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Monday, October 18, 2010

Ads That Sold Cartoons --- Part One

It would appear we've reached a point where asking one hundred eight-year-olds if they've heard of Bugs Bunny will yield maybe a third who have. Cartoons that once ran in theatres are now sole concern of "adult collectors," as we're referred to on DVD boxes (along with warnings that Bugs and Daffy may be unsuitable for children!). Animation has seemingly gone full circle as to its target audience. Originally made for grown-ups, in fact for whole families, cartoons would be consigned to playpens thanks to 50's television. Now the old shorts are viewed as too free-wheeling by distributors better equipped to handle safe but inane product aimed at modern youth. I'll offer no defense for cartoons of my own formative years. Clutch Cargo, Deputy Dawg, and Astro Boy were and continue to be deserving of scorn. In fact, even Warner's output slipped a long way by the late fifties (manifestly evidenced in recent DVD collections featuring Bugs and Daffy). Since most agree that animation's Golden Age took place in the 30's and 40's, I'm put to wondering just how important cartoons were to exhibition during said enchanted years. Were Mickey, Porky, Popeye, et al essential to a ticket's worth of screen entertainment? Most (but not all) companies maintained cartoon units. It's safe to say patrons expected at least that or a comedy with each program, even as double features dug inroads. Hal Roach blamed animation for knocking his two-reelers off release charts. Sound and color partnered to make cartoons a most popular bonus with movies. So would a cartoon on the marquee tip scales between going out or staying home? Theatre ads from newspapers are handy for sorting importance of seven or so minutes to an evening's show. What follows here and in Part Two offer at least hints as to how animation ranked among promoting priorities.
Ha! Ha! The Big Bad Wolf Is Stayin' Another Week! says the ad above for a 1933 run of The Three Little Pigs at Rochester's Loew's. I'd read this was cartooning's first social phenomenon. Extended runs, song sheets at every piano, its theme whistled on street corners throughout the land, etc. The ad at least reveals The Three Little Pigs' staying power at the Loew's, as evidenced by fact it's still there as Broadway Through A Keyhole takes over feature duties. Were patrons coming for second and third helpings of Disney's breakout reel? I'm trying to think of another hit tune that emerged from one of his shorts. Der Fuhrer's Face was one ... but lacked permanence of Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?. Still, it was a wartime hit, and Spike Jones among others lent interpretation to considerable success. The Palace Theatre here calls Der Fuhrer's Face "Great Added Joy" and references its Song Sensation. Worth noting too is fact that Disney's cartoon is as prominently advertised as the two features in this Deluxe Three Unit Program.

I've never been to Goat Island State Park, but Google searching reveals its location to be Niagara Falls, N.Y., plus fact that Goat Island is our country's oldest state park. Wish I'd been present for that thousand egg hunt sponsored by the Fox Cataract Theatre, that name denoting either large waterfalls or a medical condition of the eyes. Given the theatre's location, we can assume this Cataract did indeed refer to waterfalls. In fact, Niagara Falls has itself been called Cataract City. The Mickey Mouse Clubs were a nationwide craze that lasted through the thirties and beyond, boasting thousands of participating theatres. Special events were commonplace as showmen sought to involve club membership in activities well beyond boundary of their auditoriums. This Easter egg hunt was even recorded by Fox Movietone cameras, presumably for use in a newsreel. Is it any wonder Mickey Mouse was the Number One cartoon name? His seventh birthday is celebrated in a Loew's State (city unknown) ad wherein eight Mickey and Silly Symphony cartoons are featured, including the ubiquitous Three Little Pigs. I've found innumerable birthday party ads for MM, going right through the thirties and continuing well past television's arrival. Popeye ran close behind Mickey as King Of Cartoons. Here he is commanding top position in an ad for It's Love I'm After, a 1937 Warners feature with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia DeHavilland. This was at least one showman's tacit recognition that an animated extra could be strongest lure on the bill, for Popeye was peaking by that year with shorts like Protek The Weakerist achieving laff summits. The biggest 30's noise was from three Popeye specials extended to two-reel length and animated in Technicolor. They got deluxe placement in many ads I found, one shown here being typical. Fleischer's multi-plane miracles were touted by showmen promising "18 Minutes of 3-Dimensional Laughs." Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor was opener for the color group, its ad designation as a "feature" being so persuasive as to cause many to remember it as such. Considering the fact Sindbad amazes still, just imagine the effect it had on 1936 audiences ...

There was something plenty special about MGM's Red Hot Tex Avery cartoons. They were fast, funny, and sexed up beyond wildest hopes of viewers bound to Code chains. Wolfy and Red surely rivaled Tom and Jerry for cheering among wartime patronage, and stories I've read of managers obliged to repeat Red Hot Riding Hood to enthused throngs are likely true. By 1945 and follow-up Swing Shift Cinderella, Red's heat was white. This Flashy Lassie With The Classy Chassis left no doubt as to what was in store for fans who'd stamped floors for Red Hot Riding Hood. Did Avery's saucy shorts encounter censor trouble? I don't remember Red Hot being on television around here, and am not sure if it's seen revival on DVD, even as other Averys have turned up as disc extras. I do recall 16mm bootleg prints in abundance. This was one cartoon you could always rely on to wake up the house. 40's exhibitors found same to be true with not only Red Hot, but all the Avery envelope pushers.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

There was a feeding frenzy for prints of THREE LITTLE PIGS when it first came out. I've got a vintage-1933 souvenir program from the grand opening of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts (this grand old art-deco house is still standing and still open). The featured cartoon was THREE LITTLE PIGS... in FRENCH! The exhibitor had to resort to a foreign-release print to scoop the local showmen.

11:41 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

John, I couldn't agree with you more regarding your comments about Bugs and Daffy being "wrong" for today's enlightened children. It's embarrassing, humilating and frankly maddening to have to sit through those ridiculous "disclaimers" (you CAN'T "fast forward" through them)at the head of the WB sets and the Popeye sets. As if not only the people who made them were some sort of lower-mentality savage, but YOU'RE no better for watching.....I suppose that the "watchdogs" of our morality and spirituality would much rather have Bugs, Daffy and Popeye save the environment than.....well, ANYTHING else.......It's pathetic.


5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kids not knowing Bugs Bunny reminds me of the days(early 1970's)when Mickey Mouse existed only as a trademark-the cartoons were never on.Well, they still aren't, really.

6:09 PM  
Anonymous Steve Menke said...

Excellent research, John! Regarding the conspicuous absence of "Red Hot Riding Hood" during childhood TV viewing, I think (IIRC) it was said during MGM/UA's "Cartoons for Big Kids" VHS that it was deliberately withheld from TV packages due to being "too adult."

WB France did issue a Tex Avery DVD collection; stateside, it's been said that further restoration would be necessary.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

ha that Popeye ad..Its Love I'm after too...

11:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson weighs in on cartoons, TV, and what became of classic animation ...

I'll guess that the cartoons were a tipping point, like free parking, air
conditioning and/or Bank Night -- the new Bette Davis might be an unknown
quantity, but it'll be cooler than a July night at home and you could count
on Bugs Bunny.

Many of the majors would contract a cartoon studio as often as own one.
Disney was distributed by Columbia, United Artists and RKO; Columbia
replaced Disney with Mintz and later signed the groundbreaking UPA;
Paramount contracted with the Fleischers before devouring them; Walter Lantz
produced exclusively for Universal but was officially an independent;
DePatie-Freleng (Pink Panther) was under the United Artists banner. Even the
Looney Tunes started as a Warner contractor.

Don't know who distributed Terrytoons. Did ANYBODY ever attract customers by
advertising a new Gandy Goose?

Mickey wasn't the only one who could headline a program. You had print ads
for Tom and Jerry extravaganzas, and one of the Looney Tunes boxes had
strange-looking theatrical trailers for Bugs and Friends packages. Were all
of these actual studio-designed programs, or did they just round up whatever
prints were at the exchange office that day?

My guess is that color TV eventually killed off the all-toon program -- the
kiddie matinee survived for a while longer as a feature film with or without
a handful of cartoons tossed in.

For kids who grew up in the 70s and beyond, animated sitcoms and adventures
knocked the old theatrical packages to the fringes of Saturday morning. The
syndication boom expanded their reach to local weekday schedules, where they
joined kid-oriented sitcom reruns to finish off most of the Cartoon Carnival
Time holdouts. This younger generation is now probably upset that their own
kids roll their eyes and leave the room when they cue up He-Man.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Donald, in case you're reading this, 20th Century-Fox distributed the TERRYTOONS.

In 1968, for my 9th birthday, some friends and I went to a matinee to see Don Knotts in "The Shakiest Gun in the West," which was accompanied by about five late-1950's WB cartoons. It was the first time I'd seen the Oscar winner "Knighty-Knight Bugs." (I never watched the Saturday morning Bugs Bunny shows because, even at that early age, I was a purist snob and HATED that the original openings and closings were cut off.) Since the Knotts film was a Universal production - and since Lantz was still actively making cartoons in '68 - in retrospect, I'm surprised we didn't get a "Woody and Friends" compilation. I suppose the theater owners knew that even latter-day Looney Tunes would be a better draw.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I'm with James Corry about those infuriating disclaimers we're forced to read on the Looney Tunes compilations. At least they don't trot Whoopi Goldberg out to recite it to us anymore; a lecture from her on the bounds of good taste really was too much.

Re today's banner: Love the Hirschfeld sketch of the Apartment set. But can anyone point out the "NINA"? I can't find it -- not even after I noticed the backward signature and looked for "ANIN."

9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The artwork on your masthead on Wednesday, 10-23-2010, was it from a promotion for DIE NIBELUNGEN(1924)?

12:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's right --- it's a German lobby card from the film's first release there, according to my info ...

7:36 AM  

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