Tuesday 31 January 2012

The Unforgettable Carol Channing

The show biz world is full of combinations that you can’t picture apart. And then there are some that just don’t seem to fit at all.

George Burns and Gracie Allen were a perfect match. It’s hard to fathom that when Gracie quit show business in the late ‘50s, Burns chose Carol Channing as his partner for his show on the Vegas strip.

Burns, as everyone knows, was ultra low key and personable, churning out a joke pulled from a dusty vaudeville trunk, puffing on his cigar until the audience got it, then rolling on to the next one. No one has ever accused Channing of being ultra low key. She and Ethel Merman strike me as the two stars of Broadway musical comedy who utterly dominated a stage through sheer force of personality, not exactly a trait you’re looking for when doing a two-hander in front of an audience. But Burns knew all the tricks of the show biz trade and was smart enough to ensure he wouldn’t be overpowered in front of the footlights. It helped, too, that Burns had been known by audiences for years; in 1959, Channing was still reasonably new and not yet the huge star she became. “Hello Dolly” was still a few years away, though she was known to audiences from the Broadway hit “Lend an Ear” and through newspaper columns that reported on the Great White Way.

Art loosely imitated life on the George Burns TV show on January 6, 1959. The plot—Burns signed Channing for a nightclub engagement and then joined the act himself. That’s what’s being plugged in this column in the Tucson Citizen from January 3rd. The writer clearly took the angle that his readers had no idea who Carol Channing was; the description would be quite superfluous today. This great caricature accompanied the story.

Her Eyes Are Brown Oceans
NEW YORK — Many a lover has used this line:
“Your eyes are like limpid pools of moonlight . . .”
Well, looking into the eyes of Carol Channing isn’t like that at all. It’s more like peering into two huge brown oceans.
That’s not all that's startling about this king-sized pixie. She towers over the average male (5-8 in her nyloned feet).
And the hair . . . well, she calls it “contrived careless.”
Actually, it looks like it was combed none-too-recently by a portable cement mixer. The hair is, presently, blonde.
If charm were gold, she would make Fort Knox look like a slum. Her fey, good-natured humor is so rapid-fire yet so abrupt that one sits in awe staring vacantly at this wonderful face, hoping not to forget one little pearly gem.
Carol Channing reminds one of a big—very big—friendly sister.
The voice comes through like “Gangbusters” and the laughter—warm and gay, never harsh—is contagious throughout any room. She is a good-humored, story-book character in love with the world. Particularly George Burns.
“Yes, I love that man,” she chirped, “I mean this is not only the funniest man in the world, he is also the kindest.
“Do you know that wonderful man gave me jokes, situations, little stage tricks that I’m still using since I first met him years ago?”
“Did you know he completely staged my night club act for Las Vegas?” she demanded.
Carol loves Gracie, George’s long-time partner now retired, too. And she loves their children, Sandra and Ronnie. “Isn’t Ronnie doing fine on the George Burns Show? And George. That man fractures me.
“Why, he had me in stitches during rehearsals of our TV show. He’s so quick with his jokes, and he has such a tremendous sense of timing. That man has forgotten more jokes than most modern-day comedians will ever remember.
“I am,” she decreed solemnly, “the world’s number one George Burns fan.”
Aside from her enthusiasm for George, the man and the comedian, Carol Channing has other enthusiasms, such as:
Her son, almost six. Her husband, Charles Lowe (advertising man). Her career (she opened a four-week stand at New York’s chic Plaza Hotel on Dec. 26). And people, just plain people.
One gathers that this San Francisco-born charmer has a heart to match her 138 well-distributed pounds. She certainly captivates the attention of those around her—and she enters a room like a steamroller with a bass whistle.
Carol Channing is quite possibly one of the funniest women in the world.
She's the kind of person you’d like to have living next door—if for no other reason than she’d not only loan you a cup of sugar, but she'd give you a million dollars worth of floor show at the same time.
Two recommendations: enjoy the talents of Carol Channing on The George Burns Show next Tuesday. And if ever the occasion arises to meet the girl in person, do so. It’s an experience you’re not likely to forget.

Carol turns 91 today. It’s a happy coincidence she shares a birthday with another over-the-top personality of the stage, Tallulah Bankhead, who was flamboyant in a far different manner.

Monday 30 January 2012

Shuffle Off, Celebrity Imitators

Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising may have been forced to use Warners-owned songs in their cartoons for Leon Schlesinger, but they couldn’t have been handed a better break (if you’re forced to use songs, that is). Their characters got to bounce around tunes from the best movie musicals of the era. “We’re in the Money.” “42nd Street.” “Lullaby of Broadway.” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” All great songs. I’m sure a lot of kids had their first exposure to them watching cartoons.

The songs were plunked in cartoons which bore no similar to the musical in which they appeared, possibly with the exception of “Page Miss Glory” (1936), which has a faux Busby Berkeley overhead choreography shot. The cartoon version of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” (1933) involved a dispatch office for a place that delivered newborn human babies. None were delivered to Buffalo, shuffling or otherwise. Instead we get rubber hose animation, ethnic throw-ins, celebrity caricatures and the Rhythmettes.

Speaking of Disney...

There’s an inside joke in one of the background drawings of the cartoon. There’s a birth chart on a wall and it lists the names “Frisby,” “Larry” and “Otto.” Frisby is Friz Freleng, and Larry is likely Larry Martin. Both were animators at the studio at the time. “Otto” could very well be Otto Englander. He worked at the Iwerks Studio before going to Disney in 1933 but it’s possible he had a stopover at Harman and Ising. The drawing is quite possibly by Art Loomer, who was later head of the background department when Schlesinger opened his own studio. The 1932 Los Angeles City Directory lists him as an artist at Pacific Title and Art Studio, which was Schlesinger’s own company.

The same celebrities seemed to come in for a caricatured ribbing in cartoons on either side of the mid-‘30s—Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Laurel and Hardy, and these guys:

Maurice Chevalier.

Joe E. Brown. That kinda looks like the pre-Lantz version of Oswald the Rabbit in the crib.

Eddie Cantor. He even claps his hands and rolls his eyes.

And Ed Wynn, known as The Fire Chief on radio, sponsored by Texaco.

Just a note on the Rhythmettes...

They were a vocal trio who found work at several cartoon studios, including employment on the biggest cartoon before “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Said a story in Hearst’s International in 1934:

There has been much secrecy about who portrayed the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. The voices of the pigs were those of the Rhythmettes. The Rhythmettes are three girls who work on the radio in Los Angeles. They do not broadcast that they are the Three Little Pigs because they want more work at the Disney art shop.

They were appearing on KMTR as early as January 1931 and were with Al Pearce on the NBC Red Network by 1933. Then came this story from Johnny Whitehead of the Covina Argus of May 4, 1934. The Rhymettes were now on the radio with the Rhyme-Kings.

The Rhythmettes, fancy-harmonizing feminine trio with KHJ, sound every bit as good with their new member, who really isn't new because she formerly sang with the trio before going to Chicago some time ago. One of the Rhythmettes told your reporter the other night that the reason they left Al Pearce’s Gang was that two of the team are married and didn’t care to travel any longer.

The identity of the Rhythmettes gets a bit confusing. Two of them were Mary Moder and Dorothy Compton, who was later in The Debutantes singing about a grass shack in Kealakekua Hawaii. But a story in the June 29, 1937 edition of The Oakland Tribune calls them “Doris, Dell and Kay of radio fame.” It’s quite possible there was more than one girl group using the name on radio. Or maybe all the original members eventually quit. Regardless, you can hear them on this very trying syndicated show from 1937 singing a song from a 1932 Harman-Ising cartoon. Another voice you may recognise is that of the “Queen”. She’s Elvia Allmann.


