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"The Marc Davis Lecture on Animation" - Part One

Tickets to the event
My tickets for the event

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization responsible for the Oscars, hosts a variety of screenings and lectures every year for students, professionals, and members of the public to promote the art of motion pictures. They're really cool.

One of these annual events is the Marc Davis Lecture on Animation, which began in 1994. This year's lecture, held April 28th, was a tribute to Marc Davis himself, who passed away on January 12th. It was a fascinating insight into the life and career of a great artist and Disney legend who contributed to some of animation's highest achievements.

While being seated, the audience was treated to music from many of the films and theme park attractions that Marc Davis contributed to - including "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "Peter Pan," "Alice in Wonderland," "Song of the South," America Sings, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Each piece of music evoked memories of characters and images created by Marc.

Academy President Robert Rehme (whom you might remember from some of the boring parts of the Oscar shows) welcomed everyone to the evening's festivities. He immediately thanked Alice Davis, Marc's wife, for her contribution to the program - and the first of many bursts of applause for her began.

He then introduced the evening's first event - a very emotional and enlightening video retrospective of Marc's life and work, narrated in his own words.

Apart from all the other speakers and film clips to be presented that evening - the video alone was a thorough tribute to Marc. It was illustrated with still and moving images... some adorable baby pictures; a very funny close up of young Marc in an explorer's pith helmet; Marc on a scooter in the hallway at Imagineering (looking VERY out of place); and several pictures of him at various Disney events - surrounded by cast members.

In the video, Marc told his story... "I lived all over this country. My father was a rainbow chaser, and he went to many, many different towns looking for the end of the rainbow. So I went to 23 different schools before I was out of high school. So, to amuse myself when I wasn't aquatinted in these towns - you know, new place, new school, new people - I would draw just to entertain myself."

Marc wrote a letter to the Walt Disney Studio, looking for work - but apparently the head of personnel at Disney misread his name. "He wrote, 'Miss Davis, at the present time we're not hiring any women artists. At such time as we do, we will let you know.' And I wadded it up, threw it in the wastebasket. I've hated myself ever since - I'd love to have that letter!"

When this mistake was cleared up and Marc was hired, he was immediately assigned to do "in-between" work (drawing the frames of movement between the lead animator's drawings of extreme movement) on the character Snow White.

Marc then moved into the "Bambi" unit, developing the film's story and characters. "We were trying to do something that had not been done before, which was to do animals that were caricatures, but at the same time, moved realistically. I worked on the story for three years, and Walt liked my drawings sufficiently that he said he wanted to see my drawings on the screen." Walt brought Marc to two of the animators at the studio, Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl, and said "Make an animator outa him!"

Marc animated Flower the Skunk in "Bambi," and remembered the moment the "twitterpated" sequence he worked on was shown to an audience for the first time. "The premiere of 'Bambi' was at the Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. And when the skunk gets kissed and he goes ridged and falls over backwards, that's the biggest laugh I think I've ever heard in the theater. Everybody was laughing. Except I was crying," Marc laughed. "Somebody who worked with me said 'Well, you'll never ever experience that again.' Well, I never did."

Marc spoke in the video about his work on the animated short "Victory Through Airpower," and on the features "Song of the South" and "Cinderella." One of the sequences Marc animated was of the fairy Godmother giving Cinderella her gown. A friend of Marc's told him once that Walt Disney had said that it was his most favorite piece of animation. "And I must say, I still feel good about that."

Next came "Alice in Wonderland," which again gave Marc the assignment of the title character to animate - "a difficult character to do for the simple reason that, here is a perfectly normal little girl, thrown into what amounts to being in a mad house!"

It was followed by "Peter Pan" where Marc's assignment was Tinkerbell, "a pure pantomime character, which in itself is very interesting. That she didn't talk but you know what she's thinking."

"Sleeping Beauty" was the next project, where Marc was given two characters that were quite a contrast from each other. The title character, Briar Rose (or Aurora, if you prefer) - and the film's villianess, Maleficent.

One of the most fun assignments Marc ever had, as he described in the video, was the evil Cruella De Vil in "101 Dalmatians." "While what she was doing wasn't very nice, she herself was an entertaining character. You know, there were certain personality traits that she had. You never could get her to listen to anything. I know several such people." Marc animated every scene with her. "If there were some bum scenes in there, I did those, too!"

The next stop in the video - Disneyland. "'Pirates of the Caribbean' was a marvelous opportunity," Marc said. "I drew every scene that you see there, as an animator would, or as an artist would." The video showed Marc's original concept for the scene in the attraction of the pirates trapped in a cell, trying to lure the key away from a dog just outside the bars. The video compared Marc's drawings to the finished scene in the attraction - and they were virtually identical.

