Sunday, May 29, 2011

Beautiful Downtown Burbank and Tim Burton (The One Who Got Away)

The Tim Burton exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was a revelation for me. I didn’t realize (though I probably should have) the degree to which this quirkiest of film directors is also a talented visual artist. I also didn’t realize that he was born and raised in Burbank, California.

The thing is—Ron Howard was also a Burbank boy. When I was researching Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, I spent some time looking around what is still (despite the presence of NBC and several movie studios) in many ways a modest middle-class suburban town. In the early Sixties, when both Ron Howard and Tim Burton were small boys, life in Burbank was not so far removed from Mayberry. Young Ronny felt completely at home there. He went to public school, played Little League baseball, joined the Cub Scouts. At Burbank’s John Burroughs High School, he devoted himself to basketball and the campus newspaper, and fell in love with a shy red-headed girl in his English class. (They’re still a devoted couple.)

Young Tim, on the other hand, was a misfit from the get-go. The exhibit makes clear how as a teenager he used art as a way to fight boredom and seek social acceptance. His “Crush Litter” poster (a cartoon of a grimy muscle-man squeezing an overloaded garbage can in his bare fists) actually took first prize in a Burbank Beautiful contest, and was featured on local trash trucks for an entire year. He also programmed a series of ghoulish horror films—several featuring his beloved Vincent Price—to benefit the Burbank Police Youth Band. Burton’s hometown is so much a key to understanding his career that the three parts of the LACMA exhibit are labeled “Surviving Burbank,” “Beautifying Burbank,” and “Beyond Burbank.”

Ron Howard eventually left Burbank. Once he’d successfully made the shift from acting to directing, he moved his growing family to Greenwich, Connecticut. But Burbank never truly left him. He’s still deeply connected to his Burbank-based father and his brother Clint, both of whom still appear in most of his films. He’s also deeply connected to Burbank’s homespun mainstream values, which show to good advantage in films like Parenthood and Apollo 13.

In Burton’s case, his offbeat imagination has taken him far from his starting point. His most indelible movies, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, show his remarkable ability to create a world all his own. But my personal favorite, Edward Scissorhands, also gives us a pastel-colored suburbia in which an oddball artist forever contends with the everyday folks who live far more mundane lives. Sounds like Burbank to me.


  1. I can't tell if this is meant to be an insult to Burbank?

  2. Well, I think I might have quite liked growing up in Burbank, but it's clear that Tim Burton didn't.

  3. Burton is definitely one of those directors where you could walk in halfway through and the visual palette and Danny Elfman score would let you know whose movie you were watching. I haven't seen SCISSORHANDS in some years. Wasn't that movie a personable, almost autobiographical project for Burton?

  4. I definitely get the impression that it was quite personal for him. Perhaps my favorite part of the exhibit was an early short film, "Vincent," about a kid who is convinced he's a Vincent Price-type reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe, pining for his lost Leonore. (His mother finds this quite annoying.)

  5. I enjoy a lot of Mr. Burton's films - and I love the juxtaposition of these two very diverse filmmakers who grew up so close to each other. I've never been there - but I do know that I'll never be able to refer to it any way but "beautiful downtown Burbank..."

    1. Honestly, Burbank is a nice, though not a "beautiful," place -- little houses, green lawns, friendly people, etc. I loved going into a local library and finding an elderly librarian who well remembered the Howard boys coming in with their books. Both Ron Howard and Tim Burton could have done much worse.