Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Vulcan Entertains: Willie Whopper

Note: This review is for the DVD version of Willie Whopper

Thunderbean and Steve Stanchfield should be familiar names if you visit this blog. Steve started reissuing cartoons on VHS way back in the 80's during the era of the 'Whole Toon Catalog' for those of you old enough to remember. I had no idea how long he had been doing it. Since then he and his staff have treated the world with meticulous restorations of cartoons otherwise consigned to the dustbin of history: first on DVD and later Blu Ray.

Original opening to 'Stratos-Fear' (1933)

His latest release of Ub Iwerks' obscure series Willie Whopper finds Steve partnering for the first time with a rights holder (traditionally he sources the best material from cartoons in the public domain) Blackhawk Films and the staff from a genuine film archive: UCLA. As a result print materials, including rare 35mm negatives and master positives, that no outside collector could have access to have been brought together for a DVD/Blu release for the first time.

Background from 'Robin Hood Jr' (1934)

As for the series itself it is, admittedly,  a mixed affair.  The story of how Willie Whopper came to be and his short existence is better chronicled elsewhere (the booklet included with the disc contains good general overview) but, suffice it to say, he was no star turn. Regardless, the best of his cartoons contain a kinetic energy which combines the emerging character driven approach of the west coast with the surrealism and imagination of the New York studios during a period in animation when there was a strong stylistic difference between the two.

Delirium ensues in 'Reducing Creme' (1934)

They're also surprisingly bawdy. A complete list of every sexual (Freudian or overt) or outhouse type gag would be difficult to tabulate but most of the cartoons have at least one or two. One cartoon, Jungle Jitters, has a female character who is topless for the whole cartoon! There's also inebriation of multiple kinds, smoking, obscene gestures and topped off by a character whose catch phrase ,"Now YOU tell one",  encourages children to lie.  Fun for the whole family.

Freudian and overt at the same time: 'Jungle Jitters' (1934)

More importantly, however, the set contains two complete Willie Whopper cartoons which were released in Cinecolor. While known for decades to have been released in color "Hell's Fire" and "Davy Jones Locker" remained elusive but for black and white 16mm versions and a color fragment of "Hell's Fire" entitled 'Masquerade Holiday'.  When a previous DVD release, 'Cartoons That Time Forgot', issued 'Masquerade Holiday' to VHS and later DVD in the 90's they prefaced the cartoon with a disclaimer that what they had might well be the only surviving color fragment of the film. In fact, there was a complete negative stored at UCLA the whole time which was unearthed in  gathering materials for this set. Stanchfield gives a better (and more accurate) sense of the technical details in his short essay in the included booklet. If you are so inclined you can get a sense of life before this discovery and restoration by reading my (admittedly badly written and more than a little crazy) series on the only complete, at least as was generally thought of at the time, version of "Hell's Fire": Vulcan Entertains.

Not anymore. 

Enjoy some Hell.  'Hell's Fire' (1934)

The remainder of the set completes the entire short run of the series, all looking fine, complete with the MGM logos that were sheared off in previous video versions of the films. Also gathered together are cartoons which have never been released officially to disc such as the terrific "The Cave Man", "Reducing Creme" and "Robin Hood Jr.". The sound is good too: clear and resonant if, at times, a little variable due to the multiple sources cobbled together ("Hell's Fire" for example). Always good to remind anyone hearing this stuff for the first time of the limitations of early sound recording. This is as good as some of this will ever sound.

Cartoons That Time Forgot (1999)

Thunderbean (2015)

A comparison between identical frames from 'Stratos-Fear' as it appears on the Thunderbean disc and the Cartoons That Time Forgot disc (issued in the 90's) indicates this latest release shows more of the film frame and better resolution. Not surprising since the Thunderbean version sources from a 35mm print whereas the Cartoons That time Forgot sources from 16mm.

The bonus features consist of: a reel of reissue title cards, a section with the three jazz records (two by Benny Moten and another by Jelly Roll Morton) used in "The Cave Man" and 'The Good Scout', a 'bonus cartoon' section which consists of a reissue print of Flip the Frog's "Funny Face" along with the two aforementioned edited versions of "Hell's Fire". There are also two galleries: one consisting of a few thumbnail and gag drawings featuring Willie by Grim Natwick along with a few trade ads and a lot of pencil boxes and the other consisting of scene-by-scene outlines for a number of cartoons. I'm still picking though this section (unlike many commercial disc galleries, slideshows etc. Thunderbean galleries allow zooming in to better inspect the images/read tiny print etc.) but I have finally discovered the name of Willie's dog  which has been a mystery which has alluded me for years: it's 'Rags'.  Great to have this stuff included. Strangely there doesn't seem to be a single photo of Iwerks himself in the galleries or on the cover.

