Between terror and delight: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

Standard

By Scott Ross

The first time I saw David Hand’s Snow White

(Wait a minute! What? Exactly. The above is a deliberate representation of the lunatic extremes to which the perpetual abuse of the auteur theory in America is so often, and so hilariously, misapplied. I would be willing to bet that, in the pages of the whatever publication Andrew Sarris was writing for, Walt Disney’s early masterpiece, whose every frame and incident bears the mark of his overseeing hand, would have been listed, absolutely without irony and because he was credited as the picture’s Supervising Director, as “David Hand’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”)

As I was saying… The first time I saw Snow White, on its 1967 reissue, I was six years old and it was 30. (It’s over 80 now, and I am far from six.) It’s one of those events for which I recall, not just the movie, or even the live-action featurette, The Legend of the Boy and the Eagle, that accompanied it, but the circumstances: My mother took me to a matinee screening, uncharacteristically without my sister (she may have been at summer camp) and, being a cartoon-mad child and this my first animated feature, it was a red-letter day for me. I see from my research that my long-held memory of the date has played me false: I was convinced that it was a school-day, and a cold one, suggesting winter, and 1965, before I entered kindergarten. But it seems the movie was re-released in June, making me wonder if my additional memory — of my having to take a hot bath before we left, and of Mom’s taking me to a drug store lunch counter for a hot cocoa with whipped cream (another first) afterward and buying me a tiny soft rubber “Admiral Pelican” toy — are images from another occasion, although I’m still convinced I got the pelican that day.* Well, memory as we all know is far from entirely reliable, but whatever the circumstances surrounding my seeing Snow White, the vividness of my first exposure to that movie has never faded.

Snow White - bedroom

A simple, funny gag by Ward Kimball — the Dwarfs revealing their faces as their noses pop into view — has been interpreted by Freudians as a series of erection caricatures. Who do they think made the thing? Tex Avery? Some adults should never be allowed to see a movie without a child along to explain it to them.

Unsurprisingly, the images that hit hardest, and have stuck longest, were the more horrific ones: Of Snow White’s race through the forest, and how, in her panicked, fevered imagination the trees reach out for her and logs turn into crocodiles; of the wicked Queen’s terrifying transformation into the poison apple-vending hag; of her dispatching of Snow White, the heroine’s arm falling into the frame, a bitten apple rolling away from her open hand; and of the Queen’s subsequent, poetically justified, demise, the vultures circling down into the mist to feast on her freshly dead flesh. Those are nightmare sequences, of which Disney was a true master: They’re in all of his studio’s genuinely great animated features (aside perhaps from Cinderella, although the stepsisters’ tearing the heroine’s gown to shreds and the cat Lucifer’s falling from the high window at the climax may qualify) and they remain fixed in the memories of millions — even billions — of former children.

Snow White - Crocodile logs resized

Extremes of terror…

Snow White - Silly Song resized

… and delight

But I can also recall, as I imagine was and is true of others, my delight in the wonderfully delineated Dwarfs (particularly Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy and Doc; I had never heard Spoonerisms before, and Doc became my favorite as a result of his), their comic actions, and the infectious joy with which they sing and dance their “Silly Song” with Snow White. These too are areas in which Walt would prove masterly, although I take issue with the people on the Disney Blu-ray documentary who claim Oklahoma! as the “first fully integrated musical,” and that Disney beat it by eight years. Not only was the 1927 Show Boat the real precursor of all of this, but Walt seems not to have known that Sigmund Romberg’s day had passed: The first 25 minutes or so of Snow White, until the Dwarfs reach home and discover something amiss at their cottage, is virtually a turn-of-the-century operetta, employing almost no dialogue — except the Queen’s — and arriving complete with twittering coloratura and sexless tenor, in love from the moment they see each other; they’d doubtless have been considered real humdingers at the Hippodrome in 1907. (Until she meets the Dwarfs, all of Snow White’s dialogue rhymes as well, something almost no one, including Walt Disney, could ever carry off.)† Snow White herself, as voiced by Adriana Caselotti, dates the movie more than anything else in it; she obviously fit Walt’s conception of the fairy tale adolescent heroine, and while small children may not mind her, and may even find her comforting, she has a way of making adults’ back teeth ache. Which is a shame, because your grown-up irritation can cause you to miss all sorts of wonders, such as how remarkably done Snow White’s reflection in her wishing-well is in the opening sequence, an effect people now take for granted but which in 1937 was revelatory, the product of the new Multiplane camera without which much of the visual impact of Snow White on its contemporary audience would have been infinitely less.

As a child of the ’60s, and while I instinctively gravitated to “funny animal” comic books (mostly Gold Key reprints) I had until that afternoon very little exposure to full animation. Where would I have seen it? By the time I was cognizant of such things, roughly the age of 4 or 5, most animation on television, unless it was comprised of old theatrical shorts, had succumbed to the cost-saving, and art-shaving, Hanna-Barbera “limited animation” model which ultimately poisoned the animation well for decades. The only exceptions, at least in the Canton, Ohio area where I was born, were the old Terrytoons and Paramount (alas, not Fleischer) Popeye shorts on local morning and afternoon kiddie-shows, Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings and the all-too occasional vintage short on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights. Not even the Peanuts specials, charming though they were, exhibited much in the way of visual artistry, and although my parents had a Zenith television/radio/turntable console, they elected for the black-and-white model, presumably at the time the less expensive choice; as a result, I never saw color television on a regular basis until I moved away from home at 19. (I still remember the wonder with which, at age 7, I first beheld a color television broadcast, on the set of a family friend. It was a Kukla, Fran and Ollie special, Burr Tillstrom’s 1968 television adaptation of The Reluctant Dragon, and I can still picture in my mind the sight of Ollie’s glittering, bejeweled chest: sparkling imitation jewels on a field of deep, vivid blue.) So something like Snow White, especially projected on a big movie theater screen — something I also hadn’t experienced often — was absolutely entrancing. And I was exactly the right age for the picture: Young enough to enjoy it on a purely childish level yet old enough not to be traumatized by its darker sequences. (You want emotional trauma? Try Bambi. Thank God I was in my 20s before I saw that one.)

Snow White - Dopey with diamond eyes

Dopey in the “Heigh-Ho” sequence, living up to his name.

And what a aggregation of animators worked on the thing! Along with such relative veterans of the Disney studio as Hand, Art Babbitt, Shamus Culhane, Grim Natwick (who, while at Fleischer, had worked on a jazzy, satirical Snow White short for the character he created, Betty Boop), Fred Moore, Dick Lundy, Wilfred Jackson, Ben Sharpsteen, Norm Ferguson, Hamilton Luske and Vladmir “Bill” Tytla, every single member of the group that would come to be called “Walt’s Nine Old Men” (Les Clark, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larsen, Woolie Reitherman, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsberry) was involved, along with Larry Morey (who also wrote the song lyrics), Pete Alvardo, Michael Lah (who, after Tex Avery left MGM, later directed Droopy shorts there) and David Swift, who would, like Frank Tashlin, later become a live-action director. Not to mention (why do we say that, and then mention?) Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren — who, like Hovarth helped design the Dwarfs, provided magnificent conceptual art of the backgrounds and buildings, and painted the gorgeous release poster seen above — and Albert Hurter, whose splendid character designs were also integral to the visual luster of the movie. A stable of creative artists like that is impossible to imagine today, and they, as much as Walt himself, turned what in Hollywood was snickered at as a disaster-in-the-making into a work of genuine popular art, an international financial juggernaut that, more than any other project in the studio’s history, made possible everything that flowed from it. Walt liked to say that his fortune was built on a mouse but if Mickey was the foundation his studio really stood on the shoulders of a beribboned teenager in a peasant blouse.

My previous observations about the songs in Snow White are not meant as a criticism of the numbers themselves, merely the structure built to house them. While not as rich, or as intriguingly dark, as their counterparts in the later, and more ambitious, Pinocchio (1940) the musical numbers here perform their duties efficiently, and with a great deal of charm. Moreover, whatever my complaints about the dated operetta style, each number flows into the next, and there is a particularly nice juxtaposition of “Whistle While You Work” and the Dwarfs’ “Heigh-Ho” (just as Disney achieves real suspense with his cutting between Snow White being menaced by the Witch and the little men and forest animals racing to save her.) Larry Morey’s lyrics are seldom of a kind that would have lost Cole Porter any sleep, but they weren’t intended to be clever or sophisticated. They were expected to convey generalized emotions, and they do. The music by Frank Churchill, however, is exceptional, and not only did nearly all of his and Morey’s songs (“Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work,” “With a Smile and a Song”) enter the American Popular Songbook, some of them, like “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” became jazz standards as well. Carl Stalling, an old Kansas City hand, worked at Disney on the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonys, but after he decamped in 1930 the Disney shorts were accompanied by instantly forgettable music. These continued to be uninspired musically, but after Snow White, the features at least had superb scores: Paul Smith worked on Snow White and while when I see the movie I can’t really distinguish his compositions I can immediately determine which cues were composed by Leigh Harline; his quirky little motif for Dopey, for example, is instantly recognizable as Harline’s, a brief precursor to his theme for Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio three years later.

Snow White - Heigh Ho

The “Heigh-Ho” sequence: A perfect synthesis of song, story and breathtaking visuals.

Music was, of course, integral to Disney’s success; he saw the potential of sound immediately, developed Steamboat Willie (1928) to exploit it, and continued to experiment with it throughout the 1930s. The Three Little Pigs (1933) in particular depends on music, and song, and the Depression-era public embraced Churchill’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” as an emblem. Walt’s embrace of a bigger sound for his Silly Symphony shorts — the name, if not the concept, was immediately imitated by Leon Schlesinger; Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies could not have existed without Disney’s model — must have thoroughly confused the money-men at other studios. Symphonic accompaniment for cartoons? What next? An animated feature? (Yes.) Whatever criticisms may be lobbed at Disney himself, or at the ravening corporation he spawned, his (and its) musical instincts have been more than effectual. Snow White set the prototype.

Snow White - Queen Grimhilde resized

Snow White - Wicked witch resized

If Caselotti is a sticky embodiment of virtue, the redoubtable stage actress Lucille La Verne is a marvelously fulsome personification of vice. Her Wicked Queen is silkily vicious, a walking, preening avatar of vanity (the Queen’s throne is in the form of a peacock) who seems to live only to be desirable. And La Verne’s Witch is thrillingly loathsome, the sort of figure to send delicious chills up a child’s spine. She’s not merely a perfect disguise; she is the Queen’s very essence. If her movements, like those of the Queen, are a series of melodramatic, silent-movie posturings, she is no less effective for them. The Disney artists were not yet ready for subtlety in characterizing evil; it would take years of experiment, and a much richer vocal artist (Eleanor Audley) to arrive at the more shaded, and more correspondingly frightening, Stepmother for Cinderella and wicked fairy Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.

Snow White - Grumpy at organ

Grumpy’s independently-working buttocks keep time in the “Silly Song” sequence.

Disney’s distillation of the Dwarfs’ personalities is even more successful, their endearing idiosyncrasies suggested by their names and brought to fruition by the way they are animated as much as by the men who gave them voice.  Disney, no less than his rivals at the Schlesinger or Fleischer studios, was, as so many were at the time, tuned in to vaudeville and radio (if perhaps less directly imitative) and most of the Dwarfs reflect that interest: Roy Atwell’s trademark stammering and malapropisms informed Doc’s pomposity, while Billy Gilbert, a master of explosive sternutation, was a natural for Sneezy and Otis Harlin (Happy) had a voice that radiated joviality. Eddie Collins, the model for Dopey (and purveyor of his occasional hiccups and excited twitterings) was studied for his distinctive movement while Scotty Mattraw, known for his bucolic characters, was a natural for Bashful. Pinto Colvig was likely a no-brainer as well for Grumpy and Sleepy; a Disney gag writer and sound effects man, Colvig was also for many years the great voice of Goofy, my favorite of Disney’s characters.

