Saturday, September 26, 2020

Black Narcissus

The Rule Britannia Blogathon is an event celebrating British cinema, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Black Narcissus
YouTube viewing

Back in May we talked about the writer-director team of Powell and Pressburger, and I’m glad for the opportunity to discuss their movies again. They were beautifully made, with stunning cinematography and lush, vivid color.

If I ever saw Black Narcissus before, I don’t recall. All I knew about it was it had creepy-looking nuns doing nun stuff, but to be more specific: Deborah Kerr establishes a hospital and school with a group of her fellow nuns in the Himalayan mountains of India, but the atmosphere drives them all a little cuckoo. It’s based on a book.

Okay, first of all, I thought for sure that they shot this film on location somewhere in the Himalayas, but it was (mostly) done indoors! Specifically, it was shot in a studio with matte painting backgrounds, so perhaps we should talk about that.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Other favorite cartoons

Back in the 70s and 80s, it was still possible to see animated shorts that originally played theatrically on free television, so the newer, made-for-TV cartoons I watched as a kid were mixed with much older material.

The animation career of Walter Lantz goes all the way back to the silent era. At Universal, he directed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts and his studio created Woody WoodpeckerAndy Panda, and Chilly Willy, characters that played on TV beginning in the late 50s.

Tex Avery began at the Lantz studio and helped develop the Looney Tunes characters at Warner Bros., but in 1942 he moved to MGM, where his cartoons took on an even wilder tone. In addition to creating new characters like Droopy Dog, he directed memorable shorts like “Red Hot Riding Hood” and the controversial “Magical Maestro” (which is hilarious; I don’t care what anyone says).

Paul Terry co-founded Terrytoons in New Rochelle, New York in 1929, and among the studio’s best known creations include Mighty Mouse (another superhero) and Heckle and Jeckle (a comedy duo).


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Schoolhouse Rock!


In the midst of an intense hearing for Alabama senator and U.S. Attorney General appointee Jeff Sessions, there was a surprising bit of silliness: Jeff Sessions is a big fan of “Schoolhouse Rock!”

During the hearing, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said that there was a “civics crisis” in the U.S. and asked about Sessions’ thought on [President] Obama’s use of executive orders. While arguing that Obama’s use of executive power was an overreach, Sessions said that he felt “Schoolhouse Rock!” was “not a bad basic lesson in how the government is supposed to work.”
There you have it. What more do you need than an endorsement from an actual government representative on the effectiveness of Schoolhouse Rock! as an educational tool?

This series of musical shorts was part of my childhood as it was for most kids of my generation, and I grew to anticipate it as much as the other series on Saturday mornings. They were proto-music videos, with original, catchy songs designed to make kids learn about science and math and history in a fun way, to the point where they don’t even realize they’re learning—and it works. I can still sing the preamble to the Constitution without missing a beat.

“Three is a Magic Number”
The brainchild of ad exec David McCall, who wanted a better way for his son to learn multiplication, he hired musician Bob Dorough to write a math song. The result was the first SHR hit, “Three is a Magic Number.” McCall’s co-worker, illustrator Tom Yohe, made some accompanying images and they pitched it to ABC as a series. The SHR pilot, featuring “Three,” debuted in 1971; two years later came the series. Yohe and George Newall were the executive producers and Dorough, who died two years ago, was musical director.

The following are some of my favorite songs in the series. Links to the videos are in the titles.

—“Verb: That’s What’s Happening.” Music by Zachary Sanders, lyrics by Dorough. The song is all kinds of awesome, but I’m still hoping somebody, somewhere will do something with the Verb superhero character in the video. He’s already cool enough to have his own movie; give him a TV show, a comic book, a toy line, something. 

—“Unpack Your Adjectives.” Music by Blossom Dearie, Lyrics by Newall. Blossom Dearie (yes, that really was her name) was a jazz singer in the 50s and 60s and yes, she really did sing in that high, girlish voice. I liked this video because I can easily imagine a kid on a camping trip who complains the whole time about the tiniest things using adjectives like “frustrating” and “worst” to describe it. Plus, I just thought the little girl slapping signs on everything was kinda funny.

