Friday, 18 August 2017

That Trick Never Works

“Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat,” says Bullwinkle. You know the routine. Anything but a rabbit comes out.

If you watch the animation frame by frame, you’ll see multiples of Bullwinkle’s gloves as his arm moves.

How do you get Bullwinkle to read better in the scene? Simple. Just eliminate Rocky. Poof! He’s gone

More multiple gloves.

Bullwinkle gracefully wiggles his fingers.

The animation of these “Special feature” intros is a lot better than what’s in the actual cartoons. I presume they were done in Los Angeles instead of the nascent ValMar studio in Mexico City.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Smearing the Soldier

Popeye punches Bluto against a wall so hard he bounces back in the “highlights” cartoon I’m in the Army Now” (1936).

The action goes faster and faster until Bluto becomes a blur in multiples and Popeye’s forearms turn into smear animation.

Since this is mainly a compilation cartoon, only Dave Fleischer’s name is on the credits.

By the way, I love how Olive Oyl decides she wants a man in a uniform, so Popeye rushes to join the Army. Uh, Olive, isn’t Popeye wearing a uniform?

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Martin Sans Rowan

Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were nightclub comedians who made it big—monster big—in 1968 with Laugh-In. They had been together maybe 15 years at that point. But Martin had a brief solo career as actor which was pretty much doomed from the start.

Lucille Ball wanted to move on from I Love Lucy so she bought the right to a book about a divorced woman raising her family, assembled a cast and began shooting The Lucy Show. The problem was TV viewers were accustomed to seeing—and, I suspect, wanted to see—Lucy get into and out of scrapes with her best pal and pull one over under the disapproving eye of the male authority figure. You know, just like on I Love Lucy.

So any similarity between Lucy’s show and Irene Kampen’s book soon disappeared. Before long, Lucy and Vivian Vance were pulling shenanigans while television’s most dour man, Gale Gordon, groused, burned or shouted. What else did the show need? Nothing. So Lucy and Viv’s kids disappeared. And so did the next door neighbour who kind of, may have been, sort of was, Lucy’s boy-friend. He was played by Dick Martin.

Why did he leave the show? “They obviously didn’t need me,” he told the Archive of American Television. And if you watch any of those first episodes, you may wonder why he was even there. (A notable exception was an episode where, silent-film style, Lucy played a 1920s flapper trying to mooch a meal in a restaurant/tavern, with Martin as the waiter).

But Martin never knew any of that was ahead when he talked about his new job, and his pairing with Rowan, in an interview with the King Features Syndicate. This feature story appeared in newspapers on February 26, 1963.

