Wednesday 31 October 2012

The Wickedest Wicked Witch

Anyone who wants to see a perfect performance on film need only watch Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”

She was scary. We’ll tell you how scary in a minute.

In honour of frightening witches on this Hallowe’en, I’ve dug up an old newspaper story about Hamilton’s career. It’s funny to see her associated with comedy—she worked with both W.C. Fields and Percy Kilbride in features—because her role in “Oz” is really her defining one, despite her coffee commercials on TV many years later. This is from August 1, 1941 in the Daily Kennebuc Journal of Augusta, Maine, where Hamilton was performing in summer theatre with four-year-old son Toni in tow.

Margaret Hamilton Got Start in High School Senior Play
Lakewood Actress Who Has Played In 43 Movies Tells of Road to Footlights

Like the heroines in all the best theater novels, Margaret Hamilton finally had her chance on the New York stage after several years of hounding agents and tramping from one theater to another. Miss Hamilton, who is a member of the Lakewood company this Summer, got her first real shove toward the stage in a high school senior play.
Brought up in Cleveland, our heroine had serious leanings toward kindergarten teaching until the annual senior play came along. Cast as a man in the production, Miss Hamilton wowed the audience and received such hyperbolic praise for her acting that she realized at once that kindergarten idea was a mistake and it must be the stage for her.
Her sensible parents raised no strenuous objections to the notion, only insisting that first she learn the fundamentals of teaching so that she could earn her living, and then, if the urge were still upon her, she might try her hand in the more artistic and possibly less lucrative field.
Followed several years of both teaching and acting, Miss Hamilton became a member of the Cleveland Theater group and taught in a kindergarten on the North Shore while acting in one of the two groups at the theatre afternoons and evenings. Although she never attended a dramatic school, a great deal of practice, experience in every phase of the theatre was available with the Cleveland group. Even in those first years, she play the character parts for which she has since become so well known, and during that period took over 60 character roles.
After a summer at the Dennis Theater on Cape Cod and a try-out of “Another Language” in Greenwich, Conn., Miss Hamilton’s father staked her to a year in New York during which time she could discover whether or not New York producers were clamouring for her presence.
That year consisted chiefly of pounding the pavements and dropping in to see people who, because of her summer experience, had told her to come around in the Fall. It was odd, Miss Hamilton, said, how they had all forgotten her and couldn’t even recollect the type of part she played. The $100 a month which her father sent her supported a friend as well as Miss Hamilton, and they were on pretty slim rations most of the time.
At the end of the year, nothing had happened, not even a walk-on and Miss Hamilton was on the verge of accepting a permanent position as teacher of five-year old when the long awaited break came. Backers had been found for “Another Language” and the show was about to open in Washington.
“I shall never forget that opening night,” Miss Hamilton said. The Washington try-out was over, and funds were so scarce that the company had to waive their bond in order to get to New York. The entire cast felt that a run of two weeks would be a miracle and were tightening their belts in anticipation of more job hunting. “Another Language,” however, ran 50 weeks and was the entering wedge for several of the young actors in the group, including Miss Hamilton.
Her past six years have been spent in Hollywood where she has been in 43 pictures, including the fantastic “Wizard of Oz.” “The Wizard” was the screen version of a popular children’s book, and in it Miss Hamilton was cast as a witch. On the surface of it, being a witch seems a mild enough assignment and one would hardly expect a children’s story to furnish dangers and thrills. However, the making of the film was not a tame or easy period for Miss Hamilton.
Many of the scenes in which Miss Hamilton flew through the air with the greatest of ease on her brook-stick were done in miniature, but an occasional close-up to give authenticity was necessary. During the shooting of one of those scenes, Miss Hamilton received a first degree burn on her arms and hands, and a second degree burn on her face. After six weeks of hospitalization, she returned to the set and was told they were ready to shoot another sequence in which smoke would pour forth from the brook-stick.
Upon learning that the costume designed for her was fireproofed, in spite of the fact that the smoke bomb was guaranteed to be harmless, Miss Hamilton refused to be part of parcel to the scene. Her stand-in was used, and inside of a few seconds, the bomb exploded, severely injuring the stand-in. Seldom a dull moment in making a picture, Miss Hamilton says.
Like all performers who have had both legitimate and screen experience, Miss Hamilton much prefers the stage. Movie-making is such a hodgepodge with the end of the film often being shot first, that it is almost impossible to sense the continuity of the picture. The appreciable lift that an audience gives an actor, and the applause or laughter that greets him, is the biggest possible stimulus to a good performance, according to Miss Hamilton.
Nearly all tragedians long to do comedy, and most comedians have a secret desire to have a crack at a serious role. Miss Hamilton, having made a name for herself in character parts, all of a humorous nature, is automatically cast in those roles. But, like all of her colleagues, she would like a straight part, and at the Lakewood Theater during the week of August 4, that long awaited opportunity will be given her. In “Lady in Retirement,” Miss Hamilton will, for the first time in her long career, have a straight lead.
Embryonic actors seeking advice from Miss Hamilton as to how they may further their careers, receive discouraging but sane advice. “Don’t do it, my dears,” she says.