“I’m Just a Bill” taught how a bill
becomes a law.
—“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Music and lyrics by Dorough. A greatly simplified, but memorable summation of the Revolutionary War, I just remember liking the song a lot. It came in handy while writing my novel, too: I remembered this song while making a passing reference to the war.

—“Interplanet Janet.” Music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Obviously one that appeals to the SF geek in me, this is another character I’d love to see something else done with, but first I think she’d have to be defined. She seems like an alien life form but she has a body like a rocket ship?—which makes me think she’s actually some manner of cybernetic creature. She probably doesn’t need to breathe since she can travel in space, but what does she use for propulsion? If there’s never been a planet Janet hasn’t seen, how fast can she travel? Light speed? Inquiring minds want to know!

—“Electricity, Electricity.” Music by Sanders, lyrics by Dorough. EEE-lec-tricity. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. EEE-lec-tricity.

“Conjunction Junction”
taught about conjunctions.
In 1993, a live theatrical adaptation of the SHR songs debuted in Chicago and has enjoyed a number of revivals since, including a sequel.

I worked in Tower Records in 1995, which is how I learned of the rock album of SHR cover songs, Schoolhouse Rock Rocks (which makes an excellent companion piece to the rock album of cartoon theme songs, Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits). Listen to “I’m Just a Bill” by Deluxx Folk Implosion to get an idea of what the album’s like. 

Dorough gathered new groups of musicians together to make more SHR songs in 1994-96 and again in 2009.

SHR aired on ABC, and in 1996, Disney bought ABC, so Disney... sigh... owns the rights to SHR now—but at least they actually play the series on Disney+, which is good.

SHR was and is a lot of fun and it’s good to know it hasn’t been forgotten.

Bob Dorough

Saturday, September 19, 2020

A few words on anime

This is not meant to be a definitive post on Japanese animation. There are other places you can go for a more comprehensive study on the subject. This will be much more subjective and personal and chances are I’ll have missed your favorite show and/or movie, so please, no whatabouts. I just feel I should bring it up because no discussion of Saturday morning cartoons is complete without it.

I was a tad too young for Astro Boy, Gigantor, Kimba the White Lion and Speed Racer, but they were among the first wave of animated programs to hit the States through syndication. The animation is on a par with American cartoons of the 60s: limited, stiff, broad. 

Some of these characters, such as Astro Boy and Kimba, were the creations of the man considered the Japanese Disney, Osamu Tezuka. A cartoonist as well as an animator, he was first published at 17, and his graphic novel series—“manga” in Japanese—remain in print to this day. In 1961 he founded his own animation production company and his TV adaptation of Astro Boy was the first to be dubbed into English for an American audience.


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Jay Ward

The cartoons of Jay Ward are different from Looney Tunes in that there’s a higher premium on words. Not that Bugs Bunny and pals don’t engage in funny banter; they do, but with Ward his cartoons are all about the wacky wordplay: the ever-present narrator, the quickness of the delivery, the stronger sense of a plot as opposed to variations on a theme (Elmer tries to shoot Bugs, Wile E. Coyote tries to eat the Road Runner, etc.), perhaps as a means to compensate for the—let’s be honest—limitations in the animation. The scripts and the strong voice acting, shorn of the visuals, would make good radio plays.

Ward, a graduate of UC-Berkeley with an MBA from Harvard, was a television pioneer. In 1948, he and his longtime friend, animator Alex Anderson, made an animated pilot film for NBC, The Comic Strips of Television, featuring a variety of original characters. The only one NBC liked became the first animated series made for TV, Crusader Rabbit, debuting in 1950. Ward served as producer and business manager for the duo’s Television Arts Productions.

