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Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Lion In Black and White

It's Der Ding-Busted Captain and The Kids In MAMA'S NEW HAT (1939)

Review-Synopsis by Rachel Newstead

Mama's New Hat
Release Date: Feb. 11, 1939
Director: none credited (see Concluding Thoughts)
In Short: When the kids' gift for Mama gets destroyed, they "borrow" another. But the rightful owner won't give it up so easily...

It was the first comic strip worthy of the name, creating a visual shorthand for "the funnies" that's still used today. Born at the end of the 19th century, it's still in newspapers--if not nearly as many as in its heyday. For more than sixty years, it appeared in two different versions--distributed by two rival syndicates--thanks to one of the strangest legal loopholes in history. It made the transition to theatrical animation not once, but twice--neither of them successfully.

The Captain and the Kids--or to use its proper title, The Katzenjammer Kids--was the creation of 20-year-old German-American cartoonist Rudolf Dirks, first appearing on Dec. 12, 1897 in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Loosely based on a series of children's stories Dirks remembered from his childhood (Wilhelm Busch's Max und Moritz) Dirks' Americanized version was nowhere near as stern, violent or moralistic as Busch's stories--but filled with the sort rough, vaudevillian slapstick that was almost as bad. Ron Goulart in The Funnies suggests it was heavily influenced by the eye-poking antics of Weber and Fields (who apparently inspired The Three Stooges as well). As a strip with German characters created by someone of German extraction, it proved quite popular among immigrants, many of whom were already familiar with the original Busch stories. The name "Katzenjammer", meaning literally "the yowling of cats" perfectly described the chaos occurring within the strip. Objects were continually hurled through the air, and figures were constantly in mid-run: the strip was "animated" long before it ever reached the screen, thanks to Dirks' loose, quick drawing.

From the beginning, the strip featured the little hellions Hans (the dark-haired one) and Fritz (the blond one), along with Mama Katzenjammer, who more often than not was seen spanking them at the end of every strip. (There was also a Papa Katzenjammer originally, but he disappeared after the arrival of the Captain.)

The Captain arrived--having been shipwrecked--around 1905 as a boarder, followed closely by the Inspector (originally a truant officer sent to rein in the kids, but who for some reason stayed.) It would be these two characters who would bear the brunt of Hans and Fritz's constant pranks from then on.

Why it came to be known as The Captain and the Kids is a rather strange, complicated story. According to the "official" account given by United Feature Syndicate years after the fact, around 1914 Dirks decided he wanted to take a year off to travel and paint. The Journal agreed on the condition that he create a backlog of strips to cover his absence; this Dirks attempted and found impossible, and embarked on his vacation without official approval:

....Cablegrams and Journal correspondence followed me all over the continent requesting
that I send in more drawings. I mailed in Sunday pages for about six months. Then I
accepted an offer from the
New York World on the condition that I would not begin until
my contract was cleared with the
Journal. Meanwhile, the latter paper sought to
secure a restraining injunction against my working for the Pulitzer interests. When the
case was heard, I was declared the loser. My appeal, however, brought a reversal of
that decision, allowing me to work for the
World but leaving the title of The Katzenjamer
Kids with the Journal. (Goulart, pg. 53)

A much simpler--and more likely--explanation would be that the World offered Dirks substantially more money. Deserting a Hearst paper for a Pulitzer one was an unusual move, as the traffic of cartoonists usually went the other way. Dirks would not have jumped ship, surely, unless he were to be well-compensated.

The injunction and court decision were certainly true, leading to an odd compromise: the Journal would hire a new artist, Harold Knerr, to draw his own version of the strip as The Original Katzenjammer Kids (to let readers know theirs was the "real deal", when in fact the opposite was the case). When Dirks' version of the Kids first appeared in the World, it contained no title (Dirks originally identified them by the German-inflected "Here Dey Iss!") In early 1915, he began calling the strip Hans and Fritz; during World War I, in response to the rabid anti-German mood of the time, the name was changed to The Captain and the Kids. (Goulart suggests it may have been

because it sounds like "The Katzenjammer Kids", if one says it fast enough). That name stuck, and under that name, it would make it to the screen in the early days of the MGM cartoon studio.

The Hearst version had already done so--in 1916, Hearst created the International Film Service, through which he would commission animated versions of his strips--such as Krazy Kat and Bringing Up Father--in addition to The Katzenjammer Kids. (Animated by Earl Hurd, under the supervision of J.R. Bray). They did not prove profitable, however, and the IFS quickly folded.

No one held out much hope for the attempt to adapt Dirks' version to animation some twenty years later--least of all Friz Freleng, lured from Schlesinger by Fred Quimby to direct the series. (As I recounted in my review of ROMEO IN RHYTHM some time back). Joe Barbera would later refer to them as "animated Huns"; in interviews late in his life, he would say it was the worst possible timing to debut a series with characters speaking in mock-German dialect just as Germany was about to lead Europe into another war.

A good point, certainly--audiences gave the series a cold reception, and the series was stopped after just 13 cartoons (two of which, PETUNIA NATURAL PARK and THE CAPTAIN'S CHRISTMAS, were filmed in Technicolor--the rest were originally released in sepiatone to cut costs). The strip, however, was still widely popular during this period, due to the inexhaustible imagination of Dirks. In the years since the move from Hearst, the family found a new home in the "Squeegie Islands" (with the expected stereotypical island natives) and a new recurring menace in the form of one Long John Silver. He would, in fact, figure prominently in the animated series (perhaps best of all in THE CAPTAIN'S CHRISTMAS) even though the island locale was not a feature of the MGM cartoons.

MAMA'S NEW HAT was the last of the series, and quite possibly the best. As was typical in the MGM version of Cap and family, the kids' demeanor has been softened here. Far gentler than the feral brats of the early comic strip, they create havoc not out of meanness or spite, but because they simply wanted to do something nice--buy their Mama a new hat for Mother's Day. Of course, what happens is a perfect illustration of the saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions..."

"My little angels..."

We open with a view of a sign in a store window: MOTHER'S DAY--BUY HER A GIFT. This fades to a display window showing various household items: pots, pans, a washboard, dishes and so on (ve-e-e-ry funny, guys--my mom would kill me if I gave her something like that). The camera tracks past another display window showing various hats for sale; we see Hans and Fritz emerge from the store with a gift-wrapped package, presumably one of the hats. (If they know what's good for them). Hans skips along ahead of Fritz with the package, but fails to see the brick on the sidewalk in front of him. He trips and....falls right into a huge mud puddle in the street. He juggles the package in the air to try to keep it from falling in, but at that moment Fritz falls right on top of him--and the package. They emerge covered in mud, and the package is a soggy, ruined mess.

As the boys don't have the money for a replacement, they're stuck for an alternative--until they hear the whinnying of a horse off-camera. They see an old nag admiring herself in a mirror, wearing a hat which--by a lucky coincidence--just happens to be identical to the one the boys intended to give Mama. The horse bats her eyes and adjusts the hat here and there, picking up the hat with her ears and moving it to a new position. Cut to the boys, still in the mud puddle: Fritz starts whispering to Hans, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out what they're planning. They sneak up over to the horse, trying to appear nonchalant; Hans points off-camera to try to divert the horse's attention and makes a grab for the hat. The horse notices, and the boys return to their nonchalant pose. They back up slowly, then zip around the corner, so fast the letters from the store sign fall off the window.

The horse eyes them skeptically and resumes admiring herself in the mirror. The flower on the hat droops--turns out the boys switched hats, giving her the ruined one they bought for Mama. becoming angry, the horse throws the hat down, stomps on it, and goes off in pursuit of the boys at full speed. She pursues them around a corner....

....and we cut to a shot of the horse charging down the middle of the street at full gallop. But the camera pans over to a sign saying THIS IS NOT A THROUGH STREET, so we know that disaster's ahead for the horse. Avoiding one potential disaster, she gallops furiously off in the other direction (a slight corner-cutting move here: it's just a "flipped" image of the previous running sequence). Skidding to a stop, she starts sniffing the ground like a bloodhound.
Fade to the boys and Mama at home: "Aaaah, ain't dot sweet--buy Mama a new hat for Mama's Day!" she says. "My little angels!" As she says this, little halos appear over the boys' heads as they bashfully stand there. In a nice little "impossible" cartoon gag, she lifts up the halos and kisses each boy on the head.