Sunday 29 January 2012

Television, Here I Come

September 1950 was a busy time for Jack Benny. He had just returned from a two-month stay in Europe with Mary, and Phil Harris and Alice Faye. He and Bob Hope embarked on a jaunt to Korea to entertain troops. And he decided to make the jump into television. At least on a semi-regular basis.

Television was at the back of Bill Paley’s mind when CBS opened up its vault to put money in Jack’s at the start of 1949 and lure him from NBC. Jack was one of radio’s biggest stars so there was no reason he shouldn’t be big on television, too, was been Paley’s ultimately correct logic. CBS wasn’t loaded down with heavyweight TV shows as 1949 turned into 1950—a couple of broadcasts with Arthur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” and a wheezy variety show with Ed Wynn were probably the highlights on the schedule. There was prime time when the network offered nothing to local affiliates.

During this time, Jack obviously weighed the move to television, as you shall read. But it was inevitable. Columnists speculated on when it would happen. Finally, he made the announcement a few days before the start of the 1950-51 radio season.


HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 7 — (AP) — Jack Benny announced today he is going to take the big jump into television.
The fiddle-murdering comedian will make his regular television debut on October 29. The show will be for his radio sponsor and he will do three others this season, at intervals of eight weeks. I asked him how he picked his timing.
“I have to go to New York for the television shows," he explained." That means I will have to tape record my air show a week in advance so I can get away. If I tried to do this every four weeks it would be too much. So my sponsor and I agreed on every eight weeks."
Last year Benny made his TV debut on a program to dedicate the local station KTTV. He views his new program with this philosophy:
“I don’t say that I’m going to be any better than anyone else on television. But on the other hand, I see no reason why I should be worse, either."
What about the format?
“I’ll do an hour-long show. It will be variety entertainment with perhaps a scene from my
radio program. The first show might picture Rochester and me at home. We could show some of the things that we talk about on the radio— the cigarette machine, the pay telephone, and so forth. On other shows I might have a scene with Dennis Day or Phil Harris or Mary.
“People tell me that television is a completely new medium. I don’t think so. I’m going to give them the same kind of entertainment I do on stage appearances. It’s the same type of show I used to do at the Orpheum in vaudeville days.”
I asked Benny about his future in television. He admitted that he foresees the day when he will give up radio entirely.
“It would be hard to do both radio and TV and make both of them good,” he said. “And perhaps radio will not be able to afford a show like mine. After all, the others on my show are stars in their own right and have their own shows.”
He admitted he would have to live in New York when he starts doing television exclusively. “I wouldn’t mind living in New York for a year," he said. But he indicated he would return westward as soon as cross-country video becomes a fact.
When I asked how often he would want to do TV, he gave an interesting insight into the new medium.
“I think I would do something like a half-hour every two weeks,” he said. “I wonder if it isn’t a mistake to be on television every week. The matter of coming into people’s homes and being seen is a lot different from just being heard on radio.
“Even if you could be good every week—and that is doubtful—I wonder if that isn’t too much of an intrusion. Pretty soon people might become so used to seeing you that they no longer can judge whether are good or not.”
Benny said he didn’t know whether he will be using one of his noted props on TV.
“We’ll have to take tests to see whether I should wear the toupee,” he said.

Benny wasn’t the only veteran of radio eyeing the television camera. The AP pointed out a week later that Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Groucho Marx and Don Ameche were about to swing over from radio. Of the four, only Groucho was an unqualified success after a hit-and-miss radio career. But Jack was a bigger success than them all. Although his regular show ended in 1965, he continued with occasional specials (and even appearances on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In” among with other radio long-timers) up until the day he died. Television was the right move after all.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Ramon Navarro and Flip the Frog

There are Hollywood stars of the 1920 and ‘30s who people associate with silent pictures or sound ones, and that’s that. In reality, seldom is there a firm dividing line. Many sound stars started in silents and many silent stars made the transition to sound.

Ramon Navarro is thought of as belonging to the silent era but he starred in a number of sound pictures into the mid-‘30s. A fair chunk of Depression cash was put out in October 1930 for the ad you see below.

As you can see, not only did Novarro speak, he sang.

This screening was accompanied by two shorts, “Bigger and Better,” a two-reel series produced by Hal Roach with Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman (and Grady Sutton as comic relief), and the second of Ub Iwerks’ Flip the Frog cartoons, “Flying Fists,” which was released in two-strip Technicolor. But here’s a black and white version.

Friday 27 January 2012

McKimson vs the Status Quo

The Warner Bros. cartoons had run out of steam by the early ’60s. Just about everything that could possibly be done with the major characters had been. Now they were doing the same kinds of things, only without a lot of energy or wit.

Chuck Jones tried a couple of different one-shots—“Now Hear This” was an experiment in sound. And Bob McKimson went for something out of the ordinary with “Bartholomew vs the Wheel” (1964). It’s the story of the dog Bartholomew, told by its child owner. The dog comes to hate wheels, ends up in an unidentified Arab desert nation, returns to the U.S., and loves wheels again as a result of his trip. McKimson was going for either charm or whimsy but he doesn’t entirely succeed. John Dunn’s story has holes in it. How did a welcoming party know a stowaway dog would be arriving at the airport? Did the dog call them? And the dog likes wheels because he doesn’t see them anymore? Plus Mel Blanc’s voices just don’t work for me. McKimson obviously didn’t want the short to have the look or feel of a Warner’s cartoon. Someone else should have brought in to match the “outsider” kid voice. Mel’s voice repertoire was running out of steam, too. He dragged out his stock voices; we get Dino for Bartholomew as a pup and Jack Benny’s Maxwell for a car.

On the other hand, Leslie Barringer lends authenticity as Bartholomew’s young owner (and reads lines better than some of the kids that did in the Peanuts specials). And even Bill Lava’s score fits nicely, though one of his dissonant horn stabs shows its ubiquitousness at Warners with an appearance.

Maybe the best part is the graphic appearance by layout man Bob Givens and background painter Bob Gribbroek. Not all the designs are great, but I do like the cat. The best gag of the cartoon is when the cat performs a high-wire act to drag attention away from Bartholomew.

And you’ve got to like sheep with veils on their faces.

McKimson (or Dunn) pulls of a disintegration gag at the end. The cat’s eyeballs drop to the floor first, then the rest in little pieces. Tex Avery had been doing this kind of thing for years and even Hanna-Barbera used it in their cartoons. But it’s still funny here.

The animation is by Ted Bonnicksen, George Grandpré and Warren Batchelder.

You can at least hand McKimson some points for trying. This cartoon was better than some of the others Warners was releasing at the end. And it was far and away better than the crap released under the studio’s name after it shut down its cartoon division.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Throwing the Bull

“You know what?” says Droopy, sternly. “That makes me mad.” And he proceeds to grab a large toro by the tail and effortless batter him to a bully mash. Tex Avery used the gag with the ridiculing cattle baron (played by Avery) in the really funny “Homesteader Droopy” (1954) but he also did it with the ridiculing bull (also played by Avery) in “Señor Droopy” (1949).

Here’s how Avery handled Droopy swinging the bull around. Six drawings on ones.

