Sunday 31 March 2013

Laughs and Mistakes

It’s hard to think of Jack Benny with any other announcer but Don Wilson. And it’s hard to think of Don Wilson being anything but a jolly, overweight commercial pitch-man. But neither was originally the case.

The Benny show went through several announcers (and sponsors) in the first few years. When Chevrolet dumped Benny after the April 1, 1934 programme, he started work six days later for General Tire, and that’s when Jack connected with Don Wilson for the first time, leaving behind Alois Havrilla. Wilson had announced several shows before this but had built his career as a football announcer, having the distinction of calling the Rose Bowl game for several years before deciding his career would be better advanced in New York (the Benny show moved to California in 1935 and brought Wilson along).

Wilson once explained to the Windsor Star that Chevrolet cancelled after 26 weeks because the company’s advertising manager “felt they had such a high-class product that they shouldn’t be represented by a comedian but by a symphony.” Evidently, the Chevy people felt they were making Packards or Cadillacs.

Here’s Wilson talking in 1956 about his time with Jack.

Benny Announcer Got Job Because He Laughed Hard
EDITOR’S NOTE: Aline Mosby is on vacation. Don Wilson writes today about his job as announcer on the Jack Benny television and radio show.)
Written for the United Press
HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 14 (UP) — Twenty-three years ago I laughed and got a job — I've been with Jack Benny ever since.
I was working in the East as a sportscaster and had the good fortune to be included in a general audition for the Jack Benny program. Jack, as part of the audition, kidded the boxtop craze by inviting his listeners to tear the tops from their automobiles and mail them in. I was convulsed and my voice, trained to project over the roars of football crowds, carried to the microphones. I’ve been laughing with and at Jack from that time ‘til now.
Benny Likes "Boo-Boos"
I'm fortunate to have been associated with a star with a real sense of humor who appreciates the "fluff" or "boo-boo" because I’ve contributed more than my share. Jack and his writers have been wise enough to turn mistakes on the show to advantage.
For example, who can forget Mary Livingstone’s “chiss sweez sandwich” or her car which was at the filling station on the “grass reek.”
Once I signed off one of the CBS-TV shows with a distortion of the sponsor’s pet slogan. It came out “Be Lucky. Go Happy.” Jack promptly assigned my wife, Lois, the announcing chores for the following three weeks — to my distress and Lois’ delight.
Jack is not only a great comedian but a brave man. He didn’t even flinch when he asked me on the show where I obtained a certain bit of information and I replied, not according to the script: “I read it in Drear Poosin’s column.”
Contrary to many shows, the equipment on the Benny TV show is located behind the stage with only the microphone booms on the stage.
This is done so the audience can have a clear view of the players. Three cameras are used. One on the left is for long shots, one on the right for medium shots and one in the middle for close-ups.
This camera in the middle is a favorite of Jack’s. We have a joke that it’s one of a kind and CBS uses it only on the Benny show. It has a special device that “makes a 62-year-old man look 39.”

Wilson had a reputation—one I don’t think was deserved—of constantly making mistakes on the air. Maybe they were just more noticeable than other people’s. Mel Blanc’s autobiography revealed Bea Benaderet used to run a pool on which line in the script Wilson was going to blow first that week.

One of the puzzling things involves running gags based on screw-ups. Jack got mileage for several weeks from Mary’s “chiss sweeze” and “grass reek.” But through the 1940s, he did two live versions of his show, one for the East Coast and one for the West. Many West Coast cities also broadcast the East Coast version three hours earlier. But if a mistake was made on a West Coast broadcast, how could it be turned into a running gag the following week? Easterners wouldn’t have heard it. The best explanation I can come up with is, at least in some cases, Jack explained the screw-up on the next broadcast, presumably so the audience wouldn’t feel left out.

Wilson’s final show with Jack Benny was on a 1970 special, 34 years after he won the audition to be his announcer. Alois Havrilla, dead for 18 years by then, was long forgotten.

