25 May 2009

Felix Down Under: The Oily Bird Comic Strip

From kat to cat: it's time to bring one of my all-time favorite cartoon stars to this blog. Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat was one of the first animated characters who really acted—emoting to the audience, nodding and winking and turning viewers into co-conspirators. Who didn't want to go on an adventure with this wonderful cat? And those adventures... ranging from wacky comedy to truly far-flung fantasy. I've been a classic Felix buff since childhood—and the Silver Age Felix of Joe Oriolo, replete with funny bad guys and Jim Tyer animation, deserves his bon mots, too. Apart from these screen incarnations, Felix had just as rich a life in the comics, with Messmer, Oriolo, and Tyer once again contributing most of the great moments.

But there was another Felix besides those we know so well. From 1927 to 1931, Felix's then-new daily strip featured stories drawn largely from recent cartoons—in adaptations so close you'd think actual animation drawings were used. And they were! Early Messmer assistant Jack Bogle was called upon to create these continuities, and his process evidently involved choosing the "best" frames from each scene, then reinking them and adding comics details such as dialogue and extra shading. But the stories, though near to their inspiration, weren't exact. Their dialogue, dense where Messmer's was sparse, painted Felix as a kind of smart-alecky hick—an interpretation that appeared nowhere else. No Felix but Bogle's babbled "The Night Before Christmas" every time he got knocked unconscious. And no Felix but Bogle's had a canine sports coach pal named Julius, who featured in several Bogle continuities that weren't adapted from films.

Very few of Bogle's continuities have ever been anthologized in the United States. But curiously enough, Australia's Adventures of Felix comic book couldn't get enough of them in the late 1930s and early 1940s. That comic book's annual extras provided the striking covers I'm displaying here today, and that comic also offered the complete Bogle continuity seen below, an adaptation of The Oily Bird (1928) that originally ran from October 24 to November 3, 1928.

"Luke McCluck, a barnyard chicken, enters the house for no good reason..."

Nothing more to see here—keep on walking! (To the official Felix website, where their Oriolo "Comic Strip of the Day" features vintage 1950s strips... with Felix as almost a feline Dagwood.)

15 May 2009

Not the Funniest Freleng: Krazy's Port Whines

Travel and intense research have me busy this week, so I haven't had much of a chance to post. But for your amusement (?) and edification, here now is Port Whines (1929), another of the earliest Columbia Krazy Kat shorts—and another that hasn't been seen with sound in decades.

See Jerry Beck's earlier post on Ratskin (1929) for the inside information on where the video element comes from (and why it looks the way it does). Thanks to Cole Johnson—and by extension, the Vitaphone Project—for supplying the audio. As before, I handled the editing, and while the two elements didn't always match, I did my best to stretch and splice and sync things up as they should be. The video element has British main titles, fascinating enough in and of themselves that I didn't want to put faux Columbia originals in their places.

Port Whines isn't the most exciting cartoon we'll ever see. Only a few moments of delightfully crude violence save us from a rather basic musicale. In fact, even as a song cartoon the film falls short; while Ratskin featured a lively mix of popular songs, the body of Port Whines is dominated by the public domain "Life on the Ocean Wave," "Sailing, Sailing," and "Pop Goes the Weasel."

Only the main title tune, "Me-Ow," is a licensed number—and even it would soon be replaced with Mintz's self-owned similar cue, "You Are the Kat's Meow" (first used in Kat's Meow, 1930).

Perhaps the most interesting moment comes at 3:45, where the rooster's smoke ring stunts look to be animated by none other than Friz Freleng. Freleng worked with Mintz's New York staff in 1929 while waiting for Harman and Ising to sell their Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid (1929) pilot; in Port Whines, Freleng's obviously West Coast, Oswald-inspired design style clashes with the other animators' work. By Farm Relief (1929), however—just two shorts later—the rest of the Krazy staff seems to be imitating Freleng, with various degrees of success. The trend would only continue when the studio moved west in early 1930, and more Los Angeles animators joined the relocated crew.

It's no mean tribute to Freleng, especially at this early stage of his career, that his brief sojourn at a foreign studio should have had such an influence. The formerly Fleischerian stock company of earlier Harrison and Gould, with its truly bizarre elephant and hippo characters, would never be quite the same.

09 May 2009

Sketches For Fethry Duck's First Appearance

Disney comics' "S-coded" story production program—S for Disney studio—began in 1962. George Sherman, head of Disney’s Publications Department, had heard that the Disney comic book stories being produced in the United States weren't enough to fill the overseas comics. Sherman hired Tom Golberg to supervise the making of new stories principally for foreign use. Dick Kinney, former story man on Disney shorts and numerous TV cartoons, was one of the series' chief writers. In a 1964 S-coded story, "The Health Nut," Kinney and artist Al Hubbard (Scamp, Mary Jane and Sniffles) created Fethry Duck, one of my favorite Disney characters.