Just how scary, just how convincing was Hamilton in the role? Well, there were parts of the movie I simply couldn’t watch (when I was a kid, “Oz” was seen only once a year on TV). But here’s a better example from Hedda Hopper’s column from November 4, 1941.

When Margaret Hamilton played the wicked witch in “Wizard of Oz,” she had to frighten Toto, the little dog, in many scenes. Yesterday she was on the set of “Twin Beds” in a maid's costume, when Toto saw her, tucked his tail between his legs, ran under the couch and howled dismally. He remembered her, and wanted no more abuse.

That’s right. Margaret Hamilton was so scary, she frightened people. And a little dog, too.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Buccaneer Bunny Teeth Grind

Seagoin’ Sam almost shoots himself in the head, thanks to Bugs Bunny trickery in “Buccaneer Bunny” (released 1947). Then he realises. And he looks toward Bugs.

Frustration gag.

Manny Perez, Gerry Chiniquy, Virgil Ross and Ken Champin are the credited animators.

Monday 29 October 2012

She Sends Me Back a Wire

David Germain writes that we should check out the walk cycle by the messenger in Tex Avery’s “Symphony in Slang.”

It’s not an actual cycle in that the same drawings are sequentially used over and over again. Tex or his animator varies the drawings so different ones pop up, making the walk jerkier and funnier. Here are ten consecutive frames to give you an idea of the kind of drawings that were made.

We’re back to drawings one and two in the next frames but then the animator starts tossing in different leg positions that you see don’t see above.

This is Avery’s version of limited animation, though there’s still a different drawing per frame of film. And the fact the messenger’s completely stiff other than his rubbery legs makes it funnier than if the rest of his body were animated.

Avery’s regular crew of Mike Lah, Walt Clinton and Grant Simmons receive the animation credits.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Memories of Vaudeville

Fewer and fewer people are left who would have seen vaudeville. The best taste we can get of it is from remembrances of former vaudevilleans written many years ago.

Here’s a very brief taste. This interview from the Associated Press appeared in newspapers starting November 23, 1974, not many weeks before Jack Benny died.

Jack Benny-George Burns Friendship Flourishing
EDITOR’S NOTE — Jack Benny and George Burns have had audiences laughing for 50 years, since their vaudeville days. In an exclusive interview, the comedians discuss their lives, the way comedy has changed and the often arduous task of making jokes.
Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a town where friendship is as fleeting as a starlet's fame, the 50-year association of Jack Benny and George Burns is legendary.
They are legends themselves.
Benny, 80, entertainer of three generations, was one of vaudeville’s smoothest funnymen. He starred in radio—ever stingy, ever 39. His films ranged from “To Be or Not to Be,” to “The Horn is as Blows at Midnight.” One of the few radio comics to succeed in television, he continues to appear in his own specials.
Burns, 78, is best known for his cigar and rakish humor. For 36 years he played the patient straight man for scatter-brained Gracie Allen.
They, too, starred in vaudeville, radio, films and television. But Gracie retired in 1958 and died in 1964. And Burns created a new role as a successful standup comedian.
The Benny-Burns friendship has flourished in the often competitive world of show business.
Nearly every day when they’re in town, they meet for lunch at the Hillcrest Country Club, joining a comedian’s round table for the latest jokes and gossip. Recently they lunched with a reporter for a session of reminiscence. Both seemed fit considering their recent hospitalizations. Burns underwent open-heart surgery two months ago. Benny canceled a performance in Dallas because of stomach pains but was declared well after hospital tests here.
Was it fun playing vaudeville — or just work?
Benny. “Oh, it was fun. I’ll tell you why: you didn't have to worry about writing all the time. If you got a good act together, you could play it for seven years. Because you were in a different town every week, you know?”
Burns: “And another thing: nobody could steal your jokes, the way they do today. If you caught somebody using your material, you could send your original act to Pat Casey (Labor executive for the theater owners) and he’d make the guy stop. Nowadays if other comics don’t steal your jokes, you fire your writers.”
Benny: “But they never stole from George and me. We don’t use one-liners.
We’re story tellers; we start talking and one line leads into another.”
Was vaudeville really as good as people's memories of it?
Benny: “Sure it was. Every city in America had a big-time vaudeville house, and they had top performers. Of course there were small-time houses, too, and that’s where the talent had a chance to train. You know, George Jessel is always saying that there’s no place for talent to be lousy any more. It’s true. All of us had a chance to be lousy in small-time vaudeville and gradually we learned how to be good.”
Burns: “That's right. We all built our acts gradually, learning what would get laughs and what wouldn’t.”
Benny: “You learned what were things you did best, and bit by bit you developed your own style. You ended up with 17 minutes of surefire material.”
Burns: “That was how you determined how successful an act was. The smaller acts did 10-12 minutes. You’d ask a vaudevillian how he was doing, and he’d answer ‘Seventeen minutes.’ That meant he was playing next to closing (the star’s position on the bill).”
Were there times when that “surefire material” didn’t get laughs?
Burns: “Sometimes. There were some routines that you were sure of, like when Gracie kissed me and asked, ‘Who was that?’ And sometimes you’d do your act at Monday matinees and nothing happened. Then Monday night you'd get big laughs. Why? I don’t know.”
Benny: “The only time I found when my act wouldn’t work was when I was following another comedy act, particularly knockabout comedy. One tune I had to follow the Marx Brothers for 13 weeks in a row. It was just murder. The bad thing is that the minute you lay an egg it hurts your timing.”
Did you change your material when you played “the sticks?”
Burns: “Never. We never knew what ‘the sticks’ were. Audiences were the same everywhere.”
Benny: “Every town had its sophisticated audience, whether it was New York City or South Bend.”
They could tell, Banny added, when vaudeville started dying.
“Gradually the audiences got smaller. The people just weren't coming in,” Benny said.
Burns: “Vaudeville couldn’t compete with talking movies. For a dollar you could go to the Roxy Theater in New York and see 70 musicians, 60 Rockettes kicking in unison, a feature movie — and on the way out they pressed your pants and did your income tax for you. Vaudeville never changed.”
Benny: “And radio killed vaudeville. People stayed home to hear it. Here’s a funny thing. In theaters all over the country they would stop the movie and play the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show!”
When vaudeville died, Benny and Burns changed gracefully to radio, worrying initially if they could produce enough material for a weekly show. They were successful.
Burns: “We were blessed with some great writers. They’d come to you with four-five pages of jokes. If you didn’t like them, they’d go into the next room and write four-five more pages. In vaudeville, we’d go to Altoona to try out one joke.
Comedy, the pair agrees, has changed over the years.
Benny: “Well, we’re all more sophisticated than we used to be. In the last five or six years I have been telling risque stories that I would never have done before. People expect it nowadays. But George and I would never use four-letter words.”
Will they ever retire?
“Never,” said Burns.
“Well,” said Benny, “It’s tough not to retire. Sometimes I think ...”
Burns: “What would you do — stay home with Mary?
How long have you been with her?”
Benny: “Almost 50 years.”
Burns: “Well isn’t it nice to get out of town?”

