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Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Rebirth Of Noveltoons

A "Noveltoon" sounds sort of like a cartoon adapted from a novel, right? At least that's how it seemed to me at first glance ... until I perused the latest of Thunderbean's classic animation line, a DVD gather of shorts largely unseen since tee-vee's dawning. So here is what Noveltoons are: a 40's and onward Paramount series done after the Fleischers were off payrolls, but with some of their staffers still on the job. Control was with Paramount central; they even moved Max's old operation back from Florida to keep closer tabs. The new deal was called "Famous Studio Productions," with Popeye, Superman, and the Noveltoons to serve as umbrella for one-off content and subjects with an emerging gallery of characters: Little Lulu, Herman the Mouse, Blackie Lamb, Baby Huey ... the list goes on. Any sound familiar? They should if you watched Matty's Funday Funnies once upon times, which I devotedly did from 1959 and initial discovery of these till-now missing links.

You'd have thought (at least I did) that Harvey Comics or sponsor Mattel Toys made the cartoons, so stripped were they of Paramount imprinteur. Apparently, it was the post-48's that Matty was heir to, Harvey being publisher of ongoing comic books with characters Para had developed. It was Matty's Funday Funnies that brought Casper, Herman/Katnip, Little Audrey to this kindergartner's playpen and made Harvey's jack-in-box opening more familiar than even the Warner's tunnel. The 40's Noveltoons, meanwhile, played syndication, but not around me, so these of pre-48 lineage were total unknowns to become even more so as seemingly all Paramount cartoons disappeared down black holes of obscurity (Matty's show supplanted Para cartoons with Beany and Cecil in 1962). Viewership cared less thanks to emerging myth that none of them were much good to start with. Be assured that Thunderbean's DVD puts well the lie to that.

Jerry Beck dates Famous Studios' arrival to 5/25/42 in one of his Noveltoon audio commentaries. From this point, Fleischer son-in-law Seymour Kneitel oversaw animation for Paramount (despite Max being out), the Noveltoons a more or less continuation of "Color Classics" that had flourished during the 30's. Thunderbean's Steve Stanchfield has taken twenty of the Noveltoons, all in Public Domain, made transfers from mostly 35mm originals, and captured to remarkable degree the vibrant Technicolor that put Paramount cartoons among loveliest visual treats of the era. We've never had them this good before, certainly not on television or previously sold video. And what a kick to get original credits back! I never knew Paramount used jack-in-the-box titles as would Harvey. The identity crisis these cartoons suffered for so long ends here, Thunderbean the digital therapist long awaited.

A couple randoms among content: Cilly Goose (1944) A goose that fakes a golden egg, then finds she can lay actual ones, this a good start to the program and a cartoon I'd never seen. Suddenly It's Spring (also '44) Raggedy Ann asks the cold and wind to dissipate so Mr. Sun can make a sick child well. A "sad" at times cartoon where even dolls and toys cry. Stunner print --- looks to be from IB Tech 35mm. I won't belabor the remaining eighteen, but have watched them all and can report no disappointments. Where have these been all my life? 40's era Noveltoons, from which the DVD content dates, are better than 50's stuff Harvey used. I prefer them as well to color Popeyes that rolled off Para conveyors. The cartoons probably ran before more and bigger audiences in first-run day because Paramount owned 1,500+ theatres and had assured wide play for all its product. What their animated unit put out is assured and entertaining. Rescue of these Noveltoons amounts to trip inside a cave unexplored for well over half a century, Thunderbean's DVD acting as Open Sesame to a cartoon treasure horde.


Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

Sounds like these prints look great. The restoration is admirable. But here are my questions: Is there a laugh in any one of these cartoons? Is any one of them actually entertaining?

3:34 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I highly recommend this DVD collection. I'm a bit biased as I contributed to it.

Are there any laughs? Well, these aren't Looney Tunes, nor Tex Avery MGM, or even Fleischer... but "Yes, Virginia" there ARE laughs - sort-of in the same Guilty Pleasure way you laugh at the Shemp Stooge shorts, even though you know the Curly ones were funnier.

There is great animation here and lush "scenics" (as they called the backgrounds), Paramount's cartoon studio was a first class operation. Bill Tytla, Dave Tendlar, Myron Waldman and the rest of the staff here are worthy of attention. You won't be inspired to go out and create new "Herman and Henry" cartoons, but these are little gems - and as John has noted - rarely seen and now beautifully restored.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

..I lived to hear Catnip say.."hmmmm,that thounds logical!"..on the Buzzy The Crow cartoons.

9:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson shares some of his typically rich insights about Noveltoons:

The Paramount toons often have a weird vibe to them, as if they're being made for small children by people who have no idea what's appropriate for small children. Or sometimes by people who don't grasp the difference between comic slapstick and what looks like genuine pain (Herman and Katnip are the true parents of Itchy and Scratchy). The polish and assurance on other aspects of the cartoons make this all the more puzzling.

There's a perfect example of that tone deafness in the first Raggedy Ann short. When spring comes early to save the little sick girl, we see an agonized-looking snowman melting like a victim in a horror movie.

"Cilly Goose" is downright creepy at points, what with her sticking her behind in a funnel and straining to force out an egg before a packed stadium, and later being fed to a laundry mangle by a gold-crazed mob. About as creepy as Baby Huey in "Quack a Doodle Doo" (and many more after).

"The Enchanted Square", in contrast, nearly beats Disney at his own game. It's surprisingly ambitious in story, animation (watch when the girl and Raggedy Ann dance) and music. It's not completely successful, but you can enjoy it unironically. And Thunderbean has the original titles-over-action opening, not the ugly type-on-blank-background TV title.

Yes, it's a great Thunderbean disc. Up there with the two "Cartoons for Victory" collections, which even include counter-cartoons from the Axis.

5:04 AM  
Blogger Thad said...

The Stanchfield DVD seems to work two ways from what I've observed. Convince people, "Wow, this studio could do some really good stuff," or as in Tom Ruegger's case, "They look great, but they still kinda suck."

I personally love Famous Studios in spite of their many faults (all of which originated in some form at the Fleischers) and am glad there is a modicum of acceptance in cartoon circles now.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I saw a lot of these restored prints on YouTube and found a lot of the cartoons to be really interesting, even when they didn't quite work. Jim Tyer's and Dave Tendlar's direction really stands out from the rest, so that's enough reason for people to look into watching these specific cartoons, IMHO.

I completely agree with Thad.

5:41 AM  
Blogger Samantha Glasser said...

I really enjoyed this cartoon set too, and most of the cartoons were new to me, except the Raggedy Ann one which I remember seeing as a kid. They're cute and I like the characters. Plus, this set has lots of extras including expert commentaries, which is somewhat unusual, and an exciting perk.

9:45 AM  

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