This month will feature a series of profiles on different figures from the Golden Age of animation that merit further analysis. This week presents one of animation’s most unique personalities, animator/director Burt Gillett.Burton Fred Gillett was born October 15, 1891 to his father Lewis Martin Gillett (1859-1910), a watchmaker at a jewelry store, and his mother Fra McClure (1867-1944) in Elmira, New York. In a 1931 Film Daily article, Gillett stated that he and future live-action comedy producer Hal Roach —born in Elmira a year later— were “both brats in the same school room for years.” In 1904, his family moved to Pennsylvania, where, as a high school student in 1907, Judge’s Weekly awarded him second prize in a drawing contest conducted by the publication. He commuted to New York to attend the Art Students League in Manhattan around 1910; the Census lists him both at Connellsville, Pennsylvania and New York City. During his art education, he worked as a cashier at a lumber company.
Gillett started his professional artistic career as a newspaper cartoonist/writer for The Connellsville News and later, as a reporter for The Daily Courier. By 1913, he moved to New York, where he worked as a cartoonist for the Newburgh Daily News, and became the head of their art department. Gillett left the newspaper business and went into animation around 1918, first working at the International Film Service in Manhattan. The studio produced animated cartoons based on properties owned by William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, such as Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids. When the studio closed in July of that year, Gillett relocated his family to the Fordham section of the Bronx to work at the Barré-Bowers studio—operated by Raoul Barré and Charley Bowers— as an animator on the Mutt and Jeff cartoons, where he stayed until 1919.
He left the Barré-Bowers studio and returned to International Film Service after it re-opened its offices. The studio continued to produce Krazy Kat cartoons, along with new series featuring Happy Hooligan, Judge Rummy, and Jerry on the Job. After IFS folded its animation department indefinitely in 1921, he returned to the Fordham studio, which now produced Mutt and Jeff cartoons under the Jefferson Film Corporation. Neither Barré nor Bowers were involved; animator Dick Friel supervised the production of the films. After Friel left the studio, Gillett took charge of the cartoons as their “chief animator,” but production ceased on the Mutt and Jeff cartoons by 1922.
Gillett moved over to Max Fleischer’s studio working on the Out of the Inkwell cartoons starring Koko the Clown. He followed the staff when they relocated from 129 East 45th Street to larger quarters at 1600 Broadway in Manhattan by November 1923. In 1925, he formed a studio to produce Mutt and Jeff cartoons called Associated Animators, where he recruited Fleischer animators Dick Huemer, Manny Gould and Ben Harrison, along with his brother Clyde employed as their cameraman. Their studio folded in the summer of 1926, after producing twenty-six cartoons. Gillett recalled in the 1931 Film Daily article working for Fables Pictures, the studio behind Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fables, but no evidence besides his recollections can be confirmed.
By 1927, Gillett worked with producer Pat Sullivan, whose studio was responsible for the popular Felix the Cat cartoons. A year later, Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse, premiered in theatres and set a new standard for animated cartoons with sound. Despite the film’s success, Disney’s studio lacked experienced animators from the East Coast, since many of his artists departed to George Winkler’s studio months earlier. He stopped over at Sullivan’s studio and asked Otto Messmer to join his staff, but Messmer refused, under the impression that production on Felix cartoons would be constant. As Harold Walker recalled to animation historian John Canemaker, “Gillett overheard all of the conversation and anticipated the time of Walt’s departure, and he went out ahead of Walt and met him and said, ‘I’m your man!’” Disney took the offer, and hired Gillett at the studio on April 23, 1929.When he first arrived at Disney’s, Gillett started as an animator on the early Mickey Mouse cartoons and Silly Symphonies. During this period, Disney and musical composer Carl Stalling controlled the pre-planned musical timing of the films, while head animator Ub Iwerks drew small thumbnail sketches to give aid to the animators in staging their scenes. Shortly after, around the late summer of 1929, Gillett helped prepare the Mickey Mouse shorts for animation, drawing layouts for the animators and assisting Stalling with bar sheets and exposure sheets; Iwerks now continued these functions on the Silly Symphonies.
After Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling left Disney’s studio in January 1930, Gillett took charge of the directorial duties on much of the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies films released that year. The increased workload of handling both series was alleviated when animators Wilfred Jackson and Dave Hand were promoted as directors, by 1931 and 1932. Many of his colleagues recalled Gillett’s boundless enthusiasm and stimulation as a director, as he acted out the character’s movement with his body to his animators and musical composer; he primarily worked with Bert Lewis and Frank Churchill in that regard.
Eric Larson, hired in 1933 as a young in-betweener, recalled Gillett’s exuberance: “You could hear Gillett in there, putting his heart into it—and the fellow at the piano would be playing right along with him, just like the old silent-movie days, where they’d catch all the action on the screen. Gillett would roar, he’d holler, he’d scream, he’d jump on the desk, and onto the floor. And he’d say, ‘Now, let’s do it again.’…Even an eye blink would be acted out, to a musical beat.” Evidently, Jackson’s office was below Gillett’s, and this habitual gusto above made him a “noisy neighbor.”
Despite the encouragement Gillett utilized in the production of his films, Jack Kinney recalled his methods with disdain: “In the early days, everything was on the beat, and Burt Gillett…he had that damned metronome going, always on the damned beat, and he’d be pounding on the desk, and acting everything out to the beat—and it all looked mechanical. Some of it is very cute because of that, but you were inflexible, because he had a strict beat all the way through everything.” His idiosyncratic nature extended further than delegation to his artists; Gillett often addressed Disney as “Walter” instead of “Walt.”
In early 1933, Gillett directed the Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs, a breakthrough for attractive character animation and story development at the studio, which featured an original song by Churchill, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.” The film became an enormous sensation with audiences and the animation industry upon its release during the height of the Great Depression. As recalled by animator/story artist Izzy Klein, the success of Three Little Pigs made him proud to the point of arrogance. Klein wrote years later: “He was throwing his weight around, putting down people by shaking his index finger at their faces and bawling them out publicly.” Gillett continued to direct Mickey Mouse cartoons, and directed a sequel with the Three Little Pigs entitled The Big Bad Wolf (1934).
Meanwhile, the Van Beuren Corporation in New York struggled to create an enduring series throughout 1933 and the early part of 1934. Based on the lack of success with their original character Cubby Bear, or with adaptations—Otto Soglow’s The Little King (which lasted 10 cartoons) and the popular radio duo Amos and Andy (with only 2 releases, out of a proposed 12)—its distributor RKO Radio Pictures demanded to recruit someone that could generate “box-office appeal” and put them in charge of their animation department. With this, Gillett was offered a chance, based on his triumph with Three Little Pigs. He departed from the Disney studio around March 1934 and returned to New York, running Van Beuren’s animation department by April 7th.Soon after Gillett took charge at Van Beuren, the studio moved from West 48th Street to 729 Seventh Avenue, on the same floor where International Film Service was located. He devised a series called Toddle Tales that combined live-action footage of small children with animated portions that depicted a moralistic story. Van Beuren also insisted on a color series, Rainbow Parade, filmed in the Cinecolor process; Gillett asserted his command by inserting his name above each cartoon banner in the main title sequences, so they read as either “Burt Gillett’s Toddle Tales” or “Burt Gillett’s Rainbow Parade.” Steve Muffati, Jim Tyer and Ted Eshbaugh worked as co-directors in these films under Gillett.
