Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Mixed Blessing...

First off, Paramount taking any interest in their animation legacy (which includes a rich trove from Fleischers, Famous and George Pal) is big news. The studio has been trounced badly in recent years mostly due to the manner in which the studio was taken from Max. But, for a long time it was a good relationship and the partnership resulted in many cartoons that are now regarded as classics of the genre.  Even through the lean years of the 40's Para still maintained two animation studios. So, for all the flack it is Paramount we must ultimately thank for the existence of the Fleischer and Famous cartoon films as we know them today. Animation history, from a home viewing perspective, has been much poorer for their absence. Now we have BETTY BOOP: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: the first release of authorized Betty Boop cartoons in over a decade.

The cover of Olive Films Betty Boop includes a slip case. I can see the cover designer was attempting to do something in the vein of the Betty Boop playing cards issued in the 30's combined with the look of the 'Definitive Collection' (which was illustrated by Leslie Cabarga) but yet it lacks the finesse to distinguish it from dollar bin cheapies: a mistake that could effect sales among non-fans IMO. Of course, collectors are the primary market (and a bigger market then credited) for a disc like this.

Bimbo playing card from a line of bridge sets issued at the time of the Fleischer Studios.

Betty Boop Platinum Collection was a bootleg some fans prefer as it uses as it's master a couple of non-DVNR'd Republic laser discs issued in the early 90's

I'm sure you've already read Thad's insightful review over at Cartoon Research but if you haven't click here. I can tell you my heart sank when I heard they had messed with the aspect ratio: the one mistake I didn't account for in my last post! That makes reviewing the disc a little tricky. I see some commenters over at CR can't see the difference so, below, is a comparison between an an original animation drawing from BETTY BOOP'S MAY PARTY (from Ryan Englade's Collection) and a frame grab from the Olive disc. If you click on the first image and then use your mouse wheel to scroll back and forth between the two you will see the squashing. An inker (or clean-up artist) would never mess with the volume like that (unless they wanted their scene thrown back).  Below that is a side-by-side comparison.

So, clearly there's something wrong. And yet it's a simple error that can be corrected. Let's not forget the mistakes of previous releases. Or have we forgotten the big stink over the AAP titles that slipped onto some of the early Popeye disc sets?  VCI's SOMEWHERE IN DREAMLAND DVD set claimed both that the set was compiled from the best surviving materials and that TIME FOR LOVE was a lost film. Neither was true but a later pressing of SWIDL corrected the error by including a good quality 16mm print of TIME FOR LOVE.  If Olive could do that for the aspect ratio problem for the BETTY BOOP: ESSENTIAL COLLECTION I would easily call this the animation disc of the year and worthy of the price tag even minus the bonus features.

BAMBOO ISLE Olive disc
BAMBOO ISLE Platinum disc. You can see from the above comparison that we are indeed seeing more of the frame instead of just cropping it off.  It's just  the wrong aspect ratio. Otherwise, the Olive disc is clearly the better image.

So, now the positive side. Except for the aspect ratio problem virtually everything else is better than we've seen before. One thing Olive does really well is author their discs. The Platinum set (taken from early Republic laser discs), by comparison, has a lot problems: bad interlacing, artifacting, blurry resolution, and the company's obnoxious logo in front of every cartoon among them.  I'm sure someone out there will point out the finer points of DVD authoring but the Olive disc step-frames (slow advance) better than anything I've seen and thus allows a look at the cartoons previously not possible.

The image resolution on Olive's BETTY BOOP'S RISE TO FAME is truly striking. You can practically read the note pad! Not that I'm lookin' at the note pad if ya know what I mean (A-HOOOOGA). So much for serious criticism.

The Platinum Collection version is actually from a dupey 16mm NTA print (Olive's is UM&M 35)

I can confirm too the Olive Betty Boops generally sound better than we've heard them before too. BETTY BOOP'S HALLOWEEN PARTY still contains the same distortion as it did in 'The Definitive Collection' set of the 1990's (a problem it shared with  BETTY BOOP'S UPS AND DOWNS) but nothing too awful. Many, like BETTY BOOP'S PENTHOUSE, have never sounded better. 

