Sunday, 22 July 2018

A Carnival of Jack Benny

TV specials and concerts occupied the final years of Jack Benny’s life. He kept working right up until cancer stopped him several months before his death. One of his specials in 1968 featured an odd assortment of names. Don Drysdale was a pitcher for the Dodgers; Jack was a baseball fan. George Burns was his best friend. Johnny Carson was practically a student of his. And Ben Blue, well, Ben Blue was an old vaudevillian who had appeared with him in Artists and Models Abroad (1937), on his radio show (about the same time) as some guy who broke into uncontrollable guffawing, and on his TV show in 1960. He wasn’t exactly an A-lister in 1968.

NBC dutifully sent out releases and captioned photos to newspapers to get free publicity for the special. Newspapers did what they wanted with them, lifting quotes for their own entertainment columns or republishing a release in part or whole. A release generally gives itself away by not being bylined, though small papers might not byline its entertainment stories if one writer/editor was responsible for all of them.

This story appeared in the TV magazine section Albany Times-Union of Saturday, March 16, 1968. I suspect it’s from one of those releases.

Jack Benny Conducts Special That Isn't His Idea of a Special
HOLLYWOOD — Jack Benny has put together a very special Special for the only outing of the year as the star of his own show on NBC, despite his protestation that it isn't a "special." The Wednesday colorcast extravaganza features such stars as Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Ben Blue and Paul Revere and the Raiders.
The carnival is the theme, and Benny has stocked his "sideshow" with cameo appearances by Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas, the Smothers Brothers, George Burns, Don Drysdale and a host of acts ranging from the sword swallower to the bearded lady.
• • •
"ALL I know," says Jack, "is that we have a great show. But NBC insists on calling it a 'special.' To me, a special is when coffee goes front a dollar a pound to 69 cents. That's a special!"
Benny is surrounded by eye-popping sets representing all elements of the carnival from the pitchman's booth in front of the tent housing Luscious Lucille, the kootch dancer, to the overloaded bus that carts the troupe from city to city. There are sets that showcase the main attractions and the featured performers and a huge carousel that acts as the backdrop for the finale.
The program consists of many vignettes within the world of the carnival. Carson plays a barker, a hustler for the baseball-throwing concession and, in one hilarious skit, Jack Benny's son, a penny-pinching carbon copy of his old man, who owns the Kubelsky Carnival.
Lucille Ball has a field day as Luscious Lucille, the kootch dancer who sings and dances as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra; as the sidekick of Ben Blue in a pantomime skit that pokes fun at the nickelodeons; as Benny's wife who is a Jill of All Trades in Benny's troupe.
Benny romps through the entire hour. He does a take-off of Dean Martin in the opening of his show that sets the pattern for zany humor. Benny's monologue is up to his best previous efforts. Then Jack plays a "rube," a con man, a member of the Revere Raiders and the corny owner, Kubelsky, which, by the way, is Jack's real name.
It wouldn't be cricket to divulge the nature of the cameo bits on the show because the very essence of the spots by the big-name stars is surprise.
• • •
THE ARDUOUS job of dispensing laughter for the better part of four decades (do your own arithmetic concerning Jack's alleged age of 39) has taken little apparent toll of Benny's store of energy and enthusiasm.
He relaxes by working, and makes countless appearances each year in behalf of charitable causes. His principal source of pleasure comes from his guest appearances with major symphonies around the country. (Last month, for instance, he appeared with the Boston Symphony.)
Jack has now been guest soloist with every major symphony in the United States. He gets only joy as his reward — no fee. He has raised over $4 million for ailing symphony treasuries in the years he has been doing this worthy "fiddling-around."
Additionally, Benny has been doing concerts in his primary capacity as a comedian. His act holds records in just about every spot in which he has titillated audiences, the most noteworthy of recent origin being the Expo '67 box office record, topping everything and everyone who appeared [at] the Montreal Exposition. Night clubs, guesting on television and an occasional golf game fill the rest of his spare time.
Public and network reaction to this special may cause Benny to re-evaluate his thinking about the amount of time he devotes to television.
The word going around is: the people are going to demand more of the same. "My doctor would like me to start taking it easier," Benny told his studio audience during taping of the show. "He told me that I shouldn't be working so hard. He said I couldn't be doing the show for the money. Ha!
"I have found," Benny continued, "that when you take the rubber gloves off a doctor, you have a real comedian on your hands!"

