Saturday 31 December 2016

Praise For Silent Cartoons

Cartoons are better than live action films? That’s what Creighton Peet posited in The New Republic in 1929.

Peet blamed the sorry state of live action films—and we’re talking silent films—on the dictates of the Hays Office where right must triumph in the end and irreverence of any kind was forbidden. On the other hand, Peet appreciated the inventiveness of cartoons where question marks that sprouted above heads could be used as props, and trees with huge grins could grow fruit, pick it and eat it. Felix the Cat comes in for special praise.

In some ways, Peet’s article was already out of date by the time it was published. Sound had come in and it changed the narrative and focus of both live action and animated films. Within a few years, Popeye would never grab a question mark and use it as a hook. Walt Disney got hung up on “the illusion of life.” Felix himself disappeared, as did the studio where he worked. And while cartoons were subject to censorial review, the situation was nothing like it became in the TV age, where studios and networks were shamed and pressured to protect stupid children from themselves by eliminating anything that could possibly be duplicated in real life (a character hitting another with a hammer, for example).

Snippets of Peet’s article have been reprinted in Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic and Norman Klein’s 7 Minutes. I can’t find a copy of The New Republic containing it, but here’s a version reprinted in the Baltimore Sun of August 19, 1929. Whether it’s complete, I don’t know.

The Cartoon Comedy
A Spirited And Spritely Defence Of Screen Dramas Involving The Remarkable Adventures Of Felix Cat

(By Creighton Peet, in the New Republic)
When it comes to “pure cinema,” “visual flow,” “graphic representation,” “the freedom of the cinematic medium,” and all the other things learned foreign cinema enthusiasts talk about, nothing that Jannings or Lubitsch or Murnau or Greta Garbo or Rin Tin Tin can do has more of a roll of celluloid’s chance in hell beside Felix Cat and the other animated cartoons. . . .
Unhampered by any such classical limitations as dramatic unities, or even such customary necessities as the laws of gravity, common sense and possibility, the animated drawing is the only artistic medium ever discovered which is really “free.” And this in spite of the fact that it is only an eight-minute tid-bit thrown in at the end of an epic love drama while the audience is being changed. . . .
Careening wildly through three dimensions of space—or even four or five, for all I know—skating on the furthest edge of plausibility, the little black cartoon cat is undismayed by any of the facts of life which might worry a more substantial feline of fur and claws. Gayly, impertinently, he chins himself on the vacant air, hoisting himself into a world of innumerable and elastic dimensions and limitless possibilities, in which every tree and stone has not only a potential life but a complete set of emotions. . . .
To give you a better notion of the freedom with which the cartoon characters slip from one element to another, it may be to the point to sketch a few of these feline scenarios.
For instance, playing in a football game, the little cat finds himself about to be overtaken by a horde of immense animals; he pulls of his ears, sticks them on his tail as the blades of a propeller and soars away to a triumphant touchdown . . . .
In one of Oswald’s fluid dramas, he appears as a very, very love-sick cat. His lady, however, will have none of him and so his little heart swells up to the bursting point, standing out from his chest like a balloon. At last it does break, falling in a shower of little pieces at his feet. Is this the end of Oswald? Certainly not! Philosophically gathering up the scraps, he opens up a little door in his chest, drops the pieces back in place and all is well again. . . .
The ordinary film is now unusually an adventure in propriety, if such a thing is possible. You, the audience, know—and with what tedious certainty--that the familiar and much published “stars,” make and female—the press agent so made he them—will survive at the end, and they will be rich and that they will be united in lawful wedlock. You even know that Virtue will triumph, that Motherhood, Religion and the Government will triumph. You further know that the Irish, the Jews, the Baptists, the British, the French, the Christian Scientists, the Mexicans, the Osteopaths, the Chinese and all other groups capable of supporting press agents who will send out severe letters will be represented in a sweet and noble light. The result of all this is a pretty stiff and formal genuflection in the direction of Mohammed Will Hays’ minaret.
Yes, the cartoon comedy seems to be the only pungent, impertinent and sudden thing that ever reaches the average screen, and the little black cat, bouncing about in his fantastic cosmos, one of the few sparks of vitality in a world of insistent proprieties.

