Some kind of crazy genius: Ludwig von Drake and his creators

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By Scott Ross

Making his first appearance in the world the same year as your humble scribe was one of my very favorite cartoon characters. Professor Ludwig von Drake, acknowledged expert on everything (and if you don’t believe that, just ask him) debuted on Walt Disney’s Sunday evening showcase The Wonderful World of Color, as it then was, in September 1961. He is unique among what I think of as the great Disney characters in that he is the only one who was created, not for the movies, but for television.

Ludwig von Drake, annoying both Walt Disney and the NBC Peacock.

Designed by the magnificent Milt Kahl, Von Drake benefited from the use of the then-new Xerox technology so beloved of the Disney animators because, unlike more traditional ink-and-paint coloring and finishing, it preserved their original drawings in a rougher (and, they believed) truer form, preserving the spirit of their renderings. The Professor, with his fringe of hair and feathery hands, was a natural for the Xerox treatment.

A typically expressive Milt Kahl model sheet for Von Drake.

For many years, I mistakenly attributed Von Drake to Ward Kimball’s dry, comic brain. Kimball did animate the Professor, although Von Drake’s initial appearance, in which he sang “The Spectrum Song” by the Sherman Brothers, was directed by Hamilton Luske and animated by Woolie Reitherman and Les Clark. If you look at Von Drake’s physiognomy, though, there is an uncanny resemblance to Kimball in his later years. However, since Ludwig’s emergence took place during the animator’s middle age, this is surely, however attractive a thought, merely retroactive suggestion.

Key animation by Milt Kahl.

The Disney organization seemed to be pushing Von Drake for stardom pretty hard at the time of his debut. He showed up on magazine covers…


… in Al Taliaferro’s Donald Duck comic strip…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… in children’s books…

The fine, underrated duck cartoonist Tony Strobl provided the artwork for the Von Drake comics.

… in his own comic book (short-lived as it was with only four issues)…

… on jigsaw puzzles (I had this one, four or five years later)…

Yes, Professor, I agree. Vait just a second!

Still, there was something about Von Drake, beyond the Disney hard-sell. First, Kahl’s brilliant character design. Second, his vocalization by the great Paul Frees. Of all Frees’ myriad comic voices (Boris Badenov, Inspector Fenwick, Super Chicken’s sidekick Fred, the Burgomeister Meisterberger) Ludwig is his masterpiece: The only slightly exaggerated accent* (all those marvelous, rolling r’s), the explosive temper (which, in spite of the lack of official genealogy, does rather link him both with Donald and with Scrooge McDuck), the muttered asides, the outrageous braggadocio.

Although Von Drake appeared in some very fine short subjects both for television (An Adventure in Color, Kids is Kids, The Truth About Mother Goose) and theatrical release (A Symposium on Popular Songs) nowhere is his (and Frees’) absolute brilliance demonstrated more completely than in the superb Disneyland LP Professor Ludwig von Drake.

I discovered this record in a music shop in downtown Mt. Vernon, Ohio in 1970; the proprietor, who stocked sheet music and instruments as well as a few LPs, had a wire-rack display of Disneyland and Buena Vista albums. I must have taxed his patience pulling out these treasures over several months, weighing which one I wanted most (the That Darn Cat soundtrack? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?) but always coming back to Ludwig. Since I only received a dollar allowance every week, of which half went into my savings account, that other half had to go for my comic books (15 cents then, and I’d never forgiven the publishers for raising the cover price from 12) and whatever else I wanted. I must have gotten a few extra dollars for Christmas or my 10th birthday, because one day that winter I nervously approached the music shop with the whole six dollars necessary in my hand, earnestly praying Ludwig was still there.

He was.

I damn near wore that record out.

The album’s delicious songs are by Disney’s house composers, the then pre-Mary Poppins Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. And while there is no writer credited on the LP jacket, I now assume (and await correction for this presumption) that they wrote the material on it, in collaboration with Frees.

Richard B. and Robert M. Sherman, at work on the songs for The Jungle Book in 1967.

Aside from the songs, and a few gags, however, nothing on the album feels written. Frees’ exuberant, egocentric chat — hilarious muttered asides and all — sounds wholly ex tempore, as if it was all pouring out of his (or Von Drake’s) brain and off his tongue at the moment the reels of tape began rolling. Early on, Von Drake begins nattering about The Wonderful World of Color as though he was solely responsible for it, his muttering becoming more and more indistinct as he prattles on about some imaginary creative genius called Disney (“…some kind of a duck or something…”) Walt must have loved that.†

I don’t know exactly what to call what the Messrs. Sherman, Sherman and Frees wrought on this album, but each time I hear it I find it perilously close to some kind of crazy genius.

A Wonder Bread premium sticker from the 1970s. I remember this one with a great deal more pleasure than the memory of chewing that sawdust-and-mucilage solid gruel they called a loaf of bread.

*The conception of Ludwig — an educated blowhard who’s nearly always wrong — owes much to Sid Caesar’s recurrent “Professor” character from Your Show of Shows, although Caesar’s accent is much broader than the one Frees opted for.

