Saturday, December 17, 2016

And This Blog, For Inexplicable Reasons, Loves The Charles Mintz/Screen Gems Studio: Part 3

Today's topic will be, explored in no discernible order, what happened with the Charles Mintz/Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures cartoons in the latter 1930's. First and foremost, just a few days ago, on December 15, animation historian, writer and educator Steve Stanchfield posted an article - complete with some very cool model sheets - on Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research website about the Charles Mintz Studio's most well-known cartoon, its adaptation of the tragic Hans Christian Anderson story Little Match Girl. Previously adapted in 1928 by Jean Renoir, the heart-rending tale of an abandoned child selling matches in sub-freezing temperatures on city streets - Paris in Renoir's version, NYC in the Columbia Color Rhapsodies rendition - makes for a highly dramatic, skillfully handled and in some respects shocking animated film. It was nominated for an Academy Award and lost to Disney's epic The Old Mill.

Part Disney Cute in a pure fantasy realm, part stark and brutal Depression era melodrama, Little Match Girl delivers the story with great effectiveness. It isn't 100% successful - the protagonist's delirious dream sequence suffers from a preponderance of the same apple-y cheeked cutesy character designs that marred previous Columbia Color Rhapsody cartoons (A Boy & His Dog, Air Hostess) - "cherub overload" - but the denouement packs quite a dramatic punch. As Little Match Girl may be the single saddest cartoon ever made, one would hope for 1937 movie audiences that this was co-billed with one of Columbia's lighthearted screwball comedies, such as The Awful Truth.

The Krazy Kat and Scrappy series lurched along, albeit less felicitously as they did in pre-Code 1930-1933.

There would be such occasional flashes of inspiration and wild imagination as The Merry Cafe, The Auto Clinic (Krazy's shop is staffed by robots) and Krazy's Race Of Time, a spoof of The March Of Time newsreels set in a utopian future. Some of this cartoon would get spun off into one of the best of the Mintz Studio's late 1930's B&W efforts, Scrappy's Trip To Mars.

The Ben Harrison & Manny Gould crew's musical take on the otherworldly comic strip universe of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Lil Anjil remains a very admirable effort.

In 1936, an additional producer to Mintz/Screen Gems, the Santa Monica studio led by the guy who darn near animated the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, singlehandedly, Ub Iwerks, began producing Color Rhapsody cartoons for Columbia release at his Santa Monica studio.

While the Ub Iwerks studio's Columbias are a mixed bag and can be rather repetitive, the one of every three cartoons that demonstrate inspiration invariably prove memorable and striking.

Some, particularly the art deco spin on Astaire & Rogers and the frequent Columbia Color Rhapsodies "let's have a parade" genre, complete with singing mannequin heads Merry Mannequins and the psychedelic Horse On The Merry-Go-Round rank among the most imaginative of all the Color Rhapsodies cartoons.

Eight decades later, there are still some animation history related mysteries regarding who specifically made these cartoons. Key Iwerks studio animators Berny Wolf, Shamus Culhane, Al Eugster and Grim Natwick had already, like Dick Huemer, left to work for Disney - and especially who designed the stunning layouts and background art. Historian and animator Mark Kausler identified the remarkable dancin' gangster frog sequence in the highly entertaining Iwerks studio Color Rhapsody The Frog Pond to this blogmeister as animated by the great Irv Spence, later known for his fine work on Hanna & Barbera's Tom and Jerry cartoons.

After making Columbia Color Rhapsodies for three years, Ub Iwerks, very likely more interested in developing new inventions than in producing or directing cartoons, closed his studio and returned to Disney. As he pioneered personality animation and motion design brilliantly in 1927-1929, Ub would spend the new three decades developing the next generation of special effects, matte processes and optical printing. Again, the Disney Studio would benefit tremendously from the innovations of Iwerks, who would be joined in the special effects department in 1947 by the formidable Peter Ellenshaw. For more about Disney's special effects department, read what Walt Disney Studios historian Jim Korkis' article, The Ub Iwerks Story, Part 2.

Charles Mintz died in 1939 and George Winkler stayed on for the Screen Gems Studio as de facto producer, and, while it was still the Ben Harrison and Manny Gould unit producing many of the B&W cartoons, the quality, for some reason, start plummeting dramatically in the 1938-1939 season. The B&W cartoons - Scrappy and Krazy Kat, plus the Columbia Fables and Columbia Phantasies series (added in 1939-1940), with a few exceptions, hit rock bottom. At least a few cartoons from this series, such as Farmer Tom Thumb, released in 1940, are pleasant.

