Friday, 31 January 2014

Pork Chops

The Art Davis unit went out on top with what was arguably its best cartoon, “Bye Bye Bluebeard” (released 1948). The story and gags are solid, the timing is tops and there are some neat layouts.

The silhouette/guillotine scene sets up Porky’s horror beautifully.

Davis’ layout artist was Don Smith, who disappeared after the unit folded. He may be the William D. Smith who worked for Harman-Ising in the ‘30s.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Hair Gag

When you say “Tex Avery” and “hair gag,” you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sure, he used it in “Aviation Vacation” (1941) at Warner Bros. but it’s best known from the great MGM cartoon “Magical Maestro” (1952).

Here are some shots of Spike-as-Poochini interrupting his opera singing to pull out a hair that supposedly is stuck in the projector and tossing it away.

Are the stories true that projectionists were warned not to try to get rid of the hair when showing this movie? Absolutely. Here’s the story from Daily Variety, January 8, 1952:

SOMETIMES A GAG can have strange repercussions. In the case of the MGM Technicolor cartoon "The Magical Maestro," producer Fred Quimby found it necessary, after a few playdates, to place a card in every film can telling the projectionists about a gag in the reel so they would not stop the picture to see what was the matter with the film. The card reads: "Notice to projectionists: Approximately 850 feet from the start of the film a hair appears at the bottom of the screen. Later, the singer reaches for the hair and removes it. This is a gag in the picture, not something in the aperture of your projector!"

Yes, this story was published a full month before the cartoon’s release date of February 9th. I haven’t been able to determine when it went into production.

Rich Hogan got the story credit and animation credits went to Mike Lah, Grant Simmons and Walt Clinton.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

TV's Pork Chop Man

During the early days of “Late Night With David Letterman,” there was a running joke that Letterman had worked for the defunct DuMont Network. It was a bit of an inside joke because someone on the show actually had been on DuMont—Letterman’s announcer, Bill Wendell.

There were guys like Bill Cullen, Gene Rayburn and Bert Parks who broke out of the announcer ranks and had long careers hosting on TV. Then there were others who hosted a little bit but were really pigeon-holed as announcers. Johnny Olson, was one. So was Wayne Howell. And Bill Wendell falls in that category, too.

Wendell hosted several shows on WABD/DuMont. He emceed “Stage a Number” and “The Strawhatters” (replacing Bob Haymes), both in 1952, and was “Mr. Adventure,” who introduced late-afternoon movies in 1953; a fairly fast rise for a guy who was announcing on WHAM Rochester only a few years earlier. But DuMont was a small pond. NBC was an ocean that swallowed talent (I’ll spare you a trite “treading water” analogy). After some high-profile announcing gigs, Wendell thought he had reached a new jumping off point in his career in October 1958 when he took over for Jack Barry as host of the game show “Tic Tac Dough.” But it was cancelled a year later. That turned out to be the pinnacle of Wendell’s on-camera career. An Associated Press story in December 1959 revealed he was back at NBC as a staff announcer. And that’s where he stayed until 1993, when he moved with Letterman to CBS.

Here’s a story from the Yonkers Herald Statesman, Saturday, July 18, 1959, when it looked like the best years of Wendell’s career were ahead of him. And, in a way, they were.

