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Saturday, September 08, 2007

A "Most Remarkable, Extraordinary" Cartoon: POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINDBAD THE SAILOR

For the first time in decades, these long-lost titles, once mercilessly shorn by television distributor AAP, have been restored to their rightful place at the start of Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor...

The Home For Orphan Toons proudly presents this newly-"adopted" classic from the DVD collection Popeye The Sailor: Vol. 1 1933-1938, lovingly restored thanks to the painstaking efforts of Jerry Beck....

Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor
Release Date: Nov. 27, 1936 (A Popeye Color Special)

Director: Dave Fleischer (key animators Willard Bowsky and George Germanetti)

In short: Two legendary sailors clash--care to guess who wins?

I've long had a certain fascination with--and pity for--Max Fleischer. Fascination because he advanced the art and technique of animation when his future rival Walt Disney still struggled with the rudiments of the form in Kansas City. Fleischer's cartoons were fluid and naturalistic when most "animated" cartoons still looked like glorified comic strips. He experimented with sound a full four years before Walt made STEAMBOAT WILLIE, and invented a 3D process (utilizing miniature sets, built and painted to match the "cartoony" look of the foreground characters) that seemed ingeniously simple in comparison to Disney's monstrous multiplane camera.

Yet despite the great strides he took in the field of animation, he would not receive proper recognition for it for decades.

In that sense, he had a great deal in common with another long-unsung genius of the medium, Ub Iwerks. Iwerks, too, had a fascination with things technical, and would devote the latter years of his career to developing new special effects processes for film (as in the avian animatronic figures for Alfred Hitchcock's groundbreaking suspense film THE BIRDS in 1963). Both Iwerks and Fleischer had a rubbery, freewheeling, "anything goes" approach to animation--and both would ultimately, despite their best efforts, lose their studios and their independence.

Fleischer's fascination with science and machinery was boundless--he had, after all, been the art editor of POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY early in his artistic career; his drawings of the latest technical marvels resemble photographs. He made a series of educational films in the early twenties on such subjects as Einstein's theory of relativity and the theory of evolution, using a combination of live action footage and minimally animated graphs. Critics of the time said he explained the theory of relativity in such a way that even the scientists could understand it.

Unfortunately, like Iwerks, he had often been dismissed by animation historians as a mere mechanic with little regard for, or interest in, the art of animation. For both men, we were told, animation was simply a means to an end, a medium in which to test new filmmaking techniques.

Leonard Maltin in OF MICE AND MAGIC is perhaps the most blunt:

He was more interested in mechanical innovations than artistic ones, and this hampered his studio when Disney was setting a high standard for the competition to meet. During the twenties and early thirties, Fleischer had some of the most talented, and most promising, men in the animated field working for him, but most of them left the studio to go west and settle at Disney's. They recognized the challenge, and potential for growth, that Max could not provide.

One New York animator [later comments], Those people who were quite content with the raw, peasant humor, the bad drawing, the kind of not-too-thought-out timing and the simpleminded stories--that bunch stayed here. The more adventurous, who really wanted to learn to make a better movie, left here. Every one of them..." (pp. 82-83).

Shamus Culhane, in his book TALKING ANIMALS AND OTHER PEOPLE, shared a similar
disdain for the Fleischer artist's supposed lack of polish in their animaton, saying repeatedly how frustrated he was with the animators' propensity for drawing their characters with both feet firmly planted, regardless of the body's position.

Today, however, these "flaws" are largely seen as strengths by fans--rather than appear unimaginative, the Fleischers' tendency to draw characters as they did, with feet firmly planted, actually helped the characters "read" better in the variegated dirty gray backgrounds of the black-and-white Popeyes and Betty Boops.

As for the "peasant humor"--well, generations of fans love the Fleischer studio for it, and lament the day Betty Boop's skirts lowered. Bad drawing? These were artists who knew what they were doing, with a masterful knowledge of perspective--they used such tricks as foreshortening in cartoons like THE PANELESS WINDOW WASHER and I SKI, LOVE SKI, YOU SKI. In the latter film, when Popeye, Bluto and Olive scale the mountain in long shot, the camera tracks them continuously, keeping them in the center of the film frame so their action continue to "read", even from a distance. (As animator John Kricfalusi gleefully points out on the commentary track.)

In the early Popeye cartoon A DREAM WALKING from 1934, Popeye climbs a building under
construction, the camera following as he swings from girder to girder. Each girder is in perspective, and moving downward as Popeye advances. That takes precise technical and mathematical knowledge, hardly the domain of the hack.

If anything, the mass migration of artists to Disney only encouraged Fleischer to innovate further. He would attempt to compete with Disney on his own turf with longer stories, while retaining touches that were typically Fleischer. In 1936, he, along with every other cartoon producer in the business, was well aware of what Disney was attempting on the other coast: a full-length animated feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. Rather than denigrate it as "Disney's Folly" as many of his colleagues had done, Fleischer saw it as a challenge. If Disney could make features, so could he.

Paramount, his distributor, was not so optimistic. Still, Max managed to coax enough money out of them to produce a two-reeler--more than twice as long as a traditional short cartoon--featuring what was inarguably his most popular character of the time, Popeye The Sailor, in full, vivid 3-strip Techicolor. (1936 marked the first year in which this technical development was available to cartoon studios other than Disney, so Fleischer's timing was fortuitous). Deciding on a traditional (and conveniently public-domain) epic (rom 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS, Fleischer deposits our hero
into the world of another famous sailor, Sindbad. And surprisingly, it works.

But fasten the seat belts on your flying carpet tightly, folks. At seventeen minutes, this is a long ride, punctuated throughout by my Fleischer-ish "mutterings."

These "before and after" screen shots show the astonishing original beauty of a once long-neglected cartoon. One can actually see the background details once again...

The Paramount logo, in vivid blue against a background of mauve, fades to the opening credits, here presented like a movie cast list. (With Popeye as--of course--"The Spinach-Eating Sailor" and Olive as "The Irresistible Damsel".)

Our story opens with a tracking shot of a vast island as two pillars rapidly part (a move I admittedly never noticed until John K. and Eddie Fitzgerald mentioned it--thanks, guys). The scene dissolves to reveal snakes, coiled and hissing, around a sign reading ISLE OF SINDBAD--BEWARE!! Take careful notice of the rocks in the background--they're actually part of a tabletop 3D set.

The camera tracks upward to reveal a menagerie of strange creatures, a dragon and various other large lizards, tigers, wildcats, and what look to be apes. As the camera continues to track upward (how did they stage this shot? It seems continuous) we see for the first time Sindbad's imposing castle, guarded by a pair of lions. The door opens and out walks the island's ruler, Sindbad himself (who looks suspiciously like Bluto, if you ask me). Before we can even take a good look at this
towering specimen, he launches into his boastful opening song (as is usual for anything from Fleischer, this proves to be one of the highlights of the cartoon).

"All I say is BOO!! and my enemies run..." Now, I can believe it! Check out those beautiful Willard Bowsky wrinkles--and the ring of blue around the eyes.
He also doesn't have skin like Homer Simpson anymore...

We immediately know this is not a man to be reckoned with: he punches the lions guarding his castle when they dare roar at him--the other creatures can only fearfully squawk in answer to his musical question "Who's the most remarkable, extraordinary fellow?" One poor gigantic serpent who squawks out of turn gets an imprint of Sindbad's boot on his face for his trouble. Sindbad is literally bigger than life, thrusting his face toward the audience at intervals so that his face nearly fills the screen for a fraction of a second (those creepy close-ups thanks to Fleischer's best "character" aniamtor, Willard Bowsky). Bowsky's closeups, incidentally, are the perfect complement to the bombastic opening music--on the line "All I say is BOO and my enemies run", Sindbad's eyes widen until they seem to take up most of his head, and you can see every wrinkle, every detal (even the narrow ring of blue around his eyes). If they wanted Sindbad to be scary, they succeeded.

Passing a cache of treasure guarded by the aforementioned serpents, he brags, "From the valley of serpents these diamonds I took/I cleaned out those serpents with one dirty look..." Just in case we don't believe him, he proceeds to demonstrate, flashing a patented dirty look at the serpent guards, who collapse in a dead faint--or just plain dead...it's hard to tell.

