EDITOR’S NOTE: For the next several weeks, our colleague J.B. Kaufman will exclusively grace this site with some of his research into the nooks and crannies of Disney’s most obscure cartoons. In case you haven’t heard – J.B. has a new book on the making of Pinocchio being released on May 26th – and I highly recommend you pre-order it today (click the banner above to do so). And now, as Mickey Mouse used to say each Monday afternoon, “On with the show!” – Jerry Beck
As a long-time admirer of Jerry’s website (not to mention his other activities), I’m happy to have a chance to contribute to it. And I hope this will be a worthwhile contribution: in this space, for the next several Saturdays, I’m going to be concentrating on the nontheatrical films of Walt Disney. We focus a lot of attention—as we should—on the classic Disney theatrical cartoons, short and feature-length. But at the same time there’s an alternate universe of Disney animation: the educational and public-service films, intended for showing in classrooms and other alternative venues. Here the well-known Disney mastery of animation and storytelling was harnessed in the service of health, educational, or public-service causes. The relative obscurity of these films makes them doubly fascinating to me, and, I hope, to some of you as well.
One of the things I like about Cartoon Research is that some of its contributors give their posts an intimate touch by sharing their personal stories. Here’s a bit of mine. When I was a child, I fell so deeply in love with the movies that I even enjoyed the 16mm educational films that were shown to us in school. Of course I recognized that some of them were better than others; of course I could see that this experience was nothing like watching the latest Disney release in a theater. But at some level, those things seemed relatively unimportant to me. These were movies! I was watching a motion picture projected on a screen, and that in itself was something to be savored.
On certain rare occasions, the film being shown to my class actually was a Disney production—and on those occasions, my joy knew no bounds. I have a vivid memory of a fifth-grade assembly in which we were shown two of the I’m No Fool cartoons, featuring Jiminy Cricket. These films had been produced a few years earlier for the Mickey Mouse Club TV show, and so had been widely seen in black and white; but the studio had cannily produced them in color editions so they could also be circulated on 16mm to schools like mine. I didn’t know at the time that one of the two films was the very first one in the series, broadcast during the first week of the Mickey Mouse Club in October 1955. Still less did I suspect that decades later—while researching Jiminy Cricket background for my Pinocchio book—I would have the opportunity to learn extensive details about the making of this little gem.
I’M NO FOOL (WITH A BICYCLE)
Production 8202, sequence 01.0
Broadcast (Mickey Mouse Club) 6 October 1955
Director: Bill Justice
Story: Bill Berg, Nick George
Words and music: Jimmie Dodd
Voice: Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket)
Layout: X. Atencio
• Bill Justice (Cricket sings first part of title song; shot of assorted bicycle riders)
• Cliff Nordberg (Cricket talks to camera, then dances and sings second part of song;
Cricket opens book, confused about four wheels; Cricket reprises song at end)
• Fred Hellmich (Cricket hops up stack of books, then walks across top and floats down;
safety bicycle in first illustration and in modern version; Cricket draws “you” on blackboard)
• X. Atencio (lettering and tricycle in book; man with ladder attempts to mount hi-wheeler;
“you” takes care of bike and jumps on to ride it)
• Al Coe (Cricket points out illustrations in book; dandy tries to ride first bicycle; man tries
to ride wooden horse; “you” demonstrates basic rules and rides bicycle to edge of blackboard)
• John Freeman (Cricket points out illustration of boneshaker; Cricket talks about
popularity of safety bicycle; bike and car come to stop; “you” stops while girl crosses street)
• Jack Parr (man rides boneshaker; man rides first safety bicycle; man and boy demonstrate
arm signals; Cricket draws “fool” on blackboard)
• Phil Duncan (Cricket turns from book to blackboard; Cricket shows motor car on
blackboard, then erases it)
• Jack Boyd (“fool’s” first attempt to ride bike)
Assistant director: George Probert
Unit secretary: Marie Dasnoit
The story behind this film begins early in 1955, when the Disney studio was assembling material for the Mickey Mouse Club series. Walt Disney had intended from the beginning that the program should include a segment on safety, and Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio’s erstwhile guide, was a natural choice to host such a segment. In March 1955 the safety miniseries was christened I’m No Fool, and Jimmie Dodd, the program’s multitalented front man, composed a catchy title song for the Cricket to sing.