Mama turns and admires herself in the mirror: "Mmmmm....not so bad," she says. She imagines herself as glamorous; for a moment her reflection in the mirror transforms to an image of Greta Garbo.

"Vait until I show Mrs. Hamburger my new hat--vill I burn her up!" she says to the boys, grabbing her parasol.

We wipe-dissolve to the outside as Mama comes down the stairs, then cut to the horse, still sniffing around in pursuit of the stolen hat. (She even sniffs a fire hydrant, like a dog, only to be scared off by the sound of a yelping dog from off-camera). She skids to a stop and continues sniffing along the ground--at that moment, Mama happens to pass by in the distance. Cut to a closeup shot of Mama--the camera tracks in closer on the hat. The horse sees it, and happily gallops off after it. She follows closely behind Mama, trying to grab the hat with her teeth; but before she can snag it, Mama disappears down an open manhole. Strangely, Mama doesn't even notice. The camera tracks over to a loading platform coming up from underground, from which Mama emerges.

The horse then appears in front of Mama, and the two of them go into a sort of dance-like routine as the horse tries to grab the hat and Mama ducks. (To the tune of "The Mexican Hat Dance" on the sound track). Mama goes underneath the horse to escape her, only to have the horse move in front of her again, snapping at the hat. They whirl around in a brief tussle; the horse ends up with the hat on her head--for the moment. They whirl around again, and this time Mama has the hat. Mama runs off camera....

...and we dissolve to a shot of the horse running after her at full speed, then to a long shot of Mama and the horse running along the road beside a picket fence, back toward Mama's house. (Fairly fast timing for this era). We cut again to a view of the open doorway from inside as Mama runs toward it. She slams the door just as the horse hits it. Cut to the horse outside--her head vibrates with a "boing" sound from the impact with the door.

The horse pounds on the door with her hoof, then runs off to prepare to run inside. Mama opens the door as the horse barrels through the living room, up the stairs and out of of one of the upstairs windows (a gag used in more Warner's, and later MGM cartoons, than I can count. Tex Avery would use a similar gag in SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA--only a good deal faster). We don't see the horse do this--the camera follows from outside, and we hear the galloping and racket on the sound track.

The horse lands on the roof of the neighboring house and slides slowly downward, kicking up roofing tiles as she goes. We cut to a shot of Mama's open cellar door--the horse falls through, landing in the basement. Various pots and other junk fly up through the door as the horse lands.

Dissolve to a shot of the horse creeping up the basement steps as she heads into the kitchen, accidentally hitting an empty milk bottle in the doorway in the process. The milk bottle bounces down the stairs--as we cut to a shot of the doorway from the kitchen, the horse cringes in anticipation of the inevitable impact--it doesn't crash right away, so she stands listening with her ear pointed toward the doorway. When it finally does crash, the startled horse jumps through the air onto a cabinet. Sighing in relief, she climbs down and continues her pursuit as the scene fades.

The next scene shows the horse sneaking toward the kitchen door as Mama comes through wearing the hat--quickly, the horse hides with her back to the wall. She again snaps at the hat, but the surprised Mama ducks. The chase is on--but the horse is having a bit of difficulty, as her hooves get caught in the area rug in front of the door. She rolls up more and more of the rug as she scrambles to get free, pulling Mama with her. Once freed, the two of them start off after one another again.

Cut to a scene of the horse chasing Mama through the living room and up the stairs, with Mama scrambling on all fours. When she reaches the top just ahead of the horse, she slides down the bannister. She sails through the air and into the hallway, where she and the horse pursue each other around and around a set of two doorways (also similar to a gag Avery would later use). They continue this routine several times until Hans and Fritz emerge from a center door with a cane to trip the horse. The horse trips and falls, but Mama's still going, running right over her. The boys quickly snatch the horse and pull her inside the room.

The boys, taking the pose of a fashion designer, then are seen trying to bribe the horse with alternative hats (the dialogue, which is speeded up, is almost indecipherable on this copy, so I'm not going to attempt to transcribe it here). The horse stares in the mirror as the boys put a variety of hats on her head, all of them more ridiculous than the last. (One bit of animation, in which the horse lifts an overly-large hat from her eyes with her hoof, looks like it was retraced in GALLOPIN' GALS). One of the samples is a Napoleon-style hat; the horse strikes a goofy Napoleonic pose while "La Marsellaise" plays on the sound track. (Mama owns that? Must really belong to the Captain, I'm guessing). It's quickly snatched form her head and replaced with a cowboy hat as the music switches to Western-style, then by a football helmet as "fight song" music plays (if that's Mama's, she has an interesting past). One of the boys waves a pennant over the horse's head.

Note: Kevin, ever helpful, with ears far better than your humble toonkeeper's, says the dialogue Hans and Fritz say as they're trying hats on the horse goes as follows:

“Would Madam care for the latest from Pah-ree?”

…And then another hat…

“Or maybe you would prefer a Suzanne Pah-poo cree-a-shun (creation)”

…And another…

“a Napoleonne…”

…And another…

“…Buck Benny?”

…And another…

“…Or should you ever go to college,…”

Thanks, Kevin. Because I missed that particular bit of dialogue, I failed to make note of the "Buck Benny" line (a reference to Jack Benny's then-current movie Buck Benny Rides Again).

We then fade to a montage of the various hats being tried on and rejected--pretty ambitious and Harman-Ising-like for cartoons supposedly done on the cheap. The scene then dissolves to a shot of the horse looking like an equine Mae West, with a large plumed hat, a corset, and boots (on all four feet). She exits through the wrong door, however, and we hear an off-camera splash. Cut to a shot of the horse in the bathtub with a confused Captain. Cap swats at the horse and misses; the horse goes underwater and re-remerges behind him as he looks down into the water; she pushes him down and a stream of bubbles come up as the Captain gasps for air. He comes up again with the bath brush on his head--he takes it and scares the horse out of the tub, waving the brush at her.

The horse scrambles to keep her footing on the wet floor and crashes through the closed door, landing in the hallway. Meanwhile, Mama is still running around and around in circles, in one room and out another, as she was when the horse was chasing her. The horse stands just outside the second door as Mama comes through, snapping at the hat--this time she manages to grab it, flipping it onto her head. As Mama comes through the second door and notices what's happened, the horse gallops off-screen, and the scene cuts to the living room.

The horse quickly ducks into the coal chute, followed closely by Cap in his bathrobe--Cap tries to follow, but is a little too hefty, getting himself stuck. Cut to the basement--the horse slides down the coal chute and through the air toward a nearby wall, where she crashes. She knocks loose a can of glue which empties on her rear end. She doesn't notice, because she's too busy trying to get the coal bucket off her nose. We cut quickly to the still-stuck Cap, then back to the horse, still trying to remove the bucket. In doing so, she kicks the wall behind her, which dislodges an old electric fan from the shelf, which attaches itself to her glue-covered rear. She manages to get the bucket loose, but the momentum propels her into the coal bin, fan still attached. The horse, now covered in coal, blindly reaches up and turns on the main electrical switch, which immediately starts the fan. This creates a black whirlwind which sends coal everywhere, including through the coal chute where Cap is still struggling to free himself. Coal shoots through the living room as an astonished Mama looks on.

She tries to free Cap herself, pulling on his legs as coal continues to fly around. Meanwhile, down below, the force of the fan has made the horse rise in the air, lifting her out of the coal pile. She gets propelled through the coal-chute opening and backward toward a living-room table. The combination of the fan and table resemble an airplane (recalling a gag involving Bruno in THE OLD HOUSE) and zooms just over Mama and Cap's heads. We then cut to a quick shot of the horse zooming through the air past the stairs--backwards--and another of Mama and Cap quickly trying to get out of the way. But rather than swoop over their heads, the horse comes up underneath them--they end up sitting on top of the soaring table as it zooms out of control.

They turn and head the opposite direction as we cut to the boys, who turn tail and head into the next room. Cut to an exterior window, which the horse crashes through--now Mama, Cap and the kids are along for the ride as the horse gains altitude.

