Friday, 15 December 2017

Sylvester Meets Santa

A lovebird trying to commit suicide-by-cat pretends to be Santa in the Oscar-nominated Life With Feathers (released 1945). Sylvester is, naturally, completely fooled into thinking the beardless bird is the real St. Nick. He slobbers all over the place and leaps up and down. Here are some drawings.

These are consecutive frames. The action doesn’t match.

Virgil Ross gets the animation credit on this cartoon, with Tedd Pierce writing the story for the Friz Freleng unit.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Stars of Christmas

Stars swirl around a fir tree and pop to form Christmas decorations at the end of the Popeye outing Seasin’s Greetinks! (1933). The stars are formed after Popeye punches Bluto twice, the first time uncasing him from the snow that’s turned him into a snowman.

Seymour Kneitel and Doc Crandall are the credited animators. Mae Questel isn’t playing Olive.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Too Much Christmas On The Air

“Who wants to hear Christmas music so soon? It gets earlier every year.” No doubt you’ve heard somebody, somewhere, saying that, as if this is all something new.

Well, I hate to tell you ...

Shall we go back 60, even 70 years when people were saying the same thing?


Here are a couple of columns from John Crosby of the Herald Tribune syndicate. The first one is from December 23, 1947. We’ve edited out the second half that has nothing to do with the festive season. I must admit I like the idea of the stooges knocking on Fred Allen’s door, but there was already a radio show that had been doing it for years called “Fibber McGee and Molly.”

Christmas Rushed by Air Comics

In a letter to the editors of “Newsweek” magazine, a man from Hollywood complains about the encroachment of Christmas on Thanksgiving. The film colony, this man reports, staged a huge Christmas parade on Thanksgiving eve which, this man feels, was a little premature and rude to the Pilgrims.
This has bothered me quite lot lately too. Radio in this case is no more guilty than anyone else, but it is playing along the same direction. The pre-Christmas celebration started in radio around the middle of November. Christmas jokes have been flying around like raindrops since the last week in November. Ozzie has already Harriet's Christmas present and Phil bought Alice's on December 13. All the male barytones and many of the female barytones limbered up on "White Christmas" a month ago. All or most of the orchestral programs with choruses attached have sprung "Silent Night." Fred Allen, who way ahead of the crowd, got New Year's Eve jokes out of his system on December 13.
As this being written, Christmas is still a week off and the subject is close to exhaustion. What is the hurry, anyhow? The man from Hollywood implies the whole thing is a commercial plot staged by the storekeepers to ring up a few extra sales. This theory doesn't hold water in the case of radio. No one gives Rinso or Tenderleaf Tea for Christmas. No, the reason lies elsewhere. My theory is that there aren't enough holidays to keep the comedians gainfully employed. There's a long barren stretch between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving when the comedians have to fall back on their jokes about high prices and Harry Truman's piano.
I suggest we have another holiday just for radio comedians, a sort of All-Clowns Day, scheduled for around October 1 and designed to tide the boys over. On this date all the comedians would be permitted to do what they never got away with the rest of the year. Every one would be kind to Jack Benny, even his music teacher. Bergen would top all of McCarthy's gags. Mrs. Nussbaum would pound on Fred Allen's door for a change. Princess Elizabeth would return the compliment and drop in on Bob Hope's program. Duffy would show up at Duffy's Tavern.
In this way we could postpone Christmas until December 25, put Thanksgiving back in the calendar and get back to normal.

■ ■ ■

Just as some people gripe that Christmas comes too early, some complain it stays too late. Never mind that there are twelve days of Christmas and they start on December 25th, there are those who want the festive season to be done after they’ve finished their Boxing Day shopping. Here’s Crosby again on December 30, 1957. The irony of course, is the column appears five days after Christmas Day. But he’s grumbing about TV shows talking about Christmas after the 25th. Crosby focuses on two interesting individuals. Arthur Godfrey came across as the most casual guy on morning radio, Dave Garroway the same on morning TV. Godfrey, you well know, was exposed as a callous tyrant to his night-time TV “family,” while Garroway suffered from depression (he needed medical “assistance” to deal with the early rising for the Today show for a time) and ended his own life in 1982. I’ve seen the quote Crosby claims was Ed Wynn’s attribued to Stoopnagle and Budd.

