Krazy Kat in: Weenie Roast


Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:


There was never a time sound wasn’t possible for motion pictures. The earliest motion pictures in the United States were made by Thomas Edison and his staff; it would take a certain peculiar obliviousness to not think of marrying their sound recording devices to their moving-picture recording devices. But practical sound pictures, well, that’s a bigger challenge. Having the sound on a device separate from the film is an obvious practical problem: even if the picture is synchronized perfectly to start, keeping it synchronized, especially as the film breaks and has to be repaired, is hard to solve. Then, too, a moving picture can be presented to a larger crowd basically by projecting it at a screen farther away; for a record player to be heard by more people requires making it louder, which would have to wait for good amplification technology to come.

After several false starts sound pictures finally caught on in the late 1920s, and somewhat remarkably it changed cartoons as well as live-action pictures. Live-action pictures took a couple years to quite adapt to the new technology; early sound cameras were much bulkier and less mobile affairs than silent cameras were, and for several years as actors were learning to speak, cinematographers were learning how to let the camera not sit fixed at a scene. Animation had to adapt too; it’s easy enough to drop the intertitles or the word balloons that carried what dialogue couldn’t be pantomimed, but also, suddenly, cartoons could be set to music.

They’d always had music, of course, in cinema orchestras playing along, but now the animators could count on particular pieces of music and synchronize the action to that. And I think there’s a noticeable change between the late silent and the early sound cartoons: setting the action to music encourages planning out the scene ahead of time, so that the key events happen at the right moment. Silent cartoons have a tendency to flow from one event to another with a kind of dream logic; early sound cartoons are more likely to be made of individual scenes that make sense, even if the whole reel gets a bit baffling. It would take some time for the plot of the whole cartoon to be sketched out ahead of time.

And in the early days of the sound cartoon, yes, Krazy Kat got adapted to the motion pictures again. These cartoons, some 97 of them if Wikipedia is complete, were made by Charles Mintz — just as the previous run (also of 97 pictures; hm) was — for Columbia Pictures. And for this, the fourth attempt in fifteen years to bring George Herriman’s comic strip to the motion picture screen, we have … well, “Weenie Roast” here is peppy. It’s cheerful and a little weird, playful with a few bits of inexplicable cruelty. It’s built around some nice recognizable music bits and then goes riffing around the idea of things you might see at the seashore that I guess is near Coney Island or an equivalent park, to a conclusion which we might call arbitrary. Inanimate objects come to life and struggle against their own destruction. My love put it perfectly in describing this as “every 1930s cartoon”.

So it is. This is an early Mickey Mouse cartoon with an oddly-drawn Mickey. It’s a Max Fleischer Bimbo cartoon with Bimbo and Betty Boop way off-model. While the comic strip was still running as successfully as it might, a cartoon series that shared nothing but the title was as viable as anything else on the screen at the time. It’s probably nothing personal; the alliterative draw of a “Crazy Cat” seems to me likely to create a cartoon series even if there had been no comic strip.

Here by the way is another curious change that coincided with successful sound pictures, but that as far as I can tell has nothing but coincidence to do with it: the triumph of cell animation. From about 1930 hand-drawn animation would typically be done by drawing and painting characters on pieces of transparent cellophane, placed in front of backgrounds and photographed. Before then, though, the characters being animated might be drawn just on sheets of white paper, placed against white-paper backgrounds, with just as much as needed to change one frame to the next replaced. The edges of ripped paper can be noticed in these silent cartoons, looking like ghosts flickering around a character rubbing his hands. With a full cell there’s no edges to be seen. I understand why cell animation won out overall — it seems to offer great production advantages, particularly in making drawings reusable — but why it should have matched so well the introduction of sound pictures is a mystery to me. Maybe something in the new cameras suggested it.

Krazy Kat: The Stork Exchange


So, International Film Service and then Bray Productions took shots at adapting George Herriman’s great yet obscurant comic strip Krazy Kat to silent animation, with results that I would describe as successful cartoons but not really Krazy Kat. And yet a third series of cartoons based on the never-all-that-popular comic strip was created in the mid-to-late 1920s, still before the successful introduction of sound to motion pictures. This one ran at least 97 pictures, if Wikipedia’s filmography hasn’t got errors in it.

This installment, “The Stork Exchange”, was originally released the 17th of December, 1927, something you might have guessed from the Charles Lindbergh joke in it. I think it’s a reasonably solid silent cartoon: Krazy wanders into the Stork Factory where babies get made, is for faint reasons put in charge of it, and struggles to do so. To add to the historic interest this was a “lost” film, believed destroyed sometime around 1948 when its producer, Margaret J Winkler, disposed of old nitrocellulose-based film stock of stuff people weren’t watching anyway. A copy was found in 2004 at a British Film Institute archive.

The version I have embedded here, from YouTube, features a generic soundtrack featuring what sound to me like Les Paul-ish strumming around songs I can’t really name. The opening one I think of as “Mother Gooseland” because of a Betty Boop cartoon, and the closer seems to be “Listen To The Mockingbird”, for what that’s worth.

But as an adaptation of the comic strip? The example here doesn’t give much reason to think anyone involved with it knew there was a comic strip. Why even bother calling it Krazy Kat? The answer that seems obvious to me involves two facts. One: the first of this series of Krazy Kat cartoons, animated by Charles Mintz’s studios and distributed by M J Winkler, was released on the first of October, 1925. Two: “Felix Dopes It Out”, the last Felix the Cat cartoon distributed by Winkler, was released on the 15th of August, 1925, with the most successful silent cartoon star going to Educational Pictures from the week after that.

With that, suddenly, a lot of the cartoon makes more sense, starting with why there should be a third string of Krazy Kat cartoons at all, and then why they should be about a plucky character with a certain drive that I just don’t see in the comic strip character, and why they should embrace silent-cartoon conventions like everything in the world being animate or potentially so, and why something like the fable of storks bringing babies should bring someone to a cloud-based factory where raw ingredients are ground together into babies. As a Felix the Cat cartoon — well, I admit I’m not a connoisseur of Felix, and a more serious fan might have stronger feelings. But as a Felix cartoon this feels to me like a pretty decent installment, interesting and well-paced and even plotted better than the average silent. I wonder if Ignatz Mouse appears in any of the cartoons.

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster Keaton in: The Butcher Boy


It’s a common refrain about silent movies that they’re often fascinating just because they’re accidental documentaries. 1917’s The Butcher Boy, here, is one of them because it showcases a model of store that’s basically extinct in the United States: the general store in which all the merchandise is kept safely tucked away from the customers’ hands, thank you, and for that matter the person who gets what you want off the shelves isn’t necessarily the same person who wraps up your packages, and may well have nothing to do with the person who takes your money and counts your change (if you didn’t just put it on your account).

Since the model of the self-service market took over — it really got going in the 1920s — it’s hard to quite believe this used to be normal. It almost seems designed exclusively to stuff movie scenes full of comic actors, standing at the edge of an abundant supply of missiles, with hapless customers standing in the middle ready to get hit by accident when the grand battle inevitably starts. I’m honestly a touch disappointed when the action moves from the store to a women’s boarding house; as energetically paced and frantic as the action gets at that point, it seems like they’re giving up on a fantastic setting. (Were they worried 25 minutes was too long to spend in one location?)

Anyway, here’s another “Fatty” Arbuckle film, featuring also Buster Keaton’s screen debut, which makes clear pretty quickly why he was going to be a movie star. Archive.org has a copy of it with French intertitles, and played a little faster than the version on YouTube. (Converting film speeds from silent movie days to modern speeds is a bit arbitrary.)


In a coincidental bit of business, Steve McGarry’s TrivQuiz biographical comic strip/quiz panel features Ben Turpin, who you may remember in collages of silent movie stars as “oh yeah, that guy”. Funny fellow. Besides a touch of information about the actor, the panel also includes a couple trivia questions related to silent movie stars which should probably make you feel better for being able to answer.

Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St John in: The Bell Boy


Well, why not carry on the Arbuckle-Keaton-St John theme, then? For today here’s their 1918 half-hour film The Bell Boy, featuring “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton as bellboys (and Al St John as the desk clerk), puttering around in gags set at a small-town hotel and then, as I believe every silent-era movie set in a hotel does, getting to foiling a robbery.

This movie has one of those moments that was just enlightening to me under a “how they used to do things”, as there’s a horse-drawn trolley and while I know I’d read about trolleys and railroad trains that used animals I somehow hadn’t really visualized them in the way that a couple seconds of this film allowed me to do.

Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in: Coney Island


So, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The quickest refutation of the saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Remembered as he is as some silent-movie-era guy who was in a scandal, it’s easy to forget he was prominent enough to produce a scandal because he was a really skilled physical comedian, someone who could just move with that dizzying flow which humanity seems to have lost since talkies came in. He was also a director, of both silent and talking pictures. My little video for today is 1917’s Coney Island, in which he stars and directs, as a man trying to get away from his wife and make time with another man’s girlfriend, though since he stole the woman away from Buster Keaton’s character. (Arbuckle and Keaton were in, if I’ve not overlooked something, eleven films together, and they just fit together so very well.) So to get the crossfire of chases straight: Arbuckle’s wife is chasing him; Arbuckle is avoiding his wife; Buster Keaton is chasing the man who stole his girl; and the man who stole his girl is chasing Arbuckle. I may have missed some chases.

Like many silent movies it’s a bit hard to just see the movie, because it serves as an accidental documentary of where the thing was filmed. Since this was filmed in and around Coney Island’s Luna Park there’s something really worth documenting in the background. Before the movie gets to the bathhouse you get good views of the Witching Waves — one of those Old Coney Island rides you never hear anyone imagining making these days, the one where cars drift along a surface that’s rolling up and down — and the Shoot The Chute, the latter including a shot that makes me wonder how they could have taken it safely. (I see a lot of references claiming it also shows the Whip — TCM’s page about the movie even includes a still of it — although in the versions I found uploaded to archive.org or YouTube I don’t see a Whip scene. It’s plausible, mind you, I just don’t see it.) I admit, given my interest in amusement parks, the movie loses something when it does get away from showing Luna Park and focuses more on the bathhouse, but it picks up with some nice raucous fighting and, ultimately, the Keystone Cops getting into the action.

The other male lead in the film, the one that isn’t Roscoe Arbuckle or Buster Keaton, is Al St John, who might have gotten his start in movies by being Arbuckle’s nephew, but who earned his career on his own merit. He’s credited with being one of the type definers for the comic sidekick character actor and made, if I’m not misreading his filmography, about three billion westerns, many of them alongside Buster Crabbe and then Lash La Rue, or for Sam Newfield (a director many Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will remember).

I’m sorry to give short shrift to the female leads, but the movie does that too. Arbuckle’s wife is played by Agnes Neilson, who has about a dozen IMDB credits, most of them in 1917 and 1918; and the woman he pursues by Alice Mann, who has about two and a half dozen, most from 1916 to 1921. I’m afraid I can’t say much more about them.

The Case Of The Misplaced Plaque


I’ve been meaning to bring this to people’s attention but keep finding other things taking up my time instead. Robert S Birchard of the “Comedy Fast and Furious” blog found an obelisk erected by Ralph Edwards’s You Bet Your Life to commemorate the Mack Sennett Keystone Studios. The plaque commemorates the “birthplace of motion picture comedy”, which may be a touch overstating things but is still fair enough since if you think of a silent (American, at least) comedy film you’re probably thinking of something touched by Sennett. But the obelisk and the plaque were endangered, and, there’s more to the story, and I think you’ll enjoy learning it.

comedyfastandfurious

Image

THIS IS THE BIRTHPLACE
OF
MOTION PICTURE COMEDY
HERE THE GENIUS OF MACK SENNETT
TOOK ROOT AND GREW TO LAUGHTER
HEARD AROUND THE WORLD. HERE
MOVIE HISTORY WAS MADE – HERE
STARS WERE BORN – HERE
REIGNED AND STILL REIGNS
“THE KING OF COMEDY”
MACK SENNETT
PRESENTED BY
R. L. McKEE, PRES.
NATIONAL VAN LINES, INC.
ON
“THIS IS YOUR LIFE”
MARCH 10, 1954

So, reads the copy on the misplaced plaque.  In 1954 National Van Lines erected the Mack Sennett Studio plaque on an imposing obelisk at 1845 Glendale Boulevard–which was indeed originally a studio location–but NOT the location of the Mack Sennett Studio.  1845 was the site of the Selig Polyscope studio, the first permanent studio established in Los Angeles in 1909.  Mack Sennett Keystone Film Company studio had actually been located a block away and across the street at 1712 Glendale Boulevard!  (Ralph Edwards and “This Is…

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Felix the Cat: Trifles with Time


For today’s video offering let me go back to Felix the Cat, a 1925 short from the Pat Sullivan Studios. It’s a fairly tightly-plotted story in which Felix becomes disgusted with the way cats are treated in the modern day and bugs Father Time to send him back to sometime better for his species, like, the Stone Age. This doesn’t go quite as well as Felix might have hoped, especially considering that the previous year he had been in The Bone Age and might have known what he was getting into. Still, this cartoon has got a pretty good storyline, a fair number of good jokes and one really disturbing bit of the kinds of thing you could do in animation where it didn’t hurt so much.

Alice In A Silent Wonderland


I’d like to again point people over to the Movies, Silently blog, as this week they’ve posted another interesting movie: a 1903 British film version of Alice in Wonderland, thought to be the oldest made. It’s hard to see how much older an adaptation could be, although narrative stories were being made for a few years before this.

The film hasn’t got the wealth of camera effects tricks of Georges Méliès and A Trip To The Moon — a year older than this — but it’s still wondrous to see, particularly since the tricks they do use are effective in adapting a couple scenes of Lewis Carroll’s work. And the sets and costumes are magnificent in that late-Victorian/Edwardian style that just looks so eagerly like itself.

Frankenstein 1910


I’ve had something of a running theme of humorous movies running on the Friday night/Saturday morning entries around here and I was casting about for one for this week, and got diverted. This isn’t a funny movie, but, it captured my attention and my interest and this is my blog so I’ll post to it anyway.

Over on Movies, Silently, a blog dedicated to silent films, they’ve posed the 1910 Edison production of Frankenstein, which was thought to be lost forever. It’s a fascinating production, partly because of its age, partly because it shows a filmed Frankenstein that stands independent of the Boris Karloff version. The Creature doesn’t look like Karloff’s, nor like something designed to not be Karloff’s.

It’s also got two particularly interesting scenes in its twelve-minute runtime. One is impressive just on its technical prowess: the forming of the Creature is done in a visually striking way that I think would still be effective in a modern production, even if the audience would more quickly recognize the trick. The other is more one of framing: the Creature intrudes on Frankenstein in his lounge, and is first seen opening and entering in a mirror on the right of the screen. The Creature then appears on-screen from the left, which is surprisingly unsettling, and so effective. I’m surprised that staging hasn’t been used more.

Georges Melies: The Devilish Tenant


It’s been a while since I had a movie around these parts so let me point you to George Méliès’s The Devilish Tenant, a 1909 short that gives us Méliès as the star, of course, here unpacking and packing up a room from his trunk. This may be a fairly basic premise, but it shows off the stop-motion tricks that Méliès so delighted in, and even when you know how the trick is done it’s still fun seeing. And, yes, it’s in color despite being from 1909.

The link above, from archive.org, is probably the more archive-ready. Unfortunately if things haven’t changed much there’s not a good way to embed archive.org videos on a WordPress site, so, let me include a YouTube link that’s vulnerable to disappearing over copyright claims or the other ways the Internet is a vague and ever-shifting thing.