Thursday 31 October 2019

The Ghost of Burt Gillett

Oh, there’s a little cutesy-wutesy little ghost with a little cutesy-wutesy voice singing a little cutesy-wutesy song at the start of the 1939 Walter Lantz short A Haunting We Will Go. However, the animator gets to have some fun by stretching the ghost into a bunch of shapes as it tries to scare an owl in the woods.

The cartoon stars Lil’ Eightball, possibly the most unentertaining starring character Mel Blanc ever voiced. This was his finale. The backgrounds are excellent in this short and this must have cost more than the usual Lantz short considering all the ghosts there were to animate in later scenes, and the use of full Technicolor for the first time.

Burt Gillett directed the cartoon and co-wrote it with Kin Platt.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

The Second Buzz Buzzard

It was a case of cartoons imitating life.

There was a children’s TV show character in Los Angeles in the middle 1950s called Captain Jet. One of his catchphrases was “Zoom!” In a 1956 Walter Lantz cartoon, there’s a children’s TV show character named Captain Zoom. Captain Jet was played by Dal McKennon. Captain Zoom was played by Dal McKennon.

When Lantz resumed production in the early 1950s, his characters didn’t speak. This allowed Lantz to release cartoons overseas without the added expense of dubbing in foreign languages. But eventually, Woody and the rest began talking again. Lantz eventually settled on a regular corps of actors and one of them was McKennon. He took on many of the villain roles, such as Buzz Buzzard, originally voiced by blacklisted actor Lionel Stander in the ‘40s, as well as the not-quite-all-there Professor Dingledorfer, who had the same over-the-top stage German accent that Dennis Day used occasionally on the Jack Benny radio show.

McKennon was a Sunday school teacher at the First Methodist Church in North Hollywood. He had been a teenaged actor back home in Oregon and decided to try his luck in California. He picked up roles on and off camera. ‘60s kids probably know him best for his Dick Crenna-as-Walter Boynton impression as the star of the various Archie cartoon shows made by Filmation.

He did a lot of work for both Walt Lantz and Walt Disney. I haven’t found a newspaper piece about his work for Lantz, but he talks about Disney in this unbylined story that likely came from Buena Vista’s PR people. It was in the Ottawa Citizen, February 1, 1964.
Dal McKennon always in demand
Clever and gifted Dal McKennon belongs to that small pool of talent on the Hollywood scene who are part actor and part sound effects, but who are always in demand, on or off camera. In Walt Disney's comedy-fantasy, "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones," Dal makes one of his on-screen appearances as a dimwitted detective, hopelessly confused by the weird and wacky experiments of a student boy wonder, played by Tommy Kirk.
Imitating all barnyard and jungle wild life sounds are his particular specialties, and on cue he can give his impression of a roaring-prehistoric monster. He has a wide range of characterizations, from yokels to heavies, with or without accents, that he can whip up at the drop of a contract.
Walt Disney gave Dal his first assignment in 1951 when he moved from Portland, Oregon to the greener acting fields of Los Angeles. A cartoon, "Pigs Is Pigs," was in production and Walt was looking for a good grunt and squealer. Dal pulled off the first project so well that he was kept busy on other short subjects, and the full-length animated features, "Lady and the Tramp" and "101 Dalmatians," in which his voice went to the cartoon dogs.
At sixteen, Dal was doing character voices and sound effects for Radio Station KLBM in his hometown of LaGrande, Oregon. This led to a children's radio show in Portland called "Mr. Buttons." And thousands of Los Angeles children and their parents knew him on television for three years as "Captain Jet."
Dal did all the animated voices in the movie "Tom Thumb" and many of those in "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm" film. He was also responsible for all the canine sounds in the live-action feature, "Dog of Flanders."
His recent on-camera picture credits are "The Birds," "Son of Flubber," "Twilight of Honor," "The Wheeler Dealers," "7 Faces of Dr. Lao," and Disney's spring release, "A Tiger Walks."
In the last year Dal had the dubious distinction of appearing in eight television shows in the part of a barn burner. But his six girls and two boys would rather think of him as that tall, lean funny man who can crow like a rooster.
In color by Technicolor, "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" stars Kirk and Annette and co-stars Leon Ames and Stuart Erwin. It was directed by Robert Stevenson for Walt Disney. Ron Miller co-produced from a screenplay by Tom and Helen August. Buena Vista releases.
McKennon and Lantz’s connection went beyond cartoons. McKennon leased space at the Lantz studio in 1957 with the idea of shooting new Captain Zoom quarter-hours for syndication. Apparently McKennon gave up the idea as he went back to children’s TV in 1958 as Mr. Funny Buttons on KTLA.

