Monday 4 August 2014

Variations on a theme, working backwards in time

Fans of classic Warner Brothers cartoons might observe that Isadore "Friz" Freleng was quite fond of re-using gags and story ideas, often transplanting them onto different characters. (See my earlier post on "Curtain Razor") Here is another example, his 1957 cartoon "Bugsy and Mugsy".

Bugsy and Mugsy:

In this short, Bugs is living under the floorboards of bank robbers Rocky and Mugsy's latest hideout. Throughout the cartoon, he tries to convince Rocky that his dim-witted sidekick Mugsy is smarter than he looks, and is trying to kill Rocky and take the stolen loot for himself. As the two crooks beat each other up, Bugs alerts the cops to their presence (which Rocky blames Mugsy for, continuing their fight even in the back of the police car). Why does Bugs do this? Just out of a sense of justice, it would appear. The two gangsters don't actually threaten Bugs in any way - they have no idea he's there - but he feels the need to turn the two criminals in. As they are established as Bad Guys at the beginning we don't seem to mind when Bugs starts playing mind-games on them unprovoked. Well... we don't feel too bad for Rocky. Mugsy is so clueless you've got to feel bad for the befuddled guy, being constantly beaten up for things he hasn't done.

Freleng had already used most of the same plot elements before, in 1950's "Stooge for a Mouse".

Stooge for a Mouse:

Sylvester The Cat - (Ep. 20) - Stooge For A Mouse by cartoonNetworks

This earlier version has an all-animal cast. A mouse takes the role later played by Bugs, with Sylvester the cat in Mugsy's role and a bulldog named Mike in Rocky's. Mike and Sylvester are much friendlier with each other than Rocky and Mugsy would be, and neither is portrayed as being particularly villainous, so I think more audiences would sympathise with them than with the gangsters in the later cartoon. One notable difference is that Sylvester and Mike *are* a threat to the mouse, and so he has more of a personal reason to plot against them. Does his make him more sympathetic, or less so because he appears less selfless than Bugs in the later cartoon? (Notice that in "Stooge for a Mouse", he, not the characters he plots against, is described as a robber) Some audiences may automatically side against Sylvester, recognising him from other cartoons where he comes across as a villain... but Sylvester was often portrayed as a hapless victim or even as a hero in other cartoons, so we can take our pick really.

Well, it doesn't matter who you root for because the end result is that all three characters are knocked unconscious, with an ironic "Home Sweet Home" sign falling behind them. There is less of a straightforward "good guys win through pluck and cunning, bad guys lose through suspicious and violent nature" ending than there would be for the later cartoon.

But this was not the first time this plot was used either. Come upriver with me to Famous Studios. Yes, Famous Studios. That's what they were called. They were the successor to the Fleischer studios which made Popeye cartoons, and they continued to make Popeye cartoons along with Casper the Friendly Ghost and other less well-known characters. One of these characters was Herman the Mouse, who starred in 1946's "Cheese Burglar." Usually he was paired with a cat named Katnip, and their relatively obscure cartoons were actually a bigger influence on The Simpsons' "Itchy and Scratchy" than the more famous Tom and Jerry.

Cheese Burglar:

Well, this is the story Freleng would use for "Stooge for a Mouse", all right. But one story element which didn't survive to either Freleng cartoon was that this cat and dog overhear Herman explaining his scheme to the audience (!), stop fighting, and fool Herman into thinking they've killed each other. They repair their friendship, something that Sylvester-Mike and Rocky-Mugsy would not be allowed to do. In fact, instead of having all three characters punished at the end, they all end up forgetting their quarrels in a state of drunkenness, and singing the same friendship anthem the dog and cat sang at the beginning.

In fact, that's another difference. Not only do this cat and dog manage to become friends again, but they are much more affectionate in general to each other than their later Freleng counterparts would be.

