Jack Cutting Speaks

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

There are a great many unpublished manuscripts out there about Walt Disney and his studio, many of which deserve to remain unpublished for a variety of reasons—ranging from weak writing to inaccurate information to no new perspectives. However, some of those manuscripts contain little hidden treasures of information that don't appear anywhere else.

Most Disney fans know that in the 1950s, Walt Disney had art instructor Don Graham prepare a book about the art of animation, using examples from the classes he had taught at the Disney Studios. Walt felt the final manuscript was "too scholarly" to be published. So former drama and movie critic for the New York Herald Tribune Howard Barnes was brought in to make it more accessible for a general audience and completed about seven chapters.

Walt felt that this treatment was "too breezy" and did not make enough use of Graham's material about the process of animation. However, if the first two writers were too cold and too hot, then the third writer was just right. Bob Thomas took the work from the previous authors, as well as a lot of original research, and, in 1958, wrote a book titled The Art of Animation, that was also used as a publicity tool for the forthcoming animated feature, Sleeping Beauty. Thomas was a fine writer and understood Walt and what Walt wanted. The writing credits read: "Walt Disney, the Art of Animation, the story of the Disney studios contribution to a new art. By Bob Thomas with the Walt Disney staff with research by Don Graham."

I have been effusive in my praise for the Walt Disney biography written by Bob Thomas, "Walt Disney: An American Original" and I still think it stands up as an accurate, readable book today that should be on every Disney fan's bookshelf despite all the other Walt biographies that have come out since it was first published in 1976. However, Thomas was not the first author to attempt a Disney Studio approved biography shortly after the death of Walt.

Richard Hubler was commissioned by Walt Disney Productions and the Disney family to research and write a biography of Walt Disney shortly after Disney's death, which he did during 1967-1968. He was paid for his work, but the manuscript never saw print and he was given no reason for the dissatisfaction with his final work. Hubler's papers are held by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, including the manuscript of the unpublished Disney biography, and much material from its preparation. Many of the interview transcripts are also held by the Disney Archives and some have been reprinted in the excellent "Walt's People" series of books edited by Didier Ghez (link).

Then the Disney Company hired writer Lawrence Watkin, who had supplied many screenplays for the Disney Studio in the 1950s, including Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Treasure Island, The Great Locomotive Chase (which he also produced) and several others. The Adventures of Spin and Marty that appeared in serial form on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show was adapted from Watkin's novel Marty Markham. Watkins told friends that his Walt biography (running a little more than 200 pages) was "ill fated" because it was "too truthful". Watkin's best known work is probably the novel On Borrowed Time.

Having read Watkin's manuscript, I didn't find it "too truthful" but achingly boring, with only occasional insights into the life and genius of Walt Disney and merely listing the Disney productions rather than the stories behind those productions. It was like a "greatest hits" listing, but without any insight into the man who produced them, nor any behind-the-scenes information about them and their impact. Watkin interviewed the "usual suspects" like Ward Kimball, John Hench and Marc Davis, and got the same concise anecdotes that these Disney Legends packaged and trotted out to many interviewers (myself included) over the next three decades. It was apparent that Watkin didn't do in-depth interviews, but just tried to capture a quote to sprinkle into the text. However, Watkin did indeed score something unique by interviewing Jack Cutting about the days the Disney Studios was located at Hyperion.

Who is Jack Cutting? Just one of the thousands of amazing people who contributed to the success of the Disney Studios and is relatively unknown to Disney fans. Cutting should certainly be considered a candidate for a future Disney Legend honor, but while Disney fans might have seen his name, especially recently in connection with Walt's trip to South America, they are unclear exactly what he did.

Cutting was one of Disney's original animation staff and was one of the chief pioneers in synchronizing sound and image. He joined Disney in 1929, working primarily on the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony shorts, but quickly realized he would never be a great animator.

One day young animation genius Freddy Moore sat down next to him and outstanding animation flowed from Moore's magic pencil. That one moment resulted in Cutting, who struggled with drawing, to look for other opportunities at the Disney Studio. When director Dave Hand's responsibilities started to increase, Cutting approached him and asked if he needed any help.

Cutting became an assistant director to Dave Hand, who directed Snow White, among other impressive credits—including a Mickey Mouse short I love called Building a Building. Cutting was, with Walt's approval, the studio's first assistant director. In 1938, Cutting made his own directorial debut with Farmyard Symphony. The following year, he received an Oscar for directing the cartoon short The Ugly Duckling. He was part of the El Grupo that went to South America on the Goodwill trip. Thanks, in part, to his work on the South American films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, he became the manager of Foreign Relations where he oversaw translating and dubbing of all Disney films worldwide. Cutting was born January 19, 1908, in New York and died in North Hollywood California on August 17, 1988.

Jimmy Johnson, who was in charge of Disney Publications at one time and was the one who started Disneyland records, remembered Cutting in the mid-1970s. (By the way, Johnson wrote his own fascinating unpublished biography about his time at Disney titled Inside the Whimsy Works: My 37 Years with Walt Disney Productions. After the death of his mentor Roy O. Disney, Disney Company politics forced him, along with many other talented employees, into retirement where for the next eight months he worked on the manuscript and then died after he had finished it. Thanks to the efforts of his son and to the editing expertise of prolific and talented writer Greg Ehrbar, the book will be coming out within a year or so. Check out Greg's informative Web site and his outstanding book, Mouse Tracks, that I recommend highly for its valuable research and accessible writing style)

"Since the war, Jack has been in charge of dubbing the Disney films into various languages around the world. Since the American voices selected for the cartoon characters have so much to do with the development of the animated character, it is imperative that the dubbed voice match the character as closely as possible. For instance, Phil Harris was the voice of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book. It was Jack Cutting's difficult task to find a Japanese, a Swedish, a French and all the other international Phil Harrises. Part of the tremendous success of the Disney cartoon features abroad is due to Jack's skill in matching voices. Naturally, Jack's job called for him to do a great deal of international traveling. Ann (Johnson's wife) and I joked that we saw more of Jack and Camille (Cutting's wife) in Paris or London or Copenhagen than we did in Los Angeles."

