Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

A blog dedicated to the making of the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Gerard Baldwin, director

His work may be familiar to audiences everywhere even if his name isn’t.  Readers of my book will remember Gerard Baldwin as the sequence director who conceived and executed the show-stopping number in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, “We’re Despicable”.  That memorable sequence was but one small moment in a long and varied career in animation.  Baldwin’s development as an animator and director parallels that of television animation; he entered the field during the theatrical era but as the animation business changed, he followed, carving a niche for himself in mid-century pop culture. 

Gerard, a graduate of the Chouinard Art Institute, got his start in animation after being hired by legendary UPA director, John Hubley.  His first work for the studio was in doing the drawings between the animator’s key drawings but his career was sidelined when he was asked to serve in the Korean War.  He returned to UPA in 1952, working under Pete Burness, the director of the Magoo cartoons but left for a better paying job at Ray Patin Productions, an animated TV commercial production house.  He soon bounced back to UPA to work as an assistant with noted animal draftsman and animator, Ken Hultgren, where his job was to “take Hultgren’s anatomically correct and beautiful drawings and…flatten them out and force them into the UPA ‘look’.”   Before long, Hubley approached him about joining Storyboard Films, the company he had founded to produce TV commercials as well as the ill-fated animated feature, Finian’s Rainbow.  While there, he was assigned the task of animating Saul Bass’s graphic titles for The Seven Year Itch but it wasn’t until he joined former UPA director, Ted Parmelee at his outfit, Graphic Films, that he became a full-fledged animator.

Uncle Waldo gets an idea-some of Baldwin's inspired
animation from the Hoppity Hooper pilot,timed to fit
Jay Ward's crazy clock sound effect.  Click to enlarge.
In 1960, yet another UPA director, Bill Hurtz, who was directing for Jay Ward, asked if he would be interested in directing on the series, Rocky and His Friends.  Baldwin, seeing the chance to move from animator to director, agreed and not only directed many episodes for Ward but also animated the titles for Aesop & Son, the titles for Fractured Fairy Tales and most of the pilot film for Hoppity Hooper, with additional contributions by Looney Tunes animator Ben Washam.  Several years later, he animated the first Cap'n Crunch commercial.

While at Ward, Gerard directed and animated entire episodes of Dudley Do-Right that are, without a doubt, the best and funniest of the bunch.  He had a penchant for exceeding the absurdity of the scripts with equal lunacy in his animation approach, due in part to the need to economize because of the low budgets.  Baldwin never let continuity between cuts, the number of fingers or even traditional entrances for characters get in the way of telling his story.  Characters entering a scene will often slide in rather than walk and his poses are concerned more with hammy acting than anatomical or cinematic verity.  Watch The Sawmill episode for all of the above, not to mention perhaps one of the most brilliant three seconds in animation in which Inspector Fenwick and Dudley strive to sort out a miscommunication between the two of them in nothing but multiple cuts of still drawings.

Another episode worth a watch is Marigolds, in which Nell Fenwick has two inventive and funny walks that take full advantage of limited animation(1).  Most who animated under cut-rate budgets settled for mundane execution; Baldwin harnessed the limitations of the medium to his benefit, showing that it was not the tool, but the artist who wielded it, that made the difference.

A sampling of Baldwin's hands from Christmas Carol
During a dry period between gigs for Jay Ward, he received a call from Abe Levitow who needed a sequence done for Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.  Baldwin complied, once again utilizing the low budget as his ally in execution.  Some of the strongest images in the number are the shots when the screen goes black with nothing but mouths singing the chorus.  Between the darkness of the song and Gerard’s inspired execution, it’s probably the most remembered sequence in the film.  Baldwin's work is identifiable by his expressive drawing of hands, usually with four fingers rather than the customary three, a characteristic much in evidence throughout “We’re Despicable”.

Levitow next asked Baldwin to assist with The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo.  He’s credited as a Sequence Director, the same title he was given on Christmas Carol.  Sequence Director at UPA during this era really meant storyboard artist BUT the storyboard artists, in drawing the story, really did dictate the staging, cutting and acting making them de facto directors as everyone down the production line followed those boards.  The sequence director did not oversee the nuts and bolts of everyday production-there was an animation director and a supervising director for that.  Baldwin, as with Christmas Carol, did not work in-house but would pick up his assignment, drive to his house in Lake Tahoe where he would board the episode and return the following week to repeat the process.

Following that gig, Gerard spent a season on Ed Graham's Linus the Lion Hearted.  He later animated the pilot for George of the Jungle as well as episodes of Super Chicken and Tom Slick.  Gerard continued to move about the industry but for a few years, became the first animation instructor at California Institute of the Arts, the Disney-sponsored art school where many of today’s key players in the industry got their training.  Once he was back in the trenches, Baldwin directed the Dr. Seuss Halloween special for DePatie Freleng, Halloween is Grinch Night, winning an Emmy in the process.

He soon joined Hanna Barbera, directing industrials and commercials for them before landing as producer of the series that would take NBC from the bottom of the Saturday morning ratings to the top.  The Smurfs, initially viewed with skepticism by the executives at the network, became a cultural icon with Baldwin as the driving force, again winning an Emmy.  As more people piled on to claim success, the show lost its direction but by then Gerard Baldwin had moved on. 

In 1989, he finally left the animation business entirely, migrating to Texas, where he now teaches at Kingswood College, just outside of Houston.  He continues to interact with his fans via  Forthcoming is his autobiography, to be electronically published in the near future.  It’s a witty memoir of his life and career and highly recommended.  To stay in the loop for the book, contact him here.

(1) Other noteworthy episodes include Flicker Rock and Mechanical Dudley.  All of the mentioned episodes can be found on Volume 3 of Rocky & Bullwinkle and Friends.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Darrell, this is one of the best posts you’ve done, on one of my favorite animators, Gerard Baldwin. Gerard had a brother, Howard, who was also an animator. I’m so glad you made a composite image of Gerard’s hand drawings, they were always very expressive. When Gerard animated Snidely Whiplash, for instance, he pushed Hans Conried’s John Barrymore/John Carradine vocal burlesque and hit poses that looked animated even when they were held for 10 feet. Gerard’s animation of dialog was one of his hallmarks as well, most of the words were confined to a small space way back inside the head, and then the big “O’s” or “U’s” were forced forward and outside the head shape, making limited mouth-system dialog a lot of fun to watch. I talked to Gerard about becoming an animator at a party I attended back when I was an inbetweener. I asked him how long it would take before I could be an animator. He told me, “If you don’t become an animator in a year, you’ll never make it.” I took that advise very much to heart and pestered the animators I was working for scenes to do. Frank Andrina gave me my first one. Gerard also animated some funny cartoons for Hanna-Barbera, including “Doggone Prairie Dog”, an Avery-like Quick Draw McGraw, written by Mike Maltese. Thanks again for posting about one of my heroes, Gerard Baldwin. From Mark Kausler