Of course, the cord is still attached, and as they go further and higher, they pull the electrical wiring off the side of the house and nearby utility poles. The wires are pulled from the poles in rapid succession, which eventually causes a generator from the local power station to get pulled with them. The building is destroyed, while the generator gets stuck between two branches of a tree. The force frees it, and now the combination of horse, table, fan, and family has a generator trailing behind it. As the wire gets pulled taut, everyone falls to earth to the sound of an airplane in a crash dive. Mama, the kids, Cap, and the horse land in a circular clothesline, while the horse's hat lands on a tree branch just out of everyone's reach. The wire lands on the remaining intact power lines and starts to make sparks; this starts the fan again and propels them around and around in circles. They each try to grab the hat from the tree--like merry-go-round riders reaching for the brass ring--as the cartoon irises out. Maybe Hans and Fritz should consider getting Mama candy or flowers next Mother's Day...


Kevin speculated, in his response to my review of JITTERBUG FOLLIES, that Milt Gross was the uncredited director of MAMA'S NEW HAT. Given the way the cartoon builds to such a riotous, anarchic climax, this may well be true. If Gross did direct this cartoon, he succeeded in portraying utter chaos and destruction more effectively here than in JITTERBUG FOLLIES: it's more like an Avery cartoon than any MGM effort would be before the arrival of Avery. As with Tex's cartoons, it builds slowly until it reaches a level of all-out mayhem.

But it seems to me there are other influences at work. Friz Freleng was also at MGM at the time, and could easily have had input--the pacing throughout most of the cartoon is reminiscent of Warner's cartoons of the same period. It also not only looks forward to the era of Tom and Jerry (particularly the scenes of destruction inside the house) but backward to the era of Harman and Ising. (There are obvious parallels with Hugh and Rudy's MGM Boskos, as I've already mentioned). Those seeking a "missing link" between the old MGM and the new will find it here.

Thus ended the early, shakedown era of the MGM cartoon studio. It's a bit sad, really, as the CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS animators were really starting to hit their stride. In THE CAPTAIN'S CHRISTMAS, they start portraying characters with real dimension--we discover in that cartoon that stock villain John Silver has a human side. He creates presents, Grampy-style, for the heartbroken Hans and Fritz when he thoughtlessly ruins the kids' Christmas after destroying their Christmas gifts in a childish rampage. As we've already seen, the kids aren't one-dimensional brats, either--the disastrous events of this cartoon are only indirectly their fault. They had no way of knowing how obsessed the horse would be in getting her purloined hat back, and they did have altruistic motives. While this seems a dramatic departure from the comic strip, by the thirties Dirks had started to make them less destructive and more philosophical--though still incurable pranksters. According to Ron Goulart, dialogue became more extensive--perhaps even too much so--as the kids would prattle on and on about their views of the world around them. At the same time, the action in this cartoon seems a pretty faithful translation of wild, early years of the comic strip--it's filled with the sort of action I always imagined the strips to have, and once it gets going, it doesn't stop.

As with KATNIP KOLLEGE, the CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS cartoons were an acquired taste for me: my first experience of them came courtesy of the LATE NIGHT BLACK AND WHITE series on Cartoon Network in the nineties, and at the time I was less than impressed. They seemed, for one thing, too slow, too deliberate--but then, I hadn't yet seen them all. As I began to see more of them, however (particularly such wonderful efforts as THE WINNING TICKET, with its running gag of a woodpecker trying to attack John Silver's wooden leg) I began to appreciate them more. The voice work from the likes of Billy Bletcher as the Captain and Mel Blanc as John Silver, elevated the cartoons beyond the ordinary and made them a pleasure to watch.

Michael Barrier, unfortunately, wasn't similarly impressed. In his book HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS, he had this to say about the MGM cartoons of this period:

...[Director Bob] Allen in particular wanted Disney-style animation, but the animation
in the Captain and the Kids cartoons evokes Terrytoons instead: it is active, amiable
and utterly superficial, the sort of animation that speaks of haste and a
low tolerance for revisions. (288-89).

"Active" and "amiable" they are, but to compare them with Terrytoons is an unforgivable cheap shot--to both studios. Terrytoons, as we've seen in THE MAGIC PENCIL, was capable of imagination, and the animation of Jim Tyer made the cartoons far funnier than they would be in the hands of someone more "traditional." If the CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS cartoons need be compared with any New York studio at all, I'd compare it with the Fleischer cartoons of this period, with their fluid animation, rich gray tones, detailed backgrounds, and their "anything can happen" approach. MAMA'S NEW HAT certainly has the best mechanical gag of any cartoon outside the Fleischer studio at the time, as we saw with the homemade "airplane" bit. Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera and Tex Avery would surpass this level of work in time, but these cartoons compare favorably with any of their era.

After this cartoon, Harman and Ising would return to the studio, gleefully jettisoning several works in progress by Milt Gross. But things wouldn't be quite the same--there was a new crew, and a new attitude toward cartoons which crept into Hugh and Rudy's work (as we've seen in ROMEO IN RHYTHM, released about a year and a half later). The CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS series was a noble experiment, clearing the path for Tom and Jerry, Droopy, and company--and the accolades MGM would receive because of those characters.

Though its time on screen was brief, The Captain and the Kids' run on the comic pages certainly wasn't--Dirks would continue to draw it until his retirement in 1958. It would be continued by his son John until United Feature Syndicate discontinued it in 1979. Ironically, it was the version begun by Knerr that proved the more durable--like The Captain and the Kids, it suffered through a couple of name changes: for a brief time during the First World War, Knerr's verison of the Kids briefly became Dutch, with Irish names! From 1918 to 1920, Hans and Fritz were Mike and Aleck Shenanigan, and the strip was known as the The Shenanigan Kids. After 1920 it would revert to simply The Katzenjammer Kids--its original title under Dirks--and is known by that title to this day. Since 1986, "The Katzies" have been drawn by Hy Eisman, a veteran of the King Features "bullpen". Though nowhere near what it once was (the slapstick has been toned down considerably) it endures, syndicated in 50 newspapers (and online). To last from the horse-and buggy era to the age of the internet is a pretty remarkable achievement for any cartoon; may the animated version live on in the hearts of new generations as well.

The Katzenjammer Kids today, as drawn by Hy Eisman (excerpt © King Features Syndicate)


Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Wearin' Off The Green," Indeed

By Kevin Wollenweber

The burst of energy seemed to come from nowhere, but it did.

Perhaps far too soon for MGM, which seemed to make its mark up ‘til that point with Disney-like cartoons: beautiful, fluid pieces of animation, but Disney-like, nonetheless. When Milt Gross happened on the scene, perhaps it should have been at Max Fleischer’s studio, not slicker, aristocratic MGM. Judging from this previous review, it seemed as if the pacing and character design were not exactly what MGM was looking for, although the cartoons themselves were great ideas.

The second one, “WANTED: NO MASTER” is especially good, even though it really doesn’t feature all the elements of the original comic strip. It is true that, if all elements of that previous comic strip-as outlined in Rachel’s earlier review--were all retained, I really think that a success could have been made of this proposed series. Even the usually versatile Mel Blanc couldn’t haul this out of the dumper with a variety of wacky voices; but then again, perhaps Mel’s natural ability to turn vocal comedy in cartoons on its ear was also being stifled by those at the studio who just didn’t understand why cartoons should be created at all!

As duly noted, the singing of the hippo dubbed Madame Lizzie Swish hits one like fingers scraping along a chalkboard. Yet, you are stunned by the grotesqueness of the character designs throughout, a sign that wilder times were ahead for MGM studios. If all had just cooperated with Gross (despite his supposed overbearing demeanor) Gross’ material could have easily been that incredible missing link between the slick style of the West Coast and that grittier, welcome antidote of East Coast animation a la the Fleischer or Van Buren studios, that sometimes incorporated the talents of true jazz legends to score their cartoons.

Oh, Scott Bradley did what he could to add as much brass that was needed, but Simple Simon, in NO way, sounded like Benny Goodman OR any member of his band. But then he is, after all, Simple Simon, right?