And here’s what it looks like. The speed has been slowed down.

The animation in this cartoon was handled by Walt Clinton, Grant Simmons, Mike Lah, Preston Blair and Bobe Cannon. This is the first of six MGM cartoons where Cannon gets a screen credit. He was already back at UPA by the time this cartoon was released. Bill Thompson is Droopy.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Lucy Confounds the Columnists

“I Love Lucy” was not only the most popular show on television at one time, it was a groundbreaking one which influences the industry to this day. Other shows had filmed in front of live audiences, who attempted to peer through lights, cameras and technical people to see the stage. Others had shot using three cameras. But “Lucy” found a way to make it all practical. And sitcoms are taped before a studio audience even today because of it.

This was revolutionary to the people who covered TV. They didn’t quite know what to make of it. Let’s pass on a few columns from the time around the show’s debut The first show was filmed September 8, 1951 but it was the second one a week later that was the debut of the series.

In Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 27 (NEA)—A movie queen emoting on a studio sound stage with a built-in audience is the latest “Well, I’ll be darned” eye-opener in today’s fast-changing Hollywood scene.
The movie queen is Lucille Ball and workmen knocked a hole through a thick studio wall (built to keep people out) so Lucille’s audience could by-pass the studio gateman and get in.
There’s no standing around on the set with the usual head wobbling for Lucille’s audience.
No, siree.
After knocking that hole through the studio wall, the workmen built a series of raised platforms and installed 300 plush seats right on the sound stage floor behind the cameras.
Darned if they didn’t build a fancy theater-like lobby, too, complete with rest rooms, thick red carpet and uniformed ushers. No boxoffice, though, because admission is free. No popcorn machine, either.
The movie studio with the hole in the wall so the eager public can get in free to watch a star emote is General Service, and the big sound stage with the 800 plush new seats has a long and glittering history of “No Admittance — Public Keep Out” movie making.
Blame or hail television for this first mass studio gate crashing stunt since the early days of Hollywood when Carl Laemmle erected bleachers on his outdoor sets and charged the public 25 cents a head to watch the filming of Universal’s old silent dramas.
Lucielle’s sound stage audience will be watching her make a weekly half hour television movie, “I Love Lucy,” a comedy series in which she co-stars with husband Desi Arnaz, supported by movie veteran William Frawley and Broadway-import Vivian Vance.
The first film will be seen on coast-to-coast CBS-TV October 15 with a cigaret company paying all the bills.
Filming of “I Love Lucy” is as precedent-shattering as the hole in the studio wall.
As Desi, who put the idea together (Lucille claims she “didn’t have anything to do with it. Desi deserves the credit. I was home having a baby”) sees it:
“We’re putting a stage show on film for television.”
All three techniques are represented in the setup. The director, Marc Daniel, is from the New York stage and TV. Cameraman Karl Freund is a movie veteran who tensed several of Lucille’s films at M-G-M.
If you want to be confused, here’s the way it works:
The show is rehearsed like a play on a bare stage with chalk marks on the floor indicating walls and furniture. Then it’s rehearsed on the set in front of three movie cameras just like a movie.
Then they let the audience in and they shoot the scenes with all three cameras and the sound track picking up the audience laughter. Then the audience goes home and Lucille and Desi and the cast run through their lines again while the cameras move in for closeups which will be cut in with the long and medium shots.
Lucille, Desi and Producer Jess Oppenheimer insisted on an audience for their movie making on the theory that a movie for television is not like a regular movie.
Says Desi:
“People alone at home like to feel that they are part of the audience in the TV theater. They want to hear an audience reaction.”
Claims Producer Oppenheimer:
“An audience dictates to an actor what to do. He has to stop and acknowledge the audience’s reaction. Hollywood takes care of the problem with previews before a film is released.
“We don’t have time to preview our films. So instead of taking our pictures to an audience, we’ve brought our audience to the picture.”
“Great idea, isn’t it?” said Lucille, who was wearing slacks and her hair tucked under a bandana for an eight-hour session of rehearsing.
I confessed I was a little confused.
“You won’t be when you see the first picture,” she assured me. “We’re just putting a stage show on film for television.”
But I’m still confused.
“I Love Lucy,” too, but is it a play, a movie or a television show?

TV Is Keeping Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Together

HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 9 (AP)—Television’s boosters keep talking about how the new medium is bringing the family back together. Here’s one pair it has done that for—Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
The redhead and the Latin have been married 11 years and a sizable amount of that time has been spent apart. During the war years, Desi was here and there in the Army. When peace came, he organized a band and was touring the country as much as six months out of each year. Meanwhile, his spouse was largely confined to picture-making in Hollywood.
“We saw each other coming and going, and that was about all,” Lucille remarked.
But now they have solved the problem of Desi’s travels. Together they have formed the
Desilu Company (from their first names, as if you didn’t_know). He is prexy and she is vice prez and the whole enterprise is very cozy. Purpose of the company is to produce a TV show called “I Love Lucy,” and that’s what keeping them home together.
“It’s a full-time job for both of us,” Lucille declared. “Starting at noon, we work every week day plus two nights a week. We have Saturday and Sunday off and that’s all.”
The new show is an unusual operation. Some TV shows are telecast directly with an audience and others are filmed. But the Ball-Arnaz program is filmed with an audience. Here's how it works:
The actors and technicians rehearse all day Monday through Thursday at a Hollywood film studio. On Thursday night an audience is brought into the studio for a dress rehearsal. More rehearsals follow on Friday and the show is filmed by three cameras before an audience that night.
“Thus we can get the technical perfection of being able to cut the film before it is televised,” explained Desi. “But we also have the advantage of playing before an audience, so we can get a reaction to the comedy.”
“I Love Lucy” has already been sold for 39 weeks to a cigarette sponsor and will debut soon on CBS in the Monday time slot following Arthur Godfrey.
Naturally, such a tight schedule precludes any film activity right now for Lucille, but. she is shedding no tears over that.
“I’ll have three months every summer to do pictures,” she said. “I could do two in that time, but I only want to do one a year anyway.
“Actually, I don’t miss doing pictures at all. On the TV show I’m doing the things I like to do. It’s a combination of everything I have learned in the movies, radio, stage and vaudeville. Sometimes I would do a whole picture just because of one little scene which I wanted to do. On this show I get that kind of scene every week.”
The Arnaz family now has another reason for sticking close to home. The name is Lucie Desiree Arnaz, age 11 weeks.

Lucille and Desi Happy At Their TV Playhouse
HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 11 (AP) — “Every ham likes an audience,” said Lucille Ball, “and we’re hams.”
The tall redhead was explaining her unique TV setup of herself and her husband, Desi Arnaz. They’re leased two adjoining sound stages. One contains the dressing rooms. The other houses the sets—dining room, living room, kitchen—and bleachers for 300 spectators.
There, each Friday evening, a half hour domestic comedy in a series called “I Love Lucy” is put on film for television. A sign over the lobby where the audience is admitted says “Desilu Playhouse.” Desilu was compounded from the owner-stars’ first names.
During business discussions, Desi may wear a hat labeled “Pres.,” while Lucy wears one lettered “Veepee”—their respective ranks in Desilu Productions, Inc. During rehearsals they sometimes switch to headgear reading “Boy Actor” and “Girl Actor.”
* * *
“THIS COVERS MORE people in one night than a picture does in two years,” Lucy said of the new medium. “Another reason I went into television is, in every script I get things I wait a year or two to get in pictures. Natural, married-couple stuff, mostly. On the screen I’ve had that only occasionally.”
The natural married-couple stuff, in a scene I saw rehearsed, showed Lucy lousing up her hubby’s poker game with his pals.
Miss Ball said she’ll branch out into comedy dance routines in the series and added: “I like not playing myself. Playing Lucille Ball is very boring. I always have to look good. Being glamorous can be very monotonous.”
Their approach to TV, she pointed out, combines all mediums. “It’s television, films, radio, theatre, and personal appearances all in one.
* * *
“BUT IT’S harder than movies. We learn a new script in three days. Any trouper who doesn’t want to work harder than he ever has in his life shouldn’t go into television.”
Desi, Cuban-born bandleader and one-time Broadway actor, has been married to Lucy nearly 11 years. But their separate movies and his band tours have kept them apart frequently. “This television show is wonderful,” he said. “It gives us our first chance to be together.”