TV Keynotes
Comedian Plays Straight Role

HOLLYWOOD — "I'm really George Burns," says comic Dick Martin, talking about his role of Harry Connors, the next door neighbor on the Monday night CBS Lucy Show.
Martin gets all the punch lines for the comedy team of Rowan and Martin. He's the talkative drunk, the idiot diet expert, the fella with the two big eyes who won't shut up, as he pulls all the laughs in night clubs and on Ed Sullivan's Show, while his handsome partner, Dan Rowan, plays straight man.
On the Lucy Show, it's the reverse with Martin playing straight man for Gracie-Lucy. And what a straight man, he is—Harry gets one line every five shows so far. "The first six were written before Harry was cast," says Dick Martin who is not complaining a bit.
In episodes coming up this winter and spring Harry will have more to say. He does a couple of shows, and then goes to San Francisco for a hotel date with partner Rowan. When the two return to Hollywood a few weeks later, Martin shoots some more and takes off again with Rowan, so the Lucy Show isn't interfering with the Rowan and Martin comedy career.
Likes Character Switch
When the idea of a character like Harry Connors came up Lucy immediately thought of her old friend Dick Martin. Other names were tossed in the hopper, but Lucy could only see Dick Martin. He came in for a reading and Lucy said, "play yourself as I know you. Don't play your comedy character." Martin did and got the job.
"I like the switch in character," says Martin. "It's great for me not playing an idiot."
"There's not much you can really do with the part," says Martin. "I'm just the fella who is always around when Lucy needs him. I can't be brought in for the romantic interest—that would limit the show. Lucy has to have other dates. But none of that matters. I like doing another character and I should pay to just be with these people. You can't call it work."
Hard To Follow Script
The only work for Martin comes in saying lines as they're written. He's not used to it. "Dan and I have been working for nine years, and I don't think we've ever repeated a routine word for word," says Martin.
"Then I get a script on the Lucy Show and I'm supposed to do it exactly as written. That's a problem.
"We have a framework to work from," continued Martin. "In London's Palladium we were told 'we had a frightfully elastic script." When the two did "Babes in Toyland" and "The Red Mill" in the St. Louis Municipal Opera House, they rewrote both musicals. "We're used to working nose-to-nose," said Martin. "But in St. Louis the mikes were 8 feet apart and I felt all alone."
Summer musicals and parts like Harry Connors are efforts by the team to move out of the night club circuit if possible. The two have seen the country and Australia, and they would like to stay home and be able to work. "We carry golf clubs and a tuxedo on the circuit," says Martin. "Golf helps combat boredom, but in the wintertime life on the road is pretty dull. You can blow all the movies in a strange city in two days."
Golf is the big game among night club entertainers. They, at least, can get on a course during the week. Among all the courses Martin has played, one on the Fiji Island, a stop-over on the road to Australia, sticks out in his mind. "You have to hire three kids to caddy there," he says. "Kids pick up the balls with their feet and walk off, unless you ship them a quarter. And the fairways are narrow. One slice and you're in the oven."
Rowan and Martin have also learned from experience to play hotels rather than straight night clubs. From a financial point of view, of course. "You play hotels," says Martin "and your room is paid. That's a big saving. You can also go to your room between shows and read. Another plus. You can almost call it forced savings."
But there's no place like home, or work on a series like Lucy. Martin is getting some reading done on the set too. He's learning about self-hypnosis after watching hypnotists for half his life in clubs.
"I'm trying to learn how to sleep on planes." says Martin. "I think this book can help."
Maybe the book will help Martin on planes, but it really sounds like the basis for a pretty funny Lucy script.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

One Step Ahead of My Shadow Backgrounds

It’s really unfortunate that few artists were ever credited in animated cartoons in the 1930s. It’d be great to know for certain who was responsible for backgrounds, layouts, even the animation itself.

Here are some nice, effective backgrounds for the Merrie Melodies short One Step Ahead of My Shadow (1933). Who drew them? No one today may know. The gong in the opening shot is on a cel (as is the character and his mallet), but the rest of the work is by the unknown background artist.

Hugh Harman or Rudy Ising go for an overlay with a tree in this scene. Very effective and attractive.

The layout artist has designed shots at an angle instead of a stage viewpoint in various parts of the cartoon.

The blossoming trees in the foreground are on an overlay.

More angles. The backgrounds feature tapestries, rugs and screens.

Friz Freleng and Max Maxwell are the credited animators on this short. The title song by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain is featured hot-cha style and, as usual in a Harman-Ising Merrie Melodie, it bops along at double-time in the second half when the bad guy (a dragon) chases the good guys (the little boy and girl). The soundtrack also includes “Chinatown, My Chinatown.”

Monday, 14 August 2017

People! People!

In the opening of The Cat That Hated People (1949), the title character begins to elucidate why he is what he is. He paces, waves his arms and clenches his fists in a lengthy bit of animation with a different drawing on each frame. Look at the varied poses.

I believe the animation is by Mike Lah. Bill Shull, Walt Clinton and Louis Schmitt also receive animation credits. The cat’s voice is a growly version of Jimmy Durante; several people who did voices for Tex Avery at MGM drew on Durante, so I can’t tell you who did this cartoon.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Jack Benny and His Violin

One of many comedy routines on the Jack Benny show (radio and TV) featured Benny scratching out some racket while practising on the violin, with teacher Prof. Le Blanc reeling in pain or annoyance. Listeners and viewers thought—“He couldn’t really play that badly? Could he? Just how well can he play?”

