OBITUARY:Shamus Culhane

"Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! It's home from work we go!" sang the seven little men as they marched through the forest and over a fallen tree after a hard day's dig in their diamond mine. All except Dopey, the last in line. "He don't talk none," explained Doc the dwarf. "He don't know how - he never tried!" Walt Disney's first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), meant so much to me as a boy cartoonist that I knew it by heart, singing myself to sleep as I re-ran it in my mind's- eye movie palace night after night. What I never knew were the names of the animators whose magic pens drew that wonderful film. We need more cartoonists among our film critics.

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.

Denis Gifford

James (Shamus) Culhane, animator: born Ware, Massachusetts 12 November 1908; twice married (two sons); died New York 2 February 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most