Friday, May 15, 2009

Johnny, Billy and Mickey . . . and the Beanstalk

It was an unexpected but welcome moment of happy serendipity. A vintage children's record adapted from the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment of the film Fun and Fancy Free.

Let me explain . . .

Over the course of the last decade or so, my musical tastes have drifted significantly back in time. More specifically, I've become enamored with pre-rock era popular music, most especially that which filled the airwaves during the 1940s and 1950s. Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, the Andrews Sisters, Louie Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald are just among many of the era's standout recording artists who have become staples on my iPod playlists.

Bing and Rosie are especially endearing to me. I grew up on annual holiday viewings of White Christmas, the 1954 film in which the two initiated their romantic musical chemistry. It would become a partnership that would extend to recordings, concert tours and even a daily CBS radio show, throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. Though history and popular culture will forever best associate the duo with White Christmas, the pair's crowning achievement, at least in my opinion, was their 1958 collaborative LP Fancy Meeting You Here.

I discovered Fancy Meeting You Here while browsing the Pop Standards category in a music store shortly after it was re-released in 2001. It was a revelation; a pop-jazz concept album that thematically traveled around the world, with Bing and Rosie vocalizing such songs as "On a Slow Boat to China," "It Happened in Monterey" and "Brazil." I have since discovered numerous other artists and music of that era, but Fancy Meeting You Here has become my personal favorite.

In my search for similar endeavors, I was introduced to the talents and musical productions of Billy May. One of the premiere individuals of the big band-era and beyond, May was a musician, composer and bandleader, but more relevant to this discussion, was the arranger for Bing and Rosie on Fancy Meeting You Here. He produced similar LPs featuring celebrity pairings. In 1960 he took Crosby and Louie Armstrong to New Orleans on the record Bing & Satchmo. My most recent Billy May discovery involved the 1961 teaming of Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer on the LP Two of a Kind.

Taking all this into account, you will then understand why I was positively joyful when I performed my weekly visit to the wonderful web site Kiddie Records Weekly. As the site's introductory page explains:

"Kiddie Records Weekly began in 2005 as a one year project devoted to the golden age of children's records. This period spanned from the mid forties through the early fifties and produced a wealth of all-time classics. Many of these recordings were extravagant Hollywood productions on major record labels and featured big time celebrities and composers. Over the years, these forgotten treasures slipped off the radar and it became our mission to give them a new lease on life by sharing them with today's generation of online listeners."

The selection this past week? Walt Disney's Mickey and the Beanstalk. But more importantly, Walt Disney's Mickey and the Beanstalk--as told by Johnny Mercer, with the original cast, and music by Billy May. Wow!

Certainly this "kiddie record" is by no means a musical masterpiece. But for me personally it was a fun moment of serendipity that I had not expected, and illustrated another connection between Walt Disney and the popular music scene during the 1940s. Similar connections abound more obviously in Disney's 1940s' package films Make Mine Music, Melody Time, Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Fun and Fancy Free, of which Beanstalk was a part. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were among the many recording artists who participated in those films. One of my other favorites, Louie Armstrong, recorded his own LP of Disney standards on Disney Songs the Satchmo Way, originally released in 1968.

If you haven't yet visited Kiddie Records Weekly, you are indeed in for a treat. Among its Disney-related offerings--The Story of Robin Hood, Tales of Uncle Remus, Pecos Bill, Saludos Amigos, Three Cabelleros, Bongo, Rob Roy, Mr. Toad, The Flying Mouse, So Dear to My Heart, Elmer Elephant, Melody, Your Trip to Disneyland, Dumbo, Cinderella and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Conversation With Joe Ranft

This interview with Pixar legend Joe Ranft will appear in a future volume of the “Walt’s People” book series that features interviews with people who worked at Disney. Disney historian Jim Korkis has been gracious enough to give us this advance peek at one of his shorter interviews as a way of reminding readers of 2719 Hyperion to check out this fantastic book series as well as the website of the editor of the series, Didier Ghez.

Special to 2719 Hyperion by Jim Korkis

Born in Pasadena, California (but raised in Whittier, California) on March 13, 1960, Joseph Henry “Joe” Ranft was an animator, storyboard artist and voice actor who worked for Disney and Pixar.

He studied character animation at California Institute of the Arts. His student film caught the attention of Disney where he worked starting in 1980 for the next years on a variety of television projects that never got made. He received additional training from Disney Legend Eric Larson as well as getting some improvisational theater training from a local Los Angeles group called the Groundlings. He did some story work on The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

Ranft had known John Lasseter at California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s and ended up joining Pixar in 1992. His first work included pitching and storyboarding the Green Army Men sequence for Toy Story. He worked on story development for all the Pixar feature films including some work on Cars.

