Sunday, March 30, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Part 1

Movie credits were once just a formality. If you look at early film credits, the title card contains an enormous amount of information.

Until the 1950s, title sequences might contain a background graphic beneath the type that would place the movie into a particular genre or style, but the credits were generally static and were something to get over quickly in order to get the movie started.

In the 1950s, things began to change. At the time, movies were fighting a popularity battle with television. Instead of being something purely obligatory, titles were looked at as potentially entertaining. Saul Bass became famous for his animated graphics in movie titles, starting with Carmen Jones (1955). In 1956, Bass designed the end titles for Around the World in Eighty Days, produced by Mike Todd and which featured cameo appearances by many Hollywood stars. The titles were directed by Bill Hurtz for Shamus Culhane Productions (see below).

The artists at the Disney studio had to be aware of Bass's work on this film. With Dalmatians, they had the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and create a title sequence that set the tone for the film while entertaining audiences. Just as Bass used a graphic motif of a circular vortex for the titles of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), the Disney artists built the titles of a film about spotted dogs around the motif of spots.

(I'm not an expert on the Disney live action features of the time, but I'm sure that some of them, possibly predating Dalmatians, also had Bass-like titles. Can anyone cite examples in the comments?)

Another influence on the titles may have been Orson Welles end credits for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). While those credits are spoken by Welles, when he credits the cinematographer, the visual on screen is a camera. The rest of the technical credits are done in the same way, so the credits are an explanation of the movie-making process. In the Dalmatians credits, the graphics demonstrate the craft of animation production. The spots become musical notes for the composer credits. Bill Peet's credit as writer is hand-written, fitting for a storyboard artist, while Dodie Smith's credit is typewritten and accompanied by the sounds of a typewriter. The animator credits are accompanied by moving dogs. The effects animator credits have pulsating letters.The layout credits are shown over line drawings of backgrounds and when the background artist credit appears, the line drawings are coloured in.

The above mosiac doesn't do justice to the title sequence because the most interesting parts are the transitions between title cards, animated by Carleton "Jack" Boyd. Les Clark provided the character animation that was mixed in with Boyd's graphics.

The titles themselves are very interesting. The phrase "With the talents of" was a catch-all for people who provided voices but who also provided live action reference. Mary Wickes is credited, but her contribution is only indirectly on screen as she acted out Cruella's motions unless she provided a voice that I'm not aware of.

There are two other things that are interesting about these credits. The directing animators have their names zoom up, a not so subtle bid for attention and a declaration of their importance to the animated features of the 1960s. The other interesting thing is that Woolie Reitherman receives top billing as director, even though he's the new kid on the block compared to Gerry Geronimi and Ham Luske. It's also interesting that the directors names start big and then recede, the opposite of the directing animators. Again, this may be an unintended comment on the shifting power within the animation department. There's no question that animation dominated direction in the '60s Disney features, to the detriment of the films.


Thad said...

My "favorite" opening titles were for Billy Wilder's Seven Year Itch... You know, the credits so small you can barely read half of them. (Obviously, they weren't prepared for how they would read in Cinemascope.)

Kidding aside, I absolutely love the titles the Lantz studio animated for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Will Finn said...

I did a bit of onscreen commentary for the current edition of DALMATIONS and I mentioned the Saul Bass connection but i don't think that comment made it into the actual used footage. I have to suspect others made similar comments...

I also can confirm that Mary Wickes did not do any voices for this film (she was the voice for my character in HUNCHBACK nearly thirty years later). I got to talk with her a bit about DALMATIONS while we were recording and though she was initially confused she ultimately just went with it and was delighted with the finished product. A lot of Cruella's hand gestures seem to come from her.

Nancy said...

They certainly would have been aware of Saul Bass' work, but I think that most of the charm of the Dalmatians' titles is that the crew were experimenting with what the new Xerox process could do.

I wouldn't read too mucn into the 'receding credits' for the may be overanalysis of a simple graphic statement.

Mark Mayerson said...

Will, thanks for the confirmation that Mary Wickes didn't do any voices. The IMDB is wrong once again.

Bass really did change things in the '50s. While there were movie titles that included animation before him, they didn't have anywhere near his influence.

Floyd Norman said...

Yeah, great credits, but they were more Disney than Saul Bass. We were certainly aware of Saul's work, but the Disney artists weren't trying to ape Bass. This was the opportunity to do something cooler with the credits.

We did have a great title department, however. Some of those guys even did work for me on the side. They were awesome. Sadly, title departments are a thing of the past, and today's work is farmed out.

Andrew Leal said...

Hey, Mark. Great post, and a clarification on the "with the talents of," apart from Mary Wickes. For several movies beginning in the 1950s, the Disney studio used that as a catch all, as you surmised, which also included live action reference performers. Peter Pan credits Roland Dupree, a dancer who did live action reference only, though again, IMDb assumes he did "Extra Voices" which he didn't. Don Barclay is credited in a ton of films, and as far as my research and discussion with other experts like Keith Scott shows, he *never* did voices, but did a ton of live action reference, and thus was usually billed for it (for "Alice in Wonderland," he did the Walrus; for Pan, Mr. Smee). So as far as 101 goes, the following five names crosswise were all that only: Paul Wexler (lean character actor and around the time a bit player in Mickey Mouse Club serials; modeled for Jasper and according to some sources, the Quizmaster), Helene Stanley (the usual Disney model for the heroines, as Anita), Mary Wickes (Cruella, as noted), Don Barclay (Horace and judging from the DVD bonus images, also Dirty Dawson) and Barbara Luddy (as Nanny; in this case, confusion makes more sense since she usually did voices for the studio, but multiple viewings confirm she isn't heard anywhere in the final product).

Mark Mayerson said...

Andrew, thank you very much for that comment. The information on the live action reference performers is great.

I, too, would have assumed that Barbara Luddy did a voice somewhere in the film. It's ironic that she didn't when Lady, who Luddy voiced, has a cameo.