Monday, 21 June 2021

Fingers in the Eyes

A knock at the door. A wolf’s arms twist around before he decides to see who is there.

Now the running gag. A mama duck pokes the eyes of the wolf as she hunts for her duckling-in-an-egg.

The door slams into the wolf and flattens him. He clatters to the floor.

The scenes are from Frank Tashlin’s Booby Hatched, released by Warners in 1944. Izzy Ellis gets an animation credit, while Warren Foster wrote the story.

Sunday, 20 June 2021

50 Years of Laughs

Jack Benny had a very good idea of why he was a success. He expounded on it for years in the press. Here’s an example from March 10, 1963. The writer was the TV editor for the San Diego Union, which was evidently hooked up with a syndicate.

Self-Knowledge Benny Asset

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 24 (CNS) — "This is the greatest season I've ever had" said Jack Benny as he relaxed in his studio dressing room. His mood was reflective, light-hearted, even merry.
And why not? After 30-odd years of radio and television, the Benny shows this season have indeed hit a high water mark. As for Benny himself, he is that rare bird among the comedians — he is shrewdly detached, an expert at the difficult art of self-appraisal. He doesn't, moreover, use a superlative lightly. It was significant that he saw fit to repeat this particular one.
"The greatest season yet," Benny went on, nodding agreeably. "Each year our shows have always been a little better but this year we've had more new things, new ideas. Not that I thought in other years we had a bunch of lousy shows—that we've never had!"
By way of emphasis, he stared a characteristic Jack Benny stare. Then resuming:
"I happen to have a theory about this business — you should never press. Never try to top yourself. Once you try to top yourself, you start straining.
"MY KIND OF COMEDY lasts because, one, I try not to strain and, two, because my character — the Jack Benny character — includes a composite of all the faults people may have, all the human frailties. He's stingy and vain and insecure — insecurity is based on stinginess which is the fear of the future. Who isn't afraid of the future?
"So — we exaggerate, we make a joke of it and people recognize something of themselves.
"There's a lot of everybody," says Jack Benny, thoughtfully, "in Jack Benny."
Benny has started a run at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York — a venture that delights the vaudevillian in him. Benny played the Roxy, a movie house, in 1947; otherwise this engagement marks his first Broadway appearance since he left Earl Carroll's Vanities 31 years ago to enter radio, being introduced thereon by a smiling journalist-emcee named Ed Sullivan.
"I THOUGHT back then that maybe if things worked out, I'd have a little future in radio," Benny said, with a small shrug. "But if anybody would have said, 'Jack 30 years from now you'll still be going strong,' I'd have said, 'What are you — crazy?' But then, nobody in this business thinks they'll last. We always wonder, where will the material come from?"
" And where," I asked "does it come from?"
Benny shrugged again. "All I know is, you can't plan a character," he said. "You can't say, 'Look, fellas, let's invent this cheap vain character who drives a Maxwell, keeps his money buried in a vault and has a butler named Rochester and wears a toupee' — actually, it would be funnier if I really wore a toupee, which I don't. But all of this adds up to 'Jack Benny.'
"And that kind of a character you can't plan. If it works it works and people begin to accept everything about it — the fat announcer, the silly kid tenor. And after 30 years it all gets a little easier because people know that character so well."
BENNY PAUSED. "People have been laughing at me for 50 years now — 50 years! That's more years than I am! So I can't be too lousy a comedian. But I'm also a better editor of material than people realize. A lot of comics would last longer if they knew themselves as well as I know me."
Our conversation turned to the violin, the instrument that Mr. Benny plays with such — uh, dedication.
"Listen, I practice an hour a day on the violin," Benny said. "If I didn't practice, I'd get even worse. I used to holler at Giselle MacKenzie all the time. I'd say, 'Giselle, you can play the violin so beautifully and you hardly ever play!' It makes me sore when I think of how hard I have to work just to play lousy.
"Most people think I can play better and just play this way for a joke," Benny said, then added, resignedly, "But if I could play better, then it wouldn't be funny."

Saturday, 19 June 2021

The Sentinels' Fire Brigade

Political cartoons have existed in newspapers for generations. Animated political cartoons? A little more rare simply because of the expense in making them and the danger of offending someone in a general audience. Walter Lantz’s Confidence (1933) was an unabashed love letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal (an animated Roosevelt appears in it).