Bill Wendell of Yonkers and Video Makes Horatio Alger Look Silly

NEW YORK-Horatio Alger is not dead. He lives on in this cynical, 20th century, his rags-to-riches stories brought to life everyday by men and women who once hooked a sturdy foot over the bottom rung of the ladder and are today swinging victoriously from one of the upper rungs. Take, for example, Bill Wendell. Alger's "Tattered Tom." and all the heroes of the "Puck and Luck" stories don't outdo him. He's a cleancut American boy who started out as a shoe clerk in the Bronx and is now the emcee of "Tic Tac Dough." one of day-time television's highest-rated shows. It is seen daily on NBC-TV, 12 o'clock EDT.
"I don't know to explain it," said Wendell. "It's more than luck, but boy, am I happy to have this show. I hope it stays on a long time. I was a second banana for so long. I was really getting fed up. I was a second banana to everybody. Ernie Kovacs, Bert Parks, Dave Garroway, Steve Allen. I thought I'd never get my own show."
Backstage in his dressing room, within the giant caverns of NBC's studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, this tall, black-haired young man, who gives his age as thirty-four, removed his make-up, wiped a speck of it off his expensive, monogrammed white shirt, and tipped back in his chair to recount the steps of success.
"I'd been married not quite a year and I was working in this shoe store and my wife was pregnant and I knew I had to find a way to make some more money. We were living with my in-laws in the Bronx so one day I announced to the entire family, 'well, I always wanted to be a radio announcer. I think I'll go down to NBC and see if I can take an audition.'
"I found out when they were holding open auditions and I'll never forget that day. The auditions were right here, up on the eighth floor. I was the only guy there who had had no experience. But I watched the others and I checked the pronunciations of the foreign words I couldn't say and when it was my turn, I was surprised to find that at least I could talk.
Comes The Word
"Two weeks later I went home from work one night and my wife was holding the letter from NBC. She gave it to me unopened, but she'd already steamed it open and glued it back. It was the offer of a job as a staff announcer on the NBC radio station in Rochester.
"We went to Rochester in the middle of the summer in 1947. I got 50 dollars a week and after the deductions, it wasn't much more than I'd made at the shoe store. We had a furnished room near the Sagamore Hotel and our window faced a roller-skating rink.
"By 7 o'clock every night the room was rocking and the windows were shaking and if we never hear the 'Skaters Waltz' again, it will be all right. The only compensation was that Anne and I had met in a rollerskating rink so we have a built-in tolerance.
Pork Chops and Skates
"Poor Anne was so sick with her first pregnancy she couldn't cook. I was doing all the cooking, mostly pork chops, on a two-burner hotplate and our memories of Rochester are all wrapped up in pork chops and roller skates."
The Wendell's first child, Anne Marie, called Muffin, now eleven years old, was born in Rochester, and as a man with a family, Bill Wendell again began to look around for ways to make more money.
"I opened supermarkets for miles around," he said. "Fifteen dollars a market was my price, and glad to get it. I obliged the Elks, the Lions, anybody with a few bucks to spend who needed an emcee. At the time I thought of it only as a way to earn money, but now I realize it was valuable experience."
Goes to Detroit
From Rochester, Wendell got an offer of a better job as a staff announcer on WWJ, the NBC radio and television station in Detroit, with a chance to do a weekend television show.
"It was the program director of WWJ who made me the offer," said Wendell. "I almost followed him home. I was afraid to let him get out of my sight.
"I got a lot of television work in Detroit. I eventually had my own night-time variety show there, with a band and comedians and a singer, just like the big time. We rented a nice little house near Grosse Point, five palatial rooms and a lawn. Detroit was very good to me."
In Detroit, the Wendell's next two children were born, Elizabeth, now nine, called Tewi, and William, Jr., now seven, called Champ.
Heads For New York
Meanwhile, after four years in the midwest, Bill Wendell was gradually easing his way back to New York, very well aware that the road to the top of the television ladder is paved by the sidewalks of Madison Ave.
In 1952 he returned to Manhattan to work for the Dumont Network, and in 1955, he came to NBC as a network staff announcer.
"It seems to me I worked on almost every show on NBC," he said. "One of the first shows I did was with Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams when they did that morning show every day. I worked with Garroway on 'Wide Wide World,' and on the old Steve Allen show and with Jack Paar on 'Tonight.'
"I was getting very discouraged about ever getting my own show when bang, out of the blue, I got this chance to do 'Tic Tac Dough.'"
Wants Night Show
And today, dear friends and gentle readers, as Horatio would say, the Wendells live in a 15-room Georgian colonial house in Yonkers. They have two more children, Francette, four, and Richard (Hot Shot Charlie), aged one. They also have six cocker spaniel puppies, a puppy apiece for the five children, and one puppy which mama and papa share.
It is the American success story, from a furnished room in Rochester, to colonial elegance in the suburbs of Manhattan.
"I want my own night-time show," said Bill Wendell, in the immortal words of all television performers. "My very own night-time variety show."

