Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cigareets and Whiskey

Been a topsy-turvey holiday period (we got the tree up barely a week or so before, Mom fixed cookies just yesterday, we didn't even have a meal together), plus stress and such (though I finally submitted my chapter for the upcoming Kermit Culture anthology of Muppt essays to the editors). Anyway, we'll see if I can blog more in the coming year (certainly stockpiled plenty of subjects and images), maybe even take a stab at this here "daily blogging" fad.

For now, no cigareets, but have some whiskey:

I'm often fascinated by vintage advertising, especially pertaining to products where public perception has changed considerably in the intervening years. In this ad, which appeared in newspapers in November 1936, the first element that stood out, thanks to the text on the coin, is a very clear "Hey, prohibition ended three years ago! Yay for legal booze!" statement. Secondly, I don't trust "Silver Dollar" Brady in his pilgrim outfit and that unnerving grin, carving the turkey with a little too much zeal. He might be trustworthy sober, but no possible good can come from adding quantities of bourbon whiskey to the equation.

I did some further digging on this artifact. "Silver Dollar" Brady, real name Tom Brady, is not actually a pitchman created for the brand. He was a wealthy and reasonably high-profile (and colorful) Dallas racehorse owner and rodeo organizer. He earned his nickname through his passion for silver dollars, amassing a collection of same and, according to newspaper accounts, paying in same (and urging others to do likewise to increase their circulation over all that cumbersome paper money). Clearly Seagram's (the owner of the brand) saw a good thing and hired him as their public face (supposedly there was "79 years of whiskey making experience" behind the product, but I can't find anything on it prior to 1936, shortly before Brady came on board). In the whiskey ads, supposedly penned by Brady, he comes across as a low-rent, thirsty Will Rogers, dispensing homespun wisdom, dropped d's and g's, and of course liquor with equal equanimity.

As for the product, David Shea, an expert on such matters, tells me 90 proof provides "a pretty good kick in the pants."
In 1936 ads in this series, Brady compared Silver Dollar Whiskey to prize-fighters like "Gentleman" Jim Corbett: starts out nice and polite but then doles out a powerful punch. By the fall of 1937, the tactic had changed, focusing on affordability, history, and how it suits everybody." They were also tied to Rogers-esque subjects such as politicians and Congress. Don't worry your head about parties and elections and all that high-falutin' stuff, just get yerself a nice shot of Silver Dollar Whiskey! (Does that thing come in its own glass flask? Certainly what the bottle looks like to me.)

Silver Dollar Whiskey appears to be long gone, though Seagram's is still around.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Little Crib of Horace

One of the saddest fates that can befall a cartoon or comics character is when, in an attempt to revive a "franchise" or push merchandise or follow a trend, they are fundamentally altered, most often by just switching their ages. Juvenilization is seldom pretty, and it's often seen as a 1980s thing (Muppet Babies was quite the hit). As far as I'm aware, however, the earliest example, discounting one-shot cartoons where Bugs or Woody Woodpecker become babies or flashback, is Little Archie. The main reason Little Archie, at its best, holds up is because it had a kind of logical basis (even if it had to skip continuity issues and assume that Veronica has always lived in Riverdale), it added new characters, and frankly it was more open about the often harsh nature of childhood than the wholesome scrubbed teen Archie stories were (in particular, Archie and Jughead, the "good" guys, routinely joining Reggie to humiliate, exploit, or pummel picked-on classmate Ambrose).

These approaches generally homogenize characters and simplify their personalities. It hasn't died out, alas, as Baby Looney Tunes attests. It can become even weirder, however, when the characters in question have already been stripped of most or all of their gumption, as with Mickey Mouse in the 1980s, when the "Disney Babies" first surfaced. They still appear on and off, and serve only to fulfill a "Look how cute" function, in a world where the Disney Babies (actually called that in one book) have no discernible personalities whatsoever outside of being cute and nice and emotionally fragile.

And this was worse when they went beyond Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, et., in search of more characters. To wit, gaze at the image below:

At least Baby Horace retained his collar (this book, picked up for sixty cents, has Horace missing his blanket, but he's quickly comforted when his newfound daycare pals let him use the daycare's teddy bear. The end.) While revivals of Horace and Clarabelle are generally a good thing, this is just sad.

Moments ago, I took a closer look at the endpapers, however, and found this, which is even worse:

No doubt somewhere out there, they also have an infant Phantom Blot (the shy Blotty, who feels self-conscious because he looks different) or a Baby Scrooge (Booge?) who likes money only because it's shiny. Sheesh. (This is still less disturbing than that Baby Popeye image that circulated awhile back, though, with a teeny tiny Baby Baby Swea'pea hung around Baby Olive's neck).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Horses and dogs were growing shaggy-haired like never before."

You know, 1960s films sometimes fascinate me. Mark Harris' book Pictures of a Revolution, focusing on 1967, is a good study in general, sort of summing up a time when TV was well established and the theatrical short was dying and the old studio system falling by the wayside. So movies tended to become either more experimental, more tradiitionalist, or pushed for more spectacle without quite succeeding. The "bigger is better" approach really showed in terms of those monster 1960s comedies (and their close cousins, the musicals): Cinemascope (introduced in the 1950s) had become a near standard and was used for most of these, running times grew out of control, huge casts, enormous stunt scenes, and plots which were "epic," or tried to be. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is the best known of these (and my least favorite), along with several Blake Edwards efforts, the infamous Casino Royale(a mess, but one which captivates), and things like Those Magnificent Men in Your Flying Machines(a kind of combination eic comedy qand quintessential 1960s Euro-American co-production with an "international all-star cast" and another favorite). These movies were big, loud, colorful, overstuffed, uneven, and seldom came in under two hours and tended to involve either disparate groups or disparate individuals competing or quarrelling for a McGuffin of some kind (a fortune, a racing prize, etc.). Anyway, last night I rewatched a personal fave which I hadn't re-examined critically in ages: The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

