Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Before UPA Came Willoughby Wren

If there was ever a cartoon studio that had more disjointed, half-baked shorts than Screen Gems, aka Columbia, then I’ve never heard of it.

Screen Gems were usually anything but. The studio went from the remnants of the Charles Mintz studio, to attempts at artsy-fartsiness, to second-rate versions of Warners and Tex Avery cartoons, to closure, all within about 10 years. A lot of the people who worked there were talented, some of the animation was pretty good, but Columbia came up with a frightening number of cartoons are mouth-gapingly bizarre.

‘Willoughby’s Magic Hat’ (1943) is one of them. It features gobs of limited animation that would have made the accountants at Filmation happy, UPA-style background art (pre-UPA) designed to draw attention to itself, a plot that somehow combines a robot Frankenstein with a Pearl White melodrama and John Ployardt’s too-overly-affected narration. Oh, and a guy with the name of a bird. It’s not a happy mix. But for you fans of stylised backgrounds, here are a few, designed by Zack Schwartz, which are probably the only reason anyone talks about this cartoon at all.


  1. I love that designs! Zack Schwartz was the real layout genius...

  2. I never understood why Thad and others get so horny around this Columbia stuff; it's mostly slop.

    That whacked out distorted fire-hydrant serves only as an unpleasant reminder of thoes cruddish Butch Hartman shows on TV today!

  3. Warners' "The Weakly Reporter" from a year later was one of the weakest-ever Jones-Maltese collaborations, but at least there with the UPA-like designs and limited animation, you could see the reason for them, since the short was broken into a series of blackout gags that could include more abstract segments. There doesn't seem to be a real focus here of why they're using modern design, other than that they can (which ironically, makes it similar to the later years UPA shorts, where design was God and an interesting story for the audience just an afterthought).

  4. While the '43 Columbias are pretty weak, I have to admit I am a fan of these backgrounds. They're the main thing most of the cartoons have going for them, being mostly a bit short of story, pleasantly designed characters, or decent sound (tho the last may be the result of the copies available rather than the actual cartoons).