Saturday 30 September 2023

Mercer and Matalone

He may have voiced more cartoons uncredited than anyone in the business.

Even at a time when Daws Butler and Don Messick’s names were appearing on televisions in the early 1960s, his was not. And, his obit says, he voiced 220 Popeye cartoons for the small screen in a year.

We’re talking about Jack Mercer.

Of course, this doesn’t include 240 Felix the Cat TV cartoons for Trans-Lux where he did every voice. Nor the dozens and dozens of theatrical shorts for the Fleischer and Famous (Paramount) studios going back to the mid-1930s.

As you likely know, Mercer did get screen credit in the glory days of cartoons—for stories. He was an inker who was moved into the story department near the end of the Fleischer studio in the early ‘40s.

Mercer also got very little public press until the era of book-writing cartoon historians. One time was the serendipitous occasion when he married the Miami studio voice of Olive Oyl, Margie Hines, in 1939.

Another occasion can be found in an unusual place. He was mentioned in a feature story in an Australian newspaper, the Macleay Argus of Kempsey in New South Wales. It also sums up how a cartoon was made at the Fleischer studio. The story appeared in the issue of May 20, 1938; the local theatre was showing Puddy’s Coronation, a 1937 Terrytoon.

Something interesting is the revelation of the voice of Wimpy in the cartoons of the time. Frank Matalone was an imitator who won an amateur contest on Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight of April 15, 1936, imitating a traffic whistle, a cuckoo clock, a pair of rolling dice, and the opening of the bottle. I suspect he came to the Fleischers’ notice because his last imitation was Jack Mercer as Popeye, singing the spinachk-eating sailor’s theme song. You can hear him below at around the 49:55 mark. The Brooklyn Times-Union reported at the time he had done the Popeye impression at an amateur night a month earlier at the RKO Albee

(As an aside, the next amateur is a harpist who plays the Friz Freleng favourite “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” No one explodes).

Mae Questel rates a mention as Betty Boop and Olive Oyl but the singer who portrayed Bluto is left out of the story. Gus Wicke was part of a long-time “Gay 90s” revue at a New York restaurant. E.O. Costello put together a fine, annotated biography at the Cartoon Research site.

Substitute the word “newspaper” for “screen” in the third paragraph.


