Tuesday 31 December 2013

Montage of the Match Girl

It’s hard to say whether “The Little Match Girl” is a New Year’s cartoon or a Christmas cartoon. But it was one of the Charles Mintz studio’s more ambitious shorts and received an Oscar nomination in the process.

It opens with a montage sequence, with various scenes fading into each other. Here are a few of the frames.

Proclaimed Boxoffice magazine on November 13, 1937:
Here is a cartoon that is ideal for the Christmas program. It is a natural for the holiday trade and good enough not to be overlooked any other time. It is about a poor, homeless match girl who is spurned by the crowds on New Year’s Eve. She lights her matches to keep warm and when she falls into her final slumber, beautiful visions of shimmering fountains, doves, flowers, tinkling bells and a Christmas tree with presents take form. In the end, a beautiful and merciful angel takes the girl with her.
Not exactly a Disney ending, is it?

It’s a matter of opinion whether the artwork is on Disney level but it’s certainly rich for a Mintz effort. And the wind ripping apart the Little Match Girl’s happy dream before she dies is a powerful scene. Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic revealed the bulk of the animation was by Emery Hawkins. Alas, the only artist who was credited was the great Art Davis, with the story by Sid Marcus. And the names only appeared on the initial release; they were removed when the cartoon was decreed a “Columbia Favorite” and a generic title card was substituted.

Thanks to Devon Baxter for the screen shots.

Monday 30 December 2013

Double Your Stereotypes

The Cubby Bear cartoon “Indian Whoopee” (1933) features, well, stereotypical Indians. But Manny Davis and his crew at the Van Beuren studio decided to add another stereotype. No, not a Jewish Indian (they pop up occasionally in cartoons of the era). But a swishy, nelly Indian.

And as an added bonus he gets an arrow zooming right under his privates.

And he seems to be contemplating pleasant thoughts about what happened.

Here’s the next drawing. What happened to his nose?

The gay brave runs away and out of the cartoon. We’re now left with just one stereotype instead of two. Can someone tell me why all the Indians are missing a tooth?

The cartoon just kind of ends for no particular reason with the cheerful Cubby waking up out of his dream and wagging an open-mouthed grin to the audience as the iris closes. It doesn’t make much sense. But it doesn’t have to. It’s a Van Beuren cartoon.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Radio's Bottle Beater

One of the great voices of network radio’s Golden Era belonged to Del Sharbutt. He announced many programmes; probably the best known is “Meet Corliss Archer” where he’d interact with star Janet Waldo. His deep baritone was also one of the anonymous voices pushing Lucky Strikes on Jack Benny’s radio show through the latter ‘40s. And he once credited himself with coming up with the phrase “Mm-mm-good!” when he was hired by the folks at Campbell Soups to read their commercials.

He partook in one of the long-favoured social activities of radio people after work—parking one’s butt at the local bar. Unfortunately, something can happen when one tends to spend too much time in the bar—they become addicted to alcohol. And that’s what happened to Del Sharbutt.

Fortunately, he admirably overcame his alcoholism. And, as best as I can tell, he was one of the earliest people to publicly discuss his battle with the bottle and champion Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve read several interviews he did on the subject but the most interesting one is Sharbutt answering questions from his own son, Associated Press movie critic Jay Sharbutt. The younger Sharbutt doesn’t get into a personal story of how the family was affected by his dad’s drinking. He asks some basic things. And they talk about the wonderful days when the radio was the centrepiece of the living room. This story appeared in the Odgensburg Journal two days before New Year’s Eve parties in 1978.

