Thursday 30 April 2015

The Disney Strike, 1925

“Alice’s Egg Plant” (1925) is interesting to watch with the hindsight of knowing the Walt Disney cartoon studio would be hit with a strike years later and Disney would blame it on Communists. That’s exactly what happens in this silent cartoon.

Here’s the dreaded Ruskie rooster planting a suitcase bomb under a railway track. I suppose that’s to set up his evilness because the cartoon never follows up on this as part of the plot. I guess the “A” that forms in his eyes stands for “Anarchist.”

Or maybe it stands for “Art Babbitt,” inciting a strike amongst the animators.

Rooster against rooster foreshadows animator against animator perhaps.

There are no animation credits on this short.

Wednesday 29 April 2015

Fred Allen on the Ills of Radio

You might wonder if Fred Allen hated radio so much, hated its commercialism (for that matter, he disliked the non-commercial BBC), hated its management, even hated the very people who came to see him in the studio, why he bothered to stay in the business. Someone asked him that question and got an answer.

One could cynically suggest it was the hefty salary that Allen received, but material things never seemed to mean much to Allen. He lived quite modestly and regularly gave handouts to total strangers on the street. No, Allen gives the same answer I’ve heard from veteran radio people even today.

The Chicago Tribune syndicated this feature story on November 7, 1948. Allen was into his final radio season and the story focuses on Allen’s peeves about the radio industry, sans any of his bile aimed at game shows (though he refers to the ratings, where he was getting kicked by “Stop the Music”). So don’t expect any withering commentary on Hollywood in this go around.

The drawing accompanied the article.


