"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney

Monday, April 17, 2017

Little Hiawatha

Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” of the 1930’s were not only experimentally brilliant for their time, but each one responsibly chiseled away at the masterpiece that became Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Beginning with The Skeleton Dance in 1929 and advancing to that of The Old Mill in 1937, Disney boldly reemphasized that patience was, indeed, a virtue. At a time when the Depression weighed heavily on the shoulders of America, artists fresh out of school turned to Walt Disney for creative release and financial stability. In fact, Mickey Mouse's birth in 1928 could not have come at a better time. While many studios felt the blow of Wall Street's "Crash" in 1929, Disney's Hyperion Studio was soon seen by many as the light at the end of the tunnel. As the 30's rolled on, the Disney Studio absorbed some of the finest animators and artists to ever grace this earth - each going on to slavishly peel away the many layers of the animated form.

As Michael Barrier points out in The Animated Man, Walt Disney's desire to produce a full length animated film became the talk of the Studio as early as 1933 (Barrier, 2007). Could it have been the success of The Three Little Pigs (1933) that helped Disney make up his mind? This no doubt was a factor, and living proof that his animators were on the threshold of creating drawings that appeared to live, breathe, and feel on their own. It's amazing to think Walt was intuitive enough to use the "Symphonies" as the building blocks to his ultimate dream. The shorts were not merely experimental - each had an artistic quality that echoed Disney's love for classic tales from America and abroad. His two-pronged approach resulted in beautiful cartoons and animators that were now fully equipped to tackle the demands of an animated feature.

Six months prior to Snow White’s release in 1937, Disney produced an animated short very loosely based on a poem that he no doubt discovered while growing up in the Midwest. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's publication of The Song of Hiawatha in 1855 became an immediate staple of American literature, and was read by thousands at a time described by American literate, Roy Harvey Pearce, when "the Indian as a direct opponent of civilization was dead, yet was still heavy on American consciences…" While still a young boy growing up in Marceline, Missouri at the turn of the century, Disney's fascination with the old American West surely began with his father, Elias, and uncle, Mike Martin. One could only imagine the stories that were told on the front porch of the Disney home; especially when Uncle Mike came to visit after working long hours on the Santa Fe Railroad. Despite his reputation as being a strict father, Elias Disney even got into the spirit of sharing his experiences working on the Great Plains. It's possible that Walt's initial exposure to Longfellow's epic poem was found in a reprinted 1890 illustrated edition by Frederic Remington. If this was the case, Remington's romantic paintings no doubt stuck with Walt throughout his career; especially at times between the late 1940's and early 1960's when he seriously considered turning the classic poem into an animated feature.

In the fall of 1936, Little Hiawatha (1937) went into production at the Walt Disney Studio under the directorial leadership of David Hand - Disney's right-hand man at the time (Barrier, 2007). This cartoon would be Hand's last in the director's chair where shorts were concerned, however, after gaining Disney's trust, he went on to be a lead director on Snow White. This would not only be an eventual turning point for Hand, but this "Symphony" would also mark the end of Disney's partnership with United Artists; with the exception of Victory Through Air Power in 1943. All future films would now bare the name of its new distributor, R.K.O. until 1956 (Smith, 2006).

The team assembled under Hand's watchful eye was a testament to the director's skill. Tracing Hiawatha's story development was a bit puzzling for me initially; especially given the fact that a number of storymen likely contributed to the short. I finally found my answer on a printed copy of a Hiawatha character model sheet. Beside the word "Story" are the initials G.S. - belonging to Disney storyman, George Stallings. J. Gordon Legg's contribution to Hiawatha sets the tone as layout artist, along with the incomparable background style of the great, Gustaf Tenggren. Little is written about Legg's career at the Disney Studio, however, several books acknowledge his contributions to "The Pastoral Symphony" segment of Fantasia and his skills as an airbrush artist (Canemaker, 1996). Tenggren's life in art on the other hand has been beautifully recounted in John Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins, and his unmatched artistic style still resonates and lives on today in reprinted editions of The Pokey Little Puppy and illustrated books dedicated to the art and history of Walt Disney (especially within Cynthia Rylant's retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). The equally skilled Disney background artist, Claude Coats, joined forces with Tenggren on Hiawatha, and recalls this moment of Disney history in a 1978 interview with Steve Hulett:

Gustaff Tenggren did a lot of work on Pinocchio (1940). He was really kind of a fairy-tale illustrator, and a very capable guy. He had that nice style. In fact, I think I worked with him just before Pinocchio on Little Hiawatha. He did some drawings on that and I did backgrounds for it. We kind of worked along with him, and we tried to get a pen-and-ink style on that. It was a little bit the forerunner of the style of Pinocchio (Ghez, 2008).

