by Edward Weeks
THE ART OF WALT DISNEY
by Christopher Finch
This handsome elephant of a book, with its 763 illustrations (half of them in color) and the knowledgeable text by Christopher Finch, is a graphic appraisal of Disney in action. His father was a rolling stone and Walt had only a smattering of formal education until the family came to Kansas City, where he was on his own: he helped his father deliver the Star at 3:30 in the morning, served briefly as a news butcher on the Santa Fe Railroad, and on Saturdays found his magnet as he began studying at the Kansas City Art Institute. He acted on amateur nights at the local theater and supported himself working up animated films for an advertising company.
The new medium, crude as it was, gave Disney, just eighteen, and his best friend, Ubbe Iwerks, a young Dutchman, the chance to improvise. The first real Disney was a little reel of topical gags entitled Laugho-Grams, then came Alice’s Wonderland, live-action filming of a pert girl surrounded by cartoon animals. New York City was then the center of the animation industry, but Walt went West in the summer of 1923 to Los Angeles, carrying Alice’s Wonderland with him as a sample. He moved in with his uncle, borrowed the garage for his animation camera, and was shortly joined by his older brother Roy, who had just been released from a veterans’ hospital. The Disney brothers were in business.
His initial contract with a New York distributor called for one Alice Comedy a month. Disney borrowed money for his studio, telegraphed “Ub” to join them, and went looking for young artists. By 1926 he had put aside the drawing board forever to devise a new series based on the adventures of Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald, with his soft curves and unpredictable antics, was such a success that the distributor, who had named the rabbit, stole the show and half the staff, intending to produce Oswald on his own. After a heated showdown in New York, Disney returned to Hollywood in search of a new character. The result of his inventiveness and Ub’s draftsmanship was the beguiling Mickey Mouse, with his intermittent nobility and with Walt’s voice providing the ideal squeaky falsetto that would be heard, world over, for the next twenty years. The characterization of Mickey and Minnie, the economy of movement, and the imaginative details were packed into reels running six to eight minutes. This was the test of Disney’s genius.
Success was not without further hurt, for Ub, his star artist, who could turn out as many as seven hundred drawings a day, was lured away in a second raid. In such storms brother Roy was the anchor. He was the treasurer whom Walt teased for larger and larger loans, loans which rose to a good many millions when the time came for the full-length production, Snow While and the Seven Dwarfs. Mr. Finch tells us that once a story line was established, the score was prepared to fit the action, and after being recorded, the animators worked to its rhythm.
Walt was always striving to “plus” his own accomplishments. Anyone who has sat in on his conferences on a picture in progress will remember his intense grasp of the subject, and how appreciatively he drew on the expertise of others. By the time of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Disney “had brought to a spectacular maturity an art form that had been in its infancy just a dozen years earlier.” In shorts like Moving Day, Mickey’s Service Station, and Broken Toys, he touched our funny bone as gloriously as he did when with the lurking camera his teams brought in those great films of the Bears, and more serious, The Living Desert, The Vanishing Prairie, and Arctic Wilderness, each of which Disney conceived and edited superbly.
The drawings and paintings in the big book are lively and the best of them, like those of the Big Bad Wolf and the Witch, Mowgli and Bagherra in the Jungle, and the pastoral segment as darkness falls on Arcadia, are so exceptional that I wish the artist’s name had been given. But after the defections I spoke of, anonymity in the studio was generally the rule.
THE APPLETONS OF BEACON HILL
by Louise Hall Tharp
Little, Brown, $8.95
Like the Winthrops, the Appletons are one of the deep-rooted and most distinguished families in Massachusetts, and there has long been a division in the clan. The bucolic Appletons have maintained their stronghold in Ipswich, where Appleton Farm (1670) with its lush meadows and Guernsey cattle is renowned as the oldest working farm in the United States owned and operated by a single family. Then there are the urbane Appletons from New Ipswich who made their fortunes in importing and in textiles in nineteenth-century Boston and found their happiness in two of the most beautiful houses on Beacon Street, No. 39 and No. 54. Mrs. Tharp shows them in business and in society, in love and in distress, and she has the skill to single out characters and to keep them maturing with such detail that the reader feels at home in their midst.
In mid-June, 1809, Nathan Appleton, at twenty-nine, had just paid $13,500 for his new house on Beacon Hill. He and his brother Sam, with the assistance of their younger cousin, William Appleton, were to build up the family wealth in an incredibly short time, and William was the only one of the three who frankly admitted that he loved to make money. He was deeply religious and his conscience prompted him to write in his diary, “My mind is much, quite too much, engrossed in business ... I fear it will be my ruin.” Of the trio Samuel was the gay dog, a bachelor until he was fifty-two, entrusted with the buying and selling in London and Paris, with pleasure on the side. Nathan had the brains: he realized what the power loom and women employees would do for the textile industry, and that the waterfalls at East Chelmsford were the ideal site for the new mill town which came to be Lowell. Nathan seldom missed a trick. He was not satisfied with less than a 30 percent margin, and was very generous with his money when he thought a cause was good, though he hated “organized begging.” When he traveled, he demanded the best. While building a fortune, he served in the Massachusetts legislature and for three terms in Congress, where he was a friend of Daniel Webster’s and Charles Sumner’s. His marriage to the attractive Maria Theresa Gold was happy: she shared his ambition, was a charming hostess, and despite frail health bore him five healthy children. She was only forty-six when Dr. Warren hastened her end by bleeding and blistering in accordance with the standard practice, yet she had enough strength to arrange her death: she told her children to be faithful to what she had taught them, never to forget her— and then called her oldest son Tom away from the open window for fear that he would catch cold. Only her beloved Nathan, snowbound in a stagecoach from New York, could not reach her in time.
