Saturday, 20 October 2018

How They Made Gulliver Travel

The Fleischer studio had come a long way from the start of the 1930s, when a cartoon mouse would jump out of an old geezer’s beard and yell “All’s well!”, to the end, when a little cartoon man in a feature film would stroll along a darkened street and yell “All’s well!”

Gulliver’s Travels had its world premiere on December 18, 1939 at the Sheridan Theatre in Miami Beach. The film may have been the crowning achievement in the Fleischer studio’s history, considering the immense amount of work involved, though, to be perfectly honest, I prefer the early ‘30s cartoons instead.

The feature was followed closely in the trade papers and Paramount did what it could to get publicity in the popular press—in fact, it worked out a sponsored broadcast of the premiere carried on 52 CBS stations.

Good Housekeeping magazine ran a feature story on the film in its February 1940 issue, complete with colour pictures. The writer is prone to exclamation marks and repeating complete names, and her telling of the creation of the characters is a little too pat to be credible (every instant brainstorm is a winner). It’s nice to see some of the staff members named in the article, but Dave Fleischer’s name is nowhere to be found. It’s Max all the way.

A Giant Comes to Town
By Mary Hamman

“A GIANT on the beach! There’s a giant on the beach!” It is Gabby, the garrulous Town Crier of Milendo, galloping lickety-split through the sleeping capital of Lilliput. Windows fly open, heads pop out. An old man with a stocking cap draws his shutters and clamps them fast. A lovely lady swoons on her balcony. A wizened crone with an ear trumpet mutters petulantly: “I can’t hear him. What’s he saying? What’s happened?”
On Gabby races, bawling his terrifying message: “There’s a GIANT in Lilliput!”
That giant, of course, is Gulliver, and the scene is from Max Fleischer’s newly completed, full-length animated cartoon, Gulliver’s Travels. Testy, pompous, and enormously funny, Gabby is a born actor, as his first movie venture shows! His fellow Lilliputians, a nation of pick-edition men and women (the guards of the Royal Palace, chosen for their enormous height, proudly boat that not one of them is under six inches tall!), are also singularly gifted.
Although they are creations of ink and paint and celluloid, you can almost hear the hearts beating in their haughty little chests. Almost you’re convinced that real corpuscles scurry through their tiny veins!
If you’ve read Gulliver’s Travels you may remember that Gulliver, a shipwrecked English seaman, swam with the tide to a strange shore and collapsed on the beach. When he awoke, he found himself bound hand and foot with slender ropes. All about him were frightened and wide-eyed groups of tiny men and women. But once he had convinced them that he meant no harm, he stayed in Lilliput for many happy months. He tells us that he was able to hold the Lilliputians’ horses and coaches in the palm of his hand; that he could stand astride their grandest castles, and pluck their noblest warriors from the seas!
When Max Fleischer decided to make an animated cartoon of the famous voyage, he re-read Gulliver. “Humph,” he said to himself, “the fellow’s self-centered, to say the least. I wonder how the poor Lilliputians felt when Gulliver picked them up by the scruff of the neck and dangled them on his thumb?” Right then and there Max Fleischer decided that his movie would present the Lilliputians’ version of Gulliver’s saga.
“Gulliver’s had his say. It’s time for the little men to speak up,” said Mr. Fleischer. “I’ll take a five-inch citizen-of-Lilliput’s view of the adventure!” Now, after a year and a half’s work, the little men speak, and it’s through their eyes that you see Gulliver, the man-mountain, the stupendous giant.
Max Fleischer’s New York studio was not equipped for making long films, so eighteen months ago he moved to a brand-new, one-story, air-conditioned studio in Miami. It winds around a patio shaded by palms and fruit trees. Inside, large, bright rooms are labeled: “Inkers,” “Opaquers,” “In-Betweeners,” and “Animators.” The writers work in adjacent bungalows, and there is a special soundproof room in which the “voices” are segregated. The voices, as you might expect, are a group of noisy and humorous men and women, who earn their bread and butter by speaking for various cartoon characters. In this room they can rehearse, utter shrill bird cries, and otherwise amuse themselves between recordings on the sound stage.
Mr. Fleischer took a staff of two hundred and fifty artists, technicians and writers to Florida with him and engaged about three hundred and fifty artists in Miami. For a year, all six hundred have been working in shifts, night and day, on Gulliver’s Travels.
Both men and women go to the studio wearing slacks, shorts or playsuits. Outside it is furnace hot, especially during the summer months; but inside it’s always pleasantly cool. The New York members of the Fleischer staff have acquired automobiles, suntan, white bungalows laden with vines, and a taste for coconuts. Kitty Pfister, film editor, says it’s so lush and tropical in Florida, she’s afraid to stand still for fear she’ll take root and start blooming. But they’re all grateful to Gulliver for transplanting them!

