Wednesday, November 28, 2012


IF A CHILDREN'S BOOK by Upton Sinclair seems unlikely, then a Walt Disney movie based on an Upton Sinclair children's book seems almost impossible. But in 1967, thirty-one years after the book The Gnomobile was published, Walt Disney released the live-action film The Gnome-Mobile starring Walter Brennan "and those Mary Poppins kids," Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice.

Sinclair had had a tempestuous relationship with Hollywood over his long career. He at first believed that film could be a powerful tool in raising social awareness and reaching the populace. He produced (and made a cameo in) an adaptation of his most famous book The Jungle in 1914, which stayed faithful to his book. But the next major movie based on one of his books, The Money Changers, released in 1920, turned a novel about J. P. Morgan's involvement in the panic of 1907 into a movie about the Chinatown drug trade. Sinclair was furious, and was ready to write off Hollywood for good. But there was still some belief that the cinema could be made to serve social justice.

In 1932, his pro-Prohibition novel The Wet Parade was turned into a film by MGM for which he was paid $20,000. This time, the story in the book matched the story on the screen. This personal success allowed the socialist Sinclair to move to Beverly Hills, where he was soon hired by William Fox to write a book on Fox Corporation's Depression travails. The book was meant to be a publicity tool for Fox Corporation, but in Sinclair's hands it became an indictment of a movie studio attempting to form a monopoly. It did not make him popular in Hollywood.

By the time Sinclair ran in the gubernatorial race of 1934, his socialist politics seemed such a threat to the Hollywood studios--especially Louis Mayer--that the studios churned out an active smear campaign, ensuring Sinclair's loss. It was because of this loss that Sinclair set out on a speaking tour in 1935 to recoup some of his campaign money, which took him through the redwoods and inspired the novel The Gnomobile.

Despite his status in Hollywood, when the book came out in 1936, Sinclair's friend Rob Wagner, publisher of the magazine The Script, introduced Sinclair to Walt Disney, suggesting that The Gnomobile might be suited for film. Disney didn't think it right for an animated movie, but said if he ever began making live-action films, he would consider it.

After Disney began making live-action features in 1950, Sinclair began to write occasional letters reminding Disney of his promise to turn The Gnomobile into a movie. Sinclair's hope was that he would see the book on the big screen before he died. Eventually Disney wrote back, and in 1967, Sinclair got his wish. Walt Disney, however, twenty-three years his junior, died before the movie's release.  He watched footage of the film in progress in the last month of his life.

AS TO BE EXPECTED with a Disney adaptation, The Gnome-Mobile is very different from The Gnomobile, and it goes far beyond a change in title. First off is a change in protagonists. In Sinclair's book, the main characters are a young girl named Elizabeth and her uncle Rodney Sinsabow. In the movie, Rodney becomes Elizabeth's younger brother, and the adult along for the adventure is their grandfather D. J. Mulrooney, the lumber baron (played by Walter Brennan). This is significant because the disappearance of the gnomes is a direct result of heavy logging. Now, instead of trusting in a descendent of loggers with great disdain for his family's business, the gnomes must trust in their arch-nemesis himself.

The gnomes go in for name changes as well. Bobo becomes Jasper, and his grandfather Glogo becomes Knobby. Since the arguably more loaded gnomic word Doo Deen (doodie anyone?) is introduced in the movie for regular-sized people--in the book, they're just called "big people"--it's not clear why these new name are preferable to the originals.

The movie opens with D. J. leaving the Mulrooney Lumber building in his Rolls Royce to pick up his grandchildren at the San Francisco airport. The plan is to drive up to Seattle to go yachting. Along the way, they stop for a picnic in Mulrooney Grove in Redwood National Park. D. J. explains, "All that sign means is, that I had the privilege of seeing they'll always be here." He's a lumber baron and a conservationist.

While D. J. and Rodney set up the picnic, Elizabeth wanders away into the forest. There we see Jasper conferring with his animatronic woodland friends about whether or not to address the Doo Deeen girl in hopes that she can help him with his problem. Against his friends' advice, he talks to her, and soon he has met the other Doo Deens as well.

