Sunday, May 17, 2015

And This Blog Loves Cartoons Made In 1929-1930 by Paul F. Etcheverry

In 1929, the talkies were officially set the entire industry upside-down. In the early talkies, wisecracking Broadway comics were wilder, chorines' costumes were skimpier and the cartoons were weirder - even those produced by Walt Disney.

When the combo of producer Walt Disney, music director Carl W. Stalling and the fastest pencil in the west, Ub Iwerks, did not just master making cartoons with sound - Paul Terry also produced one, Dinner Time, in 1928 - but maximized synchronization's impact by working creatively with the protean elements of rhythm, melody and musicality, this effectively threw down the gauntlet. The first Silly Symphonies in particular, and Iwerks' animation, are rather amazing in this regard.

In The Roaring 20's, the association of Walt Disney, and the animation industry in general, with wholesome family entertainment was still quite a few years in the future. Illustrating this: another Silly Symphony featuring blazing animation and unfettered imagery courtesy of Ub and his stellar crew of assistant animators.

Felix The Cat, created by Otto Messmer for the Pat Sullivan Studio, was the most internationally popular of cartoon series in the 1920's. Felix' intergalactic animated adventures remain funny, imaginative and highly original.

While de facto producer Sullivan caroused, the ever-inventive, facile and frequently brilliant Messmer created some of the greatest short films of the decade.

Although Messmer continued making very enjoyable cartoons after sound became all the rage, Sullivan at first refused to convert to sound production. The Felix The Cat series did not adjust to how thoroughly and rapidly that jaunty "Mickey Rat" in Plane Crazy and especially Steamboat Willie profoundly changed the game. This oversight may be also due to Sullivan's mounting debts, as well as legal and personal problems. The Felix cartoons with sound remain fun and very creative, as Messmer's remarkable silents were, but it seems that the music tracks were essentially tacked on as an afterthought. The series did not last beyond the 1930-1931 release season. Too bad - Felix was a wonderful character and Mr. Messmer a most prodigious talent.

Although most cartoon studios tried their best to incorporate the Disney approach to sound into their personal style, some, like the Pat Sullivan Studio, did not attempt to digest what Disney, Iwerks and Stalling had done in 1927-1928 and just continued what they had been doing in the Roaring 20's.

Tops among this group would be Paul Terry's Terrytoons, animated in 1929 by Hugh "Jerry" Shields, Cy Young, Paul Terry's illustrator brother John C. Terry, Charles Sarka and arguably the fastest pencil in the east, Frank Moser, as well as the Van Beuren cartoons, produced by a crew of former Terrytoons staffers led by Mannie Davis, John Foster and Harry Bailey. Both studios feature quite literal Mickey Rat characters - and lots of them.

There is a very odd charm peculiar to the Van Beuren cartoons in particular. Much of it is due to a certain good-natured goofiness, combined with a complete lack of anything remotely resembling skillful animation technique

Ever-cheerful crudity of execution, gratuitously bizarre moments, out-of-nowhere blasts of genuine imagination and frequent lapses into "sick humor" define the unique cartoon universe created by the Van Beuren Studio in 1929-1933.

The Walter Lantz studio landed the rights to Disney's first cartoon headliner, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, and took the series in a wonderful, way-out direction in the early talkie era. The Lantz cartoons plunge deeply into the "this is a cartoon, so what the hell, let's do something completely bizarre and see how it looks" quality, driven by the inventive and super-rubbery animation of Bill Nolan. The Disney studio would already be moving away from this approach by the end of 1929. Ozzie's wild hijinx would go on a year or so, eventually shifting to a much less out-there approach by the 1932-1933 season.

The Fleischer Bros. studio, responsible for some of the wildest and wooliest 1920's cartoons, especially in the late silent Inkwell Imps series, changed the overall look of their cartoons from "slash" animation on paper to cels and backgrounds. The very distinctive pen-in-ink look the silent Fleischer cartoons share with the Felix The Cat series (due to the technique known as "slash" or "slash and tear" animation - cartoons were drawn directly on the paper and after each pose the paper torn off) was jettisoned. With the switch to cel animation with painted backgrounds and foregrounds, the weird and wonderful sight gags continued, with a distinctive New York City flavor to the settings, plus a touch of the risque, joining the mix.

Dick Huemer, key animator of the Inkwell Imps and Screen Songs series, would subsequently go to California and make cartoons for the inimitable Charles Mintz. The first series, Toby the Pup, released by RKO Radio Pictures, shows a verve, musicality and joie-de-vivre equal to any cartoons produced at the time. For decades, the only surviving Toby cartoon was The Museum, very good and in both reminiscent of and more advanced than Fleischer in 1930.

It's no accident that Walt Disney eventually made ace animator Dick Huemer an offer he couldn't refuse. When Huemer left Mintz, it was comparable to a Miles Davis Quintet or Art Blakey & The Jazz Messenger's star soloist splitting to start his own band, an irreplaceable virtuoso guitarist leaving a rock n' roll group, or an MLB team's cleanup hitter signing with another ball club as a free agent. The Mintz cartoons instantaneously got a LOT less interesting.

The rest is history. Dick Huemer collaborated with Joe Grant at the Mouse Factory; together, they would be key participants in the Disney Studio's subsequent success. For more, read the fascinating and incredibly thorough oral history Mr. Huemer did in 1968-1969, conducted by all-star film historian Joe Adamson.

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