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"What's New" Archives: February 2013


February 27, 2013:

To the Lobby with Dave Fleischer

Treats for Animation History Buffs


February 26, 2013:

Filming Third Man on the Mountain


February 20, 2013:

What I've Been Doing


February 27, 2013:

Filmack ad

To the Lobby with Dave Fleischer

You may have heard that Dave Fleischer worked on the famous "Let's All Go to the Lobby" trailer, which was added to the National Film Registry in 2000. Thanks to John Owens of the Chicago Tribune, here's proof: a couple of ads from the early 1950s, from the Filmack Trailer Co.'s trade magazine Inspiration, that use Dave's involvement as a selling point. Filmack, a Chicago-based company, has an interesting history extending back almost a century. John Owens has written about Filmack's story for the Tribune; you can read his article at this link.

As John writes, "The artists who worked on these films are, for the most part, unknown"—with the obvious exception, of course, of Dave Fleischer. John continues with appropriate caution: "It's been said that Walt Disney may have worked in a freelance capacity for Filmack in the early 1920s, but that hasn't been determined." Probably Walt's early involvement with Kansas City Film Ad, a company making similar trailers, led to someone's associating him with Filmack. It is unlikely, to say the least, that Walt ever had anything to do with Filmack.

It's remarkable how many odd stories have sprung up depositing Walt in jobs he never held or in towns he never visited. My favorite recent example is an email I received from a lady in Pecos, Texas, who wrote as follows. I've altered her message to conceal identities:

In your research of Walt Disney did you discover the relationship he had with C-- C-- (her married name)? I understand the two were friends in high school in either Kansas or Missouri. In the 1960s Mr. Disney would come to Pecos, Texas, to visit Mrs. C--. It was said they had been high school sweethearts. I met him once at her home when playing with my cousin, her grandaughter. Although I did not know he was an important man and there was no fuss about his visit I've always remembered him playing with us and my new "Susie Homemaker Oven." I sat in his lap and fed him cake. It was while talking about that event with M-- C-- that I was told he was very fond of Mrs. C--. I understand he visited her many times there in Pecos. I am sure this is [an] occasion Mrs. Disney would have been uncomfortable with but I am sure it was all harmless.

All harmless, I'm sure, as far as the real Walt Disney was concerned, since I don't think he ever set foot in Pecos, much less made multiple visits there. (If you doubt me, find Pecos on the map.) As for the cake-eating "Walt," perhaps he had good reason to conceal his real identity and the nature of his relationship with his "high school sweetheart." Maybe his wife would have been "uncomfortable"?

Filmack trailer

Treats for Animation History Buffs

When I wrote Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, I made no reference to any number of well-known cartoons, including Cat Concerto (Hanna and Barbera, MGM), Rhapsody Rabbit (Freleng, Warner Bros.), and Walky Talky Hawky and Crowing Pains (both McKimson, Warner Bros.). Not because there wasn't anything worth saying about those cartoons, but because I didn't have enough pages to say what I wanted to say, about those cartoons and many others. And just as well, perhaps, because if I had written about those four cartoons I might be posting corrections and clarifications now, thanks to the new information that some diligent researchers have just revealed.

Jose Iturbi and MGM lionThad Komorowski has posted an exceptional examination of how Cat Concerto and Rhapsody Rabbit, two remarkably similar cartoons, happened to go head to head at the Academy Awards for 1946. Keith Scott, the great expert on cartoon voices, has written an equally impressive account of just how Foghorn Leghorn got his distinctive voice. Thad wrote his piece for his own blog, with input from Keith Scott, David Gerstein, and Kurtis Findlay, but both of these wonderful essays have been posted on Jerry Beck's revived Cartoon Research site. There are nits that could be picked—I'm sure Thad has Irv Spence and Dick Bickenbach returning to MGM later than they actually did—but no serious flaws that I've detected.

As Thad makes clear, it was probably coincidental that Rhapsody Rabbit and Cat Concerto were in production simultaneously. It may seem odd that cartoon makers at MGM and Warners (and Lantz, where Dick Lundy directed Musical Moments from Chopin around the same time) should have hit upon the idea of presenting their characters as concert pianists, but it really wasn 't. For one thing, the mid-1940s were the heyday on film of the Spanish pianist José Iturbi, who was so well known that he was one of the first guest stars on Amos 'n Andy when that radio show returned to the air in the fall of 1943, after a hiatus of more than six months. Iturbi was an MGM star, and he appeared in two movies that also included animation by Hanna and Barbera: Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Holiday in Mexico (1946). That's Iturbi in the 1940 publicity photo at left, with the MGM lion, from the website of the José Iturbi Foundation ("Popularizing Classical Music...One Note at a Time!").