Wendell left the Letterman show in 1995 and retired to Florida. He died April 14, 1999.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

But He Already Has Wings

Woody Woodpecker gets killed, along with the dozy cop, in “Ration Bored” (as an aside, the short also features a dozy gas station attendant. Bugs Hardaway seemed to like characters who were “slow”). Up to Heaven they go and the final gag is the noble (but stupid) enforcer of the law gets a smaller set of angel wings than the anti-social Woody. I love how the green fills his eyes to make him appear more evil.

Then the woodpecker flies under and over the cop, and they chase each other as the cartoon ends. These drawings are on twos.

Bob Bentley gets the only animation credit. This is the last cartoon where Woody was voiced by Kent Rogers before going into military service (he died in a wartime training exercise).

Monday, 27 January 2014

Crab Fear

A green crab goes after Jerry in “Salt Water Tabby” (released 1947). The brushwork on the claw is great and I like how the fearful mouse turns into a brown ghost.

And one more set of consecutive frames.

Animation credits go to Ken Muse, Ed Barge and Mike Lah. Sev Murray says this is a Barge scene.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Jack Benny's TV Rumour

You’ll all recall how the Jack Benny Easter show of April 13, 1952 mentioned Jack had been interviewed by Radio-Television Mirror magazine. Okay, take my word for it.

Anyway, the dialogue was true. Jack was profiled in the May 1952 edition of the gushy fan magazine. The premise of the article was “don’t be surprised if Jack Benny quits radio for TV.”

Why anyone other than the terminally clueless would be surprised is, well, surprising. By 1952, while some of the long-in-the-tooth shows were on still on radio, it was now clearly the junior home entertainment medium in prime time. Television sapped away stars and, more importantly, ad revenue. But the article was wrong. Jack Benny never quit radio. When the 1954-55 season ended, he expected to return next year with more reruns included in the mix, but the deal broke down over money and radio was Benny-less.

Of course, Benny dipped his toe in the television pool and eventually (and despite concerns about coming up with content) went weekly. He was a TV success because the Benny character traits are universal and were easily displayed on a visual medium (and, in some way, enhanced, as the home audience could see his reactions just like his radio studio audience could.

So here’s the feature story, which is probably full of old news to Benny fans.

For the forty-three years he's been entertaining, he's done some crazy things — crazy like a fox