For many years the animated cartoon has been a highlight during most programmes, and has introduced many figures that have left favourable impressions in everyone’s mind, the most important of these being “Popeye,” “Betty Boop,” “Felix the Cat" and “Mickey Mouse.”
To-day we have “Popeye” the spinach eating sailorman, a name that is widely known throughout the world, not only as a movie cartoon, but also as a newspaper comic strip. “Popeye” made his debut in screen cartoons in the year 1929 [sic] in “Thimble Theatre,” starting as a supporting character. Gradually he gained popularity, eventually becoming the star of what is known to-day as the greatest cartoon figure.
Included among the many artists are three people whose voices have made you laugh very heartily, and yet their names and features are absolutely unknown. That deep-chested voice, which bellows forth continual challenges to Bluto, Popeye’s most dangerous opposition for Olive Oyl's heart, is furnished by Jack Mercer, while Mae Questel puts all the “thrill appeal” into her pleas when Olive Oyl is the cause of some argument between these two tough men.
Olive Oyl was one of the original characters created by Segar in 1919, and it was not until many years later that she saw the light of the screen in the talking pictures. Mae Questel, who is partly responsible for the success of this beauty (if we may say that) is also talented in such a way that she puts over the voice for another character, “Betty Boop.” It was thought for quite a long period that the voice of “Betty” was that of an old screen favourite, Helen Kane, and owing to this public opinion, Miss Kane tried to sue Miss Questel, but her efforts proved futile, so Miss Questel still carries on with both jobs.
Again in 1929 Mr. E. C. Segar introduced another personality known as “Wimpy,” and the vocal substitute is Frank Matalone.
The making of these cartoons does not, as most people think, incorporate about a dozen people; on the contrary, it necessitates a regiment of workers, each one skilled at his particular job, working in close contact with the others. Altogether this one reel cartoon passes through the hands of 15 different departments, which, all told, amounts to 200 persons.
The first to deal with “Popeye” is the scenario department. Writing themes for cartoon characters presents quite a different problem from that of the human actor. They must concentrate on themes that are farcical and yet humorous. From this department the finished scenario is sent to the animators.
The boys (and girls, too) who do the original drawings, are the highest paid employees in this type of work. It is on the efforts of these people that the success of the whole cartoon is placed. The expressions, the actions of each measured foot, is entirely their responsibility, and each position requires not only one drawing, but perhaps a dozen, to give the full natural appearance of life.
As mentioned previously, many drawings must be made before a cartoon can become really animated. The average one-reel cartoon takes 15,000 separate drawings. If a scene requires 12 sketches to give complete naturalness, the head animator may draw, say, 1, 5, 10 and 12, and the “inbetweener” as they are called, will fill in the missing drawings.
But the pencil work does not finish at the 15,000 drawings. After close scrutiny of the original drawings, to see that each one will give perfect action and not jump from one movement to another, the tracing depart-partment [sic] comes into the picture. Each drawing and movement made has to be traced on to black celluloid. This is a long tedoius [sic] business, which must be done so that the backgrounds, which are just as important as the characters, will be visible when the photographer places them in front of the highly sensitive lens.
That covers the drawings which amount to 30,000—15,000 original sketches and the same number of tracings.
We now leave the departments that are responsible for the foundation of the cartoon, and visit the colouring and inking copyists. It is the job of this classroom of copyists to fill in “Popeye’s” body with colour, taking particular care about the shading, and making certain, too, that all colours correspond with these of his fellow workers. Some colours have more than seven definite variations in shade.
Up to the present, the concentration has been entirely pointed to the making of flat-surfaced black and white cartoons, but with the advance of motion picture science, Max Fleischer and Paramount have experimented for two years in the creation of third dimension (stereoscopic) and have at last finally succeeded to get it into workable state.
The main difference between the flat and the stereoscopic is found in the backgrounds and settings, as the characters have the same process as told above. In the ordinary cartoon, the backgrounds are drawn and then photographed, but with the new process it has to be built in correct proportion and full perspectiveness. This means all sides are erected, not merely as motion picture sets, but just the portion that is visible to the camera.
These sets are then placed on a turntable, and as the action travels from one scene to another, the turntable revolves so as to keep “Popeye” and his confederaes [sic] in a continual line with the lens of the camera. The camera never moves.
And now that you are thoroughly conversant with the making of a “Popeye” cartoon, it should be easier for you to appreciate that it is not just eight or nine minutes of entertainment, but a highly skilled piece of work.

Mercer finally got screen credit for Popeye when Hanna-Barbera licensed the comic strip characters from King Features in 1978 (another one of Paramount’s cartoon writers, Larz Bourne, was story editor of the series). He told the Associated Press’ Tom Jory in 1979 that Hanna-Barbera made him audition for the series. His wife was astounded. “What?” she asked, “He has to audition for his own voice.”

Jackson Beck, the post-Fleischer voice of Bluto (and Brutus in the 1960s TV cartoons) claimed in a 1990 story in Newsday that Mercer “was the cleverest voice man I ever knew. He could do more than Mel Blanc. He played animals. He did motors. He was a little wimpy guy who never had the guts to ask for the money he deserved.”

Matalone didn’t pursue show business, other than being part of a touring company made up of some of Fred Allen’s contest winners; another person on the tour for a while was a musician by the name of Vic Mizzy. The Miami News of March 11, 1936, the day Matalone was supposed to appear on Allen’s show, called him a “Baltimore art student and chauffeur.” This is more than likely the Frank Matalone who worked 54 years as a chauffeur for the village of Hempstead, New York, and was a member of the village volunteer fire department for 41 years. He died July 19, 1976 at the age of 78. He was born in Italy on December 23, 1897. There was no mention of Fred Allen or cartoons in his newspaper obituary.

Friday 29 September 2023

Now You See Them...

It happens. The animation checker misses something and an overlay cel doesn’t get shot, meaning something on the screen vanishes.

In Guided Muscle, released in 1955, Wile E. Coyote lays a spoon and a knife next to a pepper mill on a cactus.

Wile E. picks up the mill, and the utensils disappear.

The drawing above is held for two frames. Next drawing.

Two more frames.

Ah, they're back!

The animators are Dick Thompson, Ken Harris, Ben Washam and Abe Levitow. This was the last cartoon from the Chuck Jones unit put into production before the Warner Bros. shutdown of 1953. Maurice Noble was gone, so Phil De Guard takes over layouts and Dick Thomas from the former McKimson unit (it was eliminated 3 1/2 months before the shutdown) paints the backgrounds.

Thursday 28 September 2023

A Happy, Hungry Door

A contented door swallows Ub Iwerks’ version of Don Quixote.