As for Herman, is he more sympathetic than the "Stooge for a Mouse" mouse or Bugs? Less sympathetic? Well, he comes across as more morbid ("The cat's death rattle! Music to my ears!") But... the cat and dog are more of a threat to him, and his need to steal from the fridge comes across as greater than that of Freleng's mouse. Again there is no clear "hero" or "villain", and so, while the makers of this cartoon were kinder on the cat and dog than Freleng would be, as in "Stooge for a Mouse" all three characters end up in the same state.

But this idea has been animated before. The roles of hero and villain are even more clear cut than in "Bugsy and Mugsy", and they are the other way around. Here is Columbia Screen Gems' "Cholly Polly", released 1942.

Cholly Polly:

The parrot fills the role later played by Herman, the nameless mouse, and Bugs. Once again he is trying to break up the friendship between a cat (Myrtle) and a dog (Harold). The difference is, well... the parrot is in no danger from the cat and dog, and he is explicitly depicted as, well, a Nazi. His objection to the cat-dog friendship is because he believes it to be unnatural. Herman and the "Stooge" mouse do tell their respective cat and dog enemies "A cat and dog should be enemies, not friends", but they have an ulterior motive - steal the food once the cat and dog have beaten each other senseless. The parrot does not have anything to gain from making Harold and Myrtle fight. He's just doing it For The Evulz.

As a result, the satisfying ending is that Myrtle and Harold realise that the parrot has been plotting against them and throw him out of the house.

Oh, and if you thought that the "Cheese Burglar" cat and dog were more friendly to each other than their later counterparts, check out Harold and Myrtle. Making them fight is like pulling parrots' teeth. It's only just before the very end that the parrot manages to make them fight... and then they realise that they've been tricked. In fact, this is the only time the two characters are one male and the other female. It's almost as if they are being presented as a married couple. Well, the parrot does object to them "sleeping together" at the beginning? Hmmm, could be.

Of course, during World War II there were a lot of anti-Nazi cartoons. But most of them were simple "We're the good guys, they're the generic bad guys" stories. The villainy of the Nazi character here, the parrot, is more specific. He is repulsed by an inter-species... friendship? Romance? Anyway, it seems like this is a rare example of an anti-Fascist cartoon being specifically anti-racist.

(Incidentally, there is a lot of romantic imagery for the cat and dog in "Cheese Burglar", and the cat's voice is slightly androgynous. But when the "Stooge" mouse accuses Mike the bulldog of being a "sissy" for "liking cats", specifically (the male) Sylvester... No, I'm sure that's not what he means.)

So there you go.
Nazi parrot tries to turn innocent cat and dog friends/couple against each other For the Evulz, and fails
Sadistic but hungry mouse tries to turn cat and dog BFFs against each other so he can get a bite to eat, succeeds for a while, and they call reconcile and get drunk
Vaguely hungry mouse tries to turn cat and dog good friends against each other so he can steal some food, succeeds, but ends up beaten up like them
Smart-aleck rabbit tries to turn wanted criminals against each other in order to see justice served, he succeeds with no ill effects.

I don't know if Freleng was influenced by the "Cheese Burglar", or if the people at Famous Studios were influenced by "Cholly Polly", but the similarities -- and therefore the differences -- are fascinating.

What do other animation fans think? Are there any notable similarities or differences I neglected to mention? Do you agree or disagree with any of my interpretations? Please let me know in the comments!

Monday 16 June 2014

Hoch Hech!

Is anyone familiar with the Zagreb (Croatia) School of Animation?

I'm sure I've seen that Zagreb Film horse logo before, maybe on a Public Domain video. After which I would presumably have fast-forwarded through the cartoon, expecting there to be a culture and/or language barrier.

I think when most people think of Eastern European animation, they think of this:

From the Simpsons episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled", where kids' TV show host Krusty the Klown shows a cartoon starring "Eastern Europe's favorite cat and mouse team, Worker and Parasite!" The title, gloomy music and settings (a factory and a bread-line) are clearly meant to invoke images of the austere, work-driven Soviet Union at the time of the Cold War, and the joke is that it is neither entertaining nor comprehensible to anyone who doesn't live east of the Iron Curtain in the '50s.