Friday 30 December 2016

Holiday Highlights

The new year is being celebrated at the start of the Warners cartoon Holiday Highlights, directed by Tex Avery and narrated by KFWB announcer Gil Warren. We’re greeted with double-exposure shots.

Here’s the little New Year. “Hey, little man! Can’t you say something to the folks here?”

The infant obeys the narrator’s order, standing up and screaming out “Happy New Year” over and over in a very adult voice (provided by Mel Blanc). His job done, he toddles off again.

A year later, Tex would likely be celebrating as he was at MGM and away from weak spot gag cartoons like this one.

Gil Warren was identified through the research of Keith Scott. Warren narrated two other cartoons for Avery at Warners, then joined him at MGM, as the trades announced he had been signed for You Auto Be in Pictures, which was renamed Car of Tomorrow.

Gilman Colin Warren Rankin was born on April 17, 1911 at 8 Fenelon Street, Boston. His family relocated after World War One to Nogales, Arizona and then to Santa Monica. His father, also named Gil, was convicted of first degree robbery in a high-profile case in 1928 and sentenced to seven years in San Quentin. That’s likely why he took a new surname when he went into professional acting.

He was a graduate of Santa Monica High School and Los Angeles City College. He had been acting at the Gateway Players Theatre when he arrived at KFWB in December 1936, the same month as Arthur Q. Bryan, the voice of Elmer Fudd.

Warren left the station in September 1942 to join the OWI-affiliated shortwave station KWID in San Francisco. He entered the U.S. Marine Corps in February 1943 and served in the South Pacific and Phillipines with the 1st Marine Air Wing. Warren rejoined KFWB in May 1946. He landed the lead in the TV Western The Man in Black in August 1950, but his career was suddenly interrupted when he was recalled into service with the rest of the U.S. Marine, albeit briefly. The last reference I can find to him as Gil Warren is in late 1954 when he went back into television. It was at this point he decided to go professionally by his real name. He appeared in movies (including Midnight Cowboy), stage plays, and was doing commercial voice-overs as late as 1979. Warren died on October 31, 1993.

Thursday 29 December 2016

My Skeleton is You

Like any good silent Max Fleischer character, Koko the Clown morphs in front of a mirror in Koko’s Haunted House (1928).

He becomes a cat.

Then he becomes a skeleton and collapses from fright.

No matter. His skeleton takes over his body.

Max Fleischer is the only one to get credit on these imaginative Inkwell films, other than producer Alfred Weiss.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Mel Blanc on Mel Blanc

It seems odd that there was a time when people had to be told who Mel Blanc was. It was a time before there were adults who had watched Warner Bros. cartoons daily on TV, over and over again. It was a time before Blanc almost died in a car crash (an event which brought him his first front-page publicity).

September 4, 1960 fell during that time. And that’s the date when the New York Herald Tribune profiled him in an unbylined article in its weekend entertainment magazine. Cartoons were for kids, so the feature story only touched briefly on animation. In fact, the pictures of Blanc accompanying the article hearken back to an earlier time—when Blanc played the Train Conductor (Jack Benny), Pedro the Mexican (Judy Canova) and the Happy Postman (Burns and Allen) on radio.

It’s interesting Mel would tell the writer he wasn’t interested in starring in a sitcom. Blanc had already done that—in radio—and the show was a failure. And despite his claims he had more work than he could handle, it didn’t stop him from accepting a regular role on The Flintstones, which hadn’t debuted when this article was written (though the show was already on ABC’s schedule and Blanc had cut soundtracks for it).

