Tuesday, June 16, 2015

James Algar - Imagineer and Director

James Algar worked 43 years with Walt Disney, was involved in every imaginable type of film production and earned three Academy Awards for his work on film, and yet he remains one of the most unrecognized of Disney’s talented roster of employees. 

Simply put, he was the director extraordinaire behind such memorable documentaries as Grand Canyon, The Living Desert, and the True Life Adventures, but beyond his directorial duties he worked as a producer, writer, animator, and creative consultant for projects in Walt Disney’s vast empire of television, film, and theme park productions, many of which remain just as impressive now as the day he first created them. 

Born on June 11, 1912 in Modesto, California, James Algar got his start down the yellow brick road of creativity when he gained a following as a campus cartoonist at Stanford University. His skill with the pen attracted the attention of the Walt Disney Studio recruiters who hired him upon graduation in 1934 as an animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


Shortly thereafter, he became animation director of the cartoon feature Fantasia and went on to direct sequences in Bambi, Victory Through Air Power, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  However, by the late 1940s he wanted to expand his range of skills and experiment with live subjects versus painted ones and so he conceived a documentary short entitled Seal Island. Walt liked the idea and gladly let him direct it for the studio. 

After reviewing hundreds of reels of Alaskan seal footage brought back by nature photographers Alfred and Elma Milotte, he cut it to a tight 27 minutes and released in 1948 a documentary so compelling it not only spawned the internationally acclaimed True-Life Adventures series but earned the Academy Award for Best Two-Reel subject. 


Throughout the next decade James Algar focused his skills on writing and directing nature and wildlife shorts such as Beaver Valley, Bear Country, The Vanishing Prairie, and White Wilderness; in total sharing in the winning of nine Academy Awards, culminating with the magnificent Cinemascope production of 1958…Grand Canyon.  This stunningly photographed nature short seamlessly blended image to music ( “Grand Canyon Suite” by composer Ferde Grofe ). 

During the 1960s, he wrote and co-produced several animal-starring dramatic films – The Legend of Lobo, the Incredible Journey, and later Rascal. But not satisfied with mere nature films, he branched out into directing many episodes of The Wonderful World of Color and even tried his hand at comedy – quite successfully too, with The Gnome Mobile ( 1967 ).

In spite of all these directorial achievements, his greatest legacy is for his writing/producing work of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, a 24 minute Animatronics based production which came to life at the Illinois Pavilion of the 1965 New York World’s Fair. The show enjoyed a decades-long run at Disneyland and later inspired The Hall of Presidents attraction at Walt Disney World, which opened in 1971. This patriotic script was also one of Algar’s writing achievements. Many people continue to ponder which of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches they are listening to, when in fact it is four separate speeches the Lincoln fanatic had compiled into one. 

Throughout the end of his career Algar worked on several projects which interestingly enough, spotlighted his own prior successes – The Best of Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures ( 1975 ) and The Bluegrass Special ( 1976 ), a true life story of a racing horse.

James Algar was never a desk-bound producer, but loved being at the forefront of action along with his crew. He was considered one of the best-informed American natural scientists and he put himself right smack in the middle of the habitats of wild animals to bring us insightful motion pictures which entertained and taught us new things about the lives of the creatures he studied and the world around us.  
During the making of The African Lion, he lived among the lions of Kenya, he battled the raging white-water rapids of Colorado river to film Ten Who Dared, and he participated in the filming of the buffalo stampede for The Vanishing Prairie. 

James Algar passed away at the age of 85 in his home in Carmel, California with his wife and four children by his side.  He had a rich and full career throughout his 43 years at Walt Disney Studios and his life was indeed a True-Life Adventure.

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