Monday, January 26, 2009

The Raven

See this title? Okay, now forget it.

*UPDATE - April 2011*

Every once in a while I breeze through my old posts just to see how awful the writing can get. I've certainly noticed that hard times equal poor writing! In the case of my original post on Fleischers' 'The Raven' I was simply too excited that I could actually see the darn thing after years of wondering - courtesy of Jerry Beck's Magnum (and scary in detail) Opus-The Cartoon Research Garage Sale. As a result I rushed my original post and it came out some gobbligook about Noveltoon wolves and Greg Ford's 'Alladin' commentary. All true stuff but not very interesting.

Another reason was there wasn't a whole lot of quality materials to post. There was the poster, a link to an original background from the film and the Garage Sale print which had turned beet red. I felt that a print in this kind of condition shouldn't become associated with the film as anyone who might Google Image 'The Raven' might get a pretty terrible impression of what I feel is still an unseen film. I have opted, however, to update this post to include grabs from the red 16mm print.

The Raven's true colors revealed! Original BG art from the picture was featured in a Cartoon Brew post back in 2007. The Technicolor 35 of this wouldn't match exactly but it'd be a lot closer.

The essential point I wanted to make when I first posted in January '09 was that the Fleischer film's title, along with it's equally misleading 'A Cartoon Travesty' have done much to harm the reputation of this fine film. Of course not only is it not a strict adaptation nor is it a 'Travesty' in any meaningful satirical way. 'The Raven' is an original film starring a character who is not The Raven of Poe's poem but an original character with knowledge of the poem, and a penchant for corny acting. This Raven is an out of work actor finding work as a vacuum salesman. It's a gentle cartoon about honesty not a meaningful examination of heart break and mortality as was Poe's poem.

In short, this is what The Raven is about. Animators making money you say? Naturally. But it's also about sticking to your guns. The Raven repeats that his 'stealin' days are o'er' throughout the picture and, in spite of perhaps hustling the Scottie Dog a little, that is exactly what happens. Simply put, 'The Raven' is a gently comic morality play.

Of course cinematic adaptations (and misinterpretations) of Poe's work have existed probably as long as cinema itself. A 1928 silent version of 'Fall of the House of Usher' comes off as a poor man's Caligari while the Universal films 'The Black Cat' (1934) and 'The Raven' (1935) are really only used as a pretext to the sort of mad-scientist programmers that were generating revenue for the studio. This is not to say that these films do not have appeal based on their own lights. In fact, fans of these films accept them on their own terms as original stories and as part of the larger canon of studio era (or experimental in the case of 'Usher') cinema.

Where in Poe's poem is the guy with the melting face again?

Of course neither is this to say that the only way to adapt Poe is to throw out the original story. I, for one, would love to see a really faithful 'House of Usher' shot in a European location in the manner of 'The Innocents'. Many of Poe's other stories would be suited to this highly gothic yet impressionistic approach. It is, however, a live-action approach to which I am referring. 'The Raven' (Fleischer Studios, 1942) is not live action and neither is the subject of this blog.

I was disappointed when I finally got around to seeing the silent 'Fall of the House of Usher' as it didn't follow at all Poe's description. So I can sympathize with what EAP fans might feel about Fleischer's Raven.

I've never seen this silent version of 'The Raven'. Evidently they were able to stretch the material into two reels.

The animated film that is most often cited as the greatest Poe adaptation ever is, of course, UPA's 'The Tell Tale Heart'. Those frightened by static drawings would best be advised to avoid 'Tell Tale Heart'. Not only does it succeed in being a cartoon with no action (essentially removing the strongest trait of the medium) but also succeeds in removing all the action from Poe's story! It is one of the first cartoons to presume the audience is right there with them and no attempt is ever made to justify, in the body of the film, why this story is being shown in animation. In fact, most of the film's action takes place off screen with the camera always darting to something static at high points in the story - a cheap trick. The idea I suppose is to show the story from the point of view of the madman, which goes back to 'Fall of the House of Usher' and it's anticedent Caligari, but one might wonder why and how successfully this is achieved. Other film makers would know better then to have such a lowly opinion of their audience but the bottom line of 'Tell Tale Heart' is that it is just about the biggest bore in the history of animated cartoons!

Moldy eyes are scary.

An entire film of only Maurice Noble style BG's? Isn't that called a slide show?

If one is to criticize 'The Raven' for what it is not then it is only fair to postulate what the film might have been as a strict adaptation. Most people know the first few lines of Poe's epic poem but for the rest you can go here. What I'm getting at is that Poe's work, for me at least, has never suggested animation. The broadness which animation is best suited for could not be suited to a poem which is ambiguous in nature and is for the reader to interpret. In fact, I have always felt Poe's 'Raven' to succeed in the very best way in the manner it which it was conceived: on the printed page.

That said we are left with Fleischer Studios 'The Raven', a film which Leonard Maltin has said: "this hackneyed comedy stretched the story of an obnoxious door-to-door salesman (the title character) to protracted lengths with no noticeable rewards". Wow, what a hatchet job! Yet this quote, from his book 'Of Mice & Magic', is dispensed as the official history of the medium in every animation school in North America. Perhaps Mr. Maltin missed the point or, at the very least, was somehow not cognescent of the fim's many striking visuals. Equally baffling is Maltin's lengthy endorsement of the earlier two-reel special: the rather static and quite sacharine 'Rageddy Anne & Andy'.

On the other hand Fleischer Studio's Raven has what the Poe poem really lacked-beautifully rendered explosives!