The pen-and-ink style that Coats referred to not only brought a mythical richness to the short, but it also complimented the characters that shared the screen (for exquisite pictures of Little Hiawatha's background paintings, visit Rob Richards' blog HERE). 

The success behind the development of the Hiawatha character was no accident - for the artist who brought him to life "threw himself into the Little Hiawatha project with a dedication that he did not bring to all films (Walz, 1998)." Beginning at Disney's Hyperion Studio in 1935, Charles Thorson is a man whose name few connect with Disney, and sadly represents one of many underrated animation pioneers of his time (especially considering his designed prototype for Warner Bros.' top animated star - Bugs Bunny). His contributions at Hyperion in the late 1930's makes for a most impressive portfolio, and includes work on Three Orphan Kittens (1935), Broken Toys (1935), Elmer Elephant (1936), Three Little Wolves (1936), Three Blind Mouseketeers (1936), Mickey's Rival (1936), Toby Tortoise Returns (1936), Moose Hunters (1937), Clock Cleaners (1937), Pluto's Quin-puplets (1937), The Country Cousin (1936), More Kittens (1936), Woodland Café (1937), Little Hiawatha (1937), The Old Mill (1937), Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (1938), and even preliminary work on Snow White (Walz, 1998). In fact, some of the most endearing characters that you see in the finished product of these short films were designed by Thorson himself.

In my opinion, Thorson's greatest contribution to Disney was Hiawatha's creation - a character he truly called his own. In his book on Thorson's career in animation, author Gene Walz shared that "Charlie had always been fascinated by Indians, a fascination that turned to admiration as he encountered them on his many travels in the Canadian west before his first marriage (Walz, 1998)." Further evidence by Walz also revealed that Thorson's young niece served as the live model for Hiawatha's character (Walz, 1998). The preliminary model sheet that Thorson created for the "little warrior" illustrates the overall bounciness and infant-like qualities of Hiawatha; qualities that won over the hearts of the storymen at the Disney Studio. In the end, however, Thorson grew tired of not receiving credit where it was due, and left Disney after completing work on Wynken, Blynken, and Nod with a feeling of disenchantment. The writing on Thorson in this posting is just the tip of the iceberg, even where his work and relationships at Disney are concerned, but can be read in full detail in Gene Walz's illuminating book, Cartoon Charlie.

It's important to remember, at the very same time of Little Hiawatha's production, Walt Disney was knee-deep in Snow White's development; a very costly development. Money, however, was not a factor when it came to perfecting his Studio's animation, and Hiawatha was no exception. Despite Roy Disney's pleas to keep the budget on the shorts down, Walt was determined to implement experimental animation into the "Symphonies" as a means to prepare for Snow White. Hiawatha's layout artist, J. Gordon Legg, once referred to Walt's determination in connection to animator Ugo D'Orsi's brilliant waterfall effect (painted in oils!) at the opening of the 1937 short: "...he was like one thousand percent over budget," Legg shared. "When Walt saw the stuff on the screen, he said, 'That's beautiful, that's terrific, give him a bonus.' And he got a big fat bonus. Walt was interested in results....He was encouraging good work (Barrier, 2007)." (Interestingly enough, one could argue that Walt did get his money's worth after recycling D'Orsi's pricey waterfall in not one, but two animated shorts during the war era [Kaufman, 2009].) Following up with D'Orsi's lively, yet brief animation effects, one will also see the work of animators Louie Schmitt, Bob Wickersham, Eddie Strickland, future Disney storyman Dick Huemer, and "nine old men" Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston as assistants. Johnston and Thomas were very much at the beginning of their Disney careers in 1937, however, the latter's capabilities quickly caught the eye of Walt Disney. Thomas was very fortunate to have found a mentor in the great Disney animator, Fred Moore. In reference to Hiawatha, Thomas once shared, "Fred made beautiful drawings, I just copied them as best I could (Canemaker, 2001)." As John Canemaker points out, however, Thomas may have had assistance initially, but the characters' actions and reactions were a direct result of the animator's supreme skill.

