Wednesday 30 November 2011

Hollywood’s Best (as of 1949)

The stars agree—Ashton Kutcher’s performance in ‘Dude, Where’s My Car’ is not the best of all time.

Mind you, there’s a reason, and it has nothing to do with Mr. Kutcher’s abilities as an actor. The stars were surveyed in 1949. At last check, Mr. Kutcher wasn’t around then. However, reporter Bob Thomas was, and he seems to have done a series of straw polls on the topic of Greatest Performances. You might have guessed some of the names on the list. A couple you may never have heard of.

Actors Cite Best Movie Performances
HOLLYWOOD, June 1.—(AP)—What was the greatest performance in the history of motion pictures?
This is a question that draws sharply divided opinion in Hollywood. I have asked more film stars for their verdicts, since they should be expert on the subject. Here are some of the latest answers:
Gene Autry—“The one I remember most is Greta Garbo in ‘Camille.’ I don’t think that will ever be topped.”
Lucille Ball—“Vivien Leigh in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ It’s a difficult role and she did a great job. I have seen it eight times and try to catch it every year.”
Fred MacMurray— “It’s hard to pick one, but I think Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Stella Dallas’ left the biggest impression with me.”
Claudette Colbert—“I’ll never forget Helen Hayes in ‘The Sin of Madelon Claudet.’ I cried and cried.”
Robert Young—“John Barrymore was outstanding in anything . . . to name one, ‘Topaz.’
And Laurence Olivier’s job in ‘Hamlet’ was one of the best of all time.”
Joan Bennett—“Vivien Leigh in ‘Gone With the Wind.’
Irene Dunne—“Diana Wynward in ‘Cavalcade’ stays in my memory as the best. She was fascinating.”
Alan Ladd—“Clark Gable in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ That was the most perfect casting in history.”
Jimmy Stewart—“I think maybe Frederic March in ‘Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.’ It was a frightening thing to watch.”
Marie Wilson—“Charles Coburn in ‘More the Merrior’ was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, especially the scene where he lost his pants."
Rosalind Russell—“Cary Grant in ‘None But the Lonely Heart.’ I had always considered him an expert comedian, but my opinion of him went up a hundred-fold when I saw him in that dramatic role.”
Diana Lynn—“Garbo in ‘Camille,’ or anything.”
Erich von Stroheim—“This may sound like immodesty, because I directed her, but I would pick ZaSu Pitts in ‘Greed.’ A great tragedienne.”
Gloria Swanson—“I don’t see many pictures, but the best performance I can think of is Van Heflin in ‘Johnny Eager.’”
Gregory Peck—‘Charlie Chaplin in everything; he’s the greatest of actors. He can make you laugh one minute, cry the next. For the actresses, Garbo—especially in ‘Camille.’”
James Cagney—“For an all-round flawless performance, I’d pick J.M. Kerrigan in ‘The Informer.’ There was nothing you could find wrong with it.”
Maureen O’Hara (who didn’t see a movie until she was 18)—“I’d select three: Bette Davis in ‘Dark Victory,’ Fredric March in ‘Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde’ and Charles Laughton in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’”
Coleen Gray—“Laurence Olivier in ‘Wuthering Heights,’ especially the bedroom scene.”
John Lund—“Alfred Lunt in ‘The Guardsmen’—and he’s no relative of mine, either.”

It strikes me as odd that many actors insist comedy is more difficult than drama, yet “best performances” almost always tend to be dramatic, as if a comedic performance can’t be taken seriously because a comedy isn’t serious.

The mention of Robert Young, whose television career later overshadowed his work in films, gives me a chance to post another nice-looking newspaper movie ad, this one from 1939. Through the ‘30s and into the war years, there were all kinds of virtually plotless films solely designed for star-gazing. ‘Honolulu’ is one of them. Young was one of the stars.

George Burns and Gracie Allen were to supply the laughs but, oddly, one of radio’s most famous comedy couples spent virtually the entire film apart. Below is one of Gracie’s numbers. Yes, Gracie sings. And you’ll quickly perceive she’s not with the real Marx Brothers. They’re actually the King’s Men in disguise; they were singers on a show featuring another of radio’s most famous comedy couples, Fibber McGee and Molly.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

The Greatest Backgrounds in Siam

Art Heinemann never seemed to stay at any animation studio for any length of time. He toiled for the Harman-Ising studio in the ‘30s, jumped to Disney, stopped at the Walter Lantz studio in between two stints at Warner Bros, was the responsible for the brief series of Daffy Dittys released by RKO in the late ‘40s, then moved on UPA and the John Sutherland studio, all within about 15 years.

Heinemann’s stay at Lantz wasn’t terribly long—June 3, 1943 to September 26, 1944 according to Joe Adamson’s research through the studio’s records—but it was memorable. He seems to have meshed well with director Shamus Culhane, no mean feat in itself. Not only is he credited with simplifying Woody Woodpecker’s design from the multi-coloured, stump-legged bird of the first few cartoons, he provided some great layouts for a couple of shorts featuring Miss X, Lantz’ answer to Tex Avery’s Red at MGM.

In ‘The Greatest Man in Siam’ (1944), Culhane relied on background art to meet Lantz’ budgets, which were below both Warners and MGM. This drawing is part of the opening scene of the exterior of the Siamese village. There’s no animation in almost the first 20 seconds of the cartoon—it’s nothing but camera-work over backgrounds—and there’s another 29 seconds of the same thing a little bit later. Less animation equals less money spent, and Culhane instead wisely used his animators later in the cartoon for dance sequences.

Heinemann came up with various angles for the interior settings in this cartoon. The archways are stylised which match some of the stylised animation. Here are a few of them.

The background artist is Phil DeGuard, who’s better-known to fans of old cartoons for his work with Maurice Noble in the Chuck Jones unit at Warners in the ‘50s (Heinemann designed for Jones prior to that). The animation jumps back and forth from standard ‘40s type to stylised movement. The credited animators are two of the best—Pat Matthews and Emery Hawkins. We’ll have some of their work in a future post.

