Sunday, April 26, 2009

Maurice Noble's Biography

It's taken me a while to get to Stepping Into the Picture: Cartoon Designer Maurice Noble by Robert J. McKinnon. It is slightly less than one third of a good book and I'll explain what I mean.

What's here is a fairly straightforward biography of Maurice Noble, the designer whose most well-known work was for the Chuck Jones unit at Warner Bros. The book is drawn from interviews with Noble and his co-workers and to the extent that it fills in the details of Noble's life, it is mostly good. It covers Noble's childhood, education and professional jobs, including Disney, Warner Bros, John Sutherland Productions and MGM, in addition to providing details about Noble's personal life. The information about the physical set-up of Warner Bros. and the personal dynamics of the Jones unit are the best things in the book.

However, the writing sometimes stumbles. There is a story about architectural drawings done by Noble while a student at Chouinard. The drawings vanished and the book initially suggests that they were sold and used in the design of Radio City Music Hall before backpedaling to say that "the likelihood that the designer of Radio City, Donald Deskey, was in any way influenced by Maurice's designs was highly improbable" [italics in original]. If that is the case, why suggest otherwise?

The author quotes Noble criticizing Picasso. "I've run into people in the art 'game' who are fairly well known, but they become so egotistical about what they've done that it suddenly shows in their work. They do the same thing over and over again because that's their success. I think one of the traps that Picasso fell into was an 'ego trip.'" However there is apparently a double standard operating in the book should Noble be criticized. "I happened to mention [to Chuck Jones] how upset Maurice had been made by some negative comments (regarding his work with Chuck) written in a then recently published book by a well-known animation historian (perhaps the only historian who has seen fit to disparage Noble's contributions to Jones's films). When Chuck discovered how disturbed Maurice had been by what the author had written, he said, "He [the author] upset Maurice? That bastard!"" [Italics in original.]

This brings me to the missing two thirds of the book. While there are several pages of colour reproductions, the size and format of this book don't allow for Noble's work to be shown at its best. A biography of a designer that barely reproduces his designs is inadequate.

The other third missing is evaluation and analysis. As the first biography of Maurice Noble, it is the author's obligation to make a case for Noble's work. While animation professionals and fans will know Noble's name, those unfamiliar with the films need to know why Noble is worthy of attention. While McKinnon quotes Noble on his design approach, there is no evaluation of Noble's cartoons. Are all the films that Noble designed equally good? If not, which are the better ones and why? Where and when did Noble stumble? McKinnon is not an artist and not enough of an art critic to write about Noble's work with sufficient depth.

I would recommend this book to those wanting to know more about Noble as a person and the conditions he worked under, but anyone interested in Noble's designs is better off looking at his cartoons.


Michael Sporn said...

Thanks, Mark. Your review is wholly informative. I'll certainly buy the book in that I'm interested in that 1/3 you said works, but it sounds like it's a meagre presentation. Too bad. His artwork deserves some attention.

I suspect - I have no real knowledge one way or the other - that Noble had an ego of his own and that may have made it to HIS artwork, just as he accuses Picasso. At any rate, I've felt a repetition in the work, overall. Some gems like What's Opera Doc or some of the Road Runner shorts are nothing short of genius, but there is a "look" that I think he fell back on too qeasily.

I look forward to the book in that anything is something. It would be nice if someone of his calibre were able to influence some cgi projects.

Michael Barrier said...

U. Press of Miss. asked me to review this manuscript before publication. I thought it was a poor job, for reasons I explained in a three-page, single-spaced report. I cataloged some of the author's errors (to cite one small example, spelling the French painter Braque's name "Brach," as if he were a piece of candy)and omissions, and I concluded by recommending against publication. I was mildly surprised when I learned that the book had been published after all. I haven't read the published version, since I doubted the manuscript's defects could be remedied. What I've read about the book, here and elsewhere, has confirmed me in that judgment.

I assume I'm the "bastard" Chuck Jones denounced. My book Hollywood Cartoons was published in 1999,about two years before Maurice died. In that book, I devoted five pages to examining the Jones-Noble partnership, and to explaining why I thought it was problematic. I didn't "disparage" either man but wrote about them seriously, as the major artists they were. Evidently that wasn't enough.

McKinnon's choice of words is telling, I think. He has Maurice not "irritated" or "angry" or "resentful," but "upset," as if he were an unhappy two-year-old. I'd like to think that the infantilism implicit in such language is the author's, not Maurice's.

Oswald Iten said...

I totally agree with you. I had some of the same problems with Richard Fleischer's book about his father, though ("Out of the inkwell: Max Fleischer and the animation revolution").

Of course, there are other books about the Fleischers that assess their work, so Richard's anecdotic recollections just offer a personal point of view on Max and Dave.

The problem with "Stepping into the picture" is, that there isn't too much to read about Maurice Noble except in the original interviews. It's a missed opportunity in my opinion. But maybe it will inspire someone to dig deeper and write a real evaluation of his works.

Kevin Langley said...

I agree that the book is enjoyable if you want to know more about Noble and what it was like for him at different studios. But then again, I had never read an interview with Noble before. For me the biggest disappointment was the presentation of his artwork. It would have been great if the book was printed similar to Patrick Brion's "Les Dessins", instead of cramming the artwork onto such a small page.

Harry said...

Bob McKinnon's book doesn't mention one of the more interesting sidelights of Maurice's life--he was adopted, and only learned this fact at the age of 85 or so, when his older brother (!) told him. I remember Maurice telling me about this, and saying that it didn't come as a huge shock--even as a kid, he wondered why his mother treated him a little distantly. (He was apparently the secret offspring of another member of the family.)

Scott Morse's Noble Boy does allude to Maurice's adoption; it's a wonderful book that captures Maurice perfectly in its poetry and artwork.

I'm sure that Mike Barrier's book is the one that McKinnon alludes to, but I'm reasonably confident that Maurice (who was legally blind, or close to it) didn't read the passages about his work himself; he heard them described by friends. And Mike guesses correctly about the actual flavor of Maurice's reaction.

--Harry McCracken

Steven Hartley said...
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