Wednesday 29 February 2012

Tell it to Groucho

Groucho’s always been my favourite of the Marx Brothers (sorry, Zeppo) and he had the longest career, thanks to hooking up with producer John Guedel and starring in one of the funniest radio/TV game shows ever. “You Bet Your Life” had a perfect (and necessary) mesh of components—Groucho’s one-liners, a duck falling from the ceiling, a “secret woid,” smooth and friendly George Fenneman to lend a bit of sanity, and contestants who were either uncomfortable or unintentionally funny, but always real people the audience couldn’t help but like.

Death comes, as it does to all television shows, and so it came to “You Bet Your Life.” Guedel shrewdly repackaged the old shows as “The Best of Groucho” and successfully launched them in the syndication market. In the meantime, the original show was dismantled and put back together again. But the perfect mesh was no longer there, so viewers watched something else.

But, as you can tell in this article by the Associated Press in 1962, there were high hopes for it. And as Groucho used a quiz show as a springboard for his comedy, so the AP’s entertainment writer used a quiz show to get Groucho’s feelings about television comedy, which makes for a better story.

He's Bringing Back Some Chuckles to Sensitive TV
NEW YORK, Jan. 21 (AP)—After one of the shortest retirements from weekly television on record, mustached Groucho Marx has come back with a new show, “Tell It to Groucho.”
Well, it’s sort of a new show. Its name is new, it’s on another network — CBS — after 11 years on NBC, and as Groucho explains, “We’ve discarded some of the things associated with the old shows — the duck, the secret word and George Fenneman, our announcer — but it’s recognizable.”
It’s still a game show with nominal amounts of “money” at stake, but Groucho’s game has always been a flimsy, unimportant framework to support his humor, and the contestants have always been human walls off which the comedian bounces his irreverent, sometimes fierce and always distinctive shafts.
“I never intended to stay away,” remarked Groucho during a recent visit to New York. “I’ve saved my money, sure, but you must have a dominant force if yon want to be happy and not get bored. And with me, it is working.
“I read a lot, but you can’t spend all your time reading. I don’t have any flair for wood carpentry and there are no power tools in my cellar—to be truthful, I don’t even have a cellar. I never play cards, and although I like golf, I couldn’t make a career out of it. So—I work.”
Marx is a thoughtful, pleasant man of 66 who, like most top comedians, does not feel the compulsion to perform off-camera as well as on. A performer for more than 50 years (He started as a soprano in a boy’s choir and graduated at 11 to a vaudeville troupe), Groucho believes that no comedian should do a show on his own every week—about once a month at the very outside.
“It’s entirely different in my case,” he added, lighting a fresh cigar. “Because I’m working with the help of the format of the show—the contestants coming in with ridiculous problems and we can discuss them facetiously.”
Groucho, like all the other performers with sharp wit and opinions of their own, is concerned about the steadily shrinking freedom in TV for the play and flash of humor and satire.
“There’s so little left that you can satirize in television,” he mourned. “The theater is the only place left where it can really be done—it’s the only place left where they aren’t scared, where they don’t care if some toes get stepped on.
“Way back in the 1920s when Franklin P. Adams was writing his column he complained that the only thing you could attack without fear of protest was the man-eating shark. Today, I imagine, there’s a society to protect the reputation of man-eating sharks.
“I doubt very much whether Fred Allen could get away with his characters in ‘Allen's Alley’ today—he’d surely hear from the South about Sen. Claghorn. And I remember I had some words with Fred once about Mrs. Nussbaum—I didn’t like it because I thought he was portraying a Jewish woman as a caricature.
“On one of my shows I had a plumber, and, of course, I made some jokes about forgetting his tools. I immediately got all sorts of angry letters, including one from the head of the plumber’s union. I even got angry letters after mother-in-law jokes.
“But now I feel that comedy is losing a great deal because of these restrictions. They are confining the whole field. I think, perhaps, that I can get away with it—perhaps a little better than most. I’ve been around for a long time, people are accustomed to laughing at outrageous things I say so—once in a while I can sneak a truth or a bit of real satire in.
“One of the things is that people don’t remember the bad things you do for any length of time—they remember the good things. That’s what permits us to survive.”
The show staff scouts for people with light-hearted problems—a woman so tiny she fits only into children’s clothes, including underwear; a woman with a husband who snores; a widow who lives alone and has no one to pull up back zippers.
Filming the show occupies Groucho one evening a week at the studio from 7:30 to 10:30 firing questions and wisecracks. Before that he works over his material. Although he does not meet the contestants ahead of show time, he knows something about them, and anticipates what they’ll be saying.
The show, in its final half-hour form, represents a heavily-edited version of the interviews—the good material is left, the lesser stuff deftly excised. Thus, out of every five minutes worth of dialogue, the home audience sees perhaps two or less.