Everybody loves a rumor. And a guaranteed gasp-provoker going the rounds in Hollywood at the moment is that Jack Benny — Jack Benny! — will quit radio for good to devote all his time to television.
It's a monstrous notion. Jack Benny, after all, is radio, on the top for at least eighteen of the twenty years he has been hello-ing everybody within earshot on Sunday nights—some 25,000,000 everybodies, at latest count.
Two thousand of his show business pals crowded into the New York Friars Club last November, on the occasion of his twentieth anniversary on the airways, to call him the greatest — Mr. Show Business himself. You readers of Radio-Television Mirror have been voicing this sentiment in your own way, year after year voting him your Favorite Radio Comedian.
Why, Jack Benny even has an Act of Congress to guarantee that the 7 P.M. Sunday night hour on the air is his forevermore.
Jack Benny quit radio? It's a nasty rumor, and it shocks everybody — everybody, that is, who doesn't know Jack Benny.
His close friends aren't shocked. Most of them have known Jack for almost all of the 43 years he has been in show business (he's been entertaining people, you know, for four years more than the 39 he grudgingly admits to — Who's Who says he's 58). Friends have seen him do some crazy things. Crazy like a fox. Like quitting vaudeville, when nobody could top his earnings or his audiences, to take a flyer in the new "talkies" — then as immature and brassy a medium as a lot of people think television is today. Like quitting films in turn, when he had an iron-clad, gold-lined contract for something approximating life, to go back to the stage because he couldn't stand being cut off from direct contact with the audience, with the people out there in front.
And, of course, everybody knows by now the legend of Jack's third big walk-out — when he left the stage where he commanded a weekly salary in four, figures and the biggest, brightest lights on the marquee, to "go into radio."
Legend by now, too, his first broadcast back in 1932 — a guest shot, for free, with Commentator Ed Sullivan. Jack walked up to the terrifying mike, his jitters concealed by dint of heroic effort, and said, "Hello, folks. This is Jack Benny talking. . . . There will now be a brief pause while you all say 'Who cares?' "
Twenty-five million of you cared, it turned out . . . Jack Benny floated, with apparent ease, to the top of the heap again. Radio was his. His mother, had she lived to see it, would have been pleased. It was she who had dinned into her young son's head the maxim he has lived by: "It is not enough, Benny, to be good enough. It has to be as good as you can make it."
The last words she said to him, as he sat beside her deathbed, were: "You'll keep on studying."
A new medium, new techniques, a whole field of younger, fresh competitors ... of course he would have to accept the challenge, and never stop "studying" until he had licked it — not just when it was good enough, but when it was as good as he could make it.
Mrs. Kubelsky would have understood. So, for the record, does the other woman who has molded Jack Benny's life . . . his wife for twenty-five years, Mary Livingston.
It was for Mary, really, that Jack in the early thirties took his first flyer in films. They lived a normal life for a while. They had a house — rented, but it stayed in one place — and they actually went to bed at night for a change, and got up in the morning! Mary was in seventh heaven, until she began to feel that Jack was not.
"You'd better go and see Mr. Mayer," she said, "and tell him 'thanks so much but I quit.' "
He did.
Mary's place in the radio show came about even more accidentally than her bit in the vaudeville act. An actress failed to show up for a broadcast, and Mary was on.
That was twenty years ago, and Mary has been a fixture on the show ever since. It could have been twenty minutes ago to Mary's stomach. She has never gotten over her stage fright, her show-time jitters — original source of her now famous giggle.
Mary would have begged off radio years ago if Jack — and their audiences — had permitted it. Now, especially, that their daughter Joan is a Stanford freshman, all pal and no problem, Mary would like to be free to enjoy their new comradeship.
Mary could see Jack go into television — and without her — without a pang. And the rumors that he might don't shock her one bit.
And, let it be said without further ado, they don't shock Jack.
They couldn't, inasmuch as he started them!
From the day he made his first TV appearance — those first shows, incidentally, may have delighted the audience, but they didn't satisfy Jack; they weren't "as good as he could make it" — Jack has hammered at everybody who would listen to him that he is fascinated with television.
"It's like going back to the theatre . . . you know you make contact . . . the audience is there," he says.
It's the old, intimate show business again, and Jack Benny feels thirty-nine again, experiencing it. But there are a few problems. A sponsor, a contract ... to say nothing of his high-powered and high-priced staff. Some of them have been with him for eighteen years. And TV doesn't pay their kind of prices.
It wouldn't surprise anybody who really knows Benny if Jack made the leap, anyway, and shelled out the money himself to keep his co-workers in the style to which they have grown accustomed.
People who buy the picture of Jack Benny — which he has created himself, of course — of the nickel-pinching skinflint, who exacts a lawn-mowing as well as a solo for Dennis Day's weekly twenty-five dollars, would simply never believe that Jack Benny is unmindful of the importance of the dollar. They would never believe he could exchange radio's lush profits for television's comparative peanuts cheerfully once he was convinced that, in the new medium, he could entertain more people more effectively. But it's true.
Some of his greatest shows he has done for considerably less than nothing— in Iran, for instance, and Egypt, and Sicily, Italy, New Guinea, Australia, the Marianas, the Marshalls, the Gilberts, the Solomons and Kwajalein, where he took his troupe during World War II.
Ask any G.I. if Jack Benny was funny under front-line pressure? And even they, probably, wouldn't believe the actual fact that Jack spent $100,000 of his own money in telephone line charges in order to be able to get the show to them.
But he did; entertainment is giving.
Last summer, he took a troupe to Korea — when many a younger, hardier man was begging off — traveled 30,000 miles in everything from a jeep to a helicopter, slept — no more than four hours a night — in a dirt-floored tent, and gave.
He came home, a friend says, "Looking like hell . . . broken physically and mentally."
But he caught up on his sleep, told the world that it was the greatest experience of his life and he would go again at the drop of a hat.
He talked of nothing but "those wonderful guys" slugging it up and down Korean mountains.
And their wonderful jokes.
Their jokes — just as on the air it's always Rochester, or Phil Harris, or Mary, or Dennis Day who grabs off the big laugh, while the boss brings down the house with "We . . . ll."
A great entertainer, Jack Benny.
A giver.
And once he decides, if he does, that he can give you more on television than on radio — which has called him the Greatest and made him rich — you'll be seeing him regularly in your living rooms.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Cartooning Tinkerer

Next to Felix the Cat, I suspect Koko the Clown was the most popular animated cartoon character that didn’t come out of the newspapers for movie audiences of the silent era. It’s still amazing to watch the technical feat of the drawn clown acting in, and interacting with, the real world around him.

