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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Kevin's View: The Worlds of Hugh and Rudy

A NOTE FROM RACHEL As always, Kevin and I want to maintain your interest--the recent revamping of the blog was done with that in mind. Providing consistent, engaging content has always proved a challenge, given the amount of time necessary to produce the reviews that are the mainstay of this blog. To do such reviews daily is easier said than done--I only have two hands, and there are only so many hours in a day. As a result there has been
far too much "lag time," and that stops now. It's unfair to you fans to not find something new and different every day.

With that in mind, I'm inaugurating a new feature on this blog, or rather, the reworking of an old one. Kevin and I have in the past posted our personal correspondence here, but the constant
switching back and forth between his comments and mine has no doubt confused and frustrated some of you. Therefore, from here on I'll be posting Kevin's comments--uninterrupted by me--in the form of a column called "Kevin's View." My answer will follow, in a section called "Rachel's Response"--also uninterrupted. You'll no doubt notice some other interesting changes. Whenever possible, pictures will be included to illustrate certain scenes we're discussing, whether stills from films or sketches by me. You'll also get to see, for the first time, what my "mysterious" friend Kevin looks like. He has given me permission to post his image--taken from his Cartoon Network stint--on the blog as his column header. With that, I'll let Kevin take it from here...

Happy 'Tooning,
Rachel Newstead

Ah yes, the full outline of BOSKO'S EASTER EGGS was a fine enough surprise, the next best thing to having all nine BOSKO cartoons out on a comprehensive DVD set complete with commentary tracks--but isn't that what you are trying to do with this blog-give a kind of "commentary" on the cartoon while supplying descriptions of elements in each scene that are striking to the eye and should indeed be noted as people watch for the first or umpteenth time?

It is indeed interesting that both Bosko and Honey do show a great deal of personality in their body language and in the way the scenes are paced. This sort of experimental characterization is, perhaps, what might bug people about the HAPPY HARMONIES and,especially, the very expensive, expansive animation of the duo when they returned to MGM in1939, creating cartoons at MGM' s cartoon studio instead of their own, but it is true that the BOSKO toons are speedier than, perhaps, the entirety of the remainder of the HAPPY HARMONIES put together, although the Ising-directed TWO PUPS cartoons come in a close second in cartoons such as PUPS PICNIC and WAYWARD PUPS.

In BOSKO'S EASTER EGGS we certainly do get the best of both worlds here. We get the frantic hints of cartoon license with characters zooming this way and that in pop-eyed takes or trading dialogue as if we' d truly believe that the characters onscreen were merely drawn over live action footage of kids acting out each moment. Harmon &Ising liked using the "dissolve" a great deal more than most cartoonists. They liked using it instead of a camera pan across to the characters who would be in the same scene, whereas animators in other studios, including Disney, might just have the camera pan across to reveal something ominous approaching left or right of what was going on center-stage in the previous moment. Whether this was done as a time-saving chore or not, it is an odd visual to use.

Most of the time, such dissolves were used to represent passing time, but Harmon and Ising useit to give us the impression of how many things are going on at the same time in the same place, kind of like how the eye moves about a live stage as one scene begins taking our attention away from the previous moment of interraction. This effect has always gotten me thinking that, by now, we would have created an animated feature using multiple screens so audiences do get more of a dimension out of the images all around us. Why I was the only one, or so it seems, who got this idea is a real curiosity to me!

From reading this description, I also get the feeling that this is one of those few HAPPY HARMONIES in which two or more characters are interacting onscreen, a rare occurrence in decades hence as the effect certainly costs a great deal more to do, and I don't know what it takes for animators to synchronize the moves of two characters timing in a given scene together!! This may have led to some folks believing that Harmon or Ising used rotoscoping more than we suspected initially. There are some harmon/ising cartoons that bounce uncomfortably between total realism and cartoonishness, but there are others in which the link between the real and the surreal is startlingly accurate and the BOSKO cartoons are perfect examples of this, as you've outlined in earlier reviews.

It also should be pointed out that this cartoon is ultimately a cartoon about country kids living in farm areas where eggs were the source of food and vegetables grown from the ground also ended up on family tables. So barnyard gags like these went on all the time both in
real life and in so many cartoons that were inspired by farm living from day to day and, judging from the bulk of Harmon/ising cartoons of any age, I get the impression that the guys grew up in that environment.

So, at times, when compared to the SILLY SYMPHONIES, cartoons like this not only
work in showing an amazing range of character development, unfortunately at the point in which some characters were almost being phased out instead of further developed in future cartoons,
this ranks right up there among Disney' s best of this period. Although this is a HAPPY
HARMONIES title, usually full of cute little songs and singing animals or humans, this is clearly a situation comedy of sorts, making me wonder just what these characters would have been
capable of if used again when the duo returned to MGM after 1939. Let\rquote s not forget that
there were OUR GANG comedies to inspire the guys back then, and Hal Roach\rquote s
comedies were also at their peak, with some of the kids quite adept at pantomime and
double-takes of their own, even sometimes enhanced by animation to give the take that surreal edge within the live action framework.

As I've stated, you should read the Leonard Maltin/Richard Ban book, OUR GANG, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LITTLE RASCALS to see what I mean. Read the full description of THUNDERING FLEAS for example, and then read through my outline of CIRCUS DAZE\rdblquote as found and dimly remembered on bcdb.com. I tend to think that CIRCUS DAZE was a cartoon only because one could not possibly put such situations into live action without people or animals getting seriously hurt!!

Lastly, I do, like you, wish that Honey continued on into the BOSKO TRILOGY, as we fondly have called the last three BOSKO musical titles with the jazzy frogs of THE OLD MILL POND and SWING WEDDING. Retaining Honey could have inspired many a musical number, like a jazzier Darla hood or something. The possibilities boggle the mind in retrospect! Makes me wonder why the duo weren't thinking with such clarity if I do say so myself.

