Large Association of Movie Blogs
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Remembering Thornton Hee a.k.a. T. Hee

Today's tip of the venerable Fred Astaire top hat goes to animation legend Thornton Francis Hee (March 26, 1911 - October 30, 1988). The career of T. Hee spans everything from classic cartoons by Warner Brothers, Disney, UPA and Terrytoons to book covers to designer beach towels to co-founding the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts (with Jack Hannah) to designing the snazziest and most beautifully designed greeting cards I have ever seen.

Surprised that I have not seen, in writing this post, a lot more on T. Hee, or a biography of the animator, storyboard artist, caricaturist and director. The breadth and length of his work in and out of animation is something I was not quite aware of, even after consulting such sources as Michael Barrier's website. I do remember hearing about T. Hee's work for the UPA studio via Bill Scott, but did not think to follow up on this way back in the early 1980's; alas, it's usually the things one doesn't do rather than what one does that causes regret down the road.

While today's post shall primarily be devoted to a few "greatest hits" from Mr. Hee's lengthy and varied career, we note that T. Hee was a gifted caricaturist. His prolific work is frequently up for auction at Van Eaton Galleries, Heritage Auctions and Mutual Art.

The following panorama of Leon Schlesinger studio staff from Thornton Hee's inspired imagination, circa 1936, was spotlighted in a memorable 2006 blog post from the late great animator Michael Sporn.

T. Hee was hired by the Leon Schlesinger Studio as a character designer in 1935, and got to work overtime creating Hollywood star caricatures in The Coo Coo Nut Grove, directed by Friz Freleng.

Another T. Hee caricature-packed Merrie Melodie, The Woods Are Full Of Cuckoos, directed by Frank Tashlin, is a spoof of then-popular radio shows Community Sing, Allen's Alley (a.k.a. The Fred Allen Show and Al Pearce & His Gang.

It's likely Walt Disney saw these Merrie Melodies, as he hired T. Hee, who subsequently worked on Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, the 1938 Silly Symphony designed and intended as the last word in movie star caricatures.

At the Disney Studio, T. Hee branched out as an animation director, notably Sequence 7 of Pinocchio - the Red Lobster Inn sequence.

He also directed the Dance Of The Hours in Fantasia.

T. Hee was one of the storyboard artists who contributed The Reluctant Dragon segment from the 1941 film of the same name.

Where T worked between his last 1940's stint for Disney and his joining UPA and the crew of director Robert "Bobe" Cannon is one of the many mysteries I found putting today's post together. An informative Cartoon Research post noted his work at UPA on the animated titles for the Life Of Riley TV show.

Now where T worked between leaving Disney in 1946 and joining UPA is one of many questions about his career I could not answer.

It would appear that T had the task of injecting comedy into the Jolly Frolics cartoons of director Bobe Cannon. Bobe worked for Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. and Tex Avery at MGM but, as a director at UPA, absolutely abhorred conflict and anything that could remotely resemble slapstick. That made things a bit of a challenge for the UPA story department. I personally find the Bobe Cannon cartoons enjoyable and charming, but not exactly laugh riots. That's okay - laughs aplenty mark John Hubley's brilliant work at UPA, and later, the Mr. Magoos directed by Pete Burness.

Here are quintessential "T and Bobe" cartoons, some of which (Christopher Crumpet) received Oscars, as well as critical acclaim.

For this cartoon buff, the graphic design work of T. Hee, the color schemes by Jules Engel and the music and voice work throughout the Bobe Cannon UPAs carry the day. Some T and Bobe efforts, such as Fudget's Budget, while in the "dated but enjoyable" department, exemplify the specific 1950's graphic style that author Amid Amidi called "Cartoon Modern" and influenced later generations of animators.

Not surprisingly, Michael Barrier had the last word on UPA and its history in his scholarly articles about the studio.

T. Hee returned to Disney in the late 1950's and created yet more original and intriguing work in his third or fourth stint there.

These would include the stylish animated titles of the feature film THE PARENT TRAP.

After an early 1960's stretch working for Terrytoons - another mystery, as one needs studio records to determine who worked on what film there, as the cartoons lack screen credits - T. Hee founded, with Jack Hannah, the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts, where he would be chairman of the Film Arts Department. He ended up contributing to the next generations of animators - from John Lasseter to Tim Burton to the late Joe Ranft - with his teaching at CalArts.

It's pretty clear that T. Hee deserves a book! For more on his work at The Mouse Factory, read John Canemaker’s Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney’s Story Boards and delve into the fine work of such authors and Disney historians as Jim Korkis, Didier Ghez, Greg Ehrbar, Greg Ford and the aforementioned Michael Barrier - not to mention many other excellent writers among the gang at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research website.

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