In 1935, Shamus (Jimmy) Culhane was sitting on top of the world.
"Twenty-six, a hot-shot director and animator, driving a brand-new Studebaker roadster, and jingling four hundred dollars in my pocket. Not only that, I was on my way to the Mecca of the animation business" . . . Hollywood. By then, the author had had 11 years' experience in animation. He had heard that Walt Disney needed animators and was sure of getting a job in his studio. Although the Depression was six years old, the animation business was thriving.
But Walt Disney didn't want him. Culhane was an East Coast animator who, Disney was convinced, had acquired poor work habits from the makers of "moving comic strips."
It is at this point that Culhane's story, "Talking Animals and Other People," becomes engrossing. The first few chapters, starting with his first job at the Bray Studios in 1924, are overloaded with names and sketchy vignettes of everyone working in animation in the days of "Krazy Kat" and "Betty Boop." There is, however, a fine description of the assembly-line method of cranking out early cartoon films. Each page was broken down into separate jobs: "layout penciler," "inker," "background artist," "letterer" and "colorer," a division of labor as formal as any in the Post Office. Creativity was limited; originality was discouraged. It was this system that started the exodus of talent from the East Coast to the West.
Disney relented and hired Jimmy Culhane for an entry-level job paying less than half his previous salary -- with the understanding that he was to undergo retraining. What Disney didn't realize was that Culhane was the perfect Disney Studio artist: a workaholic with a need to prove himself. That same year Disney wrote a 10-page memo to Don Graham, an artist hired to teach "the boys" how to draw. The memo, quoted in full, gives one of the best expositions on the art of animation and ends with the words, "We will stir up the men's minds more, and they will think of a lot of things that would never occur to them otherwise."
Graham gave classes in life drawing, movement and color, showed his students slow-motion films of Chaplin and Buster Keaton. "Graham didn't care if we spent the whole morning observing without making a drawing." This, while East Coast studios were looking upon output as a measure of an animator's talent.
Culhane became one of Disney's best animal animators, helping to originate the character Pluto and many others. When, for reasons of health, he was forced to return to the East, he was eager to push animation into newer, more innovative directions. Max Fleisher, his new employer, saw little advantage to changing old ways, and the search for an escape began anew.
The year-by-year account of Culhane's artistic career is abundantly detailed. In this sense the book is autobiographical, but we're given only the sketchiest glimpse of the author's personal life. For example, when he describes a dinner in a Japanese restaurant with his future father-in-law, Chico Marx, Culhane admits he was less than a catch for Chico's daughter: "a goy, twelve years older than Maxine, twice divorced" -- (Divorced? He hadn't mentioned that he'd married twice) -- "and without visible means of support." His book is a nuts-and-bolts description of the workings, the history and the misadventures of a unique American industry, one that Culhane says, by its nature, is "attached to the business world like a pilot fish clings to a shark."
The last part of the book tells of the demise of the biggest animation studios, the beginning of advertising spot animation and the first children's cartoon programs on television. In this epilogue Culhane makes some unflattering observations about the direction these cartoon shows have taken: "mutilated into a basket case called 'limited animation.' There is no quick panacea for . . . Saturday morning children's television programs. The best leverage for change lies with parents and the teacher groups."
Culhane's 58 years in every aspect of animation more than qualify him to be its unofficial historian. "Talking Animals and Other People" is neither an indictment nor a glorified view of the industry, which made it, for me, a good read.