Up to to this point in animation history, the standard practice for dealing with a collection of like figures in cartoons, at Disney and elsewhere, was to make them more or less interchangeable: They look indistinguishable and move together uniformly (The Skeleton Dance, 1929) or in identical patterns (the imps and flowers in The Goddess of Spring, 1934). With The Three Little Pigs Walt grasped the power, and the appeal, of character delineation. For his first feature, his Dwarfs couldn’t just be a mass, a septet of identical-looking (and acting) stick figures. They had to have individual personalities, and inter-familial conflicts. We sense within minutes that Doc is the most self-important of the seven and believes himself their natural leader while Grumpy is his polar opposite, adversarial in every situation, the voice of the pessimist where Doc radiates optimism, and that Dopey is the Dwarfs’ communal backwards child, petted and tolerated as much because of his eagerness to oblige despite obvious mental limitations as for his essential sweetness of personality. This sort of thing, de rigueur now in animation, had its basis in the Three Pigs but had never before been seen on the scale of Snow White. The Dwarfs’ personae are easily graspable by the children in the audience for their eponymous characteristics yet beloved of adults for their humor and their recognizability. And when, at the climax, they were seen weeping at Snow white’s coffin, members of the audience joined them, moved as much, I suspect, by Disney’s sheer audacity in depicting such a thing as by the Dwarfs’ collective sorrow. Hey! These little guys are real!

Snow White - coffin

As an adolescent Disney had seen the 1916 Snow White starring Marguerite Clark at a special showing for newsboys, which had made a marked impression on him, so it is unsurprising that he would choose it as the subject of his first feature. Development had begun as early as 1934Walt’s memorable first story conference, in which, characteristically, he acted out his ideas for the staff, including the youngest dwarf using a single feather for a pillow, later a charming moment for Dopey in the completed picture, occurred that autumn. As he demanded sequences be redone, and scrapped two in the pencil-test stage, before they could be completed and painted, the budget kept climbing (it eventually reached a then-unheard-of $1.49 million) but the proof was in the pudding. The movie grossed $3.5 million in North America, $6.5 million by 1939 and, by the end of its original release run, had earned a whopping $7.85 million internationally. Including its various re-issues over the decades (every seven years from 1937, grabbing roughly a new generation of impressionable young viewers each time, your humble scribe included) its box-office reached $418 million, with Christ only knows how much money generated in the sales of related books, records and toys and, later, home videos and DVDs/Blu-rays of the picture itself. (That crucial process of accretion cited by Walt and, later, as “synergy,” so beloved of his successor, Michael Eisner.) So much for what those in the know had once smugly called “Disney’s Folly.”

And the movie holds up, in a way few 80-year old pictures do. It helps, of course, that it’s set in an indeterminate period, and kingdom, and with no anachronisms and none of the cringe-inducing democratizion (really, Americanization) Disney later went in for, the nadir of which is probably Bing Crosby referring to Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) as “Ol’ Icky.” And given a pleasing restoration on its 50th anniversary in 1987, Snow White looks spectacular on Blu-ray, its palette a beautifully balanced mixture of muted tones for its natural and architectural backgrounds and bold Technicolor splashes for the characters’ costumes and such important elements as that terrifyingly enticing, bright red apple. The Prince is almost entirely characterlessness — all he does is sing a little, and deliver that revivifying kiss at the end, and next to the vividly-defined Dwarfs he barely exists but the design and execution of the normal-sized human characters is such a vast improvement on figures like the stilted Persephone of The Goddess of Spring as to constitute a quantum leap in animation possibility, and there are almost no missteps in the picture. Pretty much the only error I picked up on as I watched it again the other night was one of continuity: A quick depiction of Dopey’s drumming hands emerging from his distinctive yellow sweater during the “Silly Song” at the same time he and Sneezy are dancing with Snow White. I’m surprised Walt didn’t have that re-painted, but, as with the Prince shimmying slightly at the climax it may have been too late, and too expensive, to fix.

Snow White - Magic Mirror LP resizedI’ll end on the return to a personal note: After seeing the movie with me our mother bought us the Snow White “Magic Mirror” LP, which I played and re-played obsessively, and the reprint of the comic book (re-purposed from the original 1937-1938 newspaper strip adaptation drawn by Hank Porter and Bob Grant) accompanied me on our car-trip to the 1967 Expo in Montreal that summer. I re-read that one until it was pretty much in tatters. (I also had the coloring book, which puzzled me because it depicted the cut sequence of the Dwarfs making a bed for Snow White, and a plush doll of Doc I wish now I’d held onto.)

Snow White - comic 1967

As I was already hooked on cartoons, and on Disney, before seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it can’t be said that Walt claimed another child-victim with his ’67 reissue. But I won’t deny that seeing it deepened the addiction as I also realize there’s something insidious about Disney’s hand-rubbing calculation; he liked to crow about the figures showing that every child in America had seen a Disney movie, read a Disney comic, played a Disney record or owned a Disney toy. And it’s worse, of course, now his company has become a corporate octopus, busily grabbing up any-and-everything that might attract a child’s attention, from Muppets to Marvel to Star Wars. (And let’s not forget the company’s current, gorge-rising, emphasis on enticing vulnerable little girls with its “Disney Princesses,” from Snow to, one presumes, Leia.) But when a movie is a genuine astonishment, as Snow White was and continues to be eight decades after its original release, even a Grumpy might be forced to admit there are worse things out there vying for a child’s attention than this bright, tuneful, funny and ultimately cathartic fantasy.


Admiral Pelican*Admiral Pelican, re-discovered on EBay a few years back. My original was orange, but you can’t have everything.

†The Dwarfs rhyme with her as well, before she sings “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and all of the Magic Mirror’s dialogue is in verse.  (Sample: “Over the seven jeweled hills / Beyond the seventh wall / In the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs / Dwells Snow White, fairest one of all.”)

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: October – December 2019

Standard

By Scott Ross

Note: For fuller reviews of some of the movies below, click on the highlighted titles.

The Sign of Four / The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983)

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Churchill

A pair of Sherlock Holmes adaptations by Charles Edward Pogue for British television starring the irreplaceable Ian Richardson which, while not precisely faithful to Conan Doyle, are rich in atmosphere and, in Richardson, boast perhaps the finest Holmes before Jeremy Brett sealed the franchise.



Underworld U.S.A.
(1961)

Underworld U.S.A. - Dolores Dorn, Robertson

Mediocre Samuel Fuller is still worth watching, although we might have expected better of a former ace crime reporter than this half-baked yarn concerning revenge served at freezing temperature. But then, the picture dates from an uncertain period for Fuller, the years wherein he meandered between the sting of House of Bamboo (1955) and Forty Guns (1957) and the astonishment of Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Most of the Fuller pictures from that time are curios, quasi-successful but tamer affairs than those that came before. This one, suggested by some Saturday Evening Post pieces by Joseph F. Dinneen, has its moments but the plot isn’t feasible in the slightest, the romance seems shoe-horned in, and I don’t buy Cliff Robertson as a hardened criminal for a moment. (But then, I don’t buy Robertson as pretty much anything.) Much better are Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother, David Kent as his adolescent self, Dolores Dorn as his would-be paramour, Larry Gates as the cop-turned-D.A. who’d like to nail the mobsters and set Robertson straight, and Richard Rust as a smiling, sweet-faced sadist who seems to literally seduce Robertson into the mob; their initial meetings feel like an extended courtship dance.

Despite some beautiful set-ups (the cinematographer was Hal Mohr) and a few effective scenes, Underworld USA ultimately has too many sequences like Rust’s running-down of a little girl on her bicycle: Fuller doesn’t show the killing, only the child’s mother calling to her from an upstairs window and the girl (Joni Beth Morris) looking back just before impact. Instead of enhancing the horror, these rather studied choices diminish it; they’re like the worst of Hitchcock — which is bad enough only a fool would emulate it. Like Verboten!, Run of the Arrow, The Crimson Kimono, Hell and High Water and Merrill’s Marauders, Underworld USA is less a good movie than a collection of some good scenes in search of a better place to go.



Scorpio 
(1973)

Scorpio - Scofield

An avis of increasing rarity, the intelligent thriller, anchored by the performances of Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and the magnificent Paul Scofield.



The Maltese Falcon
(1941)

The Maltese Falcon - The stuff that dreams are made of

John Huston’s extraordinary debut as a writer/director, a masterpiece of detective fiction featuring Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough performance as Sam Spade.



The Man Who Would Be King 
(1975)

The Man Who Would Be King - Caine, Plummer, Connery

Another of John Huston’s group quests toward ultimate failure, a tangy adaptation of Kipling with a superb trio of leading players in Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer.



A Study in Terror
(1965)

A Study in Terror - John Neville and Donald Huston

A clever, if implausible, mating of Sherlock Holmes with the Jack the Ripper mythos, which isn’t a patch on the later Murder by Decree (1978) but which boasts an excellent Holmes in the person of the classical actor John Neville, later immortalized as Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam. Donald Houston is a good Watson, the splendid Anthony Quayle an excellent Doctor Murray, Frank Finlay in a part he reprised in Murder by Decree is an intelligent(!) Lestrade, and it’s fascinating to see a very young Judi Dench in a pivotal role. The boxer Terry Downes has a sexy, and surprisingly well acted, cameo role, and John Scott composed an effective score which, even when it brings in bongo drums(!!) does so in a way that feels wholly appropriate.

The cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is a bit on the bland side, period television color where chiaroscuro was called for, and James Hill’s direction, while brisk and effective, lacks the sick-making horror the subject demands. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the movie is Georgia Brown, the original Nancy of the musical Oliver!, whose warm whiskey-contralto has long been a favored sound in my home. She shows up twice, as a pub singer in Whitechapel (presumably on the basis of her performance of the Lionel Bart song “Oom-Pah-Pah” in Oliver!) and if you only listen, she’s perfect. Her face, alas, explains why others got to play her stage roles in movies. She grew into her looks eventually and became a handsome older woman, but in 1966 hers was not the type of physiognomy guaranteed to queue up the paying customers.



The Life of Émile Zola
(1937)

The Life of Emile Zola - Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff

I first encountered this all-too-typical Warner Bros. biopic on television in my early adolescence, and all I really remembered was the material dealing with Captain Dreyfus. Seeing it again, now, I understand why: It’s one of the few inherently dramatic portions of the narrative. While the picture’s Dreyfuss (Joseph Schildkraut) was whitewashed — it was his arrogance of personality as much as the fact of his Jewishness that precipitated his false arrest and cynical imprisonment — and the anti-Semitism downplayed, at least the subsequent trial of Zola for J’Accuse has spark, courtesy in part of Donald Crisp as the outraged attorney Labori. Those who have complained that the scapegoating of Dreyfus in the picture is depicted as entirely devoid of religious bigotry have apparently never noticed (and I admit it is fast) the juxtaposition of the insert-shot of the Captain’s file reading, “Religion: Jewish” with Harry Davenport’s line damning him as, of two suspects, the man to charge with treason. The implication is entirely obvious. But what can be expected of people who for decades have sung hosannas to Paul Muni’s unconscionably hammy performance as Zola? His constant shameless mugging for the camera indicates a self-regard so thorough an audience has little need to bother; he clearly thinks he’s adorable enough, why should we make it redundant?