Too Much Christmas

Every year, it seems to me Christmas starts earlier and runs longer, especially, on television. It seems almost like last Christmas when George Gobel was making a joke about the latest toys. ("Now they've got a “Send Your Sister to the Moon' kit that comes complete with launching pad, a can of kerosene and a match.”) It seems I heard that in June some time—but it couldn't be.
Christmas isn’t over yet. Arthur Godfrey’s annual Christmas talent scouts show [photo right] will be held tonight, having been pre-empted by President Eisenhower last Monday. (Yes, Junior, the President outranks Arthur Godfrey.) This year, besides starting earlier, the TV personalities wouldn't let go. Tennessee Ernie devoted his entire program the day after Christmas to talking about what happened the day before. ("It's kind of wonderful watching the kids ignore all those expensive presents you bought, playing over in the corner—with the boxes.")
Of the Christmas dramas, I was especially intrigued by one on Douglas Fairbanks' show. The scene is a little church, high in the Austrian Alps. “Two days before Christmas, and the organ is broken,” says the pastor in despair. “We must have a proper Christmas service. We need something simple—a melody the choir can learn in a few hours.”
“But where would we find it?”
“Let's write it ourselves.”
So one man starts pecking away on the harpsichord while the other muses over a pencil, working on the words. "Here what do you think of this—Sacred night, holy night—no?"
"How about Silent Night" suggests the other one.
"That's good," agrees the one. "Now all together..."
But that wasn't the end of it. Years later one of the authors the song is marooned in a blizzard on his Pennsylvania farm. Food is running low and the supply train seems to have been lost in the blizzard. He and his wife sing “Silent Night” to boost their morale and in a matter of moments, the door bursts open and in comes the guy with the supplies. "I made it! I made it! Heard singing and it guided me through the storm better than an Indian scout."
“The Dave Garroways At Home” was an interesting experiment in Christmas Eve programming. It opened with Dave Garroway discovered on a stepladder (where he advised us all to do our Christmas shopping late and avoid the crowds) in his Manhattan house.
Present was his wife Pamela, his son, Mike, and a couple of friends, Jack Haskell and Barbara Carroll. It was a very simple and informal show. Miss Carroll sang a song: "Christmas Is a Time," which was written for the Garroway At Large program. Garroway and his wife reminisced about places they'd spent Christmas Eve. (She'd spent one in the Tunisian desert. He'd spent one on a minesweeper.) Garroway volunteered the information that New York had contributed its share to Christmas customs. "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (" 'Twas the Night Before Christmas") was written here and New Yorkers claim to have originated Christmas cards. Mrs. Garroway read that old chestnut "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," which isn't as sticky on Christmas Eve as you might think.
Garroway then demonstrated some dippy Christmas presents—a silent alarm clock for people who like to sleep late, a cork anchor for drifters, even an eleven-foot pole for guy you wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. (Shades of Ed Wynn.) The show closed with a reading of the birth of Christ from the Bible. The reason I go into such detail is that this is the sort of simple show that used to come out of Chicago back in the days when television had no money to speak of but lots of brains and enthusiasm.
At the opposite extreme was Kraft's production of "The Story of the Other Wise Man," Henry Van Dyke’s modern classic. With Richard Kiley in the role of the young priest whose search for his Saviour is constantly interrupted by good works for just plain people, this was a heavily bearded and costumed and weighty sort of religious drama. I found it oppressive and dusty and archaic for an occasion so joyful as Christmas day but maybe by then I'd had too much Christmas—especially on TV.

■ ■ ■

As you might gather from today’s offering, this is the start of our annual Christmas season posts, though we’ll take a little break on the weekend. We’ll continue for a bit after Christmas Day. John Crosby is no longer around to disapprove, as he’s been dead since 1991. As dead as a door-nail. I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. And ... oh, I’m sure you know how the rest of this goes. Watch Alastair Sim’s greatest film role if you don’t. Even if Christmas is a humbug, you can never get too much of Sim as Scrooge.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Wolf Objects to Corny Old Opening

The wolf has just about had it with the fey narrator who tells the kiddies in the audience that Red Riding Hood is about to be pounced upon.

“Aw, stop it!” he shouts, throwing his hat onto the ground.

The wolf opens and closes his mouth during dialogue. The teeth change size.

This is, of course, from the famous Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), chock full of reaction takes and Red’s dance sequence by Preston Blair. None of the animators received credits in some of the early Avery cartoons at MGM.

Monday, 11 December 2017

This Cartoon Needs Teeth

The Columbia/Screen Gems cartoon studio just couldn’t get it together. By the time it was about to close in 1947, some of the animation was pretty good, but was undercut by lame writing and second-rate music.

