Category Archives: Review

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.

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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Discovering John Alcorn: Evolution by Design

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As a birthday gift to myself, I bought a coffee table book titled John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. This is one time when it’s appropriate to call it a gift, since this tribute to possibly the most prolific ’50s-to-’80s-era illustrator shares Alcorn’s gifts with the world – corny, yet true!

Co-authored by Alcorn’s son, Stephen, and design historian Marta Sironi, Evolution by Design succeeds as both a comprehensive career overview and a personal remembrance (Alcorn died in 1992). Packed full of beautifully reproduced original art, this volume was an eye-opener. For someone like me who knew Alcorn from his groovy late ’60s commercial peak (e.g., The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs), the breadth and sheer talent displayed within these pages is nothing short of revelatory. This man was a true artist, always searching for the next horizon to explore. Alcorn started out with New York’s legendary Pushpin Studios, branched out on his own to incredible success in the ’60s, then helped shape America’s visual zeitgeist with a vocabulary of sinuous shapes, natural forms, and wild colors. He wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, however. In the early ’70s, Alcorn and his family uprooted to Italy, where he studied the country’s master painters and craftsmen. He remained astonishingly prolific during this time – becoming a favorite of the iconic film director Federico Fellini, among others – although most of this period’s output never made it to the U.S. Returning to these shores in the late ’70s, Alcorn continued to thrive with a gorgeous, mature style highlighted by a thoughtful attention to detail that never appeared fussy. The book closes out with a chapter devoted to one of the artist’s recurring visual motifs, the blooming flower.

John Alcorn: Evolution by Design was published by Moleskine, the notebook company, in 2013. It can be purchased at the Moleskine website or at Amazon.com.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-'50s.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-’50s.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Children's book illustrations, 1969.

Children’s book illustrations, 1969.

Various book jacket designs from the late '60s and early '70s.

Various book jacket designs from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig


I purchased Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig as a birthday gift to myself last year. While the imagery in this beautifully done artist’s monograph impressed me right away, I didn’t get around to reading Steven Heller’s comprehensive text until this summer (Heller was assisted on this book by Lustig’s widow, Elaine, who wrote the introduction). Although death at the young age of forty snuffed out his career, Alvin Lustig still stands out as a design icon and one of the more outstanding proponents of modernism. It’s revealed not just with his famous, inventive New Directions book covers, but in everything he did. This book delves into all facets of a life that was sadly short-lived, yet brimming with innovation.

While Lustig remains best known for his graphic design, this book goes to great lengths to prove that he was the 20th Century equivalent of a Renaissance Man. Lustig’s devotion to the purest tenets of Modernism extended not just to graphic design, but also interior design, architecture, furniture, education and theory. Following a short biography, Heller structures the book by discipline (print design, three dimensional design, education, and theory). Like most Chronicle books, the text is supplemented with plenty of beautifully reproduced visuals (including dozens of those fabulous book covers) to linger over. What a talent! One definitely gets a sense of Lustig’s passion for design – and an undercurrent of urgency. Lustig accomplished more in twenty years than many get to do in a lifetime.

Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig was published by Chronicle in 2010. Click here to purchase at Amazon.com.

A sampling of Lustig’s many fantastic New Directions book covers, 1947-55.

The modern and primitive blend in his fabric and interior design.

Graphic identity and interiors for Monte Factor, Ltd. clothing store, 1947.

Playful interoffice memo letterhead for Look magazine, 1944.

More iconic book jacket designs for New Directions, 1946-49.

The cool endpapers are based on Lustig’s 1947 Incantation fabric pattern.

Overspray: L.A. Looks Like You

The 2008 coffee table book Overspray: Riding High with the Kings of L.A. Airbrush Art came to my attention while seeking artwork for my Don’t Make Me Over mix. The book delves head-first into a scene that was a red hot confluence of L.A. style and rock ‘n roll-fueled merchandising, as practiced by four of its biggest proponents. Oddly, however, this labor-intensive art style hasn’t enjoyed a resurgence in the same way that other art and design movements of the period have had.

That’s too bad – at the very least, this stuff is very evocative of the ’70s. I can definitely remember digging it as a teen, even though the part I latched onto came at the very tail end of this movement. My first alluring peek was (don’t laugh) in the overstuffed musical classic Xanadu – recall how the Michael Beck character worked as an artist reproducing album covers at billboard size? The brief scene at his workplace showed all these covers done up in that plastic pop-art style, and to me it seemed like the coolest job ever. I later found more art in that style within the pages of a book called Fame 2, which had me hooked. Up to the late ’80s, I’d still see examples of that hyper-slick artwork within the pages of Rolling Stone, or plastered on the free wall calendars they’d hand out at Tower Records every December.

