Saturday, 18 February 2012

Daffy Dittys

Cartoon fans the world over have heard of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. They may have heard of Silly Symphonys (I don’t recall ever seeing the name when I was a kid). But you can be sure they haven’t heard of the Daffy Dittys, let alone seen one

There was a time when the big movie studios had full schedules of productions, not only feature films, but a wide variety of shorts—things like news and sports reels, travelogues, musical numbers, two-reel comedies and cartoons. The biggest studios had them because shorts involved a huge cash outlay for very little return; they made money on features but realised a good short could entice people into the theatre—and they all owned theatres. The small studios couldn’t afford it so they stuck with their programme of low-budget features; Monogram and Tiffany never got into the cartoon business. Then there were others in between that were in and out of the shorts business. United Artists was one of them.

U-A had released Walt Disney cartoons from 1932 to 1937 but generally stayed out of the shorts business after that; a two-reel documentary series called ‘The World in Action’ during the war being an exception. But then it decided to get into animation again. Or, more specifically, it decided to release animated shorts produced by someone else. That someone else was John Sutherland and Larry Morey.

The two were employed for Walt Disney but decided to strike out on their own in 1944. They evidently hoped to duplicate the success of George Pal’s stop-motion shorts released by Paramount. Top Cel, the newsletter of the New York local of the Screen Cartoonists Guild, announced in its edition of July 14, 1944.

New method of producing animated cartoons with plastic models and characters will be utilized by Plastic Cartoons, organized by L. Morey, John Sutherland and John Landis in Hollywood. Use of plastic models for animation, combined with color photography, gives third dimensional effect which is not possible generally in the regular cartoons. Plastic process was developed by Lion, and allows for molding characters in large numbers, utilizing one for figure in each frame of film, with change in movement flexible through workability of the plastic material used. Figures are set up from pencil animation, miniature sets are used and cartoons shot in stop motion as is the rule with this type of production. This films will be released by United Artists with whom the outfit has signed a contract. Four pictures will be released each year. The title of the first will be “The Cross-eyed Bull”.

How do you make plastic cartoons? Popular Science devoted space to answering that question in its May 1946 issue, complete with pictures.

Sutherland and Moray had a pretty ambitious schedule. The Motion Picture Herald spoke in 1946 of a 13-picture deal. Only six were made. Boxoffice magazine reveals in its edition of January 25, 1947:

United Artists to Drop Daffy Dittys Shorts
Because of mechanical and labor problems, these are trying times for the independent producers of short subjects, most especially those who use color photography. Resultantly, United Artists is losing another series of briefies, the Daffy Dittys, which have been produced by John Sutherland, whose pact with UA was terminated by mutual consent. Sutherland has one more of the current series to deliver, after which he will devote his time exclusively to commercial and educational films.

There isn’t very much information about the Dittys themselves out there. Boxoffice reviewed a few of them.

The Cross-Eyed Bull. Not reviewed. Released October 21, 1944.

The Flying Jeep. Not reviewed. Released August 20, 1945.

The Lady Said No [Short released April 26, 1946]
UA (Daffy Ditty) 9 Mins.
Excellent. This clever offering bodes well for the new series of Technicolor puppet cartoons produced by Moray and Sutherland. Photography, animation and the characters warrant praise. A gay but naïve caballero courts a provocative senorita who persuades him marriage is the best policy. After a variety of little caballeros have been delivered he realizes the bliss of batcherhood. (Boxoffice, April 27, 1946)

Choo Choo Amigo [released July 5, 1946]
UA (Daffy Ditty) 9 Mins.
Tops. This extremely imaginative and entertaining color cartoon employs model miniatures to excellent advantage. It is the story of a little Mexican locomotive, beloved by the natives for its kindly deeds. After long years of faithful service Choo Choo Amigo, replaced by an ultra-modern super-streamliner, is condemned to be converted into scrap. Its last-minute reprieve is complete with smiles and suspense. Highly recommended. (Boxoffice, July 20, 1946)

Pepito’s Serenade [released August 16, 1946]
United Artists (In Color) 10 Mins.
Excellent. A Latin subject, built into a sock bit of entertainment for all. Deals with a puppet character who, advised to become better perfected as a musician, in order to win his sweetheart, goes through some horrifying experiences with a teacher. Trick lightning, unusual animation help make this a top subject. (Boxoffice, September 14, 1946)

The Fatal Kiss, Not reviewed. Released August 28, 1947.

