Monday, February 02, 2009

Going Hollywood with Mother Goose

Similar to efforts made for the 1933 cartoon Mickey's Gala Premier and the 1939 Donald Duck short The Autograph Hound, the Disney Studios transformed Hollywood celebrities onto celluloid in what became the most expensive of all Silly Symphonies, Mother Goose Goes Hollywood. Immensely popular and critically lauded when released in late 1938, it would, in unedited form, go on to languish for decades in the Disney vaults due to perceived offensive content related to its caricatures of African American personalities Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Stepin Fetchit, and a brief blackface gag involving the animated incarnation of actress Katherine Hepburn. The Walt Disney Company finally made it available in uncut form in 2006 on the Walt Disney Treasures More Silly SymphoniesDVD.

The celebrity caricatures in Mother Goose Goes Hollywood are credited to Disney Legend Tee Hee, and they proved to be his baptism of fire into the Walt Disney Studios. Hee began working in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, drawing caricatures of contract stars for MGM's publicity department. He moved to Warner Bros. in 1936 where he would provide similar designs for the cartoon The Coo Coo Nut Grove. Despite a earlier failed interview with Disney Studio boss George Drake and art instructor Don Graham, Hee later allowed a neighbor's brother, who was an animator at the studio, to hand deliver to Walt a collection of his caricature drawings.

In an interview with Richard Hubler, Hee described how he manged to get in the door of the studio: "This was through these caricatures again. Thank goodness they were the entree because my drawings were not good enough and Walt liked the caricatures. He thought they were great and he said, 'I think we can use him on Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood,' the film that they had not been progressing very far with."

He was paired with Ed Penner to create a storyboard for the short. He described to Hubler the story meeting where he and Penner presented their ideas to Walt Disney:

"When we started going through it, I had enough ham in me that when it came to the parts of the characters, I would enact them, standing up in front of the people--there were about twelve or thirteen people there, including Walt. I did Katherine Hepburn saying, 'I've lost my sheep, really I have," . . . I was flitting around you know, like they would do. And I think Walt was entranced. He laughed, and all the other guys laughed too . . . Ed Penner and I, we had the conviction that Walt would like it, and while I'd never met him, I just felt this was what he would like. So when it was all over with he said,'Well, I think it's great. What do you guys think?' And they all said it was great. So I knew I had a friend."

The other creative powerhouse behind Mother Goose Goes Hollywood was Ward Kimball. Kimball animated more characters than anyone else on the crew, most notably the characters representing Hugh Herbert, the Marx Brothers and Cab Calloway.

As Hee observed, the project had been long in development when he was brought on board. According to authors Russell Merit and J.B.Kaufman, Hee combined the ideas from two previously unrealized Silly Symphonies--The Hollywoods and Mother Goose Land. Bill Cottrell, along with Joe Grant, (Grant had previously designed the star caricatures for Mickey's Gala Premier), conceived for The Hollywoods a forest setting filled with birds and animals based on Hollywood personalities. It was shelved primarily due to Warner Brother's release of The Coo Coo Nut Grove, which Hee, as mentioned, was instrumental in helping to create. Hee ultimately married this idea to the concept of Mother Goose Land, a short that was developed in the mid-1930s, but also later abandoned. A Walt Disney memo from 1935 summarized the idea for the short: "Jazz has taken the place of the old jingles, so Mother Goose takes them and puts them to a modern tempo with modern thoughts." This concept clearly evolved into the lively jazz-based finale led by the Cab Calloway and Fats Waller characters in Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.

Merit and Kaufman also noted " . . . so much story material was suggested for Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood that at one point, in the spring of 1937, Disney considered releasing it in two reels. Ultimately it was released as a standard one-reeler, but remained the most expensive of all the Silly Symphonies."

Mother Goose Goes Hollywood was certainly appreciated by the very show business community it both satirized and celebrated; it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject. It competed that year with three other Disney shorts, The Brave Little Tailor, The Good Scouts and Ferdinand the Bull. The popular and similarly acclaimed Ferdinand ultimately took the top prize.

Don't miss the companion piece to this post:

Who's Who in Mother Goose Goes Hollywood