The Hallelujah Trail (or Trail as I shall probably shorten it for most of this post), like many of its brethren, was helmed not by a noted comedy director, but by John Sturges, the man who brought you The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. The stirring score is by Sturges' old colleague Elmer Bernstein, the cinematography is majestic, and it's not just an epic comedy but a period Western too (I'm also a sucker for funny Westerns, and will write more about some others later on). There's a rousing jaunty title theme with a full chorus and lots of handclapping, an incredble roster of talent (including a slew of character actors), nice title caricatures of the stars, and later on, some grapic maps from DePatie Freleng, and the whole thing clocks in at a whopping two hours and 39 minutes (much of the flabby second half in particular needed reducing and a few laps around the gym). Top-billed is that unsung comic genius.... Burt Lancaster?! Well, not quite (and easily parallel to Spencer Tracy in It's a Mad, Mad World), but he mostly plays it straight and succeeds, having fun as the cigar comping, scowling, by the book cavalry veteran Thaddeus Gearhart (the character names are more Preston Sturges than John Sturges at times). And what's the driving element, the big McGuffin (which is not quite the Real McGuffin here, as it's a constant presence): Whiskey!

Radio great John Dehner provides voice-over narration (and translates several exchanges between Indian characters), moving deftly from pompous splendour and "Oh pioneer West" to wry, dry documentarian descriptions, and often finding himself at a loss to describe certain of the cruder or more absurd happenings or attitudes. As a kid, due to the tonal similarity, I actually confused Dehner in this (he's uncredited) with John "Mr. Slate" Stephenson! Anyway, the Frontier Gentleman, in his most dulcet tones, informs us that in the year 1867, panic grips the city of Denver.

The local miners, led by the always fun Dub Taylor, are worried since all the signs point to a long harsh winter, and in a matter of weeks, the city will be bone dry, with not a drop of booze anywhere. To remedy this, a massive shipment is ordered, to be rushed from the Wellingham Freighting company. Oowner Frank Wellingham, played by Brian Keith at his best and angriest, is a taxpayer and a good Republican (one of the better running gags in the film). Wellingham has his entire company tied up in the venture (40 wagons) and demands cavalry protection.

Of course, there are other conflicting interests: those pesky Injuns, of course. A very funny (and unusually brief) scene explains why only one tribe ran out, a band of Soux led by Chief Five Barrels (Robert J. Wilke from Sturges' The Magnificent Seven and Sirk's Written on the Wind). Wilke's task is basically to just "look Indian" and have a funny character name. More effective is Martin Landau in a mostly nonverbal role as the chief's sidekick, Walks Stooped Over (and of course, he does). Next we have a group of Irish teamsters, driving the precious cargo and threatening to strike (a subplot which never gels and mostly just adds to the running time.) The biggest threat comes from a mob of temperance ladies, led by Cora Templeton Massingale, played by a terrific Lee Remick as a charismatic, sexier ancestor of Carrie Nation (but just as determined and eager to destroy intoxicating spirits). The miners themselves later start out, anxious to see that their drinkables arrive. The positions of all parties are displayed on maps, with Dehner deftly doing his best to keep track of who was where and when (reaching a high point at the Battle of Whiskey Hills).

Absolutely priceless, and probably the aspect of the film which has worn best (outside of the narration from radio's Paladin) is Donald Pleasence. Pleasence was always a quirky screen presence, to say the least, and while he was in a few comedies, never this kind of comedy, nor this kind of role. He earned screen immortality in my young eyes as "Oracle" Jones, accurately described by Keith as a "sooth-saying sot": a revered trail scout who sees visions and portents of the future and the correct path... but only when suitably braced with whiskey With his bald head, red flannel underwear, and those blue eyes which conceivably *could* see into realms unknown to mere mortals, Pleasence's Oracle is a true oddball. Nearly all parties (save the temperance ladies) respect Oracle, either due to his experience, his visions, or possibly just his iron-cast liver. Whenever he takes a sip or a swig, a heavenly chorus sings "Hallelujah!" Pleasence bugs his eyes out before announcing "Now I see it!"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

To Serve Man

Ah, cannibal jokes! They never get old! Or do they?

There was a period, from probably the 1920s through the early 70s or so, when cannibal jokes in cartoons and comics were commonplace. The cannibals were often tied to black stereotypes and wore skimpy native garb and had bones in their hair and so on. The best such can be enjoyed in the context of the time or because of the ingenuity of the artists involved; the Betty Boop entry I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You takes a basic cannibal situation and turns it into a brilliant fever dream, helped more than a little by the oddball inclusion of Louis Armstrong singing his famous jazz tune about wanting his wife's lover to drop dead. But in general, it seems to me that the "Look, it's a cannibal! Laugh!" era is dead, slightly outlasting the "Look, an Indian! Funny" and "Look, a black person eating watermelon" cliches.

One cartoonist continues to rely on them, though, in a way that isn't especially offensive racially or politically so much as it's just cliched, dull, poorly executed, and unfunny. The strip is Reality Check a one-panel Far Side/Bizarro rip-off which began in 1995.

It's one thing when newspapers continue to carry comic strips which are past their prime but were once genuinely funny and creative and inventive, and which still may have occasional flashes of either wit or insanity. It's another when a strip has *never* been amusing or well drawn. The "artist" may be a very nice person, but it amazes me that this strip is still fairly widely carried, when the artwork has always looked fairly amateurish (most webcomics these days are more appealing visually) and the jokes are either incomprehensible or cribbed from old Clean Jokes for Kids books or from Joe Miller's attic. For some reason, cannibals show up frequently in his strips (as do aliens, superheroes griping about their lives, Frankenstein, and the Pillsbury Doughboy, plus lots and lots of generic people and talking animals). Yet this past week, *every* daily strip was a cannibal "joke." Some involved old and very basic puns (some of which he's used before) about how some names or phrases used to describe people also apply to food. OH THE HILARITY!

Cannibalism humor doesn't have to be tasteful (ahem ahem), but it requires more than ancient puns or the sight of severed limbs. Too many of these strips involved randomly detached feet and hands, and the joke below doesn't even make any sense!