If you’re wondering how critics responded, most of them liked the show. The New York Times panned the second half as being low comedy that was a little too low. But here’s one review from the United Press. The writer, or maybe an editor, had a little trouble with Desi Arnaz’s name.

Video Can’t Hurt
Lucille Launches TV Career as Witch

HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 18—(U.P.) Lucille Ball’s one movie queen who isn't worrying how she’ll photograph on TV. This week she came out looking like a Halloween witch.
There's just one difference: With Lucy it’s on purpose.
She and her spouse, Dessi Arnaz, kicked off their CBS-TV show, “I Love Lucy” Monday night and what the carrot-topped cutie did to her puss was enough to make every “cheesecake” photographer in the racket flip his lid.
She stuck black patches over choppers and flashed a toothless grin at her goggle-eyed audience . . . she flopped a black wig over her orange-colored curls and stalked the stage, pig-tails flying . . . she camouflaged the famous Ball curves in a shapeless gunnysack and stared cross-eyed at the camera.
She did everything, in fact, but worry about her looks. And the laughs rippled forth a mile a minute. Everybody was surprised but Lucy.
“I started out as a comedienne,” she shrugs. “But nobody ever let me get laughs. All I did, picture after picture, was look glamorous.
"Now I let Desi handle the glamour. He's pretty enough.”
She’s right there. But he’s more’n pretty. He’s also smart, as president of Dessilu Productions he bagged a sponsor for $1,500,000 a year.
“This is something we’ve been dreaming about for years,” he explained. “And working on for the past three. We even took a vaudeville tour last year to break in our act. Now we’re in business.”
At $30,000 a week you could even call it big business. For that, every Monday night, Desi and Lucy will cavort through the trials of young married life.
“It’s a cinch,” Desi says. “All we do is remember what happened to us and write a story around it."
“Now honey,” Lucy interrupted. “You know we can’t put THAT on the screen!”
The best part of the show, as far as Dessi and Lucy are concerned, is the hours.
“We’ve been trying to get together for 10 years,” Lucy said. “But I’d always be making a movie and Desi’d always be playing a nightclub tour. Even when he was in town he'd be getting home just as I was leaving for the studio.
“He always saw me as my most unglamorous self. What else . . . at 6 a. m.?
“Now we work together . . . we have a 3-month-old daughter . . . Saturday and Sundays off . . . and it looks like we’re gonna have a sane home life for a change—or at least as sane as it can be with us.”

MacPherson’s column obliquely reveals something that readers probably took as a joke. You couldn’t have put Lucy and Desi’s real life on television. Well, today you could, considering the reality trash that some people are fascinated with. “I Love Lucy” was an attempt by Lucille Ball to stabilise her home life and save her marriage. Instead, she won a default divorce on May 4, 1960; Lucy claimed she knew it was over for good five years before because Desi loved boozing and womanising too much. Considering that and the tremendous pressure to keep not only their show, but their studio/production company a success, it’s amazing that Lucy and Desi continued to bring viewers quality entertainment until the very end. Quality entertainment is the reason everybody loves Lucy.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Number One Dog Nightmare

Sometimes, there’s no justice in this world. It crashes down around you. That’s the message in Chuck Jones’ “Fresh Airedale” (1945).

The sociopathic Shep wins all throughout the cartoon except during one scene when he has a nightmare sparked by jealousy. Before going to bed, he reads that a black Scottish terrier is the Number One Dog, not him. Jones gets to use his sense of stylisation to advance the plot instead of just showing off.

The pictures of the Scotty and Shep on posters turn into a 1 and a 2, with the one chasing the 2.

Ones turn into Scottish terriers. The transformation of numbers into living characters is reminiscent of the Ralph Phillips cartoon “From A to Z-Z-Z-Z” (1953), also directed by Jones.

And the abbreviation for “number” fills the screen in little jagged trails, as Mel Blanc’s echoing voice repeats the words “Number One Dog.”

Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald’s “Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies” lists the animators as Ben Washam, Ken Harris and Lloyd Vaughan. It doesn’t mention who laid out the nightmare sequence, but Mike Barrier’s “Hollywood Cartoons” states that Earl Klein took over layout in the Jones unit in early 1944 so I suspect he’s responsible for this cartoon, with Bob Gribbroek painting the backgrounds. A great little sequence in a great little cartoon.

Monday 23 January 2012

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t

“Solid Serenade” is probably best known for Tom’s rendition of Louis Jordan’s hit “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” accompanying himself on the double bass. Daniel Goldmark in his “Tunes For ‘Toons” (2005, University of California Press) gives a fine critique and examination of Scott Bradley’s scoring technique in the short, but nowhere does he mention who does the actual singing of the song. However, someone who knows better than anyone has revealed it’s Buck Woods.

As I’m now using words like “whence” in a post, maybe I should post a few frames that I liked, in the order they appeared on the screen.

The credited animators are Ken Muse, Mike Lah and Ed Barge. I would have guessed Ray Patterson worked on this as well, as the opening scene has the wide-mouthed Tom that I’ve come to associate with him. The singing Tom has sharp teeth, but at times he also has a scrunched-up grin that Muse drew for Mr. Jinks in the Hanna-Barbera cartoons. And a compilation reel existed on the internet of Mike Lah’s animation which included the scene from this cartoon where Tom-as-Boyer is wooing the dog by mistake. He draws Tom’s mouth small and a bit to the side of the face like he did later in cartoons at Hanna-Barbera. If I had to guess, I’d say the scene where Tom clunks the dog with the brick and plays fetch is Lah, too. But I’m not going to speculate any more than that because I don’t want to create any misinformation.

Still, the song’s the best part of the cartoon. You can hear the Jordan version from ‘Follow the Boys’ (1944) below.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Dick Tufeld

Popular culture can be a funny thing. A man can spend his life heard prominently announcing awards telecasts, commercials for big-name products, at least one incarnation of Walt Disney’s Sunday night show, but then become known for three words—“Danger Will Robinson.”

Will Robinson, known in real life as Bill Mumy, has passed on word on Facebook that Dick Tufeld, the voice of the robot on ‘Lost in Space,’ has passed away.