Donald's faddist cousin is Duckburg’s most highly motivated citizen. To meet Fethry is to be smothered by his craze of the moment: an exciting new hobby, a protest against society’s ills, or the urge to attain enlightenment, just to name the most typical types of obsessions. Alas, while infinitely well-meaning, Fethry is also unknowingly clumsy, thoughtless, and tactless—so the more exposure one has to his interests, the more punishment one takes. Enter Donald, whom Fethry considers his favorite relative. Fethry is simply determined to expose Donald to as many of his interests as possible. Uh-oh!

Today I'm sharing the earliest Fethry drawings I know to exist. Several years ago, the Disney studio briefly sold publications development art on eBay. The intent was to unload material that had already been documented by Disney, but a previously lost box of especially early S-coded production materials was discovered in the process. Among them was Dick Kinney's scribble-script to “The Health Nut,” the first five pages of which I'm reproducing here.

While I can't be sure that (as I once presumed) these are definitely the very first sketches of Fethry, they're certainly among the first, and certainly offer a look at Kinney’s developmental process that would not have been possible before. The simple, direct drawings crackle with the life and energy of animation storyboards: we can feel the raw emotion of a New Age nerd bursting onto the scene and radically revising Donald’s existence. Of course, they don't yet contain the ingredients that final story artist Al Hubbard brought to the table. Without (or before) Hubbard, Fethry's hat is almost a yarmulke; his eyes wide, his hair very different, his aggressive enthusiasm almost pugnacious.

On the back of page three, Kinney half-sketched an early trial image of Fethry with droopy eyelids (below). But it is plainly Hubbard—whose corresponding art I'm also reproducing here—who first brought the character’s classic, improbable grace to bear, and who gave him the truly baggy-eyed, lovably flaky facial features we know today. Like many unintentionally overbearing people in real life, Fethry had two extremely doting parents.

[Thanks to Alberto Becattini for details on Golberg's role. See more of Al Hubbard's comics at Thad's and Andrea's blogs. Scans of published "Health Nut" story come from Walt Disney's Comics and Stories 638 [2003], which you can buy here.]

06 May 2009

The Tammany Kat is Loose: Ratskin

Call him/her whatever gender you will—George Herriman's Krazy Kat is cartoondom's most famous masochist. When not reveling in the dubious joys of being bonked with a brick, Krazy is willfully undergoing other embarrassments. Employing Felix the Cat's voice double is just one example.

Jerry Beck, blogging at Cartoon Brew, is just now featuring a cartoon I've helped him "restore"—Ratskin (1929), Krazy's first sound short at Columbia. The Vitaphone Project recently recovered the film's long-lost soundtrack; Beck had his amateur video recording, and doing a little editing, I've aided in reuniting the two. And who knew? The usually far more kreative Krazy howls and yowls in a comically awful house cat impersonation, notable for its similarity to the poorly-received Felix "voice" Pat Sullivan employed at the time. Did the same actor meow badly for two New York studios? What was Charles Mintz thinking?

Maybe he felt it was the only way to tie into a famous song on the soundtrack! Ratskin is the first of many cartoons I know to enlist "Me-Ow," a 1909 pop tune by Harry Kerr and Mel B. Kaufman. Sylvester, Bosko, and Farmer Al Falfa have gamboled to this chestnut so often that almost every animation fan knows the melody—if not its name and theme. Here, courtesy of the invaluable UCSB Cylinder Archive, is Irving Kaufman performing the tune ten years after its creation:

Apart from being catchy in and of itself. "Me-Ow" exemplifies the bond between vintage cartoons and bygone cultural mores, a topic I'll be discussing fairly often here. In the early 1900s, cats weren't just household pets; they were equally common as strays, and thus seen as symbols of illness, savagery, and feral behavior. Of course, such behavior often mandated societal "punishment." So the image of the cat as comedic fall guy was also born at this time—but with an undercurrent of grotesque realism rarely present today. The drowned cat, sacked and tossed in the river, was a fact of life in 1910. So was the cat on a fence being battered with boots, and the randy cat slain by its multiple mates. In "Everybody Knows It's There," a David Reed tune recorded in 1908 by Edward M. Favor, the narrative could casually describe "every cat in town" being "slaughtered"—presumably as disease-carriers—and expect listeners simply to smile at the animals' bad luck.

In line with this, is it such a surprise that "Me-Ow!" is actually about a pet owner's unsuccessful efforts to kill his furry ward? Maybe it made Jerry Mouse's top ten.