Now, to cleanse the palate, here's how Harvey tackled the subject. The connotations may have been somewhat unintended; the story is "Deliciously Disguised" from Little Dot in Dot-Land #43, in which Little Dot disguises herself as a rabbit, haystack, and tree, only to find that animals constantly wish to consume her edible-looking outfits. The capper comes with the arrival of Little Lotta:

So we learn that Little Lotta's appetite is so rapacious that the thought of consuming human flesh, even that of a close friend, does not disconcert her. Lotta was probably attempting a joke (a variation of the "I could eat a horse" cliche), but I can't help feeling that Dingly Dell has been spared a Lotta Rampage only due to the lack of giant sandwich bread and condiments. Little Dot, good for her, asserts her rights as a woman and an individual not to be devoured, and her righteous wrath propels her into the air. You go, girl!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Of Marmite and Marmalade

Well, after months out of action (due to depression and other issues), I'm taking yet another stab at this whole blog thing. I have a few more things planned (involving comics, movies, animation, radio, and yes, finally some things in Spanish).

So, for my return entry, I decided to tackle an interesting (or at least unusual) new take on one of my favorite characters: Paddington Bear. I loved Paddington as a kid. I loved the books, I ate marmalade sandwiches because of him (though I liked all orange byproducts anyway), but I especially loved the original British TV cartoons. The cartoons were produced by the UK outfit Filmfair in the 1970s, but I came to them on home video, released by Disney, in the early 80s (three specials from the 80s later made their way to video from HBO, who also put out Cosgrove-Hall's Wind in the Willows series and way too much Filmation). The Disney Video label at that time was releasing an assortment of European characters, also including SuperTed, Asterix, and Lucky Luke, and they also inexplicably put out the stop-motion Pogo for President (more on that one some other time).

The Paddington cartoons were wonderful, faithful adaptations of the book contents, which made sense since Michael Bond wrote each episode himself (he'd previously worked with FilmFair on two made-for-TV series called The Herbs and Parsley the Lion). Bond also wrote some new episodes. Ivor Wood designed and directed the series, and it could truly be called an early experiment in mixed-media TV aesthetics. Paddington was a stop-motion puppet, but without the Gumby clay look or the Rankin-Bass stiffness, he seemed like a teddy bear come to life. His world was a mostly drab cardboard cutout city, of the kind kids tend to make from pastboard and markers, and the human characters were all cut-outs. However, the people were animated frame by frame and drawn so it was like a mesh of traditional cel drawing in a three-dimensional world. The characters all had an inky, drawn look, with action lines remaining, which really fit. The early Paddington books in fact were illustrated in a considerably different manner (and as often as not, Paddington would be drawn sans dufflecoat early on), but later, Bond had Ivor Wood create some Paddington one-page cartoons and other books, especially the covers, followed that aesthetic.

The crowning touch was the soundtrack: a soft piano accompaniment and the voice of the late, great Sir Michael Hordern, a man who had a long film and stage career, but whose best work was perhaps voice-only. For BBC Radio, he played everything from Jeeves to Gandalf (though when you think about it, the gulf isn't that wide; "Gandalf, you know those orcish spats you so dissaproved of?") He was later in the Cosgrove-Hall Willows (as gruff Badger) and other animated productions, but Paddington represents his best work in the cartoon field. He was the sole voice, serving as narrator and loosely characterizing all the other roles: a certain innocence for Paddington, the throaty grumbling of Mr. Curry (raised to a bellow to shout "Bear!"), a gentle Hungarian accent for Mr. Gruber, and a Dame Edith Evans-esque falsetto for the formidable housekeeper Mrs. Bird.

Later, Hanna-Barbera got their clutches on Paddington for a new 2D syndicated series, tossing in an American cousin, with a horriblly loud theme song, and Charlie Adler as the voice of a mushmouthed Paddington, a portrayal that must have made Dick Van Dyke feel a lot better about himself. Though Mr. Curry was, fittingly, voiced by Tim Curry. I have little memory of this incarnation, which is just as well, and the more recent series from Cinar (though with authentic British actors) failed to attract my interest.

Well, as of last year or so, Paddington is back. His newest book, Paddington Here and Now (in which the bear falls afoul of immigration), came out in the states in May. But before that, he became the new TV face of Marmite. When I first heard of it, I assumed the product was a brand of marmalade. But no, it's a variation of Vegemite, a yeast-spread substance whose flavor is, ahem, an acquired taste. In fact, for several years now, Marmite has poked fun at that fact, with the slogan "You either love it or hate it."

So, someone got the clever idea to create a series of TV commercials for Marmite's squeeze bottles (in particular, encouraging folks to try it in sandwiches and not just on toast), so they picked Paddington. This raised a few hackles on both sides of the Atlantic, as Paddington's first commercial endorsement and seemingly a violation of his very character. But Paddington has never lived on marmalade alone (just like Cookie Monster, despite his name, has always eagerly consumed fruits, vegetables, hubcaps, and typewriters, to name a few). Bacon and eggs for breakfast, buns for elevenseses, birthday cake, soups, etc. So the basic idea of Paddington deciding to try Marmite and liking it (Darkest Peruvian bears have unusual tastes) made sense, and he was always given to whims and sudden enthusiasms.

So anyway, here's the first spot in the series, which apparently debuted in September '07 in the UK [Edit: okay, clip embedded now, thanks to Harry McCracken's reminder of how to do this]

The spots capture the look and feel of the original cartoons, even with the same theme music. Only the narrator has changed, with BBC radio personality Paul Vaughan replacing the late Hordern. The thrust of the gag is a little surprising, though it fits into the overall campaign concept: while Paddington likes Marmite, birds will gag on it and cause a chain reaction of chaos. The fact that the narrator points out "Paddington, who you'll remember from childhood" or some variation is a bit dismaying, but apparently the ad agency wanted that to more clearly position the ads as nostalgia spots aimed at adults, not kids.