Because of his performing background, he provided voices for some of the characters in the Pixar films: Lenny the Binoculars (Toy Story), Heimlich the Caterpillar (A Bug’s Life), Wheezy the Penguin (Toy Story 2), various incidental voices (Monsters, Inc.), Jacques the Shrimp (Finding Nemo), various incidental voices (The Incredibles) and Red and a Peterbilt (Cars).

He also contributed to many other films including The Brave Little Toaster, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monkeybone, and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.

On August 16,2005, Ranft was killed tragically when his car crashed through a guard rail and plunged into the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County, California. He died during the production of Cars which he co-directed.

On April 23, 1999, Joe was out on vacation with his family to Florida and had never been to Walt Disney World when he did a presentation for Disney Feature Animation Florida. He also dropped by the Disney Institute later that day and spent some time with the Animation Team. Jim Korkis was an Animation Instructor at the Disney Institute at the time and got to spend a little time with Joe.

One of Jim’s biggest thrills was introducing himself to Joe and Joe’s face lighting up as he shouted, “You write stuff!” He was familiar with the books on animation that Jim had co-written with John Cawley and Joe was gracious enough not only to autograph Jim’s copy of a book adapting A Bug’s Life but also sketched a drawing of Hemlich the caterpillar, the character he provide the voice for in the film in Jim’s book. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, like John Lasseter, Joe very graciously answered some of Jim’s questions as they talked casually before his presentation and it was very apparent Joe had a childlike enthusiasm for telling stories.

Jim Korkis: What are some hints you can share with us about storyboarding?

Joe Ranft: Storyboarding is really re-boarding. Your first idea is never good enough and you have to keep changing. In the two and half years we worked on A Bug’s Life we ended up with over 27,500 storyboard drawings we eventually used but tossed out tons of others.

JK: How can you tell whether you need to toss away a storyboard drawing?

JR: A good storyboard panel tells just one thing and is staged to tell just that one thing. How can you check? You put it on the board and walk away from it with your back towards it and then spin around quickly and look at it and see if it clearly tells what you want it to tell. And if you feel that you are lying to yourself, you bring someone else to look at it.

JK: What qualities make a good storyboard artist?

JR: A good storyman has to juggle so many things like acting, staging, and composition…all in one panel!

JK: How is it pitching a storyboard to John Lasseter?

JR: When you pitch, you might get John’s attention for maybe twenty minutes before he is reeling off suggestions like “let’s make that wider”, “do that from a different angle” and we are scrambling to take these quick notes on post-it notes and put it on the board.

JK: So is John pretty casual at these pitches?

JR: We have a storyboard reel with a caricature of John Lasseter wearing a purple sweatshirt instead of his Hawaiian shirt. That is the truth. For story meetings, John will wear a purple sweatshirt. And early in the morning, his hair isn’t quite combed. (laughs)

JK: You seem to use John Ratzenberg a lot.

JR: John Ratzenberg who did the voice of P.T. Flea is so wonderful that you can just send him a script and a tape and he could send you back a terrific performance. In the booth, after he did the lines as they were in the script, he’d say, “Let me give you it this way” and did some marvelous things. In the flea circus scene where he goes right to camera and says “in just fifteen seconds” was something he added and we went back and adjusted our boards. And his line where he introduces himself was his improv and he said it came from an old radio show.

JK: You’re pretty modest but you’ve done some great voice work as well like Hemlich in A Bug’s Life.

JR: I think I got Hemlich because of John Lasseter’s wife. She laughed when I did the lines but didn’t when they brought in this professional actor to do them. My son, Joe, did a kid ant voice in A Bug’s Life. Doing all these voices, I had to join the Screen Actor’s Guild.

JK: I know you sometimes do “incidental voices” as well. Did you do any on A Bug’s Life?

JR: I did some incidental voices like the flies that say “Burn him again” and “I’ve only got twenty-four hours to live and I’m not spending it here.”

JK: Do you do those voices for your kids as well?

JR: I read stories to my kids and I do the funny voices and sometimes they tell me to stop doing the voices and just read the story.

JK: Do you script the outtakes that appear at the end of the film for the voice actors?

JR: The outtakes are done on the last day of voice recording for each actor if time permitted. They were not boarded but quick sketch suggestions were done of some of them. Some of them obviously were for adults so we purposely tried to include some slapstick bits for the kids. Those are my favorites.

JK: I understand the story began in a different direction for “A Bug’s Life”.

JR: Originally, the story of A Bug’s Life was supposed to be about a red ant named “Red” who ran the circus instead of P.T. Flea but they hit a stonewall in terms of developing the story.

JK: The final story seems similar to The Magnificent Seven.

JR: We get asked if the film was influenced by The Magnificient Seven and all I can say is that all the guys at Pixar are big film buffs and I also see some elements from The Three Amigos but that story falls apart for me when they are discovered not to be gunfighters. We solved that problem by coming up with the bird device storyline after the revelation. Of course, the original inspiration was the story of The Grasshopper and the Ants.

JK: Anything you remember getting cut from the film after it was in production?

JR: On the original boards, the circus bugs were doing all sorts of things offstage that eventually got cut because the scene was so long. For instance, the spider is practicing weaving the safety web within fifteen seconds while Dim times her and it is a terrible mess. “Are you sure it was fifteen seconds?” “Let me check.” “You have to check whether it was fifteen seconds?”

The praying mantis was much harsher in ignoring his wife, Gypsy. “Haven’t you forgotten half your act?” she asks extending her hand to be kissed. He replies, “You are right” and he comes back and grabs his turban to put on his head.

In the arena, when Hemlich sees the kid flies with the candy corn and offers to help them finish it, the line on the storyboard was “Get out of here, Fatso” which was cut from the film.

JK: Joe, thanks for spending time with us today. This is great.

JR: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Walt In Hollywoodland

Fifty-five years before the Disney-MGM Studios welcomed its first visitors in 1989, Walt Disney and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had previously come together in an interesting, but now extremely obscure moment during Hollywood’s golden age.

You see, Mickey Mouse had star billing in an MGM movie. And he shared the credits with the likes of Jimmy Durante, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges.

MGM commissioned Disney to create an animated sequence for its 1934 film Hollywood Party. Disney had animated short sequences for two Fox films in the same time period--a dream sequence in the 1934 film Servant’s Entrance, and a futuristic vignette in 1933’s My Lips Betray. What made Hollywood Party different was the use of then uber-star Mickey, and a cartoon story that was essentially a transplanted Silly Symphony. It was Disney entertainment, just not in a Disney Studio-produced movie.

As to the context of Disney producing material for other studios, author Michael Barrier noted in his book Hollywood Cartoons:

"In the early thirties, Disney ventured briefly into making animated inserts for two live-action features, Servants' Entrance and Hollywood Party, both released in 1934. He evidently saw such work as a way to ease into the making of his own features, but the inserts turned out to be more a source of irritation than of profit of any kind. Such sponsored films were inherently problematic, in Disney's scheme of things, because they were not under his control in the way that his shorts and features were. Once the feature inserts were behind him, Disney shunned most sponsored films."

Hollywood Party is a “revue” movie, a type that was popular during the 1930s. It was essentially a series of song and dance and comedy vignettes, strung together by a very, very loose, and at times non-existent plot. At the center is comedian Jimmy Durante who is hosting a lavish party with a star-studded guest list. While names like Jack Pearl, Polly Moran or June Clyde don’t ring many bells these days, the faces of Durante, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Larry, Moe and Curly are still instantly recognizable.

Mickey quickly takes center stage when party guests start screaming “A mouse! A mouse!” Durante quickly comes to the rescue and suddenly finds himself at odds with the famous character, who is actually in “mouse scale” with the surrounding humans. Mickey is distinctly in his feisty, early 1930s personality, taking a swing at Durante and then mocking the star’s trademark oversized nose. He wins over the surrounding party guests who demand more entertainment from the little guy. Mickey then introduces a sequence very much akin to a Silly Symphony. The movie shifts from black and white to brilliant Technicolor to present The Hot Choc-Late Soldiers.

The Hot Choc-Late Soldiers is a bit bizarre in its story of candy-themed characters marching off and ultimately fighting a war. The action involves a Trojan War-themed combat with the Gingerbread Men of Pastryland. It is especially wacky when the injured soldiers return home, with battlefield injuries dressed in candy stylings (a missing leg is replaced with a candy cane stump for instance).

It is not far removed from the studio’s own Silly Symphony Cookie Carnival produced in 1935. But while Cookie Carnival had the typical Disney happy ending, Soldiers ends on a note of humorous morbidity when the sun comes out and melts the celebrating victors.

Walt would quickly cease in producing material for other studios, and focus instead on his own plans for feature length films. And likely because the endeavors were owned by Fox and MGM, who had little interest in preserving Disney content, they have all but faded into obscurity. Hollywood Party had a brief VHS release in 1992.

The sequence from Servant's Entrance miraculously surfaced last year courtesy of Didier Ghez, who writes the always informative and wonderful Disney History blog. Didier secured a copy and has generously made it available via YouTube and his site. The animation features kitchen utensils, led by a Humpty Dumpty-style egg character in a musical vignette that quite deftly for its time mixed live action and animation.

According to the IMDB, only an incomplete print of My Lips Betray survives in the UCLA Film and Television Archives.