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Monday, June 13, 2022

A Song In Columbus Dark


Where Cartoons Go To Please Anew

Couple of weeks ago, I experienced a MMM at Columbus. Not Mary Miles Minter, but a Magic Movie Moment like we seek from watching what is old and evocative of happiest days. It was their yearly hour (Saturday morning per custom) of pick from animated rarities private collectors protect on 16mm, a chance to see things that for whatever reason elude us otherwise. Ten cartoons might exhaust me had they less variety than laid before attendees at “The Columbus Moving Picture Show” (formerly Cinevent). The happening, I’ll say “Happening,” was #3 of the bunch called You Try Somebody Else (1932), a Fleischer “Screen Song” of that series where live-cast stars comport with drawn oddities from Max-Dave menagerie, the on-screen singer inviting us to join in reprise, a bouncing ball over lyrics for assist. You Try Somebody Else was performed by Ethel Merman, looking barely as Ethel Merman later would, torchy over swain who gave her the go-by. Kate Smith, Rudy Vallee, Connie Boswell, others, recorded the song before or contemporaneous with Merman. The tune was new to me and likely so for many Columbus attendees, upshot and pay-off our getting to sing with Ethel … spanning bridge of ninety years to sing with Ethel, me included, happily if not lustily. You Try Somebody Else was highlight of the hour, maybe the entire trip, for what is mere reading about singalongs at 30’s theatres we never experienced … or joined? There’s no knowing it, feeling it, until you see/hear, and participate. I grew up impatient with bounce-ball cartoons as part of TV ritual, songs slowing action to a crawl, but as of May 30 in a hotel ballroom at Columbus, Ohio, my attitude has changed.

We got another Fleischer, this a Popeye entitled Bridge Ahoy (1936). Keeping Popeyes apart does not come easy, being there are so many, all of black-and-whites reliably good. Was there another cartoon series from the thirties to maintain such high standard? I’ve spent thought on how/why the Sailor Man vanquished Mickey Mouse to become top swab at ticket windows. Records show Popeye Clubs overtook ones for Mickey and kept a lead right to the war, stopped finally by slippage of quality (Paramount forming “Famous Studios” after hurl of Fleischers), plus emergence of Bugs Bunny as combat trainer for crowds bestirred by all-over fighting. I visited Popeye Clubs before and remain awed by what they achieved for venues small and vast. Many a town had one. Membership routinely ran into hundreds, Thornton, Rhode Island signing up 875 among local population of 1,326. Paramount dispatched junior talent as good will ambassadors to Popeye meetings. Major stars were photographed with Sailor Man puppets and stuffed figures for eventual publication in fan magazines. School superintendents endorsed Club chapters, "wholesome recreation" as classified by these as well as parents.

But whoa a moment to the wholesome part, for did Popeye amount to anything other than ritualized violence done by seven-minute metronome, that is, beatings, intake of spinach, then reprisal at severity many times a level of abuse that inspired it? If eating spinach will vanquish all comers, then bring on spinach said I at age five, though leaf which was offered, dry as it was raw, tasted no different from grass in the yard, which we were told dogs ate only when they wished to throw up something disagreeable. Given reality of spinach, let Bluto go his way. Thing about Popeyes, at least ones Fleischer made, was how sophisticated they seemed, even Avant Garde. How would audiences sit otherwise through models identical as to structure and execution played year after (thirty) years at least. To know is to account also for Punch and Judy, which was approximate same except with puppets. Popeye will trounce Bluto and that is all we need to know. Even after the cartoons went to color with mechanics too revealed, still there was irresistible impulse to watch and know that expectation would be fulfilled. Mickey Mouse for all his gifts could not appeal to yearning so basic and outcome so assured. We are a warlike species, and Popeye proves it. Such human nature dictated that he would prevail almost upon arrival, first clubs organized by late 1933 with a mere six sailor cartoons so far released.

