Friday, August 05, 2005

Masters of Animation: Walter Lantz

Walter Lantz was born in 1900, and was by all accounts an innately talented artist. Though he attended a few courses in cartooning and animation, he was mostly self-taught; by 15 he was working in the art department of the New York American, a Hearst paper. Though he was only an office boy, he was working for the best cartoonists of the day: George McManus (of Bringing Up Father), George Herriman (of Krazy Kat), and the great Winsor McCay. In a lateral move, Lantz became a camerman (working for Gregory La Cava) for the Hearst International Film Service. Part of the point of the Service was to produce animated versions of the popular Hearst comic strips. By 18, Lantz had become a director of some of these shorts. One of the people who worked with him was Grim Natwick, working in animation for the first time.

Lantz seems to have been not only a quick study, but quite an innovator. He is now credited as being the first animator to recognize that the adaptation of comic strip to a new medium, animation, required inherent changes of method. In other words, he saw that actions speak louder than words, and cut out most of the dialogue in favor of visual gags. Without Lantz, the cartoon might not have caught on very quickly. Hearst was impressed by Lantz's innovation, but unhappy with the cost of the enterprise. In 1918, soon after Lantz began directing, the studio was shut down. Rather than go back to the print medium, Lantz decided to stick with animation and went to work for John Randolph Bray. Under Raoul Barre, Walter Lantz became an animator on the Mutt & Jeff cartoons, before directing his first Bray cartoon, Colonel Heeza Liar's Treasure Island in 1922.

Lantz continued to innovate. The Magic Lamp (1924) is the first cartoon to feature live action and animation that move at the same time. Unlike Walt Disney's Alice Comedies, in which both elements moved separately to create the illusion, Lantz was able to develop the technology in a way that allowed both elements to interact convincingly. Lantz's assitants were future Disney directors Dave Hand and Clyde Geronimi. Lantz created a few series that mixed live action with animation, Un-Natural History, the best of which was How the Elephant Got His Trunk (1925).

Bray Studios closed in 1927, but Lantz didn't stop directing. After some piece work for Hal Roach Studios and Mack Sennet Studios, Lantz was offered an opportunity by his friend Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Pictures. Laemmle had, through Charles Mintz, acquired Disney's Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series (ironically, Laemmle was one of the many who turned down Mickey Mouse). Lantz got straight to work: he set up Walter Lantz Productions, hired Bill Nolan (the fastest animator who wasn't Ub Iwerks) and (briefly) Tex Avery, and began turning out 26 Oswald cartoons a year. Contemporary accounts say that the Oswald cartoons weren't very good--none of them are widely available--but it must have been fairly popular. By 1939, when the series ended, there had been 160 cartoons.

Walter Lantz Productions didn't exactly flourish at Universal, but they didn't flounder, either. Many of the characters Lantz created were uninteresting, and didn't last very long. Interestingly, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released by Disney, Lantz tried in vain to raise the funds for his own animated feature, Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp. One can only imagine how exciting it might have been. Instead, Lantz threw his lot in with a panda. In 1936, the first panda came to the West: Su-Lin. Lantz went to the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois to study, photograph, and sketch the panda, and came back to Hollywood with the plans for a new character. Life Begins for Andy Panda (1939) was an immediate hit, capitalizing on the panda-mania that was sweeping the nation at the time. What's interesting about these cartoons is that the two major elements seem to be wildly opposed to one another. While Andy is rather Disney-like--adorable, cuddly, cute, lovable--what goes on around him is the wild mayhem associated with Tex Avery cartoons. Somehow, this is the strength of the series. This wide-eyed innocent at the center of tempestuous craziness is undeniably endearing. Andy Panda was quite popular.

The next year, however, things changed for Lantz. Universal decided to drop Walter Lantz Productions, a move that put the entire studio out of work. Ever innovative and never succumbing to failure, Lantz put forth an idea to his staff: Why not privately collaborate, as quickly as possible, on a new Andy Panda cartoon, Crazy House, sell it to a studio for distribution, and use the money to make another one? This was something of a rarity in 1940--after all, where was the job security?--but the idea worked. Ironically, the cartoon was sold to Universal Pictures. In another cartoon, Knock Knock (1940), Lantz introduced a foil for Andy in the form of the zany, madcap Woody Woodpecker. He was so popular and had so much comic possibility that he was given his own series in 1941, beginning with Woody Woodpecker, and ending in 1972 with his 160th adventure, Bye Bye Blackboard. It became clear what Universal had done by getting rid of Walter Lantz Productions--by casually giving Lantz all of his characters back, Universal had lost out on millions of dollars in merchandising. And all to save $3750 a week.

