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

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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 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.

A typically expressive Milt Kahl model sheet for Von Drake.

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.

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…


… in Al Taliaferro’s Donald Duck comic strip…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… in children’s books…

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

… 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)…

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.

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.

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 dollar allowance every week, 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 out.

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.

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.

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 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

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Unsound Design: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971/2001)

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Bedknobs poster MPW-49141
By Scott Ross

The 2001 restoration of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) raises some interesting, and unsettling, questions, about the process.

Even when exceptional care and devotion are lavished on a movie, as with David Lean’s 1989 “director’s cut” of Lawrence of Arabia, some of the results may be less than felicitous. Lean had second thoughts, for some inscrutable reason, about a single line in the Michael Wilson-Robert Bolt screenplay spoken by Peter O’Toole, and his revision completely reversed its meaning.

General Allenby: You’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met!
Lawrence: Leave me alone!
Allenby: What?
Lawrence: Leave me alone!
Allenby: Well, that’s a feeble thing to say.
Lawrence: I know I’m not ordinary.
Allenby: That’s not what I’m saying…
Lawrence: All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?

In 1962, O’Toole said, “All right! I’m extra-ordinary!” In 1989, Lean re-jiggered that loaded adjective to a mere “extraordinary.”

The difference? Only the world.

Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lawrence was eviscerated, both at the time of its release and for later reissue. By linking the two I am certainly not suggesting that one is any way the equal of the other. Bedknobs is a pleasant, if somewhat derivative, fantasy musical with engaging performers and a charming Sherman Brothers score, while Lawrence is, despite its “bio-filmic” origins, sui generis — one of the supreme glories of the English-speaking cinema. Where the two intersect is in their shared histories of imbecilic, ruinous wholesale cuts for no reason other than commerce. Where their revivals differ is in the quality of the restoration process itself.

When Lean required lines to be dubbed onto found footage with no soundtrack, he not called upon as many of his original cast as were still alive and able; he also recorded the lines with an ear to matching the original on-set recording as much as he did to replicating the actual timbres of the much younger actors on-screen. Lean seems, puzzlingly, virtually alone in this. In nearly every other large-scale restoration of its kind (Spartacus in particular comes to mind, with its visually and aurally flawed restoration of infamous “snails and oysters” sequence) the ambient sound of the newly dubbed lines in no way matches what was originally recorded. How was Lean able to do that which no one else either cares to, knows how to, or is, seemingly, physically capable? How did Columbia Pictures re-create the sound quality of 1962?

I don’t know, and have never been able to track down what specific sound recording system Walt Disney and his company employed from the 1950s to the ’70s, any more than I can identify the superb system employed by Warner Bros. from the 1940s on to, at least, the late 1960s. (Warners originally used Vitaphone for their talkies, but that recording system had long since passed by the time of The Maltese Falcon.) But one has only to listen with half an ear to the soundtrack of any film from either studio from those years to appreciate the crystal clarity of the reproduction.* Were these sound designs deemed antiquated at some point, perhaps with the creation of newer microphones and tape systems, the original equipment junked? Or is there some other, even more technically complicated reason for the discrepancy? Why, so often, in movies and on CD, does the much-vaunted digital process pale next to the allegedly “inferior” sound recording of analog?

Whatever the reason, in the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, all of the re-dubbed scenes are reproduced, not with the striking crispness of the original but with the infinitely more casual, and muffled, make-do of our current era. Of course I know that sound recorded on the set with its unique, ambient quality, can seldom be replicated in a studio; it’s why, whatever the time period, you can nearly always tell which lines have been over-dubbed later. (Although, in his Hollywood pictures anyway, Orson Welles was especially good at matching.) Indeed, in the case of musicals, pre-recorded vocals seldom replicate live sound. But the absolutely dead sound the current Disney engineers retro-fitted onto this movie is matched in apathy only by the appalling voice work provided by the actors attempting to double for David Tomlinson and Tessie O’Shea, the latter of whose accent now fluctuates wildly over the British Isles, like a berserk vocalic Norman chasing after an elusive, mute Saxon zombie.

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the "A Step in the Right Direction" number. Any resemblance between it and "A Spoonful of Sugar" is purely intentional.

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the “A Step in the Right Direction” number. Any resemblance between it and “A Spoonful of Sugar” is purely intentional.