Here is the excerpt from the Jack Cutting interview about the early days at Disney Studio that was done by Lawrence Watkin. This material has never appeared in print anywhere and has been hidden with the unpublished manuscript for almost four decades. I feel as an insight into the early Disney Studio and also as a better understanding of Cutting it deserves to be shared and not hoarded by the very, very few who have been lucky enough to see it.

"I had to leave the Otis Art Institute and look for a job. I had heard about a small cartoon studio near Glendale, so I went around to 2719 Hyperion without an appointment, walked in off the street with a few samples and was hired that same day in August 1929. I had just turned 21, and most of the 19fellows on the staff were very young, with the exception of one or two—Roy must have been about 35 and the oldest on the staff was an animator named Burt Gillette, who may have been 38. I soon found being a part of what was going on in that little studio very exciting. Walt was determined to develop the art of animation far beyond the level at which it was practiced in those days. He did it by being persuasive, by convincing everyone that his ideas and dreams for the future were exciting and worth believing in.

"During the early Mickey days, Walt was only taking home $50 a week and Roy $35. Some of us, like myself, who were just out of art school, were making $18 a week. We worked eight hours a day, six days a week, and we'd often come back nights to help get the work out. We didn't get paid overtime but it didn't matter if you were under the spell of working the animated cartoon business as I was in those days. I came to the studio without any experience in animation. A few of the older members of the staff, who Walt had imported from the East, were experienced animators and, of course, Ub Iwerks was the studio's top animator at that time. When you came in green, like I did, you learned to do a bit of everything. Some of us who started in those days began by inking cels, then we were taught in-betweening, and we would come back at night and Ub would explain the principles of animation to us. The studio was very small and the atmosphere informal. Most of us had a key to the front door.

"If you were an animator's assistant, after you did the in-between drawings for a scene, you had to shoot a pencil drawing test. After hand developing the test, and putting it in a revolving drum to dry, you went back to the drawing board. After it was dry, you spliced it into a loop and ran it for the animator. We all doubled in brass—had a chance to try our hands at different phases of the work."

(Cutting also told Watkins that both Walt and Wilfred Jackson were considered directors when he arrived at the Disney Studio. Two shorts would be in production at the same time at a cost of about $7,000. Walt would supervise Jackson's work, as well as work on ideas for new cartoons. Cutting said that Walt was passionately interested in audience responses and was convinced that everyone at the studio could learn a great deal about humor by studying the reactions of a group of laymen.)

"When a picture was finished, Walt would take the first print from the laboratory to the Alexander Theatre in Glendale and tip the projectionist to run it between the first and second shows. We all paid our way to get in and, directly after the cartoon was run, we would meet outside, in front of the theater, and Walt would evaluate the audience reaction and we would discuss why certain gags didn't go over and why others got such a big laugh.

"I always felt that (Walt's) personality was a little bit like a drop of mercury rolling around on a slab of marble because he changed moods so quickly. I believe this was because he was extremely sensitive. He could grasp your ideas and interpret your thoughts rapidly. You didn't have to give Walt a five-page memo. He understood the point right away. He had an unusual intuitive sense. That may have been more responsible for his genius in filmmaking than his intellect.

"Although Walt could exude great charm if he was in the mood, he could also be dour and indifferent toward people but this was usually because he was preoccupied by problems. Sometimes you would pass him in the hall, say 'hello,' and he would not even notice you. The next time he might greet you warmly and start talking about a new project he was excited about. You might not understand what he was talking about at first because he didn't always give you a preamble on the subject. If you didn't pick up his chain of thought quickly, he would sometimes look at you as though you were slow witted, because when he was excited about an idea, it was clear to him and he assumed it was to everyone else.

"The people who worked best with Walt were those who were stimulated by his enthusiasm—for a story idea or whatever—and were able to build upon his ideas and enthusiasm. More than once, when he was in a creative mood and ideas were popping out like skyrockets, I have suddenly seen him look as if he had been hit in the face with a bucket of cold water—the eyebrow would go up and suddenly reality was the mood in the room. This change of mood was often prompted by someone in the group being out of tune with the creative spirit that he was generating. Then he would say that it was difficult to work with so and so.

"Walt was also a realist and practical and would pull the balloons down if he had second thoughts about something he was very high on the day before."

The only other Cutting interview I know of appears in Don Peri's "Working With Walt," a series of interviews with Disney artists (link) similar to the multivolume "Walt's People" volumes. Cutting told Peri that he had only been interviewed twice before when Peri interviewed him in 1979, roughly a decade before he died. It is a shame that Cutting didn't allow more interviews, not only so that people could better appreciate his contributions to Disney, but because he seemed to have some fascinating insights into the early years at Disney. Peri is currently working on his second volume of Disney interviews and I eagerly look forward to that volume, as well.

I am very thankful to those who have saved and shared Disney history so that we can all enjoy it.