Monday, September 6, 2021

Pantomime Panic

 Well, the days are getting shorter here at Uncle John Partners Limited. Will the gutters hold this year or will they flood  the carport of my conscious mind? Now and then I can think of something worth posting here. It just has to stick in my craw and I can't find anybody else challenging it.  It's like that.

Animation is a popular place for urban myths. Outrageous things like Walt’s frozen head are mostly (I hope) understood to be ridiculous. But some myths have a ring of authenticity.  One such story goes like this:  the silent movie clowns like Buster Keaton were put out of a job when producers found they could get the same results, cheaper, by doing pantomime comedy in animation. 

Buster Keaton was a cinema talent on a level with Fred Astaire but was his career destroyed by cartoons?


Audiences could tell these early Chaplin cartoons were no match for the man himself.  Maybe the myth of cartoons being second fiddle to the pantomime clowns starts here?

I’ve heard this one off and on over the years  and always reckoned it somehow related to  Disney’s ‘action analysis’  classes of the 1940’s. Here animators studied and copied the films of Chaplin/Keaton (and others) frame by frame in hopes of profitable use in Donald Duck and other cartoons.

Donald Duck in a Keystone comedy-type get up.
Frankly I have no idea where it originated but, perusing some old episodes of Dick Cavett on Youtube recently, I discovered one of it’s agents was none other than Frank Capra! The panel of the 1972 episode (which included Capra, Mel Brooks and directors Peter Bogdonovich and Robert Altman) was not discussing cartoons specifically but drifted there by way of a discussion of Buster Keaton. Here’s the link (the discussion starts 1 minute 40 seconds in).
Here's what they said:


Peter Bogdonovich

Frank Capra

CAVETT: “Why did Keaton hit the skids? That seems like one of the sad mysteries of Hollywood…”

“Well, he was essentially a pantomime artist and, when sound came along, the pantomime artists went out of business really and also they were killed by something brand new: cartoons.”

CAVETT: “That’s right. Cartoons could do a lot of things they were doing and more”

“ Cartoons could do (stammers) … and the cartoon became cheaper …”

ALTMAN: “Now we’re making films that imitate the cartoons”

(crosstalk, Bogdonovich states a scene in his film ‘What’s Up Doc’ was lifted from Buster Keaton)

BOGDONOVICH: “But Chuck Jones, who did all the great Bugs Bunny cartoons told me … it’s funny you mention that (points to Capra) because he directed most of the great Bugs Bunny/Road Runner cartoons and he said he was totally influenced by Buster Keaton. Said everything he did in the cartoons was taken from Keaton.”

CAPRA (circling back): “That’s right … and they just dropped right out of business…”

After that Capra changes course and starts discussing ‘It Happened One Night.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Capra is well known today for his apocryphal anecdotes: a distinction he shares with Orson Wells. But most people in 1972 wouldn’t have been aware. Peter Bogdonovich is probably best known today for his extensive interviews with Wells, John Ford and other Hollywood luminaries. His contribution to the memorializing of these people is laudable but, in this instance, I think he was a little too eager to validate Capra’s statement. As a result he added an unrelated half truth. Was he misremembering (or misinterpreting) a comment Jones made regarding action analysis?


This photo was taken in the 1930's when Fleischer Studios was working full steam but it gives an idea of how many people it takes to make a cartoon. And this was only one room! Hardly a 'cheaper' under taking!

McCay's Gertie was released the same year Chaplin started making films. His 'Little Nemo' was completed years earlier. Both inspired a long list of future animation luminaries.

Animated cartoons existed long before sound and even before the film careers of both Chaplin and Keaton. Cavett’s statement: “Cartoons could do a lot of things they were doing and more” is partly true. Cartoons distinguished themselves from live action comedies by doing gags that would be impossible with flesh-and-blood performers. Many drew attention to the fact that they were drawings. Essentially they carved out a unique comedy/novelty niche based on metamorphosis, surrealism, special effects and other stuff animation does well. The characters had personality too, long before Disney, but the craft was not at a place where they could approximate the expressions and movement a live action performance might give. 



