Thursday, 10 May 2012

Ub’s Surprise

Every cartoon studio in the mid-1930s, well, everyone except cheapskate Paul Terry, felt they had to make a special series of knock-off Disney fairy tales, probably to the chagrin of most of the people working on them.

One of those studios was run by Ub Iwerks, the animator enticed by Disney’s former distributor Pat Powers in 1930 to walk away from that nasty old Uncle Walt and make his own cartoons that Powers would gladly rent to theatres through M-G-M.

Like many studios, Iwerks started with a knock-off Mickey Mouse (his version was Flip the Frog) and tried to impress theatre patrons with dazzling colour a little over three years later. The ComiColor cartoons didn’t impress M-G-M; Powers had to distribute them to theatres through his own company, meaning he was lucky to get into the big theatres, which were all sewed up by the major studios.

The ComiColors were processed in Cinecolor and the colours looked pretty good. Too bad the cartoon’s stories and gags weren’t as good. The design of the characters in The Brementown Musicians (1935) look like something out of the Paul Terry studio from the late ‘20s. And Iwerks had this obsession about radiating lines from characters to indicate shock, fear, surprise, whatever, something that should have gone out with silent films. The Flip series used the effect but so did the ComiColors.

ALI BABA, 1936


You have to wonder if Grim Natwick, the man responsible for Betty Boop at Fleischer’s, animated the imaginary hula girls. The only people to get credit on these cartoons was Iwerks, Powers and musical director Carl Stalling (one wonders if Stalling’s was contractual).

The ComiColor series ended in 1936 and Iwerks’ studio struggled along for a couple of more years. Soon, the other knock-offs—the Rainbow Parades, the Color Rhapsodies, the Happy Harmonies and so on—came to an end as well. You see, another of the knock-offs, the Merrie Melodies over at Leon Schlesinger found something other than colour and fairy tales. They found humour. They even made fun of all those colour fairy tale Disney knock-offs, something that carried on into the television animation age.


  1. When you look at Grim Natwick scenes in certain Disney cartoons in the mid-30s (that are attributed to animator drafts), he used those spark lines in his scenes, like in Mickey's Polo Team, after Clarabelle Cow kisses Clark Gable.

  2. As backwards as some of the designs on the Comicolor shorts are, the irony is the first 'modern' looking Porky Pig, in terms of both body and facial design, was credited to Ub Iwerks.

    "Porky and Gabby" and "Porky's Super Service" were both done under contract with Leon Schlesinger after the Power deal died, with Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones going over to the studio to make the shorts look like regular studio product. Both are the first time the pig facially looks close to the final version we all know today (AFAIK, nobody's ever said if Ub had any hand in the Porky makeover -- Jones already had begun streamlining him while in the Avery unit, and he and Clampett would keep the design when they returned to Warners, with Bob rounding Porky's flat face to improve his design even more by early 1938).

  3. The way Culhane describes it in his book, Ub had little do with his cartoons well before Porky came along. I don't know who was doing Clampett's designs then.