When the story of Hiawatha projected onto theater screens in mid 1937, audiences of the time may have been surprised to hear narration at the beginning and ending of the short. The narrator's voice may be a mystery to us today, but many surely recognized it then as belonging to radio personality, Gayne Whitman. In fact, narrated commentary was a new addition to the animated form, beginning with the work of Tex Avery at Warner Bros. In an interview with Michael Barrier in 1971, animation and live action director Frank Tashlin makes reference to Avery's thoughts on Little Hiawatha:

As an example of how we [Warner Bros.] felt about Disney's, I remember that Tex had gone to a preview of a Disney cartoon called Little Hiawatha, in which they had narration at the opening. Tex was the first one ever to use narration in a cartoon, and I remember him coming in and saying, "They used narration; it kind of makes me feel good, you know." We were happy if Disney took something from us (Ghez, 2006).

Walt Disney was, indeed, the king of animation, and the work of Little Hiawatha was a very good representation of what the Studio was striving for. The animation, mystical background paintings, commentary, and musical score by Albert Hay Milotte carries one to a more earthly world. Tenggren's gothic-style is present in the overhanging roots and moss that cover the rocks, vines that entangle trunks of massive trees, and within dark and underlit shadows - all clearly emphasizing Hiawatha's tiny presence in a great and ancient forest. In fact, the environment that surrounds the little warrior is very similar to the one that surrounds Snow White in Tenggren's preliminary work for the feature film.

From the very beginning, Hiawatha's eagerness to become an experienced warrior is palpable. The very sight of an animal to hunt and kill sends the toddler-like native into a craze, as he frantically grabs for his bow and arrow. His impatience is endearing, and the sight of his pants falling down frequently throughout the film makes him quite a lovable character; not to mention some help from Milotte's humorous musical cues. The short's artistic connection with Snow White hits me subtly in many sequences; especially where the animals are concerned. The forest critters not only look almost identical to those in Snow White, but their importance to the story is very similar. One of the most powerful scenes is when Hiawatha attempts to kill a baby rabbit. To watch that little bunny tremble with fear, shed a tear, and then drop the bow and arrow that's offered to him is pathetic beyond words. If you closely watch Hiawatha, you can sense his frustration - torn between becoming a mighty hunter and caring for the animals he loves. The fact that he rationalizes the kill by offering the tiny rabbit a weapon to defend itself with, is a stroke of genius, as well as his change of body language after allowing the bunny to escape. His awkward stance and feeling of failure is immediately evident once the animals begin cheering; especially when he frantically looks over his shoulder to see if anyone bared witness to his disgrace. As the story reaches its climax, the little warrior is chased by a bear similar to the one who would appear in The Pointer (1939), and is rescued by several of the animals who would assist the dwarfs in Snow White. The animation picks up speed as a group of possum convincingly swing Hiawatha from one tree top to the next, and the story reaches its conclusion as Hiawatha rows up stream in his little canoe with some help from a family of beaver.

Two years after Little Hiawatha's release, the "Silly Symphonies" would run their course - yet again closing another chapter of Disney history. Film historian, Leonard Maltin, could be called the "Symphonies" number one supporter, and he does an incredible job hosting the two volumes of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD series devoted to the classic shorts (I highly recommend them to those interested). Despite many of them being politically incorrect by today's standards, I agree with Maltin when he suggests that these shorts should not be "swept under the rug." The "Symphonies" represent a time of growth at the Disney Studio - growth that changed the way we watched and enjoyed animated films. Little Hiawatha is no exception, and the lasting and timeless effect it has on those who watch it today not only proves its worth, but demands that it be shown to newer generations.

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