Toby the Pup: Lost Cartoons Still Lost

tobybluWhile a release of any pre-code sound animation should be worth celebrating, Toby the Pup from Ray Pointer’s Inkwell Images should be approached with caution.

The basic background: these are cartoons made in 1930-31 by the three-way partnership of animators Dick Huemer, Sid Marcus (whom Huemer credited with creating Toby, despite what this release implies), and Art Davis for producer Charles Mintz and distributed by RKO. The series was a failure and ended after twelve cartoons, all of which are considered “lost.”

Four of them resurfaced in modern times by way of 35mm French release prints from Lobster Films and Serge Bromberg (not “Bomberg” as the release’s credits have it), and that’s mostly what’s included here; Circus Time is from UCLA Film & Television Archive (not “UCLA & Television Archives”, as seen, again, in the credits). Other Toby cartoons have been found, though I’m not at liberty to say how many (mainly because I’m not sure myself).

It should be telling that three errors seen on the Inkwell release needed to be corrected right off the bat, but even historical inaccuracies and embarrassing typos can be forgiven if the films’ presentation is satisfactory. Such is not the case, by a long shot.

As someone who does film restoration on a daily basis, I sympathize with those who have to work with a meager budget on material that has suffered to this degree. Bearing in mind the Toby cartoons’ history, raw transfers would’ve been just fine. Sadly, as is typical of an Inkwell Images release, Pointer seeks to “improve” the cartoons to the best of his technical abilities, which seem as ancient as the cartoons. Poor title recreations with generic fonts and fake irises pepper the set. Whoever mastered the Blu-Ray (BD-R, not a replicated disc) has no idea how to do so, since the 50 minutes of material is far more compressed than it needs to be, with a botched frame rate to boot (6o fps as opposed to the correct 24fps). The accompanying DVD-R actually looks far better.

TOP: The Milkman as seen on the Inkwell Images release. BOTTOM: As seen on Cartoon Roots.

TOP: The Milkman as seen on the Inkwell Images release.
BOTTOM: As seen on Cartoon Roots.

What’s left of the material that is. Another Inkwell trademark is unnecessary censorship, pointed out in the feature-length audio commentary by Mark Kausler. He kindly alludes that cuts in Circus Time may be some long-dead besotted censor’s work, when in fact these were edits made specifically for this release. Compare the version of The Milkman seen here to the one on Tom Stathes’ Cartoon Roots. It’s over a minute shorter! True, the Stathes release reinstates some previously lost footage (taken from a 16mm print), but the Inkwell release is even missing more than that. The random censorship is a long-standing problem that Pointer has never adequately explained, if an explanation is even possible.

Dig that full 1080p resolution!

Dig that full 1080p resolution!

Unsurprisingly, the sole saving grace of this collection is that 30-minute audio commentary by Mark. It captures any afternoon spent with this animation treasure for those not lucky enough to experience one personally: tons of fascinating insight, little-known history, and laughter. It’s just a shame he had his time wasted.

While the Toby cartoons themselves are as hit-and-miss as the Scrappy cartoons the Huemer-Marcus-Davis did for Columbia, there’s also a wonderful charm and life to them. Halloween in particular matches anything done by the Fleischers at their off-the-wall pre-code peak. They deserve better than Inkwell Images has provided. Fortunately the films and character are public domain (the “trademark” information is erroneous—you can’t trademark a public domain property, especially when you haven’t created any new content with said character), so someone can do a better job in the future with what survives. Let’s hope.

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Welcome Back, from Emery Hawkins, too

I’m not sure what the answer is… Should I keep this site up despite next to never having the motivation to update it? I didn’t hear much when it was gone, but since I have to keep up the costs of maintaining a server for actual paying work, it might as well stay.

Devon Baxter has been doing an enjoyable series of posts at Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research about animators who moonlighted in comic books, largely under the former animator’s Jim Davis’s shop. Devon’s most recent post highlighted the only known (for now) comic-book work by those beloved animators Irv Spence and Rod Scribner. As the esteemed and vastly underrated Dave Bennett notes in the comments, comic work suited many animators, but for many it was a hassle. He cites Preston Blair’s only known comic story, and Johnny Gent probably didn’t do more than a handful. I can imagine it was a struggle for many to do satisfying work, for there’s a significant difference between drawing for comics and drawing for animation, as the unremarkable Spence and Scribner comics indicate.

Here, too, is another one-shot from a highly identifiable animator: the only comic book story I know of that was drawn by Emery Hawkins (unsigned, though). The poses and line of action throughout “The Cat and Canary” are unmistakably from Hawkins’ hand, probably knocked out after doing scenes for Shamus Culhane’s Fish Fry at Lantz’s.

Without further adieu, from Giggle Comics #5 (Feb. 1944)…

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Donald and Fethry in “Mountain Magic”

Al Hubbard truly was an underrated comics craftsman whose artwork is one of the richest rewards of scouring pages of classic animation studio-licensed comic books. So many of his colleagues (all of them former animation artists, too) fizzled out in the ’50s after years of the Western Publishing editorial office’s iron fist. Yet Hubbard’s compositions and staging remained complex and his poses warm and charming until the very end.

This little 8-pager drawn by Hubbard was produced in 1965 for the Disney Studio program (a.k.a. “the S-coded stories”). That output, until very recently, was almost exclusively published outside America, and rarely in English. This one was written by Dick Kinney, whose specialty was obnoxious, destructive characters in the cartoons he wrote for Disney and Lantz. The mixture of the genteel Hubbard and the raw Kinney gave birth to Fethry Duck, and longtime readers know all about my love for (and professional relationship with) this strange character.

One other Kinney/Hubbard creation was Hard Haid Moe, a trigger-happy hillbilly Donald and Fethry encounter on one of the latter’s obsessive misadventures. Described by fellow Disney comics scribe Joe Torcivia as an unpleasant mixture of Yosemite Sam and Snuffy Smith, Moe is clearly Kinney’s addition to the glorification of redneck culture that was a staple of mid-’60s primetime television (The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction). But why create that kind of character for a market where those shows don’t air?

I’m certainly not ungrateful Moe did come into existence—even if Joe and most other American Disney comic readers are. (The character is actually wildly popular in Italy and especially Brazil, where he had his own comic.) As this story plainly illustrates, it’s one of the unholiest dynamics to ever grace a licensed funny animal comic: the most obnoxious aspects of the opposite ends of the political spectrum trying to top each other. I mean, what could be funnier than a liberal obsessive who must seek life’s answers in every corner of the earth, and thus makes it a life goal to become bosom companions with a trigger-happy, white trash hillbilly that actively tries to shoot him?

Well, enough Fethry-like blabbering. Enjoy “Mountain Magic”, as it originally appeared in Australia’s Disney Giant #354 (1965).

 

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Last Days of Coney Island

last-days

My first thought after watching Last Days of Coney Island, the 22-minute film Ralph Bakshi made via funds from Kickstarter (and which I only got to see after practically screaming at their door, despite having backed it), is that it’s an utter embarrassment. But, given what Bakshi’s name has been attached to for the last 40 years, what’s left to be embarrassed about?

The film is the train wreck we all expected, but the train took a messy detour through a couple ditches while derailing. For once the narrative and story aren’t entirely to blame; brothels made up of Coney Island clown hookers, and the woes of their lovers and children… you know the drill with Bakshi. Despite being utterly pointless and stupid, the script is surprisingly solid given the man’s track record. Its failure is all about the actual artless art that moves it.

Remember those kids in animation school that either flunked out or got an extension because their films weren’t finished? Coney Island is exactly that. There is no clean-up. There are no inbetweens. Clips of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassinations are taken from low-resolution YouTube rips. I had to make sure my high-speed Internet connection wasn’t lagging several times.

As a friend aptly put it, “Wow, this is like if a retarded 6th grader saw Malcom and Melvin and tried to make a Powerpoint presentation about it.” If it were a student film, any respectable teacher would’ve handed this back with an essay’s worth of comments on why the student wasn’t passing the course.

Which is a shame, because while the animation in Bakshi’s films was always all over the map, there was still much to admire. How could there not be with the talent he used and abused over the years? As the memoriam in the end credits reminds us, Bakshi worked with some of the best in Hollywood and New York animation. They ranged from those that loved him (Irv Spence, Marty Taras) to those that despised him (Dave Tendlar) to those he repeatedly denigrated (Bob Taylor). After seeing that list of thanks, my other immediate thought was, “Too bad he didn’t have any of those guys working on this.”

Bakshi is a common type in Hollywood: a relatively lousy filmmaker who keeps getting the chance to prove himself, repeatedly getting money and accolades only to offer nothing in return. I’ve noticed no accolades online for this film though (save from the usual sycophants). Despite a decent amount of press, Coney Island has warranted very little discussion in animation circles. Is everyone just in shock over how bad it is?

For the $174,195 he raised, I can name any number of animators who would’ve done a better job. Mark Kausler, who animated key sequences in Heavy Traffic and Coonskin for only a couple hundred dollars each, immediately comes to mind. (EDIT: Mark wrote to tell me he was paid a grand per job.) Michael Sporn, who unsuccessfully tried raising less than ten percent of Bakshi’s goal to make a whole feature, is another.

In a fair world, it’d be the Kauslers and Sporns who’d get a chance or two to make a film without restrictions, and the other kinds of animators would be sitting in a corner praying that someone will remember they were once actually good at something. But Mark is retired, and Michael’s passed on.

One thing in Bakshi’s favor: a reoccurring theme in his work is contempt for how the liars, hypocrites, and conmen of the world get away with everything, while the good guys are stomped out. Pretty autobiographical, however unintended.

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