By James Earp
Walt Disney was what used to be referred to as a “walk-around manager.” Old timers often spoke about the vague disquiet that arose upon settling in at their animation tables first thing in the morning to find little squeans of cigarette ash on random surfaces (desks, credenzas, file cabinets)—an unmistakable sign that the boss had swung by afterhours to look over your recent output. His ability to manage the intimidating stable of talent he had assembled was key to Disney’s achievement.
The Life and Times of Ward Kimball: Maverick of Disney Animation (University Press of Mississippi), Todd James Pierce’s new biography of the animator, railroad enthusiast, and jazz trombonist, is the first in a projected series of extensive, self-contained biographies of each of the “nine old men” (Les, Marc, Ollie, Milt, Ward, Eric, John, Frank, and Wolfgang), the core group of artists who, under the supervision of their complex, restless boss, laid the foundations for what would become the most formidable entertainment behemoth of the 21st century.
A professor of literature at Cal Poly and boasting a hefty catalogue of publications in his own right, Pierce has set himself a daunting task even for someone practiced in Disneyana studies. Here’s hoping he gets whatever grants and sabbaticals he’ll need to complete it; the professional and personal interplay among this cast of vivid, formidably skilled and preternaturally talented, inveterately interesting characters at that point in American History is a tantalizing prospect. The whole shebang, woven together through nine volumes, could add a new dimension to our understanding of the tumultuous dawn and maturation of the Disney organization, and a unique perspective on the nexus of commerce and national identity through four of the country’s most transformative decades.
In straightforward, objective prose, Pierce reconstructs the emergent America in which Kimball was born, grew up, and, through unsurpassed mastery of his pencil yoked to a delicate balance of subservience and friendship, ascended to a position of influence with one of the 20th century’s most powerful influencers. While he documents Kimball’s life and times panoramically, Pierce shows keen appreciation of Kimball’s very complex art, generally focusing on the development of creative solutions to technical and aesthetic problems. Pierce’s book also presents a finely drawn, lucid account of the inner workings of the Disney organization—its complex hierarchy, its stew of comradery, rivalry, friendships, antagonisms, alliances, exhilaration, malcontent, and the incessant, pervasive internecine warfare within its walls—all of it agreeably devoid of pixie dust.
However effectively these men worked as a unit, they remained individuals, each in his own way brilliant, supremely talented, imaginative, insecure, whimsical, cranky, egotistic, inquisitive, all of them inveterately hard-working—and Ward Kimball was as individual as they got.
Bruce and Mary Kimball of Minneapolis were struggling when Ward was born in 1914, a struggle that continued with the arrivals of Ward’s sister and a younger brother. Bruce’s dreams of becoming an attorney or inventor had withered by the time Ward made his appearance, and after an eclectic series of jobs (manager of an indoor swimming pool, donut maker) he had become an itinerate Midwestern territory salesman for the National Cash Register Company. Prosperity remained elusive, and one nine-below-zero morning in Parsons, Kansas, Bruce declared his intention to move the family to California. There, Ward’s natural talents, encouraged early on by his family, found fertile ground for cultivation in Southern California schools, culminating in his enrollment in the Santa Barbara School for the Arts.
Most of the faculty at Santa Barbara held Hollywood, in contempt as collaborative and therefore antithetical to the aims and purposes of a serious artist—an easy opinion to hold from a secure faculty chair. Their thinking was nonetheless in line with that of Kimball, who still entertained ambitions of becoming a fine artist. The purist position was at length undermined, however, by Kimball’s observations during his tenure as leader of a children’s band that assembled for weekly gatherings of the Mickey Mouse club at the Fox Arlington Theatre, where songs were sung and animated cartoons were screened. Watching pictures like The Three Little Pigs and Father Noah’s Ark, enthralled, while yet holding tenuously to dreams of membership in the New York art establishment (probably as a painter of landscapes) Kimball began to perceive artistic ambitions at work in the cartoons (animal movement studies, interesting palette combinations in the service of narrative mood, other effective absorptions of technology) that seemed to have escaped his art school professors.
