A Chat with Lillian Friedman Astor

friedman-caricature600

Lillian Friedman Astor, the first woman animator in a major American studio, was a special honoree at the 1987 Golden Awards Banquet; she was not being celebrated for her pioneering role as a woman in animation or for a half century of work in the animation industry—she only worked in the business for less than 10 years—but “For her services to the cause of unionism in the art and industry of screen cartooning.” It was that service that led to her becoming persona non grata with management and contributed (along with sexism) to her decision to leave behind a profession she loved and was so good at. I had interviewed Astor earlier for my research on the history of animation unions, having contacted her through Shamus Culhane, who had been corresponding with her for his memoir, Talking Animals and Other People.

Astor studied commercial art and fashion illustration at Manhattan’s Washington Irving High School, including a six-month “post-grad course at the same school run by a teacher whose husband had an ad agency.” In July 1930, she and fellow classmate Lillian Oremland got jobs at a small studio financed by Montrose Newman that famously produced Cy Young’s Mendelssohn’s Spring Song; there she did inking, painting and mostly inbetweening. This was followed by an inbetweening gig at Frank Goldman’s Audio Cinema, in a space shared by the new Paul Terry-toons Studio. There, she recalled working on a Listerine commercial that had germ characters designed by Dr. Seuss, who expressed frustration to her about his inability to learn how to animate.

It was through Goldman that she and Oremland were hired as inbetweeners by Max Fleischer. There Culhane spotted her talent and arranged to make her his assistant in February 1932 during the studio’s first flirtation with having assistant animators. In April, with the studio’s first experiment with assistants ending, she went back to inbetweening. However, with the help of Timing Department head Nellie Sanborn, she finally became an animator in June 1933 at $30.00 a week, well below the going rate for men. It was obviously not because she lacked talent, as attested to by Culhane, animator Hicks Lokey (he called her a “crackerjack animator”), and inker Harry Lampert, who would go on to help create The Flash for DC Comics (“She was really excellent!”)

As an animator, she was first assigned to Seymour Kneitel’s unit, but soon switched to Myron Waldman’s, where she stayed until she leaving Fleischer in 1938, soon after the move to Miami. In all, she animated on 42 films and received credit (as Lillian Friedman) on 6. She mostly worked on Betty Boop films, though her first scenes were done for a Popeye, Can You Take It, which was followed by some of the original animation for Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame. She animated on two Oscar-nominated Color Classics cartoons, Educated Fish and Hunky and Spunky, with her last work being on Barnyard Brat, another Hunky and Spunky cartoon.

always-kickinIn the run up to the 1937 strike (the banquet actually celebrated the event’s 50th anniversary) she became a member of the Commercial Artists and Designers Union. When the strike was called, she and other union animators were urged by the CADU to cross the picket lines, which she did; animators had personal service contracts with Fleischer and the legality of workers with such contracts going out on strike was still not settled law. (Only one animator, Eli Brucker, stayed out for the duration.) The post-strike friction between loyalists and striker, which she refers to in the video, was aggravated by the company’s move to Miami, which was designed in part to bust the union (which it did). Thus, when Astor’s husband finally got a job (it was still the Depression), she decided to leave animation, move to Troy, New York, and have a family. In fact, it seems as if animation turned its back on Astor, not vice versa.

If you want more information on Astor, one should probably start with Shamus Culhane’s invaluable Talking Animals and Other People, which is now out-of-print. I made some references to her in an article on the Fleischer strike in Film History, which can be accessed through the Jstor database. Then there is the program book for ASIFA-East’s 1988 tribute to her. Last week, I reprinted my brief essay from it and an even briefer note by Culhane, a skeletal version of William Lorenzo’s definitive filmography, and a letter from Astor to ASIFA-East on my blog here; more importantly, it also links to an Adobe Acrobat version of the original program book, which contains Lorenzo’s very detailed filmography based on Astor’s own records, which identifies each and every scene she worked on along with footage counts.

Lillian Friedman Astor-signature600

Next week: Sadie Bodin.

9 Comments

  • Wow! Didn’t expect to see all of Friedman’s scenes entirely out in the open. It’d be wonderful to see the rest of those records, to see who else animated on those titles.

  • There is nothing more antithetical to artistic innovation and expression than the mediocrity and compromise brought about by collective bargaining and organized labor mandated by threat of coercive force. I’m amazed at the consistent high quality of the golden age studios in spite of the crippling demands of the parasitic labor movement, and can only attribute it to the studio heads’ relative close proximity to the anti-authoritarian, pro-capitalist pioneering ethic of early America.

    • eek. I’m shocked and outraged. I cannot control impulse to encourage troll.

    • “Bloody peasant!”
      “Oh! Now we see the violence inherent in the system!…Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”
      Nee.

    • I see, so you believe the treatment Astor received during her brief animation career was fair and well-deserved?

  • Recently I came across an article on the Pat Sullivan studio that appeared in Billboard on April 22, 1916 that mentioned Sullivan employing a female animator named Mildred Walker. I wonder if Mrs. Walker actually wound up contributing animation to any Sullivan cartoons, because if so it would make her the first female American animator, predating Mrs. Friedman by over a decade.

    Fantastic post, by the way! Never heard about her early work for Audio Cinema and Cy Young. The Seuss designed Listerine commercial must have been related to the series of animated Flit ads the Terrytoon staff produced.

    • Would love to find out more about Walker. The part played by women in early animation has not really been fully explored and certainly deserves much more attention.

      Along these lines, the site Great Women Animators posted several articles on Helena Smith Dayton, an “American filmmaker, painter and sculptor working on the East Coast” who made several stop motion films in the 1910s and 20s, at: http://greatwomenanimators.com/2014/10/helena-smith-dayton/

  • Another great post, Harvey. Thanks for posting the scan of that program book; it’s great to have that filmography of Lillian’s scenes available. If only more animators had kept such detailed records of their work.

    When did Fleischer finally adopt the use of assistant animators? Were there any other experimentation periods before then?

    • As far as I can tell, their first experiment with having assistant animators was after the sudden May 1930 departure of animators Dick Huemer, Sid Marcus, George Stallings and George Rufle, which led to the sudden promotion of a bunch of inbetweeners, including Shamus Culhane and Rudy Zamora, to being animators. Astor recalled that Edith Vernick, the head of the Inbetween Department might have been given a tryout as an assistant at the time, but didn’t make the grade ; however, when I interviewed Vernick, she never mentioned it.. (Vernick was promoted to the position after the 1937 strike began, but that’s another story.) The initial experiment seems to have ended when Astor was initially returned to being an inbetweener. I’m not sure when it started up again, but I know that Don Figlozzi was offered a contract as an assistant in November 1934.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *