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.

A ’70s Disney Fan’s Scrapbook

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I was delighted to receive an unusual gift over the holidays – a perfectly preserved scrapbook kept by a Disney fan in the 1970s. Christopher got this in an online auction, explaining that he originally intended to take some of the rarer paper ephemera out of the book and ditch the rest. We both ended up thankful that it was kept intact.

From what I can tell, this scrapbook was kept by a young kid, probably about my age (b. 1968), who likely lived on the East coast of the U.S. The earliest dated item is a small Disneyland pamphlet guide from 1975, while the last items are news stories promoting Disney’s first PG-rated feature, The Black Hole, from December 1979. This kid saved everything – souvenirs from Disneyland and Walt Disney World, toy packaging, wrapping paper, mail-in items promoting Disney collectibles, TV Guide ads for Disney movie broadcasts, even an example of the little blue Mickey Mouse price tag familiar to many a Disney park visitor of the time.

Apparently the most loved Disney thing to this particular fan was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Live On Stage, a limited engagement musical which premiered at Radio City Music Hall on October 18, 1979. Strangely, the scrapbook has nothing at all related to The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, two favorites of mine from that era (1977).

They saved the groovy outside packaging on this SCRAP BOOK.

They saved the groovy outside packaging on this SCRAP BOOK.

Helpful into on '70s Walt Disney World.

Helpful info on ’70s Walt Disney World.

River Country closed? Waaah.

River Country closed? Waaah.

The magical little blue price tag.

The magical little blue price tag.

WDW shopping bag, newspaper ad for Sleeping Beauty re-release, cut up LP cover.

WDW shopping bag, newspaper ad for Sleeping Beauty re-release, cut up LP cover.

The Winnie the Pooh Sunday comic strip never ran in MY paper.

The Winnie the Pooh Sunday comic strip never ran in MY paper.

Brochures from Disneyland and Anaheim hotels.

Brochures from Disneyland and Anaheim hotels.

Snow White lives again, according to the NY papers.

Snow White lives again, according to the NY papers.

Wrapping paper for every mood.

Wrapping paper for every mood.

Dumbo Pop varieties and hard candy wrappers.

Dumbo Pop varieties and hard candy wrappers.

Does Richard Schickel still think it "simply blows one away!"?

Does Richard Schickel still think it “simply blows one away!”?

A Mix with Room for Cream

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Dark Roast: Scrubbles.net Winter 15 Mix came about as a result of listening to a lot of stimulating yet unobtrusive music while writing reviews. Finding the perfect music for that situation entails lots of things – either no singing or non-English vocals, strong melodies, upbeat vibes, jazz modulations that don’t often delve into indulgent noodling. Most often than not it leads to ’60s Brazilian music and Bossa Nova-inspired stuff, whether it’s American lounge or groovy Italian soundtracks. The 61-minute program on Dark Roast reminds me of waking up with a nice cup of coffee, ready to get to work.

Listen to Dark Roast at Mixcloud, or via the handy player below:

Dark Roast: Scrubbles.net Winter 2015 Mix by 4colorcowboy on Mixcloud

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.

Frank Redlinger’s Jazz-Age West

Frank Redlinger - Grand Canyon color block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger – Grand Canyon color block print, 1933.

I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, which bills itself as “The West’s Most Western Town.” Although most of my childhood was epitomized by breezy walks to school (half a block from the house!) and being glued to the TV with a box of Cheerios, the town’s quirky fake-Western character also played a part in my development. Scottsdale was still a fairly small town back in the ’70s, with a main drag characterized by wooden-slatted souvenir shops done up like the set of Gunsmoke and a cutout figure of a lasso-toting cowboy. Back then it was just there, but that filtered, sanitized version of history still influences my work – especially the 4 Color Cowboy tumblr.

While outright kitsch definitely has a place at 4 Color Cowboy, I wanted to use it to find artists, movies, music and other projects that use that iconic Western stuff in a different, thought-provoking way. One such discovery was an artist named Frank Redlinger. After coming across his stuff while browsing through the Heritage Auctions site (fantastic place, by the way), I fell in love with his crude, beautiful landscapes, cowboys and other subjects rendered in wood-block prints. The artist maintained studios in two different places (Abilene, Texas and Los Angeles). The only pieces of his I’ve found date from about 1930-35, when he was in his forties. Simple and bold, they look to be inspired by the California Impressionists and Western movie posters from the silent era. He died in Los Angeles, a few days shy of his 66th birthday, in 1951.

Enjoy this little gallery of Frank Redlinger’s work. More can be seen at Heritage Auctions.

Frank Redlinger - Rainbow Arch block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger – Rainbow Arch block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger - On the Prod block print, 1934.

Frank Redlinger – On the Prod block print, 1934.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Desert Caravan block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Desert Caravan block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - personal Christmas card, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – personal Christmas card, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - Camelback Mtn. block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger – Camelback Mtn. block print, 1932.

Frank Redlinger - Action In The Abstract block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger – Action In The Abstract block print, 1933.

Frank Redlinger - Canyon De Chelly block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger – Canyon De Chelly block print, 1931.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Cowboy Being Bucked Off print, 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Cowboy Being Bucked Off print, 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Grand Canyon block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Grand Canyon block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger - Untitled Yucca Silhouettes block print, early 1930s.

Frank Redlinger – Untitled Yucca Silhouettes block print, early 1930s.