That M-G-M cartoon, produced by Rudolf Ising, was the first non-Disney cartoon to win an Academy Award, as the best cartoon of 1940. That was not as much of an honor as it might first seem, since Disney chose not to enter any shorts in the Oscar competition that year, but there's no question that Ising's color cartoons, first at the studio he co-owned with Hugh Harman and then at M-G-M itself, after he became a staff producer, were the most Disney-like of all the cartoons that competed with the Silly Symphonies.
The Milky Way is a particularly sweet and charming example of the kind of cartoon that Rudy Ising enjoyed making. It's not the kind of cartoon that's in fashion today, to put it mildly, but it's much more straightforward than many recent cartoons. In particular, spectacle is integral to the story, not an excuse to ignore it.
Bob Allen designed the characters and drew the character layouts, as he did for many of Rudy's cartoons, and Rudy's draft shows that the cartoon was animated by a Who's Who of Golden Age names: George Gordon, Mike Lah, Ray Abrams, Pete Burness, and Carl Urbano, among others.
As I mentioned a few months ago, at one point I was having M-G-M artwork photographed—Milt Gray did a lot of the legwork—in hopes of putting together an M-G-M art book; this was at a time when I was under contract to produce a Warner Bros. art book that ultimately fell victim to the publisher's cold feet. A lot of my M-G-M transparencies were subsequently lost when another publisher, after sitting on my M-G-M proposal for months, threw my materials in the trash during a move to new offices. Fortunately, I had so much material copied that a fair amount still survives in my files. Here are four story sketches for The Milky Way, all from the collection of Rudy Ising, and all most likely by Maurice "Jake" Day.
And here's the cartoon itself:
From Michael Sporn: Thanks for sharing some of your M-G-M transparencies on your site today. I remember many years ago, when I spent a weekend at your Alexandria home, you kept me occupied—you and Phyllis had some chores to do—by showing me the drawer full of transparencies. As a Harman-Ising fan, I was bowled over, my breath completely taken away. Those scans were incredible and beautiful. I'm so pleased that they're still preserved, a record of some stunning artwork. (Also some not-so-stunning.)
I waited in silence hoping some day you'd post them on line. Today you have. They still look gorgeous but not as great as they did in the original transparencies that I held in my hand. I wish that book—and the WB book—had been published; you had so much to say, and it still hasn't been made public.
You win for the best animation post of the day. In conjunction with the Phil Monroe interview you recently shared with us, you've won for" best blog of the month of June."
[Posted July 1, 2012]
From Mark Sonntag: It's funny you should post these, I watched this short last week as an extra feature on a Marx Brothers DVD. It's a sweet little film, though I have a soft spot for Barney Bear. In fact last year I had a chance to storyboard a scene with Barney in an upcoming Tom and Jerry direct to video and used the early '40s model as my guide.
It's a shame that Harman and Ising have been relegated to posterity as having started the studios which spawned greater things than for their films. Like Michael Sporn, I really like a lot of their work. I agree that from a gag and character development point of view they could have been better, but many are still quite entertaining, much better for kids than some of the stuff being offered which does nothing but talk down to them. And some look like they had a lot of money invested in them.
Hopefully Warner will give us a set of their film soon. Thanks for the post.
[Posted July 3, 2012]
From Merlin Haas: Thanks for posting the art and comments on The Milky Way cartoon. I imagine this was very impressive on the big screen and the
color is gorgeous. The gags are mild, though I did laugh out loud at
the "Evaporated Milk" one, which caught me off-guard. The kitten
with the rumbling stomach reminds me of the chicken and the
earthquake pill from Porky the Rainmaker (1936), I wonder if there
was any connection?
I note that Ising had two of the three Oscar nominees that
year (the other being Puss Gets the Boot). Trying to figure out
why there's only three nominees in 1940 and nine in 1941...
[Posted July 6, 2012]
June 25, 2012:
Walt Kelly in Hard Covers
I've posted a review of the beautifully illustrated new book Walt Kelly: The Life and Art of the Creator of Pogo by Thomas Andrae and Carsten Laqua. You can find my review at this link.
Speaking of Kelly, and following up on my June 12 post: Mark Kausler has generously lent me the issues of the Fort Mudge Most that I didn't already have, and I'm now reading them and copying selected pages.
