Large Association of Movie Blogs
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Sunday, December 11, 2016

And This Blog, For Inexplicable Reasons, Loves The Charles Mintz/Screen Gems Studio: Part 2

Note - And This Blog, For Inexplicable Reasons, Loves The Charles Mintz Studio: Part 1 posted awhile back, in September.

Continuing the tale of the misbegotten and much maligned Charles Mintz Studio, a.k.a. the Screen Gems cartoon studio, today's post commences with changes that shook the animation industry to its foundations in the mid-1930's.

For the first half of the decade, the Mintz studio had been producing wonderfully weird and oddly inventive cartoons, released in two series, Scrappy (created by Dick Huemer, Sid Marcus and Art Davis) and Krazy Kat (made by Ben Harrison and Manny Gould).

To some degree that would all change. Must begin with the events that led up to what would happen not just at the Mintz Studio, but throughout the business.

This started in 1932, when the Walt Disney Studio, celebrated for Mickey Mouse cartoons, began producing Silly Symphony cartoons in glorious 3-strip Technicolor. The Silly Symphonies had taken the moviegoing public by storm as the country was getting hammered by the ultimate storm - the Great Depression.

The Silly Symphonies are lively, action-packed, musical, dramatic and exceptionally beautiful in Technicolor.

The following short clip from the second color Silly Symphony, Babes In the Woods, indicates how advanced the animation, design and overall concept was. At this early stage, there's still a touch of that foreboding Grimm's Fairy Tales quality. A few years later, with more musicality and Chaplin-esque humor based in nuanced personality animation, this would be a cornerstone of the studio's epic Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs as well.

With the release of Flowers & Trees in 1932, the series was something of a sensation.

How successful were Disney's Silly Symphonies and the specific cartoon The Three Little Pigs in cheering up a Great Depression-devastated country?

Comic Leon Errol's drunken philandering skirt-chaser character (seen here with future co-star Lupe Velez) starred in a Paramount short subject titled Three Little Swigs!

What these Disney box-office successes meant to the rest of the cartoon biz was straightforward: emulate these runaway hits as much as possible.

Soon, EVERYBODY was making them - especially after Disney's hit version of The Tortoise & The Hare - and attempting to succeed within the Silly Symphony formula. So when the entire animation biz transitioned to making color cartoons to compete with Disney's Silly Symphonies, it was not a positive development in general for Cartoonland. This was fantastic for the Disney studio, at that point well on the fast track leading to the production of Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, and eventually to produce the epic Silly Symphony cartoon The Old Mill - but not so great for the competition. Disney could pull it off; the competition could only play catch up. Look no further than writer Devon Baxter's detailed breakdown of the 1935 Silly Symphony Music Land as an illustration of why, no matter how hard everyone else in the cartoon business tried, the Disney studio remained several steps ahead of them.

While there's the occasional entry from MGM's "Happy Harmonies" (specifically, those starring Hugh Harman's frog sendups of African-American entertainers) and the = Fleischer Studio's "Color Classics" series which hold on to what was original and wonderful about these studios' cartoons, but it tended to mean surrender for everyone and a plethora of low-rent (or in the case of Harman-Ising high-rent) Disney knockoffs - as many genuinely talented artists as these studios employed.

The Van Beuren cartoon studio, New York based producers of the low-budget but funny and saucy Aesop's Fables, Tom & Jerry, Little King and Cubby Bear series, went as far as to hire the guy who directed Three Little Pigs, Burt Gillett, away from Disney to little avail - after all, Burt didn't bring directors Wilfred Jackson and David Hand, plus All-Star animators Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Bill Tytla, Ham Luske, and most of all, the always driven Walt, along with him.

The Fleischer Studio produced Color Classics.

The Walter Lantz studio started making Cartune Classics.

There were the often lavish, budget-busting Happy Harmonies cartoons by former Disney cohorts turned independent producers (first for Warner Brothers, then for MGM) Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. While New Rochelle's Terrytoons studio opted not to transition to color until later in the decade, the Charles Mintz/Screen Gems began making color cartoons in 1934; its contribution to the faux-Silly Symphony genre was the Color Rhapsodies.

The Columbia Color Rhapsodies series debuted with a toned-down and boyish version of the usually misanthropic Scrappy in Holiday Land.

The animation and background art in Holiday Land and other 1934-1935 Columbia Color Rhapsodies are often quite good, even if one wishes - as is also the case, to a lesser extent, with the Max Fleischer Color Classics - that just a touch of the Mintz studio's trademark weirdness would show up and enliven the proceedings.

In the "let's ape Disney" sweepstakes, the Color Rhapsodies continue through the 1930's with a slew of cartoons starring little boy characters - alas, not Scrappy or his sassy little brother Oopy, A.K.A. Vontzy.

Unlike both Scrappy and Oopy (star of the hilarious 1932 "spiked lemonade" cartoon FARE PLAY), the cherubic headliners of Columbia Color Rhapsody cartoons make the Leon Schlesinger studio's less-than-scintillating Looney Tunes star Buddy look like Mr. Excitement.

The series continues through the 1930's and, while quite hit-or-miss overall, the artwork and layout/color design are often quite pleasing. While there is no virtuoso personality animation a la Disney, the Color Rhapsodies can feature creative shot-to-shot transitions, framing and some nifty Z-axis movement.

The Color Rhapsodies tended to do three things: parades and remakes of both Disney's Silly Symphony The Cookie Carnival and the Rudy Ising Merrie Melodie The Shanty Where Santa Claus Lives. In such cartoons as The Bon Bon Parade and Gifts From The Air they would combine both, and throw in some Hollywood caricatures for good measure.

The Harrison & Gould crew did contribute one of the very best Columbia Color Rhapsodies, Let's Go, to that 1930's sub-genre of "let's beat that Great Depression, gosh darn it, with sheer American can-do spirit" . . . which leads, you guessed it, to a parade. Effective in delivering its message, it's right there with the Walter Lantz Studio's Confidence, in which Oswald The Lucky Rabbit defeats the Depression and Harman-Ising's MGM Happy Harmonies cartoon, Hey Hey Fever, in which Bosko solves poverty, destitution, hunger and misery in Mother Goose Land with happy, peppy and bursting with love music and golly gosh gee whiz spunk.

These cartoons offer endearing and upbeat entertainment with the power to cheer flagging spirits even today, all these decades later, provided one can let go of just a little of that snarky post-modernist 21st century wise-ass cynicism.

Now how did the attempted Disney-ization of the Columbia Color Rhapsodies affect The Mintz Studio and its flagship black & white series?

Well, for at least a little while, not terribly, In the mid-1930's, there were still some pretty remarkable cartoons emerging from both the Marcus & Davis and Harrison & Gould production crews.

This futuristic 1934 Scrappy cartoon, The Great Experiment, takes place in 1990, starting at 3:25.

The Krazy Kat series, no stranger to social commentary in such cartoons as Lambs Will Gambol, Disarmament Conference and Prosperity Blues, came up with another classic with The Peace Conference (1935).

The Hot-cha Melody, in which Krazy Kat, a Tin Pan Alley songwriter seduced by Beelzebub himself into plagiarism, ends up haunted by the ghost of Robert Schumann, is another winner.

It would appear that Sid Marcus and Art Davis, supported by a talented staff that at one point included the brilliant animator Emery Hawkins, clearly wanted desperately to hold onto at least some of the trademark bizarreness surrounding Scrappy as the 1930's progressed.

Key to the difficulty in doing this was the departure of director-head animator Dick Huemer from the Scrappy crew to Disney, where he would immediately contribute rather amazing animation to such 1933-1934 cartoons as Lullaby Land.

The following year, Huemer would animate most of the equally amazing scenes of Donald Duck in The Band Concert.

Huemer (seated on the right) subsequently teamed up with Joe Grant to become a key story contributor at Disney's for decades.

Dick Huemer would join his friend and former colleague from Fleischer Studios, Ted Sears, as a creative force in Walt's story department.

Meanwhile, going on without Huemer, the Sid Marcus and Art Davis production crew tried their best to keep that otherworldly quality and unfettered imagination in the Scrappy series, thanks in no small part to the mindbogglingly creative animation and framing of action by Davis. Some Scrappy cartoons, such as the second half of Let's Ring Doorbells and all of The Puppet Murder Case (1935), are every bit as sick-sick-sick as such first season episodes such as The Dog Snatcher and The Chinatown Mystery.

Like such brawling Fleischer Popeyes as Can You Take It, these hallucinogenic Scrappy adventures can even be a bit startling to audiences today expecting harmless cartoon fun. One would think the twisted tone of Scrappy cartoons must have been a shock to the children in movie audiences of the 1930's, but what the heck - who knows?

In Scrappy's Color Rhapsodies series, he is toned down into a nice little boy as opposed to the a-hole we see in many of the early episodes and The Puppet Murder Case. It's tough to endorse this change!

For awhile, the Ben Harrison and Manny Gould Krazy Kat crew took over the Scrappy series while Marcus and Davis were making Barney Google cartoons in 1935-1936 - in some cases with very good results.

There were also not-so-good results, such as the sugary sweet, downright treacly Dr. Bluebird, reflective of the unbearably cutesy stuff that would emerge from the Color Rhapsodies series in the last half of the 1930's.

Then again, a few Color Rhapsody cartoons starring the kinder, gentler version of Scrappy, such as this one made by Marcus & Davis, In My Gondola (1936), manage to come up with a Columbia style oddball spin on "Disney cute" and actually succeed in a very entertaining way.

Generally, the Mintz wheelhouse tended to be cartoons featuring Hollywood star and radio star caricatures. This dated back to a great number of movie star spoof cartoons from earlier in the decade. Such caricature cartoons were nothing new to the animators at Mintz. Movie star caricatures had been a staple of both the Krazy Kat and Scrappy series (the aforementioned SEEING STARS and THE WORLD'S AFFAIR, SCRAPPY'S PARTY, MOVIE STRUCK, etc.). They became a sub-genre of the Columbia Rhapsodies and were among the funniest films in the 10 year run. The caricatures also turn up frequently out of nowhere when the storylines hit a lull. The movie and radio star impersonations were not always stellar, since the in-demand caricaturist T. Hee appeared to be on a shuttle bus between Warner Brothers and Disney, making tremendous cartoons - The Coo-coonut Grove and Mother Goose Goes Hollywood would be two - at both studios, but there is a certain spirit and likability to these Columbia cartoons as well.

There was one exception to Cartoondom's "let's be Disney Lite" trend, a little island within one puryevor of cartoon fun, actually physically separate from the rest of the studio, that outpost in the Schlesinger-Warner Bros. studio led by Tex Avery and known as Termite Terrace. While the B&W Looney Tunes directed by Bob Clampett in the late 1930's would not be equalled, let alone surpassed, by the Columbia Color Rhapsodies, WB cartoons did give Sid Marcus and Art Davis to go-ahead to be. . . well, a little wackier and more true to themselves. More on that in Part 3. . .

1 comment:

Jonathan Wilson said...

Keep it up Paul. This is great stuff! I'm a huge fan of Color Rhapsodies and not a lot of people talk about them that much. You're doing God's work!

By the by, there's a U.B Iwerks short that isn't available on YouTube that I can link for you if you like....