Oh, there I go again, over-analyzing, but you get the idea. This is actually the first truly unsettling, "non-musical musical" to come from MGM studios. Yet, they weren’t always good at making lack of talent really, really funny, even in their live action films. MGM films were slick and stunning. Even the cartoons made the viewer gasp with awe, even if the stories for some were almost non-existent in favor of spectacle.

You’d almost think that Milt Gross would be a welcome addition to the staff, but, again as outlined previously, none of the animation staff could really stand his single-vision attitude. It is true that, amid the long history of live action major motion pictures, one single-minded vision, uncompromised, ended up catapulting a film to major top drawer status, no matter how much feelings got hurt in the process; yet, the animated cartoon has almost never risen to that level and, at that period, the template was still unfortunately Walt Disney. Milt Gross was fighting against the odds on the West Coast, and in animation in general.

Even the Fleischers were starting to lose that edge, partially due to the Hays Code’s diminishing the power of their one truly lovable little vamp, Betty Boop. Disney had secured his hold on the industry and artists were consistently forced to emulate the man--even if they wanted to be more influential, and saw the art form as producing far more than cute little fuzzy animals. Why Milt Gross did not instead head over to Warner Brothers--where Carl W. Stalling would take hold and truly show that he and his orchestra could keep up with the increasing speed and zaniness of the cartoons as the 1940’s dawned, and a whole new age took hold and eventually eclipsed Mr. Disney and gave him pause for thought about use of true cartoon logic and comedy--is anybody’s guess.

Perhaps Milt Gross had apparently alienated enough people? I don’t know--and not wanting to just assume here, I’ll leave this for historians more knowledgeable than I to fill in the blanks. Those who succeeded him at the studio, just as color came back to the lavish MGM cartoons, weren’t nearly as wacky until Tex came aboard; and, with his amiable nature, made people change their outlook on the future of animated cartoons--even eventually influencing Mr. Bradley into speeding up those scores a bit to follow the quicker pace and scene-changes throughout each subsequent animated project.

Milt Gross is not to be forgotten, though. It is unfortunate that actual credits are too vague around the cartoons of this period, because some believe that Gross also had a hand in some of the CAPTAIN & THE KIDS cartoons of the time. I would guess that, perhaps, Milt Gross might have directed titles like “MAMA’S NEW HAT” and “THE CAPTAIN’S CHRISTMAS” (previously reviewed on our podcast over the Holiday Season) the first being the final black and white cartoon for the CAPTAIN & THE KIDS series, and the second being the first color title, and second-to-last cartoon in which we’d ever see these characters--with MGM having by then considered the series a failure. It might have been Gross who allowed the comic strip characters to go out with a bang, and that is worth something.

“JITTERBUG FOLLIES” is available on the set of MGM films starring the Marx Brothers, but we have yet to see the cartoon fully restored and we have yet to see “WANTED: NO MASTER” anywhere at all. Both are truly worth a look and listen as ours are only critical reviews--we're not trying to be the final word! These are worthy bits of the wonderful tapestry and colorful characters that produced and starred in the world of animation. The stories need to be told! Let’s get the stuff on DVD real, real soon! I think that MGM celebrates some sort of anniversary this year; I know that Warner Brothers is also doing some celebration as well. Let’s give all this stuff at least one last hoorah!!

Rachel is very much correct in that the rougher humor of folks like Milt Gross was an attempted turning point, but perhaps a bit too soon. His co-workers, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera would quickly rise above him, and retain a slight hint of the elements that Gross brought to the table.

.But the pace seemed slower, and easier for the staff to take in going forward, until the way was more easily paved for the flamboyant entrance of the easy-going--but sometimes almost as harried--Mr. Fred “Tex” Avery well into the return to color. I just wish that Milt Gross had found a home by this time, too.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Toons In Swing Time: Part Three

From The Sublime To The...Gross (Milt Gross, That Is): JITTERBUG FOLLIES (1939)

The original Count Screwloose (above left) and the
animated version (above right). (Images from Don
Markstein's Toonopedia and YouTube, respectively)
(Edited 6/9/08 to correct a mind-numbingly dumb error--R.)
Jitterbug Follies
Release Date: Feb. 25, 1939
Director: none credited (though possibly Milt Gross himself)
In Short: Count Screwloose tries to con the yokels with a phony jitterbug contest--which he's forced to actually put on. Now we know what killed vaudeville...

To paraphrase a saying I've used once before, some cartoonists draw funny things; others draw things funny. Milt Gross did both.

His influence reaches across decades, most notably in the work of Mel Brooks. (The former Melvin Kaminsky no doubt read Milt's strips as a boy in the Bronx). Bob Clampett and John K. were inspired by him.

He could do anything--comic books, strips, animation, humor columns, radio scripts. He even pioneered what would later be known as the "graphic novel": She Done Him Wrong, which he describes as "The Great American Novel, And Not A Word In It--No Music, Too..."

The Yiddish-inflected dialogue of such Milt Gross creations as Nize Baby might confuse some young folks these days, but a person need not understand Gross to appreciate him. Every stroke of his pen radiated humor--you'll find yourself laughing even if you're not sure why. His characters looked funny, eyes perpetually crossed. Gross' loose, scribbly drawing style seemed to reflect the out-of-control nature of the strips themselves.

He created comic strips at an astonishing rate: And Then The Fun Began, Dave's Delicatessen, Looey Dot Dope, Phool Phan Phables, Nize Baby, Otto and Blotto, and one that would earn him a kind of cult status in comic-strip and animation history, Count Screwloose of Tooloose. It would be the good "Count" who'd prove to be his most lasting character, appearing in one form or another until 1948.

Created as a Sunday strip in 1929 for the New York World, its premise was simple: "Count" Screwloose, the ever-resourceful inmate of the Nuttycrest lunatic asylum, would regularly bid goodbye to his Napoleon hat-wearing dog Iggy

These panels from He Done Her Wrong (1922) only give us a glimpse of the craziness and bawdiness the young Milt Gross was capable of. (Images from Amazon.com)

(not J.R. the Wonder Dog, which was created for the animated cartoons) and escape over the wall--only to discover that the world outside the asylum was even crazier. Inevitably, he'd jump back over the wall to the relative safety of the "nut house," telling his dog, "Keep an eye on me, Iggy..."

Count Screwloose escapes again, in a comic-book
story from the late '40s. (From John K.'s blog)

The Count's methods of escape were typical Milt Gross: once, he hopped onto a fellow inmate who believed himself to be a window shade; when the human "window shade" popped up, he propelled the Count over the wall on another adventure.

Animation was the next logical step for the character; indeed, when Gross replaced the "blink and you'll miss him" Harry Hirschfeld as supervisor of MGM's new animation department in early 1938, he'd already had past animation experience. Not with Count Screwloose, but with "Mr. Phool Phan", one of his earliest creations. As a 20-year-old assistant to Thomas A. "Tad" Dorgan (the cartoonist who, according to legend, gave us the term "hot dog") Gross created the strip about an insanely obsessed sports fan for Hearst's New York Journal in 1915. It appeared in animated form two years later, produced by John Randolph Bray. Gross wrote and directed the cartoon; it didn't materialize into a series, however, and today is almost completely forgotten.

With Gross now at the helm of the MGM cartoon department, a series of cartoons featuring Count Screwloose was a foregone conclusion. Much to the consternation of producer Fred Quimby, who despised Gross and his style of humor. Still, Gross represented a new and promising change in direction for MGM's cartoons, and Quimby knew it. Milt's nutty style was 180 degrees removed from the storybook, Disneyesque approach of Harman and Ising.

But the Count wouldn't reach the screen without a few changes. The drawing is slicker, lacking the scribbly spontaneity of the strips, yet still capturing the essence of Gross' style. The lunatic-asylum premise was dropped, as was Screwloose's canine companion Iggy. (Why is uncertain, but it could have been at Quimby's insistence.) The animated Screwloose would be less of a clueless innocent and more of a cynical con artist. In JITTERBUG FOLLIES, his first outing, he's a tramp who hits on the idea of bilking the locals out of their money, in the form of a bogus jitterbug contest. To match his new demeanor, Screwloose received the requisite wiseguy Brookynese voice, courtesy of an uncredited Mel Blanc. (I'd always pictured the strip version as sounding more like Ed Wynn).

