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Sunday, September 11, 2016

And This Blog, For Inexplicable Reasons, Loves The Charles Mintz Studio: Part 1

This writer and animation buff, for reasons he will never, ever entirely understand, possesses a deep and profound affinity for B-studio cartoons.

This affinity is as strong as his love of 2-reel comedies, as well as B-movies (and sometimes C, D, E, F, F# and Gb movies) in the science fiction and film noir genres. Some of it is directly due to constant exposure to massively phantasmagorical animated mayhem on television in glorious black and white during the late 1950's and early 1960's.

Of the various B-studio cartoons, it's a tossup between the Charles Mintz/Screen Gems Studio, which produced series for Columbia release, independent producers Les Elton and Ted Eshbaugh, and the Van Beuren Studio, which cranked out Aesop's Fables, Tom & Jerry, Cubby Bear and Little King cartoons for release by RKO Radio Pictures (note: the Van Beuren cartoons have, fortunately, been well served by DVD releases from Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean Animation).

First and foremost, before getting into those 1930's Columbia cartoons, we shall start with something most of you animation buffs reading this blog already know: a bit of Machiavellian film history, familiar to all who saw the Pixar movie Up and found themselves the sole individual in the theatrical audience to chortle loudly upon hearing that the evil bad guy's name was Charles Muntz.

Charles Mintz is known in the annals of animation history as the Universal Pictures producer of the Walt Disney Studio's popular silent era starring character, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit. Publisher and author David Gerstein has told this story of the break between Disney and Mintz at length in his article, Of Rocks & Socks: The Winkler Oswalds on Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research website, as has writer Don M. Yowp in a post from his excellent Tralfaz website, That's Oswald.

Mintz was married to pioneering animation producer and businesswoman Margaret J. Winkler. Also involved in the studio, from silent days to its closure in 1941: production manager George Winkler, whose job description was "crack the whip".

Winkler Productions, distributors of Otto Messmer's Felix The Cat and Walt Disney Productions' Alice In Cartoonland series, enjoyed great success with Disney's cartoons featuring Oswald The Lucky Rabbit and the sprightly animation of Ub Iwerks.

Disney was working as Mintz and Universal's employee and wanting a budget increase for the next season of Ozzie cartoons. Mintz countered by giving Walt an ultimatum: accept a budget AND a pay cut or be fired.

Mintz won this gambit and successfully took control of both the studio and the Oswald The Lucky Rabbit character. Having successfully wrested control of the popular character and hired animators Hugh Harman, Rollin Hamilton, Paul Smith and Ben Clopton from Walt's staff, Mintz finished the remaining Oswalds on the Disney contract and then organized a new studio to produce the next series on May 5, 1928.

Except for Ub Iwerks and apprentice animator Les Clark, the Walt Disney Productions staffers jumped ship to work for Mintz. You know the rest of the story: Ub joined Walt in California to create a new flagship character for the Disney Studio. . . and that would be Mickey Mouse.

Charles Mintz started his association with Columbia Pictures as the executive producer behind the New York animation studio, led by Ben Harrison and Manny Gould (1904-1975). Both had been animating on the silent Krazy Kat series that Bill Nolan had been making in 1925-1927, then began directing and producing them with Tired Wheels, released on October 8, 1927. Winkler Productions cranked out silent Krazy Kats and much of this crew would follow Mintz to the new studio in California.

By the time the Harrison and Gould crew started making Krazy Kat cartoons, the character was in at least its second movie incarnation, the first closer to the George Herriman comic strip character than those that followed (at least until Gene Deitch's made-for-TV series for King Features in the 1960's). While these cartoons advertise themselves as being based on the comic strip, that would be a tenuous connection at best. The look is there, but Herriman's minimalist universe and essential concept is not. Only one entry from the subsequent "talkie" Krazy Kat series, Lil Anjil (1936), attempted to tackled the George Herriman version of the character.

These initial entries in the Krazy Kat series were the first films Charles Mintz produced for Columbia release. The following, the first "talkie", released theatrically on August 15, 1929. . . well, it's pretty darn crude and not anywhere near the level of the Fleischer Studio's Inkwell Imps series.


That said, soon after those first few talkies, the Krazy Kat series hit its stride. The series improved rapidly and began delivering striking and original ideas, with that wonderfully distorted imagery of "rubber-hose" era animation. Here's a 1930 entry The Apache Kid, seen provoking a rousing audience response more than seven decades later.

In particular, the Great Depression tale Lambs Will Gambol and the gritty gangster movie sendup Taken For A Ride, like The Apache Kid, are imaginative and memorable cartoons.

Once having hit their stride, the Krazy Kat series delivered the "all talking all singing all dancing - and almost all bizarre" job description of early 1930's cartoons at times exceptionally well.

At their best, this series could, with some panache and originality, equal anything produced by Disney and Fleischer at the time.

The second crew that brought a certain East Coast sensibility to sunny California turned out to be several artists formerly with none other than the Fleischer Studio - and actually did contribute animation to the aforementioned Inkwell Imps cartoons: the legendary Dick Huemer, previously known for his stellar work on Fleischer's Koko The Clown (and subsequently a key storyman with Disney, in collaboration with Joe Grant), gagman par excellence Sid Marcus and the great Warner Bros. animator and director Art Davis.

This crew's first series with Mintz was the, not surprisingly, quite Fleischer-like Toby The Pup cartoons, produced for RKO Pathe release in 1930-1931.

The next series to be produced by the Huemer-Davis-Marcus crew starred a little city kid named Scrappy.

The first in the series, Yelp Wanted, is an astonishingly dark cartoon; Scrappy is on the mean streets and surrounded by danger. There's astounding animation by Dick Huemer throughout.

Unlike Disney's Mickey Mouse, Hugh Harman & Rudy Ising's Bosko and the Walter Lantz version of Ozzie The Lucky Rabbit, all three emotionally and spiritually in sunny California, the first Scrappy cartoons definitely have an urban New York City flavor.

Without a doubt, both our protagonist and the bullies that bedevil him are definitely NOT from Park Avenue.

These initial opuses de Scrappy are truly twisted, often wildly push the 1931 "squash and stretch"envelope to its limits and look like they were drawn by R. Crumb - in short, everything we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog adore about early 1930's cartoons!

Not to be outdone, the Harrison and Gould crew produced a good number more highly inventive Krazy Kat cartoons at the same time. Several feature a creative use of music throughout.

As ace animator Dick Huemer's work on the first two seasons of Scrappy made for quite a few unbeatable classic cartoons, the animation of Manny Gould, Preston Blair, Al Eugster and others contributed lively pen-and-ink flair to the Krazy Kat series.

Other Krazy Kat entries - The Disarmament Conference, Prosperity Blues and the aforementioned Lambs Will Gambol - are distinguished by how they incorporate surprisingly stark social commentary about current events and the Great Depression into the cartoony landscape.

Meanwhile, the 1932-1933 Scrappy cartoons add a double shot of very goofy, anarchic humor into the mix.

In such cartoons as The Flop House, the results are hilarious.

With high hopes to emulate the Fleischer Studio's success with Popeye, the Mintz Studio bought the rights to Billy DeBeck's comic strip Barney Google in 1934. Unfortunately, the series, produced in 2-strip Technicolor, folded after four films.

What little this 1930's animation fan has seen of the surviving Columbia Barney Googles indicates that they may have, after working with the characters for a bit, settled in and produced very good work.

While unlikely to have reached the high level of the Fleischer Popeyes or the two Milt Gross MGM cartoons starring his own characters, Count Screwloose and J.R. The Wonder Dog, these cartoons definitely have their moments.

There's considerable promise in quite a few individual scenes, as this reconstruction of the first Barney Google cartoon, Tetched In The Head, from the handful of surviving 50 foot silent 16mm home movie prints indicates.

The Mintz/Columbia Barney Googles are somewhat comparable to the MGM Captain And The Kids (a.k.a. Katzenjammer Kids) cartoons, very good in segments and occasionally an entire cartoon but never quite hitting the mark overall, Friz Freleng's fine work directing the latter series notwithstanding.

With that observation on silvr screen efforts to translate comics to animated cartoons, we close today's post. The "rest of the story", what happened to the Color Rhapsodies as the 1930's wore on and how this affected the B&W Krazy Kat and Scrappy cartoons, will be in Part 2.

Acknowledgements go to Milton Knight, Craig Davison, Don M. Yowp, David Gerstein, Pietro Shakarian, Mark Kausler, Lee Glover and Jerry Beck. For more on Scrappy cartoons, check out the Scrappyland site by journalist and vintage animation expert Harry McCracken. See the aforementioned Tralfaz website and the Uncle John's Crazy Town comics and animation blog for more about the Charles Mintz Studio, Margaret J. Winkler and Krazy Kat. For more on Dick Huemer's career in animation, read the fascinating and incredibly thorough oral history conducted by author Joe Adamson.

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