Just when we think we've slipped irretrievably into Disney territory, the music changes abruptly as Sindbad passes through a cave, switching to a hot little swing riff. We're back in Fleischer land, folks.

The cave is, of course, another set, adorned with 3-D skeletons and with veins of pastel colors. It's worth pausing to get the full effect--you might have to look twice to realize it was built, not drawn.

Sindbad passes a two-headed giant, easily three times his size. We think for a moment he (they?) will overpower him as they break loose from their chains, but he makes them cower with a threatening gesture and a reprise of the song's chorus. The giant, whose name is Boola, can only mutter discontentedly in a vaudeville Greek accent.

As he moves along, Sindbad introduces us to the most fearsome creature of all, the Rokh, a pterodactyl-like bird with the wingspan of a 747. Sindbad looks like a worm in comparison, but no matter, or so he tells us: "He had me in his beak, but *I* ran off with him!"

We've long since gotten the idea that Sindbad is master of all he surveys--or is he? His song is interrupted rudely in the fourth chorus or so by another song--one quite familiar, in fact. Yes, it's none other than that of Popeye. We get our first Technicolor view of Popeye and his friends through Sindbad's telescope as he investigates just who "dares to challenge Sindbad's power."

Popeye steers his small craft as Olive strikes a pose on deck, and Wimpy does what Wimpy does best, eating hamburgers.

Who knew? The Rokh is actually a bluish-purple, and not--to use my mother's favorite
expression--"Muckledy-Dung Brown." We can also see those wonderful pastel 3-D cliffs

The enraged Sindbad whistles for the Rokh, ordering him to "wreck that ship--but bring ME the woman...." (Anybody get the idea he's been on that island too long?)

As always in a Fleischer cartoon, it's the details that make it charming. I was always tickled by little touches, such as the little musical flourish as Popeye moves his pipe out of the way of the ship's wheel. Not that the bigger ones aren't impressive--as the Rokh takes off, we see a large portion of the 3D set in long shot. The panoramic view lasts probably five or six seconds, and doesn't seem to repeat itself. Every single boulder is streaked with a rainbow of colors--so many
one wonders how long it took to paint, let alone film. To look more real, it was photographed with a narrow depth of field, no more than six feet, which gives the appropriate effect of sharpening the foreground while blurring the background, further obscuring the fact that these backgrounds are not drawings.

To further disprove the notion these artists were incompetent hacks, watch the Rokh in flight as it circles the ship. It seems to be done with more than a passing knowledge of a real bird's anatomy. True, it lapses into "rubber hose" territory when it slaps the ship into splinters, but as that's a more "humanized" bit of business, the "cartooniness" of it is hardly out of place.

Popeye, meanwhile pulls himself and Wimpy from the water and onto the capsized wreck. As he looks through his telescope he sees the Rokh in the distance carrying Olive to Sindbad's island (she's still feisty in this cartoon, pounding and fighting all the way.)

It's here we get the first, at least in this cartoon, of Popeye's patented off-the-cuff mutterings..."that was a nice boat we had once..." Referring to the Rokh, he says, "That's the biggest buzzard I ever saw...look at that fella go.." One can only imagine the humor lost if Fleischer had chosen to do this story in the Disney manner. And this is only halfway through the cartoon.

Popeye, through his telescope, sees the bird unceremoniously deposit Olive on the ground in front of Sindbad..she scrambles in her usual rubbery-limbed way as he approaches. When he tells her to "give us a little smack..." she responds, "I'll give ya a smack, all right, all right..." and proceeds to flail her fists at his head. (I told you she was feisty).

Our heroes in Technicolor. There are actually clouds in the background--and Wimpy's hamburger looks good enough to eat. He actually has a halfway-decent looking suit, too

With a firm grasp of the obvious, Popeye says to Wimpy that they have to go on the island to save Olive. Jumping "into the brink" and dragging Wimpy under with him, Popeye swims for shore...he hoists Wimpy above his head. Wimpy's too busy eating his waterlogged hamburger to have any appreciation of the danger they're about to get themselves into.

Next comes my favorite muttering scene of the picture, as Popeye and Wimpy climb on shore. At the entrance to a cave, Popeye reads a sign reading the following:


To which Popeye responds, "Well, I guess I'll go-eth in-eth!" Thanks to the audio restoration, we're able to hear that hilarious aside clearly for the very first time.

Popeye and Wimpy soon go their separate ways--Popeye inside the cave, and Wimpy in pursuit
of a passing duck, in the hopes of making him into a duckburger.

If you thought the exterior set in this restored version was awe-inspiring, you've seen nothing until you've seen the cave interior, with its stalagtites of deep red and and green and violet. Popeye continues his characteristic muttering throughout..."I wish I never came in here..." but you won't. It's one of the many reasons we should be glad this was restored.

"I wish I never came in here..." But you gotta admit, Popeye, it "looksk purty"...

Coming upon two lions who have the temerity to roar at him, he merely roars back, sending them scurrying. Considering how ugly (or uglier) he makes his face when he pulls it, I think it would frighten me.

Hearing Olive's cries for help on the other side of a stone wall, Popeye merely drills his way
through with his body to the other side. Once there, he sees Sindbad has decided to use her for a little impromptu entertainment: shooting pebbles at her with a pea shooter to make her "dance" (I'm guessing her flapping, flailing dance was animated by Dave Tendlar--it resembles one of his
"flurry" moves. Or what I like to call the "Dave Tendlar Shuffle."

Olive rushes toward Popeye, only to be flung back toward the cliff face like a rag doll. Popeye's
about to react to this brutality when they're interrupted by a running gag--Wimpy and the duck. He chases it between and around Popeye and Sindbad, then toward a hole in the rock face, where the duck escapes. Wimpy snaps his fingers and mutters, "I guess I shall have to resort to my last hamburger..." But he doesn't get that either, as the duck reaches out and grabs it.

But back to the main event--Sindbad's cruisin' for a bruisin', and Popeye's all too willing to give it
to him. It's just now, at about the ten-minute mark in the cartoon, that we get to the introductions.

Sindbad bellows, "Who are you?" Popeye responds with his signature song, and when Popeye
asks the same question, Sindbad sputters in frustration and responds with his, the animals
screeching in affirmation. (Though truthfully, it really doesn't give Popeye any clues as to who this guy is. Not that it matters: to Popeye he's just a guy about to get "twisker-punched".)

During the reprise of his number, Sindbad subjects Popeye to a number ot minor abuses--pulling out his shirt tail, poking him in the eye, shoving his pipe inside his mouth. But to his frequent question of "Who's the most remarkable, extraordinary fellow?" Popeye has just one answer--"Popeye The Sailor." And proceeds to pull out Sindbad's shirt tail, with the typical
muttered remark ("Ya better fix your shirt there, young fella...")

Let the fun begin, because at this point we get to the main reason to watch any Popeye
cartoon--to see him and Bluto (or in this case, a Bluto lookalike) beat the tar out of each other.
Too bad it takes until the two-thirds mark of the cartoon to get to it. But as they say, the best
things are worth waiting for...

Grabbing Popeye by the shoulders in a vise grip and tossing him off camera toward the Rokh,
Sindbad taunts, "Well, let's see how great you are!!"

Popeye shows him--from a worm's eye view we see the Rokh circling overhead with Popeye in his claws. They head toward an active volcano in the distance and certain doom. But not for

Roast Rokh--"with gravy," and "grief smoke"...

Popeye--as Olive weeps for his loss, a whirlwind returns to Sindbad's island, and it's revealed to
be Popeye--and a ROAST Rokh. "With gravy", as Popeye says. (John Kricfalusi has an odd term for the black smoke rising off the bird's roasted carcass--'grief smoke.' I have to confess, in thirty years of watching and analyzing cartoons, I've never head THAT expression before.) That's one down...

,,,but still several more to go, as now Popeye gets thrown into the waiting brawny arms of Boola
the two-headed Greek giant. They attempt to "put him to sleep" with
various punches to the face and pokes in the eye.

This giant doesn't know it yet, but it's about to be "put to sleep..."

As they argue over whether or not to make Popeye into "chopped Popeye fric-a-see-sees"
Popeye responds, "Oh, two against one, eh?" and gives them a Three Stooges-like double slap.