I'm reading the Most as part of the research for my next book, on comic books. I originally envisioned that book as a survey of mid-century comic books, with the emphasis on the Dell/Western Printing titles, but it has been metamorphosing into a full-scale history of those two companies and their comic books. The Dell/Western titles were so distinct, and the publishing companies themselves so different from their competitors, that trying to encompass everything in one book began to seem more and more like a questionable idea, especially since the best Dell/Western titles were so much better than almost any other comic books being published at the same time. Whether my publisher will agree with my change in focus is an open question, but I'll take my chances.
That is of course Walt Kelly himself above, in a photo (not from the new book) taken in 1952 at a football game during Pogo's first campaign for president. That's Pogo on the left, I guess, and maybe Pogo as Kelly's Little Orphan Annie parody on the right.
From Steve Winer: The Orphan Annie costume, I presume, is a nod to the strips in which Pogo and Beauregard dressed up as Li'l Arf 'n' Nonnie—in which they mused on the difficulties and dangers involved in "blunk"ing out your eyeballs.
One might quibble about whether the politics dragged Pogo down. Personally, I find the late Spiro Agnew story culminating in the "I'm lonely" strip to be great stuff. However, I think you're being unfair to sixties Pogo generally. The trip to Prehysteria was beautifully drawn and brilliantly written—at least until, yes, the Lyndon Johnson centaur walked in. And there was plenty of great material with the regular characters, plus the addition of Mr. Miggle and his store full of funny signs (a tip of the hat, perhaps, to the George Swanson/C.D. Small strip "Salesman Sam".)
Otherwise, a fine review and analysis of a beautiful book, with all its flaws.
[Posted July 1, 2012]
June 12, 2012:
When I moved to a new computer in 2010, I lost DreamFeeder, the program for my RSS feed. Since I'd never been happy with it, I decided to live without it. I've since concluded that was a mistake—especially since I post so erratically—and I've installed the latest version of DreamFeeder. Either the program is vastly improved or I'm using it properly for the first time. In any case, I have an RSS feed again.
Fort Mudge Most Request
In reviewing my trove of Walt Kelly material as I work on my next book, about comic books, I've been reminded that I never got around to completing my run of the Kelly fan magazine called The Fort Mudge Most. I started subscribing only with No. 33—I somehow managed not to know about the Most until it had been published for years—and I repeatedly put off buying the back issues, probably because of the cost. Back issues are supposedly still available through the Web, but as a practical matter that seems not to be the case. So, I'd love to borrow/rent issues 1-32, entirely at my expense, for photocopying of the relevant material. I'll be happy to pay a reasonable rental, or I can offer as a token of my appreciation a brand-new sealed set of the recently released UPA DVDs. Or both. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 7, 2012:
Interviews: Phil Monroe (1976)
The Chuck Jones unit around March 1950, with the 1949 Oscars for For Scent-imental Reasons (which Jones directed) and So Much for So Little (which Jones co-directed with Friz Freleng). Standing, from left: Phil De Guard, Lloyd Vaughan, Madilyn Wood, Paul Julian, Roy Laufenberger, Abe Levitow, Chuck Jones, Robert Gribbroek, Mike Maltese, Keith Darling, Marilyn Wood, Ken Harris, and Ben Washam. Kneeling, from left: Pete Alvarado, Dick Thompson, and Phil Monroe. Julian had been Jones's background painter earlier, but at the time of this photo he was in Freleng's unit; when I asked Jones in 1979 why Julian was in the photo, he had no idea. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Wood Roosevelt. A June 9, 2012, update: Amid Amidi has suggested that Julian was included because he painted some of the backgrounds for So Much for So Little, and he's undoubtedly correct: Julian shares screen credit for layouts and backgrounds with Alvarado and Gribbroek. Another correction: Jones received screen credit as the sole director. He told me in 1986, though, that he and Freleng wrote So Much for So Little together on a return train trip from Washington, D.C.; they had gone there to gather information for the cartoon, which was funded by the federal government. There's no screen credit for story. So Much for So Little is available on DVD in Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2.
