Monday 30 April 2012

Mr Jinks Pretzel

The Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon studio will never be accused of fluid animation. But when the studio opened in 1957, it had the most elaborate for-TV animation seen to date. And there were some funny poses, too, at least for a few years after ‘The Huckleberry Hound Show’ made its debut the following year.

Huck had three main animators—Ken Muse, Lew Marshall and Carlo Vinci, who had all been in the Hanna-Barbera unit at MGM. But some of the earliest cartoons on the show (which also featured Yogi Bear and Pixie and Dixie), Mike Lah took care of maybe a minute’s worth of footage. Lah’s drawings don’t look all that polished; odd considering he went from Disney to MGM. But he seems to have been given some of the funniest poses to do.

Lah takes care of some of the action in ‘Judo Jack’ (1958), including a scene where the stereotype Japanese mouse puts Mr. Jinks in an airplane spin. Lah has a couple of swirl drawings shot on twos and then the gag pose.

The credited animator is Muse.

Lah was working at Quartet Films, a commercial house, at the time, so I can only presume he was freelancing at Hanna-Barbera. He animated a couple of cartoons on his own with his distinctive drawing style. It’s a shame he didn’t stay longer.

Sunday 29 April 2012

Jack Benny, 39 (1939, That Is)

Could Jack Benny’s character on radio somehow get snookered by a conman, then end up on the losing end as a result? Anyone familiar with the Benny show would say “sure.” And that’s probably why Jack emerged with no permanent damage to his reputation when it happened in real life.

Jack was fined $10,000 and given a dressing-down by the judge after being indicted in January 1939 and pleading guilty the following April in a case that was front-page news. (Who says being obsessed with celebrity court cases is new?)

In the middle of it all, the National Enterprise Association did a profile on Jack and made a reference to the smuggling case. The story didn’t seem to take it all that seriously and, ultimately, neither did radio fans. This version was published February 2, 1939. The photo came with the story.

Jack Benny Has Lots of Luck—But It’s Bad Most of the Time
(NEA Service)
HOLLYWOOD— Jack Benny usually is a fall-guy—on or off the screen, on or off the air, in or out of court. He accepted his indictment on charges of buying smuggled jewelry with about the same spirit that he displays when somebody gives him the hotfoot, and with the same remark: “That’s VERY funny.”
Unhappy things are always happening to Mr. Benny, who is Hollywood’s champion worrier and deadest-pan comedian when he isn’t performing. He is dead-pan because he actually does not see or hear what is going on about him. He just stalks around, rolling his cigar in his mouth and worrying about some imminent crisis which may be nothing more than a 30-second scene in “Man About Town.” Not even an appearance in federal court can be more terrifying to Mr. Benny than those first few moments when he faces a camera or a microphone.
Pants in Flames
In spite of the actor’s preoccupation and grim mien, nobody takes him very seriously. While he was wearing cowboy costume during the filming of his last picture, someone set fire to his chaps. When he was being lowered from a window, a costly watch dropped from a pocket and was smashed to bits. He has a large entourage of stooges who by all the Hollywood rules should behave in an obsequious manner and say, “Yes, Mr. Benny.” Instead, they argue with him until, exhausted, he sits down in a chair that has been fixed to collapse.
When such things happen, Benny says, “That's VERY funny.” Occasionally there is the ghost of a smile behind his cigar.
There are some who say that Benny is a thrifty man who will go out of his way to save a dollar here and there, but his closer friends declare this idea is engendered by the ribbings he gives himself on the radio. Last year, on the first day of his return from New York after an absence of months, Benny was touched for $1,200 by numerous needy pals. He is a generous player of benefits. He and Mary Livingstone entertain handsomely in a large house in Beverly Hills, and their swimming pool is so big that it has a skiff on it. Benny and his wife have large wardrobes, and he undoubtedly is the world's best dressed comedian.
Jokes are Cash to Him
Whether pinch-penny or prodigal, he is no waster of gags. A joke is the most precious thing in the world to a man in Benny’s business, and he almost never says anything funny in informal conversation. His companion in smuggling trouble, George Burns, lets quips fall where they may. But Benny mumbles through a newspaper like a small boy in juvenile court.
When Benny is not working in a picture, and has time to go to private parties or his golf club, he is almost as gay as anybody. During picture production, though, he works all the time. Two gag writers. Eddie Beloin and Bill Morrow, and Secretary Harry Baldwin are always with him at the studio. During every spare minute they work on the radio program for the following Sunday.
Benny never appears in the Paramount cafe; he has gags and coffee in his dressing room. The three employes all talk at once. Benny sits back and listens. Occasionally he seizes a suggestion and rises and paces as he elaborates on it. He never petulantly says that a lousy idea is lousy; he says, “Maybe we could switch it around like this—” His writers believe that he is the most kindly fellow who ever lived.
He’s Good, That’s All
Beloin and Morrow are on his personal payroll, and he often uses them on movie dialogue. “That doesn’t play right,” he’ll say, tossing away a few pages of script. He and his writers then will work out some new lines. The result always is an improvement, or he would not be allowed such liberties.
His perpetual cigar is not a posed trademark: he smokes about 15 25-centers a day. Never smoked in his life until 10 years ago when he took a part in Earl Carroll’s “Vanities” which required him to puff stogies.
His devotion to Miss Livingstone (who was Sadye Marks) and their 5-year-old adopted daughter Joan is one of Hollywood’s special prides.
He and his wife call each other “Doll.” Benny never has attended a preview of one of his pictures. He goes to boxing matches, if there are any, and is on tenterhooks until Miss Livingstone finds him and says that the picture was a success.
And They Still Speak
Besides golf, Benny likes bridge but is poor at poker. He owns a race horse, Buck Benny, bought at a Saratoga auction. Before Buck Benny’s first race under his new colors, the actor gave Hillard Marks, his brother-in-law, $300 to bet on the nag across the board. Marks didn’t know how to bet and couldn’t find a bookie anyway, so he held the money. Buck Benny won, paid a big price, and cost its owner some $7,000 by the unplaced wager.
Marks remains one of Benny’s closest cohorts. Another is Harry Lee, his former Broadway manager, who now is his stand-in although he has to wear 4-inch cork stilts.

Much has been written about the smuggling case. Even portions of the FBI files on it are even on-line. However, we’ll try to give you a contemporary look at it in a future post.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Random Cartoon News, 1945

Old editions of entertainment trade publications are wonderful sources of forgotten information so it’s a shame few of them are available on-line. You’ve seen this blog quote from Billboard, which is available for free and searchable through Google Books. Another long-established media publication on-line is Boxoffice which, unfortunately, doesn’t have a searchable archives. But it’s worthwhile to leaf through it for something to do and make little discoveries by accident (I wish I could find the story again about Bob Clampett going into business with Don Messick about 1956).

The October 13, 1945 edition has, besides the usual release schedule of short subjects, some brief notes about cartoons. The Walter Lantz Studio seems to have planted items in Boxoffice when necessary, but other cartoon producers in the ‘40s did, too. Disney even bought advertising space. So while Uncle Walt was plugging a re-release of ‘Pinocchio’ in a two-pager on October 13th, there were a few cartoon items I found interesting.

HENRY BINDER, recently released from the navy animation unit after three years of service, joins Screen Gems as assistant general manager.

As a sequel to "Peace on Earth," cartoon preachment against war which was released in 1939, "The Truce Hurts,” will go into immediate production. To be produced by FRED QUIMBY and co-directed by WILLIAM HANNA and JOSEPH BARBERA, film is aimed at setting an example for world peace.

Edgar Bergen and his pair of almost human props, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, have been signed by Walt Disney to appear in a newcomer to Disney's rapidly-expanding production slate. Disney concluded a deal with Bergen and his two partners to star in a screen version of "Jack and the Beanstalk." The picture will be done in a combination of live-action and cartoon techniques. Luana Patten, the seven-year-old child discovery Disney is featuring in "Uncle Remus" will, according to present plans, be teamed with Charlie and Mortimer.

The Binder blurb is notable in that Henry Binder was Leon Schlesinger’s right-hand man. Leon gave his brother-in-law, Ray Katz, a nice, cushy executive job in the studio. Leon sold out in 1944 to Warner Bros. and retired from producing. Eddie Selzer was brought in to run the studio by Warners and Katz either jumped, or was pushed, to the Columbia studio. The impression I’d been left with was Binder was fired from Warners but, if that was the case, it was a mere technicality, as the Boxoffice story shows he went from Schlesinger in 1942 to the Navy in Washington D.C. and then to Columbia. Katz and Binder’s fate after they left Columbia within a couple of years is unknown.

The Disney feature with Bergen and McCarthy was scaled down and became part of ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ (released 1947). It could have made a nice stand-alone feature but Disney’s money troubles pretty much made that an impossibility.

M-G-M released a cartoon called “The Truce Hurts,” (1948) but it bears little resemblance to Hugh Harman’s drama. It was a Tom and Jerry comedy, where the cat, mouse and Butch the dog sign a peace treaty only to tear it up by cartoon’s end after a fight over a steak. It can hardly be called a sequel. One wonders how the original concept got so corrupted.

At least it didn’t suffer the fate of the next cartoon the studio announced, in the October 20th edition. And, no, I don’t know where the name “Wally” came from.

"Our Vine Street Has Tender Wolves," Technicolor cartoon travesty starring animation stars, Red Hot Riding Hood and Wally Wolf, will be directed by TEX AVERY for FRED QUIMBY, producer.

A number of Avery’s pictures were assigned production numbers then abandoned, but it doesn’t even look like this one got that far. It’ll have to go down as another Avery cartoon-that-might-have-been, alive only in the pages of old trade publications. And blogs.

Friday 27 April 2012

Crocheting a Bathtub

One of Bugs Hardaway’s oddest non-sequiturs can be heard in “The Hams That Couldn’t Be Cured,” a 1942 Walter Lantz effort. It’s one of a number of ‘40s cartoons where the Wolf tells what “really” happened during a well-known fairy tale. Friz Freleng did it the year before in “The Trial of Mr. Wolf” with the story of Red Riding Hood.

In this one, the trial is finished before the cartoon starts. The Wolf is about to hang for his crimes against the Three Little Pigs. But then he tells the “real” story where the pigs blew down his house with big band music (including a tuba that sounds like a bassoon and a harp that sounds like a piano).

The Wolf’s non sequitur is just before the pigs arrive: “As I was busy crocheting a new bathtub...” Not only do we have an innocent looking lamb, but the Lantz checker didn’t notice the faucet kept appearing and disappearing in the cycle animation.

Lowell Elliot gets a co-story credit. Alex Lovy and Ralph Somerville get animation credits here. La Verne Harding and Les Kline were still at the studio, weren’t they? And the voices are provided by Dick Nelson (the sheriff) and Kent Rogers (likely everyone else). Rogers shows off his great ability at impressions, making all the more regretful he died as a young man while training during the War.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Symphony in Slang Opening

‘Symphony in Slang’ demonstrates a perfect use of the “modern” cartoon design emerging in the early 1950s. It wasn’t there for the sake of being there. It had a purpose.

Tex Avery wanted to create a world where a character was completely out of place in the standard world of the MGM cartoon—a world of rounded characters, full animation and pastelled, soft backgrounds popularised by Disney. So he had Tom Oreb come up with a flat 1951 hipster character, living in a flat 1951 hipster world with limited animation. The contrast when the hipster arrives in the Disney-esque Heaven where the characters are puzzled by his modernism is deliberate and damned clever.

There’s no animation in the opening, too, as Avery has the camera move over two backgrounds before getting to any character movement.

Johnny Johnsen was Avery’s background man at the time. While Oreb is giving credit for the designs, notes on finished sketches show notes from Avery to Johnsen, so he worked on the cartoon as well. I wouldn’t be surprise if the opening was entrusted to him.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Fooey on Oogie

Most actors can only dream of steady work so it’s a little surprising to see that Dick Crenna is one who toiled non-stop for decades, both in front of, and behind, the camera and the microphone. Surprising, because Crenna wasn’t a megastar. His best-known radio role was Walter Denton on “Our Miss Brooks,” one of the best of the sitcoms, and he finally left behind his teen years on television in the late ‘50s when he appeared as Luke McCoy on “The Real McCoys” with Kathy Nolan and the wonderful Walter Brennan.

Crenna once told the Archive of American Television the worst review he ever got was by esteemed New York Herald-Tribune columnist John Crosby, who took aim at all the annoying, voice-cracking teenagers he played on radio. I’ve found the column. Actually, Crenna only played one of the characters under discussion—Oogie Pringle on “A Date With Judy,” but they’re basically the same type. “Our Miss Brooks” had only been on the air a couple of months when Crosby’s column came out on November 22, 1948, so young Mr. Denton gets a pass.

Crosby took aim at banality on radio, and there was lots of it. But he’s set up an unfair fight in this column, though I suspect he knew it and used a Mark Twain comparison for humour’s sake. Twain published books in the laconic 19th century. If words offended someone, too bad, they had to suck it up. 20th century network radio was a different world. Just like television today, the radio networks/sponsors/agencies took supreme pains not to offend anybody, including self-appointed watchdogs and malcontents. If Mark Twain had anti-social kids, that was life. If network radio even remotely featured a child with a hint of anti-social behaviour, (s)he was to be punished if (s)he was to appear at all, lest anyone complain. So it was that radio, like TV today, went to ridiculous lengths not to offend anyone (or, more correctly, during certain portions of the broadcast day. Therefore, “South Park” is okay. A fraction of a second of a nipple in a Super Bowl halftime show is a national calamity). Thus radio’s teenagers were annoying but innocuous.

Here’s what Crosby had to say.

Radio In Review
What Ever Happened To The Bad Boy?
THE closest thing we have around to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer — and it;s pretty distant — is Henry Aldrich and Homer. Which proves how boyhood has degenerated since I was a boy.
Boyhood—let’s face it squarely—has been going downhill for years, but it’s come to a pretty pass when its archetypes are Henry and Homer and Oogie Pringle and Archie Andrews.
When I was young, roughly around the 12th century, the blueprint of my deportment was drawn to scale by Huck and Tom and Penrod and the hero of “The Story of a Bad Boy”, whose name I’ve forgotten. (I missed “Peck’s Bad Boy” entirely. Different generation, I guess).
Those three provided an outline of general Cain raise that any boy could be proud of.
JUDGING FROM the radio, the lads still get into mischief (a word we wouldn’t be caught dead with) but they never get into it deliberately.
The difference is one of intent---and that’s where a boy’s character is formed, which is why I think the education of our sons is in incapable hands. When Huck and Tom ran away from home, when the Bad Boy (what was that kid’s name anyway?) blew up the village cannon, they knew what they were doing.
In both cases there were unexpected circumstances, but the sense of wrongdoing was present from the outset. They were active little fiends, destined to become captains of industry when they grew up.
FOR HOMER and Henry and Oogie and Archie I see no hope whatever of future brilliance. Week after week they get into one jam after another, always by accident, never by design.
The trouble they see is a censored, respectable, passive trouble. They’re the victims. In Huck’s day somebody else was the victim.
Modern boys—and I’m judging Oogie and company—and a bunch of namby pambies. They never try to get into trouble. They try to stay out of it. But, with the best intentions in the world, they stick their elbows through windows, they fall flat on their faces in front of their best girls.
Always they’re crossed by circumstances or the idiosyncrasies of adults. What I object to is that they’re trying so hard to be good. And they generally are foiled by their own stupidity.
WHAT SORT of example is that to hold up before a young boy? Penrod and Huck and Tom slipped once in awhile in the mires of boyhood, but they never were stupid.
They didn’t put their feet in their mouths with such monotonous regularity. Their parents worried about them. Henry and Homer and Oogie and Archie worry about their parents.
Also, the modern girl has got out of hand. There was a place in Penrod’s life and in Tom Sawyer’s life for girls, but there also was a place where girls weren’t allowed. The modern boy seems to have girls on the brain all day long.
I DUNNO. These adenoidal infants they got on the air don’t sound quite bright or quite virile.
Of course, you might argue that all these kids—Archie and Henry and Homer and Oogie—belong in the category of Tarkington’s “Seventeen” rather than in the company of Huck Finn, but they’re the nearest thing we have to Huck.
There aren’t any Huck Finns in radio, the influence probably of mothers craving respectability.
I’m against it. A couple of Huck Finns would be a lot better for the kids than Capt. Midnight, Superman or Tom Mix.
There wasn’t any real harm in Huck and Tom. They were just harum scarum.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Before UPA Came Willoughby Wren

If there was ever a cartoon studio that had more disjointed, half-baked shorts than Screen Gems, aka Columbia, then I’ve never heard of it.

Screen Gems were usually anything but. The studio went from the remnants of the Charles Mintz studio, to attempts at artsy-fartsiness, to second-rate versions of Warners and Tex Avery cartoons, to closure, all within about 10 years. A lot of the people who worked there were talented, some of the animation was pretty good, but Columbia came up with a frightening number of cartoons are mouth-gapingly bizarre.

‘Willoughby’s Magic Hat’ (1943) is one of them. It features gobs of limited animation that would have made the accountants at Filmation happy, UPA-style background art (pre-UPA) designed to draw attention to itself, a plot that somehow combines a robot Frankenstein with a Pearl White melodrama and John Ployardt’s too-overly-affected narration. Oh, and a guy with the name of a bird. It’s not a happy mix. But for you fans of stylised backgrounds, here are a few, designed by Zack Schwartz, which are probably the only reason anyone talks about this cartoon at all.

Monday 23 April 2012

Snafu Has Gas

Like all studios during World War Two, Leon Schlesinger/Warner Bros. made cartoons directly strictly at G-Is. The Snafu cartoons are little Looney Tunes. They feature Mel Blanc’s voice, Carl Stalling’s music and your favourite animators and directors, though none of them are credited.

There’s some great design and animation in the Snafus. One of the most enjoyable pieces of animation is a huge, gas cloud that comes to life to kill Snafu, who has thrown away his too-inconvenient gas mask. The fat cloud continually and fluidly changes shape and even gives off little wisps of clouds. ‘Gas’ (1943) was directed by Chuck Jones, and the cloud drawings below are apparently the work of Bobe Cannon (and assistant). In case you’re wondering, the cloud’s eyes are turning into binoculars in the final frame below.

Billy Bletcher provides the voice of the cloud and Blanc is, of course, Snafu. Read more about the Snafu series HERE.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Writing the Jack Benny Show

There were occasions on the old network comedy/variety shows that the script would get tossed away for a while amidst a flurry of ad-libs but, generally, each week’s shown was carefully honed, even to the point of violent disagreement among the honers.

Comedians hiring gag-writers wasn’t anything new. It was common in vaudeville. Writers didn’t care if they got credit. They wanted the money. Besides, whoever heard of stopping a vaudeville show to read credits? Thus gag-writers were hired when vaudeville’s comedians moved into radio in the early ‘30s. The writers weren’t always anonymous; Jack Benny credited his even in the mid-‘30s. But the anonymity chafed. Radio brought huge national fame to comedians, the kind vaudeville rarely did. It brought big exposure, big salaries and big motion picture contracts. Benny’s writer wanted that kind of action for himself, so he rebelled. You can read more about it HERE.

That seems to have prompted this weekend feature story syndicated by King Features on September 24, 1939. Oddly, Edward Misurell goes on and on about “ghost” writers, yet spends half the story outlining how Jack Benny co-wrote his own weekly show. Benny, the story doesn’t tell you, was one of the best editors in the radio comedy business and while the writers may have come up with ideas and dialogue, Benny stood over the whole process to make sure it worked.

Why the Joke-Writer’s Suit Against Jack Benny Is No Joke to the Radio Comedians
By Edwin Misurell
RADIO’S top-flight comedians are looking over their shoulders these days with apprehension. They’re being haunted by “ghosts” and they don’t like it a bit. Yet, paradoxically, the nation’s funny men can’t get along without them for even a single program nor can they get along with them on the whole for more than one radio season.
The “ghosts” are the writers who pound out the mirth-provoking scripts for the big-time comics you hear over the national networks; they're the idea men behind the entertaining continuities “brought to you each week through the courtesy” of so-and-so coffee, tea, shaving cream, face powder, etc.
The comedians are more than annoyed over the way the “ghosts” have been “coming to life” lately. Prompting their uneasiness is the $65,500 breach of contract suit filed by writer Harry Conn against Jack Benny.
Conn charges that Benny has continued to use the characters and dramatic situations devised by him in 1935 when he put fun in Benny’s funny business. He further claims that they were to be used for only 39 weeks; the length of term of his contract. He added that he was to be paid 6% of the comic’s earnings during the time the material was used. He makes the latter the basis of his claim.
Benny holds the Conn charges amount to overcharges, and his friends point to the fact that Benny achieved top-ranking in radio polls after Conn had ceased writing material for the Benny Sunday evening broadcasts. (The Benny “ghosts” now are Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin.)
Nevertheless the suit serves to bring public notice to the little known and virtually unsung crew of men who actually develop the situations and think up or refurbish the jokes with which comedians tickle the risibilities of the nation’s broadcast listeners, and suggests that if other radio “ghosts” decide to follow in Conn’s legal footsteps, the courts would be busy for years to come. For the only well known comic who writes his own scripts and gags is Fred Allen, and the list of “ghosts” who help to keep other comedians high in Crosley rating is long. Among the most important, besides Morrow and Beloin, are:
Hal Raynor—Joe Penner.
John P. Medbury, Bill Burns, Harvey Helm—Burns and Allen.
Ed Gardner — Ken Murray and Ned Sparks program.
Gill and Demling—Joe E. Brown program.
Don Quinn—“Fibber McGee.”
Phil Rapp, Maury Amsterdam and Sam Moore — Good News program. (Irving Hoffman has also written Baby Snooks sayings for Fannie Brice.)
Carroll Carroll — Bing Crosby-Bob Burns program.
Paul Rhymer—Vic and Sade.
Monroe Upton—Al Pearce and Gang program.
Edna Stillwell—Avalon Time.
Dick Mack and Ed Rice—Charlie McCarthy program.
Milt Josephberg, Mel Shavelson, Al Schwartz, Carl Manning, Bob Philips, and Jack Huston—Bob Hope-Jerry Colonna program.
Surprisingly enough, radio “ghosts” are the poorest paid workers in the entertainment field. Usually they receive an average of 1 or 1½% of the entire cost of the program. Writers in show business receive about 6% of the money spent in putting on a play or a musical, while book authors earn about 15% of the profits taken in by the publisher of his work.
Then, too, the airwave script fashioners are always the “nearest to the door” of all the persons who put together radio shows. The moment a program begins to lose its popularity, the “ghosts” are the first persons to be fired. Generally the comedians feel: “I’m an established star—it must be the material that is bad.” Since most comics hire their own writers, they can hand out “pink slips” with a minimum of ease.
When a writer is signed to do scripts for a popular comic he usually finds that he’s tied himself up “body, soul and brain” until the contract expires. He must be on call at all time for any rewriting, patching, or complete changing of a contemplated program.
Typical of the amount of work they must do before they receive the weekly pay-check is the routine followed by Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin in readying the scripts for the Benny program.
As soon as one show is over, and the studio has been cleared of autograph seekers and others, Benny, Beloin and Morrow go into a huddle on the studio stage. Each of the trio suggests his ideas for the show to be broadcast the following week. Some times the ideas flow fast and on other occasions they come hard. Often they battle back and forth for a good while before they decide which ideas are worth developing into a script.
The following day, Monday, Beloin and Morrow work out the gaga and situations they spoke about the night before. They spend a full day on this job. On Tuesday they have a rough draft ready which they take to Benny.
The comedian and his “ghosts” then spend Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday working over this original draft. They polish it, change it, cut it, or build it up into a working rehearsal script. There is no set period on how long they work. They may spend eight hours a day on the job or even as long as 18 hours in actual labor. It all depends on whether or not their minds are clicking right.
On Friday the trio rest as best they can. In all probability, they constantly think up means of improving the work they've already spent so much time on up to that point.
When Saturday comes the entire cast is brought together. It may be in Benny’s home or the studio. He then reads the script to them. Any comments that Andy Devine, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Kenny Baker, Don Wilson, or “Rochester” have to make on their own lines are noted. Occasionally, with these comments in mind, revisions are made. Phil Harris, the orchestra conductor, may feel that he can’t say a certain line right that Beloin and Morrow have written for him. He might have an idea that improves the line. The whole cast may feel that some of their lines ought to be changed. Benny and the writers have the final word in the matter.
Then the group goes over the script once again. This time, however, every member of the cast reads the lines written expressly for them. Usually there are further changes after this reading. They read it time and again until they feel the script is perfect.
After the rehearsal, the cast is dismissed, but Benny, Beloin, Morrow, and the producer for the advertising agency that handles the show, confer on changes. They may talk and make changes in the script for hours and have little sleep before final rehearsals start at 10 a. m. Sunday morning, to continue until the program goes on the air. For their labor Benny pays the writers each $500 a week out of the $10,000 a week he gets from his sponsor.
Conn became Benny’s principal gag-writer in 1932 and stayed in his employ for about four and a half years, which is an unusually long period for such associations to last.
It was during this time, Conn claims, that he devised the characters and situations
he says Benny is still using over the air. In his deposition the writer states that he has been paid nothing for the use of this material since 1936, while the comedian has earned $1,170,000 from radio work and $140,000 from motion pictures.
Benny is not the first comedian to get into legal difficulties with “ghosts.” As a result of similar legal difficulties between Eddie Cantor and his “ghost,” the late David Freedman, it is said that Cantor is unable to sell his autobiography, My Life Is in Your Hands, on which Freedman collaborated, for a proposed movie production.
Freedman brought suit against Cantor for $250,000, declaring he and the comedian had made an oral agreement in 1931 whereby Cantor was to pay him 10 per cent of his earnings. He stated that at the time the agreement was made Cantor was earning $2,000 a week, which amount subsequently rose to $10,000 a week, and that his gags were responsible for the rise in the comedian’s salary.
Cantor denied there was such an agreement, oral or otherwise, and declared he had paid Freedman well, sometimes more than 10 per cent, during their association. A mistrial was declared in the suit when Freedman died one day after the trial began.
In spite of such “hauntings,” however, the comedians continue to employ ghost-writers. They just can’t get along without them.

Jack Benny carried on quite well without Harry Conn’s inventions—dumping both the ditzy version of Mary Livingstone and angry version of Phil Harris, and adding Rochester and a pile of funny, continuing ancillary characters that Benny fans love today. With the help of his new writers, of course.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Mickey Mouse on Strike

Far be it from me to try to get into Walt Disney’s head. All kinds of books have been written about him by people more interested in his films than I am. But, as a casual observer, it seems like Walt decided he went about as far as he could with animation and started moving in other entertainment directions.

Bob Thomas wrote Walt Disney: An American Original in 1976. He wrote about Disney 30 years before that for the Associated Press. And in the lead item in his column of June 6, 1946, he hints the same sort of thing.

Disney likely approved of the idea floated in the story about being a live-action mogul. But I doubt one wound had healed, and he probably winced a bit about Thomas’ first line about strikers picketing the studio.

Disney Planning To Use Live Talent In His Next Pictures
HOLLYWOOD, June 7—(AP)—The day may come when Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and other cartoon characters will be picketing Disney studios. Reason: the cartoon wizard is hiring live talent.
Walt has used live action before, but now he is going all-out, or almost. Added to his stable of pen-and-ink actors are three very much alive individuals — wry-faced Bobby Driscoll, seven-year-old cover girl Luana Patten and the Negro actor, James Baskett.
They are appearing in Disney’s first postwar feature, “Song of the South”. The film will be 70 per cent live action; the remainder will be a treatment of the Uncle Remus stories. Studio workers assure that you will hardly be able to tell where the human talent ends and animation begins.
The two children will also appear in “How Dear to My Heart”, which will also star Beulah Bondi and Burl Ives. This one will be 80 per cent live action.
But rest assured, Mickey, Donald and Goofy, your old man has no plan for 100 per cent live action films. Not yet.
A non-cartoon Disney character showed me more of the Disney plans in the Animation Building. Pinned on the wall were “tentative” plans for Wendy, Captain Hook, Nana, Nibs and other Peter Pan characters. They didn't look so tentative to me.

“Peter Pan” didn’t come out until 1953. It had been in the planning stages before the war. The long gestation wasn’t uncommon for a number of Disney projects.

There isn’t much to be said about “Song of the South” that hasn’t been said before. The B’rer Rabbit cartoons contained in it have fine, expressive Disney animation. About the only place you’ll likely ever see it now is on bootlegs of non-North American video releases for reasons which have been debated to death.

Friday 20 April 2012

Well, Curl My Ears!

Bob McKimson’s early Bugs Bunny directoral efforts are really hit-and-miss for me. Some are among the most disappointing Bugs cartoons ever made, either because I don’t buy the story line (“The Grey Hounded Hare”) or they have those Jean Blanchard character designs with the huge muzzles (especially when talking) and teeny-weeny eyes and craniums. Like in “Gorilla My Dreams” (1948).

Mel Blanc’s falsetto female gorilla voice, which sounds like Mel Blanc as Bugs Bunny doing a falsetto female voice, annoys me a bit, too. And so does McKimson’s obsession with having characters burst toward, then away from, the camera to show his animators and assistants were capable of drawing in perspective (though it was probably a hit in theatres). But there are some things that I like in the cartoon so it’s not a total loss (and certainly not on a “Daffy-Speedy” level).

One is this surprise take by Bugs when he sees the female gorilla for the first time. Has any other cartoon have Bugs ears’ curled like this?

The credited animators in this cartoon are Chuck McKimson, Manny Gould and John Carey. If Izzy Ellis and Phil De Lara worked on this, I couldn’t tell you.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Dick Clark and the Death of Rock and Roll

Did you realise rock music died in 1956 and Dick Clark was there for the funeral? You must have known. It was in all the papers.

There’s nothing more consistent in this world of ours than young people’s music being hated by the generation that came before it. Lovers of the big bands during the 1930s endured ridicule, just as they ridiculed their Elvis-loving kids, who didn’t have anything good to say when Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’ blared through speakers.

Today, it’s really hard to believe the absolute disgust rock was greeted with, even in the media that played it. “Disc jockey” was a pejorative term. Those with a distaste, even horror, for the direction of music in the mid-‘50s preferred to be referred to by the more dignified term “announcer.” They would recoil at the idea of sullying their turntable with the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets. But a new breed of on-air cat enthusiastically embraced the music, and so did teeming numbers of teens, and rock radio was born.

The oldsters in the media of the day, that is, men generally over the age of 30, looked for ways to dismiss or kill rock and roll. And that brings us to an Associated Press story of August 20, 1956. To us today, the idea that Buddy Knox, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis were something other than rock singers is preposterous, but it wasn’t to at least one writer. What he didn’t take into account is music constantly evolves. The watered-down “jazz” sounds of Paul Whiteman gave way to the swing of Artie Shaw and the Dorseys. Buddy Knox and Buddy Holly gave way to the British Invasion, which gave way to the guitar groups of the early ‘70s, and so on.

As you can see, no tears were shed at this rather premature funeral.

Ballad With Beat
Rock ‘n’ Roll Heads For Graveyard
AP Newsfeatures Writer
AS IT MUST to all raucous noises that periodically assail the ear drums of the American public, the musical boneyard is finally beckoning to the fantastic fad that’s known as rock ‘n’ roll.
A few of its more celebrated cantatas, like the tender “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” and the triumphant “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” may be heard again from time to time in misty-eyed medleys of old songs, but the bulk of this cannabalistic caterwauling will lie buried forever beside such mementoes of other bygone eras as the “The Three Little Fishies,” “The Fuehrer’s Face” and “Don’t Hit your Grandma With a Shovel, Boys, It Makes a Bad Impression on Her Mind.”
Early last week the honorary pallbearers, in the person of 18 internationally famous disc jockeys, arrived in New York to attend the final rites, which appropriately enough took place in a musty movie studio hard by Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen.
In the best traditions of the musical industry they quietly disposed of the still warm rock ‘n’ roll corpse by burying it under a mountain of publicity for its heir apparent, known in the trade as “the new music.”
Tho shotgun wedding of Madison Avenue to Tin Pin Alley has failed so far to come up with a name for the new music but it goes under the working tide of “Ballad With a Beat.”
It will get its first big plug in the forthcoming movie “Jamboree,” which further accounts for the presence of the disc jockeys at the studio. All appear in the picture to give their official blessing to the new music. Among them are Howard Miller of Chicago, Dick Clark of Philadelphia, Al Jarvis of Hollywood, Zenas Sears of.Atlanta, Milt Grant of Washington, Gerry Myers of Ottawa; Keith Sandy of Toronto, and Chris Howland of Cologne and Werner Golze of Munich, Germany.
The plot never gels complicated enough to interfere with the 18 disc jockeys who parade across the screen to introduce the 20 new songs.
The songs are performed by such recording stars as Count Basie and his orchestra, the Four Coins, Fats Domino, Connie Francis, Joe Williams, Jody Sands, Frankie Avalon and several other reformed rock ‘n’ rollers.
What will the new music be like?
Chris Howland, a pleasant Englishman who lives in Cologne and does a German disc jockey show over West Deuschen Rundfunk and does an English disc jockey show for the British Forces Network, described it as “a type of song that will give singing back to the singers.”
The old fashioned love ballad has replaced the hillbilly yodel that formed the basis o£ rock ‘n’ roll and the beat has been slowed down to something resembling a combination of rhumba and tango.
One disc jockey, evidently having trouble adjusting musical gears, acidly compared it to a 78-speed rock 'n' roll record played on a 45 turntable.
Most, however, agreed that the melody would be easier on the ears, the lyrics easier on the intellect, and the emotional effect more dulcifying on teen-aged faddists than the current frantic pops leaders.
Skeptics might say the only thing new about the new music is its name — or lack of one — but its tempered tempo, with or without a perceptible beat, sure beats rock ‘n’ roll. And it’s bound to revive singing fortunes of balladeers like Eddie Fisher, Vic Damone and others.
Will Elvis survive? What the moving finger of Tin Pan Alley will write, nobody knows.

If there was anyone who would preside over a funeral of rock and roll, it would have been Dick Clark. Rock has now outlived him. Clark’s legacy can’t be overstated. Rock music went through a rough patch. The Alan Freed payola scandal did more to potentially kill it than any Bing-loving bluenoses ever did. But Clark made rock look squeaky-clean to the parents of America through ‘American Bandstand.’ It became acceptable, albeit perhaps grudgingly.

People who love being on the radio are, generally, content with the idea of turning on the microphone and having a few things to say. Dick Clark was the first disc jockey with the drive and smarts (and, perhaps, the desire) to parlay that into an entertainment empire. Clark stood out above the pack. It’s surprising to discover that in 1956 there was not one but three weekday afternoon dance shows on Philadelphia TV, all on different channels. Clark turned his into an institution and the pattern for all others to follow. Not bad for someone who, if old newspapers are correct, took side-jobs emceeing high school dances only a couple of years earlier.

Clark didn’t originate ‘Bandstand.’ He took it over in 1956. ABC, the runt television network in those days, was anxious for hit shows, especially ones that appealed to young people. It grasped the ‘Bandstand’ of its Philadelphia affiliate and the show zoomed into a place in TV history. Clark began to get noticed by the major wire services who weren’t being so snippy about rock music now.