My Dick Twacy Hat

When the time of year for candy egg hunts and chocolate bunnies rolls around, cartoon fans rush to talk about Bob McKimson’s “Easter Yeggs” (1947). Well, let’s face it, who really cares about faux Disney forest animals (like the ones in Lantz’s “The Egg Cracker Suite”) when some psychopathic kid is bashing Elmer Fudd’s egg-painted bald head with a hammer?

A cute little bit is when Elmer digs a trap for Bugs. “I can’t miss with my Dick Twacy hat,” he tells us, and flips up the brim to emphasize his point.

Bugs, conned by the Easter Bunny (Bugs tends to be an unwitting victim in too many of McKimson’s shorts) into delivering eggs, falls in the hole. Love the brush strokes.

The unusually-vicious Elmer tries to drown Bugs by filling the hole with water. In a nicely-timed series of drawings, Bugs unexpectedly emerges in an inflatable raft. Elmer stretches out of camera range.

The water from Elmer’s hose creates a stream through a log. The chase is on and ends in an inevitable Tunnel of Love scene. How many times was that used in a Warners cartoon? (Cal Howard even borrowed it for Columbia’s “Wacky Quacky”)

Only Bick Bickenbach, Chuck McKimson and Izzy Ellis get credited on this cartoon. The foliage is by Dick Thomas.

Saturday 30 March 2013

Cal Went to the Dogs

What do Jonathan Swift, Morey Amsterdam and little people wearing huge dog heads have in common?

The answer is Cal Howard.

Howard had two distinct careers. Animation fans know him for his work at a variety of cartoon studios. He wrote some of the most disjointed animated shorts ever made (Screen Gems, late ‘40s) and some of the worst ones (Walter Lantz cartoons of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s), though it’s likely unfair to entirely blame him for the latter. But Howard was also behind the scenes in network television as it began to blossom in the early ‘50s.

By all accounts, Howard was a pretty funny guy, though you wouldn’t get that impression watching “Bye-Bye Blackboard” (the last Lantz theatrical cartoon). Chuck Jones’ books have some great stories about him—the Cal Howard makeshift commissary, the Cal Howard bar mitvah collection (Howard was a gentile). There’s the story about how Howard took his son’s Cub Scout troop past the MGM cartoon studio and taught them to yell “Quimby is a red-faced jerk!” All pretty funny. And the ideas he generated for the non-animated TV shows he wrote or directed were creative, too.

No doubt biographical information and anecdotes by Howard are hidden away in one of the fine, unpublished interviews Michael Barrier did with many of the people involved in the Golden Age of Animation, but here’s what we can tell you from other sources. Calvin Henry Howard was born in Los Angeles on March 11, 1911 to Samuel L. and Mabel (Coates) Howard. What happened to his parents is unclear, but Cal was living with grandparents by age eight. He attended Lincoln High School and the Los Angeles Times nostalgically reported in 1953 that Howard used to surreptitiously paste cartoons he drew at the side of Ptomaine Tommy’s lunch wagon in the Lincoln Heights district. His Times obituary states he was hired by Walt Disney in 1929. By 1932, he was working for Walter Lantz and seems to have migrated to Leon Schlesinger’s studio around the time Tex Avery, Virgil Ross, Sid Sutherland and Cecil Surry made the jump in 1935.

