Thursday 31 May 2012

This Stuff’s Been Cut

“The Shooting of Dan McGoo” is full of Tex Avery’s trademarks—narrative puns he treats literally, signs commenting on the action, eyeballs and bodies reacting uncontrollably at the sight of a dancing girl, things behaving as if they’re at a traffic light, and even the word “Doc.” This was released in 1945 and Avery’s pacing is far faster than what he pulled off at Warners, making some of the same gags he used there at least twice as funny.

Fans of freeze-framing will enjoy the scene when the wolf gulps down a shot of Old Block Buster. His body reacts, with a few drawings held for two frames, but most of them on ones. Some of the body movement is slow, then a new pose with a different perspective will appear on the next frame.

Here are some of the drawings.

The wolf zooms, butt first, to the ceiling, zips around the rafters for a bit (with a slide whistle sound effect), then crash-lands.

Finally, he moves in a quick diagonal to the bartender and says “This stuff’s been cut!”

Ed Love, Ray Abrams and Preston Blair are the credited animators. Did Love do this scene? I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Frank Graham provides the wolf’s voice and the backgrounds are by Johnny Johnsen.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

The Fall of Sara Berner

She had appeared in films (animated and otherwise), on radio, and had made the transition into television. By 1952, Sara Berner was pretty well-established. Still, she wasn’t a huge star, so she seems to have been an unusual choice to be profiled by Ralph Edwards’ emotional-ambush show “This is Your Life.”

Actually, it may have been because Berner was an easy subject for Edwards and his researchers. Edwards knew her personally. She appeared as a regular on a completely forgotten afternoon TV show that he hosted three times a week on NBC beginning January 14, 1952. And it may have been a case of Ralph Edwards knowing something that others didn’t.

Berner’s appearance popped up on December 10, 1952. Herald-Tribune Syndicate writer John Crosby had something to say about it in his column within five days. Here’s how a jaded reporter reviews what he thinks is a cynical show.

Radio And Television
The Laugh, Clown, Laugh Girl
Pathos always sold well on radio, largely dished out on soap opera. The future of the soaps on television is still pretty uncertain but the pathos vein is being worked over extensively.
I suppose the leading contender in this line of work is “Strike It Rich,” where they dig up the victims of the most heart-rending current sob stories, splash them with sympathy and load them down with money.
Close behind “Strike It Rich” in the pathos department is “This is Your Life” which is presided over by Ralph Edwards. Edwards is described at the outset of the program as “your warm-hearted host.”
Well, he’s that all right, a warm-hearted host with a keen sense of double entry bookkeeping. Early in the television sweepstakes Edwards came out with a TV version of his renowned radio show “Truth Or Consequences” where audience participants underwent the most surprising humiliations with great good nature.
THIS SORT of thing apparently either baffled or outraged the television audience, however, and “Truth Or Consequences” fell by the wayside, one of the happiest casualties in my memory.
Mr. Edwards turned to the pathos dodge. “This Is Your Life” reconstructs somebody’s life from front to back. By some manic ingenuity, Mr. Edwards lures on stage an individual who has no idea what is in store.
Let’s say the individual is (as it was last week) Sara Berner, the girl who plays most of the dialect parts on radio. Miss Berner had been enticed down there ostensibly to take part in some monkeyshines about a commercial for Hazel Bishop lipstick.
To be specific, she smothered Mr. Edwards in kisses to demonstrate that Hazel Bishop doesn’t smear. (It doesn’t.)
THAT PART of Miss Berner’s career out of the way, Mr. Edwards told her it was her life that was on the fire that night. She was, to put it mildly, overcome.
“This is a story of courage and comedy, and the tears behind that comedy,” trumpeted Mr. Edwards, overflowing with warm-heartedness. “How many of your really know Sara Berner — the ‘Laugh, Clown, Laugh’ girl — the girl who dreamed of stardom but settled for supporting roles?”
In the heartbreak department, Miss Berner’s career which was then unfolded backwards, didn’t live up to its advance billing. It seemed in retrospect a very pleasant succession of minor triumphs, marred by occasional tragedy (the death of her mother and her first husband).
Mr. Edwards, whose staff is a wizard at collecting friends and relatives of his lifers, trotted out Miss Berner’s present husband who said that “marriage is the one place where Sara is the star.” Spike Jones, with whom she recorded, her dramatic teacher in Tulsa and an old girl friend, June Robbins, whom she hadn’t seen in 10 years.
JACK BENNY — Miss Berner plays the Brooklyn telephone operator from time to time on his show — called to say how much he admired her.
Miss Berner dabbed away at her eyes during all this, exclaiming at one point: “This doesn’t happen until — God forbid — you pass on.”
The freshets of tears grew stronger as the incidents and people dredged up by Edwards receded in time, receded way back to her childhood when she was winning auditions to appear on Major Bowes amateur hour.
At the end. Mr. Edwards in his own words took her “through the archway of your life” into a replica of the kitchen of her Oklahoma home where Mr. Edwards had given refuge to Miss Berner’s brothers and sister and father who fell on her with happy cries.
“The girl that made millions laugh while she was crying,” declared Mr. Edwards.
I don't quite dig this statement, since Miss Berner hadn’t appeared to have done much crying until she got on this show where she did plenty.
ACTUALLY, Sara Berner is an awfully cute trick, a born comic, and a girl who seems to have had a heck of a good time out of this vale of tears. But the customers want pathos and Mr. Edwards, I suppose, has to manufacture it.
“The program,” says a press release, “has substantiated Edwards’ belief that truth is not only stranger but also vastly more powerful than fiction.”
Well, anyhow — it sells Hazel Bishop lipstick.
If you’re a great one for family reunions, this is your dish of tea. It isn’t mine.

But it turns out Ralph Edwards didn’t have to manufacture pathos in Sara Berner’s life. There was enough of it that was eventually played out in the public.

Sara vanished from the Jack Benny show in 1954 and her role as a phone operator opposite Bea Benaderet was taken for more than a full year by Shirley Mitchell. One might think Berner was too busy with television with its memory-work and long rehearsals, but she couldn’t have been busier than Benaderet, who still appeared with Benny while a regular on the Burns and Allen TV show. Erskine Johnson’s Hollywood column in NEA-subscribing newspapers revealed on June 22, 1955:

Jack Benny and Sara Berner, the original Mabel, the telephone operator of his shows, patched up the misunderstanding that’s existed between them for the last year and a half. She returns to the Benny show in a telefilm rolling this month.
What happened? Johnson didn’t say. And, of course, Benny never would have. But there was stuff going on in Sara’s personal life in 1954 that, to jump to conclusions, may have had something to do with it. This appeared in newspapers four years later.

Comedienne Sara Berner Is Granted Divorce
LOS ANGELES, May 8 (AP) — Mrs. Lillian H. Rosner, known professionally as comedienne Sara Berner and as Jack Benny's radio show telephone operator, “Mabel Flapsaddle,” has obtained a divorce.
She charged Milton Rosner, 36, talent agent, with cruelty, namely criticizing and dominating her. They were married at Las Vegas, Nev., in 1951 and separated March 30, 1954.
Mrs. Rosner was given custody of their daughter, Eugenie, 5, $150 a month child support and $150 a month alimony for one year.

Not only was Rosner a talent agent, he was Berner’s talent agent, before and during their separation.

But the story gets sadder, sadder than anything that Ralph Edwards would have dared to broadcast to a television audience. The wire services picked up a story from the Van Nuys News of December 27, 1959.