He outlined his show’s philosophy in this story from November 26, 1957

Teen-Agers Make, Break Pop Records
But Television Pays Little Attention

United Press Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK —UP— Teen-agers make or break a pop record.
But strangely enough, although TV trots out a bushel of musical shows each week, only one is pitched right at the saddle shoes set—“American Bandstand.”
ABC-TV, which launched the show on its network in August (it started as a local TV entry in Philadelphia five years ago) beams it to 74 of its stations for 90 minutes each afternoon, Monday through Friday. The daytime show has proved so successful that, since October, the network also has staged a half-hour evening version each Monday.
No ‘Maggie’ Talent
The show’s click with teen-agers is based on a simple formula. It shuns the high-priced, highly-publicized “When-You-and-I-were-Young, Maggie” talent that other network musicals offer so often. Instead, “American Bandstand” zeroes in on the artists the kids are buying—Johnny Mathis, the Everly brothers, the Crickets, many of them names that don’t mean, much to square elder auditors.
“It’s no secret that TV neglects the teen-ager,” says Dick Clark, emcee of the show.
“Even some radio stations have stopped programming for the kids. The situation exists because so many advertisers think the teen-agers lack buying power.
“But, of course, anybody who knows teen-agers knows that’s nonsense. In any family, the teenager influences the purchase of the car, the toothpaste, the breakfast cereal that goes into that family. And he sets the styles for the rest of the nation in other things—in music, in fashion, for example.”
Commands Loyal Audience
At 27, the baby-faced Clark commands a pretty loyal audience. One trade weekly (“Variety”), he pointed out, recently called him “the number one hit maker in the nation.” Clark returns that loyalty.
“I think it was Mitch Miller who said the teen-ager likes rock ‘n’ roll because nobody else does,” says Clark. "The teen-ager would like to be thought of as belonging to a distinguishable group. He wants an identity of his own.
“He thinks like an adult, but he thinks of different things. He’s not concerned too much with making a living as adults are. His concerns are things like the high school football team, music...
“His heroes? Well, in music, Ricky Nelson and Sal Mineo. Elvis Presley is still big. And there’s Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. With the exception of Fats, who is 29, they're all pretty young — the kids can identify with them. They buy Pat Boone, too, but they don't get excited about him. He’s sort of solid bread—the Frank Sinatra of this generation.
“On the whole, 98 per cent of our kids are well-mannered, well-adjusted people. It’s the two per cent who have stirred up all the trouble — something many adults fail to consider. I remember once on my show I read a statement about young people being unfit, disrespectful...
“You know who wrote the statement? Socrates, in 400 B. C. Even then, the older generation was complaining about the kids.”

Even the Associated Press, which had sneered at rock, gave papers a couple of versions of this favourable review of ‘Bandstand’—and Clark—in papers starting October 22nd.

TV-Radio News
A Big Name That Will Stay At The Top
NEW YORK (AP)—It’s a season of big name performers on television and the low budget program and relative unknown may be easily overlooked.
So let’s not overlook “American Bandstand” and a young man named Dick Clark.
Teen-agers, who brought him and his program to the attention of this department, will resent his being called a “relatively unknown,” for he’s attained a big following on his 90-minute afternoon network shows from Philadelphia.
And now, “American Bandstand” has entered the nighttime field on ABC-TV (Mondays). It’s a refreshingly simple program. There’s a little talk, some music, some dancing by youngsters who throng the studio in Philadelphia where the programs originate.
The atmosphere is what you can expect if you have a play room in your basement and teen-agers in your family. In short, it’s real, unpretentious, free of hokum.
“We program the show strictly for young people,” Clark said. “Our idea is that if young people have fun on the show older people will watch and enjoy it too. It’s the same idea as parents’ day at school,” Clark explained.
Clark, who is 27, genuinely enjoys working with and playing to the younger generation.
“Young people, in general, are wonderful,” he said. “It’s a shame that 98 per cent of them are so often condemned for the things that only two per cent of them do. The young live in a wonderful world by themselves. They want to be distinctive, as the hi-fi boys and the sports car enthusiasts want to be distinctive. And they are distinctive.”
Because Clark makes friends of young people on his programs, he finds that he’s constantly consulted by the young on a great variety of matters
Clark, a native of Mount Vernon, N. Y., worked his way through Syracuse University. Summers and after graduation he served as a disc jockey on radio stations in Syracuse and Utica, gradually becoming a musically well-informed young man.
In 1952 he made the big jump to WFIL-TV in Philadelphia, where he eventually took over the “Bandstand” program. Clark and his wife live in Drexel Hill, Pa., with their dachshund, a massive hi-fi rig and about 15,000 records.
“Pop and not too progressive jazz.”
Clark voices no ambitions in the world of television except to make “American Bandstand” as good and long-lived a show as possible. Watch him, however, and you’ll wager this: When some of this season's “big names” no longer are “big,” the name of Dick Clark will be very big indeed.

Clark spent a life-time making refreshingly simple programmes from basic concepts. Add a word-association game and suspense and you have ‘The $10,000 Pyramid’ (which Clark hosted but did not produce). Add comedy and people’s desire to be entertainment industry insiders and you have ‘TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.’ Add the suspense of trophy giveaway night with the glamour of show biz and you have a pile of Dick Clark produced awards shows. It’s all very simple. But Clark grasped all that and managed to use his name to get them on the air.

He even exacted a revenge of sorts on the haters who had wanted rock dead and buried. He displaced a symbol of an earlier generation’s music—Guy Lombardo—as Mr. New Year’s Eve with a December 31st TV party aimed at a neglected younger audience. Rock music had overcome.

Dick Clark will be known for many things but the most important is, through television, to ensure that no one presided over the death of rock and roll.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Before He Married Lovey

For a couple of generations, Jim Backus has brought smiles for his satire of the snooty rich as Thurston Howell III on television’s most endearingly-inane sitcom, “Gilligan’s Island.” Few of us who grew up then knew that Backus was simply digging a role out of his Golden Age Radio trunk of comedy. Alan Young may have been the star, but Backus got the most laughs as elitist millionaire Hubert Updike III, who spouted “Heavens to Gimbles!” and threatened to wash out Young’s mouth with domestic champagne.

Backus’ other most remembered role is that of Rutgers’ most famous imaginary graduate, Quincy Magoo. It’s a tribute to Backus that the character was popular at all, let alone an Oscar-winner. The TV cartoons of the early ‘60s—the Magoos that kids were mostly exposed to—were sopping with gags based on near blindness and a Chinese stereotype.

Backus recalled in his 1958 autobiography that he based Magoo’s original attitude, which was more feisty in the first theatrical cartoons of the early ‘50s, on his father. We don’t know his father’s reaction to that, but perhaps we can guess reading this Associated Press wire story from 1951.