Great to see the MGM logos up front where they belong. In the Flip The Frog cartoons Flip's theme actually begins with a fanfare over the MGM logo.

Functional but kinda slap-dash lookin'. Somebody make the music STOP!

The only quibble I can honestly make are for the disc cover  and menu layout  which seems
rushed and the conglomeration of elements (fonts, drawings, color etc.) lacking in cohesion. The 12 second clip of Willie's theme song looping interminably is kind of grating also. Not that any of this effects the quality of the films, which look amazing, or the menu navigation which is  legible and functions fine. After all, the meat of this set is not the menus but the content which is well worth  parting with a few bucks to own. These don't come around every day so check it out!

                                                                            Now YOU tell one, you lying little bastards.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Betty Boop: Vol.3

After emerging from my mailbox home, disc firmly in teeth, it occurred to me I was due to give my thoughts on BETTY BOOP THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION VOL.3. Just stop sticking in those cardboard mailers-they really hurt!

First off I should say, if you are trying to decide on one of the (somewhat pricey) three issued volumes, you should absolutely knuckle down and buy this. Of the 12 cartoons on the disc four really are essential, not just among Fleischer cartoons but animation in general. Two or three others are really good examples of Fleischer at it's surrealistic peak and the rest, while perhaps not on anybody's top ten, still retaining the high production values the Fleischers maintained unwaveringly until almost the end. Of Betty's jazz cartoons it contains four (the essentials) of the five. Roland 'Doc' Crandall's masterpiece SNOW WHITE will undoubtedly appear on a future volume.

Now I should say I've seen these cartoons a gargoonian amount of times. So, my point of view isn't someone just discovering these for the first time but someone who's all too familiar with all the rotten ways Betty Boop has entered the DVD marketplace over the years. 

The question on my mind remained whether Olive had sought to correct the screen ratio problem that  distracted highly from my enjoyment of their first two volumes. At first everything seemed OK but when I compared the Olive version with the earlier Republic VHS/Laser transfers something still seemed off. On closer inspection though I realized the problem was not with the Olive transfer but with the earlier Republic version! For example, compare examples of the same frame of I'LL BE GLAD WHEN YOU'RE DEAD YOU RASCAL YOU from both Republic and Olive by clicking the below image and scrolling back and forth with your mouse wheel. 

Olive restoration

Republic version (overlayed on Olive version)

Not only were the Republic Betty Boops cropped but it seems as though they were also photographed at a slight angle (not quite straight on as a scan will give you) as well as slightly tilted. Whatever the problem was (I'm no video expert) it looks messed up. Comparing the two versions show what a good job looks like: it makes the previous version look obsolete.

Frankly, it's dazzling. Shots like the above previously ruined by DNR, over-exposure, interlacing and about every other problem now read crystal clear in a way not seen outside of a film archive in decades! I don't want to spoil things by posting too many grabs but there are some mind blowing things on this disc: detail in backgrounds of MINNIE THE MOOCHER I never noticed before, the top of the studio wall visible (!) in the live action intro to I HEARD and more!

As for the audio, I will say it is also an improvement over all previous video versions with fuller body and resonance within the context of very early sound recording. That said, the soundtracks to MINNIE THE MOOCHER and HA! HA! HA! retain the distortion audible in the earlier Republic release. A strange thing since BETTY BOOP'S UPS AND DOWNS (on Vol.2) had it's audio corrected. In the case of MINNIE THE MOOCHER this may be as good as it ever sounds (though it certainly bears investigation) but there are certainly better sounding versions of HA! HA! HA! out there. Likewise with BE UP TO DATE. For those of us who've already grown comfortable with the distortion (from earlier versions) it's no biggie but those checking these out for the first time  will need to adjust their eardrums a little for these. 

So, overall, a much better job than Vols. 1 and 2. I see recently that King Features has designed some alternate covers for Vols.1-3 featuring the work of the talented Stephen Destephano. The Olive covers are terrible so perhaps this may be the way we will see them in the future. Personally I'm a booster for original vintage artwork gracing the covers. Many Fleischer promotional drawings survive to this day so there's no shortage of images to choose from. Betty even had an official logo that appeared on all kinds of merchandise through the 30's. Either way it's better than what they are using currently: looking a bit like the cover of that spanish text book you lost in the eighth grade. As to Paramount stepping up and correcting the video problems that effected Bettty Boop The Essential Collection Volumes One and Two (Thanks Thad!), I hoist my best jug of corn drippuns in your general direction! Thank-you!!!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A bit more on Betty Boop

Happy New Year all! By now you may have realized I sort of view this blog as lawn sculpture: beautifully decomposing into toxic goo with each passing day. But before I allow the elements to take hold again there's still some left over business stuffed in that shoe box with the crumpled bank receipts, pizza menus and 2 for 1 bagel coupons. Wait, 2 for 1 bagels?!

First off is Volume two of The Betty Boop Essential Collection. Thad K, who broke the story of the goof which rendered our Betty with a head more like a pancake, kindly sent along his own transfers reformatted in something closer to their correct aspect ratios. It certainly helped antidote the original problem which was making me kind of crazy. So, for that I hoist my finest roast pigeon to Thad: thank-you for taking pity on my eyeballs!

That said, I would not call these 'fixed aspect ratios'. I noticed, when the above image was posted to Facebook with the heading 'fixed ratios', how narrow Frederic March's face seemed. So, I decided to compare three versions of BETTY BOOP'S PENTHOUSE: The Olive disc I purchased, Thad's redux version (based on a copy he purchased), and the old Republic version from the VHS set I bought years ago. What I discovered were images which were distorting vertically as well as horizontally. If you click the first image below and scroll between the series of three using your mouse wheel you'll see what I mean.




Personally, I don't care: I'm glad to have these cartoons looking closer to their correct aspect ratio than what we got from the first two Olive discs.  Everything I've read from Thad backs up that his disc was only a best guess done as a kindness to fans who were upset by the problem.  So it should be clear that these are not actually fixed ratios. My instinct, totally unverified by anything, is that the Republic set is the closest to showing the proper proportions of the characters, BG's etc. (neither stretched nor squashed) but that the image, as seen above, was cropped randomly to fit Academy Ratio. 

'Poor Cinderella' is a title appearing on Olive's master list of Betty Boop cartoons  appearing in their Essential Collection. However, many others, including the brilliant MYSTERIOUS MOSE, were left off for reasons unknown.

I've noticed some people asking if  the aspect ratio differs only on the pre-code Bettys or whether all of them are effected: a logical question since Fleischers changed formats early in their run.  Personally I didn't notice anything funny on Olive's release of THE FOXY HUNTER (1937, long after Fleischers had standardized their release format) until I scrolled it (as you can do below) with the same frame from the earlier Republic VHS. You will see there is indeed squishing occurring. So it is not a problem exclusive only to the pre-code Bettys.



Dryness is something you have to get used to if you're a Fleischer fan. I was thinking today of the Popeye Laser Disc I purchased at top dollar years prior to WB's Popeye set. The hope was at least it would be less bad than what I had previously. That was dry. Compared to them days (with a recent release of Puppetoons, Thunderbean discs of Gulliver and Eshbaugh on the way and even Betty Boop) we're livin' in a paradise, buckeroo!  Personally I was getting worried the series might stop abruptly at Vol.2. So, the hope is they're quality checking the work this time around. Thad's redux discs are welcome but I would expect better from Vol.3 for which I'll be shelling out actual hard earned cash.  Of course I, like you, would prefer the mammoth no-frills box set of Screen Song cartoons (or Color Classics for that matter) for the binge weekend of a lifetime. 12 cartoons a disc, with months to wait between volumes, is pretty thin. But any action on the part of Paramount to do something beside sit on their gigantic back catalog of cartoons should be greeted with as much enthusiasm as possible. And as I wrote previously, the aspect ratio was the only real problem with the first two volumes and, aside from that, they have never looked or sounded better. So there is something to be enthusiastic about! We now return you to our regularly scheduled test pattern...

The Official Test Pattern of Uncle John's Crazy Town. Please Stand By...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Mixed Blessing...

First off, Paramount taking any interest in their animation legacy (which includes a rich trove from Fleischers, Famous and George Pal) is big news. The studio has been trounced badly in recent years mostly due to the manner in which the studio was taken from Max. But, for a long time it was a good relationship and the partnership resulted in many cartoons that are now regarded as classics of the genre.  Even through the lean years of the 40's Para still maintained two animation studios. So, for all the flack it is Paramount we must ultimately thank for the existence of the Fleischer and Famous cartoon films as we know them today. Animation history, from a home viewing perspective, has been much poorer for their absence. Now we have BETTY BOOP: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: the first release of authorized Betty Boop cartoons in over a decade.

The cover of Olive Films Betty Boop includes a slip case. I can see the cover designer was attempting to do something in the vein of the Betty Boop playing cards issued in the 30's combined with the look of the 'Definitive Collection' (which was illustrated by Leslie Cabarga) but yet it lacks the finesse to distinguish it from dollar bin cheapies: a mistake that could effect sales among non-fans IMO. Of course, collectors are the primary market (and a bigger market then credited) for a disc like this.

Bimbo playing card from a line of bridge sets issued at the time of the Fleischer Studios.

Betty Boop Platinum Collection was a bootleg some fans prefer as it uses as it's master a couple of non-DVNR'd Republic laser discs issued in the early 90's

I'm sure you've already read Thad's insightful review over at Cartoon Research but if you haven't click here. I can tell you my heart sank when I heard they had messed with the aspect ratio: the one mistake I didn't account for in my last post! That makes reviewing the disc a little tricky. I see some commenters over at CR can't see the difference so, below, is a comparison between an an original animation drawing from BETTY BOOP'S MAY PARTY (from Ryan Englade's Collection) and a frame grab from the Olive disc. If you click on the first image and then use your mouse wheel to scroll back and forth between the two you will see the squashing. An inker (or clean-up artist) would never mess with the volume like that (unless they wanted their scene thrown back).  Below that is a side-by-side comparison.

So, clearly there's something wrong. And yet it's a simple error that can be corrected. Let's not forget the mistakes of previous releases. Or have we forgotten the big stink over the AAP titles that slipped onto some of the early Popeye disc sets?  VCI's SOMEWHERE IN DREAMLAND DVD set claimed both that the set was compiled from the best surviving materials and that TIME FOR LOVE was a lost film. Neither was true but a later pressing of SWIDL corrected the error by including a good quality 16mm print of TIME FOR LOVE.  If Olive could do that for the aspect ratio problem for the BETTY BOOP: ESSENTIAL COLLECTION I would easily call this the animation disc of the year and worthy of the price tag even minus the bonus features.

BAMBOO ISLE Olive disc
BAMBOO ISLE Platinum disc. You can see from the above comparison that we are indeed seeing more of the frame instead of just cropping it off.  It's just  the wrong aspect ratio. Otherwise, the Olive disc is clearly the better image.

So, now the positive side. Except for the aspect ratio problem virtually everything else is better than we've seen before. One thing Olive does really well is author their discs. The Platinum set (taken from early Republic laser discs), by comparison, has a lot problems: bad interlacing, artifacting, blurry resolution, and the company's obnoxious logo in front of every cartoon among them.  I'm sure someone out there will point out the finer points of DVD authoring but the Olive disc step-frames (slow advance) better than anything I've seen and thus allows a look at the cartoons previously not possible.

The image resolution on Olive's BETTY BOOP'S RISE TO FAME is truly striking. You can practically read the note pad! Not that I'm lookin' at the note pad if ya know what I mean (A-HOOOOGA). So much for serious criticism.

The Platinum Collection version is actually from a dupey 16mm NTA print (Olive's is UM&M 35)

I can confirm too the Olive Betty Boops generally sound better than we've heard them before too. BETTY BOOP'S HALLOWEEN PARTY still contains the same distortion as it did in 'The Definitive Collection' set of the 1990's (a problem it shared with  BETTY BOOP'S UPS AND DOWNS) but nothing too awful. Many, like BETTY BOOP'S PENTHOUSE, have never sounded better. 

So, what could have been a total disaster is instead a first rate job with only one serious problem that can be easily fixed.  My hope is that they correct the problem for future volumes and, should they go to a second pressing (or a box set), fix the problem (by slight 'pillar' boxing) in the effected Volume 1 (and Volume 2?) cartoons then.  BETTY BOOP THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION is not "unwatchable" as has been suggested but a job so close to being perfect* deserves to go for the gold. As far as the choice of cartoons: well, if I were picking my personal 'Essential' mix (keeping in mind I am a freak)  it wouldn't be all that different from what was chosen by Olive. Many are decrying the lack of bonus features. They would be nice but I felt the  Popeye documentaries and "Popumentaries" to be, for the most part, pretty lackluster and not adding anything so significant as to justify their expense. I personally never watch 'em. 

*-rereading this it sounds like I'm minimizing the error. The content has been severely altered from what the film makers intended and should be corrected.


I know restoration of the titles is not on the minds of Olive or Paramount for these discs. That's fine by me but, if I were Olive, I'd ask Paramount to call in the favor from Warners for loaning out Betty Boop clips for their OUT OF THE INKWELL: THE FLEISCHER STORY documentary and get the "into the inkwell" footage that closed out many of the early Fleischer cartoons. They survived uncut on some of the early Popeyes such as I YAM WHAT I YAM. Heck, they restored the opening Para logo too. Be good to have anyways for any future Fleischer projects. And wouldn't it be great if I HEARD had it's beginning and ending back? Of course it was probably something more in line with a cheque delivered by courier rather than a favor. But, hey, a guy can dream can't he?

Title for I YAM WHAT I YAM


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Olive Films' Betty Boop

Only one grievance. Every Olive disc has so far made use of an original poster for the covers of their discs. It would be nice to see one used for this release also. This image is a little too close to the multitude of Betty PD issues that have proliferated through the years.

Yesterday on their Facebook page, Olive films  announced their first volume of officially licensed Betty Boop cartoons: Betty Boop The Essential Collection Volume 1. The journey of ownership of the Fleischer cartoons is a long and convoluted one but, needless to say, all the Fleischer cartoons (minus 'Popeye' and 'Superman') are now controlled by Paramount: a studio which in previous years has shown the least interest of all the studios in reissuing their extensive back catalog. Fortunately, in recent years, this attitude has started to change by an arrangement between Paramount with a small video distributor: Olive Films. Personally I've only ever seen one Olive disc, last year's release of 'The Space Children', and I am happy to report it was a beautiful transfer with a solid monural soundtrack!

frame grab from 'The Space Children' 

Refreshing news since lately some of the smaller video companies have taken to 'improving' their classic releases with disastrous results. For example, Kino's release of 'Bird of Paradise', a south seas picture from 1932, had it's soundtrack remixed into a kind of mutant stereo that rendered it practically inaudible. I read here the same company  made use of a kind of video 'restoration' on their  release of 'White Zombie' (also 1932) that comes off as highly amateurish and ultimately ruinous. Even Criterion's release of 'Island of Lost Souls' (another early Paramount film now owned by Universal) used either an inferior print to that used in the 1990's reissue or mishandled the new materials as to obliterate background detail, increase visible scratches and the coarseness of the film grain considerably. 

Charles Laughton sips tea in this frame grab from the Universal/MCA video tape release of 'Island of Lost Souls'. Note the window behind him.

The same scene from the Criterion release shows considerable scratches. And what happened to the window? 


Since I've made this post a bit of a rogue's gallery of bad re-mastering I thought I should add an example of DVNR: a system of image correction from the 1990's which was intended to remove dirt and scratches but, inadvertently wiped out lines and detail which were intended by the Fleischers to be seen. A more sensitive version of this must exist by now (over a decade since the last BB set) but, even so, would only be as good as the individual operating it. Unfortunately (or, actually, fortunately) I don't still have my atrocious ROAN 'restoration' of PD favorite' "Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe" to show here. There the dirt removal program was adjusted so objects which were white or light (like high lights, reflections, etc.) burned so hot as emanate a radioactive glow which swallowed anything near it. Nothing like watching a scene where half the actor's face has been melted off by the table lamp he sits next to!

 'Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle' from VHS volume "Pre-Code" with  DVNR. Note the 'erased' line on Bimbo's foot and on the right eye.

Same frame from the preferable non-DVNR "Collector's Edition" laser disc. 

Many on-line are decrying Jerry Beck's lack of involvement with this release* but I don't see this as serious problem. He knows the cartoons but how well versed is he in the technical aspects of film restoration? In that area Steve Stanchfield, also not involved, knows quite a bit more. It's safe to say there are others, working professionally within the industry, who understand the balance of restraint in the remastering of old films. Does the odd selection of titles indicate a list of prints in the best condition or is it for some other reason? Personally I will enjoy having 'Betty Boop's Penthouse' without the transfer flaw (a 'skip' following Betty's toweling off) that I understand is present on all the old Republic VHS and laser discs. Every Paramount DVD reissue I've seen has been a first class operation, be it 'War of the Worlds', 'Sunset Boulevard' or 'The Space Children'. Here's hoping Betty Boop will shine as well.

*-Thad made some good clear points on this on my FB page: "I don't think the problem isn't so much "Jerry Beck isn't involved with this release", but "Jerry Beck doesn't know anyone involved with this release," which does not bode well. Olive has put out some nice stuff (albeit, the Jerry Lewis discs are really expensive considering the grunginess of the transfers), so I'll just have to wait and see. Twelve cartoons for $19.99 though?  I'm still hopeful for a good job, however, even if it is a bit of a marketing misstep.