The younger generation of Appletons had as much fun spending money as their elders had in collecting it. The boys went to Harvard as their fathers had not, and following his graduation Tom, his father’s pet and the family wit. set out to enjoy himself with as little labor as possible. In Paris he dabbled in painting and in poetry, and later acknowledged, “I have the temperament of genius without the genius.” No one could long be angry with T. G. Appleton. He had the charm and the wit to disarm his exasperated parents but he made it difficult for his sisters Mary and Fanny, for with his gaiety he outshone their suitors. Tom spent one winter writing a tragedy in blank verse and when his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow read it aloud to Tom’s sister Fanny, it sparked a hesistant courtship which is the tenderest interlude in the book. Again and again Tom lights up the text. In Newport he built a “cottage” of three stories, half-timbered, with a French chateau roof, and one of his first guests was Miss Susan Hale, a spinster of forty, whom he had known all his life. “Is it true that Miss Hale is living alone with you at your cottage?” asked a clergyman’s daughter. “Yes,” Tom told her. “Did you expect me to bring all my harem from Boston?” And in his old age, when he began to lose his hearing, a young friend asked him if it could be wax. “Not wax, my dear,”he said, “but wane.”
ALISTAIR COOKE’S AMERICA
For thirty-five years Alistair Cooke has reported on our doings for the London Times and the Manchester Guardian, and in broadcasts for the BBC. To acquire what Teddy Roosevelt called “a sense of the continent,” he made a dozen long, lonely automobile tours, beginning in the Depression and armed with the Federal Guides to the states he was driving through. He knows more about us than most natives and when he became naturalized, the BBC, seeing in him a citizen of two worlds, invited him to recount on television a fresh perspective of the United States. This book is the amplification of the TV scripts: for the film, his history had to be direct, immediate, oversimplified; for the book he has been more expansive, emphasizing the extraordinary variety of life within the three million square miles of our borders, and the extraordinary character of those who have led us.
His portraits are appreciative, and often surprising in detail. Lincoln he sees as “a shrewd, honorable frontiersman of very great gifts” with the “ability to express a hard, unsentimental truth in the barest language every tinker and tailor could understand.” He praises T.R.’s consistent struggle to bring to the bar “an industrial giant run amok.” He is put off’ by the piety of Woodrow Wilson, and one of his most dramatic characterizations is that of Thomas A. Edison, who was present at the first theatrical performance (of Iolanthe) to be lit by the new electric bulb. After the intermission, as the lights began to waver, “Edison rushed down to the cellar, stripped off his dress clothes, and started shoveling coal in to maintain the steam pressure. He went on shoveling throughout the banquet that was being given upstairs in his honor.”
Naturally Cooke cannot expunge his British background and the book would be less revealing if he could. He suggests that the American frontiersman acquired a disrespect for British troops in the French and Indian War, and I question it. Washington may have but it was Bunker Hill which revealed to the Minute Men that British generals were stupid and British infantry vulnerable, yet there is no mention of Bunker Hill in the text. Again he likens the thirteen Colonies after the Treaty of Ghent to the new African states in the ecstasy of “Uhuru,” hardly an appropriate comparison, since it ignores the protracted friction with the Crown which for decades had forced rebellious Americans to think of an alternative. Finally I think his evaluation of the Supreme Court is more trustworthy than his understanding of the preparation of the American Constitution. But this is a panoramic book, traveling fast and high, and the view it gives of our land and the people below is exhilarating. The illustrations, the best of them in color, are true to their period.
Six IN THE EASY CHAIR
edited by John Fischer
University of Illinois Press, $7.95
Harper’s “Easy Chair,” according to John Fischer, is the oldest column in American journalism. Six writers have contributed to it over a span of nearly a hundred and twenty years, providing a picture and a criticism of society, quite genteel at the beginning but much more provocative as we come up to the present. The first contributor, Donald Grant Mitchell, wrote short, unsigned editorials, the most charming about New York City; in the severe winter of 1852 when the East River froze over, oystermen and eelspearers had to cut openings through the ice, and Broadway was a carnival of sleighs and bells. The second occupant, George William Curtis, was more probing and hardheaded. He had been one of the boarders at Brook Farm, the utopian community near Boston, and he took a keen interest in higher education. In one of his essays he questions ‘The capacity of this people for self-government,” and in another, written in 1869, asks whether women are competent to be doctors—a question which Dr. Alice Hamilton would have answered in the affirmative. The third contributor to the “Easy Chair” and far the dullest was William Dean Howells. It is hard to believe that a novelist in his maturity could be so pompous, so wordy, so incapable of saying things straight.
A change for the better began in 1920 with Edward S. Martin. He could write with a punch, as he did about Prohibition. He was curious about sunspots (flying saucers?), and troubled by the doubts which hovered over the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Bernard DeVoto, who took over from Martin, was the most rambunctious, and to read his damnation of the Red Hunt and Senator Joseph McCarthy, or his strong plea for conservation, “Flood in the Desert,”telling of the carelessness and destruction in the Wasatch Mountains, is to feel one’s backbone stiffen. He was a conservationist and a critic ahead of his time. So too is John Fischer, who ranges widely with an indignation and sympathy which I admire. His essay, “Why Nobody Can’t Write Good.” should be read aloud in every English class, and the portrait of his mother in “Women’s Lib and the Caperton Girls” is the best I have read since James Thurber finished describing his Ma’s visit to Manhattan.