Any number of additional ironies attached themselves to this one: The original cut of the movie ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes and was intended as one of the last of the big “road-show” spectacles of the era. Unbelievably, Walt Disney Productions planned its premier at Radio City Music Hall in, it seems, complete ignorance of that tatty but venerable establishment’s inviolable rule that pictures which accompany its live stage shows be of no more than 2 hours in length. Disney exceeded that demand, and duly sheared 30 minutes, not merely for Radio City but the movie’s general release, losing several musical numbers and so much dialogue that what was left was difficult to follow — surely a disastrous outcome for a fantasy aimed as much at children as their parents. The studio further compounded this minor obscenity by utterly eviscerating what remained for a late-’70s reissue: 139 minutes in 1971 became first 117 and, finally, a paltry 99 in 1979. Many of the dialogue sequences restored had lost their soundtrack, hence the (again, execrable) re-dubbing. And in a final (and, it seems, irreversible) irony, the very impetus for the restoration, bringing Angela Lansbury’s “A Step in the Right Direction” number, extant on the 1971 soundtrack album, back to the movie, was thwarted; it has disappeared and was, presumably, destroyed(!)

The 1971 soundtrack LP.

The 1971 soundtrack LP.

I was young enough in 1971 (10, if you’re morbidly interested) to love even the truncated original, although I loved it less a few months later, on reading Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, which bear very little resemblance to the movie on which they were, exceedingly loosely, based. Best to think of the film, as with the more vaunted (and popular) Mary Poppins, as variation on a theme. My invoking Poppins is not coincidental. Not only was the same creative team responsible for Bedknobs, from the screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and the director Robert Stevenson to the song-writing Shermans, but both narratives involved magical (and musical, if somewhat starchy) spinsters, contain animated/live action sequences, and feature Tomlinson, here promoted from secondary lead to co-star. (It’s tempting, if fruitless, to imagine the movie with Lansbury squired by Ron Moody, who had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict.) But where Poppins is light on its feet, emotionally plangent and possessed of a seemingly effortless charm, Bedknobs is, despite its magical elements, more earth-bound, less felicitous, and in general has less sentimental resonance than an average re-run of Lassie.†

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

And yet… the restored Bedknobs and Broomsticks has much to recommend it, enough to overcome even the dreadfulness of the new dubbing. First, the presence of Angela Lansbury. This almost criminally under-utilized performer was given her finest and most taxing roles not in film (her acid-etched portrait of mother-love gone mad in The Manchurian Candidate excepted), in which she began, or on television, where she reigned for some time in the 1980s, but on Broadway. Bedknobs represents her only real, extensive opportunity to shine on the big screen, not merely as the star, but as a musical star, and is, perforce, eminently treasurable.

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars: Roy Snart, Cindy O'Callaghan and Ian Weighill.

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars.

Roy Snart, Ian Weighill and Cindy O’Callaghan, the Cockney children Lansbury’s apprentice-witch is saddled with, are exceptionally well-cast, believable both as siblings and as War orphans, and never, as Disney tots alas tend, cloying. Tomlinson clearly had a high old time of it playing a rogue who would have given his own Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins the jim-jams, and Sam Jaffe makes a small repast of his appearance as the slightly sinister Bookman. Roddy McDowall, in his relatively brief but cunningly executed role as a nakedly avaricious country vicar, is especially welcome.; the restoration gives him greater prominence, which is useful, as the truncated version left one scratching one’s head, wondering why he was there at all. If only the great Welsh music-hall performer Tessie O’Shea, seen only in dialogue sequences as a firm but kindly postmistress, had been given a dance or two!

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Sam Jaffe.

Sam Jaffe.

The true movie aficionado will also spot, in tiny roles — some indeed mere glimpses — beloved character actors such as the inimitably high-voiced Arthur Malet (Mr. Dawes, Jr. of Poppins), Reginald Owen (Admiral Boom of same), Cyril Delevanti (the beautiful old poet Nono of Night of the Iguana), and, somewhat shockingly, Hank Worden, barely noticeable, singing as part of the seaside town’s Old Home Guard. The twinned live action/animation sequences, directed by the often brilliant Disney veteran Ward Kimball, are variable. The first, in which Lansbury et al. find themselves in an island lagoon, is charm itself. Crashing an underwater tea-dance, Lansbury and Tomlinson perform a delightfully — there’s no other word for it — fluid duet, in a Sherman Brothers number that is quite obviously the precursor and onlie begettor of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea,” cleverly orchestrated by Irwin Kostel in patented 1940s ballroom fashion.