Phil Monroe animated for Chuck Jones on his Warner Bros. cartoons before and after World War II, and he worked for Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin, too. Not to mention Frank Thomas and John Hubley at the First Motion Picture Unit during the war, and Bill Hurtz at UPA after he left Warner Bros. Milt Gray and I talked with him about those directors and other animation luminaries when we interviewed him at his office in Hollywood in October 1976. I've posted the transcript of that interview, and I expect to post a second Monroe interview soon, one I recorded at Phil's home in 1987 and that picks up a number of loose ends in the 1976 interview.
I scanned this interview from a typescript and then spent roughly twenty hours massaging it into publishable shape. I don't think I'll be doing anything like that again, at least not soon. Fortunately, the 1987 interview exists as a digital file that I know will require a lot less time.
From Thad Komorowski: The Phil Monroe interview was excellent, of course. I'm not surprised Monroe felt he learned the most from Chuck Jones. His animation has a particularly "Jonesy" look to it, even under the other directors. (Monroe animated the scene with the wolf disguised as a homeless woman in Friz Freleng's Pigs in a Polka, and Porky cracking Daffy's neck towards the hotel manager in Frank Tashlin's Porky Pig's Feat.) Some readers may be interested to know that Monroe, like all of Jones's animators, did indeed get some plum acting scenes in his time there. Most notably Charlie Dog and Porky's "labrador" exchange in Often an Orphan and Bugs and Daffy
disguised as each other in Rabbit Fire.
I'm surprised by Monroe's claim that Freleng was without a layout artist while he animated for him in the '40s. I was always under the impression Owen Fitzgerald was doing layouts for Freleng for a long time before Hawley Pratt became second-in-command in the Freleng unit. I know, because you told me, that Fitzgerald half-finished Life with Feathers before leaving, but when did he start?
MB replies: Owen Fitzgerald definitely preceded Pratt as Freleng's layout man, and Owen believed that he started working for Friz early in 1942 and entered the army in 1943; he said Don Towsley preceded him as Freleng's layout man.
I've realized, in working with the Monroe interview, that the chronology of Phil's assignments with different directors was more complicated than he thought, and that, in particular, he evidently forgot that he animated twice for Tashlin, once in the 1930s and then again in the early 1940s, when he got a screen credit on Porky Pig's Feat. To clarify matters, I've reinstated a few words Phil deleted and added a bracketed note; to see what I've changed, click on this link.
From Steven Hartley: Thanks for posting the Phil Monroe interview. It arrived in my opinion as a coincidence as I heard your extract from Hillbilly Hare a few days ago and I'm glad to see the full interview in my eyes. This is probably one of the more interesting interviews from the Warner animators I've read. I was often interested on how he managed to become an animator at a young age of 19; and in my opinion he's one of my favourite animators at Warner Bros.
He was in fact; floating around the units in 1943 but mostly working for Friz and then for Bob Clampett; as he explained himself. I never knew Frank Thomas offered him a place over at Disney; but I knew that Frank offered Rudy Larriva a place at Disney; and according to Greg Duffell, Chuck was very bitter at Rudy leaving and apparently refused to contact him again since Chuck said his favourite animator was Larriva. At least we got to know a scene from an early Jones (which are hard to identify) which would be Sniffles waltzing. I believe that Ken Harris, Bobe Cannon, and Rudy Larriva would've animated on that too. I love how Monroe described Scribner as "loose as a goose" whilst talking about Clampett; and appears to be praising him as a great animator; while there are often rumours of him being described as a lunatic.
Now I know the reason why Phil left Warner Bros. in 1950 to go to UPA as he wanted the chance to direct; but when arriving at UPA he was still animating but probably had more chance over there than Warners since only three units were allowed (McKimson, Jones, Freleng). His last cartoon credit was on Beep Beep in 1952 but the cartoons with Phil's last credit would've been backlogged about a year before being released.
From Chase Pritchard: Thank you ever so much for posting Phil's interview, and you bet that I'm looking forward to the '87 interview! It feels so good to get a few loose ends I had about some of the guys out there—I've always wanted to know on how Phil became a director in the '60s, and I had a feeling Jack King's priorities weren't towards characterization (I know Thad, Kausler, and others thought that), so it's great to get confirmation from someone who worked with him.
MB replies: Thanks to Chase for spotting a number of typos in the posted interview, which I've now corrected.