The most unusual story about McKennon is likely this one from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin of June 27, 1958.
Clicking Juice Can May Click On Mainland Television Show
Dal McKennon, a Los Angeles television performer, is the owner of a most unusual can of Dole pineapple-grapefruit juice.
The can ticks, McKennon discovered after purchasing it.
His curiosity aroused, McKennon had the strange can examined, by X-ray. The examination showed the can contained nothing but juice. A geiger counter proved the can wasn't unusually radioactive.
McKennon finally took the can to the California Institute of Technology where the staff explained. A rare set of circumstances accounts for the ticking, McKennon was told.
In canning the juice, through a freakish coincidence, a perfect equilibrium between the inside vacuum of the can and the outside air pressure was created. The tick is caused by a shallow, quarter-sized dent which moves back and forth of its own accord. The action produces the ticking sound just as a child's ticking toy does. McKennon intends to show the can on a Los Angeles television show, according to Hawaiian Pineapple Company, which makes Dole products.
Hapco is trying to buy the rare can from McKennon.
Most pictures of McKennon later in life make him look like an unmade bed. It was partly for a variety of historic roles he took on, including a Johnny Appleseed series he put together for a PBS station back home in Oregon.

He had an incredibly prolific career, far beyond a few cartoon voices and appearances on TV Westerns. There’s a web page devoted to him here.

It’s sad in a way that the most recognition he got outside his home state was in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times picked up by a number of other newspapers. He died in 2009, just shy of his 90th birthday.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Cat in a Guilded Cage

A cat is giving the evil eye to a sleeping bird in a cage in the Walter Lantz Musical Miniature The Overture to William Tell.

It’s the finale of an extended involving a violinist’s bow that just keeps going and going and going. In this part of the gag, the bow slides under the bird and carries it out of the door of its cage.

Rubber jowls move as the cat’s head turns to stare at the audience. Then the take. We’ll post the extreme.

Cut to the cat rushing to the edge of a fence to await the bird’s arrival. The frames are pretty self-explanatory. The cat keeps chomping down, moving to the left and until they’re back at the cage.

La Verne Harding and Casey Onaitis are the credited animators on this cartoon but surely others worked on it. Darrell Calker’s orchestrations of the Overture are top notch.

Monday 28 October 2019

The Hams That Couldn't Be Cured Backgrounds

A very nice silhouette drawing opens the Walter Lantz Swing Symphony The Hams That Couldn’t Be Cured (1942).

My guess is Fred Brunish was responsible for the artwork above. Lantz’s cameraman moves in on it for about six seconds which, of course, saves money animating, inking, painting and so on. Here’s the exterior shot of Algernon Wolf’s home. Again, the camera trucks in. More $avings for Walter.

An interior. It’s a little longer than this but the scene cross-fades out.

One more brief interior. The door is on a cel.

The idea of the Big Bad Wolf telling his side of the Three Little Pigs story is a solid one; Warner Bros. used it at least twice in cartoons by my recollection, once by Friz Freleng and once by Bob McKimson. Unlike the others, this cartoon is based around Darrell Calker’s music. Unfortunately, the music is a swing version of the Kreutzer Etude No 2 which basically repeats the same four bars. As much as Calker’s arranger tried to get some variation out of it, the music’s fairly repetitive. The gags aren’t that strong; basically the wolf gets abused before the music blows up his house. Later Swing Symphonies included lyrics, something you can hang a story or gags on.

Alex Lovy and Robert Somerville get the screen credit for animation, while Dick Nelson (I think) and Kent Rogers supply the voices.

Sunday 27 October 2019

Why Helen Hayes Was Jigging

You might wonder how Jack Benny had the stamina sometimes.

Granted, being in your late 60s isn’t comparatively old, but I imagine it’s still a grind to fly into a town, meet the press, visit with dignitaries, take part in a rehearsal, try to get some food, perform a concert and then be the centrepiece of a meet-and-greet with wealthy premium concert ticket buyers, then try to sleep before packing and zipping to the airport to head to the next destination.

