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)