Saturday 6 April 2024

Have You Seen These Cartoons?

Regular readers of this blog will likely know I’m a real fan of animated industrial films of the 1950s. Some fine artists who worked on theatrical cartoons found employment in the many companies which made them.

Probably my favourite industrial studio is John Sutherland Productions, which employed people like Tom Oreb, Emery Hawkins, George Gordon, Maurice Noble, Carl Urbano, Bill Scott, Eugene Poddany and many other names familiar to fans of Warners or MGM cartoons of the 1940s. Unfortunately, too many of the company’s shorts are, well, I won’t say “lost,” but are not available for fans in general to view.

Business Screen Magazine profiled a number of the Sutherland shorts—Sutherland bought full page ads in the publication—and, periodically, I find references to ones I have not seen. Leafing through several editions starting with February 1954 (Issue 1, Volume 15), I came across references to a number of animated or partly animated shorts, so I thought I’d pass them along. Unfortunately, there aren’t screen grabs for all of them.

First on our list is Take a Look at Tomorrow, copyrighted on Sept. 26, 1952. The Copyright Catalogue summary is, unfortunately, bereft of any credits. Here’s what Business Screen tells us:

Kaiser Aluminum Takes "A Look at Tomorrow"
Sponsor: Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp.
Title: Take A Look At Tomorrow, 20 minutes, color, produced by John Sutherland Productions
♦ Faced with the problem that the other two major aluminum companies had made a number of pictures dealing with aluminum production, the Kaiser Aluminum Company needed to find a new way of presenting the aluminum story on film. That it did find a fresh approach is shown in the film Take A Look At Tomorrow, a combination cartoon and live action 20 minute color movie which pretty well covers the aluminum production story.
The picture opens with a gay color cartoon sequence starring "Al Luminum" as a circus performer and magician. He stretches and twists, he's the light weight champion, and he's glamorous—outdistancing by far his competitors. Iron man McGinty and Chief Copperhead.
The cartoon sequence also shows how aluminum is mined, extracted from the ore, and brought to the Kaiser plants.
Live action then takes over and shows aluminum processing. Some of the plant shots which show the aluminum pigs bring rolled, drawn and extruded are magnificent. There is one shot made from a traveling crane along the length of one of the huge rolling mills that is particularly outstanding from a production and lighting standpoint.
Also shown are the many uses to which aluminum is put, from its use in structural I-bars, through the innumerable cast and molded parts that are made of aluminum, down to the microscopically thin aluminum foil for household use. The film is very well produced throughout, in beautiful color, and will be enjoyed by all kinds of audiences. Distribution is being handled by the Kaiser sales offices and warehouse distributors throughout the country.

This is a re-write of a review in the February 1953 edition.

The issue also mentions a couple of films Sutherland made for Texaco. Animators had something to with one of them, but they didn’t animate anything. We’re referring to some of the staffers of Walt Disney’s studio who were part of a musical aggregation. Says Business Screen:

This year, the Texaco spring meetings are based entirely on films — five motion pictures are used, each designed to do a real job on one particular subject. All in color, the films start out with Sell More in 54, 13 minutes, a wonderfully jazzy preview of Texaco advertising plans (produced by John Sutherland Productions) and featuring the Firehouse Five Plus Two band.
The second film (also by John Sutherland) is called Take a Look, George, 5 minutes, and it points up the importance of "Registered Rest Rooms" in making and keeping steady customers.

Here are a couple of full-page ads from John Sutherland promoting award-winning shorts. A is For Atom (1953) has some great designs from Lew Keller and Gerry Nevius of atom-head characters from the periodic table of elements, while It’s Everybody’s Business (1954) features designs from Maurice Noble and a fine score by Les Baxter and Gene Poddany. It was co-written by Bill Scott, who gritted his teeth at some of the stories he had to come up with for Sutherland’s clients, such as this one which equates capitalism with patriotism. Both films have been on-line for years.

Let’s turn away from the Sutherland studio for a moment and look at two other animated cartoons.

Walter Lantz released his cartoons, with the exception of a brief period at the end of the 1940s, through Universal (later Universal-International). But it seems “U” didn’t deal with him exclusively. An industrial cartoon short called Rip Van Winkle Returns is mentioned in the Business Screen edition we’ve been talking about. The article about it doesn’t mention Universal, or a theatrical release, but a cartoon by that name was copyrighted by Universal Pictures on Oct. 5, 1953. The Motion Picture Herald of that period reveals a ten-minute short by that name was released as part of the “Variety Views” series on Oct. 5, 1953.

