Monday 31 August 2020

Catdog. Or is it Dogcat?

There are nothing like some good fight swirls and multiple heads. Take, for example, Porky in Wackyland (1937). It turns out to be a conjoined cat and dog.

After a brief rest stop, the fighting carries Porky right into a nearby tree-like thing.

Izzy Ellis and Norm McCabe are the credited animators. This was my favourite Porky Pig cartoon when I was a kid but it vanished from the local TV stations around 1968 with all the other black and white cartoons.

Sunday 30 August 2020

Look For the Big Red Letters on the Box Again

Some Jack Benny radio fans will tell you they liked the Jell-O years better than the Lucky Strike era. The shows weren’t really quite the same. The Lucky Strike Shows settled into a sitcom format and the pace really slowed down. Jack wouldn’t think twice about having three or four seconds of nothing but sound effects in the sitcom era. In the Jell-O period, certainly in the ‘30s, he’s be using that time to crack as many jokes as possible.

Despite the creativity of many of the musical spots for the cigarette maker, Jell-O may have fit the Benny show better. It just seemed natural for announcer Don Wilson to bubble over with enthusiasm about those “six delicious flavours” (Jell-O may have had as many repetitive sales lines as Lucky Strike).

Somebody at General Foods must have thought so, too. It decided to pick up Benny’s sponsorship in the later TV period (the two didn’t exactly part amicably in the radio days). Here’s a column about it from June 3, 1962.

Benny was quite correct at the end. He finished his career doing specials and worked until cancer killed him in 1974.

Jack Benny To Quit Night Spot After 12
HOLLYWOOD—That familiar sing-song salutation, "Jell-O Again," will be bouncing off your walls again next fall. That is, it's familiar to you if you were born sometime between the Johnstown Flood and Atwater Kent's invention of the horn loudspeaker on top of the radio to replace earphones.
When Jack Benny first called out "Jell-O Again" on his radio show in 1934, it also marked the birth of what now is what called we integrated commercial. After eight years of Jell-O's sponsoring Benny, radio audiences got so used to it that many Benny fans still think he's peddling the shimmying dessert.
Now that they've had a free ride for all those intervening years, the Jell-O people are signing on for co-sponsorship of Benny's TV show next fall. Maybe they figured it's time to get a booster shot.
"In the old radio days there were six delicious flavors," Benny recalls. "Now they have 12."
YOU MAY have noticed there how automatically Benny slipped in that word "delicious." His brain has been washed, too.
Benny and his writers worked out all kinds of elaborate gags for Jell-O's middle-of-the-program commercial on radio. When Benny was Jesse James, his brother Frank (Don Wilson) warned him not to shoot until he counted to six. "Okay, okay—strawberry, raspberry, cherry, orange, lemon and lime," counted Jesse. On another occasion, Dennis Day was lost in the desert for days without food but was ready to pass up Benny's roadside oasis unless he served Jell-O.
On his initial TV show for Jell-O next September, Benny intends to have a kind of homecoming welcome for his ex-sponsor. It probably won't be as big as the writers would like, because executive producer Irving Fein (who is paid to worry) is afraid the insurance company sponsor who picks up half the tab for Benny's show might not appreciate any undue treatment for Jell-O.
Besides celebrating his 30th year with his own air show (he started in 1932), Benny will have another "first" next season. He is leaving his Sunday night spot for the first time in 12 years of TV. Benny moves to Tuesday opposite Dick Powell's drama series and "The Untouchables." Those are tough competitors, but at least he starts even with them at the same hour.
"This season I've had 'Bonanza' against me. It started a half-hour ahead of my show, and who is going to switch over to something else in the middle of the show? One Sunday I decided to watch 'Bonanza' myself, and do you know what? I never went back to my show," said Benny, while a CBS man with us at the time almost broke down and wept.
Benny makes it a point not to worry about ratings or critics who each year insist that Benny keeps doing the same old thing. Had he worried or panicked over them, Benny might never have survived as one of the country's top comics and personalities.
"Should I suddenly become a spendthrift character because some critic says he is tired of me playing a tightwad?" Benny wants to know. "If I did, the critic might be happy, but my fans wouldn't. I've heard critics ask how Bob Hope has lasted so long, when all he does is one-line gags. They miss the point that Hope has a characterization all of his own, a kind of Peck's bad boy approach to everything he does. A comedian has to have a characterization to last."
BOB NEWHART, Joey Bishop, George Gobel and many other of our newer comics might ponder that advice that is, if they want to be operating as comics 30 years from now.
When a comedian has been around as long as Benny, it's always a standard question to ask if he's thinking of retiring.
"I've got two more seasons on my current contract," said Benny. "After that, I'd like to freelance. You know, just do a few specials each season, and maybe a movie. I'll never really retire."
He can't now, because as Phil Silvers once observed, "Jack isn't a comedian, he's a way of life."

