14 October 2010

Lost Laugh-O-Grams Found—And Shown

"Alice isn't Alice." Those three words recently marked the start of an exciting series of discoveries for me and others. But what could they mean?

Like a lot of cartoon researchers, I've long been disappointed that more of Walt Disney's 1920s Kansas City animation didn't seem to survive. Recently, though, colleagues and I have turned up some exciting discoveries—some of which, I'm pleased to announce, are about to reach public eyes after a long, long absence.

First, a bit of background. Until recently, it was believed that only four of Disney's Laugh-O-Grams fairy tale cartoons still existed: Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Cinderella, and The Four Musicians of Bremen (all 1922). It was also conventional wisdom that the fairy tales had been a series of six, released only in the United States—and perhaps only in part; for soon after buying the series from Disney, non-theatrical distributor Pictorial Clubs of Tennessee filed for bankruptcy.

But Pictorial Clubs had shady sister companies in different states. Some, it turns out, continued to distribute Laugh-O-Grams years later; all seven of them, not six. Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer (both 1922), two titles traditionally misremembered as one and the same, were actually different shorts. A 1922 press release, discovered by researcher Michael Barrier, announced that the series would include both titles; John Kenworthy noted the two titles listed as separate, completed cartoons among Laugh-O-Gram Films' bankruptcy records.

As the sound era dawned, the seven fairy tales changed owners. As early as 1991, J. P. Storm and M. Dreßler's pivotal German study Im Reich der Micky Maus included German release information for a 1929 Disney cartoon series entitled "Wuppy"; in his Animated Film Encyclopedia (2000), Graham Webb revealed an American equivalent alternately titled "Whoopee Sketches" and "Peter the Puss." Bollman and Grant were credited as producers for the New York-based Sound Film Distributing Corp.; in England, Wardour Films distributed the reels theatrically.

Webb was the first to verify that these Whoopee/Peter titles were Laugh-O-Grams retrofitted with soundtracks—with "Peter the Puss" being a new name for Disney's Julius the Cat (or his Laugh-O-Gram prototype). The Whoopee/Peter title "Grandma Steps Out" turned up in the collection of David Wyatt, and was clearly Disney's Little Red Riding Hood. Webb tagged Disney's Cinderella (1922) as the Whoopee/Peter "The Slipper-y Kid," Goldie Locks and the Three Bears (1922) as "The Peroxide Kid," and Puss in Boots as "The K-O Kid."

But there were more Whoopee/Peter titles than there were Laugh-O-Gram fairy tales. Some records suggested 12 Whoopee cartoons were released; nine made it to Germany, and Storm/Dreßler and Webb collectively found title listings for ten. Would we ever actually see the films to conclusively identify them all?

"Alice isn't Alice." In 2005, researcher Cole Johnson told me about having screened a misidentified cartoon at the Museum of Modern Art. Though tagged as Disney's Alice and the Three Bears (1924)—as it had been since its acquisition, decades before—this cartoon didn't feature a live-action Alice, as was SOP for the Alice Comedies. Instead Alice was animated. Or was it Alice? Cole believed we were seeing Goldie Locks, and the print title, "The Peroxide Kid," guaranteed it. Exceptional find, Cole.

Where one retitled print existed, might there be more? Sure enough. In time, MoMA proved to possess other previously unprovenanced reels that, when inspected, revealed Whoopee and/or Peter main titles. Now the discoveries, and confirmed identifications, flew thick and fast. Two Whoopee Sketches, "Rural Romeo" and "Egg-Splosion," turned out not to be Disney shorts. As for those that were, we already knew "Grandma" was Red Riding Hood and "Peroxide" Goldie Locks; now "The Four Jazz Boys" was confirmed as Bremen, while helpful MoMA staffers found for me that "The Cat's Whiskers" matched Disney's Puss in Boots.

Of course, if "Whiskers" was Boots, then Webb had been incorrect with one title assignment. What was "The K-O Kid"? MoMA had a film element bearing that title, but it was not screenable when I did my initial research last fall. Luckily, a 1969 MoMA plot synopsis survived—and matched up point for point with a 1924 review of Jack the Giant Killer (above), which I'd located in The Educational Screen non-theatrical exhibitors' magazine. Shortly after, another print also turned up at MoMA; now elements of both have been combined and Giant Killer properly restored and preserved.