This Keystone-like exploding car gag, from Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo' (1911) occurred two years before Chaplin's first short. The metamorphosis gags in the film would become a staple of early animation.

 A baby's mouth forms a subway entrance in a late 20's Koko the Clown cartoon.

And, speaking of Jones: he probably did study and lift gags but I doubt he said everything in his cartoons was taken from Keaton (unless he was kidding of course). Also, his animation directing career started long after the introduction of sound. So his cartoons didn’t kill Keaton.


Did not kill Keaton.

The obvious reason for the death of the silent pantomimes was changing public taste. With sound came the opportunity for rapid-fire dialog. Even in 1972 TV audiences would have been aware of The Marx Brothers. Their films combined pantomime, witty dialog and music into a brew so powerful they pretty well wiped up the floor with the competition (the exception being other fast talkers like W.C. Fields and Mae West).  The silent stars who transitioned were able to use their voice as assets to their characters i.e. Laurel and Hardy. All pretty well known stuff today but a lot of people probably saw this broadcast (3 networks only in 1972) and were apt to believe what was being said.

My take is that Bogdonovich, Cavett, and Capra were all a little too eager to accommodate the other. Capra possibly felt he had to bring something to the cineaste table -I don’t know- but his comments seem vamped. Since the other two don’t seem so sure (and it was Capra’s interview anyway) they happily moved on to ‘It Happened One Night’. Also germane is that, in these early days of film scholarship, nobody outside still living animation old timers was really sure what the history of animation was outside Disney's perfunctory version. Leonard Maltin's 'Of Mice and Magic' had not yet been published in 1972 and the expertise of this panel was not animated cartoons.

If there's a take away I'd say that where cultural narrative is concerned there’s always going to be the odd fender bender. Sometimes interviewees have off days. Showbiz is a busy business. The culture makers of any era are often too busy doing it to make careful note of anything but essential information related to the task at hand. Did Capra even know his studio (Columbia) made cartoons? The important thing is for the correct information to supplant the incorrect and to remember the record is sometimes fallible. 


A great director but wrong in this instance.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Rubber Hose: WTF Happened?

Uncle John's Winter Retreat
Greetings snow drifts and racoons rifling through a dumpster! I’m back! Did you miss me? Are you done with that pizza box? I know it's been awhile. Here at Uncle John LLC we don't want to publish any post before it's time. It's the quality we're famous for. 

But before I get started I just wanted to clear up some old business. It seems that, way back yonder when I wrote my post on cinematic Popeyes, I managed to write the entire thing without once mentioning Jack Mercer! The man who voiced Popeye for decades was, by all accounts, a really sweet guy who understood the responsibility he held as ambassador to a character beloved by children. His gentle and somewhat urbane personality reflected more and more in the Popeye cartoons as the decades wore on. I still feel that Segar is the last word on Popeye’s personality, and Fleischers’ likewise on Popeye's animated version, but there’s no denying the impact Mercer had on generations of kids discovering Popeye - including me! Okay, now on with the show...

 I’m not entirely sure when the term ‘rubber hose’ came into use to describe the rubbery animation of the early 1930’s. I don’t think it was used at the time the cartoons were made. The oft cited (but somewhat false) narrative is that Mickey Mouse was the sole reason for why cartoons looked the way they did. There’s a lot of truth to that. However, inkblot, gloved and pie-eyed characters existed before Mickey.  Established studios like Fables and Fleischer, for instance, exerted at least as powerful an influence on the look of cartoons of the period.  Nowadays ‘rubber hose’ is used as a generic catch-all to describe a few specific signifiers. Pie-cut eyes? Floppy shoes? Three-fingered gloves? Double-bounce cycle? It’s rubber-hose.

There's no denying the impact this guy (and gal) had on generations of cartoon designs.

Equally influential (but a better series): Fleischer's Popeye. 

I love Preston Blair's work, especially at the Mintz Studio, and his instructional books are indispensable but I don't recall the double bounce cycle showing up that often in 30's cartoons. 

 'Funny Face', 'Nurse Maid' and, later on, Tom Turkey's Harmonica Humdingers come to mind ... but not much else.

It always seemed strange to me that a period with diverse approaches should get crunched into such a specific list. Then I considered another common catch-all  related to the content. Not something so much in the literature as a quirk in how I hear people casually discuss old cartoons: as really dirty. Were they linked? Consider that the pre-code era of filmaking is often touted as loaded with sexual content that was crushed out by the code. Yet, none contained the sort  of hard-R material  that’s relatively common today.  Pre-code cartoon plot lines (such as they were) or isolated gags were merely suggestive. There’s no indication that, in the years before the code was enforced,  the cartoons (or films in general) were racing towards explicit material. So how did merely racy cartoons begin to be interpreted as pornographic? It seems to me that it starts with one specific artist.

 Betty Boop in 'Red Hot Mamma' (1934). This is about as racy as it ever got in the Betty Boop series. A little chauvinist I guess (Willard Bowsky directed) but far from pornographic.

Subtle humor from a 1930's pornographic (AKA unauthorized) comic of Betty Boop. So it existed ... but hardly in the main stream.
Underground comix artist R. Crumb is often associated with the 1930’s in spite of beginning his career in the 1960’s. His range of influences  is actually pretty wide: from 50’s Mad Magazine cartoonists like Basil Wolverton and Harvey Kurtzman to 19th century (and earlier) engravers. But the 30’s ‘rubber hose’ influence has always been apparent. The artist himself has never denied so.  His stories often featured the explicit sexual antics of pie-cut eyed or ‘big-shoe’ characters. In my opinion it’s here that X-rated content got misinterpreted as an  expression of something earlier, like his drawing style, rather than a manifestation of Crumb's own sexual preferences and neuroses.

 Crumb broke with tradition by adding genitals to 1930's type characters. Many of his comics were overtly pornographic. The image above calls to mind a Bosko cartoon called 'Sinkin' In the Bathtub' (1930) . Note also the eyes like Popeye at the top of this post.
Crumb characters sported the big floppy shoes which characterized 30's rubber hose animation.
So the perception of 30’s ‘rubber hose’ changed into a cult item and it’s graphic tropes began to be associated with the 1960's counter culture. For many of that generation Crumb INVENTED the style. Still, it remained underground. By the time Matt Groening’s hugely successful Simpsons characters brought those familiar graphic tropes to a new generation the counter culture who grew up with Crumb’s Zap Comix were forming the establishment. The underground was ready to go main stream.  Like Crumb, who likely was an influence, Groening’s characters acted out scenarios which would have been totally foreign to 1930’s cartoon makers. His approach was to sublimate much of the action and replace it with satiric dialog. The overt sexual content was gone (network TV after all) but there was more than a whiff of Crumb’s sometimes cerebral humor. It is perhaps notable that Groening had started as an underground cartoonist himself: drawing ‘Life In Hell’ for years prior to entering animation.
Victor Moscoso (a fellow Zap artist with Crumb) illustrated this 1960's handbill for a midnight screening of cartoons.  I wonder what the 'raincoat crowd' (if you're under 30 Google it) felt when they realized they  actually bought a ticket to Gertie The Dinosaur? Don't answer that!

One of the graphic tropes of rubber hose to have crossed the generations: grill teeth.
The Simpsons was a gargantuan hit as we all know. In a nihilistic twist, the show even took a few episodes to mock 1930’s cartoons. One parody, ’That Happy Cat’, posited that cartoons of the period were nothing more than 7 minute double bounce cycles!   For the many millions who saw these episodes (but never saw a Fleischer cartoon) the joke seemed to be: 30’s cartoons are stupid, like a 1950’s grade Z science fiction film, whose only value is in their derision.  It was a fine distraction from the fact that Simpsons' animation in it's first 10 years could be quite sloppy. As Bart would say: ‘Cheap shot, man’.
Old cartoons are boring. One of The Simpsons' rubber hose parodies: "That Happy Cat"
Happy Meal colored and rubber limbed: Bart Simpson.
The style may have finally found it’s implosion date in 2017. By that time The Simpsons had been airing 28 years (!) and a generation of kids had grown up with yet another rubber-hose inspired character: Nintendo’s Mario. For them rubber-hose was a shattered style that had been re-fed to them in countless variations. The Moldenhauer brothers answer to this was combine everything into one stew: the video game Cuphead. Though it had some  beautiful individual pieces of animation (the animators did their homework!)  Cuphead lacked a guiding visual hand for the game as a whole. The result was a crawling mess of disparate parts. In that sense  it represents yet another muddying of the waters as chaos becomes the association with rubber-hose animation of the 30’s. Cartoons of that period may have been strange but were certainly not chaotic.  Even the teeming mice of 1930's Terrytoons did so with some sort of gag-based intention. I guess what I'm getting at is that the definition of 'the rubber hose style' now includes a bunch of post 1930's stuff, either consciously or unconsciously, that might not be influencing the new rubber hose stuff for the better.  Just my opinion.
Several generations now associate 30's style gloves and shoes with video game character Mario.
The Animaniacs was another dialog heavy show that attempted to merge elements of rubber hose with a peculiar angular look common in 1990's television animation. Note the carelessly drawn hands and background color choices that fight the characters' clothing colors.