So, what could have been a total disaster is instead a first rate job with only one serious problem that can be easily fixed.  My hope is that they correct the problem for future volumes and, should they go to a second pressing (or a box set), fix the problem (by slight 'pillar' boxing) in the effected Volume 1 (and Volume 2?) cartoons then.  BETTY BOOP THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION is not "unwatchable" as has been suggested but a job so close to being perfect* deserves to go for the gold. As far as the choice of cartoons: well, if I were picking my personal 'Essential' mix (keeping in mind I am a freak)  it wouldn't be all that different from what was chosen by Olive. Many are decrying the lack of bonus features. They would be nice but I felt the  Popeye documentaries and "Popumentaries" to be, for the most part, pretty lackluster and not adding anything so significant as to justify their expense. I personally never watch 'em. 

*-rereading this it sounds like I'm minimizing the error. The content has been severely altered from what the film makers intended and should be corrected.


I know restoration of the titles is not on the minds of Olive or Paramount for these discs. That's fine by me but, if I were Olive, I'd ask Paramount to call in the favor from Warners for loaning out Betty Boop clips for their OUT OF THE INKWELL: THE FLEISCHER STORY documentary and get the "into the inkwell" footage that closed out many of the early Fleischer cartoons. They survived uncut on some of the early Popeyes such as I YAM WHAT I YAM. Heck, they restored the opening Para logo too. Be good to have anyways for any future Fleischer projects. And wouldn't it be great if I HEARD had it's beginning and ending back? Of course it was probably something more in line with a cheque delivered by courier rather than a favor. But, hey, a guy can dream can't he?

Title for I YAM WHAT I YAM


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Olive Films' Betty Boop

Only one grievance. Every Olive disc has so far made use of an original poster for the covers of their discs. It would be nice to see one used for this release also. This image is a little too close to the multitude of Betty PD issues that have proliferated through the years.

Yesterday on their Facebook page, Olive films  announced their first volume of officially licensed Betty Boop cartoons: Betty Boop The Essential Collection Volume 1. The journey of ownership of the Fleischer cartoons is a long and convoluted one but, needless to say, all the Fleischer cartoons (minus 'Popeye' and 'Superman') are now controlled by Paramount: a studio which in previous years has shown the least interest of all the studios in reissuing their extensive back catalog. Fortunately, in recent years, this attitude has started to change by an arrangement between Paramount with a small video distributor: Olive Films. Personally I've only ever seen one Olive disc, last year's release of 'The Space Children', and I am happy to report it was a beautiful transfer with a solid monural soundtrack!

frame grab from 'The Space Children' 

Refreshing news since lately some of the smaller video companies have taken to 'improving' their classic releases with disastrous results. For example, Kino's release of 'Bird of Paradise', a south seas picture from 1932, had it's soundtrack remixed into a kind of mutant stereo that rendered it practically inaudible. I read here the same company  made use of a kind of video 'restoration' on their  release of 'White Zombie' (also 1932) that comes off as highly amateurish and ultimately ruinous. Even Criterion's release of 'Island of Lost Souls' (another early Paramount film now owned by Universal) used either an inferior print to that used in the 1990's reissue or mishandled the new materials as to obliterate background detail, increase visible scratches and the coarseness of the film grain considerably. 

Charles Laughton sips tea in this frame grab from the Universal/MCA video tape release of 'Island of Lost Souls'. Note the window behind him.

The same scene from the Criterion release shows considerable scratches. And what happened to the window? 


Since I've made this post a bit of a rogue's gallery of bad re-mastering I thought I should add an example of DVNR: a system of image correction from the 1990's which was intended to remove dirt and scratches but, inadvertently wiped out lines and detail which were intended by the Fleischers to be seen. A more sensitive version of this must exist by now (over a decade since the last BB set) but, even so, would only be as good as the individual operating it. Unfortunately (or, actually, fortunately) I don't still have my atrocious ROAN 'restoration' of PD favorite' "Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe" to show here. There the dirt removal program was adjusted so objects which were white or light (like high lights, reflections, etc.) burned so hot as emanate a radioactive glow which swallowed anything near it. Nothing like watching a scene where half the actor's face has been melted off by the table lamp he sits next to!

 'Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle' from VHS volume "Pre-Code" with  DVNR. Note the 'erased' line on Bimbo's foot and on the right eye.

Same frame from the preferable non-DVNR "Collector's Edition" laser disc. 

Many on-line are decrying Jerry Beck's lack of involvement with this release* but I don't see this as serious problem. He knows the cartoons but how well versed is he in the technical aspects of film restoration? In that area Steve Stanchfield, also not involved, knows quite a bit more. It's safe to say there are others, working professionally within the industry, who understand the balance of restraint in the remastering of old films. Does the odd selection of titles indicate a list of prints in the best condition or is it for some other reason? Personally I will enjoy having 'Betty Boop's Penthouse' without the transfer flaw (a 'skip' following Betty's toweling off) that I understand is present on all the old Republic VHS and laser discs. Every Paramount DVD reissue I've seen has been a first class operation, be it 'War of the Worlds', 'Sunset Boulevard' or 'The Space Children'. Here's hoping Betty Boop will shine as well.

*-Thad made some good clear points on this on my FB page: "I don't think the problem isn't so much "Jerry Beck isn't involved with this release", but "Jerry Beck doesn't know anyone involved with this release," which does not bode well. Olive has put out some nice stuff (albeit, the Jerry Lewis discs are really expensive considering the grunginess of the transfers), so I'll just have to wait and see. Twelve cartoons for $19.99 though?  I'm still hopeful for a good job, however, even if it is a bit of a marketing misstep. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Color Classic V. Silly Symphonies Pt.2: The Rambling Conclusion...

Welcome back to my brain. It's scary in here. 

Back again to wrap up my series of posts on the oft maligned Fleischer Color Classics. In my previous post I ran down all the color series of the '30's in the order in which they appeared  with  the Fleischers falling roughly in the middle of the Silly Symphony-like craze that exploded during the mid-thirties. That in itself is not important to the subject of this post.  What I am referring to is not only  how the content and approach of the Color Classics  differ from the Silly Symphonies but how they fit, logically, into the overall history of Fleischer Studios. 

In terms of advertising there was no-one to beat Disney. Still, the Fleischers produced some gorgeous ads and posters for their cartoons. Image: Greenbriar Picture Show.

One of the things that I think is important is how attitudes and aims towards animation differed at the two studios. From the accounts of the animators who worked there, Disney was a place which strove to draw a direct line between life drawing and life animation. The films of the 30's, and particularly the Silly Symphonies, are often described in terms of their training value.  Of course, any animator of note who worked during the brutal golden age of animation had  professional art training. The difference at Fleischers was what that meant and how it effected the films.   The above entry in 'The Animated News' sheds some light on what I mean. Reading down from left to right  you will see a gradual change in opinion from "I have known people who have become good animators without any art school education"   to "No one can have too much art school training". In between Sparber and Waldman sweat it out. Like everything else in The Animated News the spirit is always in fun and is intended to be humorous as well as informative. All the same, Max's comments suggest a certain humility consistent with his letter, reprinted in my sidebar,  to animator Shamus Culhane. 