Thrown to the ground, Popeye retailiates by charging the monster and stomping on its--uh, their, feet. They fling Popeye toward a nearby tree, which breaks on contact and falls toward Boola.

Hitting one of the heads, it raises a lump on the other, Corsican Brothers-like.

But Popeye's not done with them--Boola stomps toward him, but he merely slips under Boola's
legs and hits their weakest spot: their heads. They do a flip and land on the ground with a
thundering crash. Two down--and one to go.

Now, finally, we get to, as they say in the WWF, the "ultimate smackdown", Popeye vs. Sindbad
himself. Sindbad, after groaning in frustration, pounds his chest, saying "There's only room for one great sailor in this world, and that's ME..." Popeye steps over the remains of Boola, thumping his own chest in response to the tune of "The Girl I Left Behind Me." (When Popeye's ready to fight and there's patriotic music playing, watch out!)

While I'm at it, I'd like to interrupt the impending mayhem by pointing out a little quirk of these
cartoons. Have you ever noticed Popeye seems to be aware of his own background music? He
always hums it as it plays in the background, as he does here. Sort of a quasi-"breaking the
fourth wall" or a metacommentary along the lines of those in the series GREEN ACRES. Without saying so, Popeye seems aware he's a character in a cartoon, even to the point of enjoying the score.

But Bluto...I mean Sindbad, has yet to be pounded, so let's get back to that, shall we?

The island animals seem to know something big is going down, and they all gather round to
watch. "We're gonna come to terms right now!" Popeye yells at his advancing foe. We move to an impressive long shot of Popeye and Sindbad in the center of the "ring", so to speak, as the
animals gather around like spectators in an amphitheater.

Sindbad, with Popeye glaring up at him, stomps along, pushing Popeye along with him as he
advances. Picking Popeye up and squeezing him like a tube of toothpaste, he makes Popeye
turn beet red--literally. Popeye's head actually transforms into a beet--one of the last instances of such a metamorphosis in a Fleischer cartoon, incidentally. It's remarkably detailed in the
restoration, a purplish red with bright green leaves and a purple stem--something I could never
discern from the grainy public-domain prints. Popeye's head snaps back to normal, and he
proceeds to use it to head-butt Sindbad--"Beet for beat, fella!" he says.

How does it feel to be socked in three-strip Technicolor?

Infuriated, Sindbad hurls Popeye into a hollow tree--as he looks inside, Popeye hollers "Peek-a
boo!" and gives him one heck of a sock in the face. Sindbad stumbles back toward another tree,
but before he can regain his footing, we see evidence of something tunneling under the ground
toward the second tree. Popeye's fist emerges from the other tree as he says "I sock you!" Since
this is full Technicolor, after all, the Fleischers can't pass up a gag exploiting it--Sindbad, instead
of a black eye, sports one in patriotic red, white and blue. (Does anyone besides me wonder
where Olive and Wimpy went to?)

Sindbad retaliates by flinging Popeye through the air--he lands on his feet and rocks back and
forth like one of those "bop-em" bags in his likeness. Sindbad proceeds to pound on our hero,
freeing things from the sailor man's pockets with every punch: an anchor, a pair of binoculars, a
ship's wheel, and a winch among them. "Do ya give up?" Popeye mumbles.

Of course, the one item in Popeye's pants pocket that Sindbad doesn't dislodge is...you guessed
it, the spinach, which Popeye removes in mid-beating. (NOW we get to the spinach? Sheesh...)

But..Sindbad punches it out of his hands, and it rolls toward a cliff to seeming oblivion. But wait...
Popeye rescues it in the nick of time, saying "Don't leave me now!" Sindbad, meanwhile, punches him over to the other side of the chasm near a tree. Pulling on his legs, he nearly manages to get
him away from the tree, but Popeye hooks himself to a branch with his pipe as his fanfare starts.

Which, as any Popeye fan knows, is the cue for the spinach. (One interviewee on this set
remarks that the Popeye theme is as much the theme of the spinach as it is Popeye's).

Once downing the green stuff--truly green for the first time in a Popeye cartoon--we cut to a
closeup of Popeye's bulging bicep, which contains a series of electrical generators. Those
generators appear to be vibrating, since in freeze frame, Popeye seems to be rendered in wiggly

Popeye proceeds to kick Bluto--er, sorry, SINDBAD--around with his feet like an oversized soccer ball. Sindbad in desperation picks up a rock to hurl at Popeye--it merely bounces off him and onto Sindbad. Popeye puches him toward a coconut tree--Sindbad travels up the trunk, hitting the coconuts.

As Sindbad hits the ground and heads for Popeye, Olive appears from nowhere to cheer Popeye
on, advising him to "give him the twister punch!" He does, which sends Sindbad spinning like a
party favor when Popeye punches him. He proceeds to tie a coconut and a cloth object to
Sindbad's sash and sends him up as tree: a flag unfurls to reveal Popeye's personal colors--a can
of spinach superimposed over an anchor. He sings a mocking version of Sindbad's song as
Sindbad hangs in midair, to which all assembled respond....

POPEYE: Who's the most remarkable, extraordinary fella?
ALL: YOU! Popeye The Sailor!"

Thus ends the Fleischer's first mini-feature...and with it, my review, save for my concluding

How does one sum up a cartoon like this? Well, if unlike me you have some energy left, it should
be worth noting that this is one of the last of its kind. Not Technicolor specials--two more will
follow in the next three years--but the last of the "old-style" Fleischer cartoons, the unabashedly cartoony ones that animators like John Kricfalusi and Eddie Fitzgerald adore. From here on, we see less of the anthropomorphic gags, less detail in the faces (fewer of those wonderful Willard Bowsky lines) a less independent Olive Oyl, and even, for awhile, less of Bluto (there's an eleven-month interval in the late thirties when Bluto isn't seen at all, possibly because of the death of voice man Gus Wickie. When Bluto returns, he's voiced by Pinto Colvig). Secondary characters like Swee'pea, Eugene The Jeep and Poopdeck Pappy take the spotlight. In a way, then, this cartoon is both a swan song, and the beginning of a new chapter in Fleischer history. Let's savor this cartoon, because they truly don't make them like this anymore.

Is this truly an "orphan toon," you ask? Well, up to now it had been--edited, allowed to fade, the
soundtrack allowed to turn muddy, and otherwise permitted to languish in public-domain hell. One can only hope it stays "adopted."

One final word on the color: when I heard this cartoon was going to be restored, I assumed at first it would appear as other color cartoons of the era did--as a explosion of different hues. Among most of the studios, there appeared to be the feeling that audiences weren't getting their money's worth if the palette didn't burn their retinas.

Yet, the color is surprisingly, dare I say charmingly, subdued here. Fleischer, artist and
technician, was still experienting. His only other foray into color, after all, was the Cinecolor Betty Boop short POOR CINDERELLA. He had to discover which colors worked, and which didn't. Therefore the hues tend to be soft pastels, which blend nicely with those of the 3D backgrounds.

There are none of what I call "comic-book colors" here: no primaries. The reds tend toward a
reddish-violet, and mauves and cool colors predominate. Sindbad's outfit is a subtle deep blue.
Bright color, if it's used at all, is used to punctuate a gag or to help an object "read", such as
Sindbad's multicolored "shiner." Fleischer may well have been skittish about color for this first
outing--subsequent shorts show more confident use of it--but it might not have worked as well had he done it differently. Sometimes, less is indeed more.

Note: an audio version of this blog entry can be heard on the Orphan Toons Podcast, at http://komicskast.libsyn.com, read by your humble toonkeeper....

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Announcing The Orphan Toons Podcast!

OK. I suppose the first order of business is to explain where the heck I've been.

Well, you see, I was abducted by aliens, and they forced me to watch nothing but CLUTCH CARGO cartoons for three months. After that, I was begging them for a simple anal probe....

Not buying it, huh? OK. Chances are you'll like the real story better.

As you may remember, Kevin and I were guests on a special animation edition of Bruce Rosenberger's KomicsKast podcast back in June. The response from that was positive enough that Bruce encouraged the two of us to attempt one of our own. After several months of upgrading computer equipment, overcoming technical glitches, coordinating schedules, and collecting mountains of data, we're proud to announce the very first Orphan Toons Podcast. It launches tomorrow, and our friend Bruce has graciously allowed us hosting space on his site at http://komicskast.libsyn.com. What will Kevin and I talk about? Tune in tomorrow and find out...


