Monday 31 October 2022

Felix and the Spider

Felix battles a spider in Sure-Locked Homes (1928). I’m presuming Otto Messmer animated this short and is responsible for the great shapes during the fight. Some are below.

This is a fun cartoon with lots of impressive shadow-work. This print is found on the Cartoon Roots Halloween Haunts Blu-Ray. Felix is my favourite silent cartoon character and once of my hopes is a larger collection of his films for Educational is put together.

Sunday 30 October 2022

Writing a Jack Benny Radio Show

During his 23-year career on radio, Jack Benny used three sets of writers. The middle group was Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow, who were able to develop the characters of newcomers Phil Harris, Rochester and Dennis Day, adding in the Maxwell, Carmichael the Polar Bear, the Buck Benny sketches, and the feud with Fred Allen. All this kept the show fresh.

Benny, of course, was the unofficial head writer as he sat in on sessions and yea’d or nay’d every word.

A columnist with the Ogden Standard-Examiner decided to find out more about Benny’s writers and the way they put the show together, and wrote a feature story that appeared May 4, 1941. She also interviewed Jack’s business secretary, Harry Baldwin, who took shorthand notes of what was brought up at the sessions. Baldwin, it would seem, unexpectedly inspired a joke on one broadcast.

The war and ambition ended Beloin and Morrow’s regular pay cheques with Benny in 1943. Jack replaced the two with four writers—George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg, John Tackaberry and Cy Howard (Howard soon left and Sam Perrin came in). After a ratings drop, the new writers rallied and came up with additional secondary characters, new situations and running gags (and Mel Blanc became a regular cast member in everything but the opening credits). Benny was soon back up top. Baldwin, for reasons I don’t know, never returned to Jack after the war.