By the way, the “sound of a giraffe” was no sound at all. The January 9, 1955 Benny script, after some silence, had Blanc pipe up and declare that giraffes don’t make any noise.

Mel Blanc
“Man Of Many Voices”
THE name of Mel Blanc means little to readers of television news, and his face, seen only on the Jack Benny program in minor comedy roles (see photos opposite page), has just a vague and passing familiarity.
But while there is little likelihood that Blanc would stop any traffic on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, chances are that you can’t turn on your radio or TV set a single day without hearing his voice.
For Mel Blanc is one of those rare, gifted, behind-the-scenes specialists whose forte is unusual voices and sound effects. He’s the screech of brakes, the bark of a dog, the crunch of celery, along with dozens of assorted, anonymous voices. It is a talent possessed by few and is the result of a keen “photographic” ear, an exceptional knack for mimicry and a versatile acting talent.
His Job is Headache-proof
“No,” said Blanc in answer to a question, “I wouldn’t rather have my own show. I don’t have time for it and besides, who needs the headaches? Sure, once in a while I get a sense of frustration when I walk into a dime store and no one recognizes me, but my compensation is in knowing that I’ve got more work than I can possibly handle.”
As to how busy Blanc is, well, he’s the voices of 97% of all the Warner Brothers cartoons including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker. He is called on to do as many as 500 radio and TV commercials a year and he’ll work on approximately half the Benny shows on CBS-TV this season, playing a variety of insulting characters. In addition, he’ll be the voice behind the new Bugs Bunny ABC-TV series which comes on in the fall.
It is Blanc’s unmatched ability to imitate animals sounds that keeps him particularly busy. Producers have found that regardless of how well an animal is trained, it is almost impossible to get them to make noises at the right time. Instead of taking weeks to train a horse to whinny on cue, they found it simpler and cheaper to employ Blanc.
Where there are many pressures, there is also a lighter side. In particular, Blanc delights in telling of the running challenge that has been going on for years between the Jack Benny writers on one hand, and himself.
“In the rehearsal scripts,” says Blanc, “they usually write in cue lines like Mel does the sound of a giraffe or Mel whinnies like an English horse, and then it’s up to me to come up with something. It’s given us a lot of laughs over the years.
On another occasion during a rehearsal, the sound record of Jack Benny’s famed old Maxwell breaking down, broke down and Blanc stepped in with such a realistic vocal sound effect that Benny insisted it be kept in the show.
“To this day,” he said, “whenever you hear the Maxwell sputtering and coughing, it’s always me. When it runs smoothly, that’s a record.”
Blanc never started out to be a sound effect or behind-the-scenes voice. He was a musician who eventually gravitated to radio where his unusual talent was discovered.
When Blanc isn’t busy being everything and everyone else, he’s a mild-mannered fifty-two-year-old man who lives quietly in Pacific Palisades, California with his wife and twenty-one-year-old son, Noel, a senior at U.C.L.A. For what it’s worth, he’s honorary mayor of the two as well as one called Big Bear Lake.
Whatever time can be taken away from his unusual profession is spent with a business he’s developed where he prepares ideas for commercials on radio and TV, and his hobby of collecting antique watches. He has more than two hundred and fifty which are insured for $50,000.
And while Blanc’s profession may not make him the best known personality outside of the industry, there’s nothing bashful or anonymous about his income. He admitted that he earns over $100,000 a year.
Would he care to say how much over?
“Well, I’m superstitious about pinning it to an exact figure,” he laughed. “Let’s just leave it at that.”

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Duck! Rabbit! Duck! Elk! Fiddler Crab!

“Shoot me again! I enjoy it. I love the smell of burnt feathers. And gunpowder. And cordite. I’m an elk! Shoot me! Go, it’s elk season. I’m a fiddler crab. Why don’t you shoot me? It’s fiddler crab season.” Mike Maltese’s famous lines from Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953). Here are some of the poses.

Ken Harris, Abe Levitow, Ben Washam, Lloyd Vaughan and Dick Thompson get the animation credits.

Monday 26 December 2016

From Broadway to Underdog

Here’s some Broadway trivia:

When Hans Conried left the cast of “Can-Can” in 1954, he was replaced by George S. Irving. Conried didn’t set foot on the Great White Way again for 20 years. When he returned, he was hired as a replacement to play Madame Lucy in the musical “Irene.” Whom did he replace? George S. Irving.

Irving (who was plain old “George Irving” until 1947 when Equity forced him to change his billing) had an impressive string of Broadway appearances, but is probably best known to you and me as being part of a good little voice cast employed by Total TeleVision Productions. Irving is the one who reminded us of the evil things that Simon Bar Sinister did to Sweet Polly Purebread on the last episode of Underdog. Irving’s narrator voice was pretty recognisable and you could hear him on commercial voiceovers that came out of New York, though he insisted that wasn’t his forte.

Perhaps his most unusual role was as that most unusual president, Richard Nixon. Irving played him on stage while I-Am-Not-a-Crook was still in his first term in the White House. Harvey Pack’s TV Key column wrote about it on May 18, 1972.
A TV Commercial Face as Mr. President
NEW YORK— When George S. Irving, familiarly seen in TV commercials, was growing up in Springfield, Mass., he never thought he might end up President of the United States, but at least for the present that seemingly impossible idea has been realized— thanks to Gore Vidal's entertaining yet frequently heavy-handed Broadway satire, "An Evening with Richard Nixon And..."
Even if the play folds, tomorrow, Irving has enjoyed his brief tenure as Chief Executive of Broadway, and during a recent luncheon at Sardi's I heard him greeted by at least a half a dozen people as "Mr. President," and then watched him respond by clasping his hands over his head in the manner of the man who is more concerned about the possibility of closing in November than Saturday night.
Irving does not look exactly like Nixon. He has the same general facial structure and — aided by a wig and a Nixon nose, which the show's make-up man (who has made up the President for TV) bakes in an oven by the dozen — he does an amazing job on stage.
A working actor and member of the regular company of David Frost's syndicated revue show, George once did a portion of the famed "Checkers" speech in a sketch, the producers of the Vidal play saw it and he was invited to audition. A McGovern Democrat, Mr. Irving does, not make his characterization of the President into a caricature. "Remember the words we use are his own, and, if I overplayed the part, I would shift the emphasis from the dialogue and hurt the play," said Irving.
The play has enjoyed a mixed reaction. Even at this writing nobody knows whether it will be running next week. It suffers primarily from its biased point of view which is so obvious it infuriates people who are pro-Nixon; anti-Nixon liberals react as liberals invariably do by siding with the underdog — in this case President Nixon. In addition, Mr. Vidal has directed his barbs at such American heroes as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Washington which, combined with his treatment of Mr. Nixon, reminds me of the line Mort Sahl always used at the end of his act: "Are there any groups or individuals I have not picked on tonight?"
But no matter what fate may be in store for Mr. Vidal's political diatribe it has been a triumph for George S. Irving. George and his wife, Maria Karnilova, who won a Tony for her performance as Tevya's wife in "Fiddler on the Roof," have succeeded in raising a family in New York while working in the theater without ever moving to Hollywood or doing a daytime drama on TV.
George has been in scores of Broadway productions but never really enjoyed the recognition he has won for his impersonation of President Nixon. "Now that I've played a lead... a title role, in fact... I guess I've proven something," Irving said.
As a working actor George is in no position to enjoy the thrill of playing a lead. He was on his way to an audition for a Broadway play scheduled for the fall and he still makes his daily rounds for commercials.
"I've lived off commercials for years," he said. “They paid for our summer house upstate as well as for some peace of mind. Oddly enough I've never had any luck with voice-overs. I have the kind of face the sponsor wants to see on camera. I suppose you could call it the average man look,” and, at the thought of President Nixon as Mr. Average Man being very employable for TV commercials, we both laughed.
Irving won a Tony for a role which wasn’t his to begin with, as Best Supporting Actor opposite Debbie Reynolds in “Irene.” Let’s see what “Midnight Earl” had to say about it. This column appeared in newspapers around March 17, 1973.
Irving won't be stereotyped

