman at Disney’s from 1935 to 1950, where his most memorable creation was Gus-Gus the mouse in Cinderella, then a mainstay of the Walter Lantz studio.

Brightman’s name doesn’t exactly evoke most fans and historians’ interest for good reason: most of the cartoons he wrote stink. It’s difficult to discern his involvement in the Disney films given the highly collaborative nature of that studio’s storytelling (as Brightman reveals in keen detail), but it’s probably fair to assume he came up with a fair share of funny moments. While his gag sense was far better than the corn peddled by Ben Hardaway in the ’40s, the animation in the Lantz cartoons got too stiff to make much of a difference when Brightman was a writer there in the ’50s and ’60s.

Still, any firsthand memories of the medium’s Golden Age are to be highly cherished, and Brightman’s accounting (while neither as insightful as Shamus Culhane’s or acidic as Jack Kinney’s) is engaging enough that you’ll probably plow through this 100-pager in one evening. I grew a little annoyed with Brightman’s inflated self-importance, but that’s to be expected in a memoir (as if Carl Barks was as inept a storyteller as Brightman made him out to be). Brightman used pseudonyms for all of his coworkers and they are left intact as he wanted. They get in the way, but thankfully Ghez has included a key to who’s who.

Walt Disney was one of those mercurial personalities you couldn’t help observe sharply, and Brightman’s anecdotes ring true and his commentary is generally spot-on. The book has been oversold as “scathing,” as if it’s tantamount to the bile regularly exhibited in strikers’ interviews of the past or the psychopath Walt Peregoy’s taped talks of the present day. It’s revealing that despite receiving ostensibly brutal treatment, Brightman is able to write about Disney with fair admiration. The book abruptly ends when he leaves after Cinderella, with no mention of Walter Lantz (who easily valued Brightman considerably more than Disney did).

I was surprised when I brought up the subject of the filmed Brightman board pitches for “The Woody Woodpecker Show”, Didier said he had never seen them. So here is one embedded below, in which Brightman shows off part of the storyboard for Alex Lovy’s To Catch a Woodpecker. One anecdote not in the book is Walt Disney having a fit of laughter during a story session, and remarking to Brightman, “I’m not laughing at the story. I’m laughing at you.” As was often the case, he was right.

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Michael Sporn

I’m sure everyone has read the terrible news that Michael Sporn passed away this weekend. I can’t articulate how unspeakably sad I’ve been. I never met him, and I was hoping to, now that I’m located in New York City, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

Michael was always a friend and supporter through the blogs, and it was flattering that such an important figure held my writing in high esteem. (I mean, one of his Splog posts started, “You gotta love Thad Komorowski.” How kind can a guy get?) Only in recent years was I able to fully appreciate the man’s wealth of knowledge, and the fact that his love of the art form covered all kinds of animation and he was able to regularly and cogently express why.

We didn’t lose just a great filmmaker, writer, and preservationist – a big part of the art form just died. But, the invaluable animation resource he maintained daily for eight years will at least live on, as will his many wonderful films. Perusing and enjoying either for a few hours would be a great tribute.

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Money’s Yoo-Hoo

You’ll want to direct yourself to Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research site, where Mark Kausler has written an incisive analysis of the new 2D/CGI Mickey Mouse hybrid Get a Horse!, and specifically the comments from the short’s director Lauren MacMullan and head-of-2D-animation Eric Goldberg (and Mark’s response). While it’s orgasmic to see two of the world’s greatest animators arguing publicly about the shape of Mickey Mouse’s nose, the bigger problems have (understandably) fallen wayside.

I saw Get a Horse! earlier this week at the New York City Film Forum, where it was screened as part of its Mickey’s 85th Birthday Party retrospective (curated by Greg Ford). I don’t blame Mark for not retaining much of what he saw after only one viewing, because I couldn’t either. As I wrote in a comment on Mark’s review, the new cartoon is more reminiscent of the gimmicky Disney World rides (Muppet*Vision 3D comes immediately to mind), where you’re half expecting to get sprayed with water at any moment. The hand-drawn animation, which as Mark rightly states, is very good but more in this century’s mindset and literally hard to see (it all takes place on a movie screen-within-a-movie screen). For what it is, Get a Horse! is very enjoyable, but to hold out hope that Get a Horse! will usher in a new wave of traditional shorts is rather baffling.

The fact that the Kausler-Goldberg-MacMullan exchange immediately descended into a tantric discussion of whether Mickey’s face in the new cartoon more resembles that of The Barn Dance or The Mail Pilot underlies the bigger problem. MacMullan and Goldberg were perturbed by Mark’s comments that he viewed just the design as compromised, not the whole thing as compromised. MacMullan’s comment (“I was always being urged to have the plot spool along quicker than was normal for the era, and to have Mickey burst out of the 2d as early as possible, in case we lose the mainstream audience”) reveals the mindset at Disney’s: that because an audience can not be captivated by a traditional Mickey Mouse short on its own, it just had to have the CGI element, or else fear losing “the mainstream audience”.

That corporate theory was demonstrably false at the very screening I attended, where eleven Mickey Mouse cartoons (more than half of them made before 1934) preceded Get a Horse!, and every single one of them got a standing ovation (and often uproarious laughter) from the multigenerational audience. Get a Horse! got a rousing response, too, but I wonder how it will do in front of Frozen, when it doesn’t have the benefit of being in historical context (that is, the audience gets its point some 90 minutes of vintage Mickey later).

Mark certainly knows what he’s talking about more than anyone else on the subject of capturing early sound animation. His films It’s the Cat and There Must Be Some Other Cat are not mere throwbacks, but vessels embodying all that was invigorating and exciting about the medium getting retooled in the early 1930s. Much of that important work was done at Walt Disney’s studio, and that’s what makes some of Mark’s review sad to read. It’s as if he’s saying Get a Horse! is showing how much closer we are to getting 1928 quality in corporate Hollywood, and that alone is something to celebrate. But, geez, does anyone honestly believe this cartoon wasn’t made to solely pump money and attention into the original Mickey Mouse design just in time for when those cartoons’ copyright is set to finally expire? Gosh, what a racket like an old buzzsaw.

(Kudos to Milton Knight for the post’s title.)


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