Monday 28 November 2011

A Smear Grows in Manhattan

Bugs Bunny gives “Lolly” his life story in ‘A Hare Grows in Manhattan,’ a fine 1947 cartoon by Friz Freleng. The credited animators are Manny Perez, Ken Champin, Gerry Chiniquy and Virgil Ross. It’s Virgil who was responsible for the expressive animation of Bugs in his hole, including a couple of smear drawings.

Bea Benaderet plays the not-too-veiled stand-in for Louella Parsons and co-writer Tedd Pierce supplies his voice for a couple of members of a Brooklyn dog gang.

The cartoon opens with a couple of pans over long backgrounds of somewhat stylised homes in Beverly Hills and ends with this street shot from a layout by Hawley Pratt.

Paul Julian disappeared from the Freleng unit for awhile around this time. Terry Lind and then Phil DeGuard (both late of the Walter Lantz studio) created the background art until Julian returned. It’s DeGuard’s work you see in this cartoon.

Sunday 27 November 2011

The Wives of Radio’s Funny Men Speak

Here’s a 1945 wire service article that’s pretty self-explanatory. Long-time TV and movie columnist Bob Thomas, in a feature story early in his career at the A.P., simply asked wives of some of radio’s comedians a couple of basic, and fairly unimaginative, questions: “Is he funny at home?” and “Is he like what you hear on the radio?”

There probably are no surprises here to anyone familiar with the people being discussed. Jack Benny was known as being a great laugher at someone else’s jokes, especially George Burns.’ Interestingly, Gracie Allen isn’t interviewed for this piece. It certainly wasn’t because she was a star because Thomas talked with Marian Jordan.

There’s a formality here that has long gone out of style. Who reads today of a wife being referred to be her husband’s name? It was considered improper to do so otherwise in a formal setting at one time; I recall reading an Emily Post column from years ago on the proper manner of addressing a married woman in formal settings. It would have been “Mrs. Bob Hope” not “Mrs. Dolores Hope.”

There was a time, long before instant communications of today, when newspapers would bank a feature story for whenever they had available space, even months after getting it on the wire. The earliest I’ve found this piece was January 15, 1945.

Comedians Play It Straight Off Stage
Associated Press Newsfeatures
HOLLYWOOD — Does Jack Benny give his wife $1 spending money weekly?
Are Fibber McGee’s closets piled with junk?
Does Bob Hope whistle at girls who pass his home?
Radio and movie fans may wonder where a comedian’s characterization ends and his home life begins. Their wives will tell you that the funnyman is like any normal husband around the house, except for a more marked sense of humor. And the wife’s function is equally normal, except for the duty of delivering a verdict on the comic’s latest gag.
Mrs. Bob Hope says her husband is “very delightful” at home, but no cut-up. “He is an intelligent, well-balanced man,” she declares, “and he has his serious side as well.”
* * *
Sometimes he tries out untested jokes on her. She listens faithfully to every broadcast and will tell him if he seems off his routine, providing he inquires.
Hope’s large-scale wanderings to entertain servicemen would seem hard on the wife at home, but Mrs. Hope considers herself “much luckier than the wives who haven't seen their husbands in two or three years.”
Mary Livingston thinks her husband, Jack Benny, has “a wonderful sense of humor,” but the “Love in Bloom” virtuoso is little different from any other husband. “He doesn't wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me a new gag he has just dreamed up,” she assures.
Mary says Jack doesn’t invariably convulse guests at their home. “He is usually laughing at someone else.”
Sylvia Fine, who is Danny Kaye’s wife and writer, says her husband is even funnier at home than professionally. She adores his “child’s sense of humor,” which she says is keener than most people’s.
* * *
“You can't make him be funny when he doesn’t want to be,” she remarked, “but usually he sees the humorous side of everything—even little things about the house.” She says they have a perfect domestic arrangement—“He bawls me out for taking so long to dress and I criticize his professional performances.”
When told her father was a funny man, Bob Burns’ young daughter replied, “Yes when we have company.”
The man with the relatives says he soft pedals the gagging at home for fear of driving his family bugs, but Mrs. Burns opines that he is “decidedly funny.” That is no small tribute from Mrs. Burns, who hears his radio gags many times since she does his stenography.
As to that now-famous bit of plumbing, his wife says Robin plays the Bazooka very little around the house, usually only for company. Anyway, Mrs. Burns adds, she likes it.
* * *
Marian Jordan (Molly) testifies that unlike his Fibber McGee counterpart, Jim Jordan is very neat and thoughtful about the house and doesn’t accumulate masses of hardware and junk in closets. Also unlike the sage of Wistful Vista, Jim is very mechanically minded and handy at fixing things.
His family thinks he is even funnier at home than on the air. Jordan was a singer before he found the gold mine in comedy and loves to sing around the house, whether or not company is present.
Eddie Cantor is a card around the house, says his wife, Ida, but still can be very serious and is a strict father to his famed five daughters. They are also very strict with him—when he tries out his gags on them. Failure to evoke laughter from his feminine audience usually outlaws a joke from his repertoire.
Mrs. Cantor says she picked Eddie out of the crowd when they were teen-agers in New York’s East Side because of his sense of humor. He was even funnier then, she reflects.

Saturday 26 November 2011

A Bob Clampett Debu-uuuuuut

Only one man would make a 1960s children’s TV cartoon featuring a character singing while rubbing her nose and scratching her butt at the same time.

It wasn’t Jay Ward or Bill Scott of ‘Bullwinkle’ fame. And it certainly wasn’t Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. No, it was that man whose animated likeness and lyricised name were featured in every cartoon, Robert Emerson Clampett. The show was ‘Beany and Cecil.’ Eventually.

Both Bob Clampett and his cartoon invention had lineages in the entertainment business. Clampett started working on Warner Bros. cartoons in 1930, eventually being promoted to a director’s job and crafting theatrical shorts featuring Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He moved into early local television in Los Angeles and developed several puppet shows, the first of which revolved around a boy and his buddy, a sea serpent named Cecil.

Clampett brought the characters back and they debuted on Saturday, January 6, 1962 as the stars of a revamped ‘Matty’s Funnies,’ an early-evening show that brought together tired old Paramount cartoons like Baby Huey and Little Audrey. No doubt the time slot was picked because Hanna-Barbera had three very successful half-hour cartoon shows in the early evening on different weekdays (same generally time, but not on a competing day). The Associated Press’ intrepid West Coast TV columnist told all about it in a story that appeared in newspapers a week later. For reasons unknown, Bob Thomas spells the lead character’s name incorrectly.

Beanie And His Pal Back On Television
AP Movie-TV Writer

HOLLYWOOD (AP) — Beanie and his pal, Cecil the seasick sea serpent, are back on TV!
This news may be received with apathy east of San Bernardino. It’s a joyous event for many Southern Californians.
“Time for Beanie” was one of the pioneer TV shows in Los Angeles and later was syndicated in other parts of the nation. It developed a large and sometimes fanatical following here.
I recall hearing from Lana Turner that she and her then husband Bob Topping would allow nothing to interfere with their watching of “Beanie.” Lionel Barrymore was an enthusiastic viewer. Groucho Marx wrote a fan letter to producer Bob Clampett.
“Time for Beanie” went on KTLA in 1948, began as a series in 1949. The stringless puppets, made a hit in those pioneering days with their literate humor and boundless imagination. Most of us adult fans thought it was much too good for kids.
The show lasted eight years. Then Clampett decided to call a halt.
“My Eastern distributor said that the dam was about to break,” he explained. “The film companies were going to flood the market with Bugs Bunnies and Popeyes, etc. We couldn’t hope to compete with cartoons that had cost $30,000-$40,000 to make.”
Clampett ended the five-day weekly grind and spent a year doing the things he had wanted to do during the eight arduous years. But he wasn’t ready to give up on Beanie and Cece. He bought up all rights to the characters and started working up a backlog of stories.
“I still wanted to do the series as puppets,” said Clampett, a tall-brush-haired man with quiet voice. “But all the Eastern people told me puppets were out. Animation was in.”
The producer adapted. He made a deal with United Artists for releasing the Beanies as theater shorts abroad. A toy manufacturer signed up as TV sponsor, planning a direct pitch for toys based on the show’s characters. ABC scheduled the show for 7 p.m. EST Saturdays. (Monday nights in Los Angeles.)
I can report to the aging members of the local fan club that Beanie and Cece are as ingenuous as ever in animated form, and Dishonest John is just as outrageous with his puns and nefarious deeds.
“Animation gives us more scope for the adventures,” Clampett observed, “but we also lose a human quality that we had in puppets. I still think there is room for a puppet show on TV.”

The ‘Matty’s Funnies’ name was dropped fairly quickly and the show was known by the names of the lead characters.

There was always something odd about Beany and Cecil. Beany rarely had any variation in expression. Captain whatever-his-name-was had no real personality and seemingly existed to read strained puns that appeared on the screen. Really warped things used to be inflicted on Cecil (not unlike Clampett’s Bugs in ‘Falling Hare’). And then there’s the woman mentioned above: So What (a name reworked from another Clampett Warners cartoon).

At times, Clampett couldn’t resist following the path of self-indulgence blazed by the 1950s UPA studio (full of designs made only to please the designer) and Chuck Jones (who made cartoons for himself). The audience sometimes was a secondary consideration. In a gag that went over every kid viewer’s head, So fixes a black wig in place, her body shape inexplicably morphs and she starts rubbing her nose and scratching her butt as “Squeely Smith.” Later in the scene, she’s suddenly back to normal with no explanation.

On the other hand, Clampett’s writers could pull some brilliant stuff. In this cartoon, Clampett repeats his ‘An Itch in Time’ routine at Warners (perfected by Tex Avery) where he stopped the picture for a comment to the audience. Dishonest John is being painfully zapped with electricity, except for a moment when he asks viewers in an aside “Do you think there’s too much violence on television?” Jay Ward’s characters tossed off contemporary show biz cracks like that all the time and they always work because the audience is in on the joke.

Beany and Cecil was a cartoon series that was inconsistent and unpredictable but still worth watching. You can probably say the same thing about its creator.

Friday 25 November 2011

Proof That Times Change

81 years ago, there were the most popular guests in America’s living rooms.

Today, you can’t even mention their names without starting a debate.

‘Check and Double Check’ was released in 1930. Sources today say it wasn’t really a success because the two-man dialogue of the 15-minute radio show didn’t quite translate into a feature film, but newspaper ads of the day show the movie did business for almost a year. Still, if there were plans for a sequel, they were shelved. After the release of this movie, with the exception of a couple of lacklustre animated versions, Amos and Andy avoided the big screen and stuck to selling Pepsodent on the airwaves.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Swing You Sinners!

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems there were reels and reels of cartoons out of New York in the early ‘30s involving characters caught in nightmarish or out-of-control situations. One of the best is ‘Swing You Sinners’ (1930).

The Fleischer studio was, far and away, the tops of the three major cartoon operations in New York. At their best, the Fleischer cartoons are fun and extremely warped (though you can say the same thing for Terry and Van Beuren, too). ‘Sinners’ benefits from a never-ending flow of things on the screen. Something is always morphing into something else. Things suddenly sprout a mouth, arms and legs and behave like humans.

A really interesting effect happens at the beginning of ‘Sinners.’ Bimbo gets into a fight with a chicken. To emphasize the violence, the background drawing is rotated clockwise behind the animation. Look where the chicken coop is in the top drawing.

And, yes, Bimbo and the chicken have exchanged heads. Some of the gags are so casual and so much is going on, you miss them the first time. That’s just one good reason to watch the Fleischer cartoons over and over.