(As a side note, in another Simpsons episode from the same time, "Mr Plow", Homer tries to buy a car from "Crazy Vaclav's Place of Automobiles", and is told that the car was built in a country which "no longer exists". I like to think this was the same country that produced "Worker and Parasite", whose titles are written in a fictional Slavic language. And the head animator of the Rembrandt Films Tom and Jerry series, animated and scored - but not written - in 1960s Czechoslovakia, was named VACLAV Bedrich! Coincidence?)

Soviet-era Eastern Europe may well have produced animated shorts which bring "Worker and Parasite" to mind. But the Zagreb cartoons from the 50s and 60s I have found have, I think, a universal appeal. They are generally dialogue-free but manage to tell stories through animation and music. I don't know if their creators had American animation in mind when they made them - were they trying to copy the style of U.S. cartoons, or react against it, or neither?

This cartoon, "Ersatz/Surogat", has the distinction of winning an Academy Award (an Oscar to you and me). It's very quirky and doesn't look anything like a U.S. cartoon... well, not a mainstream U.S. cartoon anyway. It's still easy for Western audiences to follow and be entertained by it, but putting it out as an example of Croatian animated film making kind of implies "they don't think the way we do".

The same director, Dusan Vukotic, was also capable of creating cartoons that were much more recognisable to people in the West. This one tells a story of childhood rivalry and ingenuity that's familiar to all who have been children, but still exaggerated in a suitably cartoony way. It's a bit like the final act of "Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow", where Buster and Babs fool Elmyra into thinking she's travelled to another planet.

The events from 6:15-6:50 bring to mind the fable of the blind men and the elephant.

Another director, Zlatko Grgic (who previously worked as character designer on Vukotic's cartoons) appears to have had two favourite themes: "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" and "I Don't Know How To End This Thing". Here's his "Musical Pig". Watch as the poor pig brings happiness to all around him by his singing, and how his refusal to let them eat him anyway (!) causes conflict, strife, and even war!

Oh, and the knife-eating sound effects are painfully convincing!

Friday 12 July 2013

From Dick... to Duck... to Pluck!

This is the Tiny Toon Adventure short "The Return of Pluck Twacy", part of the episode "New Character Day", one of the last episodes of the original 65-episode run. It was written, 'boarded and directed by Eddie Fitzgerald. The opening few seconds of the video are the end of the first segment of the episode. You can ignore that.

First of all, I'd like to clear up any confusion caused by the multiple Tracy/Twacys:

Dick Tracy is a private detective from a newspaper comic strip.
Duck Twacy is from the 1946 cartoon "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery". In this cartoon Daffy avidly reads a Dick Tracy comic strip, knocks himself unconscious, and dreams about being a Dick Tracy style character named "Duck Twacy."
PLUCK Twacy is from the Tiny Toons episode. It is the character *Plucky* dreams about after hearing a speech by Daffy in his Duck Twacy persona.

All sorted? Good. Why do I think there might be some confusion? Well, the segment is supposedly Daffy/Duck Twacy's audition tape, and yet most of it is about Plucky/Pluck Twacy. Also, at one point on his blog Eddie Fitzgerald said that *Pluck* Twacy was a character from a 1940s cartoon who he brought back for TTA. (although he later deleted that, either when someone else pointed out his mistake or when he realised it)

Finally, there is the title, The *Return* of Pluck Twacy. We have never seen Pluck Twacy before, and never will again. So why The Return, unless someone mistook Pluck Twacy for a character who had already appeared?

Anyway, ignoring these problems (which is easy to do after the first few seconds) this is a pretty fun cartoon. The scenes where Plucky bashes himself over the head in order to cope with the tickling are really funny, and the bit on the neon train (a reference, perhaps, to GPBR's "Neon Noodle") is gloriously imaginative, although some may feel it drags out a little.