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Orphan Toons On The Radio

You'd think I'd learn not to make promises I can't keep.

I'd intended to keep a steady stream of reviews going here (I always say I'm going to, anyway) but found myself exhausted with no time to do anything else--namely reading, my music, errands, eating, sleeping...well, you get the idea. So I took a bit of a "vacation."

I'm emerging from that now for an important announcement--to Kevin and me, at least. The Home For Orphan Toons is on the air, courtesy of our friend Bruce Rosenberger's KomicsKast podcast.

What began yesterday as a simple little discussion of the importance of toon preservation grew into a lively conversation on the merits of classic cartoons in general. Before any of us had realized it, we filled 74 minutes.

One thing I've learned from the experience: I'm not an on-air personality. Listening to myself expound on the history of animation was a bit like listening to Jimmy Stewart stumble through a poem during his frequent visits with Johnny Carson. Thank goodness for Bruce's masterful editing, or the program might have run a good deal longer. (Frankly I'm surprised we aren't just finishing up.) I finally chose--wisely, I think--to let Kevin and Bruce do most of the talking.

But if you can stand my stammering, kindly pay the site a visit, if for no other reason to finally put voices to the names of your friendly neighborhood orphan-toon hunters. And as always, keep watching those toons...

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Tex Avery Gives Us "The Straight Dope" in UNCLE TOM'S CABAÑA (YOWSUH!)--1947

Uncle Tom seems quite...interested in Little Eva's dancing in the original theatrical movie poster...
(Thanks to puzzlesdirect.com)
Uncle Tom's Cabaña
Release Date: July 29, 1947
Director: Tex Avery
Music: Scott Bradley, Imogene Lynn (vocals)
In short: The story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"--the way it "really" happened...

"One o' them Hollywood cartoon companies..."

With the fate of the "Censored 11" on this blog hanging in the balance for the time being, it's only appropriate to take a slight detour to 1940's Culver City, to take a look at a Tex Avery rarity from MGM.

Parodying a classic of literature as hoary as Uncle Tom's Cabin seems a bit dated even for 1947, and in the hands of anyone but Tex Avery, redundant--but for Tex, that was precisely the point. To him, the more ossified the source material, the better. He'd already mangled the fairy
tale--or Disney's re-invention of it, anyway--in such cartoons as CINDERELLA MEETS FELLA (with Egghead as the unlikeliest of Prince Charmings) and LITTLE RED WALKING HOOD at Warner's. At MGM, he gave audiences a Red Riding Hood the likes of which no one had ever seen, with a Wolf who still wanted to pursue her (to use the politest term possible) but for reasons decidedly not G-rated. The mawkish and melodramatic "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was just too good--or bad--to pass up. And with that story, he was treading on familiar territory.

He'd already taken aim at the story once before, for Leon Schlesinger (UNCLE TOM'S
BUNGALOW, 1937) but the maddeningly even pacing of the '30s Schlesinger cartoons made it something of a misfire. (Although he did give us the immortal line, "My body may belong to you, but my soul belongs to Warner Brothers!")

Ten years later, under the banner of a new studio, his comic timing sharper than it had ever been, the time couldn't have been better to revisit old material. Only this time, he makes a direct hit.

All the Avery trademarks are there: non-stop action punctuated by a jazzy Scott Bradley sound track, cuts so quick they pass by in an eye blink, visual hyperbole stretched to its most ridiculous--and funniest--limits. Not to mention a generous helping of sex, just barely slipped under the Hays Office radar. 1947 was a particularly good year for Avery--he released KING SIZE CANARY that year, generally considered to be his masterpiece. As with KING SIZE CANARY, UNCLE TOM'S CABAÑA starts slowly, but like a pebble rolling down a snow-covered hill, grows and gains momentum until it bowls the viewer over. We hardly have time to breathe by the time the film reaches its high point.

In the decade separating the two versions, the change in style and attitude coudn't be more obvious, especially toward the characters. Little Eva, portrayed as a chatty six-year-old in the Warner's version ("I'm in the first grade, an' I got a dolly, an' a teddy bear, and I can spell
"cat"--c-a-, c-a--well, anyway, I can spell "dog...") is no adorable little innocent here. She--like Avery's cartoons--had grown up, her little shoes filled by none other than Avery's "Red" from RED HOT RIDING HOOD, SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA and WILD AND WOOLFY. Albeit in more clothes than we had seen her in before, or since.

Little Eva (Red) struts her stuff in this Preston Blair animation sketch..

Save for the first fifteen seconds or so, the mythical Old South of the original story is nowhere to be seen--this was 1947, after all, so while Uncle Tom still has his cabin, it's in the middle of a towering urban landscape. Little Eva lives in the requisite antebellum mansion, but perched atop a New York-style skyscraper--her own little Tara-On-The-Hudson.

Simon Legree is still evil, so proud of his treachery he advertises it (signs on his downtown office building read "OLD LADIES TRIPPED, KITTENS DROWNED") but here he's also lecherous, proving an able stand-in for Avery's Wolf as he drools over Little Eva/Red. He and the Wolf could, in fact, make pretty good drinking buddies.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let's visit UNCLE TOM'S CABIN--er, CABAÑA, as only Tex Avery could tell it:

We can see the opening titles superimposed over the traditional "Old South" background of mansions, cotton fields and steamboats--much like the opening seconds of the Bugs Bunny cartoon MISSISSIPPI HARE, but at night. The camera tracks over this landscape and zooms in on a lone little cabin in the midst of a vast field. Take a good look, should you get a copy of this, because that's just about the last connection to the original source material we're going to see in this cartoon.

Uncle Tom (here voiced by Charlie Correll, one half of AMOS 'N' ANDY) sits on the front porch of his cabin, surrounded by little black children lying on the ground in front of him. This "Uncle Tom" isn't quite the kindly, bowed old gent we're used to--in another, more subconscious connection to AMOS 'N' ANDY, he looks very much like an animated Andrew H. Brown, down to the big cigar, battered derby hat, and cocky attitude. Like more traditonal depictions of the "Uncle Tom" character, however, he has a fringe of white hair on the sides of his head and thick white eyebrows. He sits tilted back against the wall, and blows a bit of smoke from his cigar.

(Cut to medium shot). Picking up one of the children and putting him on his knee, he starts to tell his story, as Scott Bradley plays "Old Black Joe" on the soundtrack:

"Well now, chillun," he begins, "tonight ol' Uncle Tom's gonna tell you the real true story about 'Uncle Tom's Cabin...'" He absently flicks ashes from his cigar, seemingly on the child's head!

Uncle Tom turns his head from left to right as he addresses the off-camera children: "..Now, this is the first one o' them Hollywood cartoon companies ever got the straight dope on this Uncle Tom stuff. This is the way it really happened...once upon a time, in the big city..." (Fade to cityscape, presumably New York) ...live a character name Simon Le-gree." (Camera zooms in on office building, then fades to a shot of the entrance).

(V.O.:"He was sho 'nuff a scoundrel...") A marble sign above the door reads LEGREE BUILDING: LOANS, MORTGAGES AND CROOKED DEALS--on the left of the set of double doors, we see a sign proclaiming WIDOWS EVICTED, DOGS KICKED. On the right, it says OLD LADIES TRIPPED, KITTENS DROWNED. Etched into the walkway is a sign reading WELCOME SUCKER, in huge black letters. Refreshing to see truth in advertising for once...

The camera pans upward, then dissolves to Legree's office. We see Legree for the first time, in a black suit with tails--he has slicked hair, a waxed mustache, and even pointed ears--presumably to make him look more evil. Instead, he more closely resembles a cross between Bob Clampett's "Dishonest John" and an attendee at a Star Trek convention. (One anonymous poster to an online animation bulletin board I visited actually refers to him as "Dishonest John," apparently unable to distinguish between Avery's characters and Clampett's).

(V.O.:"That no-account crook was just rolling in dough...") If you know Avery cartoons at all, you know what's coming. Yep, money's strewn ankle-deep on the floor, and he leaps into the pile and rolls in it, as Bradley plays "Happy Days Are Here Again." Not only does money litter the floor, but one can see bags of it strewn randomly throughout the room, and on every available surface.

