Friday, November 21, 2008

To All The Pudgy Haters



For years there has been a VHS tape in my crawl space that I refused to watch. Out of sheer loathing I had never seen Betty Boop Vol.8 "Betty and Pudgy". As far as I was concerned the original cartoons could rot along with the thousands of  80's produced Pudgy products currently deteriorating into noxious ozone destroying paste in landfills across North America! 

However, my crawl space has been full for about a year now - mostly with old VHS tapes.  I'm sure you sick fiends out there know what I'm talking about! At any rate, a number of tapes migrated their way up and among those was "Betty and Pudgy".


Isn't that 80 year old man adorable?

I could just roast him on a spit until golden brown.

The exact memo (if there was one) requesting a more demure Betty appears to be lost to history but the change seems to begin as early as 1934 with cartoons like "Betty Boop's Little Pal".  Later that year the series introduced 'Fearless Fred', a grossly effeminate (and totally non-threatening) male interest. What a change from "Betty's Big Boss"!  Thus began a string of team-up cartoons in which, I'm sure, the hope was to have a series spin off as successful as the Popeye series had been in 1933. Among those unforgettable characters: Fearless Fred, The Little King, Henry The Funniest Living American, Little Jimmy, Grampy, Wiffle Piffle and of course Pudgy. Whew! By 1935 the change was pretty well complete. Betty had gone from late 20's burlesque entertainer to virtuous late 30's school teacher in the manner of Mrs. Crabtree  of Little Rascals fame. 

Betty was still sporting her trademark garter and racy attire in this 1935 ad. However now she's being swarmed  by other characters. Even Henry (The Funniest Living American?) is aiming a sling shot directly at her head! Interesting to note the inclusion of Toots and Casper and (I think) Barney Google in the group. 

From this ...

to this ...


Of course none of the new interlopers took so, for reasons I don't know, Pudgy was ultimately decided as Betty's regular co-star. He hung around until almost the very last Betty cartoon in 1939. That is where most discussions of the Betty Boop series end. The new spinster-like Betty and her cherubic dog leached everything that was ever good out of the cartoons and, lacking the sort of personality animation of the sorts Warner Brothers and Disney were concurrently making great strides in, the later Betty Boop cartoons are essentially nothing more than contrived pap. 


A cat gets a snootful of "catnip" in "Happy You and Merry Me" (1936)

I won't argue that Betty lost a good deal of her edge in the 1934 - 1939 period  but simply dismissing them altogether is overkill in my opinion. There are a great many wonderful things happening in the Pudgy cartoons. It's just that a lot of those things have nothing to do with Pudgy! 

Pudgy gets hammered in this cartoon (a rip-off of a 1922 Felix the Cat ad) in the "Fleischer Animated News", February 1935.

For one,  the backgrounds and layout  were extremely lush in the later cartoons.  Although not as surreal as the earlier backgrounds (painted by Erich Shenk) they do have a certain richness and depth (no doubt the influence of Disney) while remaining faithful to off-kilter Fleicher aesthetic thanks to artist Anton Loeb.  Pudgy cartoons may be criticized for being too cute but they often had  exceptional layout and  art direction.


Background pan from "Riding the Rails" (click to enlarge)



Three sunny looking backgrounds from "Happy You and Merry Me" (1936)

For another there  was the prodigious use of the Fleischers' famous table top camera.  These gave the settings an astonishing level of depth while at the same time blending perfectly with the style of drawing. The man responsible for building the sets was John Burks.


The opening 'crane shot' of "You're Not Built That Way" (1936)

Some cartoons, such as "More Pep", featured ingenious ideas even if they were culled from earlier cartoons. "More Pep" loosely remakes the earlier Betty Boop cartoon "Ha! Ha! Ha!"  but with an ending that almost tops the original. The actual star of the cartoon is a furnace!

The cartoon begins, like "Ha! Ha! Ha!", with an 'Out of the Inkwell' hand drawing the background. There's something very pleasing about seeing a whole background materializing in just a few graceful strokes. If it were only that easy!


The star of the cartoon sprays it's 'Pep Juice'. You figure it out.

In Fleischer cartoons (at least the Betty Boops) the incidental characters could be just as interesting as the star. In the case of the Pudgy cartoons even more so. The sort of funny animals that had frolicked, sometimes lasciviously,  with Betty in the early years had (sadly) disappeared but there still remained distinctively New York types (now human and less frequently seen) populating the later cartoons. 


"Thrills and Chills", a Doc Crandall Pudgy from 1938, looks rushed (a long sequence is dedicated to rotoscope of Betty skating) but strangely has many of the earmarks of the earlier cartoons (such as the post synched ad-libbing and metamorphosis gags)  shoe horned into the new format. The skier eager to win Betty's attention has no name that I know of but looks as though he'd be right at home in "Betty Boop, M.D." (1932). The cartoon re-uses a lot but for Crandall fanatics like me it is interesting to see what he was doing in 1938 and how strongly he clung to the earlier style.


These incidental characters from "Riding the Rails" are more generic (and cuter) than those of, say, Doc Crandall but they are still appealing and, by dress and general body attitude, still evoke a distinctively New York scene. 

Myron Waldman, the head animator responsible for most of the Pudgy cartoons, is often charged as the man who destroyed the Fleischer style. Under his direction, the exaggerated follow through action of the earlier cartoons was diminished as rubber hoses gave way to real arms and legs. Of course he was also known as as the "ooo aah" (cute) director who favored softer characters and story lines. In fact, a similar change had  occurred in the concurrent Popeye series as the character began softer pursuits (like visiting old people, teaching a cute dog about spinich, respecting law and order etc.) rather than just beating people for the hell of it as he had in the early cartoons. 


This 'preview' from The Animated News (March 1937) of "Pudgy Picks a Fight" makes the intention of the series quite clear (click to enlarge).

Waldman's approach to animation is interesting. In an interview on the recently released "Popeye Vol. 3" DVD set he recounts a story of scene of his which, at the time, was evidently confused for a scene done by an animator returning to Fleischer from Disney. "Sure it's mine" he said "I just added more drawings just like they do". This is a telling statement as Waldman Bettys, in my opinion, look nothing like Disney. But boy do they use a lot of drawings!  What they lack, for the nay sayers is "life like" motion. That is if Disney animation can be considered life like. They don't communicate emotion. They are mechanical. To me, however, there is fascination in this style of movement. It may be  mechanical but also extraordinarily graceful - in fact hypnotic.  The animation is primarily concerned with showing dimensional characters and props moving through space and this they do with astonishing adeptness. There is never any questioning the volumes of the characters in a Pudgy cartoon. 

In the same interview Waldman adds: "You lay out a cartoon like you would a musical" and this is essentially what the Betty Boop series are. The foundation is, in my opinion,  more akin to the Broadway stage (and it's lavish production numbers) than to the sort of Mack Sennett style slap stick that would form the basis of later cartoons. In terms of the songs in the Pudgy series there are a number of good ones. For instance: the jug band (?) who's infectious score runs over the Popeye cartoon "Cops is Always Right" (1938) was also retained for the concurrently made "Thrills and Chills" and had been used in the earlier (the same year) "Riding the Rails". A number of Sammy Timberg tunes also stand out such as "Happy You and Merry Me" (a better song than it sounds) and "More Pep".  

So, my bottom line? I'm right with you on the character himself. He was irritating.  They were trying too hard to be adorable. Plus, obviously, "Pudgy Picks a Fight" is no 'Morning Noon and Nightclub"!  However, in spite of all these things a few of the cartoons are amazingly cohesive graphically and musically if somewhat tedious in story construction. This post is not intended as a ringing endorsement but taken one or two at a time once in blue moon the Pudgy cartoons are more rewarding than you might think. 


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Krazy Bonus

"Krazy Kat" as recorded September 28th, 1927 by Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra (wanted to do a spinning label)

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Piano Mover


Today I find myself in a quandary. How to top "The Male Man"? It can't be done. "Male Man" is the pinnacle. So, I decided to post "Piano Mover" (Columbia, Krazy Kat, 1932). It also has everything a cartoon needs: juggling muscles, weird on-the-spot rotations, a masturbating dog, not to mention a fine example of the power of piano keys to attract chaw juice. Although it is not as good as "The Male Man" it is "The Greatest Cartoon Ever Made".

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Greatest Cartoon Ever Made

Step aside "Bad Luck Blackie"! Screw you "What's Opera Doc"! Hit the bricks "Great Piggy Bank Robbery"! Today I am posting what is universally regarded by grimy alcoholics with heavy gambling debt as "The Greatest Cartoon Ever Made". That's right. I'm talkin' about "The Male Man"! The Fleischer Talkartoon was released in April 1931 and has everything that a cartoon could ever need: pathos, bathos, morality,  immorality, high drama, low drama, middle drama, metaphor, singapore, creepy drunks climbing down chimneys,  giant gelatinous envelopes and weirdos in mailboxes. Why "Male" instead of "Mail"? Watch and discover for yourself! 


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"Okay Colonel!"