“Leave it to Groucho” debuted on Thursday, January 11 (9-9:30). By May, The New York Daily News had announced its cancellation and the last show was scheduled May 30 (some stations delayed it and ran it on weekends). One critic of the day summed up the problem: the first show featured a mother and daughter who were both looking for husbands, ones who had to cope with their 13 cats. There were only so many of those kinds of people around. The critic avoided mentioning the fact that the amateurish young lady who was now performing Fenneman’s old role was little more than decoration for the male audience, something evident whenever she opened her mouth.

Groucho was replaced by “Brenner,” which had already failed on the network twice. And his AP interview proved to be amazingly psychic. People don’t remember the bad TV show Groucho did. “Tell it to Groucho” is long-forgotten. Instead, they remember his wit in those brilliant movies of the ‘30s and an 11-year quiz show. It’s why Groucho is still loved today. You can bet your life on that.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Go On And Hiss

Plenty of cartoons were made with characters or things coming right at the audience. It seems that half of the Harman-Ising shorts for Warner Bros. had Bosko or someone running with an open mouth to the camera and “swallowing” it.

Leave it to Tex Avery to do it in reverse in the great “The Blitz Wolf” (1942). Look at the arc on 12 frames.

Animation credits go to Ray Abrams, Irv Spence, Preston Blair and Ed Love. Mark Kausler tells me this is a Love scene.

Monday 27 February 2012

Elmer Fudd Itch

Today’s stretch in-betweens are brought to you by the unit of Bob Clampett, who seems to have given animation credits only to Bob McKimson and Rod Scribner around this time (1943).

“An Itch in Time” is best-known for two things—the song ‘Food Around the Corner’ (even sped-up, you can tell Sara Berner is singing as the flea), and the dog’s hyper remark to the camera as he stops dragging his butt for a moment. But there are a couple of animation effects that I like. One is how the dog turns becomes brushed lines of colour between two drawings, and another is the bit near the end when the flea has evidently jumped from the dog to Elmer Fudd, judging by the way Elmer is scratching and twists from pose to pose (being a Clampett cartoon, a butt is involved in this as well).

This is where the stretch in-betweens come in to make the movement quick and fluid. Observe.

And then the dog when he realises he’s no longer flea-bitten.

I’ll leave it to the experts to suugest who was doing this type of drawing for Clampett about this time.

Sunday 26 February 2012

The Perturbation of Jack Benny

It seems impossible there could be an interview with Jack Benny that didn’t talk about being cheap, bad violin playing, age 39, driving a Maxwell or Mary Livingstone. But all of this was an invention (over time) of Jack and his radio writers, starting in 1932. Jack had a fairly lengthy career in vaudeville prior to that and none of this was part of his persona. He was thought of an easy-going stand-up comedian by the end of the 1920s.

That’s how we find him in a rare interview in 1930 by a writer for the National Enterprise Association, a feature service for small newspapers. I don’t know whether he was interviewed any earlier. Broadway columns (and those out of Hollywood) generally consisted of little squibs about people and places, not a profile of one individual. But here’s one.

