Thursday, February 17, 2005

Obscure Cartoon Studios Ate My Brain!!! part three: Screen Gems

Amid Amidi at Cartoon Brew has some choice words to say about WBA's latest "re-imagining" of the classic Warner Bros. characters as grotesquely stylized 28th Century space-faring superhero crimefighters. In short: That's All Folks. The property has been drained dry. Let's acknowledge the fact that the heart of Warner Bros. cartoons died when the original studio closed shop in 1963. Further attempts to forcibly make these characters "relevant" to kids are only going to end up devaluing the entire franchise. Moreover, as Amid points out, this obsession with endlessly jumpstarting overexposed older cartoon characters is putting the skids under the development of new ones.

One thing I would like to add to Amid's tirade, however, is that this self-imposed industry dependence upon the pre-chewed tried-and-true is also getting in the way of older properties that haven't seen the light of day in decades. Aside from the fear of sinking money into something that isn't a guaranteed profit-maker, there's a philosophy that media follows Darwinian rules. The media properties that survive contain elements that allow them to survive in a highly competitive marketplace. In some cases, this may be true. There have been several programs that have survived (and blossomed into full-fledged franchises) because their viewers refuse to let them die. Star Trek comes to mind. But for every Trek, there are thousands of media properties that survive only on a form of artificial respiration. The concept of "survival of the fittest" as applied to media doesn't allow for the possibility that our corporate-dominated culture suffers from a bad case of feedback. Take "oldies" radio, for instance. There are millions of songs that could classify as "oldies" and among those millions are perhaps thousands of broadcast-worthy songs every bit as good, if not better, than the tired lineup you hear on every goddamn oldies station. But because that lineup is determined by corporations according to standard pay-for-play broadcasting rules, even if a station were to suddenly go request-only, a casual listener, the majority, wouldn't know to what to request other than something that they had been listening to endlessly for the last decade. The most meaningless, meritless things imaginable can become iconic with a relentless and well-orchestrated marketing blitz. Demand can be manipulated.

Which brings me to Screen Gems.

If ever there was a worthy media property buried by corporate indifference and cultural feedback, the Columbia Screen Gems cartoons are it. Yeah.. I can imagine most people not falling all over themselves for Clark and McCullough and Clavillazo and Ted Healy like I do, but this is different. The cartoons that Columbia's Screen Gems studio made between 1929 and 1947 are, overall, genuinely good. Hell, BETTER in a lot of cases than other animation studios' output of the same vintage. The gags are sharp, the stories unique, and the animation excellent (between 1929 and 1931, I think Screen Gems had better animation than even the Disney Studios). But who the hell has ever heard of Scrappy? Or Flippy? Or the Fox and Crow? That's why Sony, Columbia's parent company, is sitting on hundreds of perfectly good, very funny cartoons. CARTOONS YOU HAVE PROBABLY NEVER SEEN IN YOUR LIFE. Animation historian Jerry Beck even digitally remastered them. It's a ready-made product but Sony doesn't want to throw money after a property that isn't already burnt into the cerebral cortex of every living American.

Screen Gems has a rather turbulent history. It was founded in 1929 by Charles Mintz (the guy who stole Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Disney) and was something an offshoot of his Krazy Kat Studios which had been producing, of course, Krazy Kat cartoons since the silent days. When sound arrived, Mintz began distributing through Columbia Pictures and relocated his staff from NYC to the West Coast (although I've also read that he maintained two studios for awhile). Although Columbia was also distributing Disney's cartoons at the same time, Screen Gems managed to hold their own with the Krazy Kat series and Dick Huemor's imaginative Scrappy cartoons. In 1934, Screen Gems introduced the Color Rhapsody series, their own answer to Disney's Silly Symphony cartoons (now being distributed through United Artists). The very first Color Rhapsody, Holiday Land, was nominated for an Academy Award, as was a 1937 entry, The Little Match Girl. By 1939, Mintz was in serious debt to Columbia, who responded by taking over Screen Gems entirely. Although he remained in charge, Mintz's health began to decline and he died the following year. The studio underwent something of a renaissance in 1941 when Warner Bros. director Frank Tashlin was put in charge, resulting in an experimental creative climate and Screen Gems' most famous characters, the Fox and the Crow. Tashlin was soon gone, however, as a result of management shakeups of the type that plagued the studio until the end. Max Fleischer's brother Dave managed Screen Gems for a time as well as Leon Schlesinger's brother-in-law Ray Katz and Columbia short-subject producer Hugh McCollum, but no one could prevent Columbia from finally pulling the plug in 1947.

The Screen Gems cartoons went through distinct phases over the course of the studio's eighteen year existence. The earliest shorts are visually surreal and possess a rather adult outlook. After Frank Tashlin left his mark in 1941, Screen Gems' cartoons became somewhat experimental and, in many cases, surprisingly dialogue-heavy, Towards the end, especially under Ray Katz, the Screen Gems cartoons bear a strong resemblance to those being made by Warner Bros., only with slightly more polished animation. Aside from something of a creative dry-spell between 1938 and 1940, Screen Gems maintained high standards until they closed. There's no reason whatsoever why these "lost" cartoons couldn't find an receptive audience today if given half a chance. Unfortunately, that's half a chance too many for an marketplace addicted to pre-sold commodities.


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