by Mark LangerI heard about the death of Shamus Culhane through a voice mail message from Animation World Editor Harvey Deneroff asking me to write an obituary. Two years had passed since Shamus had told me that he was dying, but somehow I never took this news seriously. Despite his physical decline, his mental vitality gave him an aura of permanence. I simply couldn't imagine a day when Shamus Culhane no longer would be here. Since receiving Harvey's call, I've had an opportunity not only to assess Shamus' contribution to the field of animation, but to review his presence in my life.
I first met Shamus Culhane over twenty years ago while I was a film student in New York. Researching animation history, it occurred to me one day that I could just pick up the phone and call some of the artists who made these films. The first person I phoned was Shamus Culhane, who spoke to me for hours. In many ways a private individual, he still had time for everyone. Now, I can only imagine what he must have thought as he fielded my youthfully fervent and generally idiotic questions with grace and patience.
Shamus Culhane, by Tom Sito
© Tom Sito
Shortly afterwards, I organized a Fleischer retrospective at the Columbia University Cinematheque. Shamus was invited for a question and answer session along with a group of other former Fleischer employees. The evening was monopolized by the antics of an aging voice artist, who sang and danced numbers from forty year old cartoons as the animators sat in the vain hope of getting a turn to speak. While the others did a slow burn, Shamus sat, wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette, with a bemused smile on his face as if he had expected this little joke all along. And, I suppose he did.
Some years later, I went over to the Culhane home to do a formal oral history. Stiffly and awkwardly, I read out my prepared questions as if I were interviewing the Pope. Shamus was completely relaxed, recounting his years as an animator in an ironic, and occasionally ribald, fashion. "Call me Shamus." he insisted. I thought, If this were Picasso, would I say, "...uh, Pablo?"
The turning point in my relationship with Shamus came during the terrible heat of a New York August in 1990, when he and I drank the afternoon away in a nondescript bar. As the alcohol worked its magic on me, I began to look at Shamus (from my prone position beneath the brass rail) in a wholly different light. Previously, I had seen him as an historical figure as Shamus Culhane, animator of Pluto, the Seven Dwarfs, Woody Woodpecker, Betty Boop, Popeye, the Ajax Elves, and the Muriel Cigar.
From Punching Holes in Paper Cels
Here was a man whose experience touched every period and aspect of animation. The man who began his profession punching holes in paper cels at the Bray Studio ended his career as an advocate of computer animation. The boy who left school at the age of 16 became one of the best educated figures in our field. The man who was formed in the factory system of the animation industry argued for independent production, creative commitment and the recognition of animation as art.
Born Janes Culhane in Ware, Massachussetts on 12 November 1908, Culhane moved to the Yorkville area of Manhattan as a child. Having resolved to be an artist at an early age, Culhane studied commercial art at the Boy's High School in Harlem. One of his schoolmates was Michael Lantz, brother of animator Walter Lantz, who was then producing cartoons at the Bray Studio, Inc. Culhane was hired by Walter Lantz in the summer of 1924, eventually working his way up through a variety of jobs as darkroom assistant, animation cameraman, and then finally as an opaquer. During lunch hours, Culhane tried his hand at animating sequences. Before he was 17, his animation had been used in a cartoon.
With the collapse of the Bray Studio, Culhane was employed as an inker on Krazy Kat cartoons for Ben Harrison and Manny Gould. When owner Charles Mintz moved the studio to the west coast, Culhane remained behind and found work at the Fleischer Studios on the "Out of the Inkwell" films as an inbetweener. The sudden departure of several senior animators left only Ted Sears, Grim Natwick and Roland "Doc" Crandall animating in the studio. Along with a group of other inbetweeners, Culhane was promoted to animator overnight. The first film by these novices, Swing, You Sinners, demonstrated the experimental, nightmarish quality of the studio's output in this period. Recalling his early training at the Fleischer Studios, Culhane later told animation historian Greg Ford, "with this freewheeling approach to mass and volume... it didn't really matter what you did with anything. There was a much less restrictive approach than the one you'd get at Walt Disney's." Culhane became the head animator or a major contributor to several Fleischer classics, including The Herring Murder Case, ChessNuts and Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle.