(Cut to medium shot of Legree, sifting coins through his fingers. V.O.: "And on top o' that, he was two-faced...") Right again--when we see him in profile, he literally has a face on each side of his head. For you Roman mythology buffs, something like the god Janus.

(Cut to Legree walking camera left, full-figure. V.O: "But he sure was powerful...") Legree walks up on top of a desk, then back down to the floor, his legs lengthening and shortening
accordingly--like the "bridge gag" we saw in THE MAGIC PENCIL.)

(V.O: "Why, he done own that whole town--'cept for one little spot...") Legree continues walking screen left as the camera follows, then stops when he comes to a wall map, which shows one lone tiny square of land. He circles it with a pencil.

(Cut to close-up of circled area on map. V.O: "...And that was your Uncle Tom's cabin!")

(Dissolve to an impressive aerial shot of downtown, as the camera zooms down toward a tiny plot of land between two skyscrapers, with an equally tiny shack on it. Dissolve to Uncle Tom, tending his crops. V.O.: "I was sure happy...") Undoubtedly the most impressive scene in the picture-- nothing better illustrates to me the difference between cartoons of the Golden Age and today. Rarely will one see a camera angle so unusual in any of today's animated product, not even CGI.

(Cut back to Legree in his office, as he draws an "X" through Uncle Tom's property on the map).

(V.O: "But Mister Le-gree was figurin' on foreclosin' the mortgage on my cabin, so he could own the whole town.") Legree takes his incredibly broad-brimmed hat off a hook on the wall to his right, turns and puts the hat on his head--in a bit of exaggerated movement only Avery's unit could acomplish, for a moment it seems almost to stretch over his entire torso, then snaps back.

"He was sho' a low-down snake..." Uncle Tom continues. As if on cue, Legree's body stretches to become serpentine, as he slithers on the floor among his piles of money. The camera follows him to the left as he slithers out the door.

(Legree slithers out into the hall, then stands as he comes to a door on the other side. V.O.: "Of course, the first thing he do is go for them bloodhounds...")

And of course, they literally are "blood" hounds--just after the camera cuts in closer to show Legree opening the door, it cuts again to show the dogs in hospital beds, hooked to IV's, pumping a rubber bulb with their paws. (A sign above them reads RED CROSS BLOOD BANK). This
indicates the cartoon, though released after World War II, had its genesis in the last days of the
war, as blood donations were highly encouraged then. Scott Bradley even accompanies the scene with a little bit of patriotic music ("Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.") So much for my belief that Avery's last wartime gags were in JERKY TURKEY.

In an abrupt, instantaneous cut, we see the city in long shot, with Uncle Tom's tiny home among the towering buildings. A red helicopter lands in front of it. (V.O.: "So he come after me

(Cut quickly to a view of Legree and Uncle Tom in medium shot. Legree gestures wildly, shakes his fist in the air, then literally sticks his nose in Uncle Tom's face, jabbing him in the chest with his finger. He mouths words, but we can hear no dialogue. Then again, we don't need to--he's obviously pretty irate. V.O.: ..."And he say that if I don't have the money by twelve o'clock tonight, he gonna take my little cabin...")

Legree pounds Uncle Tom on the head with his fist, squashing poor Uncle Tom's head down into his body as we hearthe last few words of the naration.

(Cut to the interior of the sparsely furnished cabin, where Uncle Tom sits dejectedly, his right arm slung over the back of the chair, his left elbow on a small table with a checkered tablecloth. He rests his head on his left hand. V.O.: "Oh, me--worry, worry..."). Scott Bradley, ever helpful, plays "Hearts and Flowers" on the sound track. (V.O.: "I didn't have a penny...")

Uncle Tom turns one of the pockets of his overalls inside out--not only is the inside of the pocket full of holes, but a swarm of moths fly out, illustrating his distressed financial state. (He casts a pathetic --yet somewhat funny--glance toward the audience.)

He turns and puts both elbows on the table as we hear the voice over: "And starvation was staring me in the face.." The camera pulls back to reveal a Grim Reaper-like figure across the table from him, reworking (or stealing) a gag used not only in the Woody Woodpecker cartoon PANTRY PANIC, but Norm McCabe's DAFFY'S SOUTHERN EXPOSURE for Warner's. But as with anything else Avery put his hand to, it comes off funnier in this cartoon.

Just above and behind the Grim Reaper figure, by the way, we can see a little shelf with a can on it, covered with cobwebs. More proof that poor Uncle Tom's in dire straits...

(V.O.: "But I got one last hope--my only friend, Little Eva..."). Uncle Tom walks slumped over to the right of the screen--the camera speeds past him in a patented Avery "jerk-pan" (see the
JERKY TURKEY review from December '06). We see two phones--the small one on the left has a sign above it that says "Local", while the absurdly elongated one on the right says "Long
Distance"--another reworking of an earlier gag, this time from Avery's own RED HOT RIDING
HOOD (the short and tall cigarette girls selling "Regular" and "King Size" cigarettes.) Uncle Tom enters the frame and picks up the "Local" phone...

(Cut to an exterior view of a skyscraper as the camera pans up its endless stories. V.O.: "She
got this scrumptuous southern penthouse, you know...")

The camera continues upward until we see a long shot of Little Eva's home on top, looking like a piece of the GONE WITH THE WIND set grafted onto the Empire State Building: complete with magnolias, a fountain, and a columned portico.

(The camera zooms in, then cuts to the interior to show Little Eva, a.k.a. "Red," in her boudoir.)

She's wearing the expected anachronistic "southern belle" flowing dress. She picks up the receiver on her phone, which is sitting atop a little end table with a gauzy pink lace material around it. Her vanity table is just to her left. Uncle Tom, in voice over, adds the aside, "and that
ain't all she got, neither..." (Remember that statement, because I'll be coming back to it in my closing remarks).

(V.O: "She say she come right over...but we can't figure nothin' out.") During the narration, the scene wipe-dissolves to show Eva and Uncle Tom inside his cabin, with Tom seated in front of an upright piano. Little Eva stands next to it toward the left of the screen. Uncle Tom's dejected
expression hasn't changed: he sits with his head cradled on one hand while he idly plunks a few keys with the other. Little Eva echoes Uncle Tom's body language, with the exception that she appears deep in thought.

(V.O.: "Yeah, I was sittin' there, worryin', foolin' around with the pie-ano...") Uncle Tom stops pecking at the keys and launches into a lively boogie tune. Eva, getting into the spirit of the
moment, starts dancing. The camera follows her across the room as she continues her dance
(the cabin appears to be twice as large inside as it did originally, thanks to cartoon magic. She needed room to dance, so there it was). The camera pans back to Uncle Tom at the piano, his expression changed dramatically. He has an idea! ("When all of a sudden it come to me..." the
voice-over says.) His mouth is in a wide-open grin as he slams down hard on the keys. (V.O.:
..."the big idea!!")

The "big idea", as he tells us, is to open his little cabin to paying customers, remaking it into
"Uncle Tom's Cabaña!" ("Yowsuh!"). He says in voice-over, "We done turned that cabin into a
nightclub--the place was packed!" We see an exterior shot of the transformed cabin at night, with a blinking neon sign proclaiming the establishment's name in lights--underneath, in smaller letters, are the words "Dining and Dancing." Cars pop up into newly-constructed parking lot from out of nowhere, multiplying in a pixilated sort of effect. Scott Bradley contributes a lively version of the "Tiger Rag" as the scene wipe-dissolves to show a poster of Little Eva: if you look closely--very closely--you can see a small blinking sign in the background that reads, "No Dogs Allowed...Wolves Welcome." (Good one, Tex. Too bad your Wolf didn't get an invitation. But as I've already mentioned, he had a more than worthy substitute).

Bear in mind, this is all in the space of a couple of hours, supposedly. Money can indeed work miracles, especially in a cartoon.

(V.O., as we cut to a scene of a dinner-jacketed Uncle Tom behind a counter, pulling in huge
piles of money and stuffing it into a cash register: "We was really coinin' [or was it "cornerin'] the dough!")

