The Mr. Jones That Became Mr. Twiddle

For all three of you waiting for an update… not so much of one. I’ve been busy with my new position at WBGO, the jazz station in Newark, so I haven’t cared much about my graveyard of a website. I’ve also been working on a proposal for my second book, which I hope to announce formally in the coming year.

One of the fellows who has been of great assistance in that regard is Will Friedwald, the noted animation and jazz historian, whose books on the Warner Brothers cartoons (coauthored by Jerry Beck) are still of vital importance, even if he feels otherwise. David Gerstein and I recently did him the favor of hauling things in and out of his storage place. He repaid in kind by granting me access to all of his animation files. I’m going to be posting a lot of treats from Will, but I thought this would be of the most historic value to start off with.

Sh-h-h-h-h-h was the last theatrical cartoon Tex Avery directed during his all too brief (and unhappy) stint at Walter Lantz Productions. It may be the darkest he ever did. What I love about those four cartoons he directed at Lantz in 1954 is that they are pure Avery: he drew the boards and he didn’t have a character designer, so this is the closest Avery’s roughs ever got to being animated.

The storyboards here are almost the final film verbatim, in both story and design, as Lantz didn’t have the money to screw around (note the alternate ending that he thankfully didn’t go with). None of these limitations hindered the Avery on film, of course, even if it did force the real-life Avery out of the animated shorts business.

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Positively Booped Out

9760_16_largeI wrote about the damage Olive Films and Paramount had done to the first (and, subsequently, second) release of Fleischer Betty Boop cartoons in a detailed report on Cartoon Research last August. I knew it would do no good for the second volume, but I was at least holding out hope for the last two volumes to be spared the same treatment.

I couldn’t have been more delighted to see the Blu-Ray.com review that showed the cartoons on Betty Boop: Essential Collection Vol. 3 are accurately presented. Bob Furmanek congratulated me, stating that my article salvaged things. “Your detailed report and my letter to Frank Tarzi [the director at Olive Films] on August 28 did the trick. At the time, he wasn’t aware of the problem and he passed on your data to the mastering people at Paramount.” Let it not be said that cartoon research accomplishes nothing. [5/12/2014 Update: Of course, they're still cropped, but not offensively so. So Olive Films listens, and they don't.]

The new collection is about half the one it could have been. Olive’s bizarre programming seems to have included a few great cartoons completely by accident (Minnie the Moocher, I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You, I Heard, The Old Man of the Mountain) and filled the rest with an odd, random assortment of others. I’m reminded of the VHS days, when we’d buy a new compilation simply to get one or two cartoons that had never been released before. And they weren’t much cheaper than a $25.46 price tag, either.

I never bought Vol. 1, but did break down for Vol. 2 because it featured a number of important and excellent Fleischer cartoons like Dizzy Dishes, Bimbo’s Initiation, and Boop-Oop-a-Doop. What a mistake. The stretching is not “indiscernible” as alleged experts would tell you. The distortion is downright criminal and makes it impossible for any discriminating viewer to enjoy some of the greatest cartoons of the early sound era.

I have no idea if Olive plans to do a second pressing of the first two volumes to correct them, but I can’t in good conscience recommend them. I think they’re tantamount to the Definitive Collection laserdisc that was marred by DNR. Probably worse, because in the case of DNR, at least no one could deny the cartoons were damaged. Whereas in this case the number of “I’m not really bothered by it” comments is staggering and rather embarrassing.

But to end this on an upbeat note, Vol. 3 is a collection you should buy, and Vol. 4 too. I have no idea what the fourth collection will feature, but the list of the cartoons licensed by Olive circulating the Internet is not complete. The 1931 Talkartoon masterpiece Mask-a-Raid was licensed by Olive, as was the 1932 oddity The Robot. Why a non-Betty girl cartoon over dozens of ones she actually does appear in? Damned if I know, and it shows the lack of insight that has steered these crapshoot Olive releases. The Fleischer cartoons deserve better, and fortunately, they will be done better in the future. Keep watching the skies.

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Funnybooks

WDC&S_109_p01_fc_Oct.1949One of the books I most highly anticipate is one I can already heartily recommend: Michael Barrier’s Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books is set for publication at the end of December.

I had the opportunity to read Mike’s book in manuscript earlier this year and absolutely devoured the history he’s uncovered about the murky, untold story behind the Dell label that was adorned on billions of comic books in the mid-20th century. I’m sure some of his trademark acerbic commentary will outrage fans, but I personally found nothing that caused my eyes to roll.

