Saturday, April 10, 2010

Krazy Kat: Lil Ainjil

Today I am showcasing a much hated cartoon: 1936's 'Lil Ainjil'. At least one artist who worked on the film hated it too. From Leonard Maltin's book I. Klein went on record: "Ben Harrison said to me, 'Gee, this is a great chance for a cheater.' Of all things! Here's the first opportunity to make a real Krazy Kat, and he says 'chance for a cheater'. Whoever was the background man there really made drawings ... but it was a senseless story, throwing bricks, and that was the end of it. I was terribly disappointed."

Maltin then goes on to write: "The cartoon, LIL AINJIL, is just as bad as Klein remembers it being". Ouch!

But I'm not sure it's as bad as all that. A contingent of fans of the Popeye comic strip have decried the deviation of the animated series from Segar's original for years. Most recently Jules Feiffer in his intro to the recently published 'Popeye: I Yam What I Yam' has said: " The animated Popeye didn't bother with character, wit, or nuance. There was but one story, repeated thousands of times in endless versions: Popeye fighting Bluto over Olive Oyl and only able to win in the end because he was lucky enough to find a can of spinich. Jeez!"

Indeed Feiffer's comment could just as easily apply to the Krazy Kat film and I. Klein is correct in his assesment of the story of that cartoon. I won't be the one to say that 'Lil Ainjil' is a misunderstood classic. Rather I see it as an experiment somewhat as I view the first Popeye film. One wonders how the animated Popeye might be viewed today if the series had ended with 'Popeye the Sailor'?

Of course there are significant differences between the two. The Popeye strip was virtually at the zenith of it's popularity when the Fleischer cartoon was released in 1933. A penniless working stiff who took no guff was just right for movie audiences in perhaps the worst year of the depression. Popeye was a populist character. Adding to this was the perfect union of earthy (and sometime bawdy) humor as well as graphic style shared both by comic strip and animation studio. This is not to mention the voice of Popeye which was so appropriate it is hard to imagine the character sounding like anything else.

a somewhat shaky start to a great series: Popeye the Sailor (Fleischer Studios, 1933)

Krazy Kat, on the other hand, was an esoteric strip: an intellectual tour de force. In terms of it's story and satire it was much denser than Segar's strip and has, in fact, been credited with inspiring it. However, it was an increasingly cerebral strip by the 30's - at least until the Kat got hit with the brick. A work of great art, no doubt, but not the stuff of mainstream entertainment.

KK daily from 1938. The punchline is: "atavism"! Not exactly working stiff humor. (click to enlarge)

In fact, early animated versions of Krazy had gone back to the silent days where the character, similarly refashioned to the mainstream, had landed with giant thud. When the character was revived at Columbia, in the early 30's, audiences had already been familiar with the comic strip (and perhaps the first animated version) for over a decade. By 1936 if 'Lil Ainjil' had been a faithful adaptation I doubt the public would have taken much notice.

1916 ad for the animated Krazy Mach 1

At the time of Krazy's revival in the early days of sound cartoons producer Charles Mintz was essentially focused on producing a competing series to the wildly successful Mickey Mouse. This is probably most noticable in the voice when Krazy speaks, which is most Mickey-like, and in some of the stories which remake earlier Mickey shorts.

However, at this time the studio was also feeling a strong influence of the Fleischer Studios, by way of emigrating animators, possibly, or other reasons since lost to history. In this way, the Mintz version of Krazy Kat has a lot more in common with Bimbo than with Herriman's character or Mickey Mouse: a rorschach ink-blot at the mercy of wild, and often bizarre, landscapes and situations. Whether or not this is strength is a matter of conjecture but it is something which is not discussed as often in the literature of animation history. As someone who (plainly from this blog) likes his cartoons weird I firmly see this as a plus!

Bimbo and Koko are harassed by a chemically induced Frankenstein's monster in
Betty Boop's Penthouse (Fleischer Studios, 1933)

Krazy sneaks a peak with telescopic eyeballs in Svengarlic (1931, Mintz Studios)

Which brings us back to 'Lil Ainjil'. 1936 is the year Mintz cartoons went directly down the drain. The next Krazy Kat cartoon to follow, "Highway Snobbery" (released August 9th) has it's charms but the cracks were becoming ever more evident. By "Krazy's Newsreel" (October 24) the series had pretty well smashed against the rocks. The year previous the character had undergone a metamorphosis from ink-blot character, in the manner of Bimbo, to a more human boy-like design. A few good cartoons were produced under this newly designed version, such as 'Hotcha Melody' (released March 15, 1935) but, overall, the change did not effect an improvement in the quality of the cartoons. The anthropomorphism and the bizarre situations which had marked the early Fleischer material (and which Mintz continued to employ longer than any studio) continued to be an essential ingredient. However, the quality of animation took a drastic turn for the worse. "Lil Ainjil' resides at the very precipice of a tailspin unprecidented in the history of animation! Certainly not the best entry in the series but not as 'bad' as Maltin's statement of opinion either. I can think of a lot of cartoons worse than 'Lil Ainjil'!

Personally, I see the cartoon as an experimental misfire but a fascinating one none the less. Krazy Kat certainly wasn't the accessible character that Popeye was (or as well suited to action) but the characters are drawn fairly faithful to the original strip (for the first time in a sound cartoon) and fully fleshed out as dimensional characters inhabiting three dimensional space. The rubbery action, and movement, never slow down which gives the cartoon a certain gyroscopic energy. As I said, I wouldn't qualify 'Lil Ainjil' in the top ten best Krazy Kat cartoons but any proper retrospective of the series would be remiss to ignore it.

Senseless? Sure, but there's still fun stuff going on here!

The drawing in the cartoon is amazingly solid and the inbetweening astonishingly precise. These are expert draftsman.


K. Nacht said...

Enjoying your essay and editorializing of late.

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...


Dave K said...

Wow, like you suggest not really bad at all. I kinda like it. Interesting that you mention how appropriate Popeye's voice was in the Paramount cartoons, since here, Offisa Pup seems to be doing an imitation!

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

I was wondering if someone was going to mention that - perhaps Offisa Pup's voice is an indication of who's success they were trying to duplicate? Seems that one of the problems with adapting an animated Kat is pinning down KK's voice. The character is variously referred to in the strip as 'he' and 'she'!