Tuesday 06 February 1996
Shamus Culhane was the animator responsible for that long walk home, perhaps the last of the great cartoonists who pioneered the 20th-century art of the animated film, working his way from boy assistant right through to writer/director, from short film to features to television series.
James Culhane (the Shamus came later) was born in Ware, Massachusetts, in 1908. When the family moved to Manhattan, Mr Culhane took his six-year- old son Jimmy to the local vaudeville theatre, where he saw the miracle of drawings come to life. On stage came the small figure of a famous cartoonist, Winsor McCay, who showed a huge cartoon picture that suddenly moved. This was the star of his 1914 film Gertie the Dinosaur who not only did whatever stunt he ordered, she seemed to pluck a pumpkin from his hand and eat it.
Inspired to become a comic artist, young Jimmy entered the annual art contest held by Wanamaker's department store and won a silver medal; 5,999 other children were disappointed. This was 1919, and Jimmy had just turned 11. From elementary school he went to the Vocational School for Boys in Harlem, the only one in the city with a course in commercial art. But his father ran away from home, and Jimmy left school early at 16 to help with the family income. A classmate lent him a hand: Mike Lantz, a youth with ambitions to be a sculptor, took him to see his older brother Walter. They showed him some of Jimmy's cartoons and Walter Lantz, then the 22- year-old chief of the Bray Animation Studio, immediately gave him a job, as an office boy. It was the first step to a career in animated cartoons that would span some 60 years.
Culhane learned the thrill of seeing his static drawings come alive on the screen when he was given the chance to animate a short sequence showing a monkey wrestling with a hot towel. At 16 he was, he said, "the happiest animator in New York". The happiness was short-lived: the Bray studio suddenly closed and the staff were on the streets.
Culhane immediately applied to the nearby Harrison-Gould Studio, who made Krazy Kat cartoons, based on the newspaper strip by George Herriman. They admired the neatness of Culhane's samples and signed him up. The pay was $35 a week, $10 more than Bray had paid him. Culhane, who had been considering leaving animation, quickly changed his mind. However his new career as inker and gag man was somewhat spoiled by the studio's cut-price methods. Their films were padded by repeat actions. "If you had a gag where somebody was hit by something, you automatically had it happen three times, using the same drawings over again!"
Then came a shock that rocked the industry. Walt Disney showed his first cartoon with a soundtrack, Steamboat Willie (1928), starring Mickey Mouse. The Krazy Kat company scoffed, but a year later succumbed to the talkie craze and made their first attempt. "It sounded like a tornado in a boiler factory," Culhane recalled. "When the Kat blinked, somebody struck a cowbell. When she walked her footsteps were accented by a bass drum. It was sheer cacophony!"
In 1930 the studio moved to Hollywood and left Culhane behind. He walked round to the Fleischer Brothers studio and was offered $50 a week. Max, the genial producer, appeared at the start of every Out of the Inkwell cartoon, drawing Koko the Clown. His brother Dave, the director, dressed in clown's costume and via Max's invention, the Rotoscope, was turned into the cartoon. "Dave was a great gag man. His motto was a gag in every foot whether it suited the storyline or not," said Culhane. When rumours of impending closure were whispered, many of Fleischer's top animators quit. Max immediately promoted all his trainees, including Culhane, into full animators, trying them out on a musical, Swing You Sinners (1930). When it was premiered it stole the reviews from Eddie Cantor, one critic calling it "a gem of a cartoon".
Culhane stayed at Fleischer's for some while, working on the saucy series of shorts starring Betty Boop, the big-eyed boop-a-doop girl based on the popular singer Helen Kane. He particularly enjoyed drawing Betty's long legs and daringly nippled bust. "Betty was a good girl," he recalled, "with a hymen like a boilerplate!"
Culhane's career covered almost every studio in the book. In 1932 he went west to work for Ubbe Iwerks, Disney's top animator who had set up on his own. Here Culhane animated Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper, plus some delightful Comicolor cartoons including Puss in Boots (1934). He was flown to London to meet Alexander Korda, who wanted him to set up an animation studio for his London Film Company. Unfortunately for history the money was not good enough and Culhane flew home.
Next came work at the Van Beuren company, back in New York. In charge was Burt Gillett which was enough to lure Culhane. Gillett was renowned in the industry as the uncredited director of Disney's Three Little Pigs (1933), which had become the world's best-known and most seen cartoon. Culhane worked on several of their Rainbow Parade series.
In 1935 he joined the Disney studio, which was burgeoning. Wanting to be part of the world's greatest animation studio at any cost, he took an enormous salary cut, virtually starting afresh at $50 a week. But even he was dismayed when Disney's report on his trial work included, "He should start all over and learn our way." His first attempt at animating Pluto, Mickey's pup, leaping over a fence was unceremoniously thrown in the waste- paper basket. Eventually he succeeded with a scene between Pluto and a cocky crab in Hawaiian Holiday (1937). The short won an award and Disney moved Culhane on to his studio's biggest ever gamble, the feature-length Snow White, where his first job was devising the dwarfs' musical march from diamond mine to cottage home.
Snow White's success inspired the Fleischer brothers to set up a brand new studio in Florida where they embarked on their own feature cartoon, Gulliver's Travels (1939). Culhane rejoined the brothers to work on this film, then became a full director at last with a short starring the popular spinach-eating sailor, Popeye Meets William Tell (1940). Next he directed the opening sequence of Mr Bug Goes To Town (1941), the Fleischers' second and final feature film, released in the UK as Hoppity Goes To Town.
Culhane now rejoined his first ever boss, Walter Lantz, who was having great success with his new and zany cartoon star, Woody Woodpecker. After directing Pass the Biscuits Mirandy (1943), he was given Woody to direct in a classical music parody, The Barber of Seville (1944). In this, Lantz's most expensive short (cost $16,717), Culhane applied live action editing methods he had studied in Pudovkin's classic book Film Technique. With Woody's ever faster rendition of the Factotum song, and ever more insane haircutting, the film became Culhane's masterpiece.
By 1966 Culhane was senior enough a figure to lease the Paramount-Famous Studios in New York, where he supervised the production of 20 cartoon shorts, and entered the expanding world of children's television with a series called The Mighty Four. There were commercials for Ajax the Foaming Cleanser and a parody of Mae West for Muriel Cigars: "Come up and smoke me sometime!" Ten years later he was producing animation specials for ABC Television, including The Last of the Red Hot Dragons. This was his final curtain. In 1986 he wrote his autobiography, Talking of Animals and Other People, a veritable history of cartoon films and their animators.
Culhane married twice. His first wife was Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx.
James (Shamus) Culhane, animator: born Ware, Massachusetts 12 November 1908; twice married (two sons); died New York 2 February 1996.
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