Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Wynn, Lose, or Draw...

Pop Culture Gadabout Bill Sherman has written a spiffy review of Ed Wynn's debut talkie, Follow The Leader (1930). Bill speculates that Wynn's early 30s radio success was behind the scarcity of movie roles during that decade (a mere two films). He's right, but not because Wynn lacked the desire to make a name for himself in movies (he had jumped at the chance to make a silent, Rubber Heels, in 1927). Radio propelled Ed Wynn to national stardom, but it not only murdered his chances in film in the 1930s, it practically wrecked his career and his life.

The amiably goofy Follow the Leader is a nice example of what might have been had Wynn not hit it big with The Texaco Fire Chief in 1932. Suddenly, Ed Wynn as "The Chief" was everywhere, his face and radio catchphrase (a ridiculously drawn-out "sooooooooo-o-o-o" emitted when Ed forgot his lines) were plastered on toys, games, and books. As his son Keenan Wynn said years later, "Suddenly he was locked into coming up with 55 jokes every week." Although Wynn found himself five grand a week richer, the strain of the radio program had a devastating effect on his marriage and health. When Ed Wynn signed with MGM in 1933, it was to make a film that capitalized on his radio program. The Chief was a typical MGM botch job. Wynn's silly loony was reduced to a pitiable oaf, the inept son of a respected town fire chief who wants to follow in his father's footsteps. Critical response was devastating. If the film had been a success, Wynn might have had a fighting chance to ditch radio. Unfortunately, the film's poor reception only hastened his downfall. His image and personality had reached levels of over-saturation that weren't possible for celebrities in the days before radio. His ratings plummeted and by 1935 he was not only off the air, he was virtually unemployable*. Ed Wynn was forced into early retirement by 1937 and sank into a deep depression that ended his marriage. Happily for Ed, his engaging, off-the-cuff silliness and his ability to work a crowd made him a natural for early television. His TV success helped kick-off the second phase of his career which included dramatic roles on Playhouse 90, his appearance in Mary Poppins, and his 1959 Academy Award nomination for his role as Albert Dussell in The Diary of Anne Frank.

*The same thing, more or less, would happen to burlesque comic Joe Penner just a year or two later. Penner was a national sensation on The Baker's Broadcast in 1933 with his non-sequitur catchphrase "Wanna buy a duck??", but audiences cooled quickly. Like Wynn, Joe Penner inspired dozens of toys and games. But Penner didn't have anything approaching Ed Wynn's talent or range, so when people tired of the catchphrase, he was effectively finished for good. Joe Penner didn't even have a chance at a comeback as he died in 1941 at the age of 36.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

RIP Raoul Duke

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself Sunday at his home in Aspen. I've been a fan of Hunter Thompson ever since I read Hell's Angels in college and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is on my short list of all-time favorite novels. Dr. Thompson and his writings were more than a little inspiration for my political strip The Daily Grind, and a huge inspiration for Galapagopolis, the Daily Grind graphic novel I've scripted.

Why do the authors I really admire always end up committing suicide?

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.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Obscure Comedians Ate My Brain!!! part two: Pat and Patachon

Before Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and Laurel and Hardy, one double-act dominated international film; Carl Schenstrøm and Harald Madsen, known in most countries as Pat and Patachon.

It is generally accepted that Pat and Patachon were the world's first internationally famous comedy team. They began their career in Danish short comedies in 1921 and then branched out into features produced throughout Europe and the UK. By the late 1920s, Pat and Patachon's European popularity rivaled Chaplin's, being particular favorites of Soviet and German audiences. The outbreak of WWII brought their film activities to a near halt, their last film as a team being produced in Denmark in 1940. Schenstrøm died two years later at the age of 61. Madsen retired from movies until 1948 when he tried to revive the act with a new partner, Carl Reinholdz. He died the following year at the age of 59.

Soviet audiences in the 1920s loved Pat and Patachon. The team's unmistakable physiques were exploited for some truly beautiful Russian avant-garde movie posters. This is the cover of a 1926 souvenir pamphlet from my collection.

Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible for me to properly assess the merits of Pat and Patachon. Their films are extremely rare in Europe, let alone the US. A scant two titles have been released to video, Mädchenräuber and Blinde Passagiere (both 1936). I've seen the latter and thanks to 8mm home movies, I've also seen silent clips from their first talkie, Alf's Carpet (1929) and Pat und Patachon im Paradies (1937). Besides the scarcity of material, there are language and cultural barriers to deal with as well. Much like Laurel and Hardy, Schenstrøm and Madsen's characters are naive rubes who frequently run afoul of a sophisticated world, having nothing but one another to cling to for support. But unlike Laurel and Hardy's urban-dwelling innocents, Pat (the tall one with the mustache and putty nose) and Patachon (the short one) are earthy rural bumpkins and much of their humor seems to derive from their inability to adapt to modern life. In 1920s Europe, it's not hard to imagine the appeal to audiences who themselves were becoming accustomed to increasingly speedy lifestyles. But eighty years later it seems that much, if not most, of P&P's "fish-out-of-water" humor has been hopelessly diluted. And when it comes to slapstick, the pacing of the material I've seen is so measured and deliberate as to drain the life from as simple a gag as getting a kick up the backside. Watching Blinde Passagiere was like wading through molasses with 80 pound weights chained to my ankles.

Wonderful poster art, dull movie..

Blinde Passagiere presents Pat and Patachon as animal caretakers employed by a cash-strapped circus. The troupe is departing by ocean liner to New York (I think) and Pat and Patachon are tearily dismissed at the dock by the circus owner's lovely daughter. But a chase after a lottery ticket Pat has purchased leads both to accidentally end up on the ship as stowaways. Also on board without a ticket is the circus owner's daughter's bland accordian-playing beau, who ends up teamed with P&P a la Allan Jones in A Night At the Opera. Needless to say, after lots of running around and ducking in and out of doorways, the circus is saved, the boy gets the girl, the oily villain gets the shaft, and Pat and Patachon end up with a winning lottery ticket. The only real surprise is how few actual visual gags there are in the film. There's a lengthy scene in which P&P feed the circus animals (stealing food from the ship's kitchen to do so) that contains not one single gag, unless watching a chimpanzee eat can be considered a gag. Later, when Pat and Patachon are chased around the deck by the ship's cleaver-wielding cook, the entire sequence was shot silent and clearly improvised. Pat and Patachon were literally left to their own devices, and the results are at least as good as your great aunt's home movies. (In fact, this sequence is so off-the-cuff that the chase at one point stops entirely and cuts away to a shaky, out-of-focus shot of Patachon standing on the deck, pointing to a Zeppelin in the sky. Although the name of the zeppelin can't be made out on film, it's either the LZ-127, Graf Zeppelin, or its ill-fated sister ship, the LZ-129, Hindenburg, which made its first flight in March of 1936.)

This latter-day criticism from someone who doesn't even speak German may be completely unfair to the team. They're certainly likable enough, projecting a kind of blissful Harry Langdon-like innocence. It's also likely that their best, and funniest, work was done in silents. The director who teamed them in Denmark, Lau Lauritzen, definitely has a solid reputation of his own. But funny or not, Pat and Patachon's historical importance is undeniable. And, hell, any comedy team that can spawn a pair of imitators called "Rat and Ratachon" has my attention, anyway.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Ted Healy and an Outboard Motor

In honor of Bill Sherman's review of Ted Healy's 1930 debut talkie, Soup To Nuts, here's a photo of Ted Healy and an outboard motor.

I find Ted Healy's special brand of cruelty far funnier than Bill does. That says volumes about me, I'm sure.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

1930s Media Obscurities on Parade!

Two items of note this week.

1) Pop culture blogger and friend 'o mine Bill Sherman is writing reviews for a number of extremely obscure pre-code 30s comedies that I sent him on a whim. His review of Joe Cook's Rain or Shine (1930) is already up and next he'll be covering Soup To Nuts (also 1930) starring the brilliant Ted Healy and his stooges. Among the other features I sent which I hope he'll be covering are Just Imagine (1930), the unspeakably bizarre El Brendel science fiction musical, Follow the Leader (1930), Ed Wynn's first, and best, talking star vehicle, and Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), my favorite Wheeler and Woolsey picture. A few Clark and McCullough shorts were tossed in as well. Weezelzee..

2) I've donated scans from my copy of the Aesop's Movie Fables Book to animator Steve Stanchfield so he can include them as extras on the Van Beuren DVD he's putting together. I'll be sure to mention it here when he finally puts it up for sale. I have several of Steve's Thunderbean DVDs and they're terrific, featuring crisp prints of rare 30s cartoons. Hell.. I never thought I'd see the complete Van Beuren Cubby Bear series on DVD! Steve's Ebay merchant ID is swat_the_fly and he posts DVD updates here. Buy his stuff. All of it. You won't be sorry.. unless you're one of those cartoon-hating heathens.