Benny did that for years, even as he was doing his weekly TV show.

Here’s a piece from the North American Newspaper Alliance about a trip to New York City. It was published December 11, 1960. The story is not quite correct. Jack did a stage show at the Roxy in New York in 1947, one with Fred Allen verbally bombing him and breaking him up. This story should give you a bit on an idea of the Benny grind.
Work Tires Out Jack Benny

NEW YORK (NANA)—FOR THE MOMENT Jack Benny had lost his bounce. He was lying in bed, with the covers pulled up almost to his chin, looking rather lost amidst the grandeur of his Hotel Pierre suite. His violin, a Stradivarius, lay on the unoccupied bed next to him.
"Please forgive me, but I had to get into bed," he said, extending an arm rather limply. "I'm completely fatigued. The last two weeks have been very hectic. I've done three concerts and an Israel bond drive, and now New York."
He shuddered slightly, and groaned.
JACK, WHOSE home is in Beverly Hills, came East to see a bit of theater and to do two shows in his new weekly series. Since he has cultivated a reputation for penury as assiduously as some men seek a name for largess, he entertained while here at a black tie party at the Automat, distributing the nickels to his guests with a splendid show of reluctance.
"The party came out terrifically," he said. "I thought everybody would get dressed up because of the gimmick and that they'd stay a few minutes, then go home. But, boy, they stayed. Helen Hayes was still there jigging around when I left at 1 a.m.
"This might amuse you. I rented a Rolls-Royce and took Bennett Cerf and a few other friends to the party. When I told the chauffeur to go to the Automat, he went into convulsions. He thought I was crazy."
Jack made his last appearance on the New York stage in "Earl Carroll's Vanities" of 1930-31, a show celebrated for nudity, and which was halted briefly by the police. Earlier he was seen in the Shubert production, "Great Temptations." He made his first radio broadcast in 1932, now estimates he has given a thousand performances on radio and TV.
Yet here he was saying, "I'd like to come back to the stage if I could find the right play. But I'd have to give up television to do it."
JACK and his troupe, including Rochester who has been with him 25 years, and Don Wilson, Benny's announcer for 27 years, usually spend five days preparing for a single broadcast.
America's No. 1 comedian started out in life in Waukegan, Ill., and his early ambition was to be a violinist. His concert appearances, such as he made in Indianapolis last month, have raised thousands of dollars for symphony orchestras.
This version of the story came from the Indianapolis Star. Corbin Patrick’s “Between the Acts” column published the same day gave you an idea of the kind of money Benny helped raise for symphonies, concert halls and the like with his violin performances. Benny had performed in Indianapolis on November 2nd as the city’s symphony orchestra launched its endowment fund campaign. Patrick checked the tote board and wrote: “Final nation-wide returns indicate that his effort here was the second most successful of five similar benefits he played in 1960. Benny helped raise $37,200 in the Circle [Theatre] frolic. This gross was exceeded only by a whopping big $46,270 in Cleveland. It topped a take of $36,100 in Cincinnati, $25,300 in Denver, and $23,600 in Honolulu.”

Jack kept up with his performances until the year he died, including one in Redlands, California. It’s appropriately just down the 210 from Cucamonga.

Saturday 26 October 2019

Frank Marsales

Fess up. You wouldn’t know “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “Freddie the Freshman” and “We’re in the Money” if it weren’t for old cartoons, would you? The man who first put them into a Warner Bros. cartoon was Frank Marsales.

It’s a shame so little is known about Marsales because his work had an influence on Hollywood animation. When Carl Stalling arrived to work on Warner-released cartoons in 1936, he started out doing the same as Marsales at the studio in 1930: he cobbled together a score using some original music, public domain tunes and—especially—tunes under the possession of any of the Warner Bros.-owned music publishers. Stalling soon finessed the concept far beyond what Marsales did, but Marsales laid the ground-work.

Friz Freleng wasn’t impressed with Marsales’ work. Daniel Goldmark’s Tunes For ‘Toons (2005) quotes Friz as saying Marsales’ music “was like something you’d find in the street. It was absolutely lacking in anything you needed to make a picture good; he didn’t synchronise. . . . Before Carl, the music was only used to set the tempo, which was usually impossibly slow, unless we picked it up for something he’d understand, like a chase.”

