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October 15, 1891|
Elmira, New York, U.S.
|Died||December 28, 1971
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Heart attack|
He was born in Elmira, New York. His animation career started around 1916 when he was employed by the International Film Service, an early animation studio under the ownership of William Randolph Hearst and the supervision of Gregory La Cava. The studio had been formed in 1915 and first employed experienced animators Frank Moser and William Nolan. Within a year the veterans had been joined by several new recruits. Gillett was probably recruited along with notable co-workers John Foster, Jack King, Isadore Klein, Walter Lantz, Grim Natwick, Ben Sharpsteen and Vernon Stallings.
In 1929, Gillett joined the Walt Disney Studio where he started out primarily working on Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts. At this point Ub Iwerks was the only experienced animator on staff. Walt Disney visited New York City with the goal of hiring more experienced staff members. The first notable animator hired this way was Ben Sharpsteen, a veteran of the Fleischer Studios. A visit by Disney to the studio of Pat Sullivan resulted in Disney hiring Gillett, the second New York animator to be hired. He started working for Disney in April, 1929.
The move of the two New Yorkers to the Studio coincided with a significant change in the way the staff worked. Up to 1929, Walt Disney had been the de facto director of most of the Studio's films. But now he was pulling back in favor on new directors. Gillett soon moved into the "music room" (the director's office). The division of responsibilities between them was still, however, informal and somewhat unclear. Disney did not hesitate to intervene and criticize Gillett in front of fellow staff members.
By the Summer of 1929, Iwerks and Gillett were the primary directors of the studio. Iwerks was directing the Silly Symphonies shorts, and Gillett the Mickey Mouse ones. The involvement of Disney himself in production details receded. In 1930 Gillett directed Cannibal Capers, the first of 15 Silly Symphonies shorts to his credit. The shorts directed by Gillett included two Academy Award winners (Flowers and Trees and The Three Little Pigs) and also featured important firsts such as the introduction of the Pluto character and the first animated short to be produced in full-color three-strip Technicolor.
Due to the success of The Three Little Pigs, Gillett was recruited to run the Van Beuren Studios in 1934. While working at the Van Beuren Studios, Gillett directed the Technicolor Rainbow Parade animated shorts featuring Molly Moo-Cow, Toonerville Folks and several color Felix the Cat cartoons. He also was the one that hired Joseph Barbera for 25 US$ a week. Gillett shifted the studio production to producing only color cartoon shorts, an innovative step for 1934. The Rainbow Parade shorts imitated the Silly Symphonies, thoough produced with a lower budget than them. Tom and Jerry were replaced with newer characters.
Gillett introduced Disney-influenced ideas and invited young Disney artists to lecture the New York veterans of Van Beuren. His condescending attitude towards his artists resulted in their resentment. It did not help that he fired about fifty people in a six-months period, citing as reason their failure to meet his standards. The morale of the staff took a blow. In Van Beuren, Gillett attempted to introduce the rigorous quality standards of Disney. But he did so while maintaining the same working conditions which had plagued the animators of the studio: low-budget work, and deadlines filled with uncompensated extra work hours. Artists saw their work rejected as substandard and then had to work overtime to replace it. The hard-drinking Gillett gained a reputation for emotional outbursts and instability. A number of artists initiated contact with the Animated Motion Picture Workers Union (AMPWU), and discussed their plans to join the union. But Gillett had his informants among them.
On February 14, 1935, Gillett called a staff meeting to announce his knowledge of their union talk. He intimidated the artists into changing their plans, though their discontent remained. He later found out about a female inker by the name of Sadie Bodin who encouraged female staff members to stand up to Gillett and refuse to do extra work. Gillett fired her, despite her protest that this violated the recently passed National Labor Relations Act. He claimed that he fired her for her attitude, rather than her efforts in favor of unionizing. On April 17, 1937 Bodin and her husband started picketing outside the studio. For several days they called attention to Gillett firing labor for union activity. Her former co-workers were too intimidated to stand by her side.
The AMPWU filed a formal complaint against Van Beuren with the National Labor Relations Board. In his testimony, Gillett claimed that he did not force employees to work for free. He claimed to have set a system where employees would bank their hours and take the time as paid leave. The Board ruled in favor of the studio management. In a subsequent staff meeting, Amadee J. Van Beuren states his firm support for Gillett. Gillett used his victory to fire other union agitators. Among them was Phil Klein, who was blacklisted by the New York-based animation studios. He had to move to California to find employment with the Disney studio.
In 1936, Gillett attempted to revive series focusing on the Toonerville Trolley and Felix the Cat. The failure of both attempts highlights the weaknesses of his efforts to integrate the West Coast-style of Disney with the East Coast-style of Van Beuren. These films lacked the energy and imagination of earlier products of the studio. But also failed in imitating Disney by lacking in charm, graphic sophistication, and logical storyline.
Van Beuren Studios released its films through a distribution deal with RKO Pictures. In 1936, RKO signed an exclusive distribution deal with the Disney studio, and consequently dumped Van Beuren. The ailing animation studio closed, leaving Gillett unemployed. Gillett returned to Disney. He moved to Walter Lantz Productions in 1938, where he directed and wrote cartoons, sometimes using the pseudonym "Gil Burton". Gillett left the animation business in 1940.
As confirmed by several golden age animators, among them Shamus Culhane, Bill Littlejohn, Izzy Klein, Grim Natwick and Jack Zander, Gillett was mentally unstable. In his autobiography, Culhane speculates that Gillett suffered from bipolar disorder and notes that he swung from excessive enthusiasm to violent rages to paranoia (once attacking Culhane himself with a spindle when they worked together at Van Beuren's studio), and that he was eventually institutionalized for many years. Culhane's statements have been questioned by historians.
- Barrier, Michael (2007), "Building a Better Mouse, 1928-1933", The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, University of California Press, ISBN 978-0520941663
- Koszarski, Richard (2008), "Cartoons in the City", Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff', Rutgers University Press, ISBN 978-0813542935
- Sito, Tom (2006), "Hollywood Labor, 1933-1941:The Birth of Cartoonists Unions", Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson', University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 978-0813138367
- Barrier (2007), p. 71–72
- Barrier (2007), p. 74
- "Molly Moo-Cow entry". Toonopedia. Archived from the original on 2016-03-09.
- Joseph Barbera: My Life in 'Toons: From Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century, Turner Pub, Nashville 1995, ISBN 978-1-57036-042-8, p. 45
- Koszarski (2008), p. 319-320
- Sito (2006), unnumbered pages
- "June 1998 Newsletter". ASIFA - San Francisco. Archived from the original on 2007-08-12.
- A Life in the Shadows Archived August 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.