Sunday 30 June 2024

Howard Beckerman and Felix

Was ever a bad word spoken about Howard Beckerman? I don’t think so.

Every account I’ve read of Howard makes him out to be a genuine person who anyone would like to meet.

To pin some labels on him, Howard was an animator, teacher, documentarian and (going back to the mid-1950s) union activist. He has passed away at the age of 93. (Howard is with Harry Piel in the picture, purloined from J.J. Sedelmaier’s site).

His home base was New York City where he worked for UPA, Terrytoons (and championed the studio in his column), Paramount and then in commercial animation. Howard was wisely hired in June 1982 by Back Stage magazine to write a weekly column about animation. Some columns were adorned with his own sketches. We reprinted his tribute to Jim Tyer (a must-read for any Tyer fan) in this post. In his column of July 9, 1982, he set the record straight about the creation of Felix the Cat, arguably the biggest cartoon star of the silent era. He championed a modest man named Otto Messmer. Whether Howard was the first to do this, someone else can tell you, but today we know that Pat Sullivan was not the man solely responsible for Felix, which is what newspapers in the 1920s would have you believe.

Here is his column.

In a world where everyday our attention is directed to some new idea or gimmick we tend to forget about older things that once served us very well. Some of the most popular items disappear for our conciousness [sic] once they drop out of public view. It is only when someone revives some once pleasurable but now forgotten item that we realize how fickle our minds are. Well, perhaps you noticed as I did recently the plush black and white dolls that are appearing suddenly at local novelty counters. Felix the Cat is making a comeback.
In the search for properties that generate popular interest and lead to profitable merchandising and exploitation, almost every known character out of the media, has been considered a possible candidate. Somehow, Felix has been overlooked in recent years while other characters have gone onto mass marketing bonanzas. The characters from the Peanuts comic strips are a prime example. I can remember when Charlie Brown and his friends were considered avant garde. This was back in the fifties when the life of the strip was still considered a tenuous thing. Somehow, the antics of Linus and Lucy and the dog Snoopy took hold and the characters today are the most ubiquitous example of cartoon images that are taken for granted as having always been there.
Interest in the acquisition of such potent grabbers of the public interest was heightened in recent months with the debut of American Greeting’s Strawberry Shortcake characters that had already signed up millions in advance sales even before this cherubic creation appeared on television. Not every character can make it into the public conciousness, at least not in the way that would make the accountants jump for joy.
Whatever it is about a series of squiggles or a funny voice that amuses people to reach out for the likeness of a character on a greeting card, a comic book or T-shirt is not easily descernible. Mickey Mouse certainly had it and even today, 25 years after he made his last film, he is more than ever a cult character appearing on all manner of consumer items. Betty Boop had some of the necessary qualities as did Popeye who salvaged many a struggling company from the grips of bankruptcy. Superman and Annie have succeeded in ringing cash register to a crescendo beyond the dreams of their cartoonist creators. Yet before all of these proven popular images of our time made their entrances on the scene, there was Felix.
Felix the Cat was created in 1919 at the Pat Sullivan Studio in New York. His creator was a young man who had stumbled into the animation field almost by accident. When Otto Messmer’s family moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey sometime before World War I, when that city was a flourishing film community prior to Hollywood’s ascendancy, he began to work as a part-time film scene painter at Universal. In August of this year, Messmer will be 90 years old and he still resides in Fort Lee. Messmer met Pat Sullivan, a cartoonist from Australia who had his own studio producing short animated films. Sullivan was impressed with young Messmers talents and together they produced a series of Charlie Chaplin cartoons with the great silent comedians approval. After serving with the signal corps in France during the war, Messmer returned to work with Sullivan. At this point Earl Hurd, another important pioneer from those early years, was turning out films for the Paramount Screen Magazine, and was looking for a filler to complete his schedule. Sullivan wasn’t interested but Messmer, always the amiable fellow, agreed to create a film. He put together a series of gags about cats, namely one key cat, and called it Feline Follies. This was the film that attracted the attention of John King at Paramount who offered Sullivan a contract to produce more of them. Sullivan wasted no-time signing and Messmer went along with the deal as the animator and manager of the series. It was King who choose the name of Felix from the combination of words, Felicity, meaning good luck and feline for cat. In the next ten years Felix became an international success, and the template for a host of imitators. When Sullivan, who had become a millionaire from Messmers creation, died in 1933, the studio passed out of existence because of legal entanglements. Messmer went on to work for other animation companies as well as continuing the Felix comic strip which as part of his celebrity status had been issued by Kings Features at the height of the little black cats’ popularity.
All of this happened before the birth of Mickey, Donald, Pluto, Bugs and Daffy. Felix was revived for a short series of color theatrical shorts at the Van Buren Studio a few years after the closing of the Sullivan studio and were directed by Bert Gillette [sic]. After this short episode Felix didn’t get to smack his lips until the late fifties when cartoonist, Joe Oriolo, who had inherited the chore of drawing the daily Felix strip from Messmer was offered a chance to produce 250 films of adventures of Felix for children’s television programming. These films and all of the old films that remain from the 20’s (many of the classic Felix negatives had been destroyed in a vault fire) were put under the ownership of Oriolo’s Felix the Cat Productions, while the licensing rights still belong to Kings Features.
It was Joe Oriolo, by the way, who with writer, Sy Reit created Caspar [sic] the Friendly Ghost for Paramount. Much like Messmer he signed away the rights. Today with the vast interest in cat characters that have taken the populance’s fancy, Felix is once more in demand, and the demand seems to be big. Already, leading department stores as Bloomingdales, have had to restock the fast selling Felix dolls, according to Joe Oriolo. “I must have signed a thousand autographs,” says Oriolo, who was a guest of the store as a publicity gesture for the Felix dolls and other paraphenalia. For several years the humorous cat drawings of Kliban and the likeness of other cartoon cats such as Heathcliff, and Garfield have been giving Snoopy the dog a great deal of competition. Now it’s Felix’s opportunity once more to prove his undying popularity. “People love Felix,” says the smiling Joe Oriolo, who has been holding the little cat in the wings for this new day, they keep coming over to tell me how much they always liked him and are glad to see him back.” Plans for the future include putting Felix’s visage on every conceivable item. Contracts have already been signed to make Felix once more the world wide celebrity he had been in the past. The little guy may even end up in a new series of cartoons, anything can happen. They say a cat has nine lives, they must have had Felix in mind, except that Felix will probably prove to have more lives than any other cat on the block.