Saturday, 21 July 2018

It Still Sounded Like a Vacuum Cleaner

The Eye has been linked with CBS for years and years, but there was a time when people tuning their TV sets didn’t see it. In fact, there was barely a CBS at the time and it was difficult to see just about anything on a television screen.

The year was 1930. Bill Paley was running CBS, created only three years earlier (as UIB) to compete against RCA’s radio arm, NBC. Radio wasn’t NBC’s only preoccupation. Television was, too, so Paley got into the television business. It wasn’t actually a business, because commercial stations weren’t allowed. CBS, through its Atlantic Broadcasting Corporation subsidiary, applied for a license on August 13, 19301 and it was granted on December 16th.2 The station was given the call letters W2XAB, which had been abandoned by RCA, the owner of NBC. From this sprang the great CBS television network, but that was a little way into the future yet. There were experiments, a false start and a world war to contend with first (not to mention regulatory interference on the industry by the FCC).

It’s unclear when the first experimental broadcasts in preparation for the big debut happened—they were supposed to begin June 1, 19313—we do know there were some before July 12th because that’s the date the Baltimore Sun reported:
Boiled Shirts Banned Before Televisor Now
W2XAB Thrown Off Air By Reflection From Shining White Garment

During the first evening of experimental television tests from W2XAB, New York, an artist stepped before the televisor in dinner dress. The shining white shirt caused so much concentrated reflection that the transmitter was temporarily thrown off the air.
Edwin K. Cohan, director of technical operations and television for C.B.S., has, as a result, ordered a ban on “boiled shirts” in the television studios.
The New York Sun of July 17th reported there had been “several weeks of tests in which reception of W2XAB’s signals was said to have been heard in cities as far away as Boston, Hartford, Baltimore, Camden, Schenectady and Philadelphia.”

The big day was July 21, 1931. The time: 10:15 p.m. The New York press gave preview ink, one paper displaying a photo of Ed Wynn who was supposed to be on the 45-minute premiere broadcast. He never made it, and the papers were silent as to why. CBS may not have been a television network yet but the company had a big radio network, which simulcast the show (CFRB in Toronto was among the stations). Here’s what the New York Sun said the next day. Only the picture was carried on W2XAB; viewers on their “televisors” had to tune their shortwave radios to W2XE on another frequency to get the sound.
Columbia Offers Regular Daily Program.

Engineers Seek to Make Many Refinements in Instruments.
Television, the toddling scientific development, took a step forward today with the inauguration of a regular daily program from the new radio-vision studio of the Columbia Broadcasting System atop the broadcasting headquarters at 485 Madison avenue.
The opening took place last night when Mayor Walker drew aside the curtain from the sensitive photoelectric cells and officially "opened the eyes" of W2XAB, which becomes the sixth television transmitter in the metropolitan area.
Sixty broadcasting stations carried last night's ceremonies from coast to coast, through WABC, as more than one hundred guests watched the "flying spot" etch the images of speakers and performers and send them out over the ether.
Mayor Walker Introduced.
Edward B. Husing, WABC announcer, introduced Mayor Walker and then presented Natalie Towers, the Columbia television girl. Edwin K. Cohan, technical director of WABC, and Dr. Walter Schaffer, chief engineer of the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft of Germany, discussed television, its history and future.
Mr. Cohan said that television of today is comparable to the phonograph of 1910 and the motion picture of 1905, but predicted that it would advance from now on "just as surely as sound broadcasting has, and at no less pace."
"It will progressively bring to you the individual and small groups," he said, "the larger groups and complete symphonic and stage productions, the outdoor sporting events, the spot news events. It will eventually bring these to you in natural color."
"We have but one purpose in opening television station W2XAB," Mr. Cohan said, "our interest being solely that of a progressive broadcasting organization intent upon carrying on television experiments of its own, to determine the scope and limitations of this new art, and to build a well coordinated and efficient organization in advance of the day when television no longer remains the crude marvel that it now is."
Entertainers On Program.
George Gershwin, composer, played his own work, "Liza."
Other entertainers on the program were Kate Smith, pianist and singer; Ben Alley, tenor; Henry Burbig, humorist; Helen Nugent, contralto; the Boswell Sisters, Helen Gilligan and Milton Watson, who sang duets. Following the presentation, which the guests saw and heard in another studio, the visitors were allowed to inspect the visual-aural studio on the top floor of the building and the 500-watt picture transmitter which which is part of the broadcasting apparatus.
A regular schedule of broadcasts through W2XAB and W2XE, the respective visual and aural short-wave transmitters associated with WABC, will begin tonight when a program will be flashed to the liner Leviathan at sea.
The regular schedules calls for broadcasts from 2 to 6 P M. and from 8 to 11 P. M. The afternoon broadcast will he used largely for experimental work of the Columbia engineers, and will be sent out without sound accompaniment.
The Sun was a little reticent in describing the pictures. Other papers weren’t. The New York Herald Tribune said “The images in the televisor were quite plain last night, although red waves seemed to run through them constantly. Mayor Walker’s features were easily recognizable, and the Mayor commented somewhat on the difference television would make in politics.” (Walker wasn’t predicting “news” channels with slanted commentary; he was speaking of politicians being seen by voters). The Associated Press chimed in that “The images on these televisors permitted the guests to obtain good recognizable pictures, but from 14 miles away came a report that reception was somewhat marred by static with the images faint at times.” The Brooklyn Standard Union was even less impressed, opining “the televisors still sounded like a vacuum cleaner and the pictures were scarcely more clear than the early telephoto pictures printed in newspapers, when a few smudges and straight lines appeared under the caption ‘Flyers Land in Greenland.’”

