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Il Paese degli animali (Animaland)

Danny Fingeroth spins through the new book by Michael Mallory that covers everything Marvel in big, bold and glossy pages.

Ginger Nutt's Bee Brother, an Animaland film directed by Bert Feldstead. © G.B. Animation. Courtesy of Streamline Pictures.

In the 1970s and 80s, anyone researching the history of classical American animation was faced with a panorama of numerous producers, directors and artists who were still alive and more than ready to tell of their experience; in addition, there were surviving friends, acquaintances and relatives, as well as earlier interviews. The only real mystery surrounded David Hand.

Hand had been Disney's right hand man on the creative side for about 10 years. He was credited as the director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi; he then emigrated to Great Britain to set up a large studio there. But after that? Nothing. He reappeared one evening, shortly before his death, to collect an Annie Award from ASIFA-Hollywood, a branch of the professional animator's organization, for his lifetime achievements. He did leave a small book of memoirs which were published posthumously on her own by his widow, Martha, and which only a few of us were lucky enough to get our hands on one. Now, precisely 10 years after his death (he was born in 1900), thanks to a lucky combination of chance and the clever intervention of an Italian company, the films he made in Great Britain have once again come to light.

Ginger Nutt's Bee Brother, an Animaland film directed by Bert Feldstead. © G.B. Animation. Courtesy of Streamline Pictures.

But let's start at the beginning. After gaining some experience in New York at the John Randolph Bray Studios, David Dodd Hand first came to Disney on January 20, 1930, a Friday. That was the day his difficult, contradictory but creative relationship with Walt (who, in the words of many studio veterans interviewed later on was, to put it mildly, "a very complicated man") began. Hand tells us that one of his boss' greatest problems was his inability to explain just exactly what he meant: he knew what he did not like, but did not know how to explain what changes needed to be made. Once, he made him redo a a scene six times until, enraged, Hand exaggerated all the positions purely to be polemical, making them completely unnatural by contemporary standards. "There you are, Dave, that is exactly what I wanted!," exclaimed "Mickey Mouse's father" before his amazed artist. This was to become a lesson on animated cartoons (to make a scene cinematically credible, never imitate reality, but caricature it instead and then carry it to excess), and also a lesson for Hand, who from that moment on was able to anticipate the taste and wishes of Walt Disney better than anyone else.

The British Adventure

On July 21, 1944, after the glory of Snow White and Bambi, Hand resigned. Marc Eliot, a real backbiter (as seen in Walt Disney, Hollywood's Dark Prince, the most hostile of Disney's biographers), suggests that the boss, a callous moralist, had begun to detest his employee when he had gone to live with a new companion before his divorce had been finalized. Hand is vague, in his memoirs, and describes a confidence which had deteriorated bit by bit, an atmosphere which had imperceptibly become unbearable. In fact, one might believe that he had almost begun to get in the way. Fond and loyal, but definitely not a yes man, he had grown professionally, until he had become not only Disney's right hand man, but almost his alter ego, a potential menace for a ruler who wished to be absolute.

Thus his British adventure began. Hired by J. Arthur Rank, David Hand established GB Animation. He fitted out luxurious premises in the countryside just outside London, amongst all the difficulties of the post-war period. He trained a couple of hundred artist and produced 9 episodes of the Animaland series and 10 of the Musical Paintbox series. The experience was ended by the protectionism of the American market, which refused to buy the British shorts.

A Fantasy on London, a Musical Paintbox short directed by Pat Griffin © G.B. Animation. Courtesy of Streamline Pictures.

In 1950, Hand returned to his motherland and left animation forever. He went to live in Colorado Springs and, later, in the small California town of Cambria; he married twice more and died in 1986.

Here too, his memoirs are reticent. Why did he not attempt to set up a new studio at a time when animated commercials was starting to boom and promised sure economic rewards? Why didn't he offer his services to one of the numerous producers still active, starting with his friend Walter Lantz, or Warner Bros., which was still flourishing? Reading between the lines of his autobiography, a picture emerges of a man who, at the age of 50, was fed up: he had touched the apex of his field, he had exhausted all his energy in an attempt to become an industrialist on his own account, and finally only wanted to enjoy family life and peace. However, to get an answer to these questions, we will have to wait for more research to be done by new historians.

The Good News

Now let us get to the good news, which led us to honor this underappreciated master. His British films have been recovered and have been reissued in grand style on video, rather than via a retrospective in a remote festival. As often happens, it all happened quite by chance.

Ken Kramer is the owner of the Clip Joint in California, a company which collects old films and acts as an advertising warehouse. One fine day, the cleaning man at an old warehouse approached him with a box full of some very old 35mm Technicolor prints; Kramer sent the man packing with a few dollars, mostly to keep him happy. He was thus quite taken aback when director Joe Dante (of Gremlins fame) happened along and saw the films, and recognized them as being by David Hand. Kramer then got in touch with the filmmaker's son, David Hale Hand, and together they planned to restore the films and their commercial rerelease. But who could finance such a project?

From this point on, the story also becomes part of Italian animation history. Luigi Affaba and Carlo Fei, the Milanese owners of Alfadedis, a home video production company specializing in animation, also happened to be in California. Kramer and Hand Jr. had already heard of them and started pursuing them and an agreement was reached: Alfadedis would finance the restoration and, in return, would acquire the video rights to the films. This was quite a risk for the two Italians, who had only seen a part of the material and for the most part just relied on their instincts.

Now the Animaland(Il Paese degli animali Italian) is a reality, dubbed into Italian by the multitalented actor Luca Barbareschi. What can be said of it? That these are brilliant fairy tales about animals interspersed with musical interludes, which reminds one of Disney's Silly Symphonies from the 1930s, but without the affection sometimes found in the originals. There is also the surprising anticipation of the stylized and simplified manner of the UPA films of the 1950s; for instance, look at The Ostrich, with its animated Egyptian hieroglyphics.

David D. Hand when he was Managing Director and Production Supervisor of Gaumont British Animation. Courtesy of Giannalberto Bendazzi.

Despite the heavy stylistic influence of Hollywood, the Animaland films represent an important part of the history of West European animation, the product of its first large scale studio and the first to use the Disney model, in its authentic form. Amongst the animators trained by Hand, at least one, Nicholas Spargo, was later to become a master of London animated commercials, and John Wilson had fruitful career in the United States, highlighted by the Shinbone Alley feature.

Il Paese degli animali&nbsp(Animaland).

A videocassette of nine shorts for children by David Dodd Hand. Edited by Ken Kramer and David Hale Hand. Produced by Alfadedis. Voices by Luca Barbareschi. Release date: December 4, 1996.

Editor's Note: In 1992, Los Angeles-based Streamline Pictures did release a video containing four of David Hand's British films under the title David Hand's Animaland. It included three of the Animaland and one of the Musical Paintbox series. The tape is now out of print, but Streamline is said to be in line to release the Alfadedis series in the United States.

Clean Up Model Sheet for G.B. Animation short. © 1948 G.B. Animation. Courtesy of Giannalberto Bendazzi.