"They're not going to typecast me," strong-jawed George Irving said the other night in Sardi's looking across the dining room at Debbie Reynolds and her chorus-girl daughter Carrie. "In 'Irene,' I'm an effeminate courtier named 'Madame Lucy' and not many months ago I was President Nixon in Gore Vidal's show and also on a David Frost Special.
"Besides that," I pointed out, "you're all over TV doing commercials."
Irving sipped some applejack and gingerale and permitted some kidding about the commercials. He pretended not to remember the name of one cigar, but he remembered asking the president at a tobacco firm, "Do you smoke these?" and the prez shook his head no. "I have a roomful of Havanas," the prez declared. He also has a soap commercial and, laughingly he said, "That stuff'll kill you...take the hide right off of you."
The portrayal of President Nixon was fresh in his memory about three months ago when he was in Boston in a show called "Comedy" which folded. He was out of work. He had delighted everybody with a "Nixon inaugural address" for Frost.
The President had been dividing his time between the Washington White House, the San Clemente White House, the Camp David While House and the Key Biscayne White House, and "now I'd like to announce the opening of a swell new White House at Disneyland where you can eat all you want for $3.95," the President said (in the sketch).
"The next four years I will continue to do battle against the three isms that threaten us—communism, fascism and journalism," he also had the President say (courtesy of writers Tony Geiss and Gary Belkin).
That was over, too. Agent Milton Goldman urged him to rush back to N.Y. to see Sir John Gielgud, director of Debbie's new show "Irene" which was in much trouble. Billy DeWolfe decided he didn't want to continue playing Madame Lucy, a New York courtier who never made good till he went to Paris and began calling himself "Lucy."
"It's an extravagant, elegant character with little zany gestures. I took the part and when Gower Champion came in as director, he made it a little nuttier," Irving said.
The result is one of the funniest characters in years, especially when Irving (who has sung with the New York City Opera), flounces around with "Madame Lucy and the Debutantes" singing "They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me."
Madame Lucy, in fact, sings all over the place and gets into a delicate situation with Patsy Kelly, the Irish mother of 9th Avenue Irene, which isn't fair to discuss further until you've seen the show. George E. Irving isn't his real name and I don't know what it is. He's from Springfield Mass., has been married 25 years to beautiful actress Maria Karnilova, has two grown children and is Russian-Jewish. He's a New York actor who's never gone to Hollywood and has made it acting and not going to side jobs.
The jokes fly. In one scene he teaches the girls to model. "At the least sign of impertinence knuckles will be rapped," he announces. And hits the desk, rapping hell out of his own knuckles. "That was my thimble finger," he shrieks.
Saturday morning cartoons didn’t get much respect until the people who watched them grew up and then wrote about them. You won’t find newspaper stories in the 1960s where Irving comments about his earnest narration in Underdog, or a decade later when his voice appeared every Christmas as the Heat Miser in the TV feature The Year Without a Santa Claus. But you can read about the producers of Underdog in Mark Arnold’s book, and of the many stop-motion and animated works of the Rankin/Bass people who brought you the Heat Miser in Rick Goldschmidt’s book.

Nearby Mount Crumpit

Before we leave Christmas behind, let us take a look at the snowy Mt. Crumpit from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Layouts are by Oscar Dufau and Don Morgan, and the backgrounds were painted by Phil De Guard, Bob Inman and Hal Ashmead.

Designer Maurice Noble, I suspect, is responsible for the mood colour change in that last frame, as the personality of the Grinch has turned bright and sunny. Colour-for-mood is employed elsewhere in the cartoon.