“Nine Old Men” Opens at Walt Disney Family Museum (Part 1: The History)

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Part 1: The History

 

A 1972 publicity photo of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men: Top row (L to R): Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston. Bottom Row (L to R): Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery.

Walt Disney was a federalist of sorts. He liked to cast his creations and organization in a league with those of great nations.

He said he commanded the eighth largest submarine fleet in the world at Disneyland. Disneyworld would be twice as big as the island of Manhattan.

When it came to his Animation Directors, he called them his Nine Old Men. A reference to President Roosevelts’ Supreme Court Justices.

The Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presideo of San Francisco has opened what may be it’s most ambitious exhibition to date, a survey of the personal and professional work of Disney’s Animating Directors – The Nine Old Men. The show is now open and will run until January 7, 2019.

Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men were:

Les Clark  joined Disney in 1927. His specialty was animating Mickey Mouse and he was the only one of the nine to work on that character from its origins as an assistant to Ub Iwerks. Clark was known for his ability to time his animation to musical scores as well as his ability to convey emotion in his work. Les was promoted to Animator and was tasked with the ground breaking, first Silly Symphony, The Skeleton Dance. After Iwerks left Disney, Clark was given the position as lead animator on Mickey Mouse. Les to did many scenes throughout the years, animating up until Lady and the Tramp. He moved into directing and made many animated featurettes and shorts. The final film that Clark worked on was One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Les Clark (United States, 1907–1979) Mickey Mouse character model study, The Band Concert (1935); Collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, Ward Kimball collection, © Disney.

Marc Davis started in 1935 on Snow White, and later he went on to develop and animate the characters of Bambi and Thumper, Maleficent, Aurora and the raven (in Sleeping Beauty), and Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmations. His fondness for collecting art while traveling internationaly, indirectly led him to three dimensional design for attractions at Disneyland, including the Jungle Cruise additions in the mid 1960s. His talent for “easy to read” tableau is indelible in iconic scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Marc’s final film was One Hundred and One Dalmations in 1961. His final WDI project was America Sings in 1974.

Marc Davis (United States, 1913–2000) Maleficent animation drawing, Sleeping Beauty (1959); Courtesy of Andreas Deja, © Disney.

Frank Thomas started at Disney in 1934. His work included the wicked Stepmother (Cinderella), the Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland), and Captain Hook (Peter Pan). He is also known for animating technically intricate scenes, such as Pinocchio as Stromboli’s prisoner in a swinging birdcage. Frank was also a member of El Grupo – the cadre of Disney Studio Artists that accompanied Walt on a film making excursion to South America. His final film work was in The Fox and the Hound in 1981.

Frank Thomas (United States, 1912–2004) Jock and Lady sketches, Lady and the Tramp (1955); Courtesy of Andreas Deja, © Disney

Ollie Johnston  Joining Disney in 1935, he first worked on Snow White. His career work includes Mr. Smee (in Peter Pan), the Stepsisters (in Cinderella), Ichabod Crane (in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad), and Prince John (in Robin Hood). Johnston also animated the Centauretts in Fantasia. In the process he borrowed the look of many Freddie Moore feminine creations. Contributing to the ongoing adoption of Moore’s overall influence on the studio’s visual lexicon. His final film work was also for The Fox and the Hound.

His nearly lifelong friendship with his co-worker and next door neighbor Frank Thomas, led to their authorship of The Illusion of Life, a premier animation text. Their continuing writing partnership seemingly morphed them nearly into a single named, two-headed, animated character among their many students and fans: FrankN’Ollie. Their partnership is fondly presented in the documentary Frank and Ollie, written and directed by Thomas’ son Theodore.

Ollie Johnston (United States, 1912–2008) Bernard character studies, The Rescuers (1977); Courtesy of Andreas Deja, © Disney

Milt Kahl started in 1934 working on Snow White. His work included heroes such as Pinocchio, Tigger (in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), Peter Pan (in Peter Pan), and Slue-Foot Sue (in Melody Time) and villains such as Madam Mim (in The Sword in the Stone), Shere Khan (in The Jungle Book), Edgar, the butler (in The Aristocats), the Sheriff of Nottingham (in Robin Hood), and Madame Medusa (in The Rescuers). His final film work was character design for The Fox and the Hound.