Perhaps the biggest stunt on the station was the “first million dollar television broadcast” on September 8, 1931, when hostess Natalie Towers (CBS photo, right) wore a multitude gems and jewels on camera. You can read more about Natalie’s career on W2XAB in these fine articles HERE and HERE.

The station’s seven-day-a-week schedule was pretty ambitious for a company that wasn’t getting a cent from television. And a company that found itself caught in the Depression. The following May, W2XAB’s nightly schedule was cut from three hours nightly to two, with no sound because the audio was distorted when acts moved, and daytime programming was ended.4 The station then went off the air on July 4, 1932 for some sound tweaking.5

Ah, but it was only temporary. W2XAB celebrated its first anniversary by being new and (supposedly) improved. Now the sound and picture came from the same frequency! Here’s the New York Sun, July 23, 1932. You’ll notice not a lot is said about the programming; there’s more about the geeky, technical stuff.
Celebrates Its First Anniversary With Gala Event
Another milestone in the development of television was passed Thursday night, July 21, when a program of synchronized sight and sound was transmitted over W2XAB.
The program marked the first anniversary of Columbia's entrance into the field of television, and also inaugurated the regular broadcasting of simultaneous sight and sound on one wave-length.
The program included an innovation when Harold Stern's dance orchestra broadcast their music from the roof garden of the St. Moritz Hotel, while their leader talked to them and directed them from W2XAB's studio nine blocks away. Receivers set up in front of the band enabled the musicians to follow Stein's baton and hear his instructions as he faced the flying spot.
New System Explained
In a brief address to the listening audience, Edwin K. Cohan, technical director of Columbia, gave an explanation of the now synchronization method and pointed out its significance.
"The frequency band, or ether channel, occupied by W2XAB," Cohan said in his talk, "extends from 2,750 kilocycles to 2,850 kilocycles. Thus we have a channel 100 kilocycles or 100,000 cycles wide. (The regular broadcasting facilities are ten kilocycles or 100,000 cycles wide.) We transmit a picture composed of 4,320 picture elements and we transmit twenty complete pictures per second in order to obtain a satisfactory illusion of motion. This requires approximately 86 per cent of the 100,000 cycle channel just mentioned, leaving 14 per cent, or about 14,000 cycles, unused. Since the next progressive step in picture detail and definition under present methods would require a channel wider than 100,000 cycles. 86 per cent of the band has been the highest efficiency thus far. Instead of wasting the remaining 14 per cent, as has been the practice heretofore, tonight's program inaugurates the usage of nearly all this 'waste space' for the accompanying voice or music.
"This more efficient use of the channel," concluded Cohan, "coupled to the greater economy effected through the elimination of a large amount of equipment duplication, both at the transmitter and receiver, practically assures the future universal adoption of this basic idea, regardless of specific methods or channels used."
In another short address. William A. Schudt Jr., television director, outlined the accomplishments of its visual broadcasting activity after one year of experimentation, laying particular stress on the great advances made in television as an artistic medium of entertainment.
Continues Its Experiments
"When the history of television is written," he said, "we will be credited with having presented boxing bouts on a large scale, [staged photo to right] as well as wrestling and a play-board vision of football games. We likewise projected by television an authentic art exhibition; classic dancing; miniature musical comedies; sketching before the scanner; dancing and piano lessons, and programs in connection with news events of the day.
