Sunday, March 15, 2009
This clip is from the restored version of Gulliver's Travels from E1 Entertainment now on DVD.
Gulliver's Travels can finally be seen in a version on home video close to its original theatrical look
With the success of “Snow White” in 1937, many Hollywood studios were pondering animated features, but only one producer created such a film – Max Fleischer.
The innovative animation producer who brought Betty Boop and Popeye to the screen was under pressure from his distributor Paramount to make a film in time to be released at Christmas of 1939.
The studio did so and “Gulliver’s Travels” was such a hit that MGM brass mused that perhaps the live action “Wizard of Oz” should have been a cartoon!
The film was sold in the 1950s to a television distributor, which did re-release the movie to theaters, but along the way the film’s copyright was not renewed and it fell into the public domain.
With the advent of home video, dozens of different versions of “Gulliver’s Travels” have been in the marketplace, most often muddy and splicy second generation prints.
Now E1 Entertainment (formerly Koch Entertainment) has released a new “restored” version of the film on a new DVD. The film has clean and crisp image and the color matches – to the best of my memory – to the 35mm Technicolor prints I’ve seen.
As readers of the blog undoubtedly realize I’m very prejudiced when comes to the works of Max Fleischer and his talented studio and I do like “Gulliver’s Travels” a great deal, although it is a film with many flaws.
A simplified and sanitized version of Jonathan Swift’s classic, the film centers on Gulliver settling the differences between two kings who can not agree which national song should be played at the wedding of their children. The musical score is bright and bouncy in the tradition of 1930s musicals and there are some great moments of animation.
The difficulties with the film are the characterizations. The prince and princess who are to be married are simply vehicles for the performances of the national songs. The princess, animated by Grim Natwick who had a reputation for knowing how to put across female characters, is remarkably bland, The prince has only one line of dialogue, which is marred by an inappropriate almost hap-hazard voice.
Gulliver, himself, is a very passive reactive character, only taking action in response to what is going on. He seems in a contact state of bemusement and used the phrase “My, my” way too much.
The nominal star of the show is the obnoxious town crier Gabby who fares much better here than in the series of shorts that followed the feature with him as lead. Much of the humor is supplied y the three spies who are charged with killing the giant.
Perhaps the scene which stops the film dead in its tracks is the one in which Gabby and Gulliver are walking together. Gabby is recounting a tall tale in rhyme with Gulliver responding with “my, my.” The sequence does not to advance the plot or the characters.
The Fleischer staff established the design style of having the little people done as cartoons, while Gulliver is rotoscoped. It was an interesting decision as it separates Gulliver’s world– “the real world” – from that of Lilliput.
While it’s not the studio’s best work – the 20 minute Popeye specials are more entertaining and their second feature “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” is better realized – it’s certainly is charming and has entertainment appeal today. There are scenes of wonderful animation and invention and I’ve always enjoyed the sequences in which Gulliver is captured as well as the one in which he is cleaned up by the townspeople. These scenes continue the Fleischer theme of mechanics that pops up in some many of the studio’s cartoons.
Another great sequence is the outdoor banquet illuminated by firelight with Gulliver’s hand” dancing with the Lilliputians.
There is one troublesome thing though about this new release and that is the film has been formatted for wide screen television event though the original film was not shot in a wide screen format. Although the image is letter-boxed, it technically should be window-boxed – with band of black defining the original screen image. I’m now sure if there is missing image area as I really need to compare it to the original print. It does look much better than any other DVD or VHS tape I’ve seen.
For copyright purposes, there have been extra sound effects added to the film – that way a “new” version has been created. I find these additions to be unnecessary, but at least they are not intrusive.
The film has three extras – two of the subsequent seven-minute shorts featuring the character Gabby from the feature and a segment from a “Popular Science” short that is a mini-documentary about the studio. The two cartoons have been window-boxed but are shown without their credits – a lousy thing for a “restoration” to do – and there is no explanation for the documentary footage.
These complaints aside, this presentation of “Gulliver’s Travels” is the closest I’ve seen on home video to the intent of its creators.