Among the Benny/Jell-O tie-ins at the start were these ads in the Sunday comic sections of newspapers. This is from April 11, 1937.

Saturday 29 August 2020

Popeye the 3-D Man

“Extra!” shouted the theatre ads. “Two reels!” “Technicolor!”

Those were some of the words used to entice people to come in and see Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. It was “officially” released on Friday, November 27, 1936, but it was screened by theatres before then; the Paramount in New York first showed it on the 18th with Mae West in Go West Young Man.

Being a two-reel cartoon was historic; employing full Technicolor (which only Walt Disney could legally do until mid-1936) enhanced its appearance tremendously. But one other thing audiences noticed couldn’t be described very well in a newspaper ad. It was the Fleischers’ wonderful 3-D effect, with backgrounds really looking like they were in the distance. Cartoon lovers noticed it 30 years later on black-and-white TV screens. As a kid, I marvelled at it. It was a major achievement for the Fleischers who, unfortunately, didn’t have the PR machine of Mr. W.E. Disney which left the world with the impression that Uncle Walt was cartoondom’s creative genius.

The background effect must have aroused the curiosity of movie goers at the time, as a newspaper article was syndicated describing how it was done. This appeared in the Mexia Weekly Herald of December 18, 1936. It didn’t publish an accompanying drawing but another paper did.
Popeye Slams Foes Thru Fleischers Complex Invention
Gives Illusion of Depth

(Advance Feature)
For the first time, Popeye the Sailor swaggers and fights his way through a three-dimensional world of color in the two-reel animated cartoon, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor " coming Friday to the screen of the National Theatre.
The film, longest cartoon picture yet released by any company, was made for Paramount by Max Fleischer, pioneer film cartoonist who is himself the inventor of the complex technique through which Popeye's screen world is given the illusion of depth.
To bring Fleischer's method to realization, a mass of technical problems were solved. Special lenses and special machinery were developed and involved formula to figure angles of perspective were drawn up. Yet the idea itself seems simple.
Uses Miniature Sets
Two-dimensional animated cartoons have been made, in the past, by photographing the animated characters, drawn on sheets of celluloid, against backgrounds drawn on white paper. The news system substitutes, a mimature "set" for the flat background.
It's as easy as that, in principle. But the technical problems solved to make it possible were not so simple. An examination of the machinery used indicates a few of them.
Sinbad's Island, in the new Popeye, was constructed in pie-slice sections on a huge turn-table, 12 feet in diameter, which is mounted in front of the movie camera.
Between camera and turn-table is a specially designed frame, into which transparent "cels" bearing the individual colored drawings of the characters are slipped, one at a time.
Camera Combines
Picture by picture, the camera snaps a scene which combines the figure and the background. As Popeye walks, the set behind the frame is rotated, so that scenery moves past him. At other times "props" are placed in front of the frame, so that Popeye disappears momentarily behind trees, or boulders in the Sindbad cave.
The turntable is the real secret of the “depth” feeling; always in motion, it duplicates a phenomenon of vision in nature that has been observed by every autoist driving in the open country. To the motorist, nearby things pass swiftly, while distant objects move by his machine at a slower pace. If he looks at the horizon, objects in the foreground seem to be rotating about a point just beyond the horizon-line.
Gives Same Illusion
Fleischer's turntable duplicates that imaginary wheel. Things on its rim. nearest the camera, move rapidly by. Things nearer the center pass slowly.
Fleischer developed a camera lens constructed for a "six foot infinity,” since the axis of his turntable represented a horizon vanishing point. He found formula to regulate the comparative sizes of objects on the turntable, and the askew lines of larger background objects. On the turntable, they seem grotesquely misshapes. On film, they assume squareness.
A problem of major proportions grew up around the placing of the animated figures on the celluloid sheets. They had to be arranged so that they seemed to walk on the "ground" of the set behind, and so that they increased and diminished in proper proportion of foreground.
Other Improvements
Additional refinements included putting the turntable on a geared shaft so that it can be raised or lowered at will; the camera can seem to rise into the third-dimension sky or sink to the level of the foreground.
Fleischer chose "Popeye" to make his first two-reel, full-color, three-dimension film because the spinach-eating sailor is the most popular of his cartoon characters. His newspaper friends gained by King Features Syndicate are counted in the millions; his film friends, growing daily, run into figures just as impressive.
Fleischer fans know the turntable scenics were employed in some of the black-and-white one-reelers as well, though not for great periods of screen time (unlike today’s CGI effects which continually bombard and overwhelm movie viewers). Of course, when Fleischer made its second two-reeler a year later starring Popeye and Abu Hassan, the special scenic effects appeared, arguably looking better than in the first film.

