Animating Ideas: The John Sutherland Story

Animating Ideas: The John Sutherland Story

John Sutherland claimed that he gave voice to the adult Bambi in Walt Disney’s classic movie. Through the cartoons he produced later in his career, he would give voice to a philosophy that shaped many people’s ideas about business, government and society.

Sutherland met Walt Disney through a mutual show-business connection: According to Sutherland’s son, Ronald, Sutherland was tutoring actor Spencer Tracy’s son, and Tracy introduced the tutor to Disney. He had also worked for UCLA’s comptroller, who put in a good word with Roy Disney. The studio hired him on September 12, 1938, as an assistant director on Bambi. He made $50 a week, and according to Dave Smith, archivist at Disney, Sutherland’s pay was bumped to $55 a week on May 22, 1939. A move to the story department on June 19, 1940, didn’t bring a salary change, but Sutherland was content to learn the business.

Sutherland’s biggest claim to fame at Disney was voicing the adult Bambi. According to Sutherland, he also created Thumper. Disney’s own records are not conclusive, although several sources credit him with the performance. According to Disney archivist Smith, Sutherland tested for Owl on April 3, 1939, for Mr. Hare on May 4, 1939, and for Mouse on February 2, 1940. He recorded dialogue, ultimately unused, for all three characters. “There is no mention of him testing for adult Bambi,” Smith said. “I don’t find any names or recording dates for an adult Bambi.” Smith said Disney’s practice at that time was not to credit every voice actor. “Very few people received screen credit in those days. It just wasn’t the custom. The people doing the voices for animated films were never credited, nor were unit production managers or dialogue directors.” Whatever the truth behind the credits, Sutherland had another close association with Bambi’s voice talents: He married Paula Winslowe, the voice of Bambi’s mother.

Sutherland (left) goes over storyboard with a colleague

Sutherland (left) goes over storyboard with a colleague

Bill Melendez animated at Sutherland’s studio before he also became a producer. He recalled that Sutherland told him he was a writer on Bambi. “Why he didn’t get credit at Disney is strange,” he said, “but many people there had to fill certain requirements to qualify for credit, and I don’t know what was required.”

Of working on Bambi, Sutherland’s own recollections were clearer. “Walt Disney gave me a job as one of the writers working on the screenplay of Bambi,” he said in an interview included in his studio’s press kit. “While working on the screenplay, I happened to come up with the idea for the Thumper character, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ ” He said Disney asked him to continue to work on the screenplay and become the movie’s dialogue director.

Working for Disney, the burgeoning cultural force behind 1938’s groundbreaking, genre-busting Snow White, was a far cry from working as a park ranger in Montana and South Dakota, Sutherland’s previous employment. Born September 11, 1910, in Williston, N.D., John Elliot Sutherland enjoyed a comfortable childhood. His father, Ronald Duffas Sutherland, was president of banks in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. But severe droughts caused a number of loans to go bad, and the banks went under. To begin anew, Sutherland’s family moved from Great Falls, Mont., to California, which for many Americans held the allure of a more prosperous future. Sutherland would spend the rest of his life in southern California, earning a degree in politics and economics from UCLA in 1937. It’s unlikely that he knew then how large a role politics and economics would play in his animation career.

Sutherland left the Disney studio on September 28, 1940. “Walt complimented me on my work and said he would be glad to recommend me for a job or funding prospective animation or live-action films I would write or produce,” Sutherland wrote. He left the studio ahead of the crippling strike against Disney that began in May 1941. Eric Sutherland, one of John’s sons, felt that, given his father’s strong belief in the free-enterprise system, Sutherland would not have supported the strike. And since Sutherland was not on Disney’s payroll when the strike occurred, his friendship with Walt Disney was not damaged. He soon honored his agreement to recommend Sutherland to other studios. In 1941, Darryl Zanuck, president of both 20th Century-Fox and the Motion Picture Academy of Arts, approached Disney about producing some industrial training films. Disney, who was not then seeking involvement with that type of project, referred Zanuck to Sutherland. “At Mr. Zanuck’s request, I went to Washington in July of 1941 as a writer, director, and producer of training films and supportive print materials for the army, navy, and air force with the understanding I would return to Hollywood as necessary,” Sutherland said.

Examples of storyboards from Sutherland’s studio

Examples of storyboards from Sutherland’s studio

Sutherland originally turned out 17 live-action training films for the army as World War II was heating up, beginning with Flight Command (released December 17, 1940), which Sutherland also wrote. “While earning a modest living as a freelance radio and film writer in 1940, I developed a story treatment for a motion picture that was purchased by MGM as the basis for the screenplay,” he wrote. The film, starring Robert Taylor, Walter Pidgeon and Red Skelton, earned Sutherland his first Oscar nomination, for special effects. In 1942, the Department of Defense suggested that Sutherland devote himself full-time to educational and training films, “with the understanding D.O.D. would guarantee me enough contract work to meet all operating expenses. His D.O.D. work would prove a valuable training ground for his upcoming efforts.

In 1945, Sutherland opened John Sutherland Productions and began turning out animated films for the general market as well as industrial and propaganda films. From 1945 to 1947, he produced a series of six “Daffy Ditties” for United Artists, beginning with The Cross-Eyed Bull (October 1945). Other Ditties included The Lady Said No, Pepito’s Serenade, Choo Choo Amigo, The Flying Jeep (all in 1946) and The Fatal Kiss (1947). This was the beginning of Sutherland’s most prolific period. He produced about 20 films a year for the next twenty years. His output was impressive enough that his old colleague Walt Disney once considered buying out Sutherland’s studio, but the deal was never struck.

In the late 1940s, corporate baron Alfred P. Sloan, the head of General Motors from 1923 to 1946, gave a grant through the Sloan Foundation to Harding College (now Harding University) in Searcy, Ark. The actual size of the grant is a matter of some speculation, but reliable sources peg it at just under $600,000.The Sloan Foundation wanted to fund the production of a series of short films that would extol the virtues of the American way of life, emphasizing the salutary effects of capitalism. According to a February 1990 interview with Sutherland conducted by animation historian Michael Barrier, Sloan sent a representative to Walt Disney to inquire about acquiring his services for the cartoons, but Disney—as he had with Zanuck in 1941—directed the Sloan emissary to Sutherland, his former employee. Sutherland’s studio produced films that generally ran just under 10 minutes and which leavened their sociopolitical messages with a disarming recipe of self-deprecating humor and high-quality animation. (In 1957, Time called Sutherland one of the best makers of industrial shorts, saying that his films transform a corporate client into “the nonirritating huckster” by showcasing their subjects with subtlety and style.)

Some of Sutherland’s shorts were sponsored by industry organizations, such as The Littlest Giant, produced under the aegis of the National Consumer Finance Association, Destination Earth, sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, A Is For Atom, underwritten by General Electric (and possibly Sutherland’s most-decorated cartoon) and Working Dollars, funded by the New York Stock Exchange. Most of the studio’s educational films from this period, however, were funded by the Sloan Foundation. They delivered a pro-industry message that today might appear heavy-handed, but at the height of the Cold War they were right at home, blending a pro-free enterprise sensibility with sparkling animation that packaged the message appealingly. (See the list below, “Teach Your Children Well,” for selected highlights of Sutherland’s industrial, social and propaganda films.) Sutherland’s “Fun and Facts About America” series began with the words, “This is one of a series of films produced by the Extension Department of Harding College to create a deeper understanding of what has made America the finest place in the world to live.”

Some Christmas cards Sutherland’s production company sent (click to enlarge):

An interesting example of Sutherland’s approach to delivering a message is the 1951 short “Fresh Laid Plans.” The cartoon satirized the Brannan Plan, which was a legislative package introduced under President Harry Truman that would have provided price supports to small farmers at the expense of large agricultural corporations. Paul Stedman of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press called the cartoon “a political weapon in farm issues.” In a New York Times article by Thomas F. Brady, Sutherland said Fresh Laid Plans was “an attempt to point out the impossibility of planning our lives from a central authority.” (A Time article about the cartoon referred to “Satirist Sutherland,” according to his son Ronald.) Congress, at the urging of the American Farm Bureau Federation, killed the plan.

Sutherland saw first-hand at Disney that producing quality work meant hiring the right people. The roster of people who passed through the studio is a mid-century who’s who: Joseph Barbera, True Boardman, Arnold Gillespie, George Gordon, William Hanna, Emery Hawkins, Abe Levitow, William C. Nolan, Eugene Poddany, Phil Roman, Art Scott, Frank Tashlin and Carl Urbano all worked there. Melendez left the UPA studio for Sutherland’s greener pastures when Sutherland showed him more green, doubling his salary to $250 a week. “John Sutherland was a hard working and very dedicated man to his animation studio,” Melendez said. “I found it easy to work with him. I remember once, John’s father was visiting the studio and stopped at my room to chat. He asked me, ‘How can you stand working for John?’ John had a reputation for being a hard taskmaster and also an impatient and insensitive boss. I found him an easy person to get along with and also a spirited taskmaster. He always had top animators and his philosophy about animation was to animate his films as well as anything from Disney. All of John’s films are first-class animation!”

Artwork from Sutherland’s  The Most Important Person

Artwork from Sutherland’s The Most Important Person

Melendez, who worked at the studio from 1951 until 1956, said Sutherland adopted a hands-on approach to his studio’s projects. “Making a film under John was an experience,” he said. “Since his forte was writing, he would know minutely the script for the film and as the film grew he would go over it ‘minutely’ with me and make subtle changes and precise criticism, which I would incorporate into the pencil test and later into the color dailies. This was John’s way of getting creatively involved, and he was indeed involved! From the start, when he sold the idea to make a film, he got involved with the writer and, knowing John, he went over the idea, giving the writer precisely what he wanted to see in the film. When the writer finished the story, I am sure it reflected what John thought of the subject.”

Writer Bill Scott, who worked at Sutherland in the mid-1950s, called his time at the studio a “painful but fascinating” experience. “After [UPA] I went to John Sutherland Productions where I worked on commercials and industrials for about four years, which were in essence didactic films: films to persuade, films to impress, propaganda films for big business,” he said in a 1983 interview with Dan McLaughlin. Scott said his work at Sutherland presented him with interesting technical challenges, which came in handy when he left the studio to work at Jay Ward Studios, where he became head writer and co-producer on Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Maurice Noble worked for Sutherland from 1953 to 1959 and called the studio “a very interesting, top-drawer type of operation.” Noble jumped to Sutherland one week before his previous employer—Warner Bros.—closed its animation studio for a time. “Sutherland was going to do a very important picture for U.S. Steel [1959’s Rhapsody of Steel], and I was asked to come over there and design it,” Noble told interviewer Harry McCracken in 1991. “It was a film to inaugurate the large stainless-steel dome at the Pittsburgh amphitheater. We did the history of steel; I designed it and Eyvind Earle painted it. It was a fine picture. While I was at Sutherland, we made one of the first films on cancer research for the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York. We did some films for insurance companies. I remember one time I met John D. Rockefeller, Jr.; we must have been doing something for Standard Oil.”

As Sutherland approached retirement age, he did not slow his output. If anything, it increased. Besides producing numerous television commercials, Sutherland founded Sutherland Learning Associates. From 1967 to 1969, Sutherland produced a series of audiocassette tapes, filmstrips and booklets including “Nursing Quality Assurance (NQA) Management/Learning System” and “EKG: Interpretation in Critical Care Nursing.”

From 1968 to 1974, Sutherland produced 10 films and 16 filmstrips in the “Project Bilingual” series, which taught bilingual/bicultural social studies to beginning students of Mexican descent. The series featured characters Tony and Tina and their flop-eared dog Chico. But his biggest latter-day success was “The Most Important Person” series for Head Start that premiered on Captain Kangaroo in January 1973. According to the press release, the series was “everything that children’s programming should be. Fifty lively 3-minute color films that children love to watch and parents love to have them watch. The animated stars are Fumble, an ostrich-like creature with a nose that would make Durante jealous; Hairy, a bell-ringing mop-like character; and Bird, a fine a sagacious feathered friend.” The Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corp. distributed the films.

Sutherland followed this with “The Kingdom of Could Be You,” which made its debut on Captain Kangaroo in September 1973. This was a series of “16 animated films to encourage career awareness and self-esteem in young children,” according to the press release, which summarized the series thus: “A whimsical wizard transports children from the inner city and suburbs to his mythical ‘Kingdom of Could Be You,’ a place where children find that they can be almost anything if they are willing to learn and try. Encouraged by the wizard, the children try out the myriad activities of the adult ‘world of work’ as they set about helping the wizard solve the problems of his kingdom.” His nursing and “Most Important Person” series were revised and updated during the 1980s and ’90s, and these films are still used.

His last projects before retirement were a series of “Great Mysteries” episodes for CBS and 20th Century-Fox and a few documentaries for ABC.

This article was originally published in  Hogan's Alley  #12. To purchase the print edition of this issue, click the cover image.

This article was originally published in Hogan's Alley #12. To purchase the print edition of this issue, click the cover image.

Sutherland’s last real effort to mount a production was in 1990, when he tried to persuade then Vice President Dan Quayle and William Kristol, Quayle’s chief of staff, to allocate funds to produce a film package advocating improvements in the educational system. “He really kept busy in his vision to make contributions to improve society through insisting that education was the road map to improving the American society,” son Ronald said.