BREAKFAST Is just a little bit more trying to Portland Hoffa than to the average housewife. Fred Allen, her husband, instead of reading one paper while grappling with the grapefruit, tussles with nine. Moreover, he flourishes a razor blade attached to a long handle at frequent intervals. These slashings, with luck, may later yield an idea for a question.
Meanwhile, Allen's writers—he maintains from three to five—are snipping papers elsewhere around Manhattan, In due time they meet Allen and everyone fishes these scraps of paper out of his pockets. Shortly, the place looks like a confetti factory. Sometimes these sessions, long arduous, may result on a subsequent Sunday in a bit of topical satire or some wry comment on the manners and morals of the times.
If so, Allen will have to do a lot of work before the finished product reaches the air. The best his writers do is to spark-plug him. He writes volumniously between lines of any copy turned out by his writers.
After sweating out his script, Allen regularly throws much of it away during rehearsal, as he thinks up better lines or substitutes comment still more acrid when he gets on the air.
* * *
He has been on the air fifteen years now (he took one year off) and he's still at the top. John Steinbeck proclaimed him "the best humorist of our time."
Edgar Bergen, no minor comic himself, says "Allen is the greatest living comedian." Whatever else he may be, he's the best ad libber of our time.
In his asides Allen maintains that the outlook for radio, particularly for a radio comedian (and for that matter the whole human race) is dark. If Allen derives any comfort or cheer from leading the radio parade he gives no glimmer of it in private conversation.
"Why do you continue in radio?" I asked him when we last met.
"Because I'm 63 years old and don't know what else to do," he replied. "I couldn't stand traipsing around the country any more, sleeping in bad hotels. I can earn a living in radio, so I stick with it."
Reminiscing about his days in vaudeville And on the legitimate stage, Allen got around to a credible explanation of why he avoids capital letters on his typewriter. Fred doesn't like suggestions that he copied from e. e. cummings.
"It happened in Chicago back in 1927," Fred recalled. "A bellhop dropped my Corona—and thereafter it worked only in lower case. I never bothered to have it fixed."
* * *
Progress in radio?
"I've survived three presidents and countless sets of vice presidents," says Allen, "and the only improvement I've noticed around Radio City is that the lights have been dimmed in the elevators so that the operators can't read Racing Form while working." And even that might not have been necessary."
"A good many of them already had astigmatism," Allen explained.
"The greatest trouble with entertainment as it exists today," says Allen, "is the fact that no one involved in it is really interested in the creative side of it. The network wants to sell the time, the advertising agency wants to keep the client pacified, and the client wants to sell the soap. So, in and around the unholy three the writers and the actors run in bewildered circles. Their fates are hinged on the Hooper, a mythical decimal record that comes out once a month (God knows where)."
Allen can be optimistic about American radio only when he thinks of the BBC.
"If you heard some of the English radio programs you'd be very happy to take our programs as they are. . . . They start off in the morning when a taxidermist goes on telling you how to stuff a field mouse or something, for three hours. That goes on, more or less, all during the day."
* * *
Allen's acidosis has been considerably aggravated by censorship, which in his view frequently has been tied up with vice presidents and to a lesser degree with sponsors and their agencies.
"A vice president," according to a considered Allen definition, "is a man who doesn't know precisely what his job is and by the time he finds out he no longer is with the organization."
Allen was cut off the air at the instance of a vice president who didn't like something the comedian said about the V. P. in charge of programs. That vice president subsequently did find himself out of a job after various comedians had rallied to the defense of Allen and made the network look pretty silly. "The performer and the agency producing a show should be the arbiters of taste," Allen holds. "In the long run it simply doesn't pay a comedian to offend the public. I wouldn't offend a single person, I don't think, If let alone and yet I've been pictured as a sort of ogre—the Dean of Bad Taste."
* * *
Allen asserts that radio dominated by business men instead of by people who know the show and entertainment business. This is a matter of exceeding regret to him.
"I think if I went in to Mr. Charles Luckman," Allen said recently (he's not Allen's sponsor), "and showed him how to make soap, he'd resent it. He knows what goes on in the vat there, I don't knew anything about that. By that same token I don't think he should come and tell me how to write jokes."
Allen's estimate of the advertising agency account man is not high either, when it comes to his function with reference to radio.
"An account executive," he once explained, "is a man with a crew cut who lives in Connecticut. He gets to the office at 10 a. m. and finds a mole hill on his desk. He has until 4 p.m. to make, a mountain out of it."
One of the greatest obstacles confronting a radio comedian, says Allen, is that "negative flotsam," the studio audience.
"Where they come from; where they go, nobody-knows," Allen lamented. "You can work in front of a studio audience and learn precisely nothing. The same people show up week after week, year after year, nobody cares."
On another occasion Allen observed: "The radio program should be, written to appeal to people in their homes. You go into a studio, you have two or three hundred people in your audience, and their reaction decides how your program is being received. A great many people at home say: 'How was the program? Well, the studio audience didn't laugh.' They enjoy it by remote control or something. It's the old Greek drama—a fellow runs in and tells you something exciting has happened in the street, and all you see is a winded man.
"The radio, as an instrument, is in your home the same as a phonograf. And, consequently, I think your entertainment should come out of it, geared to the size of your room, not with three or four hundred people whistling and hollering and yelling and throwing pies at each other."
* * *
On the question of an editorial policy for broadcasters Allen is on record; 'Mr. Niles Trammell, the president of NBC, made a speech before the Federal Communications commission (on the Mayflower decision banning radio editorials) and he was so impressed by what he heard as he was speaking, he published his talk in a little brochure, which I read, and it's very interesting. Mr. Trammell feels that stations should have the right to an editorial policy. Personally, I don't agree with him on this issue, among other things.
"Radio City is to me a big phone booth. You go in there and you pay and you say what you have to say and you hang up and come out. And I think that thru the various discussions and round tables that both sides of almost every question are heard by the people who are interested in hearing them."
On the matter of platter chatter, now flooding the air, Allen has been mercifully brief: "All you need to be a disk jockey is to be able to stay awake, have a needle and a record."
And with the whole broadcasting industry whooping it up for video, Allen cautions: "There are millions of people in New York who don't even know what television is. They are not old enough to go into saloons.
"Today television is just like when radio started with crystal sets. People used to stay up all night and brag that they heard Pittsburgh, and look what's happened to radio. Or don't look what's happened to radio!"
* * *
Such is Allen's attitude toward the medium he works in. He is amiable enough personally. His friends are ordinary folks, mostly, in lowly walks of life. He's the easiest touch in Manhattan. He used to answer all letters personally. Nowadays he gets hundreds, but he still pecks out replies to many every week. He's had to have an unlisted phone number for years, so he can get some work done.
When last in New York I called his old phone, but found that it had been changed. (The guy who had been assigned his former number wanted to talk about all the experiences he had had with people trying to call Allen.) Allen's associates wouldn't give out his new number. I wired him and asked whether we could meet for a brief chat.
He phoned several times, I learned on returning to my hotel, but wouldn't leave a number. Finally came one more call: "Where have you been?" he growled. "I've been sitting in this phone booth all afternoon calling you every five minutes."
Well, he came over and we talked for a half hour. Then he suggested going out for a bite. We sought out what we thought would be a secluded place. No sooner were we seated when a hefty chap rushed up and grabbed Allen's hand: "Why, Fred, I haven't seen you since the Chicago fair." Allen, thinking the fellow was perhaps an acquaintance of mine, listened to his story of the 14 intervening years. Finally the fellow finished.
After he had gone Fred scanned the menu, ordered the vegetable plate and said: 'I wasn't at the Chicago fair!"