Sammy Timberg, Bob Rothberg and Sammy Lerner provided special music for Sindbad, with the animation credits going to Willard Bowsky, George Germanetti and Ed Nolan. Jack Mercer, Mae Questel and bass singer Gus Wicke supplied uncredited voices. The cartoon is still enjoyable after more than eight decades, thanks to the melding of special talents and special effects.

Friday 28 August 2020

Imaginary Hyena

Let’s see now...boss Mr. Tailgate makes Mr. Crumpet his junior partner because he can see his son’s imaginary elephant and rival Mr. Bilgewater can’t.

But after Bilgewater tells his boss he’s off his nut, Tailgate calls on his imaginary hyena to sic him.

So why can he see an imaginary friend? And doesnt this make him eligible to the junior partner?

The imaginary hyena changes colour. Why? Beats me.

The cartoon Christopher Crumpet’s Playmate ends with the gang laughing. All that’s missing is “Roobie-Roobie-Roo!”

Frank Smith, Alan Zaslove and Barney Posner are the credited animators. Tee Hee designed the characters while Jules Engel drew the backgrounds.

Thursday 27 August 2020

Something's Kosher Here

The Army, the Navy and Buffalo Bill Cody come to the rescue of Tom and Jerry in Redskin Blues (1932). Cody’s there because T. & J. are in the Old West and have been tied to stakes by Indians.

Cody ropes the Indian Chief.

Oy! A Jewish Indian! (This is an era when they populated vaudeville).

The chief opens up a box.

What’s this? A mouse, you say? The gag here is that Buffalo Bill Cody is afraid of a mouse.

Well, actually, everyone is afraid of the mouse. The cavalry, etc. makes a hasty in one of many bits of cycle animation which litters this cartoon.

John Foster and George Stallings get the “by” credit this time and Gene Rodemich comes up with a lot of snare drum and xylophone music.

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Censoring Saffron and Woo

Radio networks loved entertainment, so long as it was innocuous entertainment. Making fun of Bing Crosby’s horse was okay. Making fun of anything that someone might get indignant about wasn’t. And that list was pretty long. So networks stepped in to stop it before it happened.

Insightful columnist John Crosby put together an eight-part series on radio censorship in 1946. We aren’t going to post all of it here; for now, we’ll give you the first part. Crosby began his series with a look at satirist Fred Allen. Satire was something suspicious and fearful to radio executives, so Allen was continually battling to air material that was even tame by 1946 standards. This was before things reached a climax in 1947 when an NBC functionary ordered master control to fade out about 25 seconds of Allen’s show because it dared to make fun of NBC functionaries.

This appeared in print on July 29, 1946.

Censorship on the Air
A new procedure in the Army used to originate in the ranks, where it would start as a good plan to correct, let us say, a current abuse. In its progress from higher authority to still higher authority, the plan would be modified by each man who got his hands on it, until, by the time it reached the War Department, the original plan had lost much of its original meaning and acquired a lot of new and useless trimmings. One incorporate into the Army doctrine, this new, distorted plan would start downward toward the ranks again, this time acquiring different interpretations at every step. By the time it reached the starting point, the ranks, the plan would have little to do with the original abuse or anything else. Still, it was inflicted on the man as gospel and the men wearily accepted it as another sample of Army snafu.
Censorship on the air is pretty much the same routine, the misuse of an originally sound purpose. The broadcasters, quite understandably, don’t like to offend individuals, minority groups, religious orders, advertisers or members of other nationalities. There is nothing particularly wrong with the desire to please except that in many cases it is pursued to such lengths that radio programs are robbed of much of their vitality. The intentions are good but the administration is ridiculous.
● ● ●