Saturday 27 October 2012

Willy Pogany Makes a Cartoon

He was paid $5,000 for every cover he drew for a newspaper magazine supplement, so there could only be one possible explanation why he’d accept a $300-a-week job drawing backgrounds at a cartoon studio. He was broke and needed the money.

Well, that’s not quite the explanation Willy Pogany gave at the time about why he accepted a job at the Walter Lantz studio. But’s what Lantz said in his biography, albeit published some time after Pogany’s death.

Pogany wasn’t just going through money troubles. He had marital troubles, too. Pogany’s wife Lillian got a Mexican divorce the previous year and Pogany immediately married a woman 21 years his junior. But the legality of the divorce was questioned, so the semi-former Mrs. Pogany got a California divorce and Pogany waited until July 1939 to marry Elaine Cox again just to make sure it was legal.

And Pogany had another well-publicised problem, referred to in this October 22nd United Press story about his new job at the Lantz studio.

With the Hollywood Reporter
U.P. Hollywood Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD—Willy Pogany, the internationally known painter, who tangled in court last year with Miss Constance Bennett over how thick her thighs should look, has some clients who couldn’t possibly register any complaints about his art.
He was working at Universal studios, in charge of the color department of Walter Lantz’ cartoon factory, and enjoying to the fullest the painting of birds and animals and fawns, who did funny antics on the screen—but never made any kicks to the artist.
Pogany is one of the greatest portrait artists. His standard fee is $3,500 per picture. He is in the midst of decorating William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon home with murals—a task which so far has taken four years—and his portraits hang in many of this country’s largest homes.
Everything is okay, so far as Pogany is concerted, except his portrait of Miss Bennett. He spent a year working on it and when he delivered it, his client said he’d made her thighs too big, her hips too round, her mouth too wiggly, her waist too thick and her fingernails too pale. She said she wouldn’t pay a cent more than $500. Pogany sued her for the $3,000 balance. The jurors agreed the portrait was worth every cent Pogany asked, but the judge threw his suit out of court on the ground that he had guaranteed Miss Bennett satisfaction, and she most emphatically was not satisfied with his version of her thighs.
“I have her picture at home in my living room," Pogany said. “I have had several offers for it, but I have refused them all. I think it is a beautiful picture: I just try to forget that it is a portrait of that woman.”
Furthermore, Pogany said he’d rather not talk about his court appearance. He’d rather discuss animated cartoons.
“For years,” he said, “I’ve been trying to get one of the studios to hire me to make them. I talked to Walt Disney and all the others, and they thought I was fooling.
“But I finally persuaded Lantz that I meant it when I said I believed cartoons were an important segment of the artistic world, and destined to become important, Anyhow, he let me go to work on them.”
Pogany unreeled for us his first color cartoon, entitled “Peterkin.” We never saw a reel like his before. The backgrounds were painted with all the skill and detail that Pogany possesses. The colors were magnificent.
Net effect was that of the birds and beast cavorting before a series of beautifully painted landscapes. The principal character was a baby fawn, with human face, shaggy legs, and pink bottom.
“That bottom was something of a problem," Pogany said “I’ve always loved to paint fawns. The first picture I ever did was when I was 14 and it was of a fawn. Fawns don't wear pants. I was worried about the censors in connection with this one, but I took it up with the Hays office and explained what I was trying to do, and they finally said go ahead, so long as I kept it artistic. That I tried to do.”
He did, too. Nobody will take offense at Pogany’s pantless fawn.
Speaking of censorship, consider Edith Head, dress designer at Paramount, who was assigned to make 200 lava-lavas, or long sarongs, for the dancing girls in a movie called “East of Singapore.” She looked up the facts, and produced 200 lava-lavas, designed to leave the right sides of 200 feminine abdomens authentically bare.
The girls tried on their costumes. More than half of them had scars from appendicitis operations, which no amount of body make-up would cover, so Miss Head re-designed all the lava-lavas.
When you see the picture, take particular notice that the left sides of 200 dancing girls are bare; the right sides demurely covered.