"Station W2XAB is the first television station to be synchronized in sound with a coast-to-coast radio network," he continued. "For those who do not have the opportunity to become familiar with present-day visual broadcasting, let me add that there is a fair television audience. We have received a good deal of fan mail from distances up to a 2,000-mile radius of New York. It is conservatively estimated that there are close to 9,000 television lookers-in within the metropolitan area. I feel reasonably certain that there are thousands more who see our programs, although we have no figures on them. Let us say then, that there are 9,000 television receiving sets in operation tonight, watching me as I stand before this scanning equipment Do you realize that you could not crowd 9,000 people into any but the few largest theaters in the country.
"For the coming year we will continue to experiment and develop studio technique and mechanical facilities. There will be hundreds of artists and performers facing these eyes' during the coming months. They will be working for the sake of television; working so that, you may have perfected television in your homes within a short time."
But the Depression wasn’t going anywhere. CBS needed to save money. A number of sustaining (non-commercial) radio artists making $100 a week were let go, including singer Vaughn De Leath. And W2XAB was shut down. The Columbia spin was the station offered little opportunity for further contribution to television, that the station had existed to prepare the company for when television “arrived” and the company was now prepared.6 It unexpectedly signed off on February 21, 1933.

Its passing was noted in The Billboard’s television columns of March 4 and 11, 1933. In the latter, Benn Hall eulogised its short life and talked about its stars, all of whom are long forgotten.
Requiem W2XAB
Before the books are closed for all time, let us say a few last words about some of the performers at W2XAB. Now that the station is no more, your commentator can say a few kind words about some of the entertainers without fearing for his skin when next he meets some unmentioned acts. W2XAB had approximately 35 acts; we were conversant with all, but about three.
Acts that have definite radio possibilities include: “Out of the Song Shops,” a sister act of pop melodies by the O’Neill Sisters, Connie at the ivories and Jean vocalizing. Jean won a recent Whiteman audition and either with a band or with her sister has promising radio possibilities. “Character Slants,” by Bob Davis, with legit and stock background, who did a novelty bit on television with trick makeup effects. Forgetting makeup and pictures for radio, Davis showed in his wide repertoire of characterizations that he possesses talent that can be developed into something worth while for ether use.
Harriette Downs, the “Girl with the Musical Teeth,” warbles pop numbers and does trick throat stunt, imitating stringed instruments. Plenty of vocal heat. “Millinery Fashion Review,” with Gladys Kahn, who until some weeks ago did two television numbers weekly, this fashion show and a musical number. Both programs displayed genuine ability. Her chats on chapeaux are freshest in your correspondent’s memory and it was breezy, informal, natural and interested women fans.
Television underwent more changes in the ‘30s. The mechanical TV system, with its coordinated spinning wheels to transmit and pick up signals, was out. The cathode ray tube was in. And the engineers at RCA tinkered around enough to their satisfaction that NBC re-launched its New York City TV station, with huge fanfare, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Again, CBS played catch-up. And W2XAB returned. The first test of the signal from its new transmitter atop the Chrysler Tower was made from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. on November 8, 1939, where viewers got to see a test pattern that didn’t interfere with the programming on NBC’s W2XBS down the dial.7 The station became commercialised in 1941 with new call-letters, WCBW, and maintained a somewhat regular, abbreviated schedule until after the war, when the medium finally came into its own.