Koko was the product of Max Fleischer, who founded the “Out of the Inkwell” studio around the character in 1921. The technical side of animation seems to have interested Fleischer as much as the artistic side. He invented the Rotoscope which made Koko so life-like, and he held a number of patents.

The article below is from Fleischer’s former employer, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and published on September 14, 1924. It delves into a bit of Fleischer’s past and how the Koko cartoons were made.

Out of the Inkwell to Fame and Fortune
Max Fleischer Was Fired Eight Times for Tinkering, But Now He Is Head of a Million Dollar Movie Project—and Still Tinkering
By Martin B. Dickstein
“COPY BOY! C-ah-pee-e Boy-y!” The man on the city desk, turned impatiently in his chair and exploded. “Where in the name of all that's holy is that kid Max? I've fired him seven times in the last two months, but today he goes for good. C-ah-py Bo-y!”
The City Editor's voice broke in a shrill staccato. Industrious reporters industriously battering upon battered typewriters in the newsroom glanced up uneasily as if expecting the gathering wrath from the city desk to fall upon their own heads. The man on the desk slammed a drawer shut with a menacing bang that augured no good for any one in that journalistic sanctum, the elusive Max in particular. “Damnation! If I ever get—”
A glass door of a telephone booth at the far end of the room was pushed open slowly from the inside and a skinny kid emerged, dragging behind him a drawing-board almost as big as himself on which had been scribbled various hieroglyphics—reflections of an immature artistic mind.
He glanced sheepishly in the direction of the City Editor, who by this time was bordering on a state of hysteria.
“Were you calling for me, sir?” The words came in the squeaky pitch of a fourteen-year-old kid whose voice was just them beginning to change. His number tens shuffled uncomfortably beside the swivel chair of the lord and master of the newsroom. The bristol board he dropped behind him into a convenient waste basket.
“Was I calling you? Didn't you hear me?”
“No, sir,” meekly.
“Where've you been?”
“In the telephone booth.”
“No, sir; drawing.”
“Here, rush this copy upstairs and then go down and tell Mr. Simpson that you're fired.”
That was the eighth time that Max Fleischer had been “fired” as copy boy in the city room of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the year 1908.
Max Fleischer, originator of the “Out-of-the-Inkwell” animated cartoons, inventor of the recently introduced “Novagraph Analysis” in films, president of the Red Seal Distributing Corporation, successful and still in his early thirties, sat in his office on the sixth floor at 1600 Broadway and rolled reminiscences off his tongue as nimbly as he thinks up stunts for his little screen clown. He mused at length on the kindness of Gilbert Evans, then managing editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who took Max in hand after he was fired from the city room for the eighth time, and gave him a place on the art staff.
“Gilbert Evans was the greatest newspaper man I've ever known,” continued Mr. Fleischer. “And he could recognize genius when he saw it,” this with a twinkling in his eye which belied what might have sounded like a conceited afterthought. “Evans used to tell me that I had the makings of a great cartoonist. I took him at his word and so, you see, I've been striving for greatness ever since.”
Fleischer is that way. He never takes himself too seriously and doesn't like any one else to. He has a staff of a dozen artists and twice that number of technicians and office assistants in his studio on upper Broadway and everyone jack of the office boys calls him Max.
“It was after I had made a fairly sizable start as an artist on The Eagle,” Mr. Fleischer went on, “that I went to the Popular Science Magazine as a special writer and illustrator. There I first began the study of the possibilities of the animated cartoon on the screen. I had somehow managed to save the magnificent sum of one hundred dollars and with that as a working capital I decided to establish myself as the world's greatest producer of pen and ink movies.
“I resigned from the Staff of Popular Science, rigged up a semblance of a laboratory in my six by ten foot bedroom and with the help of my brother, Joe, began the photographing and developing of some two hundred feet of film. We worked for more, than a year on that strip of celluloid, and when I began peddling it among the distributors, the first one who showed any sign of interest in my new project said he'd buy it if I could guarantee to supply him with five hundred feet of film a week.
“You can see, then, how my first lofty hopes were smashed to smithereens. It had taken me over a year to turn out two hundred feet of that first screen cartoon, and here was a motion picture distributor who said he'd, take five hundred feet a week or none at all. I was practically broke then, I had been for a long time, and it was all too apparent that if I were going to make any headway I would have to find someone sufficiently interested in my idea and with enough ready cash to back it.
“When I had about given up all hope and was ready to go back to magazine scribbling, I met Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld, who had just then been made managing director of the Rivoli and Rialto theaters. He saw possibilities in my new idea and offered to supply the necessary funds to carry on the work. From that day to this we have been turning out two ‘Out-of-the-Inkwell’ cartoons a month, and my little screen clown has grown to be as famous in Cape Town and Shanghai as he is in the five and ten-cent picture houses from Harlem to where the pavement ends in Gopher Prairie.”
Fleischer leaned back in his chair and eyed the stub of his cigar as a thousand successful business men before him have eyed the stubs of their cigars and explained to gentlemen of the press how it felt to be sitting on top of the world. Listening to him talk and watching his slender fingers as they drummed nervously on a blotter pad, we felt that here was a true artist, an artist from the tips of his polished boots to the thatch of black wiry hair, brushed back from his broad, well-shaped forehead.