The “A/B” drawing above is from a column on the various ways to move the character from “A” to “B.”

Below is another one of Howard’s columns, from October 28, 1983 (click on it to enlarge). He reviewed books, critiqued animation festivals, gave tips to commercial animators and producers, spoke of changes in the industry and delved into working with computers. Back Stage was a trade magazine so his articles were not written for animation fans, but some are still interesting reading.

Howard was a friend to animators, fans and animation itself. Farewell, Howard.

Oh, Benita!

Jack Benny’s radio show in the second of the 1940s benefitted from terrific casting, with new funny characters appearing on the show. One of the most inspired choices Jack could have made was hiring Ronald Colman and Benita Hume to play his next-door neighbours.

It could have been a disaster. Colman’s upper-crest Englishman could have come across as cold and superior. But Colman was a fine actor. Listeners could identify with him, an exasperated man who had been imposed upon time and time again by the socially-inept cheapskate Benny. It’s how they might have reacted. Benita proved to have comic abilities, too, and provided a humorous counterpoint to her husband.

On television, Jack used Jimmy and Gloria Stewart the same way, but I’ve always thought the Colmans were better. Ronnie still had a very English properness and bearing while, at the same time, was willing to make fun of himself (carrying his Oscar to a race-track, handing out cards with his signature, praising his own movies).

The Benny appearances were so effective, even Hollywood stars thought the Colmans lived next to Jack (they didn’t), and gave them an open door for their own series, The Halls of Ivy, which managed to tread the line between comedy and drama.

There were times you thought the Colmans were on the Benny show, but they weren’t. In another neat bit of casting, the Colmans’ butler Sherwood, played by London-born Eric Snowden, would appear and refer to his employers, as if they were about to come on the air.

The Colmans make an appearance in a column about Jack by Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg. They were, until the avalanche known as Milton Berle appeared, probably the biggest stars on television before 1948. Their careers petered out as the 1950s wore on and new people came to the fore on TV.

Here’s their column of December 10, 1951, courtesy of the Herald Tribune Syndicate. This also includes Jack being quite serious about his trip to Korea during the war there to entertain and comfort soldiers.