This post was prompted by the discovery of a name in the W2XAB listings, one not mentioned in Hall’s column and one who became a TV pioneer almost 30 years later. On August 25, 1931, the time slot from 8:30 to 8:45 p.m. was taken up by “Teddy Bergman, Television’s Clown.”8 Bergman later changed his name and is known to you as Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone on the first-ever prime-time animated series. Thus it was that Alan Reed not only appeared in a Stone Age cartoon, but in the Stone Age of television.

1 NY Times, Aug. 14, 1930, pg. 12
2 Baltimore Sun, AP story, Dec. 17, 1930, pg. 14
3 Baltimore Sun, Apr. 19, 1931, pg. 8
4 Variety, May 10, 1932, pg. 55
5 Broadcasting, July 15, 1932, pg. 19
6 The Billboard, March 4, 1933, pg. 12
7 Broadcasting, Nov. 15, 1939, pg. 39
8 The Outlook For Television, pg. 211, by Orrin E. Dunlap, Jr., Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932

Friday, 20 July 2018

Help! I'm Outside the Cartoon!

Porky the Rainmaker has a great ending. Porky’s farm animals swallow meteorological pills, which turns them into living versions of the weather (fog, lightning, tornado, etc.). But the rain pill gets into the sky, causing a downpour that saves the crops on the farm. Porky, his dad and the animals celebrate and strike a pose like at the end of a stage musical.

But it’s not over. The animals suddenly turn back into the weather-emulating versions of themselves.

But it’s still not over! The goose gets thrown, then gets caught “outside” the cartoon as the iris closes on him. He bangs on the “wall” and is pulled back in to end the short.

Leave it to Tex Avery to screw around with the ending of a cartoon (he also had a reach-out-from-the-iris gag to end I Love to Singa, released two weeks earlier).

Sid Sutherland and Cecil Surry are the credited animators; Avery’s little group also had Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Virgil Ross and assistants Bobe Cannon and Elmer Wait at the time.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Flying Duck Dinner

Would you eat a duck that got stripped and then roasted by an airplane propeller? Tom and Jerry would in In The Bag (1932).

They never eat the duck. Their plane crashes and they go onto something else.

John Foster and George Rufle get the co-director credit with Gene Rodemich providing the score (I couldn’t tell you the name of the song behind the above scene).

The film studios weren’t terribly possessive about titles. There was a Slim Summerville two-reeler called In the Bag released a week after this one.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

An Engaging Rodent and Minor Masterpieces

Even as Mickey Mouse was being recognised and praised by the people who hand out the Oscars in 1932, the humanoid mouse had peaked in films.

Mickey, of course, stuck around for many years and still starred in films, but he was eclipsed by multiple colours, then by multiple pigs, then by multiple dwarves. Even setting aside features and Silly Symphonies, Donald Duck and, to a lesser extent, Goofy, began grabbing the audience’s attention in short films.

One wonders if part of the blame, if blame’s the word, could be put on film censors. Donald was just a loudmouth with anger management issues. Goofy was a dope. But Mickey was a “role model.” He had a wife-like companion, a dog, a home. In many ways, to the kid audience, he was similar to dad. And dad can’t be shown doing anything bad. He must uphold the American Family Way. So out went chamber pot and outhouse jokes, and udders and bodily fluids and stuff like that. Mickey became bland as, well, dad with his predictable routine of work, dinner, pipe and slippers and reading the paper.

Here’s a story from the New York Herald Tribune of November 27, 1932. I reprint it not because of its analysis of Mickey Mouse but because it has some small praise for other animated shorts. How often do you see Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry receive some favour in the popular press? Almost never. You do here. Even Flip the Frog (before he stared at showering women through a keyhole) warrants a mention.

Mickey Mouse’s New Garlands Are the Subject of This Essay
By J.C. Furnas

THE annual awards of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences for the best acting, directing, camera work and so forth always produce more or less dispute. But that one of the recent awards which gave special recognition to Mickey Mouse is something with which almost all picturegoers can be thoroughly satisfied. You have your own ideas as to whom turned out the best job of acting among the great ladies of the screen, but, unless you are more or less than human, you cannot object to seeing Mr. Walt Disney’s engaging rodent hung around with garlands. Although it seems a little unfair that Minnie Mouse was not included in the honors, that is a matter touching domestic diplomacy and had been not be discussed in public.
Nor is this laboring of the Academy mountain to bring forth a mouse a matter of mere routine, like the selection of an All-American quarterback or the year’s best director. A special award of this sort has been made only twice before, once for Charles Spencer Chaplin, once for the Warner Brothers’ contribution in developing sound-production. This is fame. It ranks the absurd creature of Disney’s fancy with the actor who heads the screen pantheon and with the most important technical development the screen has seen since the close-up was invented. And there can be little doubt that Mickey deserves to be in such company. Only the early Chaplin comedies ever gained such a hold on the public affection as animated cartoons in general, and Mickey Mouse in particular, have developed since synchronized sound was combined with the old cartoon technique.
By an unfortunate coincidence, the current Mickey Mouse releases at the time of the award were not quite up to standard. Neither Mickey’s adventures in Arabia at the Roxy nor “The Wayward Canary” at the Rivoli match up with the best Mickey has done, such as the battle with the octopus on the beach, nor even with his average quality, which was well represented in “Mickey’s Revue.” And just at the moment attention has been diverted to the new colored Silly Symphonies, of which an excellent example is now showing at the Palace. But week in and week out, Mickey overshadows all other animated cartoons, and the best way to take this welcome award is as a tribute to the whole cartoon business, properly given to the most eminent practitioner.
Otherwise you would be guilty of the same sort of invidious preference which denies merit to all the old two-reel slapstick comedies except Chaplin’s. For, although Mickey Mouse is indubitably the best of the lot, there are plenty of other animated cartoons that are well worth sitting through. A Silly Symphony like “The Spider and the Fly,” also a product of Mr. Disney and his merry men, can come close to the edge of Mickey’s mantle. Bosco and Tom and Jerry and Flip the Frog all have their moments and, if you can discount the fading curse of the bouncing ball, even a few of Betty Boop cartoons have displayed an admirable fancy, particularly that specimen in a kind of topsy-turvy land where fish caught men and pipes lighted matches. Yet there seems to be something about Mickey which prompts his creator to a flawless taste, so that Disney is never guilty in a Mickey Mouse of the occasional candy-box prettiness that mar his Silly Symphonies.
It will be interesting to see how color affects Mickey’s personality, if they ever get round to ornamenting him with the dazzling polychromy that the Silly Symphonies already use. Color in photographed films has proved of little service, but perhaps Mickey can survive its preemptory monopoly of attention. He is developing all the time in other directions, not only in decorum with his past trouble with the censors. To his faithful and much tried Millie he is adding other stock characters: the lugubrious hound dogs that danced in “Mickey’s Revue” and the horse-creature with the laugh like a defective pump that caused so much of the joy in “Mickey’s Revue” and “Mickey’s Whoopee Party.”
If the academy award is to be taken seriously at all, it must mean that the animated cartoon has become a major achievement in films. Certainly the picture business accords no such emphasis to any other breed of short subjects. Mickey Mouse gets his own billing on marquees and stands outside theaters alongside cutouts of the popular stars. And the most precious and pretentious critics of the cinema agree with the cash customers: animated cartoons are the object of high praise and formidably grave analysis among those to whom Hollywood and its fruits are usually anathema. It is so often the fate of the American picture industry to labor pantingly to become aesthetically respectable in a big way and then discover that the aesthetes have come over to something like Chaplin or Mickey Mouse which nobody ever took seriously.
It may mean, of course, that the animated cartoon has a chance of developing into something large scale and important. Outside theorists like H.G. Wells have long been wondering why the flexibility of this medium is not turned to account in serious work, and animated cartoons receive a great deal of the credit for developing the new sound technique in conventionally photographed films. At least one Hollywood director—Frank Tuttle—now and then injects a cartoon gag into a regular film. But the main reason for the delight that the aesthetes take in Mickey Mouse is said to derive from the fact that in cartoons alone can they still find the complete subjugation of fact to fancy, the mad irresponsibility, the passing of which is still the subject of much lamentation among those who consider that the art of the cinema died with silent production and lives again only in Rene Clair.
That is a big load for Mickey Mouse to stagger under, as dean of the profession. It is hard to avoid a lingering suspicion that it is too much of a load, that, even at their amazingly delightful best, animated cartoons are very minor masterpieces and that Hollywood needs such surpassing achievements in major keys. It is as if the most fertile and aesthetically significant work on English literature were the limericks of Edward Lear. But things like that sound unpleasant in connection with the apotheosis or Mr. Disney’s offspring. Mickey Mouse is for all that, a joy forever, and if he can only keep from developing a swelled head—his proportions at the north end already far exceed the Lysippic canon—there is no reason why he should not continue to be the delight of the many and the admiration of the few.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Pink Descending a Staircase