There was actually a time you could see Tufeld instead of hear him. He was a noon-hour newscaster at KABC in 1955 (soon moved to the 11 p.m. slot where he also did commentary) and hosted ‘Dick Tufeld’s Sports Page’ and ‘Focus on Los Angeles,’ a public affairs show. But his rich, smooth voice could have sold Barack Obama to Newt Gingrich. So, he went into commercial and announcing work. Disney hired him. So did Warner Bros. for the original ‘Bugs Bunny Show.’ Hanna-Barbera brought him in to say things like “The Jetsons. Brought to you by...” He was the announcer on ‘The Hollywood Palace.’ And the Oscars. And the Grammys. And the People’s Choice Awards. He told us Rice-A-Roni was the San Francisco Treat. He voiced obscure stuff, too. Jerry Fairbanks had him do an insert for the Bell Telephone industrial film ‘21st Century Calling’ set at the Seattle World’s Fair. The list goes on and on.

But he achieved fame amongst a certain segment of the population as part of the most unlikely TV comedy duo for his monotone comebacks to the increasingly campy Dr. Zachary Smith on ‘Lost in Space.’ Fan sites have Tufeld interviews on them, but here’s one I thought I’d pass on from the New York Daily News syndicate. It’s dated December 24, 1997.

Lost in Space voice gets heard again in the toy aisle
By David Bianculli
New York Daily News
WARNING! WARNING! Danger, Will Robinson! That does not compute!
Ask most people younger than 45 or so to identify the source of those phrases, and, because of their familiarity with either the original CBS series or its endless syndicated reruns, the answer is simple: The Robot from the 1965-68 sci-fi series Lost in Space, which airs daily on the Space channel.
However, ask them to identify the owner of that voice, and it’s a much trickier question. The answer is Dick Tufeld — and all of a sudden, just in time for Christmas, Tufeld’s voice is all over the place again.
He provides the Robot's voice in a new line of merchandising of classic Lost in Space stuff: talking mini-Robot key chains, for example, and even an ultra-cool, 11-inch Robot replica with a motorized base, moving arms and bubble head, and a voice chip that has Tufeld saying either “Danger, Will Robinson!” or “My sensors indicate an intruder is present!”
Well, my sensors indicate a hot holiday toy is present — and, indeed, the Trendmasters Lost in Space Robots have been selling fast and furiously. Tufeld, whose voice also introduced Zorro and, for years, Wonderful World of Disney, is understandably amused that the series is remembered that fondly — or even at all.
“This was not the strongest show anybody ever saw,” Tufeld said. But he knew, by speaking at colleges as early as the mid-70s and watching how college kids perked up when learning he had the Robot among his credits, just how resonant Lost in Space really was.
It was only a fluke, though, that made him the voice of the Robot. Tufeld had been hired as the show’s narrator by series creator Irwin Allen, but failed in his initial attempt to audition for the vocal role of the Robot.
Tufeld went in presuming Allen wanted a stiff-sounding, mechanical voice, but recalls Allen telling him, “My dear boy, that is exactly what I am not looking for! This is a highly advanced culture in the year 1997!” That, of course, was the year the show’s Jupiter 2 spaceship was launched.
After failing to please Allen with several low-key readings, Tufeld prepared to leave, then stopped and asked to try one more time.
“In my best mechanical, stiff, robot-ian kind of sound, I say, WARNING! DANGER! THAT DOES NOT COMPUTE!”
Allen’s eyes lit up, and Tufeld got the job.
Go figure. And if you want to please someone this year, go buy a Robot gift.

Tufeld was Irwin Allen’s announcer of choice and heard on a bunch of Allen’s shows of the ‘60s.

He had studied drama at Northwestern University. His friendly, resonant voice was perfect for radio. That’s where Tufeld resided prior to his television announcing career, which took off when “Space Patrol” debuted on KECA, ABC’s West Coast flagship, on March 9, 1950 (it became a radio show as well a few months later). My favourite radio work of his is with the future Fred Flintstone, Alan Reed, on “Falstaff Fables” (1950), featuring the Falstaff Openshaw character Reed did on Fred Allen’s show. Listen to one episode by clicking on the arrow. Try to resist going out to buy a Milky Way bar.

If you read commercials on the air for a living, you can only hope to sound as good as Dick Tufeld. Here’s one of his countless TV spots.

Late note: One of Dick’s grandchildren has pointed out in the comment section he voiced this full-length trailer for the Disney movie that kids begged their parents to let them see again and again: “Mary Poppins.”

A mid-‘60s issue of Screen Actors magazine notes Tufeld was an active SAG member, and part of joint talks between AFRTA and the Guild with commercial producers and ad agencies (on the committee with him were former radio actors Daws Butler, Vic Perrin, Ed Prentiss and Bud Hiestand).

Richard Norton Tufeld was born in Los Angeles on December 11, 1926 to Bentley J. and Margaret Tillie “Peggy” (Simons) Tufeld. His father, born in Russia as Bentzion Tuchfeld, came to the U.S. in 1913 and founded Western Office Furniture Company. His mother was Canadian according to Census figures but Russian (and named Tanya) according to naturalisation records. The two married in 1920. Tufeld grew up in Altadena and was, by all accounts, a thoughtful and likeable man. And 45 years after the fact, it’s evident to fans around the world no one could have been better at putting that duplicitous coward Dr. Smith in his place than the voice of Bill Mumy’s mechanical friend.

Birds, Bees and Dennis Day

Dennis Day learned what everyone who has reached any level of fame has learned—your audience typecasts you. At times, that can be a good thing. If a star does something bad in real life, people refuse to believe it because they “know” him. But, professionally, it gets to be annoying after awhile. It certainly did to Dennis Day, it seems.

There’s a bit of irony in that. Day owed his career to the fact that Kenny Baker wearied of the same stereotype that Day did, and quit the Jack Benny radio show because of it. Day stuck with it. It was the wisest career decision. Not only did his role expand a bit on the Benny show—he got to show off his ability to do impressions—he ended up getting his own starring show on NBC. But, again, he was playing a watered down version of his character on the Benny show, a naïve, somewhat silly young man who was a little awkward around young women.

All this seems to have perturbed Dennis as he looked to expand his career past the narrow role people continued to want to see him in. He talked about it in the public press in 1950 as he pushed his new movie. Here’s one syndicated column.

In Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD, July 1 (NEA)—Maybe it won’t impress Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, but Dennis Day, who has million-dollars tonsils, too, gets worry lines right under his widow’s peak whenever he thinks about Gloria de Haven.
The fancy forehead corrugation hasn’t a thing to do with bullfighters, either.
It seems that Gloria, a Hollywood doll who seldom gets a ting-a-ling when they’re looking for stained-glass window types, is about to throw a monkey wrench with SEX engraved on it smack into the middle of Dennis’ fan club of dear, old white-haired ladies.
When Gloria finishes hustling him soundly in Fox’s “I’ll Get By,” Dennis broods, the radio-confected pictures of him at an innocent lad in short pants will go boom-boom.
It’s worrying Dennis in the same way it would worry Gene Autry if he found himself in Mae West’s boudoir right in front of a million bubble-gum blowers.
Dennis looked around furtively and told me:
“I’m box office with those old girls. When I play theaters, they hobble down the aisles on crutches and smash into other people with their wheel chairs. Tired business men want to see Jane Russell. The white-haired gals who collect old-age pensions want to see me.”
Dennis says he’s been putting on the Little Lord Fauntleroy smile for years whenever somebody’s grandma yells for him.
He Knows, Girls
“They think I’m really the mother’s boy I play on Jack Benny’s radio show,” he sighed. “They don’t give me credit for knowing about the birds and bees.”
But there won't be any doubts when the picture is released, he’s sure.
“I get Gloria to make an honest man out of me by mentioning my mink farm. When Gloria hears me say ‘mink,’ she goes wild and screams, ‘Br-r-r-r-rother!’ Only the way Gloria bellows it, the word hasn’t got anything to do with National Brotherhood Week.”
Dennis can just see his picture turned to the wall in the parlors of the Day fans who look like Jack Benny in his Charley’s Aunt wig. He doesn’t think there’s a chance that it will be Gloria’s picture that gets the flip-over treatment. His over-sixty fans aren’t the kind who go around framing photos of girls in the Betty Grable league.
“I’ll Get By” is Dennis’ second movie—his No. 1 try was something called “Music in Manhattan” with Ann Shirley and Phil Terry about 10 years ago—and marks his first screen encounter with molten lipstick.
“Now,” he says, “I know how Shirley Temple felt when she got kissed for the first time.”
Dennis says that he’s been goggle-eyed about the radio public’s willingness to believe anything that comes bouncing over the air waves since he became the big load of whimsey on the Benny show in 1939. He complains:
“They think that Marie Wilson is a mental giant beside me. I have to go around saying, ‘I’m not a schmoe, I’m not a schmoe.’”
He’s lost count of the letters asking him about his wrestling, steam-fitting mother — “She’s really a demure lady”—and the age at which he was dropped on his noggin.
Even radio actors buttonhole him and whisper:
“Hey, just between you and me, is Jack Benny really that tight with a buck?”
Fair-Haired Boy
When Dennis isn’t peeking into Ulcerland about his first celluloid sex skirmish, he’s apt to go into a brown study about the Mother Macrees who haven’t seen him and think of him as a tall blond kid with hayseeds sticking out of his ears.
“Maybe,” says Dennis, “they’ll fall flat on their faces when they see me. Maybe the studio should have used the Larry Parks technique and hired Claude Jarman, Jr., or Butch Jenkins to play me.”
He says a lot of radio singers who have been trying to burst into movies for years fainted dead away and had to go to bed when word leaked out that he had turned down a chance to jump from “I’ll Get By” into RKO’s “Two Tickets to Broadway.”
One stopped him and said:
“Who are you to turn down pictures—Princess Aly Khan?”
Dennis has quite a reputation for his mimicry but nobody he imitates has ever threatened to give him a poke in the snoot. He’s not sure about Ronald Colman, though. When Colman first heard Dennis give out with the “I say, Bonita,” he turned to his wife and said:
“I say, Bonita, isn’t that a wonderful imitation of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.?”
Dennis hasn't figured it out yet.
“Maybe,” he says, “Colman doesn’t like Doug, Jr.”

“Princess Aly Khan” was better known as Rita Hayworth, who spent a fair chunk of time after her marriage refusing to work on pictures Columbia insisted on putting her in.

The following day, Hedda Hopper devoted her entire Sunday column to Dennis. You’ve got to love the way Hedda makes herself part of the story. And she gives a bit of insight into how canny Dennis was. There’s was a reason he inflicted “Clancy Lowered the Boom” on the Benny audience. He made money off it.

Dennis Day-He's Such a Boy
You'd never think that nostalgic tenor, that youthful innocence, that dumbjohn naivete came from a tough veteran in show business!


HOLLYWOOD—To millions of people Dennis Day is the eternal boy—a naive lad who says the things that most people only think, a lad who sings sweet songs in a tenor that calls forth nostalgic tears. And in recent years the public has come to think of Dennis as one of the world’s best comedians and imitators.
Every two years radio man Day shows his fans Dennis Day in the flesh through personal appearance tours across the nation.
And once in a blue moon Dennis makes a motion picture. This is his picture year. He’s co-starring in “I’ll Get By” at Twentieth Century-Fox with June Haver, Bill Lundigan and Gloria de Haven, and with such top stars as Clifton Webb, Jeanne Crain, Dan Dailey and Vic Mature doing specialty spots as background for his unique talents.
Won’t Sign Up
“You haven’t made a picture in six years,” I observed over our tea. “Why? It’s easier to let your public, see you on the screen than to go out on those killing personal appearance tours—and the money all goes out in tax anyway.”
“That’s true,’ said Dennis, “but you can’t find a producer who will let you off with one picture. They all want to sign you up for a baker’s dozen, and that I can’t do. Darryl Zanuck is the exception—when he wants you he’ll take you for a one-shot. He and Bill Perlberg don’t play that cards-to-the-chest game. They go out to make a top picture, and that's their first consideration.”
“Then you won’t make a p.a. tour this year?” I asked.
“No. I’ll spend my vacation time at Balboa,” he replied. “I’ve a house there and a little boat, and I’ll get 13 weeks rest. But I’ll go out on tour next year. The last time I went out we did six shows a day and I sing nine songs at each show. That’s work, sister. Toward the end of the tour I caught cold and lost my voice. I wanted to throw in the sponge, but you can’t let audiences down, so I came out and emceed the show in a croaking whisper until the voice got straightened out.”
His Name’s McNulty
Bronx-born Eugene Dennis McNulty is a fine looking lad in a drawing room. He wears with case and assurance clothes made by the best tailors. His ebony hair and heart-warming smile, a ready wit and flashes of temperamental fire make him a personality to remember. In private life the shy, star-struck boy of the radio becomes a man of modest reticence. He qualifies his success story repeatedly with use of the word “luck.”
“Luck has everything to do with it,” he said. “If Kenny Baker hadn’t pulled out of the Jack Benny show when he did, I’d probably be working away at the law. That’s what I wanted to be— a criminal lawyer. I find that branch absorbing.”
I wanted to know how a would-be criminal lawyer wound up as a world famous entertainer. “Didn’t that take some fancy footwork?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I’d always sung a bit. In the choir at St. Patrick’s cathedral when I was a small boy. I sang alto. Then when I was at Manhattan college we did some amateur shows with Larry Clinton’s orchestra. And I sang a couple of times on radio shows so in my spare time I’d fool about with recordings. I was recovering from an appendix operation when I made a recording of ‘Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.’ Some fellows from a Canadian corporation were in the next room when I was cutting it and heard me. They bought it for $75. I ran home with the money and you can imagine the excitement. ‘A wonderful country this,’ my father said, ‘that pays you for singing. Why, when I sang in Ireland, they threw water at me!’”
It seems there were other singers among the McNultys. Dennis’ grandmother has a very fine voice and his mother is musical also.
“Mother played the tenement house piano—that’s what we call the accordion—at her own wedding,” Dennis explained. “She plays it now when we have a family get-together around the piano.”
So many McNultys came to California after Dennis arrived that they just bought they own apartment house and settled down. I wanted to know how many songs Dennis knew by heart.
Got to Keep Working.
He thought a moment. “It would run into the thousands I guess.” he smiled deprecatingly.
“You can’t help knowing a good many when you've been singing as long as I have. Then, you see, I take a singing lesson every day when I’m not making a picture. You can’t stand on your honors in life— you've got to keep working.”
Dennis sang a number of songs when he auditioned for the Jack Benny program—“I Never Knew Heaven Could Speak” and “Don’t Worry About Me” and “Yours Is My Heart Alone,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart” and I don't know how many more. But it was “Jeanie” which caught Mary Livingstone’s fancy and which got him the chance to land in what he calls “the greatest showcase in the world”— the Benny show.
When Jack finally called Dennis’ name singling him out of a room full of hopeful aspirants, it was Dennis’ instant response “Yes, please,” which keyed the eternally fresh character he plays. He was nervous and reticent and his voice was higher than normal and a trifle breathless. Jack Benny a master showman, recognized his comedy value. “There’s our boy,” he told Mary. “We’ll play him just like that— a shy utterly sincere boy whose mother is somewhere in the offing all the time.”
Correct Psychology
Jack’s psychology was correct. Mrs. Patrick McNulty, who was Mary Grady of Carracastle, Ireland, has reared a family of four sons and a daughter to be proud of. It was his mother who introduced Dennis to Peggy Almquist, his wife and the mother of small Paddy and Denny. One brother is a doctor, another a teacher of electrical engineering at U.C.L.A., another is Denny’s business manager, and the fourth is in the pharmaceutical business. Dennis’ sister is married and the mother of four, and Grandma McNulty has nine grandchildren to fuss over, and she’s not yet 60.
Dennis has one great difficulty! There aren’t enough hours in a day for him He says he’s an eight-hour man when it comes to sleep and just must have it to keep his voice fresh. His two music publishing businesses take up a good deal of his time since he personally checks on all the songs that get past his brother John with a recommendation.
He Isn’t Greedy
“You can’t afford to overlook anything submitted in the music publishing business,” he told me. “Song writers are spurt people. They jot down the flash as it comes because if it’s not caught on the fly if often leaves never to return. ‘Clancy Lowered the Boom’ was submitted to me on the back of a laundry list, probably the only piece of paper at hand.” Dennis thinks he has another hit in “When I Was Young and Twenty,” from the Housman poem which he has set to music.
Eugene Dennis McNulty isn’t money greedy, but he knows the value of a dollar. And he has a certain inflexibility when it comes to things that might interfere with his standards—nobody can break him down. He is the only big-moneyed entertainer in Hollywood without a swimming pool. His home, which he bought before he married, and which is in a conservative residential section of Los Angeles, might be the home of a doctor or lawyer.
After Dennis Day had gone I remembered all the times I’d sat in my library listening to that golden voice. There, I thought to myself, goes talent and brains and manners and high ideals and charm—there goes a boy every woman in the world would be proud to call son.

