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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hip To Flip On 8mm

I’m looking at 8mm again. There’s no good reason really. Could it be the lingering allure of its abysmal low tech-ness? Nostalgia surely factors in. Or maybe it’s rebellion against digitally scrubbed pictures looking too good. I collected the tiny gauge (all the more so as my vision clouds with age) from 1964 to 1973. Those who stayed with film will assert tactile quality it possesses and hands-on projector operation as sole avenues toward a purer viewing experience. I’d not argue with that. Some also favor vinyl as opposed to CD’s. Digital formats are impersonal. They’ve deprived us of physical contact between collectors and what they collect. DVD looks and sounds better, but there’s a sensation one gets from threading up a show and finessing it to completion. Will your lamp blow? What if a bad splice or torn sprocket trips up the works? These were stresses that once factored into shows I gave. Now it’s an effort staying awake through DVD’s once started. To revive 8mm means going in search of artifacts others stopped caring about long ago. Equipment you’ll use is no longer being manufactured. Even the replacement bulbs are middle-aged. There are forums for 8mm enthusiasts online. Some identify themselves as Master Film Handlers. They can take apart and put together an Elmo in a dark room using a flashlight. I’ve wished lately for such skill, as projectors off Ebay are invariably fixer-uppers (even ones they call Brand New). Veterans warned me. Any 8mm machine is at least thirty years old. Rubber drive belts, gears dormant since Nixon’s presidency, and sound hopelessly muffled … these are hallmarks of a gauge forever gone. Don’t expect 8mm to fire up and run just for plugging it in. Wiser heads would say forget the whole thing. Enjoy your memories and never mind recapturing them. Has the effort been worth it for me? Yes, and then some. It’s fun having toys again I can really play with. Beaten remnants of projectors I once used include the Bell and Howell Regent my father brought home in the late forties (there must have been a million sold, as Ebay is never without dozens), and the Eumig Dual 8 sound model I longed for and received in 1969. Neither work, and won’t again. They are mantle pieces now, broken on the wheel of rust and parts worn out. Am I so corroded as my Eumig for the passage of forty years?

There were guys in Syracuse and Columbus who could repair 8mm junkers I bought off Ebay. For their having applied work bench magic, my recently acquired projectors run like tops. I’d kept some Blackhawk and Castle Films from adolescence and was anxious to play them again. Of course, that led to more Ebay bidding for subjects I’d disposed of before and ones that looked to be fun now. Best so far have been cartoons Blackhawk once sold featuring Flip The Frog. I looked at 1930’s Puddle Pranks and reveled in its scratches and lines, having frankly missed those too long for living in my cocoon of flawless digital resolution. Distressed film has integrity. It’s been places. If only 8mm prints could tell their stories, other than ones they project on a screen. Maybe some of these I’m buying now once belonged to me, and somehow made the trek back, like Lassie the time he/she got locked into a fruit truck and went on his/her odyssey. Cartoons especially should be viewed on film. Their drawings move, after all, from frame to frame. You could hold one up to a light and examine the artist’s work. Try doing that with a DVD. Flip The Frog is my ideal of an 8mm subject. He’s primitive and extinct just like machinery I watch him on. Ub Iwerks was the pioneering genius that produced the Flips and lots of other independent cartoons besides. Somehow Blackhawk ended up with surviving negatives in 1974. They needed something to compete with the Walter Lantz subjects Castle Films was selling to armchair showmen. Major companies wouldn’t lease (Disney in fact offered their own home movies), so Iwerks’ backlog, many out of circulation since theatres last ran them, filled a void for collectors who wanted animation to play with Chaplin and Laurel/Hardy shorts. These were waning days for black-and-white cartoons as viable inventory for any seller. Soon enough such ancient fare would be exiled from television, other than as objects of bemusement on kid programs like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