Marc was shown during a brief speech he made at Disneyland, with Paul Pressler standing behind him. "I've had much to do with the park but, strangely enough, I don't come down here very often. So, occasionally, I get dragged in by my heels. And it's absolutely tremendously exciting. And I also see many many talented old friends that are no longer with us, and I must say that is a little disturbing. But, gee - they left something very wonderful for everybody. And so I would like to say, thanks to all those who aren't here as well as those who are."

The video ended with these words from Marc: "You know, if I have anything to say about my career, it's that I've given pleasure to an awful lot of people. And very few people can say the same thing as we say it, because we've given pleasure to people all around the world."

Leonard Maltin, film historian and journalist, who hosted the first lecture with Marc at the Academy six years ago, introduced himself, and acknowledged some of the guests present that evening. It was a virtual "Who's Who" of Disney history and animation... Virginia Davis (no relation to Marc), Disney's first live-action star from the "Alice" series of shorts produced in the '20s... Margaret Kerry, the live-action reference model for Tinkerbell... Joe Grant, a colleague of Marc's at the studio, who was in charge of the character model department from 1940 to1949 - returning to the studio years later to work on such films as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Pocahontas" - and who might be the only key person to have a credit on both "Fantasia" and "Fantasia 2000"... Ty Wong, who's many designs contributed to the gorgeous look of "Bambi"... Bill Justice, who worked with Marc on such films as "Bambi" and "Alice in Wonderland," who also contributed - as Marc did - to such Imagineering projects as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion... and Animator Richard Williams, who directed the animation in, among other things, "Roger Rabbit."

Also seen in attendance were Imagineer Tony Baxter, cartoon voice legend June Foray, Composer Buddy Baker, and the head of the Disney Archives, David Smith.

Leonard Maltin joked that "If a bomb fell on this building, Dreamworks could write it's own ticket!"

Ilene Woods, the voice of Cinderella, was in New York and couldn't attend - but sent a note that Leonard read to the audience: "Marc Davis was indeed a giant in his work, but more than that, he was a beautiful human being and my life was suddenly fuller because I could call him my friend. I will carry the wonderful memories with me always, and one day I am sure we will share them again."

The audience was then treated to film clips of Marc's work... A Silly Song from "Snow White," Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo from "Cinderella," and the Mad Tea Party from "Alice in Wonderland."

The Academy theater is arguably the best screening room in Los Angeles, and this became obvious at this event when the screen opened up and suddenly became wider to present Once Upon a Dream from "Sleeping Beauty" in its original Technorama 70mm format.

"It's so thrilling to see those wide screen films because we so rarely get to do so," Leonard Maltin said after the clip played. "Video is a wonderful thing, but nothing can quite compare with THAT." The audience enthusiastically agreed with a huge round of applause.

Leonard then introduced the guests on first panel - starting with two of the "Nine Old Men," Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson.

Frank and Ollie, best friends and neighbors, had arrived together earlier that evening in a black limousine. They looked adorable, dressed alike in matching plaid caps. Although Frank needed assistance from a metal walker, his inner child was still very much apparent from the huge smile on his face - and from the high pitched clown-like bulb horn on his walker that he playfully honked on his way to be seated for the panel.

Next was Ward Kimball, another of the Nine Old Men, who did a little dance as he rose to take his place on the stage.

Richard Sherman, half of the Sherman Brothers song writing team, was next to be introduced. With his brother Robert (who unfortunately was not present), he contributed songs to many classic Disney films and attractions that Marc Davis worked on as well.

Kathryn Beaumont - voice of Alice in Wonderland and Wendy from "Peter Pan" was next to be introduced. But in a very embarrassing moment that only a few people got to see, when Kathryn rose to take her place on the panel, a piece of paper she was sitting on (presumably reserving her seat in the theater) was stuck to her behind. A gentleman she was with gallantly ran up to her and quickly plucked it off before she stepped up to the stage - she laughed it off, and maintained her grace and poise the entire time.

There was a definite playfulness in this panel, and it was a thrill to watch and listen as these Disney legends joked and reminisced about working at the studio, and working with Marc Davis.

Ward, Frank and Ollie all started at the studio around 1934, several months before Marc started. By the time Marc arrived, Ward was already well into work on "Snow White," spending 8 months working on the "Music in Your Soup" sequence - that was ultimately cut from the picture, but shown on Disney's television show dedicated to the film. Walt eased the blow on Ward of having his scene removed by telling him he had a character - a cricket - in a new film at the studio called "Pinocchio." "He was a great salesman," Ward said of Walt.

