Saturday, 24 April 2021

Finding a Columbia Favorite

How can I describe the Columbia cartoon studio?

Unique, maybe?

The studio’s output was odd. There were Krazy Kat shorts which bore the name of George Herriman’s character and nothing else. There were Scrappy cartoons, where kids drank, cross-dressed and got beaten unconscious. There were imitation Disneys with loads of colour and not much else. There were shorts full of Hollywood celebrities, taking advantage of the abilities of animator and caricaturist Ben Shenkman. There were several regimes, one which hired Disney picketers and told them to experiment. There was another that wanted carbon copies of Warners and Tex Avery cartoons, so we got a Daffy-like duck and a Sylvester-like cat. And there were all kinds of stories that didn’t make much sense.

Oh, and a fox and crow, neither of whom were sympathetic or likeable. But they made money for Columbia in comic book licensing.

When we talk about the “Columbia” studio, we actually mean the Charles Mintz/Winkler Productions operations. When sound films were becoming inevitable, Mintz signed a deal with Columbia to release his Krazy Kat shorts; they had been distributed by Paramount in the silent days. A deal with signed around July 1, 1929. The first, Ratskin, was released on August 15th. Some of the early sound Krazys by Manny Gould and Ben Harrison are quite fun. In The Apache Kid (1930), Krazy is an apache dancer who rolls his own cigarette—which turns into the shape of a camel!

Mintz got the idea of moving the Krazy Kat studio to the West Coast. That’s what he did in February 1930. His brother-in-law, George Winkler, already had a studio in Los Angeles. It had been making Oswald cartoons until Universal decided in 1929 to get Walter Lantz to do it. The first Scrappy short was released on July 16, 1930. (The studio also made Toby the Pup shorts for release through RKO starting late July 1930).The two studios merged as Screen Gems in December 1931. Scrappy helped launch the phoney-Disney “Color Rhapsodies” series with Holidayland on November 9, 1934.

That brings us to this article from 1939 where the head of production at the studio tells us of the vetting process to get characters on the screen. Despite that, they’re not all that funny. By now, Columbia had taken over the operation of the studio from Mintz and re-named it Screen Gems.

No Limit on Work Hours of Cartoon Stars
HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 8—(AP)— There are movie producers who can slave-drive their juvenile stars without fear of child welfare groups and who can work their four-legged employees to the bone without a whimper from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
James Bronis is one. He's the head of Screen Gems, a Columbia producing organization.
"Our 'stock company'," explains Bronis, "is composed of characters developed in our animated cartoons.
"Our lively juvenile star, Scrappy, often works in 10 or 11 pictures at once, yet the educational authorities never have to reprove us.
Krazy Kat Works Hard
"Krazy Kat may work in half a dozen of the 27 pictures we have in production now without suffering the slightest physical harm, or inciting the anger of any animated animals guild.
"There is no danger of one of our other stars being tied up in another picture or at another studio. But we still have casting problems."
The trouble is, says Bronis, you can never tell how appealing a cartoon character, however quaint or humorous on paper, will be when brought to life.
"We give each new character a 'physical' examination," says Bronis.
Made To Run Gamut
"We try him out in every imaginable acrobatic action, and we put him through dramatic tests— make him run the gamut of pen-and-ink emotions.
"If he passes all these satisfactorily he gets a special test for the part in mind. If he succeeds in the minor role—if he clicks with the public—then we make him the hero of his own cartoon."
The elf-like beings in "The Happy Tots" passed the tests and are in their second color rhapsody. The Blue Birds, a new "family" group, are in their third cartoon. But Bronis favors three newcomers in "The House That Jack Built"—an ostrich, a beaver and a bear. Especially the ostrich.
"There's one actor," he says, "that won't lay an egg."


Mintz died on December 30, 1939.

Columbia decided to make its move. Frank Tashlin was brought in to oversee production. In September 1941, Ben Schwalb was transferred from New York to replace George Winkler as general manager and proceeded to lay off 30 people. Dave Fleischer took charge in April 1942 but was gone by December the following year; musician Paul Worth was his general manager and carried on until January 1945 when he was arrested on a forgery charge. Hugh McCollum was brought in by Columbia in March 1945 and finally Ray Katz was hired in July to manage the studio. By November 1946, it was all over. Columbia closed the studio. The last Screen Gems cartoon was released on June 30, 1949.

The Cohn family wasn’t done with cartoons yet. Much like it had distributed Disney cartoons in the early ‘30s, Columbia did the same with UPA shorts starting in late 1948. Then it bought a percentage of the newly-formed H-B Enterprises in 1957 and began putting Hanna-Barbera cartoons on the big screen from 1959 to 1965. They starred Loopy De Loop and were in limited animation. They were inferior to Quick Draw McGraw and Huckleberry Hound cartoons that kids were watching on their TV.

