This week’s profile offers a detailed look into the career of an important figure in animation, Dan Gordon. With such a commonplace name as Dan Gordon, along with a death that preceded the critical appraisal of classic theatrical animation, the research involved proved to be a slight challenge. Hopefully, this will be the most in-depth overview on Dan Gordon’s career to date.Daniel Campbell Gordon was born on July 13, 1902 to Irish parents John Joseph Gordon and Margaret Rauner Campbell in Pittston, Pennsylvania. By 1910, his family, along with his two brothers, relocated to New York in the Bronx where his father worked as a printer at a job office. By 1920, Gordon worked as a “draftsman,” presumably in an architectural environment, since the 1925 New York Census lists a similar occupation and shows him living with his brothers. By 1930, while his youngest brother George found work at Paul Terry’s animation studio in the Bronx, Dan Gordon continued as an architectural draftsman in New Jersey.
It is unclear when Gordon entered the animation business. It seems rational he switched to a different medium since the demand technical work, such as drafting, had diminished considerably during the height of the Depression. He started at the Van Beuren Corporation probably around 1933, either before or after the firing of John Foster, who had been head of the animation department. Gordon remained at the studio when Burt Gillett became supervisor in the spring of 1934. He drew model sheets for many of the Rainbow Parades, including the shorts based on Toonerville Trolley and A Waif’s Welcome (1936). Gordon advanced to a directorial credit at the studio shortly before it closed their animation division in 1936. Whereas Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer helmed many of the titles in the Rainbow Parade series, Gordon wrote and directed It’s A Greek Life (released in August) about a centaur cobbler repairing the winged shoes of the Greek god Mercury.By June 1936, many former Van Beuren artists flocked to Paul Terry’s studio, now located in New Rochelle. Dan Gordon was hired as a story man, while his brother George worked as a director. Gordon served as a director on at least one cartoon at Terry’s studio, Pink Elephants (released July 1937), which he co-wrote with Joe Barbera. Around the same time as the release of Pink Elephants, several artists were offered jobs for higher salaries at MGM’s new animation studio in the West Coast. Gordon relocated to California, hired as a layout artist on the Captain and the Kids cartoons by September 1937.
His time at MGM was relatively brief, as Gordon moved to Miami at Max Fleischer’s new studio around 1938, where he was hired to rewrite the continuity for their first feature Gulliver’s Travels, along with Tedd Pierce and Cal Howard, both recruited from Warner Bros. While Gulliver was in production during 1939, Gordon worked as a story man on several theatrical shorts, which included a short-lived series of Stone Age cartoons, which depicted contemporary prehistoric life with an emphasis on its “modern” appliances and devices. He is also credited for the story on the two “historical” cartoons Popeye Meets William Tell (1940) and Popeye Meets Rip Van Winkle (1941).
The studio developed suggestions for a second feature during and after production on Gulliver. A film based on the tale of Pandora’s Box, derived from Greek mythology, was announced by April 1940, with Gordon slated as one of the principal directors, but the idea was discarded. Another proposal involved an adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee, which details the human condition from a bee’s perspective. When the studio could not secure the rights to the Maeterlinck novel, they decided to devise an original story. The script for their new feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town was approved by the end of 1940, and was slated for a December 1941 release. Near the end of Mr. Bug, the large community of insects scramble along a skyscraper being erected, which owed to Max Fleischer’s mechanical inclination and Gordon’s architectural background. James Davis, an animator on Mr. Bug, recounted: “Dan could do it all, and do it better. His problem was that it all came so easy for him, if that’s a problem. We were always amazed at his skills.Max and Dave Fleischer severed their connection with Paramount by early 1942 Their company was renamed Famous Studios, and Dan Gordon was appointed as one of the supervisors (credited on screen as “directors”), along with Izzy Sparber and Seymour Kneitel, Max Fleischer’s son-in-law. The separation of the Fleischer brothers and formation of Famous Studios coincided with America’s involvement with World War II against the Axis powers. The studio’s output reflected the country’s responses in its early efforts, such as their first release You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap, released in August 1942 under Gordon’s supervision (with Jim Tyer as “head animator”).