Actress Pleads Innocent to Endangering Daughter
Actress Sara Berner, who plays a telephone operator on the Jack Benny Show, yesterday pleaded innocent to a charge of endangering the life of her 7-year-old daughter.
A jury trial was scheduled for Jan. 25.
Miss Berner, 47, of 5448 Murietta Ave., Van Nuys, appeared before Municipal Judge William H. Rosenthal, who ordered her returned to Lincoln Heights Jail in lieu of $525 bail.
Phoned Police
Officers E.C. Hayes and George Betsworth received a call on Christmas eve to go to the Murietta Ave. address to check “unknown trouble.”
They were told Mrs. Berner had phoned the Van Nuys Police Station several times earlier asking police protection, claiming her ex-husband, Milton Rosner, 37, was on the way to kill her.
Hayes and Betsworth said they were met at the door by her daughter Eugenia.
They asked for her mother and Mrs. Berner then called from the bedroom for the officers to come in there.
They said Mrs. Berner was in her nightgown and the bedroom was littered with papers, clothing and cigarette butts.
She demanded police protection, insisting her husband was on the way to kill her.
Woman Handcuffed
When the officers tried to reason with her, she became abusive and started screaming.
The officers said it was necessary to handcuff her to restrain her as she allegedly tried to attack them.
The daughter was taken to Juvenile Hall, then turned over to her father.

The Associated Press story on the same incident revealed one other thing—there were bottles strewn over the floor. We’re left to assume they weren’t from soft drinks.

What happened next? From the News of January 26, 1960.

Valley Actress Forfeits Bail
Actress Sara Berner’s bail of $525 was forfeited when she failed to appear in Los Angeles Municipal Court for trial on a charge of endangering the life of her 7-year-old daughter.
Judge Gerald C. Kepple was informed Miss Berner, 47, who played the telephone operator on the Jack Benny show, has been committed to a hospital in San Mateo County.
The actress, of 5448 Murietta Ave., Van Nuys, was arrested Christmas Eve when officers went to her home after she telephoned the Van Nuys station and said her ex-husband was on the way to kill her.
The daughter Eugenia Rosner was taken to Juvenile Hall and later turned over to her father, Milton Rosner, 37.

How long she was in hospital and even why is not known. She likely was moved to the Bay area because she had a sister living in Hillsborough.

Sara’s career through the 1960s was virtually non-existent, at least by a glance of available TV listings. She got good reviews in 1961 as the comic relief, hired as a last-minute emergency fill-in, on the Grammys (the telecast of which, in those days, was way down on the food chain of awards shows), appeared in a dramatic role on “CBS Playhouse” in January 1967 and likely promoted it a month earlier when she dropped in on Gypsy Rose Lee’s daytime show. But that’s all I’ve been able to find.

The News of September 7, 1969 reports Sara in fair condition at Community Hospital of North Hollywood but her father wouldn’t tell the newspaper why, though he mentioned she suffered from arthritis. The News did a follow-up on October 14th.

Sara's Mabel Flapsaddle Bedded by Own Phone
The story was of actress Sara Berner and it ran in a series of supporting players. It was on Page 43 and the magazine was the old Radio Life, now Radio-TV Life. The year was 1943. And of the publication, there’s no one in the world who could top Sara’s quip that this radio actor’s bible “sold at the time for 3 cents.”
Of course this would be if Sara felt up to any kind of gag concerning the old mike days or even the present nonradio nowadays.
For Sara, known to million of both radio and television listeners in those nostalgic days as Mabel Flapsaddle, feels little inclination now to very funny about anything.
Questions Answered
The versatile little actress, whose home is Van Nuys, today is confined to a convalescent home following major surgery. It’s not as funny a place as Jack Benny’s studio where Sara not only convulsed the “39-year-old” comedian at the microphone, but all who worked on the set as well. Sara’s Mabel Flapsaddle had ‘em in the aisles both on and off the air.
And this tribute to the spunky little trouper is in part an answer to uncounted queries as to her present whereabouts and “when is she going to be heard again?”
Sara’s address is Jefferson Convalescent Home, 5240 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. The telephone, just waiting to ring, is 391-7263.
Sara, as the oldtimers will remember, is the girl who made hash out of Benny’s attempts to get the right telephone number. As the operator who tangled, literally, with more wires than are pulled by politicians, the actress gave new, electronic meaning to the word “boner” and had fan clubs coming out of the mike.
Now Convalescing
As dialectician par excellence, the little gal from Oklahoma did her stuff regularly on all the top shows and gave 20 of the best years to Benny and Miss Flapsaddle.
She’s now giving a few to herself and the goal is good health again and then, back to work. As for Mabel and her tangled prefixes and loused-up connections, she will never be forgotten. The same goes for Sara.

But she was forgotten. Berner died on December 19th, according to on-line death records, but the wire services never reported it. Her family placed a memorial in the News the following November. And then there was this ad placed in November 1972:

One can only imagine what John Crosby would have thought.

Well, I can’t end this post on a downer. I’ve always been a big fan of Sara’s work in cartoons and on Jack Benny’s show. Here she is in a TV broadcast from October 25, 1951 as Slim-Finger Sara. Her scene starts just after the 13:30 mark.


Tuesday 29 May 2012

When Mickey Was Fun

Mickey Mouse had birthday parties on screen in 1931 and 1942. The animation, as you might expect, was far better in the latter version, but I like the earlier one a lot more. Maybe it’s the attitude. The characters have that great early ‘30s look, there’s a lot of singing and dancing (mainly Dick Lundy at work), and things come to life. Like piano stools that play their pianos, animated by Jack Cutting.

The second half is lots of fun. The writers found different musical gags as Mickey plays a xylophone (with his butt, in one piece of footage) and then the instrument takes on a life of its own, in animation by Ben Sharpsteen.

And there’s a funny Fleischer-esque gag involving cats (with Fleischer-esque belly buttons) dancing on a fish bowl while fish swim inside. The cats fall in the bowl, and the impact shoots the fish to the rim outside. The fish start dancing while the cats swim, in a scene by Johnny Cannon.

Walt Disney sprung for the rights to use songs. “Darktown Strutters Ball” surfaced a decade later in Tom and Jerry cartoons at MGM and the short opens with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.”

If you’re looking for plot, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for an upbeat 7½ minutes, this cartoon’s as good as any.

Monday 28 May 2012

Touché and Go

Pepé Le Pew devolved in a few short years from an Oscar winner to a cliché. Or perhaps that should be “Le Cliché.” By the late ‘50s, his cartoons are indistinguishable from each other. A cat accidentally gets a white stripe of paint down its back. The cat runs away, stopping to catch her breath with the words “Les Pant.” Pepé talks and talks and talks. And hearts find their way into the design. In every single cartoon. Sometimes they’re trails of smoke, sometimes they’re bubbles, other times they’re in Maurice Noble’s backgrounds. Jones loved gags coming out of the artwork. Here’s an example in “Touché and Go” (1957).

Not knowing my French geography, I’m not sure where this is supposed to take place (do they have cliffs near the French-Italian border?) but here are more of Noble’s backgrounds.

Do they have volcanic islands in the Mediterreanean?

Noble has a number of underwater backgrounds as well, as Jones quickly cuts from one to the next while Pepé is in a scuba mask.

Phil De Guard did his usual fine job constructing these.

Sunday 27 May 2012

The New Writer

This past week, the last of Jack Benny’s radio writers passed away. You can read a nice little profile of Al Gordon HERE. (The story has Gordon and Hal Goldman misidentified in its accompanying photo, judging by the 1960 photo caption to the right and another newspaper photo from the same year).