Lantz said he never had more beautiful backgrounds than the ones created by Pogany for this cartoon. Pogany also came up with the character designs which were modified by Alex Lovy. Peterkin has the big two buck teeth when he smiles, just like Andy Panda.

Here are some of the backgrounds. The cartoon opens with a pan of the forest. It has trees in the foreground on an overlay that you can’t really see in a still photo.

Here’s that mischievous Peterkin.

And there’s a checking error. A couple of birds disappear for two frames. The credited animators, incidentally, are Frank Tipper (Lovy’s brother-in-law) and Hicks Lokey.

One wonders if Pogany insisted that that hiring him also meant buying film rights to his new wife’s book “Peterkin.”

Pogany didn’t last long at Lantz. There never was a Peterkin series; “Scrambled Eggs” (released in November 1939) bore production number 984. Only three more cartoons (985-986-987) were completed before the Lantz studio closed in January 1940 in a money dispute with Universal. Boxoffice announced on August 31, 1940 that the first of a series of 13 new Lantz cartoons for Universal would be in theatres on September 9th with new characters supplementing the old. In the meantime, Pogany went back to magazines. You can see some of his art HERE and HERE.

Friday 26 October 2012

Hound Fights Fox

The best part of the 1937 Harman-Ising cartoon “The Hound and the Rabbit” is something the audience never really got to see. There are some great individual abstract drawings during the climax when the hound beats up a bunny-stealing fox (played by Billy Bletcher).

Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising are the only ones who were credited on the cartoon. The animators remain anonymous. Interestingly, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had the same kind of scene more than 20 years later in the Yogi Bear cartoon “Bear on a Picnic,” including characters trying to get away only to be pulled back into the fight. Hanna was at Harman-Ising at the time this short was made.

The cartoon’s another example of the H-I studio’s Disney-obsession. It features:

● Cute fuzzy bunnies.
● A Goofy-like comic relief character (who even sounds like Pinto Colvig).
● Pluto-like pantomime involving an object (Speedy the bunny almost loses his hat, hat gets stuck on branch, hat gets stuck on head, hat still stuck on head).

I’d mention the Seven Dwarf-like names of the bunnies but “Snow White” hadn’t been released yet.

Boxoffice magazine praised the cartoon for its “bright coloring and roguish characters.” Unfortunately, the home video release of this one is larded with DNVR on the roguish characters.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Joke's Over

Tex Avery had a real challenge to meet. On one hand, he had types of gags that became fairly familiar to cartoon watchers. On the other hand, he got his biggest laughs when something unfamiliar happened and came out of nowhere.

Avery and writer Heck Allen pull off one of those in “The Three Little Pups” (1953).

This is another of Avery’s takes on three little pigs except, this time, the star is a low-key North Carolina wolf (played by a pre-Huckleberry Hound Daws Butler), who gets bashed around by just about everything. The pigs are dogs, all versions of Droopy, except two are brain-dead with tongues hanging out.

There are some fun sequences, but my favourite is when the wolf puts on a cat hand puppet, which comes alive at the sight of a wind-up mouse. It drags the wolf with it all over the place, only to stop in front of a sleeping bulldog. There’s a typical Avery frightened-hair-on-end take and the scene ends with the bulldog biting the wolf in the butt.

The wolf’s not bothered. He simply changes pants behind a convenient screen in the back yard.

“Good dog, man!” praises the wolf.

Cut to next scene. The wolf puts a target on the door of the pigs’ brick house. He turns. The smart pig, er, pup (Bill Thompson using his Droopy voice) puts the target on the wolf’s butt. Any cartoon fan can predict what will happen next. But then Avery surprises everyone. The wolf goes behind the screen and change pants again.

But there’s the bulldog from the previous scene still clamped down on the first set of pants. The wolf strolls past the dog. “Okay, break it up, son. Joke’s over, hear?”

Running gag out of nowhere. That’s why Tex Avery’s great.

The credited animation crew includes Bob Bentley with Avery’s regulars: Mike Lah, Walt Clinton, Grant Simmons. Ray Patterson was borrowed from the Hanna-Barbera unit. Avery’s into his flat character stage so I suspect Ed Benedict did the designs.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Fred Allen 1, NBC 0

The next time Jay Leno or David Letterman make fun of their TV corporate homes, they might want to thank Fred Allen.