Jim Backus Of Films Has A Swell Dad
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 22, (AP)—Russell Backus is a man I’d like to meet.
Perhaps you know his son, Jim Backus. He is a radio comedian who lately has made a career of being the hero’s friend in movies. He performed that function for Arthur Kennedy in “Bright Victory” and now he’s Dana Andrew’s [sic] friend in “I Want You.” He’s sort of a free-lance Keenan Wynn.
Likes Swimmer
Jim has many stories about his dad, who is an engineer in Cleveland and is unimpressed or unaware of the Hollywood hoopla. Recently Mr. Backus was visiting here and Jim had a golf date with Ben Gage. Jim left his father to visit with Mrs. Gage, Esther Williams.
“You know, Jim,” said Mr. Backus later, “that girl—the one who’s married to the guy with the cigar you played golf with—she’s a darned good swimmer. Any time she wants to swim at the Cleveland Athletic club, I think 1 can fix it up for her.”
All Over Cleveland
A month later, Jim received a long-distance phone call from his father, who said excitedly, “say, Jim, you remember that girl who could swim so well—the one who’s married to the tall guy you played golf with? Well, she’s all over Cleveland in a movie!”
Mr. Backus has constant doubts about Jim’s future and often inquires if he needs some money. When Jim assures him he’s drawing good salary, his father replies, “Well, I notice that other fellow from Cleveland, Bop Hope, is doing fairly well.”
Coogan Example
Jiin often takes his father to the night spots during Hollywood visits. Mr. Backus was unimpressed by the film newcomers who were pointed out to him. Then Jackie Coogan was sighted.
“Now there’s an example of a boy who let himself go,” he told Jim. “Look, he’s bald and fat. He should have stuck with that funny little man with the mustache. I wonder what ever happened to the dog in that show?”
Once the Backuses were driving past RKO studios, where a painter was working on the outside wall. “There,” said Mr. Backus, “is a good studio. If they keep it painted like that, it’s run correctly all along the line, up to the top man.”
When Jim was on location with “Bright Victory” in Philadelphia, his father suspected that he had lost his Hollywood job. Jim tried to explain that it was the same job.
“Don’t feel bad,” consoled Mr. Backus, “and don’t try to cover up. We all lose jobs, Jim. And maybe it’s a good thing that they’re making movies in Philadelphia. Maybe they’ll make them in Cleveland now, and you can live at home again.”

Other than perhaps his role as the father in “Rebel Without a Cause,” no one thinks of drama when they think of Backus. But this wire service column from 1953 does.

Clothes Made Jim Backus Actor of Serious Roles
HOLLYWOOD, Mar. 30 (AP)—One of Hollywood’s funniest off-screen characters is a fellow who inevitably is cast in serious roles in the movies. Usually he is the hero’s best friend.
Even on television, where he plays husband to zany Joan Davis in the “I Married Joan” series, he plays a semi-serious judge.
“It’s all because of one suit,” explains Jim Backus. “Some years ago I was in a dog (trade slang for a lousy movie) where the studio outfitted me with a $150 suit. You know, the kind that makes you look like a Wall Street banker?
“It was tailored for my exact measurements, so the studio let me have it for $25 after the picture was finished. So far I have worn it on 22 different interviews and screen tests. It always gets me those distinguished parts.”
He’s made several pictures without the suit, mostly with his old school chum Vic Mature. Vic and Jim were both drummed out of military school together.
His motion picture debut was made with Vic in a pro football picture called “Easy Living.” When the headmaster of the military school heard about this, he forgave his two errant cadets and asked them to submit a picture for the alumni paper.
The two gathered together all the scantily clad chorus girls on the lot, plus a couple prop bottles of champagne. They posed themselves with chorus girls planting kisses right and left while they guzzled champagne. The picture was sent off to the headmaster with this caption:
“By the way, colonel, what are the honor students doing now?”
Recently, Vic and Backus played Roman soldiers in “Androcles and the Lion.” Dressed to the hilt in togas, armor and steel helmets, the two stole off the RKO lot and sought out a bar which usually does not cater to the Hollywood crowd. The bartender was a little startled and hesitated before he served them. Immediately, Backus pounded on the bar and shouted so all patrons could hear.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you serve servicemen in there?”
Backus claims he had his most fun when he played the role of Gen. Curtis Lemay, the Strategic Air Command head, in “Above and Beyond.”
He bears a remarkable resemblance to the general. Pal Vic, at the time, was working on the same lot for a director who, Backus says, is “above associating with mere actors.”
“He will hob-nob only with cardinals, successful presidential candidates and L. B. Mayer,” adds Backus. Jim, dressed this time in the four-star uniform of Lemay, was in Vic’s dressing room when the director spotted him. Backus immediately was invited to a dinner party at which he would be guest of honor.

Backus’ main claim-to-fame in the ’50s wasn’t Mr. Magoo. As you can see, there’s no mention of the cartoon character in either of those stories. He was the “I” in the forgotten sitcom “I Married Joan,” which can be charitably described as NBC’s third-rate answer to “I Love Lucy.” General Electric bought the show in August 1952 (clearing 64 out of 66 cities for it by November). It lasted into spring 1955, but then had life as one of the first shows to be rerun in a Monday-Friday network daytime slot (after repeats were briefly sold in syndication).

Here’s another Associated Press piece. From 1955.

Jim Backus Married 24 Hours A Day
NEW YORK, Jan. 3 (AP)—On television Jim Backus has to convince viewers that “I Married Joan” but he spends the rest of the time trying to convince people he didn’t.
“Actually it’s my wife who’s the butt of most of the confusion,” says Backus, who on TV plays the role of husband to comedienne Joan Davis and in real life has been the husband for 11 years of attractive Henny Backus, successful actress in her own right.
Backus even claims that because of his TV role as husband of Miss Davis, who currently is unmarried, he’s had a checkup from hotel house detectives when he tried to check in with Henny.
Since Miss Davis owns I Love Joan on NBC-TV Wednesday night, Backus says he tells his wife, “I’m the only guy who comes home with lipstick on his paycheck.”
“If I’m not on time at the office, my TV wife, Miss Davis who also is my boss, wants to know ‘Why are you late?’ And if I say ‘I was working late with the boss,’ I’m in trouble. I’m married 24 hours a day.”
The confusion arising from his TV role as Miss Davis’ husband has reached the point. Backus says, that his wife has answered the telephone with, “This is Jim’s other wife.”
It also works in reverse. He recalls one occasion when he and Miss Davis were on tour and checked into a hotel in Louisville. His room was on the ninth floor and hers, on the 14th but the clerk, under the impression they were husband and .wife in real life, suggested he could provide adjoining rooms. But Miss Davis in a typical response replied, “NO, leave it like it is—he snores.”
Backus, whose role is strictly a supporting one, is convinced his is a woman’s world. On the same lot where “I Married Joan” is filmed, the Burns & Allen, Ann Sothern, Eve Arden and Harriet & Ozzy [sic] shows also are produced and, he says, “all the dames are the stars—it’s a matriarchy.”
Jim, a native of Cleveland, has seen in stock, in more than 5,000 radio broadcasts, and in a number of movie but usually in roles that left him in comparative anonymity.
It’s still that way, to a degree. His role on “I Married Joan” is that of the sane and sober judge married to Joan in which he is straight man to her comedy. The show already was competing with the first half of Godfrey and His Friends on CBS and now has to vie also with the Walt Disney show on ABC.

Young and Rubicam announced in the trade papers the following month that “Joan” was cancelled, thanks to the one-two punch of Walt Disney and Arthur Godfrey on other networks. Backus kept his humour about it. Fill-in columnist Hal Humphrey of the Los Angeles Mirror’s syndication service had this to say on July 19, 1955.