Direction of the series was assigned to veteran Disney artist Bill Justice, and the story crew consisted of Nick George (another name familiar to Disney animation fans for his years as assistant to Norm Ferguson) and Bill Berg. The first entry, focusing on bicycle safety, established the convention that would be repeated in the rest of the series. This was essentially a formula that had served Walt well since the making of his dental-care film, Tommy Tucker’s Tooth, in 1922: a “good” character who does something properly, contrasted with another character whose bad example is played for laughs. The crew worked quickly to develop this story material, and by May 1955 the animators were at work on the first film.
The reader will notice that the credits above are incomplete: the surviving draft was issued during the first week in May, when some of the scenes had still not been assigned. The credits also indicate that fast work and versatility were requisite qualities for this television work. Bill Justice, besides directing the picture, also animated some of its key scenes. Layout artist X. Atencio likewise doubled in animation. (Production papers also reveal some ideas that were dropped during production. At one time it was planned that Atencio would enhance the opening big-head closeup of Jiminy Cricket by animating his eyes back and forth; this idea was abandoned before completion of the film.)
The greatest challenge faced by TV animation producers was turning out their work fast enough to meet the demanding schedule of daily television. The Disney TV cartoons continued to maintain a visual standard that was luxurious compared to that of other producers, but the Disney artists, too, resorted to shortcuts and tricks. Jiminy Cricket in I’m No Fool is unquestionably the same character who had appeared in Pinocchio, complete with the warm, folksy voice of Cliff Edwards, but his design is stylized. His facial features are simplified in order to read well on the small screen, and he’s inked with a heavy black outline. In the color version, the subtle gradations of his skin tone in Pinocchio are replaced by a light salmon—a color choice that made a great impression on me as a child.
The first picture inaugurates the format that will be used in the rest of the I’m No Fool pictures. Jiminy Cricket, comfortably ensconced in a library (another echo of Pinocchio), sings the jaunty title song and talks to his young audience about the importance of safety. With the help of animated book illustrations, he outlines a brief history of the bicycle. Then he draws two characters on a blackboard: “you”—a small boy representing the viewer—and “a common ordinary fool” who will demonstrate the wrong things to do. The rest of the picture entertainingly illustrates the do’s and don’ts of bicycle safety, the Cricket applauding the conscientious efforts of “you” and addressing the “fool” in language that would never get by in today’s hypersensitive culture (“Try it again, stupid!”).
Of course this bicycle short was only the beginning; the series continued with entries on fire, pedestrian, swimming, and electrical safety. Anyone who has seen more than one of these cartoons knows that the opening and closing scenes, as well as some snippets of animation in between, are reused in each new picture. To some viewers this may seem like a cheat; to my fifth-grade eye it was wonderful. I loved any kind of glimpse behind the scenes, and marveled that scenes from one film could be integrated with new scenes to produce a brand-new film.
Whatever one’s point of view, it’s clear that the I’m No Fool series was produced with a great deal of ingenuity. Besides the recycled scenes and the simplified character design, additional devices helped to streamline the production process still further. During the historical sequence, the Cricket points out images which come to life in modest, limited-animation movement—but this seems appropriate, given that they’re supposed to be book illustrations. His chalk drawings of “you” and the “fool” on a blackboard are extremely simple line drawings, reducing any animation challenges to a minimum. In this way the production team held down costs of the I’m No Fool series without sacrificing the quality that viewers expected of a Disney production. And, in any case, the studio’s basic objective was achieved: a cheerful little series of cartoons that kept a generation of young viewers entertained while they absorbed important safety lessons. I can vouch for at least one who did!