In 1932, Culhane joined a westward migration of Fleischer employees to Ub Iwerks' Celebrity Productions, where he worked on Flip the Frog, Willie Whopper and ComiColor Cartoons. This was followed by a brief stint at the Van Beuren Studio in New York. Dissatisfied with the artistic standards in these studios, Culhane accepted a dramatic pay cut and demotion to inbetweener in order to work at Walt Disney Productions. After a grueling apprenticeship with Bill Roberts and Ben Sharpsteen, and intensive study with Don Graham, Culhane was promoted to animator. His most notable work for Disney included the classic sequence with Pluto and the crab in Hawaiian Holiday and the dwarfs' "Heigh Ho" number in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
While animating Honest John, Gideon and the Coachman in Pinocchio (a sequence which exhibits the attention to lifelike gesture and expression that became a hallmark of Culhane's work), he was overtaken with ill health and left Walt Disney Productions for the Fleischer studio, which had relocated from New York to Miami. There, Culhane headed a unit that animated sections of the feature Gulliver's Travels as well as a number of shorts including A Kick in Time and Popeye Meets William Tell. Culhane remembered this period as frustrating because of the differences in philosophy between the Fleischer and Disney studios. After completing animation on the opening sequence of Mr. Bug Goes to Town, Culhane left for Hollywood. Following a brief stint at Warner Bros., where the animator worked on Chuck Jones' Inki and the Minah Bird, Culhane joined the Walter Lantz studio. There he directed several of Lantz's Swing Symphonies, including Jungle Jive, Boogie Woogie Man and The Greatest Man in Siam. Culhane was also responsible for some of the classic Woody Woodpeckers, most notably in The Barber of Seville and Ski For Two.
"Wolf speaks to Woody and tells him which way they should go."
Storyboard frames from Shamus Culhane's Fairweather Friends (Walter Lanz, 1946), courtesy of Mark Kausler
© Walter Lanz Productions
Shamus Culhane Productions
At the Lantz studio, Culhane began to animate instructional films for the war effort. With the end of hostilities, following a couple of abortive efforts to enter educational filmmaking and children's television programming, he established his own company, Shamus Culhane Productions. Within a short period of time, it became a major force in the creation of animated commercials, and Culhane became known as a pioneer of this new form. Among Culhane's creations were the Ajax Elves and the Muriel "Come up and smoke me sometime" Cigar. With operations on the East and West Coasts, Culhane's company moved into the animation of educational films with the Bell Science series, produced by Frank Capra, utilizing animation by such talents as Bill Hurtz and Bill Baird. For Culhane, Hurtz and Saul Bass devised the opening credits for the feature film Around the World in Eighty Days.
Shamus Culhane Productions collapsed along with virtually every other New York animation studio in the recession of 1959-60. Culhane turned to animating for other companies, most notably on the Out of the Inkwell and Milton the Monster television series for Hal Seeger or on the film The Hat for John and Faith Hubley's Storyboard Productions. From 1966 to 1967, he headed Paramount's animation studio, guiding it through a period of renewed creativity that resulted in such films as My Daddy the Astronaut before studio beancounters stopped animation production.
Later, with Martin Grieve, Culhane created a series of educational movies for children. As the filmmaker later recalled, "This was one of the happiest experiences of my life. I had the freedom to develop stories. I was the producer, director, writer, research person and did some of the layouts. I used every sort of talent I had in the process. This was the beginning of my career as a writer."
Toward the end of his life, Culhane completed two books -- an autobiography Talking Animals and Other People (1986) and the instructional Animation: From Script to Screen (1988). As a writer, lecturer and educator, Culhane hailed technical advances in the medium and became a passionate proponent of independent production and the promotion of animation as a fine art. Although plagued with ill health, Culhane continued to write and draw until his death at his home in New York.
While writing this obituary about Shamus as an historical figure, I keep thinking of my afternoon in that New York bar in 1990 when I began to know him, not for what he did, but for who he was. Shamus had a marvelous appetite for living. The purity of his pleasure in talking about ideas was infectious. Firmly convinced of the imperfectibility of humankind, he did not in the least exclude himself from that judgement. He equally was assured of the importance of art, and was unshakable in his devotion to it. He was learned and sophisticated, yet never lost his Cagneyesque touch of Yorkville.
Today, it is far easier imagining Shamus in some artists' Valhalla, drinking Johnny Walker Black with Honore Daumier and T.S. Sullivant, than it is to sum up this extraordinary life in fifteen hundred words. What I can tell you is that Shamus was a brilliant moment within our time. He knew his own mind and passionate heart and didn't give a damn if anyone disapproved. I, like many others, loved him for all of this and bid him a fond final adieu.
Mark Langer teaches film at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals and a programmer of animation retrospectives. Langer is currently working on a Culhane retrospective for the Ottawa International Animation Festival.