KNOWN to audiences as a top comic, among comedians Jack Benny is the best possible audience. He proved it at the Friars' dinner this year, where he spent most of the evening writhing in the happy agony of laughter at Fred Allen, for instance, who was the first major casualty in TV, but scored highest at the Waldorf that night. Jack remembers that this joke hit him hardest:
"Jack Benny used to play the backwoods theaters," wheezed Fred Allen. "In fact one theater was so far back in the woods that the manager was a bear! (Laughter.) They paid him off in honey! (Howls of laughter.)”
And George Burns, minus Gracie Allen, "belted" Benny, too: "George's speech was the kind of thing you say to three people around a table—but the way he did it, it made a thousand people howl. He kidded me about how easy it is to make me laugh. He proved it with a glass of water. He held up a glass and said, 'Look Jack—a glass of water." I screamed!"
Perhaps because he has spent a lot of time on both sides of laughter. Jack Benny is the most highly skilled craftsman in his trade—deftly, he devised a formula whereby Ronald Colman could get laughs without losing dignity, and thus created for Colman a brand-new career as a polished comic:
"Ronnie had been—and still is—the most dignified figure in California. He did very little radio, other than serious dramatic things. His agents talked him into one comedy show that just about convinced him never to try it again— one of those insult routines.
"About a year later, I got the idea of using him on my show—but with a switch: Let him pitch—I was the target. We're very good friends, and Ronnie agreed to do it for me on my promise that it would be in complete good taste. Maybe you remember the show . . . the telephone rang in the Colmans' home and Benita picked it up . . .
Benita: It's fah you, Ronnie.
Colman: Who is it, Benitah?
Benita: Jack Benny.
Colman: Please, not while I'm eating.
"Ronnie loved being on the throwing end of insults. Told me he'd come back on the program again any time."
He did come back, often. The Ronald Colman spots are radio classics. Colman has great respect for Benny's sense of timing, his feel for comedy. At broadcast rehearsals. Jack would repeatedly break in: "Ronnie, you're not reading that line right. Try it this way . . .”
Only once was Jack a little timid about his directing the week—Ronald Colman won the academy award.
Only once has Jack been stopped cold by an audience—and it was an audience of one. The story starts in Korea, where Jack spent 19 days at the front last summer, bringing a little laughter to a bunch of homesick, battle-weary kids.
"Whenever I'd do a show for hundreds of those kids, the faces of one or two of them would always seem to win out over the sameness of men in battle dress. One face here—one face there—seemed to sum up the whole story. And one day there was a kid that had every headline written right across his young face. He was sitting down front, and after the show, he came over to me, and talked a little—I don't remember what he said probably asked questions about things back in the States. The details, I forgot, but the face . . . never!
"Two weeks later, I was walking through a hospital in Tokyo, going from bed to bed, telling jokes, getting laughs. I heard a voice calling out—‘Hey, remember me?’ I turned around and all the bitterness of the war hit me right where a laugh lives. I was that same young face I'd seen up front in Korea. This time, it wasn't so easy to talk to him. What can you say to get a laugh from a kid who's lost both his legs . . .?”
In Korea, Jack got close enough to the front lines to feel the thump of howitzer fire:
"I stood nearby watching the boys setting off one round after another—they asked me if I would like to fire one. Sure . . . and I did. Afterward, the boys picked up the shell casing and autographed it for me. They said I had made history—not only the first comedian, but the first civilian to fire a howitzer at the enemy."
Besides laughter, Jack took with him to Korea, something else men miss—"Marjorie Reynolds!
Remember the bit Faye Emerson did on my television show that long, long kissing routine, with Frank Sinatra? I wanted to use the same hit in Korea—Marjorie Reynolds was fine for Faye Emerson's part, but I had to be very careful about picking the right actor for Sinatra's role. You see, it would be very difficult for any actor, playing next to me, to register enough impact as a lover. I finally found somebody, and of course, coached him on the kissing technique. By the time of our first show, he had adapted himself to my style quite well. The boys liked him, and if I go back to Korea, I think I'll take Errol Flynn with me again . . .”

If you read Irving Fein’s biography of Benny, you can find some of the dialogue between him and Flynn in their Asian tour. Fein reveals the pace of the tour caught up with Jack, whose doctor ordered him to go to bed for a week when he got home.

