Sunday, April 26, 2009

Maurice Noble's Biography

It's taken me a while to get to Stepping Into the Picture: Cartoon Designer Maurice Noble by Robert J. McKinnon. It is slightly less than one third of a good book and I'll explain what I mean.

What's here is a fairly straightforward biography of Maurice Noble, the designer whose most well-known work was for the Chuck Jones unit at Warner Bros. The book is drawn from interviews with Noble and his co-workers and to the extent that it fills in the details of Noble's life, it is mostly good. It covers Noble's childhood, education and professional jobs, including Disney, Warner Bros, John Sutherland Productions and MGM, in addition to providing details about Noble's personal life. The information about the physical set-up of Warner Bros. and the personal dynamics of the Jones unit are the best things in the book.

However, the writing sometimes stumbles. There is a story about architectural drawings done by Noble while a student at Chouinard. The drawings vanished and the book initially suggests that they were sold and used in the design of Radio City Music Hall before backpedaling to say that "the likelihood that the designer of Radio City, Donald Deskey, was in any way influenced by Maurice's designs was highly improbable" [italics in original]. If that is the case, why suggest otherwise?

The author quotes Noble criticizing Picasso. "I've run into people in the art 'game' who are fairly well known, but they become so egotistical about what they've done that it suddenly shows in their work. They do the same thing over and over again because that's their success. I think one of the traps that Picasso fell into was an 'ego trip.'" However there is apparently a double standard operating in the book should Noble be criticized. "I happened to mention [to Chuck Jones] how upset Maurice had been made by some negative comments (regarding his work with Chuck) written in a then recently published book by a well-known animation historian (perhaps the only historian who has seen fit to disparage Noble's contributions to Jones's films). When Chuck discovered how disturbed Maurice had been by what the author had written, he said, "He [the author] upset Maurice? That bastard!"" [Italics in original.]

This brings me to the missing two thirds of the book. While there are several pages of colour reproductions, the size and format of this book don't allow for Noble's work to be shown at its best. A biography of a designer that barely reproduces his designs is inadequate.

The other third missing is evaluation and analysis. As the first biography of Maurice Noble, it is the author's obligation to make a case for Noble's work. While animation professionals and fans will know Noble's name, those unfamiliar with the films need to know why Noble is worthy of attention. While McKinnon quotes Noble on his design approach, there is no evaluation of Noble's cartoons. Are all the films that Noble designed equally good? If not, which are the better ones and why? Where and when did Noble stumble? McKinnon is not an artist and not enough of an art critic to write about Noble's work with sufficient depth.

I would recommend this book to those wanting to know more about Noble as a person and the conditions he worked under, but anyone interested in Noble's designs is better off looking at his cartoons.

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