Father, Son Talk About Old Times
Associated Press Writer

PALM DESERT, Calif. (AP) — I suspect once again you won't be juicing on New Year's Eve. When did you realize you were an alcoholic, Pop?
A. In 1955. Our family physician called me an alcoholic and I said, "That's an awful thing to say to a friend." He said, "That's a diagnosis, not a putdown. It is a killer disease."
I haven't had a drink since that time, Haven't had any urge to drink. I'm what they call a recovered alcoholic.
Q. Tell me about the early radio days.
A. Well, I came to CBS in New York in 1934. I was 22 then, and the announcing staff had guys like Bert Parks, Harry Von Zell, Andre Baruch, Paul Douglas and Frank Gallop.
I was lucky, very successful right off the bat, used to do remotes at night with all the top bands — Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington.
Later, I did "Amos 'n Andy," Bob Hope's, first radio shows, the old "Hit Parade." Also did commercials on Jack Benny's show and worked with W.C. Fields and Robert Benchley.
Q. Is it true show business can drive a guy to drink?
A. Not show business alone. It's more the alcoholic culture we have that drives people to drink. We're dealing here with America's favorite social drug, alcohol.
And it is a drug. You're supposed to ingest it to have fun. And I believed it then, even though I didn't come from a drinking background. My father was a Methodist minister in Texas.
Q. But the early days in New York, they were the fun-drinking days?
A. Yes. Like with Bob Benchley. He was a great man, a great friend. Many was the time he took me on a tour of the town he wrote about in the "New Yorker."
But rarely did we get loaded. He was stimulating enough, a wonderful, funny guy.
Q. I take it, though, there were mornings you'd come in after a night of serious drinking, dragons in your head, mush in the mouth, and somehow have to sound sharp and alert on the air?
A. Oh, yes. And you were either a pro or not a pro. You pulled yourself together, and delivered, plain and all. And if you weren't a pro, you were soon out of the business.
Q. Engineer gives the signal, you rise from the ashes?
A. That's right. There were no excuses.
Q. And collapse afterwards?
A. That's right, too. You'd go down to Lebus, the CBS bar, and have a quick snort to put you a-right again. But the bartenders were very protective.
If you had more shows to do, they'd say, "Not until after work." After you finished, though, the bartender, he'd get soused with you.
Q. So not many on-air people drank before a show?
A. It was very rare. Hope never drank when he was working. None of the great talents did. But sometimes musicians, directors, producers, advertising men did. Because each show actually was two.
We all had three hours to kill between the first live show in the East, and the repeat show — also live — for the West Coast.
Q. The second show had hazards, then?
A. Oh, yes. Once, Andre Kostelanetz was conducting a music program for Chesterfield when suddenly the baton flew out his hand, right into the bell of Jack Jenney's trombone.
Jack was about half-loaded on brandy at the time and whispered under his breath, “Well, if that ain't throwing a cue, I'll kiss.”
You didn't hear the remark on the air. All you heard was the band falling apart, first the brass section, then the reeds. The band just disintegrated.
Q. Funny story. What about the sad ones?
A. Guy we knew did a 15-minute newscast at night. One night, a cold one in January, he came in loaded. The studio was warm and the booze hit him right away.
He couldn't say anything, his teeth got in the way. He had to battle his way through his newscast. He knew he'd blown it. And he walked right out of the studio and they never heard of him again. They didn't even know where to send his last paycheck.
Q. Tell me about W.C. Fields, who wasn't known to shun strong drink. He was an alcoholic?
A. No question. Towards the end, his tolerance went down. I did a show with him in Hollywood about that time. The premise was a gag letter asking him to drink a glass of water.
He was a sick man then, couldn't stand up. People were assigned to keep him sober, away from drink, until after the show. At rehearsal, he was in rare form, full of wild, funny ad-libs that made all of us fall apart.
But at show time, he was thoroughly smashed. We didn't realize he'd stashed his booze in this hollow cane he carried around. The show was a sad mishmash. It wasn't funny at all.
And he was totally confused as to why people didn't laugh. They didn't laugh because he was schnockered and couldn't read his lines.
Q. Is it possible to drink heavily but not be an alcoholic?
A. It is, for a while. But if the hard drinker keeps on being a hard drinker, he'll become, an alcoholic.
Q. Which is what happened to you in the Hollywood days, after the war, didn't it?
A. Yeah. I didn't know alcoholism was a disease then. My drinking was getting out of control. I nearly drank myself to death trying to have fun.
I knew it was not the real me. I was now drinking just to stay even, to function, survive, not to get high or have fun. But I still did it after work. I did hundreds of shows with hangovers.
It got to where not only was my work affected, but also my family. And that caused me great remorse, great pain.
Q. When you were drinking heavily, did it cross your mind it might affect your kids so much that one even wound up in journalism?
A. No. (Laughter) When you're in the grip of alcoholism, you're so self-centered with your own problems you don't want to talk to anybody about it.
The main problem at that point is just to function, to be able to bring money in and take care of the family, You don't say, "My God, what is this doing to my kids?" You do, but not out loud.
I got to the point where I didn't know what the hell to do about the blackouts, the inability to remember where I'd been the night before or how I got home. I thought maybe I was losing my marbles, even got these suicidal thoughts.
Q. Which is where the family doctor came in, told you that you were an alcoholic, that it's a disease?
A. Yes. And he steered me to some of his patients, recovered alcoholics. They started telling me about their drinking patterns and when drinking was no fun anymore. I said, "You don't drink?" They said, "No, we just try to stay sober one day at a time."
It was my association with these recovered alcoholics that enabled me to stop drinking nearly 24 years ago. My greatest joy since has been trying to help other practicing alcoholics do what I've done.
Q. What about Alcoholics Anonymous?
A. All the knowledgeable doctors in the United States now know A.A. is the most successful way for an alcoholic to get sober and stay sober.
It's primarily one alcoholic who's not drinking helping another alcoholic who wants to stop drinking. The whole premise is that, alcoholism is a disease. You can't cure it, but you can arrest it. It's highly treatable.
Q. Some well-known folks like Dick Van Dyke, Ralph Waite of "The Waltons," Doc Severinson and lately, Betty Ford, have publicly said they're recovered alcoholics and can't drink. Why go public?
A. The whole idea of going on the record is not to take glory for having recovered, but merely to point out that alcoholism is a disease, that you can recover from it, and that no stigma should be attached to alcoholism any more than to cancer, diabetes or heart disease.
Q. About show business: Does more drinking go on there than other lines of work?
A. I don't think so. This is a cultural blight that cuts across all areas — doctors, judges, schoolteachers, steelworkers. They can get this disease and they can recover.
Q. If alcoholism is a disease, Pop, is there any evidence it's hereditary? By the way, I went on the wagon last night just in case.
A. No one's positive of it yet, there's still a lot of research going on, but the simplest answer is: More and more evidence indicates it may be.
Q. Well, thank you for lousing up my New Year's Eve plans. Incidentally, did you ever get hammered on New Year's Eve in your drinking days?
A. Naw. That was strictly for amateurs.