In the shuffle, one might have forgotten Jack and the Beanstalk, on which no element has yet turned up at MoMA. With luck, however, I did locate an element in a private collection last spring; once again under its Peter the Puss title, "On the Up and Up." Thus all seven Laugh-O-Gram fairy tales have now been found.

Want to see some? Sure you do. And that leads me to more good news—some will be screened, and soon. This October 31 will bring us a Halloween treat: longtime silent film scholar and fellow cartoon researcher, Serge Bromberg, is coming from Europe for MoMA's annual To Save and Project festival, and he'll be presenting a special Laugh-O-Grams program. Along with now-preserved prints of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Four Musicians of Bremen, the newly discovered Jack the Giant Killer and Goldie Locks and the Three Bears will also be shown. Serge will provide his usual stellar background info and piano accompaniment. And as icing on the cake, later Ub Iwerks cartoons will also be at the screening, including Flip the Frog's Techno-Cracked (1933) and my personal favorite, Don Quixote (1934).

Can't make it on the 31st? Come on November 4. This is one time when cartoon research has gotten great results—for Cole Johnson, Serge, the MoMA staff, and myself.

Any other points to add? Yes: together with Beanstalk in the private collection was a print of Cinderella, restoring a long-lost final scene (at right) coming after the end of Disney's current element. Looks like Cindy and Prince Charming didn't live happily ever after.

And the latest Whoopee Sketch rundown, as of now:

(Whoopee title • original title)

"Bottle of Rum" = ?
"The Cat's Whiskers" = Puss in Boots
"Egg-Splosion" = non-Disney Bill Nolan short
"The Four Jazz Boys" = Four Musicians of Bremen
"Grandma Steps Out" = Little Red Riding Hood
"The K-O Kid" = Jack the Giant Killer
"On the Up and Up" = Jack and the Beanstalk
"The Peroxide Kid" = Goldie Locks and the Three Bears
"Rural Romeo" = non-Disney Bill Nolan short
"The Slipper-y Kid" = Cinderella

Anyone got that "Bottle of Rum"? LeChuck? Jack Sparrow?... Bootleg Pete?

Special thanks to J. B. Kaufman, Tom Stathes, Timothy Susanin, Michael Barrier, Didier Ghez, Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck, and Thad Komorowski.

04 October 2010

Mystical Felix Monday: There's More?

Hey, who said it was over? At the time our Fantastic Felix Friday celebration finished up last week, an e-mail snafu had unknowingly kept me from receiving Don Oriolo's replies for two extra Felix the Cat interview questions. But the Cat always comes back—and now Don is back, too, with one of the funniest Felix anecdotes ever. All in service, of course, to Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails, Don's new book with Yoe! Studio—an exciting collection of Otto Messmer, Joe Oriolo, and Jim Tyer Felix adventures that's available now.

What, you want another adventure here? Oh, all right. But I don't want to spoil too much. So following below is "The Great Inventor" (Four Color 135, 1946), a Felix story that's not in Great Comic Book Tails. While I don't want to state the credits with certainty, I believe pages 1-13 are largely by Otto Messmer, with inks by Otto, Joe Oriolo and possibly Jack Bogle (pages 4 and 5). Pages 14-16 are—I believe—penciled by Jim Tyer and inked by Joe.

(Comic © Felix the Cat Productions; all rights reserved.)

And now I'm back with Don for those final two questions—switching to boldface interview style now!

Don, the stories in Great Comic Book Tails seem almost to be trying to top each other for wildest adventure or most outrageous fantasy scenario. What's your own favorite from among those stories? And what would you say was your dad's most outrageous Felix cartoon story?

I love "Felix Pulls Through" (Felix the Cat 13, 1950)! I remember my father penciling and inking it like it was yesterday... I was fascinated when Felix threw the magnetic ore into the air and the cannonballs and weaponry were attracted to it, thereby veering away from Felix. I totally remember when my father drew the cluster of cannonballs all stuck together; I watched with baited breath as he inked it, and I could see it coming to life. As soon as he inked around the little reflective windows that he left white, the whole scene popped; that stuck in my head to this day! That's how I ink reflections, too.
Regarding Felix animated on the screen, I loved Master Cylinder, King of the Moon (1959)—when Master Cylinder established himself as king, it was so bizarre; that a character named after the working business of an auto brake system was crowned king of the moon. Why? I had these battles with my father all the time. His answer was, "Why not?"