As for the Colmans, their last appearance on Jack’s radio show was October 28, 1951. They re-made their radio debut from 1945 on the Benny TV show on November 4, 1956. It was their only appearance with Jack on television. By that time, the Colmans weren’t “next door” to Benny; they were living in Santa Barbera. Colman’s acting career was just about finished. He told the United Press at the time the kinds of roles he played weren’t being written any more. His health may have been a reason, too. He was treated in hospital in 1957 for lung problems which took his life the following year.

Saturday 29 June 2024

Say No to Flipper!

Who could possibly object to Flipper?

The fine folks at NAFBRAT, that’s who.

NAFBRAT is the acronym for one of the do-gooder groups that declared what kids should and shouldn’t watch. We’ve had a couple of posts about them on this blog before. The fact they found Pat Boone objectionable may indicate how much credibility they deserved.

The group’s biggest concern seems to have been violence. Roy Rogers came under the ire of tongue-cluckers because he fired a gun (would they be praising him under the Second Amendment today?). At the end of the decade, other activists were aghast that cereal box mascots were starring in a half-hour cartoon show, but that didn’t bother NAFBRAT in 1965.

Here is the group’s report for that year, as reported in the Miami Herald of March 17, 1965.

What a Survey Says of Children’s Shows
Herald Radio-TV Editor
PARENTS who care what their moppets are viewing on television may be interested in some of the evaluations made by the National Association for Better Radio and Television of kids’ show in its just issued manual, “Television for the Family.”
NAFBRAT, headquartered in Los Angeles, has been riding herd on TV programming for some 16 years.
The latest survey contains 76 pages of evaluations of 344 network and syndicated programs—current, in rerun or just recently deceased.
NAFBRAT devotes attention to the viewing fare for every age level of the family but it’s particularly concerned with suitable for children. And what it considers suitable—and vice versa—may surprise you.
For example, NBC’s Flipper, contrary to what you might expect, is not, in NAFBRAT’s opinion, recommended for younger children.
The committee says its evaluation “is made reluctantly because Flipper has several qualities which intrigue and delight children for whom it is primarily intended.”
But, the committee says sternly, “the program is unacceptable for children because of the inclusion of crime elements and the dangers to which the youngsters in the cast are subjected.”
This writer isn’t a constant Flipper viewer but I’d have to side with Producer Ivan Tors in this case. He would be hard put to turn out a batch of episodes with its little heroes doing nothing but tossing their dolphin a fish.
● ● ● ●
NAFBRAT’s evaluations of two new shows at the teen level are rather interestingly disparate. It loves ABC’s Shindig but hates NBC’s Hullabaloo.
Shindig is described as “a very fast-moving show with rarely a dragging moment” and is recommended for family and teens. But “highly objectionable” is Hullabaloo, the rival NBC show of the same general format, says NAFBRAT.
“This is a vulgar and brazen ‘musical’ show. A TV disgrace,” is its description of this one.
● ● ● ●
CBS EMERGES with the greatest number of NAFBRAT-approved shows for the kiddies. The Alvin Cartoon series [right], Capt. Kangaroo, Jeff’s Collies (Lassie reruns) and the current Lassie series, and Linus the Lion-hearted [above, left] are all recommended for children. Its My Friend Flicka and Tennessee Tuxedo are at least acceptable.
The NBC inventory of children's shows (or all-family shows) is praised for its Exploring, Kentucky Jones, Watch Mr. Wizard and Wild Kingdom—all recommended for youngsters. But NAFBRAT puts its “objectionable for children” stamp on such NBC properties as Fireball XL 5, Fury, Hector Heathcote, Underdog and—as aforementioned—Flipper.
NAFBRAT commends to viewing such ABC shows as Bullwinkle, the Casper Cartoons and the Magic Land of Allakazam and Discovery, and finds Beany and Cecil and Bugs Bunny at least acceptable.
It puts the Indian sign on such ABC entries as Hoppity Hooper, Porky Pig and Jonny Quest, the latter classified as "highly objectionable.”
Among the non-network-affiliated or syndicated shows, Romper Room, Deputy Dawg, Huckleberry Hound, Mickey Mouse Club (or the Mouseketeers) and Yogi Bear all have NAFBRAT's blessings.
But the organization is still gunning for such old relics still being programmed for children as Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Superman, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Popeye—all of them classified as or for children.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. But, for some, opinion wasn’t enough. “Action for Children’s Television” wanted just that—action. It succeeded in imposing their views on others and, basically, parenting other people’s children.

For a time, anyway. ACT is gone, but Space Ghost lives on, thanks to DVD. NAFBRAT’s finger-wagging hasn’t stopped fans today from binge-watching the finger-jabbing Three Stooges. Now, if they could only bring back locally-produced kids TV shows with funny hosts.

Friday 28 June 2024

Tom Take

Tex Avery was the master of funny, extreme takes at M-G-M, but they showed up occasionally in the Hanna-Barbera unit, too.

Here’s an example (by Ken Muse) from Mouse For Sale, released in 1953. The studio has ditched the stereotype black maid for the stereotype thin-and-trim ‘50s housewife (played by June Foray). Tom hides some money under the carpet. Tom rests. The housewife then tells him she’s going shopping with money she found under the rug.

Anticipation and reaction drawings.

Here’s a later take, when Tom’s face flies off his head.

The face changes angles slightly in other drawings to let the audience pick up the take.

Muse, Irv Spence, Ed Barge and Ray Patterson are the animators.

This is a cartoon where Tom wins in the end.

Thursday 27 June 2024

Celebrities Like Mountain Music

Harman-Ising’s I Like Mountain Music (1933) has nothing to do with mountains. It’s set in Peter’s Drug Store, where celebrity caricatures, ethnic minorities and others come to life. There are three westerners who sing and play the title song, but they’re not mountaineers.

What caricatures do we get?

Jan Paderewski. I’d love to see more of that “Learn to Animate” ad to the right. (Note: Devon Baxter says “Brophy” was a nickname of animator and later NBC TV executive Norm Blackburn).

David Rubinoff, who was part of Eddie Cantor's radio show. In this cartoon, Cantor is talking into the camera to “Jimmy,” referring to their announcer, Jimmy Wallington.

Will Rogers.

The “Vexico Big Cheef,” Ed Wynn, letting out with his “Soooooo” he used to say to his announcer, Graham McNamee.

George Arliss in the upper left corner.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Edward G. Robinson, star of the 1931 Warner Bros. feature Little Caeser. Oh, and Greta Garbo is Greta “Grabo.” Now that’s comedy!

The cartoon studio would be caricaturing Benito Mussolini a little different 10 years later.

“Ping Pong!” It’s a play on “King Kong!” Get it? (The “Texaco” pun is worse, but this one is pretty obvious).

Frank Marsales treats us to the title song in several different tempos.

Friz Freleng and Larry Martin get the animation credits in this cartoon.

Wednesday 26 June 2024

Fred Allen’s Cure For Radio

In the 1940s, Fred Allen aimed his wit at the witless things in radio—network executives, ad agency executives, banal musical guessing games, commercials, even studio audiences. He did it on the air and off the air. He seemed to become more jaded about broadcasting as time wore on.

We have two Allen stories below. The first comes from the Chicago Tribune of June 30, 1935. Allen explains the problems with the industry and some ideas to improve it, in a rather measured and practical tone.

