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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Cartoon Master We've Forgotten

Ted Eshbaugh Makes a Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

Among most amazing artifacts of animation to be recently unearthed is Ted Eshbaugh's The Wizard Of Oz. What's that name, you say? Eshbaugh was a cartooning pioneer, left out of a not a few histories, but championed by Thunderbean's Steve Stanchfield, whose latest Blu-Ray compilation, Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, includes not only The Wizard Of Oz, but a representative sampling of Eshbaugh's work both before and after it. Eshbaugh (shown at left) was a young man with dreams, same as Walt Disney (they were born five years apart), but Walt's came spectacularly true, while for Ted, effort and innovation went largely unrecognized over a lifetime of cartooning. Virtually all his shorts were made for independents, and some have since disappeared. Thunderbean has managed to find color elements for a few that for years were seen only in black-and-white. Eshbaugh is best vindicated, however, by discovery of 35mm IB Technicolor for The Wizard Of Oz, a cartoon that existed before, but not looking like this. It is a highlight of Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, with so many parallels to MGM's 1939 treatment (including a B/W opening) that you figure Leo just had to have checked it out before going forward with a live-action redo.

Ted Eshbaugh got first trade attention in March 1932 for getting a color cartoon booked at the Loew's State in Los Angeles. That was Goofy Goat, done in the Multicolor process, according to an article, History Of The Animated Cartoon, by Earl Theisen, and published in the September 1933 issue of The Journal Of The SMPE (Society Of Motion Picture Engineers). According to Theisen, Goofy Goat had been previewed at the Warner's Alhambra Theatre on July 6, 1931, making it "the first complete cartoon story done in color" (Walter Lantz had earlier supplied an animated color opening to Universal's live-action King Of Jazz, released 3/30). Variety noted "youthful producer" Eshbaugh having applied "months of labor and promotion in which he promoted and expended $10,000." Goofy Goat, and Eshbaugh's projected series of cartoons, had yet to find a distributor, but wasn't that a same challenge that Disney faced and overcame with Steamboat Willie back in 1928?

Eshbaugh's "secret color mixing process" would distinguish "a series of 12 all-color sound cartoons," said Film Daily, with "new studios" being prepped for the tyro producer as Goofy Goat (that's him at left, with gf "Nanny" Goat)continued its stand at Loew's State. Lightning having struck for Disney assured that a trade would watch this youngster closely, coverage of his moves positive and even encouraging: "Eshbaugh, a youth with an idea and no capital, has lined up a staff of young cartoonists ready to turn out more reels if their maestro clicks or collects" (Variety). Goofy Goat scored a mention in the September 1931 issue of Photoplay, their "Short Subjects Of The Month" page saying "Let's see more" of this character "apparently out after some of Mickey Mouse's pickings." They must have caught the Alhambra preview, as I found no evidence of Goofy Goat having playdates beyond there and Loew's State. Any animation historians know of an actual release for this short? Official Films sold 8 and 16mm versions for home use during the 40/50's, these being black-and-white and all that survive of Goofy Goat. Efforts to locate a color print have so far gone begging.

It would have been Goofy Goat, and follow-up color reel The Snowman, that got Ted Eshbaugh his job making The Wizard of Oz. The Technicolor company wanted a demo reel that would show effectiveness of their new three-color process. What better than a cartoon to emphasize widest expanse of the rainbow? Eshbaugh had a deal with Frank J. Baum to adapt his father's The Wizard Of Oz, within an agreed upon time. As production went forward on the cartoon, Technicolor began negotiations with Walt Disney to use the new process for his Silly Symphonies. A contract dated 8/30/32 made way for a first, Flowers and Trees, with three more charted for color. Later amendment of the pact gave Disney exclusive rights to three-color Technicolor use in cartoons for a two year period from 9/1/33 to 8/31/35 (this based on primary research by Michael Barrier for his book, Hollywood Cartoons). In the meantime, Ted Eshbaugh had finished The Wizard Of Oz, a gorgeous sampling of what Technicolor could deliver, but not one that could be released to theatres, now that Disney had sole access to three-color for cartoons.

Under headline of life not being fair, Ted Eshbaugh had to watch his work buried by a bigger fish that Technicolor angled for and caught. What was one cartoon by Eshbaugh when a possible dozen or more from Disney were planned to exalt the process? Besides that, WD was a name known worldwide, thanks to Mickey Mouse, while Eshbaugh remained unknown. And yet ... there was The Wizard Of Oz, a short anyone with eyes would call infinitely superior to Flowers and Trees, which was not even drawn in color to begin with (more than half finished in B/W), but retrofitted in ways evocative of silent features (and cartoons) kept back for addition of music, sound effects, and even dialogue. Walt had to look at his Flowers and Trees beside The Wizard Of Oz and know that here was occasion when the better man had not won. I wonder if it played on his conscience afterward. Does anyone know if Disney ever offered Ted Eshbaugh a job? Judging by the man's talent, he certainly should have. Worth noting is fact that WD did purchase rights to the Oz books some decades later, but wouldn't screen adapt them during his lifetime as was plan.