Whoever came up with the story on this cartoon created a few interesting transformation idea, including a steam shovel that Quixote believes is a fire-breathing dragon. There’s also the cliché of the beautiful princess who turns out to be an ugly, man-crazy crone, with the design you see in countless Iwerks shorts. (I guess you could count them, but who wants to?)

Carl Stalling is credited with the score in this 1934 cartoon. No animators are mentioned.

Wednesday 27 September 2023

More of the Wit of Fred Allen, Would-Be TV Star

Fred Allen wasn’t finished with radio in 1949 when his show for Ford went off the air. In 1950, there were guest appearances on other NBC shows—and even Jack Benny’s over on CBS. He stayed out of radio “to get a taste of oblivion. I shall be the only radio comic with a preview of oblivion when television really takes over,” he was quoted in a Louisville newspaper that January.

Allen still exercised his wit and opinions in the popular press that year. Here’s a column from UP from Feb. 18th.

Fred Allen Doesn’t Like Radio, Video or Anything Else
(United Press Hollywood Correspondent)
Fred Allen yesterday said he’s very happy to be temporarily retired because: Radio’s dying, television isn’t grown up yet and the movies never have made a funny man out of him.
The sourpuss comedian quit radio last year because of illness. He says he has little intention of working again, either.
“Television won’t kill radio. Radio’s doing a pretty good job of killing itself,” cracked Allen. “It’s half dead, but rigor mortis hasn’t set in.
“And I’m not sure I’ll want to get into television even when it’s perfected. People tire of you more quickly when they see you every week.
“Besides, it’s anti-social. It won’t ruin sex but it’s ruining small talk. It’s getting smaller and smaller. Instead of talking you sit and watch some second-rate television show that you wouldn’t go out of your home to see.” “Besides,” he groused, “it doesn’t pay him to work, anyway.
“With taxes what they are, there’s no incentive to do anything. The only thing that keeps a lot of performers going is their ego. Well, my ego is under control.
“Therefore I see only futility in any temporary adulation I would get on TV by the portion of the unwashed public that hasn’t seen me before.”
Allen trekked to California, “which is founded on one objective, sunny,” to star in the radio version of his latest movie, “It’s In the Bag,” on NBC’s Screen Directors’ Playhouse, last night.
“I’ve made five movies, the latest in 1945, all of them bad. Every few years somebody comes around and says nobody knows how to handle me in pictures so he wants to try. So I make a movie with him—and it’s bad.
“In Hollywood acting ability or talent doesn’t count. You have to be photogenic.”
Allen furthermore th1nk he’s doing the public a favor by staying jobless for a while.| ‘An actor is like a cinder in the public eye,” he went on. “People need relief from him. The public should be very grateful to me. Everybody else is boring the hell out of them in pictures and radio. The tax boys are getting a rest, too. They don’t have to bother counting all my money.
“Next year I’ll write a book. The year after that I’ll read it and the next year I’ll tear it up. That’ll take up three years.
“Meantime I’m out here getting movie stars to donate their swimming pool to New York to help the water shortage.”

He began his television career that fall as one of the hosts appearing on a rotational basis on The Colgate Comedy Hour (he was gone by December to Florida for health reasons). He also wrote two books, though he died before completing the one about his vaudeville/stage life before radio. As for taxes, he beat the state of Massachusetts over a $90 tax bill, proving before a judge he no longer lived in Boston.

Allen used some of the same lines when he returned to New York and spoke with Earl Wilson. The column showed up March 3rd or 10th, depending on the paper.