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Daffy Duck Smears

Some smear animation from “My Favorite Duck,” a 1942 Chuck Jones cartoon. These are consecutive frames.

And from earlier in the cartoon.

Monday 27 April 2015

Tex's Sleeping Bear

Tex Avery must have had some kind of hang-up about sleep. Several of his MGM cartoons and two of his four cartoons at Walter Lantz revolved around someone making noise to disturb someone else who doesn’t want to be disturbed.

One is “Rock-a-Bye Bear,” released in 1952, which has a neat little story by Heck Allen and Rich Hogan. Avery loved surprising his audience with unexpected things. There’s a great irony that the hibernating bear that can’t stand noise is the noisiest character in the cartoon. And he lives in a nice, modern home, but suddenly unveils his bed is actually in a cave in a hole in the wall. Unexpected, but logical.

The bear doesn’t drowsily drop off to sleep like in a late 1930s cartoon. He hits the ground an immediately starts snoring. Avery handles this in an eight-drawing cycle, each drawing lasting one frame of film. Here are the individual drawings.

We’ve re-created the cycle, though it’s a little slower than it is in the actual cartoon.

Mike Lah, Walt Clinton and Grant Simmons are the credited animators. The bear’s closed eyes are like the way Don Patterson used to draw them at Hanna-Barbera. While Patterson was at MGM in the Lah-Blair unit in the latter ‘40s, I couldn’t tell you when he left Metro or exactly (to the month and year) when he ended up at the Walter Lantz studio.

Sunday 26 April 2015

The Life and Career of Jack Benny

Jack Benny’s story has been the subject of several books, but also appeared over the years in feature columns of a number of newspapers and newspaper wire services.

For two Sundays in a row, Chicago Tribune’s TV Times devoted space in weekend TV supplement to analyse and biographise (if that’s a word) the comedian whose career just kept rolling along. We’ll present it on two consecutive weekends as well, unfortunately without the photos that accompanied the articles.

This one was published on December 17, 1960.