At the studio, Gillett implemented techniques he used at Disney. He scrutinized the pencil animation before it was transported to the inking and painting stages, and stressed better story construction. Bill Carney, an in-betweener at the studio, claimed that Gillett would have his background artists work longer on their paintings to achieve a Disney aura. Saturdays were dedicated to educating his staff on Disney’s animation principles, as he lectured them or would have a Disney animator—like Dick Lundy, who was a key animator on Three Little Pigs—speak with them. In October 1934, RKO decided to switch over to color production exclusively and cut back on the number of films; the Toddle Tales intended to have a series of 13 cartoons, but only three were released. In turn, the cutbacks forced Gillett to fire 50 staffers from the studio, for “incompetence or inability to meet my requirements,” in his words. Former Disney animator Tom Palmer was terminated from Warners a year earlier due to the poor reception of his films from the top brass, so Gillett hired him as his main co-director on the Rainbow Parades.
While production on the Rainbow Parades continued throughout 1935, Gillett’s reign over Van Beuren’s animation division took a significant toll on his staff, whom he asked to address him as “Mr. Gillett.” Shamus Culhane recalled a moment of his odd behavior in the men’s lavatory; Gillett demanded a “full report” of his staff’s opinions, which Culhane balked at providing. By early 1935, Gillett dismissed capable artists from the studio at random. Izzie Klein later wrote, “He hired a wonderful young artist to do backgrounds. It turned out to be a very capable young painter I knew. Three days later, I found out he was fired. There was a constant revolving door.”
Upcoming Rainbow Parade cartoons would begin production, and then cease without explanation; likewise with Winston Sharples’ musical scores, accepted in the morning and discarded in the afternoon, as well as entire soundtracks, which warranted revisions of storyboards and dialogue recordings but discarding finished animation sequences. Gillett enforced unpaid “voluntary” overtime hours to compensate for these changes. (Tom Sito and Harvey Deneroff have both written further insight on this subject.)
Much of Gillett’s demeanor was clearly exacerbated by alcohol; Culhane recalled Gillett having small liquor bottles at the bottom drawer of his desk (he offered Culhane a drink in the morning hours of their interview). Months later, when Culhane reacted to Gillett’s falsehoods of announcing current projects to producer Amadee Van Beuren which did not exist, he threatened Culhane with a paper spindle.
Gillett’s attempts to create favorable characters for Van Beuren had minimal returns; a series of “Parrotville” cartoons lasted three entries, released in 1934 and 1935. By the summer of 1935, three-strip Technicolor became accessible to all of the animation studios after Disney’s exclusive contract on the process expired. New characters transpired during the Technicolor run, such as Molly Moo Cow, who debuted in the Rainbow Parade The Picnic Panic (in Cinecolor), and eventually starred in her own series. The studio also agreed to adapt Fontaine Fox’s comic strip Toonerville Folks and Felix the Cat from the estate of Pat Sullivan by the fall of 1935. The usage of Technicolor did not improve the cartoons enough to allure RKO; they signed a distribution contract with Disney on March 1936, and Gillett’s staff disbanded by May. Some moved to the West Coast at MGM, while others flocked to Paul Terry’s studio by June 1936. A short time later, Gillett had a lunch meeting with Roy Disney and arranged to return to their studio in August, after an extended vacation.
Gillett began work at the Disney studio by August 22nd, 1936, as production on their first feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was at its most crucial. As a director, he was involved in three short cartoons throughout his second stint at the studio—Lonesome Ghosts, with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, the Silly Symphony Moth and the Flame, and Brave Little Tailor, intended as a comeback vehicle for Mickey Mouse. Since Dave Hand was busy at work on Snow White, Gillett replaced him as the director on Moth and the Flame.
Under Gillett, these three projects alone each met with various difficulties, in spite of his prestige a few years earlier. When animator Frank Thomas was handed scenes to animate for Tailor, Gillett’s condescension towards the younger artists was apparent, as he paraphrased to Michael Barrier: “I’ve been told not to bother you guys, that you know more than I do. I don’t know how that’s possible. Hell, I’ve been in this business from the time you were in diapers, and I’ve had a lot of successful pictures, you know.” His predilection towards alcohol deepened at the studio. Gillett often snuck out in the afternoons to the Log Cabin Wine Bar with sound effects technician Hal Rees.