Schlesinger sub-contracted some cartoons from Ub Iwerks and Howard went over to storyboard and, apparently, voice the character of Gabby Goat. He then co-directed a couple of cartoons with Cal Dalton before bolting with Pinto Colvig in November 1939 to the Max Fleischer studio in Florida where, among other things, he worked on the story of “Gulliver’s Travels” (there is the Jonathan Swift connection). Boxoffice magazine reported on May 17, 1941 that Howard had been hired by Quimby at MGM as a story unit head and gagman, and his first cartoon was the Tom and Jerry cartoon “The Midnight Snack.” How long was he at Metro? Hard to say, as the Hanna-Barbera unit never credited story men (Joe Barbera liked to leave the impression the ideas for the Tom and Jerry shorts were solely from the mind of Joe Barbera). But animator James Tim Walker related once how Howard brought some Christmas cheer to the ladies of the ink and paint department in 1946 and Quimby fired animator Ed Love, thinking he was responsible. I suspect Quimby eventually axed Howard, too (as he did Avery’s writer, Heck Allen, on more than one occasion). Howard wasn’t enamoured of him. Tom Sito’s history of animation unions tells how Howard used to roll down the window when driving past Quimby Street with Bob Kurtz and yell an “F” word at the sign (standing in for the unrelated producer), either in self-amusement or some kind of belated revenge.

The Screen Gems cartoon studio of Columbia Pictures was his next stop and gave him screen credit. But no one seems to have liked the weak cartoons it produced and the studio closed by 1947. Howard tried television cartoons, crafting “Brother Goose” that was part of the original “Telecomics” line-up eventually picked up (without Howard’s effort) by NBC.

Television in 1950 was like an elevator on the ground floor, the door open, waiting for people to get in right away and ride to the top. That’s what Howard did. He couldn’t get employment on the west coast, so he headed east to work on “Broadway Open House” with Morey Amsterdam and Jerry Lester. The Los Angeles Times reported on November 28, 1951 that Howard had come west to talk about producing/directing a new daytime network show starring Ralph Edwards. He was hired and the programme debuted January 14th. It wasn’t a success, so Edwards made a switch. Edwards replaced himself with Johnny Dugan and kept Howard as a producer/director. What was the show like? Edwards liked stunt shows where contestants basically shamed and embarrassed themselves as they were laughed at by the studio audience; he built his career on one such radio show called “Truth or Consequences.” One not-so-demeaning stunt involved blindfolded women throwing a dart at a picture of a steer. Whatever part of the animal it landed on, the woman took home—in real beef. An Associated Press column in 1952 listed some of Howard’s gag accomplishments. The last one sounds familiar from animation, doesn’t it?

HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 25—Like parlor games? I’ve several dandy ice-breakers here, and they cost a few cents at most. They come from Cal Howard, who lies awake nights thinking up crazy stunts for “The Johnny Dugan Show”, seen five days a week on coast-to-coast NBC-TV.
A stunt on a show I attended went like this: Seat three women in front of a large, shallow, empty cardboard box. Have them take off their shoes and put them in the box.
Blindfold the contestants. Tell ‘em there’s a prize for the one who can put on her own shoes and tie or buckle them first. Then, while everybody’s laughing and before you give the “go” signal, put in a lot of other shoes and mix them all well.
Howard, whose blue eyes have the melancholy look of most professional funnymen, has come up with these other games for the show:
Blow up several tough-textured toy balloons. Give a prize to the contestant who breaks the most balloons by sitting on them. It probably is unfair—but is funnier—if some contestants are fatter than others.
Have several men bend over. Give a prize to the lady who sews a neat patch on the seat of her partner’s pants first. Somebody’s always sure to get stuck.
Blindfold three couples, with an apple suspended on a string between each pair. Promise a prize for the couple who get the most bites out of their apple. Remove one man’s blindfold. He, of course, starts kissing his girl, who thinks it’s part of the game.
His proudest stunt requires a more uncommon prop—a vibrating reducing machine. He ties its belt across a contestant’s forearms. With arms thus wobbling wildly, a man must thread a needle or roll a cigarette. A lady must make up her face with lipstick and eyebrow pencil. The prize is announced for the lady who does the best make-up job. Actually it goes to the one who messes up her face the most.
The beauty and adaptability of most of Howard’s stunts lie in their low cost. He’s used to working on TV shows that require resourcefulness. For one New York telecast he rented, for $18, a penny-arcade flea circus. A telescopic lens showed close-ups of the insect stars—strong man, chariot racer, juggler, football players, merry-go-round riders.

