Animating Ideas: The John Sutherland Story

Though largely forgotten by the animation world by the time of his death, John Sutherland was a seminal figure in instructional and propaganda cartoons. Mark Arnold profiles the influential producer. 

John Sutherland

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.

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.

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.)

John Sutherland (left) going over storyboards.

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.”

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!”

Art from a Sutherland production

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.”

One Response to “Animating Ideas: The John Sutherland Story”

  1. Ray Faiola

    Sep 25. 2012

    I have several 16mm prints of Sutherland shorts, including a beautiful restored neg for RHAPSODY OF STEEL. I just picked up a dye-transfer print of THE LITTLEST GIANT. Vic Perrin is credited as narrator. However, at the A/B reel change, the narrator changes. I do not know who narrates the final 3 or 4 minutes of the film. Dal McKennon does the character voice of the consumer. Nice short about consumer credit.

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