On the other side of the equation was The Amateur Fire Brigade—A Parable of the New Deal (1935), which ridiculed Roosevelt’s administration and policies. The cartoon was funded by a group called ‘The Sentinels of the Republic’ and the film was shown at rallies and meetings organised by it and its allied right-wing groups.

Looking at my notes, I intended on writing about this a number of years ago but got stymied because I was missing a vital piece of information—who made the cartoon? The 1935 Copyright Catalogue was silent. Fortunately, there are excellent and thorough researchers out there. Jonathan Boschen discovered it had been animated by Ted Eshbaugh’s studio in New York. Then Steve Stanchfield did a whole post on it on the Cartoon Research blog. That left really nothing for me to do. But I still have these notes so I’m not going to allow them to go to waste.

The Sentinels started making the rounds with the film by October 1935, apparently commencing with a “Safeguarding the Constitution” exhibition at the Garrick Theatre Philadelphia, with the intention of bringing it to Broadway in New York and then other cities. The Chicago Tribune claimed more than 30,000 in Philadelphia viewed the cartoon which was, it claimed, “so successful in arousing the public to the fallacies of the New Deal.” The Trib’s description in its February 1, 1936 edition:
“It shows what happens when a fire starts in Uncle Sam’s farmhouse. The New Deal fire company, headed by President Roosevelt and composed of “brain trusters,” answers the alarm. The movie pictures them as doing everything imaginable except putting the fire out. On their way to the fire they stop for the game of “soaking the rich,” playing poker with public funds, and building a house of alphabetical blocks. Gen. High Johnson stands in front of the “old soldiers’ home” and watches his Blue Eagle fly off to become an emblem on the useless fire engine.
Finally Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes drives up in his horse and buggy and knocks down the alphabetical blocks while the American eagle routs the “blue buzzard.” Meanwhile, Miss Liberty, Uncle Sam’s housekeeper, throws a few pails of “common sense” on the fire and extinguishes it without further ado.”
It should be pointed out that the publisher of the Tribune, Col. R.R. McCormick, was a backer of the Sentinels. His paper echoed the organisation’s claim it was “non-partisan” and “patriotic.”

As you might expect, a hardly non-partisan film like this was going to eventually run into trouble. And it did in Col. Richardson’s town. It had been shown “before 40 leading Chicago business men” but an attempt to show it in public on February 10, 1936 was waylaid by the city’s board of censors, which called it “propaganda against the Roosevelt administration” and disrespectful of the president (Richardson’s paper pointed out the head of the board was a Democrat). The board’s ban lasted 24 hours and the cartoon was shown on schedule.

The door was opened for protest. The next day, the State Division of Film Censorship in Ohio barred the cartoon because it “encourages disrespect for the office of the President” (no mention of Roosevelt personally). Labour groups started lining up against it.

Then the Sentinels ran into big trouble of their own making. In mid-April, the U.S. Senate Lobby Committee received a copy of a memo from the Sentinels’ files written in connection with a campaign to raise between $360,000 and $400,000 to finance the cartoon and the exhibition. Finding the money proved to be difficult, and a New York Times April 18th version of the story stated the film was later toned down (ie. edited) because some Sentinels though the Roosevelt was being caricatured too much.

But that wasn’t the bombshell. The Committee also was given a copy of a letter from Alexander Lincoln, the president of the Sentinels, declaring “the Jewish threat is a real one...and I am doing what I can as an officer of the Sentinels” and warned of a “Jewish brigade Roosevelt took to Washington” and a “fight for Western Christian civilization” against “the enemy is world-wide and that it is Jewish in origin.” For good measure, he used a familiar tactic from the right-of-centre playbook and bashed the media. Lincoln’s correspondent responded “the old-line Americans of $1,200 a year want a Hitler.”

Incredibly, Lincoln’s response to the Committee was, basically, some of my best friends are Jewish and my comments are being misconstrued. As his entire letter was made public, people could easily see the truth.