Edwards loved Cal Howard. He kept Howard as a writer for a juvenile version of “Truth or Consequences” called “Funny Boners” starring Jimmy Weldon, the future voice of Yakky Doodle. Producer Les Raddatz told the Times of December 11, 1954: “We have our best session early Saturday mornings at camera rehearsal. Since we can’t use the actual contestants, every one of the crew takes turns trying the childish tricks. So far writer Cal Howard is the champ. But then he knows all the answers because he writes the questions.” And when Edwards decided to tweak “Truth or Consequences” and bring in Bob Barker to host on December 31, 1956, Howard was assigned to gag the show.

Someone else had their eye on Howard. Two of Steve Allen’s writers dared Howard to appear on Allen’s post-“Tonight” Sunday night show and get clobbered with breakaway bottles. So he did. That was March 31, 1957. Reference guides insist Howard appeared on the show in the 1959-60 season. But soon he was back writing cartoons for Format Films, then for Walter Lantz and fit in freelance work during the last gasps of the Warners studio. Howard wasn’t enamoured of the restrictions placed on TV cartoon stories and gags by that time. Reported Daily Variety on November 25, 1974: “The state of animation was derided by several speakers, with writer Cal Howard saying of Saturday morning kiddie shows, "I have five grandchildren, and not one of them cannot karate chop a cop, rob a bank, or rape a nun."” His Times obit says he became a story editor for Walt Disney Publications in 1974 and retired in 1986. His longevity in the animation industry was marked with an Annie award in 1980. Somewhere in the ‘50s, he wrote comic books featuring Bob Hope and Martin and Lewis.

Cal Howard died in Los Angeles on September 10, 1993.

Oh, you’re wondering about the little people wearing huge dog heads.

“The Adventures of Superman” lasted six seasons and wasn’t renewed in 1958. But producer Whitney Ellsworth thought there was still life in the series if it were adapted for a younger audience. So he hired Howard to come up with a screenplay for a pilot show featuring Superman as a dog. But not a real dog. The denizens of Metropolis were portrayed by actors in dog costumes, and Ellsworth cast former Oz munchkin Billy Curtis and other little people in the roles. Telefilm magazine in 1958 mentions the show as “Projected Programming” but it never aired.

“Super Pup” isn’t even unintentionally hilarious. It’s just bad. Even the intended kid audience could have seen that. The actors can’t talk through the huge, plush heads so Dal McKennon dubbed in all the male voices in accents you’ve heard countless times in Walter Lantz cartoons. There’s stock footage and stock music, the latter mainly from Jack Shaindlin’s Langlois Filmusic library with a few cues you’ll recognise from Yogi Bear cartoons. A notable exception is when Super Pup appears. Ellsworth needed something public domain (ie. cheap) and fitting for a hero, so the strains of the Lone Ranger’s theme, the William Tell Overture, fill the soundtrack. Howard must have been amused by the cheapness. His script fits in an explanation by a narrating mouse about why two pieces of automobile stock footage don’t match. You won’t be able to sit through it all unless you’re masochistic, but I’ve embedded both parts below. It’s so bad, it makes Howard’s work on those wretched Paul J. Smith cartoons seem like pure genius. And that’s no small feat.

The Best Laid Plans of Terry Mice and Men

In the early 1950s, announcers on radio programmes would say something like “This show was transcribed for broadcast at this more convenient time.” We do the same thing here at the Tralfaz blog. Posts are written about six weeks in advance, placed on hold and then they’re automatically posted on a certain date. There’s always a danger that someone else will get the same idea for a post and put it on line while our version is still waiting in the Tralfaz queue.

And that’s what’s happened to my post about Frank Moser.