Don't get me wrong - I think it's wonderful to see Ub Iwerks Color Rhapsody 'Skeleton Frolic' get some love by the next generation of animators - Who'da thunk? But it does raise an issue of where tribute ends and plagiarism begins. Many of the Cuphead characters are not just 'in the style of' but direct lifts from old cartoons. The pumpkins in this sequence, for instance, are taken from 'Betty Boop's Halloween Party'. 
It happens quite a bit in Cuphead - in both game and merchandising. Here we see an Ed Nolan (a Fleischer animator) card traced and redressed as Cuphead. Note how the top had to be hacked off for the composition to make sense.
A busy level of Cuphead. 'Swing Wedding' (1937) was not exactly prime material for a comeback either. Were they surprised by the pushback?

Frame capture from the rig-based (as opposed to hand drawn) Cuphead show for Netflix seems to show an attempted cross with the more extreme expressions of 90's TV hit Ren and Stimpy. 
Question: Why?

Video course offered through Linkedin. I'm not sure where to begin with this one.

Pro-tip: if you're going to do a video tutorial remember to close your Tinder tab.

There’s still reason to be hopeful though. The internet has done more to spread knowledge of once arcane 30's cartoons than any other medium since the films were originally screened. A cadre of weirdos (you know their names: Beck, Thad, Gerstein, Schlesinger, Jaques et. al) has been on the front lines at various times to try and bring this stuff above the legal and economic fray or just contribute to the better understanding of the era.  Long after the Cuphead fans go back to playing ‘Call of Duty’ there will still be an embarrassment of internet reference within a few keystrokes for anyone who really wants to know the subject.  Mark my words there WILL be an awesome rubber-hose inspired film in the future. With so much visible that was hidden for decades I think it’s impossible for there not to be.  I wonder who will do it?  Maybe it will be YOU …
 melted rubber.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

What I like about DISNEY!

Welcome to the depths of evil.

Greetings, cartoon pals. I’m back on this July afternoon rummaging around the old bones of Uncle Johns Crazy Town. And bag of bones it is. Some of the writing here is barely at the level of a high school essay competition. Still, I don’t regret being a booster for favourite studios of the 30’s. These days it’s almost all online for the asking. But what’s one more bone, give or take? I’ll place it carefully between the old work boot and empty can of beans. 

Over the years  of my posting here I liked to single out Disney for criticism. This was primarily to provide counter narrative to the tale that the company, and some of it's more fervent admirers, like to tell. In that version animated cartoons were basically created by the Disney studios after some primitive experiments and forgettable predecessors. This in turn caused the studio to create the best animated cartoons ever. It’s a preposterous notion that I delighted in poking at. But it might give the impression that I dislike Disney altogether. T’aint so, McGee. It just so happens I have a very specific liking for Disney.  And what better way to dump an opinion then into the bottomless pit of the internet?  Fascinated? Read on. Don't like it? Hitch the next box car.