L’affaire Dreyfus eats up so much screen time — and at that omits the role of Alfred’s older brother, promoting the idea that it was his wife who most successfully pressed the case for his innocence — that it would have made more sense to focus on it entirely rather than to attempt squeezing in the rest of Zola’s biography, and with such brevity; his early decades here are a whirl-wind of narrative cliché and the people (his wife, Alexandrine, played by Gloria Holden; Morris Carnovsky’s Anatole France; Grant Mitchell’s Clemenceau; and Vladimir Sokoloff’s Cézanne) are little more than names and attitudes. That it took no fewer than three scenarists (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine) to bake the thin crust upon which the insufficient filling of this movie rests says something… although just what, I couldn’t say. Gale Sondergaard struggles valiantly with the underwritten role of Lucie Dreyfus and at least retains her dignity, but Schildkraut (who, rather unbelievably, won an Oscar® for this) is reduced to little more than periodically screaming, “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!” He does get one nice scene, however, when, freed at last after a decade on Devil’s Island he repeatedly hits the open doorway inviting him back to the outside world, turns, and retreats to his hated cell; in that moment you know everything you need to about the learned behavior of prisoners. The picture’s director, William Dieterle, does what he can with the material, and it is at least a very brisk movie, with very few longueurs despite its 116-minute running-time. Tony Gaudio’s black-and-white cinematography is rich, and beautifully lit; on the big screen in 1937 it must have seemed luminous.



Unforgiven
(1992)

Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood, Jaimz Woolvett

Clint Eastwood’s award-winning Western, a beautiful, even poetic, rumination on the cost of killing.


The Last Picture Show (1971)

MBDLAPI EC004

The damn near perfect adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s suberb coming-of-age novel by McMurtry and the director Peter Bogdanovich.



Big Jake
(1971)

Big Jake - Boone

Enjoyable late-period John Wayne, with an intelligent script and a savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant.


Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

somethingwicked_coverimage

A badly muddled misfire purportedly adapted from Ray Bradbury’s magical literary fantasy.


California Split (1974)

California Split - Altman

Robert Altman’s first feature utilizing the 8-track recording system that made Nashville possible, a genial character study of two degenerate gamblers played charmingly by George Segal and Elliott Gould.


The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh  (1963)

Scarecrow-of-romney-marsh-feat-10

An atmospheric and intelligent rendition, from Walt Disney, of Russell Thorndyke’s 18th century rogue Dr. Syn starring a splendid Patrick McGoohan.


Targets (1967/1968)

targets-7

Peter Bogdanovich’s extraordinary, disturbing first feature as a writer-director anatomizing both the sick state of Hollywood and the weird anomie of a serial killer is all too relevant to 21st century America.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Mason, Lorre, Douglas and Henried resized

Walt Disney’s first movie to be filmed in CinemaScope — it was also in 4-track stereo —  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was at the time one of the most expensive Hollywood productions ever attempted (between $5 and $9 million, imagine) and had it flopped would have been disastrous to the studio. The picture turned out so well it was one of the two top-grossers of its year, earning $28 million in 1954. And if it is less than absolutely ideal, especially in its confusingly British-Christian characterization of Jules Verne’s Sikh Captain Nemo, the movie is technically almost without a flaw, beautifully designed and shot, lengthy but involving, with literally marvelous art and set decoration (Peter Ellenshaw contributed some typically beautiful matte paintings)* and a splendid quartet of above-the-title actors. It’s the perfect Boy’s Adventure movie: Rich color photography by Franz Planer (his underwater and day-for-night effects are especially pleasing), an exciting score by Paul J. Smith, assured direction by Richard Fleischer, and an intelligent, often witty, adapted screenplay by Earl Felton that combine to form an exceptionally enjoyable night’s entertainment and in which human conflict, interior as well as exterior, are not elided.

Aside from the presence of the seal Sophie (that she needed water we never see her enter or exit from is evident from her shiny and obviously moistened skin) and the now-questionable “humor” of black cannibals getting zapped by Nemo’s protective electricity (why was it considered funny then?) the humor is refreshingly adult and mostly supplied by Kirk Douglas as the harpoonist Ned Land and Peter Lorre as Paul Henried’s assistant. Douglas also gets to sing a nifty ditty by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel called “A Whale of a Tale” which becomes one of the movie’s leitmotifs and makes a nice, belated compensation for his having left, in 1944, the original cast of On the Town, where he had the lead. James Mason is so good as Nemo you forgive Disney for messing with the original. That superb light baritone of Mason’s, combined with his elliptical speech patterns and highly idiosyncratic line readings, make him commanding, tragic and ironic at once.

The special effects, all of course in those days done by hand, are deeply impressive even now, with only one or two indifferent rear-screen bits muffing the whole. Walt produced this one himself, and his acumen shows: When the fight with the giant squid, originally shot against a red sunset on a static sea, both proved lifeless and revealed too many of the technicians’ wires, Disney suggested they re-shoot it at night, and during a storm at sea. It made all the difference; overnight, as it were, a poor sequence became a classic.

* The picture won Oscars® for Best Art Direction – Color (John Meehan, Emile Kuri) and Best Special Effects (John Hench, Joshua Meador), although according to Wikipedia, “the movie’s primary art designer, Harper Goff, who designed the Nautilus, was not a member of the Art Directors Union in 1954 and therefore, under a bylaw within the Academy of Motion Pictures… was unable to receive his Academy Award for Art Direction.”


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

The Adventures of S Holmes - Rathbone and Zucco

20th Century Fox’s immediate follow-up to its The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939, proves what a fluke the studio’s first Holmes picture was. Allegedly based on the William Gillette play, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes bears no resemblance to it, nor to the 1916 movie in which Gillette himself starred. Although the movie has a fine, foggy atmosphere — Leon Shamroy was the cinematographer — the narrative is asinine, and even insulting; two of Holmes’ typical lines are, “Whatever Watson has found out, you’ll know inevitably. I have unbounded confidence in his lack of discretion” and (to Nigel Bruce as the Doctor) “I’m afraid you’re an incorrigible bungler.” It concerns the machinations of a bearded(!) Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to humiliate Holmes, by whom he is eventually thrown off the Tower of London(!!) and Zucco has a high old time of it, all but baring his fangs and gnashing his teeth. In the supporting cast, Terry Kilburn is a good Billy, Mary Forbes charming as a matron, Anthony Kemble-Cooper has a nice turn as a gentle upper-class twit avant la lettre, and Basil Rathbone has an enjoyable bit in disguise as a music hall entertainer. But Ida Lupino is wasted as the damsel in distress and the picture is both lumpy and formless. The director of this flavorless mélange was someone named Alfred L. Werker; this was probably his only well-remembered movie. Nowhere in the credits of the picture will you see the name of Arthur Conan Doyle… for which omission I presume his heirs were duly grateful.


HealtH (1979/1982)

HealtH lobby card resized

An often very amusing political satire directed by Robert Altman involving the race for president of a health convention. It’s an allegory about Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, with Lauren Bacall as a narcoleptic 83-year old virgin (Ike) and Glenda Jackson as a prating intellectual (Stevenson) who talks, dryly and utterly without emotion, through everything and everyone. Paul Dooley is an obnoxious hypocrite of a third-party candidate who is a mass of prejudices and whose shtick is holding his breath under water, Carol Burnett is very funny as a representative of the President — since the picture was filmed in 1979, presumably Jimmy Carter — and James Garner is only slightly less so as her estranged husband, working for Bacall. Donald Moffat shows up in a sinister performance as Bacall’s frightening brother; Henry Gibson is a political operative whose first sequence in drag as an old woman is so convincing you almost wonder who that interesting actress is; Diane Stilwell is Jackson’s secretary who can’t type and who has supplied Jackson with a portable tape recorder, with which she is pretty obviously in love; MacIntyre Dixon is marvelous as the convention manager; Alfre Woodard is the hotel’s determinedly sunny convention representative vexed by this unmanageable collection of loons; Ann Ryerson is Bacall’s physician who lacks the ability to enjoy sex; the singing group The Steinettes appear throughout the movie, singing brightly and inanely at every conceivable opportunity; and Dick Cavett plays himself, vainly attempting to interview Bacall and Jackson and perennially frustrated by Bacall’s unexpected sleeping fits (if that isn’t an oxymoron.) Altman and Dooley wrote the sharp screenplay with Frank Barhydt, and it’s a relaxed, cheery, sometimes hilarious ensemble comedy. Why any of the people involved thought that a satire on Eisenhower and Stevenson was relevant to anything, or anyone, in 1979 remains a mystery, but everyone in the picture is terrific with the notable exception of Bacall. We watch her thinking we know she was famous for something once, but from her performance we can’t recall just what; after 1966 she always seemed to be playing the paralyzed rich-bitch from Harper — she’d become all surface, the grande dame in her element. What the hell happened to that woman? She was better at 19, when she knew almost nothing about acting.


Matewan (1988)

Matewan - Chris Cooper

John Sayles’ magnificent evocation of a violent, largely forgotten incident of the 1920s involving West Virginia miners arrayed against vicious coal industry gun-thugs.



Casualties of War
 (1989)

Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

A deeply unsettling examination of an American atrocity in Vietnam directed by Brian De Palma which is best when it sticks to the facts but is never less than compelling even when it’s embracing war movie clichés that would have embarrassed John Wayne.


The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

Little Drummer Girl - Kinski, Keaton

This surprisingly good attempt by the screenwriter Loring Mandel and the stylish journeyman director George Roy Hill at condensing one of John Le Carré’s large, complex thrillers is compromised but, curiously, not undone, by its central miscasting. With her signature red hair and championing of Palestinian rights, the actress Charlie in the novel was obviously meant to remind readers of Vanessa Redgrave. Unlike Redgrave (or Diane Keaton, the Charlie of the movie) it was central to the Le Carré novel that Charlie was young, in her early 20s, passionate but unformed, and not nearly as worldly, or as informed, as she thinks she is. Likewise, casting Yorgo Voyagis, Keaton’s junior by a year, as the Israeli agent who seduces Charlie into falling in love with him while seeming to put her off (and who becomes her guide and instructor in the elaborate “theatre of the real” the actress is enticed into against a Palestinian bomb-maker) rather than a distinguished, reticent, aging actor of the time — Paul Scofield might have been ideal, or even Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates — eliminates Charlie’s obvious father-fixation. These rather essential cavils aside, Keaton is excellent as Charlie, locating both her anger and her pain, although I don’t believe for a minute an American would be headlining a small British theatre troupe. Unlike Keaton, Klaus Kinski is an almost perfect casting choice for Kurtz, whose complicated scheme keeps Charlie, and the audience, in the dark until the climax; Kinski absolutely gets the Israeli agent’s bonhomie, his middle-aged charm and his deadly seriousness. Like the book, the movie is highly ambivalent about Zionism even as it largely accepts the more than dubious notion that violence is the proper response to terror. The strong supporting cast includes Sami Frey, Michael Cristofer, Eli Danker, Philipp Moog, Anna Massey, Thorley Walters and David Suchet. My only complaint about the production design is the truly terrible coat Keaton is forced to wear through much of the picture. She can’t carry it off, but I can’t imagine the woman who could. Such is Le Carré’s brilliance that Charlie’s last line, slightly altered from the novel, has stayed with me since I saw this one 35 years ago.


Thieves Like Us (1974)

Thieves Like Us resized

As Pauline Kael once suggested of him, Robert Altman made two bad movies for every good one, and in-between another that was essentially lousy but with enough good, or even great, moments in it to sustain your interest. Examples of this last include The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Short Cuts, Gosford Park… and Thieves Like Us; it has some splendid things in it, and is beautifully cast, and shot. But it’s both elliptical and repetitive in weird and off-putting ways, and you sit there wondering what you’ve missed when you haven’t missed a thing. In the sequence in which the movie’s young central characters Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Keechie (Shelley Duvall) make love for the first time while listening to a radio broadcast of Romeo and Juliet, for example, and we hear the same between-act announcement from the narrator at three separate intervals, we don’t know what it means. Is the sequence a fantasy of Keechie’s or Bowie’s? Is one scene real and the other two fantastic? But because they don’t seem to be anything other than what they appear to be — sequential moments broken up in the cutting — nothing about these scenes really supports that hypothesis. So why did Altman choose to disorient us at this important juncture? Why, for that matter, is there a discussion between Carradine, Bert Remsen and Ann Latham in which it seems Bowie and Keechie have become notorious Bonnie and Clyde figures, their doings reported in the newspapers, when we have seen no such thing? It feels as though there’s a reel missing, or at least a few scenes. Speaking of which, why is Remsen’s violent death only spoken about, in a radio news story, and not seen? The omission feels like narrative cheapness. Kael said of Thieves Like Us that it was, “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films — a masterpiece.” What movie did she see?

The picture was shot on location in Mississippi, which Altman was told was “the asshole of America” but which he and his French cinematographer Jean Boffety found beautiful, and their fondness for the place and the people shows; the look of the movie is almost like a living Impressionist painting. The excellent cast includes John Shuck, Louise Fletcher, Al Scott, Tom Skerritt and Joan Tewkesbury, who also collaborated with Altman on the script and would write Nashville for him (she’s the woman at the train station Duvall talks to at the end). Calder Willingham also worked on the screenplay, based on the 1937 Edward Anderson novel which originally provided the basis for the 1950 They Live by Night, directed by Nicholas Ray.


Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Three Days of the Condor gettyimages-591378586-612x612

The filmmakers behind this adaptation of a good thriller novel by James Grady called Six Days of  the Condor — Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, who wrote the script and Sidney Pollack, who directed — did more than lop off three days; they used little more than the book’s basic plot, and a few key incidents. (They also transferred the setting from Washington, D.C. to New York. Why?) What I suspect was Robert Redford’s vanity also got in the way of narrative sense: When Grady’s Condor, survivor of a mass killing in a CIA literary shop, goes on the lam one of the first things he does is alter his appearance by getting a close haircut. Redford keeps his modishly long locks, even unto his ludicrous half-muttonchop sideburns. But at least the hair is his — Cliff Robertson wears one of the most elaborately stacked toupees I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t someone suggest to him that when a well-known, Oscar®-winning middle-aged actor suddenly shows up in a movie with bigger, thicker and fuller hair than he had in his 20s, the audience knows he’s wearing a rug?

Although Three Days of the Condor rather needlessly complicates Grady’s plot, there are some real compensations, not least of which is intelligence, and the screenwriters’ filling out of the novelist’s rather perfunctory feminine coeval for the hero, well embodied by Faye Dunaway. True, we could do without the dollar-book Freud “Condor” instantly psychoanalyzes her with, the phoniness of which is best judged by imagining how outraged he would be if she did it to him. With her famous blond hair dyed brown, Dunaway is almost unrecognizable — it’s astounding how that single change alters her features, softening the severity of her Classical beauty and making her seem more human, and more attainable. And there’s an amusing variant to the novel in Condor’s manipulation of the New York City telephone lines, although his spilling his story of Central Intelligence Agency mayhem to the New York Times, intended as a post-Watergate nod to the nobility of the press, merely seems foolhardy and, for a CIA employee, laughably naïve. The first call a Times reporter or editor would make after such a revelation would be to CIA.

John Houseman performs one of his standard haughty old men on whose every word others are required to hang, and Robertson telegraphs his character’s duplicity from his first scene. But Max von Sydow, as the chief assassin, is a more shaded character, and has a splendid scene near the end with Redford. Pollack’s direction is highly competent and occasionally more, as with the fight scene in Dunaway’s apartment. Like Pollack’s Tootsie, which also boasted the cinematography of Owen Roizman, Three Days of the Condor is often astonishing to look at; Roizman’s images are mouth-wateringly crisp, and (at least on Blu-ray) as fine-grained as any color film you will ever see. That may be more than a good thriller even requires, but how often these days is that observation relevant?


The Thief and the Cobbler  (1993/2013)

thief_cobbler-1430160095

Richard Williams’ astonishing animated Arabian Nights feature, still incomplete but reconstructed by Garrett Gilchrist in his Recobbled Cut Mark 4.


The Great Train Robbery (1978)

Great Train Robbery-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000 resized

Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (known in Britain as The First Great Train Robbery, to distinguish its action in the minds of potential ticket-buyers from the much more contemporaneous, and well-remembered, “Great Train Robbery” of 1963) is one of those richly appointed, beautifully shot and wonderfully cast entertainments that make for a wry, exciting evening’s amusement as long as you know that, while depicting on an actual incident, the picture is largely fictional and should be taken as such. Based on the 1855 theft of gold from a moving train, and on the writer/director’s own novel, the picture is a cheery, funny escapade with some sharp digs at the British upper class, and glorious production design that puts you absolutely in Victorian era London (although it was shot largely in Ireland.) Sean Connery is the ersatz nobleman of dubious means, suave but dangerous, who plans and executes the theft; Lesley-Anne Down is his actress lover who proves useful in a number of necessary diversions; Donald Sutherland, often hilarious, is the safe-cracker; and Wayne Sleep is the ill-fated criminal acrobat who runs afoul of Connery.

Crichton’s direction is elegant and wonderfully paced; he seems always to know exactly where to place the camera. Jerry Goldsmith composed one of his most distinctive scores for the picture, anchored to a charming waltz he then transforms into variants: Slowed down it evokes the atmosphere of London’s mean streets, simplified it becomes a romantic guitar accompaniment for Connery and Down’s bedroom scenes and sped up it’s rousing background music for the robbery. One of the movie’s great pleasures is the lush widescreen color cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, to whom Crichton dedicated it. A painter with light, Unsworth shot some of the most sumptuous looking movies of the 1960s and ‘70s: Becket (1964), the Olivier Othello (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Olivier’s Three Sisters (1970), Cabaret (1972), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Royal Flash (1975), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Superman (1978) and Tess (1979). The fine supporting cast includes Alan Webb, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd and Malcolm Terris as a smug, hypocritical bank official. The final joke has no basis in historical reality, but takes the movie out on a high, and very funny, note.


Heat (1995)

Heat - Pacino

Michael Mann’s complex, character-driven heist movie has the texture of a sun-lit nightmare: L.A. as a warm place to die a chilly death.

Heat - De Niro


The Thrill of it All (1963)

The Thrill of it All - Day, Reiner, Garner

A shrill, occasionally funny farce, meant to satirize television advertising but so dishonest about that it merely gums the subject rather aggressively. Doris Day is an obstetrician’s wife who gets corralled into performing impromptu cleanser commercials for a cheesy live drama omnibus show (in 1963?) and finds her marriage on rocky (or, if you prefer, soapy) ground. It’s too ephemeral to take seriously for a moment — The Glass Bottom Boat had more gravitas — but it’s a pretty thin gruel to have come from the combined talents of Carl Reiner (screenplay) and Larry Gelbart (story, with Reiner). Some of the scenes have that terrible look so representative of the era’s color television episodes, but the cinematographer, Russell Metty, occasionally gets in some pleasant lighting. It would have been almost impossible at that time to imagine the director, Norman Jewison, ever making movies as rich as In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, but at least his pacing is brisk.

James Garner brings his usual charm and comic outrage to the husband, and the supporting cast includes Reiner (in several bits), Arlene Francis, Edward Andrews, Reginald Owen (playing Andrews’ father, the sort of role Andrews himself would corner in the coming years), Zasu Pitts as a rape-obsessed housekeeper, Elliott Reid as an advertising man, Alice Pearce, Herbie Faye, Hayden Rorke, Burt Mustin, Robert Strauss, Lennie Weinrib, Lillian Culver, King Donovan, Bernie Kopell and, in a voice-over, Paul Frees. I could also swear I heard Madge Blake’s voice, but can find no proof of her participation. Brian Nash and Kym Karath play Day and Garner’s small children; Karath is best remembered as Gretl, the tiniest of the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music two years later. The picture is inoffensive, even with its dated attitudes toward women in the workplace; the one absolutely unforgivable element is the appalling, mickeymouse musical score by (Frank) De Vol.


Alias Nick Beal (1949)

Alias Nick Beale

A dark political fantasy that, on balance, seemed designed to satisfy everyone who ever thought a politician had sold his soul, which is pretty much all of us. (Today people like Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t even bother to hide their corruption; they display it openly, and their worshipers call us names if we say anything about it.) Beautifully directed by John Farrow and with a brisk, intelligent screenplay by Jonathan Latimer from a story by Mindret Lord, the movie is so sharply observed it puts to shame all the cringe-making, faux-populist projects of Frank Capra, a man with a deep distrust of “the people” even as he desperately kept trying to woo them. Thomas Mitchell plays the crusading District Attorney who in his frustration at being unable to nail a mobster makes a casual wish he never expected to have granted, and Ray Milland is “Nick Beal,” the Satanic figure with the means to deliver. Mitchell gives his usual fine performance, and Audrey Totter is excellent as a good/bad girl, but Milland really delivers. There was always something a little unpleasant about him as an actor that lingered below his surface charm. Billy Wilder tapped it in The Lost Weekend, and Farrow really mines it here. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, even in a bad print, is rich and atmospheric, and about the only miscalculation in this 82-minute gem is the uncharacteristic, almost shockingly emphatic, score by the otherwise subtle Franz Waxman. With Fred Clark as a machine boss, Geraldine Wall as Mitchell’s saintly wife, a very young Darryl Hickman as a reform-school candidate and George Macready as, of all things, a minister. (Thanks for this one, Eliot M. Camarena!)


Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane - Moorehead

I ended one year, and began another, with the same film. It isn’t among my very favorite pictures, nor even my favorite among those of its co-author, director and star. But Orson Welles’ debut is still among the most enjoyable movies ever made, and it yields new pleasures and unexpected contours with every viewing. This time I noticed, for the first time, the way Welles keeps the lighted window at Xanadu in the same spot throughout the prologue, even when it’s a reflection in water. That may not be strictly logical, but it certainly is impressive.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Necrology, 2019: Filmmakers and Movie-Related

Standard

By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Movie Industry
Ron W. Miller, 85.
Speaking of Disney. Miller, husband to Walt’s daughter Diane, was President and CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1978–1984, a crucial period in which under his leadership, and owing to a slate of mediocre animated and live-action pictures, the studio seemed headed for, to quote from Booth Tarkington, a state of bustitude. When a greeting card company in Ohio attempted a hostile takeover that backfired (Disney ended up owning them), Michael Eisner was in and Miller was out. Some of us, who rooted for the company in ‘84, have since grown to wish it had died.

David V. Picker
, 87.
Picker was, in his modest way, part of a golden age. Working at United Artists he brought Tom Jones (1963) to the studio, as well as A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) and, as CEO, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Last Tango in Paris (1972). He later produced Juggernaut, Lenny (both 1974), Royal Flash and Smile (both 1975). Still later, as president of Paramount, he approved and helped to develop Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Ordinary People (1980). He then produced three Steve Martin/Carl Reiner collaborations (The Jerk in 1979, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in 1982 and The Man with Two Brains in 1983). As president at Lorimar he supervised Being There (1979) and Blake Edwards’ Hollywood satire S.O.B. (1981). Then, at Columbia, he brought in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) and Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). He later produced Leap of Faith (1992) and, in 1996, The Crucible. Along the way, Picker also greenlit Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood.

Wayne Fitzgerald, 89.
If you were a keen moviegoer (or, via television, movie-watcher) in the 1970s and ‘80s, chances are you saw some of Fitzgerald’s best and most distinctive work as a main title designer: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Little Big Man and The Owl and the Pussycat (1970); Chinatown, The Conversation, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Godfather — Part II (1974); Funny Lady and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); The Missouri Breaks (1976); Slap Shot, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl (1977); Heaven Can Wait and The Deer Hunter (1978); Apocalypse Now (end titles) and The Muppet Movie (1979); Private Benjamin and Nine to Five (1980); Reds, Pennies from Heaven and Body Heat (1981); Tootsie (1982); The Outsiders, The Big Chill and Terms of Endearment (1983); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986); The Milagro Beanfield War (1988); Dick Tracy (1990); Groundhog Day and Grumpy Old Men (1993); Wyatt Earp and Maverick (1994).

Robert Evans, 89.

Marathon Man - Hoffman and Evans resized

Who is able to out-point whom is a signifier of power. Which man enjoyed the prerogative more in 1976? Robert Evans had it, but Dustin Hoffman obviously believed he did. (Well, he would, wouldn’t he?)

