Friday, April 6, 2007

Warner Brothers Cartoons A.B. (After Bugs)

By the Fifties and Sixties the Golden Age of American Animation had pretty much run its course. The demand for theatrical shorts, whether live action or animated, had decreased considerably. Many theatre owners opted for showing "double features (two features shown back to back)" and dispense with showing any shorts at all. A 1949 Supreme Court decision ended the practice of "block booking," in which the studios would require theatres to buy an entire package set of films (usually including shorts as well as features). And television had taken away much of the cinema's audience.

It was for these reasons that many of the major animation studios would shut down in the Fifties and Sixties. Some of the studios closed even sooner. Columbia closed its Screen Gems studios in 1946(although its name would be revived two years as later for Columbia's television division). MGM, home of Tom, Jerry, and Droopy, would close its animation studio in 1957. UPA ceased production of animated shorts in 1959 to concentrate on television and feature films. Many of the other animation studios would be able to last into the Sixties and even the Seventies. Terrytoons sold out to CBS in 1955, and managed to last until 1968. Paramount ended production of cartoon shorts in 1967. Walter Lantz would continue producing cartoon shorts until 1972.

For what was possibly the greatest animated studio of all time, Warner Brothers' animation unit, the end of the Golden Age of American Animation was a bit more complex. Warner Brothers closed their animation studio in 1963, bringing an end to an illustrious history that involved more animation stars than any other studio: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, and so on. Their last short was "Senorella and the Glass Huarache," a parody of Cinderella. This was not the end of Warner Brothers' ties with animation, however, as they would soon be back in the business of releasing animated shorts to theatres.

In an apparent change of heart, in 1964, Warner Brothers contracted the newly founded DePatie-Freleng Enterprises to produce a new series of Looney Tunes. The company had been founded by Warner Brothers alumnus Fritz Freleng and producer David DePatie after Warner had closed their animation studio. Among their achievements was the opening credits to the classic comedy The Pink Panther, which featured an animated panther who was, well, pink. The character proved so popular that he was featured in his own animated, theatrical shorts. They would later create title sequences for the TV shows I Dream of Jeannie, The Wild Wild West and My World and Welcome to It, as well as for the movies Do Not Disturb, The Trouble with Angels, and The Satan Bug (they also provided the titles for nearly every Inspector Clouseau movie ever made). DePatie-Freleng would also produce such theatrical shorts as The Ant and the Aardvark series, the Roland and Ratfink series, and the Tijuana Toads series. They produced such Saturday morning shows as The Super 6, The Houndcats, and Here Comes the Gump.

Sadly, the cartoons that DePatie-Freleng Enterprises produced for Warner Brothers did not measure up to the studio's classic shorts, or even DFE's own cartoons. Bugs Bunny was featured in none of the new shorts (he last appeared in 1964 in the short "False Hare"), which given their quality may have been for the best. This did not mean that the shorts featured none of Warner Brothers' roster of famous cartoon stars. Speedy Gonzalez seemed to have the starring role in more of these shorts than any other. Oddly enough, his adversary in many of these shorts was not Sylvester, his traditional antagonist in the Golden Age of American Animation, but rather Daffy Duck (apparently someone didn't inform DFE that ducks do not prey on mice in nature...). To a degree this mismatch probably doomed the shorts from the start--Speedy and Daffy were certainly no Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. They weren't even Sylvester and Tweety.

Of course, the shorts had bigger problems than that of a poorly paired comedy team. The shorts were plagued by very small budgets, thus limiting what the animators could do. The animation was very limited for theatrical shorts even at that time, comparable to the cartoons then airing on Saturday morning. Perhaps the shorts' biggest shortcoming is that they could often be very formulaic. Many of the shorts simply consisted of the usual chase formulas (as in the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons) or oneupmanship formulas (as in the Speedy and Daffy shorts). Worse yet, the cartoons did not open with the classic "Looney Tunes" or "Merrie Melodies" openings. The classic Warner Brothers, titles sequence was replaced with a new, "updated," pop art opening, complete with a rearranged version of "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (which many fans have described as, well, annoying...)." The end credits did not feature the classic line "That's all folks!" In the end history would not look well on the cartoons DePatie-Freleng produced for Warner. In his classic history of American animation, Leonard Maltin referred to them as "abysmal." Other fans of Warner Brothers shorts often tend to agree.