So what was the most outrageous situation Felix ever got you into? These things tend to happen when he crosses our paths.

Well, it's funny you should mention that, David. About 12 years ago (seems like yesterday!) my mother got involved in investing in an "amusement" park in Palm City, Florida. The object was to have more "intellectual" exhibits for children—and to do away with traditional amusement rides, et cetera. It was more like an outdoor library than an amusement park!
And the whole construction of the park was running years over schedule; it was not looking good. Well, one of the things that my mother donated—along with the usual bricks with family members' names etched into them—was a version of "Where's Waldo?"... or rather "Where's Felix?" Yup, you heard it... I designed—and the park council produced—seven solid brass Felix statues, painted black and white. They were amazingly heavy and each one stood about three feet tall. They were actually pretty cool... but by the time they were ready, I was getting very skeptical about the plan. The principals in the park, called "Gift Gardens" after someone named Gift, were constantly bickering and replacing each other with even less efficient people. You have to understand that they actually built this thing. It was probably about 10 to 15 acres with a brand new high masonry wall around the whole bit.
The park opened without fanfare; and as I walked past the "Where's Felix" section—a nicely landscaped plot of land about thirty feet square—and looked around, I saw no press; just a handful of people and a bunch of bizarre exhibits. Whatever kids were there walked along the path with glazed looks on their faces. "Where are the rides?" I said to myself. "This does not look good."
To make a long story short: the park opened one day, and was locked tighter than a sardine can the next day! I was like, "What the heck?" It started with good intentions, but was built by do-gooders raising money from local retired people, and it also felt like maybe they did it as some kind of tax shelter scam. I was livid. I went back that afternoon and there was already graffiti on the beautiful eight-foot wall. "Okay," I said, "this confirms my suspicions; this park is going to be looted and destroyed in a matter of days." No security... it was completely abandoned.
I thought back; how would Errol Flynn get over this wall in Robin Hood? Oh, yeah... there's a ladder over there...

You saved the statues.

Yeah, you got it; I climbed over the wall, and I carried those ridiculously heavy statues from one side of the park to the front wall. One by one I placed the rescued Felix statues on the top of the wall. I was exhausted... but these were our Felix statues; we paid for them plus plus plus... and the park owners had abandoned the place. I was upset to say the least.
In any event, today those statues live in my studio and the homes of a couple of my nephews. Boy, the things we do for that Wonderful Wonderful Cat!

I'll say! Truth is stranger than fiction.

Glad to have you h— uh, glad to have you here again, Don. And speaking of strangeness; to finish off this blogpost in style, it's time to share a true Felix oddity with readers. Dating from 1924, "Since Felix Has Been Shingled" was among the earliest Felix spinoff tunes; and is rare enough that until very recently, I wasn't aware it had been recorded.
But times change. Rarities are rediscovered. And now—thanks to collector David Moore—here's England's own Clarkson Rose with the story of our favorite cat... being forced to get a lady's hairdo. Maybe fiction is stranger.

Felix has been walking since the day that he was born
And so to keep him home at nights we had to have him shorn;
We did not like to 'bob' him; he didn't look the part;
So we went and had him shingled and it nearly broke his heart.

Now Felix is shingled he won't go out of doors;
He lies on a cushion and snores, and snores, and snores.
He's canceled engagements which he'd made by the score
Since Felix has been shingled he won't walk anymore.

Felix caused great jealousy amongst the other Toms,
But since he has been shingled now, they wag their to's and froms.
He rivals them no longer among the lady cats;
He never spends his ev'nings now in other people's flats.

Now Felix is shingled he won't go out of doors;
He won't trim his whiskers, he's left off his plus fours;
The Sheik of the Tabbies in the good old days of yore
Since Felix has been shingled he won't sheik anymore.

Felix rivaled Owen Nares when he made his bow
But Felix now is owing hairs; meow! meow! meow!
Don't forget to visit my sister (brother?) blogs from last week's Fantastic Felix Friday:


Thanks Craig, and thanks Don!