Rowland B. Wilson by John Culhane
John Culhane, author of many definitive books on Walt Disney animation, including Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 and Aladdin, The Making of an Animated Film, was a long-time friend of Rowland B. Wilson and sent this memoir to Rowland’s wife, Suzanne.
I opened the New York Times this Sunday morning and immediately recognized the laughter-provoking distinction of a Rowland B. Wilson cartoon! A Rowlie B. tiger is wrestling a Great White Hunter for his gun, and another Great White Hunter is saying, “You’ll not get a proper trophy that way, Bassington!” My first thought was that the Times was trying to lighten the loss told about in the obit above the cartoon: “CLAUDE SIMON, CHAMPION OF NEW NOVEL AND NOBEL LAUREATE, DIES AT 91″ – then suddenly I feared to see what I would find beneath the paper’s fold. Oh, there it was: “ROWLAND B. WILSON, 74, CREATOR OF WRY CARTOONS.”
I felt loss like that when Tex Avery died. Remember when Roland and I were working for Richard Williams Animation in London, and you and he and I went to the British Film Institute to see an evening of that otherTexan’s cartoons? Rowlie B. had one of the most distinctive laughs in the animation industry, right up there with John Hubley’s. When Tex died at 73 in 1980, a year’s laughter less than Rowland, I thought of all those Averys we saw together, and how I knew when Tex had hit the bulls-eye, because Rowland’s laugh enveloped us both. He laughedat the horny wolf in “The Shooting of Dan Magoo,” or Drag-Along Droopy saying “That makes me mad,” or King Size Canary growing to the size of planet earth, or Bad Luck Blackie getting hit by the kitchen sink. In fact, Rowland’s famous cartoon of Santa’s reindeer playing poker and saying to him, “Care to join in a reindeer game?” is funnier to me than all the literal stuff in Tex’s “Symphony in Slang” except maybe “raining cats and dogs.” Moreover, Rowland’s rescued damsel in Playboy who says to her exhausted knight in shining armor, “You think I’m obligated to come across now, don’t you, you male chauvinist pig!” is Red Hot Riding Hood’s sister under the skin.
What Rowland gave to John Musker and Ron Clements for their Disney Renaissance masterpieces, “The Little Mermaid” and “Hercules” is unforgettable. I spent a week touring America with John when I was
Mousetro of Ceremonies for “Disney on Film: A Forum on Animation and Fantasy Filmmaking” in 1981, and I knew that he was a collector of drawings by Scarfe and Wilson. Later, I found that he loved the statue’s head that Rowlie B. designed for Eric Goldberg’s Philoctetes to live in. Musker said, “Rowland Wilson’s conception of Phil’s Place provided a sense of fantasy and scale. It gave a sense of history to Phil that he wouldn’t have had otherwise-Phil, trainer of heroes, has fallen on hard times and literally lives in a run-down head of a statue that used to be grand and has sort of fallen on hard times and gone to seed. Yet, inside it, he has his shrine – this treasure trove of
I wrote about the making of “Hercules” for the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, and I was most interested in the personality of Phil because of all the comic thinking that went into him. The first time I heard Danny DeVito’s voice issuing from the head of that old, broken down statue where Phil lived, I laughed harder than Hubley and Wilson combined.
I started out as a lover of Rowland’s non-moving cartoons -for the Saturday EveningPost, The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy: then I got to know you two in the 70s when we were working at Richard Williams Animation where Rowland was making Dick’s prize-winning vodka commercial that shows a train running into Russia through the snow and I was working on story development for “The Thief and the Cobbler.” Remember us going to hear Dick Williams play like Bix on his cornet at a jazz club, and Rowlie B making caricatures of me listening raptly while Dick was playing, his eyes bulging out like hardboiled eggs with irises? Then we corresponded when you two were in Ireland making those features for Don Bluth – Thumbelina and the others; then I would talk to him on the phone when you guys came to California and Disney’s. As you know, I have been trying to get Disney to publish that deliciously funny graphic novel that Rowland wrote and illustrated and you, Suzanne Lemieux Wilson, painted. Made me laugh my old Averyesque-quality laugh, that graphic novel! I wonder how long he is going to be too far ahead of them?
“Making animated movies is not a mechanical process,” said Andy Gaskill, the wonderfully creative art director of “Hercules.” “It’s not something you can program into a computer which spits out a hard copy. It’s a process that involves a whole network of relationships, people working with each other, bumping into each other, scratching each other’s eyes out – I mean, hugging each other. Moviemaking involves a whole gamut of human behavior. I hope, after all we’ve done, we can all look at the movie and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
I’d never seen anything like Phil’s Place before. I hope to see it again, when architecture and comics catch up. Rowland worked for the future, though I remember from London how much he loved the past. He
and I had both done graduate work at Columbia – me in journalism; Rowland in art history. We could talk Viennese paintings with Grim Natwick – Schiele and Klimt – and Grim had been there when those guys were painting! (Of course, that kiss by Grim – prince and Snow White – is much better known than “The Kiss” by Klimt.)
Rowland’s concept art for Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” evoked for me medieval life in the reign of Louis XI such as I found as an American Cold Warrior in Paris in the 1950′s, celebrating the Feast of St. Hubert the Hunter with High Mass at Notre Dame. Rowland’s drawings of Esmeralda, Frollo, and, particularly, Quasimodo, were people I could have met there in The Age of Faith. Rowland’s big painting of soldiers taking away Esmeralda and her goat while gray-hooded scribes take names and red-hooded figures impassively look on has the chilling feeling of the authoritarianism of Frollo’s Paris. The gypsies of the time, persecuted by Frollo and his men, hide away in old Roman ruins that, in Rowland Wilson’s version, have been gypsy-humanized with a lavender and yellow tapestry that calls it The Court of Miracles. Quasimodo’s crowning as King of Fools and his first meeting with Esmeralda would fit right in to the Feast of Fools that Rowland painted, particularly with the sausage seller, the big-bosomed fast-food consumer, the playing musicians, the running children. The life in the art of Rowland B. Wilson lives on after his death! And when Frollo is prevented from burning Esmeralda to death by her rescue, and that evil man is willing to avenge himself on Paris itself by setting loose hellfire on the cathedral and the whole city (is Paris burning?), Rowland gives us a ribbon of wavering fire streaking down the faade of
Notre Dame de Paris!
How fitting, darling Skeezix (Rowland’s shorthand for your maiden name of Suzanne Lemieux!), that he should have evolved to make that artistic tribute to the French spirit of our ancestors. My mother’s Robidoux forebears, like your father’s Lemieux clan, knew that Paris; and Mount Robidoux in Riverside bears testimony to their presence in the California world of missions where the goodly friar commemorated Rowland. And I’ll bet you that Rowley B. is up there laughing with Rabelais now.
Sincerely, John Culhane, model for Mr. Snoops in Disney’s “The Rescuers” and Flying John in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Roy E. Disney’s “Fantasia 2000″; model (with Rowland) for two submachine-gun firing gangsters in a Richard Williams commercial.