Paul Johnson: Mistakes in his history of animation

Historians in the News

[I've worked as an animator, writer, producer and director in TV animation for 29 years. I created the cgi series Monster By Mistake. Currently, I'm working towards a Masters degree at York University in Film Studies and teaching animation at Sheridan College.]

Paul Johnson is no lightweight. He's authored books such as The Birth of the Modern, Intellectuals, and A History of the English People. That's why it's so disappointing that his latest book, Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney, is thoroughly wretched when it comes to talking about animation.

His Disney chapter is chock full of errors that could easily have been fixed. His bibliography lists Hollywood Cartoons by Barrier, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Thomas and Johnston, The Art of Walt Disney by Finch and The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas, so how is it that basic errors have crept into the text? Winsor McCay is misspelled. Max Fleischer is erroneously credited for Felix the Cat. The Three Little Pigs was released in 1933, not 1932. Alice in Wonderland was released in 1951, not 1957. Carl Stalling was a composer, not an animator. It's Carl Eduarde, not Edwards. It's Grim, not Jim, Natwick. It's Tytla, not Tytler. It's Ted Sears, not Wears.

Besides the factual sloppiness, there is uncritical research. Anything in print must be true. Johnson's description of the Disney strike is as follows.

As he employed a good many intellectuals, artists, and writers who at that period leaned overwhelmingly toward the left, this produced tension at the Disney Studios and, in 1940, led to a strike aimed either at forcing Disney to make pro-Communist propaganda cartoons or at shutting the studio down. Disney defeated the strike, with some help from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and pursued his own individual way until his death.

Johnson's source for this is Marc Elliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince. It's a bad source and the quote above is demonstrably false on several counts. Disney lost the strike as the company had to recognize the union. The strike was about issues like wages and had nothing to do with the content of the films. Nobody, including the strikers, wanted the studio shut down.

In the introduction, Johnson says that, "Walt Disney needed to wash his hands, sometimes thirty times in an hour." That isn't sourced, but can anybody really take that seriously? How could he run the company unless he carried around a portable sink?

I'm tired of authors who have made their reputations elsewhere thinking they're qualified to write about animation. And I'm tired of mainstream publishers like HarperCollins simply accepting whatever they're handed because of the author's reputation. If Johnson made this many mistakes in his chapters on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Eliot, Hugo or Dickens, you can be sure that an editor would catch them. But, hey, it's only animation.

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