Jack's Fun Factory Works On All Four Gag Cylinders
Standard-Examiner Staff
HOLLYWOOD, May 3 — Two heads are better than one— but it takes four heads to figure out gags and jokes — so Jack Benny, Hollywood star, can be so funny.
One of the four experts in the Benny humor factory is Mr. Benny's own, of course. Bill Morrow, who in five years with Benny has become the highest paid gag writer in the industry; Ed Beloin, humor writer, and Harry Baldwin, Mr Benny's secretary, are part of the good humor quartet. But please don't think of ice cream— on that last — for it wouldn't be fair to the Benny sponsors — and besides we have three tickets in the front row for the NBC Benny show.
Jack, as you know, is a Waukegan, Ill., lad who was born on St Valentine's day and as he puts it — turned into a comic valentine. During vacations Jack worked in his father's haberdashery business. He bought a fiddle and formed a small orchestra and later played for school dances. That's how showmanship — got into his bolod [sic].
He Tours in Vaudeville
After fiddling in an orchestra he teamed with a piano player and toured in vaudeville. Then came the World war— and Jack was placed as an entertainer in the navy. He kept right on when he came out.
Bill Morrow was writing jokes and gags in Chicago and selling them to humor magazines at five bucks a throw — and doing a bit of press agenting for a band — five years ago. In Miami, Fla., he met Mary Livingston — who is Mrs. Jack Benny. Bill mentioned that he had several gags that would fit into Jack's vaudeville act. Mary suggested that he come to Detroit and she’d introduce him to Jack.
At the same time Mr. Beloin was also offering his services as a gagster — to Mr. Benny.
Both humor writers met Benny and later accepted his offer to come to California for the summer and give it a fling. They did— and now they're on a $2500 a week salary— the highest paid in the business of gag-writing.
Here's What Goes On
And what do you suppose goes on inside of the Jack Benny joke shop?
We tried following the qaurtet [sic] around for the day.
Promptly at seven a. m. every morning— they never miss one — unless it's a blue Monday and raining — the two gag writers meet with Jack's secretary. "We always do our best writing early in the morning," Mr. Morrow explained. "We sit around and gag up situations. For example — once a year Jack always gets a cold. So what do we do— but enlarge on it a bit— and put it on the radio— with doctors and nurses. One year we were in the mood to put on the "cold" act— only Benny didn't get one. Then all at once he did — and it was so bad he didn't go on the air at all — and neither did we. We had to fill in with music instead.
"But like today when Jack's making a picture (he just began "Charley's Aunt" for 20th Century Fox) we work for three hours early — come down here to the studio for breakfast and read Jack what we've written.
"Jack goes over and suggests what he thinks would be better.
“Or if he's not working we meet at his home for 'free breakfast'— Pips too— ham and eggs and waffles—well just platters and platters of food— and sit around in his game room and talk. Or we might swim while we talk— or sit about the pool.
Works on Original Idea
"Every day we keep working on our original idea— and send the typewritten copy each morning over to Jack— before we meet with him.
"We follow right up to Saturday —when we have just one reading with the cast. That is our only rehearsal. But we time it for laugh—and if we don't get enough certain laughs from our own company—then we keep changing it— until we do. We polish each gag— up to within 30 minutes before going on the air. And we make changes between the first radio broadcast which hits the East and Canada— to the second one for the west, Honolulu and South America.
“We like to introduce characters and situations that will keep running for weeks and tie in with the next week's program.
"We conceived the idea of Rochester — when we were on a train returning from Chicago. Usually we center our situations around whatever we are doing. Well, we wanted a colored porter. We asked the colored boot black at the studio if he'd like the role— but he wanted a fortune to play the part— just because he was to be in a Benny show. So we scouted around for colored actors and found Rochester. We gave him that name — and didn't dream he would click so big —until the mail began pouring in for Rochester. Now we treat his parts— with the same exacting care and timing we give Benny’s.
"It seems like every day is Sunday," Mr. Morrow continued. "Writing a 20-page script each week is comparable to writing one complete act in a play. We have to keep it at the common level — with the standing high— the jokes and gags must be obvious — but not too obvious — else they lose their sparkle.
"The radio is a more common denominator of reaching the people than the movies. We have to try to please everyone.
All Sorts of Skits
"Besides the radio program every week," Mr. Baldwin, the secretary said, "we have skits to write for Mr. Benny for benefits, shorts, newsreels, trailers, all sorts of war reliefs and for speeches at chamber of commerce banquets and many civic occasions— all funny too —for everyone expects Jack Benny to say new and funny things.
"Some folks think Jack should always be laughing and be funny off-screen," Mr. Baldwin continued, "But Jack's different than most comedians. Some folks think he's glum. He becomes so absorbed by his thoughts — that he'll walk along the street and his own wife can pass him by and he won't see her.
"But he loves to laugh and he's excellent company. It's when he's thinking up gags and details for his acts— that he becomes self-absorbed in thought."
Jack and his gag-experts live within a radius of a mile of one another. They spend part of each day together — thinking up jokes. Sometimes they telephone each other in the middle of the night— if they’ve hit upon something particularly good.
"We never even read any jokes that people mail in to us," Mr. Morrow said. "We have a form letter that states 'Returned— Unopened — unread.' We don't want to take any chances of being sued for using anyone’s brain-children — because they have similarity to some of our own. Besides we believe that no one will think up anything that we won’t eventually hit upon anyway.
Jack Benny came walking in. He was smiling and said the boys would have to confer with him during lunch — for he had special scenes that afternoon.
At lunch one of the boys mentioned he was going on a diet — whereon Jack said, "The worst pests in the world are people with diets and electric razors. They always try to force both of 'em on you. Never saw a man who didn't insist you try his electric razor. Misery loves company so dieters want you to diet with them."
The men began talking amongst themselves. They howled with laughter at their own jokes. To anyone else— they were having a good time — without a care in the world. Actually all this joke cracking and repartee of the day's happenings was serious work — out of which would evolve a new radio show.
When asked what they considered their funniest joke — Jack replied a recent one where Jack has a boarder, Mr. Billingsly, who is a lunatic. Mr. Billingsly has a turban wrapped on his head. "Is that a turban wound around your head?" Jack asks him. "No," replies Mr. Billingsly. "This is a bed sheet. I slept like a top last night!"
Joke originated when Mr Baldwin slept in a bed with too short sheets — and woke up with the sheet wound around his shoulders. When Jack asked him how he'd slept that night he said "like a top" — and that was the birth of a new gag!
Jack is generous — even to a fault with his family and his friends. He has a large number of relatives on his pay rolls. One day when someone saw Jack walking alone across the Paramount lot — they said, "Hummmh! There goes Jack Benny without any members of his family. He must be out on bail."
Believing that his gag-men and his faithful secretary should share his success — Jack Benny takes them with him wherever he goes. They had just returned from three weeks at Palm Springs. Before the war — he gave them a trip to Europe. They have valuable watches and rings and other handsome gifts— which show his generosity and appreciation.
People Need Laughs
"People need laughs now more than ever before," Mr. Morrow concluded. "It takes crazy people like us to keep thinking up new ones each week. We have to figure out some 200 laughs a week. That's why we're bald-headed — doing it. "But one thing Jack's shows are always clean. We think up gags — all week. If we ever come to a tight spot— then we just disband— relax— and come back together again — and have a lot of fun."
Jack Benny says, "Our jokes are in character — our own peculiar brand and style. With me, I'm the star on the program. I have to take it— be belittled. That is the secret of our brand of humor. You know, it all goes back to the boy with the snowball and the fellow with the high hat. It would be no fun at all if the fellow wore a cap— but to knock off a silk hat— Ah, there's the secret in fun."
Jack Benny's laughs— on radio and movies combined gross almost a million dollars a year. Humor not only stays— but it pays.