The making of “Gulliver’s Travels”
Max Fleischer had experimented with longer form animation with great success in 1936 with a two-reel special Popeye cartoon for the Christmas season. “Popeye Meets Sinbad the Sailor” had gorgeous color, effective use of the Fleischer 3-D sets and a marvelous script. Exhibitors and audiences loved it, and the studio was preparing another two-reeler for Christmas of 1937. Disney, though, had an 83-minute feature, and Fleischer, his staff and the rest of the film industry wanted to see if audiences would accept a long cartoon.
“Snow White” was released nationally in February of 1938 and its success prompted and announcement from Paramount Pictures. Paramount, Fleischer's distributor, said that Max would be producing a feature for them. They would be fronting some of the production money for Max and also would help Max build a brand-new studio near Miami, Florida. Fleischer had settled a strike in October, and had decided to move his operations from New York to Florida. The Fleischers had vacationed in Florida and the warm climates, generous local tax incentives and lack of union activity appealed to him.
So the studio’s plate was quite full. Max had to produce his studio’s first feature-length cartoon, move the operation from New York to Florida into a new studio he was helping to design and maintain the studio's commitment of short subjects. Disney worked on “Snow White” for five years. Paramount had given Max a release date of Christmas 1939.
During the same period, “Variety” reported that Universal and Walter Lantz would be making his feature debut with an adaptation of “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp.” This feature apparently never made its past pre-production.
In June, Max signed a contract with Paramount to produce “Gulliver’s Travels.” Like Disney, the Fleischer brothers had chosen a “pre-sold” property that had a certain amount of name recognition. How Jonathan Swift's sometimes bleakly satiric novel would be adapted into a family feature was another problem.
According to a discussion guide prepared for high school teachers by the Educational and Recreations Guides in January 1940, there were several different scripts, several of which had Popeye playing Gulliver. Dave Fleischer had wanted a light Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta, while Max wanted something closer to Swift – “a truly sociological pictures, retaining the full weight of Swift’s satirical theme with modern implications.”
The final script was publicized as a compromise. The cartoon would have a surplus of music and would have the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu not over which end to open of a hard-boiled egg, but rather their national anthems. If Max's intentions were to actually convey some of Swift's satiric rage, this script was scarcely a compromise. There is little of Swift in the Fleischer's “Gulliver’s Travels.”
Fleischer hired the song-writing team of Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin who had won the Best Song Oscar in 1938 for “Thanks for the Memory” to write the songs for the feature. According to the study guide, Rainger and Robin suggested the musical theme for the war.
Even resident tunesmith Sammy Timburg, whose usual chores were composing and scoring the studio's shorts, got to write a song for the film – perhaps the movie’s biggest hit “It’s a Hap Hap Happy Day.”
Acclaimed composer Victor Young was hired to write the musical score. Young was nominated for 22 Academy Awards during his career, which was cut short by his early death at age 56 in 1956.
The studio then did something that raised a few eyebrows in the film industry. Animation voice actors seldom got credit for their contributions to cartoons and were often fairly anonymous radio actors. The Fleischers signed up two of the nation's most popular radio singing stars, Lanny Ross and Jessica Dragonette to perform the songs sung by the Prince and Princess in the movie. This was the first time any “name” personality had been recruited to do voice work in cartoons.
Ross recalled to me his experience working on GT. He had known Fleischer since they lived in the same building and had accepted the job like any other.
“I was told the Prince was very small, and I thought I should do something the make my voice sound small. So, I stood on my knees in the recording studio,” he said with a laugh. He really didn't receive any direction on how to perform and his contact with the production was minimal. The publicity value, though, of having established performed involved with movie was considerable.
Pinto Colvig, who had done considerable work at the Disney Studio, including creating the voice of Goofy, was recruited to do the voice of Gabby the town crier who discovers Gulliver on the beach. Jack Mercer performed the voice of King Little of Lilliput while Miami radio personality Sam Parker of WIOD did the voice of Gulliver and performed the rotoscoped actions as well.
Although Ross and Dragonette received screen credit, none of the other vocal performers did.
