Tuesday 31 October 2017

Cartoondom's Greatest Singing Headstones

One of the greatest cartoons by the Fleischer studios is Swing You Sinners! (1930). Bimbo ends up in a graveyard where everything comes to life and ghosts emerge to taunt him. To think this was the same studio that made those dreadful Stone Age cartoons ten years later.

Here’s a scene after Bimbo’s feet have turned to ice in fear. The tombstones grow faces and sing mournfully to him “This is your finish, brother.” Bimbo looks through his hat and then buries his head, only to have it pop up from one of the graves. The bone his head has displaced is gently picked up and lowered to the ground by his ears.

This cartoon is so imaginative and bizarre. The music is first-rate. I never tire of watching it.

Ted Sears and Willard Bowsky receive screen animation credits but, as Mark Kausler has pointed out, Grim Natwick animated parts of this, too.

The aforementioned song is Rube Bloom’s “Song of the Bayou.” You can hear a 1929 version below.

Monday 30 October 2017

Bugs and Daffy Make a Cartoon

One of the real treats of the original Bugs Bunny Show in prime time was the little cartoons with a running story that ran between the old theatrical cartoons. They were classy-looking and always amusing.

Here are some frames from one of them, where Bugs walks off stage and into the adjacent animation studio to show us how cartoons are made. It’s really a lot of fun.

Bugs shows off a storyboard for Transylvania 6-5000.

He plays a disc of Mel Blanc’s voice and confidentially tells us that he supplies Mel’s voice.

Next comes the flipping of the animation drawings, rough and cleaned-up versions. Daffy Duck then barges in to demonstrate his clean-up skills. He draws himself over Tweety. His animation skills leave much to be desired.

Does anyone know who animated this? Bugs’ head is very round here. Not the later dome-headed Bugs that Jones tried to foist upon the masses.

Maurice Noble (layout) and Phil De Guard (background)?

Daffy is called to the producer’s office for a job. The last scene shows what it is.

So what happened to these great little cartoons? Jerry Beck talked about it in 2013. I don’t think the situation has changed since but I’ll be happy if I’m wrong.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Observations on Jack Benny

Social media and 24-hour news channels magnify pop culture, especially when someone dies. They don’t even have to be A-listers for the internet and airwaves to be filled with mourning.

That wasn’t the case years ago when you had local newspapers and a few channels on TV. Someone had to be incredibly important in show business to be eulogised and analysed in the media upon their death.

Jack Benny was one of those people.

It’s somewhat remarkable to read the editorial sections of small town newspapers, where the editor or columnist would use up space to explain what Benny meant to the world. Major papers did the same thing. The Boston Globe had at least a couple of columns.

One columnist gave a personal remembrance of Benny in his missive to readers on December 28, 1974, two days after Jack died. I haven’t been able to divine the date of the Met appearance. Benny appeared at that theatre in 1936. Sam Hearn was on the radio with him from Boston, but didn’t appear at the Met with him. Hearn did appear with Benny in 1942 in Boston, but it wasn’t at the Metropolitan. No matter, I suppose. It’s a nice personal reflection.
Jack Benny was an institution
By Ernie Santosuosso

