Category Archives: Celluloid

And Now, Florida’s Own Cecil B. DeMille

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Love kitschy old drive-in movies? A new documentary, They Came from the Swamp, provides a glimpse into the ’60s-’70s exploitative cinema scene with a comprehensive look at the career of Florida-based filmmaker William Grefé. This two-DVD set was lovingly put together by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, the folks responsible for those enjoyable extras on Shout Factory’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 sets.

Like Ballyhoo’s feature-length doc on American International Pictures (included on last year’s MST3k XXXIV box set), It Came from the Swamp benefits from interviews from the actual participants (including Grefé himself, lucid and gentlemanly) and a host of actors, crew members, and knowledgeable film fans. This’ll be especially eye-opening for those who dug the MST3k skewering of Grefé’s The Wild Rebels (1967), the draggy biker flick about a hapless stock car driver (pop singer Steve Alaimo) who becomes an undercover hood in a motorcycle gang. This film delves deeply into the wild, off-the-cuff production on that flick – along with a dozen-odd others ranging from 1963’s stock racing opus The Checkered Flag up through 1977’s Deliverance knockoff Whiskey Mountain. While most of Grefé’s movies were blatant, cheap-o copies of other, more successful films, they had a certain goofy charm owing to actors’ apparent ease with Grefé (he used a regular cast from film to film, in addition to employing his entire family in various on- and offscreen duties), and the creative use of various central Florida locales. As hard as it is to believe that a non-Hollywood film colony could thrive on the drive-in circuit, Grefé and distributors Crown International carved out a way for it to pay off handsomely. Eventually, his films had enough pull to draw the attention of actual stars like Rita Hayworth (1970’s The Naked Zoo) and William Shatner (1974’s Impulse). Absurd and schlocky as the movies could be, it’s actually a lot of fun to hear Grefé and others’ reminiscences, along with the usual Ballyhoo boatload of campy, tightly edited clips. Grefé ultimately moved on from drive-in fare to a lucrative gig directing promotional films for Bacardi Rum, genuinely grateful for the opportunities he got. Thanks to this documentary, we’re grateful, too.

Produced in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, this “Extended Roadshow Version” edition of They Came from the Swamp supplants the documentary with a bunch of tasty bonus materials. Among them is the breezy half-hour documentary The Crown Jewels, which delves into the history of Crown International (surprisingly still in business to this day). Disc Two is highlighted by a complete Grefé feature film, 1977’s Whiskey Mountain, presented in widescreen for the first time. Shot in remote parts of North Carolina, this tense action flick stars ’70s stalwarts Christopher George and Linda Borgeson as a couple searching the backwoods for a valuable cache of Civil War-era firearms once belonging to the woman’s grandfather. Along with their friends Dan (Preston Pierce) and Diana (Roberta Collins), Bill and Jamie find resistance from a sadistic group of rednecks who mistakenly think the outsiders are after their marijuana crop! Did I mention that the Charlie Daniels Band did the soundtrack? Cheesy fun, I tell you, although the print is faded and in rough shape. Other extras include bonus short films (including a Bacardi promo starring Shatner), an intro from cult actor Bruce Campbell, still and trailer galleries, trailers and deleted scenes.

They Came from the Swamp can be purchased at Ballyhoo’s website for the not-bad price of $29.99. For cheesy movie buffs, it’s a gas, gas, gas.

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The Wild Rebels poster, 1967.

The Wild Rebels poster, 1967.

Stanley Japanese poster, 1972.

Stanley Japanese poster, 1972.

The Jaws of Death poster, 1976.

The Jaws of Death poster, 1976.

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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Look What I Found: Two from Raymond Briggs

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I spent the last quarter of 2015 delving into the work of Raymond Briggs, the indubitably British cartoonist, graphic novelist – and it’s taken me this long to do a post about him!

It started last October, when I received the birthday gift of a Blu-ray edition of When the Wind Blows, the 1986 movie adaptation of Briggs’ story of an elderly British couple preparing their rural home for a nuclear attack. James and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft) are a typical, kindly and even-tempered duo who greet the upcoming bombings with a mixture of cheerful optimism and pragmatic naiveté (“There’s no need to forget your manners just because there’s a war on,” Hilda cautions her husband during a rare outburst). With bone-dry, observant humor, Briggs points out the absurdity of this quaint couple preparing for nuclear annihilation as if it were a minor inconvenience in the simple routine of their lives. The movie itself is one of the most unique animated efforts ever made – director Jimmy Murakami stages the action with traditional animated cels photographed against miniature sets of the Bloggs’ home. Most of it preserves the colored-pencil shadings of Briggs’ work, although other scenes are done with expressionistic methods more in keeping with the anxious soundtrack from Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. This is an amazing movie with perfect voice-acting from Richardson and Ashcroft. Twilight Time included a lot of worthwhile extras on the Blu-ray, although the main one – a feature-length documentary with Murakami returning to the site where he was interred as a child in World War II – was a disappointment.