Is this blue collar enough for ya? A neighborhood so dangerous that weapons fall from the sky. Row! Row! Row! (Screen Song1930)

  Without any sort of corroboration (check my first post back in 2007: this blog has always been my opinion not a sworn-on-a-stack-of-bibles history lesson) I've always suspected this may have been because Max saw his studio as a maker of comedy shorts. Just as Mack Sennett or Hal Roach (two studios which also encouraged a familial working atmosphere)  approached the content of their short subjects in an unpretentious kind of way, so too I believe Max approached the making of his cartoons. Comedy as it applied to the silent and early sound era was often broad. Movies were generally the entertainment of the working class and poor who liked to see themselves reflected in the entertainment they consumed.  Hailing as they did from working class and poor backgrounds it wasn't difficult for the Fleischer artists (aided by Dave Fleischer) to oblige in creating comic situations that would have been completely foreign, or at least distasteful, to the deans of higher culture  as they existed in the early 30's. While professional art training was an essential ingredient, the Fleischer cartoons took their inspiration not from the academy but from working class entertainments such as vaudeville, burlesque, dime museums, circus sideshows and others. As it happens this lineage is also an essential part of appreciating  the less apparent values of the Color Classics.

What th' hell is this? Terry-eyed pigs dance like idiots in 'Three Little Pigs'.

So, when 'The Three Little Pigs' opened to rave reviews and box office busting returns, it must have come as a bit of a shock to the Fleischer artists. The Silly Symphonies which directly preceded it were unremarkable, and comedically slight,  so there was no reason that they that they should have seen a threat. The business was changing though as the production code began to be enforced. Though introduced in 1930, most of the Hollywood studios didn't actually begin to implement the code until 1934: the first year the Color Classics. So, at the very same time the Silly Symphonies were being lauded for their wholesome and code-friendly content (a message shrewdly echoed in  Disney educational cross-promotion), the Fleischers found themselves faced with two problems: to clean up their existing series and to launch a new one in a in a style with which they weren't familiar.  

Gag cartoon from the Animated News shows animators falling like soldiers before 'The Curse'.

However, more things were changing direction at Fleischer's than just the cartoons. A quick scan through The Animated News, which ran during the height of The Color Classics, indicates the mid thirties as a time when a lot of  Fleischer artists were getting married and starting families.  At this point, babies and little kids not only started appearing regularly in the animated films but  in the personal greeting cards and gag cartoons exchanged by animators. In fact one recurring Animated News feature, 'Down Studio Lane', dedicated itself almost exclusively with romantic gossip and wedding announcements.  Something must have been  softening as artists rushed home after work to be with spouses  and children for the first time in their lives.  In that sense it's not surprising that a sentimental series like the Color Classics should have been created around this time.

Domesticity comes to the wild men of Fleischers.  1936 issue of The Animated News

Yet there remained a giddy freakishness to the films. While the Silly Symphonies  pressed  further towards a more studious and realistic approach, the Fleischer artists continued to draw upon the same none-too-wholesome influences as they had for years.  After all, Fleischer Studios was a part of a larger New York commercial art export (which included two other animation studios as well as being the nexus of advertising and newspaper comic strip work) that had come to define comic drawing in the years since the turn of the century. This definition automatically accepted the grotesque as both humorous and a draw for the curious.   The Fleischer style was not one deliberately mandated, as with Disney, but one which had evolved slowly over many years of different artists absorbing from each other within this particular milieu. Unfortunately, it's the way that  this funny style of drawing  came to be used that has caused much of the confusion in some latter day assessments of the Color Classics. While some of the cartoons are clearly tongue in cheek, as with 'Fresh Vegetable Mystery''Greedy Humpty Dumpty' and 'Chicken a la King', others follow a straight sentimental narrative as with 'Somewhere in Dreamland''Song of the Birds' and 'Musical Memories'  yet all are drawn in variants of the same style.  So, on the whole,  the messages sent by Color Classics are decidedly mixed. 

Practically every studio did a variation on the cherub but only Fleischers covered theirs in so many loving wrinkles. 'Song of the Birds' (1935)

'Greedy Humpy' (a character modeled after Dave Fleischer!) begs the question: who ate who first-the chicken or the egg?

Jack Mercer delivered a truly disturbing vocal performance (a cross between Popeye and Mae West) as 'Ducky Wucky' in 'Chicken a la King'. 

