Whimsy: July 2016 Archives

Two important but behind-the-scenes contributors to popular culture in mid-century America died this week. Jack Davis was 91. Marni Nixon was 86.

Jack Davis was a prolific illustrator and caricaturist. He was a regular contributor to Mad magazine, alternating with Mort Drucker to illustrate TV and movie parodies. He had the gift of producing caricatures that were instantly recognizable and humorously exaggerated. His work appeared regularly on the cover and inside TV Guide and in numerous movie posters. His poster for "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", featuring dozens of caricatures in an artistic whole that captured the spirit and title of the movie, put him on the map.

Mark Evanier, whose blog you should read, remembers Jack Davis:

I loved everything he drew but Jack was not fond of some of them. He was great at horror comics but uncomfortable with the subject matter. He turned up occasionally in Playboy, often assisting on his friend Harvey Kurtzman's "Little Annie Fanny," but didn't much like the magazine or its hedonist philosophy. He eventually stopped drawing for MAD partly because of his advanced age but partly because he didn't like its politics or a subtle trend he perceived towards raunchiness. He also just plain wanted to take it easy, drawing when and what he felt like drawing. (One job he was very glad to do was for the U.S. government in 1989: A postage stamp he drew to honor postal carriers.)

Mr. Davis won every award he could possibly win for cartooning and was widely-loved and respected among his peers. The photo above was taken at a 2006 dinner held in his honor in Los Angeles by the Comic Art Professional Society. That's Jack on the left, me in the middle and the guy at right is Jack's friend and fellow MAD artist, Sergio Aragon├ęs. I always found Jack to be a delightful man -- cheery and gentle with what is generally described as old-school Southern Manners. He loved talking about the Civil War and old monster movies and his fellow cartoonists, all of whom he loved. He was truly as adored as his cartooning was, and that's a lot of adoration.

There was something about his art that just plain made you smile, starting with the fact that there was no meanness whatsoever in his caricatures. He didn't like all the politicians he drew for magazine covers but you wouldn't know it from his renderings. He made every movie he drew look a little funnier and livelier. I have the original to one of his movie posters on a wall in my home and everyone who sees it -- artists, writers, my plumber, my electrician, etc. -- knows that style and grins when they see it. That's a great legacy to leave behind.

Drew Friedman has a collection of Jack Davis's work for TV Guide. If you want to see the difference between a good caricature and a great caricature, compare the draft of his cover of the cast of the Today Show with the final version. (Left to right, that's Hugh Downs, Barbara Walters, Joe Garagiola, and newsman Frank Blair.) Note the early version of a wearable microphone. Here's a bigger and broader assortment from throughout Jack Davis's career.

Davis's work for Mad magazine was a big part of my later childhood, but his first impressions on me were his illustrations for Meet Abraham Lincoln, a Step-Up Book.

Marni Nixon was a behind-the-scenes contributor to some of your favorite movie musicals, providing the singing voice for actresses that couldn't carry a tune. Nixon sang for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. She even sang for June Foray as Grandmother Fa in Mulan. For Marilyn Monroe, Nixon provided some high notes in "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." In a sense she was a caricaturist as well. Nixon had the ability to make her singing voice sound like it belonged to the actress for whom she was ghosting.

During her teenage years, Ms. Nixon worked as a messenger at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Knowing of her musical ability -- she had perfect pitch and was an impeccable sight reader -- the studio began recruiting her to furnish the singing voices of young actresses. The work helped pay for Ms. Nixon's voice lessons.

Her first significant dubbing job was singing a Hindu lullaby for Margaret O'Brien in "The Secret Garden," released in 1949.

Ms. Nixon did occasionally take center stage, as when she played Eliza Doolittle in a 1964 revival of "My Fair Lady" at City Center in New York. (Ms. Andrews had played the part in the original Broadway production, which opened in 1956.) In 1965, Ms. Nixon was seen on camera in a small role as a singing nun in "The Sound of Music," starring Ms. Andrews.

On Broadway, Ms. Nixon appeared in the Sigmund Romberg musical "The Girl in Pink Tights" in 1954 and, more recently, in the musical drama "James Joyce's 'The Dead' " (2000), the 2001 revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" and the 2003 revival of "Nine."

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Whimsy category from July 2016.

Whimsy: December 2015 is the previous archive.

Whimsy: August 2016 is the next archive.

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