The artists profiled in Overspray – Dave Willardson, Charles White III, Peter Lloyd, and Peter Palombi – all indulged in that style. As the book plainly demonstrates, however, each one put his own stamp on his work. Willardson’s was the most retro-slick and technically accomplished of all (and my favorite), responsible for iconic pieces such as the Rolling Stone cover that literally interpreted Steely Dan’s name and American Graffitti‘s cheerful carhop. White’s stuff was a lot more funky and hallucinatory, where photo-realistic scenes bump up against Maxfield Parrish-inspired fantasy-scapes. Lloyd brought on the weird with his imaginative, spacey LP covers and kinky illustrations for magazines like Oui. Palombi’s nostalgic, irony-drenched scenes astonished with their playfulness and expertly rendered surfaces. Along with absorbing interviews with all four men, the book reprints big and colorful representative samplings of their work. It also has a rather self-indulgent introductory essay, printed in a hard-to-read peach script font, that sets the scene in a smug way (you can easily skip that part and get the jist in the interviews). In the end, I ended up envying these guys for being in there at such a fantastic, creative time, and also admiring the painstaking technique and work ethic required to master the airbrush.

P.S. I still want that Xanadu guy’s job.

Another nifty thing about Overspray is the dust jacket with different designs printed on both sides which enables the book to have four unique covers, one for each artist profiled. The book can be ordered at Amazon.com here.

Dave Willardson LP art for the Spinners, 1978.

Charles White III illustration for National Lampoon, 1972.

Dave Willardson art for American Graffitti soundtrack LP, 1973.

Charles White II art for the Rolling Stones (1973); Star Wars (1977).

Peter Lloyd illustration for Oui magazine, 1975.

Peter Palombi magazine cover illustration, 1975.

Poster Art of the Disney Theme Parks

I have very specific memories connected with the posters at Disneyland – approaching the park, driving into the no-longer-there parking lot, striding towards the gingerbread ticket booths, the first concrete thing I’d see of our adventures ahead would be those iconic posters, affixed to the bases of the Monorail pylons and inside the tunnels leading to Main Street U.S.A. Each poster was a trip in itself – the vine-entrenched intrigue of the Jungle Cruise, the topsy-turvy whimsy of Alice in Wonderland, the hitchhiking ghosts of The Haunted Mansion, the kinetic energy of the PeopleMover’s Superspeed Tunnel – a gallery of future memories waiting to be experienced.

Poster Art of the Disney Parks, a coffee table book published by Disney and written by Danny Handke and Vanessa Hunt, comprehensively explores this angle of that pixie dust-strewn universe. As Tony Baxter’s intro explains, poster art is an integral part of the Disney theme park experience. The book’s 11″x14″ size gives ample space to the best posters, with many getting a full page to themselves (although one of my personal faves, the Columbia sailing ship, gets a mere quarter page). Divided into “lands,” the book includes nearly every poster created not just for Disneyland but for all of the Magic Kingdom theme parks (Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are absent). It’s interesting to note the different ways Disney uses to approach the same attraction in each park, with some intriguing little differences – such as the Euro Disneyland train engine sporting a pair of antlers. The book also contains separate chapters reproducing the Art Noveau influenced designs used for Tokyo DisneySea and the optimistic 1920s to ’50s era throwbacks employed on Disney California Adventure’s recent overhaul.

Two things in particular impressed me about this one. Firstly, they give credit to the unsung artists behind these posters (hooray for that). Secondly, they include lots of fascinating unused poster concept art. Before getting this, I never realized that most of the iconic poster designs from Disneyland’s early years were tied into one talented man – Bjorn Aronson. Aronson’s playful, cleanly modern, eclectic yet unified poster art probably did more to establish Disneyland’s visual identity than anything else. It’s astonishing stuff, and this book reproduces them with vivid clarity.

Poster Art of the Disney Parks can be purchased here at Amazon.com.

Side-by-side poster comparison for Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Bjorn Aronson’s illustration skill is evident on this close-up of his fantastic Red Wagon Inn poster.

Casa de Fritos and the Lucky Nugget Saloon (Disneyland Paris) in the Frontierland section.

Not a good photo, but at least it gives you an idea of the chapter openings (using another excellent Aronson poster).

An undeveloped Adventureland poster concept is shown next to a printed one.

A demo of the silk screen color-layering process (that looks familiar).

Oh, how I wish they would have made Aronson’s Candy Palace poster design a reality!

Tomorrowland: all about the primary colors.