Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 8 Popcorn and Pop graphics, What’s New Pussycat?, 1965

Essays by Emily King
4 317 words22 min read

6: Popcorn and Pop graphics: What’s New Pussycat?, 1965

Richard Williams (b.1933), who animated the titles for What’s New Pussycat, called Charles K. Feldman (1905-68), the film’s producer ‘one of the last great Hollywood Moguls’. By the mid 1960s Feldman, working independently of the major studios, had produced a number of successful movies in Hollywood, including films as diverse as The Seven Year Itch and A Streetcar Named Desire. At this point, probably encouraged by London’s apparently flourishing film industry and swinging scene, he came to Britain in the search of the ingredients for his next box office hit. According to Clive Donner, the director of Pussycat, Feldman arrived in London in the summer of 1964 with four speculative film projects. On the strength of Donner’s previous movie, Nothing But The Best, Feldman called him up and offered him the chance to direct any one of these films:

He told me what they were, and the fourth one was this comedy called What’s New Pussycat? That was the only one that interested me by title alone....... I took it home and the Casino Royale script, read them both overnight and said I’ll do Pussycat..

Feldman had owned the script of Pussycat, which began as a play, for some time before he found Donner to direct the movie. He had hired Woody Allen, a young comedian best known for his set at New York’s Blue Angel Club, to rewrite the original script. Allen had been working on the project for over a year before Donner became involved. Although Feldman had reservations about Allen’s script, by the time Donner agreed to direct the movie he had already partly cast the film: ‘the idea at that time was that it would be Warren Beatty, Woody Allen and a lot of beautiful girls’. Even after Donner came to the project Feldman remained in overall control. It was Feldman who decided that Peter O’Toole should play the protagonist after, ‘for complicated reasons’, Beatty dropped out and it was Feldman who decided that the beautiful girls surrounding O’Toole and Allen should be well known stars, rather than the ‘unknowns’ he and Donner first had in mind. Donner made little claim to authorial input at the casting stage of the movie, other than the suggestion that he ‘had been working on’ securing Peter Sellers as the third male lead.

Pauline Kael writing on ‘The making of The Group’, a film produced by Feldman in tandem with What’s New Pussycat?, observed that the casting of Pussycat had ‘got out of hand’ and concluded that movie finance and casting were often ‘peculiarly linked’ processes. While The Group was cast as he had originally planned with ‘unknowns and little knowns’, in the case of Pussycat Feldman had capitulated to the demands of the investors by choosing well known stars for the major female roles. Feldman’s projects were put together to attract investment from businessmen who were primarily interested in profits rather than cinema. His prospective films had to show box office promise and many believed that the only real guarantee of commercial success was a ‘marquee name’. Feldman’s own preference for casting unknowns probably had more to do with keeping production costs as low as possible than with artistic integrity. While Feldman initiated or actively supported every element of the production of his films, he almost certainly exercised his authorial power in pursuit of profit for himself and his shareholders.

Richard Williams suggests that makers of What’s New Pussycat? first got to know of his work through an article in the Observer Magazine. Clive Donner called him up a few days after the article was published in late February 1965. Donner and Feldman were likely to have been well aware of the contents of the Observer at that time because only a week after the article about Williams the same magazine ran a piece about the production of Pussycat. Ronald Bryden reported that the film, which was due for release in the summer, was ‘already, before a foot of film has been edited, a guaranteed blockbuster, the big comedy picture of 1965.’

By the time Williams was brought in to design the titles for What's New Pussycat? in the spring of 1965, the film was in post-production. Williams writes ‘This is normal - or was normal in those days of fancy title sequences. You usually got 6 to 8 weeks to do the job.’ While Williams’s title designs were not part of the package originally conceived by Feldman, Richard Sylbert’s overall design had been an important part of the production from the outset. The copy in the What’s New Pussycat? press book emphasises Sylbert’s contribution. A piece headlined ‘Pussycat gets designer of the Metropolitan Opera House sets’, reminds audiences that Sylbert had designed other Feldman films including Walk On the Wild Side and concludes, ‘The fact is Feldman wouldn’t think of entrusting the chore to anyone else’. Sylbert was given credit as the film’s ‘Associate Producer’, a title which adds apparent weight to his role in the production. Between them, Sylbert and Williams decided that the opening credits should, like the film, be in an ‘Art-Nouveau-ish’ style. Using Aubrey Beardsley as a visual reference they presented their concept to Feldman, who, after having been convinced that it would be impossible to use Beardsley rather than Williams for the job, gave them the go-ahead only cautioning Williams, ‘By the way kid, no purple. I hate purple.’