†The LP was re-released on CD, slightly and rather curiously truncated (a snippet of introductory music and dialogue at the beginning of “I’m Professor Ludwig von Drake,” a word or two here and there later) at one of the Disneyland shops in a sale-on-demand format. I’m grateful and relieved I managed to snag a copy online, as it seems no longer to be made.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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Knowing how people move: Madame Medusa takes off her makeup

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By Scott Ross

When The Rescuers opened in 1977, I went to see it, as a dutiful but not terribly hopeful 16-year old who felt that the Disney animators had pretty much lost their way. I grew up on their stuff, of course, and counted a 1967 reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs among the most powerful movie-going experiences of my then very young life. I had loved Cinderella on reissue as well, but I was absolutely potty about The Jungle Book when I saw it in 1968. It became my world: Jungle Book comic books, Jungle Book puzzles, Jungle Book Colorforms and paint-by-numbers scenes, a whole box of Royal Pudding customer premium Disneykins figurines (dear god, how I wish I’d held onto those!), the Jungle Book soundtrack album (I drove my parents to despair with that one.) I was, I think, at just the right age for it: A cartoon-mad seven-year-old, seeing his first new Disney feature, not terribly long after Walt’s death.


But while I had enjoyed The Aristocats, and Robin Hood, and a mid-’70s reissue of The Sword in the Stone, I got much more from 101 Dalmatians and Fantasia  and Pinocchio and Dumbo when they went into rotation. By comparison to the new, Walt-less work, those pictures had a richness with which the more recent movies couldn’t really compare. It wasn’t the post-50s Xerox process that struck me, however vaguely, as thin; it was the stories themselves, and the characters, and the means by which the Nine Old Men were telling those stories and presenting those characters. In retrospect, I suppose it was largely the fault of Woolie Reitherman, the named director of the features. His pictures aren’t terribly inspired, and he seemed to abhor heart — I don’t mean sentimentality, but genuine sentiment. And there is a difference. It’s something Disney himself may have embraced too heavily at times, but I would rather the unabashed emotional pull of, say, the “Baby Mine” sequence in Dumbo than almost anything in The Fox and the Hound.

Some of the fault may lie with Disney himself, more aloof as the years went on and far less involved in the production of his studio’s animation (although he was still the greatest editor his animators ever had.) Somehow, though, someone — perhaps John Lounsbery or Art Stevens, both of whom co-directed with Reitherman — managed to get that heart back into The Rescuers, whatever Woolie’s reticence; it’s present from the first moment, and the first notes of the Artie Butler score (I have only to hear are the initial strains of “Rescue Me” and I go misty) and it’s seldom far from the action. Situated within those more emotive parameters, however, is Milt Kahl’s superb, satirical character work on Madame Medusa, the movie’s hilariously frumpy villain.

Kahl said the character was his vengeance on an ex-wife, but Medusa’s facial design surely owes something to the great Geraldine Page, who provided her voice. (Kahl did nearly all the animation for the character.)

Madame Medusa and her vocal (and performance) alter ego, Geraldine Page.

Like his confreres Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, Kahl was a master of behavioral animation. (Kahl worked his special magic on the Tar Baby sequence in Song of the South, the amusingly narcissistic Brom Bones in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the slightly befuddled Fairy Godmother — as well as the pugnacious King and his humorless Duke — in Cinderella, Madame Mim in The Sword in the Stone, and the suavely frightening Sher Khan — as well as King Louie and Kaa — in The Jungle Book.) “Anyone worth his salt in this business,” he said, “ought to know how people move […] You have to understand movement, which in itself is quite a study. You have to be an actor. You have to put on a performance.” With Medusa, his final work on a Disney feature, Kahl gave the performance of a lifetime.

A Milt Kahl sketch of Medusa in all her over-the-top glory.

Madame Medusa is personality animation with a vengeance. Her every movement is fulsome, from her big, sagging bosom and the ghastly hips her walk leads with, to her set of damn near independently working teeth. Much of Kahl’s inspiration no doubt came from Page’s ripe, deliberately hammy vocal work, but Medusa is his creature. (There’s no remotely one like her in Margery Sharpe’s “Miss Bianca” novels, on which the movie was based.) And her crowning moment as an animated figure, and Kahl’s as her creator, is the simple removal of a false eyelash. It takes less than a minute of screen time, but once seen it’s never forgotten.

I can still remember the genuine sense of awe I felt when I first saw it, even as the moment made me laugh out loud. It could only have been done with animation, and only then by an animator who understood movement and personality to his bones.

One of Kahl’s original animation drawings from the “make-up scene” in The Rescuers.

The sequence comes as Medusa attempts using child psychology on Penny, the small orphan she’s kidnapped to help retrieve a priceless diamond from the grotto of a Louisiana bayou. As she talks in what she believes is an encouraging manner to Penny, she’s removing her voluminous makeup before a mirror.

Page gives a particularly rich reading to the line Medusa is speaking during the action of pulling off the second of two false eyelashes (“Then we must try harder, mustn’t we?”) her voice taking on a slightly irritated lilt that works beautifully with the action Kahl animates. It’s a perfect illustration of “squash-and-stretch” animation.

The first two images represent the lash that doesn’t give Medusa trouble.

It’s the other one that’s the source of her brief, wonderfully comic struggle:

Kahl’s animation drawing and, below, a finished cel from the next moment in the action.

Above, and below, Kahl’s animation drawings. The final stretch, as it were. What’s missing (because I couldn’t find it online) is the way the aging flesh around Medusa’s eye, freed from the lash, undulates briefly before sagging back into place — the topper, as comedians say, to the joke.

If this isn’t “putting on a performance,” I don’t know what is. A simple moment of action, wholly incidental to the narrative but infinitely rich in personality. 36 years later it still makes me smile — and marvel.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross