Bambi, of movie and book fame, we remember is one of the princes of the forest. And then we know that he’s not a king because it’s the elk who are the kings of the forest. But this leaves us with the obvious question: who are the barons of the forest?
In the hopes of learning, I called Felix Salten (1869 – 1945), author of the original novel Bambi, A Life In The Woods. He said, “We were all having a pleasant time, and then you had to go and be like that. Why? Why do you do this?” before hanging up. I think this is an important contribution to the debate.
My love suggested that boars could maybe be the barons of the forest. This sounds good.
Do you like superhero stories that have a good bit of that Silver Age flair? I mean the melodrama, the plots that get a little goofy but are basically delightful, the stories that touch on serious subjects but avoid being dire or grim, and the resolutions that turn on some crazy fairy-tale logic. So I am, indeed, a fan of Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Alex Saviuk’s Amazing Spider-Man comic strips. If you’re reading this, I trust you like this sort of thing too, or at least you find it interesting. Also that you want to know what the current storyline is. If you’re reading this around mid-October 2017 you’re in luck: this essay should be on point. If it’s much later than that, the story might have moved on. If I have a more recent update it should be at or near the top of this page. Thank you.
I didn’t guess last time I reviewed the Amazing Spider-Man what the next recap would include. If I had, I would have included “the end of the current story”. That story saw Peter and Mary Jane Parker in Los Angeles on one of those comic-strip weeklong getaways that runs twelve months of reader time. They discovered Melvin, the Mole-Man Ruler of the Underworld wants to marry Aunt May. He’s free to do that now that he’s been overthrown by Tyrannus, the immortal Augustulus, last ruler of the Roman Empire of the West. And Aunt May’s partial to it too. And, yeah, the comic strip is its own separate continuity from everything else Marvel-branded. Still, I knew Melvin and Aunt May would have something keep them from getting married. Tyrannus leading an army of subterranean monsters to destroy Los Angeles seemed like a good enough excuse.
Thing is, that was back in the middle of July. I thought there were a couple weeks’ worth of Tyrannus invading. People around Spider-Man foiling the invasion while he’s tied up or maybe unconscious. Melvin accepting his responsibility to the Mole People Or Whoever Lives Down There that he has to go rule them. Aunt May not being able to join because she’s allergic to the Mole Kingdom. (I’m not being snarky there. It’s what kept them apart before.) They haven’t got quite there yet. But it does look like it’s going to wrap up soon? Maybe in a couple weeks? I think?
Well, here’s what happened. Peter Parker told Aunt May and Melvin that yeah, actually, they should get married if they want to. They set a date of “pretty soon, considering we’ve both died of old age as many as fourteen times dating back to the era of King Aethelred the Ill-Advised already”. And they both like James Dean. So they figure to marry at Griffith Observatory, taking the Observatory officials entirely by surprise. Mary Jane’s not able to participate in the plot, as a heavy storm trapped her in a side thread about her publicity tour.
Also taking Griffith Observatory by surprise: Tyrannus, who breaks the promise he made to Kala, his wife, that he’d leave Melvin alone. Kala’s content with having conquered the whole of Subterranea and doesn’t see any reason to bother the Mole Man as long as he’s staying on the surface. Well, not taking them completely by surprise. Peter Parker had spotted one of Tyrannus’s drones sneaking around the night before so he expected some kind of attack. But he figured going ahead with the wedding was the best way to get to the next big scene, and what do you know. A bunch of tentacled monsters grab Melvin, and Spider-Man follows close behind. Aunt May and the minister are left at the Observatory.
Melvin’s points out what an unnecessary jerk Tyrannus is being about all this. And Kala quickly joins Team Melvin, which serves as a reminder of how making false promises to your loved ones will come back to you. She gets the chance because Tyrannus is catching a bit of Old Age. He needs to recharge from the Fountain of Youth. This it turns out is a river underneath Los Angeles. Well, it wasn’t always, but with Tyrannus’s recent conquest of Mole Man’s territories he had the river diverted to Los Angeles.
Tyrannus runs off for the sacred chalice with the line drawn on it so he knows how much youth to imbibe. (It’s always a sacred chalice, isn’t it? They never just need a Wawa coffee mug.) Kala pops out the key to Spidey and Melvin’s handcuffs. She expositions about how he needs a drink or he’ll turn 1500 all at once. And she works out how to extort Tyrannus into giving up his conquest plans. Spidey, glad not to have to come up with a plan, goes for it. Spider-Man dams up the River of Youth before Tyrannus can get his drink. Kala tells the ancient Roman Emperor that if he does invade the surface world he’ll be a murderer. He’d have killed the man she fell in love with.
Tyrannus sends a flock of subterranean monsters after Kala, Spidey, and Melvin. Unless that should be a “herd” of subterranean monsters. (To be precise.) But his monsters can’t match Melvin’s knowledge of the tunnels. And he’s in a bad way, anyway. Without access to the River of Youth water he’s showing his 1500 years and might even get to be older than Aunt May. Kala gets him to make an Imperial Oath to never attack the surface world again, in exchange for Spidey un-blocking the River of Youth. And this one will count. Merlin the Magician made fidelity to Imperial Oaths a condition of the last Western Roman Emperor’s access to eternal youth. Spider-Man takes a moment to reflect on how this is kind of a weird scene. Tyrannus and Melvin shrug and point out, hey, you’re Spider-Man.
And that’s where we are as of today. Also, so now you see why I figure we’ve got to be near the end of this story. They just have to figure out reasons for Melvin to stay underground and Aunt May not to marry him. Then Peter Parker can head off to the next casually insulting scene.
Maybe you notice. I’ve been enjoying this. I guess there’s high stakes here, what with the threatened conquest of the surface world and all by an immortal Ancient Roman. But in truth it’s an endearing small story about people with goofy costumes and funny names messing up each others’ marriages. And Spider-Man even gets to do some stuff, although at the direction of much better-informed people. Which I like too. Newspaper Spider-Man has a passivity problem. But people with a lick of common sense should shut up and listen to the folks who are experts in their field of expertise. And yeah the story has covered really very few points considering it’s been a quarter of a year. But it’s had a good bit of action and humor and very little spider-moping.
We journey back to the land of Moo and peek in on Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop. There was still more mind-control ray gun story to deal with. After that, Alley Oop faces the biggest problem of 21st century humanity: an idiot white guy with money. See you then, in the past.
I realized I haven’t done one of those posts where I talk about a cartoon in a while. So here’s one. It’s from every 1930s animation fan’s favorite studio if they don’t admit that, yeah, Disney was doing amazing things then: Fleischer Studios. (It is hard to come up with an era when Disney wasn’t outclassing everybody on technique and story, although they often could be beaten for comedy or pacing.)
This is Educated Fish, an entry in the Color Classics series. It was originally released the 29th of October, 1937, and it was nominated for Best Animated Short. It lost to, of course, Disney, which put up the short The Old Mill the 5th of November. Tough competition; The Old Mill is the short in which Disney unveiled the multi-plane camera, as well as special effects for rain, water, wind, and careful realistic depiction of animal behavior. Disney would use the technology and skills showcased in that to make Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi, and a long train of cartoons after that. It’s hard to argue with the Academy’s choice.
I’m a bit sorry to get on the competition. Educated Fish can’t really compete. It’s a competently done example of the naughty-child-repents genre. There’s not enough of the Fleischer studio’s real strength, clever mechanical design. The flashes that are there of it elevate the cartoon, as do the more energetic moments. The structure of the plot doesn’t allow for fast stuff to happen until the end; when it does, the cartoon picks up.
Still, there’s some fun bits. The sardines arriving in a tin is the sort of thing that tickles me. The student giving the teacher an apple. The lesson being done as music. The naughty Tommy Cod playing pinball in his desk — alas, in that era, pinball machines were flipperless. Tommy swimming so fast he pulls his skeleton out of his body, the sort of whimsical body horror that made the Fleischer cartoons famous. The cartoon doesn’t reach the full potential of Fleischer studios, but then, fish are really challenging things to animate. It’s a good question whether anyone did them well before Finding Nemo. I mean besides Disney’s whales. You know how it is.
So let’s say it’s a 1930s cartoon. Is it actually legally required to include an Al Jolsen “Mammy” hook? Let’s find out.
The cartoon is from Ub Iwerks’s Flip the Frog series. Iwerks was one of those great cartoonists and inventors to orbit Walt Disney. With Disney he was able to create Mickey Mouse as well as some of the lesser characters like Clarabelle Cow. And he had a knack for technical innovation, with the live-action/animation effects of Song of the South his doing. Outside Disney’s orbit, Iwerks … well, you can see. The cartoon’s from his own studio. And it’s technically proficient, smooth and competent in a way not common in 1931 except from Disney studios. And there’s fun in it, but it is slow-paced. Could use stronger editing. I imagine if it ran five minutes this could be a really solid cartoon.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
Well, the index dropped another eight points over the day and isn’t that just like it? There’s no sense of gratitude, of loyalty in this business anymore. Many traders say it’s a different world from the one they started in. They don’t see where the old mores even fit in anymore.
Did you know that Disney worked up plans to open a five-level indoor amusement park for Saint Louis, in the early 60s? Me neither. Consumerist.com reported yesterday about how blueprints from the planned park are up for sale. Apparently according to folklore Disney cancelled park plans because they’d have had to sell beer. In reality Disney just wanted other people to build the place for them, while they got to have the amusement park when it was done. The other people wouldn’t see things Disney’s way. You can see how Disney was making the only reasonable decision.
I didn’t know. My sister, an amusement park enthusiast who lives near Saint Louis, had no idea either. [ NOTE: ACTUALLY COMMUNICATE WITH SISTER AND ASK IF SHE KNEW BEFORE POSTING THIS — EXTREMELY URGENT ]
And now I’m stuck wondering: what is an amazing number of people to not know that Disney considered but did not build a five-level indoor amusement park in Saint Louis over fifty years ago? Eight? That seems too few. Twelve? No, I think it’s credible that twelve people would not have heard of this. Forty-six? Again, I find that a believable number. Forty-eight might be a little amazing, if I hadn’t spoiled things by putting up thoughts of forty-six just a sentence before. But I’d bet Fazio was thinking of some even greater number of people.
Now, if there were 438 trillion people who didn’t know, I would agree that’s amazing. But that’s carried on the strength of 438 trillion being an amazing number of people. Whether they knew about the park or not neither adds to nor detracts from their amazingness. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing. What they’re doing is standing ahead of me at the Coke Freestyle machine, staring at the single large illuminated button marked “PUSH”, with no course of action in mind and no desire to get one.
How does the number of people unaware of Disney’s Kennedy-era plans for a Saint Louis amusement park compare to other people unaware of things that don’t exist? In 1908 President William Howard Taft laid the cornerstone for a giant statue to the Vanished Native American. This even though Native Americans were still around and wanted to stick around. The statue never got finished, and Native Americans went on not vanishing. How many people have no idea that somewhere on Staten Island there is not this memorial taller than the Statue of Liberty?
Statues and amusement parks are one thing [ NOTE: at least two things ] but how about airports? There were plans afoot in the early 1930s to build an airport on top of Manhattan skyscrapers. This would have solved both the problem of New York City’s needing a commercial airport within the Five Boroughs and the problem of anybody being willing to use it. How does the number of people unaware of that compare to the Saint Louis Disney Park? In the 1970s they were going to build a nuclear power plant floating in the ocean by Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. How does the Saint Louis Disney Park Unawarenss Number compare to this plan to create, with the help of a little hurricane blowing the nuclear power plant into the skyscraper-top airport, the greatest disaster movie ever made, if only they could ever have put together the right cast?
There’s no telling, because I don’t know the numbers. I realize there’s little chance that Mike Fazio is going to see this article. But, what the heck, if I can get picked up the Onion AV Club briefly and get in contact with guys I knew in college and from Usenet fifteen years ago, why couldn’t I get to hear from him? Mr Fazio, if you read this, could you let me know what’s the largest number of people you’d think could credibly not know about this before?
The blueprints are expected to sell for between five and ten thousand dollars, so I’m afraid I’m not going to get them for my sister for Christmas. She doesn’t have time to build her own amusement park these days anyway, with with [ NOTE: ASK WHAT SHE’S DOING THESE DAYS ]. You can sympathize.
While there’s one more “first” Betty Boop to include, the above review of first appearances — of her character design, of the short-lived revision in the late 30s, of her character as someone named Betty Boop, of her as protagonist — brings me to the final of the really compelling “first Betty Boop cartoons”. This would be Dizzy Dishes, the 1930 short that’s credited as the original appearance of Betty Boop.
She’s not named, although come to it nobody in the cartoon really is. She’s also not the protagonist; she comes in at about two minutes forty seconds in, and spends a minute on-screen, as the waiter-protagonist gets distracted from his mission of delivering spot gags set in a cabaret. She sings, with the protagonist — usually identified as Bimbo, and I suppose that’s as good a name as any — taking some or all of her “boop-oop-a-doop” refrain from “I Have To Have You”.
Plot and characterization are not the primary focus of an early-30s Fleischer cartoon, which is why we never really get a clear answer why Bimbo is so reluctant about delivering the roast duck to the demanding customer, who looks to me like Disney’s Pegleg Pete, with a couple early hints of Bluto worked in. The Internet Movie Database claims the character is Gus Gorilla, which is believable enough, and that he’s voiced by William Costello, who would be the first animated voice of Popeye. Delivering six minutes or so worth of gags are the focus and that’s done fairly well with an opening string of demanding customers and Bimbo’s attempts to keep up (watch how he handles a demand to make two bowls of stew).
I hate to say it, but Betty Boop’s appearance slows the proceedings down, though they do recover their odd and occasionally nightmare-fuelish bent (the roast duck lays an egg! And it hatches!) soon enough. Soon enough Gus Gorilla loses his patience, and goes after Bimbo, and I am kind of on Gus’s side here. It all ends, as any great early-30s cartoon will, with a resolution that makes you go, “wait, what?”
I want to close out the string of Fleischer Color Classics cartons. There are a couple dozen more of them, but I think we’ve seen a fair sampling of what they’re like. For the last one, then, I’d like to go to the cartoon that inaugurated the series, Poor Cinderella, which as the title suggests, stars Betty Boop.
Of course it stars Betty Boop. When the Color Classics line of cartoons began, in 1934, the biggest stars Fleischer studios had were Betty Boop and Popeye and … well, actually, Popeye would probably be able to launch a line of musical cartoons on his own too. But Betty Boop was big. She still is; it’s still easy to find her licensed and marketed, which is all the more impressive when you consider there hasn’t been a new Betty Boop cartoon released since July of 1939. Let me put that in perspective: every single Tom and Jerry cartoon, and every Bugs Bunny cartoon, was made after Betty Boop was last in theaters (apart from cameo appearances as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and yet, she’s still at least recognizable.
(For my rhetorical purposes, yeah, I’m declaring A Wild Hare to be the first Bugs Bunny cartoon, but the precursors are hard to ignore.)
I honestly have no idea why Betty Boop wasn’t summoned for a series of cheaply-made cartoons in the 60s, at least, which seems like the natural era in which she might have got that degrading honor, or maybe in the early 80s as part of an attempt to show actual cartoons with female-type women as lead characters. A bunch of her cartoons were colorized, badly, in the 60s, at the same time a lot of the black-and-white Popeye cartoons were. This was done by South Korean animators hand-tracing and painting the frames, making the cartoons generally shoddier and more shady. Some madman then pulled out sequences to stitch together into a compilation cartoon titled Betty Boop For President, which can most properly be described as “Frankensteinian” and “dated and sexist in weird ways even for the 70s”. Wikipedia claims there was an attempt to make a new Betty Boop movie in the 90s that fell apart; I can accept that happening. I’m just surprised there hasn’t been more of that.
Poor Cinderella is Betty Boop’s only canonical appearance in color, although since at the time Disney had an exclusive license to use three-strip technicolor, Betty Boop’s cartoon was in two-strip Cinecolor. Cinecolor was built around red and cyan as the base colors. The color schemes to me look like vaguely reminiscent of old Christmas wrapping paper. It also gives the whole cartoon a faintly muted dreamlike attribute. I don’t think it’s just this cartoon; other Cinecolor films I’ve seen make a similar impression on me.
The cartoon — well, the story is exactly what the title implies. The Fleischers put in all their technical tricks to launch it well, though, with three-dimensional sets and lushly detailed animation, and didn’t forget the sorts of strange little comic asides that marked their most surreal work, even as the whole cartoon tries to be pretty sincerely direct and gentle.
The Prince is drawn in a rather realistic style, which never quite meshes with Betty Boop’s character design. That’s part of the price paid for trying to do a realistic-model cartoon with a character as stylized as Betty Boop at the core. The Fleischers had a similar problem with their first feature-length movie, Gulliver’s Travels, in which they needed characters ranging from rotoscoped-human-form (Gulliver, the Prince and Princess) through to very cartoonish (Gabby the Town Crier). Somehow Disney seems to have managed that blend more naturally in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, although it might be that that movie is so much a part of everyone’s childhood they don’t even notice that, somehow, Snow White and Grumpy exist on-screen at the same time.
A Car-Tune Portrait, a Fleischer Color Classic cartoon from June of 1937, takes a bit to get going. It starts with several of the key players in an orchestra, and the conductor, being drawn in by realistic hands, in a gimmick familiar to how Koko the Clown and other characters would be instantiated in the start of an Out of the Inkwell cartoon. Even the orchestra stage is drawn in in this way. The result is the cartoon takes nearly 90 seconds to have any action happen, and that action is the conductor apologizing that cartoon animals have a reputation for being uncultured and ridiculous and so here is some proper music.
The music is, of course, Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2, which you may better know as “Oh yeah, that classic piece they always play in cartoons.” I’m not sure just how this piece, of all the orchestral music out there, came to be the orchestral piece, although it’s a great choice for one. The music starts simple and builds to a frantic climax, one that almost begs to be matched to an action-packed finale. In this light, the slow build of the opening serves the pacing of the cartoon: the action at the end feels more frantic because of the sedate opening.
Walt Disney ran across Liszt’s comic potential in 1929, with the Mickey Mouse short The Opry House, which used it for a small segment of the whole. The Krazy Kat line of non-Krazy-Kat-like cartoons used it for 1931’s Bars and Stripes, which built most of the action, a war between Krazy and musical instruments, around the piece. A Car-Tune Portrait is still one of the earliest uses of the Hungarian Rhapsody, and interesting to me for being done before Friz Freleng’s Rhapsody in Rivets and William Hanna and Joe Barbera’s The Cat Concerto, which seem to have secured the composition’s place as one of the things that just sounds like a cartoon.
It’s hard to make an easier mistake, in writing about history, than to proclaim anything as the first time anything was done. When you look closely at anything interesting or intricate you realize that it becomes difficult to say what, exactly, are the defining traits of the interesting happening, and you realize there’s almost always a prior case that’s at least as strong a candidate for “the first”.
This is why I bring up the Paul Terry Aesop’s Fables-series cartoon Dinner Time, released to theaters in September and October 1928, which comes in comfortably ahead of Steamboat Willie. This is an important point, as Dinner Time is unmistakably a full sound cartoon, and properly, predates the cartoon everyone thinks of as the first. It’s easy to see why Steamboat Willie so overwhelmed Dinner Time; while Dinner Time is mature in some ways — particularly, it’s staged much more as a sound picture, without written-out words or floating music notes or other holdovers of silent cartoons — it’s not as fun a cartoon as Steamboat Willie, and of course Disney would be a somewhat more significant corporate entity than the Fables Pictures, Inc, company proved to be.
It’s recorded in RCA Photophone, one of the four systems of synchronized-sound recording developed in the 1920s, and one that would be used through to the rise of stereo sound recording. It isn’t the first sound cartoon either: even if we limit the discussion to commercially released films, the Fleischer brothers made a series of Song Car-Tunes from 1924 to 1926 using the DeForest Phonofilm recording system, and I don’t doubt the search for “a” first would lead us into a fascinatingly complicated world of early technology.
(The Aesop’s Fables series itself started out as a set of animated stories with morals included, although either the versions I’ve found lost the moral or by this point in the series Terry had given up on the gimmick.)
