Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cult Cartoons, Part IV: Ub Iwerks by Paul F. Etcheverry



The studio of Ub Iwerks, the guy who animated the first Mickey Mouse cartoons and was certainly the fastest pencil in the west, created some of the most psychotronic and psychedelic of cult cartoons.



After his stellar, often brilliant animation enlivened the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series, Disney's ace animator split the Mouse Factory - he hoped - for fame and fortune producing his own cartoons in 1930. Neither fame nor fortune happened. Ub's Flip The Frog, Willie Whopper and Comicolor Fairytale series flopped like a shameless NBA power forward.



The story goes that one could never, ever bring the subject of his unsuccessful studio up with Ub - decades later, it was still too painful for him to discuss. Little did the quiet but groundbreaking animator, inventor and special effects guru know, the eccentric and remarkably un-ingratiating product of his studio would find cultish rediscovery after his death.



The very qualities that absolutely doomed these shorts in their original release - weird graphic designs (that make you wonder if the artists were popping heavy duty psychedelics), aggressively uncuddly characters and a dreamlike atmosphere - allowed them to somehow weather the test of time. The 1930-1933 Flip The Frog series could at times be as surreal as a Fleischer cartoon.



For MGM distribution, after the Flip The Frog series ended, the Iwerks studio produced a series starring a tell-tale tellin' Baron Munchausen kid named Willie Whopper. The wilder the tales, the better the cartoon.



Here are two of the wildest Willie Whopper cartoons, Stratos-Fear and Hell's Fire, a.k.a. Vulcan Entertains. The story goes that the former was directed and largely animated by the legendary Grim Natwick. Animation historians out there: tell me if I'm wrong! But not until you enjoy some of the best classic cartoons from the 1930's.




The Comicolor Fairytale series ran from 1933-1936 and would be the Iwerks Studio entry in the "let's see if we can make our own version of something like Disney's Silly Symphonies" sweepstakes. While the Comicolors are frequently enjoyable, colorful and entertaining cartoons, there are not in any way like the original Silly Symphonies, which were originally animated in some cases entirely by Ub for Disney in 1928-1929 (The Skeleton Dance and Hell's Bells particularly outstanding among them).



Like the Willie Whopper cartoons, the Comicolor Fairytales featured animation by several heavyweights in the field: the aforementioned Grim Natwick, as well as Shamus Culhane, Al Eugster and Berny Wolf.



Some of the Comicolors, Jack Frost and The Brave Tin Soldier in particular, convey the aforementioned dreamlike atmosphere along with a genuine charm that even evaded the big budget Disney and Harman-Ising studios.









While perhaps only one of every three Iwerks Studio shorts demonstrated true blazing inspiration, those exceptions invariably proved surreal, memorable and striking.



Routinely dismissed as worthless crap are the later Iwerks Studio endeavors, which appeared as entries in the black and white Looney Tunes (in these cases, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett were among the Warners animators who made Porky Pig cartoons for Iwerks) and Columbia Color Rhapsodies series. Your Blogmeister champions some of these films, particularly the art deco orgy Merry Mannequins and the truly psychedelic Horse On The Merry-Go-Round as among the studio's most imaginative work.



Here are two more from Ub's stretch making cartoons at his Santa Monica studio as part of the Rodney Dangerfield of cartoon series, the Columbia Color Rhapsodies. The first, The Frog Pond, was transferred from a dark and substandard print, but will do until a better digital copy from 35mm comes along. Most notable in this cartoon is some killer animation by the wonderful Irv Spence, later known for his work on Hanna & Barbera's Tom and Jerry cartoons.


The second, Midnight Frolics, is a musical featuring exceptionally goofy ghosts.



What I like about Iwerks in effect crushed his dreams of popular success with his own studio - the fact that he made cartoons that were in no way, shape or form like Disney's. Would Disney build cartoons around art deco mannequins, a grotesque, knife-wielding "thug frog", dentistry-induced hallucinations, "pin cushion men" or gibberish speaking space aliens? I don't think so.

3 comments:

Bruce said...

Thanks for telling me about 'The Frog Pond' cartoon. It was the first time for me to see it, and it wasn't half bad. What I realized, too, is that 'thug frog' might have been voiced by Billy Bletcher, who had previously done the vocalization for Peg Leg Pete. And Stratos fear is Iwerks, to be, at his peak. I love the designs & layouts as well.

Oh and here are some of my favorite Iwerks cartoons:

Balloon Land (1935)
Aladin and his Wonderful Lamp
Sinbad the Sailor
The Office Boy, July 16, '32
Insultin' the Sultan, April 14, '34
Viva Willie, September 20, '34


I'm glad that you enjoyed the Iwerks post that I recently posted.

‘What I like about Iwerks in effect crushed his dreams of popular success with his own studio - the fact that he made cartoons that were in no way, shape or form like Disney's. Would Disney build a cartoon around a grotesque, knife-wielding "thug frog", dentistry-induced hallucinations, "pin cushion men" or gibberish speaking space aliens? I don't think so.’

You have made a valid point; if he had conjured Flip, Willie, or anything remotely imaginative if he’d never had his fallout with Walt, then it would either been watered down, or had never been produced. Then again, anything could have happened if Ub had stayed with Walt.

Hammerson said...

Hi! I just posted the screenshots from an excellent restored print of "The Frog Pond" on the Classic Cartoons blog. Check them out HERE . I also included the link to your post. Are you 100% certain about Irv Spence's involvement? Can you identify the work of other animators on this cartoon? I'm quite curious about that, because I have never seen any credits or references to the artists who worked on Iwerks/Columbia cartoons of the late 30s.

paul etcheverry said...

We'll never know whether Iwerks and Disney could have continued to work and coexist together as the 30's went on. It's kind of like asking what would have happened had Buster Keaton not signed that contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1928.

Am I absolutely certain that Irv Spence animated at Iwerks during the Columbia period? No - I do not have or haven't seen Iwerks studio documents that confirm this.

What I've heard a bunch of times from hanging out with animation historians over the years is that Irv animated the dancing scene in this film, as well as the "Mary Mannequin & Dan Dummy (Fred & Ginger) dance in Merry Mannequins. Can you draw parallels between these segments and Irv's work with Tex Avery (WB period) and Hanna-Barbera? Yes.

Always wondered not only who animated a lot of the stuff at Iwerks after Grim Natwick, Berny Wolf and Shamus Culhane left, but who was responsible for the striking psychedelic background art in cartoons like Balloon Land and The Horse On The Merry-Go-Round.