Saturday 29 October 2022

Happy Days For the Hungry Wolf

“I haven’t got a daddy,” says the cute but oblivious little creature to a wolf that wants to eat him. “Will you be my daddy?” he asks.

You know, I said to myself, “Where have I heard this before?” Why, I know. In Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s pitiable duck cartoons at MGM, then later at their own studio, culminating as Yakky Doodle. Except then it was “Will you be my mama?” In fact, it was the plot of Foxy Proxy with Fibber Fox (1961).

Yes, the whole Yakky Doodle concept, right down to the “Go on, get out of here!” part, goes back almost 20 years before that in the MGM cartoon The Hungry Wolf. Hanna and Barbera weren’t involved in it; this was a Hugh Harman/Rudy Ising cartoon.

This one has a twist though. Mama Rabbit goes searching in the snowstorm to find her son and discovers him next to the frozen and unconscious wolf, who had chased him out of his home to save the bunny from being eaten by him. Since the cartoon’s almost at the nine-minute mark, there’s a perfunctory and implausible explanation that “I guess he must have fainted,” before the scene cuts to the finale with the fully-conscious wolf, his feet in a warm tub, being fed by the rabbit family, all singing “Happy days are here again.”

Ah, there’s nothing like clumps of food inside an open mouth.

The wolf hiccoughs his head out of the scene from being a glutton. Oh my!

And because there’s a war on.

Variety of January 28, 1942 reported Scott Bradley was conducting the score of the short. It was released February 21st, and copyrighted six days later.

Showman’s Trade Review rates it “fair.” “This one moves too slowly to be entertaining,” it assesses. One exhibitor in the Motion Picture Herald said: “Just a fair cartoon, not made for laughing purposes but to show artistic talent, I guess.” Metro’s own shorts publication didn’t bother to do a special review of it.

I don’t know who plays the rabbit, but Mel Blanc is the wolf. He couldn’t have voiced many more MGM cartoons after this. Variety reported on April 25, 1941 that Blanc had been signed to a term contract by Leon Schlesinger. Part of the deal meant he could not voice theatrical cartoons for any other studio. And, let’s lay to rest the oft-repeated tale that Blanc's contract stipulated no other actor could be credited at Warners. As Keith Scott’s research shows, it simply isn’t true. And he’s seen the contracts.

There are no credits at all on this cartoon. Jerry Beck’s research shows that Hugh Harman was responsible for it, but Harman was gone from MGM by the time it was released. Variety announced May 2, 1941 that Harman was leaving and had formed Hugh Harman Productions. It was Harman’s departure that quashed any ambitions by members of the MGM staff for a director’s job; Tex Avery was brought in from outside in September.

Friday 28 October 2022

Painting With Crashcup

The Alvin Show would have been great—without Alvin. I can do without a self-centered jerkish character. And I can do without screechy renditions of songs that were ancient in 1961, when the show was produced.

But one part of the show was worth watching—the segment with Clyde Crashcup, the inventor of things that had already been invented. Created by Format Films along with Crashcup was Leonardo, his faithful assistant. Leonardo was childlike, sensitive (played the cello and harp) and loyal to his boss. He also knew he was in a cartoon, and reacted to what was happening by looking at the audience.

He was a pantomime character, which can be deadly in limited animation. He only spoke by whispering.

He was never afraid to express himself. When Crashcup would say he invented something and held up something else, Leonardo would roll his eyes. He’d look with horror when he knew Crashcup’s pending demonstration was going to fail. He also got bored with Crashcup’s endless self-congratulation by yawning, or looking bored.