As a director, he continued timing his actions with a metronome, and acting out movements to the tempo. On Brave Little Tailor, in particular, Gillett was adamant on inserting story material that Disney had rejected. In another instance, he supervised the recording of the giant’s few words of dialogue, which lasted longer than necessary, adding a large expenditure to the production. Gillett seemed fixated on the dialogue track, but did not care to address other facets of production; Izzy Klein recounted his peculiarity when Gillett continuously suspended all pencil tests on his scenes for Moth and the Flame when Klein requested them.
Lonesome Ghosts proved to be an expensive short for the studio, as it contained double-exposure and glow effects in scenes with the four ghost characters. The exceeding budget interfered with the animators’ bonuses, which were rewarded if an artist delivered animation footage over their quota. Dick Huemer, who now worked as an animator for the studio, complained to Disney about these expenses. Gillett’s means of directing the films did not seem conducive to the studio anymore, especially when an ambitious project such as Snow White increased in budget. He was fired on October 19, 1937; Lonesome Ghosts was released two months later, but Moth and Tailor were both still in their production phases. Bill Roberts took over the direction of Tailor, while Huemer replaced Gillett on Moth.
After his discharge from Disney’s studio, Gillett sought after more opportunities as a director in the West Coast. Daily Variety reported on May 26, 1938 that producer Fred Quimby hired him as a director at his newly established animation department at MGM. This venture only lasted a few months—it could be believed the animators were unhappy to see Gillett again, after the tribulations at Van Beuren. Walter Lantz hired Gillett as a director by September, handling some of the earliest cartoons filmed in three-strip Technicolor at the studio, the first of which was A Haunting We Will Go (1939), a partial remake of Lonesome Ghosts. That film was the last of three appearances of Lil’ Eightball, a stereotypical African-American character featured in two other cartoons directed by Gillett. He also co-wrote his own stories in at least three cartoons under the pseudonym “Gil Burton.”
Fred Kopietz, an animator for Lantz during this period, remembered the new director still “strived for quality” in his cartoons. However, in a studio with relatively lower budgets than Disney, Gillett’s productions had a higher than usual for Lantz. In later years, Lantz recalled Gillett’s inefficiency and unpredictability as a director: “Burt had to do things over and over and over again. He was a trial-and-error person. With other directors, you know you’re going to make a picture six hundred feet long, and it won’t be six-fifty or six twenty-five, because they lay it out on their sheet that way. But Gillett never knew where he was going; he’d wind up with a nine-hundred-foot picture. After he made a few of those, I said, ‘Burt, you’re going to put me out of business.’” At least two of his films have long durations—The Sleeping Princess (1939) runs nearly ten minutes while Andy Panda Goes Fishing (1940) nearly runs nine. Kopietz also recalled Gillett still struggled with alcohol during his time at Lantz: “I think from the time he left Disney, it hit him hard.”
His last cartoon for Lantz, Adventures of Tom Thumb, Jr. was in production by August 1939 (released March 1940), so Gillett must have been fired from the studio approximately weeks or a month after. It is unclear exactly where Gillett’s professional career led after his directorial stint at Lantz. The 1942 Burbank directory lists his occupation as a “writer” though it does not indicate which studio. Given his options were low, it’s possible that he took a job writing stories at Paul Fennell’s outfit, which made animated commercials, or perhaps George Pal’s studio, which produced a series of stop-motion Puppetoons for Paramount. Gillett still remained in the West Coast, while making periodical visits to Connellsville, where he was still fondly remembered for his newspaper work in the ‘teens. He passed away in 1971 at Los Angeles, California.
(Thanks to Michael Barrier, Joe Campana, Didier Ghez, Yowp, J.B. Kaufman, Mark Kausler, Charlie Judkins and Frank Young for their help.)