Richard Williams had been to art school in Canada, where he had lived before emigrating to England in the early 1960s. Although he left before graduation, his training left him with a firm sense of being a fine artist by temperament and a jobbing animator by profession. He has argued that his first animated film, The Little Island, was an extension of his early work as a painter. Having been a cartoon enthusiast from childhood, Williams believed that the ideas he wanted to explore when he made the film ‘could only really be expressed through the cartoon medium.’ In the late 1950s, Williams insisted that the most important aspect of animating static images, for either art or profit, was ‘to get the elements in it to move and live in their own way’. Over his career Williams has animated a variety of illustrative styles, ranging from late nineteenth century engraved political cartoons for The Charge of the Light Brigade, to ‘bug-eyed men’ for a Guinness advertisement. It is obvious from this work that allowing a drawing to move in its ‘own way’ remained his primary concern. Although the animation in the What’s New Pussycat? sequence is very simple, the considered relationship between form and movement is apparent.

‘Charles K Feldman’, the first credit of the opening sequence (fig.37) as it appears in the movie, takes centre screen immediately after the identity of United Artists, who were distributing the film, has faded out. Written in the ‘Art Nouveau-ish’ script devised by Williams, the name sits for a few seconds before decorative tendrils sprout from the type and meander across the frame. The next title, the word presents written in capitals which fill the frame, is brought on from the right hand side as if written on a card and passed in front of the camera, a device which refers to outmoded methods of movie titling. This ‘card’ is taken off the screen from the left to reveal Peter Sellers’s credit. The first joke of the film is made when Sellers’s credit, which appears back to front, is removed and, after a loud crash, reappears the right way round. This extends the reference to old fashioned movie-making, the audience imagines a group of incompetent Laurel and Hardy-style technicians running around in front of the camera with titling boards.


Each of the film’s major stars are given an individual credit illustrated by a drawing in stylised flowing lines of themselves in character. By filling the initials of the stars’ names with animated psychedelic patterns Williams puts his retro Art Nouveau script on the border between typography and illustration, allowing it to compete with the animated figures for the audience’s attention. The opening minutes of the title sequence are accompanied by an instrumental of composer Burt Bacharach’s Pussycat theme played in a fair-ground style. The film’s title, written in screen-filling, tendril sprouting capitals, appears on screen, after the names of the leading players, to coincide with a flourish in the score. The singer Tom Jones takes up the Pussycat theme and belts out Bacharach’s song, ‘What’s New Pussycat’, throughout the rest of the sequence. As must have been foreseen, Tom Jones singing the Pussycat theme became a hit record, and while the version that is played alongside the credits was adapted to synchronize with the visual, the tune was composed to stand independently as a chart song.

While the body of the acting credits are enlivened by animated putti in kitten masks, the technical credits are illustrated with a variety of decorative devices which symbolise the roles of those behind the production. Among others, the credit of the costumiers, Fonssagrives and Tiel, is illustrated by a peacock with a rainbow-striped tail, Burt Bacharach's composing credit is blown from trombone and Feldman’s credit as producer is written on playing cards which are plucked from inside a top hat, possibly referring to the gamble taken in making the film. Clive Donner is given the last credit of the sequence. His name is written in type of the same size and in the same style as that of Feldman’s opening credit. At the very end of the titles Donner’s credit turns on its side and a pair of white-gloved hands that have grown from the D and R of his name appear to pull apart the image, which splits along a line of scrolling curves to reveal the opening scene of the movie.

What’s New Pussycat? was Williams’s first film as title designer. ‘It was scary,’ he recalled, ‘new stuff and no time to do it.’ Williams’s approach to animation was consciously experimental, but he has admitted that he often discovered his so-called ‘innovations’ had all already been done in one form or another by pioneering animators of previous decades, such as those at Disney’s studio in its ‘Golden Age’. In producing the Pussycat sequence, Williams and his colleagues were, as far as they knew, using revolutionary techniques. Williams explained,

Charlie Jenkins, a very young guy who helped me, had thought of underlighting the scroll-like arabesques etc. - So we did it. That was the first time anyone had done underlighting scraped lines on black painted cel - third vaseline filters etc.

Bernard Lodge, who has designed animated titles for television, particularly admires the sequence because Williams minimised the need for drawing board animation by creating the effect of movement using polarised film and rotating it under the camera.

In spite of this labour-saving ingenuity, Williams ran over budget. Not revealing how much the titles cost to make in total, he admitted that Feldman gave him �1,000 extra when he ran out of money. While, as Williams says, even �1,000 was a lot of money those days, what it cost to make the titles, complete from first sketch to final edit, was probably not very significant as a proportion of the production costs of the film. Donner admitted that What’s New Pussycat? was not ‘done cheaply’ and it is unlikely that the film’s budget was less than $2 million. But the expensive actors and extravagant sets, rather than Williams’s title sequence, would have accounted for the weightiest slices of that budget.

Feldman cannot have been that concerned when Williams spent too much on making the titles because he went on to employ him in other areas of post-production. Williams was asked to adapt his designs for the title sequence of What’s New Pussycat? to be used in the film’s promotional campaign. While Williams did the original drawings and lettering design, and developed the device of putting caricatures of the film’s stars into a canoe/cat motif (fig.38), it was Frank Frazetta who drew the finished art for the advertisements. In the process of transferring the designs from the animated opening sequence to static graphic material, Williams gave the elements he had used in the titles a more straightforward cartoon/comic book feel, moving even further from his original visual source, Art Nouveau. One would be hard put to recognise even a trace of Aubrey Beardsley in posters offered to American and British movie theatres in the film’s press book. The different visual styles used by Williams in the opening sequence and the promotional campaign relate to one another through mannerist exaggeration. But, while the animated titles draw on hip graphic styles that would have been recognised by the young and fashionable, the posters and advertisements, using the widely read visual language of the comic book caricature, were designed to have a broader appeal. In choosing Williams to create the film’s entire graphic package Feldman’s aim was not visual coherence. He almost certainly hoped that audiences would recognise elements from the advertisement within the title sequence, but his primary concern, rather than remaining faithful to the film’s dominant design concept, was to attract the widest possible audience to the box office. Williams was probably hired as a relatively cheap (being young and virtually unknown) and reliably talented illustrator, rather than as the generator of a Bass-style overall graphic concept.

While the style of Williams’s title sequence, if not his advertisements, is very similar to that of fashionable static graphic work of the mid 1960s, Williams claims that he ‘never was interested much in current graphic movements’. The graphic language of the What’s New Pussycat? titles can be related to the self-conscious revival of illustration among designers practising in both Britain and America in the early 1960s. Although the work of illustrators like Ben Shahn and Saul Steinberg in America and Ronald Searle in Britain had remained consistently visible and popular in the late 1950s there had been a frequently remarked-upon trend towards the use of photography over that period. Possibly in reaction to this tendency, in the early 1960s some designers had returned to illustration and by 1965 hand drawing had become associated with Pop graphic styles. This revival did not significantly counteract the movement towards photography, which by the late 1960s was firmly established as the dominant means of illustration for advertising and packaging, but it did lead to some striking work which remains the most evocative of the period.

In 1962 Print magazine put the question ‘Where is graphics going?’, to several well known designers. Milton Glaser (b.1929), an American designer whose illustration is some of the best known of the 1960s, (fig.39), argued ‘The trend is eclectic - still’ and elaborated:

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The most striking aspect of the graphic arts today is the latitude of what is stylistically acceptable... In the last decade there has developed a wide awareness of the potential of many different stylistic idioms as source material for the graphic artist... graphic art today is a parody... but... the juxtaposition of certain stylistic elements is peculiarly contemporary... Surrealism, Dada, Assemblage, Nouveau Art, Victorianism, Expressionism, Primitivism, Romanticism all seem to be viable and in the air.

Williams’s graphic work was eclectic in the manner that Glaser described. He emphasises the research behind his designs and while he drew on a host of visual sources claims to have been most influenced by the ‘great painters and Oriental art.’

Regarding himself as a fine artist, Williams was probably not self-conscious about making a break with the modernist hegemony over fashionable graphic styles. However the visual climate in which his psychedelic Art Nouveau graphics made was an important contribution to the ‘chicest film ever made’ was created partly by designers who chose to look beyond formal modernism adopted by the previous generation. By the mid 1960s, modernist graphic design, having been adopted by both governments and multinational corporations, had become a style of the establishment. As such it was effectively deprived of much of its power to express the sentiments of a generation of young people who were highly aware of being part of a distinctive youth culture. Nigel Whitley has argued that the term ‘Pop graphics’, rather than referring to a single homogeneous style, is a label for design which adopted and adapted multifarious graphic styles at will. In rejecting the constraints of modernism, Pop designers created the visual language of the self-conscious younger generation. The Art Nouveau revival is understandable in the context of the magpie approach of Pop graphic designers. Spurred on by museum exhibitions of the work of Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley, British designers took up the style to the extent that Queen magazine was describing an ‘Art Nouveau fever’ in 1964.


By packaging What’s New Pussycat? in unmistakably hip retro-Art Nouveau graphics, Feldman and Donner were targetting a young, fashion-conscious audience. In an interview given on the film’s release, Donner argued,

Its a film about people who, wherever they are in Europe, have come under the cultural influence of the mid-1960s; they are mods to a lesser or greater degree. Part of mod culture is something that is intensely decorative, erotic, harkens back to the styles, shapes and designs and many techniques of [the Art Nouveau] era. I think that it’s tradition. Then it was a reaction against restriction - Isadora Duncan and all that - and Art Nouveau did that for another era. This is clearly why it’s happening today, as a reaction to what we had here in the fifties and forties.

While Donner in the same interview insisted ‘Gothic couldn’t be fashionable today’, implying that the style would not suit society’s mood, Milton Glaser rejected the notion of a prevailing appropriate style on the grounds that there were ‘multitudinous and contentious forces at play in present day society’. As a Pop graphic designer, Glaser believed that Art Nouveau was simply one of a number of styles that had become part of the heterogeneous visual language of the late 1960s .

In ‘Notes on Camp’, written in 1964, Susan Sontag argued that the popularity of the Art Nouveau, ‘the most typical and fully developed Camp style’ was a triumph of ‘style at the expense of content’. She expanded:

Art Nouveau is full of 'content', even of a political-moral sort; it was a revolutionary movement in the arts spurred on by a utopian vision of organic politics and taste. Yet there is also a feature of Art Nouveau objects which suggests a disengaged unserious aesthete’s vision. This tells us something important about Art Nouveau - and about what the lens of Camp, which blocks out content, is.

Sontag hints that, rather than because of any mood bridging the 1960s and the turn of the century, the extravagant Art Nouveau style suited the decade’s ‘Camp’ tendency to take style and leave meaning.

Whether expunged of meaning, as Sontag insists, or not, as Glaser implies, a number of styles were revived during the 1960s. The Sunday colour supplements, first published in the early 1960s, were responsible for and responsive to design trends throughout the decade. Used as a body of evidence, these magazines strongly support the thesis that there was no single fashionable style. Decorative traditions were adopted at will by those with an up-to-date ‘lifestyle’. However, the magazines published around 1965 do very strongly reflect the craze for Art Nouveau design. An awareness of the style is apparent both in the design of the magazine and the design promoted by the magazine. Like the film What’s New Pussycat?, these magazines demonstrate the close relationship between prevailing styles in two-dimensional and three-dimensional design in the period.

