Friday, July 21, 2006

We Don't Get No Respect

Paul Johnson is no lightweight. He's authored books such as The Birth of the Modern, Intellectuals, and A History of the English People. That's why it's so disappointing that his latest book, Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney, is thoroughly wretched when it comes to talking about animation.

His Disney chapter is chock full of errors that could easily have been fixed. His bibliography lists Hollywood Cartoons by Barrier, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Thomas and Johnston, The Art of Walt Disney by Finch and The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas, so how is it that basic errors have crept into the text?

Winsor McCay is misspelled. Max Fleischer is erroneously credited for Felix the Cat. The Three Little Pigs was released in 1933, not 1932. Alice in Wonderland was released in 1951, not 1957. Carl Stalling was a composer, not an animator. It's Carl Eduarde, not Edwards. It's Grim, not Jim, Natwick. It's Tytla, not Tytler. It's Ted Sears, not Wears.

Besides the factual sloppiness, there is uncritical research. Anything in print must be true. Johnson's description of the Disney strike is as follows.
As he employed a good many intellectuals, artists, and writers who at that period leaned overwhelmingly toward the left, this produced tension at the Disney Studios and, in 1940, led to a strike aimed either at forcing Disney to make pro-Communist propaganda cartoons or at shutting the studio down. Disney defeated the strike, with some help from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and pursued his own individual way until his death.
Johnson's source for this is Marc Elliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince. It's a bad source and the quote above is demonstrably false on several counts. Disney lost the strike as the company had to recognize the union. The strike was about issues like wages and had nothing to do with the content of the films. Nobody, including the strikers, wanted the studio shut down.

In the introduction, Johnson says that, "Walt Disney needed to wash his hands, sometimes thirty times in an hour." That isn't sourced, but can anybody really take that seriously? How could he run the company unless he carried around a portable sink?

I'm tired of authors who have made their reputations elsewhere thinking they're qualified to write about animation. And I'm tired of mainstream publishers like HarperCollins simply accepting whatever they're handed because of the author's reputation. If Johnson made this many mistakes in his chapters on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Eliot, Hugo or Dickens, you can be sure that an editor would catch them. But, hey, it's only animation.

23 comments:

Nancy said...

Hi Mark,

Animation is still not a REAL art form. That's why it is okay to misspell Winsor McCay's name or say that Disney was Spanish. (HOLLYWOOD'S DARK PRINCE was the worst biography I've ever read--there was no source for any of its more sensational comments.)
What is worse, no one but animators seem to care. What will it take to get people to pay attention, I wonder?

P.S. I remember that the Ralph Stevenson book was referred to as "The Abominations of Ralph"--why use such outdated sources?

Anonymous said...

Hey Mark, What Was Winsor McCay's Name Misspelled as?

Nancy said...

Probably Windsor. And why are you posting anonymously?

Nancy said...

Part of the problem is that he tries to cover too much ground. The rest is sloppy research. Inserting Communist propaganda into the cartoons, indeed. This is indeed a sign of the times, when unions are tarred with the leftie brush. Tom Sito's book on the history of the union is out in a few weeks--hopefully it will counter this other stuff.

Barry Sanders said...

All the more reason Marc Meyerson (mispelled? See what bad sourcing does!) should write a book. I think this blog alone is proof that Mark is not only one of the most knowledgeable people in animation today but also has a great deal to say beyond merely recounting the facts.

Jenny said...

Mark, Reading this had me rereading it aloud to the person ext to me at a high volume. I can't express how disgusted and angry this kind of "writing" makes me. It isn't just of interest or import to buffs, you're right: these are facts, and as such they're important.
Mistakes happen, but those whoppers you stated? My god! Plus, the Disney strike hogwash is terrible, the most egregious mess of a paragraph...someone is likely to read that and believe it. What nonsense...I don't know this man, but on the basis of those examples he's lost any credibility forever. As with other writers who do terrible research and make silly errors, I think--what about the parts I can't verify from my own knowledge?

paul said...

mark did you contact the author of the book at all?

Mark Mayerson said...

I've emailed HarperCollins. I'll let you know if I hear anything back.

Neil said...

I've come across the hand washing thing before, in some fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theorist article about the "Satanic bloodline" of Disney, claiming that children are kidnapped at Disneyland and brainwashed using Fantasia videos.