Start at Scratch Every Week, Says Jester.
Fred Allen has got the last more than 160 full hour broadcasts behind him and is ready for a vacation. He and Portland (Tallyho) Hoffa, his wife, have their bags packed for a trip to Hollywood, where Fred is ready to take more punishment in the shape of making his bow in pictures in a film titled "Sing, Governor, Sing,” which will also headline Phil Baker and several other persons well known to the airways.
On the eve of his departure for the west he sat down on his luggage and took time out to say a word or two about the broadcasting business, to which he has been enslaved ever since he left the stage on which he used to appear with Libby Holman and Clifton Webb.
Allen got his start as John Sullivan of the Boston Sullivans doing a juggling act at an amateur show. But that doesn't mean that he particularly likes amateur hours even though he is master of ceremonies of one of the more popular ones.
Fate of Amateur Hours Foreseen.
“Amateurs,” he said, “seem to be accomplishing what long hours of study and planning fail to do. But amateur shows, I imagine will run their course. The impression Major Bowes gives that he is providing an opportunity for forgotten performers clicks with the American people. They like to see some one getting a break. Then, too, it's an adventure with an informality that is a welcome relief from the cut and dried program routine."
Radio ought to begin thinking about protecting talent as well as discovering more, Allen holds. He asserts that sponsors aren't interested in developing new talent or ideas. They want some one who already has a reputation, some one who can attract an audience immediately. As soon as his gloss fades a bit they want to try another name. Thus radio has already used everybody in the theater.
Suggests Closed Season.
Allen has a suggestion to get away from this. He thinks there might well be a closed season, for example, on comedians for six months of the year. Let sponsors run to humor for half the year and then turn to symphonic music or something else for the remaining six months. That would give jesters and others who must provide original material for each broadcast a chance to rest up and sparkle anew.
“If radio was a single performance, of course, it would be less of a headache, but when it is a week to week show it must be different each time," continued the comedian.
“It takes seven days every week to prepare the program. Radio in this respect cannot be compared with the stage. In the theater most of the worries are confined to the days prior to the premiere.
“There are so many things that enter radio that the theater is lucky to miss. If a druggist in Texas complains that the program is not popular in his region, the whole show may be altered. The theater never has such a worry. In radio people who know nothing about the show business frequently cause the entire broadcast to be shifted.
Fuzzless Peaches Not New.
“Public reaction quickly makes itself felt. A comedian may think he has a new fangled idea, but soon learns is far behind the times. We talked about fuzzless peaches as a new idea, in fact a comic one, but would you believe that a man in the state of Washington wrote that he had really perfected such a peach? He sent me a sample, but the mail clerk ate it.
“On various occasions I mentioned that we should have electric mousetrap, names grown on apples, and dripless ice cream cones. When the mail came in it revealed all these inventions had been perfected. They were not the mere dreams of a comedian, but the real thing.
The Hunt for Material.
“The biggest problem is in finding subject matter," continued Mr. Allen. "We have heard that the mental age at the radio audience is quite low, but I don't think so. For example, Jack Benny has one of the best programs, and it is highly sophisticated. He was one of the first to adapt his style to radio, while other old stagers thought it wise to follow the wornout vaudeville formula of throwing jokes by straight comedy. They fell by the side of the wave lengths; the out and out question and answer comedians were passe ten years ago.
“Radio is a medium of expression, and as such requires special writing; theater technique alone is not enough. The performer who succeeds on the air must start at scratch every week. It’s a concentrated thing, this radio.

One place where Allen could take shots at the ridiculousness he saw around the radio industry was in the radio studio itself. Not while he was on the air, but during the audience warm-up (one of his on-air attacks against an imaginary NBC executive got his show faded off the air; the episode, unfortunately, isn’t publicly available). Here’s the Chicago Tribune again, November 20, 1938. The Allen show was still an hour long but had dropped amateur portion, which took up a good half-hour without the need for a lot of writing on Allen’s part. 1938 is before the days of Allen’s Alley and regular guest stars. The Mighty Allen Art Players did a sketch and, besides music, a good portion was still taken up with segments involving non-professionals (one mentioned below was scripted and the readings could get painful).