Jasper's problem is that his grandfather Knobby is going all "see-throughish," which means he has lost the will to live. "Grandpa's given up all hope of ever seeing me married and havin' young'uns of my own." (Apparently gnomes have a southern country accent. But then D. J. has a faint Irish accent and his grandchildren have English accents, so take your pick.)

There are no more gnomes in this forest, although there are rumors of gnome colonies in other forests. After placating an irate anti-Doo-Deenic grandpa Knobby (also played by Walter Brennan), it is agreed that D. J. will take the gnomes in his car, which Elizabeth quickly dubs The Gnome-Mobile, to find other gnomes.

The trip will take more than a day, so they stop off at a motel, the gnomes safely hidden in the picnic basket. D. J. has managed to keep from the gnomes that he is the one responsible for cutting down the trees. However, when the desk clerk says his name aloud, Knobby throws a fit, which attracts the attention of Quaxton, purveyor of Quaxton's Academy of Fantastic Freaks, who happens to be putting up a poster in the hotel lobby.

In the hotel room, Knobby and D. J. have it out, and D. J. storms off with Rodney saying that he's taking the gnomes right back to their forest in the morning and be done with them. Quaxton, seeing two of the party leave, calls the room and tricks Elizabeth into abandoning her post as gnome-sitter. He then promptly purloins the gnomes.

When D. J. finds out the gnomes have been stolen, he contacts his executive vice president Ralph Yarby to call in the company security team, knowing he can't go to the police without it becoming a news story. Yarby, however, thinks D. J. has gone crazy, so he flies up to where they are staying, and telling D. J. they are going to see a private detective, commits him to Five Oaks mental hospital, abandoning Sinclair's book completely.

Elizabeth and Rodney then break D. J. out of the locked facility, but they're  not sure what to do next. Rodney then remembers seeing Quaxton in the motel, so the three of them--D. J. in his Five Oaks nightgown--head for Quaxton's Academy of Fantastic Freaks.

At the freak academy, D. J. has a run-in with the caretakers who are in their pajamas, but armed with a shotgun. With the assistance of Rodney, he manages to get out of them that Quaxton has a cabin in the woods, and that he's probably there.

At the cabin, Jasper breaks out of the picnic basket when Quaxton goes out to get food. He is in the process of getting Knobby out the window when Quaxton returns. Quaxton manages to prevent Jasper's escape, but D. J. and the children are soon upon him, and the three of them along with Jasper are soon on the road.

Now, of course, since this a movie about a car, there needs to be a car chase. Yarby and two male nurses from Five Oaks are quickly on D. J.'s trail. D. J. swerves his vintage Rolls Royce off the road, and takes flight through the woods. The Rolls holds up fine, but the car that Yarby is in loses piece after piece as they bounce along, first the hood of the car and lastly the rear wheels. As D. J. pulls away, Yarby catches a glimpse of Jasper in the back of the car, and does a double take.

The movie at this point, reaches new levels of silly. Knobby has found another colony of gnomes nearby. The Gnome-Mobile crew manages to pull off the road and find him immediately. He's in the company of Rufus, leader of the colony, played by the lord of silliness Ed Wynn in his final performance.

Rufus introduces some of the other gnomes, but they are all men, which leaves Jasper a bit disappointed. When D. J. points this out, Knobby says, "Of course, how stupid of me. Rufus has more girl gnomes here than he knows what to do with."

Rufus then yells, "Girls! Girls! Come on out girls! The eligible gnome is here!" and a bevy of girls in flowing dresses somewhere between a peasant dress and a mini-skirt comes flocking out of the underbrush. They line up. Jasper picks out the one he wants (Violet), only to be told "It's not the male that picks his mate, it's the she-male that picks the date."

Here's what's going to happen. Jasper is going to get lathered up in soap. Then whichever girl holds him to the count of seven gets to keep him. D. J. actually says, "It's like a greased pig chase back in Ireland." Watch.