Globe Staff
Jack Benny, who died Thursday night, aged 80, was not only funny, he was also persuasive.
Long ago when radio receivers were encased in wood cabinets, Jack Benny influenced me to eat his sponsor’s product, Jello.
His opening greeting each Sunday night at 7 was “Jello again, this is Jack Benny.”
Before Don Law invaded the Music Halls with his electric rock-‘n-rollers, dressed-up people would flock to the then Metropolitan Theater (its original name), to see and hear the bands and the touring movie stars.
The first in-person show I ever attended was a Jack Benny performance at the Met. This marked a milestone in my life. His wife Mary Livingstone sang a song, and Jack brought out another member of his radio family, Sam Hearne [sic]. On the radio show, Hearn was known as Schlepperman, to whom Benny would feed straight lines and Hearne would fire back Yiddish-dialect gags. Much of that show is only a hazy memory now but I’ll never forget the ingenious windup.
Benny, insisting on playing his violin, bowed on and on, totally oblivious to the fact that the opening credits to the feature picture were being shown on the screen and his squeaky fiddle playing ie’s [sic] sound track music.
Jack stole the show at Symphony Hall on Feb. 11, 1968, when he played violin in front of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The event was a benefit concert for the orchestra’s pension fund. He told the audience that the violin cost him $110, although the comedian did own a Stradivarius. The newspaper review appearing the morning after noted that his performance contained “some of the best musical clowning since the Hoffnung Festivals of London” and that he had “the best portamento” (passage from one note to another in a continuous glide) the reviewer had ever heard.”
Surprisingly, the comedian seized upon a portion of my review of his appearance at Framingham’s Carousel Theater in July 1967, to create a genuinely funny bit. I had written: “He could read off the back of a cereal box and the people would fall on the floor.”
The following night Benny walked on stage carrying a package of corn flakes. After alluding to my reference to the cereal, Benny announced that he wished to test the audience’s risibilities and check out my assessment of his laugh-getting talent. Donning his reading glasses, Jack began to read the ingredients list on the cereal box. “Milled corn ... sugar ... salt ... malt flavoring, “he intoned straight-facedly. The initial titters swelled into rolls of laughter as he toiled on. “Sodium ascorbate ... niacin ... thiamin ... preservative BHA ...” The then 73-year-old comedian had knocked them dead with an improvised script out of Battle Creek. Michigan. I recall the provincial line he threw in that night, too. “Three cities in the world I have always wanted to see,” he said. “London, Paris and Milford.” Jack Benny, the Waukegan wit, was unquestionably an institution. If not, then why do I continue to eat Jello.
Another Globe columnist put his thoughts together about how important Benny was to the entertainment world and what made him so great. If you’re a fan of Jack Benny, you may have thought some of the same things, though perhaps in simpler language. I suspect you don’t use “extirpation” in every day conversation. This was published January 5, 1975 and we’ll let the author have the final words in this post.
Forty years of healing laughter

Somehow we had the feeling that Jack Benny would go on forever, like the Mississippi River or the telephone company. There was Jack Benny like there was ice cream and “Silent Night.” There always had been and there always would be.
It is no exaggeration to say he was a self-made work of art. As Jack Benny, the private man, kept his distance and dignity, Jack Benny, the comedian, sacrificed both for us.
Allen was wittier, Hope was and is faster and other had and have their gifts. But Benny, in the stark simplicity of his comic genius, was greater than all of them.
He had only one joke, and it was Jack Benny, and it just about always worked for him, and for us. The sheer courage involved in doing the same bit for 40 years and getting away with it is perhaps the least appreciated aspect of the man.
Listening to Benny was like listening to a familiar piece by Beethoven: You knew what was coming, and he knew you knew, and you knew he knew you knew, so you let him build up to it, and then it happened, but always just a bit differently, so you knew a little more than you did before.
The raw clay from which he fashioned Jack Benny was all of our weaknesses and inadequacies and self-delusions and we were taught to laugh at them instead of worrying ourselves sick about them. Petty tyrant, coward, tightwad, schemer, Jack Benny was both contemptible and ineffectual, like the rest of us, and somehow the realization did not hurt so much.
The voice was most of it. The appearance was almost a distraction, sometimes complementary, with the nancy gestures, but most often unnecessary. How do you evaluate a comedian whose funniest lines were “Well...” “Hmmm...” and “Now stop that!” And whose funniest line of all, perhaps, was simply silence, gradually obliterated by a rising tide of laughter.
Most mockery is sick. That is what is generally wrong with topical humor, which depends parasitically upon the defenseless objects of its wit for sustenance.
Jack Benny’s stuff was mockery, all right, but it was mockery of the magnificent skinflint cad he had, himself, created. And it was poignant, too, because you knew that this hero in his own eyes never quite persuaded himself of the accuracy of his vision.
It must be difficult for persons born after, say, 1935, to comprehend the importance of Jack Benny in the late Thirties and Forties, before television accelerated the remorseless extirpation of the national intelligence.
Jack Benny on the radio at 7 o’clock Sunday night was almost as obligatory as church on Sunday morning, and in many families more so. All day Monday, Americans related to each other what they had heard on the program. It was a great leveller and social adhesive, like major league sports and the weather.
In a time when Saturday movie money was not always available, even though admissions were 25 cents or less, Jack Benny was free, and you knew he would be there on Sunday night, welcomed like a favorite uncle back from a trip.
Try to imagine the Super Bowl, “All in the Family” and Johnny Carson, all wrapped up in one half-hour of audio, and you will be groping for it, but you will not quite be there.
All week long, we waited for Don Wilson’s voice and the spelling out of Jell-O, and we wished the too-brief 30 minutes would never end. I can still see the glowing, Cyclopean eye that was the dial of our four-legged Atwater Kent radio and feel the smooth, wooden curves of its cabinetry.
And remember Rochester, Mary and the May Co., Schlepperman, Dennis Day and, earlier, Kenny Baker, the feud with Fred Allen, the vault where Benny stashed his wealth, the Maxwell, Phil Harris and the lugubrious insults he and his musicians absorbed, Benny’s pathetic parvenu attempt to ingratiate himself with his tony British neighbors, the James Masons [sic], and Buck Benny rides again.
People laugh mostly with their nasal sinuses today. At Jack Benny, you laughed with your belly and lungs and whole soul—at yourself. That was the extent of his genius, the genius of a kind and gentle man who made a lot of money but blessedly always gave more than he received. George Burns said it best:
“I can’t imagine my life without him. I’ll miss him very much.”

