Sunday, 5 October 2014

Tune Up Your TV Set

I haven’t had a TV set at home for years. I don’t miss it. Well, I’d miss it tomorrow because there’s a great programme coming to television that would give me some incentive to get a set if it showed something like this more often.

Turner Classic Movies is presenting what it calls a “very special evening of programming features 28 cartoon shorts grouped by respective creators/studios.” Don’t expect the overly-polished efforts of Walt Disney’s feature film artists or the slam-bang fun and lippiness of Bugs Bunny. These are cartoons of an earlier time, ones that wouldn’t normally appear on television.

There will be three separate programmes. One elucidates on the cartoons of Winsor McCay, the man credited with being the Father of Animated Cartoons. To call McCay “a newspaper cartoonist” would be true, but wouldn’t give you any hint of his amazingly intricate work found in the Little Nemo colour panels in the Sunday comics of 100 years ago. McCay literally tried his hand at making pictures move on the movie screen, and set in motion the animated cartoon business. A number of McCay’s films (or their partial remains) from before and after World War One will be screened, augmented by comments by John Canemaker, who authored a beautiful book on McCay’s work a number of years ago.

While McCay provided the spark for the industry, John Bray figured out how to make animation a business by cutting labour and costs to be able to churn out cartoons on a regular schedule for a variety of studios. He lined his pockets by acquiring patents for various parts of the animation process, and unlined them on legal fees to try to enforce them. Bray eventually gave up theatrical cartoons and moved into educational movies. The Bray theatricals can still entertain, almost 100 years after their creation. A number of them will be shown, with Tom Stathes guiding viewers through them. The world needs someone like Tom Stathes. He’s spent a good portion of his young life trying to collect and preserve silent cartoons. So many silent films have been lost to the ages. Efforts have been made over the years to locate and preserve silent features and two-reel comedies. Cartoons have, with a few exceptions, been dismissed as an inconsequential piece of film history. It is good to have Tom and his band of friends looking out for them.

Finally, there will be a showing of cartoons produced by the Van Beuren and Ted Eshbaugh studios. Eshbaugh spent ten years developing a colour process that was ready in 1932. But the movie industry wasn’t ready for Eshbaugh. The big studios had all the cartoons they needed. So Eshbaugh’s efforts were mainly in the commercial area, though he teamed with Van Beuren for some shorts.

Van Beuren was at the bottom of the ladder of New York City’s theatrical animation studios. Its pre-1934 cartoons weren’t as polished looking as the Fleischer shorts, let alone anything out of Disney. The idea of a clearly defined plot escaped its staff. The studio died in 1936 and its work drifted into the public domain. Still, it came out with some cartoons that have their own special, indescribable appeal. An interesting array of Van Beurens will be shown, with the on-camera assistance of Steve Stanchfield. Steve is Van Beuren’s hero. He dragged the studio’s shorts out of obscurity, had them painstakingly restored, and then made them available on DVD for the world to view and appreciate.

Steve will be rolling out some odd ones. A particular favourite is “Rough on Rats” (1933). It’s very much like a Merrie Melodies cartoon made by Harman and Ising: there’s a song, a few gags, a bad guy shows up, and then the second half of the cartoon has characters ganging up and beating the crap out of the bad guy. There’s an attempt at Disneyism, too. The starring kittens frolic like real kittens would (one jumps around on its front legs with its hind legs in the air) but they’re drawn without any Disney finesse. “Silvery Moon” is more in the Fleischer style with bizarre characters, a dream/nightmarish atmosphere and one of the voices of Betty Boop (Margie Hines, I suspect) crooning a neat little tune.

The Van Beuren cartoons were among the first ever seen regularly on TV. W2XBS (WNBC) in New York aired them as early as 1940. When commercial TV took over the living room from radio in the early ‘50s, they were seen in homes until AAP flooded channels with Popeye and Bugs Bunny a few years later.

It’s nice to see them return, even for a night, to entertain and provide a bit of education to discerning viewers about early theatrical animation. I can’t watch it, but you can view it for me. Check local listings for times.

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