Andy Panda was often a supporting character for Woody, who was always so on the verge between calm and insane that it made him far funnier than the similar Daffy Duck, who eventually softened. Their best cartoons together are Musical Moments from Chopin (1947--are there any bad cartoons revolving around piano performances?) and Banquet Busters (1948). The last cartoon in the Andy Panda series was 1949's Scrappy's Birthday.

There were other characters, too, though none were quite as popular as Woody and Andy. There were Hickory and Dickory; Sugarfoot; Meany, Miny, and Moe; Windy Bear; and Inspector Willoughby, created by future Donald Duck director Jack Hannah. My personal favorite is the little penguin who hates the cold in Chilly Willy (1953). Although the character was re-tooled by Tex Avery (who worked briefly for Lantz once again from 1954 to 1955) for his second episode, It's Cold (1954), the character didn't hit very highly and only lasted 35 episodes. When Lantz followed Paul Terry to television in 1957, he stuck with the bird, and The Woody Woodpecker Show remained on the air, in one form or another, until 1966 (with frequent revivals).

After the production of the last Woody Woodpecker cartoon, Walter Lantz Productions closed in 1972. Woody had been voiced by Lantz's wife, Gale Stafford. They had produced theatrical animated shorts longer than any other studio, even Walt Disney and Leon Schlesinger. Though Lantz would remain active in animation for the next 20 years, he never directed again, and died in 1994 at the age of 94.

As an added bonus, here's some bad video for Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat (1941), a banned cartoon from Walter Lantz's studio. If you're extremely racially sensitive, best not watch.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Muppet Fans: Worse Than Trekkies

For months now, ever since Disney bought the Muppets, you may have noticed a low, nasal whine coming off of the internet. That whine is, of course, the sound of the Muppet fan in his mid-thirties, howling a lonely lament over the course his pathetic life has taken. And ever since the May airing of The Muppets' Wizard of Oz that howl has become a stuck pig-like squeal of shattered realization, the cold hard smack of reality bursting in as fan after fan looks at his life and realizes one immutable truth: did you know the Muppets were aimed at children?

Oh my God, they are!

We heard this same crash back in 1999 when Star Wars fans, after 16 years of clicking their heels and repeating "there's no place like a galaxy far, far away," were suddenly confronted with the very real fact that they were now middle-aged, and not only were the Star Wars movies being aimed at kids, they had in fact always been aimed at kids. Oh, they can cry about the inherent darkness of The Empire Strikes Back and make excuses for the fact that George Lucas is too untalented to resolve a complex love triangle without resorting to the "long lost brother" cliche all they want. The Star Wars films are about as substantial as a typical Grimm outing, and far less socially relevant. Those fans, by the way, are only gaining a semblance of their original equilibrium back now as they huddle around the altar of Episode III, which manages in its last 20 minutes to rally fans into a frenzy by basically showing them Darth Vader and Tattooine. It's pathetic to hear the same losers who accused George Lucas of desecrating their childhood memories with Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones talk about Retread of the Shit as though it had some kind of mythical power, using embarrassing phrases like "a circle has been completed." Yeah, the last shot was really neat, assholes, I get it. George Lucas owns your ass.

Many of today's Muppet fans are equally lame, pathetic, and irritating. There's a great blog out there called The Muppet Newsflash (it's in my links), full of information and interesting announcements. But the comments section... ouch. There's some asshole who can't let a single post go without making some sort of snarky, anonymous comment about how sad it is that all Disney has done so far is make one movie and re-release stuff from 30 years ago. Obviously, he has no idea how acquisitions work. See, when a company acquires the assets of another company, they want to make money on those assets as quickly as they can in order to recoup their initial investment. For example, Disney now owns the rights to The Muppet Show, a series which many people (such as myself) have been dying to see on DVD, which means there's already an audience. Only makes sense to put it out. Mystery solved.

(A quick word about anonymous posts, by the way: they're cowardly. Straight ahead yellow. You know, there is a space on the Blogger comments for "other," where you can actually leave a name. Or you can just sign your post, as I've seen others do. The internet has created a social nightmare where anybody with half an opinion can walk into the room, shout "you suck!" and run away without justifying such a childish outburst. Adults have opinions, anonymous users--children just react to things they don't like. And only cowards hide behind a shield of anonymity when recycling Jim Hill's condescending "opinions." At least have the grace to put your name to your whining, gutless.)

Back to my main point: Muppet fans and their inherent uselessness. They have yet to realize two important things. First, the Muppets are basically aimed at children. And second, Jim Henson is dead. It's sad, yes, but you have had 15 years to get over it. Now you're just embarrassing to everyone who knows you. That's the problem with these Muppet assholes--they won't accept the passage of time and its inherent dulling effect. They're not really mad about the recent Muppet projects (which have, for the most part, been good, as well as true to the feeling of the Muppets). They're frustrated because, like monkeys and infants, they lack the cognitive capacity to understand why, for example, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz can't be EXACTLY like The Muppet Movie. Well, I'll tell you why, Chim-Chim, and be sure to make a note of this: because it isn't 1979 anymore, and you're 26 years older. Not only is this stuff not being marketed to you, many of the same people aren't even working on it anymore.

That's a key factor here. Ever since Jim Henson died, this legend has grown up about how the Muppets were satirical enough for adults to enjoy, and many fans have taken this to be a sign that the Muppets were never in fact meant for children, but were a subversive entertainment for adults. Fine, except it isn't true. Jim Henson knew he was a children's entertainer and embraced it wholeheartedly. But because of this myth about the Muppets being for adults, every project since 1990 has met with derision. Every time the Muppet creators tried to move ahead into the future--as they did with the short-lived series Muppets Tonight!--the so-called fans never supported it. Where were all of you "fans" when I went to see Muppets from Space in an empty theater in 1999? Whining about why Paul Williams and Jerry Juhl won't work with the Hensons anymore?

I just can't understand what Disney has done wrong, exactly. When they bought the Muppets, their marketing research showed that most people either didn't know who the characters were, or considered them relics from the seventies. Disney has, through a lot of media placement, attempted to restore Kermit and friends to their earlier status as household names. They produced The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, which too many fans are calling a ratings failure because it didn't hit with adults (it did win the kids' audience, though, which is what Disney was going for in the first place--they were trying to capture a new audience of children who had almost no experience of the Muppets, and that was a success; they don't have to cater to you, grown-up losers, because you're already hooked and you'll watch it just to bitch and bitch about it. Free lesson in capitalist marketing, idiots!). Hey, they're doing what no one else was willing to do: give the Muppets' creative team the money and opportunity to create new projects.

I, for one, am glad of this. I am mature enough to know that the Muppets can never be exactly the same as they once were, but I'm glad to see that the characters just might go on for future generations. I still love Kermit the Frog, and I always will, and if I ever get nostalgic, I have The Muppet Movie on DVD. For the rest of you fans, who can't think of a better way to support the return of the Muppets than by throwing a bitch fit...well, it would have been hard for you to enjoy it with no heart, anyway.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Some More Masters of Animation

There are some animators from the early period that I'm not overly fond of, but I think rate at the very least a mention due to some distinctive works or accomplishments. Rather than devote smaller posts to these animators, I thought I'd mention some of them here.

It's amazing how little is written these days about the Van Bueren Studios. I understand they were of fair popularity--you probably don't really remember seeing any Molly Moo-Cow cartoons (though Molly Moo-Cow and the Butterflies, 1935, is only one of many charming shorts). Today Van Bueren is known better for their much-reviled Felix the Cat series where Felix spoke in an annoying little boy's voice (they are generally well-animated, though, especially Burt Gillett's Bold King Cole, 1936). The cartoons began in 1928 under producer Amadee J. Van Bueren, but were totally revamped by former Disney director Gillett in 1934, introducing the Van Bueren Rainbow Cartoons series, whose major draw was a warm and inviting color pallette. Animation fans mainly remember the Toonerville cartoons, based on the comic strip by Fontaine Fox. My personal favorite VB cartoon is It's a Greek Life (1936), directed by Dan Gordon and starring a centaur shoemaker who is called on by Mercury to repair his winged sandals. But more than anything, the Van Bueren cartoons are mainly a footnote in animation history. Ironically, just two years after Burt Gillett left the Walt Disney Studios in 1934, RKO Radio Pictures, who distributed the Van Bueren cartoons, dropped VB for Disney. The Van Bueren Studios went out of business and were never heard from again.

Here's their racially weird cartoon The Black Duck.

