Monday, November 23, 2020

Rubber Hose: WTF Happened?

Uncle John's Winter Retreat
Greetings snow drifts and racoons rifling through a dumpster! I’m back! Did you miss me? Are you done with that pizza box? I know it's been awhile. Here at Uncle John LLC we don't want to publish any post before it's time. It's the quality we're famous for. 

But before I get started I just wanted to clear up some old business. It seems that, way back yonder when I wrote my post on cinematic Popeyes, I managed to write the entire thing without once mentioning Jack Mercer! The man who voiced Popeye for decades was, by all accounts, a really sweet guy who understood the responsibility he held as ambassador to a character beloved by children. His gentle and somewhat urbane personality reflected more and more in the Popeye cartoons as the decades wore on. I still feel that Segar is the last word on Popeye’s personality, and Fleischers’ likewise on Popeye's animated version, but there’s no denying the impact Mercer had on generations of kids discovering Popeye - including me! Okay, now on with the show...

 I’m not entirely sure when the term ‘rubber hose’ came into use to describe the rubbery animation of the early 1930’s. I don’t think it was used at the time the cartoons were made. The oft cited (but somewhat false) narrative is that Mickey Mouse was the sole reason for why cartoons looked the way they did. There’s a lot of truth to that. However, inkblot, gloved and pie-eyed characters existed before Mickey.  Established studios like Fables and Fleischer, for instance, exerted at least as powerful an influence on the look of cartoons of the period.  Nowadays ‘rubber hose’ is used as a generic catch-all to describe a few specific signifiers. Pie-cut eyes? Floppy shoes? Three-fingered gloves? Double-bounce cycle? It’s rubber-hose.

There's no denying the impact this guy (and gal) had on generations of cartoon designs.

Equally influential (but a better series): Fleischer's Popeye. 

I love Preston Blair's work, especially at the Mintz Studio, and his instructional books are indispensable but I don't recall the double bounce cycle showing up that often in 30's cartoons. 

 'Funny Face', 'Nurse Maid' and, later on, Tom Turkey's Harmonica Humdingers come to mind ... but not much else.

It always seemed strange to me that a period with diverse approaches should get crunched into such a specific list. Then I considered another common catch-all  related to the content. Not something so much in the literature as a quirk in how I hear people casually discuss old cartoons: as really dirty. Were they linked? Consider that the pre-code era of filmaking is often touted as loaded with sexual content that was crushed out by the code. Yet, none contained the sort  of hard-R material  that’s relatively common today.  Pre-code cartoon plot lines (such as they were) or isolated gags were merely suggestive. There’s no indication that, in the years before the code was enforced,  the cartoons (or films in general) were racing towards explicit material. So how did merely racy cartoons begin to be interpreted as pornographic? It seems to me that it starts with one specific artist.

 Betty Boop in 'Red Hot Mamma' (1934). This is about as racy as it ever got in the Betty Boop series. A little chauvinist I guess (Willard Bowsky directed) but far from pornographic.

Subtle humor from a 1930's pornographic (AKA unauthorized) comic of Betty Boop. So it existed ... but hardly in the main stream.
Underground comix artist R. Crumb is often associated with the 1930’s in spite of beginning his career in the 1960’s. His range of influences  is actually pretty wide: from 50’s Mad Magazine cartoonists like Basil Wolverton and Harvey Kurtzman to 19th century (and earlier) engravers. But the 30’s ‘rubber hose’ influence has always been apparent. The artist himself has never denied so.  His stories often featured the explicit sexual antics of pie-cut eyed or ‘big-shoe’ characters. In my opinion it’s here that X-rated content got misinterpreted as an  expression of something earlier, like his drawing style, rather than a manifestation of Crumb's own sexual preferences and neuroses.

 Crumb broke with tradition by adding genitals to 1930's type characters. Many of his comics were overtly pornographic. The image above calls to mind a Bosko cartoon called 'Sinkin' In the Bathtub' (1930) . Note also the eyes like Popeye at the top of this post.
Crumb characters sported the big floppy shoes which characterized 30's rubber hose animation.
So the perception of 30’s ‘rubber hose’ changed into a cult item and it’s graphic tropes began to be associated with the 1960's counter culture. For many of that generation Crumb INVENTED the style. Still, it remained underground. By the time Matt Groening’s hugely successful Simpsons characters brought those familiar graphic tropes to a new generation the counter culture who grew up with Crumb’s Zap Comix were forming the establishment. The underground was ready to go main stream.  Like Crumb, who likely was an influence, Groening’s characters acted out scenarios which would have been totally foreign to 1930’s cartoon makers. His approach was to sublimate much of the action and replace it with satiric dialog. The overt sexual content was gone (network TV after all) but there was more than a whiff of Crumb’s sometimes cerebral humor. It is perhaps notable that Groening had started as an underground cartoonist himself: drawing ‘Life In Hell’ for years prior to entering animation.
Victor Moscoso (a fellow Zap artist with Crumb) illustrated this 1960's handbill for a midnight screening of cartoons.  I wonder what the 'raincoat crowd' (if you're under 30 Google it) felt when they realized they  actually bought a ticket to Gertie The Dinosaur? Don't answer that!