Big business leaders rushed to jump off the Sentinels’ ship before being tarred as anti-Semitic. Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors promised to stop pumping his money into the group; Sloan’s foundation in the 1940s and ‘50s sponsored pro-business/anti-government interference cartoons made by John Sutherland Productions.

The decline of the group is outside the focus of this blog. However, the Sentinels continued to show the cartoon. The group got an $8,000 sound truck so it could be screened outdoors. A showing in Elmira, New York in May 1936 was in a public park. Brigade appeared in an auditorium the same month in Akron, Ohio. According to the Beacon Journal “The picture is the censored version over which the board of Ohio censors squabbled for weeks early this year. The ‘objectionable parts’ will be displayed as "stills" over which the state censorship laws have no control.” A Republican group in Brooklyn and another in Montclair, New Jersey unspooled the film in October 1936. Attempts to find later showings have borne no fruit.

In a twist of irony, a pro-FDR film later made the rounds called Hell Bent For Election (1944). And some of the people responsible for it ended up before a government Committee, too, which demanded names of Communists. Blacklisting followed.

You can view Amateur Fire Brigade. It evidently is the edited version, courtesy of Steve and the Library of Congress.

Friday, 18 June 2021

Boogie Woogie Man

You can tell Shamus Culhane’s directing things in Boogie Woogie Man (1943). He’s got characters poking heads and other things toward the camera in sudden movement.

Here are some frames from one scene.

The character designs are all over the place. You have modernistic streamlined ghosts. You have a grandpappy ghost that looks like it’s out of a ‘30s cartoon and then you have huge-lipped Blacks (there’s even a lip joke) that wouldn’t have won any awards from the NAACP. (And this wasn’t the Lantz cartoon it objected to. Dancing stereotypes were apparently okay. Lazy ones like in Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat were not).

La Verne Harding and Les Kline are the credited animators.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Daffy and the Snow Queen

“Confidentially, folks,” Daffy Duck says to viewers of Daffy’s Southern Exposure, “I ain’t goin’ south this winter. I’m goin’ to stay around and check up on this winter business.” What he has in mind is checking out the Snow Carnival Snow Queen in the newspaper he’s reading. He shows us the picture.

Suddenly, a flock of ducks slide into the scene, and shout, just like on the radio game show Take It or Leave It “You’ll be sorry!” Then the ducks turn and fly away in perspective.

Norm McCabe is the director, with Don Christensen supplying the story. It’s one of McCabe’s most enjoyable efforts. Daffy constantly chats to the audience, he still woo-hoos and jumps around the scene, he changes emotions out of nowhere, and there are parody lyrics to the song “Latin Quarter.” He’s not an insane duck, he clearly knows what he wants, though he gets dealt a few setbacks.

Vive Risto is one of the animators along with Cal Dalton, John Carey and Izzy Ellis.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Combating Bigots Via Radio

Old-Time radio wasn’t merely Bing crooning, Fibber McGee opening a closet, H.V. Kaltenborn with the news, or someone on Ma Perkins getting amnesia. Issues were addressed in a number of ways, issues that still haunt us today. Some were tackled well, others perhaps not.

Herald Tribune Syndicate columnist John Crosby gives some examples in his column of August 28, 1946. And he ponders a conundrum about it as well.