by Richard Blakesley
TV Week Editor

JACK BENNY made his first appearance before a nation-wide audience on Ed Sullivan's radio program in 1932. His first words were: "Hello, folks. This is Jack Benny.... There will now be a slight pause for everyone to say, 'Who cares?"'
Apparently a lot of people cared, for he was soon back on the air as the star of his own show.
Now, 28 years later, Benny is still the star of his own show, and in a startling move belying his "39 years." He has programmed his 1960-61 appearances on a weekly basis rather than every other week as was his schedule last season.
In television, where a 39 week contract has been a cradle-to-grave experience for many performers, Benny's move marks him as something of a rebel. Virtually every other comedian in the field—including several considerably less than 39 years of age—has either taken himself off television entirely or reduced appearances to one or two a month or once-in-a-while "specials."
But Benny, now well into his 11th year on TV, isn't afraid the pace will kill him physically or professionally. In addition to his TV show, he is booked for night clubs and concert engagements with such major symphony orchestras as those in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis.
He will, of course, be violin soloist. But he'll not play "Love in Bloom" that made him famous. On these occasions he will tackle such major fiddle fodder as selections from Mendelssohn and Rimsky-Korsakov.
After his almost three decades as an entertainer, audiences still wonder: Is Jack a virtuoso sidetracked into a career as a comedian or a classic comic with a musical side line?
When asked that question recently in Chicago, Benny gave his famous long look and uttered that unfunny word that always evokes audience hysteria: "Well . . . !"
Perhaps Isaac Stern, the violinist, knew the answer when he said: "When Jack walks out in tails in front of 90 musicians, he looks like the greatest of soloists. What a shame he has to play!"
THIS PARADOX of the entertainment world was born Benny Kubelsky on Feb. 14, 1894. His father ran a clothing store in Waukegan, Ill., but Benny was born in Chicago where his mother had been transported for his birth. "The only reason I conceal my age," says Benny, "is that if I told it nobody would believe me."
And he's right, for at 66 he has the appearance of a man much younger. Scarcely out of diapers, he began, at his father's behest, taking violin lessons. While still in grammar school he became the only knickerbockered member of the orchestra at the Barrison theater in Waukegan. During high school he doubled between the school band and the Barrison job, and at 16 he teamed up with Cora Salisbury, the Barrison pianist, as a vaudeville act. When Miss Salisbury left the act, Benny joined Lyman Woods and the team of Benny and Woods became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit.
During World War I Benny was in the navy. His chief job was raising money for navy relief. His routine in the Great Lakes revue was entirely musical. but one night during his performance the lights went out in the auditorium. To keep the crowd from getting restless, Benny and a pianist named Zez Confrey [he later wrote "Kitten on the Keys"] began to talk. The audience roared with laughter.
It was this ad libbing in an emergency which first indicated to Benny that he could be funny. It is ironic that an ad lib started him on his phenomenal career as a comedian because ever since he began broadcasting he has never ad libbed, depending entirely on carefully prepared material.
This dependence on script led Fred Allen to remark: "Benny couldn't ad lib a belch after a Hungarian dinner."
AFTER THE war, Benny returned to vaudeville, billed as Ben Benny. The name resulted in some confusion with another fiddle player of the 1920s, Ben Bernie. The Vaudeville Managers association telegraphed Benny at the Orpheum theater in St. Louis asking him to change it.
Benny discussed the problem at lunch that day with Benny Rubin, who also was on the Orpheum bill. Several sailors entering the restaurant, remembering Benny from his Great Lakes days, saluted him with the friendly term they use to address each other: "Hi, Jack!"
Rubin was quick to recognize the possibility of the name. "That's it," he exclaimed, "Jack-Jack Benny."
And so it has been ever since.
From vaudeville, Jack Benny progressed to musical comedy for Earl Carroll and the Shuberts. During a Los Angeles engagement of a Shubert musical he met Mary Livingstone, at that time not in show business. They were married in 1927.
After his debut on the Ed Sullivan radio show in 1932, Benny gave up a highly paid role in an Earl Carroll musical to try radio. He gambled on his theory that radio was the future entertainment medium, and from the start [on the Canada Dry program] his concept was to provide a set of characters listeners would come to recognize and look for every week. And from the start he was the lovable boob, the prime example of human frailties and the butt of most of the jokes on the show.
His first vocalist set the pace for the others. Frank Parker was a tenor, and so were Kenny Baker, Larry Stevens, and Dennis Day, and all except Parker were unknown when Benny put them on the air. All became not only legitimate singers but highly skilled comedians developed under Benny's tutelage.
Benny has starred in more than 1,000 radio and TV programs, most all of them based on a single theme—his stinginess. Next week's installment attempts to explain this phenomenon which defies all experts on comedy geriatrics.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Phil Scheib

If there’s one cartoon music composer who is derided, it’s Phil Scheib, responsible for scoring (and perhaps arranging) the music accompanying Heckle and Jeckle and all your other Terrytoons favourites.

Scheib didn’t have the luxury of a full symphony orchestra, like at Warners or MGM. He had the handicap of not being able to use music outside the public domain because producer Paul Terry wouldn’t pay for it. After a while, his scores started sounding pretty similar. Just as you could bet you’d hear the same splash sound effect that popped up in the last Terry cartoon you watched, you just knew a saxophone would be skipping around the scale during a chase scene.

It might leave you with the impression that Scheib was just another hack, but when Terry kissed off his cartoon studio for millions and CBS brought in Gene Deitch to produce, people (including Deitch) learned otherwise. Terry, Scheib told Deitch, was responsible for lacklustre scores he was forced to write, and proceeded to come up with musical material far more interesting.