Fred Allen Busy Doing ‘Nothing’
It’s Tougher Than Working, ‘Retired’ Comedian Finds
NEW YORK—"In California," said Fred Allen, who's just back from there, "people don't know the meaning of the word ‘happen’ because nothing ever does.
"It's so crowded that all the oranges are on the ground because people are living in all the trees.
"They say Los Angeles is booming—just because the streets are full of people all the time.
"But those people in the streets are people moving from one house to another house. Naturally, when anybody moves into one of those California houses, he moves out of it and into another one right away."
Fred, you can see, had a good time in California. I met him at the Plaza Oak Room where his agent was trying to persuade him to go back to work.
Fred isn't very eager, however.
"You used to save your money for a rainy day. With taxes the way they are now, you save your money and when it rains all you've got to hold over your head is an income tax receipt."
I suggested that anybody with his talent must also be ambitious to have a vast audience every week.
"Nowadays," Fred replied, "You keep your nose to the grindstone and you wind up with your nostrils full of emery dust."
"So you have no plans?"
"I've got no more plans than a dead architect."
"Don't you like to be busy?"
"Why, I'm busier doing nothing than I was when I was working. In Hollywood I was on the Bob Hope show and on the way from the dressing room to the microphone, I did two benefits.
"Everybody in Los Angeles was trying to invent something. One guy was making his own Sanka. He put sleeping pills in his coffee.
"I saw trailers with television aerials on them. Guys that hadn't got homes yet had TV sets out in their yards. It got so cold while I was there, they put smudge pots under people.
"California is a state made famous by an adjective. Without that adjective ‘sunny,’ California would be another Nebraska.
"I like San Francisco. I don't know why they should build all those bridges. The people are so nice, no one would ever want to leave there."
"Don't you miss being on the air?" I asked.
"Those other guys are treadmill comedians, quantity comedians. They think they have to be on all day, and after they are, you can't remember a thing they say."
"Now that you've commented about California, what have you to say about New York?" I said.
"New York! The hotels have no water. The clerk gives you a bath towel and a divining rod."
Fred got up to go. "I have to see my dentist," he said. "Want to come along and have a tooth pulled on me?"

Wilson was one of few critics who liked Allen’s TV debut. Most the rest of the reviews I’ve seen, with the exception of Sid Shalit’s rave in the New York Daily News, rated it, as they say in baseball, “swing and a miss.” Wilson’s column of September 27, 1950 opened with:

NEW YORK—Fred Allen’s first TV show was for intelligent people—but I liked it anyway.
It had “class.” Fred discussed big NBC executives. He said one was so big he had a wastebasket to throw people in. He also said, “There is more to television than meets the nose.”
Backstage, Fred and guest Star Monte Wooley [sic] talked about the unbelievable amount of work that goes into a show. They had rehearsed for more than a wek. “Do you think you’ll do much television,” I asked Wooley.
Tossing his heard in the air, he snorted, “I shouldn’t think so.”

The Herald Tribune’s John Crosby pointed out Allen “seemed ill at ease in front of all those cameras.” I don’t think Allen lost that. Even on What’s My Line? he never really appeared comfortable. He once said he liked the panel show because it left him plenty of time to write. As he showed again and again, the place where he was most at ease was a place with words.

Tuesday 26 September 2023

From Duck to Dick

Here’s a cute throwaway gag in a Bob Clampett favourite, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946).

The premise is Daffy wants to be Dick Tracy. He knocks himself out into dreamland.

The scene switches to a detective office door. Daffy is in silhouette, wearing a fedora. The silhouette turns into Dick Tracy’s. These are consecutive drawings, each on two frames.

And back again.

Bill Melendez, Izzy Ellis, Rod Scribner and Manny Gould are the credited animators, with Tom McKimson drawing the layouts (notice the owner of the taxi cab).

Warren Foster wrote the story.

Monday 25 September 2023

Dog Meets Grapefruit

Carmen Miranda jokes were out by 1950, I guess, so the nameless cat finds a different use for used fruit than creating a hat in Ventriloquist Cat (1950).

The shows some grace as it heckles Spike with the fruit.

A couple of quick "meows" while suspended in mid-air and the cash dashes out of the scene.

It sounds like Tex Avery playing the cat. Wait! I don't have to guess. I can look it up in Keith Scott's book. Sure enough, it's Tex. The cat's ventriloquist meows are by Red Coffey.

Sunday 24 September 2023

Tralfaz Sunday Theatre: Industry on Parade

It’s all straightforward. The caricatures to the right are of Warner Bros. animation artists Abe Levitow and Bob Doerfler. They’re dressed as a moose and squirrel. Bill Scott wrote Warners cartoons. He produced Rocky and Bullwinkle. Therefore, he got the idea for the moose and squirrel series because he worked with Bob Doerfler, who drew the caricatures.

Unfortunately, there are people who did what I just did there—connect dots and make assumptions and post on the internet. They declare their “research” as factual animation history.

What has this got to do with Industry on Parade, you ask?

Look at the picture to your left. It is a frame from an episode of Industry on Parade (if you click on the picture, it should take you to the episode). To be specific, it’s a frame of Bob Doerfler. He must be the Warners guy, right? They have the same name, and both are artists. He’s the age of a guy who would be in the Chuck Jones unit in the ‘40s. And a lot of Warners people went on to other types of art after working in animation.