HUGH HARMAN (1903-1982) and RUDOLF ISING (1903-1992)
Harman and Ising worked with Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks at the Kansas City Film Ad Agency, and followed them to work on Laugh-O-Grams, Alice Comedies, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. For whatever reason, their relationship with the Disney brothers was not a very friendly one, and when Charles Mintz infamously stole Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and hired off the staff, Harman and Ising were among the first recruits. But when Carl Laemmle instead gave the series to Walter Lantz, they weren't hired by Universal. With the help of animator friend Friz Freleng, Harman and Ising went on to produce a pilot film for a new series, Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid in 1929. Bosko was a Negro caricature (mostly because the heavy blacks made the character easier to animate) who sang and danced. In his first appearance, he speaks in a stereotypical Negro voice, but for the series, his voice was changed to sound, well, exactly like Mickey Mouse. In fact, the Bosko cartoons are heavily derivative of Mickey Mouse, no matter how enjoyable the cartoons actually are (hell, in Big Man from the North, 1931, Bosko even tangles with Pegleg Pete!). The cartoon was sold to independent producer Leon Schlesinger, who sold Warner Bros. the idea to make a series of cartoons featuring music they were trying to sell in sheet form. This series was, of course, Looney Tunes, and the first of these shorts in 1930, Sinkin' in the Bathtub, starred Bosko, who would star in 39 more of them. Hugh Harman mostly oversaw Looney Tunes, as Rudy Ising was moved over to start a companion series of his own for Warners, Merrie Melodies, which began in 1931 with Smile, Darn Ya, Smile.

This is Hittin' the Trail for Hallejujah Land.

The two left Leon Schlesinger after budget disputes in 1933, finding a home at MGM, who were willing to buy cartoons from their new company, Harman-Ising Productions. The duo still owned their creation, Bosko. While at MGM, they created the Happy Harmonies series, which tended to run to a long 10 or 11 minutes (and mildly overbudget), so that MGM got rid of them in 1937. MGM opted instead to open up their own in-house animation department, overseen by Fred C. Quimby, who by all accounts didn't really know what he was doing. Despite a staff that comprised William Hanna and Joseph Barbera (as well as, briefly, Friz Freleng), Quimby was forced to re-hire Harman and Ising to run the place (in the meantime, Harman and Ising had done the animation for one of Disney's Silly Symphonies, Merbabies, 1938). Right away, Rudy Ising created the first MGM series character, Barney the Bear. Using his own fondness for napping as the character's main gag, Barney premiered in The Bear That Couldn't Sleep (1939) and ran until 1954.

While at MGM, Hugh Harman directed one of the greatest cartoons of all time, Peace on Earth (1939), in which a mother squirrel tells her children the tale of man, a creature who drove himself to extinction with warfare, until only two men were left--and they killed each other. This cartoon was undeservedly passed over for an Oscar, losing to Disney's The Ugly Duckling, a rather ordinary cartoon. Rudolf Ising won the next year for The Milky Way (1940), a charming adventure of animals in space which was, actually, the first non-Disney cartoon to win the Oscar. Harman and Ising also oversaw production of Puss Gets the Boot (1940), the first Tom & Jerry cartoon. In 1941, Quimby hired Tex Avery, who had left Leon Schlesinger, and he indirectly made Harman and Ising seem like relics of an older style. In 1942, the duo were drafted by the government to work at Hal Roach Studios.

PAUL TERRY (1887-1971)
Terry began as a newspaper artist, but once he saw Winsor McCay's seminal Gertie the Dinosaur, he knew animation was the wave of the future. After making his first independent film (Little Herman, 1915), Terry went to work for John Randolph Bray to work on the cartoon adventures of Farmer Al Falfa. Soon after World War I, Terry formed Fables Studio for a series of Aesop's Fables, which by most accounts was something of a sweatshop; to meet the schedule set by distributors Keith-Albee Theaters (one cartoon a week), Terry was forced into an assembly line style that emphasized quantity over quality. The series was bought by Van Bueren Studios in 1928 (ironically, Keith-Albee would later become RKO, who would distribute Van Bueren before dumping them in favor of Disney). Terry and Amadee J. Van Bueren clashed over the issue of sound, and Terry left the studio in 1929. Terry felt sound was only a fad, an unneccesary expense. Ironically, he had created what some animation historians consider to be the actual first sound cartoon, Dinner Time, in 1928 (some contend that it premiered a few weeks before Steamboat Willie, and still others think that the Fleischers got to sound first).

