Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More about the Mormons

This just in from Jeff Peterson:

[I read your quotes from Frank Armitage regarding the film "Man's Search for Happiness" at the 1964 New York World's Fair. I had never heard of this film, but it made me curious about the background of Judge Whitaker, so I checked his biography on the Internet Movie DataBase (IMDB), as well as that of his brother, Scott Whitaker, who also worked at the Walt Disney Studio in the mid 1930s. I don't know who Brian Greenhalgh is, but he wrote both of the Whitaker biographies for IMDB that I've copied below. Perhaps the most interesting Disney-Mormon connection is mentioned at the start of Scott Whitaker's biography where it describes a tour of the Disney Studio by three senior Mormon leaders" in 1946 (or possibly 1947). This visit was evidently the beginning of Judge Whitaker's filmmaking for the Mormon Church (22 films from 1960 to 1974). The first film, "Church Welfare in Action," was actually directed by Eric Larson, who is described as a "collapsed Mormon." After the two biographies, I've added information on this 1948 film, copied from the Mormon Literature Database that you referenced.

Anyway, perhaps you've read this information before, but this is all new to me and I just thought I'd pass it along.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Judge Whitaker was an animator that went on to become a pioneering producer & director of educational and religious films at Brigham Young University, where he is credited with establishing a motion picture studio. In many ways his life would parallel that of Walt Disney, who would become his long-term employer.

Judge moved with his family to Brigham City, Utah just before his fifth birthday and then to Denver, Colorado about the time of his tenth birthday. At South Denver High he would be student body president, one of the staff artists for the yearbook, and captain of the football team. Upon finishing high school Judge followed his family to Huntington Park, California and obtained a job utilizing his artistic talents in the display department at Western Auto Supply. A few months later he landed a position in the promotion department of Montgomery Wards retail stores in Chicago doing silk screen work and enrolled in an art class at the American Academy of Art. He returned to California after only a year and bought into a cleaning and pressing business hoping to earn enough money to marry his girlfriend Doris.

The cleaning business barely broke even each month so he returned to the promotion department of Montgomery Wards where he spent most of his time cartooning and enrolled in night classes at The Chicago Art Institute. Although enjoying his work, he thought his $27.50 income was insufficient to contemplate marriage, so he accepted an offer with The St. Louis Times at $40.00 a week. He would later say his title of Art Director was "extravagant." In July, 1932 the paper was absorbed by the rival St. Louis Star and the Times staff were all released. In the midst of the Great Depression, Judge could only find freelance art work that did not quite pay all the bills. After reading an article about Walt Disney in Liberty magazine, Judge was inspired to want to work for him. After sending samples of his work he received a letter saying that the studio was not hiring at the moment, but they would be pleased to see him if he were ever in Los Angeles. With little to lose, Judge and Doris returned to Huntington Park, California and when Judge was given an interview by Ben Sharpsteen he was offered $16.00 a week as a trainee. After only a few weeks Judge and all the other new employees received pink slips. At first he took a job in Huntington Park helping to clean up after the earthquake of March, 1933. Then two weeks later hearing of a couple of jobs at the Charles Mintz Studio, he and his brother Scott Whitaker applied and were accepted.

The Disney Studio would later call and offer $25.00 a week, but when Judge went to give notice, Charles Mintz offered him $27.50 to stay. Scott went to Disney, but Judge remained with Mintz for over a year until negotiating a $35.00 a week offer from Disney in 1936 as an assistant animator assigned to working on a new character named Donald Duck. Some of the more promising new animators were given a test project. Judge's was judged the best, and he was promoted to be a full-fledged animator with a nice raise in salary.

Judge would mainly work as a character animator on Donald Duck shorts in his career with Disney, but he also worked upon several animated features beginning with The Three Caballeros (1944) working on the sequence with Pablo, a cold-blooded penguin and ending up with Peter Pan (1953) for which Judge helped animate The Lost Boys.