One of the graphic tropes of rubber hose to have crossed the generations: grill teeth.
The Simpsons was a gargantuan hit as we all know. In a nihilistic twist, the show even took a few episodes to mock 1930’s cartoons. One parody, ’That Happy Cat’, posited that cartoons of the period were nothing more than 7 minute double bounce cycles!   For the many millions who saw these episodes (but never saw a Fleischer cartoon) the joke seemed to be: 30’s cartoons are stupid, like a 1950’s grade Z science fiction film, whose only value is in their derision.  It was a fine distraction from the fact that Simpsons' animation in it's first 10 years could be quite sloppy. As Bart would say: ‘Cheap shot, man’.
Old cartoons are boring. One of The Simpsons' rubber hose parodies: "That Happy Cat"
Happy Meal colored and rubber limbed: Bart Simpson.
The style may have finally found it’s implosion date in 2017. By that time The Simpsons had been airing 28 years (!) and a generation of kids had grown up with yet another rubber-hose inspired character: Nintendo’s Mario. For them rubber-hose was a shattered style that had been re-fed to them in countless variations. The Moldenhauer brothers answer to this was combine everything into one stew: the video game Cuphead. Though it had some  beautiful individual pieces of animation (the animators did their homework!)  Cuphead lacked a guiding visual hand for the game as a whole. The result was a crawling mess of disparate parts. In that sense  it represents yet another muddying of the waters as chaos becomes the association with rubber-hose animation of the 30’s. Cartoons of that period may have been strange but were certainly not chaotic.  Even the teeming mice of 1930's Terrytoons did so with some sort of gag-based intention. I guess what I'm getting at is that the definition of 'the rubber hose style' now includes a bunch of post 1930's stuff, either consciously or unconsciously, that might not be influencing the new rubber hose stuff for the better.  Just my opinion.
Several generations now associate 30's style gloves and shoes with video game character Mario.
The Animaniacs was another dialog heavy show that attempted to merge elements of rubber hose with a peculiar angular look common in 1990's television animation. Note the carelessly drawn hands and background color choices that fight the characters' clothing colors.

Don't get me wrong - I think it's wonderful to see Ub Iwerks Color Rhapsody 'Skeleton Frolic' get some love by the next generation of animators - Who'da thunk? But it does raise an issue of where tribute ends and plagiarism begins. Many of the Cuphead characters are not just 'in the style of' but direct lifts from old cartoons. The pumpkins in this sequence, for instance, are taken from 'Betty Boop's Halloween Party'. 
It happens quite a bit in Cuphead - in both game and merchandising. Here we see an Ed Nolan (a Fleischer animator) card traced and redressed as Cuphead. Note how the top had to be hacked off for the composition to make sense.
A busy level of Cuphead. 'Swing Wedding' (1937) was not exactly prime material for a comeback either. Were they surprised by the pushback?

Frame capture from the rig-based (as opposed to hand drawn) Cuphead show for Netflix seems to show an attempted cross with the more extreme expressions of 90's TV hit Ren and Stimpy. 
Question: Why?

Video course offered through Linkedin. I'm not sure where to begin with this one.

Pro-tip: if you're going to do a video tutorial remember to close your Tinder tab.

There’s still reason to be hopeful though. The internet has done more to spread knowledge of once arcane 30's cartoons than any other medium since the films were originally screened. A cadre of weirdos (you know their names: Beck, Thad, Gerstein, Schlesinger, Jaques et. al) has been on the front lines at various times to try and bring this stuff above the legal and economic fray or just contribute to the better understanding of the era.  Long after the Cuphead fans go back to playing ‘Call of Duty’ there will still be an embarrassment of internet reference within a few keystrokes for anyone who really wants to know the subject.  Mark my words there WILL be an awesome rubber-hose inspired film in the future. With so much visible that was hidden for decades I think it’s impossible for there not to be.  I wonder who will do it?  Maybe it will be YOU …
 melted rubber.