Format engaged in money-saving techniques on the segments, such as cutting way to a held cel of Leonardo while Crashcup yacked off-screen, cycles (including turning drawings around and painting them on the other side) and using maybe the same ten cues. Here’s something you don’t see often in the series—a stretch in-between.

There was a bit of a Laurel and Hardy relationship between the two. In this sequence of the “Do it Yourself” segment, Leonardo accidentally paints Clyde’s face (Crashcup rather stupidly opens a door while Leonardo is painting it). The Hardy-like retaliation follows. Crashcup paints his nose with a roller.

Leonardo checks his nose for paint, then reaches down to do the most logical thing to end the scene.

One fact I didn’t know as a kid is Crashcup is a caricature of Stephen Bosustow, the somewhat-over-his-head owner of UPA. In the late ‘50s, Herb Klynn and a bunch of others finally tired of Bosustow and quit to form Format Films—which just happened to make The Alvin Show. I appreciate the subversion.

Thursday 27 October 2022

Cock-A-Doodle Dog

Obsessiveness? Insanity? Well, what else would you find in a Tex Avery cartoon?

The rooster in Tex Avery’s Cock-a-Doodle Dog (1951) follows the rule. Roosters crow. So that’s what he does. All during the cartoon. Spike wants to sleep, but becomes crazy trying to stop the rooster from doing what roosters do.

Finally, we reach the end of the cartoon. The rooster decides to sleep. Now, it’s the insane Spike who is obsessively crowing. The rooster tries to stop him. The last gag is a complete turnabout as the rooster looks at the camera to end the short.

Mike Lah, Grant Simmons and Walt Clinton are the animators, while Rich Hogan helped Avery with the gags. Avery even plays Spike. Is Daws Butler the rooster? Could be, but I don’t really know. Ed Benedict handled the layouts and Johnny Johnsen painted the backgrounds; if you have John Canemaker’s book on Avery you’ll see two wonderful layouts from this cartoon.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Crosby on Crosby

The year was 1946. It was the year Bing Crosby changed network radio for good.

The Old Groaner had been hosting a show on the air for Kraft for 11 years, all of which ended with three chimes courtesy of the National Broadcasting Company. And because NBC and CBS mandated live broadcasts, der Bingle did one show for the East Coast at 6 p.m. Thursdays then the same show three hours later for the West Coast. The networks were antsy about transcriptions, claiming they didn’t have the quality of live shows, the discs could skip, and audiences didn’t want recorded programmes.

Bing was not a stupid man. He knew transcribed shows, like Amos ‘n’ Andy, had been on the air since the late ‘20s. He didn’t see the point of doing an identical broadcast twice. And he knew during the war, the Germans had invented a high-quality reel-to-reel tape machine that was now being manufactured in the U.S. by Ampex. Bing liked the idea of editing out mistakes and having a better show. He also liked the idea of recording broadcasts in advance, leaving him stretches of time for golfing and fishing.

Another network, ABC, didn’t care about live or tape. It cared about getting stars to make any kind of ratings gains to jump out of third place. Sure, Bing, come to ABC and record your shows, he was told. Farewell, bong-bong-bong! Farewell, Velveeta! Crosby debuted his taped show (transcribed onto disc for airing) for Philco on Wednesday, October 16, 1946. (ABC followed Crosby with another heavy-hitter, satirist Henry Morgan, who went from ad-lib commentaries to his own variety show).

If you read the trade papers and/or radio pages in the public press at the time, there was huge fascination with Bing’s experiment. It turned out to be a success. The dam burst. Other live shows followed. NBC and CBS gave in.

Herald Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby seemed quite pleased with both Bing and the broadcast, which he reviewed on Tuesday, October 22.