In 1946 Judge suggested that Mormons in the film industry might be willing to donate their time to make a promotional church film. Two years of spare time work resulted in two completed films about the LDS welfare program, "Welfare in Action" and "The Lord's Way." Eric Larson directed the first, Judge the second, and Judge and Scott created the animation sequences.

Judge took a year's leave of absence from Disney in early 1952 to join with his brothers, Berlin, Ferrin, and Scott to develop The Homestead Resort at the site of some natural hot springs in the Heber Valley near Park City, Utah. After Judge described the plans to build up the resort Walt replied, "All my life I have wanted to do something like that, and here I am stuck with this," waving to indicate the studio. "Take your year, then come back and your job will be waiting." Interestingly enough Walt Disney would form WED in December, 1952 to explore the design for Disneyland and Judge's plan may have had more than a passing interest to Walt.

While working on the Homestead project, Judge was given the offer to head a newly created Department of Motion Picture production at Brigham Young University beginning in January, 1953. Judge sent a letter of resignation to Walt Disney and began to establish the film studio from scratch, buying some basic equipment in California and also visiting some studios and UCLA's Department of Cinematography to get some helpful advice. BYU reportedly joined UCLA that year as the second of only two university film production facilities that existed at the time.

Although rough in the beginning, productions became more ambitious and polished through the years with Man's Search for Happiness (1964) shot in 35mm and released with 4-track stereophonic sound and "In The Holy Place" (1968) shot in 65mm. Both films were intended for special exhibition in Mormon visitor's centers (the first showing at the New York World's Fair).

More than 150 films were produced during his 22 years as director and producer at the studio. Some were produced for the various auxiliaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with other educational films produced for the university and commercially released for use in schools or industry. He is probably best known for Windows of Heaven (1963) and Johnny Lingo (1969). Wetzel received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from BYU in 1971, and retired in 1974. Like Walt Disney he started his career drawing and animating and ended it as a producer at a studio he had founded and nurtured.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Scott Whitaker's contributions to filmmaking were mainly as a story man and script writer, but he also directed some short films in a 22 year tenure with the film studio at Brigham Young University that he helped to establish. His education included English classes at George Washington University and cinema writing courses at the University of Southern California. In the early part of his career he worked as a special effects animator at RKO and as a story artist and writer at Walt Disney Studios.

In 1946 three senior Mormon leaders (Harold B. Lee, Mark E. Peterson, and Mathew Cowley) were taken on a tour of The Walt Disney Studio by Scott's brother, Judge Whitaker, a Disney animator and fellow employee. Viewing morale-building training films made at the studio during the war sparked a discussion about producing church films in a similar fashion. Judge proposed that he and other Mormons in the film industry make a film in their spare time. Two years later this resulted in two films about the LDS welfare program, "Welfare in Action" and "The Lord's Way." Eric Larson directed the first, Judge the second, Scott did some live action direction in The Lord's Way, with Judge and Scott creating the animation sequences. The success of these films would ultimately alter the lives and careers of both brothers.

As children Scott and Judge visited the Schneitter Hot Pots (natural hot springs in the Heber Valley, Utah). Finding it for sale in 1951, four Whitaker brothers acquired the property as a family business and started to create "The Homestead" as a year-round resort. Judge asked for a leave of absence from Disney to help remodel the property. Now relatively close to BYU, Judge became involved with establishing a studio at the university, officially heading the new Department of Motion Picture Production starting in January, 1953. The following year Scott joined as well, splitting his time for a few years by working winters for the studio and summers at the family resort before devoting his time completely at BYU.

Casting was difficult for an early film about a man gone astray until faithful Mormons help lead him back into church activity, and Judge finally asked Scott to play the lead. With the strict ban against smoking among members of the LDS Church, Scott had to overcome his wife's concern that his smoking in the picture would raise eyebrows, especially since he had been a member of a Mormon bishopric. Ultimately Scott's performance in "Come Back, My Son" elicited tears when the film was shown in The Tabernacle in Salt Lake City during the General Conference of October, 1954.

