The Third Talkartoon: Radio Riot


I didn’t ditch the second Talkartoon on purpose. It’s just that the short, a 1929 titled Marriage Wows, might as well be a lost cartoon. According to Wikipedia the UCLA film library has the nitrate elements for it. But otherwise? As far as I’m aware it’s not available online, and it might not even be available for normal non-scholarly people at UCLA to see. There is a 1949 Famous Studios short of the same title, but goodness knows whether it’s a remake of the early talkie. Possibly it is in part; the 1949 short is the sort of string of spot gags that would be as easily made in 1929. And the central song is Me and My Gal, from 1917. But the 1949 cartoon is a Screen Songs follow-the-bouncing-ball short. Talkartoons, as far as I know, never did that. Besides, Fleischer Studios already had the Screen Songs series going in 1930.

I’ll put that aside and go on to the next Talkartoon. Originally released the 13th of February, 1930, it’s Radio Riot. There’s no credits for it, besides the Directed by Dave Fleischer title, but we’ll start getting some idea who drew stuff in the next couple cartoons.

So there we have it. First, yes, the title makes sense and has something to do with the cartoon. The framing device is a day’s worth of radio programming. Morning exercises, a musical number, a scary story for impressionable kids. It’s a short programming day but after all it is only an eight-minute cartoon. It’s a framing device much like SCTV used in its first season, before they got into telling plots of the backstage happenings.

As with last week’s Talkartoon, Noah’s Lark, I believe this cartoon was drawn on paper. After the first scene there’s not much grey in the cartoon; it’s in black and white, mostly. I suspect the frog’s scenes were done on animation cels, and the rest on the old-fashioned white paper.

Speaking of the frog. I know there’s animation fans who see a frog of this vintage and think of Ub Iwerks’s Flip the Frog. He was the star of a couple dozen genial shorts after Iwerks left the Disney studios and set up his own animation company. It’s coincidence, though. The first Flip the Frog cartoon was released in August 1930. Frogs must just have been in the air.

There’s a double dose of Suspiciously Mickey Mouse-like characters. First there’s a pair doing exercises in the scene starting about 3:18 into things. And then there’s a bunch more, mouse kids I assume, in the ghost-story scene that starts at 6:19 and closes out the short.

I’m not sure there’s a proper blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag that I really liked. Possibly the way the exercising radio receiver and table about 1:15 in are out of step with the frog’s direction. But I did enjoy the frog explaining the exercise program was brought to you by the “Noiseless Biscuits Company”. It sounds enough like a company name that you don’t right away notice the nonsense. That’s often the best sort of nonsense.

The most startling joke to me: the goldfish doesn’t jump back in the fishbowl! The heck, guys? It also looks to me like the first pair of mice meet a grizzly yet not-quite-on-camera end. There’s implicitly something sad going to happen to those flies caught on paper as part of that radio star’s “Where o Where Has My Little Dog Gone?”. Video is innocent in this one.

Does the short have an ending? Yes, it has. The framing device implies there’ll be a last broadcast of the day, and of the short, and that makes narrative sense. And the scary part makes for a good closing act. I am again satisfied.

Advertisements

What Are The Limits To Organization?


Is it ever possible to be too organized? Of course it is. Imagine you were to get so organized that you put all of the matter and energy in the universe together in a single, infinitesimally small pile. This would promptly cause a new Big Bang, obliterating this universe and creating a new one with potentially quite different laws. Perhaps life would be possible in this new universe, but under very different laws. We might see something like the knights in a chess game moving two spaces in one direction and then two crosswise in a single turn. Or there might be even madder consequences, like gravity being replaced by a system of emotional bonds and obligations.

So there are limits to organization. And this is good as it takes the pressure off us to achieve perfection. If we think really hard about how a new-created universe might work — might tic-tac-toe be played with + signs and little diamonds instead of O’s and X’s? — it takes the pressure off us to achieve adequacy. At least that’s my excuse and I know my love understands while glaring, pained, at my side of the room.

And in practice there’s limits to organization even before you get to universe-wrecking consequences. For example, stuff disappears when it’s where it belongs. Consider that box of paperclips that would be useful for clipping paper together. If it were possible to open its plastic case without breaking off the tabs you’re supposed to use to open it. And which wouldn’t open even if you did break the tabs off. It sits on the table for months, maybe years. Everyone knows exactly where it is. People walking past the house come to a halt and stare in the window, waving more passers-by over to point and stare at the paperclips. And that takes some doing, because they have to get past some really prickly bushes to get up to the window.

But there it sits, ready and demanding attention, ready to provide paperclip services just in case we ever open it. Sometimes it moves a bit, trying to sidle up to the remote control and judge whether it can prey upon the appliance-related implement. Maybe it tries to conceal the chunk of hematite I got for $1.49 from the science store like twenty years ago that hasn’t yet grown into a collection of pretty rocks. Anyone could find the box even if the house were blacked out and your eyes held closed by rogue paperclips.

Ah, but then comes the day we finally organize the place. We take the box of paperclips and find the sensible spot for them: in one of the drawers of the side table where we keep the stamps, blank envelopes, stationery, and the stapler that we can’t find staples for. Come back and we find the table is gone. There’s hints of where it had been, indentations in the rug and all that, but no hint of table. It’s as though the idea of horizontal surfaces has been eliminated from the world. I’d write a stern letter to somebody about this, but can’t find the stationery. And when I get back from that the rug is gone too. They’ve snuck off to the game room and hidden behind the game. The game is a 1979 Williams Tri-Zone pinball. I can find them by the chuckling. Furniture may be well-camouflaged, but it is only two-thirds as clever as it thinks it is.

I don’t usually get so much stuff lost when organizing. I mean except when cleaning up for Thanksgiving, a time when we get so busy tidying stuff up that we can lose bookshelves, kitchen cabinets, and back in 2014 the guest bathroom. There’s not a hint there even ever was a second bathroom in the house. The home would even be architecturally senseless with a second one. That cleaning-up job lasted for hours before it was all chaos again.

But I find my own natural limits. I tend to figure I’ve got things as organized as reasonable when I hold up two socks. They look like they’re the same color in the dim light of the morning when I might have to go out somewhere. In sunlight they’re nothing like the same color. One is a navy blue, the other is an enraged red squirrel holding a penknife. But when I reach that point I ponder whether any two socks are “a pair” of socks, even if they haven’t got anything in common except they are the socks without anything in common. The conclusion of this is that any socks can be a pair of socks and therefore they can be put into the pile of pairs of socks. When I get to reasoning like this you can imagine the shape of my DVD shelf. It is a rhombic triacontahedron.

The case of paperclips won’t open because there’s cellophane tape holding together the sides. I can’t find the cellophane either.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The … alternate index? I think that’s the one supposed to report today. Well, the alternate Another Blog, Meanwhile index dropped three points today after their old-time radio podcast had this interesting late-70s adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth hosted by Tom Bosley For Some Reason. And I’m not supposed to tell you what the mainstream blog did today but you already know because this whole alternate-reporting thing is just them being silly.

99

Fibber McGee and Molly Leaving for Hollywood


I’m still in an old-time radio mood. So here’s a 1941 installment of Fibber McGee and Molly. The show’s got great name recognition, if allusions to it on Mystery Science Theater 3000 are any guide. Granted, by that standard, Averell Harriman still has great name recognition.

But it’s of historical importance. The show was one of those that created the situation-comedy genre. As often the case with those that create a form it doesn’t have the form quite right. The show tends to have very loose plots, to the extent it has plots at all. There’s typically just a gimmick for the episode and then riffing around that. The bunch of wacky neighbors and friends come on, usually one at a time, to add their riffs, and then after 25 minutes of this, two musical numbers, and a minute spent praising Johnson’s Wax, something ends the situation. It hardly seems like the same sort of entertainment as, say, Arrested Development.

But I think it’s of more than just historic importance, at least in some episodes. The one I’ve picked here, “Leaving for Hollywood” and originally run the 24th of June, 1941, closed out the broadcast season. It’s built on the McGees closing up their house and saying goodbye to everyone because they’re off to Hollywood for the summer … to make one of the movies based on the Fibber McGee and Molly show. The movie, Look Who’s Laughing (mentioned in the show as the Old-Timer worries about the title) featured most of the radio program’s cast in a story that intersects with Lucille Ball and Edgar-Bergen-and-Charlie-McCarthy and some story about the town’s airstrip.

And there is something almost strikingly modern. We have the fictional conceit that we’re listening to the stuff happening to the McGees and their acquaintances. And yes, it breaks the fourth wall a couple times each episode for the needs of commerce or just to let Jim Jordan get in a good side crack. But here’s a story all about winding up the “real” affairs of the McGees for long enough to let them make a movie about themselves. It’s a weird blending of layers of fiction. I don’t think the 1941 audience was confused or blown away by this; it just feels too natural that the listeners are in on the artifice of the show. (Note the biggest laugh of the episode is one that subverts the show’s best-remembered joke. And its next-most-famous running gag appears just to be mocked too.) I imagine someone listening to the show for the first time would find nothing surprising about the structure, except maybe for the conceit that perfectly good half-hour radio comedies should be adapted into 80-minute movies with far too much plot and nothing happening. It’s only weird if you stop and point it out, which I hope you see now that I have.

Minor note: the second musical number within the show, about 19:30 in, is the Kingsmen singing “The Reluctant Dragon”, based on the Disney partly-animated Robert Benchley vehicle and that’s fun.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

So here we are, trying out reporting just the breakaway alternate Another Blog, Meanwhile Index and that’s up two points from where it was yesterday. And I don’t want to say anything to the traders who are trying to work out why it is there’s been no divergence in the indices since they split off all that while ago. But I will say that based on what I have they’re in for a nasty surprise regarding today’s mainstream index returns.

104

Molly McGee At A Roller Coaster


Bit of a change for these sorts of Friday things. Rather than a video I’d like to share an old-time radio program. This is the Fibber McGee and Molly that originally aired the 17th of June, 1941. It’s titled “Amusement Park”. I don’t know whether that was the script name or just how the Fibber McGee and Molly fans chose to name it. If I have overcome archive.org’s horrible new interface, this should be a link to download an MP3 to it. If I haven’t overcome archive.org’s horrible new interface, well, you should be able to select track 21, “Amusement Park”, below and listen in your web browser, rather than your MP3 player or audio program of your actual choice. Mostly, though, archive.org’s new interface is horrible.

Anyway. Fibber McGee and Molly was a proto-sitcom. The show started as being about vagabond motorists Fibber and Molly having encounters with amusing locals. After a few years of this they won a house in a raffle (really) and settled down to what’s almost the modern format of the genre. Most episodes give Fibber some modest task to attempt, at home, while Molly comments, and comical neighbors drop in, one at a time, to riff on that.

It’s not quite the sitcom as perfected, mostly because the episodes don’t really have plots. They have themes and jokes circling around the theme. But most of the time you could scramble the appearances by the comical neighbors and have about as good a show. There’s not a running storyline; at best it’s got running jokes. Which seems really odd because the show would have stuff develop over the course of episodes. Indeed, this episode introduces something that would be picked up on the next week, their close of the 1940-41 broadcast season.

I mentioned with Rube and Mandy last week that Amusement Park movies tend toward storylessness. But for Fibber McGee and Molly that works, since the format begs for chance encounters and nothing much happening. The curious thing about this episode is that Fibber and Molly don’t actually do anything but walk around and talk and try to use a photo booth. Before the episode started Fibber apparently rode the roller coaster twelve times, but none of that’s on-microphone. That seems quite odd considering it’s a radio show, and they only need sound effects to put the cast on anything. And the show even features a comic song praising the Sound Effects Man.

The best sound effect, though, is in the voice acting. Teeny, the Little Girl who keeps nagging Fibber for food, was voiced by Marion Jordan. So was Molly McGee. In most episodes of the show, Teeny is one of the comic neighbors, who drops in for her bit and disappears after delivering a minute or two of jokes. And in most episodes Molly makes some excuse to leave the scene. This is one of the few episodes where Marion Jordan has to do both Molly’s and Teeny’s voices, repeatedly, and extendedly, in the same scenes. And, you’ll remember, live. It’s a neat bit of voice acting, one it’s easy to not realize is going on.

There are a couple of racially tinged jokes here. Most are like how funny it would be for a Zulu person to hear the Hut-Sut Song. That was a contemporary nonsense-verse novelty song you hear in a couple of Looney Tunes. (And where are the modern nonsense-verse novelty songs, by the way?) In the Sound Effects Man song there’s a reference to shooting “redskins”; I’m sure they just meant to honor the football team.

I do get a strange feeling listening to this because I know the original broadcast date. It was the 17th of June, 1941. World War II was nearly two years old. President Roosevelt had just the month before declared the Unlimited National Emergency that left the United states all but officially at war with Germany. The German invasion of the Soviet Union was less than a week away. Not a hint of this creeps into the dialogue. Japan’s terror-bombing of Chongqing had recently killed four thousand residents who were in a bomb shelter. It would be out of character (and, for Operation Barbarossa, anachronistic) for people to talk about the war while at an amusement park. (There were scattered references to the war in earlier episodes, such as the one in which Fibber McGee’s gotten his draft notice.) But there is this strange tone to hearing so much small, normal, routine things in the midst of such an epic picture.

Some Stuff About Stan Freberg


The Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper I managed decided one semester the front page of the first issue should be devoted to an essay dubbed “Embracing the Doom: A First-Year Unhandbook”. Its thesis was that we are all basically, deeply doomed, and while it was easy to deny this or despair from this, we were all better off embracing that doom and carrying on proudly. At the time I thought it the stupidest thing we could have printed and almost ridiculously playing to our paper’s stereotype as made by people just educated enough to be idiots about everything. I was wrong. I’ve come to realize there’s wisdom in accept that even if we are in the long run doomed, that doesn’t mean we can’t be satisfied and see a lot of sunny days while we get there.

This brings me to Stan Freberg, the humorist and satirist and voice-actor and advertising-creator whose death was reported yesterday. His style was almost definitive of a kind of humor that I associate with a particular circa-1960 smart set: literate, absurdist, cynical but not dismissive, dropping out of a wry detachment when there’s a belly laugh just about set up. It’s the voice of people who noticed they might just be the smartest person in the room, but are worried that they’re not all that bright themselves. I might try to call it cartoon existentialism, since many of the most accessible examples of it were cartoons made with that Rocky and Bullwinkle spirit, and for that matter of the better Hanna-Barbera cartoons from when the writing had some edge: characters who know they’re in adventures and who know the stories don’t really make sense, but who embrace it because someday the cartoon will end and you can either be entertaining while you get there or not, and the entertaining side has a better time of it. In short, there’s doom to be embraced.

After a lot of voice-acting work and comic records — incidentally crystallizing the Dragnet quote “just the facts, ma’am” in a spoof of that program — and supporting parts in other shows Stan Freberg finally got the dream job of producing a half-hour radio comedy for a major network, CBS, though as the gods of irony demanded he got the chance in 1957, when the major networks had decided to shut down original scripted programming on radio in favor of television. Freberg’s show would probably always had a hard time on commercial radio, as its style of humor fits in the Fred Allen/Henry Morgan/George Carlin vein that makes advertisers wary and network vice-presidents worried about what he’s going to say on their program; the program ended up being a “sustaining program” — no advertising, no sponsors. That’s normally a mark of a program being broadcast as a public service, or as an experiment developing the state of the art. Freberg didn’t want the show to have a single sponsor, and didn’t want tobacco advertising either, and four months after the show debuted, it was ended.

Archive.org has a set of all fifteen episodes of this show, and I recommend it as a way to sample Freberg’s work, and to taste this particular era of comedy: it’s knowing, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes silly, offended by the madness of the world but unable to disengage from it, the sort of thing that will merge the folly of Las Vegas casinos with the threat of atomic war. (The show also makes use of many of Freberg’s comedy records from the 1950s, sometimes in revised form, so you also get a taste of how he got to be someone noteworthy enough to have a half-hour comedy program.) We might all be characters in a mad, doomed story, but it can be fun along the way.

Updates From The Local Alternate Weekly


The architecture critic in the local alternate weekly seems to be settling back to normal, at least after a piece where he declared icicles to be the eyesore of the week. It really wasn’t that harsh a winter, not compared to the winter of 2013-14, which waited outside the houses of every mid-Michigander personally so as to whack us in the shins. So I don’t see that icicles deserve all that much hate, not this year.

The past week’s issue did a feature about Tim Barron, local talk radio guy, who’s leaving radio in favor of telling people stuff over the Internet, where he won’t have to worry about clashing with the audience his old station wants. He says, in the article, “I’m a bit too abrasive, too realistic for that. I say words like penis and vagina.”

While of course I wonder which words like penis and vagina he says (penury? angina? pinochle?), what caught my intrest was a sidebar panel mentioning things Barron had hosted in the area, including the Costume Contest For Dogs (24 years!), the Common Ground music festival, and the “Home Guilders Association of Greater Lansing’s Toys of Tots”. It’s easy to suppose that this is an ordinary typo on a line that’s already got another typo on it, but I also like the idea that the capital area can support a whole association of people who dip houses into gold. It suggests the economy is on an upswing and they won’t have to assess our house at a higher rate anytime soon. Also that there’s a long-running Costume Contest for Dogs that I didn’t know about until now.

Groovy Caterpillar Aliens, Plus Math Comics


I didn’t read Mandrake the Magician in the 90s. For one, I still got most of my comics in the newspaper back then, and newspapers don’t run a lot of story strips because they’re pretty awful. Plus Mandrake’s pop cultural moment kind of came and went … I’m guessing sometime during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration? I don’t know. Anyway, I didn’t pay much attention to it until recent years when it got easy to see online every comic strip that is still running, like The Katzenjammer Kids Somehow, and Mandrake is among them.

Or it was, anyway. Last year in the midst of a meandering story the cartoonist had to stop, I believe it was due to health issues, and they reran cartoons from the 90s while King Features decided it didn’t really need to replace him after all. Since then they’ve stuck with mid-90s reruns and I get to see what I missed.

And for the most part it’s been really, embracingly, nutty, in that way a long-running legacy strip that no grownups are watching will get. The previous story — and I need to emphasize that I am not exaggerating or fibbing or intentionally misrepresenting the tale, just reporting what I remember the narrative being — featured Mandrake being abducted 50,000 years into the future, by the Lords of Earth. These Lords were three women, who’d divided the government of post-nuclear-war, paved-over Earth into three departments (Potholes, Time, and Other), brought him to a crystal-glazed replica of his 20th-century home and showed him domed undersea replicas of major cities. They also introduced him to robot duplicates of his friends (who, back in the 20th century, did a quick search of all Earth and couldn’t find him, so were stuck for ideas) and arch-nemesis, until he had enough of this and spanked them, which they found thrillingly novel so they sent him home. And that was it. That was the story.

Mandrake's father envisions alien centipedes grooving out on radio earphones.
Fred Fredricks’s Mandrake the Magician rerun the 23rd of December, 2014.

The current one is that Mandrake’s impossibly old father has come out of the Tibetan Or Whatever Mountains to poke around society, and that’s been mostly a tale of how he got past the customs guy by using his superlative powers of illusion. The past week he’s got into talking about he uses cosmic powers to travel the, er, cosmos, and I am wholly and unironically charmed by the “life unlike our own” shown in today’s strip, the long centipedes wearing the uncomfortable radio-equipped headphones we all used back in 1978. I don’t know where this is going — nowhere, is my guess — but at least it’s delightful along the way.


Of course the meandering and weird flights of fancy in story strips isn’t all I read comics for. I also read them to see what mathematical topics are discussed, and I found a bunch of them, so those are gathered up over on my mathematics blog and if you’d read them over there I’d be appreciative.