The problem for anyone that worked with Walt Disney is shade they'd forever occupy afterward. He was the biggest noise in cartooning and no one else in the organization stood a prayer of getting recognition. Ub Iwerks had started with Walt in Kansas City when both were boys. It looked for a while like they’d stay equal partners, but Disney worked easier with people and thus forged ahead. Iwerks was like so many geniuses who functioned best when left alone. He designed Mickey Mouse and drew the early cartoons single-handed, turning out seven hundred sheets a day when release push came to shove. Walt paid Ub more than he himself drew from the till. Sneak in the grass Pat Powers, who distributed Disney shorts mostly to the extent of skimming what profits he could off the latter’s share, sensed Iwerk’s frustrated ambition and lured him with promises of independence and status to equal Walt’s. The resulting series (begun in 1930) got a flying start when MGM agreed to handle Flip, a sort of poster frog for precode abandon and vessel through which Ub Iwerks explored darker animating impulses. Of all cartoons I’ve watched from the early thirties, these may be the nastiest. Had television played them (did they?), there might well have been parent complaints. Flip morphed from excessively froggish, almost grotesquely so, to a more palatable bow-tie look and near human Betty Boop-ish femme accompaniment as Iwerks (and Metro) slow pushed his character to a short-lived peak around 1932. There were even efforts to merchandise Flip in ways evoking runaway success of Mickey Mouse toys and doo-dads. Children’s books (like one below) and figurines based on the Frog must surely be hot pursued collectibles today, for how many would have sold at depression whacked counters with Mickey items displayed alongside?

The Flips are currently among those sold on DVD as Cartoons That Time Forgot. A little sad when you consider the hopes invested in Iwerk’s creation and others he imagined would lift him to Disney’s pantheon. There was also Willie Whopper and a series called ComicColor, the latter relegated to State’s Rights distribution after Metro bailed on further Iwerks/Powers output. Not that any of these cartoons were/are bad. Like everyone who tried competing head-on with Walt, Iwerks went down in defeat. He eventually wound to Disney’s as a salaried employee. Men like Ub Iwerks strike me as Magnificent Failures for having reached toward a sky with room for but one King Of Cartoons (other companies competed successfully with Disney, but no individual could). There was something heroic going on there. Historians tend to characterize 30’s independent animation as unconventional, even bizarre. That just shows how thoroughly Disney’s model defined the art even as men like Iwerks, Van Beuren, and Fleischer struggled to challenge it. In the end, of course, Disney won. No wonder we view these competitors as outlaws. It’s somehow fitting that on-the-margins Blackhawk Films would acquire the Iwerks library in 1974, then sell them to eccentrics bent upon showing movies on hanging sheets. As long as there is appetite for cartoons put adrift, Flip will endure. His thirty-eight cartoons (wow --- they did that many?) are presently owned by Film Preservation Associates. Search me as to what if any rights the Iwerks family might maintain in the character. A better question might be … who’d bother infringing? I’ve seen time-warped Ebay listings for Flip toys and even a set of buttons like ones shown above, but no one’s likely to get rich selling these. There are two volumes on Image DVD that contain many Flips and others of what Iwerks produced, all with best surviving quality. I’ve avoided going into too much depth about individual Iwerks cartoons in deference to really superb and definitive liner notes provided by Greg Ford for the disc release. A wonderful documentary about Ub Iwerks written and produced by his granddaughter is an extra on Disney’s Oswald The Rabbit DVD from the company’s Treasures series. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in this great animator’s life and work.


Anonymous Mark Mayerson said...

The Flip and Willie Whopper cartoons definitely ran on New York TV when I was growing up in the late '50s and early '60s. Practically the entire inventory of American theatrical sound cartoons were on New York TV at that time.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Great post. I absolutely love Flip the Frog and have some posts on my ComiCrazys site from the sole annual as well as the 2 versions of the coloring book.

For the last year or more, I've been doing drawings of Flip in my sketchbooks. I can't seem to stop and am pretty sure I don't want to either. I love the characters. I'd love to do a Flip comic but not sure if he's public domain? I know that copyrights or licenses would only be given to certain usages, like video or merchandise or print. Usually not all three. Any suggestions how to proceed?

8:28 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

yeah..I distintly remember as 4 and 5 year old when we lived in New Jersey in the early 60s,sitting in front of the TV and watching the piano playing frog go.."boop boop.. boop boop..."(that image had somehow never left me)and I was so thrilled years later when I ordered my first Flip the Frog cartoon from Blackhawk,Cuckoo Murder Case, and discovered that it was that mysterious frog thingy i used to see on TV..I had all the FtF cartoons advertised on that Blackhawk page there,'cept for Nursemaid..
the perfect thing to go with a Laurel and Hardy..since thats probablly what was shown with them originally in Theatres..

12:40 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Yup, watched Willie Whopper and Flip on NY TV too! Flip was a personal favorite from my childhood, and I subjected my own kids to hours of battered 16mm prints (Blackhawk, Official and old Television releases) in the eighties and early nineties. Since most of my selections tended toward the weirder of the Iwerks stuff (SPOOKS, CUCKOO MURDER CASE, TECHNO-CRAZY, etc) I think my family always associated the anthropomorphized amphibian with Halloween. "The weirder of the Iwerks stuff"... now, there's a redundancy for you!