If the close-ups in 'The Raven' aren't perfect they are pretty solid and beautifully rendered. And the eyes? Shades of Svengarlic! How can that be a bad thing?

Eye brilliance (Svengarlic, Mintz Studios 1931)

It has it's rough edges though - like this sleeve pop. Still, lively animation predominates the film.

Further evidence of morality play: "No, that would be unethical".

While it's a morality play it seems at times an ambiguous one. They seem in cahoots here but The Raven is under the impression that the Wolf is there to help him sell a vacuum. However, The Raven is not above deceit to make the sale.

Suddenly the vacuum is alive and an alcoholic. I love this out-of-left-field call back to the earlier anthropomorphic (and mechanically fascinated) approach of the Fleischer films.

The lessons learned from the Superman series are fully evident throughout 'The Raven'. Complex downshots, shadows and perspective lend to a gothic atmosphere which, while a little peculiar in their use, is a delight none the less.

There's something dream-like when the wolf ducks behind the curtains - as though we have suddenly been transported to the backstage areas of a theater.

The use of the foreground elements further the impression that we are witnessing something we shouldn't. The score, which is very good in 'The Raven', further enhances the mysteriousness, and in an odd way contemplativeness, of the situation.

Dramatic angles feature prominently throughout the picture. Later Famous cartoons tended to avoid difficult perspective like this which is not so necessary for cartoons that are gag driven. The cross cut here is beautiful. The cutting gets a little rough in the footage that follows but it's still pretty impressive.

And look at this unbelievable set-up! Doesn't it break your heart to have to see it like this? This is what I mean by saying 'The Raven' is a still an unseen film. The 35mm of this must be breath taking!

I doubt you will find any more solid dance animation in any cartoon released in 1942.

Another retention of the 30's aethetic. These characters are made of rubber!

Great fun.

When I noticed this link to my original post I realized how an incorrect statement, if properly disseminated, can reverberate damage for years. In a year that produced the untold riches of 1942 I can see how 'The Raven' could pale by comparison. That year almost exclusively belongs to Warner Brothers' screwball slapstick. For fans of that genre of cartoon making gentleness is not an asset and I will be the first to agree - violence is funnier. But 'The Raven', in this reviewer's opinion, operates by it's own lights. While the Disney influence is clearly detectable it simply doesn't feel like a cartoon produced by any other studio. It's certainly peculiar but it's gentle, almost contemplative, approach to comedy is quite unique in the history of animation and will reward those who care to look for such things.

Quothe The Blogger never-mooooore.

Please note any comments posted prior to April 2011 are for the post which originally occupied this spot

Friday, January 23, 2009

Time for a Kiko Break!

I've been posting a lot lately on the Mintz cartoons so it seemed like a good time to break it up a bit with a cartoon from a different studio. So I've chosen for today "Red Hot Music" (Terrytoons, 1937). The Kiko series was overall pretty weak but this particular entry rises above, somewhat, the usual Terry doldrums by way of it's infectious musical score and general joie de vivre. It appears it was done during a transitional period in the studio's history as the style swings back and forth wildly between the earlier Fables style and the soon to be house style of Terrytoons in the 40's. In fact, the gag of the writhing musicians at the beginning curiously echoes a similar gag, with animators instead, from the 1931 Van Beuren cartoon "Makin' Em Move"! Evidently Terry thought the cartoon was special enough as it became the subject of a promotional six poster series on the process of animation. The first of that series can be seen here. Love that piano playin' dog!  

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Creepiest Krazy Ever?

One of the creepiest cartoons I've ever seen is "The Hot Cha Melody" which was released March 15, 1935. By this time the studio was beginning to go into free fall and the quality of the cartoons the year following fell drastically as animators either left Mintz or were shifted from the Krazy Kat and Scrappy series to The Color Rhapsodies. The crew brought in as their replacements had not much talent for either drawing or animating. 1935 was the turning point: an uneven year for the black & white series but still produced some very good and at least one great cartoon in my opinion. This particular entry falls under the heading of "quite good". The 'modified' more boy-like Krazy design is not to everyone's taste but the story of this cartoon is so bizarre and creepy I thought it would be good to share. "You stole my mel-o-dy. You stole my mel-o-dy"

Better be good or the ghost of Robert Schumann will climb a building and kick your ass!

I'm scared ... hide me.

UPDATE: April 2010. The internet sometimes gives up some surprising stuff. Here is a movie review from a 1935 issue of The Ottawa Citizen which mentions 'Hot Cha Melody' opened with the film 'Chinatown Squad' starring Lyle Talbot. How about that! (Click to enlarge)

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Apache Kid

I was talking with Bob Jaques the other day when he mentioned a great and really weird cartoon I haven't thought about in a while: 'The Apache Kid' (Krazy Kat, 1930.) Bob's comment was that if the film had been silent, live action and starred Lon Chaney it could have been a horror movie. I got what he meant. The cartoon is dripping with atmosphere and it isn't much of a stretch to picture Chaney stealing Mary Philbin to his underground lair. I get a pretty strong sense of the expressionistic too in the film - a quality it shares with Universal's original horror cycle. I'm guessing this is intended to be a European local (France?) but I'm not absolutely sure. Certainly the kind of place where a depraved tiger could kidnap a girl so he could ... dance a jig! 

If 'Blue Angel' were cast with cats and dogs it might look like this.

I never realized that the 'Apache' of the title refers to the type of dancing.

There are no words for gags like this.

Asthmatic vents.

This character really wants to dance a jig.