His comments on the world of publishing rang true to me, especially since I’m deep into work on my own next book. I’m more reminded not of the demand to put Sick Little Monkeys in Kindle form (which really needed to be done in light of the skyrocketing cost of shipping things outside the U.S. that occurred in January 2013), but the losers who whined about my book’s $29.99 pricetag. Good books cost good money, yeah.

I’ll have more to say once I get my copy, because I feel anyone who loves the works of Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, and John Stanley shouldn’t have it spoiled and owes it to themselves to read this book.

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A Blind Eye

magoo-hotsy
The release of Shout Factory’s Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection is a cause for celebration. It’s been delayed for almost two years now (when I was driving home through New Jersey with one of the people who worked on transferring the negatives, he indicated that the work had been completely done ages ago), but whatever the circumstances were, it’s out and a purchase is in order.

I detect no vandalism to the cartoons I’ve viewed thus far in the way of DNR or aspect ratio distortion. I’m no expert on the UPA cartoons’ exhibition history, but the widescreen cartoons seem appropriately presented. Mark Kausler said the later cartoons on the TCM Jolly Frolics collection were “marred,” but there was no consumer outrage. Possibly because everyone had fallen asleep during the likes of Ham and Hattie and Baby Boogie, and the same may hold true for the later cartoons on this set.

magoo-spellboundAs has been well established in the wake of that marvelous TCM set, the UPA cartoons worthy of the most attention and praise are those done when John Hubley was commanding the ship. Roughly the first half of the first disc of this set is from that era and they are inarguably the best, no question. In those cartoons, the sense, as Hubley intended, that Magoo would be making most of these mistakes even if he wasn’t near-sighted is easily apparent. Spellbound Hound, the second cartoon, features a scene poignant in its absurdity: Magoo is on a fishing boat and has mistaken a record player for the motor. He knows something is wrong, but he’s determined to make the record player operate as a motor, and is cheerfully triumphant when he finally gets the thing to play continuously.

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The combination of character animation, humor, and modern design is in perfect balance in these first Magoos. I was struck by how well the design in Barefaced Flatfoot (by Abe Liss and Jules Engel) works to make the preposterous story (Magoo, obsessed with detective stories, is worried his nephew Waldo will get money to repair his car through ill means) even funnier by making the settings so cold and serious. Another highlight from the restoration was realizing that the crooked moving men in Bungled Bungalow are a single mass. That was an intriguing surprise, and I wish the rest of the set yielded more of them.

It’s to be expected that a set devoted to a single character is going to run on autopilot when you get deeper into it; no one with any seriousness could vouch for which Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, or Popeye cartoons of the mid-to-late ’50s are “better than average.” The real surprise here is how darn fast the Magoo cartoons coast. By the end of the first disc, Magoo has lost his edge and become a more affable coot, and the jokes take on a predictability that would make Seymour Kneitel blush. Pete Burness directed most of the Magoos, and it’s apparent his years at MGM and Warners didn’t have much of an impact on his comic sensibility. Those cartoons took on formula too, but they aren’t nearly as offensive as the ones here.

magoo-expressWhich is sad, because it didn’t have to go downhill so quickly. As you journey forth, the cartoons not only lose the humor. As early as Captains Outrageous that calculated, studied animation Art Babbitt brought to the animals in Ragtime Bear, Grizzly Golfer, and Fuddy Duddy Buddy is gone and replaced with straight, no-frills acting. The bloodless design work becomes overwhelming, as in Magoo Express, where Magoo seems at odds with where the UPA look was heading. The cartoons become a kind of “radio noise,” material you put on in the background while doing something else in lieu of complete silence. (And that really depends on your tolerance for Jim Backus.)

magoo-mooseWhile watching the untitled documentary produced for the set, I was astounded that the animator Bob Longo’s comments on how the cartoons were moving away from design to just cheapness by the time of the Oscar-winning When Magoo Flew made the cut. A slip, no doubt, as most of the interviewees try to sidestep or understate that UPA introduced the concept of bad animation in service to design (good or bad) as an accepted industry practice. Make no mistake though: these guys off their course were establishing kids’ TV animation. How you can watch something like Magoo’s Moosehunt, or the feature 1001 Arabian Nights (essentially a Captain Crunch commercial in design and feel expanded to 75 minutes, but with an amazing George Duning score), without drawing that conclusion is beyond me.

Suffice to say, you’re getting a lot for Shout Factory’s ridiculously low price of $29.93. Just think of it as getting those wonderful early cartoons with three discs of bonus features.

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