Success of Popeye was almost alarming. Few thought Disney could be stopped, then comes Paramount/Fleischer to do just that. This may have been when Zukor and sub-chiefs began asking how dispensable Max and Dave might be. The brothers fought between themselves and a front office found that unseemly plus destabilizing to steady flow of Popeye. The character was no Fleischer creation in any case, leased instead from a comic strip. Popeye became too valuable to leave anything to chance. Max/Dave imitated Disney when what they did best was beat him on terms with which Walt could/would not compete. How to counterfeit attitude of East Coast delinquents too scruffy to draw for up-market betters? Disney wanted no part of such rabble. Fleischer “Color Classics” which tried to be like Silly Symphonies were lush and sometimes clever, but few figured they could meet, let alone pass, the Disneys. Gulliver’s Travels was barely worth making, nobody’s idea of an advance on Snow White even though it profited OK, if nowhere near what Disney/RKO had earned. Meaningful was fact no other major studio tried an animated feature, having ceded the field to Disney.

Usefulness of the Fleischers would be the more questioned once Paramount realized Popeye was near all value Max/Dave had to give. Betty Boop was done by 1939, the color art reels wrapped, and a strike by Fleischer staff looked like a problem that could and should have been avoided. Memos between New York and Miami, latter the Fleischer’s transferred-to site, gave confirmation that Max and Dave weren’t speaking. Dave had got production control and weak cartoons reflected it (remarkable exceptions: the Superman group). He also had a secretary girlfriend and an office he refitted for a horse parlor. Ticker tape to record bets was innovation not toward the good of animation now needing an oxygen tent to score laughs. Many said the move to Florida was misjudged, or maybe it was inevitable that Paramount would pull plugs and take the operation over. Doing that was simple as turn-off of tap and starving the Fleischers out onto streets. It all reads like a rawest of deals, but clearer shines life’s oldest adage of nobody in any argument being all right or all wrong.

The Duncan Sisters Swoon for Popeye

Fleischer would have his victory, but it was pyrrhic, plus came too late to do him good. The Popeyes had gone to television, the lot of them, in 1956, and did culturally phenomenal business. Not to use the term light … these shorts amazed a jaded trade who thought one kid-filler barely different from another. Popeye touched a reflex and there was simply no getting enough of him, all the while Disneys from same past era absent from syndication (Walt’s withhold), or there for Mouseketeers to pull from magic drawers and largely bore viewers with. Nothing from Disney it seemed had anything like energy Popeye gave out each afternoon plus Saturdays. New owners of negs took Fleischer’s name off remade credits and he sued, scant good coming of the gesture. Max got history’s commendation however, this a best win of all as awarded by posterity. Massive TV spike like what Popeye had would seem like history with capacity to repeat itself, and indeed, the sailor should have cycled through generations to a present, but for reality of best Popeyes being black-and-white and fed into a syndicated market that by the seventies rejected them for being black-and-white. By the time I caught up seriously to the Fleischer group during 1972-1976, they were fit only for UHF, and darn few of those outliers could care. Television’s blight on black-and-white, beginning in the mid-sixties when color sets took off, had its fulfillment within a decade after, Popeye a casualty along with B/W feature packages. The cartoons today are hardly missing, not so long as TCM and You Tube thrive, and there is of course DVD and the sets Warner sells. It’s just that Popeye is no longer something you discover by stumbling over him. You must go looking, like Trader Horn. Help toward that end, learning Popeye plus the Fleischers and their work, best begins with books by Ray Pointer, Leslie Cabarga, or better, both. Add to these a reservation for the next Columbus Moving Picture Show, already down for May 2023 dates.


Blogger DBenson said...

It should be remembered how huge the comic strip "Thimble Theater" was (see the beautiful Fantagraphics books). Popeye's print success may well have led Paramount to dismiss what the Fleischers personally brought to the shorts. I've also read that Paramount and Hearst realized that the cartoons had future value, so moved to cut the Fleischers out of that jackpot.

