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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.


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