Dilys, Disney and Dumbo

Dilys Powell was a stalwart and a powerhouse of film criticism, with a career spanning decades. She was one of the few journalists who took the job of being a film critic as seriously as any other title. More impressive is the professionalism she brought even though her tastes were originally far more literary than filmic; when given the task of writing weekly film reviews for The Sunday Times in the late 1930s, she realised that it was her duty to become an authority on cinema,  in order to be the consummate critic of it.

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And she did; she seriously considered questions of stardom, direction and artistry long before it was common to do so. However, she was also admirable for her pragmatism and efficiency with words (she relished the challenge of writing within strict limits), and never let any prevailing ideology cloud her immediate reactions to a film. She was unafraid to take down the epic scale and grand aesthetics of Gone With the Wind with dry wit, and was brutally honest when she felt hopelessly old fashioned (as was the case when confronted with many avant grade auteurs).

While I revere Powell’s work, I don’t always agree with her. She never cared for Brief Encounter, and was always a little too focused on script and realism for my liking. Yet she understood cinema and respected it when so few in the established arts and literature presses did.

And she loved Disney. Always one to recognise a show runner, Powell heaped praise on Walt Disney’s visionary work. Reading through her reviews from the 1930s and 40s is a reminder of just how groundbreaking Walt was. Although Dilys Powell rarely gave out unqualified or hyperbolic praise – and she generally disliked the bland cutesy-ness of Disney fare – she recognised the innovation present in the characterisation and the sheer ambition of Disney’s animation.

As I was lazily breezing through The Dilys Powell Film Reader, I stopped and read the section on Disney, and found an interesting array of opinions that demonstrate Powell’s critical eye:

Much of this is so superb in colour and rhythm that it makes me wish more than ever for one Disney cartoon conceived and executed in complete seriousness.

- On Pinocchio, 1940

Moussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ is treated to an exhibition of devilry at once grand and horrifying in conception and design; and with Mickey Mouse as the Sorceror’s Apprentice, Dukas’s piece becomes the source of a fine comic exuberance of design.

- On Fantasia, 1941

Bambi is to be the last long Disney until after the war; the producer has, apparently, resolved to make his farewell appearance in a blaze of inoffensiveness.

- On Bambi, 1942

…OK, I’ll admit to being a little biased because I agree entirely with the relatively scathing write-up of Bambi. However, I was a little saddened to see Powell’s 1942 review of Dumbo missing from the collection. I know collected editions have to be brutal in their curation. But Powell (like me) used Dumbo as the yardstick to judge other animated features, and during the 1940s most critics held up Snow White as the masterpiece because they did not give the time or effort to form their own opinions. Like Powell, though, I would urge cartoon connoisseurs to consider Dumbo.

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What is cutesy in other Disney films is emotional and real in Dumbo, and the titular character is the epitome of adorable. Powell describes the elephant as ‘small, defenceless, absurdly sensitive and infinitely pathetic’, immediately recognising the genius in Bill Tytla’s characterisation (Tytla used his own infant son as the model for Dumbo’s wordless mannerisms):

I’ve bawled my kid out for pestering me when I’m reading or something, and he doesn’t know what to make of it. He’ll just stand there and maybe grab my hand and cry… I tried to put all those things in Dumbo.

- Bill Tytla

Of course, it is also visually as spectacular as any Disney film, though it is barely an hour long and was produced on a fraction of Bambi‘s budget. Everyone remembers the pink elephants, but there was also the travel sequences where the anthropomorphic steam engine makes his way across the map, and the rain-soaked silhouettes of labourers erecting the circus tent (I was too young to get the racist overtones of the song). And while music and mouse are present to cut through the silence, the most memorable sequence is entirely without dialogue (‘Baby Mine’, *sniff*).