Yes, I was about set to connect the dots on this and post it. But then I paused a minute. They don’t really LOOK the same, do they? Is it possible there were two Bob Doerflers who were artists around this time?

We’re fortunate today that there are sites you can go (if you pay) to dig up information from old newspapers, city directories and government records. They’re not complete, but they’re better than scrolling endlessly through microfilm on the off-chance you’ll find something (which is how I did research 40 years ago). U.S military draft cards are among the items you can find, and here is one for Bob Doerfler. The key information here is his birthdate and location, middle name and mother’s name. From this we can hunt down other records and peer through newspaper clippings for matching information. In Doefler’s case, we learn his father Edd (with two ‘d’s) was an insurance agent. Doefler went to University High School in West Los Angeles where he was involved in a poster club. At Santa Monica City College, he was a club that went on sketching expeditions and created props for school plays. The 1940 Census gives his occupation as “new worker,” and we find him in the 1942 City Directory working for Schlesinger, though he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in January that year.

It’s unclear whether he was working for Warners when he returned from the war (he was wounded in the Marshall Islands in 1944), but in the 1954 directory for Whittier, California, his occupation is a draftsman for “North Am,” while a year later he was an electrical engineer.

From the U.S. Death Index for California, we discover he died in San Diego on Feb. 27, 1982.

Now, the Bob Doerfler with his sketch pad in the 1956 Industry on Parade segment reveals he was employed as a designer for the International Silver Company of Meriden, Connecticut. Fortunately, the archives of the local paper are available to search and we discover that a Robert L. Doerfler, Sr., born in Meriden in 1916, died in Florida on October 22, 2004. The obit reveals “He was a designer for International Silver Co. with over 30 years of service.”

So, yes, there were two Bob Doerflers who liked to draw.

This is a short lesson to be as thorough as possible if you’re doing research.

Now, on to Industry on Parade.

This may be my favourite pro-corporate propaganda TV series. Here’s Variety from October 25, 1950:
National Assn. of Manufacturers has launched a video newsreel program, “Industry on Parade,” for use by TV stations. Reels are being made available cuffo to 50 stations, on an exclusive basis, and may be used as a sustainer or commercial. Vidpix run 13 minutes, allowing time for local bankrollers, and two 40-second segments can be deleted if more commercial time is needed. NBC-TV news department is lensing the subjects (such as U. S. arms production, new synthetic yarns, innovations in furniture manufacturing, etc.) on assignment from the NAM. G. W. (Johnny) Johnstone, NAM radio-TV director, has taken on A. Maxwell Hage, former Mutual news editor, to work on the project.
One of those 50 stations was WNBT New York, which popped it in a 1 p.m. time slot on Oct. 28th.

At one time, there were all kinds of filler shows on television to eat up time during the daytime on weekend instead of running a test pattern. Industry on Parade were put together just like a newsreel—a title card followed by silent footage edited together, with voiceover narration and stock music. In between its salute to various companies (NAM members, one suspects), there were right-wing messages about high taxes on business, federal government interference and how the Commies wanted to destroy what made America great (free enterprise). The series was well-written and expertly edited. As a bonus, it used the Filmusic library composed by Jack Shaindlin. There were hundreds and hundreds of cues, some later heard in the background of the earliest Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

Here’s one that’s a snapshot of life in the 1950s. First, we see a company that is so good to its workers, it prints a company magazine. In fact, it helps explain the American Way of Life to people in other countries. Of course, since the boss is giving a free magazine, he’s your friend. No need for one of those unions.

Next, the story of the largest ink producer in the U.S. We’re reminded America is “the best read, best informed nation on Earth.”

Ah, but the show breaks for a warning. The American dollar has been devalued! Why? Too much spending by the U.S. government (read "Democrats"). Taxes are unfair (read "businesses are overtaxed"). Sound money means a strong and free America! Cut to a waving flag.

Next, a look at the main competitor to Dixie Cups. We see how Lily Cups are made. Just throw them away after using them once! And there’s something new called “take out food.” I quite like the opening cue, which is among the hundreds not in my Langlois collection.

Well, today there’s no need for a company magazine with the internet, meaning no need for ink. And the Lily Cup people ended up getting bought as part of a leveraged buyout by Morgan-Stanley. Take out food is still around, but how did they order it back then without a delivery app on their phone?

The internet will tell you the series ran on television until 1960. It has episodes in colour labelled from the 1950s, even though you’ll easily spot 1963 model cars and 1964 hair styles in them.