The 1940-1941 season of Screen Gems cartoons runs the gamut from such masterpieces as The Mad Hatter and Red Riding Hood Rides Again to the not scintillating last gasps of Krazy Kat and Scrappy in the Columbia Fables and Phantasies series.

Those B&W Columbias with the screen credits "Story: Allen Rose, Animation: Harry Love & Louie Lilly", such as Dumb Like A Fox and It Happened To Caruso, are not the worst in the checkered history of Columbia Pictures Cartoons - those directed by Alec Geiss a couple of years later (Nursery Crimes, Duty & The Beast, Tangled Travels) would represent the nadir and earn that booby prize - but quite a few are only made watchable by the voice work of Mel Blanc, at that time working for all the animation studios as well as radio.

In a few B&W Columbia cartoons from the early 1940's, Sid Marcus' idiosyncratic gag mind, topical WW2 jokes and the aforementioned Mel Blanc's voice work enliven the proceedings.

Generally, both the color and B&W cartoons from this era produced by Sid Marcus and Art Davis are a funnier and more lively group than those made by the other production units. The Greyhound & The Rabbit is jam-packed with patented Marcus sight gags (note: it would appear there are no existing Technicolor 35mm prints - well, none that anyone has found, yet - of this cartoon). This YouTube transfer is from one of the B&W television 16mm prints, very likely originally struck to run as filler on The Ruff & Ready Show.


The sheer weirdness, to go with the wackiness, of those very spotty spot gag cartoons produced by Sid Marcus and Art Davis can be a mitigating factor in some cases. Radio quiz show spoof The Cuckoo I.Q. is one of those fascinating train wrecks, aiming for an incredulous ??????? response.

In Tangled Television, there's a blend of Futurism (seen in such previous Mintz studio cartoons as The Great Experiment, Krazy's Race Of Time and Scrappy's Trip To Mars) and cheesy spot gags. It's in bad taste - no, make that VERY BAD TASTE - but also delivers periodic amazing moments - such as that abstract art animation inside the newfangled TV sets and trademark Sid Marcus weird jokes and character designs. In 1953, MGM cartoon director Tex Avery would go to town with a similar concept/storyline in his classic TV Of Tomorrow.

If any single cartoon is the summation of what the Charles Mintz/Screen Gems Studio is all about, it's The Mad Hatter (1940). The first half of The Mad Hatter presents a "day in the life of a working girl" documentary spoof, the second half a completely and gloriously unhinged narrative about a hat shop staffed by raving loons. The ending is one for the books. It could be considered gagman Sid Marcus' statement, even though he did write the storyboards for a gazillion cartoons over several decades, first in a return to Screen Gems in the mid-1940's, then on to WB, Walter Lantz, DePatie Freleng and more.

The Color Rhapsodies series very, very rarely found this weird original territory, midway between the Fleischer and late 1930's Warner Bros styles of animation; too frequently, the Columbia Color Rhapsodies try to emulate either WB or Disney and fail. That said, when the Art Davis and Sid Marcus crew succeeds, they create an original and exceptionally zany style.

There's more than a hint of what would transpire when Art Davis joined the Warner Brothers studio, where he would do stellar work as a head animator, as well as direct excellent Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies featuring the studio's flagship characters. While the following Columbia cartoon, Mr. Elephant Goes To Town, is by no means a gem, there is high level creativity and genius in Davis' animation throughout, as there would be frequently in his subsequent Warner Bros. cartoons, working with directors Frank Tashlin and Friz Freleng.

Soon the Charles Mintz Studio was no more and Davis, Marcus and for that matter everyone except new hire Frank Tashlin (a.k.a. Frank Tash, Tish Tash) were out the door. The next chapter in the studio's checkered history began when Tashlin subsequently hired his new production crew off the Disney Studio picket line, bringing John Hubley, Dave Hilberman, Zack Schwartz and others to the new Screen Gems studio.

Since there were no conventional "stars" in Mintz Studio cartoons, it is extremely unlikely that Scrappy, Krazy Kat and the subsequent Screen Gems cartoons will get an official Blu-ray or DVD release, as their successors produced for Columbia release by UPA (United Productions Of America) - which at least had Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing Boing and a bunch of Oscars and Oscar nominations to their credit - did a couple of years ago. Hopes that perhaps there could at least be a retrospective Blu-ray featuring a selection of Mintz, Screen Gems and UPA theatrical cartoons ranging from 1929 to 1956 are dim. The Charles Mintz Studio and Iwerks Color Rhapsody cartoons are also owned by Sony Pictures, which appears to not have any interest in doing Warner Archive style DVD releases with their cartoon catalog. Too bad, as there are treasures nestled deep within the backlog of Columbia Studios cartoons.

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