Witchcraft, Past and Present
There are two kinds of bigotry—popular and unpopular—and both are wrong. Bigotry feeds on bigotry as violence feeds on violence. In recent weeks radio’s better minds have made notable efforts to combat the intolerance which alarmingly has flamed again in the South and, in some instances, against Americans of Japanese descent on the west coast. It’s generally assumed that any radio program aimed against intolerance is admirable, but I sometimes wonder.
Recently I heard three such programs, and I’d like to take them up one at a time. First, let’s consider Orson Welles. In his Sunday afternoon broadcast Mr. Welles told of a Negro veteran who was blinded by a brutal beating administered him in South Carolina. Mr. Welles’ heart was in the right place, but he put his foot in his mouth at the outset by accusing the town of Aiken, S.C., of responsibility for the crime. It later developed the beating took place in another town some miles from Aiken. Mr. Welles was forced to apologize to Aiken, thus totally obscuring the original issue. Then Aiken—and I’m taking Mr. Welles word for this—in a torrent of childish wrath, banned Mr. Welles latest picture and made a public bonfire of all the advertisements and posters about it. Welles made a fool of himself over a national network, and the town looked pretty silly, too.
That wasn’t all. In that famous voice Welles threatened to pursue to the grave the sheriff who beat the Negro. If there was a trial, he said, he would attend it. If the sheriff was sentenced, he would accompany him to prison. After he had served this hypothetical sentence, Mr. Welles would be on hand when he was released. Welles, in short, would haunt the man. The Welles curse had been laid on the sheriff. Boo.
* * *
Case No. 2 is that of “David Harding, Counterspy.” This Dick Tracy of the air waves fearlessly confronted a mob intent on burning down the home of an American war veteran of Japanese descent. With magnificent bravado, Mr. Harding collared the ringleader, after standing off the mob with a ringing speech against intolerance. It was cops and robbers with a social significance, blood and thunder with a moral. The head mobster was a villain indistinguishable from any of the bully boys in a Wild West movie.
How much good does this sort of thing achieve beyond publicizing the problem? The mob scene only arouses passions in the listener as furious, though more righteous, than those the mob is exercising. You get mad enough to lynch the ringleader, scarcely an admirable anger. You are confirmed in your righteousness, and the prejudices of the west coast hoodlums probably aren’t altered a whit.
* * *
It’s all right to inform the unbigoted of what’s going on on the west coast, but is it wise to inflame them? Righteous wrath can do more harm than unrighteous wrath and, in fact, it’s frequently hard to distinguish between the two. Rather than making the rest of us mad, why not educate the people who are committing these crimes—a much harder and sometimes seemingly hopeless task.
Let’s take up the third case, which attempted that very thing. It was a superb radio dramatization of the witch burnings in Salem, Mass., in 1692. Its name was “An Interpretation of Cotton Mather,” and it was broadcasted on the Columbia Broadcasting System’s “American Portrait Stories” Saturday, Aug. 17 (6:15 p. m.). The drama soberly presented the tale of those two demonic girls, Abigail and Elizabeth, who feigned convulsions and accused three respected Salem women of bewitching them. Salem was thrown into a ferment of religious bigotry and, before the blood lust had passed, twenty-two persons were hanged or burned for witchcraft and 150 others were awaiting trial. With penetrating insight, and possibly a little hindsight, the dramatist, Irve Tunick, demonstrated how Cotton Mather, that unparalleled religious zealot, used the witchcraft scare to strengthen his hold on the people and to stop the loose talk of religious freedom, then getting uncomfortably loud for Mather’s dictatorial nature.
But the real lesson of this study was that religious conviction, or any conviction—whether good or bad—can lead to the blackest sin when too rigidly held and too blindly followed. To understand the present, study the past. Witchcraft is ridiculous. We all agree on that now. But the passions that led to the slaughter of twenty-two innocents is as contemporary as Harry S. Truman. The juxtaposition of an archaic belief with a modern emotion threw the cool light of historical perspective on own prejudices.
* * *
The same trick was performed in a single line by Bill Mauldin in the most brilliant of his recent cartoons. The cartoon showed two Roman Senators, togas and all, in a heated argument before a colonnaded building.
“Well,” said one Roman to the other, “would you like your daughter to marry a Christian?”

The rest of the week’s columns by Crosby: Monday, Aug. 26th he talked about composer Dick Whiting (father to singers Margaret and Barbara) and American standards. Aug. 27th is about radio solving the problems of teenagers; Aug. 29th is a potpourri including a swipe at Chicago Tribune editor R.R. McCormick (the paper owned WGN), who was quite likely on the other side of the political spectrum than Crosby; Aug. 30th on a programming idea from independent and iconoclastic WNEW and breakfast two-some shows in particular. Enlarge the text with a click.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Watch For Walt

Smiling pocket watches are about to open and close in time to the music in The Clock Store. But there’s an inside joke here.

One watch cover is engraved W.E.D. and another H.G. The first would be for none other than Walter Elias Disney, and the second for Hardie Gramatky, a young background artist at the studio.

Music and dancing. Oh, and two clocks fight. Not much else in this 1931 cartoon.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Makeshift Stone Age Gun

Dinosaur Dan, the first Texas Bad Man, runs out of bullets. No matter. He uses his finger to fire at the posse chasing him.