Viewing When the Wind Blows sparked an interest in the book which piqued my interest in Briggs in the first place – his acclaimed 1998 graphic novel, Ethel and Ernest: A True Story. This was Briggs’ poignant chronicle of his own parents’ courtship, marriage and deaths, told chronologically from when they met in 1928 up through the early ’70s. Mr. and Mrs. Briggs greet war, child-rearing, labor and politics with a typically British “cheerio, can-do” unflappability – the fact that they so closely resemble Mr. and Mrs. Bloggs is no coincidence. This couple seems much more real, however – Briggs captures them as quirky and all-too-human, yet worthy of admiration. I read this book last December, around the same time that I got to check out Briggs’ classic TV special The Snowman for the first time. Briggs’ elegantly shaded pencil lines have roughened up into jagged chicken scratches over the years, yet this book shows how his parents’ ordinary lives – facing incredible societal changes with grace and good humor – reflects the very spirit of the United Kingdom.

When the Wind Blows is available at Twilight Time’s website, while Ethel & Ernest can be had cheaply at AbeBooks.com.

Film still from When the Wind Blows.

Film still from When the Wind Blows.

Animation drawing from When the Wind Blows.

Animation drawing from When the Wind Blows.

Picture disc single of David Bowie's "When the Wind Blows," 1986.

Picture disc single of David Bowie’s “When the Wind Blows,” 1986.

Page from Ethel & Ernest.

Page from Ethel & Ernest.

Panel from Ethel & Ernest.

Panel from Ethel & Ernest.

Look What I Found: The Fairest One of All

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With 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney took a gamble that audiences would sit still for a feature-length animated film – he won, magnificently. What showed up on screen as a sweet, pleasant fairy tale involved massive amounts of labor, second-guessing, fine-tuning, and pruning away of excess story. All of this is detailed by Disney historian J. B. Kaufman in his 2012 book The Fairest One of All, which satisfies as both a thorough production history and a lovely, large-format tribute to this still-influential animated icon.

Snow White certainly had a huge impact on my young mind when I saw a reissue screening in the ’70s (maybe the earliest movie I remember seeing?). In that darkened theater, I swooned to Snow White’s untouched beauty, cowered in terror at the Wicked Witch, and laughed along with Dopey and the other dwarfs. Being a little kid, when it was over I wanted more. Later on, my mother indulged me with the Disney storybook record album (the one with the purple cover), which got heavy play on the family turntable. To this day, the sound of Adriana Caselotti’s trilling makes me smile. The movie pretty much turned me into an artist, an old movie buff, and a full-on Disney freak – three in one!

Since Snow is so personally dear to me, I had extremely high expectations for The Fairest One of All. Surprisingly, the book ended up outdoing those high expectations – Kaufman truly knows his Snow White history, and it’s efficiently laid out in this beautifully designed volume. After a few chapters detailing the history of the Grimm Brothers’ source tale and the various pre-Disney stage and film renditions, Kaufman comprehensively goes through the film, scene-by-scene, explaining how they came to be. As a straightforward chronological history, having it arranged in the order the story is told reveals a ton of fascinating episodes which might have been lost the other way. It may even be too detailed for all but die-hard Snow White buffs. Kaufman’s research is so incredible, however, and it’s written in an accessible style. I devoured sections discussing scenes that were significantly tweaked (such as the prince’s introduction), painstakingly re-animated (the dwarfs coming home from the mine), or eliminated entirely (scenes with the dwarfs eating soup and building a bed for Snow White; a dream sequence meant to accompany “Someday My Prince Will Come”). Every single frame in this film got analyzed to a degree that’s never been attempted before or since. If anything, this book is a tribute to Walt Disney’s high standards and attention to detail.

J. B. Kaufman recently published another, similar comprehensive history on Disney’s follow-up film, Pinocchio. You can bet it’s on my wish list. The Fairest One of All was published by the Walt Disney Family Foundation Press in 2012. It can be purchased here at Amazon.com.

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Fantasy Project: Disney on Criterion, 1937-1950

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Every now and then I like to indulge in “What if?” scenarios, as in “What if the folks at Criterion approached me to design the covers for a series exploring the Disney studio’s earliest feature films?” Hey, it might happen.

What I’d do are the ten hypothetical “Disney on Criterion” releases seen here. The 1937-50 period was a crucial time for the Disney studios. Despite the arrival of World War II and a turbulent studio employees’ strike, Disney produced lots of stuff during that time – some classics, others not no much, all of it risky in some way (try saying that about today’s Disney). The idea of this era done in expertly annotated, lavish Criterion Collection sets makes the animation geek in me drool. Although Walt Disney and the other participants in these films are long gone, there’s enough archival material around to provide for added commentaries, supplementary shorts and interviews. Of course, minor films like The Reluctant Dragon and Victory through Air Power would be included as extras, as well.

This project came about while I was attempting to watch these films, in chronological order. When it came to 1946’s Song of the South, however, I hit a roadblock – Disney hasn’t reissued that one in the U.S. for nearly 30 years (and counting). The attempt to get a decent copy through illegal means proved fruitless, as well. Obviously, a lovingly crafted Criterion disc putting this controversial film in its proper context would be ideal – and I’m sure millions of Disney fans would eagerly snatch it up – but Disney would prefer to keep it locked in the vaults indefinitely.

I just want kids to appreciate these movies as culturally important, as opposed to tinsel-dusted product to be trotted out every seven years.

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