Sunday, June 20, 2010

Better Play Safe!

Over at Popeye Animator ID, fellow cartoon clubhouse pal Bob Jaques is doing an entire week dedicated to Dave Tendlar. So, I thought I might respond in kind (but less substance) with a post on the Tendlar directed surreal masterpiece from 1936: "Play Safe"! If you are visiting here regularly I'm sure you've seen the film, which was released October 16 1936 and has languished on various PD videotapes and DVDs for decades. Recently, however, a very good (if a little splicey) 35mm print appeared in France and was later released to DVD (alas PAL only) on a compilation called 'Saved From The Flames'. It is from this print (although this one is a dub from French television) that I have opted to illustrate this post. You will understand why below...

A model from 'Dangerous Crossing': the working title of 'Play Safe'.

Whether or not the original title cards still exist for 'Play Safe' I can't say. It seems certainly possible. The best so far has been for the 'Somewhere In Dreamland' DVD set (above) which compiled all the Color Classic 16mm prints (some good, some awful) with recreated title cards and Paramount logos.

When the Color Classics were issued to television they suffered even worse than the Betty Boop cartoons which lost only their Paramount logos. This hideous 16mm red title card is how most of us got to know 'Play Safe' - issued on any number of poorly produced public domain videotapes and discs. Whether the same red card exists on the 35mm materials in existence in North America is again, to me, a mystery.

'Le Petit Mecano' was recently unearthed in France. Note the mistake: 'Play Safe' was released in red/green Cinecolor.

Above is a split screen demonstrating the difference between the oft reproduced 16mm PD print of 'Play Safe' and the 35mm from France. Below is the complete frame from the 35mm French print.

The kid wears a train conductor's hat, plays with a train set and reads books on trains while playing in a yard that opens directly onto busy rail tracks. And his only guardian appears to be a dog. Maybe the parents were spending the weekend in Atlantic City.

At first I thought this shot might be making use of the model train we later see criss-crossing through the mountains during a setback scene. However, on closer inspection it looks to me as though we are looking at a finely rendered series of painted cardboard cutouts placed horizontally under the camera. There are a lot of techniques going on in 'Play Safe' that are not immedietely noticeable.

When the Paramount cartoons were issued to French television, new voices were hired to re-dub the dialog. Fortunately there is almost no dialog in 'Play Safe' (and the music track was left alone) making this scene is the only real give away, aside from the title cards, that we are watching a foreign print. I believe the line replaced is: "Aw C'mon. I wanna watch the twain".

And, speaking of 'twains', this is what you get when you ask a bunch of New Yorkers to be cute 'n cuddly: an old man missing his dentures!

Another 'multi-media' shot. I believe the boy and EFX are cycles of cell animation while a card cutout of the boxcar is possibly being animated directly under the camera. All this while a BG pan is going!

Rail travel and it's dangers were on the minds of many depression era movie goers: the most famous of which was probably this 1933 Warner Brothers film.

Tendlar's trademark 'flutters' make a number of appearances in 'Play Safe'

By the mid-30's audiences must have lost patience with surrealism for it's own sake as was the case with the early Betty Boop and Screen Song cartoons. In later Fleischer cartoons such as 'Wotta Nightmare', the surrealism was limited to dream sequences. In many ways, however, 'Play Safe' is a call back to those earlier surreal cartoons.

This astonishing sequence is the first to make use of Fleischers' extrodinary 3D setback process. The effect is considerably flattened on 16mm. I've made these images large so you can have a better look.

Look how happy he is to be in a tangle of rail spikes, rivets and sharp steel girders! Nowadays you have to shell out 200 bucks for a videogame controller but, back in the 30's, all a boy needed was a iron bar and a hammer for hours of entertainment!

The Tendlar 'flutter'

Those dials are freakin' me out, man! Truly a great moment in Fleischers' animated history. Wish I could tell you who animated it! Eli Brucker does not, unfortunately, have a Tintype in any of my copies of The Animated News. I asked Fleischer guru Bob about him and all he could give me is that he would not cross the picket line during the Fleischer strike. The Tendlar crew around this time consisted of: Tendlar, Graham Place (who ended up with Waldman on the great 'All's Fair At The Fair"), Bill Sturm, Nick Tafuri, Harold Walker and Brucker.

BET-TER PLAAAY SAFE. (click to make big and scary)

Now that's what I call an antic!

A classic Fleischer 'Mystery Cave'.

It's this scene that tipped me off that I must be looking at a flat image. The dry brushing is clearly man-made.

Tendlar's 'flutter' nicely handled with dry brush.

And we end on a scene of pure hideous affection.

I originally ended this post with my usual malarky about the Color Classics being just as valid as the Silly Symphonies as works of art with their own reason for being blah blah blah etc. Frankly though, it doesn't really need saying - the cartoons do truly speak louder than any aggregate tome of contentions. Enjoy but blogger video (or Youtube or any other cheezy internet source) is no way to see this cartoon.