Scott did considerable background research for the historical film Windows of Heaven (1963), finding enough material for a full length feature in the course of writing a shooting script. Ultimately the budget limited it to 50 mins. In 1963 Scott developed a story concerning the negative effects of alcohol within communities of the Navajo people by living briefly among them on the reservation in New Mexico and sleeping in a Hogan. He went on to direct his Bitter Wind (1963) script on location in New Mexico and Arizona. As a director Scott would often look for opportunities to improve upon his scripts. He suggested that he and Robert W. Stum "take our sleeping bags and sleep with the sheep" to get the best possible shot of a flock far away from their hotel, which would only be possible at sunrise.

As Supervising Story Editor for the BYU studio he had the opportunity to mentor young writers such as Carol Lynn Pearson and Claire Whitaker (Judge and Scott's niece), both would have long and successful writing careers following their contributions to BYU short films.

Enjoying location work also made Scott a world traveler, and he directed two film projects he had long advocated in widely separated parts of the globe. He climbed over many archeological sites in Central & South America to film Ancient America Speaks (1974) and arranged to film Where Jesus Walked (1978) in Israel during March to maximize the presence of green grass and flowers. Due to the timing of the production, Scott was able to accept the invitation to give the key Easter sermon upon the Mount of Olives to the local Mormon community in Jerusalem. In the address he expressed gratitude for his family and co-workers, perhaps knowing that his work was almost through. Having been plagued by a persistent backache during the entire trip, and with the film almost complete, he returned to Utah where he was diagnosed with bone cancer that had spread to his liver. He quietly died six weeks later, and this, his final film, carried a formal dedication to him. He was buried in the Midway City Cemetery.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Church Welfare in Action
Produced by Wetzel Whitaker
Directed by Eric Larson
Production Company: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Premiere Date: October 3, 1948
Length: 1 reel (30 min.)

Summary: This is a documentary on what LDS Church welfare is and how it functions.

This film was created at the suggestion of "Judge" Wetzel Whitaker when three apostles--Elders Harold B. Lee, Matthew Cowley, and Mark E. Petersen--visited him at the Walt Disney Studio in 1947. Judge recalled that it was a "somewhat rash" offer, but it changed the course of his life and LDS films forever.

The offer to make one film on Church welfare soon divided into two, and while Whitaker directed the other film, The Lord's Way, this title was headed up by Eric Larson, a self-described "collapsed Mormon" who nevertheless always lended support whenever the Church needed assistance with filmmaking in Los Angeles. (Unlike Whitaker, who was a mid-level "in-betweener" animator, Larson was already one of Disney's top animators and would soon become known as one of his Nine Old Men, who dominated Disney animation for decades to come.)

Church Welfare in Action was completed before The Lord's Way, but when both were done Church President George Albert Smith personally paid for the filmmakers and their wives to come to Salt Lake City to screen them. The General Authorities were impressed--David O. McKay told Whitaker they were "the best films ever to come out of Hollywood"--and the films circulated throughout the wards for years. More importantly, they induced Church leaders such as McKay to consider the use a permanent film studio would be. Thus, the BYU Motion Picture Department was established as the Church's filmmaking arm in January 1953, shortly after McKay became Church President; Judge Whitaker left Disney to become its first director general.]

1 comment:

Brian Greenhalgh said...

A comment on the Mormon Literature site referenced here has bothered me for some time, since it comes from a source at BYU where Judge Whitaker was once so important. I have thought about sending a correction to them with the hope that they will honor the memory of Judge to a better degree than this entry shows.

"(Unlike Whitaker, who was a mid-level 'in-betweener' animator, Larson was already one of Disney's top animators and would soon become known as one of his Nine Old Men, who dominated Disney animation for decades to come.)"

Judge was a full character animator for many years at the Disney studio and not an "in-betweener"...he had become a trusted and important animator by the time he left to start the film department at BYU and was asked to consider a return a year or so after leaving.