Gordon and writing partner Goldman joined the Benny show in 1950. You’d think the job would be cinch. By then, Jack, his cast and his secondary players had all settled into tried-and-tested characterisations and routines. It would seem that all the writers had to do was pick a few of them from the buffet, slap them together in a show, then pick a few different ones next week and do it all over again. It wasn’t quite that easy.

Newspaper syndicate writer Charles Witbeck did a couple of feature stories in 1960 about Gordon and Benny’s other writers in the television era. (One wonders if Witbeck simply had plenty of material so he banked some of it for use during a fallow period). Perhaps the most interesting thing is Benny trusted his writers’ judgement over his own, at least a lot of the time.

This story appeared in papers starting January 5.

Jack Benny’s Writers Live ‘In A Happy Rut’
“The happy rut” is what four well-paid writers call working for Jack Benny.
Working for Benny is a career, a lifetime job, or so it would seem by Hollywood writing standards. Two writers, Sam Perrin and George Balzer, have been making up lines on Jack’s stinginess for 17 years. Hal Goldman and Al Gordon are the youngsters who say they’re “carrying the old men” with 11 years of service.
Perrin, Balzer, Gordon and Goldman have been with Benny so long they think like him. They should by now. Furthermore, they know each other so well, one writer often will say word for word what another is thinking of. Generally all four are talking at once, and there are continual interruptions.
In a Beverly Hills office that Goldman describes as turning a dark shade of red, the four sit and dream up Benny half-hour shows and his hour specials. This is done by dictating to a secretary.
“She’s the real writer,” says Sam Perrin.
“She picks out what she likes best,” said Hal Goldman.
How can she tell what to use when all are talking at once?
“Whatever comes in clearest,” answered Balzer. “She can tell by the tone of something thrown whether it should be ignored or not, and by our attitude.”
Always Interrupting
“If after three words a guy isn’t interrupted, it’s OK,” was Perrin’s definition.
Since the men are so used to interrupting, they feel ill at ease when there is silence and often three will let one writer go on and on until he pleads for help.
It takes from seven to nine days for the four to do a half-hour TV show and they put in a regular eight-hour, five-day schedule. There are days when nothing much happens and the men are stuck with a problem of coming up with the right material, say, for a guest.
These days of famine, seen in another light, are called “the will to play golf” by elder statesman Perrin, who in his 17 years with Benny has never been out a day.
No Panic
Failure to solve a problem doesn’t bring panic. The men feel if you don’t do it today, you'll get it tomorrow. They go home to their wives and swimming pools (one, Al Gordon, doesn’t own a pool the others claim he sells pool water to them), and don’t fret. “But I think at home, not at the office,” said Gordon.
“For instance, we had Jack Paar as a guest not long ago.” Balzer said. “We were into eleven pages of a sketch with Paar and it wasn't right for him. So we took it 'and found it would fit George Burns perfectly. We never throw anything away.”
Benny Judges
Noawadays four men do most of the writing and then Benny comes in to listen and judge. In the beginning during the early radio days, Jack sat in with the men. Now he trusts them. Jack knows what he wants and all four respect his good ear. They also need him in any arguments over material. Any side that Jack goes to wins.
“We retain privileges,” said Goldman, “you tell Jack why you like a joke and sometimes that convinces him.
“And there are lines that you put in the script because you know in reading Jack will pencil out. so you just throw the line at him. If he likes it he will use it.”
Probably the best thing about Benny and his writers, besides the fact all like each other, is that Jack doesn’t keep score on who suggests what. He doesn’t care. This eliminates rivalry.
After finishing a script, the men know what will get laughs and what should get laughs and they’re seldom wrong. When a laugh doesn’t come over as expected, they have a way out. “Anything that lays dead is an ad lib,” is their alibi.
Their knowledge of what strikes the public’s funny bone has to be fairly accurate. “Otherwise we’d lose our annuities,” said Al Gordon.
With that announcement, seniority leader Sam Perrin looked at his watch, borrowed a couple of pills from the group doctor, Hal Goldman, and then led the three boys back to the office where they would be locked up for the afternoon. There was no “will to play golf” in evidence.

This is from the Modesto Bee, November 21, 1960.

Jack Benny, Writers Have Chuckles While Rehearsing Television Show
On Monday mornings at 10 o’clock in Beverly Hills, Jack Benny, announcer Don Wilson, four writers, singers and guest actors hold a reading for taping the following Sunday Benny show.
The reading takes all of 35 minutes interspersed with the loudest laughs from portly Don Wilson, followed by Benny’s chuckles and then the writers’. Benny is known to be a great audience and lives up to it during a reading.
The weekly session is mere routine to the whole group which has been with Benny so long. In a sense they're all company men. Don Wilson is on his 27th year with Jack; Rochester has been around since 1937, and writers Sam Perrin and George Balzer began 18, years ago. The other two writers, Hal Goldman and Al Gordon, are the newcomers, with only 11 years to their credit.
A few minutes after 10 o’clock recently, after the men had settled down, Jack began reading his opening monologue. He added pauses and it sounded as if he were on stage or doing a radio show. At the end he said, “It isn’t long enough.”
Writer Sam Perrin nodded, and said they’d fix that up and Benny continued. Dennis Day began reading about how he thought this was the opening show for the season. Jack explained that he had already done the opening. Then Dennis read: “Well, I’ve got to hand it to you, you’ve sure got a lot of guts,” referring to the fact that Benny had the gall to do an opening without Dennis.
Benny almost fell out of his chair laughing at this line. The others joined in, but Benny’s guffaw was the biggest. The reading went on with the writers and Don Wilson laughing here and there.
When they came to a commercial involving a bagpiper dressed in kilts, Benny questioned a line about the raising of kilts. Jack wondered whether it was in good taste and the writers offered substitutes. It wasn’t decided what would be done.
“We’ll fool around with this later,” said Sam Perrin. Jack nodded and then decided to kid Perrin. “Let’s fool around with it now. It’s my show.” There was more laughter and the reading continued.
At 10:35 o’clock Jack read the last line on page 33 and then got up and walked around. “This is a very good show roughly,” he said. “It’s too long but all our shows are too long at the reading.” While others were talking and he was thinking, Jack pulled a few dollar bills from his pocket. He counted them, put them back in his pocket, said a few words and went into his office.
Sitting behind his desk in an office covered with plaques, Jack talked about guests like Arthur Godfrey, Joey Bishop, the James Stewarts and Dan Duryea.
“We’re also going to do a show about Fatso (Don Wilson) since he’s been with me for 27 years and I think it’s very funny.”
Jack was going to have his wife Mary Livingston on the opening program, but Mary was very nervous about it, and finally Jack told her she didn’t have to do it. It was a huge relief to Mary who never does a live show, or a taped one for that matter, so it is doubtful if fans will see Mary at all this season.
Switching over from a twice-a-month show to a weekly series isn’t bothering Benny a bit. “We have 11 shows in the can already,” he said, “and we’re not panicky.” Jack will even do three concerts in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Cleveland. While talking about the concerts, Jack suddenly got an idea and rushed out of the room. He wanted to make sure plugs for the concerts would be put in the shows the week before.
Idea First
“I’m glad I thought of that,” he said, re-entering the room. He sat down and leaned back. “Care for a cigar?”
I shook my head and Jack continued.
“You know my writers prefer doing a weekly show. It keeps their hand in. The reason isn’t financial. They’re paid the same amount regardless.
“Also this year we’re not doing any specials. Those took a lot of time."
Asked if the Marquis Chimps would be back, Benny smiled. “Maybe, if we can get the right approach. You know the good thing about that show, the one with the chimps, was that the rest of the show was good. If only the monkey had been good we would have had a lousy show.
“Our problem as always is to find the right thing for the guest. If we can’t, we don’t do it. With those writers the idea comes first and then the guests.”
The company men are working harder this year, but they don’t show it. Benny says he isn’t running any faster this season than last.
“I still get out to play golf,” he says. “If I can keep those guys off my neck.”