Ted Sears (later a Disney writer) and Willard Bowsky (who died in France during World War Two) are the credited animators in this.

It’s a shame the Fleischer cartoons got watered down as the ‘30s wore on but there was a time when a point could be made they were more entertaining than the cheery animated antics that came out of the West Coast.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

The Joys of Noise

Anyone who is a fan of old network radio shows knows the vital role played by the sound effects man. Newspapers, especially in the ‘30s, sang his praises but, generally, he toiled in anonymity; though a cute song praising the work of Virgil Reimer made a couple of appearances on ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ (Reimer created from scratch the only thing many people remember about Fibber today—the clatter from the cascading junk in the McGee hall closet).

The poor old sound effects department got even more of a short shrift in films. The first Oscar for Sound Effects wasn’t handed out until 1963, more than 30 years after sound films displaced silents. Sound, it could be said, pre-dates sound films. A good pit orchestra or a Mighty Wurlitzer could pump out musical effects to enhance silent films. Yet the seemingly innumerable Hollywood columnists didn’t really pay much attention to the “sound” part of sound films after the novelty wore off by about 1930.

A rare exception is this 1948 column by the Associated Press that delved into the MGM sound effects library.

Sound Men Have Huge Noise Library
(For Bob Thomas)
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 22—(AP)—A short burp, the plaintive whistle of a distant train, a cougar’s cough and a gallows’ clatter are a few of thousands of odd noises that are the daily concern of movie sound men.
The noises, recorded on the sound tracks of standard movie film, are kept for short notice use. This, if Mickey Rooney’s sneeze comes off key, sound men merely dub in one of hundreds on file in the library.
MGM’s collection is typical. Sounds from airplanes to zippers are carefully catalogued and stored in fireproof vaults. This “library” consists of four walk-in vaults, each holding 2,000 cans of film.
Under airplanes, for example, are listed sounds of planes idling, taxiing, taking off, landing and diving, as heard from both inside the craft and on the ground. One card even reads: “old bi-plane, fairly hot. circling.”
Most animals found in zoos, and many that aren’t have had their vocalizing immortalized on celluloid. On hand are a bull elephant’s bellow, the chatter of a squirrel and the unmistakable warnings of rattlesnakes and bumblebees. Camels are classified as barking, growling or crying. Dogs are listed by breed.
There may be as many as 40 or 50 subclasses under a general heading. Thus the sounds of auto engines are recorded by make and model back to tne Maxwell, Stanley Steamer and the Bean (an old English make).
Belches are classified as “long,” “short,” “man’s,” “boy’s,” “through a hankerchief” and numerous other ways.
The sounds of a pea shooter, a candle being blown out, a spittoon being hit, a skull crushed are there. Native chants and yells are catalogued geographically. Baby’s cries are listed by age and whether the infant is happy or fretful.
“Our sounds are 99 per cent authentic,” says Mike Steinore, in charge of the library. “It’s easier to record the real thing than it is to invent a substitute.”
MGM has been adding to its files since 1926. Occasionally a film will require a noise for the mixing skill of an expert chef.
The “Green Dolphin Street” script called for an avalanche. By blending the sound of thunder with the crash of falling trees, tearing timber and falling glass—done inside a greenhouse for greater resonance—an avalanche was achieved.
For the atomic bomb explosion in “The Beginning of the End” the sound men simply amplified and extended their biggest explosion, a 16 inch cannon blast.
“Often it’s the simplest sounds that are the hardest to record,” Steinmore says. “Getting Lassie to give out with a remorseful bark is as hard as anything.”
His toughest assignments, Steinore says, were duplicating the din of the earthquake in “San Francisco,” and the rustle of millions of locusts for the plague in “Good Earth.”

To anyone who thinks ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927) at Warners broke the silent barrier in films for good, it’s a surprise to see MGM began collecting sound the previous year.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Cock-A-Doodle Dog

Tex Avery talked about using the element of surprise in his cartoons, coming up with a gag that the audience least expected. By the 1950s, Tex was still doing that, but there are other gags that fans can see miles away. The fun is watching how he handles them.

‘Cock-A-Doodle Dog’ (1951) is a good example. Tex hangs the cartoon on a simple premise he used a number of times—sleep vs. noise. Tired Spike the bulldog tries to stop a scrawny rooster from obsessively crowing so he can get some rest. Since roosters are supposed to crow, Spike doesn’t have a chance in his effort to change the natural order of things.

Toward the end of the cartoon, Spike throws a cake of soap at the rooster, who swallows it. The rooster blows a huge soap bubble which floats into Spike’s dog house. You can see a nail on the wall. You know what’s going to happen—the bubble will burst and loud crowing will come out of it to wake up Spike—but you don’t know what kind of crazy take Tex is going to pull off. Here’s just one of the drawings.

There’s a gravity gag I really like, where the rooster and Spike back into each other, then start walking up into the sky as their feet touch each other. Finally, the two realise what’s happened. In ‘Ventriloquist Cat’ (1950), Avery uses a fright gag with the cat’s fur standing on end. He does the same thing with the rooster here (feathers standing on end?).

The animators are Avery’s truncated ‘50s MGM crew—Mike Lah, Walt Clinton and Grant Simmons.

Kevin Langley looked at this cartoon 4½ years ago and you can read his post here.

Monday 21 November 2011

What’s Wrong With this Wabbit?

If you’ve watched enough of the old cartoons, you’ll see an occasional error. Generally, it’s in animation—a limb disappears for a split second, there’s a brief colour change, or something like that. Once in a while, there’s a continuity error. There’s one in the 1942 Warners cartoon ‘The Wabbit Who Came to Supper.’ Look at the telegram that Elmer Fudd gets in the forest.

Now, here’s Elmer at home.