Del Sharbutt died in 2002 at the age of 90.

I’ve known a number of people on the air who successfully battled addictions that affected themselves and their families, friends and careers. I’ve never pried into their personal stories but I can only guess they went through hellacious times and by sheer perseverance set themselves on the right path. Del Sharbutt made that journey. He was not only a great announcer. He was, and still is, a great example.

Saturday 28 December 2013

They Talk For Cartoons

The great names of cartoon voice work in the Golden Age of Theatrical Animation, for the most part, came from radio, at least once radio developed sufficiently. Walt Disney and his successors as Mickey Mouse, and Jack Mercer as Popeye, may be the biggest exceptions. Many people made lucrative careers out of travelling from network to network, appearing in the supporting casts of several different radio shows in a week. But it seems they were always looking to squeeze in one more show, one more pay cheque. So they advertised in radio trade magazines.

I’ll post a few of their box ads. Note that I am not attempting to do every actor in every cartoon with a full biography and a complete lists of all their work; this is just stuff I came across. I’m also including a few TV voice people and a couple of photos that have been sitting in my computer. I suspect readers of this blog know who these people are anyway so a long commentary is unnecessary.

I think Mel Blanc can be pretty much classified as the top theatrical cartoon voice actor of all time. The top photo is from 1950, so you get an idea what he felt were his top radio roles then. The second photo is from 1964 after he and Warners Bros.’ Johnny Burton set up a production company. Burton bowed out and Mel carried on. The bottom is a publicity shot from 1975 when Mel hit the talk show circuit to tell the same stories and demonstrate the same voices. I think he did the “English horse” on Carson, Merv, etc. more than he ever did on Jack Benny’s radio show.

Everyone’s so used to the chubby version of Arthur Q. Bryan that the version on the right is a little surprising. That picture was from 1932 in New York; just about all the radio shows produced on the West Coast then were for local consumption and displaced when the stars slowly moved west. The ad on the left is from when Bryan was well into his Elmer Fudd days, 1952.
The gossip mag Radio and Television Mirror of August 1940 revealed Bryan was 150 pounds when he started in radio in 1924, singing for free. He became an announcer in 1929, came to Hollywood in 1936 on a visit and stayed. At the time of publication, he weighed 241 pounds.

How does that Sesame Street song go? “One of these things is not like the other.” I wouldn’t put Johnny Coons in the same league as June Foray and Paul Frees, two of the funniest and cleverest voice actors ever. Coons had been a children’s host show in Chicago who surfaced in the early ‘60s doing parts on those wretched Dick Tracy TV cartoons.

To the right is Superman’s announcer and one of the mainstays of Famous/Paramount Studios (and, no, IMDB, he did not voice Perry White in “The Arctic Giant”). Beck did tons of commercials, too. I didn’t make a note but I suspect the photo is from the mid-to-late ‘40s.

