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.


Michael Sporn said...

Interesting hearing about your work with Gilbert Gottfried. It's also perfect to compare his style to Jimmy Durante.
I had the opportunity of working with him in 1988 when I hired him to improvise and record the narration for my film, THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL. He was brilliant and kept me laughing for two hours straight.
Unfortunately, not a lot of executives liked him, and I was ultimately forced to replace him mid-production. This meant completely overhauling the entire production and losing that great comic sensibility behind the voice.
My loss.

Weirdo said...

Very interesting. I would have loved if Zero Mostel had done a voice for an animated film. That would have been hilarious. I too have an appreciation for both naturalistic and exaggerated performances, although I ultimately find "Friends" very dull. Have you ever met Gilbert Gottfried during his time on "Aladdin"?

Will Finn said...

Michael--Gilbert mentioned that project to me the first time I met him--he wasn't sure what became of it though...

Weirdo--I've met with Gilbert in person a few times over the years and still correspond with him a bit. He has a blog too--click on his name in the links column to check it out.
BTW Zero did a voice for some kind of bird in the 1978 animated feature of WATERSHIP DOWN, which I never actually saw. It was very serious and the film stills I have seen all look very literal and realistic. Kind of a missed opportunity, I think.

Catty said...

Hey Will,

I've been a long-time reader of your blog, and I enjoy it so much! Thanks for all of your great posts.

Particularly this one--I remember seeing Aladdin for the first time when I was a teenager, and Iago was such a wonderful character. My friends and I ended up doing Iago impressions for weeks afterwards. (it was good practice when we started getting into Gilbert Gottfried and started imitating his voice!)

I never would have picked up on the Jimmy Durante influence, but it's clear when you explain the way that you took his personality into Iago.

The first time I became aware of Durante was when I was 3 or 4 and my parents taped a show off of TV called "Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Mickey Mouse!" Must have been 1979. It was a star-studded television event celebrating Mickey's 50 years in entertainment. And one of the segments talked about cartoons where Mickey parodied or was influenced by popular culture.

I still have the VHS tape, and so I did a quick video capture this morning to show that not only did Disney join in the cartoony imitations of Jimmy Durante, but here's Mickey himself appearing with the Great Schnozz. :) Enjoy!

(P.S. That's Edgar Bergen introducing the segment)

Will Finn said...

catty--thanks for the update. I couldn't get your link to work (i think it posted as incomplete), but the clip in question probably comes from a depression era live action film called something like THE HOLLYWOOD PARTY. I've never seen it but I think Durante was in the cast so it could be the original source.
Leonard Maltin made a reference to this film in his great book THE DISNEY FILMS, mentioning that it was one of the rare times Disney collaborated on another studio's releases back then. I remember trying to track the film down at one point but for a long time it was unavailable with the Disney segment intact, due to copyright disputes over TV and video rights. Maybe that has changed.

I cant remember many complete Disney studio shorts that depict Durante bits though.

Catty said...

Hey Will,

I'm not sure why the link was truncated, but it should end with :)

So, hopefully that works and you can at least see a little of the movie (from the little context that's there, it does sound like it could be a movie about a Hollywood Party)

I get what you're saying about the Disney shorts, though. I don't know enough of the history to know how much was there-- That same Disney special showed a clip from a Disney short with Mickey playing polo with a bunch of Hollywood comediens; Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin... but I don't seem to recall if Durante was among them. :)

Will Finn said...

Thanks for the update Catty-- the link worked and the clip is almost certainly the HOLLYWOOD PARTY one I heard about. Much obliged!

cartooncolin said...

This was a really insightful and interesting read - thanks Will. I always loved this character. I particularly enjoyed that the loudest and crudest character was also the smallest. I remember taking note of the fact that his mouth was so big and that it was done on purpose. I'm assuming the perfect choice of his loud and garish red coloring was done on purpose?! My best friend as a kid had a parrot and it would squawk at all the most inopportune times.
I know Gilbert Gottfried has done a lot of voice work since but this character is quintessential.