No wonder he’s surprised. He’s in the wrong house. The address on the mailbox isn’t the same as the one on the telegram (And it doesn’t exist in the 1942 Los Angeles City Directory). The wrong house would explain why Elmer could afford a “Steinbeck” piano. Here’s a reconstructed background of Elmer’s living room that was panned in the cartoon. Click to enlarge.

There are no layout or background credits on this cartoon, but Graham Webb’s animation history book says Lenard Kester constructed the backgrounds from layouts by Owen Fitzgerald.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Jack Benny on Radio Success

If you asked Jack Benny the secret behind his big listening audiences, he would have said “Consistency.” Well, he actually did say it in an interview with the Associated Press in 1948.

Over the years, Jack gave full credit to his “gang”. He felt the years had allowed people to befriend his cast—and his secondary cast, like the phone operators or Mr. Kitzel or even the Maxwell—and therefore tune in to hear what they were doing in the radio world Benny and his writers invented. Fortunately, Benny had enough people to mix and match that it carried him into the mid-‘50s despite the show suffering from the loss of some of his old regulars (replacing the larger-than-life Phil Harris proved impossible).

Though he doesn’t mention it in the story, Jack also hooked his audience to come back every week with something else. For several seasons, his writers came up with a running plot that bubbled up over the course of the whole radio season. One year, it was hiring/firing the Sportsmen Quartet. Another year it was trying to find anyone to sing the wretched song he wrote. The best-known one may have been the “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because...” contest, an audience participation gimmick that even the giveaway-hating Fred Allen would approve (and took part in as the chief judge).

Allen gets a brief mention in the column with a little tale Jack may not have told before.

Some Radio Stars Revise Shows, But Not Jack Benny
(For Bob Thomas)
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 21—(AP)— Feel that nervous fluttering in the autumn air? Radio’s old standbys are flocking back, in new trappings, after as arid a summer as most listeners can remember.
New writers and new formats are legion. Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Edgar Bergen and others have changed their shows or their casts, some radically.
But not easy going Jack Benny. Consistency must be his mark of distinction.
Jack, just back from Europe, starts his 17th year Oct. 3. And with the same crew. This is Mary Livington’s 17th year too. He’s had the same writers for six years. Don Wilson has been with him 15 years, Phil Harris 13, Rochester 11, Dennis Day nine.
With Benny, every broadcast is a new show, although the basic character of the program remains the same. “It’s the people that the fans like,” says Jack. “As long as we stay in character we can do pretty much as we please. And we keep the show flexible. Maybe we put a guy on like Sinatra, for one line. Some weeks one or even two of the regular company aren’t in the script at all."
I had lunch with Jack at Romanoff’s, and he didn’t gag once— humorously or otherwise. Not even about Fred Allen. He talked about Allen though.
“He’s a strange fellow. He lives very simply. I don't think there’s anything he wants very badly. If there was I’m sure he’d get it. If I go to New York I call him and we have dinner. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t see him. If he comes out here, I offer him my house and my swimming pool, and he stays in a hotel. I like that, in a way. We’re good friends because, when we do get together, we’re really glad to-see each other.”
Jack returned from Europe about two weeks ago. He got a lot of acclaim in London’s Palladium and a lot of golf in the countryside. British audiences he said are just about the most gratifying in the world.
“I gave ‘em the sort of thing I do here, except that I didn’t have Dennis, Don or Rochester with me. Believe me, next time I want them along. Everybody there knows who they are.”
Since he got back Jack has been watching his weight and putting off, as long as possible, any serious work on the season’s broadcasts. He isn’t worrying about television, either. “We’ll take care of that when the time comes,” he said.
The cast has been together so long that, Benny doesn’t have to work half as hard as he did. He puts in, personally, about three days instead of six.
Time was when Benny worked with his six writers Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Saturday they read the script. Rehearsal came Sunday, just before the show.
Now he and the writers get together on Sunday, after the broadcast, to discuss next week’s airing. The writers work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Benny plays golf. Friday, at 9 A. M., he goes over the rough script. Maybe they start again, from scratch. By Friday night things are in fairly good shape.
But, Jack says, on Saturday anything can happen. They may rewrite the whole show.
One thing they don’t do: When the show hits hard one week, they don’t strain to top it the next week.
“We just rock along,” said easy-going Jack, “and usually it turns out all right.”

Incidentally, in hunting around for this article, I found the newspaper ad you see above, published the same day in one paper. I didn’t realise Jack endorsed R.C. Cola. It must have been a nice little deal that showed him that consistency also equalled cash.

Saturday 19 November 2011

A Bick and Some Chicks

Frank Tashlin doesn’t have anyone cradling large milk bottles against their chest like he did with Jayne Mansfield in ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ but you don’t have to look far to find a sexual subtext going on in his cartoon ‘Swooner Crooner.’ Well, maybe it’s more aptly deemed a sexual sub-subtext because the cartoon’s all about female fertility (though no offspring result). Hens that were laying eggs for Porky suddenly stop when a Frank Sinatra rooster shows up. The early ‘40s stereotype of Sinatra gets played up—frail and not terribly manly. You know, someone who wouldn’t induce fertility in women.

Then along comes the Bing Crosby rooster, who casually arouses the hens into renewing their fertility and pumping out endless stacks of eggs. The Hens Can’t Help It. And who better than the Ol’ Groaner? His wife Dixie Lee had four sons by the time this cartoon was released in 1944.

(You’ll notice I’ve avoided any comment about the use of the word “lay”)

We get a bra and panties joke.

And then there’s the famous “between-the-legs” shot as the camera pulls back to demonstrate another of Tashlin’s fixations—camera angles.

In the finale, the crooner roosters prove to be so hyper-masculine when combined, they even make men (or, rather, a male pig) fertile like a female chicken.

Nice use of coloured filters in the shot. Presumably, Tashlin handled his own layouts. Historian Graham Webb says Dick Thomas did the backgrounds.