And you know, what the heck, let’s keep going with the Terry Toons cartoons. Here’s one that brings together Farmer Al Falfa and the other silent or near-silent star, Kiko the Kangaroo, and what’s probably as close to an origin story as Kiko can get. It’s a fairly strongly plotted cartoon for the era, and I am curious whether the people at Paul Terry’s studio knew they were introducing a kangaroo that’d be good for a number of cartoons. The Terry Toons wiki, which of course exists, says Terry Toons introduced the cartoon after drawing inspiration from Mickey’s Kangaroo, a success over at Disney. Apparently only ten Kiko cartoons were made, over the course of two years, and she doesn’t seem to have been adapted into TV shows or comic books, but was merchandised for a while.
If all that isn’t fascinating enough, below should be an embedding of the same cartoon only converted at the wrong speed, allowing you to run an experiment regarding just how the timing of a joke affects the comic value of it.
Today’s cartoon is another silent-era one. I hope I’m not trying people’s patience with these, but they are more commonly public domain (so I feel safer including them), and I find them fascinating, and this is after all a place where I share stuff that amuses me. But, anyway, this one is an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon, called, aptly, Mechanical Cow. It comes from Walt Disney Productions, directed by Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks and surely others, though it was produced for Universal Pictures, before Disney went into business for himself proper. Famous-in-animation-circles story.
Anyway, the plot is what might as well be the standard-issue black-and-white cartoon: genially pleasant, faintly Harold Lloyd-ish lead character goes about his business, with a string of amusing gags where he does something clever with the stage business, and then his girlfriend gets introduced and gets captured by the big bad guys, and then, the lead has to go rescue him. The plot doesn’t matter. Look at the animation: it’s much smoother, more naturalistic, more skillful than even the very good work of the Fleischers or the other studios of the time. Disney and Iwerks had great talent and great craftsmanship, and that shows through in, for example, the moment when Oswald steals the cow’s bed.
Curiously to my eyes, the fact that this is a mechanical cow doesn’t seem to figure much. You could recast it with a real cow and … all right, some of the jokes would become more disturbing, but I don’t think they’d be that much worse than was already the norm for silent-era cartoons. I have to wonder if the animation team started with the title — and it’s a good starting point for a cartoon, certainly — and then developed the short without quite making full use of it.
For today’s cartoon I’d like to offer something that’s just absurd: the Fleischer studios’ 1932 Betty Boop short Crazy Town. After the handsome opening credits — which include James Culhane, who’s famous in animation circles for doing the “Heigh-Ho” sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and writing (as Shamus Culhane) the classic textbook Animation From Script To Screen; and David Tendlar, who never achieved fame, but who animated for Fleischer Studios/Paramount Studios for decades and then went to Hanna-Barbera, so you’ve seen his work — Betty Boop and Bimbo take the trolley to Crazy Town, a place where pretty much any sight gag the animators could think of gets done. Many of them are simple reversals of expectation, birds that fly under water and fish that swim above, or barbers that make hair grow by cutting it, but that doesn’t infringe on the childish glee that comes from seeing the reversals. And then, of course, things keep getting stranger.
So, my first warning of practical consequence based on my dreams is this: apparently the student union from grad school days is being used as the center point for some stunt where throwing wrapped-up flags on their poles to the second-storey balcony is being done, and some of these are going to be fired right off as firecrackers. However, the real story is that the Math Dorm, the three-connected bedrooms where all the math students are able to gather and hang out, doesn’t have anyone officially listed as being in it, and nobody seems to be going into or out of it, but it shows signs of recent occupation — warm coffee cups or doughnuts and the like — while all of the dated materials, including calendars and notepads, show no dates more recent than October of 2011. This is a mystery and I don’t know how to begin solving it.
The second warning comes from this tightly-packed little conference room, which I have to get ready for a high-level meeting of multinational multimedia conglomerate heads who are late and are apparently going to be late as long as this little problem doesn’t get worked out, and the difficulty in getting the tight-fitting overstuffed late-60s style tan vinyl cushions packed into the little oval space for them (it kind of looks like the center pit from Dangermouse‘s stately postal box, if that helps) seems unbeatable. This would be less challenging if the room didn’t keep going up to even-numbered floors only to drop back to odd-numbered ones. I believe the takeaway from this is a reinforcement of the old cliche, “too many elevators, not enough Walt Disneys”.