I watched some episodes for this post. The roots of later Ward shows are clearly visible: funny animals in a serialized show—squeaky-voiced “straight man” CR and dimwitted partner, in this case a tiger named Rags; villains, of a sort, who are equally silly; an omniscient narrator who interacts with the characters. The animation is very primitive, but the characters are endearingly cute and the serialized format makes one want to know what happens to them.

CR was syndicated nationwide, mostly at NBC affiliates including in New York and LA, until 1952, then a second series was commissioned in 1956 by new parent company Capital Enterprises, but Ward and Anderson lost a legal battle over ownership rights.

Next Ward packaged some more new characters in an unsold pilot, The Frostbite Falls Revue, set in the territory known as the North Woods, which covers northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. It didn’t succeed, but two minor characters from the series did pretty well for themselves...

I suspect I knew, even as a kid, that Rocky & Bullwinkle were a little different from most cartoons. The fast pace, the number of jokes that flew over my head but seemed significant somehow, the humor that relied on bad puns and other turns of phrase—it wasn’t Scooby-Doo by any means. 

I was used to cartoons with, shall we say, a limited range of expression, but I wasn’t accustomed to cartoons this sharp-witted. I still preferred action-adventure shows overall, but I made time for R&B whenever they were on, in its various incarnations (like Looney Tunes, it appeared under different names).

The original show, Rocky and his Friends, aired on ABC in 1959 before switching to NBC as The Bullwinkle Show in 1961. After 1964, it aired in syndication. Ward created the show with Anderson and Bill Scott. Fun fact: Dudley Do-Right, one of the show’s feature characters, began life as part of the original lineup for The Comic Strips of Television. He went on to a spin-off series of his own.

Ward and Scott collaborated on two more series, George of the Jungle (a Tarzan parody) and Super Chicken (a superhero comedy), both from 1967. 

In addition to cartoon series,Ward is notable for his commercial illustration. I never ate kiddie cereals Cap’n Crunch, Quisp or Quake but he designed their mascots. Here’s the first Cap’n Crunch commercial from 1963, and it’s very much of a piece with Ward’s other cartoons: 

He also put together this bit of drive-in welcome/intermission filler.

Ward died in 1989 of renal cancer. DreamWorks Animation currently has the rights to his characters. We could use a little more of their kind of madcap humor, don’t you think?

A Jay Ward visual essay

The live-action movies

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Filmation

Filmation cartoons were hit or miss for me. Often times, I liked the characters, but the actual animation could leave me cold. It never seemed as lively as it should have been—but there were some good moments.

The studio began in 1963 with three guys: Lou Scheimer, Hal Sutherland and Norm Prescott—and yes, the name is indeed a melding of film and animation, because they worked on both. Scheimer and Sutherland went back in television animation as far as 1957, and Prescott was a former disc jockey, if you can believe that, before getting into movie production.

In the company‘s early years, they did commercials, an Oz movie and some series pitches that never got far. Then DC Comics came to them wanting to adapt Superman and other heroes of theirs for animation, beginning in 1966. This led to series featuring Archie and Sabrina in 1970.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Warner Bros. Animation

For my money, the Looney Tunes characters of the Warner Brothers Animation studio may be the funniest cartoon characters ever created. All I have to do is think of a scene of one of their classic cartoons, a line, even a word or two (“wabbit,” “puddy tat,” “duck season”) and the giggles start.

No, they weren’t always PC (especially during the war years) and some of the characters wouldn’t fly today, but audiences were a lot less uptight about such things back then. People knew how to laugh at themselves without getting butthurt, unlike today.

I’m more convinced than ever that we as a society have lost something precious because of this. In the early weeks of the quarantine, once some of the early Virus-related memes and jokes surfaced, I couldn’t laugh at them. Even now, I find it difficult to do so, but the fact that some people can find humor in something as deadly serious as the pandemic is pretty remarkable—but we’re getting off-topic.

The Looney Tunes are not the only representatives of WB’s stable of cartoon characters by any means, but they are the best, and they have a long and proud history.