To be honest, I don’t think Friz is being fair. A composer doesn’t write scores in a vacuum; a cartoon’s director would have to consult with him regarding tempo and, certainly the case in the early ’30s, which Warners’ song to highlight. His work compares favourably with what Stalling was doing at the Iwerks studio, Joe De Nat at Columbia/Mintz and Jimmy Dietrich at Universal/Lantz. For the audience, it may have been better as they got a taste of current popular tunes; the Harman-Ising shorts for Warners’ were like animated music videos and audiences seemed to like them. Critic Abel Green wrote of Freddie the Freshman (1932): “it has the same skillful Frank Marsales’ musical orchestration. Very entertaining.”1

Franklin Alfred Marsales was older than the young animators who populated the Harman-Ising operation from 1930 to 1933. He was born on August 31, 1886 in Yarker, a little town in eastern Ontario, to Robert Lambert and Lena Burns Marsales. The family made its way to the U.S. the following year and had settled in Los Angeles in 18922 after living in San Francisco.3 His father was employed as a machinist for a good period of time, but he was also known as “Professor R.L. Marsales” who gave lessons for violin and cornet.4 Marsales learned music early and the Los Angeles Times reported on him performing with his parents at a wedding anniversary in 1903.5

Marsales put together his first band in 1913. The Times claimed he had “ten years experience in Los Angeles and at the beaches”6 at the time he created the Ocean Park City Band; he was 27 at the time. He was active in the Elks Club and also directed for Los Angeles Lodge No. 99.7 Interestingly, his 1917 draft card states his occupation was “Oil Well Leaseman”; his father’s death certificate in 1945 mentions ownership of an oil well. The draft card also reveals he only had three fingers on his left hand. In 1920, he was employed by Goodyear Tire and Rubber and directed the company band.8

Marsales got his name in the news in an unusual situation. The Times reported on December 2, 1922: “Frank Marsales was arrested on a charge of grand larceny and at his preliminary hearing his case was dismissed. He sued George W. Dewey, the man who caused his arrest, for $10,000 damages. Yesterday a jury in Judge Monroe's court denied him any financial balm. They held that he was arrested with probable cause.” What the case was is unknown; Dewey had had problems with Marsales’ father some years before, accusing him of stealing a stove.

Back to music—in 1924, Marsales jumped up to San Francisco to organise an orchestra for the Rialto Theatre.9 Then Paul Whiteman hired Marsales as an arranger. In 1927, he formed an orchestra at the Royal Palms Beach and Country Club in Palos Verdes.10

Talking films gave Marsales a boost in his career. Films needed music, music, music. And that’s what Marsales wrote, wrote, wrote. Variety of July 17, 1929 reported: “Frank Marsales suffering from writer’s cramp. Turned out 25 15-part orchestrations for Universal’s music department in two days.” Is it any wonder he took a job at the new Harman-Ising operation the following year? According to Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, he only scored four cartoons in 1930. And he got his name in various trade ads as a bonus.

Evidently Marsales had the ear of columnist Ralph Wilk at Film Daily as Wilk wrote a few squibs about him.
Frank Marsales, who is scoring music for “Looney Tunes,” the animated cartoons being produced by the Harman-Ising studios, was formerly musical arranger for Paul Whiteman and Paul Ash. He also made a world’s tour with the “Ingenues,” who were featured in the Ziegfeld “Follies.” (Oct. 16, 1930)

Frank Marsales feeding his four pet chipmunks. (Dec. 21, 1930)

Frank Marsales, musical director for the producers [Harman, Ising and Leon Schlesinger], agrees with Sherman that "war is hell," as "Bosco" is the noisiest subject he has handled. [he had scored Bosko the Doughboy]. (Sept. 16, 1931)

When Frank Marsales, musical director for Harman-Ising Studios, which produces “Looney Tunes” and “Merry Melodies,” declared he was too busy to go to football games and did all his playing in his studio, Robert Edmunds, the cartoonist, was an interested listener. “However, Frank does a lot of scoring in a day,” [Edmunds] commented. (Oct. 26, 1931)

Frank Marsales, musical director of the Harman-Ising Studios, producers of "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies," has enlarged his "menagerie" by the addition of a flying squirrel. The squirrel is now a neighbor of Frank's four chipmunks. (Dec. 27, 1931)

Frank Marsales, musical director of the Harman-Ising Studios, which produces "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies," in association with Leon Schlesinger, is a wrestling enthusiast. He is hoping the proposed “Strangler” Lewis-Jimmy Londos match will be staged in Los Angeles. (Apr. 17, 1932)
There was friction between Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising and Leon Schlesinger, the middle-man between them and Warner Bros. Hugh and Rudy went looking for work in 1933. Some employees jumped to Schlesinger’s new studio, Marsales stayed behind. Composer Scott Bradley remembered to authors Mike Barrier and Milt Gray about Paramount hiring the studio for an animated sequence that “Marsales was working for Rudy and Hugh, but his hand was injured. . . . I was at home and not working at the time, and they called me. I had never met them nor they met me.” Thus Marsales’ career ended with Harman and Ising.

Radio was growing and Marsales found work as the musical director of Famar Recording Studios11, which had gone into the transcription business, likely supplying musical programmes for stations looking to fill non-network air time. In the meantime, he added some raccoons to his assortment of pets. Marsales was lured back into cartoons in 1937 as the “arranger and technician” under conductor Nat Shilkret and composer Frank Churchill at the Walter Lantz studio.12 He was soon promoted to the studio musical director’s post and his first credit was on Man Hunt (released on Feb. 7, 1938). His last credit was on the Woody Woodpecker debut short Knock Knock (released on Nov. 25, 1940).

Bands took up Marsales’ attention. When he left Lantz he led the Musicians Union Band, then the Long Beach Municipal Band, then the Los Angeles Military Band. He composed several marches and at least two three-act operettas for children, “Safety First” and “Mr. Stork.” He retired in Long Beach where he died on August 15, 1975.

My thanks to Charlie Judkins for finding the picture of Marsales from 1940 that you see above.

1 Variety, March 8, 1932, pg. 14
2 Robert Lambert Marsales death certificate,
3 Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 1892, pg. 7
4 Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 24, 1897, pg. 4
5 Times, March 1, 1903, pg. 34
6 Times, Dec. 13, 1913, pg. 12
7 Times, July 16, 1916, pg. 23
8 Times, July 8, 1920, pg. 27
9 San Francisco Examiner, March 24, 1924, pg. 12
10 Times, June 26, 1927 pg. 81
11 Broadcasting, Nov. 1, 1933, pg. 36
12 Variety, Dec. 6, 1937, pg. 9

Friday 25 October 2019

How an Old Brown Horse Walks

Poor 18th-Century Jonathan had to exchange his dream of a carriage with coachmen and two white trotting stallions after paying off his employees, backers and taxes in It's Everybody's Business. The vision of a ride in luxury pops like a bubble and is substituted for a broken down wagon being pulled by a worn-out nag.

I really like the cycle here. It’s on 12 drawings, animated on twos. Check out the leg positions of the horse.

This is what the animation looks like. This is pretty close to the speed it’s seen in the cartoon. Notice how the horse’s left foot sweeps.

It’s Everybody’s Business is a 1954 John Sutherland industrial short for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. Maurice Noble was the art director, Bill Scott was a co-writer, Les Baxter contributed to the score. The animators were Bill Melendez, Emery Hawkins, Abe Levitow and Bill Higgins. MacDonald Carey narrated the short, while Herb Vigran was the voice of Jonathan. Carl Urbano, formerly at MGM and later at Hanna-Barbera, was the director.

We wrote about the cartoon in this post before a nice version of the short was made available on the Library of Congress web site (though there’s an obvious edit at one point).

Thursday 24 October 2019

Mice See Cat

“Will there be anything else, gentlemen?” sarcastically says Claude Cat, pretending to be a waiter after he’s caught Hubie and Bertie eating cheese.

It’s time for a Chuck Jones take. Hubie, the smart mouse, realises right away it’s a dreaded cat. Jones, if you don’t know by now, went for subtle poses. Here, Hubie becomes rigid, except for his ears, which move in two positions so the take isn’t static.

Bertie is the slow one. “No, no, thanks, he says,” turning to the cat, and keeps talking until it suddenly kicks in who he’s conversing to. Another rigid pose with two ear positions.

This is from The Hypo-Chrondri-Cat, with animation by Ben Washam, Phil Monroe, Ken Harris and Lloyd Vaughan.

Jones is never without a knowing glance to the audience somewhere in his cartoons. Here is it in this one.