Friday, 1 February 2013

A Hidden Saloon Owner

The story goes that MGM cartoon producer Fred Quimby wanted Hugh Harman to produce funny cartoons like they were making at Warner Bros. So Harman made “The Lonesome Stranger” (1940), even though he had no interest in that style of cartoon. Its puns and surreal gags remind one of a Warners cartoon of that era. And so did some of the posing. Here’s Harman emulating a mouth exaggeration popularised by Tex Avery.

Mel Blanc adds some familiar voices to allow for a further comparison with the Warner cartoons. But because this is a Hugh Harman cartoon, there’s character movement all over the place. It seems like the whole cartoon is animated on ones so Harman can show off how fluid his animation can be (ie. just like that unspeakable Walt fellow). Warners was quite content to use twos unless necessary so the visuals of this cartoon don’t really look like a Warners cartoon, despite the similarities.

You’ll see an inside gag in the background. The saloon is run by Willie Hopkins. Hopkins was one of the original layout people hired by Quimby when the studio opened in 1937. Like Harman, his career went back to the silent days, but a bit further than Harman’s.

Willie D’Artigue Hopkins was born in Scotland on November 9, 1884 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1904, marrying Georgie King of Delaware and settling in Philadelphia by 1905. His first child died at birth, his second at age 11 months, his third survived into adulthood. His 1918 draft card lists him as “sculptor, Universal Film Co.” and living in Los Angeles. He was one of the first workers in clay animation, releasing “Miracles in Mud” every other week as part of the Universal Screen Magazine starting in late 1916. Hopkins, inexplicably living in Dallas, patented his process with a Charles L. Sudmann in 1916. In 1919, he was the art director for “Everywoman,” a Bebe Daniels-Monte Blue film released by Paramount, and was responsible for the palace sculptures in Douglas Fairbanks’ epic “The Three Musketeers” (1921), including a 5 1/2-foot bronze bust of Charles I. In May that year, an unbylined piece in the Evening Independent of Massilon, Ohio revealed Hopkins had begun a production company and had toured ten countries with the idea of making 26 “short features each depicting the native surroundings of a famous poet, author or composer.”

In 1930, he and his wife, who was under a nurse’s care, were still in Los Angeles, but by January 1931, Film Daily revealed he was working in the special effects department at Paramount in New York. His wife was buried in Los Angeles in October 1934 and Hopkins re-married. He and his new wife Marion T. (a doctor) are listed in the 1938 Los Angeles Directory not far from filmdom’s Gower Gulch (they were on Gower between Sunset and Hollywood Blvds). His occupation is “artist.” The 1940 census lists him as “technician, motion picture studio.” He never received credit on a single MGM cartoon; none of the layout people did for many years.

Hopkins died in Los Angeles on August 29, 1949. By then, Metro was releasing real Tex Avery pictures. It didn’t need uninterested Hugh Harman’s fakes.

1 comment:

  1. Paramount still has a substantial east coast live-action film operation in Astoria, Queens in the early 30s, so I'm assuming that was the special effects department Hopkins was working with, not with the Fleischer Brothers over at Times Square.

    Harmon's love for intricate detail in his cartoons mirrored the 1930s trend -- even at Warners -- to make their characters more detailed, with the idea that it heightened the realism. But by 1940 the guys at Disney and Warners were figuring out that you didn't have to have a ton of lines in each drawing, if the lines were unnecessary for the character and the faster pacing the cartoons were getting. The extra detail, at-times odd pacing and the seeming belief that Mel Blanc was at his best screaming his dialogue made Hugh's comedy efforts of the period cartoons that had a lot of promise, but rarely delivered the goods.