Some TTA fans are quite hard on it, including one review (on the Tiny Toons Reference Guide) who says that it "sinks to the level of its inspiration", which sounds like a criticism of the original "Great Piggy Bank Robbery". So, it's probably not one for audiences who are into 90s cartoons but not the ones from the 40s. (well, unless there are actually 40s WB fans who don't like "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" for some reason)

I can kind of understand the problems some people might have with it. There's nothing particularly distinctive to Tiny Toons about it, except in the opening and closing scenes, set in Acme Looniversity, and the point where Plucky gets the vision of Daffy/Duck Twacy giving him advice (that is, because it follows the TTA theme that these are the fans/disciples of the classic characters). Mostly it's a mash-up of multiple classic Warners cartoons, made by someone who is clearly a fan of them and saw this as a chance to make his own.

Obviously, the main set-up comes from Bob Clampett's "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery". The "aura" character is based on Hata Marie from Frank Tashlin's WW2 era "Plane Daffy", and "Tickle-Puss" is Sloppy Moe from Clampett's "Wagon Heels", who saves the day by tickling the villain into submission. There may also be an influence from Bob McKimson's "The Super Snooper" in the way the aura behaves towards Plucky, but the style is much more influenced by Clampett and Tashlin. The scenes where Plucky is surrounded by criminals with weird names, and he gasps as he lists them, is directly from GPBR, although it had already been given a TTA treatment in "Return of Batduck." (I feel the Batduck version works a little better, as it is more imaginative and unexpected, and making all the criminals parodies of Batman's Rogues Gallery gives it a life of its own. Putting it in a setting more directly influenced by GPBR feels less imagintive and more derivative.)

Some shots even seem to be traced from the original cartoons: the long shots of Plucky surrounded by the weird criminals - who all of a sudden look much more like the GPBR villains than the ones in the rest of this cartoon, and the part where Plucky leaps off the guillotine and faces-off the aura - the helmet which he puts on to protect himself from the blade makes him look even more like Daffy in Plane Daffy.

The animation is by Glen Kennedy's studio, which is probably the best choice for a Clampett/Tashlin influenced cartoon. I'm a lot easier on Kennedy than a lot of people, but their animation here is a lot weaker than on some of their other episodes. The scene where Plucky wakes up on the floor of the classroom is particularly bad looking (and there's a strange mistake, where he is seen writhing around for the first few seconds without anyone surrounding him... is he, like, dreaming that he's waking up in an empty classroom, before he actually wakes up in a full one?) Jon McClenahan of Startoons fame animated the introduction where Babs and Buster audition Daffy, and speech Daffy makes to the class, although the last shot of Daffy with the apple seems to be a different animator. It's a shame there isn't more of him, though. I'm sure that Eddie himself was happy to see it assigned to Kennedy, because as we all know he admires Glen Kennedy's work. But I'm not sure if Glen actually animated anything on this one.

Oh, and the ending takes Daffy's "manic depravity" (John Kricfalusi's description of "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery") to a new level. When Daffy woke up, he found himself kissing a pig in a mud pen, and was disgusted for about a second before whooping around excitedly, no doubt because of how much fun his dream was. But in Plucky's case, he bashes himself over the head with a mallet so he can return to his dream! (watch Daffy's encouraging expression at this point!) Kind of reminds me of a certain cop show that I won't name to avoid spoiling people.

Monday 8 July 2013

I don't know what to say the monkeys won't do!

Like many people, I'd imagine, the first version of this song I encountered was the one featured in the first episode of Animaniacs.

(if the video is taken down by the time you read this, just do a google search for "Animaniacs Monkey Song" or better yet pop in your Animaniacs Volume 1 DVD!)

But I was pleased to find the original version was also available on YouTube:

Some people might call the Animaniacs version a "parody" of the original, but it isn't really... it's just the Warners and Dr Scratchansniff doing their own version of it. The tune is the same, and most of the lyrics are very close. The instrumental breaks are in the same places (accompanied by scenes of other Animaniacs characters doing their schtick), and some of Belafonte's interjections are repeated by the Hippos. "Play that thing!"

