Monday, October 5, 2009

More Unforgettable Cartoons

We had such an enthusiastic response to our recent “Unforgettable Cartoons” post that we couldn’t resist doing a second round. Here are more remembrances from industry colleagues and friends. We invite our readers to contribute your own recollections in the comments section below.

Jerry Frebowitz is living his dream of being a full-time movie enthusiast as president of Movies Unlimited and heading up the exciting new Movie Fanfare blog. Here is Jerry’s choice:

One of my favorite old cartoons is a Warner Brothers' Merrie Melodies, Have You Got Any Castles? from 1938. Oddly enough, I saw it in theaters in the 1940s when I was a kid but it must have been a reissue since I wasn't yet a moviegoer back in 1938.

It's the kind of cartoon that once seen, can't ever be forgotten -- it's just that good and oh, so clever! From the opening, there are scenes of the town crier who wakes up the books in the book store. I had no idea at the time that the crier was supposed to be a caricature of Alexander Woollcott. The opening never did hit me probably because I wasn't "in" on the Woollcott joke but once the "scary" literary characters come out of their books and start dancing, you'll know instantly you are in for a treat -- and it just gets better and better from there.

Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, Fu Manchu and Dr. Jekyll do a soft-shoe routine, followed by The Invisible Man, and I guess while this Warner Brothers cartoon was showcasing invisible characters, it was only natural for Topper to show up, or not show up as the case may be. Because the invisible folks are tap dancing, it's only a step away to highlight a cartoon version of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson dancing his way up and down “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” In turn, Cab Calloway leads the way, delighting the audience with a mini-musical production of “The Green Pastures.”

The very funny references go on and on, from the classics to the latest novels of the day. Apparently at the time this gem of a cartoon was shown, “Gone with the Wind” was the latest. Although the cartoon is all about books, the movie references can't be hidden. "The House of Seven Gables" is of course, Clark Gable. Captain Bligh stepping out of "Mutiny on the Bounty" is Charles Laughton and dozens more glimpses of vintage Hollywood fun are everywhere. Eventually, the loud sounds caused by the singing and dancing and general frivolity of the proceedings awaken Rip Van Winkle and he is not a happy camper, cutting off pieces of Uncle Tom's hair which he uses for ear plugs. By the time Rip sends everyone scurrying for shelter by opening up a copy of “The Hurricane,” this cartoon ends -- but not before my favorite sequence appears. William Powell steps out of the pages of “The Thin Man,” so skinny when turned sideways, he practically disappears. However, after entering “The White House Cook Book,” he emerges very plump. Luckily, after the days of the Saturday Matinee, I was able to see this great cartoon on TV and it's been with me ever since.

Animator Sally Cruikshank has been creating fabulous surreal animation since her directorial debut: Quasi at the Quackadero (1976), which for many qualifies as an unforgettable cartoon! Some of Sally’s other cartoons may be enjoyed at her Website Fun on Mars.

Cartoons from the early 30s involving food or assembly lines (or better yet both) really made a big impression on me. I think "The Merry Cafe,” a Krazy Kat cartoon from 1936, is the first one that comes to mind. It's a wonderful automat cafe cartoon. When I finally got to an automat in NYC it was a disappointment. Food in 30's cartoons always looks so tasty.

From Joe Adamson; film archivist, filmmaker, author of "Tex Avery, King of Cartoons" and “Bugs Bunny: 50 Years and Only One Grey Hare” and “Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo” among others.

I was in the second grade when I saw King Size Canary (1947) at a Saturday Matinee. I remember liking the cartoon and loving the ending, but what impressed me most was the way Tex Avery managed to grab the attention of the restless Saturday Matinee audience, usually much too absorbed in chattering, yelling, and hurling popcorn boxes at the screen to give any film their full attention, and got them involved in his insane story so they were laughing exactly where he intended them to laugh -- particularly at the ending!

From John McElwee; film author, historian and curator of the Greenbriar Picture Shows:

Rock-A-Bye Bear (1952) -- I saw few cartoons in theatres growing up. Our Liberty just didn't use them -- too much expense I guess. This one, however, showed up quite unexpectedly in the early eighties as bonus with some dreadful Ursula Andress pic about love slaves in the Amazon (can't recall its title). The 35mm was faded, but Rock-A-Bye Bear was in otherwise clean shape for a print that must have been at least twenty years old by that time. It was also about the funniest cartoon I'd ever seen anywhere, and remains one of my favorites. How wonderful it must have been seeing all these great Tex Avery shorts when they were new! Television has been no substitute for that experience.

From Steve Fastner -- Comic art colorist half of the legendary Fastner & Larson Team.

I've always been attracted to heroic fantasy in comics, films or cartoons, so one early cartoon that stands out is The Underground World, from the Superman cartoon series. It was both scary and beautiful. I saw it on a black and white TV. The bird men were very menacing, the cave interior was mysterious, and the race to blow up the cave entrance was very suspenseful. The other Superman cartoons are great also.

Chris Buchman co-produced the Aesop's Fables DVD with Steve Stanchfield and Rex Schneider for Thunderbean Animation.

My initial exposure to animated cartoons was memorable and, in retrospect, highly significant. As a young lad in the late 1940s I was treated to thrice daily screenings of ancient animated funnies on television . . . the Bobby Bumps, Felix The Cats and entries from the Aesop’s Fables series from Van Beuren Studio, particularly the delicious musical romps Toy Time (1931) and Silvery Moon (1933). The former is about a pair of love-smitten mice having a midnight fling in a toyshop; the latter, the adventures of an enamored pair of kitties cavorting on the moon made of ice cream, candy and cake.