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in "Beautiful Briny Sea."

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in “Beautiful Briny Sea.”

Bedknobs - Tomlinson and King

The second is more problematic. The Shermans expected the follow-up sequence on the Island of Naboombu, wherein Tomlinson attempts to make off with the animated lion king’s enchanted medallion, to be musical, and penned a sleight-of-hand routine for the versatile actor. What the filmmakers presented them instead was a non-musical, mildly diverting, football game. (Helpfully if inappropriately translated for American audiences as “soccer.”) If you stop to analyze the set-up, you’re lost: Why would these animals, whether immortal or merely the descendants of the enchanted originals, and who explicitly bar humans from their refuge, even know what football is, let alone be mad for it? Why, indeed, are they dressed contemporaneously? Logic takes as much an un-jolly holiday as music here.

bedknobs portobello

Far better, and nearly worth the entire restoration, is the preceding, and greatly extended, “Portobello Road” dance sequence, which Pauline Kael , while deploring the cuts, enthused over. Here, the faded work-prints were beautifully enhanced, especially in the delightful Jamaican section. Now at last that Kostel-arranged Overture makes sense, as we finally understand why the master orchestrator spiced it throughout with brief, ethnically derived riffs and quotations. It is as if MGM, in order to squeeze in an extra screening or two, had cut the “Broadway Melody” ballet from the release print of Singin’ in the Rain.

The Sherman's credit on David Jonas' distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

The Sherman’s credit on David Jonas’ distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

Watching this extended edition of the movie, you understand just how badly the Shermans were represented by the 1971 truncation. Doubly sad, as it was in a sense the brothers’ last hurrah for Disney, and that the movie, even at just under 2 hours, was a financial disappointment: $17 million domestic rentals on a $20 million budget. Fortunately, and somewhat balancing the ultimate loss of “A Step in the Right Direction,” the restoration reinstates the wistful Lansbury ballad “Nobody’s Problems,” an all-too-brief reprise of a longer, and un-filmed, number for the children.

It’s far too easy for cultural critics, especially today, to cynically dismiss the Shermans, but this snobbery does not admit of their innate and almost profligate musicality, their respect for narrative and characterization, and their sophisticated rhyming which is, somehow, both comprehensible to children and satisfying to adults simultaneously.

You try that trick. I’ll time you.

 

*Listen to any Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies short from the ’40s and ’50s for a prime exemplar.

†I wonder if the people involved in this miserable venture were aware that nearly the entire dialogue soundtrack of the 1960 Swiss Family Robinson was re-dubbed after principal photography, due to terrible aural conditions on Tobago during the filming — and you’d never guess unless you knew. Even granted all the actors in that one were still very much alive, if it could be done so well then, why is it so damn difficult now?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

By the Great Horn Spoon!: The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)

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By Scott Ross

Revisiting a movie one loved as a child is always a risky undertaking, especially when the object is a Disney movie — particularly a Disney movie comedy of the slapstick-happy 1960s. Will it be unbearably coy? Unutterably bland? Unendurably silly? Will the very elements that captured one’s youthful, unformed, imagination now reek of cheap, easy immaturity? Or will a return visit reveal new facets, more resonant with adulthood?

The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

What a pleasure, then, to revisit The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)! From Ward Kimball’s minimalist, deliciously recherché opening titles to the hilarious climactic bout of fisticuffs, it proves that rare thing: A movie comedy whose tone and style never waver from beginning to end. And for those who, as I do, admire the great Roddy McDowall, the movie provides the additional unalloyed delight of enjoying him near the summit of his attractiveness and personal charm.

The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball's amusing visual effects.

The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball’s amusing visual effects.

I first encountered this, and another unusually fine ’60s release, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (which also more than holds up) on the weekly Disney television showcase around 1970. It was my introduction to McDowall, who almost certainly pinged something resonant in my nascent, pre-pubescent queer-boy radar.

The movie edition paperback of "By the Great Horn Spoon!", re-titled to reflect the movie.