(The camera pans right. V.O.: "'Course, Uncle Sam was gettin' his share..." We literally see the
figure of an ecstatic Uncle Sam, as he rakes money into a bag marked TAX $$. Bradley, of
course plays "Yankee Doodle").

Cut to a shot of Legree looking at the nightclub through a telescope pointed out of his office window. (V.O:..."But Legree wasn't gettin' his...and he was gonna do somethin' about it!") He throws down his telescope disgustedly, turns and stomps off through the piles of money carpeting the floor. (Cut to Legree outside the window of the cabin, where he grabs himself by the seat of the pants and lifts himself up to sneak inside).

(V.O: "Next thing I know, he got me tied to that powder keg and lightin' the fuse..." We see the interior, with Uncle Tom tied to gigantic barrel of gunpowder about half the size of the room, while Legree holds the fuse. He lights it and zips out of frame to the right.)

Cut again--bear with me, this is an Avery cartoon--to a shot of Legree grabbing the cash register, hiding it under his cloak, and tiptoeing away. (V.O: "And he done take every penny of that money and get out of there...")

(V.O.: "But he done forgot somethin'...it was Little Eva.") Legree turns when he hears off-camera applause--the camera pans right to the stage, where Little Eva makes her entrance, carrying a parasol. (Cut to a shot of Little Eva as the camera zooms in closer).

(Cut back to Legree. The cash register he'd been carrying swells under his cloak as he looks
lustily off-camera. The cash register drawer bursts open, spilling its contents all around Legree.) I hadn't made the connection when I first saw this, but a fellow online reviewer happened to comment this was perhaps Avery's wildest erection gag to date. I have to admit he's right.

To the sound of a horse whinnying and galloping, Legree runs offscreen camera right--we cut to him atop a table where he stiffens into the pose of a hunting dog who's just spotted his prey. His head's flattened, making his pointed nose resemble an arrow, while the tail of his coat resembles a real "tail." Accompanied, of course, by a nice "boing!" on the soundtrack. Tex was anything but subtle.

(Cut to a medium shot of Little Eva, who looks somewhat disdainfully in Legree's direction.)
She starts to sing a slow, sweet rendition of "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny..." As she gets to the line "That's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow..." we cut back to Legree, who levitates up to the ceiling with a stupefied look on his face. We cut back to Eva as she sings the next line, then to Legree, who's attempting to pour salt on a stalk of celery. He's so entranced, though, that he gets a little mixed up--he shakes the celery and takes a big bite out of the salt shaker. He opens his mouth to reveal his teeth crumbling to pieces.

Suddenly, Eva tosses down her parasol and launches into a swing version of the song. Legree attempts to light a cigar, but instead lights his nose. Unfazed, he pulls a "Lucy Ricardo," merely removing his flaming nose and snuffing it out in the ashtray.

We make another couple of quick cuts from Eva back to Legree--this time, he's got a plateful of ham and several slices of bread on the table in front of him. Intending to make a sandwich, he instead butters his own hand, puts a slice of ham on it, places his other hand on top of that, and proceeds to munch on his own fingers all the way up to the elbows.

We make yet another couple of cuts from Eva back to Legree, who this time is trying to slice the pie in front of him. Instead, he takes an enormous pie-shaped slice out of the table and chomps on it.

Little Eva finishes her song with a flourish, kicking and flinging up her skirts, ending her number with by sliding on her knees to the edge of the stage. (A real testament to Preston Blair's animation abilities here--she was never quite this spirited in the other "Red" cartoons.)

(V.O.: "Wow! That done it!") Legree goes crazy with desire, smashing dishes over his head and for some reason known only to him, pours an entire bottle of ketchup on himself. He proceeds to pick up the table--now miraculously whole after Legree cut a chunk out of it--and slam it down on his head several times.

He runs up on stage toward Little Eva as we hear galloping noises on the soundtrack, only to race past her and grab a support beam. He breaks off a piece of it and starts to kiss it passionately, then runs off with it in the other direction. Realizing what he's just done, he stops, throws the beam down and disappears from frame, only to return a half-second later with the right quarry--Little Eva--this time. (V.O.: "Now he gon' get the gal...")

(V.O.: "That's what he thinks...") Cut to Legree running toward the door, only to find Uncle Tom waiting for him when he opens it. Uncle Tom clobbers Legree with a huge mallet (surprisingly few mallet hits here for an Avery cartoon) sending him through the floor. Legree's head pops up as the camera zooms in closer--it closely resembles a large tack.

Meanwhile, we return to the present, where Uncle Tom is still regaling the children with his story.

The child on his knee says, "But Uncle Tom, why wasn't you blown up on that powder keg?" (What happened to Little Eva, for that matter? Legree was still carrying her when he got clobbered.)

"Why, that was nothin'!" he says, waving his hand. "That sweat pourin' off me just naturally put that fuse out!" Before he finishes saying this, we cut back to a shot of him tied to the powder keg--he's sweating so profusely the liquid's halfway up the wall, soaking the fuse.

(Cut to a shot of Uncle Tom, on the left of the screen, with Legree on the right. V.O.: "Then
Legree came at me with that machine gun..." The bullets, surprisingly, bounce harmlessly off him as he stands in the doorway with a hand on one hip).

Midway through the shooting, the listening child interrupts, and we cut abruptly back to the present. "But Uncle Tom," the child says. "Didn't dem bullets kill ya?"

"Why, of couse not boy..." Uncle Tom says. He flicks the ashes off his cigar and we fade to black
for a second. We then dissolve back to Uncle Tom standing in the doorway of his cabin, bullets still flying off him. "I had on my 'Superduperman' suit!" He opens his shirt to reveal red flannel long johns with a large "S" imprinted on them, as the bullets continue to bounce off harmlessly.

We make another quick cut (V.O.:"Then he tie me on them railroad tracks, and the train run over me!") Then another (V.O.: "Then he throw me in that sawmill!"). Here we see Legree pulling the lever to operate the huge buzz saw, which literally saws Uncle Tom in half. The train sequence is especially good here, if only for his grimace as the train literally runs over him.

--"but Uncle Tom," the child interjects as we cut back to his front porch. Uncle Tom scowls at the interruption. "Don't bother me now, boy, I'se really goin'!" (My second-favorite line in the picture, in case you were wondering. My favorite? You'll soon find out).

He resumes his story, which builds to its ridiculous climax with a series of cuts no longer than about three seconds each. He says, "Then he shove me off that cliff...then I jump on that camel...then he chase me with that elephant...then he throw me to that alligator..and here come that steamroller...and that P.T. boat..."

The sequences accompanying the above are textbook pieces of classic animation, worthy of study by contemporary film students. We see:

a) Legree on the cliff, in extreme long shot, at the very top of the screen, as he tosses Uncle Tom over...

b) a long shot of the two of them running through the North African desert on camels that resemble dromedary versions of the horses from WILD AND WOOLFY: spindly, knobby legs with huge feet, narrow, almost pinpoint heads and huge snouts. Legree pounds Uncle Tom with a mallet that frankly, would be too heavy for him to lift in the real world--it's twice as big as he is. There's some classic "squash and stretch" on Tom as he flattens and straightens out with every blow, while Legree seems suspended in midair as he clobbers Tom.

c) Legree standing on a goofy-looking elephant at full gallop--the elephant has a body like a gray
beach ball, and feet that look too small to support it. Legree sends an unbelievable hail of bullets
down on Uncle Tom.

d) Uncle Tom being thrown right into the mouth of an enormous alligator, which seems about three times as big as any actually on Earth...he literally rolls down the creature's throat, and the beast's enormous mouth snaps shut like a living valise--perhaps the only instance in which a person being eaten alive seems funny.

e) A steamroller which takes up most of the frame, as we're looking from Uncle Tom's eye level.
He's literally flattened like a piece of paper on the pavement, cartoon-style.

f) An extreme long shot of a PT boat chasing after the swimming Uncle Tom, its huge guns trained right on him. Yet another indication this project began in the closing days of the war. (Or maybe Legree was just able to get Navy surplus...) The boat is, of course, seemingly twice as large as any actual PT boat.

Cut back to the present with Uncle Tom still going, gesturing with his arms as the child on his lap looks increasingly incredulous: "And then them rocket guns, an' them 'bay-zookas'...an' them machine guns, an' them alligators, then all of a sudden..." (The camera pans down toward the child, who shakes his head in pity and disbelief--then the scene fades out.)