It’s not exactly one of Tex Avery’s most stellar gags.

The First Bad Man was released by MGM in 1955, well after Tex’s unit was shut down by the studio. Walt Clinton, Ray Patterson, Mike Lah and Grant Simmons are the credited animators, while future Flintstones designer Ed Benedict came up with the model for these characters.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Good Night, Joanie

Jack Benny had a little message at the end of his broadcasts when he was out of Los Angeles in the late ‘30s-early ’40s.

“Good night, Joanie,” he would say.

It was a private recognition of his little daughter Joan, listening back home before being put to bed.

Little Joanie passed away last Thursday, a week before her 87th birthday. She and her father both succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

Joan grew up in the spotlight, with movie magazines running feature stories about the Benny family when she was a child. Her first wedding drew huge press attention, mainly because her father spent and spent and spent some more on it, in contrast to his radio character. She stood in for her mother in the end days of the radio episodes, and even appeared on the radio and TV shows. No doubt fans are rushing to video sharing sites, re-watching her and her dad on Password in the early ‘60s.

She is probably best known as what they used to call an “authoress” by taking her father’s memoires, adding her own memories, and compiling “Sunday Nights at Seven.” She remarked that she didn’t think it would be popular because she had nothing bad to say about her father. But she loved him very much, and so did fans, who snapped up copies as soon as they came out.

Jack Benny died December 26, 1974. Joan, naturally, was one from whom reporters at the time wanted to hear. She was featured in a story from the Philadelphia Inquirer of January 14, 1975 that was syndicated across the U.S.

My thanks to Bill Cairns for use of the photo of father and daughter.

Jack Benny's Daughter, Joan, Recalls Life With Dad

Knight Newspapers Writer
PHILADELPHIA, Pa.—"Daddy had the greatest enthusiasm about everything. We used to laugh at him. He would say something like 'this is the greatest glass of water I have ever had in my life' and mean it."
Joan Benny Blumofe smiles a lot when she talks about her father, the late Jack Benny. But there are times when tears well up suddenly in those lovely, expressive eyes.
Joan was in town this past week to tape a Benny tribute for a Jan. 24 Mike Douglas show. She was adopted by Benny and his wife when the comedian was 40 and she was an infant. Despite the age difference, she and her father were very close, she says.
Both were baseball fans and they haunted the stadium where the Hollywood Stars played. They shared an enthusiasm for classical music, something that in the last 20 years of Benny's life, became more important than his comedy work according to Joan.
Despite his reputation as a comedian, Benny wasn't a funny father, Joan says. "He would tell us jokes he had heard at the club then explain why a certain story was funny even though you already knew why."
As an example of this "unfunny" characteristic Joan recounted the time she told her father a story she thought was funny. She got to the punch line and drew a blank look from Benny. "I said 'that's the story Daddy,' and he said 'oh'," Joan recalls.
"So I said, 'let me try again.' Again, nothing. Two hours later we were talking about something else, he said 'That was a great story.' And he then explained to me why it was funny.
"I wish I could be more like him," Joan says. "He had no guile. No ulterior motives. Mother was the stronger person. She would tell him to look out for someone she suspected was trying to use him and Daddy would listen. But he was never convinced.
"Daddy couldn't care less about clothing. Mother saw to it he was dressed properly. He might wear purple socks if Mother didn't supervise. He didn't understand status dressing like Gucci shoes."
Like father like daughter.
Joan, who is 40 but looks younger, says she dresses in jeans and wears virtually no makeup. For the Douglas show, she wore a denim pantsuit that de-emphasized her petite, feminine prettiness.
Joan, who was slightly nervous about doing the Douglas show, (she left show business to raise a family of four), says her father was always nervous.
"Really talented people always are," she says. "He worried about everything as far as his profession was concerned but I thought he hid it well."
Benny doted on his first grandson, Michael, Joan's son. He took the boy everywhere, to Expo in Montreal and to one of the early space launchings.
"He was always recognized. I think he was unhappy if he wasn't. He and Bob Hope once compared vacations which each other had taken to get away for some peace and quiet. When he wasn't recognized in two days he came home," Joan says. "He hated it. Bob said he had the same experience.
“He was a great visitor, popping in on friends. He loved to walk. That's not unusual anywhere but in Hollywood. I drive to the corner to mail a letter.
"He was a pushover as a father," Joan says, and her eyes begin to mist. Records show she isn't exaggerating. When she was married at 21, the man whose comedy reputation had been based on being a skinflint, gave her a wedding that was estimated to cost from $25,000 to 150,000.
Asked to share special memories, she remembers how every week when she was three or four. Benny would take her for an excursion through the Calif. countryside. "He'd always say that the car wouldn't start until I gave him a kiss." There's a pause and a visible effort to regain composure.
"I don't know yet what I can talk about without crying," she apologizes as she rushes off to the Douglas taping.
The explanation is unnecessary. A whole country will know how she feels.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Another Background Gag Mystery