The centerpiece of each cartoon is a sequence, constructed on a solitary melody, in which the characters perform the theme on instruments; in Toy Time the instruments are toys; in Silvery Moon they are candy. The character animation is identical in both sequences. What a wonderfully-exciting discovery to have made before I was seven. The sparkling melody, which eluded me until attending the Ringling Brothers - Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1954, is “The Siamese Patrol” by Paul Lincke (he composed “The Glow Worm”). The piece was a favorite of Ringling Maestro, Merle Evans. (You can enjoy both cartoons, along with the comparison of the animated sequences as a bonus on Thunderbean’s Aesop’s Fables DVD.)

Bob Campbell is co-creator and producer of the original Matinee at the Bijou series on PBS, and continues working with a dedicated coalition of classic movie professionals to find a network home for the sequel series:

I’ll never forget seeing the great Chuck Jones masterpiece One Froggy Evening (1955) in a packed theater when I was 10 years old. I recall the audience falling out of their seats with infectious laughter. The cartoon opens with a construction worker discovering a box embedded in the cornerstone of a building undergoing demolition. When he opens the box he discovers a living frog that suddenly dons a hat and cane and begins performing a rousing rendition of “Hello! Ma Baby.” Thinking this his ticket to fame and fortune he tucks the box under his arm and quietly steals away. His first stop is the Acme Talent Agency, but upon presentation the little frog just sits there and croaks. When alone again with the frog, it belts out “The Michigan Rag” among other showstoppers - prompting the undeterred construction worker to dole out his life-savings on rental of a theater to present his discovery to the world.

During rehearsals the frog performs brilliantly until the curtain rises on the packed theater and, you guessed it, the frog just sits there and croaks. Driven insane by the frog’s continuing one-man performances, and learning of a new building under construction, our fortune-hunter plants the box and frog in the cornerstone of the new building. Fast-forward to 2056 AD and we witness a worker for the “Acme Building Disintegrators” discover the box with the performing frog -- and the cycle begins anew. Wouldn’t it be great if they started showing the best classic cartoons ever made once again as part of today’s movie-going experience.?

Marianne Richardson is a longtime fan of the original Matinee at the Bijou series and an occasional contributor to The Bijou Blog:

Ub Iwerks’ Balloonland (also called The Pincushion Man) from 1935 is the cartoon that I can never erase from my brain. I’ve tried. But my dad and I saw it once, on Matinee at the Bijou, and it has stayed with me for nearly 30 years. It begins sweetly enough, with a town of balloon people working together and singing a little song you don’t internalize until you hear the line “ A single pin/Would rip your skin!” Yet, despite this grim foreshadowing, when a little boy and girl balloon are warned about the dangers of the forest, what do they do? They make a beeline toward it!

Suddenly there’s the villainous Pincushion Man (with his peculiar and unfortunate anatomy) laughing evilly. Sitting in our darkened living room and watching him threaten the balloon boy and girl was like watching a mugging at knifepoint. The Pincushion Man essentially goes into the town and kills people until he is thrown, screaming, over the edge of the world. So much for nostalgia of a kinder, gentler age! Even at twelve years old I thought, “Wow. This is messed up.” When the cartoon was through, my father turned to me and said “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!” — which is my father’s way of saying, “Wow. That was messed up.”

If I’d been only five or six years old, I think I really would have been upset. Judging by the comments on YouTube ( a few of which follow) I wasn’t the only one who thought this cartoon could net you some hours in therapy ~~~

“Oh my god, when he pops the little stupid balloon, that part like devestated [sic] me when i was little!”

“The pin cushion man ruined my child hood.”

“Why would they put such an incompetent man to guard the only door into balloon town! WHY!”

“Sadistic. Horrendous. Terrifying. Typical Saturday-morning fun!! Actually, I see worse in today's toons all the time...”

“This video gave me nightmares for most of my life...”

“I always wondered why the pinman didn't just stick a pin in the floor and bedone with the whole world.”

Here on our Bijou Blog screen is your chance to check out Balloonland for yourself. While you may not find this eccentric cartoon “unforgettable,” we’re sure you’ll agree it is bizarre and surrealistic.

(Note: Several cartoons in our “Unforgettable Cartoons” series, including Have You Got Any Castles?, One Froggy Evening, I Love to Singa and Slick Hare are included in one DVD super collection called: Looney Tunes Golden Collection – Vol. 2 and on sale now for $14.95 at Movies Unlimited. Also, a super DVD collection of all 17 of the original Fleischer Superman cartoons, including The Underground World, is on sale at Movies Unlimited for only $9.99.)


Sally said...

So much fun to read through the choices in both these entries. So many vivid cartoons, some of them quite creepy too. (In the creepy way where you love them and hate them both.)

Paul Castiglia said...

Have you Got Any Castles is part of an unofficial trilogy of "characters from books come to life" cartoons from Warner Brothers (at the least a trilogy - perhaps there are others in the same vein I'm overlooking). Daffy Duck experiences similar lunacy in "Book Revue" as do Sniffles the Mouse and his friend the bookworm in the eponymously titled, "Sniffles & the Bookworm" - and they meet the Frankenstein Monster, too! Amazing that the studio got three cartoons out of the same concept, and all are highly imaginative, funny and enjoyable. :)

(Shameless self-plug time: for more comedy of Frankensteinian proportions, be sure to visit my new blog on classic Hollywood horror-comedies launching on Halloween - )