Dec 7, 2005

one sketch--long caption: Fred Moore musings

I've got this thing for Fred Moore.

Yes, me and about 5,000 other animation geeks, professional and otherwise.
Fred: by all accounts a likeable, ordinary guy with a natural drawing ability and a predilection for cartooning women in a style all his own-immmediately recognizable. His achievments include redesigning Mickey Mouse into the appealingly boyish character he became, and likewise refined and animated much of the dwarfs in "Snow White".
Like most artists what he drew somehow seemed to physically resemble him and took on his brash, pixilated personality. When I became aware of him there was nothing at all about him in print, save one or two lines and drawings in the Finch book, "The Art Of Walt Disney", but the appeal of those was enough to make me determine to find out more about him. A brief conversation with Ward Kimball started me on the best treasure hunt of my life: Ward suggested I call Ken O'Brien at WED("He was a big fan of Fred's", Ward drawled with more than a hint of amusement). I did, and interviewed Ken, as well as Art Babbitt, Ollie Johnston, Larry Clemmons, Carl Urbano(who'd gone to high school with Fred and his brother), and of course, Ward himself.

These were priceless experiences, a kind of time travel. My motivating question, "what happened to Fred Moore?" was answered very quickly. I knew beforehand that he'd died very young in a car accident, but the greater mystery for me--as it's been to many other animation lovers--was why someone with such sterling provenance and amazing talent had faded so fast fom the pinnacle he reached at Disney's in 1933-39. The brief answer, well known today, is that his talent and his health were ruined by alcoholism, but that's a bald-fact answer to a complicated set of circumstances. What I really learned from Fred's former colleagues was quite a lot about the optimism, opportunities, genius and frustrations of more or less inventing your own job description--as Fred did. He seemed to be as intuitive an artist as it was possible to be: self-taught, self-improving, an innate sense of the ever-elusive "appeal" so desirable in all things drawn and gestured, a natural grace.

When sitting across from these titans of animation, asking about Fred and Disney's, I was very young, a teenager, and I couldn't grasp all of the adult nuances of the business of animation then as I could now. I do remember coming away from hours spent with Ward and Art feeling as though I were in a trance. Clearly, to have one's heart's desire and animate at the best studio in the world during the "golden age" wasn't all a bed of roses. This seems absurdly obvious now, but even though I had a pretty good idea of history, I just didn't have the life experience to interpret it at 18. Many times I've wished I could go back and do it all over again, but sadly all but one of my generous interviewees are dead.

Ward, Art and Ken O'Brien (Fred's assistant in the early 40s at Disney; he was loyal to Fred to the extent that when Moore was fired in 1946, O'Brien quit too, and accompanied Fred to Lantz' studio for two years) all lent me materials to copy; Ward showed me some of his incredible collection of hilarious drawings, collected in voluminous scrapbooks. Several books--fat as phone directories--contained nothing but daily (often hourly) gag drawings of Fred, Ward and Walt Kelly by Kelly himself (curiously not nearly as many that Kimball saved were by Kimball--or perhaps those were in other books).
Some of them I've seen in other people's collections(Mike Giaimo brought one of the Fred/Ward/Kelly series in to show our first year character design class, which he taught at CalArts in 1987-88), so Ward made multiple copies of his favorites which he'd photographed for me to use in an article I wrote for the last gasp of "Funnyworld"...alas, it gave up the ghost before the issue went to press. I've often wondered what exactly I should do with this article; it's certainly got a larger niche to fill now than it did then.
For the moment, though, I'll just post this one classic sketch of an unforgettable episode circa 1940 or so. Ward brought a stag film to work--supposedly because Kelly asserted he'd never seen one. Kimball couldn't let that go unanswered, so he brought in a 16mm special: "The Plumber". The resulting drawing shows the various reactions to this brief entertainment, as Kelly drew it. Ward told me Fred was disgusted and shook his head, grousing, "I like it the old-fashioned way!" (a quote forever burned into my memory). Surely Ward's attitude is a wee bit exaggerated here. Kelly, of course, expresses shock. And Ward assured me this was pretty basic stuff, not to mention a terrible print. Boys will be la change!


Ward Jenkins said...

Wow, what a great post, Jen! Yes, I'm one of the many who consider Fred to be one of my top influences. There is practically nothing about him on the web, and little in print, save for a couple of paragraphs about him in The Illusion of Life. An enigma and a mystery all wrapped up into one, Fred has such a flare for the appeal in the line, it's astounding. Amazing talent. So sad that he passed pretty early on.

Thanks for sharing with us your thoughts and research on the man. Would love to see you resurrect that article here on your blog. Would make for some good reading.

Jenny said...

Thanks, Ward! Your friendly notes are always appreciated!
Man, I simply have got to resurrect that damn article! It's been a hell of long time...and a blog is probably the perfect place for it, as the piece will find its audience. And here we are, twentysome years down the pike, and the first thing most of my animation colleagues know about Fred are various wild(and often innacurate--not their fault) stories about his untimely death! That, and of course, the GIRLS. I've got two Freddie large watercolors I should well as some pre-Disney stuff.