His new sidekick, J.R. The Wonder Dog, would carry the burden as the "zany" one of the pair. Cross-eyed and loose-limbed, with seemingly no bones at all, J.R. most closely embodied the style and spirit of Gross' comic strips. J.R.'s high point would come when the panicky Count substitutes him for a contestant in serious danger of winning Screwloose's stolen proceeds--a fan-dancing ostrich. These scenes would prove frustrating for the animators; as related in Maltin's Of Mice And Magic, animator Bill Littlejohn--tired of hearing complaints that J.R. was not animatable--did 100 feet entirely by himself to prove it could be done. He outdid himself, as it's by far the funniest scene in the picture.

Unlike the first two cartoons discussed here, JITTERBUG FOLLIES is less a tribute to swing than a wholesale dismantling of it. With the exception of one rousing showpiece number, there isn't a note of swing to be found--but in this case it hardly matters, since it's merely an excuse for Gross to unleash his insanity. And we don't have to break out of--or into--the loony bin to look.

"The Citizen's Committee On FAIRRRR PLAY...."

"Come on you jitterbugs--get in and swing! Count Screwloose and J.R. The Wonder Dog present the $10,000 swing talent contest! Get in line, you 'gators!' Come on you rug-cutters! Get the $10,000 prize for the winner of this big contest!!" a breathless narrator says, while the camera first zooms in on a close-up of a theater marquee with our heroes' pictures--and names--in lights. We then dissolve to a long tracking shot of a rather motley assemblage of contestants that only the mind of Milt Gross could put together: a goofy-looking man and woman (the man, for reasons known only to him and Gross, has his entry fee in his mouth); a trained seal; three identical-looking, but different-sized fellows with mustaches and sports caps; two circus acrobats; a store dummy with a $9.95 price tag; a tuba player; a "trucking" Indian squaw complete with papoose on her back (her husband, meanwhile, is in a baby carriage in front of her) and one fellow with a bristly mustache and a derby hat. (The man and woman at the back of the line are actually the most normal-looking of this bunch).

The derby-wearing fellow at the front of the line approaches the ticket window, where the good Count is waiting to take his money. Take it he does, but the guy gets no ticket--Screwloose instantly slams down the SOLD OUT sign. But not, of course, before J.R. emerges to relieve the poor goon of his hard-earned buck--and a few dozen more from his pockets.

When the box-office door slams down again, the unfortunate victim of this larceny yells "HEY!" and angrily pounds on the door. His protests are to no avail, though, fading to muffled yells as the camera cuts to the interior, where Screwloose and J.R. are gathering up their ill-gotten loot. (We see J.R. kicking the money into a large carpetbag-type valise). "C'mon, c'mon," Screwloose impatiently says, "we gotta get outta town before the cops gets wise!" Coins are flying everywhere as the Count hurriedly catches them--only to be interrupted by a pounding on the door.

Quickly hiding the huge bag under his vest, Screwloose says, "Whozzat?" Cut to the door, in danger of being knocked off its hinges by whoever's outside. The door bursts open to reveal a hulking thug of a guy with a very official-looking badge. He's apparently been in quite a few battles, as he has a hook for a right hand. He also would have dwarfed Disney's Peg Leg Pete.

"This is the Citizen's Committee on FAIRRRR PLAY!!" he bellows. He takes three huge strides toward the camera until his badge entirely fills the screen: the words "Fair Play" on the badge enlarge and quiver as he says them.

Cut to a medium shot showing Screwloose, J.R. and the official; J.R. cringes, with his paws over his head. The brute lets go of his suspender, on which his badge is pinned, with a SNAP!

"Dis contest is on da level," the official says, taking his hook and lifting the runty Screwloose up by the collar. "Ain't it?" When the big lug lifts Screwloose in the air, the bagful of money hidden underneath Screwloose's vest spills out all over the floor.

"Why sure...sure...this is an honest contest, boss, why would ya think it isn't? It's on the up and up, absolutely, 100%...." Screwloose babbles as J. R. crawls between the official's legs and tries to make a getaway. "It's on the level," Screwloose nervously continues.

"Sure, it's on the level," another brute with a stocking cap says. He's just come through the doorway, holding J.R. by the tail with an enormous pair of tongs. "Nobody's skippin'!" The bag with the money drops on the ground; the big goon, meanwhile, flings J.R. through the doorway with the tongs.

"Well, den..." the "Fair Play" official says. "On with da contest!" The stocking-capped goon grabs Screwloose with the tongs this time and carries him through the doorway and onto the stage, depositing him underneath the spotlight. Resigned to M.C.ing, Screwloose tries to sound upbeat:

"Ladies and gentlemen," he begins. "The foist entry in the ten thousand-dollar swing contest..."

We don't hear the rest of what he has to say, as the camera cuts to the two goons in the balcony, their impossibly huge guns trained on poor Screwloose. We cut to a couple of goony-looking penguins: one with a straw hat, the other with a cigar (Otto and Blotto, two other Milt Gross comic-strip creations) as they walk over the heads of the annoyed audience, step on their faces, and hop onto the edge of the stage to immediately heckle Screwloose. (Muttering "gangway, gangway, outta the way" all the while). In an Avery-quick cut to an alley outside, we see them get tossed out the rear exit. They hit a light pole and land in the trash can underneath. Trash scatters around everywhere.

Cut back to Screwloose onstage: "As I was saying, introducing that lovely little songstress, Madame Lizzie Swish!!" The camera follows the spotlight over to the wings.

"Lovely" and "little" Lizzie Swish definitely isn't. She's a hippo--hideously large even by hippo standards--with a mouth that would put Martha Raye to shame, and a falsetto singing voice that could peel paint. She's wearing a gown with a ridiculously long train--and minces out on stage to mercilessly assault our eardrums. The higher--and louder--her screechy notes get, the worse she sounds--she tries to walk across the stage with a seductive wiggle, and fails miserably. Turns out, she's walking that way because her dress is stuck. Otto--or is it Blotto, I have no idea who's who--comes on stage and helpfully frees her with a pair of garden shears, which sends her recoiling out of frame camera left.

After Lizzie's inevitable off-camera crash into the orchestra pit, Otto/Blotto throws the shears over his shoulder like a rifle, and marches across the stage as military music plays on the sound track. The remains of Lizzie's dress resemble a tent; the other of the insane pair of penguins emerges from the "tent" to join the first one on stage. They decide to do a little performance of their own, a parody of a maudlin old Victorian-era ballad ("Bingen On The Rhine"):

A soldier of the legion,
Lay dyin' in Algiers,
<offstage gunshot--one of the penguins falls to the ground>
Beneath the spreadin' chestnut tree,
He had too many beers....

To illustrate the last line, the penguin still standing removes his hat, which conceals a mug of beer, which he smashes on the prostrate penguin's head. The other penguin rises to assume a fighting pose, hopping up and down.

The breaking waves dashed high upon,
The stern and rockbound sand,
The "muskles" of his brawny arms,
Played "Alexander's Ragtime Band".....

On the next-to-last line, the penguins do a bodybuilder pose--their tiny biceps rise with a "pop."

In mid-song, however, Lizzie decides she's going to give her act one more go, and drowns them out from offstage with her screeching. The two penguins scream at each other over the racket:


The penguin on the right marches off toward the right of the screen; he enters the "tent"--from it, inexplicably, emerges an anti-aircraft gun. As the other penguin lies on the floor holding his ears, the gun fires off a huge shell, presumably silencing poor Lizzie permanently. They try to resume their song, only to be booted from the stage again, in a repeat of the earlier "alley scene." (Even MGM felt it had to cut corners during this period).

Cut back to Screwloose on stage: "Presenting Mother Goose, the senstion of the show woild, in "Mother Goose Goes To Town"...."

A matronly woman in Mother Goose garb starts singing "Sing A Song Of Sixpence"--we're led to believe we're going to get a standard nursery number. But this is Milt Gross we're talking about, not Walt Disney--so instead, on the line "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie", we see the huge prop pie behind her open up to reveal the "blackbirds". In the only inarguably politically-incorrect scene in the entire picture, they turn out to be black musicians rendered in minstrel-show caricature. "Mother Goose" continues singing:

When the pie was opened,
They all began to sing <musicians: "Mi, mi, mi...">
And then they got the jitterbug,
And all began to swing....