Meanwhile, at Disney, there was evidently no such contradiction. The Silly Symphonies had begun in the late 20's with real verve and comic life but by the mid-30's this approach was being phased out in favor of  a more realistically drawn style of movement.  Some had cohesive stories, others not. Many amounted to not much more than tableaus of cute animals or babies frolicking interminably for seven minutes. And all without the inventive gags or unusual set-ups that kept Color Classics from from being mired in a similar soup.   The animation had it's moments of inspiration, as with Max Hare, but also a choppy and forced quality. One thing about Fleischer characters is they always looked comfortable in the worlds they inhabited! Alternatively, Disney characters of the mid and even late 30's often appeared to be struggling to work themselves out of suits sewn two sizes too small. The term 'Silly Symphony' even lost  it's meaning for a while as the cartoons focused zealously on 'character' animation over any sort of musical constraint. 

Here's an expression I'd like to see less of in animated shows these days. 'The Robber Kitten' (1935) 

 'The Flying Mouse' (1934) looks wistfully at something.

By the late '30's the Silly Symphonies began to show the more polished animation look of the 40's. However, the overall Disney process was so deeply mired in naturalism, in the strictest sense, that a promising cartoon like 'Mother Goose Goes Hollywood'  ended up being handled in a highly prosaic manner. Other cartoons of that later period, like 'Barnyard Symphony' and 'The Ugly Duckling'  were so concerned with the study of real animal movement as to become  virtually mundane. Even the backgrounds began to resemble the sort of water colors one might find as plates in a botanical textbook of the late 19th century.  Academia had certainly come to Disney's - and how!

 A Disney animator tries to interpret Stan's subtle comic movement into a complex set of overlapping muscles. Yeesh. This kind of mistake still happens today and has sometimes been confused with 'the uncanny valley' effect.

This scene from the last Silly Symphony 'The Ugly Duckling' (1939) demonstrates how focused on naturalism the studio had become and how mundane the result.

Pathos was certainly new territory for the Fleischer artists.  All the same the Color Classics of the strictly cute/melodramatic variety are surprisingly effective thanks mostly to the ease, and simplicity, with which the artists delineated their work. If anything they stayed safely within the kind of movement and design that the artists found comfortable to work in. As a result, the cartoons do have a certain believability within the context of what they are. For some, however, excepting such story content told in the language of a Fleischer cartoon is difficult. For others, that such content should even exist in a Fleischer cartoon reeked of insincerity. But how is it that the Disney artists were so much more sincere? They were sincerely chasing realistic movement, that's for sure, but one wonders if they would have chosen such syrupy material as the Silly Symphonies had they been left to their own devices?

Cuteness in Fleischer cartoons was not without precident either. Many of the earlier Betty Boops and Screen Songs had, in fact, featured cute animals and situations. 'Small Fry' (1939)

 Tying it all together, of course, was the exceptional music. The Terrytoons, Walter Lantz, and Schlesinger cartoons could have lively scores but lacked nuance. At Columbia scores were reused with such regularity that even by the late 30's the cartoons were still using cues composed for the early Scrappy and Toby cartoons. The Disney scores had, in fact, inspired a derogatory term in the parlance of soundtrack composition: Mickey Mousing. This term, usually defined as the literal following of screen action with instruments, would later define most of Carl Stallings 1950's scores. Of course, Disney did have a handful of cartoons with with nuanced musical scores but most of them come off flat and ticky tacky sounding. Their period of great music was yet to come.


A review of 'Musical Memories' from The Fleischer Animated News was only half right. "Musical Memories is realistic in it's theme. In it's treatment it is high fantasy.