The schemes used to decorate the sets from the film could have been taken from Shirley Conran’s week by week ‘Simple Girl’s Guide’ to interior decoration, which appeared in the Observer Magazine throughout 1965. Michael, the Peter O’Toole character, who divides his split level studio flat with an elegant Japanese blind and hangs the ubiquitous Toulouse Lautrec poster on his wall, even has dreams that take place in the kind of modish black and white interiors that were promoted by Conran’s column. Pauline Kael remarked upon the trend for decorating film sets with furnishings audiences might want to have in their homes in her 1961 article ‘Fantasies of the Art-House Audience’. ‘How can the picture be dismissed as trash’, she asked, ‘when it looks like your own expensive living room?’ Kael argued that the American art house audience will automatically believe a film is ‘progressive and important’ if it is dressed up with ‘intellectually fashionable decor’. On the film’s release, Donner argued that What’s New Pussycat? dealt with important contemporary issues, suggesting that within it he had used ‘the crutch of comedy to express something we feel very, very deeply.’ Possibly the film’s visual up-to-minute-ness was intended to persuade audiences of its thematic relevance.

But, whether the audiences were convinced or not, for all What’s New Pussycat’s? visual hipness, it is a film with a hackneyed plot which it treats in a completely conventional way. The protagonist, though he was eventually played by an Englishmen, is the standard post-Hemingway American in Paris and the ‘man as victim of his sexual urges’ theme had been explored in numerous Hollywood comedies of the 1950s. Even Peter Sellars’s psychiatrist could have been based on a similar character appearing in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch made a decade earlier. In general reviews of Pussycat were very cool: the film’s sumptuous design appears to have been unable to sell its flimsy derivative plot to the critics. The reviewer from Variety, having admitted the film’s art direction was ‘outstanding’ and called the costumes ‘eyefilling’, dismissed the production as ‘over-contrived’.

Feldman, who had previously used Saul Bass to design titles for his films, joked on hiring Williams, ‘I have a tradition of my titles being better than the movie. I’m counting on you to maintain that tradition’. But when reviewers did suggest that the titles were ‘one of the best things’ or even ‘the best thing’ about the movie he might not have been amused. The director Tony Richardson, who asked Williams to animate the titles for The Charge of the Light Brigade three years later, suffered a similar fate. While the reviewer from Mc Calls remarked that Williams’s animation ‘was so brilliant it deserves to be seen for itself’, Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker argued, ‘Its too bad Richardson didn’t lease the Charge itself to Williams’ and the critic from The Scotsman went as far as suggesting that the animation made ‘Richardson’s film seem worse than it was by comparison’. By the time The Charge of the Light Brigade was made in 1968, animated graphic titles, from being a rarity in the mid 1950s, had become a standard feature of films with fashionable pretensions. ‘It became the thing to do and kicked off sort of an industry’, Bass said, remarking on the trend. But possibly the reaction to Richardson’s movie in the late 1960s left film-makers wary of the device. By the early 1970s films were most often titled with low key typography superimposed over the introductory scene, a style which arguably remains the convention in the early 1990s. Adverse critical reaction might be at least partly responsible for this counter-trend.

When asked ‘Whose idea was it to have Dick Williams do the credits?’, Donner crowed, without fear that the witty titles might put the rest of his film in the shade, ‘Mine. I think they’re marvellous, so inventive.’ Donner, whose role as auteur of What’s New Pussycat? was tightly circumscribed by the dictatorial Feldman, was anxious to be known as responsible for the film’s opening sequence. Possibly in taking the credit for the credits, he was thinking of the well established auteurs, Hitchcock and Preminger, who had used control of graphic presentation as a sign of a more profound level of authorship.

But in spite of Donner having had the original idea to use Williams to design the title sequence, it was Feldman whose decision in every case was final. By investing heavily in the design of the film, from the graphics to the costumes and sets, Feldman recognised that fashionable design had become an important selling point by the mid 1960s. What’s New Pussycat? was aimed at a young European and American audience who, through exposure to advertising, television and magazines, were believed to have become visual sophisticates.