This chase goes on for six whole minutes.

In the end, Jasper marries Violet right then and there despite having said nothing more than "hello" to each other. D. J. announces that any gnomes who want to form a new colony are welcome to join him in the Gnome-Mobile. And they all sing a reprise of the song.

Right, I didn't mention the song. In addition to the Mary Poppins' kids, The Gnome-Mobile has the Mary Poppins' director Robert Stevenson, and one song from the Mary Poppins' song writers, the legendary Sherman brothers: 'In the Jauntin' Car/The Gnome-Mobile'.

In 1978, The Gnome-Mobile aired in two parts as part of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

THE CRITICS were rather dismissive of The Gnome-Mobile when it came out. Roger Ebert said, "Disney films are meant to please kids not critics. So now I go on Saturdays. Last Saturday the kids let me know that The Gnome-Mobile had some good parts in it."

The New York Times said, "A fine idea unquestionably, especially for the Disney technicians, who do very well in some beautiful but fleeting photography of the majestic backgrounds and in some of the whimsy...But the action and light-hearted spirit sag under a crisscross jumble of slapstick and broadly handled locomotion that flattens the fun."

The Los Angeles Times was a bit more austere, recognizing that The Gnome-Mobile was one of Walt Disney's last pictures and contained Ed Wynn's final performance. Still, "Mr. Disney always insisted that he didn't make children's pictures, he made family pictures, and more often than not, this was true enough. With The Gnome-Mobile, however, a slightly higher than usual quota of adult tolerance may be called for."

The Los Angeles Times also included a photograph of Upton Sinclair standing with Walter Brennan and Ed Wynn in their gnome guises, which I have only seen as a scan of a microfilm. If anyone has a clear copy of that picture, please let me know so I can add it to this post.

One last note of interest, both the car used in the film and the oversized rear seat used to make grown people look like gnomes are housed in The Gilmour Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, making that museum one of the more esoteric Disney vacation destinations. If anyone has pictures from the museum, I'd be happy to add them as well.

I DREW FROM many sources for this post. First and foremost was the movie itself, which is currently available as part of a four-movie collection (see right) that also includes Darby O'Gill and the Little People, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, and The Happiest Millionaire. These are the actual discs from the original single-movie DVD releases. I picked it up for about $13 at Wal-Mart.

The posters for The Jungle and The Wet Parade came from Wikipedia. The information on Upton Sinclair's experiences with Hollywood came predominantly from Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century by Kevin Mattson. Information on Sinclair's experience specifically on The Gnome-Mobile came from Land of Orange Groves and Jails: Upton Sinclair's California edited by Lauren Coodley. The illustrations used in my synopsis of the film came from The Story of Walt Disney's Motion Picture The Gnome Mobile: Authorized Edition retold by Mary Carey with illustrations by John Solie.

The YouTube video I borrowed is a recording of side B of the Walt Disney Book and Record Read-Along 316 Gnome-Mobile. If anyone has this set in working order, I am interested in acquiring it for my daughter, who loves listening to book and records.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


ACCORDING TO HIS ENTRY in Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975, John O'Hara Cosgrave II, illustrator of Upton Sinclair's Gnomobile, was an illustrator, painter, graphic artist, writer, engraver, and cartoonist. It substantiates those claims with a long list of exhibitions from Paris, France to all over America, awards he has won, a selection of books he has illustrated, and the note that he did illustrations and covers for the magazines Life, Fortune, and Yachting.

Gale Biography In Context adds only slightly more personal information. Born October, 10, 1908 in San Francisco, California to Charles O'Malley and Margaret (Mahoney) Cosgrave. Reached the rank of staff sergeant in the United States Army, Office of Strategic Services during his wartime service, 1942-1945. Married Mary Silva, a children's book illustrator, November 21, 1952. Died May 9, 1968 in Pocasset, Massachussets.