By March of 1939, GT had been laid out, and the studio began hiring additional animators to help with the workload. A half-million drawings were required to produce GT, besides the work necessary to produce the studio's short subjects. Studio veteran Myron Waldman remembers the Fleischers were in a mad rush to hire people, some of who were not qualified as animators. This influx of talent, primarily from the California animation studios, created tension in the studio.
“Many of the people who came from the (west) coast thought they were better than us,” Waldman explained. The studio was still divided because of the strike, and the new additions to the staff didn't help.
There were about 250 original Fleischer employees who made the trip to Miami. That staff grew to about 600 in order to make the production of the feature and the shorts possible.
John Walworth was one of those new additions. Walworth was working at MGM when he was hired away to work on GT. He worked with studio vet Joe Oriolo, who felt insulted that he had to animate some of the many crowd scenes in GT.
“Joe sub-contracted some of these scenes to me to do under the table,” said Walworth with a laugh. “So I did them along with my other work.”
The quality of the animation varies greatly. Some of it was seemed rushed, while other scenes are very good. Waldman attributed this uneven quality to the number of new animators plus the near-impossible schedule. Some of the new animators were amazed the studio didn't do extensive pencil tests as did Disney and there was only one Movieola to view rushes. Critics of the studio have seen the lack of pencil tests as an example of the Fleischer Studio “crudeness.” Certainly Max may not have thought pencil tests were necessary (although one GT pencil test was in the collection of a former Fleischer animator), but perhaps the schedule dictated by Paramount just didn't allow it.
While the movie was being animated, Max was working with Paramount's Harry Royster on the merchandising of GT. Waldman explained that he had gone to Max once and asked why the studio didn't merchandise Betty Boop more.
“He said to me, ‘This is an animated cartoon studio, not a toy factory.’ He didn't want to get into it then,” Waldman said.
Perhaps Fleischer had seen the enormous success of the Disney merchandising and had decided he too wanted to jump on that bandwagon. The Betty Boop material had been minimal and Fleischer had no merchandising rights to Popeye. With the move to Miami impending, Mae Questel decided to stay in Mew York, which helped to kill the Boop series. With Betty Boop gone, Fleischer pinned his merchandising hopes to GT. Paramount's new licensing department arranged for 65 different GT products including dolls, coloring books, a Big Little book and pajamas among others.
With the splash the newly established television industry was making in cities such as New York, Fleischer and Paramount took the unusual step of offering for sale the television and radio rights to the picture. Clearly they were confident GT would be as much as a success as “Snow White.” In huge ad in the June 14, 1939 edition of “Variety,” Paramount trumpeted “The Biggest News of the Screen Year! A Full-Length Feature Cartoon Completely Filmed in Color!” With most movies in black and white and with only one other color feature-length cartoon existing, GT was indeed special.
By August, both the new studio in Florida and the feature were reaching completion. The film’s budget had gone over the expected $900,000 mark and was to reach approximately $1.5 million. The Miami press welcomed the new studio as Florida had often attempted to become the "Hollywood of the East," and the studio was the subject of a number of stories on Oct. 9, 1939.
The recruitment of animators brought two former Fleischer animators back to the studio. Both Grim Natwick and Shamus Culhane had done considerable work at the Disney Studio, and now accepted Max's offer to work on GT. Culhane was given crowd scenes to animate upon his arrival.
“Mob shots. I came in right at the end of the picture and they had a whole mess of them waiting for the very end of the job. I got things like the whole crowd is waving at Gulliver as he leaves...Jesus Christ!... after being a specialist working on ‘Snow White’ I get stuck with this junk to do. But because of my background by that time I could do it very well, but it was a pain in the ass. I hadn't done that kind of thing since a started at Walt's,” Culhane remembered.
Natwick recalled the casual atmosphere of the studio. He was given Dave Fleischer's office to use while directing his 1,000 feet of GT. Natwick offered his assessment of the differences between Fleischer and Disney.
“Max did something so very different. They were two different people. Disney was a Yankee, coming from several generations of Americans. I believe Fleischer was probably the first generation...And they (the Fleischers) were American in every sense of the word. Disney had this in-bred thing that he didn't have to think about doing something, but the Fleischers did. They accepted exactly as it was in the society in which they lived. And they grew up in the Jazz Age, and their cartoons are jazz cartoons.