Moser was a pioneer animator who was beset by tragedy. His daughter died of sleeping sickness. His wife killed herself over it (click on story to the right). He went into the cartoon business with Paul Terry who eased him out, then lost a lawsuit over it. He was sued—and lost—after a freak traffic accident involving the son of the man who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby (which is so bizarre, no one could make it up).

He didn’t even have the respect of all his staff. Said Manny Davis, a long-time director at Terrytoons: “He was a very clever guy with his pencil, but he wasn't funny. He was very, very fast, could make the stuff move nicely in those days. But he really had no sense of humor; he couldn't get a gag over. We were always at odds about that.”

Some background about Moser’s life and career was cobbled together, stuff I hadn’t found in various books, and a nice little post was put together. The trouble is, someone else has done the same thing. And Alex Jay has done it so thoroughly and with so much more excellent information I didn’t find that it’s pointless for me to bother with my post. So I direct you to the Stripper’s Guide blog and find the time to read about a man forgotten in animation except by hard-core Golden and Silent Age fans.

This means a new post that hasn’t been transcribed for a more convenient time will be juggled into our usual Saturday animation history spot.

Friday 29 March 2013

Crows' Feet Backgrounds

Orange and shades on either side of orange dominate the Friz Freleng cartoon “Crows’ Feat” (1961). And since we’re into the 1960s, stylisation is the key. Clouds aren’t puffy white things; they’re mere outlines in the sky.

The backgrounds are by Tom O’Loughlin, who replaced Boris Gorelick in Freleng’s unit on cartoons that were released starting in 1958. Here’s more of his work, including the scarecrow that (deliberately) resembles Elmer Fudd.

Thomas Gardner O’Loughlin was born in Canada on Christmas Eve Day 1923 to Ernest W. and Nellie Jane Gardner, neither of whom were Canadian (his father was from Washington State). The family was living in Edmonton in 1935 and moved to Indianapolis by 1940. A posting on the Big Cartoon Database states O’Loughlin began work in the animation industry in 1947 but, as usual, that’s not correct. A Los Angeles Times story in early 1952 stated he moved to California from Montana the previous year. He was married in 1953 but his marriage certificate doesn’t list his occupation. As you might expect from someone in Friz’ unit, he later worked at DePatie-Freleng and spent time at Filmation. He died in Healdsburg, California on October 26, 2007.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Felix's Nightmare Monster

Dream sequences give good cartoonists a chance to use their imaginations, and “Felix Dines and Pines” is no exception. Felix has a nightmare after eating a bunch of garbage. Immediately, some monster comes after him.

The monster stands there and his dots and eyes change. Here’s the sequence.

See the white along the legs in the last two frames? It continues in a cycle as well to give the impression the legs (and the white stuff on whatever’s dropping from the monster’s fingers) that it’s moving like ribbons of neon.

I don’t know whether Otto Messmer drew this or a “guest animator” did, but it’s one of the best of the whole Felix series.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

No Hope For Bob

Show people had some dandy feuds. Some weren’t real—Jack Benny and Fred Allen, for instance. Some were professional—Parsons and Winchell, for example. And some people just didn’t like each other. I suppose you can put Bob Hope and columnist John Crosby in that category.

Hope sued Crosby (settling out of court) over one column in Life magazine. In return, Crosby didn’t let up on Hope in print for almost ten years. Here’s a syndicated newspaper review from 1954 of what should have been a terrific show. Crosby panned it.