"And now we're going to let you in on some of the secrets of animated cartooning,” he said as he propelled us in the direction of the studio workshop. He pushed open a door which led into a spacious, high-ceilinged, many-windowed room where some two dozen men were busily engaged before as many drawing-boards. In one corner a group of cameramen were focusing a motion picture camera upon a miniature printing press which, it was explained, was destined to play an important part in the next “Inkwell” film.
We stopped behind a man who was busily engaged turning out drawing after drawing of the famous Fleischer screen clown. Here the originator of the character which was taking shape on the bristol board before us offered the interesting information that a single reel of film called for more than three thousand sketches of that little, clown in addition to the hundreds of other drawings necessary for atmosphere and background. It was needless then, to inquire why Mr. Fleischer did not draw those pictures himself.
From the spacious workshop we passed into a closet-like chamber, black as night. A little red bulb, hanging, it seemed, from nowhere at all, throw an eerie circle of light upon a table-like apparatus which had the appearance of a torture rack of the middle ages.
“That is a camera,” Mr. Fleischer was saying, “specially designed and built for animated photography.” He picked up one of the drawings of the funny little clown, placed it in a glass frame, which lay flat on the surface of the table, and pulled a lever. There was a click as the shutter of the camera opened and closed and the little meter on the side of the table indicated that another half foot of film had been exposed.
“Tedious work that, photographing three to four thousand of those drawings, Mr. Fleischer,” we ventured as we emerged again into the spacious, high-ceilinged room with the many windows.
“That's putting it mildly,” he answered, “but no work is ever too tedious when you're sufficiently interested in the job at hand. And putting life and motion into that little clown is, at least to me, the most interesting thing I can imagine. If I could think of anything more interesting, I'd drown the clown in his own ink and tackle the other.”
As we left him at the elevator we pondered upon that sensible philosophy of the man who does things because he's interested in them, not because it's worth so much to him in dollars and cents. We tried to think how many Max Fleischers there are in this world who spend their days tinkering over funny little contraptions while their neighbors nudge each other and point a finger wisely to the region of their temples. After all, aren't the tinkerers getting the most fun out of life, by doing just the things they like to do? You bet they are! Tinkering is like pulling a little clown out of an inkwell and standing by wondering what he is going to do.
In the case of Max Fleischer, the little fellow scampered off and came back dragging a fortune after him.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Nosey Willie

You can probably pick out at least one fun moment in any black-and-white cartoon made at the Ub Iwerks studio.

Here are 10 consecutive frames from “Spite Flight,” the second Willie Whopper cartoon. Someone had fun making goofy drawings of Willie after the bad guy pulls his nose and lets it snap back.