(Note: Kevin has since informed me that our skeptical little friend was voiced by veteran radio performer and voice artist Sara Berner.-R.)

When we resume, we see the exterior of an enormous-beyond-enormous skyscraper, which the tiny figures of Legree and Uncle Tom scale like spiders crawling up a wall at about 700 mph.
(V.O: "Then he chase me up that 'Umpire State Building', and pushes me right off the top...") On the words "pushes me right off the top", the scene cuts to another extreme long shot of Legree and Uncle Tom atop the building. It cuts again to another "bird's eye" view, even more impressive
than the first one earlier in the picture, as Uncle Tom rapidly moves away from the viewer toward the ground. This may have been reused in DROOPY'S GOOD DEED, in the scene in which the bulldog, in baby get-up, plummets from the top of a building.

(V.O: "Then I fall down fo'teen miles and hit on the pavement!!") As he says this, we cut to a shot of Uncle Tom hitting the sidewalk with a bounce, arms and legs splayed out. The sidewalk
appears made of rubber, much as in THE CAT THAT HATED PEOPLE.

Here we get perhaps the best line in the picture, and my favorite: "And right there is where I gets mad!!" After all that wild exaggeration, the ultimate Droopy-like understatement.

(V.O. "And I grab up that Umpire State Building with Le-gree up there on top! Then I throws him clean over the moon!") The camera follows the building's flight through the air as it arcs toward the ocean and lands with a splash.

(Dissolve back to Uncle Tom and child on porch) "And that was the end of Mister Le-gree!" Uncle Tom at this point takes a self-satisfied puff of his cigar.

The child who's been sitting through this snow job the whole time says, "Uncle Tom, are you sure all you been tellin' us is the truth??" Giving the child a momentary scowl, Uncle Tom takes the child off his lap. He says, "Now wait a minute there, boy...(at this point we cut to a shot of him and the rest of the children gathered around him--Uncle Tom points at the child who'd been on his lap) .."if it ain't the truth, I hope that lightnin' come down and strike me dead..."

The cosmos, which apparently has some credibility problems with Uncle Tom's story also,
complies. We cut to a shot of storm clouds as a lightning bolt issues forth. The scene again cuts to the bolt of lightning hitting Uncle Tom square in the back, killing him on the spot. A ghost version of him with angel wings and robe (complete with ghostly cigar, no less) rises from his
lifeless body, playing a harp. The camera zooms in on the small child who'd been on Uncle Tom's lap, who delivers the payoff line: "Y'know, we lose more Uncle Toms that way!" With that, we bid farewell to a great storyteller (if not, perhaps, a truthful one) and iris out.


Tex Avery's portrayal of black characters has always been somewhat problematic, prompting some--admittedly, even me at times--to wonder if he was indeed racist. His jungle natives in THE ISLE OF PINGO PONGO at Warner's, and HALF-PINT PYGMY at MGM, are the most extreme caricatures of black people imaginable: pinheaded, with lips that would surely make them too top-heavy to stand. There's also the thorny little matter of his Texas upbringing--surely, some believe, the prejudices of the people around him had to have rubbed off just a little.

Of course, in making that assumption, we're guilty of a bit of prejudice ourselves, in assuming that just because a man comes from an area in which prejudice predominates, he must himself be prejudiced. So did Elvis Presley, and he loved black culture and music--as did Elvis' mentor, Sam Phillips.

Having seen interviews done with Avery toward the end of his life, however, I'm forced to conclude he was incapable of such behavior--he was far too gentle and soft-spoken a man to practice such extreme hatred. Beloved by everyone who had the privilege to know him, there is absolutely no account, anywhere, of him expressing anything close to animosity toward other races.

Though really, if one wishes definitive proof, one need look no further than his cartoons
themselves, especially this one. In some respects it's surprisingly progressive for the era--though still caricatured, Uncle Tom and other black characters aren't the google-eyed, white lipped monstrosities of earlier such cartoons, and are certainly less extreme than those of Clampett's COAL BLACK. Uncle Tom himself could have fit well into a FAT ALBERT cartoon of the seventies, sharing characteristics with that show's character "Mudfoot"--including his tendency to tell wild stories. A credit, certainly, to Preston Blair's Disney-influenced character design in particular.

Further, and even more shocking for the time, Uncle Tom is friends with a white woman--and even goes so far as to express an interest in her--ahem!--attributes: "And that ain't all she got,
neither..." Behavior that would surely have gotten him killed had he been a flesh-and-blood
individual in the South of the day. Even if it all turns out to be Uncle Tom's fantasy, it still
represents a step forward for the time--yet overlooked by just about everyone, critics and fans

Uncle Tom is also surprisingly human (that is to say, flawed like the rest of us--something that,
incidentally, has nothing to do with race) coming across as a sort of humanoid version of Foghorn Leghorn--with a little bit of Tex Avery himself thrown in, not to mention every grandfather we've ever known. He shares Avery's love of Texas-sized tall tales, giving us a story second only to the previously-mentioned KING SIZE CANARY in its speed and exaggeration. In the scenes in which Uncle Tom goes through a rapidly-escalating series of perils, it might even have surpassed it.

Charles Correll deserved a lot of credit for giving personality to what might have been a
one-dimensional character--though a white man, here was someone with--at the time--nearly
twenty years of radio experience, who know how to make a character come alive through voice
alone. And one who didn't merely say funny things, but say them in a funny way--much like Avery himself. As for the black dialect, it may surprise some people how restrained it is--Uncle Tom says "these," them," there," and "those", not "dese," dem," dere," and "dose." While his grammar isn't perfect, having him speak the King's English perfectly would have been as out of place as it would be with Popeye.

Finally, critics of this cartoon seem to forget that it's a parody, meaning everything--and I do mean everything--is subject to ridicule. Race stereotypes here are presented only to be shot down and given a contemporary spin, as with anything else in Avery's cartoons. In other words, Avery kids the image of black people presented in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," not black people themselves. The same, perhaps, could even be said of his more grotesque caricatures--the blackface gags common to his cartoons, for instance. To his mind, the more extreme something was, the funnier it was--and that included characters as well as actions. Visual exaggeration was his business, almost a mission--and as we've seen, there weren't many who could do it any better.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Kevin's View: The Shimmering, Glimmering Jim Tyer

Jim Tyer's twisted sense of anatomy and movement
is clearly
evident in the above sequence


The recent "Terrytoons Double Bill" prompted some fascinating insights from Kevin on the strange, almost ethereal nature of Terrytoons animation. In my review of THE POWER OF THOUGHT, I put forward the theory that Terry's animators existed in a sort of time warp, retaining the straight-ahead, unpredictable style that by the 1940's was considered "old hat" at most studios. Seeing some of the earliest efforts produced by Amadeé Van Buren only confirmed it for me--in such cartoons as the 1929 SUMMERTIME, there existed an almost total disregard for such things as weight or dimension--characters would thrust their heads toward the camera from across a room, appearing for seconds at a time to be horrendously off-model (assuming there was even such a thing as "off-model"--or on--in that era) only to snap back a moment later. Such a glaring disregard for anatomy and logic seems careless to our modern eyes, but it gave those early Van Buren cartoons an "otherworldliness" rivaled only by Fleischer.

Paul Terry, who had worked for Van Buren on the AESOP'S FABLES cartoons as a director in the 1920's, carried that sense of animated characters as "pure cartoon" with him when he struck out on his own, and he imparted that attitude to those who worked for him. No one exemplified that feeling of "anything can happen" quite like his key animator Jim Tyer, whose characters often seemed as if they had no anatomy at all, floating effortlessly through the animated landscape. Model sheets merely served as a "suggestion" for Tyer, who would adhere to them--or not--as his whim dictated.

Kevin elaborates on that devil-may-care quality in Tyer's work in this installment of KEVIN'S VIEW. Though his comments are brief, he gets at the heart of what made Terrytoons visually unique:

Kevin's View
by Kevin Wollenweber

It (THE MAGIC PENCIL) kinda brings back memories of Terrytoon art. Yes, even Paul Terry's cartoons could be somewhat magic. I'd like to someday talk to John Kricfalusi and find out just why he likes Terrytoons. I have my own vague reasons-vague, because I can't outline actual scenes as to why I like some of the visuals in a Terrytoons cartoon.