An example is Cagey Bird, a 1946 release directed by Howard Swift, with animation credits going to Grant Simmons and Roy Jenkins. There’s a take by Flippy the canary I really like, and a couple of desperate escape scenes by the cat that are good. Here’s one toward the end of the cartoon. The cat keeps going higher and higher (managing to stay in mid-air through it all) to avoid a dog’s clamping teeth. Finally, he zips out of the scene. I really like the exaggerated size on the dog’s teeth.

Sid Marcus’ storyline is okay but it needs some punching up. It’s like a Warners cartoon with half the reactions and characters that couldn’t think of anything to say. When Bugs Bunny plays “Doctor Kilpatient” to try to “cure” Elmer Fudd, it’s funny because Bugs says and does funny stuff. The cat as the doctor in this cartoon just doesn’t say a lot and you keep waiting for a punch-line that doesn’t really come. Eddie Kilfeather’s music simply becomes loud and fast during the chase scenes. It has absolutely no subtlety.

Frank Graham plays the dog and I think possibly, maybe, Stan Freberg is voicing the cat. Their talents are wasted, as are Simmons’ and Jenkins’. Simmons soon beat it over to MGM to animate for Tex Avery, before a short stop at Lantz and then as co-head of his own studio with Ray Patterson and Robert Lawrence. Jenkins later ended up at Disney (I wonder if he worked at Swift-Chaplin first) before a stint with Lantz in the early-1960s.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Comedy and Cucamonga

On January 7, 1945, a call for passengers was heard for the first time: “Train leaving on Track Five for Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga!” It was Mel Blanc’s voice on the Jack Benny radio show. Benny milked the gag for a number of years.

It turns out there was soon a battle over Cucamonga. But we’ll get to that in just a moment. We’ll take a spur line and go off track for just a moment.

While Benny is the comedian connected with Azusa and Cuca-you-know-where, he wasn’t the first. Witness this United Press story from June 8, 1940, years before Benny and his cast ever entered a train station.
Pomona Gets For Joke

Hollywood—(UP)—One of the "eggs" comedian Bob Hope laid on a recent radio program—and even he admits there have been a few—came home to roost as a full-fledged chicken, with a traffic fine in its beak.
Hope got a speed ticket while breezing through Pomona, Calif., the other day. Busy at Paramount in "The Ghost Breakers," the comedian sent an attorney to make an appearance for him.
"Hope?" mused the judge. "Hope? Oh yes, that's the fellow who is always making cracks about Pomona on the radio. You tell Mr. Hope to come down here and pay his fine in person."
Now Hope is wishing—that someone would tell the good people of Pomona about the use of “locals” by comedians.
In every big city, it seems, there is always one sure-fire laugh for a comedian with a strictly local outlet. Some nearby city or town for some reason seems funny in every around in the profession, they all these towns locals."
Hope is going to appear at Pomona in a big benefit some day soon just to prove he has nothing against the town, and was just using Pomona as a “local.” If he keeps on, he may get Pomona into the big leaguers. Like Bismarck, N. D, which comedians agree is funny anywhere in the United States. Or Canarsie, which always gets a chuckle in New York, and Winnetka, the local for Chicago.
Other locals include: Woonsocket, good for a laugh every time in Providence, R. I.; Kennebunkport, which lays them in the aisles way down East; Manayunk, funny to Philadelphians, Hamtramck, a side-splitter in Detroit, and Nahant, which makes staid Bostonians titter.
In fact, Pomona, thanks to Hope, already is displacing Azusa and Cucamonga as Los Angeles laugh provokers.
It would appear the use of “locals” was an old vaudeville gimmick. Robert Lewis Taylor’s biography of W.C. Fields quotes The Great Man as telling a Paramount P.R. flak (presumably in the ‘30s) that Cucamonga was one of them. Fields loved the name. He used it in The Old Fashioned Game (1934). Louella Parsons’ column of March 25, 1938 reveals:
Bill struggled hard to get the studio to call his next movie, which goes into production April 4, "The First Gentleman of Cucamonga," because he liked that name, but Paramount politely but firmly told him no marquee was long enough to hold all those letters. Mary Carlisle and John Howard carry the romantic interest in a story which deals with Bill's adventures as a champagne salesman.
The great book W.C. Fields by Himself also contains a treatment for an unmade film about this same time where Fields played W.C. Whipsnade, who inherited a department store in Cucamonga. Incidentally, Fields and Paramount parted company within two months of Parsons’ column over a disagreement about the script for the Cucamonga film, which had undergone at least two other name changes.