Well, yes, he could play better. But the question of how well he really could play is open for discussion.

The impression I’ve been left with is that to the average audience, Jack Benny was a very accomplished violinist. To professional musicians with trained ears, well, he wasn’t great, and never would be, but he was dedicated and serious about his love for music.

One person who would know the answer to the question better than I was the man who helped Benny improve his skills on the instrument. Larry Kurkdjie was a serious symphony musician who, somehow, found himself in Phil Harris’ orchestra on the Benny radio show. Jack seconded Kurkdjie to give him lessons. Someone thought to interview him about Benny’s violin virtuosity and it appeared in a newspaper weekend magazine supplement on November 13, 1960. Unfortunately, the scan is very poor; I’d love to have a better copy of the drawing of violinist Benny.
Benny's Fiddle Teacher Tells All

In speaking of Jack Benny's violin playing, the late Fred Allen made this classic remark: "Jack's a very funny guy. I love him. But he's the only violinist who makes you feel the strings would sound better back on the cat!"
Despite his almost three decades in broadcasting, audiences still do not know how to accept Benny: is he a virtuoso side-tracked into a career as a comedian, or is he a comic with a musical sideline?
Benny isn't talking. But what about Larry Kurkdjie? He is Benny's violin teacher, and shouldn't he have a pretty fair comprehension of which Jack is which? Of course, Larry is a funny man, too. He's rotund and jovial, and can it be a thing of seriousness when he and Jack, adjusted to laughing, put their fiddles under their chins and stare at each other?
Larry says it's serious. When he phoned TV WEEK from California, he pointed out that Jack practices his violin diligently, every day.
"Of course," chuckled Larry, "when we first started we used to have our lessons in the room where people take their Saturday night bath. Jack said that was the only appropriate place. But we've graduated now to Joanie's (Jack's daughter) quarters. Now, nobody objects.
"Also, when we first started we had to close the windows real tight. Now we leave them open. So you can see how well he's progressed."
But back to the original poser — is Benny a musician turned comedian, or a comic who likes to fiddle around?
Larry put it this way:
"I really believe that, as a comedian, he's one of the best violinists. Not the best violinist by a long shot, but one of the best — as a comedian. Jack gets by with difficult, technical passages that fool the layman. That's the beauty of his artistry, the way he covers up. His timing is absolutely beautiful. But he's a human being like the rest of us, and he makes lots of mistakes." Larry chuckled again. "And more so on the violin than otherwise!
"I've had a lot of people tell me they know Jack is a great violinist, and that he makes mistakes purposely. That's wonderful — let them think that.
Larry has been with Jack for twenty-three years, but only within the last four or five years has he been instructing Benny in the art of fiddling. That's because Jack has become serious about playing the violin.
"He recently bought a gorgeous Stradivarius," said Larry. "I'd say it's worth about $28,000. And he owns a beautiful bow that used to belong to the great Belgian violinist, Eugene Ysaye. So, the combination of the Strad (which Jack carries to rehearsals and practices in his dressing room when there's time) and the bow helps him get over the bad passages!"
During the 1960-61 season, Jack's calendar includes nightclub appearances and concert engagements with symphony orchestras in Indianapolis, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. He will, of course, be violin soloist, and his program will not include minor works such as "Love In Bloom." He will choose from such major fiddle fodder as the "Mendelssohn Concerto" (which Larry says is just about Jack's favorite composition) and some bowing exercises by Rimsky-Korsakov.
"He loves Brahms, too," said Larry, "but he hasn't tackled it yet. He likes any good music. He likes to play quartet, and plans on doing some trios — violin, cello, piano. All these things, he gradually plans to use on his TV shows."
Some of Benny's greatest fans include such bowmen as Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stein and other distinguished musicians who count him "one of the boys."
Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, says about Jack:
"Benny has done more than raise thousands of dollars to erase operating deficits of major orchestras. He has brought multitudes of people, who would otherwise not be there, into the concert halls (Jack does the concerts for free) to prove that good music can be entertaining and rewarding."