Subsequent spots took the notion to further extremes, with Mr. Curry and others becoming visibly ill as a result. Actually, even that fits into Paddington canon; in Paddington Goes to the Movies, which was the first time I heard or saw any part of Singin' in the Rain, Paddy innocently makes toffee but uses a glue mix instead, and when he hands one to a gruff movie doorman, the gent appears to break several teeth! The ads also, however, seem to be part of a general trend in advertising, away from tact, euphemisms, and class and towards graphic images and blunt descriptions of what the product does or might do to you. Compared to many US spots, at least these spots are funny, well-made, and have a charm, even when gastric distress is involved. So, buy Marmite, which might make you sick, but hey, your sandwich will never be dull!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Horribly good

Jello again. Well, a week long houseguest, re-scheduled doctor's appointments, and other issues, plus the heat, ate most of June. Still planning to finish my thoughts on the Dick Tracy pilot, but had a hard time getting back to it.

So rather than remain in limbo, here's a brief entry on Hagar the Horrible's memorable stint as a commercial spokescharacter in the UK. Hagar's another one of those strips from the 60s or 70s which linger on the funny pages but seem well past their prime. But Dik Browne's original Hagar was quite inventive, with less anachronism than finding amusing ways of applying modern mores to Viking and medieval life (his Viking Handbook is a little gem).

Anyway, around 1986, Hagar was recruited to sell Skol lager. Since even the word "Skol" is Danish, and the company a multi-national firm owned by Swedish, British, Belgian, and Canadian interests, the choice made sense, and of course Hagar's love of liquor is one of his fundamental traits. The spots were expertly adapted by Oscar Grillo's London studio (Grillo had done fine commercial work, and animated the scavengers in Richard Williams' A Christmas Carol), and the likes of future Disney animator Ken Duncan worked on different spots.

Here's a brief first sample:

The cartoons capture Dik Browne's art style, and the amusing hints of shading through multiple lines on a character's nose or back. However, it may be an initial surprise to hear Hagar speak with an English accent. Again, understandable given where the spots were made (and to be literal, I suppose the ads should have been in Scandinavian). Hagar is played by Bill Wallis, a veteran comedian and character actor who voiced the gruff Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz (and Mr. Prosser) in the original BBC radio version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and he plays Hagar as a working class bloke always eager for a pubcrawl. I have no idea who voiced Lucky Eddie in the above spot, and others, but he sounds very familiar, and I can swear I've heard him somewhere (in some ways, he sounds like a cockney Arnold Stang). Still, the voices, combined with gags in which Hagar visits judo classes, Indian restaurants, and the like, create a certain distance from the original comic. But on the whole, they work (and the only other extended animated version of Hagar to date was a 1980s Hanna-Barbera special, which was pretty much what would one expect, watered down and fairly undistinctive).

Note the cute, pert babes accompanying Hagar and Lucky Eddie. Who knew Vikings went on ghost train/haunted house rides? Again, the scenario doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of the Browne-era comic strip, but it's funny, badly punny, and full of great, appealing drawings and animation.

Here's a more typical scenario, Helga and Hagar talking (or thinking) at cross-purposes. I don't know who voiced Helga either, who I can't help feeling should sound very operatic or at least commanding, not like a beaten down London housewife, but it's still pretty good.

Now here's a nice little "behind the scenes" piece on the ad campaign, mostly in French but very understandable:

Hagar hasn't had a particularly high profile in decades (I once missed nabbing a stuffed Hagar in a movie theater crane machine), so it's nice to remember when he was enough of an international icon to sell booze to the masses. I do wonder if the whole "horribly good lager" tagline was a wise choice, however.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Diiiiiick Tracy! Part 1

Television, that medium which is seldom well done, has often turned to comics for fodder, whether sitcoms or adventures shows or Saturday morning cartoons. With live action shows in particular, however, the path has been thorny through no fault of our own. For every Dennis the Menace, there's literally three failed Archie pilots. Not to mention the passel of often very odd variety shows in the 1970s and early 80s with a "comics come to life" theme (more on those later). Anyway, so many of these projects arose in response to the success of a similar property, but failed to catch on. The blame can usually be blamed on quality, but every now and then, it was just bad timing (too late or too soon).

A prime example is the 1967 Dick Tracy pilot, conceived and produced by William Dozier following the success of his campy take on Batman and the more straightlaced Green Hornet. The title role was played by Ray McDonnell, who looked the part well enough. This was only his second TV project, following a stint on the soap opera Edge of Night a few years prior. In 1971, he joined the cast of another sudser, All My Children, which has provided a comfortable berth for over 30 years now as Joe Martin. This seldom seen project is actually quite entertaining (and intentionally, for the most part), even building up some genuine suspense.

Dick Tracy had already been on television, in a 1950 series starring Ralph Byrd (who played the square-jawed crimefighter in movie serials and B features). This early series was hamstrung by low budgets, especially when it came to the rogue's gallery (thus, Flattop is merely some jerk wearing a weird flat beret). Then came the UPA series The Dick Tracy Show, with Tracy kept to a minimum while his passel of stereotyped helpers did the actual work. The less said about that, the better, but apparently producer Henry G. Saperstein retained an option on the property: the closing credits include a title card which says the pilot is based on characters "and an idea" created by Chester Gould.... and Saperstein! Had a series resulted, does this imply that Jo Jitsu or Speedy Gonzales ripoff Go-Go Gomez would have appeared? (More likely, it's just acknowledging that Saperstein currently controlled the TV rights). Still, the mind boggles!

By the way, as you can see, Dozier was laying his bat credentials on the line, by having a "Tracy signal" beam out from the car headlights. Anyway, on to the pilot's actual content.

As far as I've been able to determine, this never actually aired *anywhere*. The half hour program takes a middle ground between Dozier's two series. It's not as outlandish, comedic, and campy as Batman, but rooted in at least some semblance of reality, ala Green Hornet. But the tongue was not completely outside the cheek, as indicated by the theme song, which repeatedly reminds us that Dick Tracy is "a good cop." This groovy ditty was composed and performed by the Ventures (note the dramatic use of surf-style guitar), while the episode's underscore was by Dozier staple and longtime Stan Freberg collaborator Billy May (who composed the Batgirl theme for later Batseasons and did yeoman's work on the Hornet).