What's truly odd is that directors at both Warners and MGM thought it was a good idea to shove their leading characters onto the concert stage. Rhapsody Rabbit has always seemed especially problematic in that regard, since it presents Bugs as an overbearing bully, at war with a much smaller and weaker creature. If audiences thought that Warners was copying MGM, that surely was true in part because Bugs in Rhapsody Rabbit is much more like Tom Cat than he is like the Bugs of, say, Hare Trigger (1945), coolly confronting a blustering, stupid but still dangerous adversary, Yosemite Sam.


From Kevin Hogan: Thanks for linking to Thad’s essay. I’m glad he did this, as I always suspected (assumed?) that Rhapsody Rabbit was a rip-off of Cat Concerto. I was aware that they were in production around the same time, but Bugs seems so out of character in his cartoon that the cartoon felt like it started in someone else’s mind. The idea of a frustrating performance on piano is not strange for Friz to utilize, as he loved musical cartoons. But the Bugs that usually delights in musical chaos was suspiciously absent in the cartoon.

From Don Benson: Very early on, Just Mickey had the mouse alone onstage with a violin. It's not a classic and it felt like a bit of a stunt: Disney and/or some animators trying to prove their character was persuasive enough to literally hold the stage like a real-life star comedian. I think the two piano shorts fall in the same category.

They can be taken as parodies of real-life performers—usually comic—who make forays into "fine art" (an ambition already kidded in A Car-Tune Portrait). At the same time, they actually are trying to elevate their funny animals, at least in the eyes of non-animation peers. That these were positioned as "Oscar bait" is revealing.

It's not just a matter of the upscale trimmings, although that helps. It's using the limitations of the setting (a stage and the inside of a piano) and story (one wants to perform, the other wants to stop him, all in real time) to call attention to what the animators are achieving. People who didn't quite grasp how cartoons were doing this level of work all the time would be impressed.

Yes, there are plenty of cartoons with only two characters onscreen; there are even several with just one (Donald Duck changes a tire). But the concert setting calls attention to these and other limitations, the way a one-man theatrical performance calls attention to the actor's virtuosity (where the same performance in a naturalistic play would, correctly, take second place to character and story). In modern terms, it's a portfolio piece.

In that light, it's even less surprising that two different teams stumbled onto the piano story.

[Posted February 28, 2013]

From Jacob Zaborowski: I have to say that I've personally always found Rhapsody Rabbit, regardless of the divergent take on Bugs' personality, vastly superior to Cat Concerto. I've often found Freleng's timing in that cartoon to be superior to that of Hanna-Barbera. Tom and Jerry has always had something of the feeling of existing in a vacuum. I guess one could give Freleng credit for trying to do something different with Bugs' character.

And I know this isn't exactly related to either cartoon, but I always thought, however great, What's Opera, Doc? could have benefited from more astute visual/musical synchronization, which of course was Freleng's turf. I always wondered how itwould have turned out had he directed it.

[Posted March 1, 2013]

From Michael Sporn: I once posted a photo puff-piece from Gene Byrnes’s book, The Complete Guide to Cartooning. This undoubtedly was designed to help Cat Concerto win the Oscar, though I wonder if it helped at all. I will post it again to try to tie in with this article, and Thad’s great piece, and Jerry’s.

I have never liked Tom and Jerry though I’m sure I saw all those films done by Hanna & Barbera. The violence in them is repulsive. The Warner cartoons were every bit as violent, but they knew how to do it at WB. You make a wonderful point of discussing this in your book, Hollywood Cartoons.

Only lately in watching, again, many of the T&J cartoons, rerun on Boomerang, do I see the inferiority of the artwork, particularly the backgrounds, in the MGM shorts. There were great designers and painters at WB. I’m even more disappointed in the MGM T&J cartoons. Yet, because of my childhood attachment to the animation pages of the book I posted, I can find the images of Tom at the piano an inspiration. Somehow I doubt it was Freleng doing the cheating, if any were done. I suspect it was all coincidental.

MB replies: Here's a link to that 2009 post from the Gene Byrnes book that Michael mentions. I agree with him completely on the merits of the Warner cartoons versus the MGM cartoons, as a body of work. There was, for instance, never a background painter at MGM who measured up to Paul Julian on the Freleng cartoons.

