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.
In 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.
Next week: Sadie Bodin.