Hannah, John Frederick (“Jack”)

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Hannah, John Frederick (“Jack”)

(b. 5 January 1913 in Nogales, Arizona; d. 11 June 1994 in Los Angeles, California), film animator and director, painter, and educator who was one of the premier designers for Donald Duck and other Disney characters.

Hannah was one of two sons born to Harry Bradshaw Hannah, who worked for the United States Immigration Office, and Eleanor Marie Brown, a homemaker and switchboard operator for Bethlehem Steel. After attending grammar school in San Ysidro and Sweetwater High School in National City, California, he thought of professional boxing as a career, but a broken nose in a Golden Gloves competition changed his mind. In 1931 Hannah registered for courses at the Art Guild Academy in Los Angeles, supporting himself as an illustrator of theater posters for Foster and Kleiser. He was hired by the Walt Disney Studios in January 1933 as an “in-betweener” (a young artist who fills in the other, less important, drawings of the action, usually following the tracings of the master drawings), earning $16 a week. On 15 September of that same year he married Winifred Marie Meinecke and began a family that included two children.

At Disney, Hannah studied under Norm Ferguson, one of the top animators of the day, and earned extra money as a gag writer. His first full animation scenes were in a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Shanghaied (1934). Hannah quickly moved up the studio ladder to first assistant and in 1937 was promoted to full animator on a new cartoon series featuring Donald Duck. In 1938, perceiving limited opportunity in the animation department, Hannah moved to the story department and teamed with Carl Barks to write Donald Duck cartoons.

During the 1930s Disney leased his cartoon characters to the Whitman Publishing Company to reprint the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck daily comic strips in book form. Whitman, encouraged by their success, wanted to publish original Donald Duck stories. However, because Disney’s major illustrators were busy with feature films, the assignment was offered to the story department, and Barks and Hannah took the job. Working with an unproduced Donald cartoon entitled Morgan’s Gold, Hannah drew interior scenes and Barks did the exteriors. The first original Donald Duck comic book, a sixty-four-page book titled Donald Duck Finds Pirate’s Gold (1942), was a success. Barks left Disney to work for Whitman, and Hannah took the opportunity to become a full-time director at Disney.

Hannah’s first directorial work involved animated training films for the U.S. Navy. He then took over a cartoon unit specializing in Donald Duck shorts, completing his first directorial cartoon with Donald’s Day Off in December 1944. Hannah’s success made him the “duck man” at Disney. Over the next twelve years he directed fifty-one Donald Duck cartoons, as well as the occasional cartoon with Mickey Mouse, Pluto, or Goofy. Hannah introduced numerous comic foils into the series, beginning with Donald’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, in Donald’s Nephews in 1938. He also introduced Humphrey the Bear, the Aracuan Bird from Saludos Amigo (1943), the Little Ranger, and Bootle Beetle. His greatest success came in a Mickey Mouse/Pluto cartoon, Squatter’s Rights (1946), when he took two stock background chipmunks and developed them into distinctive personalities. He teamed these chipmunks with Donald Duck for their first appearance in Chip and Dale in 1947 and was nominated for an Academy Award for best short subject. The popularity of Chip and Dale spawned an entirely new series, and they became Disney standards. Hannah was nominated for four more Oscars in the next six years: Tea for Two Hundred (1948) with Donald Duck; Toy Tinkers (1949), another Donald Duck cartoon with Chip and Dale; Lambert, the Sheepish Lion (1952), a Disney special; and Rugged Bear (1953), which marked the first appearance of Humphrey Bear with Donald Duck.

Hannah changed both the visual and narrative style of the Donald Duck cartoons and was instrumental in turning a one-dimensional secondary character into a fiery individual with a full-blown personality of his own. With Disney’s move to feature cartoons and the withdrawal of Mickey Mouse during the World War II years, Donald Duck, under Hannah’s direction, became the leading short-film moneymaker of the 1940s. Hannah also directed Donald Duck in Disney’s only 3-D cartoon, Working for Peanuts (1953), and oversaw the studio’s move into CinemaScope, a widescreen process patented during the 1950s that allows for broader screens with enhanced clarity and detail.

Hannah hit his stride in the mid-1950s with the creation of Humphrey Bear and his comic foil, The Little Ranger, but the emphasis at Disney was moving away from cartoon shorts and animation in general toward television. In 1954 Hannah joined the Director’s Guild and began directing live action and animation for the studio’s television venture, Disneyland. The program was the first on ABC’s fledgling network to crack Nielson’s top twenty ratings, with Hannah directing fourteen episodes over the next five years. After further animation cutbacks at Disney, Hannah decided in 1957 to join Walter Lantz at Universal Pictures, where he directed the live lead-ins to another ABC cartoon program, The Woody Woodpecker Show (1957–1958). In 1959 Hannah accepted Lantz’s offer to head his animation department. While he was able to attract some of the better illustrators from other major units that were closing down, including Riley Thompson, Tedd Pierce, Dick Kinney, and Milt Schaffer, Hannah’s new characters and storylines did not fare well. He introduced Inspector Willoughby in a new series (1960–1965); created a cartoon version of the popular television series The Life of Riley entitled The Beary Family (1962–1972); and added Gabby Gator to the continuing Woody Woodpecker series. These characters stayed with Lantz, but Hannah did not. Smaller budgets translated into less creative freedom, and Hannah left Lantz in 1962 to join Bob Clampett Productions, where he animated several unsuccessful pilots and directed some of the popular Beany and Cecil Shows (1962–1968).

In the mid-1960s Hannah returned to one of his earliest loves, oil painting, and for the rest of his life produced landscapes that sold in galleries throughout the western United States. He also began a lifelong process of teaching creative art and design. Hannah did return as a part-time script consultant to Disney in the mid-1960s when the studio needed someone to add gags to its live-action comedies, but he was content to spend most of his time oil painting.

In 1975 Disney Studios called Hannah to ask if he would be interested in heading an educational program on character animation at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. With funding by the Disney Foundation, Hannah collected a crew of six former Disney animators and began a four-year program teaching drawing and classes in the fine arts as well as animation basics. The program began with sixteen students and blossomed to over 100 by the 1980s, with most of its graduates going directly into the animation field. Hannah headed the program and taught until he retired in 1983.

In 1987 Hannah received a lifetime achievement award, or “Annie,” from the International Animated Film Society, and in 1992 was officially named one of the Disney Legends, a title that recognizes past achievement in the production of Disney animation and design. He died of cancer at St. Joseph Medical Center in Los Angeles and is buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery, also in Los Angeles.

Jack Hannah was one of the most respected directors of animation at the most prestigious animation studio in the world. His creative vision helped shape numerous American icons, and his designs for characters like Donald Duck and Chip and Dale became the standard for countless spin-offs. Audiences continue to enjoy an endless parade of re-releases and new variations on his central ideas. Hannah’s influence as a distinguished educator has extended to a whole new generation of animators and illustrators.

So far there is no biography about Jack Hannah, but there is an abundance of material on his place in animation and the Disney style of animation. Jeff Lenburg, The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons (1991), is an excellent source for Hannah’s work, as is Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (1980). There are two extensive interviews with Hannah in Animania: The Animated Film Quarterly (1978 and 1982). See also: Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney (1973); Leonard Maltin, The Disney Films (1984); and Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley, The Disney Studio Story (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 June 1994).

Patrick A. Trimble