Weirdo said...

Hey Will, have you heard that Ralph was working on a new film called "The Last Days of Coney Island"? I think it's some kind of detective story. He was working on it until funds ran out. Maybe if the book is successful, Bakshi can get more funds to finish it.

chrisallison said...

AWESOME post Will. This one really knocked it out of the park! Really interesting read and it's always nice to see people's blueprints of solid characters.

I've been wondering about broader style comedy a lot lately. I love old style physical comedy and always watch it in my dorm. Whenever non-artists come over and get introduced to something like Mr. Bean, they usually poo-poo it right away (cuz hey, it's PBS!) or Marx Brothers because it's black and white. Once they sit down and watch it for a while, it usually grows on them and they're laughing louder than I am. Probably a favorite thing to do as of late when we're sitting around kickin the shit is to get Youtube videos of things like THIS or THIS.

This leaves me wondering: is the lack of physical comedy in today's market a result of people genuinely not liking physical comedy anymore? Have tastes migrated elsewhere to pop culture references (things like Family Guy) and observational humor (like Seinfield)?

The market kinda says yes, but my research gives me reasonable suspicion. There's nothing funnier than watching people fall and get hurt. But maybe the lack of broader humor in the market today is due to a lack of a venue where comedians can pursue this style of humor. Ever since the emergence of comedians like Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfield getting their own sitcoms in the 80's, that's pretty much saturated the market. There isn't a place for comedians to showcase or learn the fading Vaudvillean arts. It seems like the only place you find it is the rarity like Jim Carrey on In Living Color. He seemed to already have the gift tho, and pretty much created his own market and success through sure talent.

So do you think people still like broader comedy? I'd like to see this come back too, and I've kinda thrown all my marbles into following this style humor with my animation.

Rhett Wickham said...

Will - what a perfectly eloquent and thoughtful Post. I've printed it and saved it because it says so much and so perefectly.

Here's a link to something you'll enjoy

the pictures are a bit fuzzy, but the thought is there.

I ADORE Iago, and I love Gottried's standup (his delivery in The Aristocrats is pee inducing!) Combined, they make for one of my favorite Disney characters. Whenever I've seen Aladdin with an audience, people laugh out loud at the Genie, but they buckle over in cramps of happy when Iago is on screen.

Speaking as someone who sometimes is far too easily offended, the bottom line is that funny is funny, so long as it isn't hateful. That makes everything else fair game in my book.

Tony said...

Will- I just wanted you to know that I read your blog all the time and love your work as much now as I did when I worked with you at Disney. You taught me so much! I remember the stuff about using Durante as a model for the bird too. I had such fun working with you on Iago (let alone Cogswoth and Frank the Frilled Neck lizard). You were a great mentor to me and I am glad that this blog gives you the ability to share some of the genious that I had the honor of working with.

Your friend,
Tony Bancroft

Weirdo said...

Did you enjoy "Hey Good Lookin'"? The character designs are some of the best I've ever seen. Each character looks different from the others. I hope you enjoyed it.

Will Finn said...

Chris & Rhett -nice insights, funny links too. i've got more to say on the subject in the future...
Tony--thanks and the feeling is mutual. we had a lot of fun your sequences of Iago (including the one where he gets stuck in the door and the one where he powers Jafar's magical gizmo) are real standouts.
Werido--haven't had time to visit YouTube, but will get around to it.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

I think Jimmy Durante was (& probably still is) one of the most referenced/parodied celebrity in film history. I was introduced to him not from his own films, but from cariacatures of him in cartoons.

I know he was cameoed in numerous Warner Bros. cartoons (Gruesome Twosome, Coal Black, etc.), MGM/Tex Avery cartoons(Jerky Turkey, Spike from Tom & Jerry) & even at Hanna-Barbera (Doggie Daddy), but not as much over at Disney. The only times I can remember Durante in Disney cartoons was one with Mickey Mouse (not sure which one) & in Elmer Elephant (the pelicans). Eitherway, each Durante cameo/gag always makes me laugh out loud.

Weirdo said...

Hey Will, did you catch my last two posts? They're reviews of "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Traffic". Check them out when you can. I'll work on one for "Coonskin" and Bakshi's other animated films.

Floyd Norman said...

I loved your work in "Aladdin," Will. Good stuff.

I'm old enough to have been a big Durante fan, and I watched him on Sunday nights on the old NBC Colgate Comedy Hour. I still love the way he sings. Not a great voice - - but oh, what style.

Truly, they don't make 'em the way they use to.

Weirdo said...

"They don't make'em like they used to"

No they don't Mr. Norman. We'll never have another Jimmy Durante or Phil Harris. What a shame that we live in a society that celebrates mediocrity.


What a great post man. And your animation of Iago was so incredible man. you have no idea how much you influenced me as an audience member ! You tottaly vibed off of Gilberts extreme quality and kept it controlled and believable! again , great post man! And i love hearing (and seeing) Durante narate Frosty every Christmas! Thats how I grew up with him!

Will Finn said...

thanks for your comments all (Floyd--i'm blushing!), i have more to say about Durante and his style coming up, but i wanted to get my personal reference to that kind of humor out of the way first.
BTW Shane--my kids started watching FROSTY right after this post and I think it has turned out to be his most enduring legacy. too bad it is pretty generically written--the script doesn't make use of any of his characteristics, it could really be anybody. i guess just his voice makes it interesting enough.

rehallag said...

Hi. Great blog and post. I've watched the Disney Treasures and what I noticed, as Michael Ruocco here also pointed out, is that there were a fair amount of Durante caricatures in black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons and in the Silly Symphonies. Mickey Mouse's nose elongates and he'll do a "ha-cha-cha-cha" a number of times in cartoons included in Mickey Mouse in black and white, volume II. It struck me how many times Durante was referenced in these early Disney cartoons. I think even Pluto may have transformed in to a Durante caricature once. They are always brief -- just quick gags.

rehallag said...

Early Disney cartoons had a lot of caricatures of Durante. I've watched the old Silly Symphonies and black and white Mickey Mouses on the Disney Treasures DVD's and one thing that struck me was how many times they'd do a caricature gag based on Durante. Mickey Mouse's nose will elongate and he'll do a "ha-cha-cha-cha" or something like that. I think even Pluto did it once. Always it is very brief, just a quick gag -- sometimes the closing gag of the cartoon.

Great blog you got here. I appreciate it.

Will Finn said...

thanks rehallag, I know more about the disney features than the shorts and I am always glad when people who know the shorts well are able to fill me in.

Maria Beletskaya said...

Hello, Mr. Finn.
Sorry to dig up such an oldie, but I kind of have a rather silly question I wanted to ask that is partly relevant to this post.
Is Iago a scarlet macaw? Sorry, but it’s been bugging me for a week and a half now, I don’t think I can take it anymore.
Thanks for your wonderful blog, and keep up the great work! C:

Will Finn said...

Maria, you are correct. I based the character on a scarlet macaw and my first color sketches were derived from pictures of same. The art director did not like the green tail, so he made it violet, which I thought was pretty unique.

Thanks for asking!

Pokey said...

No offense, but to me comparing Gilbert Gottfriend to the great Jimmy Durante is laughable at best..btw since it was December 7 that you posted, you may make a note that Frosty the Snowman, narrated by Durante, debuted that date in 1969, from Rankin-Bass, also featuring another great comic,Billy De Wolfe as that villianous magician.

Pokey said...

Maybe I WAS being harsh on Gilbert, but I couldn't stand Iago much.

Pokey said...

But happily there IS a certain schnozzola on Iago and some parts of his stuff I liked..

TParker said...

Iago or: When Will drew Gil.