Of course, Sinatra and Crosby don’t supply their stand-ins’ singing voices. Tashlin didn’t have to look far to find his Crosby. He used Dick Bickenbach, who was animating for Friz Freleng unit but ended up in the Tashlin unit. Bick toddled off to MGM in 1946 to replace Harvey Eisenberg doing layouts for Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, then stuck with the pair when they opened their own studio.

Bick sang for his wife’s mixed fraternal group and in a church choir—he came from a fairly religious background—but he was also a vocalist on radio before he got into the animation industry. The newspaper back home in Freeport, Illinois published this story on January 12, 1926:
Richard Bickenbach, son of Fred Bickenbach, formerly of Freeport and now a resident of California, will be on the air tonight and doubtless many of his friends in this city will listen in. The young man is to broadcast several songs from station KTBI, Los Angeles, between 11 and 12 o’clock, Freeport time, tonight. He is said to have an excellent voice and has been heard over the radio several times in the past few months.
Bick was born August 9, 1907, so he was 18 at the time. He lent his bari-tones to several other cartoons. He died June 28, 1994. You can read more about him here.

Friday 18 November 2011

Barker Bill by Bob Kuwahara

In the early 1960s, there was an animated Terrytoon series called ‘Hashimoto’, the pleasant product of the mind of Bob Kuwahara. That’s all I knew about Kuwahara until recently—I’m not a Disneyphile—when I was surprised to learn he was one of the artists enticed to join the new MGM cartoon studio in 1937. His Disney career began several years earlier.

Kuwahara was also behind a newspaper comic called ‘Barker Bill.’ Of course, his name wasn’t on it. He worked for Paul Terry, so in a time-honoured tradition that saw such comic strip “artists” as Leon Schlesinger and Fred Quimby (and even Walt Disney), Terry took credit for the strip, though unlike the aforementioned he didn’t sign his name to it. Animator and historian Mark Kausler has been busy tracking down the strips and reached a bit of a dead-end. His preliminary research couldn’t find the start of the series.

Allow me to help.

The Winnipeg Free Press had a little blurb on September 25, 1954 announcing it was carrying the strip as of the following Monday, the 27th. Here are the strips for that week. They’re not very good scans and have suffered from dirt and scrapes on the microfilm of the newspapers but they’re the best I can do. Click to enlarge them.

You can see the strip had a story line that continued from day to day.

Kuwahara got his own strip in 1956. He was one of five contest winners and United Features syndicated his ‘Marvelous Mike’. As far as I know, what you see below was an entry.

Mark Kausler is a real friend of animation and he’s helped me so many times in the past. I hope this post has helped him and interested you.

Today’s $64,000 Challenge

In 1950s America, it was an American as apple pie to be a little concerned about those Ruskies, even for politicians in Washington to pound their desks with their ham-like fists, shake their jowls and warn how dangerous the Soviet Union was to Our Freedom. But, even in America, there were limits.

54 years ago yesterday, someone decided to hijack live TV network airwaves to get America to do something about it. 45 million people watched.

Viewers Suddenly Challenged By Interloper on TV Quiz
NEW YORK, Nov. 18—(AP)—Viewers watching “The $64,000 Challenge TV” quiz last night were startled to hear themselves challenged.
In the midst of the program, a man later identified by police as Richard Fichter, 34, of Route 1 Springville, Pa., walked in front of a camera and read from a prepared statement:
“America, I have a challenge. The Russians are ahead of you. ... ”
Fichter got no further. The camera swung away from him, he was grabbed by the stage director and was ushered into the wings after his brief performance.
The director, Seymour Robbie, said later he saw Fichter walk into a televised area that included three contestants and a master of ceremonies but thought he was a CBS employe. As soon as Fichter began to read, Robbie shouted through an intercom system: “Remove him.”
Fichter was taken by police to Bellevue Hospital, where he was admitted to the psychiatric ward.
Police refused to divulge the contents of his statement. They said it was headed: “$64,000 Challenge as Prepared by Richard Fichter.”
Legitimately on stage at the time were the M. C., Ralph Story, and three contestants, Teddy Nadler, Norman Fruman and Barry Simmons. All three had already won $4,000 and Story was asking Fruman the $8,000 question when Fichter appeared.
Fruman, a comic book writer from the Bronx, finally answered the question correctly.
The three contestants were involved in an elimination match in the “general knowledge” quiz category. Nadler, a former civil service clerk from St. Louis, and Simmons, a 20-year-old New York City public relations man, will have a chance next week to draw even again with Fruman.
Studio officials said Fichter, a tall, bearded man, had tried to participate in rehearsals yesterday afternoon but was ejected. He had a ticket for last night’s show.

It’s easy to read this and think the guy was some kind of kook who, today, would be screeding incoherently all over the internet. But perhaps not. A little newspaper digging (thanks, internet!) reveals Fichter was born in Hamilton, Ohio and grew up in nearby Oxford, where his father was head of the state Grange, a farmer’s organisation. He and a brother became ministers and had been granted a deferment from military service in World War Two because they were conscientious objectors to war. A third brother was hauled before a grand jury for failing to report, after losing his attempt at deferral based on the same objection. Fichter took his Methodist ministry to Springville, but decided to go into dairy farming. That’s what he was doing when he challenged the ‘Challenge.’

Fichter was involved in a protest in December the following year outside a prison farm in Ohio where another minister had been incarcerated for refusing to pay taxes because they were being used for military purposes. He, his wife, and three children had driven 650 miles to picket the Cincinnati courthouse where the man’s sentencing was taking place.

Furthermore, the United Press story on Fichter’s TV appearance says he “told network official Julia Shorwell he could not ‘sleep two nights ago and got up and wrote a message to the American people about godlessness.’ His message said Americans were ‘frustrated’ because Russia was ahead scientifically and were ‘frantically blaming first this one and then that one.’” It would appear he wanted to warn about the end result of increasing Soviet paranoia, not feed it.

Later, he and his family lived for 13 years in Arzier, Switzerland, and Frankfurt, West Germany. While in Europe he founded and edited a magazine called “Equality,” at one time published in four languages. The family returned to Oxford in 1972 where Fichter died on June 3, 1977 after a long bout with cancer.

Crackpot or someone with a legitimate concern? Considering protests of various kinds have continued since Fichter’s day, it’s perhaps a challenge to decide who is what.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Van Beuren’s Barnyard Bunk

Perhaps there’s some kind of perversity in the make-up of human beings that they like theatrical cartoons that really aren’t that great. There are actually fans of the Gene Deitch Tom and Jerrys. There are people who willing watch Cool Cat. In my case, I enjoy some of the old Van Beuren cartoons.

Yes, they’re pretty third-rate compared to what the people were doing across the street from Van Beuren at the Fleischer studio. Some of the drawing is downright ugly. Many of the cartoons are still written like they were stuck in the silent era—next to no dialogue, just music and sound/vocal effects. And they’re downright strange, either in terms of gags or a story that’s all over the place. But there’s something I like about them, at least the best of them.

Van Beuren’s big stars in the early part of the 1930s were named Tom and Jerry, one tall, one short. Neither had a fleshed-out personality; they just kind of went about their business and occasionally reacted. But several of their cartoons are innocent fun. One of them is ‘Barnyard Bunk,’ released in September 1932.

How can you hate a cartoon with an apron-wearing cow that dances to "Wabash Blues"? Or a chicken that lays eggs as it somersaults (and the eggs hatch into ducks)? Or farmhouse-wrecking mice that put up a ‘Danger’ sign before part of the home collapses? Or how a hoe, shovel, wheelbarrows and bail of hay sprout faces and limbs, then begin to dance to new hit song “Corn-Fed Cal” in a big finale?

You’ll notice how the dancing cow has her legs joined together. The drawing was used a couple of times in the sequence but the artists didn’t draw some Hanna-Barbaric eight-drawing cycle on twos. The dance was mainly on ones and the drawing above was used again after 59 other drawings.

Leonard Maltin dug into the bowels of obscurity in Of Mice and Magic to bring the history of the Van Beuren Studio to light in those pre-internet days, and it’s from his research our knowledge of All Things Van Beuren grew. If you want to know all about Tom and Jerry (and their predecessors Don and Waffles), go to the Cartoon Research site.

Van Beuren fans owe a lot to Steve Stanchfield at Thunderbean Animation, who did what no major company would ever do—restore the battered old Tom and Jerrys. It wasn’t an easy task for a variety of reasons but the results are just great. You can go to Thunderbean’s site here and see what they have, though I don’t believe the page has been updated for awhile. If you want to own some of the lesser-known cartoons of the ‘30s, this is the place to go.

(P.S: If you’re just new to cartoons, the cat and mouse Tom and Jerry weren’t invented until 1940, a number of years after the human Tom and Jerry vanished from theatre screens and the Van Beuren studio closed. One of Van Beuren’s employees worked on the cat and mouse Tom and Jerrys. You may have heard of him. Joe Barbera).

Wednesday 16 November 2011

TV or Not TV

1948 seems to be the year many people consider the start of network television, but regular TV broadcasts were around before then. Stations went on the air in New York and Los Angeles in 1931 (some having broadcast experimentally in the late ‘20s) and the networks, small as they were, carried programming during the war years.

By 1947, newspaper articles appeared speculating whether—or when—television would overtake radio as the electronic means of choice. There was no Ed Sullivan Show yet, no Uncle Miltie. Instead, you could watch ‘Pulitzer Varieties’ or ‘King’s Record Shop’ on the DuMont Network or ‘Living Room Education’ on W6XAO in Hollywood or the first 15-minute newsreel by the Associated Press on CBS. It’s really an interesting period in television history, rarely explored.

But there was something behind the speculation. The radio networks knew it, the stars on the radio networks knew it and, most importantly, the sponsors and ad agencies of the shows on the radio networks knew it, as they watched sales of TV sets climb in the buoyant post-war economy. The question was, what was a star to do: give up a well-paying job on a radio show with a huge audience, or jump to a shaky new medium that could eventually kill their current big-money employment.

An Associated Press column put that question to a bunch of the stars during the 1948-49 season. By then, Ed and Miltie were on the small screen, cutting into radio’s numbers. Here’s what the top names had to say.

T-V by Fall?
HOLLYWOOD, April 22.—(AP)—When will television become big-time? Next fall perhaps. Fall of 1950 for sure.
That’s the way it looks after a survey of TV plans of most of the big air shows. It’s apparent that most of the top television talent will come from the industry’s older brother, radio. Here is the latest news:
Eddie Cantor —Will definitely jump into TV next fall, with simultaneous radio and telecast for present sponsor.
Amos ‘n’ Andy—“We are working on an unusual idea for television and hope to come up with something in the next few months.”
Burns and Allen — Going to New York in June to discuss a TV deal with CBS’ William Paley.
Jack Benny—May do a monthly videocast in the fall; was happy with his debut on the local CBS station.
Bing Crosby—Definitely plans a TV show, but may wait another year; will do show on film.
Bob Hope—Making big plans for TV; may start in fall.
Duffy’s Tavern—Easily adaptable to TV because of one barroom set; may wait until fall of 1950.
Truth or Consequences — Did one show here on TV; waiting until Kine-scoping is better or coast-to-coast telecasting is possible.
Red Skelton — MGM contract keeps him off TV until December, 1952.
[Lux] Radio Theater—Not adaptable because film studios won’t permit telecasting of movie stories of stars.
Screen Guild Players—Same.
Edgar Bergen—Plans a few telecasts next season, will probably be a regular in fall of 1950.
Al Jolson—Laying plans for a minstrel show on TV.
Ozzie and Harriet — Have put their own children into the show, replacing actors who impersonated them; this is first step toward TV show, which may start in fall.
Dennis Day—Watching situation; may start in fall.
Judy Canova—Same.
Jimmy Durante—Tied to MGM contract.
People Are Funny—Possibility of simultaneous TV and radio show in the fall.
Groucho Marx—Probably not for another year; would be done on film.
Fred Allen—In no hurry; “Let the others pioneer it.”
Fibber McGee — Definitely interested; both son and daughter in TV field; Molly calls herself a “television widow,” since Fibber spends all his time watching the screen.
My Friend Irma—All of cast is suitable for TV; waiting for CBS go-ahead.
Spike Jones—Has been experimenting with show, but no commitments yet.
Faye-Harris—Committed to another year of radio; perhaps TV after that.
Frank Sinatra—Studying the field, but no plans yet.
Take It or Leave It—Garry Moore thinks show readily adaptable for TV, ready to go.
There seems little doubt that most of these names will join Milton Berle, Arthur Godfrey, Perry Como and other air stars who have already leaped into the new field. It will happen when (1) Coast-to-coast telecasting comes in, (2) There are enough sets in the U.S. for sponsors to put out more money.