This opening has some interesting aspects. It's fast paced and the comic book/cartoon look certainly reminds one of the Batman open. However, the dissolve from the comic strip character to the live actor is fairly clever. This opening also features two cast members who aren't even in the pilot (and as far as I can tell, this was the only footage they shot for it). Davey Davison was cast as Tess Trueheart. Yes that's a woman, and a glance at her IMDb entry shows that she too was a citizen of soapland, plus an array of guest spots (including one on Hazel, based on the late Ted Key's comic creation).

The more interesting absentee actress is Eve Plumb as Bonnie Braids. Eve, then 8 or 9years old, had done a handful of guest spots but would go on to greater fame as the troubled middle child Jan on that searing study of families in turmoil, The Brady Bunch. Jay Blood, cast as Junior, has a great name and the appropriate thatch of red hair, but seems to have vanished entirely. Minor character actors Monroe Arnold and Ken Mayer, as Sam Catchem and Chief Pat Patton respectively, play their parts straight, perhaps a little too straight, and so fail to make much of an impression (in contrast to their counterparts on Batman, Neil Hamilton's stiff upper lip Commissioner Gordon and Stafford Repp's incompetent, Blarney spouting O'Hara, both fondly recalled to this day).

Finally, there's our Special Guest Villain. This is in keeping with the Bat tradition over Green Hornet, whose baddies were fairly run of the mill and very seldom played by name actors (and even Batman owed a lot to The Wild Wild West, which used the same approach and even some of the same actors). Filling the slot is Victor Buono as a newly minted character, Mr. Memory. The portly, imposing, often hammy Buono was a perfect choice, having previously played the wild King Tut in Gotham and two different Wild Wild West baddies, and he would remain a favorite guest villain on genre series (The Man from Atlantis). Buono had a happy talent for comedy *and* genuine menace, but the former is kept to a minimum here, in contrast to the hilarious Tut, or his movie work. Who's Minding the Mint, one of the many all-star 1960s caper/greed comedies, gives him a fine showcase as "The Captain," a sea dog who has to construct a boat to fit in a sewer and, in one classic scene, goes down with his ship.

Mr. Memory is a genius with an exhaustive memory who uses "mental telepathy" to transmit his knowledge to a computer, which then chucks out the answers (or so he thinks). Buono plays him with restraint and a certain lethargic penache, a hired gun in a suit who has goons to do the dirty work (and a tank of pet pirahnas) and thinks everything through carefully. It was probably wise of Dozier to avoid using members of Tracy's comic strip Rogue's Gallery (though several are name checked early on), since it erases the problems of make-up, plus they had too much history to properly present in a half hour (the 1990 Tracy movie had a similar failing, chucking in as many villains as possible but making them all generic gangsters, a composite rather than an ensemble, of whom very few stood out).

And what is Mr. Memory's fiendish plan? Well, the title card spells it out: "The Plot to Kill NATO!" More on this in our next installment (and some theories on why this failed to sell). Maybe you can get the theme song out of your head by then.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Erma! Erma!

Heading out shortly to see a live Prairie Home Companion broadcast at NMSU, but a brief follow-up to my last entry.

Going through some old Family Circus books (discarded by the library for 35 cents a piece), I found this little salute to co-author Erma Bombeck, circa 1976:

It's a nice little tribute, commonplace in cartoons. What makes it more amusing, however, is the contrasting reactions of the Keane kids. Jeffy looks disgruntled and befuddled, staring at Erma's departing back in a "Who was that masked man?" kind of way (or possibly "How dare she say that my verbal errors weren't cute!") P.J. is either waving goodbye, clutching Mommy for support and waving his hand to ward off the Bombeck evil, or entreating the visitor to take him with her and away from his siblings. Dolly is a hyperactive brown-noser. Billy? He's just physically and emotionally spent by the ordeal.

Also, Thel is apparently wearing an odd one-piece jumpsuit with cuffs (one which accentuates her, erm, posterior curves to an almost unnerving degree).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Keane Teens

This past Monday, Thelma Keane died at the age of 83. Thel Keane was the wife of Bil Keane, the model for "Mommy" in The Family Circus, and from most accounts a careful businesswoman who played a key role in establishing the Keane empire. No matter what Family Circus represents as an easy target, she sounds like a remarkable woman whose life was far more interesting than her comic strip counterpart (she was a native Australian and met Bil during WWII).

In any event, this inspired me to blog about a forgotten Keane work, one of two books he worked on in collaboration with the late Erma Bombeck, Just Wait 'til You Have Children of Your Own (1971). The book is dedicated "To Thel Keane and Bill Bombeck, without whose cooperation with the authors the teen-agers and consequently the book about them could not have been produced." Yes, the book is Bombeck's treatise on the problems of raising teenagers and the generation gap and all that, and features a spate of Keane kartoons on the subject.

While his subjects may have aged, the art style is familiar. In a somewhat disconcerting aesthetic choice, the Keane teens retain the oversized heads of their Family Circus kin. Some of the jokes aren't far removed from the strip either.

Billy-esque, isn't it? This exact same joke was later reworked for FC, with Billy of course, and was used on the cover of the 1984 collection Go to Your Room!.
Not all of Keane's venture into teendom are as predictable or interchangeable with the kiddies, however.

The only way this joke makes any sense at all is if Mom misheard or is unable to see that extra "p." This means she's momentarily fearful that her offspring has been ravished against her will. You never saw this kind of thing happen to Dolly.

I admit it, I'm amused by this drawing, the garish 70s feel good posters contrasting with these clinically depressed youths.

Finally, the expected pot shot at "what kids these days are wearing" (in the past year, how many syndicated newspaper comics made "jokes" about baggy pants or teens wearing their underwear out or girls' provocative dresses, etc.?)

Suddenly, it's like we're staring at Jeffy had he been allowed to age in normal time, but only while the family remained trapped in the 1970s.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Men Are from Mars, Little Dot is from Venus

Suddenly, Harvey star Little Dot's obsession makes sense. She was rocketed to earth as a child and adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Polka. Instead of using her alien birthright to fight crime or form a multi-ethnic youth league, though, Dot just collects things with dots and spots on them.

Also, I'm rather taken aback by the choice of language. "Half-witted" or "nutty" would make sense for Harvey, but "retarded?" These were less politically correct times, true (this comes from Little Lotta #81, 1969). Still, the implication that Little Dot's singular quirk suggests a mental condition makes the character singularly tragic rather than whimsical and odd.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

She's Just a Rag Dolly

Ah, Raggedy Ann & Andy, the 1977 feature film loosely adapting Johnny Gruelle's beloved dollies, is one of those animated features where, for me anyway. the style outweighs the substance. Given the period when it was made, the fact that it had some much style (compare it even to its competition at Disney, The Rescuers) has a lot going for it, not least the bi-coastal crew which mixed veterans (more on them later) and up-and-comers like Dan Haskett (designs for Animaniacs, Toy Story), "Nine Old Man" Ward Kimball's son John, Eric Goldberg (the Genie in Aladdin), and Michael Sporn (tons of great specials, shorts, and commercials, including my own personal favorite, Abel's Island). It inspired John Canemaker's first full book The Animated Raggedy Ann & Andy which is still arguably the best and most engaging "making of" book for an animated feature to date. It has a certain following (almost a year ago, Don Brockway payed tribute to the movie here), but it's last home video release was in the early 1990s. For the animation alone and what it represented as an attempt at least to make a lush animated feature that was neither aping Disney *nor* an adult sex and drugs foray or sub-TV kiddie pap, this Cinemascope feature certainly deserves a wide-screen

The finished product is a movie I've always found more interesting than entertaining, one which intrigues me and which I'm glad exists but which I have very little emotional attachment to (it inspires neither love nor hate). Among the points of interest (setting aside the film's messy episodic story) is the fact that this really is an animated *musical* in the stage sense of the word; not only was the vocal cast mostly gleaned from New York Broadway stock (Didi Conn, Mark Baker, George S. Irving, even Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick in two bit parts) but almost every character gets a "star turn," which is animated as such. The plot stops to showcase the character's song, and as with the Greedy's number, the protagonists just sit down or stand by (it also fits the "casting by character process" perfectly, as each animator basically gets an unbridled showcase until their character departs into the wings and out of the story). The great Joe Raposo was an appropriate choice for the movie, but his songs are generally only as effective as the characters, and since the characters are defined by the songs, it leads to problems. The Camel's lament "Blue" justifiably became a pop hit, the Greedy's song is serviceable, and Raggedy Ann and Andy's turns work well enough in context. But for the ill-defined and obnoxious Loonie Knight and King, the songs only add to the cacophany.

Anyway, I'm mainly here to examine the wonderful animated title frames (and in some cases, how they relate to the actual movie). As I said, I can take or leave ''Raggedy Ann & Andy'' the movie. But I unabashedly love the opening titles. I won't argue that they're the greatest example of their kind, but there's a verve, a bounce, a joy to them (and to Raposo's "Rag Dolly" underscore) that always gets me (but generally doesn't incline me to spoil it by slogging through the entire movie). It's not a surprise. Director Richard Williams basically approached Raggedy as a work-for-hire project to gain funding for his never fully realized opus The Thief and the Cobbler (for the full story on what would become one of animation's most notorious "what might have been" sagas, see Eddie Bowers' excellent site), but this was his first time helming a full-length feature. His best work prior had been in shorts, artistic commercials, and especially title sequences, notably the wonderful sequences in Tony Richardson's Charge of the Light Brigade or the end titles to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. According to Canemaker's book, Williams' animated and boarded the titles himself. The chief delight is not that characters are running around or some action is occurring underneath the titles (as with the Pink Panther series) but the names themselves. In particular, and only fitting given the Broadway "star" aspect I mentioned earlier, each lead animator is credited above the character they worked on. This would be the first time a drawn-animated theatrical feature would supply character specific credits (Will Vinton's clay epic The Adventures of Mark Twain did so, but it wasn't until 1991 and Beauty and the Beast that it became standard practice). It's a slight shame that the credits don't actually showcase the animator's *work*. However, it draws the necessary link between animator and character and shows that as crucial as the voices are (the voice cast is billed in the end credits) it's truly the animators who are the actors behind each character. It's not done by magic or gnomes or computers (not yet, anyway, and even with CG the hand behind the mouse, ahem, should never be forgotten). The best animated titles, in fact, or those which work on either one or two levels. Those which tell a narrative of their own (as with the Pink Panther flicks or Bill Justice's stop-motion felt and paper figures in The Misadventurs of Merlin Jones) or those which engage and entertain the audience not by working around the string of names but drawing attention to them and to the different aspects of the filmmaking craft. So anyway, let's take a brief look at some of the animator's credits (images taken from a home-made DVD burn of an old VHS, and thus unable to capture the look of these as they appeared on-screen). The main title card itself, with the name of the movie, has Raggedy Ann curtsy demurely while Andy punches out the NDY.

Yay, it's Art Babbitt animating the Camel! Babbitt, of course, was already a legend from his work at Disney, giving life to the Queen in Snow White, the stork in Dumbo, Geppetto in Pinocchio, and especially for developing throaway character "Dippy Dawg" into the classic Goofy of the 1940s. Due to his key role at the Disney strike, Babbitt left (though he would return briefly) and wound up at UPA and working on commercials. Williams appreciated Babbitt and used him on many projects (he was assigned the sleepy King Nod in the original version of Thief). So it's great to see Babbitt get the star billing he deserved, and the Camel is the only character in the movie who completely works for me (the lustful Captain coming a close second). The way the camel sags and collapses under the weight of Babbitt's name always makes me smile a little.

Tissa David. There's not much I can add to Don Brockway's tribute to her. While hardly the first female animator, or even the first to receive screen credit, she was one of the few to handle major chunks of an animated feature up until the late 1980s and 1990s, really. Like I said, the title art isn't hers, but David's animation treats Ann (or "Annie") as both a loose rag doll and a caring, playfully gentle girl, and the title captures it as she tosses a flower to dot Tissa's "i" (the capture titles it?) Okay, that was a bit too schmaltzy and I'm not sure I'll feel the same way next time I closely examine the movie as a whole, so let's move on.