The Man of Steel was played by Bud Collyer, who voiced him on radio and later in Filmation TV cartoons. You may know him best as the original host of “To Tell the Truth.”

Poor Cecil Roy. Every fan of Famous cartoons know who Mae Questel is. Many have never heard of the studio’s other major actress of the ‘40s. It’s appropriate she has a boy’s first name because she played a boy—Casper the Friendly Ghost, among other roles. She was based in Chicago before coming to New York and cartoon non-fame.

To the right is, of course, Herman the Mouse and Top Cat (and Shorty, for you masochists). This glossy of Arnold Stang is from 1954 when he moved from insulting Milton Berle on radio to insulting him on TV.

Someone had to shout “Dickie Moe!” over and over again while their character’s mouth didn’t move. That someone was Allen Swift, a top commercial announcer in New York in the ‘50s. Gene Deitch used him in the odd Tom and Jerry series produced in the early ‘60s. I first noticed Swift on Underdog as the wonderfully evil Simon Bar Sinister. Oh, speaking of Underdog, there he is to the right. Wally Cox was known in show biz circles for not being anything like his Mr. Peepers character. The picture is from 1953.

Two mainstays of the cartoon world. The first publicity shot is of the incredibly talented Sara Berner, who took over as the main female adult voice at Warner Bros. from Elvia Allman in the late ‘30s and voiced cartoons into the early ‘40s. She made the rounds of many of the studios, including Disney and MGM. The photo is from 1950, before she finally got her own short-lived radio show which the writers couldn’t decide was a comedy or a mystery. Below her is Droopy. Bill Thompson got a fair chunk of cartoon mileage out of his Wallace Wimple voice from Fibber McGee and Molly, adjusting it slightly for Tex Avery at MGM and J. Audubon Woodlore at Disney. The photo is from 1964. I believe he’d retired from cartoons by then; he did Touché Turtle and a few voices at Hanna-Barbera after being unable to consistently do the role of Fred Flintstone.

Poor Hans Conried. Even his own ad misspells his name. This is from 1950, long before his marvellous performances as Snidely Whiplash for Jay Ward. Hans loved John Barrymore and if you listen to any of Barrymore’s radio work in the early ‘40s, you’ll be surprised just how close Conried’s over-the-top Whiplash is to The Great Profile. Conried did theatrical work on “Peter Pan” and “Johann Mouse” (with a rare screen credit), but also appears a cat taxidermist in the Woody Woodpecker cartoon “Woody Dines Out” opposite Bugs Hardaway, whose acting was never compared to Barrymore’s.

The last voice of Andy Panda belonged Walter Tetley. He had been a child actor on the Fred Allen radio show in the mid ‘30s but his best-known radio work was on “The Great Gildersleeve” and “The Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show.” He later went on to voice Mr. Peabody’s boy, Sherman, and dragged out a Scottish burr he used on radio for the UPA short “Georgie and the Dragon” (As a youngster, Tetley wore highland garb and impersonated Harry Lauder on stage. He once made an appearance at the Highland Games in Vancouver).

Appearing with Fred Allen the same time as Tetley was Lionel Stander. And, like Tetley, he worked for Walter Lantz. He was the voice of Buzz Buzzard up until “Drooler’s Delight,” when the studio shut down. After it reopened in 1950, Buzz was eventually voiced by Dal McKennon. Stander had great menace to his version of Buzz. He ran afoul of the Blacklist in the early ‘50s; a transcript of his defiant testimony to the farcical House Unamerican Activities Committee can be found on-line.

TV’s other moustachioed, melodrama-evoking bad guy cartoon was Dick Dastardly, played by ventriloquist Paul Winchell. You can’t otherwise compare Winchell and Conried. They were two completely different talents and Winchell had challenges in life he had to conquer. Disney gave him a good living, for a while anyway.

Bud Hiestand was another radio guy; in fact, he was Mel Blanc’s announcer. He also narrated a number of cartoons for the John Sutherland studio that were released by MGM, such as “Why Play Leap Frog?” “Going Places,” “Make Mine Freedom” and “Meet King Joe.”

This is the lovely Julie Bennett, 1950, about a decade before surfacing at Hanna-Barbera as Cindy Bear. She, too, appeared on radio before jumping to television. She was a particular favourite of Jack Webb. Her voice appears on a handful of Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons.