[Posted March 3, 2013]

From Thad Komorowski: I guess I'll chime in to agree that, yes, the Warner cartoons are, overall, superior to the MGM cartoons, although I do find it hard to take any case made against the oeuvre of Tex Avery seriously. Perhaps that's why most people, including those who were there, tend to think of the Avery and Hanna-Barbera units as two separate studios. When watching those things either fully restored or on the big screen, it's night and day, even when taking the differences in themes and content into account. In general, the T&Js' Bob Gentle backgrounds tend to be merely serviceable and Scott Bradley's music dominates the pictures more than the directors or animators. Whereas the Avery cartoons, especially the best ones, click in every way possible.

No, there was no painter at MGM on the level of Paul Julian, but then again, there were few cartoon painters anywhere who were (even at Warners or UPA). I do think that John Didrik Johnsen (who of course worked with Avery at both Schlesinger's and MGM) was first-rate all the way and easily in the highest class of background artists. Of course, all of this humorously brings to mind what one of my animation mentors once fumed to me about, when discussing how much difference a background artist made: "I can animate a cartoon with zero backgrounds and people will still love it. If he did a cartoon with nothing but backgrounds, would anyone watch it?"

[Posted March 4, 2013]

From Vincent Alexander: I agree with Thad in regards to Tex Avery. His work at MGM in the 1940s and early ‘50s is as good as anything done at Warner Bros., and that’s not a claim I would make about any other animation director. He really got his timing down to a point where he could sell any gag he wanted to and, for at least a decade, he maintained a pretty consistent level of brilliance. His cartoons with a strong central theme are the standouts (King-Size Canary, Bad Luck Blackie, Little Rural Riding Hood), but even shorts that would’ve been par-for-the-course in any other director’s hands, like Lucky Ducky or Cock-a-Doodle Dog, are filled to the brim with outrageously hilarious gags.

As for the Tom and Jerrys, there’s no doubt that they are inferior to both the Warner Bros. cartoons and Tex Avery’s MGM shorts. If the Warner cartoons are the animated equivalents of the Marx Brothers, then Tom and Jerry are more along the lines of the Three Stooges. The Marx Brothers were extremely witty in their use of both visual and verbal humor, and much of the comedy comes from the well-established personalities of the characters. With the Three Stooges, the extreme violence is pretty much the joke. But I don’t think that makes the Three Stooges or Tom and Jerry bad. That kind of slapstick takes a lot of talent to pull off: the timing, again, has to be really snappy, and the impact has to be appropriately extreme (Hanna and Barbera got really good at having Tom slam into walls with his teeth clenched). And, of course, there has to be an endless supply of creative ways for the characters to hurt each other or else it becomes too repetitious.

The Tom and Jerry cartoons were very imaginative in that regard throughout the 1940s, but by the ‘50s, the cartoons became much too streamlined and consistent. The timing was too even and the energy of the animation got sapped out to the point where the characters had a handful of expressions they constantly recycled. Not to mention that Hanna and Barbera ironed out some of the randomness that made the early Tom and Jerrys funny, particularly the inconsistent use of voices (think Tom’s French accent in The Zoot Cat and Solid Symphony, or the dumb-guy voice Tom uses when demanding a custard pie in Quiet Please!). Tom and Jerry were never nearly as funny as the Road Runner, or even Tweety & Sylvester, but they definitely had their own set of pleasures in their 1940s peak. (And the backgrounds may be pretty pedestrian, but a handful of the cartoons—notably Mouse in Manhattan—are pretty effectively atmospheric).

[Posted March 5, 2013]

February 26, 2013:

Filming Third Man on the Mountain

I've written here more than once about the beautiful Swiss town of Zermatt, where Walt Disney found inspiration for Disneyland's Matterhorn and filmed one of his very best live-action films, Third Man on the Mountain. Now a Swiss visitor to the site has shared with me some photos he and his family took during the filming of Third Man in July 1958. You can see them by going to this Essay page. [An April 6, 2013, update: I've added correct identifications of the people in one of the photos.]


From Thad Komorowski: What a lovely surprise to see those wonderful photos from my favorite live-action Disney feature. That film's cinematography is one of the most underrated uses of the Technicolor dye-transfer process. Even if they tried remaking it today, there's no way they'd come close to achieving those rich, cool, saturated results (which, sadly, the current DVD transfer does not reflect). I hope, though, that the story about those poor drowning horses doesn't inspire some stupid rumor about Walt intentionally harming animals in his productions. Thank you, Mike and Werner, for sharing this intriguing look behind the scenes.

MB replies: Even from the DVD, it's possible to sense what a beautiful film this was in the original 35mm Technicolor. It deserves careful restoration and Blu-ray release, but as to whether that will ever happen...I'm not at all hopeful.

[Posted February 27, 2013]

From Michael Sporn: I remember seeing Third Man on the Mountain for the first time. So often I went to the local theater when a Disney animated feature premiered. (It really wasn't a premiere because they were rolling out their films every seven years for a new audience like me to see them.) Always they played with another film, which I usually didn't want to see.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs played at the "Alpine Theater" in upper Manhattan with Third Man as the second feature. For me (and usually I would force my younger sister) to sit through Snow White for two screenings; it meant having to sit through the dud live action movie all the way.

Whatta ya know! Third Man on the Mountain was really good and exciting as well. I enjoyed seeing it, and got to see it again before that particular run completed. I remember the admission price for children was 25 cents at the time, and my mother gladly gave me the money to get me out of her hair. The double bill was a good bargain, and the film still stands out for me. I've seen it again as an adult and still rather enjoy it. James MacArthur wasn't the greatest actor, but this was his finest film, if you ask me. (Of course he was the son of Charles MacArthur, the excellent screenwriter, and was adopted by his wife, Helen Hayes, after they married.)

It was great fun seeing these photos of Zermatt.

MB replies: My own somewhat similar memory relates to Three Little Pigs, which Disney for some reason re-released with considerable fanfare as part of a bill with one of the first post-Walt live-action features. The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, I think it was. I was by that time avoiding live-action Disney features by reflex—my patience had run out with The Gnome-mobile—so I timed my visit to theater so that I could see the cartoon, then leave without seeing the feature. Sitting through the feature to see the cartoon again was too high a price to pay.

[Posted March 7, 2013]

February 20, 2013:

Oskar Lebeck and staff

Oskar Lebeck (seated), with four of the cartoonists who wrote and illustrated Dell comic books for him. From left: Mel Crawford, Dan Noonan, John Stanley, and Dan Gormley.

What I've Been Doing

I've been a long time away from this site, thanks to my book on comic books, Funnybooks. I submitted a semi-final draft to the publisher, University of California Press, yesterday, and I'll consider the book finished after a few more months of reviewing and re-reviewing source material, choosing illustrations, and so forth. It's turning out well, I think, although I'm sure I'll get a lot of flak from those people who know that Tony Strobl was a much better cartoonist than Carl Barks, that the Archie comic books far surpassed Little Lulu, and so on. As I keep reminding myself, you can't please everybody, and sometimes you can't please anybody.

Speaking of the illustrations: The photo above, of Oskar Lebeck with some of the cartoonists whose work appeared in the Dell comic books he edited, was published in the program book for the 1976 NewCon comics convention at Boston. This was the fabulous convention at which Barks, John Stanley, and Harvey Kurtzman were guests, along with other luminaries. I missed it, for what seemed like good reasons at the time, and I've been kicking myself ever since. The photo must have been taken around 1950, not long before Lebeck left his job with Western Printing & Lithographing, and my best guess is that it was intended to illustrate an article about Western's New York-based comic-book operation in the company's house organ, The Westerner. An article about Western's Los Angeles office appeared in an early issue of The Westerner, but no companion article about the New York office was ever published, maybe because Lebeck left the company in 1951 and his successor died within a few months.

I've hoped to use the photo in Funnybooks, but at this point I have no idea where to find an original print or a high-resolution scan from one. I thought the photo might have come from John Stanley's family, since it illustrates an article about Stanley, but that was not the case, and I have no idea how to get in touch with Don Phelps, the convention's presiding genius and author of the Stanley article. I can use a descreened scan—that's what you see above—but that would be a last resort. So I'd welcome any suggestions.

I have a backlog of material that I hope to have posted in a few more days, including some by very patient visitors to the site who have shared their finds with me. In the meantime, there is of course lots of other good animation- and comics-related stuff on the Web, posted by people whose productivity shames me. Michael Sporn, for one, has something new and stimulating up every day, including, recently, a fresh look at my own Hollywood Cartoons. Believe me, it's very flattering to have people like Michael and Thad Komorowski and Bill Benzon returning to my book and finding more food for thought in it. I hope I eventually have the opportunity to revise that book and take another long look at Bill Tytla's animation, in particular, although that may be hoping for too much.