Certainly BETTY BOOP cartoons had almost the same situations with Betty always launching into song even as she found herself in peril, and we loooved her for it. I wanted Honey to have as many delicious qualities about her, albeit more like Darla Hood, as I said, than curvaceous Betty. And they had enough talented kids at the studio at the time to give Honey just the right amount of everything I' ve outlined here. It is nice that you again point out Honey' s chattering in surprise, awed by every moment in a given scene, adding something wonderful to her character. I love the moment in which she is going on about how beautiful the newly born chicks look ("d'ere' s a green one an' a blue one an'...d' ere' s one all polky-dotty...") It is a character trait that not only toys with dialect but defines a certain part of this country very clearly. It is that type of humor so misunderstood today and misused by those who wish to stereotype rather than understand its source of inspiration.


Kevin's OUR GANG analogy perfectly describes the nature of the Bosko cartoons, as if
Buckwheat had been spun off as an animated character to appear in a series of "adventures" of
his own, but truthfully, the Bosko cartoons transcended race, becoming instead something in which people of any race can find common ground. Perhaps without realizing it, Harman and Ising had unlocked the secret to what made the OUR GANG films so special in the Hal Roach era: "real" stories about "real" kids. While both the Bosko cartoons and the OUR GANG films would climax in cartoonish insanity, the kids seemed like kids, doing the things kids do, if in a somewhat exaggerated way: going to the circus, fending off hostile, recalcitrant creatures both large and tiny, and getting into general mischief, as Bosko did in BOSKO'S EASTER EGGS.

That MGM acquired the rights to OUR GANG in 1938, just a short time after Harman/Ising's days at the studio ended, is a tragedy of missed timing.

The two series would have complemented one another perfectly, with the animated version perhaps looking a bit better in the bargain. Bosko could have gained other kid friends--perhaps a little brother (though I consider the "L'il Ol' Bosko" of the Jazz Frogs Trilogy to be a "little brother" of sorts to the original version) while Honey could have stepped into the Darla Hood role in more ways than just musically. Darla, like most of the girls one saw among the gang, usually existed as a complication to the boys' schemes--disturbing the boys' "paradise" of the He-Man Woman Hater's Club, for instance--and Honey could have adapted to play a similar role. If anything, it might have worked better with Honey, since the character's personality was more clearly delineated than Darla's.

Hugh and Rudy indeed knew the rural sections of the country well, and how rural people behaved. And well they should, as they--like Walt Disney--were Kansas City boys (an aspect I shamefully neglected to mention in Sunday's review).They reveled in bucolic cartoons--whether broad, impossible slapstick like the earliest Oswald and Mickey silents, or gentle with moments of broad humor, as in the Bosko cartoons. Their celebration of nature led to cartoons like THE BLUE DANUBE and TO SPRING, both an explosion of realistic beauty and color. Those who dismiss such cartoons as slow and cloying have to understand Hugh and Rudy's background--they wanted to share the natural beauty they remembered with the public. It's a love that should resonate in the minds of the environmentally-conscious young people of the 21st century. Harman and Ising portrayed a world they feared was rapidly disappearing.

They did go through something of an awkward "adolescence" during their first years at MGM,
shifting uncomfortably sometimes between their earlier, cruder style and the gentler, more
"realistic" one. In some cartoons it actually added to the sense of enjoyment, as shorts like
CIRCUS DAZE shift back and forth between near-realism and bug-eyed cartoony takes. Yet in
films in which they tried to be "serious", as in TALES OF THE VIENNA WOODS, they'd fall on
flat on their faces, as their ambition far outstripped their artistic ability. I've included some
samples here to show what I mean:

In the opening seconds, the view dissolves from an almost perfectly-rendered realistic drawing of a fawn to a rubber-limbed, round-headed, goggle-eyed creature that wags its tail like a puppy. It wouldn't have looked too out of place in a 1932 Looney Tune--in the span of a second or two, we're suddenly back in "rubber-hose" territory, and it comes close to destroying the mood of the film.

During that rough "shakedown" period, they resorted to some pretty ingenious ways to hide any artistic shortcomings. It's no accident that many cartoons from that era featured toys as main

The last of the three takes place in the realistic surroundings of a child's bedroom, but one in
which the child is nowhere to be seen. The little girl in the opening moments of THE CALICO
DRAGON by necessity takes up very little screen time, as it was clear they were still not quite
sure how to portray a human child realistically. As one can see from the image I've included, she
seems almost as doll-like as her toys:

By using characters that were meant to be "unreal", such as toys, Harman and Ising could use
characters equally at home in realistic surroundings or worlds of pure fantasy. Once they found
their artistic footing, such devices were no longer necessary; though they did use their ability to
combine the broad with the starkly real in PEACE ON EARTH--a cartoon meant to be emotionally
jarring, yet a fine example of their artistic "maturity."

When Kevin wrote of Harman and Ising's use of the "dissolve" as a storytelling device, I
immediately began to wonder: were they indeed the first to use "montage" in animation (the term I think Kevin was searching for) rather than Frank Tashlin, as generally believed? I couldn't come up with any evidence of their use of such a technique before Tashlin, but they do come close in CIRCUS DAZE. Though in fact, the opening scenes were more a series of rapid successive dissolves than a true montage. We move between nearly-overlapping shots of a
"test-your-strength" meter, to a dishonest hot-dog vendor, to a charging elephant, to a laughing
clown. While not strictly montage, it serves the same purpose--establishing the atmosphere and
the premise quickly so we can get on with the story--yet more proof their cartoons were not
agonizingly slow.

How, then, could anyone say these men lacked creativity, imagination, or humor?

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