Oh, well--at least this is a legitimate swing number. The musicians start their brassy riff as "Mother Goose" sings:

And the bug flew on 'cause they turned him loose,
Bit yours truly, Mother Goose...

Again, because this is Milt Gross we're talking about, we discover "Mother Goose" is no kindly old lady: she strips off her costume to reveal herself as a buxom chanteuse worthy of Tex Avery's "Red."

On the lines "Ask the sheep and cow and corn/Big Boy Blue come blow your horn," she pulls a pair of legs out from under a haystack, which belong to our "Big Boy Blue." He starts playing a trumpet riff--or appears to. It's quickly revealed his horn has a phonograph record attached. He replaces the needle when the record briefly skips, looking at the audience with a goofy self-satisfied expression.

Our red-hot Mother Goose continues to sing:

Tommy Tucker got bit too,
Singin' for his bowl of stew...

She points off camera--it follows to reveal a little fellow in a Buster Brown getup. But this is no adorable tyke: he growls in a raspy bass voice "Darling, I am growing hungry...!" The audience obliges, throwing all manner of food items at him from offstage, which completely buries him. He takes a pair of chicken legs and drums a Gene Krupa style beat.

Cut to a skinny, Olive Oyl-ish woman "trucking" along as we hear the lines, "Mother Hubbard's doodlin' now/jitterbug just told her how..." But when she goes to her cupboard, instead of finding it empty she stumbles upon our friends Otto and Blotto, who try to resume their number for the umpteenth time. But before they can finish, they're given "the hook" and are pulled off stage right. (At least the animators didn't use the alley scene a third time).

Next we see a house-sized shoe bopping to the rhythm...I don't have to tell you all who that is...

The woman in the shoe got bit,
Now she's razzmatazzin' it....

Cut to a plump woman at a piano, pounding out a jazz rhythm with the aid of her endless brood of kids.

Simple Simon got bit and,
Thinks he's Benny Goodman's band....

Our "with it" Simple Simon is a one-man band, actually, playing like he's hopped up on amphetamines. He's destroying the instruments more than playing them.

For the conclusion of the number, we cut quickly to various shots of the black musicians from different angles, then a long shot of "Mother Goose" strutting her stuff.

The curtain comes down to riotous applause, pleasing just about everyone--except for Screwloose and J.R., of course, who boo her from the wings. They interrupted by a ganglier-than-usual ostrich, who demurely says, "I'm next--aren't I?"

The fit-to-be-tied Screwloose stalks out on stage and disgustedly introduces the next act: "Zaza <at least that's what it sounds like> the fan-dancin' ostrich! Nyahh!"

The ostrich does her ballet-style number to a surprisingly positive reaction--we cut to reaction shots of audience members jumping up and down in the balcony. Hats and confetti fly through the air; the two goons we saw earlier in the cartoon fire off their enormous machine guns, whistling and cheering wildly.

Meanwhile, the Count nervously paces: "An ostrich, an ostrich--a fan-dancin' ostrich is gonna win da contest! AN OSTRICH IS GONNA WIN DA CONTEST!!" But his hopes haven't completely died: he looks over at J.R., who's doing a handstand, and gets an idea he hopes will save his illicit fortune. "Ostrich??" he says, as J.R. is replaced by a fantasy image of J.R. in ostrich get-up. "Hey!" he says. "Maybe an ostrich is gonna win the contest! Yeah, I got it--an ostrich is gonna win dis contest!!" Running over to a trunk full of theatrical props and costumes, he assembles an ostrich costume for J.R. out of a ceramic ostrich head (which covers his rear) and some bits of cotton (which cover his head).

Cut to just offstage: as the real ostrich takes her bows, Screwloose cuts some sandbags loose, which land on her and send her plummeting through the stage floor. Pushing the disguised J.R. toward the stage, he says, "Get out there, Zaza!!"

It's easier said than done, as the phony Zaza has a little trouble maintaining his balance; he stumbles across the stage upside down--or downside up--poking his head out from underneath the cotton fluff to give the audience a few furtive glances. He stumbles in the direction of the curtain: one of the two penguins happens to be there, and trips him with well-placed cane. J.R. crashes stage right, only to re-emerge doing a hoochy-coochy move with his "rear"--or is it his front? He clumsily dances off stage to the right--emerging yet again, he again dances right in the path of one of the penguins, who again trips him.

This time, J.R. stumbles off the stage and into the audience, where he gives a snooty-looking society matron a deranged wink from underneath his cotton fluff. He stumbles over the heads of the musicians in the orchestra pit and finds himself caught between a drum and a set of cymbals. Propelled back on stage by the momentum, he momentarily loses his disguise--it reassembles itself, but not quickly enough to fool Otto and Blotto, who appear with a basket full of hot dogs. J.R. naturally pursues them, leading the two penguins to yell "FAKE! FAKE!" J.R. is too engrossed in eating the hot dogs to care about the boos coming from the audiences--he sucks them out of the basket like spaghetti, dragging a cat along which somehow got tangled in them (don't expect logic in a cartoon like this, folks). J.R. and the cat do what cats and dogs inevitably do--they get into a knock-down, drag-out brawl right there on stage, dissolving into a tiny whirlwind. Into which, naturally, our two goons up in the balcony fire a stream of bullets.

J.R. briefly emerges from the mini-tornado and declares himself the victor, paws hoisted above his head in self-congratulation. He's a bit premature in his celebration, though, as he ends up being sucked back into the vortex by the cat. (A gag very similar to this one appeared in Hugh Harman's ABDUL THE BULBUL AMEER a few years later: Gross did leave a legacy of sorts, despite what the histories say).

Meanwhile, Screwloose struggles his way through the hail of junk being hurled at him by the audience to try to retrieve his dog; he sticks his cane into the vortex hoping to snag J.R. by the collar. Which, naturally, only succeeds in his being sucked in as well.

The cat hurls Screwloose from the whirlwind out into the alley, followed closely by J.R. They're seen hastily struggling to climb the alley fence; the scene dissolves to the two of them trying to hop a freight car out of town. Where, it so happens, they run across our friends Otto and Blotto, who reprise their number one final time before the iris out (forgive me if I misheard any of the lyrics):

His comrade bent to listen,
He softly whispered, "Dean,"
Don't sit on the billiard table 'cause,
You're wearing off the green....

As the two of them dance an Irish jig inspired by that awful pun, we bid goodbye to Milt Gross' twisted universe. Audiences of the time didn't know it, but they'd only have one more opportunity to visit that funhouse-mirror world before Gross himself was shown the door.


In analyzing Gross' brief but glorious tenure at MGM, the one question that continually comes to mind is "What happened?" He had everything going for him--several newspaper comic strips running simultaneously, a writing stint for radio (an adaptation of one of his "family" strips, That's My Pop) and an opportunity to produce animation for a studio considered by those both in and out of Hollywood to be the Tiffany's of movie-making. Hiring Gross should have been a tremendous creative and public-relations coup for Fred Quimby--the equivalent of bringing in The Far Side's Gary Larson to run an animation studio.

The time was certainly right--in the late thirties, thanks to a fellow named Avery over at the Schlesinger studio, theater audiences began to see a whole new "screwball" style of animation. Daffy Duck had already hopped and "hoo hoo-ed" his way through PORKY'S DUCK HUNT; a primitive and insane version of what would become Bugs Bunny would follow soon after. In other words, the very sort of characters and humor Milt Gross had been known for on the comic pages for some twenty years--they just hadn't been seen in animation before. What could make more sense than to bring in the one who started it all?

Things, however, were not as perfect as they seemed; Gross, far from being at the peak of his talents, was actually in a creative tailspin by 1938. His comic-strip work, while still prolific, was becoming unimaginative, and he began to farm it out to other artists (such as Bob Dunn, who would later take over Jimmy Hatlo's They'll Do It Every Time). As Ron Goulart says in his book The Funnies:

He left the New York World in 1930, having already abandoned the use of dialect
in his comic strip work, to draw a new version of the
Count Screwloose Sunday page
for King Features. In addition, he drew a comic strip that alternated three uninspired
single-gag premises:
Draw Your Own Conclusions, I Did It And I'm Glad, and The Meanest
Man In Town.