It seems astonishing that a network would pull a comedy broadcast off the air because it joked about an imaginary person at the network. But that’s what NBC did to Fred Allen in 1947. And then it made the situation even worse by doing it again and again. Finally, someone at the network saw it was foolhardy to believe a corporation could win a battle of public opinion against comedians loved by millions of their customers, the radio listeners. So it backed down and, to this day, comedians have been (for the most part) left alone to take jibes at the broadcasters that pay them big money.

In Allen’s time, shows on NBC were broadcast live. When a broadcast reached the :29:20 or :59:20 mark of the hour, the network announcer would come on and say “This is NBC, the National Broadcasting Company” and then play the network’s three-note chimes. If the programme was still going, too bad. It was faded out for the network identification. Allen hated it. He felt he should go as long as he wanted (no one seems to have asked Allen if he favoured the show before his being able to cut into his time). Allen’s show of April 13, 1947 was faded out. He decided to be sarcastic about it on the air the following week. Someone at NBC listening didn’t like that. Let’s open the scrapbook of newspaper clippings and see what happened.

Fred Allen Cut Off Air By NBC
NEW YORK, April 21.—(U.P.)—Fred Allen was cut off the air for more than a half a minute last night by the National Broadcasting Company to eliminate a jest about a mythical network official.
Allen was explaining to Portland Hoffa, his wife, why their program had been cut off the previous week. It had run overtime.
“There’s a little . . .” was as far as he got last night.
Cut by the network was the following dialogue:
“. . . man in the company we work for. He’s a vice president in charge of program ends. When our program runs over time he marks down how much time is saved.”
“What does he do with it?” Portland asked.
“He adds it all up,” Allen replied, “—10 seconds here, 20 seconds there—and when the vice president has saved up enough seconds, minutes and hours to make two weeks he uses the two weeks of our time for his vacation.”
The network said it had asked Allen to change the script before he went on the air, but that he had not complied. The gibe violated a network ruling prohibiting the broadcast of unkind remarks about anyone in radio or the network, NBC said.
When the program went back on the air after a 40-second break, Allen’s first joke laid a mild egg with the studio audience.
Apparently unaware that the control room had blotted out his earlier sequence, he cracked: “If they wanted to cut something, they should have cut that.”

Allen told the Associated Press in reaction:“It’s like walking into a pool room and plunking down your 60 cents for an hour’s play, and then you find the owner has hidden the cue on you.”

NBC evidently didn’t anticipate the storm this would cause. The story you just read made it to front pages of newspapers. Editoralists, never shy at taking shots at radio, wrote opinion columns bashing NBC over what one called “A tempest in a Tenderleaf tea pot,” after Allen’s sponsor. The sponsor weighed in, too.

NBC Billed For Lost Time
NEW YORK, April 21—(AP)—The National Broadcasting Company is going to be billed for the time Fred Allen was cut off the air in his Sunday night comedy program.
A representative of J. Walter Thompson, advertising agency for Allen’s sponsor, said Monday:
“We buy and pay for half an hour’s time from NBC for this program. And that's what we expect to get, Allen was cut off the air for about 35 seconds. So NBC is going to get a bill for the time we didn't get. And, oddly enough, on that Sunday night spot, it’s a nice little chunk of dough.”
NBC, in saying they cut the comedian off the air because he refused to make certain changes in his script, estimated the time at 25 seconds.
A spokesman for NBC said tonight the broadcasting company had “no comment, no comment at all” to make about the incident which prompted Allen to drop his usual comedy role long enough to say that the whole affair was the result of “sheer stupidity.”
The veteran radio comedian ascribed the cut-off to a new NBC rule “that says you can’t kid radio on the air.”
Allen’s script told of a “vice president in charge of program ends” who noted the time saved when programs ran overtime—such as Allen’s program did the preceding Sunday.
ALLEN WENT ON to say—but the radio audience did not hear it—that “when the vice president saves up enough seconds, minutes and hours to make two weeks, he uses the two weeks of our time for his vacation.”
Today radio station WOR, the Mutual Broadcasting Company’s outlet in New York City, invited Allen to deliver the lines over its station.
The comedian, however, was “spending the day quietly in bed—a custom he has followed on Mondays for years,” Allen's agent said.
George Carson Putnam, the WOR broadcaster who extended the invitation to Allen, related the incident on his program and quoted the part of Allen’s script which was not broadcast.
Putnam concluded by saying:
“Allen is still allergic to vice presidents. In fact, you might call them Allen’s allergy.”
Later, the American Civil Liberties union said it had protested to Niles Trammell, NBC president.
A statement by the union said “an issue of free speech” might be involved in the incident, and added that Clifford Forster, acting director of the union, had sent a letter of protest to Trammell.
“The material censored, as reported,” from Allen’s script, the statement said, “would not seem to violate either good taste, any state or federal law or any code of ethics ever promulgated by the National Association of Broadcasters.”
The union said it had asked to be referred “to any station or network rule under which the cut was made,” and said it would take no further action in the affair until a reply had been received from the NBC president.