The famously combative producer and studio executive, satirized by several filmmakers and actors over the years, not without cause. As head of production at Paramount he shepherded a spate of terrific movies into the theaters: The President’s Analyst (1967), The Odd Couple (1968), The Detective (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969), A New Leaf (1971, although the studio fiddled with Elaine May’s cut and forced her to re-shoot the ending), Plaza Suite (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), “Save the Tiger” (1973) and The Conversation (1974). As an independent producer, Evans was involved in two classic thrillers (1974’s Chinatown and the 1976 Marathon Man), another very good one (Black Sunday, 1977) and several movies of varying quality: Urban Cowboy (1980), Popeye (1980), the 1984 The Cotton Club (which involved him, peripherally, in a highly-publicized murder), the 1990 Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes. His later productions showed both him, and his industry, in serious decline: Sliver (1990), The Phantom (1996), The Saint (1997) and the unncessary remake of The Out-of-Towners (1999). He was also married seven (!) times and, with his brother Charles, an admitted trafficker in cocaine; being rich, famous and, although not a Gentile, at least nominally Caucasian, Evans naturally received a plea bargain. He was spoofed by David Mamet and Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog (“I gave a magnificent performance,” Evans said of it), Blake Edwards in S.O.B., Orson Welles in The Other Side of the Wind and, I gather, the series Entourage, which I have never seen. The screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, almost equally notorious, proclaimed in his memoir that “all lies ever told anywhere about Robert Evans are true.”

It should be noted as well that Evans was responsible for both Love Story (1970) and The Great Gatsby (1974).



II. Peripherally Related to the Movies

Claus von Bülow and Alan Dershowitz
Claus von Bülow
, 92.
Accused murderers (why does our legal phraseology suggest one is a murderer if  merely accused?) seldom get more notable than von Bülow, the Danish-British socialite initially convicted of putting his wife Sunny into a persistent vegetative state after twice having attempted to kill her. His conviction was, quite properly, reversed on appeal when the celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz took on the case. But as the screenwriter Nicholas Zazan and the director Barbet Schroeder suggest in their fascinating 1990 movie account, there is guilt, and guilt. Claus (Jeremy Irons) may not have given Sunny (Glenn Close) the insulin injection that put her in a coma, but he may not have helped her either. Reversal of Fortune, adapted from Derhowitz’s book, presents an ambiguous narrative in which, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., Sunny narrates from beyond our ken.

Dershowitz, in a later book, described a party given by Claus at which Norman Mailer, hearing the lawyer explain why von Bülow was innocent, took offense that he wasn’t having dinner with a killer, and left.

James Le Mesurier, 48.
The co-founder of the White Helmets, who proved that the Big Lie succeeds far more often than the little one. With the complicity of our world-wide corporate media, Le Mesurier managed to convince a great deal of humanity that his organization, the White Helmets, was an humanitarian aid service and didn’t behead civilians in Syria. His efforts were so effective the spurious 2016 propaganda “documentary” won an Academy Award and the cheers of idiot the Hollywood ignorati. His alleged suicide, which has all the hallmarks of a CIA hit — any time you hear a shady character associated with America’s Permanent Government has taken a dive out a window it’s time to employ a certain basic skepticism — has inspired at least two theories that should comfort the spooks at Langley that, once again, their manipulation of public sentiment has been largely successful.


III. Filmmakers

James Frawley with Kermit

James Frawley, 82. A one-time actor (i.e., The Monkees, or as Joe Galardi, the union rep in the 1965 Dick Van Dyke Show episode “Fifty-Two, Forty-Five or Work”) who moved into television direction (The Monkees and That Girl) and occasional films. His 1976 all-star disaster-movie spoof The Big Bus predated Airplane! but was not nearly as successful, but the 1979 The Muppet Movie was the perfect big-screen introduction for Jim Henson’s eponymous troupe. Among his other television directing credits: Magnum, P.I., Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Cagney & Lacey, Law & Order, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Smallville, Judging Amy, Grey’s Anatomy. I will remember Frawley with fondness for the beautiful “Rainbow Connection” sequence in The Muppet Movie, so entrancing it could have closed the picture rather than opening it.

Stanley Donen, 94.Singin in the Rain - O'Conner, Donen and Kelly

A stylist whose technique was occasionally too busy, and sometimes not enough to cover up for thin and undeveloped material (Lucky Lady, anyone?) Donen was also responsible for some of the most elegant and witty musicals and comedies of the post-War era. A few years ago, a book appeared on the making of Singin’ in the Rain, which Donen co-directed with Gene Kelly. Since this is my favorite movie musical, it’s a book I’d waited nearly 40 years to read. I was staggered that the authors, one of whom, a PhD, was a Civil War historian, were both complete dilettantes when it came to film. That this tome, filled with factual errors, was a university press publication was dispiriting enough. What was worse was the manner in which its authors went out of their way (as Gene Kelly himself did throughout his life) to diminish Donen’s contributions to that picture, and to the others he co-directed with Kelly, painting him as a non-creative zhlub who sat in a director’s chair while Kelly did it all. If Donen contributed nothing to their movies, why did Kelly work with him so often? Why did MGM keep giving him projects?

Well, the proof is in the pudding. Among the movies Donen directed: On the Town (1949, with Kelly), Royal Wedding (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952, with Kelly), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955, also with Kelly), Funny Face and The Pajama Game (with George Abbott, both 1957), Indiscreet and Damn Yankees! (again with Abbott, both 1958), The Grass is Greener (1960), Charade (1963), Arabesque (1966), Two for the Road and Bedazzled (1967), Movie Movie (1978).

Gene Kelly’s filmography without Donen? Invitation to the Dance, The Happy Road, The Tunnel of Love, Gigot, A Guide for the Married Man, The Cheyenne Social Club, That’s Entertainment Part II… and Hello Dolly!

Tell me another, Doctor.


Romeo and Juliet - Zeffirelli bed
Franco Zeffirelli, 96.
A designer and director of plays and opera, Zeffirelli’s first movie was the 1967 Burton/Taylor The Taming of the Shrew, a picture as beautiful as it is maddening; for much of the film, Kate’s dialogue is removed, in favor of a series of enraged, shrewish yowlings. Why film Shakespeare and then remove his lines? Zeffirelli fared much better with his 1968 Romeo and Juliet. Casting the lovers, for the first time on film, not with venerated older actors but with beautiful young people (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) and giving them a sexy, nude morning-after scene made the picture a huge hit with teenagers. Deeply supportive of the Catholic Church, a two-term Senator from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and accused at least twice of the harassment and sexual assault of young male actors, he is a problematic figure, but for the many who fell in love with Whiting and Hussey, in ’68 or after, Romeo and Juliet is his ultimate legacy.

D. A. Pennebaker, 94.

D.A. Pennebaker Original Cast Album - Company

Stephen Sondheim coaching Beth Howland on her performance of  the dizzying patter in “Getting Married Today” during D.A. Pennebaker’s essential 1971 documentary Original Cast Album: Company. Steve Elmore, center.

One of the few truly important documentary filmmakers of the post-war era, whose work includes the 1967 Dylan feature Don’t Look Back; the 1968 music festival documentary Monterey Pop; the 1973 David Bowie feature Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; Moon Over Broadway (1997); with his partner Chris Hehedus The War Room, the revealing 1993 look at Bill Clinton and the neoliberals who helped elect him; and the 2004 record of the one-woman stage memoir Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. For musical theatre mavens, Pennebaker will forever be immortal for his 1971 Original Cast Album: Company, which captured the hectic, marathon recording of the cast recording that helped define Stephen Sondheim’s 1970s sound, and, in the saga of Stritch’s inability to nail “The Ladies Who Lunch” after singing for hours, exposed a bit of the dark underbelly of Broadway.

Richard Williams, 86.
Richard Williams, Roger and Oscar resized
This one is a heartbreaker. Responsible for what is arguably the finest of all renderings of A Christmas Carol in his 25-minute animated version first shown on ABC in 1971, released theatrically the following year and subsequently given the Academy Award® for Best Animated Short Film, creative animator for the brilliant title sequences for the two Pink Panthers that resurrected the franchise (Return of… and Strikes Again) and revolutionary animating director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Williams’ own perfectionism may have cost him completion of his 30-year dream project The Thief and the Cobbler. (Itself a kind of compensation after the demise of his hoped-for adaptation of Indries Shah’s The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Masrudin, an edition of which he had illustrated.) Since a test-reel for Cobbler was Williams’ entrée to Disney, and the 1992 Aladdin seemed almost inescapably so gleeful a public screwing of the very man whose genius had made Roger Rabbit possible, I have always blamed The Mouse for the way things turned out. The Eisner regime was certainly the villain here, but Williams’ own intransigence — his insistence on longer and longer sequences, and re-doing existing ones — caused him to run out of time; Warners’, which was financing the picture, pulled out rather than compete with Aladdin in the motion picture bazaar, with only 15 minutes of footage left to wrap up the project. The Completion Bond Company then fired everyone involved, including Williams, farmed out animation to South Korea, re-animating existing sequences and adding superfluous musical numbers that, if anything, made Cobbler seem more like an Aladdin rip-off rather than, as we know, the other way round. That Miramax, which snarfed up this new version (called, naturally, The Princess and the Cobbler, although it was eventually released as Arabian Knight) was then owned by Disney puts the final, un-funnily ironic nail in the picture’s coffin.

Williams was prodigiously gifted, an artist whose chosen medium was the most painstaking and time-consuming of them all. That this genuine visionary — to see his Cobbler, or merely parts of it, and even reduced to the size of a computer screen, is to experience a genuine sense of awe and of wonder and to be truly dazzled by its execution entirely by hand — was reduced to hosting animation masterclasses to earn his keep is an almost perfect paradigm for the artist in an age of rampant, and many-tentacled, commercialism. One is reminded, irresistibly, of another 20th century master incapable of completing his final project before it was taken from him, and whose indecisiveness at crucial moments exacerbated the process. And if Richard Williams was not quite in Orson Welles’ league, I strongly suspect that Welles would have recognized in him a fellow magician, his table folded, forced to sing for his supper.

Richard Williams and Vincent Price develop their villain Zig-Zag the Grand Vizier resized

The Thief and the Cobbler: Richard Williams and Vincent Price developing the character of Zigzag, the Vizier (to whom Aladdin‘s Jafar bears more than a passing resemblance) and his odious avian pet Phido, whom the Vizier somewhat resembles.


Lee Mendelson, 86.

A Charlie Brown Christmas resized

Mendelson was the producer of every Peanuts television special and movie from 1965 to 2015, making his work with Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez beloved of at least two generations and likely more. It started with an un-aired (until 1969) documentary called Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz, which led to the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). I was slightly too young to have watched it on its premiere — or if I did, to remember it — but I vividly recall seeing the next two, both in 1966: Charlie Brown’s All Stars! and, especially, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which began my lifelong love for, and identification with, Linus Van Pelt. Several good Peanuts specials followed: You’re in Love, Charlie Brown, 1967; He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown, 1968; It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, 1969; and You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown, 1972. I stopped watching them after that, although I was wild about Mendelson’s hour-long 1973 television edition of the 1967 Off-Broadway musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown by Clark Gesner and which starred the now-forgotten Wendell Burton as Charlie Brown, Bill Hinnant (the only hold-over from the show) as Snoopy, Mark Montgomery as Schroeder and Barry Livingston (Ernie of My Three Sons) as Linus. Mendelson also produced The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (1968), the charming movies A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and Snoopy Come Home (1972), the latter of which boasts a song score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and 18 episodes of the delightful Saturday morning series The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show (1983 – 1985).

One could argue that with their use of limited animation the Schulz specials and films contributed to the cheapening of hand-drawn cartoons, but what Mendeslon, Melendez and “Sparky” achieved was the perfect symbiosis: Although generally not directly adapted from specific Peanuts panels, the Schulz projects distilled and embodied what made the strip, itself somewhat limited visually, so very special: Its charming humor, plangent emotionalism and philosophical bent. In an increasingly crass, vulgar and noisy society, the gentleness and essential humanism of the Peanuts cartoons, their action and dialogue as accessible to children as to their parents and grandparents, provide an alternative and a necessary corrective. I too grew up in a world filled with junk, and noise: G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, Rankin-Bass specials, terrible cartoon series, dopey music, inane commercials (and kiddie shows that existed to endorse them) and endless hours of Saturday morning pap. But it was also a world that offered the gentle, friendly presences of Captain Kangaroo, Kukla, Fran & Ollie and Charles Schulz.

Thanks, Mr. Mendelson, for adding a small measure of grace to a largely graceless medium and an increasingly boorish world.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Nothing but work: “The Thief and the Cobbler” (1993/2013)

Standard

By Scott Ross

“I’ve never understood why some people in animation are so desperate to save work. If you want to save work, what on earth are you doing in animation? It’s nothing but work!” — Richard Williams

The animator Richard Williams died earlier this year, and this past week I finally sat down with the re-constructed edition of his despoiled life’s work, The Thief and the Cobbler, cleverly subtitled “The Recobbled Cut” and made available online by the filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist. Gilchrist completed the picture, to the pre-recorded soundtrack, occasionally using pencil-tests or otherwise incomplete animation to fill in the 15 minutes that remained unfinished when the picture was taken out of Williams’ hands in 1992.

To call the movie astounding is to do it scant justice. It’s one of the most technologically dazzling, glorious-looking animated movies I’ve ever seen.

I’ve written elsewhere about the picture’s troubled history and how, after a reel of footage from it won Williams the job of preparing the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit Disney suddenly decided an Arabian Nights tale would be its next animated feature following Beauty and the Beast. That the 20-plus year pet project of a three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker was first undermined and forcibly wrested from him is a tragedy. But, as “Stevem” in his excellent video analysis of The Thief and the Cobbler observes, Williams didn’t know when to stop, or when too much was too much. The movie’s climax serves an example. It’s gorgeously designed, superbly executed, and absolutely astounding, especially for entirely hand-drawn animation. But it goes on for 15 minutes. That’s three times longer at least than it needed to be, and a good producer would have insisted it be trimmed down considerably. (Williams, alas, was his own.) Yet even while we’re wearying of this over-extended sequence involving a monstrous War Machine we can’t help appreciating how ingeniously it’s being done. It’s brilliantly conceived and animated — violent death as a Rube Goldberg construct.

The Thief and the Cobbler - War Machine

The Thief and the Cobbler isn’t remotely like a Disney cartoon; it’s its own genre. It doesn’t have the heart or well-defined characters of a Disney cartoon, and it doesn’t try to. (The King’s daughter Yum-Yum is especially poorly defined.) If it had gotten completed, and released as Williams planned it, it probably wouldn’t have pleased many people other than animation mavens. One thing you have to concede about the Disney animators and story men (and they were almost always men) is that they were masters at developing character in a two-dimensional medium, and Williams’ characters — perhaps because he did so many short films and animated movie titles? — are, with the magnificent exception of his Grand Vizier, thin; he introduces them, and once you’ve grasped their essential qualities you realize they aren’t going to change much, or deepen beyond your first glimpse of them. But who says every animated feature has to be like a Disney? The Thief and the Cobbler creates its own, unique world, based on the rich, colorful tradition of Muslim design and while it is odd that neither titular character speaks (at least until the very end) the picture is wonderful to watch, and has its own weird rhythms, which the Disney artists would certainly have deemed confounding… although you can see exactly where they stole from it.

The Thief and the Cobbler - Zigzag with cards

The most obvious “borrowing” is from Williams’ most well-defined character: Zigzag, the Grand Vizier voiced by Vincent Price. Although the figure is itself a borrowing — he was clearly inspired by Conrad Veidt in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) as is some of the movie’s action — he’s entirely fresh, whereas the corresponding character in Aladdin is really just an animated Veidt. Zigzag is wonderfully designed, and animated: He has five fingers and a thumb on each hand, when he walks his feet cross, and his huge, bulky shoulders are hunched like those of a bird of prey (he has a vulture called Phido for a pet).* And Price caresses the character’s dialogue, all of it in rhyme, as only he could; he has such a high time of it he’s still rhyming even as he’s about to be devoured by crocodiles.†

The Thief and the Cobbler - Tack

The Cobbler, called “Tack,” is a large-eyed, pale-faced figure who lives to cobble; he knits shoes in his sleep, and nothing seems to faze him. What’s most distinctive about him is the way the tacks he holds in his unseen lips indicate his moods. We seldom see his mouth, but he don’t need to. “Stevem” calls Tack “Chaplinesque,” and I suppose he is, but he lacks dimensions. He’s charming, and fearless, but there’s no real reason for Yum-Yum to fall in love with him except that he isn’t the Vizier.

The Thief and the Cobbler - Thief and Cobbler

The Thief is equally one-dimensional, but he’s a great deal funnier. Tack is a believable human figure; the Thief is entirely a cartoon, with a small swarm of flies perpetually hovering over his malodorous head; when the Thief falls into a moat they fly above the water and calmly wait for him to resurface. The character has his best sequence while attempting to steal the three golden balls atop the city’s highest minaret, as he tries to vault his way to the top, each time with a longer pole, eventually flying entirely over it. He sees everything in life in terms of whether or not it’s worth stealing. When it is, he forgets everything else but the object he’s in pursuit of — he represents the Id in extremis. He’s the Wile E. Coyote of elaborately planned larceny yet his luck nearly always holds; he’s almost never hurt, as Wile E. is, and when he loses one object he instantly becomes enamored of another. He’s one of the few genuinely happy characters in the movie aside from Tack. Diametric opposites, they complement each other. The only other comic character of note is the Holy Old Witch, who is marvelously designed and animated but, as voiced by Joan Sims (who also provided the voice for Yum-Yum’s Nurse) is annoying rather than amusing.

The Thief and the Cobbler - The Holy Old Witch

The Thief and the Cobbler is so beautifully done one’s mouth waters to see it projected in a theatre. And since it was made in widescreen, seeing it that way would have been a truly spectacular experience. But even though the movie, and Williams’ struggle with it, has been made the subject of a documentary (Kevin Schreck’s 2012 Persistence of Vision) it seems doubtful anyone will provide the funding necessary for the picture’s proper completion and distribution.

What happened to Richard Williams with The Thief and the Cobbler makes my stomach lurch, the same way I get physically ill whenever I think of how The Magnificent Ambersons was taken from Orson Welles and destroyed by RKO. And when I consider Williams’ story, I cannot help comparing him to Welles, and to the true iconoclasts in all fields of art: Those whose vision is unlike other men’s, and women’s, and who are punished for that persistence. As the writer and publisher Eliot M. Camarena recently said on the subject, “The biggest sin is leaving the herd.”

Here’s to the clever sheep who slip away.

The Thief and the Cobbler - Thief


*The great Ken Harris, whose work graced hundreds of Looney Tunes and Merry Meolodies as well as the main title sequences Williams designed for two Pink Panther movies, is given prominent billing in the credits as “Master Animator,” and Zigzag’s movements bear his hallmark elegance.

†Several other noted actors performed voice-overs for the picture including Felix Aylmer (opening narration), Anthony Quayle (King Nod), Donald Pleasence (Phido) and Joss Ackland (the chief Brigand) as well as Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

The bloom is off the rose: The Saturday morning cartoons of my youth in decline, 1969 – 1972

Standard

By Scott Ross

Partly as a result of getting older, I suspect, the allure of Saturday morning cartoons began to abate somewhat as I turned eight. But only partly. I was still wild about animation (even the “limited” sort Chuck Jones once astutely termed “illustrated radio”), still spent my allowance on comic books, still went to every Disney movie that opened, and still listened largely to cartoon-related records. But the Great Moment was ending, and I think I sensed it. From the highs of Jonny Quest and The Banana Splits and The Mighty Heroes, there were more and more items like Hot Wheels, which — quite rightly — brought the ire of the FCC down on the network. And there was worse yet to come.



1969.
Old Business: The previous season Bugs Bunny moved from ABC to CBS, and was coupled with the Road Runner series under the omnibus heading The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, alleviating my 12-noon, which-should-I-watch? conundrum. Whew!

the_bugs_bunny_road_runner_Show

New Business: The networks took their Saturday morning fare very seriously in those days. Each typically ran a 30-minute promo on the Friday evening before unveiling their new shows. On one memorable Friday night in 1969, CBS aired not only their promo piece but a full half-hour pilot for what it was obviously expecting to be its breakout hit that year. More on that anon.

the_bugs_bunny_road_runner_hour

1969 comics insert
I was more interested in a few other items on the slate. First, one of two Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races spin-offs, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. The voice of the villain was provided by my favorite Bewitched warlock and Hollywood Squares regular, Paul Lynde. The fact that my family had just moved from Canton, Ohio to Mt. Vernon, birthplace of the then-ubiquitous Mr. Lynde, was serendipity.

The Perils of Penelope Pitstop

Penelope seems dubious. Perhaps she knows something about Paul Lynde? (Who, if they had eyes and ears and a little imagination, didn’t?)

The other was Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, a strange series revolving around Dick Dastardly attempts to shoot down a carrier pigeon during World War I (“Stop that pigeon! Stop that pigeon! Stop that pigeon now!”) “abetted” by, to paraphrase MAD magazine, a gang of the usual idiots. Since D.D. was voiced by Paul Winchell, using the same voice he’d employed in Wacky Races, his “side” didn’t seem to have been the Germans. But he could hardly have represented the Allies, especially as he’s clearly the villain of the piece, and is always foiled. See what I mean when I say it was strange? Still, I loved it. One of my most vivid memories of that time is walking back home from the YMCA on a bitterly cold Ohio January Saturday and finding my DDandMITFM Fan Club package in the day’s mail.

Dastardly and Muttey in Their Flying Machines
The other new show that tickled my fancy was a rare live-action series, The Monkees. Of course at the time I had no notion of just how ersatz and pre-fabricated the band was, or how determinedly the people behind the group (among them Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider) aped The Beatles in their feature films. But I suspect that, even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered. I found them, and their show, cheerful, charming, and fun, from their famous “Monkees Walk” to their under-cranked antics. And it certainly didn’t hurt that their British component was the adorable former chorus-boy Davy Jones.

The Monkees

The show that CBS had pinned its hopes on turned out to be its big winner that year, but I found Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! a let-down. I liked the big, dumb Great Dane (memorably voiced by H-B stalwart Don Messick in the manner of Daws Butler’s Snuffles character from the old Quick Draw McGraw series — and his derivative, Astro of The Jetsons — especially in Scooby’s adoration of “Scooby-Snacks”) and the first image of the main title gave me a pleasant chill: Bats screaming from a prototypical haunted-house. Oh, boy! But in the pilot, as in every single episode after, the plot’s seeming phantasmagoria turned out to hold (yawn) a logical, and all too human, explanation. Like most children, I loved the eerie, the creepy, the ghastly, the ghostly. I wanted to be scared. I wanted ghouls. I wanted blood-thirsty monsters. Not some old guy running around in a rubber spook suit. (Nearly a decade earlier, Jonny Quest got it right. Were the networks now bowing to parental pressure?) For this 8-year old viewer, Scooby-Doo violated my expectations in the most prosaic fashion. I continued watching the show, but for the characters — such as they were — and for the cute blond Freddy, not for the series itself, its lame mysteries, or its anti-spectral solutions.

Scooby Doo

The Mystery, Inc. gang has been the collective victims of countless Internet porn spoofs… especially, in the gay arena, Shaggy and Fred.

The NBC line-up continued to be great fun. I remember tearing this promo spread from a Heckle and Jekyll comic; although I thought the artwork was strange, even a little crude, something about it appealed to and intrigued me.

1969 NBC insert

Along with the returning Banana Splits and Underdog, the most enjoyment was to be had with two new NBC series. The Pink Panther Show provided a forum for airing the Friz Freleng/David DePatie-produced theatrical Panther shorts, along with new ones, including a curious series called The Aardvark and the Ant in which a Dean Martin sound-alike emmet is menaced, Wile E. Coyote style, by a Jackie Masonesque anteater. (The Inspector shorts followed later.) But the cream of the crop was the genuinely bizarre Sid and Marty Krofft offering, H.R. Pufnstuf.

H R Pufnstuf

Pufnstuf was a comic fairy-tale in which a cute adolescent (the adorable Jack Wild, the Artful Dodger of Oliver!) washes up on an island populated by costumed characters, led by a Southern-accented dragon. Jimmy is perennially pursued by the ineffectual camp villain Witchipoo (Billie Hayes) because she wants her talons on the magical talking flute the boy carries in his pocket(!) There was also a big frog in leotards and a derby who looked like she wandered in from a Bob Fosse musical (she was called “Judy,” so perhaps the Kroffts were invoking Garland), evil trees, talking alarm-clocks and a sneezing house. It was crazy, atrocious, and enchanting.


1970.

1970 comics insert CBS

Hanna-Barbera continued exercising its pop music bent with two new shows, Josie and the Pussycats and The Harlem Globetrotters. Filmation likewise mutated The Archies (Archie’s Funhouse Featuring the Giant Juke Box) and the Kroffts followed up the quasi-musical H.R. Pufnstuf with The Bugaloos, a bunch of adolescent insect musicians menaced by yet another wacky wiccan, this time played by Martha Raye, on NBC. The Archie Andrews universe also gave birth to Sabrina and the Groovie Ghoulies, fright-show refugees who (naturally) have their own rock band.

Josie and the Pussycats

Josie, which looked like an animated Hefner fantasy, at least had the distinction of having an integrated trio. The Bugaloos was also integrated. I wonder why I don’t remember how cute John Philpott was.

the-bugaloos-1970

I’d loved watching the real Harlem Globetrotters on television, and I enjoyed seeing them on Saturday mornings, even in lousy Hanna-Barbera animation and saddled with dumb plots and a little old (white) lady bus driver. They also sang, quite well (especially Meadowlark Lemon) and the eventual Harlem Globetrotters television soundtrack LP is still a cheery, funky delight.

The-Harlem-Globetrotters

Meanwhile, over at ABC…1970 ABC comics insert

While I was looking forward to Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please… Sit Down! (and which I now scarcely recall…)

Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please… Sit Down
Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp

… the winner of the bizarro sweepstakes that year was, hands down, Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. Almost indescribable, LLSC starred a cast of costumed primates playing out a Cold War satire (although the chief villain had a monocle and a vaudeville Cherman accent… don’t think about that too long) and riding around on chopped motorcycles complete with training wheels, with the lead’s voice performed à la Humphrey Bogart.

A part of me finds this sort of thing cruel now, but at the time it amused me no end.


1971.

I continued to spend now-wasted hours in front of the tube on Saturdays at 10, but with an increasing loss of enthusiasm. Even comic books, my mainstay since the age of four, had begun to pall on me, what with paltry narratives, indifferent artwork and increasing cover prices. (The obvious exceptions being those featuring reprints, such as the Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge.) The magic was waning.

The new Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show was mildly intriguing. Even more interesting than the teenage versions of the Flintstones’ and the Rubbles’ somewhat bland offspring — their sidekicks were quirkier, and more fun — was the fact that they were voiced by Sally Struthers and Jay North. Poor Jay North.

Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show

Archie’s TV Funnies

Archie Andrews’ world was re-jiggered yet again, with the utterly weird Archie’s TV Funnies. I was a comic strip maven, so I enjoyed it, but it’s hard to fathom that the Filmation team imagined 1970s kids would be turned on by animated versions of Nancy and Sluggo, Moon Mullins, The Katzenjammer Kids (or The Captain and the Kids, as it was known) and Smokey Stover. Broom Hilda was at least current, but Russell Meyers’ strip was far funnier, savvier, more clever, and better drawn, than what showed up on this curious piece of mishegoss.

The finest new show was not a cartoon but a revival of a 1950s series. You Are There dramatized historical events, and was hosted by Walter Cronkite. I still recall many of its episodes, notably the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the incapacitation of Woodrow Wilson, and the confirmation of the Zimmerman telegraph. Instructive, never condescending, always intelligent, they brought history to life in a most immediate and engaging manner.

You-Are-There-The-Alamo-1971-16mm-Film

One of Hanna-Barbera’s endless sausage-factory entries this season was Help! It’s the Hair-Bear Bunch! which the author of the venerable TVParty.com site succinctly regards as “stupid beyond belief.”

Help! It’s the Hair-Bear Bunch!


Lidsville Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick

1972.

The Kroffts returned again, this time with Lidsville. Starring another of my early crushes, the erstwhile Eddie Munster, Butch Patrick, the show also featured former Witchipoo Billie Hayes as Weenie the Genie. (Weenie the Genie”?) But the greatest pull was the villain: The great Charles Nelson Reilly, described by TVParty.com as “the biggest queen ever to parade across the Saturday morning screens.”


The most pleasing of the new cartoons this season — the only good one, really, especially for a Filmation show — was without doubt Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Hosted by Bill Cosby and based in part on his childhood memories, and the use of them in his stand-up comedy LPs of the 1960s, the show gave voice (and presence) to urban black youth for the very first time on Saturday morning. The characters were quirky, funny and engaging, and while there were what I now think of as Dread Moral Lessons packed into in each episode like a pill you try to hide in your pet’s puppy-treat, the series, which ran for an astonishing 13 years, was (at least in the beginning) often very fine. Far above the Filmation norm… although if, like me, you saw what might be regarded as the pilot, the 1969 special Hey, Hey, Hey! It’s Fat Albert, when it first aired and it might have seemed to you that the characters, in their slicker Filmation incarnations, lost more than a little style and a great deal of soul, in the process.

Hey Hey Hey It's Fat Albert

fat albert and the cosby kids

This was the last year I really cared to sit around watching the Saturday morning shows, at least without something else to do… a pad to draw in, something to write, maybe a comic book. My interests were changing (novels, as opposed to comics, for example.)

I was certainly changing. But the seemingly endless Saturday morning party was coming to a close. The shows were becoming cuter (The Smurfs, The Care Bears) and more opportunistic (The Jackson 5ive first, then The OsmondsThe Brady Kids and finally, the nadir, The Partridge Family 2200 A.D.) It wasn’t enough to engage a halfway intelligent adolescent mind (if that isn’t an oxymoron) and certainly a plunge into the abyss after the highs of my childhood.

The CBS Children’s Film Festival ad

One pleasant after-note: In 1971, The CBS Children’s Film Festival “officially” joined the Saturday line-up. Although, curiously, it was not on the ballyhooed schedule until then, I had been enjoying the show (presumably in syndication) since the mid-to-late ’60s, drawn initially by its hosts, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but held by the many splendid movies that followed the opening segment. The films themselves had charm and appeal, and while they were often about troubled youths in difficult circumstances in foreign climes, they never felt didactic or moralistic to me. And they had, in KF&O, the perfect, gentle hosts. Naturally, the Kuklapolitans were eventually axed by CBS, like Captain Kangaroo on weekday mornings.

The party was definitely at an end. And there are few things more dispiriting than a sugar-cereal hangover.

The CBS Children’s Film Festival

Judging from the CBS mike in Kukla’s hand, and the cunning winter duds, I assume K, F & O are reporting from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Thanks once again to TV Party.com for much of the information gleaned for this essay.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

A consummate groove: The Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, 1966 – 1968

Standard

By Scott Ross

In the 28 December 1968 installment of his “The Glass Teat” column for the Los Angeles Free Press, Harlan Ellison copped to being “a devout Saturday morning cartoon watcher,” noting in the nomenclature of the time, parsed as only he would, that the then-current network offerings were “a consummate groove.” I know what he meant.

Ellison - The Glass Teat

Although my conscious memory stretches back, improbable as it might seem, to the age of one or two, I date my memory of that cherished ritual of the TeeVee Generation — rising before Mom and Dad bestirred themselves, bolting down a bowl of Coco-Puffs (or Rice Crispies or Cap’n Crunch or whatever the sugar delivery-system du jour might have been) in the kitchen (we were not allowed to eat in the living room except on TV trays, and then only on special occasion) and plunking ourselves down in front of the tube for the next several hours — to 1966. I was five then, and already cartoon-mad. For roughly the next six years, as my tastes evolved and the glories of the form began first to magnify and expand and then to cheapen and recede inexorably, on Saturdays the cathode box was my companion, my babysitter, my best friend.

Thanks to TVParty.com I have lately been able to reconstruct the full panoply of those (mostly animated) delights that held me rapt, and kept me out of my mother’s hair, for roughly four or five hours every Saturday morning during those years.


The Mighty Heroes

1966. Some lunatic called Ralph Bakshi, of whom I would learn more later, came up with a crazed entry for CBS called The Mighty Heroes, taking off from the costumed crime-fighter comic book craze and consisting of Diaper Man, Tornado Man, Strong Man, Rope Man and (my favorite) Cuckoo Man. My memory of the show is a bit vague, but those wild character designs remain vivid.

Underdog

The TTV-Leonardo folks, meanwhile, who had previously given us King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, came up with their own wonky superhero, Underdog. Voiced by Wally Cox, of all people, his transformation from shy, retiring Shoeshine Boy to intrepid do-gooder was accompanied by the immortal cry, “There’s no need to fear: Underdog is here!” I can still recall his sweetheart, Polly Purebread, performing a song called “Let’s Bongo Congo.” Why? Beats me.

Porky Pig and Friends

Over on ABC, vintage Warner Bros. cartoons were re-packaged under the rubric Porky Pig and Friends, featuring a main title sequence which even then I knew was remarkably and truly ugly.

Atom Ant lunchbox

“Up and at ’em, Atom Ant!”

As Porky ran opposite the Hanna-Barbera Atom Ant, I rarely saw him until the network moved him to Sunday morning. My first school lunchbox featured this formican wonder-worker. Hanna-Barbera had a second offering on ABC, Secret Squirrel; he and his co-hort, Morocco Mole, were on the flip-side of the Atom Ant lunchbox, along with a character I barely remember, the somewhat unsettling Squiddly Diddly. I recall with far greater alacrity Atom Ant‘s Precious Pup for his wheezing snicker, which H-B, never a pair to be shy about beating any gag into the ground and on to China, used for several other canine characters over the ensuing years.

The Beatles

Cashing in on the phenomenal popularity of a certain mop-topped quartet of Liverpudlians, ABC gave us The Beatles in Filmation form. The songs were theirs, but their voices were provided by Paul Frees (John, George) and Lance Percival (Paul, Ringo.) Like, too mod!

The Goober Pyle-esque Milton the Monster is, sadly, forgotten now. But I recall him fondly; I was especially taken with Count Kook’s weekly main title request, “When the stirring’s done, may I lick the spoon?” I used that line on my mother whenever she mixed batter.

Milton the Monster 1965_L01

“I’m Milton, your brand-new son!”

The Jetsons was one of many attempts by Hanna-Barbera to replicate their success in prime-time with The Flintstones. It ran a single season, but found life in perpetuity on Saturday mornings. As an adult, I was amused to discover the Joe McDoakes series of comedy shorts starring George O’Hanlon, the voice of George Jetson.

The Jetsons - End title

“Help! Jane! Stop this crazy thing! Help! Jane!”

Noon was a time of deep frustration. On CBS, there was The Road Runner Show with its catchy (albeit all too ’60s) theme song and Chuck Jones-designed main titles. Over at ABC, The Bugs Bunny Show, featuring the immortal “On with the show, this is it” opening and “Starring that Oscar-winning rabbit, Bugs Bunny.” And on NBC, Bob Kane’s Cool McCool with its own hip theme song (“Danger is his business.”) I must have driven myself slightly nuts deciding between this trio of mouth-watering entities.

