Thursday, September 20, 2007

Burt Bacharach Day

Before taking a hiatus for a road trip, I'm compelled to celebrate Burt Bacharach Day. . . it is, after all, the 20th of the month! Trijntje Oosterhuis sings "That's What Friends Are For", accompanied by Peter Tiehuis on nylon string guitar.


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.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Cult Cartoons, Part III: More B-Studios



First and foremost, there's the Van Beuren Studio. Animation fans say "God bless Amadee J. Van Beuren", who was the personification of the absentee producer, off somewhere else while his animators churned out delightfully crude Aesop's Fables, Tom And Jerry, The Little King, Amos N' Andy and Cubby Bear cartoons. His office wasn't even in the same building as the studio!



To this day, many decades later, the Van Beuren cartoons manage to be simultaneously inept, saucy and hilarious.



Here are a few great and indescribably bizarre examples of animated mayhem from the New York "B" cartoon studio that resided just down the block from Fleischer's:









And then there was Columbia Pictures sales executive turned cartoon producer Charles Mintz (1889-1939). . .In the 1920's, businessman Charles Mintz tried to show Walt Disney who was boss by taking his starring character and most of his staff. Could the thoroughly maligned outfit known as the Screen Gems Studio have been God's revenge on Mintz for screwing Walt Disney out of his studio and rights to the beloved Oswald The Lucky Rabbit back in the 20's? Or was the fact that Universal Pictures subsequently won rights to Oswald and sent Mintz packing retribution enough?

In any case, after Universal ate Mintz' lunch, he retreated to a more hands-off approach - so it's very likely that Mintz' disinterest enabled the preponderence of bizarre cartoons that emerged under his watch in the 1930's as head of the Columbia/Screen Gems Studio. Another factor was the presence of the unique, imaginative and royally twisted gag mind of director/storyman/animator Sid Marcus. At one point, both the looked-down-upon Mintz cartoons and those of Ub Iwerks' struggling studio were released in the Color Rhapsodies series. Both meet all of the criteria for cult cartoons!

Here are some 1931 Krazy Kat and Scrappy cartoons produced by Mintz, the former by the production crew headed by Manny Gould (yes, the same guy who contributed stellar animation to Bob Clampett and Robert McKimson cartoons at Warner Bros.) and Ben Harrison, the latter by Sid Marcus, Dick Huemer and Art Davis.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Cult Cartoons, Part II: Ted Eshbaugh


The next question: what cartoon producer would be the Walt Disney of cult/psychotronic cartoons? It's tantamount to asking who's the D.W. Griffith of nudie films, but let's start with . . .

Ted Eshbaugh

Here's a 1931 cartoon, Goofy Goat, by this New York-based independent producer:




The little studio that could then produced The Snowman, starring, you guessed it, an abominable snowman. Like Goofy Goat, this cartoon was originally in two-strip Technicolor, but only black and white prints exist today.



Eshbaugh also created the first Wizard Of Oz cartoon, which features a soundtrack by Carl Stalling.





Then Ted produced cartoons in RKO's Rainbow Parade series, including Pastry Town Wedding and Japanese Lanterns (which, unfortunately, only exists in black and white prints - it's a lost film in the original Technicolor) as well as a very long commercial for Borden's. . . the definitely not-of-this-world classic The Sunshine Makers:







Yes, Sunshine Makers starred suspiciously happy dwarves who guzzled sunshine milk, well, before it was illegalized. They convert a bunch of depressive dwarves without as much as one self-help book. What designer drug was Borden injecting into their milk, anyway?

The Eshbaugh studio also made commercials, including this Wonder Bread advertising film, originally produced for the 1939 Worlds Fair.



Little is heard from Eshbaugh until a re-emergence during the WW2 years.



In Cap'n Cub, a fuzzy wuzzy bear bombs WWII Japan back to pre-civilization - so the survivors could star in Fleischer's "Stone Age" cartoons.



Unquestionably, Ted Eshbaugh deserves a "Cult Cartoons" bowling shirt.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Cult Cartoons, Part I


The phrase “cult movies” is not meant to describe the entertainment preferences of Heaven's Gate "straight to Saturn" club members, David “Go Ahead, Burn Us Down - See If I Care” Koresh, the Reverend Jim “Kool-Aid” Jones, Charlie “They Wouldn't Let Me Be A Monkee” Manson or "mass murder on behalf of (pick a deity)" psycho killers.

This term usually refers to schlocky drive-in B-films, featuring mad scientists, hideous monsters, radioactive bugs, rampaging dinosaurs and greasy-haired, booze-swillin’, big-boobed platinum blonde pot smokin’ juvenile delinquents out for a cheap thrill (no doubt hoping for the cameo appearance by Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent or, if a subterranean hipster, Charlie Parker).


Animation historian Jerry Beck coined the phrase "cult cartoons" in a 1980 article to describe "a coveted few Hollywood cartoons that have a magical quality and appeal with their audience of cartoon fans (and non-fans) that far surpasses their production (story, art and technical) value."



As Jerry's list of the top five cult cartoons includes Chuck Jones' DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24TH1/2 CENTURY, this is not limited to the cartoon equivalent of campy low-budget monster movies. He does note that cult cartoons offer "something unique about them that makes a person vividly remember the film days, weeks, years after viewing."

Many of my favorite cult cartoons scared the living daylights out of me in my childhood.



Cult movies and cult cartoons embrace both elephantine and miniscule budgets, the theatre, the multiplex, the grindhouse and in some cases the outhouse.

What Are Cult Cartoons?


Any cult (or psychotronic) cartoon worth its saline must meet any two of the following criteria:

  • no pun is too obvious, no joke too stupid, no sight gag too ridiculous for inclusion in the cartoon



  • film or series has been the object of universal vilification by critics, bloggers and even knowledgeable historians



  • identified as among the worst cartoons or studios ever by at least one Golden Age animator who lived long enough to write memoirs


  • what the late, great Frank Zappa termed “cheapnis”


  • a naive, unconscious and usually pointless surrealism that gives the proverbial finger to the “let’s copy real life” aesthetic. . .



  • blatant, shameless propaganda (Great Depression and World War II era cartoons and Civil Defense films)


  • a mixture of artistic inspiration, the willingness to offend, genuine laughs and disturbing overtones - provided the cartoon was produced at least four decades before the heyday of Andrew Dice Clay. After all, bad taste and general excess, once fashionable, become a bore.


Here is a quintessential psychotronic cartoon, Balloon Land, produced in 1935 by the Ub Iwerks Studio. This psychedelic, dreamlike and bizarre piece, starring a quite phallic "pin cushion man" (maniacally voiced by Billy Bletcher - and Sigmund Freud would have loved him), without a doubt, must have been one of the essential building block cartoons of David Lynch's childhood.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Still More Psychotronic Cartoons



Since there are so many truly outstanding animation blogs (my "links" section doesn't even get around to all of them), I haven't been doing cartoon-related posts. So I'll rectify that momentarily by posting some classic cartoons I like.



This one, The Bad Genius, was produced in 1932 by the infamous Charles Mintz (who thought he got the last laugh when he took control of Disney's Oswald The Lucky Rabbit character and hired away Walt's staff).




The following, Yelp Wanted and Sunday Clothes, are the first and third entries in the Scrappy cartoon series, produced by ex-Fleischer Studio artists who brought a certain East Coast sensibility to West Coast animation.



Both opuses de Scrappy are truly twisted, in bad taste, and look like they were drawn by R. Crumb - in short, everything we love about pre-Code psychotronic cartoons!



A fair amount of the cartoony goodness was by the legendary Dick Huemer, previously known for stellar work on Fleischer's Koko The Clown and subsequently a key storyman with Disney (he co-wrote Dumbo). Additional scenes arose from the pungent pen of gagman par excellence Sid Marcus, later known as the guy who, with Robert McKimson, created The Tasmanian Devil at Warners. And responsible for the remaining classic rubber hose animation: the great Warner Bros. animator and director Art Davis, who worked in the cartoon biz for eight decades.



For the last word on Scrappy cartoons, check out the Scrappyland site by journalist and vintage animation expert Harry McCracken.