The comic-strip version of Count Screwloose, in truth, was a similar "single-gag" character (the premise never varied in the slightest over almost two decades) and the transfer to animation actually did a great deal to flesh him out and put him in more varied situations. Unlike the confining premise of the comic strip, the animated Count Screwloose could have been adapted to every conceivable situation. In the last of the two Screwloose cartoons, WANTED: NO MASTER the Count is neither a lunatic nor a tramp, but a dim suburban bachelor whom J.R. tries to get out of the way by marrying him off. He'd made the transition from a mere prop for Gross' jokes to an "everyman" character.

Yet, as with Gross' other work of this period, JITTERBUG FOLLIES suffers a bit. There's almost too many things going on at one time--looking at a Gross cartoon is comparable to looking at the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies. (Just imagine the impossible position I'm in, trying to describe it all). One has to see them several times to catch everything (I've seen it at least a dozen times, and had never noticed the store mannequin in the line of prospective "contestants" before--nor, for that matter, the grown Indian in the baby carriage). He gives us a visual feast, but doesn't do quite enough with it--I can't help but feel the action should be going on even faster. But as I've said about other cartoons from this period, that revolution in timing was still a few years away--and the man responsible for it was, at the time, still working for Warner Bros.

Still, it's a perfect debut story for the character, and one can see elements later used by Mel Brooks. Consider the plot--a con man puts on a horrible, token stage performance in the hope of skipping off with the proceeds. Not all that different, really, from Brooks' The Producers.

Looking back, there was no way Milt Gross could realistically be expected to succeed--the job of pulling together a disparate, squabbling group of New York and California animators was too much for just about anyone, roughly akin to herding cats. Gross was just not temperamentally suited for it: while the "official" version of Gross' firing is that the staid Fred Quimby found Gross' work "beneath the dignity of MGM", the truth is a bit more complicated. Gross' story is the standard cautionary tale of what happens when creative people spread themselves too thin--when they try to do everything, they succeed at nothing. (A lesson Tex Avery would eventually learn as well).

According to Joe Barbera in his autobiography My Life In Toons, Gross was a micromanager--when critiquing an animator's drawing, rather than offer suggestions, he'd have the animator stand and watch while he redrew the drawings himself. Several months of this, in addition to loud, frequent battles with Quimby, naturally took its toll--and manifested itself in increasingly bizarre behavior. Barbera wrote:

[He was] becoming increasingly paranoid with each passing day. His office was
located directly above Fred Quimby's, and Milt soon discovered a grillwork heat register
against which he would put his ear in a struggling effort to make out what (if
anything) was going on in Quimby's office.

Milt started spending more and more of each day listening at the register. We all
knew when he'd come out of an especially protracted spell of eavesdropping because
the criss-cross pattern of the register would be engraved on the side of his face from
jaw to temple. From time to time, he would emerge from his office, thus imprinted,
loudly muttering over and over: "Can't hear the cocksucker. Can't hear what he's
saying. Can't hear the cocksucker...." (Barbera, 68-69).

This by itself sounds almost like a scene from one of Gross' cartoons, and could almost be dismissed as a humorous eccentricity, if not for what happened next. As Barbera said:

I returned from a rare vacation one evening to a frantic phone call from Dan Gordon,
who told me that Milt had finally popped his cork and was going through the studio firing
everybody. In context, that really wasn't a crazy thing to do, although he should
have started at the top...

Though Count Screwloose's time on the screen lasted only two cartoons, the character would live on in yet another medium--comic books. Though Gross' output slowed considerably following a 1945 heart attack (he had a lifelong heart condition) he would contribute Count Screwloose stories to several comic book companies in the late forties. A second heart attack would take his life in 1953, at the age of 58.

Of his precarious life, Gross once said, "Yeah, someday a waiter will find my head in the soup. Pick my head up by the hair and say, 'he's had enough.'" That would have been an appropriate, twisted end for someone like Milt Gross, but he did die doing what he loved--drawing. I personally can't think of any better way to go.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008


By Kevin Wollenweber

Warner Brothers celebrates its 90th birthday this year!!

This is certainly cause to celebrate, most notably because this could mean stunning releases this year. We here at Orphan Toons sure hope this means cartoons, cartoons and *MORE* cartoons!! Oh, of course we know that there will be a LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION SIX, and I ponder, constantly, just what will be on same. Yet, as per usual, even the speculations have been kept under wraps for now. After all, the consultants and coordinators of such a package don’t want to promise titles that, although slated for the set, are never given the green light until even mere months before the physical product reaches shelves.

I do know, thanks to someone hinting at forthcoming releases on Amazon.com, and a pre-order representation there, that there will be a second BUSBY BERKELEY COLLECTION set: four disks to be precise. The first one is one of those rare sets that I bought for the musicals themselves, as well as the animated cartoons so generously tacked on to a few of the disks. This is nearly a perfect set, and does give the viewer/listener an idea of what inspired so many of those fun little 1930’s cartoons coming out of Warner's around the time of the creation of these musicals. Wikipedia.org has a full list of Busby Berkeley productions, but some are not represented with detailed synopsis and full credits, so I’m not sure of just which ones are Warner Brothers and which are MGM. But I think we can kind of figure it out, since the bio gives details as to which periods in film history Berkeley was connected with Warner Brothers and which with MGM, perhaps the two biggest and most creative periods in the man’s history. Of course, I’m not leaving out his work with 20th Century Fox, the resulting product of which will be issued as part of THE CARMEN MIRANDA COLLECTION. The musicals are worthwhile even without cartoons, but let’s face it, so many cartoon ideas came from these musicals that it is made twice as nice when the musicals are given some animation as extra feature.

I know, I know, I should dream on. This is about cartoons, though, and so, I hope that MGM and Warner's do celebrate their anniversaries with cartoons galore, especially since Warner Brothers owns the complete video rights to the golden age of both cartoon studios. TOM & JERRY has been well-represented, although not what we rabid fans would call “fully restored”. You can get impressions of what examples of a fully restored set of TOM & JERRY cartoons would look like if you see the titles from the series included in the ACADEMY AWARDS ANIMATION—15 WINNERS, 26 NOMINEES collection issued earlier this year. It all truly made me salivate for more!! There are HAPPY HARMONIES cartoons floating around out there as special features on various movie packs, including the recently released CLASSIC MUSICALS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY, VOL. 3 set, but these are not restored--just included. So the full and complete overhaul of the MGM classic cartoon has a long, long way to go before we can truly say that MGM cartoons are widely available as beautiful restorations with all kinds of background, etc.

It still is, however, the vast Warner Brothers classic cartoons library that I always hope keeps seeing the light of day: both as extras on movies and, most importantly, on the forthcoming sets of LOONEY TUNES cartoons. We animation fans have “won the day"--or have “taken back the night"--regarding these films in many ways, since the GOLDEN COLLECTION volumes are now looking at these films from an adult perspective, with all kinds of extras that show that the animators of these films were not aiming the stuff primarily at kids!!

So Happy Anniversary, Warner Brothers, and wear your badge proudly! I hope that the whole LOONEY TUNES rollout doesn’t reach its end real soon. It is at its high point now, and we’re starting to see the exhausting of all those titles that end up on these collections over and over again. This means that there are going to be titles that may see their first time on any video format--and isn’t that what all this hoopla is all about? I know that I can’t just stick to one decade for favorites, although I do hope that more attention is paid to the 1930’s and the exhaustive search for restorible elements to the titles as we’ve seen these far too many times as “blue ribbon” prints, often meaning that there will unfortunately be times when original title cards cannot even be simulated. As bland as some might think the character of Bosko to be, or Buddy (his successor, after Harman & Ising took Bosko to MGM) they have not really been represented in the main programs of the GOLDEN COLLECTION sets. The history seems to “begin” with the earliest incarnation of PORKY PIG.

That’s fine, but there were some elaborate entries in the BUDDY series that should be given a new lease on life since they were inspired by those afore-mentioned lavish musicals that came from the mind of Busby Berkeley. Although you cannot call them “production numbers” exactly, it seemed as if every BUDDY cartoon had its musical number, and these also spun off into the MERRIE MELODIES series that were almost entirely musicals up to the early 1940’s.

