Book review: Pinto Colvig, It’s a Crazy Business.

Colvig cover

If I could spend time with anyone from the world of animation, living or dead, it would be Pinto Colvig. His autobiography, It’s a Crazy Business: The Goofy Life of a Disney Legend, might well be my favorite animation history book ever.  Colvig embodied everything this blog is about.  He lived the life of an entertainer.  In addition to being a Disney story artist, and the voice of Goofy, some of his resume is listed below.

  • A “gagologist” for the great silent comedy producer Mack Sennett.
  • Musician and sound effects man for cartoons and movies.
  • A newspaper cartoonist.
  • Vaudeville performer.
  • Circus bandmaster, clown and barker.
  • Stooge for a professional magician.
  • Clerk in dynamite and acid factory.
  • Railroad construction worker.
  • Assistant flunky to a telephone cable splicer.
  • Sody squirt.
  • Hobo.

He also animated visual effects for silent movies.  I have long been curious about the uncredited artists who did that work. And for anyone struggling to learn software, you should read his description of “chalk plate cartooning” which involves creating engravings using molten metal.  This is real old school.

What sets this autobiography apart from other animation books is Colvig’s writing style.  Have you ever seen a vintage “behind the scenes” film of a animation studio, where the actors are all hamming it up for the camera?  He writes like that.  He is in character.  He is lighthearted guy telling stories of a goofy business.  It is a hundred time more fun and inspiring than the typical dry history books.  The volume is a mere 140 pages, and is not organized chronologically.  He may have written it based how things happened to come to him.

One chapter describes several other gagmen he knew over the years.  Each is presented as a “type” of story man, and each is quite an individual character just like Pinto. They each came to Disney with wide and varied life stories.  Even though this book was written about 70 years ago, the following passage still sounds relevant.

Nowadays, since the animated cartoon has won it’s struggles up through the years and has developed from supper-hour fillers to boxoffice features, I find the newer crop of gagmen are of a more serious and “academic” nature.  Most of them who, upon graduating from high school, college and art school are taken by the cartoon studios and placed in what is known as the “de-lousing” department.  Here, for many months, they must serve an apprenticeship in the many branches of the business – particularly in animation. During this time they are tutored by art directors, psychologists, and action analysis instructors, and are given the opportunity to submit gags and stories (few of which are chosen).  For this, wages are small and promises are big – many are trained, but comparatively few make the grade

Most of the “old-time” gagologists with whom I have worked seem to have taken the bumps along “life’s highway” before arriving.

There is a lesson there. Don’t just live and breath animation.  Do lots of things. Get away from the computer.  Join a drama club, learn an instrument, dance, build something.  Travel, explore and meet lots of people.  And if you have to struggle along the way, you’re building character!

If you think that working in animation is all fun and games, reading the chapter about Walt Disney and the production of Snow White will take some of the shine off.  Colvig experienced a tremendous amount of stress, and it took a great toll on him.  When he gets to the  final chapters, the seriousness makes him that much more believable.

For a brief look at Pinto Colvig, here is a good video to watch.

 

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