The list is almost a Who’s Who of the radio people who never quite made the jump. For all their greatness on radio, ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ and ‘Duffy’s Tavern’ never made it on the tube. Nobody thinks of television when they think of Judy Canova. Phil Harris and Alice Faye decided to enjoy semi-retirement after their radio days and stayed out of it. Fred Allen’s reciprocal disdain for television is well known. Frank Sinatra’s role in ‘From Here to Eternity’ took his career in a whole new direction away from the small screen. And we can only imagine the reaction to Jolie’s blackface act if death hadn’t interfered with his plans for a long career in TV.

On the other hand, Jack Benny never missed a beat, though it’s arguable that he was better on radio than television due to his marvellous supporting cast. Skelton was the opposite; television gave him range to do pantomime and other things radio couldn’t. Groucho shone on ‘You Bet Your Life.’ People associate ‘Truth or Consequences’, ‘People Are Funny’ and even the long-lasting ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ more with TV than radio. ‘Take it or Leave It’ went to television after having three zeros added to its $64 jackpot. You know how it ended. And Bob Hope outlasted them all, though he avoided a regular show and stuck to increasingly tacky, cue card-laden specials on NBC.

Perhaps even more interesting is the names that aren’t on the list. When you think of ‘50s television, you think of Lucille Ball, Phil Silvers, the Honeymooners. You think of ‘Playhouse 90’ and ‘Gunsmoke.’ In other words, television viewers almost had their fill of many of the stars of radio and wanted someone new for a new medium. Perhaps to the display of the Cantors and Wynns, the public looking forward and not back.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

No Barking Swirls

Chuck Jones temporarily split up his unit at the Warner Bros studio some time in 1952 and had his animators work on different cartoons. Dick Thompson and Abe Levitow animated ‘Feline Frame-Up’ (Production 1278), Ben Washam and Lloyd Vaughn drew ‘The Cat’s Bah’ (Production 1285), leaving his remaining animator to handle ‘No Barking’ (Production 1282). All were released in 1954.

Why Jones did it, I haven’t been able to discern. The studio shut down production for six months, but that wasn’t until June 1953. Regardless, Ken Harris came up with a really likeable cartoon. Not bad for a former car mechanic.

Among the many attractive things about it are a couple of bits of animation featuring swirls and multiples, the first time with Frisky Puppy and the second time, toward the end of the cartoon, with Claude Cat and Frisky.

In the last sequence, there are 12 different drawings of heads, eyes and swirls animated on twos before we get back to the drawing you see above.

Like all animators, Harris had an assistant—it was Al Pabian for awhile in the ‘50s, then Willie Ito—but whether the assistant did any work on this, I don’t know.

Harris was born Karol Ross Harris on July 31, 1898, the son of William and Katherine R. Harris. He spent his youth in a little whistlestop called Elliot near Livermore, California, and then in Stockton before moving to Los Angeles. He died in Los Angeles on March 24, 1982 after a fine, well-documented animation career.

As a trivia note, ‘No Barking’ appeared on the bill with MGM’s attempt to cash in on ‘I Love Lucy.’ See the teeny letters at the bottom of this ad for ‘The Long, Long Trailer.’ And another theatre advertised it as a “new Tweety colortoon,” even though Tweety only has a cameo at the end.

Monday 14 November 2011

An Egg Scrambled Background

Here’s the kind of thing people never noticed until the advent of home video when they could stop scenes and peer at them for a bit.

In the Warners cartoon ‘An Egg Scramble’ (1950), Prissy the Hen escapes from a house with her precious egg that a housewife was about to boil. She thinks the cops are after her. She runs down the street and hides in a garbage can. There’s a cut to another scene, then back to Prissy jumping out of the garbage can and running down the street some more. Only the two garbage can scenes don’t have the same background.

I suspect this was done because Prissy runs across a street and to the steps of a rundown old building. Having both scenes on one background would have made for a long drawing, so two different backgrounds are used instead. Who would notice?

The layouts are by Cornett Wood and the backgrounds by Dick Thomas. I’m led to believe they were both in the Frank Tashlin unit when Bob McKimson took it over in the mid ‘40s.

The animators in this one are Phil De Lara, Chuck McKimson, Bill Melendez, Rod Scribner and Emery Hawkins. I suspect the animator of the Prissy in the first scene above is different than the one in the scene below, where there’s a fluid take and then Prissy cradles the egg like a football with one hand, uh, wing and the other to the front.

There’s an inside joke with a store called “Foster’s Fresh Eggs” (Warren Foster wrote the cartoon). My favourite background can’t be clipped together but here’s the end of it. There’s a farm road with a barbed wire fence in the foreground, and barns and stacked wheat in the background. The countryside abruptly ends at the city limits and there are cars, buildings and a strip club on a corner.

Bea Benaderet plays all the different hens in the cartoon though, inexplicably, Prissy’s voice is her’s in a couple of scenes and Mel Blanc’s in the rest.