Hedda Hopper was 65 years old when she wrote this column. Right in Dennis Day’s motherly musical audience demographic. When you sing sentimental songs from the Victrola days, you attract fans who are sentimental for the songs from the Victrola days. It would have been pointless, and far less lucrative, to hope for some other result. It may have been frustrating at times, but if fans wanted a naïve, boyish singer, that’s what Dennis Day gave them. It’s the reason why he’s remembered today.

Saturday 21 January 2012

No Money in Cartoons

Before the end of block booking in 1948, which stopped studios from forcing theatres to accept their short subjects along with features, cartoon producers were teetering on unprofitability. The war had stopped a lot of their overseas business for obvious reasons. Then came another financial blow in 1947, as related by this United Press story.

Bugs Bunny to be Rationed
England’s Embargo Hits Home At Cartoon Factories

HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 16—(U.P.)—The British tax became something real to movie-goers today when they discovered they’re going to be rationed on Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny.
Yep—fewer cartoons.
Up to now England’s embargo on Hollywood has been something the fans would just as soon let producers worry about. But it’s beginning to hit home.
Of the eight cartoon factories, two have shut down altogether. Columbia Studios, which makes “The Fox and the Crow,” took a look at their profits, discovered there weren’t any, and went out of business.
George Pal, whose bug-eyed “Jasper” kept kids happy at Saturday matinees, has chopped off his Puppetoons. He's going in for full-length features, where he can make some money.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” shrugged Walter Lantz, president of the Cartoon Producers’ Association. “We’re not going to get our dough back from the domestic market. Europe used to help us make a profit. Now everybody’s losing money.”
So Lantz, who makes “Woody Woodpecker” and “Andy Panda,” is cutting down. In 1942 he had 13 cartoons out by August. This year he has eight. It’s the same all over town. M.G.M.’s “Tom and Jerry” are coming out 10 times this year. Five years ago they were in 16 cartoons. Paramount’s “Popeye” gulps spinach 15 times, as compared to 25 in 1942.
Even Disney’s slowing up. “Mickey Mouse” and company hit your movie house only every six weeks now. They used to be there once a month.
“Bugs Bunny” and Warners’ “Merry Melodies” are really taking it easy. They’ve slowed from a fast 42 a year to 16.
“And if the other companies are anything like mine, they’re losing money on every one,” Lantz said. “My costs have gone up 165 per cent since 1940. Profits? A measly 12 per cent. We spend $25,000 for a six-minute short now—and wait 18 months to get it back.”
Trouble is, he said, theater managers want a cartoon for $2.50 a week. They get it, too.
“Feature pictures get a percentage,” Lantz explained. “But cartoons come for a flat rate. Awful flat I might add. Exhibitors still think they’re fillers—something to fill up the screen with while the customers go out for more popcorn.”
At least, the British tax hasn’t cut down on that—yet.

Wood Soanes of the Oakland Tribune sniffed his response in the entertainment pages on October 23:
Well, I have no doubt that the British embargo is having its effect, but it isn’t the basic cause. Several months before Britain decided on its new tax arrangements, the cartoon producers were in the public print screaming that they couldn’t go on unless they got better terms.
The cartoon men claim they are being given the brush-off by the feature producers; the exhibitors claim that with the public demanding double bills there is no time for cartoons. In short, everyone is blaming everybody else. The sorry fact is that most of the cartoons aren’t worth the powder to blow them to Never-never land.

Soanes seems to be under the impression that if the cartoons were “better,” producers would get more money for them. But he doesn’t address the fact that the movie-going public felt they got more for their money with two features instead of one feature and several short subjects they didn’t have a great deal of interest in.
While cartoons directors would say decades later “Cartoons weren’t made for children,” that certainly appears to have been the primary audience attracted to them even before 1947. Theatre owners knew it. They scheduled whole afternoons of nothing but cartoons aimed at a kid audience, packaging shorts from several different producers together, often under the “cartoon carnival” moniker.

Studios never wised up to the value of their cartoons. All they saw is how long it took for them to bring in money. When television became the home entertainment medium of choice in the ‘50s, the studios eagerly sold their cartoons to distributors in that business, who proceeded to make a killing re-selling packages of them to television stations desperate for tried-and-true kid content. So studios never wised up to the true value of television, at least initially, but their short-sightedness allowed countless kids to fall in love with the classic cartoons and ensure their preservation even to today.

Friday 20 January 2012

Arch in the Latin Quarter

If you’re going to set a cartoon in Paris, you’d better have an appropriate opening. And that’s what you get in Bob McKimson’s “French Rarebit” (1951). Gene Poddany plays ‘Latin Quarter’ over the opening titles and then Milt Franklyn changes the arrangement for the start of the cartoon, which features a fairly literal drawing of the Arc du Triomphe.

Layout man Cornett Wood has the arch set at an angle. The background was painted by Dick Thomas.

Animator Mark Kausler informs me Wood had a storefront under the Hollywood Freeway on Cahuenga Blvd. where he taught drawing into the late ‘60s. Indiana’s Laughmakers, The Story of over 400 Hoosiers by Ray Banta reveals the following:

Cornett Wood went on from John Herron Art School of Indianapolis to become one of the animators for the fabulous Walt Disney production, Fantasia. The feature released in 1940 was called “a tribute to the brilliance of Walt Disney’s staff of artists and animators.” It involved a series of visualizations of musical themes. Wood worked as an effects animator at Disney from March 7, 1938 to September 12, 1941.

After which, he found himself at the Schlesinger studio.