Out of school at the bottom of the depression, back home and wearying of side-eye from his father, Kimball happened on a Disney recruitment ad in Popular Mechanics calling for “trained male artists.” Desperate, he took his portfolio, uninvited, to the Hyperion Street studio; lucky, he was hired when he implored a secretary to have someone look at it, and that someone at hand turned out to be Walt.
Starting in 1934 at the bottom-rung position of in-betweener, Kimball weathered the ferocious attrition rate among new hires owing to a myriad of hazards—the trial-by-fire sniping of ambitious colleagues; jealous, inconsistently competent supervisors; low wages, and the high standards of Disney and his most trusted lieutenants— until he graduated to assistant, then full animator. His first star turn was in Woodland Café (1937, an extravagant Cotton Club sendup with bugs), wherein he caricatured Cab Calloway as a jive band-leading grasshopper. He rapidly moved up to work Snow White (1937, Dwarfs), Pinocchio (1940, J. Cricket, whom Kimball is on record as having hated animating (“All those ovals!”), Dumbo (1941, Dumbo, Timothy, the wonderful if problematic crows), Fantasia (1940, Bacchus, Jacchus), and Cinderella (1950, mice Jaq and Gus; Lucifer the cat). Along the way, Kimball’s lofty artistic ambitions fell victim to the tremendous amount of fun he found himself having with his work. He also discovered that animation offered ever more available outlets for a sense of humor whose liveliness verged on the Promethean.
The broad comedy perfected and liberally if deftly applied in the shorts had been relatively soft-pedaled in the features, but that changed during the upheavals of the early and mid-40’s. The domestic box office under-performance of Pinocchio and Fantasia (the European market for which was decimated by impending war) simultaneous with the traumatic animator’s strike of 1941 obliterated much of the comparative good will inside the animation division. As global conflict loomed, the United States War Department came calling with strong ideas about what a fine communications tool animation of such a high caliber could be, and surely Mr. Disney as a loyal American would be only too glad to place his staff and facilities at the service of armed forces education and morale, et cetera (Victory Through Air Power and others).
These turns of fortune obliged Disney to adopt a stopgap roster of omnibus features consisting of what were essentially loosely packaged shorts (Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time) or live-action features enveloping a limited amount of animation (Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart). Compared to the meticulously planned, lavishly produced and technically innovative features of the thirties and early 1940’s, the new projects were cheaply produced on shortened production schedules (a result of lessons learned during the production of Dumbo, the studio’s first solid box-office success since Snow White), and the visual burden was shifted to the character animators. Kimball and his colleagues responded by delivering character work of unprecedented sophistication and virtuosity, but this approach brought with it new liabilities. Now Kimball’s disposition for extreme, antic comedy was given free rein, and the headlong rush from gag to gag became a company-wide aesthetic unto itself. More and more, narrative tended to be lost in beautifully executed but flailing stretches of slapstick choreography. This maelstrom of movement continued apace for the next ten years, securely ensconced by the time feature production resumed, with Peter Pan (1953; Kimball animated Captain Hook, among other Neverlanders) a case in point.
Another mostly unwelcome newfangle was an ill-conceived overreliance on the narrative crutch of voiceovers, performed with varying degrees of patronization and arch vocalization that sent any hint of subtext scampering for the undergrowth. Dinah Shore is pleasant enough in the “Bongo” half of Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Nelson Eddy isn’t bad in his double duty as narrator and singing voice of “Willie, the Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met,” an odd, affecting little fable comprising one episode of Make Mine Music, in 1946 (Willie the Whale’s Pagliacci has to be seen to be believed, the climax of whose featured aria obliges the entire Metropolitan Opera audience to deploy umbrellas), and one of Kimball’s more idiosyncratic outings. Eddy and Shore are exceptions, though. Sterling Holloway, a delightful character actor whose familiar voice was apparently developed via a diet supplemented with talcum powder, renders what should be an entirely enchanting “Peter and the Wolf” (also Make Mine Music) all but unwatchable by way of a labored, bust-you-on-the-nose, listen-and-watch-while-I-tell-you-what-you’re-seeing script. True, Prokofiev provided narration for his composition, but we are left to wonder why no one considered that the shouldering of visualization duties by the studio might require paring down the Prokofiev script, rather than egregiously padding it. Worse is Bing Crosby, buh-buh-buh-booing with surpassing inappropriateness over “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad 1949), though he mercifully shuts up for Kimball’s suspenseful, hilarious pursuit of Ichabod Crane by the Headless Horseman.
Kimball’s sensibilities are at their most untethered in the “Pecos Bill” segment of Melody Time (1948), which exemplifies both the heights and depths of the Disney aesthetic during this period. It relies heavily on voice narration provided by Roy Rogers, relegating the characters to pantomime (not that that’s a bad thing). This opens kinetic possibilities Kimball exploits brilliantly but, for all its precisely focused wit and energy, simply isn’t very funny. This shortcoming is compensated somewhat by the rambunctious beauty of its movement. Besides the exploits of the ur-cowpoke, the segment opens with a prologue, “Blue Shadows on the Trail,” sung by Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers—an affectionate, altogether charming ‘toon dream of the desert at night that by itself mitigates the more cloying aspects of Melody Time.
Walt’s interest in animation flagged (though it, of course, never died) following the strikes and commandeering of the 40’s, and the old enthusiasm was redirected to the development of amusement parks. This too was at least in part to Kimball’s influence. Once his livelihood seemed established, Kimball had accoutered his back yard in San Gabriel with a full-sized, painstakingly restored and fully operational steam locomotive, run on 500 feet of track laid across three scrubby acres. Kimball had infected both Ollie Johnson and Disney with the train bug, and as the contagion spread, model railroads had gradually become a feature of the animation facility, followed by trains of various configurations routed to service as a prominent feature of the park.
With a new vision of the films and soon, television as a synchronous component of marketing for Disneyland, the features were no longer priorities (though windfalls such as the True-Life Adventures happened along from time to time), but there was still enough work that Kimball and the other members of the nine were kept busy, even if absent the prestige of the earlier films. Most of the nine made the transition to television with varying degrees of satisfaction, but Kimball found ample acreage to cultivate new, ever more exotic produce. Confronting the unpleasant specter of “limited animation” arising from some of the new facilities arising from the ashes left by the strike, he produced and directed an imaginative documentary on music, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953), winning, coincidentally, the Academy Award for animated short that year, and with which Walt was so taken that he told Kimball not to do anything like it again. The tide of limitation was inexorable, though, and ultimately even Walt was forced, if not to embrace the new style, then at least to tolerate it. Kimball managed a few more excursions along limited lines; the last of these, It’s Tough to be a Bird, (1969), won another Oscar.
He did a lot of work as well on Disneyland, the weekly electronic brochure for the park airing Sunday nights on ABC, most of it in the form of freewheeling documentaries now usually categorized under the heading “infotainment.” They’re mostly enjoyable, and a few of them are downright startling. Werner Von Braun was persuaded to appear, explaining salient aspects of what was then known about space travel for a couple of installments of the “space trilogy,” light, larky reportage on nascent American efforts toward space exploration. The last of these, “Mars and Beyond” includes a brief segment speculating on alien life, exhibiting “what-if” specimens of mixed-media animated Martian fauna. Some of these are as coldly creepy as anything that has slithered across the screen since Alien. Kimball also has the distinction of having made the only animated film independently produced by a member of the nine. Escalation is a savage, phallic take down of Lyndon Johnson and his adventure in Vietnam. Walt, laid to rest two years previous, would not have approved.
The ability to attract talented artists, cultivate their impressive stores of raw talent (talent invariably attended by an at minimum proportionate ego), then to train them to a company culture and inspire loyalty—often underpaying them, sometimes egregiously, while simultaneously denying them any royalties to work whose durability was to prove as extraordinary as it is inarguable—is an ability which in Walter Elias Disney surpassed just about everybody since Charlemagne.
Kimball survived and for the most part thrived during a lifelong career in the Disney organization despite marked tendencies toward iconoclasm and overt egalitarian sympathies. Walt Disney wasn’t blind to these characteristics; indeed it was his clarity of vision that protected Kimball, whose expertise was so unquestionable that his boss tolerated his idiosyncrasies in a shop about which Walt had a habit of bragging that he himself could not have held a job.
Bravo, Dr. Pierce. Well done! Only eight more to go. Get cracking.
The Life and Times of Ward Kimball: Maverick of Disney Animation
By Todd James Pierce
University Press of Mississippi