Thursday, April 29, 2010

I Heard

Today I thought I might try and write a few words one of the best ever Betty Boop cartoons: I Heard. The cartoon, which was directed by Willard Bowsky and had as it's footage champion (as indicated by the second animation credit) Myron Waldman, probably doesn't need championing. If you are visiting here I'm sure you've seen it. However, it's a film so rich with visual imagery I felt it was worth posting just to showcase some of those images. In terms of hard information I'm afraid I don't have much to offer but what I can I will provide here. Beyond that I can only offer my personal observations. I hope you will agree.

Sadly, not much seems to be known about Willard Bowsky - at least that is available to the public. I can't find a 'Tintype" (biography) on him in any of my copies of the Animated News. Probably the best bio I have read so far on the man, short as it is, can be read here. Culhane, in his autobiography, painted him as something of a sycophant (which should be taken with a measure of salt) but it seems he was known as the office 'he-man' and for having a conservative outlook. One possible glimpse into his character could be below: a biography of storyman Joe Stultz that Bowsky wrote for the Animated News.

(click to enlarge)

Waldman we do know a bit about - being one of the longest lived Fleischer animators. In brief: he began his career at The Fleischers' in 1930 first as an opaquer, then as an inker and finally as an inbetweener before moving into animation first with Kneitel's group and then with Bowsky's. These were the days when a person could work their way up in the animation business! Later, of course, Waldman would be promoted to 'head animator' (with a group of his own) at the studio. That group consisted variously of Waldman, Ed Nolan, Hicks Lokey, Lillian Friedman, Herman Cohen, Frank Endres and Ted Vosk and were sometimes dubbed 'Waldman's Wascals'!

Don Redman is not so well known to jazz history today but, in his day, was one of the busiest arrangers working in the business. He played with Fletcher Henderson's band, began arranging for McKinney's Cotton Pickers and later arranged for many top big bands including Count Basie and Jimmy Dorsey. During the 50's he settled in as Pearl Bailey's musical arranger. He died in New York on November 30, 1964. Duke Ellington said of him: " Don Redman was one of the really great people, a guy everyone loved. He was a great writer and arranger, a forerunner whose ideas have been copied and have re-appeared in various guises right down the line". 'Chant of the Weed', the song which opens the film, was recorded for the Brunswick label on Sept. 9 1931 and was a favorite of composer Hoagy Carmichael. 'I Heard' was waxed (shellacked?) again for Brunswick on October 15, 1931. 'How'm I Doin? (Hey Hey) followed a few months later on February 26, 1932.

A class act: Don Redman & His Orchestra (click to supersize!)

The tendency to think of jazz and animation as inhabiting hermetically separate worlds belies the fact that, outside of Harlem, Times Square (where Fleischer Studios was located) was practically the epicenter of jazz worldwide. Many jazz clubs could be found mere blocks from the studio (such as Roseland and The Hollywood Inn) while the second floor of the Studebaker building at 1600 B'way (four floors below Fleischer's) had it's own jazz club: The Silver Slipper. Formerly The Cinderella Ballroom, it was here that jazz pioneer Bix Beiderbecke had debuted with The Wolverines in 1924. So, the air being thick with the stuff it was inevitable that jazz and animated cartoons should meet!

Don Redman & His Orchestra dispense some good advice:
Try Getting A Good Night's Sleep (Brunswick, 1932)

People, animals and sentient objects are all slave to Don's music in 'I Heard' and all work together to operate the mine. No exposition necessary.

Like a lot of Fleischer cartoons of this era, this is a fun-house world of secret doors, chambers and surprise devices.

The characters work to the music for each other. Not a bad lesson actually.

And everyone's invited - even the vermin!

Wow, what a fantastic face! 'I Heard' is full of 'em.

Fleischer cartoons often work with tempo progressively building. Here it is explicated by the rush to return to work. Music, background, layout, animation and even sound effects all mesh in this single scene in a way I don't think I've ever seen in another cartoon - even from the Fleischers! It's astonishing.

There's still time for a dirty joke however.

A great Betty pose and another secret door. This cartoon is so chock full of stuff which exists strictly to surprise and delight. As pure a sense of showmanship as you could ever hope to find.

I love the weird animation on Bimbo in this scene. Look at those creepy eyes! The three note musical motif here seems almost lifted from 'King Kong'!

A lot of early 30's cartoons delve into the notion of submersion or descent into weird dark worlds. 'Magic Mummy' come to mind. However, the difference is in the tempo. 'I Heard' puts the viewer in the driver's seat here and yanks them through and down like a roller coaster dropping from a high peak. The sense of danger is there and the rule of gravity applies and yet the rope grabbing hold of itself is there to remind us we are not in the world of reality.

and a ghost lighting a cigar with the lit fuse of a bomb? Just about as cool as you can get!

Pure cartoon bliss - what more can be said?

The end titles as they should be...

'I Heard' was released toward the end of a banner year for Fleischer Studios. Some of the other titles released earlier that year were among the studio's best ever including: 'Betty Boop's Penthouse', 'Aloha Oe', 'Boo Boo Theme Song', 'The Old Man of the Mountain' and others. If Fleischer Studio history were divided into epochs 'I Heard' would fall almost at the end of the first epoch of sound. Soon, Betty would have to make way for the second epoch which would see the studio branch into color films and Popeye's ascent to super stardom. That I will save for a later post...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Greenbriar cartoon links

If you are a 30's cartoon nut like I am I'm sure you are aware of John Mcelwee's 'Greenbriar Picture Show'. Last week he posted a bunch of rare Oswald trade ads that still have me drooling so I thought I might post a convenient set of links to his other cartoon posts which all contain rare ads! Here they are:

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.