Jack Benny, Talkie Comedian, Thinks an Audience of Men Is the Coldest Proposition in the World

HOLLYWOOD, March 31 — Women are easier to please than men —particularly from a comedian’s standpoint.
This is the theory of Jack Benny, for years one of vaudeville’s best known comedians, who now is making a name for himself in this audible picture racket.
“If I had my way about it, I never would play before anything but a mixed audience.” Benny declared. “But if I had to choose between masculine and feminine, I would take the women every time. There is no audience in the world tougher than a strictly stag aggregation.”
As a rule Jack is just as funny off the stage as he is on—maybe a little funnier. But he wasn’t yesterday as we sat in the Brown Derby. He was perturbed, trying to make up his mind whether to accept a vaudeville engagement in New York or to stay here for a legitimate show and take his chances on getting a picture at the same time. Now that he has gotten a pretty good start in pictures, he doesn’t like to get 3,000 miles from the center of things.
Getting the Gags
“I wish I could just press a button and make myself funny,” Benny remarked. “But I can’t. I’m not in the right mood I couldn’t pull the funniest gag in the world so that it would get a laugh.”
“Where do you get the gags for your monologue, Jack?” we inquired.
“I write most of them myself,” replied the actor. “Occasionally I get some from a man with a really good sense of humor. I think most of my own gags are pretty terrible so when I do write one that sounds good to me I generally can depend upon it going over. Once in New York I bought 15 joke books, hoping to get something new for my routine but I didn’t find a single gag I could use.
“Naturally all comedians can’t use the same type of material. A gag with which someone else could make an audience howl would fall absolutely flat if I tried to use it.”
Benny came out here under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to act as one of the masters of ceremonies in “The Hollywood Revue.” Following that he made “Chasing the Rainbow” [sic] with Bessie Love and Charles King. That was the first picture in which he really played a part, his role in it being that of a wise-cracking stage manager. Now he is free lancing, which is the reason for his perturbation. When he gets two offers simultaneously he never can make up his mind which to accept. And that worries him.

His comedy philosophy here is interesting, considering how his career developed. His feeling that certain routines work for certain people likely prompted him to craft his character on his radio show. And his assessment proved to be correct. There are things that Jack Benny came to do that no other comedian would have been able to get a laugh with. In a way, that was a hindrance to his movie career, as audiences expected to see something akin to his Benny character on the screen.

Of course, it never hurt his overall career. In 1965, people knew who Jack Benny was. Charles King wasn’t so lucky.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Trigger Joe

You can probably divide the cartoons of the Golden Age of Animation into two categories—theatrical and non-theatrical. Theatricals are, of course, Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye and so on, seen on TV by several generations. Non-theatricals are more obscure because, conversely, they have never been seen on TV by several generations. Some are industrial films, like some of the lovely and amusing cartoons from the John Sutherland studio paid for by companies or institutions to push their particular point of view. And then there are cartoons designed strictly for military use, especially during World War Two.

The ‘Snafu’ series is probably the best-known, brought to light by fans of the great Warner Bros. cartoons who wanted to see how their favourite directors and animators handled instructional subjects for a military audience. But there were others, some of which were made by the military itself in the First Motion Picture Unit studio at the old Hal Roach studio.

One series of these starred Mel Blanc as “Trigger Joe”. At least some were directed by Frank Thomas of the Disney studio and the animation staff included John Hubley, Bill Hurtz and Willis Pyle. Hurtz describes Joe as “kind of based on Bill Bendix, a heavy Brooklyn type” (Enchanted Drawings, Charles Solomon); Bendix was best known as the star of “Life of Riley” on radio.

Interestingly, “Trigger Joe” was featured in the Hollywood column in papers subscribing to the National Enterprise Association. It was a bit of wartime propaganda itself, with a message to people who felt that if you weren’t a G.I., you were an unpatriotic slacker.