So it was when the Benny writers came up with the Anaheim-Azusa-Cucamonga running gag, it was really a switch on an old one.

Still, the folks in the three cities didn’t care. They seem to have liked the publicity. In February 1946, Benny was elected honorary mayor of all three towns and given a key to the city of each in a formal ceremony (for some reason, Benny wore a sombrero in publicity pictures). This resulted in what I presume were some tongue-in-cheek comments from another comedian who was asked for reaction. It doesn’t seem to have gone past this column; there certainly was no radio feud over it and Benny never mentioned any of this over the air. The column appeared February 25, 1946.
Jack Benny vs. Lou Costello
By Virginia MacPherson

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 24 (UP)—Today we have the fantastic story of how Jack Benny and Lou Costello, two world-famous funny men, are battling over who will be Mayor of the tiny California hamlet of Cucamonga.
The feud started a few months ago as a publicity stunt. Somewhere along the line it got out of hand. Now the citizens of Cucamonga—all 500 of ‘em—are caught in the middle. Mighty uncomfortable they are, too.
On one side they have Fiddler Benny insisting he’s already honorary Mayor. On the other they’ve got “Bad Boy” Costello, who says they promised to make him Hizzoner before Benny ever heard of the village.
Benny’s press agent got him named honorary Mayor of Cucamonga, Anaheim and Azusa, neighboring towns. He got a lot of publicity in the papers as the “first man ever to be honorary Mayor of three cities at once.”
Costello claims the good people of Cucamonga are getting gypped.
“One-third of a Mayor they’ve got,” he declares. “What kind of a deal is that? A fine little orange-growing community like Cucamonga deserves a whole Mayor.”
He asks: Has Benny offered to pin a badge on Rochester.
The unhappiest man in town is our father-in-law, John D. MacPherson. He’s the guy who encouraged Costello to put in his two-bits’ worth.
It started two months ago when we discovered the locale of the new Abbott and Costello movie was Cucamonga, our old home town. We mentioned this to Costello’s press agent and gave him our father-in-law’s name.
Like a flash he buzzed out to Cucamonga to start his campaign for Mayor. Our father-in-law was a little nonplused.
“We’ve already got Jack Benny,” he said.
Costello’s press [agent] again pointed out Benny had three towns to take care of and wouldn’t Cucamonga like a Mayor all its own? Our father-in-law said he guessed they would at that. That’s when all the trouble started.
Benny said the names of the towns fascinated him when he heard a guy at the Union Depot holler: “Trains leaving for Azusa, Anaheim and Cucamonga!”
So he worked it in on his next broadcast. It was good for a big laugh. The Service Club of Cucamonga sent him a case of California wines.
“That was darn good wine!” said Benny.
The people of Azusa, Anaheim and Cucamonga got so much fun hearing the names of their towns on the air they elected Benny honorary Mayor of all three.
But Costello says his movie will give the town just as much publicity. And he promises to remain loyal to Cucamonga. Even if the citizens of Los Angeles asked him to be honorary you-know-what he’d turn ‘em down.
Cucamonga’s success on the radio proved to be a problem elsewhere. Witness this wire story from April 23, 1954:
Cucamonga KO’d As Too Funny
BURBANK, Calif.—Jack Benny and his writers have made Cucamonga too humorous a word for utterance in any serious drama.
Case in point is “Serenade,” Warner Bros. feature starring Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine, Sarita Montiel and Vincent Price.
The vineyard sequence, where Lanza as a California tractor operator learns he is to audition for a professional singing career, was shot at Cucamonga, center of the world’s largest vineyards.
Director Anthony Mann ordered the Cucamonga labels obliterated from all the grape crates.
“After what Benny’s done with Cucamonga,” said Mann, “the mere sight or mention of the name starts a laugh going and in this sequence we don’t want laughs.”
Some radio and TV critics griped about Cucamonga, saying a regional reference had no business being on a national radio show (Mad Man Muntz and the La Brea Tar Pits annoyed them as well). And not every one in “Cuc—” were happy with being a butt of a joke. Here “—amonga!” is a United Press International story from October 7, 1958.
Cucamonga Name Change Meets Strong Opposition
CUCAMONGA, Calif. (UPI) — Residents of this community asked themselves today, "what's in a name?"
And, the answer of some self- conscious citizens who have cringed at comedians' jibes at their community, was, "plenty."
For years, this area east of Los Angeles has been known by the Indian name of Cucamonga, meaning land of plenty waters, although it's quite dry here.
Now, Cucamongans are considering incorporation and part of the proposal is a resolution to change the community's name to something less funny.
Charles Smith, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, was one of those who is sick, sick, sick of Jack Benny's references to the community.
"Cucamonga has been low man of the totem pole for 'Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga' when someone wants to make a joke about a city," Smith said.
"We're sick of it. Our name is no joke to us."
On the other side was Ted Vath, president of the Chamber of Commerce, who is proud of being a Cucamongan and is not afraid of letting the world know about it. "We think the name is worth fighting for," Vath said. "It gives us identity and we're going to hang on to it."
One of the names on the list of proposed monickers for the community is Arpege, the name of a perfume offered free of charge by the maker of the scent. To Smith, almost anything would be better than Cucamonga.
To Vath, the idea of changing the name to Arpege is downright odoriferous.
When the town finally incorporated, it took the name Rancho Cucamonga. And we assume the anti-Benny grump-amongas were a small minority. The area had declared Jack Benny Day on September 8, 1956. There was another Jack Benny Day on December 15, 1965 when Benny arrived in Azusa to receive proclamations of thanks from three towns; though Disneyland and the California Angels baseball team had moved Anaheim into the Big Time. He returned again in 1969, donating his time to emcee a benefit show for the district’s disaster assistance programme when the area was hit with floods and scores were left homeless. Jack Benny is honoured in Rancho Cucamonga with a statue. (Thanks to reader Bob Davidson for his picture of the plaque with the statue).