Wood was born September 12, 1905 and died in Los Angeles on May 16, 1980.

Incidentally, if you want to learn more about the Latin Quarter (the area in Paris, not the song by Warren and Dubin), drop by this web site.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Takes From Northwest Hounded Police

“Northwest Hounded Police” (1946) has the takes that Tex Avery became famous for. The last one has the veins growing in Wolfie’s eyes.

The animators on this cartoon were Ed Love, Preston Blair, Ray Abrams and Walt Clinton. Frank Graham supplies Wolfie’s voice. Bill Thompson must still have been on military service because he’s not doing Droopy in this one.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Jack Benny on the Air, 1929

A few days ago, we espoused the opinion on this blog that Jack Benny’s first appearance on the radio wasn’t in 1932, as he had claimed for many years, and pointed out a 1931 appearance on the ‘RKO Theater of the Air’ as likely being the first. A search found no evidence of any broadcasts in 1930 (though Tim Lones of the Cleveland Classic Media blog found one) and the grind of vaudeville would almost preclude anything in the ‘20s.

Turns out we were half right.

Laura Leff of the International Jack Benny Fan Club may know about Jack Benny than anyone alive, save Jack’s daughter Joan. She sent a note that she was sure Jack had done some radio in the late ‘20s in Los Angeles when he was under contract to M-G-M. So back to the digging we went. And, as usual, it turns out Laura was correct. Jack’s famous Ed Sullivan show of 1932 wasn’t his first radio appearance. But it wasn’t in 1931, either.

To the right, you see a clipping from the radio page of the Oakland Tribune of October 9, 1929. At the very bottom, it reads:

“Tonight KFRC will have Jack Benny as master of ceremonies for the Mavio [sic] club from 8 to 9. Marie Wells, popular musical comedienne, will sing a group of songs.”

A check of listings in the Tribune and other California papers (unfortunately, I don’t have access to any Los Angeles papers of the day) clears up the mystery. The show was called ‘The MGM Movie Club’ and it originated from KHJ, the Don Lee network station in Los Angeles. Don Lee owned KFRC in San Francisco and had four affiliates up the West Coast. On August 10, 1929, United Press reported Don Lee was merging his six stations with CBS as of the following January 1st. ‘The M-G-M Movie Club’ was a regularly scheduled show; the previous week featured Basil Rathbone hosting, with Cliff Edwards, Bob Montgomery and forgotten stars Ethelind Terry, Lawrence Gray, the Three Twins and Catherine Dale Owens.

I don’t know any more about the programme or the broadcast itself, though Marie Wells’ presence is puzzling as she was under contract to Warner Bros.

At the time, Jack was about to open in M-G-M’s ‘The Hollywood Revue’ with just about every star the studio had at the time. No doubt that’s what he was pushing on the broadcast. So I won’t go so far as to say October 9, 1929 was Jack Benny’s first appearance on the radio. But we do know it wasn’t 1932 as legend would have you believe.

This post gives me a chance to talk about Laura Leff’s Labour of Love. Laura has just published Volume 3 of “39 Forever.” The first two volumes feature detailed research on every single episode of Jack Benny’s radio programme, including casts, sketches, “firsts”, songs, appearances of the “Anaheim, Asuza and Cucamonga” gag, screw-ups. Anyone who loves Jack’s radio show should have them. Laura’s now devoted a third volume to Jack’s television series. Almost anything you wanted to know about the show is there. You can read more about it HERE and if you want to find out what else the Fan Club offers, stop by HERE.

By the way, ‘The Hollywood Revue’ of 1929 is memorable in that it brought us that wonderful song “Singin’ in the Rain” long before Gene Kelly’s immortal dance to it in the movie of the same name. You can see briefly Jack at the end of this clip (next to Marie Dressler and a teeny umbrella) along with one of Hollywood’s greatest ever comic actors, Buster Keaton. And you may recognise a few other soggy faces.

I Don’t Wanna Buy One

Some comedians are an acquired taste. I never acquired one for Joe Penner. And seeing he’s been dead for 70 years, I likely won’t acquire one. But I sure like this ad for his film debut, ‘College Rhythm’ (1934). We get a realistic Penner and a cartoon duck. Duck as in “Wanna buy a.”

Cartoons are about the only place anyone knows Penner from these days. Danny Webb borrowed his voice for Egghead at Warner Bros. (notably in ‘Daffy Duck and Egghead’). And the annoying rabbit characters in the Warners’ animated short ‘My Green Fedora’ (1935) were Penner-ised with one dressing like him and the other laughing like him. Penner was a huge, but fleeting, radio star. Rudy Vallee “discovered” him in 1933 and played straight man to him. This clip is courtesy of Craig Hodgkins’ very good site on Penner.

Radio isn’t kind to people whose routine consists of little more than a couple of catchphrases. And that’s about all Penner had, besides a childishly-whiny voice. Penner realised a little too late that you could go on with the same act for years in vaudeville, but not on radio. In 1936, he gave up his duck and tried a new radio show written by Harry W. Conn, the man who thought he made Jack Benny, but his career had peaked.

Penner continued in movies, walking from RKO to Universal in a salary dispute in 1939, before his sudden death on January 10, 1941. He was 36. The catchphrases he tried to give up followed him to the grave; some front page newspaper stories showed a publicity shot of Penner and his duck. Click on them below to see the clippings in larger form.

Philadelphia, Jan. 11 (AP)—Millions who had howled hilarious approval of a little Hungarian comedian and his incessant “Wanna Buy a Duck?” were touched by sadness today with the death of Joe Penner.
The 36-year-old funnyman who brought the nation many a laugh through the screen, stage and radio, died in his sleep yesterday. Pending an autopsy, the cause was given as a heart attack.
Penner, seeking a rest, had asked not to be disturbed in his hotel room — Mrs. Penner told how hard he had been working on his new show “Yokel Boy,” which opened here Monday — and was found dead in bed about 5 P. M., by his wife.
Only the night before, friends said Penner — born Josef Pinter in a tiny Hungarian village — had appeared in his gayest mood. After the show, he escorted Mrs. Penner and comedienne Martha Raye, their guest, to a night club.
Robert Crawford, his co-producer and general manager, said the star called upon, returning to the hotel and seemed “in the best of spirits.” Mrs. Penner, the former Mae Vogt, a dancer in Joe’s first show, was placed under a physician’s care.
There was no understudy for the star of “Yokel Boy” and the Locust Street Theater was dark last night. Crawford has not decided whether it will be continued.
Penner was brought to this country at the age of nine by his grandparents, and joined his parents in Detroit, where the father worked in a motor car factory. School and odd jobs had no appeal for a youngster who showed more aptitude for clowning than classes, but a prize for an amateur impersonation of Charlie Chaplin started him on his way to stardom.
His first theatrical job was assistant to a mind reader—until the comedian on the bill failed to show up. Penner stepped in, and there followed several seasons of vaudeville, carnivals, burlesques and nightclubs. The first big break came in 1926, a role at $375 a week in the “Greenwich Village Follies.” In 1933 Rudy Vallee had Penner as guest star on radio, and a few weeks later he was featured on his own program.
The death of Joe Penner may cancell [sic] the road tour of “Yokel Boy,” the Lew Brown-Ray Henderson musical in which the comedian was making a stage “comeback.” The show had been booked for a one-night engagement on Jan. 29 at the Empire, but no news of cancellation has been received by Harry Unterfoot, city manager of RKO-Schine theaters, who is supervising the theater.