So far as we know, The Wizard Of Oz languished in obscurity from 1932 on, but there was effort to release it to theatres in 1935, possibly in anticipation of Disney's three-color exclusivity running out in August of that year. What frustrated the plan, by Ted Eshbaugh and Technicolor, was a lawsuit filed by Frank L. Baum in 5/35, wherein he asked the court to block proposed release of The Wizard Of Oz. Basis was Eshbaugh's failure to finish the cartoon within agreed time set by the parties. "Contract is therefore regarded as void by Baum," reported Variety, leaving Technicolor "730 feet of negative, which under arrangement with Eshbaugh, company (Technicolor) is ready to market unless enjoined." How the matter resolved does not appear in trade search I made, but we might assume it went against Eshbaugh/Technicolor for fact The Wizard Of Oz would not have a theatrical release, at least in the US.

Ted Eshbaugh wasn't entirely a prophet without honor. He was recognized and invited to participate in an exhibit put on during fall 1933 by The Society Of Motion Picture Engineers. They wanted to establish a museum of film history at their Los Angeles headquarters where membership could view industry-made progress. To this display came pioneers like Mack Sennett, with vintage cameras and memoirs of Keystone Kop days, J. Stuart Blackton with a Biograph Mutoscope, Willis O' Brien demonstrating effects trickery for King Kong, all this and more in addition to Ted Eshbaugh's overview of his pioneering work in color cartoons. Walt Disney and Walter Lantz made contributions as well, each showing work done in the area of color. Interesting how tech journals from the 30's made point of including Ted Eshbaugh. I found favorable mentions and acknowledgment of his "first" color cartoon in The International Projectionist (1933), World Film and Television Progress (1938), and The International Photographer (1936). Too bad they couldn't see remarkable work he'd done on The Wizard Of Oz.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Goofy and Nanny Goat appeared to have gone to the same tailor frequented by Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Didn't Disney pull a similar stunt on the British director who made a live-action version "Alice in Wonderland" years later? Because Disney supposedly strong-armed Technicolor, the other guy had to go with the lesser Anscocolor.

10:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer raises some interesting possibilities regarding Ted Eshbaugh and "The Wizard Of Oz":

Ted Eshbaugh's version of "The Wizard of Oz" does seem remarkable, especially in the way it seems to anticipate some aspects of the M-G-M feature film released seven years later. The style of it seems to be taken from the W. W. Denslow illustrations for the series of Oz books written by Frank L. Baum, which isn't surprising, given that the rights had been bought from Baum, who worked closely with Denslow. I believe that Larry Semon also followed the Denslow concepts in his silent version, including the look of the Scarecrow he played. What is especially intriguing, however, is the way it begins with the Kansas scenes in black-and-white and then segues into Technicolor for the ones set in Oz. Such an approach may seem obvious now, with the tremendous success of the M-G-M film, but it couldn't have been then. Apparently this short was never released, but does that mean that no one in the industry saw it? Did Technicolor ever have private showings of it, given that it was originally made to demonstrate the new three-color process? When there was an effort to release it in 1935, were screenings held for potential distributors? Might not one of them been M-G-M? Or when M-G-M acquired the rights to the Baum stories from Samuel Goldwyn in January, 1938 and was planning to use Technicolor for their film of "The Wizard of Oz," was the Eshbaugh short brought out to show what could be done in the process? If so, it may have been one of the most influential films no one ever saw.

11:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson recalls a wartime Eshbaugh oddity:

Another Eshbaugh epic is "Cap'n Cub" on Thunderbean's "Cartoons for Victory." It's typical wartime stuff about funny animal pilots battling with Japanese monkeys, but the music and animation has a strange British/European vibe to it.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for a fascinating post. I found the short on YouTube (this new collection is not on Netflix) though sadly the color is not nearly as spectacular as it must be on the blu-ray (according to these screen-caps).

10:53 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

TECHNICOLOR DREAMS AND BLACK AND WHITE NIGHTMARES is a simply terrific release. Don't kid yourself that you've experienced these things before because you've tracked them down on YouTube or discount bin DVDs. If you are remotely interested in classic era animation, fall off your wallet and order it today! It's fabulous!

9:19 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Thanks for the behind the scenes story on this cartoon-- I saw it in one of the Oz releases and have long been stumped how something that had to be Technicolor existed during Disney's exclusive on that. The answer is, it preexisted it, who knew?

11:30 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

KEVIN K: The "other" Alice was produced by stop-motion puppeteer Lou Bunin. You can read more here:

8:21 PM  

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