Sutherland shuttered his studio in 1991. His final project was a proposed series of films about gaining confidence through knowledge. The project was funded but was never completed. Sutherland spent his retirement years in Van Nuys, Calif., and died after a brief illness on February 17, 2001.

Though Sutherland died virtually ignored, interest in his studio and animation has begun to develop. The 1999 Ottawa International Student Animation Festival had a program titled “Education or Propaganda?: The Post-War Propaganda Cartoons of The John Sutherland Studio.” Facets Multimedia offered a videotape titled An American Retrospective Through Animation (1948–1954) that included some of Sutherland’s work.

Ronald recalled one of his father’s favorite quotations: “Life is quite a bit of blind chance and unreasoning circumstance.” That proved true for the last century’s reigning animator-philosopher.

Sidebar: Teach Your Children Well

Cynical, paranoid, naïve, jingoistic—call instructional films what you will. Relics of a more innocent time, they remain classics of animated propaganda. Here are some shorts (most of which John Sutherland produced) that are guaranteed to entertain and perhaps even inform. Clicking the cartoons' titles allows you to see the cartoons.

A is for Atom This 1953 Sutherland production explains what an atom is, with a special emphasis on the peacetime benefits of atomic energy,  Its emphasis on the peacetime use of atomic energy is not surprising when one considers that General Electric paid for it! This film, which features some very fine sequences, has won numerous honors at film festivals.

Going Places This 1948 short is the second of seven in a series about the benefits of American capitalism. The protagonist, a businessman nearing retirement, is inspired to get back in the profit-making game so he can make enough money to win the affections of an attractive female.

Destination Earth Another Sutherland production, the American Petroleum Institute bankrolled this 1956 cartoon in which visitors from Mars discover that petroleum and free-market competition combine to make the United States great.  In light of world events, the petroleum-based message in this cartoon retains a peculiar relevance. While Mars is suffering from a strangling, centralized economy, Earth is flourishing because of its beneficent, laissez-faire government.

Duck and Cover Archer Productions was behind this 1951 combination of live action and animation, produced for the Federal Civil Defense Administration. A Cold War icon, Bert the Turtle made his debut here, teaching a generation of students how to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. While A is for Atom strives for reassurance, this one has a more alarmist tone.

It’s Everybody’s Business This 1954 cartoon, brought to you courtesy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Du Pont, links the Bill of Rights to the unfettered practice of capitalism. The legendary Maurice Noble was the art director behind the lovely and imaginative animation, including dollar bills brought to life.

Make Mine Freedom Sutherland’s 1948 cartoon, produced for Arkansas’ Harding College, humorously underscores the advantages of American capitalism and the pitfalls of Soviet communism. Americans, who have heard some interesting things about the Soviet workers' paradise, are magically transported to a land where they have no rights, no protections and—as the title implies—no freedom.Watch as Dr. Utopia attempts to subvert the American citizenry!

Meet King Joe Co-sponsored by Harding College and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sutherland’s 1949 cartoon attempts to reassure American laborers (represented by “Joe”) of their good luck to be working in America. Joe learns, for example, that America has more bathtubs per capita than any other nation! We're still trying to figure out what kind of accent Joe he from Brooklyn? New Jersey? We may never know.

What Makes Us Tick? Have you ever wondered how the New York Stock Exchange would like us to perceive it? Well, here's your chance! (At least, this is how it wanted to be seen in 1952.) The engine of capitalism has never looked better! Stock-market watching has since become the unofficial national pastime, so this 1952 cartoon will remind you that, despite the ensuing decades, we haven't changed all that much as a people.

Working Dollars This 1957 cartoon could be seen as a sequel to "What Makes Us Tick" since it was also produced by the New York Stock Exchange. Watch as Mr. Finchley lives the American dream of prosperity through the wonders of the Big Board! Compare this Sutherland animation to his earlier work and you'll notice the evolution of animation styles, this one demonstrating a notable UPA influence. (Note to readers: If you had your life savings invested in Enron, this might be too painful to watch.

Why Play Leap Frog? Also produced through the auspices of Harding College, this 1949 cartoon gives viewers a quick and painless lesson in economics as viewed by The Man, who would like to convince workers that it's in their own interests to work harder, harder, HARDER! All right, we're convinced! The presentation of what could have been pretty dry material—we fell asleep in economics class like everyone else—is quite entertaining and, in its own way, actually quite informative.

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