The Home For Orphan Toons

The Life Ani-Matic

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by Kevin Wollenweber

Well, hello, again, folks.

Here I am at last, this being my first contribution here, as we’ve changed domains, finding a new and better home–carrying most of our dialogue to this new spot on the dial, so to speak. Continuously talking about these animated “orphans”, and even supporting their finding a unique place among those who have already found homes numerous times on our video shelves: redressed and restored for much future viewings by those who like and even prefer the history to what is now out there, today, broadcast on airwaves as if history doesn’t matter.

First of all, let me reintroduce myself to you all.

I am a 54-year-old blind man who still retains a fair memory of many of these classic cartoons from watching and rewatching them so often growing up and in butchered, syndicated reruns on local East Coast airwaves in years before I finally lost all vision to glaucoma in 1976 (just before Christmas).

Having noted that the theatrical TOM & JERRY cartoons returned to New York’s Channel 11, then WPIX, just before it became the super station known as “the WB” and, now, CW, I listened again to familiar soundtracks and wanted to keep in touch with these toons. Thankfully, because of the dawn of videotape, laserdisk and now DVD and whatever other format the companies want to throw at us, we’re able to own our favorite titles and view them whenever we please, and this is partially the reason why we talk now, on weblogs, about these favorites and oddities in hopes that all our cravings show up in our video libraries if they can no longer find a place on cartoon-oriented TV, even among the adult swim-type programs!

My colleague, Rachel Newstead, and I are here, therefore, to make sure that the companies that have the video rights to this stuff do not forget that these films languish in the vaults, and we also want moreso to congratulate the powers that be at these companies for having the good sense to finally work hard at restoration, even if the stuff is only used, for art classes to inspire future generations!!

And do we ever have a lot to acknowledge in that area, with not only one, but *TWO* tremendous, although smaller (in number of disks), POPEYE THE SAILOR classic toon rollouts covering, now, the entire Fleischer era. The second volume, POPEYE THE SAILOR 1938-1940 was just released last month and is being enjoyed and scrutinized by many in their own homes as I write this, and now, it is announced, with fanfare, that the third set, POPEYE THE SAILOR 1941-1943 is coming on September 30th, bringing all the Fleischer cartoons to our hands in the best possible quality!

These two volumes mark a kind of transition, not only from Fleischer to Famous, but within the Fleischer Studios which were, by this time, moving to the sunny climes of Florida. These changes can be felt as the backdrop of the cartoons mirror Max Fleischer’s over-zealous hopes and desires of enlarging the scope of cartoons coming from his studio and making greater waves within the business, wanting to produce cartoons on a par with his 17-title “SUPERMAN” series. These particular POPEYE cartoons were created amid the heat of much turmoil within the studio and its employees. New voices and faces were brought in to animate and give somewhat of a sheen to what was once the beloved and gritty urban texture of the Fleischer landscape.

So the characters went through a kind of redesign, slowly leading up to what they’d look like once taken over by Famous Studios, when the Fleischers were forced to abandon the series. This also included how they would be voiced. While multi-talented Jack Mercer remained the voice of the one-eyed sailor, himself, others took over, temporarily, for the other characters and new characters were added (or should I say rediscovered from the original POPEYE comic strip) to lend their “color” to these black and white classics. Our country suddenly being embroiled in war also added to the many situations in which Popeye found himself, but he never lost his sense of humor or many creative ways of mangling the English language. Olive Oyl was suddenly voiced by Jack Mercer’s wife, Margie Hines (since Mae Questel did not want to move to Florida with the other Fleischer regulars).

Due, unfortunately, to the passing of Gus Wickie, the voice of Bluto had been done, intermittently, by either animator Ted Pierce or Pinto Culvig, former constant voice of Goofy for Disney. All these changes certainly challenged the animators to come up with new ideas for the new locale and redesigns.

Popeye would be on a search for his long lost Poopdeck Pappy in “GOONLAND” and, in one entry in which the Fleischers tried to outwardly compete with Walt Disney in retelling classic tales, Popeye meets up with William Tell and has to pose as his son when the boy had been accidentally shot out from under an apple. At the close of that cartoon, Popeye suffers the embarrassment of being spanked by Papa William for, what else, smoking a pipe!!

