Saturday, September 13, 2008

Which of These Men is Not Like the Others?

Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Darryl F. Zanuck and John Lasseter. All of them worked as studio heads and film makers, but one of them was significantly different than the others. I'll bet you're guessing Zanuck, who was head of 20th Century Fox, but is that the case?

I've just finished re-reading Michael Barrier's The Animated Man, his biography of Walt Disney (now in paperback). His portrait of Disney strikes me as being accurate based on my own knowledge and experience of Disney history. Starting in the 1920's, Walt Disney was an entrepreneur trying to build a business. It wasn't until the early 1930s, that he really began to see the artistic possibilities in animation, that his focus shifted. The culmination of Disney-as-artist was Snow White, a film that Disney was intimately involved with every detail of.

The problem in a collaborative commercial art form like film is that the delicate balance that has to be maintained between business and art. I could argue that Disney tipped the balance too far towards art with Snow White in that if the film had failed at the box office, the studio would have been in a precarious financial position. Disney had a weakness for taking huge financial risks (Disneyland being another example), but he was fortunate that his risks paid off.

The problem for Disney was that once Snow White was an established success, the studio had to be kept busy. Disney could have chosen to have only one feature in production at a time, with the shorts supplying the studio with work and cash flow, but he decided to launch an entire slate of features. None of the features that followed claimed his attention the same way Snow White did. It couldn't be otherwise. The urge to grow the company and to capitalize on success reduced Disney's involvement. His abilities, however strong, were diluted by the number of projects he put into play. From 1950 onward, with Disneyland, the TV series, the live action films, and the animated shorts and features, Disney functioned much the same way that Darryl F. Zanuck did at Fox: holding story meetings, watching rushes and taking a hand in post-production, especially editing and music.

Zanuck himself started out as a writer at Warner Bros. and rose to head of production there in the early '30s before leaving in a disagreement with management. He formed Twentieth Century pictures and when Fox was in financial trouble due to the depression, Zanuck's company took over Fox and he ran the combined operation for decades.

Disney knew Chaplin in addition to Chaplin being an inspiration to Disney's animators. While Chaplin was hugely successful as a film maker and was a partner in United Artists, a distribution company, he only made one feature that he did not write and direct. That film, A Woman of the Sea, starred Edna Purviance and was directed by Josef Von Sternberg. The film was never released and was later destroyed in order to take a tax write-off. Chaplin's studio existed for a single reason: to make films written, directed and starring Chaplin. He kept his crew on salary all year, regardless of whether he was actively shooting or not. He was rich enough to make films according to his own schedule (after 1925, Chaplin never released a film more frequently than every three years). All of Chaplin's mental, physical and financial resources were focused on one film at a time.

A short time ago, Pixar released the schedule for its upcoming features. I don't remember anyone remarking on the fact that none of the films would be directed by John Lasseter. Lasseter started out like Chaplin, excited about his medium and working on one film at a time. However, with Pixar's purchase by Disney and Lasseter's promotion to chief creative officer of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Lasseter has stepped away from being a film maker and become a producer. He's gone from Chaplin to Zanuck (or Disney).

Because of the specialized nature of animation, animators often have to create studios in order to realize their films. Disney, Harman and Ising, Max Fleischer, Paul Terry, etc. all built studios from scratch in order to make cartoons. Later, Dick Williams, Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi assembled studios to make their films. Unfortunately, the balance between art and entrepreneurship is especially hard to maintain when an artist is responsible for meeting payrolls and other overhead. I could argue that Williams, Bluth and Bakshi didn't pay enough attention to the business side, which truncated their careers. The irony, of course, is that Lasseter is paying full attention to the business side and this has also truncated his career as a director.

It's possible that John Lasseter is happier where he is than when he was directing movies. He's certainly busy and his full time job is to make creative decisions about every project going through Disney and Pixar. But just as Walt Disney's later work did not reach the heights of Snow White due to his increasing responsibilities, Lasseter's influence may also be diluted.

So while it may have looked like Zanuck was the odd man out, the real answer is Chaplin. While he was certainly a successful businessman, he stayed more focused as a film maker than any of the other three. The others were seduced by corporate growth and power. Barrier argues that it was to Disney's detriment. The jury is still out on Lasseter.


Tom said...

Every artist at one time or another tries to cross over into the business world. The problem is staying an artist while rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Some just become fulltime execs like Hanna & Barbera and Lou Scheimer, or they try to remain artists first and may fall prey to wolves.

Walt's secret is he had Roy Disney to do most of the heavy lifting with the Bank of America and other financiers. In my book I point out that the '41 Strike was one of the few times Walt's instincts failed him, and he became the emotional artist in the negotiations, and when the artists wanted a fellow peer to level with them, Walt gave them the cold businessman.

The two examples I can think of who were best able to swim with the sharks while staying artists were Chuck Jones and Charles Schulz. They never lost a sense of their own creativity, while never being caught with their head in the clouds.

Mark Mayerson said...

I should point out that Chaplin also had his brother Syd help him negotiate contracts at the time when Chaplin's popularity was skyrocketing. Maybe the secret for anyone creative is to have a sibling who is business oriented. It seems to work for the Spiridellis brothers.

However, Chaplin still managed to resist the pull of moguldom, which seems to trap too many people who achieve success in the film business.

J Caswell said...

I think the modern artist in this Chaplin vein is Woody Allen. He continues to create, but I'd argue, like later Chaplin, lost -is losing-audience as he continues. Maybe if Disney stuck to his creative muse, he'd have ended up in the same place as Chaplin and Allen but without having built a studio.

I read the book as a story of an entrepreneur's triumph rather than a creator's early promise but ultimate failure.

BTW, Woody's sister watches the money for him.

Thad said...

I was going to suggest Woody Allen is in the Chaplin mold too, actually. Both also lost/have lost good portions of their audience as time went/goes on. (Though I personally think Monsieur Verdoux is one of the greatest movies ever made.)

Larry Levine said...

Ironically, Woody Allen is NOT a fan of Chaplin's work.

Thad said...

It shows. I'm a big fan, but there's no humanity in Woody Allen's work.

Unknown said...


I enjoyed the article. After thinking about Barrier's excellent work and comparing it to what we see today, I wondered if Iger is more of the businessman to Lasseter's creative side?

Great comments from the readers, as well!

Anonymous said...

Larry Levine, what's your source on the "Allen doesn't like Chaplin" train of thought? I feel I've heard the contrary, and a cursory Google seems to confirm that he was indeed an admirer.

Unknown said...

As far as Lasseter's involvement, I think that his lost influence won't hurt the studio in the least. Pixar has been very good about hiring very good people, and while it's not guaranteed Pixar will always be great, all of the current creative talents involved have proven themselves worthy to take his throne. Pixar will indeed evolve, there's no doubt about it, perhaps even into something we hardly recognize (let's not forget Brad Bird's John Carter of Mars project), but I don't doubt Pixar will retain all its charm.

Mark Mayerson said...

Brad Bird has nothing to do with John Carter of Mars. That's Andrew Stanton's project.

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog, Mark. And great blogs are not always easy to find!

United Artists was more than a distribution company, as I'm sure you know - it was founded by Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffith so that artists could take much greater control over the production of their work. Chaplin had done a few films with Mabel Normand where he didn't have creative control, so he knew he didn't want to have anyone else as a boss.

Like others, I'd like to know where Larry's notion of Woody Allen's distaste for Chaplin comes from? I'd always thought that the closing shots of Manhattan were a tribute to the closing shots of City Lights, and there's a definite affinity between two comedians who really wanted to be respected for their serious works.

Larry Levine said...

"Larry Levine, what's your source on the "Allen doesn't like Chaplin" train of thought? I feel I've heard the contrary, and a cursory Google seems to confirm that he was indeed an admirer."

The Groucho Marx book "Hello, I Must Be Going", which is mostly transcribed conversations between Groucho & his famous friends.

When Groucho hailed Chaplin as his favorite comdian, Woody Allen states he never found Chaplin (or Laurel & Hardy) funny--with City Lights & Modern Times being the exceptions.