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Friday, August 05, 2016

Mining More Rare Cartoons

Radio City's "New Roxy" at Left, and Auditorium at Above Right,
with Opening Night's Cartoon Depiction on Lower Right 

Where Cubby Bear Met King Kong

Looking for the ideal short to program with King Kong? 1933's Opening Night, a Van Beuren cartoon featuring Cubby Bear, is it. Whole of the reel is set inside Gotham's RKO Roxy theatre, one of sites where Kong premiered (the other was Radio City Music Hall). Van Beuren's output was distributed by RKO, thus the tie, and what we get in Opening Night is animated tour of a grand venue when it was brand new and a talk of the town. Within a month of Cubby circulating came King Kong (3-2-33), latter a historic hit for New Yorkers who could exit onto streets where action was set, the Empire State Building but blocks away. Imagine a biggest of all action thrillers played out on pavement you'd walk every day. Opening Night gives us added flavor of what a night out to see King Kong was like. The cartoon plays accurate re crowd control and masses of humanity shown to seats, over 3,500 of them. Has anyone of our generation seen King Kong with that many people? Imagine reaction to highlights from a mob like that.

Winston-Salem's Carolina Theatre seated 1,380. I watched King Kong three times from one of those chairs in March 1970. The place seemed packed, or maybe that's rose-tint glasses I now view the experience through. Sentiment enhances everything. The thrice-view allows me to remember where every laugh came, none as I recall at the expense of King Kong, or is that nostalgia overtaking reality again? KK special fx had not been surpassed by 1970, Ray Harryhausen still active and using same techniques applied to Kong and taught him by Willis O' Brien. Could King Kong be the supreme audience picture of all time? I might have said so on that Friday-Saturday. Older age doesn't hand you many moments like that. For all of thrill seeing King Kong at the Carolina, imagine tripling heads, and there for a sensation brand new to all, as in 1933 at the RKO Roxy. There had to be audible reaction, as in yells, gasps, cheering. We got that at the Liberty for King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1963, tepid a thing as it was, my party of four nearly thrown out for excess utterances.

I suppose nothing whips up children, or once did, like really big monsters in a really big auditorium. What we've lost is spaces of adequate size to contain them, or for that matter, an attraction to bring out so much youth. Opening Night, even though drawn, shows what enormous crowds really were like, and how organization had to be applied toward moving them along and getting everyone seated. A stairway shot has endless single files moving up toward balconies in what I'm satisfied was true caricature of mass humanity in orderly motion. Many an anecdote from the picture palace era refers to ingress and egress handled with mathematical precision, staff knowing a gum-up could put thousands where they shouldn't be, whilst thousands more seek entrance. There's romance to Gold Age exhibition from our distance, but ask anyone who worked the life, and they'd say it was shifts shot full with stress, bucks always stopping at the manager's desk, and no alibi for a botched presentation.

Opening Night is part of a just released Blu-Ray containing all twenty Cubby Bear cartoons made between 1933 and 34. Cubby was another attempt by the Van Beuren company to rival Mickey Mouse, to no soap result. The shorts washed out with a rest of Van Beuren tide, split among distributors who put them to home movie and TV plows, remembered by those for whom they'd be first cartoons seen on home tubes. Keith Smith of Modern Sound Pictures, a pioneer rental house, took what nitrate elements survived and did 16mm for customers. Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation, always on alert for rarities, got Smith's remaining inventory, plus survivor prints from far-flung collectors, to produce this best-quality-ever Cubby set. Opening Night, for instance, is a 16mm "print-down" (that is, from the camera neg) dated 1942. It looks for all the world like 35mm, as do many others in the group. There are the customary extras, plus liner notes, typical of Thunderbean releases. All of theirs demonstrate how cartoons should be gathered and presented. Greenbriar is pleased to have been associated with Thunderbean on several projects, including the Cubbys. Amazon has the Blu-Ray available now, and more background info from Steve Stanchfield is HERE.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The other Roxy cartoon, with its mechanized solutions to large-scale customer service and crowd control, is Max Fleischer's SHE REMINDS ME OF YOU:

This never fails with an audience, so I can imagine how it went over with audiences of 1934. Both the Fleischer and Van Beuren cartoon shops were based in New York City, so the animators knew firsthand what all the shouting was about.

6:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for that link, Scott. Just watched the Fleischer cartoon, liked it a lot. Seems theatre-set cartoons were almost a sub-genre during the 30's. I'm thinking of that WB where the audience is watching "The Petrified Forest," with its caricatures of Leslie Howard and Bette Davis.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Sub-genre indeed! Along with toons about the massive urban palaces, there were plenty celebrating neighborhood movie houses and their familiar stunts and procedures. Check out BUDDY'S THEATRE (1935):

8:54 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

There is nothing that can compare to seeing a movie in a 5,000 seat house especially when it is a real crowd pleaser. I saw Richard Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS in a 5,000 seat house. The place was packed. When the movie began with that great duel between D'Artagnan and his father and we got the Norman McLaren PS DE DEUX inspired visuals the audience took one huge breath in and let out an enormous cry of sheer joy. Similarly, the climax of THE CONQUERING WORM (WITCHFINDER GENERAL) unleashed a wave of horror that began at the front and rippled up to the back row with people running frantically for the exits. It's too bad the movies got small. THUNDERBEAN does first rate restoration work. Wish other independents would follow their example (or ask them to help).

4:15 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

You were thinking of "She Was an Acrobat's Daughter" - which was remade as "Bacall to Arms" with its caricatures of Bogie and Betty (in "To Have, To Have, To Have...").

4:33 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

After seeing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at the Royal Albert Hall with live music and a 5000 strong crowd,I was curious about the big old houses of the mid century. ...your post hit the spot John!!

5:05 PM  
Blogger jeff korns said...

As much as I love having classic movie collections for my home, there is nothing like seeing them in a big theater with a large audience. Unfortunately, the very mediums of DVD, cable and streaming that saved the films have killed off most of the regular showing of classics on the big screens.

On a side note, the RKO Roxy in the cartoon wound up having to change it's name to the RKO Center theater in 1933 when the original Roxy theater on W 50th sued them. The Center theater lasted barely 21 years and was replaced by offices.

1:03 AM  
Blogger Mikeymort said...

I'm on hour #4 of reading the cartoon research website. Great stuff.

1:33 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

MICKEY'S GALA PREMIERE (1933) is set at Grauman's Chinese Theater, but it's more about celebrity caricatures than the theater-going experience.

HARE DO (1949) has Bugs and Elmer in a movie palace whose marquee promises "Anthony Adverse" (1936 -- Was there a re-release?). Gags about lofty balconies, smoking at intermission, climbing over people to get to a seat, and candy vending machines (Bugs buys a carrot; it comes with two pennies change taped to it. Was there a time when they didn't round candy prices to the nickel?). It ends with a live stage act, which by '49 I take to be artistic license.

BOX-OFFICE BUNNY (1990) was a light riff on multiplexes: 100 screens, outsized refreshments, sticky floors, and $7 admission.

Various Looney Tunes did gags with the filmed silhouettes of audience members (did anyone else?). My favorite had a wolf menacing Red Riding Hood, then irritably stopping the action while a late arrival made his way to his seat. And one late-period Popeye cut to a kid in the audience throwing a can of spinach to the sailor onscreen.

5:37 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

The Warner's Strand in New York was still presenting stage shows in 1949, such as Xavier Cugat with "White Heat." There's a marquee photo with the Greenbriar post from 3/1/08 about the Cagney pic.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Great to see OPENING NIGHT getting loving restoration -- it's a delight that I've only see it on a Van Buren DVD I picked up at a dollar store years ago. And thank you, John, for mentioning The "new'' Roxy, which has been one of my obsessions for years, as it was located a couple of blocks from my office in Rockefeller Center on Sixth Avenue, a block east of the site of the "old'' Roxy on Seventh Avenue. As confirmed by the New York Times review, OPENING NIGHT played with THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, which opened the RKO Roxy along with an elaborate stage show on Dec. 29, 1932. Reputedly the most beautiful theater in Manhattan history, the RKO Roxy (which was quickly renamed the Center after the owners of the old Roxy threatened suit, had a short, unhappy existence. Radio City Music hall was designed as a live performance venue, but their opening night the night after the new Roxy was a disaster and RCMH soon was playing movies with a stage show, essentially rendering the Center redundant. It went from mostly playing RCMH move-overs to operettas to ice shows and was an NBC television studio when it closed in 1954, torn down to make room for an office building. The "new'' Roxy actually pre-deceased the "old'' Roxy by six years -- they were the first of (many) Manhattan movie palaces to fall under the wrecking ball.

8:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Lou, and thanks a lot for the background on the "New" Roxy, and especially info re "Opening Night" making its bow with "The Animal Kingdom," which I was not aware of, and at the very theatre where the cartoon took place. That must have been quite a kick for the audience.

Also much enjoyed your TCM Party coverage on "King Kong" --- lots of facts you revealed that were new to me.

8:46 AM  

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