Friday, December 12, 2008

Meet Otto Soglow

When the subject of famous cartoon stars comes up, names like Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Popeye come to mind. But within the larger galaxy of 20th century animated celebrities, the rarely seen "Little King" character is one of the most artful and esoteric. Since their theatrical release in the early 1930s, only one of the RKO Van Beuren Little King cartoons, out of a dozen produced, has retained its proper stature in American popular culture.

It was originally titled Pals (1933), but the title was subsequently changed to Christmas Night by Official Films when they distributed the Little King series to private consumers for home exhibition of 16mm film prints. The Little King animated cartoons were a popular mainstay of early broadcast television in 1947. While the home video format has evolved from 16mm/8mm format to today's DVD format and beyond, those of us who consider early American animation an art form are delighted that the complete Little King series is available once again.

The engaging story of Otto Soglow, the creator of the Little King character, and the cartoons themselves are the subject of a special holiday collaboration between the Bijou team and the creative team at Thunderbean Animation. Next week we will present the original Pals and other treasures from Thunderbean's "The Complete Animated Adventures of The Little King" DVD series as part of our special Bijou Christmas show, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's begin by meeting Otto Soglow, courtesy of author/filmmaker/historian Chris Buchman.

The Royal Chronicler of the triangular monarch of mirth and mythology was born in Yorkville, on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan, on December 23rd 1900. His parents were a housekeeper and a cook; his education was minimal. "I wanted to be a movie actor," he admitted, "but got nowhere!"

A natural cartoonist and admirer of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), and George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Otto enrolled in the Art Student's League of New York where "fundamentals are taught proficiently and inexpensively" and had his first illustration published in 1919.

The changes in aesthetic sensibilities during the first part of the 20th century culminating in the Art Deco movement apparently had a great influence upon Soglow and his contemporaries. Such can be seen in their masterfully-playful use of distortion, simplification, and stylization of the human form and its environment. The employment of this style was partially effective in caricaturing society's pompous twits, hypocrites, and aristocratic low-life.

By the late 1920s, Otto Soglow's delightful panels were appearing in such popular publications as Judge, College Humour, and, of course, The New Yorker, along with such celebrated humorists as S. J. Perelman and James Thurber.

It was in the 1931 pages of The New Yorker that Soglow's pint-sized monarch, The Little King, began appearing. He was the very antithesis of most living royals in that he was kind and considerate, playful, uncomplicated and democratic, preferring to hob-nob with the hoi polloi rather than attend to royal duties. The little fellow thoroughly enjoyed taking his daily constitutional to retrieve the morning bottle of milk, eating lunch from a typical workman's pail, and 'clocking-in' to begin the duties of the day.

In 1932 the New York-based Van Beuren Studio contracted to produce a series of 12 animated cartoons based on characters created by Otto Soglow; the initial two would feature Sentinel Louey; the remaining ten to star The Little King. He was, in fact, hailed as a welcome addition to the reigning mouse named Mickey.

Meanwhile, the popularity of The Little King induced newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, to acquire the rights to the strip for his King Features Syndicate when the contract with The New Yorker expired in 1934. The strip enjoyed a long run ending with its creator's death some forty-odd years later.

In January 1936 Otto Soglow, the former would be movie star, trod the boards of New York's 48th Street Theatre in "The Illustrator's Show" - a Minskyesque Revue of songs and sketches. A few involved became legends in the arts: author/illustrator, Dr. Seuss; composers/lyricists, Frank Loesser (The Most Happy Fella/Guys & Dolls); and Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady/Camelot). Otto acted in several skits, and in one donned regal garb to portray The Little King.

"The Illustrator's Show" ran for just five performances. Call it a case of bad timing. Two days before the show opened on the 22nd of January, England's King George V died. Within a week of its closing "Betty Boop & The Little King," a Max Fleischer animated cartoon, made its bow. A pleasing Finalé to an auspicious screen career.

Soglow continued to contribute non-Little King panels and strips to The New Yorker and other popular journals; and he illustrated dozens of books including "Soglow's Confidential History of Modern England" (1939), and "The Primrose Path" (1935) with humorist, Ogden Nash.

And there were Little King toys, puzzles and comic books by Dell; and Otto lent his talents to advertising for Standard Oil, Pepsi-Cola, and Tops Gum; and in 1954 helped launch the short-lived Little King cigarettes.

Otto Soglow died of emphysema on April 3rd 1975 and was survived by his wife, Anne, daughter, Tona, and a sister.

The universal appeal of The Little King has never waned, except for the elitists who do not appreciate, let alone, comprehend, the delicate art of pantomime.
All the original Little King cartoons have been beautifully re-mastered and preserved on DVD, along with further insightful commentary by Chris Buchman and many original illustrations. Even more rare and unusual cartoons are on display and available at Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean Animation site.

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