Gordon wrote jokes for Benny, but Benny had a little joke about him. He dubbed Gordon and partner Hal Goldman “the new writers”, and still called them that even 20 years later when they were writing Jack’s TV specials.

Goldman died in 2001. As for the “old” writers, George Balzer passed away in 2006 and Sam Perrin in 1998. They had written the radio show with John Tackaberry, who died in 1969, and Milt Josefsberg, who passed away in 1987. Gordon’s death this week, in a way, marks the end of an era for Benny’s still large fan-base, and reminds us that character-based comedy can stand the test of time, even from that brief period known as the Golden Age of Radio.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Keeshan and Cartoons

As someone who parked himself in front of the TV mornings and afternoons throughout the 1960s, Captain Kangaroo wasn’t really my style, even as a young child. Too low-key. Not funny like Brakeman Bill and Crazy Donkey playing old cartoons and kibbitzing on Channel 11. The Captain didn’t keep my attention but, being a cartoon fan, I’d watch Tom Terrific.

Sure, Tom didn’t have the smart ass-ery of a Bugs Bunny. But the imaginative transformations and uses of Tom’s funnel hat (reminiscent of the silent Felix the Cat changing his tail into something else) and the irony of having a laconic “Wonder Dog” was enough for me to tune in. And Crabby Appleton’s a clever name for a villain; I appreciated clever writing even then.

So what did the Captain think of all those cartoons on kids shows on the other channels? This syndicated newspaper story of November 19, 1961 may give you an idea. As a background note, the prime-time line-up that September/October saw the debut of three animated shows—‘The Alvin Show,’ ‘The Captain and the Colonel’ and ‘Top Cat.’

Captain Kangaroo Deplores Lack Of Good TV
Bob Keeshan is responsible for 312 hours of children’s programming a year. As Captain Kangaroo he is perhaps the only performer in TV who complains bitterly that he has no competition.
“A few years ago my show was hanging by a thread, but the parents came to our rescue and we were renewed. Now we're loaded with sponsors, tops in our time slot and pointed at with pride, but we’re still alone in our field. It’s frightening to realize that American children are being abandoned by network TV to cartoons, westerns and violence.”
Off screen Bob runs a rather large organization known as Keeshan Enterprises which is dedicated, in addition to making money, to the type of programming that Captain Kangaroo personifies. They endorse products, make records, book concert tours for the Captain and prepare the daily adventures in the Treasure House.
“The show is actually run by the parents,” Bob said. “If the mail indicates that something is particularly well–received we try and give it more time on the show. As far as endorsing products goes, that's a delicate matter.”
I asked Bob how he feels about the flood of cartoon shows now dominating the so-called adult-kiddy market. “I love cartoons and I think it’s an unexplored field as far as TV is concerned. My only regret is that a few of the current films will set TV cartooning back ten years. After all, this is a commercial business, and the success of ‘Flintstones’ started the cartoon gold rush and when all the new ones fail. . .it’ll be almost impossible to sell a cartoon to TV.”
Keeshan was one of the first to develop a cartoon for TV. His ‘Tom Terrific,’ made in association with Terrytoons, has been a Treasure House standby for years. In a few months he intends to introduce “Lariat Sam,” a Western satire which the kids will laugh at and understand.
All the publicity for the very successful cartoon shows claims that their secret is that the kids are excited while the grown-ups laugh at the comedy,” Keeshan said.
“Perhaps that’s why they’re all failing this year. A cartoon should be designed for either adults or youngsters and not for both.
“If you ask me, our youngsters are being exposed to too much ‘adult’ TV. All day, while the preschool child is sitting in front of the set waiting for mommy to finish her chores. TV feeds him a steady diet of reruns. When they grow up their idea of marriage will be ‘I Love Lucy,’ which is great for laughs but hardly a true picture of life.
“As far as the westerns go they teach the kids that there is only right and wrong. . .no middle ground or compromise . . .and most problems can be worked out by a six shooter.”
About four years ago CBS cut Captain Kangaroo down to 45 minutes and filled the time with a world news program. This season the network finally realized that preschool youngsters would rather have another 15 minutes with the Captain so the quarter hour was returned to them.
“We try and present the show to entertain the older children before they leave for school as well as their younger sisters and brothers,” explained Bob. “It’s really quite simple. If we have something on science or serious music we always use it early in the show while the older youngsters are still with us.”
Now in his eighth year as the Captain, Bob fully expects to be the Captain for the children of his present fans. New, ready-made audiences are being created for him by the ever-increasing birth rate, and all of his plans center around the children.
“All I want to do is continue what I’m doing to the best of my ability,” Bob said. “And all I ask of television is not to let me do it alone. The networks owe it to the American people to provide decent, planned entertainment for children during the 5-7 time period when there’s nothing on but cartoons and two-reel comedies. TV’s potential for reaching children must be explored, not exploited.”

One wonders if Keeshan truly believed people would grow up to believe Lucy Ricardo was the epitome of American motherhood (still, she was never a neglectful or harmful mother, was she?) or that they can’t discern the difference between television westerns and reality. And “cartoons, westerns and violence” were kids’ programming long before television; they were all featured in Saturday matinees at local theatres.

Keeshan, like many others, believed television should be a medium of information and education. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, many believe that’s all it should be. Kids, like adults, need fun escape, too. Just as there was a place for ‘Playhouse 90’ and ‘Gilligan’s Island’ on TV, so there was a place for ‘Tom Terrific’ and ‘The Jetsons.’ And there still is today.

Friday 25 May 2012

Riff Raffy Daffy

Bring up the directorial abilities of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and especially Bob McKimson and you’ll get any number of opinions about their work. But when it comes to another director, there seems to be universal agreement. It was a damned shame that Art Davis’ unit got shut down.

Davis made some great cartoons. And against all odds. By all reports, he was not a confident director and was the victim of backstabbing studio politics. He got saddled with a lot of one-shots and was allowed only a solitary, token cartoon with the studio’s star character (Bugs Bunny). He was given a pair of rookie writers. The studio was too cheap to process his cartoons in Technicolor. Yet his unit succeeded, especially when Daffy Duck or Porky Pig were on the screen. His writers (Bill Scott and Lloyd Turner) proved their worth not too many years later elsewhere and he had solid animators (led by Emery Hawkins).

An underrated gem is ‘Riff Raffy Daffy’ (1948), where our vagrant hero ensconces himself in Lacy’s Department Store window and won’t budge, despite the efforts of cop Porky Pig. A great scene is a pantomime of Daffy and Porky arguing on each side of the store window (which Daffy uses a glass cutter to create a door). I like how the cartoon uses multiples to move characters. Is this Don Williams’ work?

Williams, Hawkins, Basil Davidovich and Bill Melendez are the credited animators and Phil De Guard drew the backgrounds.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Build a Gag, Kill a Duck

‘What Price Fleadom’ (1948) is another of Tex Avery’s cartoons loaded with variations on his standard gags. It’s hard to pick the best one but it’s easy to pick the most bizarre.

Avery would sometime build up a gag, taking one ridiculous thing and piling more on top, ending with something outrageous that has a logical relationship to everything else in the gag. The routine is silly but makes sense in its own context. He’s done it in this cartoon.

The hobo dog (played by Pinto Colvig, I believe) is searching for his flea. He opens up the long beard of a sleeping old-timer. Some little birds fly out. But Avery doesn’t stop there. Ducks fly out. Avery doesn’t stop there. The barrel of the rifle sticks out, fires and shoots down a duck from off-camera above.

Gil Turner, Bob Bentley and Walt Clinton are the credited animators. You can tell that’s Johnny Johnsen’s work in the background. There’s no story credit so either Heck Allen worked on it and was on one of his periodic Quimby firing periods or Tex did the whole thing himself.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

The Rise of Sara Berner

“American Idol” existed 80 years ago. Only it wasn’t called “American Idol,” and didn’t have catty judges, perma-smiling hosts or waste time with a lot of build-up-the-sympathy back-stories. It was a stripped down endeavour called “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour” and was little more than a radio version of vaudeville houses’ amateur nights.

The major would take the ones he found he thought had talent, or were sellable, put them in units and send them performing around the U.S. Some took their talent and moved onward. One was Sara Berner, who toiled for a bunch of cartoon studios and then in network radio.

Sara’s name wasn’t really Sara Berner at all. She was born Lillian Herdan on January 12, 1912 to Sam and Sarah Herdan (Berner was her mother’s maiden name), and was the oldest of at least five children. The family was in Albany, New York in 1920 and Tulsa, Oklahoma 10 years later.

Her best-remembered radio role was when she was paired with Bea Benaderet as phone operators on Jack Benny’s show. They first appeared together on October 30, 1945. Benaderet had replaced Berner as the main female voice in Warner Bros. cartoons only a couple of years earlier. Why Berner dumped her extensive cartoon work, I don’t know.

Perhaps her agent was busy in early 1949 as a number of biographical newspaper articles about her appear. This one is from January 21st.

NEW YORK — Some of the choicest bits of comedy on the Jack Benny show are the laughs emanating tram Mabel Flapsaddle and Gertrude Gearshift, the Brooklynese-voiced telephone biddies who cut in with wisecracks on the Waukegan wit’s conversations. The names this pair sign to their income tax returns are Sara Berner and Bea Benaderet. They are two of radio’s top character actresses. In addition to her stint on the Benny show, Sara has been heard in various roles with Amos & Andy, had her voice sound-tracked into five academy award-winning cartoons, provided the squeaky tones of the animated, mouse which appeared with Gene Kelly in “Anchors Aweigh" and has appeared visually in the film “Gay Intruders” and the upcoming flicker, “The Amboy Dukes.”
Bea Benaderet was a staff member and maid-of-all-trades for a number of years on radio station KFRC, has played varied radio roles, been featured with Orson Welles, and is frequently heard on the “Lux Radio Theatre” and the “Jack Carson Show.” Her future in dramatics was presaged in high school when, as an enthusiastic actress, she played an old man with a beard and won rave notices in the school paper. She’s a native New Yorker. Following her high school graduation she studied dramatics on the West coast and served her apprenticeship in stock companies and with a number of little theatre companies. She landed in Hollywood in 1936 and has been there ever since. Her husband is screen Actor Jim Bannon and they have two children, a boy 8, and an 18 month old daughter.
Sara Berner’s career began less according to formula — to fact as a baby sitter. Her charge was her little brother. Brother loved cowboy pictures and Sara liked vaudeville. The formula became simplified when she discovered he would sit willingly through several showings of a neighborhood horse opera while she adjourned to a nearby movie and stage house. While little brother sat content among the bang-bangs, she could be enthralled by the silent drama and visiting jugglers. When the show was over she would dip off to the powder room and act out the complete show to the wonderment of the attendant. The sight was scarcely less inspiring for casual customers who would walk In to find her gesticulating wildly in the throes of heavy drama.
Before she was through high school her lather moved the family to Tulsa Okla., a locale she best remembers for the opportunity it gave her to play Mrs. Cohen in an amateur production of “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Not necessarily as a result of this appearance, but following it father moved his brood back east again and Sara got a job in a Philadelphia department store. Life was passable as long as she had time to mimic the customers, but on a certain fine day she picked the wrong customer — a main line dowager. In one manner or another she transferred her affections to a local radio station and since, the industry was yet in its infancy, managed to wind up with her own 15 minute program Bolstered by such success, she ditched the deal after a few months and moved to New York City to be close to the hub o£ airwave activities She got a job as salesgirl in a Broadway hat shop.
Selling bonnets in working hours and making the round of talent agencies during lunch produced nothing until she landed by luck on a Major Bowes amateur hour. Her five minute appearance flooded the Major with phone calls and he placed her the following morning in one of his traveling units. Eventually it reached Los Angeles. So did Sara The trip has been paying off ever since.

Here’s another one from the Associated Press.


HOLLYWOOD, March 22 (AP)—You may know Sara Berner as Mabel Flapsaddle, telephone operator on the Jack Benny show. (“What is it, Goitrude?”) She also plays Jack’s old girl-friend, Gladys Zybisco.
Sara has been doing all right with a Brooklyn accent that is, for her, completely synthetic. In the new picture, “City Across the River,” she plays the proprietress of a cheap soda fountain in a tough tenement section where you’d swear the accents are home-grown.
Yet Sara was reared in Tulsa. Set on entering show business, she went to New York and got a job in a Manhattan lingerie shop. When customers from Brooklyn came in, she jotted their accents on tissue paper linings of stocking boxes. One day she played hookey from the store for an hour or so. The furious proprietor wanted to know where she had been. She had been next door to a theater and had won a Major Bowes amateur audition, with Brooklynese comedy, that started her as a professional dialectician.
Her toughest assignment on the radio was to talk with an Armenian accent. She called all the rug dealers in the phone book to find one who talked that way. The last place listed had a proprietor born, she was told, in Armenia. Sara hurried to the store only to find that the merchant that very day had had all his teeth pulled. He couldn’t speak a syllable. Sara muddled through the program with a mixture of Balkan accents.

And this was in part of an AP television-radio column by Wayne Oliver the same year. You can see how incredibly busy Sara was and also get an indication how she tested her skills.

NEW YORK, Dec. 24—(AP)—You're no doubt familiar with the voice of Mabel Flapsaddle, the telephone operator, and Gladys Zybisco, the girl plumber, on the Jack Benny program. Also Ingrid Mataratza on the Jimmy Durante show, Helen Wilson on Amos ‘N’ Andy, Mrs. Horowitz on Life with Liugi, Chiquita on the Gene Autry program. Also Crystabelle, Geneva Hafter and Aunt Nellie on the Beulah show.
What you may not know is that all these voices—each with its distinctive accent, dialect or personality — belong to one person. She is pert, blonde Sara Berner who can turn different accents on and off as easily as you turn your dial from one station to another.
How does she do it?
“Well, you have to have an ear for it,” she tells this column. “Some people have an ear for music. I have an ear for accents.”
When Miss Berner wants to test the authenticity of her accent, she goes to the region where it is most common. Then she tries her version on a store salesman, ticket seller or someone else who deals with the general public. If she gets a laugh there or is spotted as being from another section, she knows her accent is phony and there's more work to be done.
Although Miss Berner is best known for her Brooklynese on the air, she is from Oklahoma.

Berner’s Major Bowes shows went through 1936 and until about April 1937. They took her to Los Angeles in March the latter year and that may be when she landed some radio work. While her accents got her on radio, and are peppered throughout her cartoon work (the Italian mamma buzzard in “The Bashful Buzzard,” for example), it was her impersonations which originally got her into animation.

The story below from 1944 isn’t altogether accurate.