Incidentally, one of Jack’s other routines gently jabbed a different small town. We’ll have their reaction next Sunday.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The MGM Cartoons That Never Were

They aspired to be the next Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. Instead their teaming is a very obscure footnote in ‘60s animation history.

They’re Phil Duncan and Herb Vigran.

The combination was certainly unusual. Duncan was an ex-Disney animator who had also worked for commercial studios. Vigran wasn’t an animator at all. He made his moolah voicing television spots after his radio acting jobs dried up (his continued to do bit parts on TV comedies and dramas). His animation experience mainly consisted of providing voices for John Sutherland Productions’ industrial cartoons in the early ‘50s. However, the two hooked up, and they approached MGM in 1965 about making animated cartoons.

At this point, Metro was doing pretty well in the animation business. It had announced a new animation/visual arts subsidiary in late December 1964 under Les Goldman and Chuck Jones. The operation was, in essence, Walter Bien’s SIB Productions, which had financially collapsed after making seven Tom and Jerrys for MGM; Metro took over its staff and offices. Apparently, the Goldman/Jones cartoons cost $35,000 each to make; at least, Jones was citing that figure while criticising others for cheapening out and making limited animation at $10,000 a cartoon.

But it appears Metro was quite interested in cutting Jones’ cost. And that’s where Duncan and Vigran enter the picture.

They formed a company to find a buyer for cartoons using a “die-cut adhesive” method instead of the traditional drawn and inked system. The “Duncan Process” was supposedly patented but, unfortunately, I have not been able to find a patent for it on-line. Duncan and Vigran went to MGM, proposed making cartoons with the new method, and worked out a deal for a pilot cartoon called “The Invisible Mouse” at a cost of $10,000. MGM would supply storyboards, character drawings and other artistic materials free of charge to Duncan-Vigran.

A carbon copy of the proposed contract between the two companies ended up in the hands of late animation writer/historian Earl Kress. You can read all ten pages below.

You can see the agreement is dated September 17th. On September 9th, Daily Variety reported (UPI later picked up the story):
MGM-TV and CBS have set two animated pilots for series planned in 1966. Cartoons, titled "Goldielox And The Three Yanhs" and 'The Invisible Mouse" go into production this month at MGM's animation-visual arts division, with producer Les Goldman supervising and Chuck Jones directing.
Division has recently embarked on a large expansion program, including new releases of the "Tom & Jerry" cartoons and an animated short based on Norton Juster's book, "The Dot And The Line."
MGM gave up on the idea of releasing new Tom and Jerry shorts in 1969. That year, Jones, in the middle of a two-year contract, busied himself with Pogo and Horton TV specials, the feature The Phantom Tollbooth and main titles for The Strange Case Of... before jumping to a job with the ABC TV network the following year.

What became of Duncan and Vigran’s company, and the projects mentioned in the Variety story, are mysteries (at least for now). Vigran died in 1986, Duncan passed away in 1988.