So it is my eternal hope that some of this great stuff, like “BUDDY’S BEER GARDEN”, “BUDDY’S THEATER”, “BUDDY’S BEAR CATS”, “BUDDY’S ADVENTURES”, “BUDDY OF THE APES” or surreal moments like “BUDDY’S BUG HUNT” (an elusive cartoon if ever there was one), or some of the MERRIE MELODIES of the period like “HOW DO I KNOW IT’S SUNDAY?”, “WHY DO I DREAM THESE DREAMS?”, “RHYTHM IN THE BOWL”, “THE GIRL AT THE IRONING BOARD”, “SITTIN’ ON A BACKYARD FENCE” and so many others--notable because of their interesting musical numbers inspired by Warners-owned pop tunes of the age--are finally given the chance to shine, shine, shine in the last real hoorah around the cartoon studio’s terrific run of success!!

Let’s all hope for the best and Warner Brothers Entertainment should be wearing all this stuff proudly to the point where *NONE* of it should any longer be in the public domain. Fully restored, these shorts are far more interesting, because you can see and hear things that were missed upon seeing it through all that dust of age from the prints of some of these that have been circulating out there for too long from other sources.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Happy Memorial Day

Like everyone else here in the good old U. S. of A., Kevin and I are taking Memorial Day off. I'll be back tomorrow with another installment of "Toons In Swing Time," this time highlighting Milt Gross and his lunatic JITTERBUG FOLLIES. See you folks then, and I hope you have a wonderful day.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Eyes A-Poppin'

By Kevin Wollenweber

I just read, with glee, the latest post in Thad Komorowski’s THADBLOG, about his locating, in a student library, the first book of complete filmography and individual shorts examinations of LOONEY TUNES and MERRY MELODIES, from Scarecrow Press, called, what else, THE WARNER BROTHERS CARTOONS. In fact, I own both copies of the book, and my hard cover copy is pretty worn out because I had to use a screen-reading device that had to scan the pages and read them back to me. So, I had to push the book flat upon the device unfortunately. But the work it took to read each page was worthwhile, because, yes, that true fan enthusiasm comes out in a book like this. I really wish that Warner Brothers would allow Jerry Beck to be Jerry Beck and let him talk about things like, well, what he originally *THOUGHT* Bosko was saying to the audience when pointing out the villain in “BOSKO’S PICTURE SHOW”. I, personally, don’t doubt that Bosko’s creator, Hugh Harmon, was without this kind of sly humor when it came to cartoons, having said that he would rather do more with the art of animation than make commercials or little stories about fuzzy, cute little characters, not that there’s something entirely wrong with that, mind you. I will always enjoy the HAPPY HARMONIES, primarily because of the curious and amazing amount of detail in films that seemed almost to have a bottomless budget.

Originally, I had always thought that the books, WARNER BROTHERS CARTOONS (from Scarecrow Press) or the one later given the blessing of the studio, LOONEY TUNES AND MERRY MELODIES, were supposed to be critiques of the cartoons and, so, could be as biting as they wanted to be. Although I understand why the viewpoints had to be softened for the second book (and I ultimately applaud this, because now we have Jerry Beck and company creating some of the best DVD compilations of these wonderful cartoons), I miss the sense of humor inherent in books like the Scarecrow Press book which really does show a real sense of wonder and delight in these cartoons. There are times I remember even disagreeing with the overall viewpoint to a cartoon or two since I’m not always quite as cynical at times, but that is the process of criticism, the ability to get one’s point across and even stun the reader. Certainly, that review of “BOSKO’S PICTURE SHOW”, I believe, has made this short a minor classic! Only those who knew Hugh Harmon could tell me whether or not Hugh, himself, would have been appalled to hear that anyone thought that a four-letter expletive was used prominently in a scene in one of his cartoons, but for now, I’m with the writer of that particular plot synopsis as he excitedly wonders just how far the animator was willing to break the common rules to astound his audience into wondering “what did he say?”

Animation was really no different in those days from the live action films, except that live action pre-Code full-length motion pictures were sometimes trying to tackle taboo subjects that needed to be discussed instead of just feared, about political theories that were shunned merely because folks had sometimes false interpretations of them or false interpretations of the times in which *ALL* people were living, no matter what the race and creed, while cartoons were just being…cartoons, with all the barnyard or outhouse humor that one would think would be there, almost the kind of humor omnipresent in “underground” cartoons of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that were circulated in alternative publications. That kind of humor was hinted at and sometimes realized in pre-Code cartoons. After all, as far as I know, cartoons were not yet used as kids-only entertainment, even though they did all somehow get ignorantly shunted over to Saturday mornings on television. Most of us got our first glimpse of BETTY BOOP on afternoon TV, if we were able to get to our sets around noontime to catch the half hour of Fleischer cartoons!

But at least some of us can still consult the Scarecrow Press edition of THE WARNER BROTHERS CARTOONS to read all the criticisms therein from folks who watched these cartoons for pleasure.

So what could be wrong with this book that is right with the second attempt, the LOONEY TUNES AND MERRY MELODIES book? Well, the first book is full of many inaccuracies, too numerous for me to mention here and I’ll leave this up to others of you who might respond to this with more detail. Since the second book was done with the blessing and assistance of those at Warner Brothers, yes, the spikier viewpoints had to be excised in favor of friendlier speech so that this would be more a celebration of what the studio has done with the art of animation. Yeah (sigh), we fans know that the Warner Brothers cartoons were done with adults in mind, that Warner Brothers cartoons especially were not fond of doing those cute and cuddly characters and keeping to a cloying formula. They were not Walt Disney and couldn’t conceive of creating theme parks with the LOONEY TUNES characters walking around and greeting customers; and, so, the first book, THE WARNER BROTHERS CARTOONS, was more a celebration of this fact and not trying to denegrade the Warner Brothers trademark for their production. It was a keen and clear-headed overview of each and every title in the library or in those vaults and what they meant to us former kids and what they eventually came to mean as we grew up and re-examined the cartoons years later into our adult lives.

. The animators would have been happy enough becoming acknowledged as bona fied filmmakers of the stature of any one of the major motion picture directors of the day. They truly were pioneers and we, now, realize this far too late, but as I’ve said so many times, the problem here is that you’re battling decades of marketing and manufacturing products with these cute little LOONEY characters all over them. Never will you see T-shirts with that pink “naked” Tweetie Pie on it with that funny, wide-eyed expression on his face as he utters the key line: “Ooh, de poor puddy tat. He faw down, go *BOOM*!”

Even as kids, we liked these cartoons because they were violent, and they weren’t afraid to go over the top with that violence. The unabashed humor of these cartoons were what made it easy for the military to adopt them as “mascots” for the war effort. They were equal opportunity offenders and were not afraid to poke fun at just about anything, including military life. The same goes with the Fleischer Studios and, well, any studio that wasn’t Walt Disney Productions, whose characters seemed so out of place in wartime cartoons, save of course for DONALD DUCK who had some of the best of these shorts. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, among others, humanized animal instincts and were seen as protective of their domains, and isn’t that partially what the American experience is all about? Just about every character showed this genuine impression of Americana and, while doing this, also poked merciless fun at the over-the-top bravado of wartime propaganda, so, people of all ages could embrace what they were about so much easier than those of Disney. Oh, I don’t say that Disney films didn’t grab me and take me to that other place with equal amusement, but Warner Brothers cartoons made it all so funny! Somehow, you would so easily get offended if Disney characters attempted to act, in any way, like those brassier characters at Warner Brothers. Caricatures and stereotypes would really seem insensitive if it came from the kitchi-koo cute characters of a Disney cartoon, but LOONEY TUNES and MERRY MELODIES were always poking light fun at accepted norms and, so, you had to know that there were no boundaries when it came to the gag content in any of these cartoons, not that there weren’t attempts to tell some kind of story or convey a view of life from a creature smaller than adult-sized humans. Yet these were cartoons, and the creators made no bones about telling us this through the bizarre gags of a Tex Avery or Bob Clampett cartoon or those rare Chuck Jones cartoons that took jabs at the art form itself, like “DUCK AMUCK”. It was their job to be funny, and they did so for at least three decades with varying results.

Kevin Wollenweber