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Top Story Man — New Biography!

Is it true that one of the all time greatest story sources of animation films and shorts can be labeled "lonely, sexually confused, vain, anxious and hypochondriacal?" Apparently yes! Will Ryan explains.

A self-portrait. © Odense City Museums.

Time was in Hollywood, only the stars and studio heads received public recognition. Same rules applied in the animation game. But, little by little, the spotlight is widening to include others: animators, voice actors, composers and designers.

Even the guys who develop stories for animated films seem to be actually getting some recognition nowadays. A recent book by John Canemaker, Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards, sheds light on some of the fellows who toiled at Hyperion and on Alameda. And now, along comes a new biography, which celebrates one of the top story men of all time.

His tales have been animated by all the top cartoon studios and his stories have been set into motion by dozens of independent animators as well -- not only in the U.S., but around the world.

Disney's studio in particular has profited by their association with this talented individual. One of his stories formed the basis of a recent animated feature, which yielded an Academy Award for the studio. And in earlier years several short cartoons were based on his stories. In fact, one of his plots had such elemental appeal it was animated two separate times under Walt Disney's supervision. As far as I can determine, this is the only non-Mickey Mouse short film so honored. Oh, and by the way, the second version of this simple and powerful story won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

You may be now wondering who this story man is. Could it be Joe Grant? Or maybe Dick Huemer? How about Bill Peet? Possibly Ted Sears? It couldn't be Roald Dahl, could it? Stick around. I'll give you some clues. Maybe you know him.

By most accounts, he's an oddball -- gauche, egocentric, given to wild mood swings. A walking caricature. His new biographer, Jackie Wullschlager, describes personality traits he had to overcome as: "Liabilities of temperament -- wild imagination, inner rage, tormenting anxieties and hypochondria, insatiable ambition."

On the other hand, Ms. Wullschlager continues with: "He is a writer of whom one never tires, who grows in depth and maturity...whose sense of the adventure of life is infinite." To this I will add that he's excellent at pitching his own work. He is a master at using his considerable public relations talent to create an appealing and near-miraculous image of himself. His survival skills are exemplary. He can hone in on a potential sponsor and find himself with a patron who will back him forever.

Also, like many animation storytellers of the present, he was not unskilled in the visual arts.

Still don't know who it is?

Well, the worst that can be said of him was written by a near-lifelong friend whose personality was completely out of synch with our writer's. "I cannot deviate from the opinion that the best service to [him] is done by showing the world how diseased a mind he had, so it is clear to everyone, that everything repulsive, everything that the world was scandalized by, was caused by this mind."

No, our mystery story man is not John Kricfalusi, Tex Avery or Mother Teresa. But you've got to admit, whoever this is must be awfully interesting!

The passage quoted above, I should add, was penned by the fellow whose job it was to clean up the spelling and grammar of our writer. Perhaps some petulance crept into his unsympathetic opinion of his illustrious contemporary.

So how's about an unbiased, independent eyewitness account?

Here are some excerpts from an English girl's recollections of meeting him one summer: "...his shabby, ungainly, slouching figure, in its ill-fitting, unbrushed clothes...and his ugly musing face, abstracted-seeming but keenly observant." As to her summation of his personality, he "seemed to me to live in a world peculiarly his own, all his ideas, thoughts, and actions differing from those around him."

Some more clues?

Family background: Blue-collar father. His mother died an alcoholic. His aunt was a businesswoman; she owned and operated a brothel. His grandfather was an inpatient in a lunatic asylum. As a youngster, our hero visited the asylum, where his grandmother was an employee, and would listen to his grandmother and her co-workers as they spun yarns, some of which served as the basis of his later writings.

But our story man created his own world in more ways than one. Despite his disadvantaged early years, our writer grew up to hobnob with the leading musicians, composers and theatre people of his day. He loved to travel. He became something of a groupie to the most popular female singer of his time; befriending her, courting her, following her on tour. He left extensive diaries with shocking personal revelations at which I shall not even hint. You may wish, however, to buy the book, so as to satisfy whatever prurient curiosity you may possess.

A penultimate hint: At least two feature films have been made purporting to tell the story of our writer's life. One of them was animated.

If you're still wondering who this fabulous story man is, I will give you one final clue. After that, you're on your own and you'll have to read the title of the book at the conclusion of this review.

(By the way, I also recommend that you read the book itself. It's an excellently researched narrative, told with an unflinching yet sympathetic point of view. The subject is an absolutely fascinating individual who pretty much knew how absolutely fascinating he was.)

Okay, here's your final clue. The first Oscar he inspired was given for Walt Disney's color remake of the earlier black-and-white Silly Symphony, The Ugly Duckling.

Yes, the story of a poor cobbler's son who, through his storytelling, rose to become the toast of European royalty and peasantry alike is a tale of perennial appeal. And in this literate, unvarnished, warts-and-all telling, the story is more revealing, more astonishing and more human than ever.

Hans Christian Andersen: The Life Of A Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, 2001. 492 pages, 44 illustrations and 2 maps. isbn: 0-679-45508-6 (US$30.00)

Will Ryan is an Emmy and Writer's Guild award nominee for his work as a writer/producer. He has also done voices for more than 1,000 film and television productions including The Little Mermaid, which incidentally was based on a story by the above well-known story man. Among his current projects is the Annie Award-winning series Elmo Aardvark: Outer Space Detective! and the screenplay for the upcoming film Breakfast in Bedlam.