Hit Radio


I should have written it down, but I was sure I’d remember it, and now I forgot one of the words of the pro-radio-station bumper sticker I saw in the supermarket’s parking lot. That’s forgivable, sure, except I wanted to have some fun based on the exact wording of the bumper sticker, and while I didn’t forget the words that go into the part I wanted to make fun of, the fact I can’t remember one of the other words exactly is just destroying my credibility in this.

Anyway, the bumper sticker gave the radio station — well, it gave a letter and a number, which is all radio stations use anymore to identify themselves, like “Q 26” or “112.3 the Aleph”. And then it read underneath, “Yesterday’s Hit. Today’s [ Something ].” I’m not sure what the something was. Today’s music would kind of make sense except for that yesterday’s-hit-today’s-something construction.

And you see the thing I wanted to make fun of, anyway: yesterday’s hit singular? Which hit could they mean? Al Stewart’s “The Year Of The Cat”, most likely, since that was playing in the supermarket, but it could really have been any hit: “Macarthur Park”? “In The Year 2525”? The Theme To Greatest American Hero? But look at the phrasing: it doesn’t have to be a one-hit wonder’s hit, it could be anything. “Let’s Get Physical”, perhaps, or “What A Wonderful World”, or maybe The Beatles’ stirring classic “Oh, Anything By The Beatles, Who Cares”? Maybe it’s a hit from even farther back, like the Romburg and Hammerstein standard “When I Grow Too Old To Dream”, on the theory that its listeners have had enough of this music that leaves them not feeling suicidally depressed. It could be anything.

Or it could have been, if I didn’t forget what the last word on the bumper sticker was, so you might believe me that I wasn’t making the whole thing up. I’m just sick about that. I’m sorry I mentioned it at all, really.

Statistics Saturday: Mean Time Between Paul McCartney


Here is a quick reference guide to how long you can expect to go between references to something written by or featuring Sir Paul McCartney:

Location Time
The 60s ratio station 18 minutes
The 70s radio station 17 minutes
The 80s radio station 34 minutes, but it’s going to be “Spies Like Us” distressingly often
NewsRadio 88 46 hours
Any given episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 54 minutes
The 50s radio station There are no 50s radio stations anymore
Foreign currency exchange markets 12 minutes (!)
Dave Davies’s house Once per year, as in late March he figures to write an April Fool’s e-mail to Ray Davies saying Paul invited him on tour because nobody else can sing “Death Of A Clown” right, only he has to delete the unsent e-mail because once again this year he hasn’t got Ray Davies’s e-mail
As Wake-Up Music On The International Space Station 4 days
Commercials Supporting The Existence Of Banks Surprisingly short
Those tiny toy music boxes at the museum gift shop Continuous until the cashiers go mad

Time On My Hands


I haven’t got any jokes about the end of Daylight Saving Time for the year because I’ve looked into it and nobody has any jokes about the end of Daylight Saving Time for the year. I see folks trying, but I’ve seen jokes before and they’re coming up way short of them. Plus even mentioning Daylight Saving Time is dangerous because when you do you get swooped down upon by people who rabidly hate it with the white-hot passion of a million disaffected fanboys, who’ll inform you that the time change is directly and immediately responsible every year for more than 224,000 adorable little schoolkids bursting into flame when sleep-deprived drivers run them down. I don’t buy it, of course; numbers that high suggest the drivers are using the pretext to get their cars set on fire. But I’m sure not going to get into that fight.

In the kitchen we’ve got this clock that picks up the time from the atomic clock radio station, which isn’t actually the dullest radio station I’ve ever listened to, and adjusts its time to fit. It’s an analog clock face, so when it adjusts the time it does by rolling the second hand forward really, really quickly, about twelve times normal speed, and the minute and hour hands follow. The result of this, and I’m not joking here, is that it takes about five minutes to rattle ahead a full hour in spring. To rattle ahead the eleven hours that it needs to do to fall back, though, takes it about 55 minutes. I’m just delighted that it can spend an hour rattling around to get done what it could do as easily by sleeping in an hour. It feels like every conference call I’ve ever been on.

Me, I spent the extra hour efficiently, getting done all the blinking I’d had planned for the next week.