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David Marsh Cartoons: The Last Of The Disney “Nine Old Men”

David Marsh honours Ollie Johnston and his fellow animators who created films that will live forever in the historic early days of Disney Studios.

There is no shortage of “Obits” following the passing away at the age of ninety five of the last surviving animator from the historic early days of Disney Studios. For those who like browsing YouTube there are plenty of short clips of his work, even shots of him talking about the studios, Walt and himself. What follows is a little thinking aloud, rather than another attempt at a eulogy.

From the early to the late nineteen thirties the high standards associated with the studios were being improved via the “Silly Symphonies”, with music recognised as an important ingredient in the total presentation, particularly as it contributed to the rhythmic flow of the whole. These short cartoons set the benchmark, and the results can be seen in the late thirties and early forties in “Snow White”, Pinocchio, “Bambi” and “Fantasia”. The constant seven year cycle of these early successes over a number of years resulted in the work of these remarkable men being part of the childhood of about fifty years worth of children to date.

The title of “Nine Old Men” was accorded to them by the younger animators and others while the nine were still in their thirties and forties. If they were “Old Men” then. what on earth were they in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries? An animator who deserves to be better known, Richard Williams of “Roger Rabbit” fame, made it his task to try to preserve and pass on their knowledge, sometimes by visiting America, but often by employing them at his own UK studios, and then sitting at their feet whilst he tried to absorb as much of their know-how as possible. Although for various reasons Richard’s own career, distinguished as it was, may not have been to his own liking, he is generally credited with having achieved his objective to pass on the Disney knowledge, witnessed by the fact that his own pupils have given themselves the collective title of the “Children of the Dragon’s Teeth”.

To return to Ollie Johnston, most people who have ever seen “Bambi” probably remember the rabbit Thumper, in the scene where he advises Bambi to eat only the flowers from the herbage, excluding the “green stuff”. His mother overhears and remonstrates with him, and he meekly accepts this maternal correction. In this scene Thumper is Ollie’s work, and delightful it is. As an amateur animator myself with no pretensions to being an artist, I cannot but admire the beautiful drawing, frame after frame up to twenty four drawings a second. I could never hope to hold a candle to this sort of work.

As a passing anecdote, it seems that a bullying character (I cannot recall which) was very well represented in one film by Ollie, and when asked about this he said the character was an amalgam of all the bullies he had ever encountered as a schoolboy. I have often wondered about authors, who can hold up paragons of nastiness in their novels without the originals being able to recognise themselves, and be well paid for their efforts. Senior animators at Disney were very well paid, indeed one of them had three cars, not because he needed them but because he did not know what to do with his money. Why do I find myself thinking that the high-salaried Ollie had a better revenge against the childhood mini-thugs than giving them a bloody nose? It is practically as good as suing them and banking the damages!

“Let us now praise famous men”. May the renown of Ollie and his companions, who achieved quiet greatness in their day, resound to the end of time.


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