This entry neglects to mention that Mary Silva was Cosgrave's second wife. His first wife, the portrait painter Esther Flack Cosgrave died June 26, 1952 at home in New Hampshire.

Even his obituary in The New York Times is scant on information. It highlights several of the books he illustrated: Bouquets and Bitters: A Gardner's Medley (1940) by Julian Meade, Pardon My Harvard Accent (1941) by William G. Morse, There Were Two Pirates (1946) by James Branch Cabell, and several others. But why these books were chosen as a representation of his work is unclear, as The Times chose to omit Gnomobile (1936) by Upton Sinclair, Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939) by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and Come In and Other Poems (1943) by Robert Frost, all of which might have proven more interesting. It even leaves out Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955) by Jean Lee Latham, which won the Newbery Medal.

There is one thing that almost all sources mention, however, and that is that Cosgrave was the nephew of John O'Hara Cosgrave, who was the editor of The New York World's Sunday Magazine for fifteen years.

And that's about it. For a man who was so prolific, often in highly visible projects, it is surprisingly (and depressingly) little information. At the library, I retrieved books illustrated by Cosgrave from the Children's Department, the Humanities Department, the Social Science and History Department, and the Visual Arts Department. And every single one poured dust out on my scanner as I scanned from them. How could someone who left so many traces as an artist, leave so few traces as a man?

From Come In, and Other Poems (1943) by Robert Frost

Particularly frustrating to me is that there is no information on how Cosgrave got involved in Sinclair's Gnomobile. Sinclair's bios never give the book more than a paragraph, and none of them mention Cosgrave. Here are a few things I have noticed, however.

Cosgrave's first job in book illustration was for Sailer, Beware! (1933), published by Farrar and Rinehart. John C. Farrar of Farrar and Rhinehart was married to one of the inventors of the crossword puzzle, Margaret Petherbridge who had been secretary to John O'Hara Cosgrave I at The New York World. Perhaps then, it was through a favor to his uncle (who also published books with Farrar and Rhinehart) by his uncle's former secretary that Cosgrave II got his first illustration job.

Three years later, Farrar and Rhinehart published The Gnomobile with Cosgrave's illustrations. He would do many other books for the publisher over the years, so perhaps it was simply through the publisher that Cosgrave got involved with Sinclair's book. However, the first edition of The Gnomobile actually appeared earlier in 1936 in an edition published by Sinclair himself with the Cosgrave illustrations already in place. So perhaps it had nothing to do with Farrar and Rhinehart.

After all, Cosgrave I had published articles by Upton Sinclair in The World and other magazines he worked on, so perhaps it was again through the younger Cosgrave's uncle that Cosgrave II illustrated Sinclair's book.

Or maybe it was for some other reason entirely.

From Clipper Ship (1963) by John O'Hara Cosgrave II

One other thing that comes out in the various sources, but most obviously in the work he actually did was Cosgrave's love of boats and boating. For awhile, it seems, Cosgrave was one of the go to artists for boats and other maritime subjects. He authored several books on the subject as well.

The Cosgrave illustrations used throughout this post are from the following books, all of which link to the corresponding set on my Flickr account where a wider selection is available:

Wind, Sand and Stars (1939) by Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Come In, and Other Poems (1943) by Robert Frost
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955) by Jean Lee Latham
Clipper Ship (1963) by John O'Hara Cosgrave II

If anyone has further information on John O'Hara Cosgrave II, please let me know, and I will add it to this post.

From Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955) by Jean Lee Latham


All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


WHEN THE TWENTY-EIGHT YEAR OLD UPTON SINCLAIR published his muckraking classic The Jungle in 1906, he had been a professional writer for twelve years. That's right, Sinclair had been earning his living as a writer since the age of fourteen. And as a child author, it is only appropriate that he started his career as a children's author.

