All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
I have no idea what these toys are called. Japanese Celluloid, I suppose, because its celluloid, and made in Japan, mostly before the Second World War. I always referred to this exercise in pure geometry and simple form, often carried to extremes, as” Geometric Celluloid”. It was one of the few things I collected that I managed to succeed in keeping secret. One could find these exquisite objects at flea markets and shows, and nobody seemed to be particularly interested in them. Nobody, that is, but me! Whenever I acquired one of these remarkable toys, I instantly hid it away from emulating eyes. Therefore, they remained affordable for a long time.
Why was I drawn to these? The explanation is as simple as a geometric toy. When I was a kid, as soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil, drawing comic characters became “my thing”. By second grade, I had all the Disney characters memorized. And standing at the blackboard on entertainment days, I could draw any character my class could name. I also had a marvelous book called, “Junior’s Fun to Draw”. It illustrated, step by step, the secret way that Mickey and his friends were made: Circles! They were all made up of circles and simple geometric shapes.
Early Mickey is the most perfect example of an image made up of pure geometry. That is why he is so universal. Mickey is, essentially, just a bunch of circles. If one were to take him apart, or dissect his body anyplace, they would discover a circular shape.
In the early days of animation , circles were the key to everything. They were the way that characters were formed and visualized. That is why they had a three dimensionality that enabled them to turn and move in two dimensional illusionary space. Circles were the factor that permitted several different artists to all draw the same character with consistent uniformity. They were also the means by which size and proportions were determined, and kept the same. Each character was designed to be so many circles high. This underlying geometry was the key to how the best and most powerful Comic Characters were made.
And, so, it was that I grew up, believing that if one could just detect the secret circles, they could draw anything! I continued to hold this belief, throughout my years at art school, where I continued to look for circles, especially in Life Drawing Class, where there were plenty to be seen, if you know what I mean. Yes, seeing secret circles, and revealing them to others was what I found most challenging and exciting about drawing the human figure.
Disney disliked the obvious geometry of his early creations. He saw their easily detectible structure as a weakness, and sought to make his characters more complicated, and hide their circles, in a never ending quest to achieve “reality”. This was a self-defeating goal, for as animation become increasingly real, one questioned its very necessity. Not surprizingly, I just read yesterday that the Disney organization has done away with hand drawn animation, altogether. They just shut the department down, and laid off all the animators. And thus, a Glorious Era comes to an end!
Geometric Celluloid is all about where it began. Here is the pure geometry that underlies the most dynamic imagery, at its most pure and powerful, stripped bare of all pretense. Add to that a dazzling array of brilliant color and wild imagination, set free, and you are in the amazing World of Celluloid Geometry.
Once I had cleared all the stuff in front of this showcase away, and shot a long shot of the entire case, I realized that there was something lacking. The total showcase was simply too complex, with no sense of scale to assess its awesomeness. So, I sat down on the floor before it, to take some close ups, with the protective Plexiglas removed. And before I knew it, I was drawn up into the showcase, living momentarily in a Geometric Celluloid World. Come join me in that place where the wildest colors bloom, and simple geometric shapes combine to create mind boggling complexity. I guarantee it is like no place that you have ever been or seen.
This amazing Santa was one of the first Geometric Celluloid toys to capture my attention. It truly is a “Ready Made”, a masterpiece of perfect harmony. I found him, over 40 years ago, at one of the first Stormville Flea Markets. The yellow pedestal the toy is resting on is its original box. This wondrous object is the very essence of style and grace and perfect symmetry. I’ve studied it for hours as an artist, appreciating its lyric beauty. I’ve studied it as a toy designer, too, wondering if this was put together using standard factory parts, or if this pleasant work of art could have been conceived from scratch? The antlers and Santa’s beard would indicate the later.
This sophisticated treasure cost all of five dollars, a modest beginning that launched me on a path to spending many times more than that on Geometric Celluloid, over the years. Nonetheless, in all the years that followed, I never found another like it. And, although, I have discovered other celluloid toys, wilder and more spectacular than it, none have pleased me more than this.
Here is an elegant example of Geometric Celluloid applied to Mickey Mouse. This is a large object, shown here actual size! The word spectacular comes to mind. The colorful car, itself, is everything. The Mickey part is secondary. He's just along for the ride. Every aspect of this sizeable toy is pleasing to the eye.
Here are two toys that are worth opening the case to retrieve and photograph together, on their own. The toy on the lower left is Betty Boop, and that on the right is Betty and Mickey Mouse. Two examples of this toy are known. The other was in Australia. My friend Carl Lobel tried to obtain it for years, and finally succeeded. It came in its original box, a large plain container with a relatively small label. That's the Lobel label on the left. This is one of those rare instances where Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse meet and appear together purposely, and illegally. This was no misunderstanding. The characters are not accidental lookalikes, but, as the label indicates, they are intended to be Betty and Mickey, brought together by design. The toy is called, “Time is Gold.” Both toys are spectacular, and are shown here, actual size.
And, last of all, Geometry and Reality combine in one of the most desirable Celluloid toys of all time, Horace Horsecollar, pulling Mickey. Parts of both characters are Pure Geometry, while the rest is Pure Comic Imagery. This is a crossover on the road to "Comic Celluloid", and proof, again, that in the World of Comic Characters, Reality stops, and Anything goes! So let’s hitch a ride with Mickey, and click the link below.