It seems we have a way to go when it comes to "research."

Jack Benny For Christmas

What’s your idea of the perfect radio show?

The answer for a number of people was Jack Benny.

We’re talking about radio in 1935 here. This is the Jack Benny before Phil Harris, before Rochester, before Dennis Day, before Mel Blanc, before age 39, before the Fred Allen feud, before Frank Nelson going “Yeeehhhhs?” It was during the time Harry Conn was still writing the Benny show.

I can’t think of anyone who believes this era of Benny is better than the Murrow-Beloin years or the post-war era for American Tobacco. But, in its day, it was popular with audiences.

It may be too early for Christmas decorations in stores, but it’s never too early for a Jack Benny Christmas-time story. This one comes from the January 1936 edition of “Redbook,” and randomly surveys people about the perfect radio show. Fittingly, Jack is one of the people interviewed. (The drawing of radio listeners is from a different edition of "Redbook."

RIGHT now, in the inner sanctums of all the “creative geniuses” who provide you with your radio programs, the conferences are going on far into the night. Wires and phone-calls flash between New York and Hollywood. Pencils are gnawed to the stub, and fingers to the bone. The boys are straining, groaning, struggling, pondering, desk-pounding, conferring, fighting and generally raising up a terrific furor in trying to answer that ever-puzzling question: “What does the public want for its Christmas radio program?”
In our big-hearted fashion we thought we’d help the sweating toilers a little bit. So we called on a lot of very bright people, and others not so bright—a goodly cross section of the minds of the country, and spoke to them in this fashion:
“If, among your Christmas presents, you could have your own personal hand-tailored radio program, what would you want? In other words — your idea of the perfect radio program.”
We found out; we found out a lot of funny things we never knew before. We found out that Jack Benny is certainly walking off with the honors. We found a few answers that we couldn’t print because this is a nice respectable family magazine, we’ll have you know. We found that if some sponsor were able to give the radio Christmas present most people ask for, it would probably cost him no less than fifty thousand dollars a broadcast.
How does your taste check with Ben Hecht’s, Peter Arno’s, Helen Hayes’, Walter Winchell’s, Beatrice Lillie’s and all the others represented here?

He doesn’t want much — only a full-hour show with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd for comedy. (It oughtn’t to take more than twelve thousand dollars to pay for this little comic present.) Also under the same heading he’d like Parkyakarkas—without Canton He then goes on to say he would like Alexander Woollcott without his bulging bay window, and Johnny Green’s music without all of those dialects he’s attempting. He also would like to include in his Christmas program Boake Carter, also without dialect.

“Among this group of experts on radio programing, it seems the better part of valor to confine myself to a field in which I have had some experience — dramatics. Some day I should like to hear a series of really great plays in which fine and beautiful language is the most important element. For the Christmas season I think Bruce Gordon and Frankie Thomas in ‘The Blue Bird’ would be pretty fine.”

“I’d like Jack Benny for some real good laughs — and why has nobody ever put Charlie Chaplin on the radio?”

“Either Uncle Don announcing a March of Time with ‘hurry’ music by Paul Whiteman—
“Or Alexander Woollcott as Cap’n Henry and a cast including Helen Hayes, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Fred Allen, Burns and Allen, Col. Stoopnagle and Budd, and Grace Moore, giving their own idea of Showboat, with music by Rudy Vallee. Or, neither.”

“Any program would be marvelous without Ben Bernie.”

“The radio has great music, brilliant drama and outstanding news-commentators. Sports events and political speakers fill the loud-speakers. What the broad casting industry needs are some good comedy programs. we don’t know why this field of entertainment has been neglected. If any sponsors are reading this, REDBOOK will be glad to notify them how to get in touch with a very funny guy. Modesty prohibits my mentioning his name. What have you people got that I haven’t got? Possibly aching sides from tuning in on Jack B--- Sunday nights. I wish I could sympathize with you, but I can’t. I have never been able to hear him, though they say he’s terrific.”

“Myself and Alexander Woollcott. Myself for the comedy and Woollcott for the heavier and more dramatic part of the program.”

“Business is kind of lousy, and I got plenty of time to hear the radio in my cab. Poisonally, I like Jack Benny, Showboat, Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. It’s funny what people listen to in my cab. Sweet old ladies go for the blood-and-thunder stuff. Guys wit’ faces chipped outta concrete will listen to Kate Smith’s mush, and like it. While you’re at it, what about a Christmas program with Shoiley Temple? Why don’t somebody put her on the air?”