Even more ironically, when Terry opened his own studio, Terrytoons, in 1930, he immediately began to produce sound cartoons (by that point, sound was probably inevitable, and Terry could no longer ignore it). Right from his first short, Caviar (1930), Terrytoons used original music by Philip A. Scheib. In 1938, Terry introduced Gandy Goose in Gandy the Goose, a character that ran until 1955. Heckle and Jeckle, who premiered in The Talking Magpies (1946), ran until 1954. Other, less memorable Terrytoons characters are Little Roquefort and Percy the Cat, and Dinky Duck.

But Terry's most beloved character was a parody of Superman called Super Mouse, who premiered in The Mouse of Tomorrow (1942). By his fourth cartoon, his name had been changed to Mighty Mouse. The faux-operatic, dramatic style was a hit with audiences, who continued to watch him rescue Pearl Pureheart from the dastardly Oil Can Harry until his last adventure in 1961, Cat Alarm.

Terrytoons was the first major animation studio to break into television, repackaging short cartoons onto Barker Bill's Cartoon Show for CBS. Soon after, in 1955, Paul Terry sold Terrytoons to CBS outright for $3.5 million. Terry retired from animation and lived in luxury off the proceeds from his sale until his death in 1971. A rare case of an animator who was able to live successfully off of his work.

Enjoy Wolf! Wolf!, starring Mighty Mouse (the sound on this is terrible).

WILLIAM HANNA (1910-2001) and JOSEPH BARBERA (born 1911)
Hanna began at Harman-Ising in 1929, and stayed with them through their stints at Schlesinger and MGM. In 1937, when MGM fired Harman and Ising, Hanna was hired as director of animation by Fred Quimby, head of the new MGM animation studio. Barbera was an artist for Collier's magazine, then floated around in the animation world (he once worked for the Fleischers for a mere four days) before being hired by Paul Terry in 1936. When Quimby hired out a large portion of Terry's staff, Barbera made the move to MGM. While at the studio, Hanna and Barbera created the characters of Tom & Jerry, who rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity throughout the 1940s. The first cartoon in the series was Puss Gets the Boot (1940), a hit with audiences. When Tex Avery came to MGM in 1941, he showed them how to make cartoons faster and wilder, creating the laugh-a-second zaniness that MGM cartoons are famous for. Thanks to his innovations, Hanna and Barbera's Tom & Jerry cartoons were nominated for 13 Oscars between 1940 and 1952. Seven of them won, including The Cat Concerto (1946), probably their best cartoon, which featured Tom attempting to play a piano concerto despite interference from Jerry. Other Oscar-winning 'toons include Yankee Doodle Mouse (1943), The Little Orphan (1948), and the classic The Two Mouseketeers (1951).

The Cat Concerto.

MGM bowed out of theatrical animation in 1957, despite the fact that they were still a major competitive force. The partners formed Hanna-Barbera Productions specifically to create animation for TV. Among their many, many shows: The Ruff and Reddy Show (1957), The Huckleberry Hound Show (1958), Quick Draw McGraw (1959), The Flintstones (1960), Top Cat (1961), The Yogi Bear Show (1961), The Jetsons (1962), The Adventures of Jonny Quest (1964), Scooby Doo, Where Are You? (1969), Wacky Races (1970), The Addams Family (1973), and Hong Kong Phooey (1974), among many, many, many others. If you hate these shows as much as I really, really do, only one conclusion can become clear--Hanna and Barbera were responsible for turning television animation into the vast wasteland of commercialist, poorly produced crap that it remained for as long as they dominated the field (and for sometime thereafter). True, thanks to the cheesiness of these cartoons we get great shows like Harvey Birdman, Attorney-at-Law, but it's not quite an even trade...

Hanna-Barbera also got into feature animation. Although Hey There, It's Yogi Bear (1964) is actually quite charming, The Man Called Flintstone (1970) is so bad that you can actually see steam rising off of it. I always felt Charlotte's Web (1973) was overrated and disappointing, while the less said about Jetsons: The Movie (1990), the better. In the world of animation, the legacy of Hanna-Barbera is, I have to say, one of compromise and carelessness.

The Devil's Rejects

"What's the matter, kid? Don't you like clowns? Don't we make you laugh? I'm going to be back in one hour, and if you don't have a good reason why you don't like clowns, I'm going to kill your whole fucking family!" Sid Haig's performance as Captain Spaulding is an instant classic.

Becca made this for a photoshop contest, and I just thought it was funny. Posted by Picasa