Dumbo then, and Dumbo now, is defined and redefined by the collective worth of Disney. In the era before the theme-parks, before home video and with only one princess to its name, Disney was not considered the super-brand as discourse has it today. Rather, it is the figure of Walt Disney himself that loomed large over the barometers of quality, success, suitability and artistry. Sadly, Dumbo suffers because it was simpler, cheaper and shorter than it contemporaries. But Dilys Powell was smart enough to see that ingenuity went a long way in animation, and she was not too snobby to say that Dumbo was the most effective Disney of the pre-war era.

The Dilys Powell Film Reader, ed. by Christopher Cook (Oxford: OUP, 1992)

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (New York: Abbeville Press, 1981)

Original film reviews available from the BFI Library, BFI Southbank. Photo of Dilys Powell also from the BFI.

Watch This: Disneyland in Super 8mm

Many many thanks to my good friend James for flagging up the YouTube channel of Super-8 cutdown goodness.

Retail therapy! If this blog ever takes a hiatus, rest assured it is because the PhD is making progress, as it did last month. To celebrate the completion of my first substantial chapter draft, I indulged in a little bit of ebaying and acquired my favourite Disney classic in Super 8mm format: Dumbo (1942).

For those who don’t know, Super 8mm was often used to sell cut down versions of films intended for home viewing before the days of VHS. I don’t really have time nor equipment to gauge the full condition of this print, though it smells good and decidedly unvinegary! The film stock is Kodak SP, so at a guess this was made in the late 1970s. Apparently, the stock might be less prone to rapid colour deterioration (i.e. will be less pink) than, say, Eastman Color film, but I dunno how true that is. Hopefully, it will be as good as this print:

Of course, Dumbo was not the only Disney cut down on the market. Here’s Donald Duck to give us a rundown:

Looks like it was also a popular medium for promoting Disneyland…

…yay, Disneyland!

Watch This: 2011 National Film Registry

Yesterday the Library of Congress announced its picks for the 2011 National Film Registry. One thing I learned recently about the Registry is that being listed as ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ makes no difference to the archival status of the films on the list and no funds are earmarked for their preservation or restoration. I had always assumed that the list ensured their safekeeping, but rather the list draws attention to the American canon of moving images in order to promote preservation more generally. Of course, the National Film Preservation Board works hard to preserve all listed titles, but in reality all film is fragile and we archivists can never assume any title is safe.

Every year’s list is controversial, but I’m steering clear of critiquing the choices of the LoC. Instead, here are some clips illustrating a few of the selected titles, which I think demonstrate the breadth and scope of the Registry.

Here’s a complete video of The Cry of the Children (George Nichols, 1912), a Thanhouser film calling for child labour reform. More can be found at the thanhouser.org official Vimeo group.

Surely all the Disney classics have a place in the Registry, but this year was Bambi‘s turn for recognition. Here’s Walt in 1957 explaining how the studio used the multiplane camera to dazzling effect. NB. Discussion of Bambi begins around 04:45.

Another one for animation aficionados: Ed Catmull’s graduate student project A Computer Animated Hand (1972) is one of the world’s first CGI 3d animations.  Catmull went on to become one of the founding members of Pixar and is now also president of Walt Disney.

I would give my right arm to see the home movies of Fayard and Harold Nicholson, including their superhuman synchronisation on stage. In lieu of actual footage from their amateur films, here they are in *that* dance sequence from Stormy Weather (Andrew L. Stone, 1943).

Porgy and Bess (Otto Preminger, 1959) is a classic example of why film preservation is so important and often tragically overlooked. This Youtube rip off a bootleg VHS cannot possibly convey the spectacle of 70mm Todd-AO widescreen. However, with only one known 35mm theatrical copy in circulation, and unknown amounts of master material surviving in dubious condition, one can only hope its inclusion in the Registry will prompt a preservation and restoration effort soon.

From glorious 1950s widescreen Technicolor to low-fi 1970s grunge. I hadn’t seen George Kuchar’s short film from 1977 I, an Actress before, so this is one instance where the Registry has broadened my cinematic experience. The film is a curious portrayal of the artifice of screen acting, and its inclusion in the Registry is a timely nod to Kuchar, who died earlier this year. RIP George.