Ratskin also features other popular songs of its era, some of which Cartoon Brew has listed for us. But I'd like to draw your attention to another that fascinates me: "Tammany." Dating from the worst period of Tammany Hall graft, Gus Edwards' and Vincent Bryan's tune likens political thugs to the lawless Indians of racist stereotype—an obvious comparison, given the Tammany society's use of Native American terminology. By the time of the later Merrie Melodie Bowery Bugs (1949), "Tammany" had simply become a tune evoking a late-19th-century slicker; in Ratskin, its original meaning was still remembered, thus its tongue-in-cheek use with an actual Wild West scenario. Here it is as performed by Billy Murray, later the voice of Bimbo, in 1905:

Hmm, it seems I've strayed rather far from Coconino County here. Then again, so would Columbia's version of Krazy Kat. Quick, Ignatz... the brick!

[Updated—thanks to Cole Johnson for corrections re: the Tammany society's Native American connection.]

02 May 2009

All's Well in Lilliput

Though today, the Fleischer studio feature Gulliver's Travels (1939) strikes me as a gently enjoyable missed opportunity, the tiny land of Lilliput was hot stuff at the time of the film's first release. Hot enough, anyway, for the studio to spin its Donald Duck/Grumpy morph Gabby off into a cartoon series of his own. (Everyone who's stared at a cheap drugstore VHS or DVD rack is sure to have encountered Fire Cheese [1941] sooner or later. I bet half of them are still mystified by its title—but I digress...)

I bumped into this Look Magazine preview of Gulliver in an archival collection awhile back and thought it deserved sharing. Though the source material—and thus my copies—were undated, loose pages, I've since learned that this feature was published in the January 2, 1940 issue.

Since I'm hardly an expert on the Fleischers' later days, I won't claim to know the details of the Gulliver print ad campaign—but I'm glad for any information others might provide. In the meantime, I'll check out a few more Gabby shorts on YouTube; their public domain status makes them perennials, and it's amazing just how many modern tweens and teens have posted comments in praise of the little blowhard. He's almost achieved the lasting popularity now that he failed to attain in the old days.

Max and Dave might be proud... if they could watch those deep red Eastman Color prints without wincing. Is everybody hap-hap-happy?

01 May 2009

Oswald's Bright Lights, Big City

Uh-oh, it's here. A few of my friends have been awaiting and/or dreading the inevitable post on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. I've spent quite awhile chasing rare cartoons from this early Disney (and then Winkler, and then Lantz) series, and the character's a personal favorite, too: a feisty, often frustrated little guy who finds trouble by trying to be smarter and slicker than he actually is. Not so different from Bosko or the early Mickey, sure—but Oswald, a creature of the silent era, didn't have to stop everything to play music on barrels and lily pads twice a minute. In retrospect, it means that the films are less repetitive and have more time to spend on gags and story.

At the start, the series also benefited from Disney's drive to innovate: I'd argue that at the time, no other studio had both personality animation and production values at the same high levels. From my perspective, many outfits (Sullivan, Fleischer) had one but not the other.

Of course, I'll never claim any era of Oswald is gold. As with many pre-Tex Avery cartoons, the pacing can be sluggish. Sound later led to the same tedious songs and dances that so many studios employed. And from about 1931, Oswald lost his puckish nature and became just another leading man—eventually cutesy and dull, too, with his remaining good cartoons being good for reasons other than Oswald's presence in them. Avery's Towne Hall Follies (1935) is a clever short in which the rabbit could be damn near anybody, and would have been funnier as Bimbo.

Here's a cartoon from when Oswald was still somebody. Bright Lights (1928), with its elaborate stage show and multiple-character action, looks like the kind of picture that won audiences to the series and gave Charles Mintz apoplectic fits: why couldn't this be done cheaper? The rubes will never know the difference!

On DVD, Bright Lights was mastered from a print with many scenes that weren't in other surviving copies—but that appeared to be a bit out of order. For this version I've used a studio draft (thanks, Mark Kausler) to approximate what I think the original intent may have been. The music you'll hear concludes with Charles Dornberger and his orchestra performing "Tiger Rag"—you'll have to ignore the fact that the animals on-screen are lions and a leopard. And what better 1920s tune for an ape bandleader to conduct than "The Monkey Doodle-Doo"?

A tip of the hat, by the way, to blogger colleague Ryan Kilpatrick, who's just now blogging about the Oswald shorts at his Disney Film Project blog. Ryan is relatively new to 1920s Disney cartoons, and is introducing himself to them by experiencing the vast majority in chronological order—an experience that wouldn't have been possible just five years ago. Thanks to Leonard Maltin's Walt Disney Treasures DVDs (with help from Tom's Vintage Film silents collections!), it can be done today, and I envy Ryan for having the opportunity.

You can go here to buy the Oswald Treasures DVD: a project I was honored to consult on—and for which I didn't want to suggest that scenes be given an iffy reshuffling at the last second (Bright Lights was acquired very late in the game). A blog, on the other hand, is just the place for such gnarly science experiments.