Allen’s brothers in the radio comedy field were outraged. Allen garnered tremendous respect from them all for his satiric wit and ability to instantly pull beautifully-framed analogies out of his head on the air. They did something. So did NBC. And the network made the situation worse.

Briefly Silenced Radio Comics Carry On as NBC Keeps Mum
HOLLYWOOD, April 23 (AP)—Red Skelton, who chattered into a dead microphone for 12 seconds last night because he brought up the taboo Fred Allen matter, suggested today that NBC should learn to take a kidding, and added:
“And there are always other networks.”
He and Bob Hope were cut off the air by NBC engineers for brief periods when they referred to the now celebrated knob-twisting Sunday which silenced Allen on the air for 25 seconds while he panned a mythical vice-president of the network.
NBC, which has 14 vice-presidents—none of them, as Allen inferred, in charge of saving the moments programs run overtime—maintained a dignified silence.
Said Skelton, who was cut off the air in March when he left the word “diaper” in one of his jokes:
“The network must be able to take a kidding, just as the sponsors do. As long as the jokes are not off-color, there can be no objection. We have always endeavoured to steer clear of the off-color type. I feel that Allen and Hope were both right.”
His remark about “other networks” came in reply to a question of what he intended to do.
His script last night contained the line: “Be careful, we might ad lib something that will hurt the dignity of some NBC vice-president. Did you hear them cut Fred Allen off Sunday?”
That was when the engineer turned the knob. Red went on to say, for the benefit of his studio audience only: “You know what NBC means, don’t you? Nothing but cuts, nothing but confusion, nobody certain.”
He had the last word, anyway, because when they put him back on the air he commented “well, we have now joined the parade of stars.”
Network officials were silent beyond the brief statement that the censored material was “objectionable to NBC.” Edna Skelton, Red’s writer and former wife, said the deleted material in the script had been disapproved by the network but that “Red was determined to use it, anyway.”
Hope, who was off only about seven seconds, was sympathetic toward the censors, who not only listen for shady jokes but try to forestall, if possible, such slips as Bing Crosby’s use of “hell” on Jack Benny's broadcast recently.
Said Bob:
“It’s a tough racket, and they’ve always had my sympathy. But I’d hate to be the head censor this morning. He’s probably got a cauliflower head.”
Hope had referred to Las Vegas, Nevada’s wide-open gambling spot, as the only place in the world where you can get tanned and faded at the same time.” Then he added, “Of course, Fred Allen can be faded. . .”
“That,” he quipped today,” was when I faded.”
He said he ad libbed the remark and acknowledged that the program censor had advised him:
“I don’t think they’d like to hear anything about the Allen matter.”
Much of the conjecture today revolved around how, if at all, Benny would handle things next Sunday. He’s never kidded vice-presidents, but has spent years in a friendly feud with Allen. Benny declined to disclose his plans, but commented:
“I don’t see what the fuss is about. From the joke I read in the papers, I can’t see any objection.”
George Burns, mulling over the script for his broadcast tomorrow night with his wife, Grade Allen, remarked:
“We’ll give ‘em the business, too. We’ll probably be faded, but we’re going ahead.”

Finally, NBC realised either it wasn’t going to win this one, or the whole thing was really something over nothing. It backed down.

One newspaper inserted a reference to an Associated Press story in its United Press version of the account. We’ll add in the lines from the A.P.

Fun's Over(?) NBC Bows To Comics
HOLLYWOOD, April 24.—(U.P.)—The four-day skirmish between the National Broadcasting Company and its radio comics was over today with the comedians planning an unopposed field day of jibes at the network.
But the fun was over. NBC turned its other cheek and invited the comics to say anything they wanted to about the network.
The controversy started Sunday night when the NBC cut Comedian Fred Allen off the air briefly during a wisecrack about a mythical network vice-president in charge of overtime, who gets his vacation by accumulating seconds from the ends of overtime broadcasts.
It ended when NBC last night lifted its order to “fade” any jokes directed at the network and appointed Allen and Comedians Bob Hope and Red Skelton, who also were cut off during NBC jokes, as honorary vice-presidents.
Allen turned down his vice-presidency, pleading “pressure of regular work” and poor health that “precluded strenuous outside activities.”
Allen was cut off for 25 seconds, and Hope and Skelton finished wisecracks about the network into dead air Tuesday night when the network clicked, the switch for about 15 seconds on each program.
Lifting of the NBC ban was regarded by the airlanes comics as a signal for open season on radio jokes.
Dennis Day was the first to have his fun last night without being shunted off .the air. His radio girl friend, Mildred, coming into the room, asked:
“What are you doing?”
“I’m listening to the radio,” Day replied.
“But I don’t hear anything,” she said.
“I know it,” Day answered. “I’m listening to the Fred Allen program.”
Burns and Allen and Jack Benny, who like Day had threatened to go through with anti-network gags despite the ban, trot out their jokes today and Sunday.
Half a dozen others got in their cracks last night.
Ed “Archie” Gardner, of Duffy’s Tavern, presented a show based on a political campaign by Archie.
“I think I’ll get Fred Allen to make my campaign speeches for me during the times he is cut off the air,” Archie said at one point. “And then again—I don’t think I will. I might want to be a vice-president.”
Henry Morgan said he had been to see a movie—“Smash up, the Story of a Woman.” He said it had given him an idea—he’d like to make “Cut-off, the Story of Fred Allen.”
Kay Kyser said the whole controversy was a build-up for his last night’s show, a new type quiz program, and wanted to thank Allen, Skelton and Hope for the big send-off.
“They were faded for their errors and that’s my new show—‘Comedy of Errors.’”
Information Please also got in a jibe on the rival Columbia Broadcasting System.
(But Jack Carson, who planned this gag over CBS, got orders to delete it 10 minutes before he went on the air:
Carson: “According to the papers, Fred Allen said a radio vice president saved up seconds till he had two weeks, then went on vacation.”
His company teammate Tugwell (Dave Willock): “Gee, Uncle Jack, we’re still on the air. How come we weren’t cut off?”
Carson: “Because this is the CBS, Columbia Broadcasting Company.”
(CBS gave no explanation for the deletion.)
The American Civil Liberties Union took a serious view of the matter. It protested that Allen’s constitutional rights were placed in jeopardy.
Neither comics nor network suffered from want of publicity during the squabble. It even made the front pages of foreign newspapers.

The flap being almost over, we’ll leave the final word on it to Leslie Townes Hope. There was a syndicated newspaper column under Bob’s byline. This appeared April 28. Bob (or his writer) gets in some final shots. “Mr. Hush” is a play on the “Miss Hush” contest on the audience participation show “Truth or Consequences.”

These days it’s no simple matter being a comedian. The radio networks insult so easily. You can’t even say “Vice president” on the air without being cut off.
Of course, in radio we call the process of cutting an actor off the air “fading” and the way the things are in radio today they fade you faster than the man with the green eye shade at Las Vegas.
The epidemic of cutting comedians off the air in the middle of jokes has started a new phenomenon in radio-sliced eggs. And it has brought forth a competitive spirit among comedians.
They fight to see who can be number one on the “cut parade.”
It’s also making it very tough on the listeners. They have to sit by their loud speakers with joke books so they can figure out the end of the gag.
And if this trend continues, the public’s listening habits will change. After supper the family will go into the living room, get comfortable, turn on the radio, and settle back for three hours of uninterrupted silence.
I hear the networks are initiating a new theme song—a special arrangement of “Silent Night.” I suppose the big star of the future be “Whispering” Jack Smith.
Of course, it all started with Fred Allen. He was discussing the way the network was run and he accidentally dropped a syllable which landed on a vice president’s toe.
Now you can’t even say “Fred Allen.” It's going to sound awfully silly to hear Portland come out and call “Oh Mister Hush.”
All the comedians are in this together. Last week on my show I had my little run-in with an antennae axemen.
I gave my small contribution of 12 seconds to the march of unused time.
But I take all this philosophically. After all, silence is golden. So Tuesday night tune in and hear the goose that lays the golden egg.

So what happened with Fred the following Sunday? What did he say? The newspapers don’t seem to have reported it. Instead, they wrote how Fred had checked into a hospital for a complete physical exam. Radio executives may have made things tough for him emotionally, but it was his physical problems that left him dead nine years later.

Max Fleischer and the Red Seal

Anyone familiar with the Fleischer cartoons knows they were released by Paramount which eventually took over the Fleischer studio outright. But that was during the sound era. For a period in the silent era, the Fleischers set up their own distribution company called Red Seal. He are a couple of box ads for Red Seal’s cartoon releases from 1926 editions of The Film Daily.