Plenty has been written about Carl Stalling, who set the standard for cartoon scores. Scott Bradley has somewhat received his due. But little has been said about many of the others who worked on animated shorts in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. We’ve posted about Van Beuren’s Gene Rodemich here, and now here’s a little biography of Scheib. It came from the Mount Vernon Daily Argus of July 14, 1932. The writer’s crack about Tin Pan Alley shows she was more an aficionado of the classics as, apparently, was Scheib. You see to the right a radio listing for a local radio programme he did on Thursday nights in 1927. It certainly wasn’t dance band music.

Our Famous Neighbors
The three young men who create and produce one of this country's best-loved "talkie" features, all live in Westchester. They are Paul Terry of Larchmont, Frank Moser of Hastings, and Philip Scheib of New Rochelle.
Of the three, "Phil" Scheib contributes the music.
He writes it by a stop-watch; it has to synchronize to a split second with the action of the picture; he writes it by the feet—and knows exactly how many feet of melody must be made to fit an equal number of feet of action. If there is any phase of this modern age which ilustrates [sic] perfectly the way in which music has become the hand-maid of the machine, it is in the production of the music for these "talkie" cartoons. That does not imply that it has also become servile but rather that even the great rattle and glamor of modern mechanics cannot get along without a musical setting and that music is adaptable to and fits in with every new development created by man.
Philip Scheib is not to be confused with one of the modern musical composers from Tin Pan Alley. He is a musician with a thorough and profound knowledge of his subject; he is a composer; and he is convinced that the "talkie" cartoon represents the most perfect coordination of the arts that the world has ever seen. It requires everything—play-writing, dialogue, verse, dancing and music. It is notable that in the 65 original scores he has written for the Terrytunes, there has never been a slip-up of a second in the synchronization of the music with the action.
He is 36 years old and a native of New York City. When he was scarcely more than a boy, he went to Germany to study music and shortly was convinced that his greatest field of usefulness rested in conducting. When he was 17 he received an honorary diploma from the Stern Conservatory of Music in Berlin, and when he came back to this country, the same year, it was as musical director for the famous operetta, "The Chocolate Soldier." For a period of years he directed a chain of ten theaters. He was musical director, also, for Adelaide and Hughes and travelled extensively with them.
The closing of so many theaters, the disbanding of so many orchestras, was one factor in his going into the movies and there he found a work sufficiently fascinating and with an interesting future to have engrossed him for the past several years. He wrote the score and theme song for D. W. Griffith's recent picture. "The Struggle," and holds the position of musical director for Griffith.
He lives at 891 Webster Avenue, New Rochelle, nearly opposite the Nature Woods. His small daughter, Barbara Ann, who has just learned to walk and to talk, gives every evidence of following in her father's foot-steps for she carries a tune with no difficulty at all and can sing through the nursery songs she has picked up from her mother. Barbara Ann is a blonde and pink baby, very much the kind one sees on magazine covers; she inherits her blondeness from her petite mother; her gifts from her father include not only what seems to be an unusual proclivity for things musical, but such a wealth of affection, intelligently controlled, as falls to the lot of few children. Philip Scheib worships his small daughter and thinks it a proud and lovely thing to talk of her. He has a direct and simple manner of speech, entirely disarming, with a quiet dignity that results in a personality the strength of which both men and women recognize. His heart is in his home and in his music and obviously he is making a success of both.

Friday 24 April 2015

Hey, Mickey, Duck!

Train tracks? Early Disney? That means a cow must be blocking the way. That eventually happens in “Mickey’s Choo Choo” (1929), along with some other re-used ideas, but first we have a cartload of ducks stuck on the tracks.

Here comes Mickey’s Choo Choo.


And when the feathers clear...

You can see the ducks are into the same quacking cycle animation. Compare their heads in the above drawing with the first one posted.

Ub Iwerks gets the only credit. Trésors Disney says Ben Sharpsteen animated some scenes, too.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Smoking Nazi

They’re hiding everywhere, as we learn in the 1944 cartoon “A Lecture on Camouflage.”

Private Snafu takes a drag on his smoke, after giving a cigarette to a German speaking tree. Both blow smoke rings.

Snufu realises something is wrong. Here’s the take.

Snafu looks around. Check out the eye-lids.

This short was from the Chuck Jones unit, so his usual crew including Ken Harris and Ben Washam would have worked on it.