So Sara Shines
Moviedom Films Yuletide Fairy Stories of Animals
HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 23—(AP)—This Christmas season has kept Sara Berner busier than a cartoon moth around an animated lighthouse!. . .
Why? . . . because practically every studio has been filming yuletide fairy stories about animals. . . and that's where Sara shines. . .
For eight years, she has been putting words into the mouth's of animals that appear in movie cartoons. . . in fact, she once won an academy award for vocally imitating top feminine stars.
She got her first screen assignment when a film cartoon producer, after hearing her impersonate Katharine Hepburn. . . signed her for the voice of a baby panda. . .

“Life Begins For Andy Panda” was released by Walter in 1939 but she can be heard in Disney (“Mother Goes Goes Hollywood”) and Warner Bros. cartoons the previous year. Animals impersonating Kate Hepburn had made periodic animated appearances, voiced by Elvia Allman, a fine character actress, comedienne and veteran of the Los Angeles radio scene. Internet guessers who post to databases and encyclopaedias can’t seem to tell the two apart. Allman plays a Hepburnish chicken in “A Star is Hatched” (1938) but when a similar chicken appears in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” only months later, it has Berner’s voice. Berner’s sound is a little higher than lighter than Allman’s.

Historian Keith Scott explains what actually happened. Lantz heard Berner do Hepburn on the Eddie Cantor show, then hired her to do it for “Barnyard Romeo” (1938); the Panda cartoon was, of course, later. She was then hired for the Disney cartoon, then for the Daffy cartoon.

Berner turns up on ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ in 1939 and it’s almost impossible to list the network radio shows she appeared on. She appeared with Bob Burns, Burns and Allen. She was a hit with a nasal-voiced character on ‘Al Pearce and His Gang’ in 1942 which she later used on the Jack Benny show, even singing with it. She was Bubbles Lowbridge on ‘Nitwit Court’ (1944) with Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan. She showed up on Rudy Vallee’s broadcast of May 10, 1945 with Adolphe Menjou, Irene Ryan and B.S. Pulley, then sued Vallee in October, claiming he reneged on a 39-week contract to pay her $500 a week and credit on each broadcast. Then there was her role as waitress Dreamboat Mulvaney on the 1947 summer show ‘Arthur’s Place’ whose namesake producer-star, Arthur Grant, was suddenly fired after five weeks and replaced with Jack Kirkwood. Berner was a daily regular on the “Anna and Eleanor Roosevelt” daytime show on ABC in 1949, performing Fanny Price’s Indian routine on one 15-minute broadcast.

Two odd radio stories, first from the Valley News of Van Nuys from February 25, 1946.

Jack Benny had better be careful what he says to Mabel Clapsadle, one of the telephone operators on his NBC program, for there’s a real Mabel Clapsadle listening in. The two operators, Mabel and Goitrude, played by Sara Berner and Bea Benedaret [sic], have been regulars on the show all season, but it was not until this week that the real Miss Clapsadle appeared. She is secretary to the vice-president of the Security-First National Bank in Hollywood and she has been besieged with calls from friends who wonder if she really knows Jack Benny.

The character’s name on the radio was “Flapsaddle” but there was, indeed, a Mable Clapsadle. U.S government records show she was born in Illinois on August 24, 1895 and died in Los Angeles on September 23, 1972.

And Jimmy Fidler’s column of May 4, 1949 reveals:

Odd results from Hollywood fame. Not long ago, for instance, Sara Berner, the character actress, was a guest on a coast-to-coast radio program. The master of ceremonies, in introducing her to the audience mentioned the fact that she was the “voice” for Jerry, the cartoon mouse that danced with Gene Kelly in one outstanding sequence of “Anchors Aweigh.” A few days after the broadcast, Miss Berner received in the mail a present from a Wisconsin admirer. The package contained an elaborate assortment of cheeses.

The climax of Sara’s career came in 1950. Network radio did for her what it did for Mel Blanc in 1946. It gave her a starring showcase to use her various voices. It gave her a sterling supporting cast. And, like Blanc, she flopped. “Sara’s Private Caper” debuted on June 15th, immediately after “Dragnet.” The show was surrounded in uncertainty. It went through three names before a fourth was finally picked. Radio listings weren’t sure what kind of show it was. Some newspapers called it a drama. Others a comedy. Others a mystery. Others used a combination term. NBC’s publicity department should easily have straightened that out. It’s still a bit disconcerting listening to what’s supposed to be a detective show and hearing laughs. Even what one newspaper preview advertised as Sara’s natural voice sounds like one of her New York dialect characters. The opener featured Gerry Mohr as the bad guy and other voices easily recognisable are Eric Snowden (Ronald Colman’s butler on the Jack Benny show), Frank Nelson (Benny show) and Bob Sweeney of the comedy team Sweeney and March as the boyfriend of the originally-named character: “Sara Berner.” The programme seems to have ended August 24th, though NBC had made some Thursday night switches the week before.

Sara was still busy with the Benny show, television, films and even comedy records—for awhile. But her career wasn’t really the same. And we’ll look at what happened in a future post.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Snow Business Mouse

Warren Foster managed to get a bit of variation in his stories for the Tweety-Sylvester series by adding a third character who got directly involved in their dispute. Sometimes it was Granny, but there were cartoons where she just wandered off and was away from the action.

In “Snow Business,” Foster introduces a starving mouse. Instead of the cat chasing the mouse, it’s the other way around. I like the “two-headed” mouse below.

Sylvester’s so intent on eating Tweety, I suppose it doesn’t cross his mind he could eat the mouse.

Animation is credited to Art Davis, Ken Champin, Manny Perez and Virgil Ross. I wonder if Warren Batchelder or Ted Bonnicksen assisted on this one.

Monday 21 May 2012

Ub’s Thumb

The ComiColor cartoons from the Ub Iwerks studio delivered on half their series name. They were in colour. But comic? They tried. I guess.

When Chuck Jones directed “Tom Thumb in Trouble” in 1940, he made what amounted to a dramatic cartoon with a bit of whimsy. When the Iwerks studio got the same character in trouble in 1936, there wasn’t either. And there was no humour, either. Even the end gag was used five years earlier (and better) in a Van Beuren cartoon. The closest thing one can possibly describe as funny are some of the character designs.

At one point, a goofy-looking orange fish (with tail fins that turn like a rotor) eats Tom. But swimming in and out of the scene for no particular reason is a snaggletooth fish wearing a hat. I guess he’s the laugh quotient.

The cartoon’s interesting because parts of it are shot from what is sort of Tom’s perspective; there are shots of the lower part of his parents’ bodies or not much more than a hand (with four fingers). And whoever the de facto director or layout man was went for some MGM-style perspective as a worm twirls Tom in a circle, toward and away from the audience.

There are no animation credits on the cartoon and I don’t know who was drawing at Iwerks at the time.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Benny on Comedy, Characters and Concerts

Random questions from Hedda Hopper. Random answers from Jack Benny. Here’s an interview published on April 16, 1960.

It’s interesting Jack spoke a bit about the Fred Allen feud. By this time, Allen had been dead for four years so, obviously, the feud was over. But it was so well-known at the time (and is still talked about by Benny fans today) that Jack saw no reason to avoid expounding on how it happened. And he outlined his radio philosophy in many other interviews over the years.

His number-one stage comedian pick may be a bit of a surprise, but in considering all the people Jack knew over the years, quite a number were not strictly comedians. Cantor and Jolson were known more for their singing than comedy, Fred Allen and W.C. Fields juggled, even Durante used music in his act. Burns (who was a straight man) and the Marx Brothers were part of an act.

The impression one gets from the story is, even though he was 66 when the column hit papers, Jack liked to stay busy entertaining. And he was until illness finally stopped him not long before he died in 1974.