As to the 8mm nostalgia, I'm right with ya, brother! Can't pass up a rummage sale projector. The garage is full of two and three dollar items I dragged home to tinker with.

10:30 AM  
Anonymous Jerry Sciarrio said...

I own 2 Flip Cartoons on Super 8mm and they ARE good. Thanks to Blackhawk for putting them out years ago. P. S. -- anyone know where I can get a Super 8 Sound projector serviced in the Spokane WA area?????

1:13 PM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

Oh man, Flip the Frog - when I was a kid I had a book called "The Great Movie Cartoon Parade" that highlighted many characters from theatrical cartoons and I was enthralled by the odd image of this amphibious cartoon character. When I started collecting Super 8 sound movies, I snapped up Flip cartoons whenever they were on sale from the Blackhawk Films catalog. I gravitated toward the "spooky" entries - "Spooks," "The Cuckoo Murder Case," "Techno-Cracked" and "Soda Squirt" in particular. That last one (which was the last in the series) is particularly wild - lots of un-PC pre-code gags and great caricatures of classic stars like Laurel & Hardy, Jimmy Durante, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown and more. A real gem.

I'd say those Flip cartoons are as responsible for my love of the horror-comedy genre as the live-action spook-spoofs by Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The 3 Stooges, The Bowery Boys et al. I'm working on a book on the subject (which will feature a foreword by character actor/monster movie memorabilia collector/spook show reenactor Daniel Roebuck) and if it weren't for a lack of space, I'd probably include cartoons as well, but there are just so many entries in the live-action genre to cover already. At the very least, I may just mention these Flip films in an appendix. Anyway, I'll be launching the accompanying blog for my book on Halloween (naturally) - you can check it out at

9:17 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson e-mailed some nice reminiscence re his 8mm collecting:

Ah, memories.

I came into possession of a truly ancient Kodak projector in the mid-60s, with strange, metal-covered belts, very limited speed control and limited to 150/200-foot reels. Eventually I upgraded to a "self-threading" 8/Super 8 model. Back then the public library had 8mm films you could check out, so I was able to view a lot of titles for free.

Early on I was given a pack of 25-foot Popeyes and Betty Boops (I think that length was only offered in toy stores for hand-cranked projectors). I spliced them together onto a single reel and that became my top crowd pleaser, along with "The Great Chase" (Castle's cut of "The Bank Dick").

Magnetic sound was too expensive and newfangled, so screenings for family and hapless visitors were usually silent, except when I stacked several LPs on the record changer and hoped for the best (parts of "Lilac Time", a WWI flying ace epic, actually worked fairly well with football fight songs).

I got hold of the catalogs and brochures for Castle, Columbia and Ken Films. Columbia cut "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" into four freestanding reels each (with great lurid color), and they had a 6-reel version of the first Batman serial. Ken was the outfit with the truly awful cover art, sometimes including a B&W photo of a star's face pasted onto a badly drawn color body (they eventually got better designs, but only after VHS began killing the market). They seem to have inherited the AAP toons plus some oddities like a Red Skelton theatrical short. Towards the end they offered a B&W silent reel of "Star Wars."

Blackhawk, or course, was the ultimate (I eventually stumbled across other catalogs, but never really got interested). The Blackhawk Bulletin had WHOLE FEATURES -- silents I never heard of, but still -- and tons of comedy shorts. Plus oddities like used 16mm prints of forgotten TV shows. I sort of miss their introductory texts, a fixture like Robert Youngson's cheerfully grim narration on his compilation films ("Real life was more tragic than comic for this happy clown . . ."),

Sears briefly had a home movie catalog, which turned out to be a short, upscale edition of the Blackhawk Bulletin with some of the other firms' titles tossed in. That was where I discovered Disney was still in the 8mm biz. It says something about their old-school style that their theatrical shorts and even some of their feature excerpts had no subtitles -- and didn't need them.

Oddly enough my little collection, consisting mainly of AAP Warner Brothers cartoons and Blackhawk Laurel & Hardys, got me in with some of the hipper kids. They'd do light shows at school dances. We'd set up in the back of the room and I'd aim Bugs Bunny at a side wall, creating a distorted Cinemascope effect. While our impresario would sneak off and neck, I also projected burnt slides through colored cellophane and mixed food dyes in a glass dish on an overhead projector. AV geeks occasionally rocked.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Yes...had the Castle BANK DICK short. Got a lot of the Disneys from the library...

1:30 PM  

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