Milt Kahl (United States, 1909–1987) Mowgli dances with King Louie rough animation drawing, The Jungle Book (1967); Courtesy of Andreas Deja, © Disney

Ward Kimball joined Disney in 1934. His work includes Jiminy Cricket (in Pinocchio), Lucifer, Jaq and Gus (in Cinderella), and the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat (in Alice in Wonderland). His work was often more unique, and ‘wilder’ than the other Disney animators. He was tapped by Walt Disney to direct the Man In Space sequences for the Disneyland television series in the mid – 1950s, developing a previously unseen style of limited animation. Ward Kimball won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for It’s Tough to Be a Bird in 1970.

Ward Kimball (United States, 1914–2002) Jiminy cleanup model sheet photostat, 1939, Pinocchio (1940); Collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, Ward Kimball Collection, © Disney

Eric Larson joined in 1933. Overtime he gravitated toward characters with featured songs like  Peg, (voiced by Peggy Lee in Lady and the Tramp; and tipped his age with the Beatle-esq vultures in The Jungle Book. He also brought believability to fantasy during Peter Pan’s flight over London . He gave life to Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear in Song of the South. Though rarely seen in modern times, still strongly considered to be among the best Disney character animation. Because of his demeanor and ability to spot new talent, He was given the position of trainer at Disney in the 1970s. Many of the top animators at Disney over the last handful of decades were trained by Larson in the ’70s and ’80s.

John Lounsbery started in 1935, working under Norm ‘Fergy’ Ferguson, where he quickly became a star animator. Lounsbery, affectionately known as ‘Louns’ by his fellow animators, was an incredibly strong draftsman who inspired many animators over the years. His animation was noted for its’ great appeal, bringing old timey, squash and stretch techniques forward into the classic era features. Lounsbery animated J. Worthington Foulfellow and Gideon in Pinocchio; Ben Ali Gator in Fantasia; George Darling in Peter Pan; Tony, Joe, and some of the dogs in Lady and the Tramp; Kings Stefan and Hubert in Sleeping Beauty; The Elephants in The Jungle Book; and many others. In the 1970s, Louns was promoted to Director and co-directed Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, and his last film, The Rescuers.

John Lounsbery (United States, 1911–1976) Captain Hook animation drawing, Peter Pan (1953); Courtesy of Andreas Deja, © Disney

Wolfgang Reitherman joined Disney in 1935 as an animator and director. He became known for scenes of awesome, sometimes unworldly power. He produced all the animated Disney films after Walt’s death until his retirement; In the 1950s, Reitherman was promoted to the job of director. He also directed a sequence in Sleeping Beauty which featured Prince Phillip’s escape from Maleficent’s castle and his eventual battle against her as a terrible fire-breathing dragon. His work also includes Monstro (in Pinocchio), The Headless Horseman (in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad), and Chernabog, the other worldly antagonist in Fantasia.

Wolfgang Reitherman (Germany, 1909–1985) Monstro cleanup animation drawing, Pinocchio (1940); Courtesy of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, © Disney

All of the Nine Old Men have been acknowledged as Disney Legends.

Part Two will be a preview of the Nine Old Men exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum.  Including personal work. Coming Soon.

Which of the Nine Old Men’s work appeals most to you? Do you have certain “favorite parts” of classic Disney animated films that are attributed to any of “the Nine?”

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About the author

TimPat McRaven

Deejay Middlebrow is an American disc jockey who has been selected by a secretive group to curate the Radio Free Disneyland Podcast.

1 Comment

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  • Ward Kimball is my favorite. A long-awaited biography of him by Amid Amidi is scheduled to finally come out sometime in the second half of 2018.

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