Saturday 28 October 2017

The Independent Cartoon Movement

Critics got tired of Walt Disney.

Uncle Walt and his cartoons were praised all through the ‘30s for one development after another —Flowers and Trees, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, Fantasia—but now, writers about film wanted something different, something modern. And they got it when UPA came along with its flat characters, stylised settings and quirky music.

John McManus of PM Daily was one of the first to notice the upstart company in a column of April 10, 1946. You can read what he had to say in THIS post. The vast bulk of articles about the studio that I’ve found are dated after the release of Gerald McBoing Boing in late 1950. But here’s one from the British Film Institute magazine, Sight and Sound, with a cover date of January 1, 1950. After a paragraph about Ichabod And Mr. Toad, in which the writer regrets the “unshatterable egg-shaped forms...of the conventional cartoon,” he looks elsewhere in the field, and gives a neat little history of alternate forms of graphics in commercial/industrial American animation.
Splintered from Disney and staffed by some of his dissenting talent, the independent cartoon in Hollywood is a little explored segment of practically experimental work. Without pretending to the title—it would probably repudiate it—this little shreds-and-patches cartoon movement has the eagerness and gift for drastic invention which avant-garde favours—plus, one cannot help pointing out, the practised craftsmanship in the art so seldom met with in better publicised recent “art-in-cinema” in this country. The war, as with other film forms, offered cartoonists working in the Army and Navy instructional units the opportunity, seconded by need, for considerable flexibility in their work. The movement is roughly ten years old, with early scattered “incidents” taking place inside major cartoon studios and out. (Among these: the Chuck Jones-John McGleish [sic] The Dover Boys at Pimento U, and the several “Mina Bird” cartoons from the still interesting Chuck Jones unit at Warners; the John Hubley-John McGleish Rocky Road to Ruin, a bold, not wholly successful satire on the rags-to-riches theme, at Columbia.) The largest independent group to manage to consolidate itself is to-day known as U.P.A.—United Productions of America, and for it at one time or another during its first six years have worked nearly all of the new movement’s leading artists.
These rebels have upset the tyranny of the egg-shape by employing frank flatness and unreality in constantly refreshing and surprising ways, a rebellion too seldom noticed in the Disney fortress ever since the “Pink Elephant” sequence in Dumbo, the “Baby Weems” sequence in The Reluctant Dragon. The human animal has been brought back into a cartoon respectability that it has not enjoyed since silent cartoon series like “Colonel Heeza Liar”, “Farmer Alfalfa” and “Canimated Noos”. Nor is Disney’s ever-recurring (1) adorable (2) baby (3) animal a U.P.A. formula. Over all there is some recognition that the graphic and colour adventures of this century belong to animated cartoons as properly as to other media.
U.P.A.’s two most famous films have been Brotherhood Of Man (against racism) and Hell Bent For Election, a pro-Roosevelt campaign document—1944—sponsored along with Brotherhood by the United Automobile Worker, both of which gotLife spreads. And there have been others as good and better like Flat Hatting, one of a long and continuing series for the Navy’s Flight Safety Division; Swab Your Choppers, for the same arm’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery—a film of particular interest for its graphic simplification and stretches of non-animated action illusion. All of these films have been made for special, though not necessarily negligibly-sized audiences, but for one reason or another have by-passed the regular theatres. Last year, Columbia Pictures gave U.P.A. a five-year contract for sixty one-reel cartoons. The first of these, continuing an established Columbia series (“the Fox and Crow” series), were released in September and Dceember of last year. There have been two more delivered this year (with production tempo accelerating). The new series’ title, which will continue hereafter, is “Jolly Frolics”. The four cartoons available so far carry titles Robin Hoodlum, The Magic Fluke, The Ragtime Bear and Punchy de Lion.[sic]
The quality characterising the first three (I have not seen Punchy de Lion) is abundance. In a cartoon series where normally all is uniform, their individuality of plan and overall idea, non-repeating dramatis personae, and personal graphic styles, are unheard-of extravagances. Robin Hoodlum’s Gilbertian libretto is too intricate almost for comprehension in one viewing, with all the sight and sound distractions; without impeding movement a valid sound-speech effect is gotten in the dialogue take-off of British stage (film also?) accent excesses. In The Magic Fluke an unaccustomed pointing up of background is in the detail and colour richness (an antique gold) given tiers of baroque galleries up which, in one camera effect, we go endlessly climbing. The Ragtime Bear—the best so far—corrects Hoodlum’s diffuseness, is funnier than Magic Fluke. It has all kinds of style: drawing reminiscent of Flat Hatting’s—touchstone on graphics; a spareness in the music score to give in-the-room impact to the delightful sheerness of the unaccompanied banjo. Its introduction of human characters, notably the short-tempered, always almost catastrophically near-sighted Mr. Magoo—of human characters, that is, not grotesque-ified or single-traited only, like Popeye—will bear watching.

