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Cheap Thrill: Color Classics Cartoons

Max Fleischer Color Classics: Somewhere In DreamlandWe’ve been spending the last few nights having a re-viewing of the nicely packaged Max Fleischer Color Classics: Somewhere In Dreamland DVD, which originally came out in 2002. The shorts in the set are pallid imitations of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies cartoons of the ’30s, for sure, but they are fun despite the sometimes shoddy prints used on the DVD. I like to think of the Fleischers as the Warner Bros. to Disney’s MGM — their humor was much more lowbrow and urban, fresh and free of pretentions. Even if many of these shorts focus on cutesy birds, fish and bunnies, you see a lot of ethnic humor and weird animation that makes even the lesser ‘toons (and believe me, there were a lot of ’em) worthwhile viewing.

Another cool thing about these cartoons is that they have scenes where it appears as if the characters are traipsing around huge and intricate 3D landscapes. This was achieved via a patented “stereo-optical” process of filming animation cels propped vertically against a huge turntable made up to look like a miniature railroad train diorama. It’s a weird effect, but I could see where it would have wowed audiences back then. The process was put to especially good use in the 1934 outing Little Dutch Mill. Check out that amazing windmill:

The image below gives an idea of how the working process went while filming these sequences. Intrepid Christopher tracked down this terrific illustration accompanying the original patent application. Often the cartoons would have moving parts in the backgrounds, or a change in camera angle — it must have been a logistical nightmare, but the results speak for themselves.

Patent Illustration

Notice that the patent was filed on November 2, 1933 and it was finally granted on September 15, 1936. Ironically, at that point the Fleischer studio was beginning to phase out the use of the process and you see less and less cartoons using it as the thirties went on. All’s Fair at the Fair from 1938 doesn’t use the process at all, and yet it remains one of the best Color Classics due to the surplus of good gags and some wonderful Streamline Moderne designs:

The Color Classics limped onward, eventually becoming the vehicle for a charmless donkey duo called Hunky ‘N Spunky before coming to a close in 1941. Later on, Paramount sold off the series to a TV distributor who eventually let the cartoons lapse into the public domain. That explains why cruddy looking prints are the only surviving way to see them (does Paramount still own the negatives?), but I guess a cruddy print is better than nothing. Even through all the dust and scratches one can see a surplus of creativity going on there. Viva Color Classics!

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