“A Christmas evening broadcast might well include an orchestral arrangement of ‘March of the Toys’ between vocal renditions of ‘Evening Star’ and ‘Tannhäuser,’ and ‘The Sleigh’ by Kountz.”

ONE of the advantages of writing this column for Redbook is the privilege of including one’s own opinion among those of the celebrities above. Rubbing shoulders with the great, in print, so to speak.
If anyone were to ask me what radio program I’d want for Christmas (nobody has, but I’ll answer it anyway), I would say that I’m in the happy position of being able to hear just what I want.
At five-thirty on Christmas day I shall tune in my radio to Lionel Barrymore and Freddie Bartholomew. They will be doing “Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. It will be tender and poignant and very lovely, precisely in the Christmas spirit. Barrymore as Scrooge will be superb. And Freddie Bartholomew’s gentle charm and juvenile Oxonian accents have ever been a delight. As a matter of fact, my problem has been settled for a full five years. A far-sighted sponsor has contracted for the services of these two performers that far ahead. And each year at Christmas they will bring you this dramatic ornament to shine in your living-room.
God bless you, one and all!
Reeve Morrow

Saturday 23 September 2023

In 1921, Aesop Said...

Jay Ward and Bill Scott’s “Fractured Fairy Tales” and their cousin Aesop’s Fables are still great fun to watch, but the idea for the segment really wasn’t that original.

Back in the silent cartoon days, fairy tales were spoofed in Pathé’s “Aesop’s Fables” series under the direction of none other than Paul Terry.

Terry doesn’t get a lot of love these days. He spent as little as possible to make repetitive cartoons, too many with characters only die-hard fans would remember. He restricted Paul Scheib’s music scoring. He got rid of the great Bill Tytla to save money and waited out employees during an ultimately failed strike in the late ‘40s. He never gave animators or actors a screen credit. He promised Manny Davis and other long-time employees a share of the money when he cashed out. They didn’t get a penny when CBS bought the Terrytoons studio.

Yet it was a different story in the 1920s. It’s a familiar quote that Walt Disney aspired to make cartoons as good as Terry’s Aesop Fables.

The trade papers anxiously awaited Terry’s newest endeavour. Motion Picture World of June 4, 1921, gave a plug. There appears to be some Pathé butt kissing here. How could the writer call the Fables “realistic” with a straight face?

Aesop’s Fables for Release in Animated Form Beginning June 19
At last the rich mines of picture material contained in Aesop's Fables have been suitably developed for popular screen use. This interesting information comes from Pathe Exchange announcing an arrangement with Fables Pictures, Inc., for the weekly release, beginning June 19, of a series of "Aesop's Fables Modernized," in the form of animated cartoons by Paul Terry.
The first Pathe release will be Cartoonist Terry's up-to-date adaptation of the fable of "The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg," which has an honored place in the popular literature of every civilized race and country. It will be followed at weekly intervals by other equally familiar Aesop subjects. The Pathe release schedule shows "The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg" followed successively by "Mice in Council," "The Rooster and the Eagle," "Ants and the Grasshopper" and "Cats at Law.”
It is reported that when the Pathe Exchange authorities viewed the first half dozen or more of these "Aesop's Fables Modernized" they were of one mind with Fables Pictures, Inc., regarding their intrinsic screen merit and popular appeal. Many exhibitors and picture patrons will remember Paul Terry as the cartoonist of the "Farmer Alfalfa" series, which won speedy accceptance a few years ago; also the "Terry Burlesques," animated cartoon travesties of popular screen features.
Those who have been present at projections of Paul Terry's Aesop adaptations appear to agree, it is said, that they are superior to anything of the kind heretofore produced. The comic action of the animal and bird characters is said to be so realistic as to cause the beholder to forget that it is all obtained by the animated cartoon process; moreover, that the modern exceedingly laughable dramatization in pictures and the force of the moral are just as "Aesopian" as in the immortal originals.
The obvious vast advantage of the screen utilization of material so universally familiar, and so highly relished, as the fables of Aesop has been the motive for many attempts to make it effective. Usually they have failed, it is said, through inability to seize the comic spirit inherent — though seldom emphasized — in these ancient classics in which human conflicts are illuminated in the words and actions of familiar animals. In other instances an attempt at modernization has not been accompanied by sufficient creative invention to make the screen fable-drama complete. The use of mechanical animal figures — since there is no "school of acting" of proved efficiency in the case of ducks, geese, donkeys, roosters, wolves and other inhabitants of barnyard and forest — has seemed to be unsatisfactory. So it has remained for Fables Pictures, Inc., to present Cartoonist Paul Terry's solution of the problem — for distribution by Pathe.