Unfortunately, Magoo’s shorts devolved into becoming dependent on the old man mistaking something for something else because of miserably poor vision. The one-shot cartoons wrapped uncharming characters and uninteresting stories in graphic styles that were becoming increasingly familiar, thanks to TV commercials by a host of studios. When Disney released Flowers and Trees in 1932, people cared about animated short films. By the time UPA’s The Jaywalker (1956) rolled around, the movie shorts business had been pretty much killed by television. The studio’s rise and fall had been pretty quick.

Friday 27 October 2017

Unhappy Walrus

Dick Lundy and Les Kline get the animation credits on The Beach Nut, but I can't tell you who is responsible for this a-little-over-a-second of animation of Wally Walrus getting frustrated at Woody Woodpecker.

This was Wally's debut at the Walter Lantz studio. In this cartoon, he was voiced by Jack Mather.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Friz is a Dog

It’s a great day for a dog race in Bosko’s Dog Race (1932). And look who’s entered!

At the top of the list is No. 1, animator Friz Freleng. You’ll also notice No. 5, animator Cal Dalton. No. 4 is “Granger.” I don’t know if there was a Granger on staff at the studio; Peter Gaenger was a background artist at Schlesinger’s in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.

Ham Hamilton and Norm Blackburn are the credited animators.

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Playing Tonight

Skitch Henderson had two kicks at being the frontman for the Tonight show band. The first time was when the show debuted in September 1954; he had been hosting a variety show with his wife Faye Emerson. When Steve Allen left Tonight in 1957 and battled Ed Sullivan for Sunday night ratings, Henderson went along. He returned to Tonight on April 29, 1962 when NBC was rotating hosts following Jack Paar’s departure and stayed when Johnny Carson became the host on October 1, 1962. Eventually, Henderson wanted to try other things and was replaced in October 1966 by Milton DeLugg, the bandleader on Tonight late-night predecessor Broadway Open House.

This guest column syndicated by King Features on August 12, 1963 tells us about Skitch’s band. Already, it appears Doc Severinsen was displaying the irreverence that stood him in good stead with Carson when DeLugg left in 1967 and he took over.