"Behind such strict fronts of legalistic morals, cleanliness & soberness, you will often find lots of guilt and high level satanic ritual. For instance, Hitler (who was by the way also a failed artist & who liked mechanical things more than people) obsessively washed his hands many times a day (out of guilt), and so did Walt Disney. Walt obsessively washed his hands several times an hour, every hour. Walt liked animals & his trains more than people. This author has seen some alters who were forced to take another human’s life, and when they relived the memory, the alters then tried to physically wash the blood guilt off of their hands."

Shane Greentree said...

As shocking as that example is, I think it's symptomatic of a general academic disregard for animation. It's as if while writing about film, you can be accurate about everything else but no one cares if you mess up important details about the history of animation.

At the very least, writing about animation in passing is often taken as an invitation for bold assumptions and utter fabrication. A recent howler I saw was in the otherwise well-researched 'Radical Hollywood', by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. While briefly referring to Chuck Jones, it 'slightly' overstates his contributions to Warner Brothers, firstly describing him as:

"Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones" (p.296.)

Unfortunately, the hyperbole grows even more ridiculous later on in the book:

"Chuck Jones, working at Warner, was creating such characters as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweetie Pie, Speedy Gonzalezs, the Road Runner, and Wily E. Coyote." (p.316.

In writing about any other medium, that sort of blatant error would be picked up on well before publication. Damn cultural stigma.

Remi said...

Neil, was that a quote from this book? Did he really say Disney was a failed artist?

joe campana said...

Who was the lousy editor at Harper Collins who wasn't doing their job???
Somebody should nail THEM for this one as well!

Oscar Grillo said...

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/atoz/

Go to this BBC radio site and click on "start of the week" and listen to Paul Johnson talking about Disney and Picasso in terms so simplistic and coarse that he could make George W. Bush sound like a Harvard intellectual.

Be prepared to get angry and bemused.

Thad K said...

Thanks for bringing this trash to my attention, Mark.

BTW, is Marc Elliot still allowed to walk the streets in daylight?

- Thad

Stephen Worth said...

Marc Elliott's book has one good chapter... the one on the strike. Apparently, he intended it as a magazine article, but a book publisher offered to publish it as a book if he could rush out all the rest of the chapters. That synopsis you quoted that credits Dark Prince as a source isn't anything like what the Dark Prince book actually says.

See ya
Steve

Neil said...

Re: Remi...

No, the quote was from the fundie aricle I mentioned.

Oliver_Coombes said...

In a related vein, look how the otherwise-authoritative A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie -- a renowned expert on that country's cinema -- suddenly turns condescending and inaccurate when it comes to anime.

Anonymous said...

What Will Happen if Turner Got the DePatie-Freleng Cartoons From MGM/UA?

floyd norman said...

Over the years people have told me all kinds of nonsensical stories about Walt Disney.

Once they found out I worked there during that time, they suddenly change the subject.

Somehow these bozos continually get published.

Kevin Koch said...

I just reread the "Strike!" chaper in Marc Eliot's "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince." Stephen Worth is absolutely correct that what Paul Johnson published (with one exception) couldn't have come from Eliot. Eliot's discussion of the strike never implies that the Disney studio was full of leftists, that there was political tension at the studio, that the strikers cared the least whit about making commie propaganda, or that Hoover was involved in the strike. And the book also makes clear that Disney lost, and that the studio unionized.

The one thing Johnson might have taken from Eliot is the handwashing reference. Eliot writes: "Not surprisingly, the ongoing strike had caused Walt's chronic nervous condition to erupt, reducing him to a walking collection of tics and phobias. His hand-washing alone became so obsessive he visited his private studio bathroom sometimes as often as thirty times an hour."

Eliot doesn't mention where he got that hand washing information in his "Notes and Sources" for that chapter. Even if it's more or less true, Walt would hardly have been the first or last person in animation to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Mark Mayerson said...

Kevin, thanks for the info. I haven't read the Marc Elliot book in years and don't own a copy.

My opinion of Johnson has fallen even more. Maybe Disney suffered from a nervous condition during the strike, but the mention in Johnson's introduction offers no cause and no time period that the behavior occurred. Johnson makes it sound like it was a life-long malady, which it clearly wasn't.

Furthermore, it's also clear that Johnson distorted his reporting on the strike to serve a personal agenda, one which is not backed up by history. By footnoting Marc Elliot as the source of the information, Johnson is passing off his own prejudices as someone else's.

The first error might be due to sloppiness, but the second is just dishonest.

Kevin Koch said...

Dishonest is the right word. I'll be very interested to see if anyone from HarperCollins ever replies.

S. Stephani Soejono said...

Hey Mark,
Hollywood's Dark Prince is available in Sheridan library in the NC shelf. It's shelved really close to the Art of Anastasia book.