Virgil Ross - Wile E. Coyoye model sheet

A Virgil Ross model sheet for Wile E. Coyote.

show_bugs-bunny_logo

Cool McCool

Cool McCool

I suspect I switched from the Cool McCool opening to Bugs and then back and forth between the bunny and the Road Runner. The choices! They could drive a poor child mad!
The Bugs Bunny Show end logo

The original nighttime Bugs Bunny Show ran prior the networks moving to color. Since my parents never owned a color set, this is how I saw everything while I was growing up.

Magilla Gorilla ran after that, briefly, followed by Tom and Jerry, which also eventually ended up as a Sunday morning offering. As I’ve grown older I have less and less admiration for those early Hanna-Barbera shorts, as beautifully animated as most of them are; they seem largely exercises in grotesque cruelty. But I still love it when Tom gasps.
The Tom and Jerry Show


1967. One of the occasional pleasures for a comic book aficionado in the mid-’60s was the seasonal appearance, usually in two-page centerfold spread, of ads touting a network’s new fall Saturday morning offerings. I used to pull these from my comics and keep them in a growing cache of newspaper and other clippings.

1967 comics insert

ABC 1967 comic book insert

Very few of the new ’67 shows appealed to me especially. My comics of choice were of the “funny animal” variety: Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck, Looney Tunes characters, Hanna-Barbera, the Harvey comics and John Stanley titles like Little Lulu and Melvin Monster. Superheroes bored me then, as indeed they largely do now. I remember Spiderman mostly for its theme-song, but I suppose I must have watched a few of the others, simply because they made up the bulk of the offerings on all three networks, broken up only by The Flintstones, Atom Ant and another failed Hanna-Barbera attempt at prime-time, the Bilkoesque Top Cat. (Voiced by Arnold Stang, no less!) Another catchy theme song in that, one that was cannibalized years later by the makers of the exuberantly, hilariously offensive Queer Duck.

Top Cat

Top Cat! / The most effectual / Top Cat! / Who’s intellectual…

The two standouts that season were polar opposites. One was completely new, the other yet one more Hanna-Barbera prime-time cast-off that ran a single season. One was the product of two of the most inventive, even subversive, minds ever to work in the field of television cartoons, forever pushing the boundaries between adult sensibility and childish humor; the other the natural outgrowth of comic book adventure tropes geared to pre-adolescent boys.

George of the Jungle

George of the Jungle issued from Jay Ward and Bill Scott, the inspired loons behind Rocky and Bullwinkle. In it, an inept ersatz Tarzan (“Watch out for that… treeeee!”) disported himself with a gorilla who sounded suspiciously like Ronald Coleman, and a jungle maiden named Ursula (shades of Miss Andress), whom George called “Fella.” In between their escapades were the adventures of Henry Cabot Henhouse III, aka Super Chicken, and the stalwart racer Tom Slick. It was wild, unpredictable, full of outrageous puns and inexplicable sight-gags. And, as with Rocky and Bullwinkle, one enjoys it even more as an adult than one did as a child.

Super Chicken
George’s polar opposite, Jonny Quest, was straight-up action-adventure, usually in “exotic” climes and often with supernatural, or seemingly supernatural, forces at work: Mummies, werewolves, terrifying globs of invisible energy, gargoyles, Komodo dragons, spider-like one-eyed robots and, in one especially memorable episode, a pterodactyl. It was a curiously homoerotic enterprise, what with the family group consisting of Jonny, his widowed father Dr. Quest, the Doctor’s humpy factotum Race Bannon, the Doctor’s Indian ward Hadji and, aside from the mysterious Jade, no women or girls to speak of. The character designs were by the comics artist Doug Wildey, the astonishing, Big Band driven theme was by Hoyt Curtin, and Jonny himself constituted my very first crush.* Typical of me, I suppose, that the first boy I fell in love with was a cartoon character.

jonnymodel

Doug Wildey’s model sheet for Jonny Quest


1968.
1968 cbsart

Go-Go Gophers insert

TTV came up with Go-Go Gophers, an animated Indian Wars satire more or less on the level of F-Troop. The Natives may have been visually offensive, but the White Man was represented by bumbling foxes led by the incomparably inane Colonel Kit Coyote, so I
suppose there was something here to offend everyone.

Wacky Races
Hanna-Barbera weighed in with the truly bizarre Wacky Races, in which a platoon of improbable vehicles and their alternately weird and/or creepy drivers, vied each week to out-smart, and outvillainize, each other. The lead stinker was the superbly malevolent Dick Dastardly (voice by Paul Winchell) who seems to have been designed after Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate in The Great Race. His side-kick, Muttley, inherited Precious Pup’s wheezy chortle.

The Archies

Also making their debut were The Archies, Filmation’s adaption of the Archie Andrews comics, in which the teens had, naturally, their own band. They even got a Top 40 hit (“Sugar, Sugar”) out of it. Debate topic: Was there ever a good Filmation series?

The Banana Splits

Best of the… er… bunch… though, was the Hanna-Barbera produced, Sid and Marty Krofft-designed The Banana Splits. Four costumed nut-cases (the character designs were by Sid and Marty Krofft, and Fleagle was voiced by Paul Winchell) danced, cavorted, engaged in slapstick, played pop songs, and hosted animated shorts (The Three Musketeers, The Hillbilly Bears, Arabian Nights, Micro Venture) and a live-action cliff-hanger called Danger Island! whose catch-phrase (“Uh-oh… Chongo!”) became ubiquitous. The Banana Splits theme (“The Tra-La-La Song”) was pretty nifty too.

I was wild about this show. I had Banana Splits hand-puppets, Banana Splits comics, and was a Banana Splits Fan Club member. Somehow, I missed the two 45 rpm EPs. Well, one can only eat so much sugared cereal.

Curiously, I didn’t recall that Danger Island! featured a much later crush, the impossibly pulchritudinous blond beach-bum Jan-Michael Vincent. Perhaps I was too distracted by Jonny Quest to notice. But with that boy running around half-naked and being a part of such jaw-dropping homoerotic images as the above, I’m shocked it all went past me so easily.

Danger Island

Stay tuned, boys and girls! Part Two comes your way next!


*Somewhat ironically, I discovered to my disappointment years later that Jonny’s voice, Tim Matheson, was in adulthood an especially rank homophobe. Even now, in the supposedly more enlightened 21st century, so is Vincent. One cannot help thinking the gentlemen protest too much.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Some kind of crazy genius: Ludwig von Drake and his creators

Standard

By Scott Ross

Making his first appearance in the world the same year as your humble scribe was one of my very favorite cartoon characters. Professor Ludwig von Drake, acknowledged expert on everything (and if you don’t believe that, just ask him) debuted on Walt Disney’s Sunday evening showcase The Wonderful World of Color, as it then was, in September 1961. He is unique among what I think of as the great Disney characters in that he is the only one who was created, not for the movies, but for television.

Ludwig, Walt and Peacock resized

Ludwig von Drake, annoying both Walt Disney and the NBC Peacock.

Designed by the magnificent Milt Kahl, Von Drake benefited from the use of the then-new Xerox technology so beloved of the Disney animators because, unlike more traditional ink-and-paint coloring and finishing, it preserved their original drawings in a rougher (and, they believed) truer form, preserving the spirit of their renderings. The Professor, with his fringe of hair and feathery hands, was a natural for the Xerox treatment.

Milt Kahl model sheet resized

Ward Kimball

For many years, I mistakenly attributed Von Drake to Ward Kimball’s dry, comic brain. Kimball did animate the Professor, although Von Drake’s initial appearance, in which he sang “The Spectrum Song” by the Sherman Brothers, was directed by Hamilton Luske and animated by Woolie Reitherman and Les Clark.

If you look at Von Drake’s physiognomy, though, there is an uncanny resemblance to Kimball in his later years. However, since Ludwig’s emergence took place during the animator’s middle age, this is surely, however attractive a thought, merely retroactive suggestion.

Milt Kahl key animation resized

Key animation by Milt Kahl.

The Disney organization seemed to be pushing Von Drake for stardom pretty hard at the time of his debut. He showed up on magazine covers…

TV Week

… in Al Taliaferro’s Donald Duck comic strip…

Donald comic

… in children’s books…

… in his own comic book (short-lived as it was with only four issues)…†

… on jigsaw puzzles (I had this one, four or five years later)…

Jigsaw puzzle

Ludwig screaming

Yes, Professor, I agree. Vait just a second!

Still, there was something about Von Drake, beyond the Disney hard-sell. First, Kahl’s brilliant character design. Second, his vocalization by the great Paul Frees. Of all Frees’ myriad comic voices (Boris Badenov, Inspector Fenwick, Super Chicken’s sidekick Fred, the Burgomeister Meisterberger) Ludwig is his masterpiece: The only slightly exaggerated accent* (all those marvelous, rolling r’s), the explosive temper (which, in spite of the lack of official genealogy, does rather link him both with Donald and with Scrooge McDuck), the muttered asides, the outrageous braggadocio.Frees and von Drake resized

Although Von Drake appeared in some very fine short subjects both for television (An Adventure in Color, Kids is Kids, The Truth About Mother Goose) and theatrical release (A Symposium on Popular Songs) nowhere is his (and Frees’) absolute brilliance demonstrated more completely than in the superb Disneyland LP Professor Ludwig von Drake.LP

I discovered this record in a music shop in downtown Mt. Vernon, Ohio in 1970; the proprietor, who stocked sheet music and instruments as well as a few LPs, had a wire-rack display of Disneyland and Buena Vista albums. I must have taxed his patience pulling out these treasures over several months, weighing which one I wanted most (the That Darn Cat soundtrack? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?) but always coming back to Ludwig. Since I only received a half-dollar weekly allowance, of which half went into my savings account, that other half had to go for my comic books (15 cents then, and I’d never forgiven the publishers for raising the cover price from 12) and whatever else I wanted. I must have gotten a few extra dollars for Christmas or my 10th birthday, because one day that winter I nervously approached the music shop with the whole six dollars necessary in my hand, earnestly praying Ludwig was still there.

He was.

I damn near wore that record to the constituency of a hockey-puck.

The album’s delicious songs are by Disney’s house composers, the then pre-Mary Poppins Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. And while there is no writer credited on the LP jacket, I now assume (and await correction for this presumption) that they wrote the material on it, in collaboration with Frees.

Shermans

Richard B. and Robert M. Sherman, at work on the songs for The Jungle Book in 1967.

Aside from the songs, and a few gags, however, nothing on the album feels written. Frees’ exuberant, egocentric chat — hilarious muttered asides and all — sounds wholly ex tempore, as if it was all pouring out of his (or Von Drake’s) brain and off his tongue at the moment the reels of tape began rolling. Early on, Von Drake begins nattering about The Wonderful World of Color as though he was solely responsible for it, his muttering becoming more and more indistinct as he prattles on about some imaginary creative genius called Disney (“…some kind of a duck or something…”) Walt must have loved that.‡

I don’t know exactly what to call what the Messrs. Sherman, Sherman and Frees wrought on this album, but each time I hear it I find it perilously close to some kind of crazy genius.

Wonder Bread sticker

A Wonder Bread premium sticker from the 1970s. I remember this one with a great deal more pleasure than the memory of chewing that sawdust-and-mucilage solid gruel they called a loaf of bread.


*The conception of Ludwig — an educated blowhard who’s nearly always wrong — owes much to Sid Caesar’s recurrent “Professor” character from Your Show of Shows, although Caesar’s accent is much broader than the one Frees opted for.

†The fine, underrated duck cartoonist Tony Strobl provided the artwork for the Von Drake comics.

‡The LP was re-released on CD, slightly and rather curiously truncated (a snippet of introductory music and dialogue at the beginning of “I’m Professor Ludwig von Drake,” a word or two here and there later) at one of the Disneyland shops in a sale-on-demand format. I’m grateful and relieved I managed to snag a copy online, as it seems no longer to be made.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross