Every so often I see a piece of animation that completely knocks me out, a gem that I never even knew existed. This past weekend I saw such a film: BLUM BLUM. The 3-minute black-&-white short was a student film produced by Duane Crowther in 1949 while he was attending UCLA. Duane was born in December 1928 so he would have been only twenty years old when he made the film. An experienced animator would be proud to have his name on this film, so it boggles the mind that such a mature work was created by somebody who had never animated before. To put it into some sort of perspective, I don’t think that in all the years I’ve attended the CalArts year-end screenings, I’ve ever seen a piece of student animation that exhibits such an innate sense of timing and overall understanding of the animated form.
BLUM BLUM is difficult to describe in words and must be seen to be truly appreciated. It is set to a rather goofy novelty tune by Peggy Lee and seamlessly jumps back and forth between abstract shape animation and character animation. All sorts of innovative UPA-ish modernity are on display throughout the film such as animating a character’s line and shape separately and having a round character flatten out when he turns to the side. When Duane made the film though, UPA had only released a couple Fox and Crow theatricals so his modernist influences must have come from elsewhere. Not surprisingly he started working at UPA-LA shortly after he finished this film. In Gene Deitch’s on-line autobiography, he recalls how Duane was transferred to UPA’s New York studio:
Ted Bethune, the background painter, was a Canadian, and wanted to go home. That presented us with our first crisis, and I got on the phone several times with Steve [Bosustow], imploring him to send me a replacement. Orders were coming in, and we didn’t have a background artist. As my desperation mounted, Steve put his hand over the mouthpiece, but I could still hear him ask someone, “Can you paint backgrounds?”
“Uh-oh,” I thought. “What are we going to get?” Shortly, a handsome 20-year-old with bright black eyes showed up. He painted the worst backgrounds I had seen up to that time. “What else can you do?” I asked plaintively. I could not throw back a fellow Steve sent me.
“I have this reel I animated when I was 18,” he said. I led him into the projection room with no real hope. The animation was sensational. Here was a natural born animator! He became my star. He was Duane Crowther.
The reel that Gene is referring to is, of course, the film BLUM BLUM. It is a testament to Duane’s talent that he became one of two main animators at UPA-NY, the other animator being none other than the great Grim Natwick. Fred Crippen, who’ll be honored at the Ottawa Animation Festival next week, was given his animation training by Duane at UPA-NY and was his assistant animator for a couple years. Even though Fred hasn’t seen BLUM BLUM in nearly fifty years, he still distinctly recalls it as being a terrific film.
After working in New York for most of the Fifties, Crowther returned to LA where he worked on TV commercials for Filmfair, Quartet and Jay Ward Productions among other studios. In the late-’60s, he went to England to work on THE YELLOW SUBMARINE where he animated sequences with the Blue Meanies. In the Seventies, Duane established the commercial studio Duck Soup Productions with Roger Chouinard. He passed away in 1998.
Animator Mark Kausler who kindly showed me BLUM BLUM, and likely has the only copy of the film in existence, also worked with Duane for many years. At some point, I’ll have to bug him for more details about Duane’s work. He told me that after this student effort, Duane never made another personal film. Then again, when somebody achieves perfection on their first attempt, what’s the point of trying again?