A few more TV voices. Howie Morris’ first voice at Hanna-Barbera was Jet Screamer on the The Jetsons. His career at the studio got derailed when he told Joe Barbera to do something to himself. The ad is from around the time he appeared with Sid Caesar. If you haven’t seen Howie as Uncle Goopy, you’re missing one of the funniest performances in TV history.

Okay, I’m posting these two solely because I think they’re great and I had ads for them sitting around. They both appeared in the Rankin-Bass “Frosty the Snowman” TV special that probably still gets run every year. De Wolfe’s picture is from 1946, just after he got out of the service. Durante is from 1958 which is a year before Doug Young was hired to imitate him in the Augie Doggie cartoons. Cartoons had been stealing Durante’s voice for 25 years by then.

Durante starred in radio, but someone like Mel Blanc just couldn’t get up there. Mel’s talents landed him his own show in 1946 but unlike other supporting players, like Hal Peary, he was unable to translate it into stardom. He was handed an ill-fitting sitcom playing yet another sincere young bumbler with a cookie-cutter girl-friend and would-be father-in-law. Radio had too many of those. But he was an amazing actor if you examine his performances closely. He talked about his many roles in this Associated Press interview that was published February 7, 1946. No mention of Jack Benny’s famous Maxwell for some reason. And it seems he had to learn 943 voices after 1946.

HOLLYWOOD — Mel Blanc, owner of one of the most-heard voices in America, is an unassuming chap you might, take for the manager of a prosperous shoe store.
He’s the voice of brash, carrot-champing Bugs Bunny (“What’s up, Doc?”) and stuttering Porky Pig (“th-th-that’s all, folks!”) in screen cartoons.
On the radio he’s Jack Benny's shrieking, whistling parrot.
He’s Pedro (“Pardon me for talking in your face, senorita") on the Judy Canova radio show; the miserable Happy Postman (“Keep smiling”) with Burns and Allen, and Private Snafu, of the silly laugh, for Bob Hope.
From reliable grapevine connections I learn that his 57 voices and sounds earn this former $15-a-week Portland, Ore., radio comic a yearly salary equal to the President’s.
* * *
Mel demonstrated them for me over the clatter of surrounding silverware and conversation in a booth at the Brown Derby. He’s 37, soft-spoken, likable and dark-complexioned with a black mustache and thinning black hair.
“The parrot squawk is an intake” — Mel rasps a sucked-in breath over his vocal chords—“and awhistle.”
His arm jerked an imaginary brake and his shriek of sliding tires was so realistic I waited for the crash of headlights and fender.
Pumping the palms of his hands together and singing nasally, he sounded like an electric organ breathlessly playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Melvin Jerome Blanc, a merchant’s son, started impersonations as a boy in his native San Francisco: a Jewish grocerywoman, a Japanese vegetable dealer (“How about some rettis and sair-er-ee?”).
A wine-drooling beach-comber who begged a handout at Blanc’s seashore home a few months ago unwittingly suggested the droopy Happy Postman.
* * *
Mel is on five top network shows.
For Benny he is Detective Flanagan, the train caller (“Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga”), a French violin teacher and a telegram boy.
With Abbott and Costello he is slightly inebriated Scotty Brown.
He seemed proudest of the fact that the cartoon, “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips,” for which he supplied all the voices, has been stored for posterity in the Library of Congress.
He’s allergic to carrots, by the way—spits them out as fast as he chews them when doing Bugs Bunny.

Friday 27 December 2013

Shearing Cattle

The climactic scene has arrived. It’s a duel to the death between sheepherder and cattle rancher in “Drag-a-Long Droopy,” one of Tex Avery’s great cartoons. He sets up the collision in long shot.

Then they meet.

And here’s the end result.

Well, no, this is the end result.

It’s the Law of the West, you know.

Animation by Grant Simmons, Walt Clinton, Ray Patterson, Mike Lah and Bob Bentley.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Gift Wrapped Backgrounds

One of the real enjoyable Christmas cartoons is Friz Freleng’s “Gift Wrapped” (1952). It used to air all year round; appropriate, I guess, considering it was originally released to theatres in February. This is the title card artwork.

This time, Irv Wyner came up with the background art from Hawley Pratt’s layouts. His use of light is very much like Paul Julian’s work in the Freleng unit.

And here’s the “censored” ending that was used in cartoons at several different studios.

Ken Champin, Art Davis, Virgil Ross and Manny Perez were the animators; Gerry Chiniquy was out of the business for a bit at this point.