 In the Great Animation Sweepstakes of the 30’s Disney had an early lead. Steamboat Willie was not necessarily better animated than other cartoons of 1928. Bill Nolan’s work was  about as good as Iwerks. And Dick Huemer’s animation was arguably superior to both. It's actually a pretty lame cartoon compared to the other Iwerks' Mickeys. What it cemented though was not only audience acceptance for sound but a taste for more.  It payed off big time for the independently financed Disney studio and put the cartoons (and Mickey in particular) into a popular lead. Everybody remembered the first time a cartoon ‘talked’ (squeaked?) and who that character was.  Probably didn't hurt that  there was a strong magazine and newspaper presence for Mickey practically right from the start. 

Still getting booked a year after 'Steamboat Willie' was released. 1929 ad.

What followed was what I consider the classic Iwerks period of Disney. I won’t be discussing those as, to my eyes they share a closer bond with his Celebrity/Pat Powers  cartoons despite most of those being animated by others. Needless to say, I like the whole of Iwerks animation career but would rather limit the scope of observations specifically to the 1931-1939 period at Disney: a period often glossed over by guys like animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson as  both primordial and yet superior to the cartoons of all other studios. Geez, Walt must have gotten those loyalty oaths signed in blood!  

One of the last Disney Iwerks cartoons 'Springtime' (1929) actually LOOKS like it was animated while walking out the door!

Iwerks' first Celebrity Productions' Flip the Frog cartoon: 'Fiddlesticks' (1930) 

The truth is that Disney cartoons of the immediate post-Iwerks period are a shaky lot. Does anyone hold up ‘Babes in the Woods’ as a leading cartoon of 1932? Is 'King Neptune' really better than what the Van Bueren studio was cranking out at the same time? I’d say you already know the answer. In researching for a lecture last year I found myself suffering through a glut of 1932 Mickey Mouse cartoons wondering how the hell anybody could sit through these. Other studios delighted in surprise gags or surreal touches which gave them an almost improvisatory feeling. This is part of why they hold up so well. Mickey's painfully linear cartoons are, by comparison, strictly cartoon Xanax.

Disney's really bad year: 'Babes in The Woods' (1932)

The magic of Pluto: 'The Mad Dog' (1932)

Not better drawing but livelier action and better music: 'Pots and Pans' (Van Bueren Studio, 1932)

Meanwhile Fleischers was already getting into dynamic shots like this: 'Betty M.D.' (1932)

Still, I like me some Disney and I’ll tell you why. True that I’m smitten with 30’s animation but I still love a beautifully rendered static cartoon drawing.  Disney must have shared the fetish since starting in the mid-30's the animated cartoons often seem as obsessed with the quality of the individual drawings as the motion of the characters. By that I mean not only were the key poses  rendered on-model but the in-betweens too. This had to have meant scenes were going back to assistants or animators over and over until they had a folder of ‘uniform’  drawings to put before the camera. What ever the cause, the Disney shorts of the 30's suffer a stiffness of movement that didn't begin to abate until the latter part of the decade.  Still,  goddamn if it didn’t produce some beautifully rendered drawings.

By 1935 Disney began pulling the fat from the fire.  'Cock O' the Walk'  has some nice animation but there are scenes like the ones above where the movement gets really choppy. So, what happened? 

Another cartoon that runs variably stiff but has great drawings is 1935's  'The Golden Touch'  How could anyone dislike King Midas' 'greedy dance' (above)?  Plus the cartoon introduces Disney's greatest character ever: Goldie! 

A dynamic shot from 'Mickey's Man Friday' (1935) demonstrates a knack for Layout: another area in which Disney excelled as the 30's wore on.

I can't talk about Disney high points of the 30's without mentioning  'Toby Tortoise Returns' (1936). It didn't hurt that a good chunk of it was done by master animator Dick Huemer. It's still a little too measured for it's subject (especially compared to the boxing entries of other studios) but overall it's a great cartoon in layout, effects and animation.

 Like Warner Brothers, Disney didn't really hit their stride until the late 30's. Some of the best Donald Duck cartoons were made around this time such as  'The Sea Scouts' (1939).  The series would fall into a rut in the years to come in cartoons featuring such regrettable characters as Spike the Bee and Chip and Dale.

Another aspect of the cartoons where there was no other like Disney was  effects animation.  The first film to achieve realistic effects,  Winsor McCay’s ‘Sinking of the Lusitania’ (1918), gets it wrong  about as much as it does right.  Still, some of the wave animation in it is astonishing for such an early film.  After McCay, effects animation turned to a more graphic, newspaper influenced approach until guys like Cy Young and Ugo D’orsi (at Disney) finally cracked the code. The effects sequences that followed were both beautiful and profoundly influential.  Effects heavy Silly Symphonies like 'The Old Mill' and 'Moth and the Flame' set the stage for things like 'Fantasia'.  Pretty well any effects animation you see today is following in the footsteps of what was pioneered here. 

The first believable effects animation: Winsor McCay's 'Sinking of the Lusitania' (1918)

Disney was great at using effects to convey atmosphere.  'The Old Mill' (1937) is definitely what I'd qualify as an 'egg timer' cartoon.  I can't believe what was passed over for this to win best animated short. But the injustice of that shouldn't detract from a pleasant piece of cinematic wallpaper. Great to put on while making a sandwich or dusting the hydrangeas. 

By 1938 the Disney studio was so confident in what they were doing that they were able to make a special effect into a character in the impressive 'Moth and the Flame'.

Another area of Disney dominance was in the area of promotion and merchandise. From books to games to the venerable Mickey watch: there was no studio who focused as much on the quality, and even ubiquity, of their merch. The one studio who did attempt to compete, Charles Mintz' Scrappy, was too scattershot and increasingly disconnected as the films themselves grew worse, and less popular, over the latter part of the 30’s. If one also counts Floyd Gottfriedson’s masterfully drawn Mickey Mouse strip and the radiant posters which accompanied the films one quickly sees what an amazing body of work it is. The animated cartoons may have sucked but the products promoting them always looked great.

Personally I prefer 'Three Little Wolves' (1936) to 'Three Little Pigs' (1933) but there's no denying the influence the original had on generations of cartoon wolves: from Tex Avery to Famous Studios.

Masterfully drawn but kind of a dull read. Still, Floyd Gottfriedson's strip looked great.

The cartoon sucks ... but how can you not love this poster?!

The 'fly in the ointment' ... or their greatest strength (depending on personal taste I guess)  was Disney's unique 'balletic/operatic' approach to animation. Balletic for their softness and grace.  And operatic for the melodrama the films sometimes revelled in. It's exquiste, in it's way, but not appropriate for everything. Comedy always buckled under the weight of such self serious artistes. But in the context of a deliberate ballet, as was done with Fantasia, the result is an astonishing hybrid. No other studio would or could have made a film like this.   

Perfectly suited to a style: 'Fantasia' (1940)

I won’t go too deeply into the features since Disney only produced one in the 30’s: Snow White. Intellectually I can see what the fuss is about. But personally I find it nearly impossible to sit through the whole thing.  As insane as it sounds I actually prefer Fleischer’s somewhat disastrous Gulliver's Travels!   It's rougher and full of mistakes but I somehow engage better with the characters and music despite the giant roto-man. In short: I can get through it. So, that's not exactly high praise either. That being said, I’ve always felt shorts were the best delivery system for animated cartoons. My favourites among the Disney features tend towards the 'package pictures' (features made up of individual shorts) as were films like Melody Time, Make Mine Music, Three Caballeros and the aforementioned Fantasia

Sure the film has some nice sequences like those with the witch or the evil queen. But I prefer things like that excerpted. The movie as a whole is just too much of a slog.

Sniffy, Snotty, Weepy and ...

wait, how'd you get in here?

Bottom line is that every animation studio of the 30’s had something to recommend it. Even the crude 1930's Terrytoons had their own propulsive charm. For Disney the 30's marked a crucible not a landslide victory. What they brought to animation was a unique brand of theatrical lyricism. There was no other studio quite like them. That didn't make them the best but it did make them unique; and that uniqueness is worth noting.  Sure, the cartoons could be kind of boring but even a fifth or sixth favourite ice cream is still ice cream.  If you're in the right mood there’s some cool stuff in there. Personally I'm glad they're out there. I could go on but I have to cue up some Goldie. God help me.