In Hollywood
By Erskine Johnson
(NEA Staff Corespondent)
Hollywood—The screen has a new feminine star—a streamlined, glamorous lady called the B-29.
We’ve just seen her first starring picture, “Target Tokyo,” and she’s a killer-diller.
You fly with her on the world’s longest bombing mission — 10,000 miles—from Grand Island, Neb., to Tokyo. You see how men are trained to fly her and to man her guns.
No other wartime motion picture has seen quite as exciting, or timely, with wonderful scenes of these giant Superfortresses in formation flight, landing on Saipan’s airstrip, flying over Iwo Jima and dropping bombs on the heart of Tokyo.
History of the first B-29 group to bomb the Jap capital, the film is another Army Air Force documentary filmed in the manner of “The Memphis Belle.” Eight Army cameramen and two writers made the 10,000-mile trip to get the celluloid story, which you’ll be seeing soon in your neighborhood theater.
We saw the picture after signing our life away at a guarded gate and putting on a big “VISITOR” badge at the 18th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Motion Picture Unit) at Culver City, Calif.
Comedy Center
Before the war this base unit was the Hal Roach studio, home of slapstick comedy. Last time we sat in a projection room there we saw Stan Laurel throwing a custard pie at Oliver Hardy. There were photographs of girls in bathing suits on office walls and members of the “Our Gang” comedy studied in a little red schoolhouse next to Stage 3.
Now the Army boys there have produced 230 training and documentary pictures since October of 1942—more than any other Hollywood studio. The bathing suit photographs on office walls have been replaced with photographs of guys wearing oxygen suits and of airplane wings and motors and machine guns.
The B-29 is the current big star of the lot. She just completed another role in a movie a half hour longer than “Gone With the Wind.” You will never see it, though. It’s a maintenance-instruction film for B-29 mechanics and crew members only. There’s so much to learn from the picture that it is being shown as a six-part serial.
But speaking of stars, the studio boys won’t let you overlook “Trigger Joe,” an animated cartoon character dreamed up by the studio for “position firing” training films. “Position Firing” is the latest wrinkle in air combat, but it is so intricate that Army instructors were taking 14 days to teach its finer points.
Time Slashed
The Air Corps brass hats said this was much too slow, so the Motion Picture Unit dreamed up “Trigger Joe” and starred him in a 12-minute instruction film. What took 14 days to learn is now learned in 12 minutes.
Naturally, most of the work done by the Motion Picture Unit is secret. Some of the Hollywood lads have taken a ribbing for fighting the war on a sound stage in Culver City. But brother, when a little thing like “Trigger Joe” can cut a training schedule from 14 days to 12 minutes, the boys behind the camera are helping win the war, too.

We can’t postulate how entertaining Joe was, but he certainly was effective. A study was done in 1947 comparing instruction using the Trigger Joe cartoon, a 50-page pocket-sized manual and a half-hour lecture with 19 slides made from illustrations in the manual. Tests on cadets showed Trigger Joe was far superior in teaching position firing than the other two media. And, to quote one source:

Amusingly enough, when Trigger Joe was put in the ten-cent viewing machines in the Fort Meyers commissary, soldiers preferred watching it to the Dinah Shore films that were also available.

A shame it isn’t readily available for animation fans to see.

Friday 24 February 2012

Tex Avery Lion Roars

Tex Avery’s love of crazy takes may have reached its peak in “Slap Happy Lion,” released in Seotember 1947. It features three of Avery’s typical themes—a role-reversal at the end, the tormented can’t escape his tormenter, and toothy wide-open mouths with jagged tongues expressing fear or horror.

In this cartoon, there are takes everywhere, starting with the lion, then reactions to him, then the lion reacting to the mouse. I didn’t even try counting them at the end because there’s one after another after another that kind of numb your mind after awhile. Too many to post. But what you see below is from the second scene, where Avery comes up with different after-effects for each lion roar (followed by some kind of take and gag by other animals in reaction). The inside-out lion and the lion-as-a-ball go together.

Then the mouse scares the lion. Here are a couple of reaction drawings on ones. The second one is an in-between as the lion raises his head before a cut to a body shot and a scream take.

The animators credited on the cartoon are Bob Bentley, Walt Clinton and Ray Abrams. The character models (the lion’s apparently named ‘Flagada’) were by the great Irv Spence, drawn in July 1945, giving you an idea how long it took the cartoon to be released.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Bugs Bunny, Rah, Rah, Rah!

Stretch in-betweens are one of several things that was under experimentation in the Chuck Jones unit at Warner Bros. before 1945. “The Dover Boys” (1942) has the best-known examples but they crop up in other cartoons. You can spot them in three scenes in “Super Rabbit” (1943), twice very quickly and then near the end of the cartoon in the cheerleading scene. Here are some consecutive frames as Bugs moves from one side of the screen to the other.

Ken Harris gets the animation credit on this cartoon, and he used stretch in-betweens a number of years later in “No Barking,” but it’s felt by some that Bobe Cannon was exclusively drawing them in the Jones unit at this period.