The Greedy! A tour de force for Walter Lantz' vet Emery Hawkins, and generally one of the best loved parts of the movie. For me, the Greedy's fun but too one-note (like most of the other character's encountered by the dollies) so I've never been a heartfelt admirer. But the gag of having this rapacious thing eat his own name is effectively funny.

After these "star" titles (Raggedy Andy is omitted, apparently because a lot of the work on him was done by Williams himself) comes a sort of "co-starring" list, pairing two or more animators (and their characters) divided by a line. I may examine the rest later, since I'm almost at Blogger's image limit. So for now, let's all wave to Joe Raposo's name:

Yeah, one of the more treacly of many whimsical images in this sequence, but it does its job: it helps you remember Raposo's name and his occupation and sets the general mood for what was, after all, intended as a children's movie. The sour note on the left looks tired of the treacle; he's just biding his time with the other two happy jerks until he can land a gig as a pill in an Alka-Seltzer commercial.

), but to conclude, for me, the animated credits are just simple, relaxing, and *fun* in a way that the movie as a whole isn't.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mr. Bungleton, All-Star! Part 3

More Bungleton 1970! Right after our last visit to the man, once one skips past a calendar with Harvey stars in the middle, we get "A Tent's Moment," a five page epic which I've been reluctantly forced to condense here. First, let me draw your attention to the note below the title, "Introducing Mr. Bungleton." Introducing? When not only had he been struggling since 1967, but had appeared in the previous story even? Perhaps this was just a sign that Sid Jacobson and other staffers finally had faith in Bungleton, thanks to his going Howie Postal.

Mr. Bungleton says "Ho-ho!" He says that a lot in this story, either his effervescent jocularity bubbling our or an attempt at a new catchphrase. Mr. B. *bound* over the fence to help Audrey. He speaks graciously if floridly: "Well, as a kindly neighborly gesture, maybe I can help!" He's a sprightly fairy godfather, which of course sets up the hijanks as at least he bungles. Or does he?

A man of action and swift decisions, that's our Bungleton. Note again the rays of light as he makes "another decision." Bathed by brilliance or some holy benediction, our hero will not be deterred.

Well, okay, maybe he will be. Mrs. B. isn't too happy, and yet another fact is added to our store of Bungletonian knowledge. The great man's first name is Wilfred. As of course it should be. But ah, this new and improved Mr. Bungleton may falter but he never fails; he is not merely acted upon but he acts.

And Little Audrey is rightly amazed and holds this wonder being in awe, this combination uncle, grandfather, neighbor, gnome, and camping instructor. This time, Audrey speaks sense. Mr. Bungleton *can* do most anything.

Except, alas, establish himself as a bonafide Harvey star or even a cult figure. References to to Mr. Bungleton on the net are few and far between: a ComicVine stub which *does* justly refer to him as a Harvey hero, though sadly only because it's their default stub text and not in praise of his greatness. It notes an appearance in Harvey Wiseguys #1 from 1987, which may well be a reprint of one of the four canon appearances. If anyone has this book, or knows of any further appearances to add to this unofficial Encyclopedia Bungletonia, please let me know!

There's also a mention I myself made ages ago on a message board, and then most intriguingly, we have this. Little Audrey TV Funtime #28, the very next issue following our two in one Bungleton, features a story tantalizingly titled "Mr. Bungleton - All-Star." The cost prohibits me from obtaining a copy just now, but the title proves that Mr. B was gainining momentum in 1970. One wonders what hijinks, what brilliant bungletonning awaits in back issues. You may rest assured that any subsequent Bungleton sightings will be duly noted on this blog.

And now you know the rest of the Bungleton story. Good day!

Mr. Bungleton, All-Star! Part 2

Continuing our survey of all things Bungleton, Little Audrey's TV Funtime #27, from May 1970, is a pivotal issue. It features *two* Bungleton stories, and not as a minor character. The earlier stories featured art by Warren Kremer, whose work was generally effective but whose Bungleton doesn't stand out.

This time, Howie Post takes over. Post is an interesting figure and perhaps one of the more versatile artists and storymen to ever work for Harvey. This 1999 interview mostly focuses on his Anthro comic, which is a semi-comedic caveman series drawn semi-seriously, or so it semi-seems. The interview also touches in passing on his Harvey work (but no Bungleton mention, alas) and the Honey Halfwitch cartoons he made for Paramount. To John Kricfalusi, and no doubt others, Post's greatest achievement was simply as "the cartoony Harvey artist." Post rendered (and probably scripted) the classic Bungleton: short, round, a twinkle in his eye, a lilt to his moustache, and a derby replacing the porkpie.

Let's see the Post Bungleton in action:

At once, Bungleton is no mere foil, but effectively overshadows Audrey. He's friendly but no longer willing to let her antics disrupt his serenity. The little "idea" snap suggests a quick wit which sometimes succeeds, sometimes leads to bungling. Bungling by a ton, no doubt. At last the name, the art, and the personality seem to actually mesh. Ignoring the fact that Mr. B's apparently decided to raise his itchy-looking sweater so his belly can get some sunshine, this is the Mr. Bungleton I've come to know and love. And it's a pretty funny one-pager, really. Not laugh out loud, but quite amusing and in the way it was intended to be. Also, Audrey looks very much like the original Paramount model here, which has always been my preference.

The next stage on Bungletonian development is fairly simple, changing the hair color from white to ginger orange. Bungleton is still older, but this change suggests a sprightlier, more youthful Bungleton, less avuncular than still childlike despite the years. More on this in our very next chapter.

Mr. Bungleton, All-Star! Part 1

As most folks know, Harvey Comics borrowed some of its earliest and biggest stars from Famous Studios (Casper, Baby Huey, Herman and Katnip, and of course Little Audrey). These were augmented by such new stars as Richie Rich, Hot Stuff, Wendy, and Little Lotta, but also by often vast ensemble supporting casts for each star. Harvey fans are such that many second or even third tier characters have strong followings: Audrey's pal/rival Melvin, Hot Stuff's giant friend Stumbo, and the Onion (Richie Rich's nemesis).