“Inferior” may be a way of describing the Columbia studio, but it’s a trifle unfair, despite a lot of what strikes me as very tedious and explanation-defying cartoons. They had Art Davis on staff for ten years, Emery Hawkins was put to work on Oscar-nominee The Little Match Girl, Preston Blair animated there for a time, Mel Blanc, Sara Berner, Danny Webb and Frank Graham were among the actors on its shorts, and I can’t help liking the audacity of Cal Howard creating an armed Daffy Duck knock-off with Woody Woodpecker music playing in the background.

5 comments:

  1. After Tashlin leaves you can really feel this studio 'not trying'. With a rare exception or two (Flora, Polar Playmates - and maybe a few Fox & Crow) the whole staff - from the stories, the voices, the animators - all just seems to be phoning it in; collecting a paycheck. No ambition. They created a "Hollywood cartoon looking" product and that was good enough, I suppose, during the war. Just as I imagine 1960s cartoons as only playing in Drive-In Theaters, I see only see Screen Gems cartoons playing in Newsreel Theaters. Hard to imagine something as lackluster as Tangled Travels playing before Cover Girl, or Unsure Runts opening ahead of The Jolson Story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In the '40s, Flora is my favourite out of the bunch. It's really a one-joke cartoon but there are enough variations on it that the cartoon works.
      Otherwise, stories are half-baked or odd. The animation's good but not inspired. The music kind of noodles around with very little that's clever.
      The late '30s cartoons are filled with unlikable characters getting abused. Mel Blanc seems to be shouting most of the time.

      Delete
  2. Hans Christian Brando26 April 2021 at 18:10

    As a body of work, definitely a mixed bag. Many of the '30s cartoons seem like Fleischer cartoons gone wrong (although oddly enough the Color Rhapsodies tend to beat the so-called Color Classics) and many of the '40s offerings see like Warner Bros. cartoons gone wrong. Still, there are too many enjoyable, good, or even excellent Columbia cartoons to have been overlooked for so long. I hope they get their DVD due, or are made available for streaming, some time before cancel culture outlaws all 20th century entertainment.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The first Scrappy cartoon was released in 1931; I assume 1930 was a typo.

    Also, to clarify, the studio's corporate name became Screen Gems, Inc. as far back as the early 1930s. The cartoons were copyrighted to that company name beginning in 1931, and there's a circa 1932 or '33 photo of the 7000 Santa Monica Blvd studio with the name underneath "The Charles Mintz Studio" over the entrance. I suspect it coincided with the sale of half-ownership to Columbia (which one source I found mentioned was in 1931), seeing that Columbia's tagline was "Gems of the Screen". The studio simply went by "The Charles Mintz Studio" as a sort of "doing-business-as" moniker until around the time Mintz was removed from the studio. I'm not sure what the "two studios were merged" bit is based on; although Mintz had both the New York studio (Krazy Kat) and the Los Angeles studio (Oswald) going at one time in the silent era, it was all under the Winkler (Mintz) corporate umbrella and I had presumed the L.A. location was dormant after Oswald production ceased until the N.Y. studio was moved into it.

    I like best the original Mintz/pre-Tashlin era of the studio's output and think that it in particular has been unfairly neglected. Sure, in the latter half of the '30s and especially early '40s it was earning an overall "B-studio" status, but considering some of the other "B" cartoons (and even some "A" cartoons) that receive greater attention and appreciation from cartoon fans, it really isn't any less worthy of attention; and I view many of the early through mid-'30s cartoons as among the best of that period. Something frequently overlooked is the autonomy the directors had, not unlike the Schlesinger/W.B. studio is known for. There are clear distinctions in style, sensibilities, and skill to be drawn between the different directors and production units (and less co-directing than some past scholarship has claimed), if one bothers to examine these things and draw those distinctions, as we know to do with the W.B. cartoons; and the directors may have been doing a lot of the writing of their cartoons themselves, from the looks of things. We can debate their quality aspects, but the element of personal artistic expression is certainly there, and the work of the more talented guys shouldn't be just lumped together with the lesser ones. I find them more interesting than, for instance, a lot of the Fleischer and Famous cartoons or Terrytoons, where the directors' control over their films was comparatively limited—let alone the meticulously-crafted entertainment products manufactured by the Disney "studio".

    ReplyDelete
  4. I submitted a comment here yesterday, but it didn't show a reCAPTCHA prompt as usual and said my comment was "waiting for approval"; I'm wondering if it even went through...

    ReplyDelete