Monday, June 06, 2005

Screen Gems Redux

After a long sleep, The Columbia Crow's Nest, the web's premier information source about Columbia's animation unit(s), has been updated with dozens of screen grabs and other fun stuff. The highlight is this month's online cartoon, Tree For Two (1943), starring Screen Gems' most popular characters, the Fox and the Crow. As I've said before, Screen Gems' 40s cartoons hold their own against Warners, Lantz, and MGM (and, needless to say, Famous and Terrytoons), and this short is no exception. Great personality animation, especially on the Fox, and some beautiful staging on display here. Also worth pointing out is the fact that, unlike most cartoon studios of the 40s, Screen Gems put a premium on witty dialogue. This is particularly important here as the Fox and Crow were one of the very few cartoon comedy teams of the 1940s whose character interplay was analogous to that of flesh-and-blood vaudeville teams, and dialogue was therefore vital to the characters' effectiveness. The only real flaw here is Screen Gems' typically loose pacing. Tree For Two doesn't really build to much of a payoff in the way that, say, the Warners cartoons usually did, and most of the gags, as good as they are, tend to seem disconnected. Naturally, the Screen Gems cartoons produced under former Warner director Frank Tashlin, such as Wolf Chases Pigs (1942), have much tighter construction.

Another major bonus (bonusses? boni?) are the screen grabs for Lil' Anjil (1936), the studio's one-time-only attempt at producing a genuine George Herriman-style Krazy Kat cartoon. I recall that Leonard Maltin dumps on this decidedly historic cartoon in Of Mice and Magic, but I have a silent, truncated home movie print of Lil' Anjil and can say that, visually, at least, the Mintz/Screen Gems artists pretty much hit the mark. In particular, Krazy's ecstatic dance after getting beaned by one of Ignatz's bricks is letter-perfect Herriman.

The wealth of material at The Columbia Crow's Nest is a reminder of what a huge chunk of American animation history is currently AWOL. Even Van Beuren, previous holder of the title of America's Most Obscure Golden Age Animation Studio, gets more exposure because their cartoons, being in the Public Domain, are readily available on dollar DVDs. It's an indictment of the stifling effect of market forces (especially in regard to cultural evolution) that Sony steadfastly refuses to release the hundreds of Mintz and Screen Gems cartoons they hold, despite their quality and importance, because of a perceived lack of marketability. It's our loss.


Blogger NYCOPYGUY said...

Aaron, how do we legally get the Fox & Crow cartoons released on DVD? These really are "screen gems!"

10:27 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I wish I knew. Jerry Beck remastered everything Sony holds and put together a Screen Gems/Mintz/UPA package for TV syndication but only a few countries in South America have apparently picked it up. Sony simply feels that there's no money to made from a DVD release.

10:38 AM  

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