My thanks to Devon Baxter for passing on this neat cartoon which also features an old angel giving the finger.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Kitchen of Tomorrow Today

“The Jetsons” laid out for us a World of the Future. Viewers in the early ‘60s couldn’t wait for the flying car to be invented. And the same kind of thing happened with the Tex Avery cartoon “House of Tomorrow” (1949).

Above you see a couple of items conjured up by the brains of Avery, Rich Hogan and Jack Cosgriff (the latter two were Avery’s writers). Apparently, some people loved them. Here’s Daily Variety from August 15, 1949.

GAGS that sprouted in the minds of MGM cartoon experts have come home to roost. “House of Tomorrow,” current MGM cartoon, features over twenty labor-saving gadgets, intended originally just for laughs. But certain manufacturers have taken the cartoon seriously and letters have been received asking for blueprints of two of the gadgets shown, a device to separate seeds from oranges without squirting, and an automatic sandwich maker which, feeding in loaves of bread, gobs of butter, and ends of meat, ends [up] as finished sandwiches.

The cartoon was released the previous June 11th. Walt Clinton, Mike Lah and Grant Simmons get the animation credits

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Clean Comedy

Perhaps it was just the way I was brought up, but I really dislike rude and foul-mouthed comedy. My parents never used those kinds of words. Neither did my grandparents. Nor did any of the cartoons, implausible TV sitcoms and old radio shows I inhaled as a boy a half-century ago. They were all funny without f-bombs and references to women’s body parts.

Of course, that kind of language has been around forever, and it’s even been part of comedy for an awful long time. Evidently, it annoyed one of TV’s great showmen—Ed Sullivan. Before Sullivan became the world’s stiffest variety show hosts, he was a columnist for a newspaper, where I’m sure the vocabulary around the office wasn’t fit for church. Here’s Sullivan sounding off about clean comedy in his column of February 8, 1950.

Little Old NEW YORK

"Laughter Has No Religion"
When Olsen and Johnson were given an audience at the Vatican last week his Holiness, Pope Pius, was quoted by the AP as having said: "Ah, comedians, that is good. Laughter has no religion. There should be more of it in the world." . . . Performers all over the world must have beamed as the observation was flashed by the wire services. . . . In New York, Jack Benny, here to aid the Heart Fund drive, expressed his pleasure. So did Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, stopping in Manhattan briefly, en route from Florida to California, was touched. In Miami, where I happened to be, Harvey Stone, Danny Thomas, the Ritz brothers, Jackie Miles and Jan Murray discussed the high compliment paid to their profession.
Some of them were startled to learn that in the Catholic religion, the patron saint of the stage is St. Genesius, the great clown who was martyred because he refused his emperor's request to do a mockery of the Mass.
Laughter, of course, is not to be confused, with the smirking, embarrassed laughs that some comedians win, with soiled distortions of humor. Laughter is the sort of achievement that rewarded Jimmy Durante's run at the Copacabana, when in a 50-minute routine, Jimmy didn't utter one double-meaning gag, and didn't indulge in one gesture that could be misinterpreted. Myron Cohen, similarly, is a comedian who gets his laughs the harder way, which is the cleaner way. At least, some comics think this is the harder way, but Cohen will tell you it's the easier way. "Only a poor craftsman has to resort to filth, and when he does, he admits that he can't qualify," is Cohen's opinion. Some seasons back, when one writer started a drive to purge the dialecticians, I went to the defense of the Myron Cohens of the profession, because he is an outstanding gentleman of his profession.
Danny Thomas, a top-flight comic, never resorts to dirty material, and gets paid very big money. Jack Benny, of course, one of the highest paid stars of the business, always has used a gentle, self-deprecatory formula that is built around amusing situations.
Radio, motion pictures and now television did much to improve the breed of comedians and sharpen their good taste in comedy. Many, known in vaudeville as bad-taste guys whose material had to be watched continuously, reformed when radio proved they could become national famous via laundered jokes, free of smirks and leers.
Harvey Stone, GI alumnus, gets howls on his humorous approach to the problems of Army indoctrination and basic, training. Joe Adams' comedy is thoroughly clean.
Danny Kaye, when I saw him at the Beachcombers at Miami Beach, remained on stage for close to an hour, In that space of time, Kaye didn't pull one off-color line, made no anatomical references, and completely delighted his audience without once resorting to anything that the professional label "blue," meaning off-white in coloring.
Jackie Miles' most amusing comedy is built around a cowboy film, whose hero goes through all sorts of trials by fire and hostile arrows and emerges unscathed and unflurried, twanging his banjo and crooning the same song he started in reel 1. Frank Fontaine hopped from "Toast of the Town" to an MGM contract, because of one clean monologue, his impression of a sweepstakes winner explaining how the news was broken to him by a radio program. And how the radio actually answered his questions, when he talked back to the loudspeaker. (Willie Howard, I think, was the first comic to visualize the comedy in talking back to a radio, but Fontaine's employment of the gimmick was entirely his own.)
Ed Wynn's long and honorable record is unspotted by a single instance in which Wynn compromised with good taste. Fred Allen's drolleries of "Hogan's Alley" were always clean and witty, his talent registering without the aid of any dirty stuff or even questionable lines.
The Ritzes have been begged by all of us to eliminate those portions of their act which resort to effeminate mannerisms, because they don't need it. Berle, similarly, should not go in for this type of characterization, which is always distasteful, though productive of quick laughs.
Perfect illustration of the point of this article is the experience of Ken Murray. He arrived from the coast with a show that had run for seasons out there. At the time of the New York unveiling, some of us decried the spicy context, asserting that Murray was too expert a comic to rely on this type of materials.
The show closed. A few months later, Murray made his TV debut with an hour-long show. Obviously, there wasn't a single offensive line of situation, and Murray proved, if proof were needed, that he needed "blue" gags about as much as he needed a hole in his head. Comics have told me, and there undoubtedly is truth in their declarations, that as they work across the country, and are booked into clubs which merely serve food as an excuse for a liquor license, owners insist that they dirty up their monologues. "Look, we want no high-class stuff," says the small-town Ziegfeld. "My patrons want meat and potatoes when it comes to comedy."
This is an unfortunate situation, and not easy, to handle unless the comic turns down such jobs—and sometimes the economics of the situation don't give him much of an option.
But it does seem to me that all comics should take heart at the high praise bestowed upon them by the Vatican, and should review and revise their routines from the standpoint of good taste.
The yardstick of judgment is not difficult to apply. "If you're in doubt about the propriety of a gag, don't use it." That is pretty good advice, and its soundness has been proved by experience. Whenever any of us has forgotten the old adage, we've come a cropper.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Hold the You-Know-What

