Sunday, June 04, 2006

More on Lonesome Ghosts

I learn a lot putting together these mosaics and I also find that by revisiting a cartoon, I inevitably reconsider my opinion of it.

Lonesome Ghosts was directed by Burt Gillett, who started in animation in 1916 at the Barre-Bowers studio. Gillett had previously directed The Three Little Pigs at Disney before taking over the Van Beuren studio in New York, where he was charged with improving the quality of their films. He pushed that studio into color production and tried licensing outside properties such as Felix the Cat and Toonerville Folks. While there's no question that he raised the standard, Gillett and Van Beuren became victims of a business decision. Their distributor, RKO, signed a deal with Disney and RKO didn't need two animation suppliers.

Gillett returned to Disney but didn't stay long. He moved on to the Lantz studio and seemed to vanish from the animation business in 1940, even though he lived until 1971. The only account of Gillett I can remember reading is in Shamus Culhane's autobio Talking Animals and Other People. Culhane implies that Gillett had bipolar disorder.

While he directed The Three Little Pigs, a cartoon famous for developing individual personalities, the truth is that Gillett wasn't all that good at characterization. No memorable characters emerged from his time at Van Beuren or Lantz and this cartoon introduces four heckling ghosts who are not well differentiated. Except for one being short, they are completely interchangeable.

The story in this cartoon is also particularly weak. Mickey, Donald and Goofy are relatively passive. They start the cartoon asleep and are only moved to action by the ghosts. Working individually, they react more than act and the ghosts get the better of them. They "win" purely by accident; they crash into a supply of molasses and flour and scare the ghosts away by chance.

This is a far cry from the active Mickey of earlier cartoons like The Mail Pilot or Two Gun Mickey. Mickey is still determined here, but far less resourceful than previously. Donald is frustrated and Goofy is dumb, but with seven characters on screen, Gillett fails to give any of them a memorable performance.

You can see that Gillett casts animators by sequence. Izzie Klein gets mostly ghost footage and only gets Mickey when he interacts with the ghosts. Klein's timing and posing are frankly not that strong. His work on Mickey in scene 27 (the numbering is mine, not the studio's) is poor. He doesn't cushion into his poses well, so Mickey seems to be bouncing off invisible barriers in a few spots.

Ed Love handles Mickey, Donald and Goofy in their first appearances. While his work here is okay, it's crude compared to his later work at Lantz. His drawing hasn't blossomed like it would later.

Milt Kahl, Marvin Woodward and Bob Wickersham don't have much opportunity to show off. Kahl has a nice scene with the ghosts rolling up like window shades. Woodward handles the trio nicely and I wish he had more to do in this cartoon. Wickersham gets scenes that feature drybrush to emphasize the characters' speed.

Gerry Geronimi handles the entire Donald sequence. It's just over a minute and has only four shots, the longest of which is over 30 seconds. It's broad action and it works for what it is, but there's no subtlety to the performances at all.

Dick Huemer handles Goofy for the best sequence of the cartoon. Goofy gets a chance to do some real acting. Huemer's draftsmanship, his understanding of line of action and the use of arcs in his animation puts him far ahead of both Klein and Geronimi. The only downside to Huemer's work is that Goofy is almost too floppy a character, with loose fitting clothing as well as ears and jowls that all have follow through. The amount of extra movement on Goofy is sometimes a distraction.

If you're interested in Dick Huemer, his family has set up a website that includes a large section devoted to him. It's worth visiting.

The climax of the film is animated by Roy Williams, better known as a story man and performer on The Mickey Mouse Club than as an animator. He handles action well. Scene 54, in particular, is a fantastic shot with the ghosts fleeing and all kinds of stuff flying at the camera as they run. The final shot of the cartoon is also well drawn and animated.

This cartoon looks expensive. The backgrounds are lush. The ghosts had to be double exposed for transparency and they've got airbrush glows around them. The cartoon is animated mostly on ones and there's lots of effects animation. But the story and characterizations are thin. Gillett is not a director with a strong point of view. With a lower budget and lesser animators, there really wouldn't be much to recommend this cartoon.

1 comment:

Thad said...

Amazingly well thought-out and quite critical, Mark! For the life of me, I never found the majority (this one included) of the Mickey-Donald-Goofy shorts entertaining. But you articulated it a thousand times better than I ever could!

Thanks for running the most intelligent blog on the internet!

- Thad