With the shift to color TV Hearst produced their own cartoons on the cheap, ironically contracting what was left of Paramount as well as other animation houses. In addition to Popeye they offered a package of Beetle Bailey, Snuffy Smith, and, inexplicably, the long out-of-print Krazy Kat. You can still find DVD sets with a grab bag of these and other Hearst-owned items, including TV specials and episodes of syndicated series.

On violence: The Famous/Paramounts are often a little off-putting -- not just the increasingly bland Popeyes, but the Caspers, the Baby Hueys, and the Herman and Katnips. Overall they're clearly aimed at a little kid audience. But at the same time, there's a peculiar sadistic streak. Gags are often animated in such a way to make you think "geez, that hadda hurt" instead of laughing. Katnip and Baby Huey's hungry wolf might be shown groggy and grimacing after an impact, instead of comically dazed with little birds circling their head.

5:54 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Many of those Bouncing Ball cartoons (including the one with Merman!) were included in the PBS package of classic movie serials -- The Miracle Rider, the 3 Flash Gordons, Zorro's Fighting Legion -- in the early 70s during the Nostalgia Craze. There are many that I remember seeing in that venue as if it were yesterday.

I wonder how many people my age (mid-50s) became passionate about classic mid-century entertainment (movies, music, pulps, OTR) because of the Nostalgia Craze? All of this stuff was 30-40 years ahead of my time, but I grew up with it as if it was all contemporary.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Yep....starting in the early to mid 60s, with things like SILENTS PLEASE and, for better or worse, FRACTURED FLICKERS, followed by MISCHIEF MAKERS,for the silent OUR GANG, the re-emergence of the Marx Bros, WC Fields, etc. and then the general interest in fashion,music and general history, old time radio....and probably a hundred other things, all of which caught my interest...and then my favourite, THE TOY THAT GREW UP and CLASSICS OF THE SILENT SCREEN....why it seemed to speak to me and others of my generation is still a mystery but it was very widespread at the time, sort of a preamble to the 50s revival a few years later...

3:23 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I encountered Popeye as a child, in a B&W TV family in the early 1970s - my parents couldn't be bothered to get a color TV until 1976 or even 1977 (I think) and even then, that color set was a gift to them from an older sibling.
But even as a child, watching all of the Popeyes in B&W served up as part of the mix on the cartoon shows then on TV, it became obvious - at least to me - that some of the Popeyes were much better - that more care had gone into their production - than the others. Why that was so wasn't obvious at all to me then.
It was only decades later that I learned that things had changed in Popeye production from the 30s to the 50s, and that the difference I had percieved as a child was caused by that change.
It also appears to me now that the work of many successful artists (and not only film artists) becomes somewhat less interesting overall once the success of their product on commercial terms becomes assured - perhaps they too have distracting habits like Fleischer's love for betting on the ponies which come to the fore once thay have made some money with their art. That may be bad for us in the audience, but it's their life, I guess.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

One of our local stations had the Popeye theatricals for years. They never ran the black and white cartoons, though. Only the color ones. I was working there the summer their lease on those cartoons expired and they opted not to renew. My job was to take each reel, lop off the first few feet of film and put it aside to be returned to United Artists. What remained went into the dumpster. The thinking was that film collectors weren't going to be interested in cartoons that were missing their main titles and the beginning of the story

The color films were pretty much shot. Faded, scratched up and splicy. Those black and white ones, though. They'd had cue marks punched into them, but otherwise oristine. Wonderful condition. It just killed me to see those reels end up being dumped somewhere as trash. I'd have loved to be able to give them a good home.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

A friend of mine in Canada, who shall go nameless for obvious reasons, had the job of running 16mm Popeye prints whose lease had expired through a band saw. Instead, he fed them into the collector market and I ended up with several prints while living in N.Y.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Mark Mayerson - Good for your friend.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Mark Mayerson--If it's the fellow I'm thinking of I told him the Popeyes were there. Too bad more people didn't follow his example.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Michael Johnson said...