“Disney had an aristocratic studio. Actually at Fleischer's I never had a room of my own. There were one or two or three big rooms with one desk sitting behind another. But at Disney, we had private rooms, and they had a little buffet service. If you wanted a drink of pop or something or an apple to eat, you could phone the girl downstairs and it would be brought up, by errand boy,” Natwick said.
In the Dec. 6, 1939 edition of “Variety,” Max announced this studio would produce another feature, as he was quite confident of the success of GT. A Spanish-language version was prepared for Latin and South American markets and 41 prints would be available for Christmas Day release with another 50 ready for New Year’s Day.
Paramount planned a massive advertising campaign designed to have a penetration of 60 million people. Full color ads were scheduled for “The Saturday Evening Post,” “Life” and “Good Housekeeping,” a first for productions from the Fleischer Studios.
“Good Housekeeping” did a lavish spread on the film in its Feb. 1940 edition, providing a first person – but fanciful– look at the creation of the film’s story. Supposedly a re-creation of the story sessions that led to the script and characterizations, the story is interesting in that it depicts Max interacting with Bill Turner on plot details. There is no mention of Dave Fleischer, the credited director of the feature, in the story.
The film had truly put a strain on the Fleischer staff. Not only did the staff have to move from its home in New York City to a new facility in Miami, but the contracted schedule of short subjects also had to be maintained.
Cartoons and features in the studio’s “Flipper” magazine in its December 1939 edition referenced the workload. Seymour Reit, the creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost, wrote the following poem for the “Flipper:”
“A Song of Impatience
“The feature’s finished,
The feature’s done
Work is over and worry’s begun
Come bite your nails,
Come tear your hair,
Come harry the gods in hysterical prayer.
“We mumble morosely,
All joy we despise
As we watch the growth of rings ‘neath our eyes
And we wait for the day that
The critic unravels
The wondrous merits of ‘Gulliver’s Travels.
“Hark! Winchell and Fidler
and Nugent and all!
When ‘Gulliver’ opens,
Heed promptly the call.
We know it’s a ‘wow
And we’re sure it will click,
But hurry, we beg you, and tell us that quick!”
The Miami premiere of GT was Dec. 18, 1939. Paramount officials, Florida politicians, members of the Miami social elite and entertainment figures met at the Sheridan and Colony theaters for the screening. A special police unit held back a crowd straining behind rope barricades hoping for a glimpse of the rich and famous, according to a contemporary newspaper account. Overhead, a balloon floated carrying a banner for the film.
One publicity feature was an appearance by Gulliver himself. No, not Sam Parker, but a nearly seven-foot –tall unidentified man decked out in a Gulliver costume.
The next day, The Miami Herald reported on a congratulatory luncheon attended by Lanny Ross, Jessica Dragonette, Paramount executives and local officials. Max said, “Eighteen months ago when the decision was made to produce ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ as a feature, we faced some very real problem. For example, more than two years is required to produce an animated cartoon feature in color and sound, provided one has a large enough staff sufficiently experienced and coordinated to do the work.
“When we started this picture we lacked space, manpower and the machinery for feature work. We only had one and half years instead of two years in which to build, move, organize, equip and complete the picture by Christmas 1939.”
Although Max added some humorous remarks, his message was clear: GT had been an almost impossible task.
While the public made GT one of the top moneymaking films of the year, the critics were less than impressed. Frank Nugent of The New York Times dismissed the film as a “fairy tale for children, “ calling “Snow White “a fairy tale for adults. Although entertaining, GT was not up to the Disney standard, he added.
“Variety” was more positive. “An excellent job of animation, audience interest and all-around showmanship,” it reported.
The film could have surpassed the box office it did if there hadn’t been a war in Europe, where it was argued Swift’s book was even better known.
The Gabby character was deemed popular enough to be the star of his own series of eight cartoons in the 1940 to 41 season. Although there are some laughs in the shorts, Gabby was too grating a character to be a long-lasting star.
© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs
The following is one of the two Gabby shorts on the new DVD, although this is not from the DVD.