“The Fatal Kiss” was not stop-motion. It was strictly animation, directed by George Gordon and animated by Pete Burness and Irv Spence, according to the U.S. Government Copyright Catalogue.

One more animated Ditty was begun. The cartoonists union newsletter Top Cel mentioned on August 1, 1946 that “The Fatal Kiss” had been finished and the studio was working on a second animated short, “The Missing Ghost,” with Gordon directing, Burness as the head animator and the Pied Pipers handling the vocal numbers. Gordon copyrighted model sheets for Forelock Bones, Dr. Woof and Professor Sly on November 18, 1946 for “The Case of the Missing Ghost” but how much farther the cartoon went is anyone’s guess. As Boxoffice talked about labour problems, it could be that Burness and Spence left Sutherland while the cartoon was in production.

The Dittys slowly faded away. They were still appearing on screens as late as Christmas 1948.

Sutherland hired first-rate people. One of them was Frank Tashlin after finishing a third go-around at Leon Schlesinger’s studio. The book Frank Tashlin, written by Roger García and Bernard Eisenschitz (published in 1994), reveals:

When Tashlin arrived at Morey and Sutherland in September 1944, planning began for the third Daffy Ditty, The Lady Said No. The next two films, Choo Choo Amigo and Pepito’s Serenade (often mistakenly listed as simply Pepito) are generally attributed to Tashlin although definitive credits and production dates may never be established since the company’s records and many of its films are said to have been destroyed in a fire in the late 1940s.

Top Cel of January 19, 1945 mentioned Ken Darby was handling vocal arrangements for “Choo Choo Amigo. It would seem that the Radio Guide was referring to The King’s Men when it blurbed in a 1945 edition that some vocalists...

have taken night lessons in Spanish and are polishing up a repertoire of Spanish folk songs an ballads which they'll record as background music for a forthcoming Morey and Sutherland Daffy Ditty Cartoon, with locale in Mexico.

A chap named Zon at the Smarter Than The Average blog has cobbled together addition information about the Dittys. You can read about it HERE and HERE.

You likely have noticed five of the six Dittys involve characters in Mexico. The studios had a fascination with Latin America during World War Two. The two Walts—Disney and Lantz—made jaunts south of the border (Lantz went “down Mexico way” as the song says) and no doubt cartoon fans know about Disney’s “Saludos Amigos.” MGM produced at least one cartoon for the Latin American market. No doubt this stemmed from U.S. government policies designed to win support for the American Way of Life over Nazism.

The end of the Dittys didn’t end United Artists’ or John Sutherland’s involvement with theatrical cartoons. Sutherland and Morey were still releasing industrial cartoons at the time of the Dittys. Their company changed from “Plastic Productions” to “Morey and Sutherland Productions” by June 1945, and Top Cel mentioned on July 1, 1946 the two had signed six-picture deals with both Harding College and Proctor and Gamble. But Moray decided to go back to Disney. Sutherland struck out on his own, producing a 62-minute feature called “Lady at Midnight” starring radio actor Richard Denning, and carrying on with his industrial business. Several of those cartoons were released theatrically by MGM, starting with “Make Mine Freedom” on March 10, 1948, allowing Fred Quimby to dissolve the Preston Blair-Mike Lah unit and save cash. Model sheets for “The capitalist,” “The farmer,” “John Q. Public,” “The laborer,” “The pitchman” and “The politician” in “Make Mine Freedom” were copyrighted the same day as the ones for the aborted U-A cartoon “The Case of the Missing Ghost.”

U-A started releasing Lantz’ cartoons in 1947 after a hastily-constructed deal which resulted in the Lantz studio closing temporarily within two years and it getting out of the animation business for awhile. U-A had its greatest success with cartoons in the dying days of the Golden Age of Animation when it released what some consider the most entertaining shorts of the ‘60s—the Pink Panther series. By then, the Daffy Ditties were long forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. To quote the text above:" "The Fatal Kiss” was not stop-motion. It was strictly animation""

    I assumes that means traditional hand-drawn animation. I think Jerry Beck posted some suriving Model sheets regarding Fatal Kiss on the old GAC forum