Could it be possible there were two short films, the same length, with the same name, made around the same time? It’s dangerous to make assumptions, but I believe they’re one and the same. Here’s a snippet from Business Screen’s edition:

Animated Cartoon Helps General Mills Tell Story of Corporate Corporate Growth to Shareholders
♦ Rip Van Winkle was re-awakened for the benefit of General Mills, Inc. stockholders recently. The champion hibernator of the Catskills popped up in a busy color cartoon featured during regional stockholder meetings....
Vocal financial reports were highlighted by color slides employing fractional and full screen chart symbols, and by ten minute animated film, Rip Van Winkle Returns, produced by Dudley Pictures Corporation, Beverly Hills, Cal. ...
When a cordial, jet travelling cartoon “General” Mills aroused cotton-bearded Rip to the fact that the mill from which Rip acquired a stock certificate in 1928 now is considerably more than a mill the audience of stockholders was awakened to an articulate interest in the means by which the management plans to make use of its frontier.

There is no accompanying frame grab, and no other information about the cartoon. However, see the comment from Evan Schad. Dudley seems to have grabbed some people on a freelance basis, like designer Gene Hazelton (who may have been between gigs at MGM and Grantray-Lawrence) and Lantz's composer Clarence Wheeler. It also looks like MGM's Ken Muse handled some of the animation, judging by the expressions on Rip and his dog at 2:15 (and other places).

Finally comes a cartoon I thought I had profiled on Tralfaz, as I spotted the wonderful frame of the moustached dragon some time ago. It appears not. There is a John Sutherland connection here, as animator Norman Wright moved on to NBC in 1955 to come up with some short films for Howdy Doody, then was hired for Sutherland’s writing department. He is responsible for the story for Your Safety First, a 1956 cartoon about the future that will remind you of The Jetsons, produced by Hanna-Barbera six years later. Wright, a former Disneyite, had his own company by 1961.

The Draggin' of Obsolescence
A New Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. Film Gives Fresh Slant on Industry-Wide Problem
"As far back as anyone can remember, people have wanted progress, and have wanted to get rid of anything that might be a drag on progress.”
WITH that innocent remark for a starting point, The Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. has launched an entirely new approach to an old problem through the medium of a fourteen-and-a-half minute fully animated Technicolor cartoon entitled 'William Johnson and the Draggin'. Produced in Hollywood by Wilding Picture Productions, Inc., written by Samuel Beall; animated by Norman Wright.
A deft combination of fantasy, reality, hilarity, and serious exposition in a timeless setting, the picture once more brings together the knights of old and the ideas of today with what should be a bombshell effect upon the nervously conventional field of industrial advertising.
Points Up Critical Need
The story drives home a nationally serious point so entertainingly that it should certainly have its intended commercial effect, too.
which is to make the buyers of capital goods equipment for industry more acutely aware of the nature and inherent villainy of obsolete equipment.
It is already being aggressively borrowed by top managements of some of our largest corporations to show not just to their buyers, but to everyone in the their respective companies.
Memo to Industrial Users
It’s that universal. The gist of this essentially complex industrial-economic message is presented so simply and clearly that it is easily translatable, by any audience, into a personal message. William Johnson is seeable and enjoyable by anyone with access to a sixteen millimeter sound movie projector. If you have no projector, just get in touch with any of the real-life William Johnsons in Cincinnati Milling’s field offices or agencies, all of whom have or can get you a projector and print.
It’s impossible to say whether the story takes place today, in yesterday's setting, or yesterday, in today's setting, but the presence of Draggin', today or yesterday, is sensed by King Customer The First, who is in a natural position to sense it. As any monarch worth his salt will do, he forthwith offers the hand of his daughter to any fortunate knight or commoner who can get rid of the Draggin'. That's what brings William Johnson into the courtroom, along with his Draggin' Locator — a combination of Geiger counter, television set, and electronic computer that behaves like a dedicated bird dog.
In a ludicrous series of sequences which have a deadly accurate aim, William Johnson exposes the Draggin’, all right, and wins the King's daughter. But an odd twist to this story is that he doesn't get rid of the Draggin’, and for a very good reason.
If you must know why, the only thing you can do is take a look at the picture, surrounded by friends. Don’t wait for it to show up on television; the color is something new in animation techniques and shouldn’t be missed.
Prints are loaned free from any of The Mill's direct or agency outlets or from headquarters: The Cincinnati Milling Machine Co., Cincinnati 9, Ohio.

Perhaps these cartoons will surface some day along with many others that could give us a better look at industrial animation from the 1930s onward.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Joe Flaherty

Was there a more brilliant comedy show to come out of Canada than SCTV?

What started out as a half-hour, made-in-Toronto, low-budget, sometimes-set-less parody of a day of a television station blossomed into 90 minutes of running sketches with layers of satire, populated by a cast of characters who interacted perfectly, played by a young troupe of stage actors.

Most of them were from Ontario. One was from Pittsburgh, and older than the rest. He was Joe Flaherty, who passed away on April Fools Day at the age of 82.