Painting sets for cockroaches probably isn’t very satisfying. Especially if you don’t have the full spectrum of Technicolors because Walt Disney has them exclusively.

That’s the situation that was faced by whoever did the backgrounds for The Lady in Red, a 1935 Friz Freleng cartoon.

There’s a nicely-drawn establishing shot to open the short, and we get a lunch counter to set the mood. The other shots below are pretty lacklustre.

Ah, but we have hidden gags by the guy who loved sticking references to Tubby Millar and his hometown in background objects. They are littered in a bunch of Merrie Melodies and all have the same style of lettering. It was either Griff Jay or Elmer Plummer. My wild guess is Plummer.

First, cereal made in Portis (and packed by Tubby Millar). Note it’s patented in 1934.

Next, Tedd Pierce’s black olives. Perhaps he used them in his martinis.

Not just cereal! Tubby has laying hens, too. In a throwaway gag, a cross-eyed roach keeps looking the wrong way.

Here are two similar backgrounds but different. One has the cake cups manufactured by “The Millar Co.” The other has them by “The Coleman Co.”

Another Coleman reference.

We’ve talked about Coleman before. Don Coleman’s name and address were in a phoney phone book in Buddy the Detective (1934). At the time, we mentioned the Los Angeles City Directory for 1935 listed his occupation as “cartoonist.” It’s the same in 1936 and 1938. In 1933, it says “artist” and he is living at home with his parents.

A detective is what’s needed to solve the mystery of who Coleman was. He can be found in the 1930 City directory, which reveals he was born in Montana and was 19 years old. His name pops up in the “Junior Times” section of the Los Angeles Times of June 12, 1927 where young people sent in cartoons and other art. Besides Coleman, future animators mentioned in the column were Hardie Gramatky (Disney), Manuel Moreno (Lantz), Leo Salkin (Mintz, UPA), Phil De Lara (Warners) and Bob Stokes (Harman-Ising) with a drawing by Cal Howard (various studios).

His picture is in the Loyola High School annual of 1928-29. The Los Angeles Evening Express of February 1, 1930 mentions he is at Los Angeles Junior College as assistant art editor and a later edition reveals he was taking commercial art, designed the college seal and was illustrating a book called “Rum-Tum-Tummy.” A drawing of his of Loyola’s coach appeared in the October 3, 1930 Los Angeles Evening Post-Record.

I have no evidence his cartoonist job was at the Leon Schlesinger studio, but it would seem most probable.

What happened to him? Other than some Times stories involving events at Catholic schools, his name is in the 1940 Census—living in a jail. Why? I haven’t been able to find out, but it’s him without a doubt. He appears twice in the 1920 Census as well, in Lewiston City, Montana, and San Diego, but his first name is given as “Dominick” (side note: Don Pardo’s first name was actually “Dominick”). With that information handy, we find a WW2 Draft Card for Charles Dominic Coleman now residing with his mother at Tuxedo Terrace in Los Angeles, unemployed. He was born October 15, 1910 and died in San Diego on August 16, 1958, having served as a corporal in the U.S. Army during the war.

The song “The Lady in Red” is a Mort Dixon/Allie Wrubel composition that was first peformed in the 1935 feature In Caliente with Dolores Del Rio and is heard in 14 Warners cartoons, the final one being The Windblown Hare (1948). The music when the parrot is being chased is “Comedy Excitement” by J.S. Zamecnik.