Thursday, 23 June 2016

Walter Winchell Sphinx

Everyone was convinced after the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where RCA demonstrated and broadcast television and then began somewhat regular programming, that TV was right around the corner. There had been constant talk about it for a dozen years by that point and there had been experimental broadcasts in the late ‘20s.

So it was that the writers at the Screen Gems cartoon studio used the growing medium as the subject for one of their spot-gag cartoons, Tangled Television, for release by Columbia. Every studio seemed to release a spot-gagger of some kind after the wild success Tex Avery enjoyed with them at Warner Bros. (Detouring America was nominated for an Oscar in 1939). Generally, they paled by comparison.

Interestingly, the writers at Columbia used the earlier medium of radio as spot gags in a cartoon about TV. One gag has a punch line involving Amos ‘n’ Andy. The next one has narrator Mel Blanc state “We are now visiting the colossus of the Nile, the mysterious and silent sphinx.” The sphinx then launches into a spiel borrowed from Walter Winchell, bobbing its head around. Here are a few drawings.

Sid Marcus is the director of this one. He handles this scene a bit differently than Avery might have. The camera continues to pan toward the sphinx after Blanc’s narration stops. Then the sphinx goes into its routine. I can see Avery having the camera stop before the narration ends, hold the shot long enough to make the sphinx appear “silent” (as per the narration), then launch into its spiel.

There are some interesting layouts at the start of the short (I have no idea who handled layouts at Columbia in this period). The animation is credited to Art Davis and Herb Rothwell, though Davis once said he and Marcus had their names on each other’s cartoons but didn’t work on them. Boxoffice magazine was impressed in its October 19, 1940 edition:
Tangled Television
Columbia (Color Rhapsody) 7 1/2 Mins.
First-rate cartoon entertainment is the order here. In Technicolor and with tongue-in-cheek, the action burlesques the arrival of television. A trio of bewhiskered scientists who resemble The Three Stooges present their invention which, after first laying eggs, shows the television dream girl who is lost when there is distortion and India with a native selling programs. Then the Sphinx speaks in Egypt, like Winchell; a couple of mummies sing "Comin' Round the Mountain." The performance closes in Venice. It holds up from start to finish.
The cartoon was released on August 30, 1940. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Times doesn’t reveal what, if anything, aired on local television that day, though W6XAO had broadcast TV’s first live wedding only weeks before.


  1. I can say one thing is those scientists don't really resemble the Three Stooges at all.

  2. The timing is interesting; Italy wouldn't have been in the war during production, but attacked France just a handful of weeks before the release. The no stoop no squat no squint, of course, is a reference to prevalent ads for Philco radios (Avery made a reference in Cinderella Meets Fella).

  3. Winchell was spoofed as "Walter Windshield" in a Porky Pig cartoon (I think it was "Porky's Hero Agency").