Monthly Archives: March 2016

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Funky ’70s Kid Books, Back in Print

Whenever a vintage kid book is brought back into print, my mouth breaks into a grin. Anyone who has ever set foot in a thrift store or library knows that kid books in particular tend to get battered, folded, spindled, mutilated and affixed with random PB&J sandwich stains over time. With especially rare child-oriented books, the chance of finding a still-pristine copy of an obscure treasure becomes almost nil. That’s why it’s heartening to see Princeton Architectural Press bring back two ’70s kiddie books done by a pair of design/illustration legends, Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, reproduced as they were when originally printed. Both The Brownstone (1973) and The Pancake King (1971) deliver ’70s-funky yet timeless messages for kids and adults in colorful, large-format editions.

A gentle “be kind to those different from you” theme runs through The Brownstone, which follows a family of bears as they attempt to hibernate in their big city apartment. The Bears merely want to settle in for the winter, only they’re interrupted by a piano-playing cat, dancing kangaroos, a timid mouse family, and a gourmet pig family. Mr. Bear calls on the landlord, Mr. Owl, to help them out of their predicament, resulting in a game of musical chairs where the tenants all change places. It ends harmoniously, of course. Paula Scher was a young designer at CBS Records when she wrote this book, enlisting the help of cartoonist Stan Mack (of Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies). Mack’s pen-and-ink illustrations are lively and detailed. I also enjoyed the way Scher laid the book out (I’m assuming she designed as well as wrote) with spreads that show a cross-section of the brownstone on the right, while other spreads have chaotic vignettes from the story on the left-facing page. Kids will love studying the characters’ expressions and seeing how they react to being moved from floor to floor in the building. It’s a fun story with a solid, subtle message.

Illustrator Seymour Chwast was already well-established with the legendary Push Pin Studios when he decided to lend his art to a whimsical Phyllis La Farge story about a boy who loves making delicious pancakes. The Pancake King also has a timely message which will resonate with today’s kids about the satisfaction of loving what you do, regardless of what will come of it. The story follows a boy named Henry Edgewood, who attracts attention from his family and neighbors for his great homemade pancakes. Henry’s notoriety also draws in a shady businessman, Arthur J. Jinker, who makes Henry famous by taking him on a glitzy pancake-selling tour. Henry soon realizes that making pancakes for fame and riches isn’t fulfilling, however, so he returns to being a happy, humble Pancake King for his parents and his faithful dog, Ezra. Chwast’s funky, organic style of art is all over this book, printed in a color-drenched wide format. To adults, Chwast’s art has a vaguely nostalgic look reminiscent of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, although kids will find appeal in his curvy, colorful style as well. As a bonus, the book contains a recipe for Henry’s pancakes – yum!

The Brownstone and The Pancake King are available at Princeton Architectural Press or Amazon.com.

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Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA

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In the depths of the Great Depression, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a bold stance in allocating federal money toward putting artists – artists! – on the U.S. government payroll. The legacy of that ambitious plan, the Works Progress Administration or WPA, gets examined in the engaging documentary Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA.

The WPA was a sprawling umbrella for a bunch of different federal programs – some accomplished basic things like road construction and building new structures. Others had a more vague purpose of putting people to work while boosting the morale of a cash-strapped citizenry. For Enough To Live On, writer-director Michael Maglaras focuses on the WPA’s arts programs, efforts that relied on the talents of visual artists, writers, performers and photographers. During the program’s glory years of roughly 1936-41, the arts programs resulted in hundreds of public murals, plays and musicals, sculpture, paintings, posters, educational texts and books providing a picturesque guide to the customs of all 48 states in the union. When one considers the fierce opposition the WPA faced during its entire lifespan, the sheer volume of what got accomplished is remarkable – and much of it still holds up (I still enjoy the historic murals at my local post office, for one).

Enough To Live On casts a wide net, packing a lot of info within 98 minutes. It’s a bit like an episode of PBS’s American Experience, although instead of a wide variety of expert commentary there’s just one historian and an older gentlemen who supplies eyewitness memories of volunteering for the WPA as a youth. Mostly it relies on Maglaras’ own narrative, a comprehensive historic overview with some subtle opining on what made the WPA succeed in its day and why it was important. Maglaras himself does the voice-over narration as well – I thought he conveyed a lot of gravitas, although my viewing partner found him self-important. The film delves into a lot of cool, relatively overlooked WPA projects, such as the Index of American Design, a cataloguing effort that required more than 20,000 detailed watercolor renderings of examples of classic design from America’s past. Famous names are mentioned here and there, although I most enjoyed hearing about lesser-known figures such as the African American sculptor Augusta Savage. The film is handsomely produced with plenty of examples of WPA art, presented in beautiful, color-saturated images. Come to think of it, the only thing better than this documentary would be for the WPA itself to come back.

The 217 Films DVD release of Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA sports great picture quality with sharp, detailed reproductions of the art being discussed. The dynamic visuals in the movie carry through to the package design, a slim digipack with appealing design used on the package and the accompanying 12-page booklet. The DVD is available for purchase at 217 Films or Amazon.com.

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WPA poster for Cleveland Housing Authority, unknown artist, c. 1939.

WPA poster for Cleveland Housing Authority, unknown artist, c. 1939.

Communication During the Period of Exploration, mural by Oscar Berninghaus in Phoenix, AZ post office, 1938.

Communication During the Period of Exploration, mural by Oscar Berninghaus in Phoenix, AZ post office, 1938.

Artist Augusta Savage with sculpture for the Federal Arts Project, c. 1938.

Artist Augusta Savage with sculpture for the Federal Arts Project, c. 1938.