Regardless, the shorts were successful enough that Warner Brothers decided to reopen their animation studio in 1967. Alex Lovy (a veteran of Walter Lantz who had worked on Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda shorts) would be the studio's lead director and William Hendricks the producer. Initially the reopened studio would continue to focus on the team of Speedy Gonzales and Daffy Duck. No less than three such shorts were released in 1967. The new shorts also featured the new titles and end credits. At some point, however, it was decided that the studio should create new, original, up to date characters. Only two more shorts featuring Daffy and Speedy would be released in 1968. After that, the studio concentrated on their new characters.

The first of these characters to appear was Cool Cat, who made in his debut in a short of the same name in 1967. Cool Cat was a tiger who wore a beret and a tie. He spoke like the stereotypical beatnik of the Sixties, his voice provided by Larry Storch (of F Troop fame). His opponent in most the films was big game hunter Colonel Rimfire (whose voice was also provided by Larry Storch). The plots tended to be formulaic, with Colonel Rimfire trying to capture or kill Cool Cat. When Robert McKimson took over as director at Warner Brothers' animation studio, he dropped Rimfire in favour of pitting Cool Cat against a variety of antagonists. Cool Cat was arguably the most successful of the new characters, managing to be featured in six theatrical shorts before the animation studio closed in 1969.

The second new character created by the reopened Warner Brothers animation studio was Merlin the Magic Mouse. He first appeared in the theatrical short of the same name in late 1967. Merlin was a stage magician, assisted by his sidekick Second Banana. In that first cartoon Merlin and Second Banana were voiced by legendary voice actor Daws Butler(perhaps most famous for his work on several Hanna-Barbera cartoons). Afterwards they were voiced by Larry Storch. The character of Merlin was somewhat based upon legendary comedian and film star W. C. Fields. Like the Cool Cat films, Merlin's films were also made somewhat according to formula. One of Merlin's magic tricks would backfire, thus getting Merlin and Second Banana into trouble. Regardless, he was nearly as successful as Cool Cat (which, admittedly, isn't saying too much), appearing in five shorts.

The last of Warner Brothers' new characters to have any kind of staying power (that is, they appeared in more than one short) were Bunny and Claude. The duo were a blatant attempt to capitalise on the movie Bonnie and Clyde, which had been a hit in 1967. They were voiced by Mel Blanc and Pat Woodell. Bunny and Claude were a pair of rabbits, dressed as Thirties era bank robbers, who travelled the countryside stealing carrots. Their opponent was the Southern Sheriff, who was constantly trying to capture the pair. The duo had less success than either Cool Cat or Merlin, appearing in two theatrical shorts.

The studio did make attempts at other new characters, testing them out in one shot cartoons. Among these characters were Flying Ace and Fritz the Red Baron (a pair of WWI fighter pilots), Chimp and Zee (a chimpanzee and a jungle boy who face a big game hunter), and Rapid Rabbit and the Quick Brown Fox (more or less a take off on the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons--Rapid Rabbit was successful enough that a series was planned, but aborted when the studio closed again). None of these characters caught on, perhaps because the plots of their one shot shorts were formulaic even compared to the bulk of the animated material Warner Brothers was producing at the time.

Alex Lovy left Warner Brothers in 1968, whereupon the director's chair was taken by Robert McKimson. McKimson had been an animator and director at Warner Brothers during the Golden Age of American Animation. Among other things, he created the definitive appearance of Bugs Bunny (in a picture of Bugs leaning against a tree), and he created Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales, and the Tasmanian Devil. Sadly, McKimson has often been dismissed by critics and animation historians alike. At the very least, his work has suffered when compared to that of Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng, and Tex Avery. That having been said, McKimson was one of Warner Brothers' best artists. Even after many animators at Warner Brothers were following the lead of UPA in using limited animation, McKimson still insisted on detail in his work. And while his shorts may not have been as intellectual as those of either Jones or Freleng, he made up for it with a flair for comedy and slapstick. His Foghorn Leghorn shorts were among the funniest cartoons released by Warner Brothers.

Regardless of McKimson's reputation, his arrival at the reopened Warner Brothers' studio would mean an improvement overall in the theatrical shorts. The cartoons largely became less formulaic, although they would continue being made to formula until the studio closed again in 1969. An example of this in action is what he did with the Cool Cat cartoons. He got rid of Colonel Rimfire and instead gave Cool Cat different opponents. In "Bugged By a Bee" Cool Cat is bothered by a rather pesky insect. In "Injun Trouble" the tiger is plagued by several Native Americans.

Sadly, McKimson's return to the studio would not be enough to save it. The new characters did not catch on. Cool Cat and Merlin the Magic Mouse would continue to appear on Warner Brothers related merchandise into the Seventies and Eighties. Among this merchandise were Pez dispensers, a series of Pepsi collectible drinking glasses, and Dakin figures. The shorts were also released to television in packages that included shorts from Warner Brothers animation studio's better days. Of course, even then, I suspect many kids' reaction to the characters was simply, "Who the heck are they?" Unlike previous Warner Brothers characters, Cool Cat and Merlin the Magic Mouse inspired no comic books, no Big Little Books, and no TV series. They didn't leave much of a lasting impression at the studio. Indeed, they didn't appear in either of the two Looney Tunes, live action feature films.

Perhaps because their new characters failed to catch on, Warner Brothers found their new shorts performing less and less well. As a result the animation studio closed its doors in 1969. They would not reopen until 1980. "Injun Trouble," starring Cool Cat, was the last short they released. As to why the new characters failed to catch on, many animation historians and fans believe that it was perhaps because the characters were too much a product of their times. Cool Cat was a takeoff on beatniks of the Sixties. Bunny and Claude were an attempt to capitalize on the success of Bonnie and Clyde. Merlin the Magic Mouse was perhaps less contemporary--stage magicians more or less being timeless--but he was based to a large degree on W. C. Fields. Unlike the classic Warner Brothers characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, neither Cool Cat nor Merlin the Magic Mouse could be described as truly timeless. Another reason the new characters may have failed is that to a large degree they resembled many of the characters then featured on Saturday morning television. Both Cool Cat and Merlin the Magic Mouse could have passed for characters created by Hanna-Barbera (albeit without the personality of H-B characters) or DePatie-Freleng.

Some of the new characters would appear from time to time in Warner Brothers cartoons in the Nineties, albeit only in cameos. Cool Cat and Colonel Rimfire managed to put in brief appearances in the TV series Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries and the direct to video release Tweety's High Flying Adventure. And while I may be wrong, I believe that Bunny and Claude also made appearances in Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries as well. Poor Merlin the Magic Mouse seems to have been left out in the cold, as it seems to me that his last appearance on the big screen was in 1969.

The animated shorts released by Warner Brothers from 1964 to 1969 have largely been dismissed by animation fans and historians alike. In fact, it is often not unusual to see both Cool Cat and Merlin the Magic Mouse pop up on various lists of people's "least favourite Warner Brothers cartoon characters." To be fair, however, it must be pointed out that Warner Brothers produced animated theatrical shorts longer than anyone else besides Walter Lantz. And it must be pointed out that the animation studio was provided with an extremely limited budget. In 1967 the average cost of the shorts was approximately $27,000. Keep in mind that in 1953, when a dollar bought a lot more than it did in 1967, the classic "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century" cost $24,022! That the animators at Warner Brothers were able to make any animated shorts of any quality at all was remarkable. While they are hardly up to par with the shorts Warner Brothers made in the Golden Age of Animation, the studio should at least be given credit for trying to keep the form alive when other studios had folded.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Director Bob Clark Killed in Car Crash

Director Bob Clark, best known for the holiday classic A Christmas Story, and his son, Ariel Hanrath-Clark, were killed Wednesday when a SUV driven by a drunk drive collided with their vehicle. Bob Clark was 67. His son was only 22.

Clark was born Benjamin Robert Clark in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on August 5, 1941. He attended Catawba College in North Carolina, where he majored in philosophy, before winning a football scholarship to Hillsdale College in Michigan. Eventually, he attended the University of Miami where he majored in theatre. He could have a professional football career, but turned down all offers for such.

Bob Clark began his film career with a low budget exploitation film called She-Man released in 1967. Clark switched gears and started directing in the horror genre, with the films Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (hippies battle the undead) in 1972, Dead of Night (AKA Deathdream) in 1974, and Black Christmas released that same year. It was in the latter two films that Clark began to display some talent. In fact, Black Christmas (a pre-Halloween holiday themed, slasher movie) is considered by some a classic by some.

Over the next several years Clark's talent would not always be obvious in the movies he directed. Some, such as Murder by Decree (in which Sherlock Holmes matches wits with Jack the Ripper), were quite so good. Others, such as Porky's and its sequel Porky's II: the Next Day, were low points in movie making. Regardless, Clark directed an unabashed classic with A Christmas Story, released in 1983. While it did not perform well in its initial release at the box office, A Christmas Story became a holiday favourite after repeated showing on HBO and other premium channels. Sadly, Clark would never match the quality he achieved with A Christmas Story again. Indeed, many of his films would be closer to Porky's in quality. From the Hip, Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and Baby Geninuses were as abominably bad as A Christmas Story was amazingly good. This is not to say Bob Clark was no longer capable of making good movies. I'll Remember April, released in 1999, was a touching portrait of young boys who find a Japanese soldier in the days of World War II. His film adaptation of Arthur Miller's The American Clock was enjoyable. Clark was capable of making truly great films and even simply good films, despite what many critics might have sometimes otherwise believed.

Bob Clark certainly had a chequered career. Few directors could be attributed with having made unabashed classics and near classics (Black Christmas, A Christmas Story, and Murder by Decree) and movies generally considered abominably bad (Loose Cannons, Baby Geninuses, and Rhinestone). It was the truly good films he made that I would like to remember Clark for. While he did direct those awful Porky's movies, he also directed two of my favourite movies of all time: A Christmas Story and Murder by Decree. There are many directors who cannot say this (Michael Bay is one of them). If Clark is remembered, then, in my mind it should be as the director of A Christmas Story and not the many bad movies he made.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Pre-Movie Commercials

It has probably happened to everyone who has recently attended a cinema. They get their tickets, swing by the concession stand, and then take their seats, eagerly anticipating for the feature to start. In the old days they might have to sit through a few movie trailers. Before that they might be might be treated to a newsreel and a cartoon in addition to the trailers. In the past few years, however, they have probably had to sit through several commercials.

To a degree a link between movies and advertising has always existed. In vaudeville, the predecessor to modern day cinema, advertisements for local businesses would often be featured on the "olio drop," the back curtain of the stage. From the Silent era onwards many theatres would show slides, which often featured ads for local businesses as well as the usual admonitions to be quiet during the feature and not to smoke in the auditorium. Trailers, which are essentially "commercials" for other movies, have existed in some form or another since 1912. But in the Eighties there arose a whole new phenomenon. It was in that decade that theatres started commercials, of the sort one might see on television, before the movies. It was around 1985 that Cineplex Odeon became the first national Canadian cinema chain to start regularly showing commercials before movies. Even then, at Cineplex Odeon only one or two commercials would be shown before any given feature. I'm not sure what the first American theatre chain to start showing pre-movie commercials was, but I know it was probably around the same time.

Since the number of commercials shown before movies has increased dramatically. Where Cineplex Odeon once only allowed one or two commercials to be shown before features, it now allows a whopping four minutes. Things are no better here in the States. At our local theatre we are fortunate in that there are at most only two commercials before any given feature. Sadly, that is not true of theatres in Columbia, where one might be subjected to as many as three or four. Sadly, pre-movie commercials have become so common that in 2003 an organisation was founded to promote such pre-movie ads: the Cinema Advertising Council.