The show, originally called Second City Television, had a Canadian flavour at first. Flaherty played serious newsman Floyd Robertson, a play on CBC-later-CTV newscaster Lloyd Robertson. As time progressed, he became more rounded. He was an alcoholic who was forced to host a late-night horror show as Count Floyd, where the movies were anything but scary (finally admitting to his kid audience they were not after trying to sell them, using the lamest imitation of Bela Lugosi possible, on their nightmarish quality). Using one person to perform several jobs was a money-saving device used by cash-poor SCTV owner Guy Caballero, also played by Flaherty. (Multiple jobs done by one person is not unheard of in broadcasting).

Flaherty was talk show host Sammy Maudlin, full of Hollywood B.S. He was Big Jim McBob, a farmer who liked to blow up things real good just for the sake of it (such as Dustin Hoffman playing Tootsie). He created other roles, too, and wrote them as well. Much of that time the show was shot in Edmonton, because that’s where their financial angel had his base of television operations (and a medical practice).

You never see it on the screen, but creative people are bound to clash. Flaherty told Ron Base of the Toronto Star in 1981:

“People get short fuses—we’re paying a price for doing a 90-minute show...One other producer came here for the first segment, and we sent his ass out of town. This group can freeze you pretty damn fast, make you feel uncomfortable. We’ve had some high-ranking (NBC) officials up here and it’s a question of fighting them off.
“So in came Barry [Sand, who went on to produce Late Night With David Letterman]. All he does is mediate the fights between us. It’s tough to take criticism from fellow cast members. We do a scene, there’ll be a playback. Someone will say do it again; someone else will say no. It’s worked somehow, but it takes its toll. You’ve got to develop a tough hide, and I don’t think any of us have. Yet you can’t do good stuff unless it’s held up to scrunity.”

Even the best shows come to an end, and SCTV petered out. Here’s Flaherty being interviewed by his home-town paper after the series was cancelled. This was published Dec. 27, 1984.

Joe Flaherty ponders TV
By Barbara Holsopple
The Pittsburgh Press
The question mark in Joe Flaherty's future creeps into his voice as he ponders various fates.
The Pittsburgh-born comedian-actor-writer spent a comfortable, if hectic, eight years with "SCTV," but the series is canceled now.
Just as he must examine his own future, another constant in Flaherty's life faces uncertainty. It is as if fate dealt him a double blow.
"The Pirates are for sale," he says, a quizzical look on his face. "I have season tickets. My accountant thinks I'm crazy, because I don't get back here that often."
But how could he not have season tickets?
"We used to catch the streetcar from Homewood into Oakland, buy a hot dog and wait for the seventh inning, when they raised the gate at Forbes Field and we could get in for free. Frank Thomas was my idol.
"I loved baseball . . . it drove my family nuts. If the Pirates leave, it's gonna be traumatic for me. I come to Pittsburgh and get off the plane and go right to the ballpark."
It is as if the Pirates' uncertainty symbolizes his own life.
"I'm doing odd jobs here and there," he says, a sense of wonder in his voice. "I was asked to be the grand marshal in WPGH's Thanksgiving parade and I thought might be fun.
"I'm a presenter for the Juno Awards, which are like Canadian Grammies for recording artists. I've never done that before.
"I find myself . . . I've never considered myself a personality, but television is a business of personalities, so I'm trying to refine that, to get out more in public . . ."
His words taper off, as he struggles with a definition for himself. The interviewer is tempted to help: Does he consider himself primarily a writer or an actor?
"I don't know. I really don't know," he says, the words emerging slowly. "I guess both. I don't think I could depend on either one, to make a living. I like doing both, so neither gets boring. It's hard for me to separate the two."
Until recently, Flaherty never had to separate the two. He enjoyed the happy status of writer-performer on one project, with occasional forays into one job or the other. But for nearly a decade, Joe Flaherty's being was tied into one major effort.
First he was a member of Second City, Chicago's improvisational troupe famed as a springboard for such stars as Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Gilda Radnor and others. He is co-author of a Second City 25th anniversary show to air next year on HBO.
Second City spawned "Second City TV," a syndicated series spoofing television. Flaherty was a moving force behind the formation of Second City's Canada troupe and the TV production, first in a Toronto studio and then in Edmonton.
For five years; the show was syndicated weekly on U.S. stations. In 1981, NBC picked it up for late-night runs as ''SCTV Network 90."
NBC canceled "SCTV" after two seasons, but the show was eagerly embraced by cable TV's Cinemax.
This summer, "SCTV" ceased production. It remains in reruns, shown here on WPGH weeknights at 12:30 a.m.
Flaherty blames the death of "SCTV" on the "erosion of cast members" and escalating salaries and production costs.
"When NBC dropped us, that sort of led to the erosion. We lost John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis. Cinemax was good, but Lord, that's a small audience.
"We were down to four cast: members Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Martin Short and myself. The workload was tremendous. We couldn't do as many characters as we wanted because there was not enough time in the makeup chair.
"I think the problem with 'SCTV’ ultimately was our failure to get new cast members. They always said 'no' to new members.
"Most producers wouldn't ask, most producers would run the show totally, but Andrew Alexander was never one to do anything without asking us. The 'SCTV' cast had so much autonomy. It worked in our favor creatively, but in the long run it hurt us.
"It was the strength and weakness of the show—a cast so strong and a producer who wouldn't come in and lay down the law.
"The cast was always conservative. When we had the offer to go to NBC, they (the cast) balked. Once we did it, NBC discussed musical guests and they (the cast) balked at that.
"And Andrew put himself in a bad position because he never had people under contract. People began making outrageous salary demands. You can't keep renegotiating salaries at the end of every season.
"From a business point of view, the show must have been unlike any other. We kept getting saved. We shut down for a year in 1979 and then that guy from Edmonton came along. Then NBC came along. And then Cinemax.
"We'd been doing the show since 1976 and when we went to Cinemax I thought we'd open it up and get some of that pay-TV feel in it. I was disappointed.”
But Flaherty is quick to point out that he's "generally pleased" with the work he's done for the past eight years. "I watch the reruns and it's not a show that makes you want to cringe and hide."
When "SCTV" expired, Cinemax issued a statement saying that its remaining cast was working on a new series.
"Cinemax asked for a show, but they wanted the best of our show," Flaherty said. "Andrew and I got called in and they said, 'Those movie parodies really worked.’ Andrew and I kind of liked the idea, but then Cinemax wanted a continuing element that could be carried over from week to week.
“We tried it, but I couldn’t come up with anything that was satisfying. The Cinemax deal isn’t dead yet, I don’t think, but . . . I would rather let 'SCTV’ go. If I'm going to write to order, I'll go to a (film) studio for big bucks.
"Brandon Tartikoff (president of NBC Entertainment) wanted us to write a baseball movie. It was his idea and we pitched some stuff and it just sort of died." Flaherty mixes his discussion with "we" and "they" when talking about "SCTV." Loyal to his fellow writers and performers, he does not say he argued with them about the need for new cast members or contracts. It is evident only as he separates "we" from "they.”
He takes pleasure in listing the new projects of his fellow "SCTV" staffers.
Two of the non-performing members of the "SCTV" writing staff, Flaherty's brother Paul and Dick Blasucci, "just had a meeting with Mel Brooks to help punch up a film Brooks is writing," he says.
"They're also writing a movie with Moranis and Don Rickles, about an aging Clint Eastwood-type who does all these action films he's too old to do.
"Another 'SCTV’ writer, Bob Dolman—he's Andrea Martin's husband—has written some pilots. John Candy is shooting a movie, ‘Volunteers,’ with Tom Hanks. Dave Thomas has a kids' show on Canadian TV called 'Rocket Boy.’ Andrea is doing a series pilot for Ed Weinberger (“Taxi”).
"John Candy and I and Dick and Paul have a project, a comedy mini-series that's sort of a take-off on 'Masterpiece Theatre.’ We're also talking with Graham Chapman and we may do it in conjunction with the Monty Python people."
Flaherty also is "still working on" a film about the Pirates' Roberto Clemente, who lost his life in a plane crash. Like other writers and producers before him, he's finding the Clemente personality elusive.
Aside from the Clemente script, Flaherty hopes to remain a writer who acts in own work as much as possible.
"If you can do a project and act in it, see it through, that's best. Of the two, writing's more difficult because of the discipline involved. And both are pretty low on the totem pole in the industry. Actors are treated like the proverbial beef and writers are even lower.
"The system won't change. It's been like that forever and it won't change and I like it."
Even the memory of the movie he wrote and lost to a big studio's interpretation does not dim his enthusiasm.
"Even when I was doing 'Berserk,’ as bad as that experience was, I thought, ‘I used to sit in movie theaters in Pittsburgh wanting to do this, and now I’m doing it.”

Flaherty went on to other things, somewhat quirky and cultish as befitting a graduate of SCTV. Shows like Maniac Mansion and Freaks and Geeks. (For other projects, consult your local search engine). They were lesser shows, but SCTV would have been tough to surpass.

Some years ago, in my voice-over days, I was asked to do a commercial sounding like Count Floyd. I thought I had done a pretty good imitation of Flaherty deliberately doing a bad Lugosi. I asked the spot’s writer about my steller performance, and he paused to choose some diplomatic words then said, “Well, you got the essence of Count Floyd.”

I should have known better. There was only one Count Floyd. And there was only one Joe Flaherty.