My favorite Bouncing Ball cartoon is 'Ain't She Sweet' featuring the superbly talented Lillian Roth who said in her autobiography that Ethel Merman basically mimicked and stole her act.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Chris H. said...

Fascinating article on the classic mammoth Max Fleischer Paramount cartoon masterpieces, Mr. McElwee!

And speaking of the classic mammoth Max and Dave Fleischer Paramount cartoon masterpieces on TV, the Chicago-based classic television digital subchannel network; Me-TV airs the official Warner Bros. restorations of the classic Max Fleischer Paramount "Popeye" cartoons (part of Warners' Turner/Associated Artists Productions holdings), plus older U.M.& M. TV (National Telefilm Associates)-titled prints of Fleischer's classic mammoth Paramount "Betty Boop" cartoon masterpieces on the network's weekday morning classic cartoon showcase, "Toon In with Me" hosted by Bill Leff/Bill the Cartoon Curator and Toony the Tuna!

Alongside the classic mammoth Fleischer/Paramount "Betty Boop" and "Popeye" theatrical cartoon masterpieces, Toony & Bill's "Toon In With Me" on the airlanes of Me-TV also showcases the classic mammoth Warner Bros. theatrical cartoon masterpieces (both pre-1948 and post-1948 holdings) and Warners' holdings of the classic mammoth Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) theatrical cartoon masterpieces, including "Tom & Jerry," "Droopy" & "Barney Bear!"

Plus, numerous rare classic mammoth Columbia "Screen Gems"/"Color Rhapsody" cartoon masterpieces (from Sony's Columbia holdings) and classic mammoth Mirisch/DePatie-Freleng/United Artists theatrical cartoon masterpieces (from the current incarnation of MGM/UA) including "The Pink Panther," "The Inspector" and "Roland and Rattfink!"

And "Toon In With Me" has also recently added the official Warner Bros. (via Warners' DC Comics holdings) restorations of the classic mammoth Max Fleischer Paramount "Superman" theatrical cartoon masterpieces!

And speaking of Max Fleischer, one of his classic Paramount cartoon masterpieces was recently restored as a collaboration between Paramount (part of Paramount Global/ViacomCBS' U.M.& M.-NTA-Republic-Spelling holdings) and the Fleischer estate, titled "Somewhere In Dreamland" (1935), which had its restoration debut on Toony, Leila Gorstein/Goldie Fisher, Bill, Kevin Fleming/Mr. Quizzer, Rich Koz/Svengoolie & Kerwyn's "Toon In With Me"/Me-TV Dec. 2021 Holiday special big broadcast, titled "Super Colossal Cartoon Christmas!"

Animation historian Jerry Beck published an article on "Cartoon Research" about the Dec. 2021 "Toon In With Me" Holiday special debut of the aforementioned Paramount/Fleischer estate restoration!

If you've all never seen Toony & Bill's wonderful "Toon In With Me" big broadcasts before, I highly recommend watching the wonderful "Toon In With Me" big broadcasts!

"Toon In With Me" airs weekday mornings at 7 a.m. Eastern/6 a.m. Central on the airlanes of Me-TV! A wonderful showcase of classic cartoon masterpieces with Toony & Bill's comedy segments, fun facts about the classic cartoon masterpieces, "Toon In" fan art from Super Tooners from coast-to-coast and much, much more!

Sidebar: Check your local listings/local affiliate to see if your local Me-TV station airs "Toon In With Me."

-All the best,
Christopher Hamby
One of many official "Toon In With Me" Super Tooners since Sept. 17, 2021

-And my "Super Tooner"/"Toon In With Me" guest video appearance from Toony & Bill's Sept. 17, 2021 "Fan-tastic Friday" big broadcast edition of "Toon In With Me!"

9:49 AM  

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