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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More on Michael Sporn

MichaelSporn
Michael Sporn’s celebration at the Academy’s Lighthouse International screening room was last night. The large gathering of friends and admirers should have been for a screening of Poe with Michael in attendance, but as the adage goes, life isn’t fair.

It was a lovely ceremony, an appropriate mix of clips of Michael and his films (Dr. Desoto, my personal favorite, was screened in its entirety) and remembrances from Michael’s widow Heidi Stallings, his brother Jerry Rosco, and his longtime friends John Canemaker, Candy Kugel, and Ray Kosarin. Mark Mayerson, who regrettably couldn’t be there, also contributed a speech.

I didn’t see many people I know, other than John Canemaker, Howard Beckerman, Michael Barrier, J.J. Sedelmaier, and Greg Ford. But I certainly didn’t feel out of place, as Heidi enthusiastically greeted me, knowing exactly who I was. She assured me she’s keeping Michael’s Splog alive and even asked if I’d help contribute posts to it. I’d love to help in any way, although it’s odd to think of that site written by anyone other than him. Even when he was highlighting the work of other people, the Splog, like his films, are all Michael.

I had a quick drink with Mike B. and his wife Phyllis a few days before the celebration, where he reminisced about the interviews he conducted with Michael present, Otto Messmer, Johnny Gent, and Eyvind Earle among them. He also mentioned how it seems impossible to imagine Poe being finished by someone else, unlike notorious commercial projects that were overtaken after the irresponsible directors squandered millions because they don’t know how to finish a picture.

The night’s program, though, says that Poe is “currently in production.” However inconceivable it is to imagine a Michael film without Michael, the outpouring of genuine admiration last night assures a completed Poe would simply be an act of love. Probably an act of inherited stubbornness too, as John Canemaker made clear was one of Michael’s endearing qualities, when Michael struggled for years financially. I doubt Michael would want to let something like his death get in the way of finishing a film, or even continuing his Splog. Certainly anything that keeps Michael Sporn’s name and memory alive is to be desired.

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Mousekeeping

BookMouse-160Oh, yeah, hey.

I’d been meaning for some time to get around to reviewing Jim Korkis’s The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, but if you’re like me, you’ve probably already gotten it. As is always the case with Jim’s books, it’s yet another fantastic resource for Disney history that makes even the most mundane trivia readable and entertaining. (My only caveat is that Jim didn’t go into detail about the other reason Riley Thomson’s unit was called the “Drunk Mickey Unit”; namely that its star players Fred Moore, Walt Kelly, and Ken Muse were all famous for their drinking.)

It’s one of several Korkis books published by Bob McLain’s Theme Park Press, a small-time player specializing in Disney history. You won’t find these lushly illustrated like those of Chronicle or Disney Publishing, but I think you’ll overcome the lack of pretty pictures once you dig into the books. McLain is also printing new installments of Didier Ghez’s important series Walt’s People. If you haven’t read the earliest volumes (shame on you), you can pick them up from Theme Park, as it’s reprinting the entirety of the series.

lifeMouseHouse-260I personally was anticipating Ghez’s assemblage of Homer Brightman’s memoir Life in the Mouse House: Memoir of a Disney Story Artist, and can heartily recommend a purchase of this breezy read. Brightman was a storyman at Disney’s from 1935 to 1950, where his most memorable creation was Gus-Gus the mouse in Cinderella, then a mainstay of the Walter Lantz studio.

Brightman’s name doesn’t exactly evoke most fans and historians’ interest for good reason: most of the cartoons he wrote stink. It’s difficult to discern his involvement in the Disney films given the highly collaborative nature of that studio’s storytelling (as Brightman reveals in keen detail), but it’s probably fair to assume he came up with a fair share of funny moments. While his gag sense was far better than the corn peddled by Ben Hardaway in the ’40s, the animation in the Lantz cartoons got too stiff to make much of a difference when Brightman was a writer there in the ’50s and ’60s.

Still, any firsthand memories of the medium’s Golden Age are to be highly cherished, and Brightman’s accounting (while neither as insightful as Shamus Culhane’s or acidic as Jack Kinney’s) is engaging enough that you’ll probably plow through this 100-pager in one evening. I grew a little annoyed with Brightman’s inflated self-importance, but that’s to be expected in a memoir (as if Carl Barks was as inept a storyteller as Brightman made him out to be). Brightman used pseudonyms for all of his coworkers and they are left intact as he wanted. They get in the way, but thankfully Ghez has included a key to who’s who.

Walt Disney was one of those mercurial personalities you couldn’t help observe sharply, and Brightman’s anecdotes ring true and his commentary is generally spot-on. The book has been oversold as “scathing,” as if it’s tantamount to the bile regularly exhibited in strikers’ interviews of the past or the psychopath Walt Peregoy’s taped talks of the present day. It’s revealing that despite receiving ostensibly brutal treatment, Brightman is able to write about Disney with fair admiration. The book abruptly ends when he leaves after Cinderella, with no mention of Walter Lantz (who easily valued Brightman considerably more than Disney did).

I was surprised when I brought up the subject of the filmed Brightman board pitches for “The Woody Woodpecker Show”, Didier said he had never seen them. So here is one embedded below, in which Brightman shows off part of the storyboard for Alex Lovy’s To Catch a Woodpecker. One anecdote not in the book is Walt Disney having a fit of laughter during a story session, and remarking to Brightman, “I’m not laughing at the story. I’m laughing at you.” As was often the case, he was right.

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Michael Sporn

I’m sure everyone has read the terrible news that Michael Sporn passed away this weekend. I can’t articulate how unspeakably sad I’ve been. I never met him, and I was hoping to, now that I’m located in New York City, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

Michael was always a friend and supporter through the blogs, and it was flattering that such an important figure held my writing in high esteem. (I mean, one of his Splog posts started, “You gotta love Thad Komorowski.” How kind can a guy get?) Only in recent years was I able to fully appreciate the man’s wealth of knowledge, and the fact that his love of the art form covered all kinds of animation and he was able to regularly and cogently express why.

We didn’t lose just a great filmmaker, writer, and preservationist – a big part of the art form just died. But, the invaluable animation resource he maintained daily for eight years will at least live on, as will his many wonderful films. Perusing and enjoying either for a few hours would be a great tribute.

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