It was a surprise that the Belafonte original has only one monkey causing him grief... I guess we naturally think of monkeys coming in trios? (notice the poses the Warners are doing at 2:27!) They just upped it to three monkeys for the Animaniacs version because there are three Warners.

Verse 1: First two lines very close, original has a repeat of the lines, Animaniacs version has two new lines which are specific to the characters and setting. (in fact, the Animaniacs version avoids line repeats a lot more than the original, with more lines rhyming with "Don't know what to say the monkeys won't do" in the chorus parts.)

Verse 2: This is the most different from the original version. Belafonte has the monkey letting his girlfriend in and pouring her a glass of gin. Scratchandsniff has the Warners doing a dance for the Nurse and pouring biting bugs down his clothes. The only similarity is that the end of the second line ("and what do you think?" vs "and what could be worse?") are quite close.

Also, a common theme in the original is the monkey copying Belafonte's actions: "I do X, monkey does X too." The only time something like this appears in the Animaniacs version is here, and it's the other way around: the Warners make Scratchansniff itchy so *he* copies *them.* "Monkeys dance, then I dance too!"

Verse 3 is almost exactly the same, but with the Nurse in place of Belafonte's girlfriend.

Verse 4: Also very close, but this is where the exaggeration of the original starts. Belafonte's "cabinet" was laid to waste, but Scratchy's entire bathroom is. Belafonte has to shave with toothpaste... but the Warners actively shave Scratchy's *head* with the stuff.

Verse 5 continues this exaggeration. Belafonte brushes his hair with a shoe-brush, the Warners use one to shine Scratchy's (shaved in the previous verse) head. Belafonte "almost" goes down (the toilet, presumably), while Scratchy is not so lucky.

Verse 6 is even closer to the original than verse 3... which is quite easy to believe, as trying to make a stew out of the Warners isn't exactly Scratchy's nature. (He's not an Elmer Fudd type hunter/predator, but more like a long-suffering parent or teacher when we usually see him) New to the Animaniacs version is the ensuing chorus which puts Scratchy in the stew himself.

So, as you can see, most of the lyrical changes were small variations to make the Warners more actively annoying than the original.

Say... if you're interested in more Animaniacs commentary, check out Mike R's incredible in-depth blog Hello, Nice Warners!

Monday 18 February 2013

Bosko The Minstrel

Those early rubber-hose cartoon characters, with their basic facial designs altered only by the shape of their ears and, occasionally, noses... it can be pretty hard to tell what kind of creature they're supposed to be. Indeed, they made a running joke of it many years later in Animaniacs, where people often wonder what species the Warners are, with their late-20s-early-30s inspired designs.

The Warner Brothers studio's first character, Bosko, fits the usual design pattern - white face, black nose, solid black eyes, and black... hair? covering the rest of his head. But he was apparently meant to be a human character. His ears, the usual species giveaway, look like simplified forms of human ears, compared to the large black things protruding from the tops of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse or Foxy's heads. In fact, he was meant to be a *black* human.

Which seems quite a bizarre claim to make about a white-faced character, but when Harman and Ising took the character to MGM, they made him (and Honey) obviously dark-skinned human characters. I suppose when you think of the stereotyped depictions of black people that were common at the time, Bosko's white face could be seen as comprising large white eyes and large white lips... with the black portion behind his face being his skin.

Certainly, when Bosko and Honey were brought back for an appearance on Tiny Toon Adventures, they were redesigned to have floppy black ears atop their head... making them a more indistinct species like the later Warners on Animaniacs. So, to the people who made that episode at least, there was something controversial about their original appearance.

However, Bosko doesn't really read as a "blackface" caricature. Harman and Ising, and their staff, probably forgot that's what he was meant to be in the first place, or discarded the idea. Take a look at the final gag from this cartoon:

A bomb goes off in Bosko's face, covering it with... bomb dust or whatever, and transforms him *into* a blackface character, announcing "Mammy!" So if he had to be turned into a blackface character, what is he the rest of the time?