Poster for Federal Theatre production Sing for Your Supper, c. 1938.

Poster for Federal Theatre production Sing for Your Supper, c. 1938.

Benjamin Sheer poster for WPA American Guide volume on California, c. 1940.

Benjamin Sheer poster for WPA American Guide volume on California, c. 1940.

The Kings of Cartoons

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It was a happy surprise when the folks at Thunderbean Animation sent along a couple of their vintage cartoon collections to us here at Chez Scrubbles. This is a company that’s guided by actual cartoon fans wanting to share their love of animation with others. The passion they have for top-quality product shows in their Blu-ray collections of digitally restored shorts, presented with all the trimmings cartoon fans love. Their latest offerings put the spotlight on Willie Whopper, a yarn-spinning little boy dreamt up by the legendary Ub Iwerks in the ’30s, and Private SNAFU, the hapless soldier created by Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) to instruct World War II enlistees on what not to do.

I was delighted to discover what Willie Whopper was all about – despite enjoying all sorts of 1930s cartoons, I’d never heard of this guy! Iwerks made the Willies in 1933-34, shortly after his Flip the Frog series fizzled out. For those familiar with the workmanlike, dull Flip cartoons, the Willie Whoppers improve greatly on the simple visual-gag format of those with wild animation, clever stories, and jazzy soundtracks. Most of these shorts involve Willie attempting to impress his friend, Goofy, with a tall tale. His outrageous adventures involve daring plane acrobatics (Spite Flight), a surreal trip to the fiery depths (Hell’s Fire), and scrapes with bandits (Viva Willie) and savages (Jungle Jitters) – usually with his girlfriend Mary and a shaggy, perky pooch at his side.

Iwerks kept the Willie Whopper series running for a total of thirteen shorts before distributor MGM pulled the plug after the studio’s 1933-34 season. All of his cartoons are included on this DVD/Blu-ray set, along with an intriguing “pilot” short, The Air Race, which MGM passed on for not being funny enough (the story was eventually retooled and released as Willie’s second cartoon, Spite Flight). The cartoons as a whole have an effervescent, jazzy feel with surreal gags and constant motion – many feel a whole lot like the era’s Max Fleischer cartoons (Fleischer animator Grim Natwick had his hands in these). Early on, Willie himself got made over from a dark-haired ruffian into a roly-poly redhead, although he still had a distinct lack of personality. Another inconsistency comes with Willie’s girlfriend, Mary, who is shown as either an innocent little girl or a saucy, Betty Boop-like coquette depending on the cartoon. Overall, however, the set makes a good case for Willie as one of the more overlooked ’30s cartoon stars, best highlighted in two beautifully presented Cinecolor efforts (Hell’s Fire and Davy Jones’ Locker). It seemed as if Iwerks and company settled on a modern groove for the tightly-paced later cartoons, only to have MGM yank it all away.

Produced by Warner Bros. in 1943-46, the Private Snafu shorts are slightly more familiar to vintage cartoon lovers. Although Warner Home Video included a few scratched-up Snafu shorts on their Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs, Thunderbean’s collection improves on that by presenting all 26 of the original Snafu shorts, digitally restored and with a veritable knapsack-full of bonus materials. These brief films, each shorter than a standard one-reel cartoon, were produced as part of a package of “Stars and Stripes” educational films geared toward military personnel during World War II. With the dim-witted Private Snafu (“Situation Normal, All — Fouled Up”) and the cigar-chomping Private First Class Fairy as our guides, slangy dialogue and funny situations inform soldiers on topics such as security, malaria, proper use of firearms and the dangers of idle gossip. Since they were targeted for an audience of randy, adult-aged men, these films use the wildest and wackiest abilities of the top directors in Warners’ cartoon unit, including Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin. For Looney Tunes fans, it’s actually quite cool to see what the Termite Terrace crew did with the added freedom of more ribald gags – the results are quite non-PC but unequivocally hilarious.

Although the Snafu cartoons are loaded with WWII-specific gags that would likely go over the heads of most casual viewers, they hold up remarkably well as priceless bits of wartime morale-boosting. Probably the most iconic gag comes during Chuck Jones’ 1943 cartoon Spies – inebriated by a sexy seductress, Snafu blabs out confidential info to the alert miss, whose round boobs become superimposed with Nazi insignia-bearing microphones. Loose lips sink ships, indeed! Mark Harris’ recent book Five Came Back supplies a lot of fascinating background on how the Snafu series came to be, a story also included (in shorter form) in this Blu-ray’s booklet. In a nutshell, the cartoons were hugely popular with the troops, taking the U.S. government by surprise. Because the lessons they taught were cloaked in wild, wacky humor, the troops were hugely entertained often without realizing that they were being educated as well.

As with Thunderbean’s other releases, Private Snafu and Willie Whopper come with informative booklets with essays from cartoon experts Steve Stanchfield, J.B. Kaufman and Chris Buchman. While the Willie set is a dual Blu/DVD package, the Snafu cartoons are sold as separate Blu-ray or DVD products. They can be purchased at Thunderbean Animation or Amazon.com.

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Screen shot from Davy Jones' Locker (1933).

Screen shot from Davy Jones’ Locker (1933).

Screen shot from Reducing Creme (1934).

Screen shot from Reducing Creme (1934).

Back of a vintage Willie Whopper pencil case.

Back of a vintage Willie Whopper pencil case.

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Private Snafu cel and background setup.

Private Snafu cel and background setup.

Snafu and Private First Class Fairy model sheet.

Snafu and Private First Class Technical Fairy model sheet.

Cel and background setup from Spies (1943).

Cel and background setup from Spies (1943).

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