Others Fade Not Benny
HOLLYWOOD—Jack Benny’s love affair with the American public keeps his show permanently in top comedy ranks from which Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason and others have faded away. He feels he got there thru a series of happy accidents.
“It wasn't genius on my part,” he protested. “Say, 25 years ago I developed characterizations. I didn’t stop to plan: I’m going to be stingy, or be 39 permanently, or feud with Fred Allen, or own a Maxwell. I wasn’t thinking that in 30 years such things would keep me going.
“If Fred Allen and I had planned a feud, it wouldn’t have lasted three weeks. I happened to hear him say something and I commented on it, then he replied. I came back and it rolled on. We were into it eight months before we even discussed it on the phone. We had a couple of stingy jokes which got big laughs. So the next week we put a few more in: then we dropped it.
“But we came back to it every so often, so it got beyond us and became part of the characterization. Those things were started for one show only, then they developed: How lucky for me.
“I know my type comedy should stay on a subject; but those other characterizations all came along by happenstance.”
His trick of making himself the butt of jokes, the amiable boob, always at a disadvantage, makes every man in the audience feel 10 feet tall and has every woman thinking her particular small salaried guy has far more on the ball than Jack.
Of his continuing success, he says: “We all try to keep busy. Gleason is starring on Broadway. I’ll work for Lever brothers next year. If it isn’t doing one thing, it’s doing another. Instead of going to New York before the season starts, I go after I’ve had a few good shows under my belt, so they can’t ask what I’m going to do next season. I don't know that everybody wants me, and sometimes it depends upon how much the sponsor can afford to pay.”
I asked him how much the extraneous things he does, like charity violin concerts, help.
“The concerts started as a gag,” he said, “but now it’s wonderful. It’s difficult to say what we’ve taken in for different charities—bonds for Israel netted a million dollars. I’d say they average between $60,000 to $100,000 a concert, sometimes more. I’ve done 15. I go to Honolulu this month, then back here, then to Tokyo and Hong Kong. There’ll be a concert in Denver on April 24. I love them; I play the fiddle at the drop of a hat.”
He’d like to do a violin concert in London but would have to set the date so far in advance. He’s played London six times, has had shows in Las Vegas twice, and isn’t too anxious to return. “I’ve done that bit, it’s no longer new.”
“I would enjoy a month of summer stock,” he said. “I’d like a play, such as ‘Make a Million,’ which Sam Levene did on Broadway. Sam and I don’t think alike and our delivery is different, yet almost all of his comedies would be good for me without changing a word.”
He thinks Ed Wynn in his heyday the funniest man he ever saw on stage. “He never had one risque word or gesture in his material. I’d laugh so hard Mary would be embarrassed.”

Saturday 19 May 2012

The Disney of France is Hungarian

Books continue to be written about Walt Disney today, showing people are still fascinated by him and his evolution from a cartoon producer to, as some put it, a visionary.

Studio publicity started with Mickey Mouse in the late ‘20s but slowly switched to Disney himself by the early ‘30s as the focus moved from a funny mouse to colour cartoons, then feature cartoons, then experimental musical cartoons, then live action/animated features. There was always something new for Walt to tell columnists with space to fill, and tell them he did, no doubt making sure they put only one ‘s’ in “Disney.”

While his films may have been new, Walt himself was old news, so reporters interested in animation went looking for something different to tell (no wonder UPA was embraced by the media when it came along). And they found it in unassuming George Pal. Better still, it was wartime so reporters could work in a patriotism angle.

The Hollywood reporter for the National Enterprise Association seems to have used a comparison between Disney and Pal as an excuse to give Pal’s biography in a column released to newspapers for April 6, 1943. As he found, there really isn’t much about the two to compare.

Around Hollywood
NEA Staff Correspondent

George Pal and Walt Disney are the only film producers in Hollywood these days who are not worried about where their next actors are coming from.
Disney draws his leading men. Pal carves them out of wood.
The draft, food and gasoline rationing, the increased cost of living, higher taxes, frozen salaries and three pairs of shoes a year don’t mean a thing to Pal’s puppets and Disney’s cartoon characters.
In fact, their business is booming.
Pal has been so successful with his color puppetoon shorts that he’s about to produce his first full-length feature, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Pal’s color puppetoons are similar to cartoons except that, instead of flat drawings, he uses small actual miniature sets and wooden figures six inches tall. It takes about 3,000 of them to provide the animation for a one-reel short. Like animated cartoons, the illusion of movement is accomplished by photographing the puppets, one after another, on the miniature sets.
It’s a slow, tedious job. A one-reel short, running seven to eight minutes on the screen, requires a shooting schedule of 22 weeks. All the puppets are carved by hand. Twenty-four separate puppets have been used just to show a character walking a few feet. A kiss—which lasts for but a moment on the screen—takes 48 hours to produce. A wink or a smile requires from 10 to 15 different heads.
When one of Pal's heroines gives the eye to the hero, 28 different leading ladies must be carved, each in a different position, starting with eyes wide open till they are closed. Each of these is painted by hand. Each line must be drawn in exactly the right place, else the lines would jump nervously on the screen.
You can see now why Pal’s first full-length feature is going to be quite a job. He figures a year and a half production schedule, a “cast” of 65,000 individual puppets and a cost sheet of nearly a million dollars.
George Pal is young, only 34. He was born in Budapest, but now he’s an American—thanks to Adolf Hitler. His parents were traveling entertainers. He graduated as an architect from the Budapest academy, but no one needed a young architect. So he took a job as an animator for a Budapest film company, later moving to Berlin as chief of UFA'S cartoon production department.
Then, as the Nazis rose to power, the Gestapo started snooping around Pal's home, and following him on the streets, because he was a foreigner and he fled to Prague. In Prague, he hit upon the idea of painting faces on cigarets and using them as puppet actors. But no one was interested in the idea.
So he went to Paris and immediately sold his cigaret actors to a French tobacco company for advertising films. In less than a year, he was carving puppets out of wood, and became the Walt Disney of France.
In 1939, worried about the impending war, Pal and his wife and two children sailed for New York, where Paramount studio soon gave him a contract to produce 12 puppetoon shorts a year.
Pal’s films range all the way from ridiculing the Nazis he hates—the Screwball army which rusted and fell apart in “Tulips Shall Grow” — to his next films, a delightful juvenile story, “The Truck That Flew,” and further adventures of Jasper, the little Negro boy who just can’t stay out of watermelon patches.
While Walt Disney employs hundreds of animators, Pal has a staff of only 45, mostly skilled woodworkers. His studio is a converted garage which looks more like Santa Claus’ workshop than a film factory.
But there’s nothing wooden about the nickels he’s bringing into the boxoffice. And he’s proved once again that there’s always something new under the Hollywood sun—this time that stars aren’t always born — some are hewn.

In a column a couple of weeks earlier, Johnson revealed: “George Pal’s latest Puppetoon, “Star-Studded Stampede” will be a satire of “Star-Spangled Rhythm” with puppets of Goddard, Lake, Hope and Crosby. Someone else realised the value of animation publicity, too.

Friday 18 May 2012

A Walter Lantz Shortcut

It’s always fun watching how animators manage to change a character’s shape into something else. It can be elaborate. One problem: elaboration costs $$$. So cartoon studios used a cheaper way of doing it. Most of the time, it looks tacky.

Here’s an example from the cost-saving Walter Lantz studio’s ‘Hot Noon’ (1953). The sheriffs don’t really morph into chickens, though that’s the gag. Instead, cycle animation of sheriffs and cycle animation of chickens are gradually superimposed on each other, with the former fading away.

The animators on this cartoon were Gil Turner, La Verne Harding and Bob Bentley.

