Friday, December 7, 2007
"THE GREAT SCHNOZZOLA" (or: "In Praise of Coarseness")
The real Jimmy Durante had pretty much faded from the limelight by the time I was born, but he was imitated so frequently in the old cartoons I watched as a kid that his influence was hard to miss. For more than three decades he was immensely popular on radio, TV and in the movies; even my parents loved him for his peculiar mix of broad burlesque comedy and sentimental singing. He always played himself basically, a crudely comic lowbrow with a huge nose, rasping voice and seemingly endless energy. His catch-phrases are among some of the most memorable of all time: "Ev'rybody wants to get in to the act!" "What a revoltin' development THIS is!" "Oobriago!" and the simple but lusty rattle: "A-cha-cha-chaaa!"
All of these lines as well as his physical traits seem to have been irresistible to audiences and cartoonists alike. Every studio from Warners' to Terrytoons to MGM and the rest sooner or later did a Durante bit or two. Disney seems to be the only holdout, though maybe someone will correct me on this. I will admit that I referenced him somewhat while animating Iago, the villainous parrot in Disney's ALADDIN. To be sure, Gilbert Gottfried, (who supplied Iago's voice) shaped this character from the ground up with his brilliant vocal performance, but the design for Iago wound up with a huge, bulbous beak and tiny cranium, neither of which resemble features of Gilbert Gottfried's actual face. The inspiration to selectively reference Durante, an actor who capitalized on his big nose, was pretty obvious and sometimes useful.
Working with well-known celebrity voices is hotly controversial and can be considered a crutch, but I've always felt that if the actor in question was ideally cast, then the quibble is moot. I certainly felt Gilbert was ideal for Iago and after a considerable run of alternate auditions it was clear to all involved that he was perfect. I've been a huge fan of Gilbert's since seeing him do his first set on David Letterman and he remains in my opinion one of the funniest comedians ever. When I learned he would be the voice I could not have been happier. The big challenge was to create something that would synthesize Gilbert's performance into an independent character who had a life of his own. My philosophy about animating voices of well-known actors is to make the character look like the actor sounds, not how he looks, so Iago has many physical traits Gilbert doesn't share, in addition to some he does. His explosive voice made me want to design his mouth as his biggest feature and I also gave him Gilbert's toothy smile (although IMO Gilbert uses this more as a grimace). Gilbert paces furiously sometimes during his act, so does a parrot on a perch and it was a fun hybrid mannerism. On the other hand, I deliberately avoided some of Gilbert's most signature traits: he usually keeps his eyes squinted shut constantly, which I thought would be too limiting in animation so I just didn't do it. The real Gilbert makes lots of tight, angular hand and arm gestures, which I couldn't generally emulate with the character's short broad wings, (Durante's floppy overcoat was good reference though). The cartoon design didn't have much of a cranium, so it was difficult to go for the effect Gilbert gets when he wipes his forehead in frustration--I had to invent other gestures, as did the other animators I supervised on the character: Tony & Tom Bancroft and Brian Fergusson. In addition to heaps of Gilbert and touch of Durante, there was a little bit of each of us in the characterization as well.
As a fan, I knew most of Gilbert's TV and film appearances by heart, and got to attend several of his recordings. As for Durante, I mostly studied his appearance in one of my favorite old movies: THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, where he plays (what else?) a lowbrow movie comedian who pays a visit to a conservative Connecticut household and blows the roof off the place. Although Durante and Gilbert Gottfried have very different intentions and personalities, they both tend toward broad, old-fashioned burlesque. Gilbert is doing a parody of those old entertainers, Durante is actually one of them. In the end I didn't derive much specific from watching Jimmy Durante, but there was a general sense his knockabout comedic toughness I loved and needed: Iago is not like any other character I had animated before. For that matter he wasn't like any other character in a previous Disney movie.
For the most part, Disney characters, even broadly comic ones, tend toward elegance and appeal in pretty much all aspects. I always kept this in mind animating on previous films, as I was starting to get a reputation for doing stuffy comic foil characters, who I admit I love. I openly emulated characters by Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas during that time but I stress that to me emulation is something very different than mere imitation. All the classic "9 Old Men" characters have appealing and pleasing traits that make them not only fun but pleasant to watch, even when they are bad guys. I wanted Iago to be fun, but the story asked him to be meaner, cruder and more unapologetically inelegant than any Disney character I could think of. I still wanted to make his animation worthy of a Disney movie but I was actually glad to have the challenge of bringing a different type of energy to it. And it was somehow fitting: my taste is pretty eclectic in that I love dry and sophisticated humor, but I equally love broad and lowbrow comedy too, especially when it goes all out.
Oddly enough, it wasn't until after the film was finished that I remembered all those old cartoons that referenced Durante in years past. I hope we made it more contemporary, but I came away from the whole experience wondering why we didn't have more characters like that in cartoons anymore... Not just not at Disney, but anywhere in animation. The manic energy of burlesque was the inspiration for many of the great cartoons of the past, but when that humor went out of style in general, it gradually faded from cartoons as well. I wish it hadn't. The great caricaturist Al Hirshfeld when he visited Disney studio told us he longed for the old time energy of "live wires" like Carol Channing, Al Jolson and Zero Mostel (one of my all time favorites). Hirshfeld pointed out that later-day entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld and the cast of FRIENDS strived more and more to appear "ordinary"; meanwhile everyday people seemed to appear more and more distinctive by contrast. For my part, I will say that I grew up in the crossroads of this evolution and I can find appeal in both the subtly naturalistic and surreally stagey broadness. Unfortunately these days though, there are few entertainers I can think of who dare to be as fearlessly coarse as Zero, Mel Brooks, Durante, the Stooges and their ilk all were. Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen certainly dare often enough thank heavens, and Gilbert still endures, but the field is not overly crowded with contenders. Maybe to paraphrase Hirshfeld, there is so much coarseness in society in general now, we seek refuge from it in our entertainment. It is particularly sad to me however to find it missing in much of what's left of the cartoon business.