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Lost Films

LOST FILMS: “El Sombrero by Bob Balser

Fans of classic animated shorts are undoubtedly familiar with John and Faith Hubley’s 1964 short The Hat, but there was another short released in the same year that was also called The Hat. This short, El Sombrero (retitled The Hat in English) was one of the few entertainment shorts produced by the Spanish outfit Estudios Moro, which I wrote about yesterday.

According to the 1967 book Film & TV Graphics, it’s “the story of a social outcast and his troubles with a hat…the hat is here a status symbol, but the hero never masters it, for it happens to be a hat that talks.”

Despite being animated in Spain, the film’s principal artists were all Americans. The director, Bob Balser, who I’m happy to report is still with us, had been floating around European studios in Denmark and Finland before landing at Estudios Moro to make this film. A few years after this short, Balser went to England where he would assume his most high-profile role as the animation director of Yellow Submarine.

The story was written and designed by Alan Shean, who was a fixture of the Fifties animation scene. He had worked for most of the major LA commercial houses and had also been an instrumental artist in the early years of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The background artist on the film, Dean Spille, who just turned 85, also worked on TV commercials, primarily at Playhouse Pictures. Following El Sombrero, he began working with Bill Melendez on the Peanuts specials and features, and became one of Melendez’s key artists for the next 35 years.

If the overriding trait of Fifties animation was an emphasis on formal design, then the defining element of Sixties animation was the desire to break away from formulaic ways of drawing characters. Shean, like so many other artists of the era, embraced a freer, more illustration-oriented approach to drawing. The poses and expressions in the stills below don’t look like they belong on any traditional model sheet; they are tailor-made to meet the requirements of each scene. The fluid graphic quality of the line is reminiscent of Robert Osborn’s illustrations and there’s a lovely, improvisational feel to the drawings. It would be a real treat to see drawings such as these in motion.

UPDATE (8/29/2013): Oscar Grillo has posted a copy of this film online. Watch it below. Thanks, Oscar!