Jester Saves Best Stuff for Studio Crowd
When television comes the Fred Allen show ought to be even more fun for listeners. A good show aurally, it is still better visually. It is funny from the moment you enter the big 1,200 seat studio until Fred has finished off with the last autograph seeker.
Before the show qoes on early arrivers get laughs out of watching the page boys struggling to keep the reserved seats unoccupied. A little section is kept open tor Fred and Portland's relatives and friends and for a few others favored by NBC.
New Yorkers put up a strong fight to get into those seats. But NBC attendants, sturdy fellows, fight back. They don't manage to save all the seats they intended to. But they do succeed in keeping clear a few for Portland's mother and sister. Papa Hoffa, you remember, named his daughters tor the cities which they were born, and the final one he called Last One. She changed it to Lastone, The family pronounces it "lastun."
Portland Gives Attention.
Portland, sitting on the stage before Fred makes his appearance, definitely maintains the attitude of the most interested spectator. And throughout the performance she hangs on every word Fred utters. And her laughter appears to be the most spontaneous.
A minute or two before air time Harry Von Zell warms up the audience with a few jokes. Then he spies Fred silting below in the audience, invites him to come up and address the audience.
Fred saves his wittiest cracks tor the studio audience. Perhaps he has to. Many of them NBC's blue pencil department might otherwise scratch.
The network bosses do not like jokes about Toscanini. So Allen puts the maestro at the head of his list for joke material. “You will notice," he explained the night we saw his show, “that all the page boys are in stocking feet tonight. Toscanini opens here next Saturday and all the boys with a squeak in their shoes higher than E flat have had to turn them in to have them in to have them tuned.”
Says What He Pleases.
The sharpest blue pencil in Radio City cannot eliminate all of Allen's salty cracks because he doesn't set them down on paper. Even a continuity labeled "last revision" will not go on the air as it is written. When Fred gets to the microphone he will say what pops into his head at the moment. Or perhaps it is what he intended to say all the time.
That must have been the case the other evening when he interviewed an NBC studio guide. He asked the chap what the various colored uniforms the page boys wear signify. One type of braid indicates television guides, another the lads who conduct studio tours, and so on, the youth explained.
"And the vice presidents, I suppose, wear mess jackets,” Fred interrupted, “to indicate the state their minds are in!”
When Fred presents his weekly guests whom he calls “people you never expected to meet” they also meet a person they never expected to meet—Fred Allen. For Fred at the microphone is a different fellow than he was in rehersal. During rehersal [sic] he is meek enough but on the air he can resist being a bad boy. His kidding invariably gets him a long way from the text.
Relies on Uncle Jim.
And that is where Uncle Jim Harkins, Allen's assistant of many years, comes in. As Allen ad libs and the guest flounders hopelessly through the pages of the script wondering how they will get back into it, Uncle Jim stands beside them giving help and counsel. He puts his finger on the script at the point he deems best to re├źnter it. And if the guest becomes flustered Allen ad libs further to ease the situation.
Fred has his uncomfortable moments, too. An inveterate tobacco chewer, his pained expressions are believed to be due to the fact that NBC will permit him no receptacle to get relief from his cud. When there is a break in the program tor music Fred sometimes sneaks out back behind a screen. And he looks happier when he comes back.
In every broadcast there are bound to be dull moments for the studio audience. Fred does his best to brighten these.
For instance, when Von Zell interrupts the program so that station announcements may be made across the country, Allen steps to the front of the platform and informs the studio audience, "This is the point where we ask Hitler whether we can go on with the program."
A Hard Worker.
Fred probably works harder on his show than any other of radio's major comedians. With the exception of Friday, which is his day off, and on Sunday morning when he and Portland go to church, he spends the entire week working on Town Hall scripts, his associates say. The Allens seldom go out or entertain. They live in a two room apartment in a modest hotel near Radio City.

Just as columnist Wolters mentioned, television came. Fred Allen was there. He never seemed comfortable on it, even on What’s My Line? where some fans feel he did his best TV work. This was a man who had came up with clever and well-polished, satirical sketches reduced to an occasional quip as an equal amongst three other panellists. Perhaps death snatched him too early in network television’s lifetime for him to make a real mark. We’ll never know. Still, we can still enjoy some of his work on those radio shows circulating in public. The treadmill hasn’t reached oblivion yet for Fred Allen.

Tuesday 25 June 2024

The Hole Gag

Tex Avery once remarked he was getting worn out directing at MGM and needed time off. Avery had some gags and situations he liked and kept reusing them, as if he were stuck coming up with new ones. The cartoons are okay but it had to difficult coming up with new ways to tell the same example.

(As a side note, it wasn’t like viewers today who can gorge on Avery cartoons all day and see the familiar gags. These appeared periodically in movie theatres).

Here’s the hole-in-the-body gag Avery put on the screen several times. This version comes from The Chump Champ, released in 1950. It’s one of several Droopy-vs-Spike spot-gag cartoons. In this sequence, the two are duelling in a sack race. Spike plants a bomb in Droopy’s sack. The two line up and Spike shouts “Go!!” Like other Avery spot-gags, this one explains itself.

The next three frames are the first, third and sixth of a head-shake take. Mike Lah animates this; the final mouth shape appeared on characters Lah drew on The Huckleberry Hound Show (1958-59).

My favourite version of this gag is in Ventiloquist Cat (released 1950) when a duck serenely flies through the hole in Spike’s body.

Rich Hogan assisted Avery with gags, and Walt Clinton and Grant Simmons animated this along with Lah.

Monday 24 June 2024

What I Like About Fleischer Cartoons

If you’re like me, you’re a sucker for those throw-away scenes in the early Fleischer cartoons where something inanimate springs to life, does or says something weird or silly, then becomes inanimate again.

Here’s an example from Betty Boop For President. It has nothing to do with the plot. Mr. Nobody’s water pitcher grows a face. It is thirsty. It pours water from itself, grows hands, drinks the water, is satisfied, and returns to being an inanimate object.

There’s an added irony here because the pitcher is full of water already, but is thirsty.

The Fleischer cartoons are littered with bits like this and it adds to the humour.

Seymour Kneitel and Doc Crandall are the credited animators.