Friday, May 10, 2019

How Hollywood Made Ted Geisel Seussical

My friend Brian Jay Jones’s deft and delightful new biography, Becoming Dr. Seuss, shows how writer and cartoonist Theodor Geisel transformed children’s literature, making it far funnier and more visually compelling than anything that had gone before. In the process he ended up revolutionizing the way generations of kids have learned to read. For these accomplishments, he won the love of countless fans. Yet on a personal level, his life had more than its share of sadness, even though Geisel was someone who kept his emotions locked up tight. Brian presents us with all the details, then lets us decide whether the good doctor was in fact a good man.

I leave it to readers to discover the heartache that marred Geisel’s life. Instead, I’m focusing on how this writer and artist was shaped by Hollywood. As he once explained to the Saturday Evening Post, “I learned more about writing children’s books when I worked in Hollywood than anywhere else. For in films, everything is based on coordination between pictures and words.” From the time of his earliest picture books, like Horton Hears a Who, Geisel was struggling to make his whimsical drawings mesh with his love of wacky words. But he hardly started out planning to be a children’s book author. His first career was in advertising, and he made a nice living promoting unlovable products like pesticides. (His “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” campaign made the phrase into a national mantra.)

World War II changed everything. Geisel was recruited to join the U.S. Army by none other than Frank Capra, the Oscar-winning director of You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and It Happened One Night. Once the ultra-patriotic Capra enlisted, he was named a lieutenant colonel in the Signal Corps, charged with overseeing a unit that produced training films and other materials to help in the war effort. Geisel’s cartooning talents and story sense were quickly put to use in animated shorts that found colorful ways to instruct G.I.’s about the ins and outs of life in a combat zone. (One favorite Geisel creation, the lovable but inept Private Snafu, led him to work closely with talented young animators Ray Harryhausen and Chuck Jones.)  Geisel never forgot his debt to Capra. As Brian explains, “It was Capra who helped him understand the need for tight pacing and concise storytelling and—most important—the wonderfully useful skill of storyboarding.

We don’t tend to think of Dr. Seuss as a maker of movies, but Geisel had a role in three Oscar-winning films within the span of  five years. In 1946, he seethed when the Oscar for Best Documentary Short went to something called Hitler Lives?, a film cribbed almost entirely from Geisel’s own Your Job in Germany. The following year, while writing and illustrating one of his early children’s classics, McElligot’s Pool, he was also revising another of his wartime films, Your Job in Japan, into an RKO documentary feature re-christened Design for Death. This muddled project was lambasted by critics, but still won a 1948 Oscar. Then in 1950, a character he’d created, the very noisy Gerald McBoing-Boing, became the hero of an Oscar-winning animated short of which he could be legitimately proud.

Geisel’s Hollywood dreams continued when he was paired with a young producer named Stanley Kramer for the making of a live-action musical, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. Geisel’s tale of a sinister piano teacher and his two-story piano must have sounded fresh and original, but I’ve actually seen this creepy film. Children (and grown-ups) would be well advised to stay away.

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