In our last post, we got all philosophical and theological and stuff with the stretching gallery portraits. This time out we'll be looking at the artistic interpretations of the most popular of these Marc Davis masterpieces (for such they are widely regarded). I'm speaking of the Tightrope Walker (aka Alligator Girl). Recently we were given fresh proof of how much interest there is in this piece. On December 17, 2010, a collector paid $47,500 at auction for an Ally Gal portrait actually used in the attraction. The canvasses get worn out with continual rolling and unrolling and are replaced at regular intervals (every few years is what I've heard). This hand-painted copy was dated in the auction catalogue to 1969-1972, based on the testimony of a Disney employee that they no longer hand-painted the portraits after 1972.
I hope the early date was not a major factor for the buyer, since the information supplied by the employee (and hence the catalogue) was wrong. According to Brandon "Ghost Relations Department" Champlin, all of the stretchroom canvasses were hand-painted until around 2005, when they went to a large format printer. The printed portraits can be done in about 12 minutes, and they last longer too, so it's hard to blame Disney for going to the mechanical reproduction. It's not impossible that the auctioned painting goes back to 1972, but unless there is evidence other than the fact that it's hand-painted, the odds are not good. Even without GRD's testimony, it is obvious that the portraits were hand-painted long past 1972, as there are variations in the style, depending on the individual artists involved. Yes, they used a paint-by-numbers approach and cranked them out in a more-or-less assembly line fashion, but at the same time a certain leeway was allowed to the painters.
In our last post, we dissected the joke represented by this stretching portrait (and the others). By looking at the surprising differences among the various Tightrope Walkers produced by different artists down through the years, you can see some interesting readings of that joke, much as different performers produce different interpretations of the same material. Hey, if somebody was willing to shell out $47,500 for one of these, you can't claim that nobody cares about the topic enough to justify a measly blog post.
The place to begin, obviously, is with Davis's concept artwork. It isn't hard to figure out his take on the character he created...
She's just plain bats. Utterly gone. Look hard into those eyes, if you dare. Dude, those circuit boards are fried. There is no longer a connection between this chick and the world, any world. As it stretches open, the portrait's joke is as simple as it can be: she's oblivious to the reality of death because she's oblivious to any reality at all.
The first few generations of HM stretching portraits stayed conservatively with Davis's design, but they abandoned his bold colors (pink sky? yellow skin?) for a more "natural" look. The result was an unsatisfactory hybrid. Since they only followed this formula for the first few sets, these "Davis-style" canvasses are certainly the rarest in existence. That doesn't necessarily make them good. [Edit 8-31-16: I am given to understand that Ed Kohn was the artist who did these.]
Wisely, they abandoned their efforts to rigidly preserve the look of the Davis characters and allowed artists to re-imagine their appearance. Almost all of the stretching portrait artists are anonymous, but the more realistic style that replaced the Davis type is attributed to Clem Hall. Hall was an apt choice, since Davis held him in high regard:
That's really something when you consider that Marc Davis was notoriously chary in handing out praise. Anyway, one set of portraits Hall produced around 1982 has been widely reproduced in books and posters. Here's a set of three non-Davis Ally Gal heads, with the recently auctioned "1972" model on the left, Hall 1982 in the middle, and the current DL version on the right. (In the remarks that follow, bear in mind that it's possible Hall did both left and middle.) [Edit: the "1972" canvas is now being attributed to Elmer Plummer.]
There are some nice details in this one. For one thing, her mouth is open, and you can even see her teeth (very well done too). That's unusual, maybe even unique. Those eyes seem almost impossibly far apart, but that contributes to her look, doesn't it? I see a certain sweetness in this one not found in most of the others. It may not go back to '72, and I don't think I'd pay forty-seven and a half K for it, but there's no denying the collector picked up a nice piece by a talented painter.
As for Hall '82, his Ally Gal has an equally distant look in her eye, but unlike the '72 girl, she looks...stoned. Seriously, it reminds me of the look a lot of models cop when they're trying to look blank and decadent and ready to be taken advantage of, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Now that I've said that, I won't exactly be covering myself with glory if I suggest that she may be the sexiest of all the Alligator Girls, so I won't suggest that. I'll let someone else suggest that. I won't suggest that. Oh, and do you see the unique facial feature? She's almost frowning. In fact, she's on her way to a full-on pout, but I don't think she will ever get there. Pouting takes too much energy, and she's pretty wasted.
Whereas other Ally Gals have a look of innocence about them, Hall's girl is anything but innocent. Not with that drug problem. With this version of the joke we have someone who isn't so much unaware of her fragile mortality as she is uncaring about it.
Then there's the current version. No doubt about it, this girl is a lot more chipper than Hall's. Look at the shape of the eyes. I think the idea was to get back some of the wide-eyed innocence that Hall threw out the window.
She looks a little older to me than the others, and I guess a little more sensible, but frankly it's hard for me to tell, because for some reason this face is seriously lacking in personality. To me, she's easily the most boring of the lot.
There are photos of other post-Davis Alligator Girls out there too, but I don't have anything high-rez enough to facilitate the kind of scrutiny we've given to the three above. Here are two others:
Next up: The other stretchroom denizens get the same treatment.