Sadly ignored, however, is one whimsical man who surfaced occasionally in Little Audrey's exploits: her neighbor, Mr. Bungleton, the man who inspired this blog's URL and who basks in his glory in the top image. Who or what is Mr. Bungleton? Well, he's no relation to 1920s comic strip character Bungleton Green, for starters. His history is cloaked in shadows, not least because no known Harvey history article to date has even dared mention his name, lest all other character's pale beside his brilliance. Well, perhaps not, but constructing a Bungleton chronology from a handful of scattered issues, from 1967 throughj 1970, is a tricky task. The gaps, however, leave open tantalzing possibilities of Bungleton brilliance which has yet to be discovered. So settle back and discover the true nature of the Bungleton.

Despite the amusing name, Mr. Bungleton's early appearances are as a fairly standard foil to Audrey or others, a plot device background neighbor much like those who surrounded Donna Reed. He wasn't always a cheerful pixie-like man either. The earliest known example (to this Bungletonian, anyway) comes from Playful Little Audrey #72 (October 1967). This one-page gag features Mr. Bungleton as a fairly non-descript neighbor/victim of Audrey's playfullness (and frankly absurd circumstances).

So in this early appearance, what can we say of Mr. Bungleton? He's elderly, has a slight paunch, and cheerfully addresses Audrey as "Little Neighbor." He's married, and his wife share's a common comic book ailment (with Donald Duck, for one), a willingness to believe that what appears to be a giant insect or bird or animal is so and must be exterminated. It probably reflects deep-seated insecurities or a traumatic encounter with an exterminator or something in her past. As for the mister himself, like most adults in the Audreyverse, he's easily sucked into a frankly absurd happening. His most interesting traits at this stage are his willingness to help (which in itself isn't especially notable at this point) and a penchant for orange sweaters and porkpie hats. Not the most fascinating addition to the pantheon at this point, but then again, his fellows include Echo and Tiny. Even Audrey's parents (last name: Smith) are pretty dull, especially in comparison to Little Lulu's pop in the best John Stanley stories. But fate and the Harvey editors had not tired of Mr. Bungleton yet.

We next catch up with our hero almost two years later, in March 1969. He appears in Playful Little Audrey #87 in the five page story "Space Happy."

So Mr. Bungleton has gained a little weight and temporarily abandoned the orange shirt. And he finds himself tied to a tree, perhaps suggesting how his own comics career was so far hindered, bound to limited roles and bland actions which did not justify his whimsical name. He hasn't even bungled to date, he's just been victimized.

And the victimizer is his own grandson, Bucky, a typical Harvey male brat. So the family picture is somewhat enlarged. The rest of the story has Bucky physically abusing his grandfather as much as possible, claiming it's preparing him for the rigors of space travel. Audrey's dander is up: "I hate to see that kid take advantage of Mr. Bungleton's soft-heartedness!" Audrey almost inexplicably solves the problem by talking to Bucky about space and how the planets move (and not suggesting that abusing a grandparent could cost him some Christmas gifts in the future). This leads to the following utterance:

My friend Harry McCracken has always maintained that the Famous Studios theme songs lie. If one applies the Audrey theme song to this comic, we have irrevocable proof, because frankly, there *isn't* a lot of sense to what Little Audrey had to say.

Ah, but what of Mr. Bungleton, you may well ask? We shall continue his career trajectory in our next installment.

Technical Difficulties

No sooner did I launch my blog than my PC, after nearly two months of trouble, was severely crippled by virus attacks and crashing again. Just received it on Tuesday, so I'll see about catching up. Coming shortly, a tribute to the man who inspired this blog's URL.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Greetings, Gate!

I'm Andrew Leal, seemingly perennial student (received my Master's in English lit last year and in flux ever since) and pop culture writer (sometimes even for money). I've blogged before on LiveJournal, and may even do so in again, but this is an attempt to avoid the personal diary aspects, for the most part, and document my views on the vintage cultural images and narratives I have willingly bombarded myself with for years.

So, welcome to Spanish Popeye, a depository for my various pop culture and literary finds, musings, oddments and flotsam. The title combines two of my obsessions, cartoons and Mexican culture. It uses a phrase coined in a 2004 New York Times article to describe masses of video cassettes used as a blind in porn video stores so they have at least 60 percent non-X-rated merchandise. One shop had thousands of copies of a single Popeye public domain VHS, dubbed into Spanish. Here in El Paso, however, Spanish Popeye videos are reasonably commonplace (though tragically not as plentiful as it used to be) and seldom a front for anything (unless Walgreens is engaged in scurrilous activities unbeknownst to us all).

Topics will include one or more of the following, in no particular order (generally not of recent vintage and not to be taken with alcohol): animation, old-time radio, literature, comic strips, movies, TV, DVDs, dead character actors, the Muppets, foreign language dubbing, Cantinflas, William Frawley, Mexican commercials, travel (if I do), WWII, and if you like birds and animals, we've got music too.

As the first selection, here's an ad I spotted at random on a website:

It's not as odd as the obscure Columbia cartoon star Scrappy urging people to insure their loved ones at random and not tied to anything. While the use of ''Green Acres'' to encourage the sale of property insurance is amusing, the text strikes me as inaccurate. Oliver and Lisa suffered countless woes, but Arnold the pig was seldom the cause. I suppose perhaps Fred Ziffel decided to moonshine and poor innocent Arnold went on a bender and, when riled, charged at the television set and broke a few lamps. I'll have to get out my DVDs, but pig damage was practically the only ill never to plague the broken down Douglas farm.

It could be an encouraging trend, though, as other companies decide to change their image using old TV shows or movies. Maybe State Farm will use clips of Ernest T. Bass throwing rocks through windows on ''The Andy Griffith Show''. And of course, ''It's a Mad Mad World'' is practically a propaganda film for why one should insure. The amount of property damage, car wreckage, and personal injury in the finale is legendary (I once took a notebook and kept a running tab of how many buildings, vehicles, or other items were wantonly destroyed).