Possibly the most censored man in radio is Fred Allen. Allen gets his ideas from the current news. His jokes are invariably pointed, and pointed jokes usually sting somebody. As a result, Allen’s fourteen years in radio have been an almost continuous battle with censors and he has lost many an engagement. After fourteen years of this, Allen is a little bitter toward radio censorship. Recently he left for a vacation in Maine and in his suitcase was a collection of notes he refers to as his “white paper” and which he plans to turn into a “Saturday Evening Post” article during his vacation.
Before he left, Mr. Allen graciously let me run through that part of his notes concerning censorship, and, as a sort of preview of that “Post” article, with Mr. Allen’s permission, I should like to give you some examples of the jokes that have been cut out of Allen’s scripts and the reasons they were cut out. This should give you some idea as to why humor on the air is usually as bland and innocent of the life around us as an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel.
Let us first consider salaciousness. Off-color jokes are not allowed on the air and that, in itself, is a good idea. However, the man who censored Allen’s scripts at the National Broadcasting Company—let’s call him Pincus, although that’s not his name—pursued this noble aim with a zeal which would have alarmed even Savonarola. Mr. Pincus suspected any word he didn’t understand, particularly in a boy-girl context, or being a dirty word.
Allen, for example, had a terrible time getting the adjective “saffron” on the air because Pincus suspected it had sexual connotations. With the aid of Funk & Wagnalls, Allen got the adjective approved. On another occasion a character in an Allen show called Bear Mountain a “strip tease crag.” Mr. Pincus was horrified, and it took hours of arguing to convince him “strip tease” could hardly be offensive when applied to a mountain.
Pincus also objected to the phrase “pitch a little woo.” Believe it or not, he’d never heard it before and Allen had quite an argument convincing him that the phrase was current usage among young folks. Although he yielded on that point, the censor refused to budge on another phrase about “pizzacating” a woman’s lavaliere. It brought up a distressing mental image, said Pincus.
A decent respect for religion on the air is hardly open to comment. Still, Mr. Allen’s censor took it to lengths which any sensible minister would consider rather silly. Once Allen brought in a gag about a judge, recently deceased, “going to a higher court.” The joke was blue-pencilled. “Higher court” implied heaven and you can’t make cracks about heaven. Then there was a joke about a man named Stickney S. “for Stickney” Stickney who got that name because the minister who baptized him stuttered. It was cut out, too. Mustn’t make fun of ministers.
Another Allen line read “she promises to love, honor and lump it till death do them part.” Absolutely not, said Pincus; the marriage ceremony is not a suitable topic for comedy.
● ● ●
Allen has complained for years because he is unable to mention or even hint at the existence of another network. “Darn,” he said once, “is a word invented by N.B.C., which doesn’t recognize either hell or the Columbia Broadcasting System.” Here again the ban is invoked to incredible lengths. For instance, Allen once spoke of smoking “that cigarette that grows hair, fixed up your nerves and fumigates the house.” N.B.C. objected to the phrase “fixes up your nerves” because I sounded a little like Camel’s current advertising campaign. At that time, the Camel show was on C.B.S. and not even by so remote a connection as a single vague phrase did N.B.C. want to call attention to its powerful network rival.

Now, a look at Crosby’s columns from the previous week, July 22 through 26. The most interesting is from July 23rd, where radio commentator Drew Pearson got booed by a crowd in Alabama for promoting racial tolerance. Pearson was hardly a raving leftie. Broadcasting magazine, in its issue of July 29, 1946, pointed out it out it cost an estimated $20,000 for Pearson to speak out against the Klan from the steps of the State Capitol—including $1,000 for insurance and $5000 for ads in two newspapers. Pearson’s sponsor, Lee Hats, supported the broadcast on ABC.

The July 22nd column deals with a couple of public service shows on the NBC New York City station, July 24th looks at “Suspense” and the clichéd lines on an ABC Sunday night mystery show, July 25th talks about quality programming, while Crosby chides the BBC on its monopoly. The July 26th column has some odds and ends, including a story about sound effects. The “sound of screeching tires” effect that Crosby talks about could be one of two that got overused, one with a collision (which doesn’t sound like one) and one without. The latter can be heard on the Jack Benny radio show and seemingly endless numbers of Terrytoon cartoons.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

Daffy Says...

Daffy Duck holds up instructions to the operating theatre audience in The Daffy Doc (1938). Not only do we get Hebrew characters, Daffy shakes the sign so it spells out “Silence is Foo!” To learn more about foo, why not check out Eric Costello’s Warner Brothers Cartoon Companion.

Vive Risto and John Carey are the credited animators, but Bobe Cannon did some funny stuff in this short, too.

Monday 24 August 2020

Wolf-Bashing Bull

The wolf bullfighter in Señor Droopy is not too familiar with Tex Avery cartoons, it appears. He takes out the bull using the old fold-up-the-doors routine.

You and I know what’s going to happen. The doors will unfold.

The bull gets his revenge.

I’ve always liked the bent horns on the bull as he looks satisfied.

Bobe Cannon animated this cartoon, along with Preston Blair, Walt Clinton, Mike Lah and Grant Simmons.