Monday, May 22, 2017

Animated Antiques

Can we talk for a second? Here, pull up a chair.  It's about Fleischer Studios' Animated Antics. I should probably tell you that I've already boarded the windows and bolted the doors so escape is impossible.  .... But back to the Antics. This obscure cartoon series that ran from 1940-1941 has been regarded as one of the weakest the studio ever produced. There's something to the criticism. When one views a cartoon like "The Dandy Lion" (the first Antic produced) and compares it to other cartoons of 1940, particularly those of Warners, it's clear these cartoons are not going to break ground for anyone.  Still, they aren't that bad. In fact, a few of 'em are pretty good.

This trade ad contains possibly the least enthusiastic ad copy ever. Plus nothing says excitement like mauve.

Fleischer's Miami studio building is now evidently used as a police station. So, perps are getting roughed up where Gabby cartoons were once made. Not sure what to think about that one.

One way to better understand the Animated Antics is to understand the situation which prevailed at Fleischers at the time. While Warners had found strong creative footing based on anarchistic comedy and Disney on sentimental stories with ever more realistic animation, the Fleischers trudged on  in search of a hit. Popeye, their most successful series, remained as popular as ever but that character was owned by somebody else: King Features Syndicate.  The surreal style that had defined the best (and funniest) Fleischer cartoons of the early 30's was considered 'old hat'  by 1940 . So that was out. Betty Boop, the Fleischers' next most successful character after Popeye, had been retired in 1939. So,there was a clear need for a strong new character to fill the void. But was there a will?

Fleischer writing staff hard at work on the script for "Twinkletoes in Hat Stuff"

One difference was that at Fleischers there was no powerful consensus shaping the overall creative direction of the studio. No Walt or Tex Avery here. Animators instead contented themselves with producing high quality cartoon animation  at the behest of whatever story content had been decided first: good, bad or indifferent. Fleischers did have a staff of writers but there doesn't seem to have been a  strong impetus to corral them in any particular direction. Another problem was a seeming inability to decide exactly what kind of cartoons the studio produced: sweet sentimental films like the Color Classics or rough and tumble slapstick like Popeye.  It was a piece meal system that sometimes made for a schizophrenic selection of cartoons. 

Another factor may have been over extension. Fleischers was a studio that prided itself on hitting deadlines on or below budget. In this way they felt they could needle Disney whom they viewed as financially irresponsible. When one considers the number of Fleischer series in production in 1940 (Popeye, Stone Age Cartoons, Animated Antics, Color Classics, Gabby Cartoons as well as the full length feature Mr. Bug Goes To Town) it is something short of amazing that any of them turned out as good as they did. The predicament of keeping a full crew working on a feature while trying to meet a normal year's worth of  short subjects (something Disney knew to avoid) meant the studio was short staffed. So, big salaries were offered to lure talent from  New York and the west coast in order to handle the extra workload. Financially Max was digging himself in.

So, it's amidst this chaos that The Animated Antics were created. And yet, even a lowest ebb and thinnest resources, the quality of the animation rarely wavered below a certain level. Whatever you may feel about the stories of the Fleischer cartoons they always managed to feature skillful  animation. Besides, The Animated Antics offer more hits than misses in my opinion. F'instance....

Nice animation but a very Disney-like cartoon. Ad for 'The Dandy Lion' (1940)

Lilliputian Warden and The Three Spies in 'Triple Trouble' (1940) 

'The Dandy Lion' was the first Animated Antic to be released and was directed by Shamus Culhane and lead animated by Al Eugster.  It lifted elements from Disney's Hiawatha and stylistically it was a little too Disney-like for a Fleischer cartoon. All the same it does contain some nice animation from Eugster and crew and is worth more than a passing look. The second Culhane directed Antic 'Triple Trouble' was a cartoon starring The Three Spies (villain characters from 'Gulliver's Travels') with a jail break as it's central story line. This one was  lead animated by Nick Tafuri and is my personal pick for best Gulliver stand-alone cartoon. 

Cute parrots sure weren't anything new to animated cartoons by the early 40's. Still, a capably done cartoon: ad for 'Twinkletoes Gets The Bird' (1940)

Mad Bomber character from 'Twinkletoes: Where He Goes Nobody Knows" (1941)

Twinkletoes model sheet from 'Gulliver's Travels'

Meanwhile Dave Tendlar's crew took to expanding Twinkletoes, a minor character from  Gulliver's Travels, into a series of his own. A 'pinch hitter' among Fleischer directors, his cartoons often contained some of the strongest Fleischer animation of the late 30's.  The first of his Antics, 'Twinkletoes Gets The Bird'  benefits thusly (with help from Lead Animator Tom Golden) but suffers from a somewhat purile story about a cute parrot. Tendlar's unit was a perfect example of a crew that could handle cute as well as rougher slapstick cartoons. Such was the liquid stylistic approach of the Fleischers and the journeyman attitude of it's animators. Tendlar's second Antic 'Twinkletoes: Where He Goes Nobody Knows' is more successful (and funnier) than the first cartoon and represents one of the stronger entries in the series. It was lead animated by former Van Bueren-ite Steve Muffati.