Talent, Money Fail to Save Hope TV Show
NEW YORK, Dec, 10.—I just don’t understand how Bob Hope can assemble such a glittering roster of talent and spend so much money and come up with something so mediocre as his last show on NBC-TV Tuesday night.
Hope left the country in November to do a command performance at the Palladium in London. This show was filmed in London with Maurice Chevalier, Beatrice Lillie, and the Cologne 182-voice choir, a British film star named Moira Lister, and a French ballerina named Liane Dayde. With a lineup like that I didn't see how he could possibly miss but he sure did.
There was the usual opening, Hope in front of a curtain, splattering bad jokes about the English fog and the Los Angeles smog. In ten minutes, there was one good joke: “Over here the government subsidizes the actors to go on television. In our country the actors go on television to subsidize the government.”
Well, maybe it just seemed good because of the company it was in. Incidentally, Hope seemed to slow his normal machine-gun pace down to about half speed for the British who have trouble understanding fast-talking Americans. I don't know whether the laughter that greeted these feeble sallies was authentic English laughter or whether it was the canned stuff they turn out in Hollywood these days.
Then came the Cologne Choir. Normally, I'm a sucker for choirs, the bigger the better, but this one intoning some dreadfully German number, as heavy as the food of that country, left me unmoved. On came the incomparable Miss Lillie who was not, I'm afraid, being as incomparable as usual. There's something about being on the Hope show that takes the fire out of people.
Presently along came Liane Dayde, of the Paris Opera ballet, and she, too, was pretty much a disappointment, doing a dance that looked like the sort of thing little girls do in ballet school. Miss Lillie returned as sort of street waif who is picked up by Hope at the stage door and becomes, after a bit of shenanigans, a star of his show. As a cockney waif, she was very appealing but not terribly funny.
So far so bad, I thought, but wait till Chevalier comes on. You can't kill Chevalier. Well, I underestimated Hope's writers. They can kill anything.
Chevalier made his appearance in a sketch in which Hope is supposedly on a honeymoon with Moira Lister in Cannes. Chevalier shows up as a supposed cousin of the bride and instantly starts making passes at the girl which culminate in a lesson in love-making, involving some kissing that they could never get away with in the movies and shouldn't be allowed here either. There hasn't been anything in such poor taste on television since—well, since Hope had that show in Cleveland with Phil Harris procuring girls for him in a hotel room. Somebody ought to talk to this boy.
Chevalier did redeem himself by his “accents melodiques” number, which is a very clever spoof of different accents as heard by someone who doesn't speak the language, and by singing one of his all-time favorites, “Louise,” and “Seems Like Old Times.”
In contrast, the latest Max Liebman spectacular, while not an unqualified delight, had two perfectly wonderful numbers with Jack Buchanan, the very talented Englishman, one a lampoon of modern stage choreography, the other a little fun poked at English choir groups. It also had Jimmy Durante playing Jimmy Durante which is to say that he was just great.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Chew Chew Shake

Shamus Culhane loved violent impact shakes in his cartoons at Walter Lantz but he did them differently than any other director I can think of. Instead of just having the camera shake on a background drawing, Culhane would move in for a tight close-up of part of the drawing and even flip it around just to enhance the impact (he’d also insert a blank red, yellow or a black card a few times in the middle of the shaking.

A good example is in “Chew-Chew Baby,” a 1944 release featuring Woody Woodpecker in drag duping Wally Walrus, who fails to get even after discovering the con. Here we see Wally sawing a hole in the ceiling in the spot where Woody is standing on the floor above. Woody simply pushes a safe where Wally’s cutting a hole.

Down goes the safe. We don’t see the actual impact. We just see the camera shake and hear sound effects. But look what Culhane does with the drawings. These are consecutive frames.

It’s less than half a second but because of the way Culhane emphasizes the crash, it stands out like it takes up more screen time.

Paul Smith and Grim Natwick get the animation credits in this cartoon; Don Williams worked on it, too.

Monday 25 March 2013

Egypt Tom

A mop and an orange crate turn Tom into an Egyptian in a nice gag in “The Lonesome Mouse” (1943).

Tom is tossed out of the house and scoots down the stairs into the mop and the box.

They land with Tom looking like the Sphynx and the ends of the crate like pyramids. Note how Tom’s feet are exaggerated to add to the effect.

Cut to Jerry capping the gag by doing a little Egyptian-type dance. He butt jerks with a thump at the end.

No animators are credited, just Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera and Fred Quimby.