Proof that being off TV can make an actor virtually unknown today is furnished Jim Backus. He claims that since he quit playing the judge on Joan Davis’ ill-fated “I Married Joan” no one remembers him anymore.
“When flying across country on an airliner I used to go up in the cockpit and shoot
the breeze with the crew, and they were honored to have me,” Backus recalls.
“But six weeks after the show folded I tried it on a flight to Florida. The pilot took one look at me and yelled, ‘Get back n your seat, strap yourself in and eat your box lunch!’
“I tell you, no one recognizes me now. I’m beginning to feel like the Mary Miles Minter of TV,” says the saddened Backus.

Backus, as we all know, survived. He divorced Joan, went to marry Lovey and set off on a three-hour cruise with Gilligan, the Skipper, too, well, you know the song. Fans of silly ‘60s TV comedies are glad he did.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Springtime for Guitar Whacking

Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera showed they could be as adept at using colour for effect as anyone else in ‘Springtime for Thomas,’ a 1946 short where Tom falls in love with a fickle female (aren’t they all in cartoons?) and then try to get some alley-cat competition out of the picture.

Toward the end, Barbera comes up with yet another violence gag as we get swing in more ways than one. Scott Bradley has the MGM orchestra’s brass section blaring away in ‘40s hipster style, while Tom is on a swing set, arcing back toward the ground. Butch decides to play baseball with Tom’s butt, taking a healthy bash at it with a guitar (over a convenient pillow standing in for home plate).

Here’s where colour comes in.

The animation’s on twos. You can see Bob Gentle’s background drawing.

After impact, there’s a new drawing and the background changes to a solid yellow. One frame later, the drawing remains but the background in now a solid red. The background stays red in the next frame while the pose changes. Then the pose remains and the background is yellow again. The next frame, we get a new pose over a yellow card, then one frame later it’s the same pose but Gentle’s background returns. Hanna and Barbera are using the solid, alternating colours to accent the action, though it happens pretty quickly.

I’ve skipped some of the frames, but you can see the drawings and the backgrounds I’m referring to.

The animators given credit were Ken Muse, Ed Barge and Mike Lah but my untrained eye wonders if Ray Patterson worked on this as well.

Monday 16 April 2012

Wotta Lightning

Van Beuren cartoons in the early ‘30s, at least the best ones, featured creepy creatures coming at the camera, skeletons, things coming to life, jumpy scores by Gene Rodemich and bizarre plot twists that sometimes don’t make a lot of sense. Fleischer did the same kind of thing with more finesse, but some of the Van Beurens can be fun.

‘Wot a Night!’ is the first cartoon featuring Tom and Jerry (not the MGM cat and mouse that stole their names) and it has an imaginative opening. The pair are taxi drivers waiting at rail station during the middle of a huge storm.

Forked lightning appears in the sky. The directors (John Foster and George Stallings) could have just left it at that, but they went for an effect that’s really effective. It appears they had the cameraman open the aperture wider and wider for a few frames to let more light in, thereby giving the effect of a flash of lightning.

I don’t know if other studios tried this before 1931. Perhaps they did, but it’s a pretty cool effect.

Sunday 15 April 2012


One of the downsides of Jack Benny switching sponsors from General Foods to American Tobacco in the fall of 1944 was the change in the opening commercial. I always liked the swing piece by Phil Harris with Don Wilson reading about Jell-O over top. Substituted was a hard-sell pitch that became memorable because of its repetition and stridency—and its unique opening.

American Tobacco paid good money for not one, but two real-life auctioneers to go through a mock spiel live on the air from New York before several different announcers (dare we say it?) plugged tobacco. It was attention-grabbing. It was parodied, even in Warner Bros. and Paramount cartoons. And it inspired a column by New York Herald-Tribune syndicate radio writer John Crosby.

Crosby was noted for going after what he saw banal and stupid in radio but, interestingly enough, he didn’t make fun of the auctioneers in his column of February 14, 1947. Maybe he tread lightly because American Tobacco had only resumed newspaper advertising a few months earlier. Or maybe he was simply curious about something and thought he’d pass it on to readers who might be curious, too. In any event, he spoke little about radio in what was a serious, straight-forward column.

Tempers Also Take Beating As Lads Chant
“Lasa la lasa la— sold American!”
The chant of the tobacco auctioneer, which has infuriated, exasperated and sometimes entertained radio listeners for years, has given the tobacco auction a peculiar publicity even greater than and certainly more lasting than the recent New York auction at which Dr A. S. W. Rosenbach purchased the Bay Psalm Book for $151,000. This curious advertising device has made the tobacco auction a part of popular folklore.
I never saw a tobacco auction but several years ago I was stranded in Waycross, Ga., where an amiable Georgian volunteered to drive me out to a huge barn-like structure where a tobacco auction was to take place the next day. On the way out he told me a good deal about the business which he had only recently abandoned. Tobacco buyers are full of more tricks than horse traders, I learned. Frequently, he said, they will bid in a basket of tobacco for more than it's worth—generally they’re spending somebody else’s money— and later split the extra profit with the farmer.
The baskets of tobacco leaf are arranged in long lines at the auction. The autioneer proceeds up one aisle and down the next, auctioning the baskets in order. A buyer may bid in a basket of tobacco for, say, 27 cents a pound, then quietly push the basket across the aisle.
When the auctioneer reaches it the second time, it may or may not bring more than 27 cents. If it brings less, he will, of course, bid it in himself. If it brings more, he will clear a few cents profit.
The sellers employ a variety of tricks too. It’s not uncommon for a farmer to hide a couple of bottles of whisky under the top leaves. When the purchasers inspect the tobacco, their appreciation is considerably heightened by the sight of the whisky, sometimes to the extent of paying a few extra cents a pound for the tobacco. The leaf goes to the tobacco company; the whisky goes to the purchaser.
Good tobacco has a velvety feel and is slightly sticky. It this texture is not naturally present in the leaf, there are a good many ways to simulate it. One method favored by farmers whose leaf did not turn out as well as they had hoped is to spray it with a mixture of water and honey before the auction. The treated leaves are usually at the top of the basket so experienced buyers will usually inspect leaves at the middle or bottom of the basket before they buy.
However, trick or no trick, the manufacturers of popular cigarets buy fine tobaccos, the finest they can lay their hands on. That curious chant is the price, say 27, repeated over and over in a sort of sing-song. When the pitch of the chant changes, the auctioneer has jumped one cent. Incidentally, my friend was of the opinion that the two auctioneers on the Jack Benny program overdid it a little. Many auctioneers are quite intelligible.
Tobacco is just about the most lucrative crop there is. An acre of tobacco may bring in $650, as compared with $23 which is a good yield from an acre of wheat. At the same time, tobacco is more expensive and more trouble than almost any other crop.
Where a wheat farmer’s troubles are largely over after he has planted, the tobacco farmer must keep his eye on his tobacco plants every day guarding them against weather and insect pests. Tobacco leaves must be picked one at a time when they ripen, which means a daily inspection of the plants leaf by leaf. Also tobacco is a soil robber, which is one reason why the South uses more fertilizer than any other section of the country.
Any further questions about the chant of the auctioneer?

The auctioneers were, by all accounts, a favoured advertising device by American Tobacco president George W. Hill. When Hill died in September 1946, they stayed on the air for a few years but were replaced in the ‘50s with a recorded jingle and a pitch by Don Wilson that was decidedly less interesting and attention-grabbing. By then, big ad money was moving from radio to TV.