Definitely not realistic drawing. All the same, there is genuineness: a cartoon about good old New York by good old New Yorkers. 'Musical Memories' (1935)

'The Modernistic Home' mentioned in the review of Musical Memories above (taken from The Animated News) was, of course, a reference to a Fleischer invention that had come to be used more often in the Color Classics than any other Fleischer cartoon series: the tabletop camera. Often referred to in publicity as "The Third Dimensional Effect", the unique apparatus was first used in the 1934 debut Color Classic 'Poor Cinderella'.  The process must have offered a certain novelty over the competing Silly Symphonies as Disney himself would respond with a device of his own three years later (a downward variation of Iwerks' multi-plane camera) in 1937's 'The Old Mill'.  However, even in this element the object was always to give a more heightened reality to the films. This is a crucial difference: Fleischers' tabletop sequences were about heightening fantasy.

Clearly a cartoon world. Dancing on the Moon' (1935)

The Cinecolor  jungle and circus poster design of 'An Elephant Never Forgets' (1935) 

This is not to say the Color Classics were incapable of creating a serious mood. In fact the Fleischer cartoons of the early 30's could be extremely moody thanks to Erich Schenk and his crew. When it came time to make the switch to color, the background artists demonstrated as sophisticated an ability with color, to create mood, as they had with the limited tones of the black and white films. However, there also emerged a more cohesive cinematic approach with angles, wipes, cuts etc. chosen for their emotional impact as they never had before.  Many of these techniques would go on to influence the later Superman and Famous cartoons and can be seen as one of the vital links between the early and late period Fleischer styles.

A moody high angle shot from 'Hawaiian Birds'  (1936). Though rarely discussed there was quite a bit of experimentation going on in the Color Classics.

'Hawaiian Birds' 

"All's Fair at the Fair" (1938) anticipates the sort of art deco influenced science fiction elements which would give the later Superman cartoons their distinctive look.

Of course the series had it's crass copies, as all the studios did, of earlier Disney successes. I'm certainly not suggesting 'Peeping Penguins' (1937)  was conceived as much more than a knock off of the much earlier Silly Symphony 'Peculiar Penguins' (1934). Still there remained a satirical edge to the Fleischer version in the 'Restricted Neighborhood' sign on the penguins' door.  Others with  similar titles that invite comparison, such as Disney's 'Funny Little Bunnies' (1934) vs. Fleischers' 'Bunny Mooning' (1937),  reveal films which are actually quite different in story, design and approach. 

This satiric gag is sometimes removed in DVD issues of 'Peeping Penguins' (1937).

Of course there is no denying the Color Classics would have never existed if not for the Silly Symphonies. It must have seemed as though it was time to step up or be left in the commercial dust. Was it Paramount's idea or Max seeing the leverage to further expand his operation and develop even more spectacular camera processes?  Hey,  boffo B.O. is boffo B.O. after all. Why should they leave it to some goddamn pigs! Perhaps the animators wondered, however briefly, why things were changing before sensibly shifting gears with the steady paycheck. They never thought of the Color Classics as more than production films and few could remember on what cartoons they animated. To them the mid 30's was a bunch of scene folders with production prefixes like C, B, S or P (Color Classics, Betty Boop, Screen Song, Popeye)  that were dutifully checked off on list after list after list. There wasn't the contemplative (we are told anyway) purposeful atmosphere of Disney. These were guys trying get as much as they could before the cartoon bubble burst. While it is impossible to know what would have become of the Fleischer cartoons had Disney not embarked on his Silly Symphonies, what we have is a series which shows more restraint than the earlier cartoons while retaining, in subtler ways, the sardonic humor that made those cartoons great.   

Old man swan wants to give you a big geriatric hug. 

 It is in the unique Fleischer interpretation that the enjoyment of the Color Classics is found. They may have been high fantasy but often reflected  1930's working class life with it's corner toughs, shady establishments and combination excitement and worry about technology. In short, the Color Classics contained more real world conflict.  And don't get me wrong - I like a lot of things about Disney but, really,  which do you think is more sincere:


Or This?

Trade ad for  'An Elephant Never Forgets' (Color Classic, 1935) 

Setup from 'Christmas Comes But Once a Year' (Color Classic, 1936)