The Pink Panther has to be the best theatrical cartoon character to come out of the 1960s and his first short, The Pink Phink (1964), deservedly won the Oscar. The outline designs enhance the colour gags, Henry Mancini’s theme (occasionally punctuated by Bill Lava’s minimal dissonance) sets a perfect mood and there’s that fine timing that Friz Freleng was known for.

Writer John Dunn comes up with a stream of funny gags, all based around the idea that a man is painting a home blue, but the Pink Panther obsessively wants it coloured pink. The Panther pours a bucket of pink paint onto a newly-blued staircase and lets gravity take its course. The reaction drawings are tops.

Hawley Pratt co-directed the cartoon. Friz’ animation crew from Warners didn’t work on this crew, with the exception of background artist Tom O’Loughlin and Bob Matz, who had been an assistant in his unit. La Verne Harding, Don Williams and Norm McCabe are also credited with animation.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The Wheels on the Cat Go Round and Round

Tom escapes from a rival cat in Springtime For Thomas (1946). Their feet turn into wheels. You’d see the same kind of thing in Hanna-Barbera cartoons 12 years later.

The credits say Mike Lah, Ken Muse and Ed Barge are the animators, but I suspect there are others here, too.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Cartoonist Pinto on the Radio

What’s the big radio station in San Francisco these days? It’s not KDN, that’s for sure. But it was in March of 1922, just as KYJ and KOG were the main stations in Los Angeles, all forgotten except by diehard niche radio historians.

Those of you who remember the days of BBS on the internet know how a new dial-in board seemed to appear every day. Radio was the same way. It exploded in the U.S. in 1922, when the government began handing out licenses for broadcasting stations—some of which had been on the air for some time—and there was a huge rush to apply for them.

The West Coast, in particular, was a proverbial hotbed for radio. Several newspapers in Los Angeles had radio connections; the three papers in Vancouver, B.C. had stations by March 1922. Other papers jumped on the fad and gave radio fans special columns or pages in their daily editions.

One was the San Francisco Chronicle, with its first special radio page on March 19, 1922. Besides listings of the stations that existed in northern California, news, and photos, it engaged a 29-year-old former musician to draw a radio cartoon. You may not recognise names of the stations we mentioned above, but you probably recognise his name. He was later the voice of Goofy, Pinto Colvig.

Here are 12 of the first 14 cartoons that Pinto drew. The other two are too faded; one involves a cat’s whisker pun where you, unfortunately, can’t make out his cat drawing. In early 1922, radio wasn’t necessarily a matter of plugging the set into the wall. People built them from scratch; the Chronicle has an article on a boy who made one using a cigar box. Adolescents and young men were the ones who were generally into radio, something that proved to be a puzzle to some adults. Radios were mostly battery-powered, required an aerial and a ground, and headphones to hear, though some could be fitted with a huge Magnavox horn so everyone in the room could listen.

No, Colvig didn’t invent Amos ‘n’ Andy in the April 6th comic, but there’s the usual Southern dialect and stereotypes about gin and craps. Incidentally, the comic contained the version of the “n” word popular in rap today. I’ve censored it because someone may stumble on the picture doing a web search and get offended instead of focusing on Pinto’s fine drawing style.

You can click on any of the comics to make them bigger and your mouse should activate a box with the comic’s date.

I haven’t looked into when Colvig stopped drawing the cartoon, but it didn’t last long. By late July, it had turned into a soap opera. By August, the Chronicle had reduced its radio coverage to a list of the hours a station was on the air, and a question box. The aforementioned KDN was obsolete and off the air in 1923. Pinto Colvig moved on to bigger things in the animation, recording and TV industries in Hollywood.