This is one of Friz Freleng’s favourite gags:

E.O. Costello’s now-dead website Warner Brothers Cartoon Companion had the following explanation:
Mysterious catchphrase that pops up in a fair number of Warner-released cartoons, including Pigs is Pigs (Freleng, 1937), The Fighting 69th 1/2 (Freleng, 1941), The Gay Anties (Freleng, 1947), French Rarebit (McKimson, 1951), and Wackiki Wabbit (Jones, 1943).

You can add to that “Jungle Jitters” (Freleng, 1938).

Mr. Costello has an e-mail addendum, saying it appeared in “Behind the Meatball” (Tashlin, 1945). And Pat Caldora writes to say it’s in the Tom and Jerry cartoon “His Mouse Friday” (1951).

Mysterious? Well, we do know animator Phil Monroe took credit for it. He told historian Mike Barrier:
For instance, I first worked for Friz in the middle '30s, and he had this one picture, I forget what the name of it is, but it was a mechanical machine that made a sandwich; the old cartoons used to do that all the time, use a gag like that. It was a Rube Goldberg machine that made a sandwich. I stuck in the gag "Hold the onions"—a sign comes out and stops the machine and says, "Hold the onions." Well, the only thing you remember about that cartoon is that one gag. He used that damned thing for years.

Monroe, incidentally, got the animation credit on “Jungle Jitters.”

Monday, 20 January 2014

I Don't Love a Piano

They loved perspective animation at MGM, and not just when Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising were there. Here’s a sequence from the Oscar-winning “The Cat Concerto.”

Jerry’s flipped about by the hammers of a piano, then gets his tail caught between two of them. Hammers keep bouncing him to the far end of the piano where he snaps back. All done in perspective. These are some of the drawings.

Ken Muse, Irv Spence and Ed Barge are the credited animators.