Bing Crosby
The hullabaloo started last spring when Bing Crosby's contract with Kraft Music Hall, his sponsor for ten years, expired. Throughout the summer, rumors flew around like magpies. Crosby was tired and was through with radio for good. Or, Crosby would like to do a transcription series but no network would take a chance. Then in August the news was flashed around the nation—the world's favorite barytone would do a series of transcribed broadcasts for Philco over the American Broadcasting Co. The pay would be the highest in radio ($24,000 a week) with a percentage on additional stations which might bring it as high as $30,000). The network would be the largest ever strung together for a commercial show (208 A. B. C. stations, possibly 400 independents).
As the great day approached, the publicity mounted. The network renamed Wednesday Bingsday. Magazine ads blossomed like magnolias, recounting the story of the voice on which the sun never acts. The Crosby face, as symbolic of America as Churchill’s cigar of the British Empire, peered forth from hundreds of newspaper ads to remind us Wednesday was the day. It was the greatest build-up since Bikini.
By the time the first strains of "When the Blue of the Night" crept through our loudspeakers in the serene, relaxed unmistakable tones of the world’s most nonchalant singer, it was a bit of an anticlimax. What were we all expecting—the Apocalypse? It was just Crosby—the same effortless voice you hear night and day from ten thousand juke boxes, the same velvet tones and perfect phrasing that emanate hour after hour via recordings from hundreds of independent radio stations.
Discounting the publicity, it was a darn good show. Bing warmed up with "I Got the Sun in the Morning," a song whose lyrics are peculiarly fitted to his own insouciance, and then, for a change of pace, offered "Moonlight Bay,” which gave him a chance to throw out his chest and give for a note or two.
There isn’t much left to be said about the Crosby voice. Its great charm, I think (and it’s hardly an original thought) is that Crosby keeps it at half throttle most of the time. Behind that easy going warbling are immense reserves of depth and volume, and when, about two notes to every song, he calls them into place, the rest of the popular singers are left far in the rear.
About the only thing you get on the Crosby show that you can’t get on a juke box is the Crosby badinage. The singer hates pretension of any sort and works tirelessly on his scripts to avoid straining at gags. The dialogue is as informal and as easygoing as the Crosby voice—and as difficult to express in print. Engaging is the word I’m looking for, I guess.
The program doesn't rest entirely on the 18-karat voice. Besides Bing, you get Lina Romay, a pleasant singer though overpowered next to the Great Name, and the Charioteers, who provided an excellent contrast to Crosby in “Moonlight Bay.” Skitch Henderson, a piano stylist, broke up the vocalising with a skittish arrangement of "Turkey in the Straw" and John Scott Trotter's orchestra helped out where necessary.
The cherry on this sundae was Bob Hope, another entertainer who has reached such a peak of adulation that he can afford to relax. The two old friends, who go together like scotch and soda, insulted each other’s waistline, hairline and baseball teams and wound up doing a duet called "Put Her There, Pal.” It was just like old times on the road to Singapore.
There were two great innovations in the Crosby show. First and most startling, Bing tore up the commercial because it interfered with the entertainment. The second and most important was the fact that a transcription show got on a national network at all. The success of the Crosby show may lead to lots more of the same.
The first show was a whopping success, but much of it was probably the result of the publicity. It’s too early to tell whether transcription will hold the same appeal as live shows. The first show was carried by the full A. B. C. network (208 stations) and “several hundred” independents. Just how many hundred remains the closely guarded secret of Philco, which is having a little union trouble and won’t give out exact figures. Bing got a Hooper rating of 25, which is excellent but not sensational (Fred Allen got 25.6 on Oct. 6).
But to the millions of Crosby fans the most important news of all is that the Groaner is back on the air.

Incidentally, Bing was bigger than ABC. He recorded a series of 15-minute transcriptions that were syndicated across North America.

The same week, Crosby wrote two columns on an audience survey (Oct. 21, 23) as well as one about returning giveaway show “Pot o’ Gold” on ABC (Oct. 23) and another on honesty in advertising (Oct. 25) which also contained routines from the Fred Allen and Henry Morgan shows. You can click on them below.

Tuesday 25 October 2022

Under the Sea, 1929 Style

The Fleischer studio had to give a name to its new series of sound cartoons, so it (or Paramount) came up with “Talkartoons.”

There isn’t a lot of “talk” in the first one, Noah’s Lark, released on October 26, 1929. There’s singing and crowd sounds while the characters’ mouths move. The action is timed to the music.

The studio hadn’t quite developed truly surreal gags yet. The short ends with the ark sinking and a mermaid swimming up to Noah. He chases her underwater into the background to end the picture.

Director Dave Fleischer and Musical Advisor Max M. Manne are the only two people credited on this cartoon.

You’ll have to forgive the horrible digital fuzz on these frames. The Talkartoons are really in need of a full restoration. The Fleischers deserve it.