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).