Monday, November 07, 2005

Fiddlesticks and the Colorful Mediocrity of Ub Iwerks

Just happened across Ub Iwerks' 1930 cartoon Fiddlesticks on this evening. What a mess. Even the worst early sound cartoons usually have something to offer, from the rubbery animation to the hot jazz it seems they were all scored with. But Fiddlesticks is another matter entirely. This is the debut of Iwerks' character Flip the Frog, which he developed in secret during his last few months working for Walt Disney. At the time, it was generally accepted among industry insiders that Ub was the brains behind Disney's success. Despite whatever the Disney Corporation may say, Ub created Mickey Mouse, a not particularly impressive feat considering that the earliest Mickey was a cipher, indistinguishable, save for synchronized sound, from most of the other glorified inkblots that populated late-20s cartoons. Fiddlesticks dispels any notions whatever about Iwerks having been the 'brains' of the Disney Studios. It is so utterly, profoundly awful that I find it nothing short of a miracle that MGM decided to pick it up as a series (they were no doubt so dazzled by Iwerks' reputation that they were blind to the flaws of the thing). Fiddlesticks has no story, few gags, and Flip the Frog does not qualify as a character. What Fiddlesticks does boast are the two elements that Iwerks clearly felt were more important than character, gags, and story; synchronized sound and color. It has plenty of both, but even contemporary audiences, for whom sound alone was still a novelty, must have found it crushingly boring. It is remarkable that Iwerks could have been so myopic about the appeal of cartoons after having worked alongside Disney for so many years, but Fiddlesticks indicates Iwerks was blind to anything but technique, apparently assuming that novelty alone was enough to carry a short. A technical man at heart, Iwerks did develop a number of impressive mechanical innovations while head of his own studio including an early multiplane camera, but as attractive as his cartoons were, they were uniformly devoid of wit and interest (no one made worse in the 1930s). Ultimately, MGM dropped the Flip series (theater managers complained bitterly about the quality of the Iwerks cartoons), and Iwerks chugged along for a few more years, distributing ComiColor one-shot cartoons through Pat Powers' Celebrity Productions. Fiddlesticks is proof positive that, on his own, Iwerks was heading nowhere before he even started.


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