Sunday 3 February 2013

What about everything?

I've decided I should keep this blog for animation-related posts. If you're interested in reading about other things I have to say, visit my livejournal at

Sunday 16 December 2012

The Lion King opening sequence

A while back, someone sold a Lion King animator draft on eBay. I didn't buy it, but the seller included a few sample pages. I'm assuming it's genuine but someone with access to the studio archives can probably confirm if it's an accurate example of a 90s feature draft.

The sequence director is Rob Minkoff, one of the film's two directors.

There is more information on this draft than on the "golden age" drafts uploaded by Hans Perk, in that it doesn't just include the animator name but also the layout (for individual shots rather than the whole sequence) and background artists, plus something called "CU LO" (clean-up layout?) Unlike some of the earlier drafts, unfortunately, it doesn't identify which animator was responsible for which characters when they shared a scene. But for the most part we can work it out:

Animation of main characters is by Russ Edmonds (Sarabi and Baby Simba), Tony Fucile (Mufasa), Chris Wahl (Mufasa plus a group shot of the whole family and Rafiki), Ellen Woodbury (Zazu), James Baxter and Ron Husband (Rafiki). For the most part these are supervising animators responsible for their characters. Baby Simba is aimated by Sarabi's supervisor rather than one of the "Young Simba" animators listed in the closing credits. Ron Husband (who started out during the twilight years of the Nine Old Men, animating in Frank Thomas' unit in The Rescuers) is listed as a Pumbaa animator but gets a couple of brief shots of Rafiki here. There are a couple of scenes by a "Haidar" but I have no idea who that is. A Google search for the name plus "Lion King" shows the name has some significance to the lion species in myth and legend - whether this is an indication that this is a false draft, with the identification included as an injoke, or whether it was just a happy coincidence, I have no idea.

edit: This is probably Joe Haidar, credited as an animator on other Disney features of around the same time. IMDb says he was an uncredited "character designer" on The Lion King.

Most of the animation of the incidental animals is by people who also worked on major characters. They are animated by Andreas Deja (rhinos, also Scar), Michael Surrey (meerkats, also Timon, appropriately enough), David Burgess (cheetahs, also hyenas), Anthony DeRosa (gazelles, also Adult Nala), Phil Young (topis, also Mufasa), Dave Stephan (storks and flamingoes, credited with "additional animation"), Bob Bryan (elephants, also Adult Nala), Brad Kuha (elephants and guinea fowl, also Mufasa), Randy Haycock (gazelles and zebras, also Adult Simba), Brian Ferguson (giraffes, also Timon), Joe Ekers (ants and zebras, also Adult Simba), Michael Swofford (crowd scenes, also Zazu) and Gilda Palinginis (crowd scenes, also Adult Nala). It's hard to tell on the draft but Swofford and Palinginis might be animating Zazu and Mufasa respectively.

While one might expect the animators of Adult Simba and Nala, Timon and Pumbaa (who will not appear "as themselves" until half way through the film or later) to appear here, it's strange to see, for example, the supervising Scar animator Andreas Deja animating incidental rhinos. Maybe they wanted one of the masters to handle the first piece of character animation audiences would see in the film?

Layout artists are Ed Ghertner, Allen Tam, Tom Shannon (key layout/workbook) Tim Callahan, Samuel Michlap (layout assistants) plus people named Keller, Tucker, and Christenson.

Many of the same names appear as clean-up layout artists (?), plus Dan St Pierre (layout supervisor) Tanya Wilson, Jennifer Yuan (key layout/workbook), Robert or Doug Walker (layout supervisor, Florida unit or layout assistant) plus people named George III (key assistant layout artist Mac George?) and Toon.

Background artists are Don Moore, Gregory Drolette, Thomas Woodington, Dominick Domingo, Debbie Du Bois, Sunny Apinchapong, Kathy Altieri, David McCamley, and Serge Michaels.