The movie edition paperback of “By the Great Horn Spoon!”, re-titled to reflect the movie.

A year or two years later, I greatly enjoyed reading Sid Fleischman’s 1965 source novel, By the Great Horn Spoon! with its picaresque Wild West narrative and its charmingly sketched illustrations by Eric von Schmidt. What I remember best about the novel (in which Griffin is called Praiseworthy, and Arabella is Master Jack’s aunt rather than, as in the movie, his older sister) is the perilous sea trip around Cape Horn, jettisoned from a film already plot-heavy without that lengthy but informative diversion.

The adult viewer of Bullwhip Griffin catches, and savors, the story’s fulsome portrait of the raw San Francisco of 1849; the dime-novel excesses that excite young Jack to head West and inspire him to ascribe outlandish attributes for his butler/companion; the effectively melodramatic George Bruns score; the recurrent narrative ballad by Robert and Richard Sherman, whose charmingly anachronistic melodic provenance seems to be Paul Dresser’s “Over the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”; and spotting the many splendid character actors who provide comic assist. These include Mike Mazurki as the dim-witted Mountain Ox, Harry Guardino as an amiable urban weasel, Liam Redmond’s blustering Captain Swain, Cecil Kellaway’s phlegmatic family retainer, Hermione Baddeley as a slyly avaricious housekeeper, Joby Baker’s cheerful Mexican bandit, Arthur Malet as a nearly toothless recipient of frontier dentistry, John Qualen as a Frisco barber, Doodles Weaver as a bather in a fast sight-gag, Bert Mustin in an amusing bit as a lynching aficionado, and the peerless Richard Haydn as a florid stage actor, a character — and a performer — we only wish had a larger role in the proceedings.

The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

Bryan Russell, playing young Master Jack, sounds more like a youth from Los Angeles than the scion of Boston nabobs, but he’s a likable presence. For many years, I misidentified him as Kurt’s brother, an understandable mistake given their similarity of facial characteristics, vocal timbre and boyhood appearances in Disney features.

McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

Karl Malden, an actor for whom I generally have scant use, is cannily employed as the movie’s unstoppable villain, the exuberantly smarmy Judge Higgins. Far better at broad comedy than in his more “distinguished” forays into drama, Malden is most effective when chewing all available scenery, as in his riotously frustrated Archie Lee Meighan in Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.

Karl Malden as the slippery Judge Higgins. The onlookers are appropriately dubious.

And while she’s peripheral to much of the movie’s action, Suzanne Pleshette is her standard delight as Jack’s sister. No shrinking Boston violet, this Arabella; she’s as amused at as she is appalled by her profligate grandfather’s final joke of leaving her penniless, makes her confident way in San Francisco as a saloon chanteuse, and avidly spars with Griffin in preparation for his ultimate battle with Mazurki.

Adventures of Bullwhip - McDowall, Pleshette, Russell 04

The delectable Suzanne Pleshette greets her long-lost brother and her butler-cum-swain in San Francisco.

As Griffin, McDowall does everything he did well, plus. As imperturbable as Ruggles at his starchiest, tolerant of Jack’s boyish impulses, implacable in his sense of honor, unflappable in his determination yet game for whatever opportunities arise, McDowall’s Griffin is thoroughly engaging company. As an added fillip, the movie, smartly adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and stylishly directed by James Neilson, utilizes slapstick devices like under-cranking for sped-up effects along with a series of delicious animated assists from Kimball. The best of these is the period Cupid who floats languidly across the screen to the accompaniment of a hilariously underpowered horn solo, whenever Pleshette bestows a kiss on McDowall.

Griffin's terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

Griffin’s terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

The mis-matched boxing championship with which the narrative culminates hinges on these comedic effects, and could easily have been sunk by them. Instead, they, like the inventive choreography of Alex Plasschaert, prove positive assets, done with the complete assurance and the broad smile of the consummate prankster. Far too many Disney comedies of the period, and after, and which utilize similar devices, wedded to cutesy-poo plotting and cartoon characterization, are broad, vulgar fiascoes of the type that give “family comedy” such a black eye and which so fervently resist revisiting. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, like The Love Bug and the originals of That Darn Cat and Freaky Friday, are the exceptions one wishes had more often proved the rule.

One of Peter Ellenshaw's superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.

One of Peter Ellenshaw’s superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross