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.

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