And the master violinist, Isaac Stern, says with tongue-in-cheek: "When Jack walks out in tails in front of 90 musicians he looks like the greatest of soloists. What a shame he has to play!"
The 66-year-old comedian's violin instructor also used to play with symphony orchestras, two of which were the Boston Symphony and Cleveland Symphony. Larry left Cleveland for Hollywood, and in 1938 he substituted on Jack's show.
"Evidently," said Larry, "he thought I did a pretty good job because I've been on the show ever since. I'm the first violinist — every time you hear that high squeaky fiddle, that's me.
"But Jack uses his fiddle playing to perfection on his TV shows. He's very serious in his playing. Tries very hard. He really plays to the best of his ability."
Larry hesitated, then couldn't resist another chuckle.
"Of course, at times the playing sounds funny, but still he plays to the best of his ability!"
When he was scarcely out of diapers, Jack began (at his father's behest) taking violin lessons and was soon considered something of a child prodigy. While still in grammar school, he became the only knickerbockered member of the pit orchestra at the Barrison Theatre in Waukegan, Illinois.
During high school he doubled between the school band and the Barrison pit, and at 16 he teamed up with Cora Salisbury, the Barrison pianist, as a vaudeville duo. When she left the act, Jack teamed with Lyman Woods. The team of Benny and Woods in due time became vaudeville headliners here and abroad.
Then what made him decide to be a comedian?
Larry explained that he didn't exactly. "One day he just stopped playing and started talking. They laughed."
The story goes that during the first World War, Jack was a sailor in grease paint, and his prime duty was the raising of funds for Navy relief. His routine in the Great Lakes Revue was musical, but one night during his performance the electricity failed and the lights went out in the auditorium. To keep the crowd from getting restless, Jack started to talk. The audience roared with laughter.
The rest is Humorsville history. The fiddler began his career as a comedian, and the violin probably gathered dust notes in Jack's legendary bank vault. But now, with the fiddle tucked neatly under his chin, Jack is both comic and violinist.
"You know," said Larry, "besides the public concerts he gives, Jack plays for benefits that the public doesn't hear about. For service men, hospital groups - he does a lot of that."
Larry used to give concerts himself, but "I've given it up. Takes too much practice!" He also used to play violin on other television shows, but now is only on Benny's. Although he jokes about Jack's violin playing, it is obvious that Larry does consider him to be a good violinist — as a comedian.
"Jack loves to fiddle," said Larry, "but he loves his show better than anything else. It's the first thing in his life, because he loves to make people laugh. He loves to see them happy.
"His second big love is his fiddle. His third big love is golf. I don't know where his wife Mary comes in!"
Then does Larry think that if Jack continues to practice and take his fiddling seriously, he'll turn out to really be one of the best violinists, comedian or not?
"As I told him," Larry said, "if he ever tries to be a greater violinist than he is, I'll punch him in the nose!"
Kurkdjie’s interview answers another question listeners may have had—Jack Benny was not the one playing those off-key scales and Kreutzer exercises on the radio show. Kurkdjie was. I always figured Benny was doing it because the studio audience might not give a good reaction if someone else at the back of the stage was playing the instrument. But Laura Leibowitz, the very knowledgeable president of the International Jack Benny Fan Club, pointed out in a recent interview (and this makes perfect sense when you think about it):
“[O]n television, he is playing the violin. Radio was different. To play, Jack had to put down the script, pick up the violin and settle it, under his chin, before he could play. After he played the violin, he reversed these steps.
“The set up and take down took time. It was hard to write-around the setup, which disrupted the flow of the show. On radio, Jack playing the violin was rarely feasible.
“Larry Kurkdjie usually played the violin for Jack.”
So it sounds like Jack played the violin during longer, non-dialogue parts (such as the middle commercial for the sponsor, or during his performances of “The Bee” and “Thanks For the Memory” in the ‘30s). Whatever the case, Jack’s violin playing resulted in millions of laughs—and millions of dollars for good causes.