Thursday 17 May 2012


“Dumb-Hounded” was the first cartoon featuring Tex Avery’s Droopy and it has some nice muted backgrounds by Johnny Johnsen. Here’s one of his cityscapes; I’ve matched the colours the best I can in this reconstruction.

The shot cuts from a pan of the street to the drawing below. The door is on a cel.

And what would an MGM cartoon be without animals running at an angle past the camera in perspective?

Irv Spence, Preston Blair, Ray Abrams and Ed Love animated Droopy, who is a lot rubberier than he was in later cartoons, and lethargy is used to set up gags by Rich Hogan.

There’s a model sheet for this cartoon dated March 1942. The short was released almost 12 months later.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Miss Brooks 101

One of the better situation comedies coming out of the days of network radio was ‘Our Miss Brooks.’ Eve Arden helped it overcome all the things that can chafe the ears—Gale Gordon’s standard-issue pompous, condescending jerk and Dick Crenna’s grating falsetto. The characters managed to play off each other really well—it helped Gordon’s Mr. Conklin wasn’t always a jerk—though it’s a little much to hear the formal “Miss” and “Mr” manner in which teachers address each other in casual conversation. Arden plays a catty-when-necessary character but toned down for a family audience from the version that the names “Bette Davis” and “Tallulah Bankhead” bring to mind (her natural television successor in that respect was, perhaps, Bea Arthur).

The show started as a summer replacement series in 1948, found a sponsor, was kept on in the fall and made an easy transition into television with its cast pretty well intact, though Crenna felt he was too old (he was 25) to convincing play a teenager on screen.

Situation comedies on radio were, in many cases, anything but comedies. The situations and characters were unbelievable, predictable and trite, even in the most popular ones on the air. But there were others that were somehow a cut above. ‘Brooks’ was one of them. Connie Brooks came across as a real, more-than-one-dimensional person, much to the delight of teachers across North America (being the heroine of the series helped).

New York Herald-Tribune columnist John Crosby expounded on how he liked the show. He gave it a bit of a panning earlier, so I sought out the first column (he reviewed ‘Brooks’ and ‘Cabin 13). Let’s start with that one, from July 23, 1948.

Radio in Review
New Radio Farce ‘Just Misses Fire’

In “Our Miss Brooks,” a new CBS show (not broadcast in the West), Eve Arden, a capable though frayed comedienne, is cast as an English teacher in love with the biology instructor, whose biological interests are limited to the breeding of mice. Since Miss Arden’s concern with biology is somewhat more extensive, this leads to one situation after another, few of them comic.
Miss Arden is also beset by a pixilated landlady who cooks improbable and indigestible foods, a high school principal who roars at her and a fatuous high school student who gets her into jams. Through it all, misunderstanding flickers like summer lightning and Miss Arden wisecracks indefatigably and courageously; still the program just isn’t very funny.
I don’t know why it isn’t. This show, which seems fashioned rather too persistently after
“My Friend Irma,” has a number of tried and true ingredients. A lot of quaint characters have been amassed in one room; Miss Arden’s personality has been given the elements of all of George S. Kaufman’s comic ladies—tough, sentimental, fast on the draw. The plots, heaven help us, are contrived with almost too much ingenuity. Yet, it just doesn’t come off.
It’s a blasphemous though but I’d like timidly to advance the idea that misunderstanding isn’t perhaps as funny as it was in the days of “Charlie’s Aunt.” There was one scene—the one where the high school student hid behind the curtains—where misunderstanding was taken to its outermost limits. Miss Arden’s intentions were thoroughly misunderstood by everyone in the room, including, as I recollect, the biology instructor’s mouse. If that didn’t lay ‘em in the aisles—and it didn’t—then the whole theory of comedy may have to be revised, which wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
Well, perhaps it will get better as it goes along. As it was, the only time a smile forced its way through my reluctant lips was when the aged landlady quavered to the young high school student: “My, how you’ve shot up since I saw you last.” And the high school student shot back: “You saw me yesterday.” Come to think of it, this joke was phrased better when I first heard it many years ago in “The Bandwagon.”
In that late, lamented show, Frank Morgan, playing the part of a white-thatched Kentucky Colonel, quavered—no other word for it: “Seems like only yesterday man li’l Miranda was fifteen.:
And his wife, played by Helen Broderick, snapped: “It was yesterday.”

This is Crosby’s renewed assessment, published March 14, 1949.

Radio in Review
‘Miss Brooks’ Evolves Into Good Comic
Last July I remarked rather petulantly that “Our Miss Brooks,” a house-built comedy of the Columbia Broadcasting System was a little too ingenious to be very funny. They had everything in there—a good idea to start with, a lot of picturesque characters, more situations than I could cope with, and, of course, wisecracks. There was just one too many of something, though, and the whole thing left me tired and cross.
I’m afraid I’ll have to revise these churlish remarks to some extent. “Our Miss Brooks” is approaching its first birthday; it’s got over some of the more convulsive aspects of infancy; people don’t hide under the bed any more—or anyway only one person hides there at a time; and the characters have been smoothed down to some semblance of humanity. It’s a very amusing program and, more importantly, a winning one.
Eve Arden, the pretty, reddish-blonde, acid comedienne, plays our Miss Brooks, a high school teacher unlike any of the high school teachers of my acquaintance. Come to think of it, Madison High, where she teaches, doesn’t parallel anything in my early experience very closely, either. The principal is a blustering, rather wistful character who blows his horn whenever he’s driving in the vicinity of his home to give his wife and child a feeling of security.
Naturally, the school contains a surfeit of squealing and demonic adolescents who are typified or at least represented by a boy named Walter Denton. He’s the great American boy, this Denton—high-pitched, nasal voice and drives Stanley Steamer or something like
that—but his relations with Miss Brooks are curious. He drives her around in that Pierce-Arrow or whatever it is, acts as confidant to her, and worships her for her beauty and at the same time acts as if she’s 102 years old.
Miss Arden, to get down to brass tacks, is represented as a toothsome young lady, bright as a whip and tough as nails. I never had an English teacher up ro these specifications, but I suppose they exist. At any rate, Miss Arden has become the idol of thousands of teachers throughout the country who are sick and tired of being portrayed as ageing schoolmarms with spectacles.
Miss Arden’s interest in teaching is dim; her primary purpose at Madison High seems to be to land the biology instructor, man named Boynton, whose own biological urges are fully satisfied by peering through microscopes. Don’t know what she sees in this dimwit, but he must have something because Miss Arden—or Brooks—has a rival, Miss Enright, who is also chasing him. Most of the time the two instructors are clawing each other to ribbons in a bright, feminine, ruthless way.
“Miss Enright,” murmurs Miss Brooks, “if you ever become a mother—I would love to have one of the kittens.”
Most of the dialogue is second-hand George S. Kaufman, which makes it first-rate radio. Since Ilka Chase retired from the field, there isn’t anyone in the business who can handle feline dialogue as well as Miss Arden—at least no one I know. The situations she gets into on this show are funny, reasonably plausible and untarnished by too much usage.
But I don’t see how they get any studying done at that school. Too much romance.

One can only imagine what Crosby would think of today’s sitcoms, where romance was replaced long ago with sexual innuendo and double-entendres. Ah, it was a simpler time!

The TV version of ‘Brooks’ was shot at Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Desilu studio. When ‘Brooks’ became a daytime rerun hit soon after leaving first-run in 1956, Gale Gordon went on to play Lucy’s pompous, condescending jerk foil in several sitcoms. And Arnaz produced Arden’s 1960’s sitcom ‘The Mothers-in-Law,’ a show with potential if it had been fleshed out a bit more and pointed in some kind of direction. Not everything Arden touched turned to comedy gold, but at least one well-remembered show did.