We were also introduced, in animated cartoon form, to a regular in the comic strip, Eugene the Jeep, a kind of magical dog-like character who would disappear at intervals when in the mood to make mischief. Yet, no matter how many awkward places Popeye was taken to, he never completely lost that Fleischer edge or snappy dialogue, thanks in most part to Jack Mercer. The animators were not entirely content to slowly sink into a formula just yet.

So, not only are we treated to one two-disk volume called POPEYE THE SAILOR 1938-1940, the second in the series, but we will, on September 30th, be given the third volume, another two-disk edition, which will finish out the Fleischer years in style and allow us to see the first wave of Famous Studios material on a set called POPEYE THE SAILOR 1941-1943. These are smaller volumes, but certainly as interesting as the premier, four-disk set, POPEYE THE SAILOR 1933-1938, showing all how the series began its run.

Add to these treats given us this year the sixth and final LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION. Yes, this is the grand finale of *THIS* particular LOONEY TUNES series, but word has been given to me from reliable sources that, come 2009, there will be further and, possibly more obsessive collections of various aspects of the very large lists of LOONEY TUNES and MERRIE MELODIES created for nearly four decades to theaters.

And the big news for us rabid fans (cue the “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” theme) is that BOSKO is finally added to the main programs, both on the second and third disks of this set, perhaps even hinting (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) at further sets spotlighting *THIS* particular transitional period in the careers of those who worked at what would soon be laughingly called Termite Terrace.

Those of you who have read this blog (and those of you who know me) are well aware of how much we’ve wanted Bosko acknowledged not only as the true first LOONEY TUNES star, but as a main character who was, genuinely, a bundle of fun in his LOONEY TUNES days. He will be seen in fine form here in such titles as “BOSKO THE DOUGH BOY” (found on the second disk, dubbed PATRIOTIC PALS), “CONGO JAZZ”, “THE BOOS HANGS HIGH”, “BOSKO IN PERSON” and the ever-controversial “BOSKO’S PICTURE SHOW” (in which our hero has a few choice words for the villain of the piece!)

This was the pre-Hays Code era, of course, and Bosko was going to have all the fun he could before it all came to a crashing halt in 1934! After that, although cartoons still remained breathtakingly beautiful experiments to watch, they were more carefully scrutinized, along with all forms of filmmaking, for fear that all cinema was sending us collectively to hell in some kind of lurid handbasket. “BOSKO’S PICTURE SHOW” would also be the last cartoon that the character would be featured in at Warner Brothers. He would then be totally redesigned (or misshapen, depending on who you talk to) and revived for a series of nine gorgeously animated MGM cartoons.

If this set sells as well as we all hope it will, Bosko will at least be known as a major player in the LOONEY TUNES filmographies and, hopefully, collectors and casual viewers might be interested to want to see more of these as well as the musical treats dubbed MERRIE MELODIES that came out of the 1930’s as the animators strove to find a character that would indeed define the studio as greatly as MICKEY MOUSE defined Disney or BETTY BOOP and POPEYE defined the Fleischer Studios.

Now, at last, we will get to see the BOSKO cartoons, along with some well-chosen entries featuring his short-lived successor, BUDDY, as cleanly as they were in the day, and live in that age of animation as new invention and means of filmmaking without boundaries. In fact, in one of the cartoons included in this set, “THE CARTOONIST’S NIGHTMARE” the ability to bring drawings to life goes awry in the sleeping mind of one such artist. We’d seen this cartoon so many times on Nickelodeon’s LOONEY TUNES show, before they seemed to kick Bosko out of the mix with such smug bravado, but without the opening and closing credits. Now, that horrific mistake will be rectified. And, yes, some intriguing BUDDY cartoons are going to be seen intact in this sixth LOONEY TUNES set, including the wonderful “BUDDY’S BEER GARDEN” in which our hero dresses in drag to protect his girl, Cookie, from the usual lust-driven interloper. I dare say that this very well might be the first gender-bending Warners cartoon made, before that wascally wabbit had his day!!

So, believe me, there will be so much to talk about within the coming months, aside from finding rare toons that desperately need the dust blown off them. We will give our usual descriptive reviews or overviews and even criticize (lovingly, I assure you.)

I may see some of the flaws in my favorite toons or toon curiosities, but what I would eventually love to see are volumes and volumes that fully restore whatever source material is left on these cartoons and, maybe, even explain why they existed in our culture to begin with and not sweep any of this film under rugs never to be seen again.

That’s what we’re here for.

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