Friday, 14 December 2012

Mammy Moo Cow

On today’s edition of old Public Domain Cartoons, we take you back to exciting days in old New York, where the Fleischer studio had Betty Boop and the Van Beuren studio responded with its own female character.

Yes, Molly Moo Cow.

Molly, in her four pictures, just wanted to be loved. Instead, she was callously shoved off the screen in 1936 because the people at RKO, for some reason, decided they’d rather release cartoons with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy than a child-like cow. The Van Beuren studio closed forever. Fortunately, some of its artists jumped ship before that happened. One of them was Joe Barbera, whose autobiography reveals what it was like to work with dear old Molly:
The model sheet, which establishes the look, shape and even dimensions for each character, and which is so essential to professional animation, was unknown at Van Beuren.
This meant that even a simplistic, homely character like Gillette’s real winner, Molly Moo Cow, given to thirteen animators, would emerge as thirteen different cows. Rubber- legged and amorphous to begin with, Molly would go through a most disquieting process of metamorphosis when the work of these thirteen animators was cut together into what was supposedly a single five-minute cartoon. … With a staff of about 150, the organizational chaos at Van Beuren was a serious problem, but the worse fault was exemplified by the very idea of Molly Moo Cow herself. This was the best character they could come up with? I mean, what can you do with a cow? It isn't intelligent. It certainly isn't beautiful — except to a farmer or a bull. It is sedentary rather than lively, and, even with rubber legs, it doesn’t move in interesting ways or in a way that allows much range or variety of action. As animated characters, cows do not work.
One has to wonder how accurate Barbera’s memory was. Model sheets certainly were known at Van Beuren at that time and several have been reproduced in books. Furthermore, models of Molly and her co-stars were registered with the U.S. Government Copyright Office on October 19, 1935.

It may seem odd to compare Van Beuren of 1936 to the acclaimed UPA studio 20 years later but they had something in common—both seemed to feel art was the only thing that counted. Story? Who cares! And that’s the problem with Molly. Director Burt Gillett was probably delighted that Molly could twist and turn and frown at the command of Carlo Vinci’s pencil—and could point to the fact that the animation at the studio got better after he took charge. But the audience doesn’t care if Molly can do a 180 on screen better than Cubby Bear a few years earlier. They want to be engaged with the characters and that simply doesn’t happen. All they’re seeing is personality animation with no personality.

Molly’s final adventure was “Molly Moo Cow and Robinson Crusoe.” Gillett and Tom Palmer inject a song and Win Sharples provides a nice score but there’s no point to most of the cartoon and the main characters simply aren’t likeable.

And then there’s the problem of cannibals. You just can’t show them in cartoons any more.

Oh, and the cartoon ends with Molly in blackface imitating Al Jolson and Robinson calls her “Friday.” Jolson was acclaimed as the world’s greatest entertainer in his day. Molly was not.

The death of the Van Beuren studio didn’t really kill Molly. Her films were seen on television in the early ‘50s before being shoved aside by better old theatricals and then TV cartoons—including some made by a chap named Barbera. But when television didn’t want her, public domain video tapes and DVDs did. The copies of the prints aren’t that great, but the curious can still see Van Beuren’s female star in action.

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