Of course, pre-movie commercials have always had their share of detractors. In 1998 Ralph Nader and the organisation called Commercial Alert started campaigning against commercials, going so far as trying to persuade lawmakers to pass bills in which theatres would have to post the actual start times of movies. There have also sprang up a number of web sites against pre-movie commercials, such as Captive Motion Picture Audience of America. Bad Ads, which keeps an eye on advertisements in general, has a web page dedicated to pre-movie commercials. Some have taken their hatred for pre-movie commercials even farther. In Chicago in 2003 at least two lawsuits were filed, in which it was charged that theatres are engaging in fraud when they do not post the actual start time of movies. There have also been instances of legislation being introduced (in Connecticut and New York City) that would force cinemas to post when movies actually start. I have no idea if any of this legislation actually passed, but it is a mark of how much people hate pre-movie commercials that it was proposed at all.

None of this is surprising to me. While everyone I know appreciates the movie trailers that are shown before features, I know of no one who likes pre-movie commercials. That is why I am a bit puzzled by a recent Arbitron study which claimed that 68% of frequent movie goers (defined by the study as people who have gone to the movies at least five movies in the past three months) found pre-movie commercials "acceptable." Teenagers apparently find pre-movie commercials more acceptable than other age groups--74% of those in the study had no problem with pre-movie commercials. Given the fact that most of my friends tend to be frequent movie goers and that none of us like pre-movie commercials, I have to wonder if Arbitron's study was not somehow flawed.

While most people seem to hate pre-movie commercials, it seems that neither the theatre nor the advertising agency is eager to give up on them. Indeed, many of the major theatre chains will argue that the ads are an important source of revenue for theatres. But the fact is that in 2003 alone, pre-movie commercials accounted for only 3.5% of all box office revenue. I rather suspect that concession stands bring in more. Of course, it is obvious why the advertising industry would favour pre-movie commercials--it is yet another source of income for them.

There was a time when going to the movies was an event (for those interested in what going to the movies was like in the old days, go to A Night at the Movies). One might see a newsreel, a cartoon short, a live action short, and, of course, trailers before the main feature. Sadly, cartoon shorts and live action shorts disappeared from cinemas long ago. Commercials are hardly a replacement. Most movie viewers I know resent having to sit through these commercials even before the trailers are shown--they are not like television commercials where one can mute the TV set, switch channels, and walk out of the room. Furthermore, they make it difficult to know when a movie actually starts. In the old days I could gauge how much time I would have before a movie actually starts by the average number of trailers the local theatres would show before movies. With the advent of pre-movie commercials, it has become a lot more difficult to figure out when movies actually begin. Despite Arbitron's study (which I believe was flawed) and despite their prevalence in cinemas all over the place, I think it is time for pre-movie commercials to end.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Exclusive Preview of the Climax to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Through means I won't disclose here, I have gotten access to a special, sneak preview of the dramatic climax to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the series about the boy wizard. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be published July 21 of this year, with an unprecedented print run of 12 million copies here in the United States alone. Anyhow, without further ado, here is the special, sneak preview...
Voldemort stood over Harry as he clung precariously to the cliff's edge. Around them a storm raged. Lightning forked the sky and the wind blew so loudly that it was difficult for either of them to hear. Regardless, Voldemort smiled and said loudly enough for Harry to hear, "Potter, there is no escape. Don't make me destroy you. You do not yet realise your importance. You have only begun to discover your power.Join me and I will continue teaching you. With our combined strength, we can rule the world."

Harry shook his head furiously in disbelief at what he was hearing. "I'll never join you!"

Voldemort laughed. "If you only knew the power of the Dark Arts. Dumbledore never told you what happened to your father."

Harry yelled. "He told me enough! He told me you murdered my mother and father!"

The wind abruptly increased to the point that Harry thought it might sweep him from the cliff. Thunder rang through the air and there was a bright flash of lightning. Voldemort's smile grew wider and he laughed again. "No. I am your father."

A look of sheer terror came over Harry's face. "No. No. That's not true! That's impossible!"

Voldemort replied, "Search your feelings, Potter. You know it to be true."
I hope you enjoyed this special, sneak preview. I only have one more thing to add--if you really believe this is a special sneak preview of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, well, then, "April Fool's!'