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The Woodpecker and the Mouse : THE WALTER LANTZ STORY WITH WOODY WOODPECKER AND FRIENDS by Joe Adamson (Putnam's: $19.95; 254 pp., illustrated) and DISNEY'S WORLD by Leonard Mosley (Stein & Day: $18.95; 330 pp., illustrated)

December 29, 1985|Charles Solomon | Solomon serves as animation programmer for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

These two animation books represent the extremes of show business biography: One is uncritical, authorized; the other, an unremitting exercise in ax-grinding.

Walter Lantz spent nearly 60 years in the animation industry: Beginning as a camera operator at Hearst's International Film Service in 1916, he became a producer with a studio of his own (only he and Disney owned their films). Known throughout the world as the creator of Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda and Chilly Willy, Lantz enjoyed a reputation as a gentle maverick. He was the only producer who could draw his characters and who employed a woman as a full-fledged animator.

In this anecdotal portrait of the man and his films, Adamson sometimes gets carried away by his enthusiasm for old Hollywood, and indulges in extravagant run-on sentences. He also glosses over such potentially embarrassing topics as the use of ethnic stereotypes in animated films and composer Darrel Calker's practice of hiring down-and-out jazz musicians to record cartoon sound tracks "for spare change."

Lantz and his wife, Gracie (who provided Woody's voice for many years), emerge from these pages as kindly individuals who have devoted their later years to charity work. Fans of Woody Woodpecker will enjoy this affectionate study of his creator. For some reason, all the illustrations are in black and white: Surely a character as colorful as Woody deserved more.

Walt Disney's contributions to animation and American popular culture were so significant and all-pervasive that it is difficult to judge them objectively. The attempts range from Bob Thomas' official biography, "Walt Disney: An American Original," which borders on hagiography, to Richard Schickel's fiercely critical, "The Disney Version." Leonard Mosley, in this latest account, seems intent on proving that Walt was the meanest SOB who ever put an image onto film. Drawing on questionable and undocumented evidence, he portrays Disney as a cold, asexual, abusive, practical joker. (And fails to explain how such a man could command the enduring loyalty of the artists who supposedly served as his victims.)

It seems incredible that anyone who knows so little about animation would attempt to write a biography of Walt Disney. Virtually every page contains some error that demonstrates Mosley's ignorance of the history, techniques and aesthetics of the medium. The mistakes range from the trivial (misspelling the name of Winsor McCay, the artist generally regarded as the father of American animation) to the bizarre (accounts of non-existent scenes in films; for example, "the cobweb sequence" in "Alice in Wonderland").

Mosley attributes "character creations and drawings" of Maid Marian in "Robin Hood" to animator Fred Moore, although the film didn't go into production until 1970--18 years after Moore's death. Mosley describes the Disney strike of 1941 as having "ruined" the career of Art Babbitt, one of the studio's top animators. Yet Babbitt subsequently became a director at UPA and won more than 80 awards for his work in commercials.

In an eclipsing display of inaccuracy, Mosley informs the reader that an ink and paint girl "had the tricky job of copying the animators' drawings with ink and paint onto the actual celluloid of the film." That would be tricky work, indeed. What ink and paint artists really do is trace the animators' drawings onto clear sheets of acetate called "cels." The cels are then laid over the backgrounds and photographed to produce the finished film. Only a few experimental animators like Norman McLaren and Len Lye ever drew directly onto the celluloid film stock.

These errors make it difficult for the reader to take Mosley's interpretations and judgments seriously. And for an author credited with 27 books (including 11 biographies), he is extraordinarily casual about documentation. To support his contentions, Mosley quotes private conversations that took place more than 50 years ago between men who have been dead for more than a decade--without citing the source of these quotations. Although presented as "an essential--as well as an essentially American--biography," the book contains no bibliography, only a ludicrously incomplete filmography and an equally inadequate list of Disney animators and their work.

Film historians estimate that more has been written about Walt Disney than any other figure in the history of motion pictures except Charlie Chaplin. "Disney's World" contributes nothing to that literature, and actually detracts from it by propagating misinformation.

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