There is this almost chilling thing that happens sometimes in a
Terrytoon-it often happens a lot more fluidly at other studios when a character has high voltage driven through him. Remember that BUGS BUNNY cartoon in which Bugs believes that dogs who are racing are after a real live rabbit and he goes to somehow caress the electronic bunny, only to get a sizzling dose of high voltage sent through him? Well, Terry would do this with characters at odd moments, and most of those moments don't have anything to do with high voltage but might represent a character suddenly getting angry or just suddenly feeling strangely.

Somewhere, there exists a print of a PERCY & ROQUEFORT cartoon in which Percy, the cat, comes in contact again and again with catnip and has this strange reaction, and this includes the most surreal shimmering. I wish someone knew what you call this technique. To some it might appear to be a cheap shortcut or an instance in which the animators in question didn't know what they were doing because the effect looks a bit jumpy, but it is no doubt meant to be that way as a kind of surreal slow burn. It must be an interesting effect to freeze and examine, frame by frame, like those riveting Tex Avery takes.


Like Kevin, when viewing these cartoons as a child, I was at a loss for words to describe what I was seeing when viewing a Tyer scene. "Shimmering" is perhaps the best term I've heard--when Tyer's characters would go into a take, they would do precisely the opposite of what Avery's would do in that situation--instead of stretching like putty, they'd seemingly contract into themselves, literally shrinking for perhaps a quarter of a second, just long enough to be perceptible. Then, just as quickly, they'd resume their original form, much like the characters in the Van Buren cartoon--except that Tyer was doing this in 1950.

Kevin makes comparisons to Tex Avery, but I would go further and compare him to Rod Scribner at Warner's. Scribner, as you've no doubt seen in such cartoons as GRUESOME TWOSOME and THE HEP CAT, liked to vibrate his characters to a stop, exaggerating the laws of inertia and giving them a "cartoony" spin. Tyer could do this well--
Mark Myerson, in his 1990's APATOONS article on Tyer, uses the fight scene from the 1945 Popeye cartoon SHAPE AHOY as an example of Tyer using such a technique logically, for dramatic effect.

But Tyer didn't always use such techniques logically, particularly in his years at Terrytoons. The "ladder" scene in THE POWER OF THOUGHT is almost certainly Tyer's, for when Heckle causes a fireman's ladder to issue forth from his bare hands, it vibrates as it goes up, almost as if it were straining to expand. Illogical, yet logical at the same time.

The Rod Scribner Project blog, while being generally complimentary of Tyer, criticizes his seeming lack of control in comparison to Scribner. Though, as the frames below illustrate, Tyer knew precisely what he was doing, adding vitality to what in anyone else's hands would have been a rather mundane "sneak" cycle. Note the limbs seem as if they're dislocated, yet this quirky little sequence couldn't better describe Percy the cat's emotions. Viewed in motion, the expansion and contraction of his body creates precisely the shimmering effect Kevin speaks of:

In all, Tyer's animation sequences more often than not lifted Terrytoons above the commonplace, "shimmering" like the animated jewels they were.

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(Edited 4/23/07 for spelling and minor "tweaking" of content--R.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Introducing The Censored 11--Or Maybe Not?

Kevin and I rarely have a disagreement, but we did have a mild one this evening, over one simple question:

In an age when even the rarest cartoons can be downloaded--legally or not--from sites such as YouTube, what exactly constitutes an "orphan toon?" One rarely seen by the public? One widely seen, but in edited form? (Such as DROOPY'S GOOD DEED or JERKY TURKEY). One that has yet to be restored--or likely, never will be? It's a question I've mulled over for quite some time, but one I've never fully addressed until now.

I had intended to post a review and synopsis of Bob Clampett's COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS. Whether it's truly the greatest cartoon ever made is of course open to debate, but in your humble administrator's opinion, it's certainly the best Bob Clampett ever made, a convergence of the young Clampett's animation skills at their peak with the brashness and "can do" spirit of the years during the Second World War.

I've long felt that no blog such as this one would be complete without a discussion of the Warner's "Censored 11", the infamous list of cartoons withdrawn from general circulation by United Artists in 1968. COAL BLACK in particular has been a cause celebré for animation historians and fans alike, becoming the Toon That Will Not Die. Yet its very visibility gave Kevin certain reservations, as he says here:


You know, I hadn’t ever thought of even doing the “Censored 11” from Warner Brothers because I was (and am) so sure that Jerry Beck & company will eventually get to them now that the status of the Warner Brothers cartoons are sealed for adult enjoyment. I know that you wanted to discuss these, but I do see this light at the end of the tunnel, and the Warners cartoons, even at their most controversial, will no longer be “orphaned”. I was instead thinking so much of the BOSKO toons because, for some reason, I think that these will be a little harder to get to DVD, because the HAPPY HARMONIES in general are not the most beloved cartoons around, not even like the Tex Avery and the TOM & JERRY titles from Hanna-Barbera; the same goes with the CAPTAIN & THE KIDS titles.

In fact, the mere fact that a goodly portion of the censored 11 are on youtube and elsewhere illegally means that so many people know about them and are giving them a kind of pirated home that, in that sense, they are no longer orphaned.

Then again, this could also be said of most of the LOONEY TUNES BOSKO titles as well and I *DO* think that these should be discussed because there are some terrific little bits throughout the series. I still think that the 1930’s Warners cartoons will be orphaned titles because, again, they are not as high a priority on the restoration list. I like to do or, more accurately, read others’ write-ups of the BOSKO cartoons done in an enthusiastic way, but one of the reasons why I like the fact that you’ve continued this blog on your own so diligently is that your viewpoint is one of enthusiasm, not the usual “I hate Harmon/ising and their insignifigant Disney chlones” rant that I hear all too often. Yeah, I guess that we could all come up with a case for that other viewpoint, but these cartoons still remain close to my heart, sometimes for reasons I can’t quite identify. But I have shown guests the laserdisc print of “DANCE OF THE WEED” and they were absolutely impressed. Why? Because it is an impressive cartoon in every way, including its wonderful score which allows the musical instruments to add life to the images, like the violins screeching like the whirling wind that blows the dainty flowers this way and that.

If the wonderful consultants now working on cartoon collections at Warner Brothers with that familiar disclaimer on them are putting together a HAPPY HARMONIES collection as we speak, then I’ll discontinue my rant, but these are lost treasures that , to me, have so much artistic merit. Even the Milt Gross cartoons are wonderful in that there were only two made!!

So, while I hope you do write an essay on “COAL BLACK” or “TIN PAN ALLEY CATS”, obviously pointing out spots where there are reused bits of animation from other well-known Clampett cartoons, I think some of this stuff is so familiar to everyone that…

Aw heck, go ahead and give your slant on this group of films. I would love to read a clear writing on “TIN PAN ALLEY CATS” and, maybe, you can one day do a rather lengthy essay on the differences in comic retellings of the “UNCLE TOM’S CABIN” story. Actually, that could almost be a book by itself; when you think of it, just about every cartoon studio had its retake on that story. I realize that this book, by harriet Beecher Stowe, was incredibly popular, but no one ever made a live action movie of this story. There is no major motion picture around this tale of racial injustice and life in segregated times, but every cartoon studio did their incredibly shocking parody of it!! I never thought about it until just now, but yes, one could neatly examine all the parodies of this story, from Hugh & Rudy’s “ON THE TRAIL TO HALLELULIALAND” and “THE OLD PLANTATION” to Tex Avery’s “UNCLE TOM’S BUNGALOW” and “UNCLE TOM’S CABANA”. Yet, now, I wish I had the actual book in front of me as well for reference so we know just how much the story was stretched or condensed. I know there is more to the slice of life, there, than what the cartoons chose to mock.


Though Kevin relented and eventually gave his blessing to posting reviews of COAL BLACK and other Censored 11 cartoons here, he did have a valid point, one for which I have no easy answer. Which is why I've decided to leave it up to you, the readers:

Do you want to see reviews of Censored 11 cartoons here? I'd be interested in hearing your answer, whatever it may be. Send your comments to Kevin and me here:


The best responses will be posted in a future entry--so get those nimble little fingers busy...

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