Besides two Superman cartoons credited to Gordon as “director” (Eleventh Hour and Jungle Drums), the black-and-white Popeye cartoons produced in Miami under his name displayed sharp comic staging and derisive humor reminiscent of the West Coast studios. The Hungry Goat (released June 1943) shows awareness between its characters and the audience, undoubtedly an influence from the Warners cartoons. Gordon had a predilection towards dark comedy such as “the bitter end” of Happy Birthdaze (released July 1943) when Popeye finally eliminates his pesky sailor friend Shorty. By mid-1943, Famous Studios had relocated to New York to be closer to Paramount’s headquarters. Later, Gordon supervised No Mutton fer Nuttin’ (released November 1943), the first film under the Noveltoons banner. The film marked the debut of Blackie the Lamb, a brash, wisecracking black sheep intended as a send-up of similar star characters prevalent in animated cartoons during the 1940s. However, Gordon was fired from Famous Studios shortly after the move to New York, due to his behavior related to alcohol and his name was omitted from the main titles.After his dismissal from Famous, Gordon freelanced in comic book work by the end of 1943 or early 1944. At first, he wrote, drew and inked stories with “one-shot” characters for comic magazines such as Ha-Ha and Giggle Comics, published by Benjamin Sangor’s outfit located adjacent to the animation studio. Gordon’s comic stories displayed a harsh cynicism in their writing, accompanied by dynamic layouts and posing. Soon, he created Superkatt as a spoof on superhero animals created in the wake of Superman’s popularity (though Gordon drew a few stories with one of its imitators, Supermouse). Under the pen name “Dang,” Superkatt was an ordinary cat costumed in a baby bonnet and diaper, but lacked superpowers. As for other aspects of Gordon’s career, recent evidence has indicated that he relocated to Detroit, where he became an instructor at the School of Arts and Crafts (now College for Creative Studies) in a cartooning course around 1944-45. It is uncertain if he worked for Jam Handy’s industrial studio as of this writing.
Gordon soon expanded his work with human characters when he created high school student Cookie O’ Toole. Marking his debut in the April 1945 issue of Topsy-Turvy Comics, Cookie received his own series of magazines the following year. Unlike the Archie comics that typified the teen humor genre in comics, Gordon’s Cookie stories possessed a strong vitality with a satirical edge. By the end of the 1940s, while still drawing stories with Superkatt and Cookie, Gordon also worked with new characters. One such creation in Giggle, Bungle of the Jungle, revolved around a circus elephant that brings civilian recreation to the jungle animals, much to the chagrin of the human native Bozzin. Gordon also drew/inked two separate dog and cat pairs, Anthony and Cleopatra for Ha Ha and Puss an’ Boots for Funny Films—the latter duo’s were more frenetic and utilized more brutal slapstick. Another character used by Gordon in Funny Films was an eccentric rabbit inventor named Blunderbunny.
While he maintained his profession as a comic book artist in late 1950, Gordon went to John Sutherland’s New York offices to work with agencies on developing television material. In a conversation with Milton Knight, the late publisher Fred Iger revealed that Gordon resigned from comics by the early 1950s—possibly around 1953—and moved to the Midwest for reasons unknown. However, it seemed Gordon was back in New York working in commercial studios a short time later. After a stint at Jack Zander’s Transfilm studio, he went back to work with Sutherland, negotiating with commercial clients in April 1954.
In 1957, Gordon was hired at Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s new television studio, as a story sketch artist on Ruff and Reddy. Besides drawing storyboards for programs such as The Huckleberry Hound Show and The Quick Draw McGraw Show, Gordon worked on early development for The Flintstones. Originally designated as “The Flagstones,” the show bore a resemblance to the Stone Age cartoons that Gordon worked on two decades earlier at Fleischer’s Miami studio. He drew the storyboards for the series’ first two episodes in production before the show aired on primetime in the fall of 1960, “The Swimming Pool” and “The Flintstone Flyer”. In January 1961, Dan Gordon left Hanna-Barbera to work at Quartet Films on television commercials as head of their story department.Gordon returned to Hanna-Barbera, possibly around the time The Magilla Gorilla Show entered production in 1963. He continued as a story director on The Flintstones and Johnny Quest, as well as the studio’s first feature Hey There It’s Yogi Bear!. Over time, Gordon’s health deteriorated due to his severe alcoholism, which carried through for much of his career. According to Iwao Takamoto in an interview with Michael Mallory, he recalled one night at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, which Gordon frequented: “I remember sitting with him one time and talking to him about something we needed scripted, and he communicated with drawings by this time, and his hands were constantly shaking. I remember wondering, ‘How the devil is he going to draw anything?’ And he picked up a pencil, and his hand was shaking like crazy, and as soon as the tip of the pencil touched the paper, everything just solidified. The hand quit shaking, and this little idea sketch comes out.”
Around the time The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show went into production in 1965, Gordon left the studio indefinitely. It is unknown if Gordon pursued further into animation before his death on August 13th, 1970. According to the late Jack Mendelsohn, Gordon was killed in a house fire while in a drunken stupor. Some sources state his last known location was in Fulton County, Georgia. The circumstances of this locality are unknown, and verification based on death records is inaccessible.
That wraps it up for this month! I will be back in June with animator breakdowns…
(Thanks to Yowp, Eric Costello, Milton Knight, Steve Stanchfield, Thad Komorowski and Michael Mallory for their help.)