 "Greetings gate! Would you like to Investigate?" Cult fave 'Wizard of Arts' (1941)

'Zero the Hound' (1941)

Tom Johnson's Animated Antics eschewed Gulliver spinoffs to instead concentrate on original one-off cartoons in the manner of what the Noveltoons would later be. His three swings at The Animated Antics: 'Bring Himself Back Alive',  'Zero the Hound' and 'Wizard of Arts' constitute two hits and a miss in this viewer's opinion. Like Tendlar, Johnson was a highly reliable and excellent director of many of the best Fleischer cartoons of the late 30's. Even his Wiffle Piffle Screen Songs looked great! However, 'Bring Himself Back Alive' feels rushed to me and the resulting queasiness is a feeling I've never detected in any other Johnson cartoon. As I said, just my opinion. "Zero the Hound", a standard duck hunter scenario worthy of 'Wacky Quacky' (don't ask), puts things on an even keel again with solid lead  animation by Frank Endres and crew. Everything hits pretty well in this cartoon which ends up being a strong entry to the series. 'Wizard of Arts' represented a career move for it's lead animator Jack Ozark who received his only Fleischer screen credit for this film.  A series of pun based gags based on an artist's sculptures it's one of the Antics' funniest.

 Nicely animated though somewhat interminable. I'm none the less happy it is being preserved. 'Copy Cat' (1940)

Drawings like this crack me up. The entertainingly weird "Twinkletoes in Hat Stuff' (1941)

Myron Waldman's two contributions, 'Copy Cat' and 'Twinkletoes in Hat Stuff' are not what I would call among his best cartoons. Where Waldman shone, as I see it, was in Color Classic cartoons such as the superb  'All's Fair at the Fair' and 'Hawaiian Birds'. While well animated (lead animation credited to William Henning)"Copy Cat" suffers a saccharine plot about a kitten's attempt to catch the most annoying cutesy mouse since Chuck Jones' Sniffles. It was recently  revealed that the negative for this cartoon has been discovered and is in line for a major restoration. Any professional restoration of a Fleischer cartoon should be met with bended knee IMO, and this is no exception, but I only wish it were another example. Waldman's other entry into the series, 'Twinkletoes in Hat Stuff' was the funnier cartoon of the two featuring a really weird looking Twinkletoes. Lead animation here provided by Sam Stimson.

Not a Fleischer cartoon.

'Pop and Mom in Wild Oysters' wasn't a Fleischer cartoon at all but was instead a stop motion film purchased from the Charlie Bowers Studio.  Such was the desperation of Fleischers to fill their quota. For comparison Disney released 14 short cartoons in 1940  with a feature in production while Fleischers released 37 shorts while working on their own feature: Mr. Bug. Whew.

'Mommy Loves Puppy' (1940)

Evocative scene of the spies making off through a forest with King Little's chest. "Sneak, Snoop and Snitch' (1940)

Lastly, Willard Bowsky's 'Mommy Loves Puppy' was a pretty crass attempt to mimic a Waldman style cartoon. The story, in which a drunken Walrus befriends a puppy, registers as mostly desperate*.  Bowsky's other entry, 'Sneak, Snoop and Snitch' fares a little better by showing Bowsky's ability to lay out scenes evocatively: a skill he was well regarded for within the studio. The story, which revolves around a robbery of King Little, is nothing special though the animation is somewhat better than 'Mommy Loves Puppy' and, as I mentioned, better layed out.

So, are  The Animated Antics under rated gems for which animation aficionados should debate for decades to come? Nah. Top tiers of Fleischer still belong to Betty, Popeye, Screen Songs and Color Classics as far as I'm concerned. Why anyone would think of Twinkletoes as a break-out character deserving of his own cartoons is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. In truth, these cartoons probably rank somewhere below the Pudgy but above the Gabby cartoons if you can imagine such a thing.  However, I still think the plusses outweigh the minuses.  And for a studio with a batting average like Fleischers I think they can afford a few clinkers.  That certainly isn't the worst thing ever.