My Band’s Best, Says Skitch
(One of our editors suggested that we do a story on the men in Skitch Henderson's band on the "Tonight" show. It seemed like a good idea, but Skitch insisted on writing it himself. The commitment was made about a month ago, but the bearded one's schedule is one of the busiest in the business and his comments on his musicians just arrived.—Harvey Pack).
I've got the best band in the land. Maybe I'm partial, but the orchestra that plays for NBC-TV's Tonight show starring Johnny Carson consists of the finest musicians in the country.
I have conducted symphonies and operas all over the world and I'll go on record as saying that each one of the Tonight show band regulars could, if he wanted to, sit in and hold his own in any concert hall or opera house.
However, the guys love what they're doing now. Aside from their expert musicianship, their enthusiasm and spontaneity five nights a week, every week, is the secret of our success. Sure, it's work, but it's also play.
We have very serious rehearsals in which we have to work out brand new numbers for each evening's guests. This can run from jazz to novelty to grand opera. Rehearsal discipline is strict. There's no alternative as we rarely have time to go through an orchestration more than once.
Show time is something else. Anything goes, and usually does, once announcer Ed McMahon says: "And now, here's Johnny!" The music is constantly reshuffled while we're on the air, to go along with the mad ad-lib pace of show. At least 30 per cent of the music we play is totally unrehearsed and equally unexpected. How do we do it? The credit goes to the guys in the band. And what guys! Most of the regulars have been with me steadily for a dozen years and we played for the Tonight show when Steve Allen—a musical guy himself—was host.
Our line-up included Doc Severinsen (trumpet) who used to play side by side with our other featured trumpet soloist, Clark Terry, when they were with the Charlie Barnett band; Bob Haggart, the fabulous "Big Noise From Winnetka" bassist with the old Bob Crosby Bobcats; Hymie Shertzer, the saxophonist who was a mainstay of the Benny Goodman band; trombonist Will Bradley, who led his own great swing band in the '40s; Al Klink, whose sax sparked the original Glenn Miller orchestra; Harold Feldman, perhaps the country's No. 1 oboe player; Bobby Rosengarten, whose drum magic and versatility is unmatched.
There isn't enough space to include all the members and the bands they played with, but the list would include every great music group of the last 30 years. The musicianship is taken for granted. The boys are so good that even with their hair all the way down, they're incapable of playing badly.
Sometimes the going gets tough and occasionally chaos reigns. I've a bad habit of forgetting titles and simply labelling my orchestrations with numerals. One night I distributed three orchestrations among the band members, all marked No. 1. On the air I counted off the tempo for No. 1 and three different songs came forth simultaneously, each one played correctly and beautifully, I'm happy to add.
The boys frequently get into the act of the Tonight show itself, but it isn't planned in advance. When the contestants for the NBC International Beauty contest appeared as guests, Doc Severinsen, who is of Scandinavian descent, asked to speak to Misses Denmark, Sweden and Norway. I expected a flood of foreign words but Doc smiled into their faces and said "I yoost wanted to say 'hello'."
Another time, when we had a hypnotist as a guest panelist, Doc got up to play a solo ride on "Honeysuckle Rose," but out came "Rose Room." He claimed he was in a trance.
The confusion of the Tonight show is taken in stride by the band regulars. When Will Bradley was ill one evening, his last-minute substitute played the show reasonably well but got up and walked out of the studio halfway through the proceedings. It was a station break and he thought the program was over.
One night, Bobby Rosengarten was all set for a drum solo when his cymbal fell off the band stand. Thinking fast, he performed an impeccable solo on the bell opening of the nearest tenor saxophone.
The strings of Bob Haggart's bass fiddle once snapped in the middle of a beautiful slap chorus. He continued without missing a beat by merely singing the bass cords that followed.
Do I like the music we play on the Tonight show? More and more. Popular music is getting better, and so are the performing guests.
The groaners and screamers are on the way out. Perhaps it's the folk singers who have brought to the popular field some freshness, taste and musicality that's been conspicuously absent from Tin Pan Alley for too long.
Besides, Johnny Carson and producer Art Stark have given me a great deal of freedom in selecting the show's music and musical guests. I think our level is high, and still climbing.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Fleas Release Me

A girl flea blows a kiss at a hobo flea in What Price Fleadom (1948). It’s a Tex Avery cartoon, so you know what happens next. Some of the drawings.

Avery’s unit was in transition around this time. Walt Clinton, Bob Bentley and Gil Turner received the animation credits, with Johnny Johnsen providing the backgrounds.

Monday 23 October 2017

The Natural Thing To Do

Why do Popeye and Bluto fight? Because, as the title of the cartoon indicates, it’s the natural thing to do!

One drawing per frame.

Olive Oyl (Margie Hines) rings a fight bell. The fight stops in mid-air. This drawing is held for ten frames.

Tom Johnson was the head animator on this cartoon, and the other animation credit went to Lodowick Louis Rossner. He was a native of Allendale, New Jersey, born on October 26, 1906, and attended the Pratt Institute. He had left Fleischer’s by 1945, as he was then employed by Wilding Picture Productions, an industrial film company. In 1957, he and his wife were living in Tarzana, California. He died in Los Angeles on December 15, 1978.