Sunday, February 28, 2010

Van Beuren Produces a Classic (!): Magic Mummy!

16mm re-issue title card for 'Magic Mummy'. The original was released February 7, 1933

It's hard to believe Van Beuren cartoons screened theatrically. Like the work of Jim Tyer (who worked at VB early in his career) the early cartoons, which were released by the Pathe beginning in 1929 and later by RKO up through 1936, are primarily enjoyed as a cult phenomena nowadays. Admittedly those early efforts (Waffles & Don and the only slightly different Tom & Jerry) are pretty strong stuff for the uninitiated. I myself can't watch can't watch more than two at a time. They are really messed up. As hard as it may be to believe these cartoons were actually sold it's almost as hard to believe that there could be a true classic amongst their ranks.

Finding a good print of the film is easier said then done however. Above are frame grabs from two separate prints: one is a public domain print which has been in circulation for years while the one below is from the recently released Thunderbean Tom & Jerry set. Unfortunately the Thunderbean print is badly scratched (& stained) throughout (but sharper) while the PD print is cropped and (at least in the copy I have) badly pixilated from compression. In fact, it looks as though it may have even been converted from a lo-res Youtube video. To illustrate this post I have opted to use the Thunderbean print but I would love to see a less compressed version of the former. If anyone out there can recommend where I might be able to find 'Magic Mummy' in reasonable shape on DVD (it appears on a number of PD discs I haven't seen) - or better yet a 16mm print (!) - please leave me a comment or shoot me a g-mail! Incidently, if you haven't seen the film you can go here and come back to see if you agree with my observations...

As true an expression of rubber hose joy as was ever expressed at the sound of music. Don't you flap your arms when you are happy? FYI Tom is the tall one and Jerry the short one.

Car 44, where are yooou.

Cop Love.

Expert cartoonologist Bob Jaques has expressed to me on a number of occasions how astonishing (& unexpected) the hands are in this piano playing scene. You'd never get away with something like this today. Haven't you heard? Cartoons are not allowed to be crazy anymore. Why we are teaching children to be dour and hopeless I have no idea. I blame the popularity of 'The Dark Knight' (with their parents!).

If you need a roadmap for what's going on in this prison you'd better look elsewhere.

"...a mummy has been stolen from the museum"

The car picks up the scent of mummy. I wonder what that smells like?

Suddenly the film turns a corner as 'The Phantom' (my designation, the character's name is not mentioned) creeps past a ruined building in a cemetary. The scene suggests (at least to me) a building bombed out by war which adds a sudden mood of dread. A similar mood shift occurs in the Cubby Bear cartoon 'Nut Factory' as Cubby, in the search for dentures, wanders into a haunted house half way through that cartoon. Likewise Bimbo abruptly finds himself in similarly supernatural surroundings in 'The Male Man' (1930, Fleischer Studios) after several minutes of unrelated mail gags. This approach, if it was intentional, never out-lived the early 30's.

'Magic Mummy' (Van Beuren/RKO, 1933)

'Taken For A Ride' (Charles Mintz/Columbia, 1930)

Another odd artifact is the grave represented as hideout. The very same thing occurs in the earlier Krazy Kat cartoon 'Taken For A Ride' (1930). Could both cartoons be drawing on an even earlier source?

'Magic Mummy' suggests many things to me: historical photos, old movies (particularly Zita Johanne in 'The Mummy'), even archeology! The Phantom character always reminded me of something I had seen before but couldn't quite pin down until just recently: the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek! Could this have been the inspiration for MM's main heavy?

Zita Johanne in 'The Mummy'

Another astonishing element to the film is the expressiveness of the Phantom's hands. It's quite unbelievable that such sophistication could have existed in a Van Beuren cartoon! Go back to that Youtube video (linked at the beginning of the post) and scroll through slowly and see if you don't agree. The animation was evidently credited to John Foster & George Stallings as had most of the early T&J's. However, this is around the time the studio received an influx of new talent (and future animators of Famous Studios, Fleischer and others) giving the cartoons a more polished look than they had in years previous.

No Tom & Jerry cartoon is complete without the obligatory 'flesh rending' scene.

Through the wall they go to ... someplace...

'Magic Mummy' is also a cartoon about levels and decending into them. Adding to the dream-like effect are the two similar pianos on each level. Like a dream, one idea suggests another while changing it slightly.

Whoops, a shooting error (the coffin disappears for 2 frames) or perhaps a couple of inbetweens were missing from the scene. Who knows.

Is this the love a skeleton has for another skeleton or a skeleton has for a good cigar?

Another expressive scene with the skeleton band conducted by The Phantom.

Meanwhile Tom and Jerry are in a drain pipe for some reason.

"Yeeeeow" "The joint is pinched": The best classic 'triple duty' voice performance in history (the same voice actor is giving the lines of both Tom, Jerry and The Phantom!) until the immortal lines "Miss Betty Boop"/"Show her in" from 'Is My Palm Red' (Fleischer Studios, Feb 17 1933) was released - ten days later!

The Phantom flees deeper into the subconscious...

Where the hell are we now?

Fighting eyeballs.

Jerry rescues the casket while hanging his bosom buddy Tom out to dry with the Phantom.

"The mummy. The mummy. The mum-mum-mum-mum-mummy!"

Uh oh, the casket is filled with Tom's corpse. Is anyone else reminded of the final scene in 'Public Enemy'?

'Public Enemy'

Iris out as Jerry bashfully surveys the carnage...

Like I said, those early VB's are an acquired taste and I'm not sure if I've really acquired it myself - they're that weird. They were no competition for Fleischer (who were located directly across the street in NY's Times Square) as I see it but, taken apart, 'Magic Mummy' is at least a happy accident and one well worth visiting.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Well, to be honest it looks like the video is shutting down on Blogger at least at the moment. I'll be going through in the next little while and removing video that doesn't work while eliminating some of the more 'verbal diarrhea' posts. I'll be leaving up all the images tho.