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Sunday, March 26, 2023

Remembering Thornton Hee a.k.a. T. Hee

Today's tip of the venerable Fred Astaire top hat goes to animation legend Thornton Francis Hee (March 26, 1911 - October 30, 1988). The career of T. Hee spans everything from classic cartoons by Warner Brothers, Disney, UPA and Terrytoons to book covers to designer beach towels to co-founding the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts (with Jack Hannah) to designing the snazziest and most beautifully designed greeting cards I have ever seen.

Surprised that I have not seen, in writing this post, a lot more on T. Hee, or a biography of the animator, storyboard artist, caricaturist and director. The breadth and length of his work in and out of animation is something I was not quite aware of, even after consulting such sources as Michael Barrier's website. I do remember hearing about T. Hee's work for the UPA studio via Bill Scott, but did not think to follow up on this way back in the early 1980's; alas, it's usually the things one doesn't do rather than what one does that causes regret down the road.

While today's post shall primarily be devoted to a few "greatest hits" from Mr. Hee's lengthy and varied career, we note that T. Hee was a gifted caricaturist. His prolific work is frequently up for auction at Van Eaton Galleries, Heritage Auctions and Mutual Art.

The following panorama of Leon Schlesinger studio staff from Thornton Hee's inspired imagination, circa 1936, was spotlighted in a memorable 2006 blog post from the late great animator Michael Sporn.

T. Hee was hired by the Leon Schlesinger Studio as a character designer in 1935, and got to work overtime creating Hollywood star caricatures in The Coo Coo Nut Grove, directed by Friz Freleng.

Another T. Hee caricature-packed Merrie Melodie, The Woods Are Full Of Cuckoos, directed by Frank Tashlin, is a spoof of then-popular radio shows Community Sing, Allen's Alley (a.k.a. The Fred Allen Show and Al Pearce & His Gang.

It's likely Walt Disney saw these Merrie Melodies, as he hired T. Hee, who subsequently worked on Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, the 1938 Silly Symphony designed and intended as the last word in movie star caricatures.

At the Disney Studio, T. Hee branched out as an animation director, notably Sequence 7 of Pinocchio - the Red Lobster Inn sequence.

He also directed the Dance Of The Hours in Fantasia.

T. Hee was one of the storyboard artists who contributed The Reluctant Dragon segment from the 1941 film of the same name.

Where T worked between his last 1940's stint for Disney and his joining UPA and the crew of director Robert "Bobe" Cannon is one of the many mysteries I found putting today's post together. An informative Cartoon Research post noted his work at UPA on the animated titles for the Life Of Riley TV show.

Now where T worked between leaving Disney in 1946 and joining UPA is one of many questions about his career I could not answer.

It would appear that T had the task of injecting comedy into the Jolly Frolics cartoons of director Bobe Cannon. Bobe worked for Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. and Tex Avery at MGM but, as a director at UPA, absolutely abhorred conflict and anything that could remotely resemble slapstick. That made things a bit of a challenge for the UPA story department. I personally find the Bobe Cannon cartoons enjoyable and charming, but not exactly laugh riots. That's okay - laughs aplenty mark John Hubley's brilliant work at UPA, and later, the Mr. Magoos directed by Pete Burness.

Here are quintessential "T and Bobe" cartoons, some of which (Christopher Crumpet) received Oscars, as well as critical acclaim.

For this cartoon buff, the graphic design work of T. Hee, the color schemes by Jules Engel and the music and voice work throughout the Bobe Cannon UPAs carry the day. Some T and Bobe efforts, such as Fudget's Budget, while in the "dated but enjoyable" department, exemplify the specific 1950's graphic style that author Amid Amidi called "Cartoon Modern" and influenced later generations of animators.

Not surprisingly, Michael Barrier had the last word on UPA and its history in his scholarly articles about the studio.

T. Hee returned to Disney in the late 1950's and created yet more original and intriguing work in his third or fourth stint there.

These would include the stylish animated titles of the feature film THE PARENT TRAP.

After an early 1960's stretch working for Terrytoons - another mystery, as one needs studio records to determine who worked on what film there, as the cartoons lack screen credits - T. Hee founded, with Jack Hannah, the Character Animation program at the California Institute of the Arts, where he would be chairman of the Film Arts Department. He ended up contributing to the next generations of animators - from John Lasseter to Tim Burton to the late Joe Ranft - with his teaching at CalArts.

It's pretty clear that T. Hee deserves a book! For more on his work at The Mouse Factory, read John Canemaker’s Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney’s Story Boards and delve into the fine work of such authors and Disney historians as Jim Korkis, Didier Ghez, Greg Ehrbar, Greg Ford and the aforementioned Michael Barrier - not to mention many other excellent writers among the gang at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research website.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

More Comics To Cartoons: Otto Soglow's Little King on Blu-ray

Since writing the last post, have been enjoying Little King cartoons, as well as R.C. Harvey's Comics Journal article Otto Soglow And the Little King: The Silent Runs Deep.

We are pleased as pomegranates to hear that the Van Beuren Studio's Little King cartoons will be released on Blu-ray!

The Little King was created by Otto Soglow and first appeared in the New Yorker in 1931. When Soglow's contract with the New Yorker expired in 1934, he took The Little King to King Features.

The animated Little King series, distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, was produced by Van Beuren Studios in 1933-1934. The Van Beuren Studio, known as the "Fables Studio" - the animation producers split into two studios when Paul Terry left to found Terrytoons in New Rochelle - made the Aesop's Fables, Tom & Jerry and Cubby Bear series, primitive and at times crude yet often extremely funny animated cartoons.

The focus on Van Beuren cartoons and The Little King means two consecutive blog posts featuring the blazing animation genius of Jim Tyer (1904-1976).

Jim Tyer is noted and celebrated by animation buffs for his wild, wooly and way-out animation on numerous Terrytoons, especially Heckle & Jeckle. Jim puts the extreme in the word extreme with his imaginative approaches to character animation and the staging of action.

Preceding those stints as an animator with Terrytoons (Paul Terry, oddly enough, left Jim alone to express a highly original, unfettered and uninhibited imagination) and before that, with Famous Studios, were Tyer's years working on Van Beuren's various cartoon series. Some of the Incredibly Strange Cartoons quality in the Van Beuren Aesop's Fables can definitely be traced to Jim Tyer's unique drawing style. His wacky humor can be seen in the "Dancin' Farmer Al Falfa" segment (at 2:01), among innumerable bits that emphasize the "cartoony" in cartoons throughout Tyer's career.

The Little King series was preceded by two animated cartoons, A.M. TO P.M. and A DIZZY DAY, featuring Otto Soglow’s lesser known character Sentinel Louey. He's not as charming a guy as the Little King - actually, Louey's a bit of a dick - but the cartoons successfully immerse the viewer into Otto Soglow's universe and very specific graphic art milieu. Love how the opening music of A.M. TO P.M. is the Boswell Sisters' classic Crazy People.

While only ten Little King cartoons were produced, they will all be on the upcoming Blu-ray set. Here are a few of them, which successfully blend some of the more weird, bizarre and irreverent permutations of the Animated Cartoon Universe with the goofy charm of Otto Soglow's character.

The Thunderbean press release adds: This special collector’s edition ‘Official’ replicated Blu-ray features the complete series, including the pre-Little King Sentinel Louey cartoons, plus Fleischer Studio’s 1936 Betty Boop cartoon featuring the Little King, restored from the best available original 16mm and 35mm film prints from collectors and archives around the world. This set has been in progress off and on for five years and is finally coming together. We anticipate a summer release. Pre-orders will get a special bonus disc featuring raw scans of the cartoons from various source materials.

Marching Along is one of the very best Great Depression-themed cartoons.

Again, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are pleased beyond measure to hear that the Van Beuren Studio's Little King cartoons will be released on Blu-ray later this year.

The gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, among the numerous movie buffs and collectors to use Official Films 16mm prints of public domain Van Beuren cartoons as aces in the projection hole in screenings and film fests, are happy to give Thunderbean a plug for this Little King Blu-ray and upcoming compilations of Ub Iwerks Studio cartoons!

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Comics to Cartoons

Last weekend's post about Milt Gross got me thinking about the relationship between comics and cartoons - and how Charles Schulz strips were transferred exactly to animation in the early Peanuts TV specials.

Billy De Beck drew the popular Barney Google and Snuffy Smith strip, which several studios tried to bring to animation. Famous Studios produced one Snuffy Smith cartoon, SPREE FOR ALL, in 1946. Have yet to see a Cinecolor print of it - BFI reportedly has an original 35mm negative - so I am pleased to post this B&W print, found in 2016 by David Gerstein and Jerico Dvorak.

The Charles Mintz Studio crew led by Art Davis and Sid Marcus which had been making the Scrappy series and sharing the Color Rhapsodies with Ben Harrison and Manny Gould produced Barney Google cartoons for Columbia release in 1935-1936.

Black & white prints of the Mintz Studio's Barney Google cartoons (which, in PATCH MAH BRITCHES, include racial stereotypes that may well have prevented a second life on television entirely, or at least required edits in the film prints) got distributed to the home movie market in silent 8mm, 9.5 and 16mm versions. Wonder if any 35mm Technicolor prints exist of the Columbia Barney Googles.

25+ years later, Billy De Beck's comics stars returned to animation. Snuffy Smith was featured in dozens of King Features made-for-TV cartoons.

Many of the KFS Snuffy Smith - Barney Google cartoons, along with the adaptations of Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey and Herriman's Krazy Kat (many produced by Gene Deitch's Prague studio, no less) can be seen on the Comic Kings YouTube channel.
© King Features Syndicate, Inc.

One artist who worked on both SPREE FOR ALL and the Snuffy Smith - Barney Google cartoons by King Features, and always brought a little something extra to the proceedings, even with 1960's style limited animation was the original, unorthodox and very imaginative Jim Tyer.

Some attempts to bring comic strip stars to animation don't quite work. Case in point: the Screen Gems Studio's unmemorable version of Lil' Abner, the popular comic strip by the pugnacious and larger-than-life Al Capp. Characterization, comedy, gags and cohesion, unfortunately, are lacking.

Another case: Betty Boop with Henry The Funniest Living American.

The Fleischer Studio also made a cartoon co-starring Betty with Otto Soglow's Little King.

While one could argue that the Fleischer adaptation of The Little King didn't work, it can also be noted that the 1933-1934 series made by Van Beuren Studio and principally Jim Tyer does capture the whimsical and oddball qualities of both the character and Otto Soglow's comic strip.

The originator of all this: the astounding comics artiste-vaudevillian-animator-illustrator-performer-raconteur Winsor McCay.

Saw a magnificent presentation that the late great film historian, author and animation expert Russell Merritt (note: these many recent losses from the worlds of film history and music are getting this writer and film buff down) gave on Winsor McCay and Gertie the Dinosaur at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

Winsor McCay, who created comics for the New York Herald such as Little Sammy Sneeze and Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, started in movies by bringing Little Nemo in Slumberland, the epic comic strip that presented a Technicolor fantasy dreamscape, originated in 1905, to animated form. Without further adieu, here's Little Nemo.

This comics to animated cartoons business all started with publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Wikipedia elaborates: towards the end of 1915, William Randolph Hearst decided to create an animation studio to promote the comic strips printed in his newspapers. He called the new company International Film Service, and he hired La Cava to run it (for double what he was making with Barré). La Cava's first employee was his co-worker at the Barré Studio, Frank Moser. Another was his fellow student in Chicago, Grim Natwick (later to achieve fame at Disney). As he developed more and more of Hearst's comics into cartoon series, he came to put semi-independent units in charge of each, leading to the growth of individual styles.

Thus. . .early 20th century comics sensation HAPPY HOOLIGAN penned by Frederick Burr Opper, was one of the many Before Mickey animation stars in silents. Kevin Scott Collier has written an excellent book about the WW1 era animated cartoons adapted from Opper's comic strip.

Among the Happy Hooligan cartoons produced by The International Film Service was "A Trip to the Moon," made in 1917.

And then, produced by The International Film Service, cartoons based loosely on George Herriman's otherworldly Krazy Kat comic strip.

Krazy Kat and brick-throwing Ignatz Mouse were brought to animation as early as the WW1 era.

The Charles Mintz Studio produced numerous Krazy Kat cartoons, not based on the George Herriman characters, for Columbia Pictures in the late 1920s and 1930s. The Mintz Studio crew led by animator and director Manny Gould tried a variant on the George Herriman comics version of Krazy Kat once, in LIL' ANJIL (1936). Too bad - it's one of the best in the series. LIL' ANJIL doesn't delve too deeply into the surreal George Herriman Universe, but at least gives it and the essential characters a shot. The Mintz studio Krazy Kat was more of a generic character and less interesting.

Who's tops in the comics to cartoons transition? Hmmmmmmm. . . Fleischer studio's adaptation of Jeremy Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman comics are way up there atop the list of superlative translations from comics to animation.

Electric Earthquake (1942) remains a favorite from the series.

The best of the best? Fleischer Popeyes from 1933-1936. In BLOW ME DOWN (1933), the Billy "Red Pepper Sam" Costello version of the spinach-swilling sailor lacks the humor and warmth of Jack Mercer's subsequent Popeye, but the wonderfully brutal cartoon successfully captures the rough-and-ready qualities of E.C. Segar's comic strip.

Acknowledgments. . . Heinz Politizer's piece, From Little Nemo to Li’l Abner: Comic Strips as Present-Day American Folklore, the many amazing posts about vintage comics and George Herriman on Mark Kausler's Catblog, Lambiek Comiclopedia, John Canemaker's comprehensive book Winsor McCay, His Life And Art, Ernie Bushmiller (whose Nancy & Sluggo comics baffled and still baffle me) and Jerry Beck of Cartoon Research, for posting the Terrytoons version of Bushmiller's Nancy to YouTube.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

And This Blog Loves Comics King Milt Gross

Today is the natal anniversary of the outstanding, brilliant and original comic artist Milt Gross, born in Brooklyn on March 4, 1895.

Among the very first topics of this blog (back when we started doing this in fall 2006), Milt Gross ranks right up there with George Herriman, Winsor McCay and Otto Messmer as truly astonishing auteurs of comics.

The compilations Gross Exaggerations: The Meshuga Comic Strips of Milt Gross and Nize Baby are a great place to start exploring the world of Milt Gross.

Like Messmer and McCay, Gross was the rare comics king to double successfully as an animator. His flagship characters, Count Screwloose and J.R. The Wonder Dog, starred in two MGM cartoons, Jitterbug Follies and Wanted: No Master.

The Milt Gross MGM cartoons express a nose-thumbing sensibility that challenges Warner Bros. in the zany department and unabashedly travel in eccentric, bizarre territory.

They dramatically altered the MGM animation brand three years before Tex Avery was hired by the unsuspecting Fred Quimby, who had found Jitterbug Follies and Wanted: No Master a tad too zany and irreverent for his taste. The fact that Bill Littlejohn and other ace animators, through determination, skill and hard work, managed to - no small feat - animate Gross' unique characters - is still impressive.

High on my list of missing cartoons is the Columbia Color Rhapsody and WW2 classic HE CAN'T MAKE IT STICK, directed by Paul Sommer & John Hubley - with story by Milt Gross! Kudos, bravos and huzzahs to Jerry Beck of Cartoon Research for finding the second half of HE CAN'T MAKE IT STICK; fervently hope that a complete 35mm I.B. Tech print turns up someday.

The excellent Lambiek Comicopledia elaborates: Milton Gross began drawing comics when he was twelve years old, and hardly ever stopped. After doing many odd jobs to support his art, he was hired by the New York American, where his talent was noticed, and he got to work as an assistant to Tad Dorgan. In 1915, his first own comic appeared: 'Phool Phan Phables', a sports page feature, which was soon followed by other brief strips, such as 'Izzy Human', 'Amateur Night', 'Kinney B. Alive', 'And the Fun Began' and 'Sportograms'.

After serving in World War I, Milt Gross went on to produce strips like 'Frenchy', 'Banana Oil' and 'Help Wanted', but his big break came with 'Gross Exaggerations', a weekly column of prose and cartoons. In 1926, 'Nize Baby', a book collection of some of these columns, appeared and was an instant hit. Under the same title, Gross began a Sunday page feature in 1927.

Other books by Gross are: 'Hiawatta Witt No Odder Poems', 'De Night In De Front From Chreesmas', 'Dunt Esk', 'Famous Fimmales Witt Odder Ewents From Heestory' and his Masterpiece, 'He Done Her Wrong'.

In 1933, Gross was hired away from Joseph Pulitzer's New York World by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, for whom he made strips like 'Count Screwloose of Tooloose', 'Dave's Delicatessen', 'Babbling Brooks', 'Otto and Blotto' and 'That's My Pop!'.

Quite a few terrific Milt Gross compilations, led by Craig Yoe's publications on comics, are highly recommended.

Another excellent source of comics and Milt Gross specifically is Screwball: The Cartoonists Who Made The Funnies Funny by Paul C. Tumey of the Screwball Comics blog and The Comics Journal.

©Paul C. Tumey