A cartoon begins with a script, and a script begins with store conferences. The first weeks in the new studio were devoted to mass meetings in Fleischer’s office. Bill Turner, head of the script department, and twenty or more of his assistants thrashed out every angle of the story with Max.
“Who do you suppose found Gulliver?” Bill Turner asked at the very first meeting. “He’s the hero of our story, I should think!”
Someone reached for the book, but Fleischer stopped him.
“Gulliver doesn’t tell who found him,” he said. “After all, Gulliver didn’t wake up until the Lilliputians had already tied him down. And quite an engineering feat that must have been, too!”
“I know!” said Bill Turner. “The Town Crier found Gulliver!”
“Of course,” Fleischer agreed. “It was a stormy night, and the Town Crier was sleepily making his round—”
“Singing ‘All’s Well,’” someone put in, “and in rather a bored voice, I’ll bet. He was sure nobody’d be about on such a gloomy night, and doubtless he wanted to go home himself—”
“When suddenly,” Bill Turner picked up the story, “he bumped into something. Some huge object was stretched on the beach. The Town Crier raised his lamp—”
“It was a finger,” said Fleischer, “a human finger he’d bumped into, and, lifting his lamp, he saw five giant fingers spread fanwise on the beach, and attached to a human hand about twice the size of a full-grown Lilliputian! Lifting his lamp still higher—”
“He saw the giant! Oh boy!” cried Bill Turner. “What an opening!”
“What’s the Town Crier’s name?” Fleischer asked.
“His name?” Turner considered for a minute, then announced authoritatively: “His name is Gabby, of course! He was born with the gift of gab and knew, and told, every happening in Lilliput back to, and even before, the First Great War with Blefuscu.”
Thus was created Gabby, Town Crier of Milendo, the Capital of Lilliput, and the hero of Fleischer’s cartoon.
At the next story conference it was decided that Gabby had not been stricken dumb with terror on spotting the giant, though many a lesser man might have been, but had run lickety-split though the town, crying: “There’s a giant on the beach! There’s a giant on the beach!” And he successfully roused the whole population.
“Surely he went to tell the king,” said Bill Turner, and everyone agreed that he had indeed made a special trip to King Little’s palace to inform His Majesty that a giant had come to town.
It was also unanimously decided that Gabby had personally organized and directed the binding up of the sleeping giant’s body. Gabby, the ingenious, had suggested that the workmen dig tunnels under Gulliver’s back and carry ropes through those tunnels and hurl them over his monstrous chest by means of the very rock catapults that the Lilliputians customarily used to defend their North Wall from attack by the folk of Blefuscu.
As the story conferences proceeded and the script took shape, it became obvious that Gabby—garrilous, bossy, braggart—was nabbing the lion’s share of the drama for himself, although some other Lilliputians did manage to put up a fight for star billing. King Little of Lilliput and his beautiful daughter Glory; King Bombo of Blefuscu and his son, Prince David; King Bombo’s spies, Snitch, Snoop and Tell; and Twinkletoes, the cross-eyed carrier pigeon, inserted themselves into the script and challenged Gabby’s supremacy. Gulliver, the giant, came to life, too, and was found to be a most benevolent gentleman with his enormous heart definitely in the right place. But in spite of keen competition, Gabby looked to be a modern David who would overcome Goliath and steal the show!
When all the principals were safely down paper, full of life and vigor and loud with words, Seymour Kneitel, chief animator, and his assistants, where asked to make convincing sketches of them.
“Gabby should be short and dumpy,” said Mr. Kneitel, and he began to draw squat circles on his pad. “his feet should be flat and his head large!”
“He has a bulbous nose,” said an assistant.
“His hair is unruly,” added another.
“But his eyes are big and brown,” said Edith Vernick, the only woman animator on the staff. “You can’t be too mean to Gabby!” Miss Vernick has a tender nature, and she cherishes lost causes. She’s in favor of making Popeye prettier, too, and for years she’s been trying to give Olive Oyl a more seductive figgah! “Princess Glory is the glamour girl of Lilliput,” said Seymour Kneitel, “and I wonder what her dimensions should be?”
“Ideally,” said Miss Vernick, “she’d be about three and a half inches tall. That would make her about one and twenty-nine one-hundredths of an inch three the middle, with an ankle—” Miss Vernick bogged down at this fraction.
“We’ll draw it,” Mr. Kneitel said, “but we’d better not try to compute it.”

When all the principal characters of Lilliput had passed arduous screen tests—“Make Prince David thinner,” “King Little’s mustache should be longer,” “Give Gabby bigger jowls,” “King Bombo has a fatter tummy,” the staff shouted, as the little people went through their paces day after day until they’d all been okayed—Mr. Fleischer started to hunt for a living Gulliver to act as model for his artists. Sam Parker, announcer of Station WIOD, broadcast for tall, dark, handsome candidates. One day Seymour Kneitel went to the radio station to look at the letters and photographs Mr. Parker had received. And there in the broadcasting studio he found the perfect model for Gulliver—none other than Sam Parker himself!
Mr. Parker was delighted to pose for Gulliver, and thereafter he was called “the modest giant”—the man who didn’t know that he was tall, dark and handsome. Next, voices had to be found for the characters. Jessica Dragonette was chosen to be the voice of Princess Glory, and Lanny Ross became the voice of her lover, Prince David. Sam Parker supplies a deep, resonant, giant voice for Gulliver. Colvig Pinto [sic] was chosen to speak for Gabby, the picture thief. Pinto was the voice of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, of Grumpy in Snow White, and is the broken-down Maxwell car you hear wheezing and chugging through Jack Benny’s radio program.
Jack Mercer supplies the voice of King Little. And though his Imperial Majesty of Lilliput might be much upset to hear it, Jack Mercer also provides the voice of Twinkletoes, the cross-eyed pigeon, neighs for a troop of tiny horses, and is the voice of King Bombo’s chief spy. Moreover, he is habitually the voice of that ruffian and cartoon favorite, Popeye, knowledge of which might make even a minuscule king cross!
Then the real work began. Characters and key scenes in the drama had been drawn. Voices had been chosen. The script was complete. But what of the music, the pictorial backgrounds, and the actual animation?
Victor Young locked himself in a room with a piano to compose a symphonic score. Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger started batting out songs. They wrote Gabby’s “All’s Well” song and the national anthems of Lilliput and Blefuscu. In the picture these anthems are responsible for war between the neighboring nations. King Little wants “Faithful” sung at the wedding of his daughter, Princess Glory, to Prince David of Blefuscu, while King Bombo, monarch of that land, wants “Forever,” his own national anthem. Neither King will capitulate, and they decide to fight it out.
Gulliver intervenes, stops the war and the two anthems are blended together to make a song soufflĂ©—and, incidentally, a happy ending.
These events take place in splendid miniature settings. Robert Little, Louis Jambor, and Shane Miller filled sheets and sheet of paper with backgrounds. They drew the Royal Palace and the streets of the metropolis, Milendo; they sketched interiors and exteriors, bight daylight sets, and dreamy moonlight scenes; they sketched the Throne Room and the barbershop, the Princess’ balcony and the Prince’s distant palace. In all, 125,000 background drawings were required for the picture.
Esther Dayton, head of the in-between department, kept hundreds of artists huddled over their drawing boards for months on end. (She reports that during the year twenty thousand headaches were treated in the first-aid room, and that’s not counting her own.) The in-betweeners make the thousands of almost identical drawings that cause the figures to move and live on the screen. Mob scenes are hardest to animate, and Gulliver’s Travels is full of mob scenes. Almost a million drawings were used in the picture, and four tons of color were applied to the black-and-white outline sketches by the artists who work in the opaquing department.
So now Gulliver makes his bow in a feature-length animated cartoon. A giant comes to town, but this time he doesn’t have things all his own way, because the Lilliputians win most of the acting honors—and the major part of your sympathy, besides.


  1. The decision to do Gulliver as a completely rotoscoped character just seemed to weigh down the movie -- as a child, I found it slow-moving, and part of the reason was the character grounded the movie in human reality too much whenever he was on screen (the romance being one you really didn't care about was another problem -- it was much easier to have sympathy for Hoppity and Honey's romance in the Flieshcer's final feature, because it was more central to the movie).

  2. Gabby was one of the most annoying characters in the history of animation!