At the end of the nineteenth century, pulp magazines came into their own, and a large portion of their readership, like the comic books that would begin to replace them in the late 1930s, was children. Originally writing for magazines such as Argosy and Munsey's, Sinclair got his most steady work when he was hired by Street and Smith at age eighteen (while still a graduate student at Columbia University) to write a series of stories about life as a cadet in the United States Military Academy, West Point. The Mark Mallory series was so popular that Sinclair launched a second series set at the Naval Academy in Annapolis about new cadet Cliff Faraday. These stories were printed in magazines such as Army and Navy Weekly, Half-Holiday, and True Blue, and were later collected in series such as McKay's "Boys Own Library," and Caldwell's "Famous Books for Boys." According to Sinclair, at that time he wrote 8,000 words a day.

When he finished graduate school in 1900, however, Sinclair wanted to focus on becoming a "serious" artist. He sequestered himself in a cabin in Quebec and set out to write his first adult novel. For Sinclair, writing children's stories was a thing of the past, outgrown. Soon he was a social reformer whose fiction led to legislation, like the first Food and Drug Act.

But having grandchildren can change a man. 1933 saw the birth of Sinclair's grand-daughter Diana. Much of the next two years were spent on his third campaign for governor of California, but when he lost the election, Sinclair set out on a speaking tour that took him through the redwood forests of northern California and Oregon. It was there that he decided he would attempt a children's novel, dedicated to Diana: The Gnomobile, A Gnice Gnew Gnarrative With Gnonsense, but Gnothing Gnaughty.

ELIZABETH, along with her mother and her mother's traveling companion Miss Jellife, are on their way to visit Elizabeth's grandfather and uncle in Seattle. On the way, they stop off in Redwood National Park to get a soda, and Elizabeth wanders off into the trees. Soon she meets Bobo, a one hundred year old gnome (a child in gnome years) with "a face about the size of your fist."

Bobo has been warned by his grandfather Glogo to never talk to "big people." "'They murder the trees. They destroy the forests, and that is the end of life.'" But Bobo is worried for his grandfather, who sits by himself all of the time looking mournful--Elizabeth diagnoses him with "neurasthenia," essentially depression. As  Glogo and Bobo are the only gnomes left, Bobo needs help.

Elizabeth promises to return with her Uncle Rodney, who "is kind and good; he has never cut down any trees." She knows better than to tell her mother, who "says  I am imaginative, and would think that I have made you up, and scold me about you."

Elizabeth has neglected to mention that Rodney is the youngest son of a logging scion, who is vastly wealthy for cutting down a vast number of trees. But Rodney abhors his father's business, and has even bought forest land to put aside as state parks. When Elizabeth says she wants to return to the redwoods, Rodney is more than game. They drive back to the redwood forest where Elizabeth introduces him to Bobo, and Bobo introduces them both to Glogo.

Glogo does not want to meet the big people who kill trees. "'A tree has no tongue with which to make words. A tree speaks in actions. If you love it and live with it, its spirit becomes one with yours and you understand it, and hate the madmen who murder it.'"

Rodney convinces Glogo that the only way to ensure the continuance of the gnomic race is to locate other gnomes, so that Bobo may marry. Reluctantly, Glogo agrees, and Rodney's car goes from automobile to " gnomobile."

The quartet begin a long road trip all over the United States, stopping at forest after forest, looking for gnomes. Along the way, questions are asked about what lives in the two baskets Rodney and Elizabeth carry with them to hide the gnomes. At one hotel Rodney answers that they "are royal Abyssinian geese,' but won't show them. The mystery attracts the local newspaper, "Lumber Scion Carries Pet Geese," and soon it's national news. Rodney and Elizabeth are hounded all along the way by papers such as the Whizzle-Bang, Fizzle-Toot, and Sizzle-Hoot.

They know it is essential, however, that the gnomes remain a secret, to protect them from being endangered or exploited, but the press won't leave Rodney and Elizabeth alone. Eventually, Rodney buys two real geese, and auctions them off with proceeds to go to the Green Cross, a conservation group. However, he makes the mistake of saying he has Abyssinian goose eggs, so the speculation and interest continues.

All this time, they have found no new gnomes. Glogo becomes more and more distraught, while Bobo is having the time of his life learning about the big people. The time comes when Rodney must hold another press conference about the supposed goslings, which he claims have been donated to an undisclosed farm. However, at about the same time, a showman, who wants to purchase the goslings, tricks Elizabeth into leaving the gnomes unattended, and they are gnome-gnapped.

From there, the book becomes a mystery. Rodney and Elizabeth employ a pair of private detectives, Mr. Smith and Mr. Guggins, who they take into their confidence.  They're on the trail, when the showman begins to advertise "the most marvelous spectacle ever offered in the history of mankind."

Bobo is now a sideshow attraction, but he's thrilled with the setup. He's protected by the men who want to keep their star happy, and he has negotiated an incredible deal. "'The gate is about a thousand dollars a day, and we're splitting fifty-fifty.'"

Glogo, however, has lost the will to live. He dies just after being reunited with Rodney and Elizabeth. Late that night, after the show ends, Bobo and his entourage go out to the forest to bury Glogo.

While there, Bobo discovers, at last, another group of gnomes. These are "civilized gnomes" with "a city quite as fine as Johnstown," (which is where the circus currently is showing). There, he is asked by the gnome's captain of industry Mr. Morgo to marry his daughter Queenly. Among his own kind for the first time in his life, Bobo decides to leave the big world behind, and settle with Queenly.

The book ends with Elizabeth's promise, "'When I grow up, I'm going to help to save the forests, and have them all full of lovely little gnomes again!'"

IT WOULD NOT BE WRONG to think of The Gnomobile as a proto-Lorax. In fact, lovers of Dr. Seuss's The Lorax might wonder if Seuss was aware of Sinclair's book about conservation. It even breaks into rhyme at times. As Rodney says at Glogo's funeral:
Build his bones into a tree,
And his blood the sap shall be;
And his tiny hands shall turn
Into waving fronds of fern;
All the forest things that run
With an old gnome shall be one;
...And the longing of his soul
Make the fallen forest whole.
It figures that Upton Sinclair--decrier of  the meat industry, the oil industry, the automobile industry--could not resist a strong, moralizing message, even in his children's book.

WHEN THE GNOMOBILE was published in 1936, originally by Upton Sinclair and then by Farrar and Rinehart, it was illustrated by the wonderful John O'Hara Cosgrave, II (whose illustrations can be seen throughout this post). Sinclair reissued the book in 1962 with new illustrations by Marcel Tillard (to appear in a future post), and some slight adjustments.

Most of the changes are minor, breaking large paragraphs into smaller paragraphs, adding or removing clauses for clarity. There are at least two notable differences. (There may be others.) When Elizabeth and Rodney decide to go "incog," and register at hotels under other names, Elizabeth wishes in 1936 that she could be Shirley Temple, but in 1962, the name she would like is Jacqueline Kennedy. More striking is the excision in 1962 of the reference to the Depression, which in the original reads:
"There were other things not so easy to explain [to the gnomes]: old men with gray hair, plodding along by the edge of the highway, with heavy-looking bundles on their backs. Rodney was embarrassed to have to explain the state of the big people's world, with millions out of work and homeless, waiting for nothing, going nowhere."
These changes show that, even thirty years later, Sinclair cared enough about his children's story to go over it critically.

But it wasn't the reissue that gave The Gnomobile a second life. That came in 1967, when Walt Disney turned it into a movie starring Walter Brennan "and those Mary Poppins kids," Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice (again, see future post). It is the 1962 text used in the movie tie-in edition (seen to the right).

IN COMPOSING THIS POST, I consulted Ronald Gottesman's Upton Sinclair: An Annotated Checklist, William A. Bloodworth, Jr.'s Upton Sinclair, Anthony Arthur's Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, Kevin Mattson's Upton Sinclair: And the Other American Century, as well as several websites.

To see all of John O'Hara Cosgrave, II's illustrations for The Gnomobile see my Flickr set here.


All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.