Frank Thomas recalled Marc's arrival, and how he was later assigned to train him. "Walt said 'we gotta teach him to animate.' And Walt picked me and Milt Kahl to teach him. From that day on, he said 'Walt told you guys to teach me how to animate and you didn't do it! This is all your fault!'"

Frank described how, along with Ollie, Ward, Marc, Les Clark, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery and Woolie Reitherman - they became known as the Nine Old Men. "It related to F.D.R. He was the president then. And he was complaining about all the things he was trying to put into effect to end the depression that the Supreme Court was throwing out. They were called the Nine Old Men because they were too old to have a new idea. One day at a meeting with us, Walt said 'how many of you guys are there, anyway? One, two, three... nine! Hey! I got my Nine Old Men! You guys have never had a fresh idea either!"

Ward Kimball added that Walt was actually 10 years older than them, making it even more amusing.

After working on the character Snow White, Marc became, in everyone's eyes, a specialist on female characters. Although he may not have liked to be pigeonholed into any one category, he did indeed excel at the female characters he was assigned - including Cinderella, Briar Rose, and Alice in Wonderland.

Marc met Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice, during early planning sessions for Alice. She remembered being teased occasionally by him, who used to call her "the little girl with big words." "I guess I had a large vocabulary back then," she laughed.

The voice of Sleeping Beauty, Mary Costa, met Marc in 1952, when she came in for her voice audition. The musical portion went very well, but there was concern about her accent. "What accent?" she said, in a very southern drawl. Marc seemed sure she was still right for the part, and worked with her at the audition to make sure of it. He figured if Vivian Leigh, an English woman, could sound convincingly as a southern belle in "Gone With the Wind" - surely it could work the other way around as well. Ever since that day, she considered Marc Davis her Guardian angel.

While working on the film, Walt told Mary to ask Marc any questions she had, to learn about the process - and she did indeed ask him many questions. One time she was at the studio and just wanted to say hello to Marc, but she decided to ask an unusual question to amuse him. "I said 'What do you think the air was like in the forest?' And immediately he said 'Caressing.' And believe me - it changed my entire concept. My head was filled with new colors, warmer more romantic colors. Marc was like that."

Before they had started at the studio, Richard and Robert Sherman had independently written songs for a young entertainer named Annette Funicello - who they call their "Lucky Star." Walt, protective of his studio family, listened to everything she recorded. One day he asked them to come on the lot and write a song for a film she was in. He liked it, and continued giving them work - including songwriting chores on "Mary Poppins."

Around 1962, the two brothers were called to a sound stage, where there was a mock up of a very strange looking room. The lights lowered and suddenly colorful birds and flowers dropped down from the ceiling, and strange Tiki Poles came alive and started chanting. After a while, the lights came back on, and Walt asked them, "Well, what do you think?" Richard said, in surprised exasperation, "What the hell is it?!?" It was, of course, a test version of the Enchanted Tiki Room, and Walt told them that they were going to write a song for it. "That was our first experience with audio-animatronics," Richard explained.

That was also the day the Sherman Brothers met Marc Davis. After the Magic Tiki Poles had finished their bizarre chanting, Richard said Marc approached them and playfully threatened, "'If you're going to write lyrics, don't use those - those are MINE.' That was Marc. He had a twinkle. He was a funny guy."

The Sherman Brothers also worked with Marc and his wife Alice on "it's a small world." The first concept of that attraction, Richard said, was of the figures singing the national anthems of their various countries. "On paper, that's brilliant, but in actuality, it was cacophony. It was an impossibility." As they walked with Walt through a mock up of the attraction, it was apparent it wouldn't work.

Richard recounted the conversation with Walt: "'You're going to write a simple song that's going to explain this whole thing. Make it a roundelay.' 'What's a roundelay? You mean a round? They'd go out of their minds! They'll start going mad!'" ...At which point in the story, the audience burst into laughter.

They wrote the song, and played it for Walt and the Imagineers - who all seemed enthusiastic. Marc came up to them afterwards and said, "It's perfect. It's perfect." A favorite, warm memory of Marc Davis, Richard said.

In Part Two of my coverage of the Marc Davis Tribute, contemporary Disney animators Andreas Deja, Glen Keane and Eric Goldberg and others share their memories.

Of note:

Part Two

For more information about upcoming Academy events and screenings, visit their web site, or write to the Academy Foundation at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, California, 90211. 

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