The publication, a week later, reported the cartoons had been booked throughout the Keith circuit, arguably the largest theatre chain in the U.S. at the time, as it operated (with the Orpheum) a huge number of vaudeville houses.

The first of Terry’s Fables was a success, judging by this review in Exhibitors Herald of July 9, 1921.

Paul Terry, the cartoonist, has awakened new interest in the ancient Greek classics, by his clever animation of the Aesop's fables. The first to be shown in Chicago was "The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg," and if succeeding pictures of this series are as funny as the first, their success is assured.
At the new Adams theatre, where this one was shown, it met with hearty approval. Terry has taken the familiar story of the farmer and his greedy wife and with a few deftly written titles, and his "gimme" cat, made as delightful a one-reel subject as has flashed across the screen in some time. The animation is good, the photography excellent, and he gets a laugh without striving for it in every' scene. Let us have more of these unique cartoons.

Moving Picture World, reviewing The Ants and the Grasshopper in its July 21, 1921 edition, declared “Paul Terry has done some excellent work in this fable,” and proclaimed the cartoon “just as amusing and instructive as the three earlier members of this series.”

“More of these unique cartoons,” theatres got. Through the 1920s, Terry pumped out one a week, 52 cartoons a year. But that would soon have to change. Nowhere in these stories is there any mention of the man who had the money behind the Fables studio—Amedee Van Beuren. Sound arrived in earnest in 1928 and Van Beuren wanted to add it to the Fables cartoons. Terry didn’t. Terry soon found himself out of work.

Van Beuren carried on with the no-longer-noiseless Fables under the banner of Van Beuren Productions. Terry set up his own studio—by now, he had no choice but to include a soundtrack—first with partners and then on his own, releasing his cartoons through Educational Pictures, which was swallowed up by 20th Century Fox. Fox exchanges continued to send Terrytoons to theatres well into the age of television.

Terry died in 1971. His Fables will live on, if a fund-raising campaign is a success. They won’t be altogether silent; musician Charlie Judkins will provide his usual well-thought-out piano accompaniment to these pictures. You can find out more about the project at this site.

Friday 22 September 2023

Botox Boy

The American Humane Association may have loved it, but Columbia’s A Boy, a Gun and Birds still has that weird factor that a lot of Screen Gems cartoons couldn’t shake.

The studio already had Scrappy, but I guess they decided he should be restricted to black-and-white shorts and not the higher-budget Color Rhapsodies, so a new boy character was invented.

It’s bad enough Sparky’s nose looks like a pig snout but, in what’s supposed to be a touching scene of remorse and sorrow, he has a 1940 version of botoxed lips. They form creepy shapes as he jerks his head around during his monologue to the bird he’s shot. Some of the drawings are held for seven frames, some for only one frame.

This short was another example of “We can make cartoons as good as Walt Disney.” The screen is full of flying birds for the sake of flying birds because, well, Disney would have lots of them, too. There are shadows (Chuck Jones loved those in his Disney period). There’s even a Disney-like fly-in-formation-under-the-crotch joke.

Note some insight into the origin of this short in the comment section.

Other than the Humane people, trade paper reviewers thought the short was fair at best.

Ben Harrison directed the short with Manny Gould getting an animation credit. Joe De Nat found plenty of public domain music to put in his score. The short was copyright December 18, 1939, but released on January 12, 1940 and turned into a Columbia Favorite re-release on November 26, 1953.

Thursday 21 September 2023

Doggone Explosion

The scenes in Doggone Tired (1949) alternate between light and dark, so director Tex Avery has to employ a subtle use of colour.

At the end of the cartoon, Avery reprises a gag—an explosion when Speedy the dog blows out a candle (the first time, it was actually a stick of dynamite. This time, it’s an actual candle).

It’s tough to tell looking at stills, but in these five consecutive frames, Avery goes back to a night-time blue. You can see it if you look at the dog’s hands. (On the screen, five frames whip by in less than a third of a second).

Bobe Cannon, Walt Clinton, Grant Simmons and Mike Lah are the credited animators, while Louis Schmitt designed the character. Rich Hogan and Jack Cosgriff sat in on gag sessions with Avery.