Richard Fleischer, in his book Out of the Inkwell (2005), outlines the life of Red Seal. Here are the pertinent paragraphs (note Ray Pointer’s clarification in the comments).
Taking a page from his former employer J. R. Bray's book, Max put the studio into high gear when, in 1923, he formed his own distribution company, Red Seal Pictures, with the plan to make all sorts of films other than cartoons. He hired Edwin Miles Fadiman, who was experienced in the distribution field, to run the company and committed to an ambitious release schedule of 120 short subjects.
Things started out well for Red Seal Pictures, and it looked like Max and Fadiman had a successful operation going. By 1925, Red Seal was releasing Out of the Inkwell cartoons, Song Car-Tunes, a new cartoon series called Inkwell Imps featuring Ko-Ko and his dog Fitz, and various live-action featurettes. One of the main called Carrie of the Chorus, a two-reel “backstage” showbiz comedy. My sister, Ruth, played the sidekick to the leading character, Carrie, and Ray Bolger played the male lead.
In 1924, Red Seal released twenty-six films. In 1925, it released 141 shorts. It wasn't too long, however, before Max and Fadiman realized that they were going to be hard put to continue to meet the production schedule to which they were committed. So Max took another page from J. R. Bray's book. Unfortunately, it was the wrong page: Red Seal began buying already-made films from small companies and releasing them under its own banner. These films didn't perform as hoped. It seems like the more Red Seal bought, the more it lost.
Problems started to crop up in the company: overhead expenses climbed to an unrealistic level; major disagreements arose with Fadiman, who finally quit. By 1926, Red Seal and Out of the Inkwell Films were broke. They couldn't pay their bills, and the film laboratory that processed their films refused to release their negatives until they were paid.
No one seems to know where Alfred Weiss came from, but in November 1926, shortly after Max asked for the appointment of a receiver in bankruptcy, Weiss crawled out of the woodwork and offered to take over Red Seal and Inkwell, pay their bills, and put them back in business. He seemed heaven-sent. He wasn't. He was, however, the only wheel in town, and Max felt that he had to go for it. Weiss became the president of both Red Seal and Inkwell. Max was hired on as vice-president and Dave as art director at salaries of two hundred dollars a week each with scheduled increases up to three hundred dollars per week.
On the basis of Max's name and reputation, Weiss wangled a distribution contract out of Paramount Pictures. The Red Seal company was abandoned. Weiss changed the name of Out of the Inkwell Films to “Inkwell Studios” and took the grand screen credit “PRESENTED BY” for himself. Finally, he changed the well-established Out of the Inkwell series name to Inkwell Imps. The studio started releasing Inkwell Imps and Song Car-Tunes through Paramount.
To cut a long and depressing story short, Max and Dave found it impossible to work for Weiss and quit the company. Shortly after they resigned, Weiss declared bankruptcy and disappeared.

Weiss’ involvement in movies pre-dated World War One. During the war he had been the New York distributor of Triangle Films before forming ArtClass Pictures Corp. with his brothers. After the Red Seal fiasco (during which time he was president of Agfa Raw Film Stock), he jumped over to Fort Lee where he was president of Metropolitan Studios, Inc.

Dick Huemer is quoted by Donald Crafton in the book Before Mickey that Red Seal had between six and ten animators, including Doc Crandall and Burt Gillett. It was here Art Davis became Huemer’s in-betweener when Huemer went into animation. What Huemer didn’t mention (or perhaps it was left out by Crafton) is this interesting tidbit from The Film Daily of September 2, 1925:

Beth Brown, Editor of Inkwell
Beth Brown has been appointed editor-in-chief of the Out-of-the-Inkwell Studios and Red Seal Prod. and will assist Max Fleischer in writing scenarios.

The Fleischer studio is conceded to have had the first female animator (see Ray Pointer’s note in the comments) but it appears the progressive Max also hired the first female cartoon writer.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Torch Song Celebrities

At one time or another in the 1930s, I’m sure every cartoon studio on the West Coast featured an all-star short with celebrity caricatures. They were fairly crude in the early years and became better drawn and funnier toward the end of the decade.

Here are some offered by the crew working under director Tom Palmer in the Warner’s cartoon “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song.” It doesn’t become a celebrity caricature cartoon until about halfway through. I’ve always wondered how this cartoon was constructed. Either they couldn’t come up with enough celebrity gags so they padded with other ones, or someone came up with one star-parody and Palmer decided to fill the rest of the time with them. In fairness to the always-maligned Palmer, the studio staff were all brand new and working together for the first time, so they hadn’t quite jelled.

There are places the cartoon looks more like something from Ub Iwerks than Leon Schlesinger. Witness the bun-headed woman and the wonky door and window behind Ed Wynn.

Maybe Palmer thought “Yeah, she’s a caricature of the woman in those Flip the Frog cartoons. Those are movies, aren’t they?” By the way, you will never hear a worse Ed Wynn impression than in this cartoon.

And what’s with the seven Earths anyway? Okay, let’s get to a few of the caricatures.

George Bernard Shaw. He got bashed a lot in the U.S. about this time for his decided preference of the Soviet Union style of government over America’s. The metaphor of Shaw battling the world and losing (and his egotism) wouldn’t have been lost on movie audiences of the day.

Bing Crosby. His limbs move like tubes of putty in this scene. Dreadful.

Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell in “Footlight Parade,” a 1933 Warner Bros. feature. If there was an orange in the scene, I’d say it was Mae Clarke. The studio’s female leads all have the same just-stepped-out-of-a-chorus-line look.

Ben Bernie. He’s animated with his face behind the microphone. Fine direction there, Tom. Someone hire Friz Freleng, quick.

Comedians Wheeler and Woolsey in “So This is Africa,” a 1933 Columbia feature.

Greta Garbo. You’ll note the radio station in this cartoon has abruptly become KFWB. The station actually exists and was owned by Warner Bros. when the cartoon was made.

Zasu Pitts. The solo animation of her looks like it was shot either at a different time or by a different cameraman. It’s muddier looking than the rest of the cartoon.

Mae West. It’s before the Production Code change, so she jiggles. Just not well in this cartoon.

I’d say these were the Boswell Sisters except any number of women in the ‘30s had the same generic hairstyle.

Jack King is the only credited animator here. He was a caricaturist and I suspect he designed the celebrities in this cartoon. He became a director as soon as Schlesinger showed Palmer the door after this one.