This week’s breakdown goes into one of the finest Silly Symphonies!
Dick Huemer, an animator on this cartoon, stated to Joe Adamson, in later years, that had other animation studio produced Tortoise and the Hare during the ‘30s, the results would have been mundane—just numerous gags about running.
Huemer’s opinion definitely has some clout; other animation studios could deviate from Aesop’s fable, but, based on its concise nature, the additions are sufficient. For instance, the Hare rests while the Tortoise plods behind him but ends up oversleeping, resulting in his loss. In Disney’s version, this element is used only briefly, when Max Hare wakes up after Toby passes him, only to race past him moments later. In this version, too, the reason for Max Hare’s loss is clever: he proceeds to demonstrate his athletic prowess and speed—playing archery, baseball, and tennis by himself.
The Tortoise and the Hare was directed by Wilfred Jackson, regarded for the meticulous attention to detail he bestowed in his Disney cartoons. Jackson joined the staff as an assistant animator for Ub Iwerks on April 16, 1928, as the studio continued to produce the Oswald cartoons.
As the studio struggled with synchronization to sound for Steamboat Willie, Jackson’s musical upbringing benefitted Disney and his staff. He brought in a metronome and used it to plan the action of Steamboat in advance, before the music and animation began. Jackson continued to animate until he became a director on The Castaway, released in 1931. By that time, he oversaw the studio’s growth as it became more departmentalized—particularly story men and the layout department—by a large, assimilated staff. As time passed, their skill improved considerably in different ways, and the Silly Symphonies were a breeding ground for experimentation.
Max Hare (voiced by character actor Ned Norton) possesses speed so impressive that its sheer force un-roots trees from the ground and pulls the feathers from an observing crane. This type of extraordinary velocity, in which he crosses the screen in less than a second, was a novel and important concept for animation. Jackson appointed a bulk of Max Hare’s scenes during the race to Ham Luske, with Dick Lundy put to work on Toby Tortoise (voiced by Eddie Holden). Just as Luske’s poses and actions enrich Max Hare’s vain personality, Lundy’s animation of the amiable turtle is just as convincing. Toby is fairly reminiscent of Tex Avery’s Droopy—unassuming on the surface, but able to face humiliation with dignity.
Luske used his previous experience as sports illustrator for the Oakland Post-Inquirer for this cartoon. An athlete in his own right, Luske animated the boastful hare playing tennis with himself — a triumph in caricaturing movement. Max’s nimble, sporty actions seem realistic, but it amplifies to an improbable degree. Luske’s assistant, Ward Kimball, always strived to push Luske’s drawings further, as he would with his own animation. Another young artist blossomed under Luske’s tutelage. Eric Larson, credited with two scenes for Tortoise and the Hare, previously served as Luske’s assistant. Larson learned about the study of motion from Luske’s observations, since he applied the principles of animation outside the studio. For instance, the two played golf together and he taught Larson about anticipation (a specific action that anticipates what occurs next) before they went to putt.
Les Clark, responsible for the schoolgirl rabbits that admire Max Hare, arrived at the studio before Jackson, in February, 1927. In his first six months, he served as a camera operator, then spent another six months as an inker/painter. He eventually became a full animator on The Skeleton Dance, the first Silly Symphony released.
Clark’s scenes in The Tortoise and the Hare are clearly staged and easily communicated; traits no doubt inherited from Ub Iwerks’ facile drawing. A versatile draftsman, Clark could animate broad characters and those that demanded more delicate drawing; the latter being utilized in this cartoon. Like Wilfred Jackson, Clark’s presence coincided with the studio’s wide spectrum of animated projects throughout his career, which lasted almost fifty years. He retired from the studio in September, 1975.
Dick Huemer animates the final portion of the race with Max and Toby. Huemer peppers the climax with small details, more or less carried over from comic strips, like spark lines and droplets of moisture (Toby’s nervous sweating and Max’s farewell kisses, in particular). In his scenes, Huemer interprets Max’s speed much differently than Luske, but it’s absolutely fitting for the climax. The hare’s eagerness for victory makes his feet tread ground, lifting him up in the air. In addition, Max’s determined expression—with his thick eyebrows—is priceless. Huemer also contributes a nice touch as the hare receives his comeuppance. He nearly, but deservedly, burrows his head into the ground, as Toby wins by a neck.
The Tortoise and the Hare received an Academy Award for Best Animated Short for 1934, defeating Holiday Land (with Scrappy) and Jolly Little Elves, Charles Mintz and Walter Lantz’s first cartoons in color, respectively. This cartoon became a landmark of animation, influencing many studios to increase the timing in their gags. As a result, speed became an integral part of lauded series —the Fleischer Popeye cartoons, Shamus Culhane’s work at Lantz, the Warner Bros. cartoons, and, of course, the Hanna-Barbera and Tex Avery units at MGM.
Max Hare’s impudence arguably generated the character of Bugs Bunny — a figure in the same mold, but handled with more subtlety and nonchalance. Bugs’ indifference is even tested in a series of cartoons—directed by Avery, Clampett and Freleng— based on the fable, with his opponent Cecil Turtle. Max Hare and Toby Tortoise were featured in the Silly Symphonies Sunday comic strip series entitled “The Boarding-School Mystery”—drawn by Al Taliaferro and written by Ted Osborne—published from December 23, 1934 to February 17, 1935. (You can see the complete story on Dave Gerstein’s marvelous book Mickey and the Gang.)
Presented here is an authentic draft of Tortoise and the Hare, instead of notes (or cutting continuities). It’s noted that the layout for this cartoon began in May 1934, and was completed by September. Jackson supplied different scenes for his animators to share—Luske on Max Hare and Lundy on Toby Tortoise — but the characters are only on-screen for a brief amount of time. In scene 7, Lundy animates both Max and Toby before the race, and the two are on-screen together for almost thirty seconds. There is no animator credited on the cheering crowd during the end of the race; the re-use of the same shot isn’t listed on the draft, but it could’ve been a late addition into the cutting. As Jackson recalled during a 1939 lecture, he attempted to fit the music of the rush to the finish line with quick cuts to Max and Toby. He re-inserted shots of the crowd to effectively bridge the musical phrasing of Frank Churchill’s “Slow But Sure,” (Toby’s theme) and the siren sound effect of Max’s manic momentum.
Hope you all enjoy this (Oscar-winning) breakdown video!
(Click on drafts below to enlarge)
(Thanks to Mark Kausler, Michael Barrier and Frank Young for their help.)