Sunday, September 06, 2015

I recently wrote a review for the newspapers I edit on the new “American Experience: Walt Disney.”  What follows is an expanded version of what saw print.

            Every now and then a viewer of a documentary can be placed in a position of not just experiencing a film, but evaluating it from a place of knowledge.  This happened to me with my viewing of the new four-hour film on the life and career of Walt Disney.
            I have been involved in researching animation for years with a concentration on the Fleischer Studio – the artists who brought Betty Boop, Popeye and the Bouncing Ball, among many other subjects to the screen.  Incidentally, I’ve learned much about Disney and I was very curious to see how the filmmakers were going to present him and his legacy.
            Disney is a very polarizing figure. People who worked for him loved him or feared him. In the 1930s his films received serious attention from critics who otherwise dismissed animation, but by the time of his death in 1966 the films made by his studio were deemed by many as being out of step with what was happening in the nation.
            Before I go any farther, I will readily admit that I’ve have a great admiration for some Disney films – the first five animated features – and will admit they advanced the art of animation in very significant ways.
I’m not a cult member though and have rejected the kind of non-critical attitudes some animation fans and scholars have exhibited.
Considering the gaps in the narrative in this film, I suspect the filmmakers were a little overwhelmed by the subject. Four hours may not have been enough time.
            For example, there is surprisingly little discussion of his relationship with his wife, daughters and other family members other than the fights he had with his brother Roy who was the financial head of the studio. Although his son-in-law Ron Miller is interviewed there is little personal insight into this often-contradictory man.
            A problem that undoubtedly faced the filmmakers was the fact that many of the people who knew Disney or worked for Disney are dead. The interviews with those studio employees still alive take up far less time in the documentary than a parade of college professors and writers.
            An example of this is the Pulitzer Award-winning writer Ron Suskind whose many moments in the documentary were supposedly justified by a book he wrote about his autistic son connecting to the Disney animated cartoons. I’m sorry, but his prominent screen time doesn’t really explain anything about Disney but just offers his own observations.
            Unfortunately the writer and historian who undoubtedly knows more about Disney’s career than just about anyone, Michael Barrier, appears all too briefly.
            I was surprised how certain facts were presented or over-looked. In the late 1920s, Disney’s studio was producing a series of cartoons for producer Charles Mintz. Mintz owned the character of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, took it from Disney and hired away a number of his staff.  This event ultimately prompted the creation of Mickey Mouse, but it also spurred Disney to maintain ownership of his creations and films, a very important point.
            The filmmakers don’t emphasize this and don’t note that from 1928 through 1955 Disney went through four different distributors until he formed his own in 1955. He finally achieved complete ownership and control of his productions.
Where the documentary significantly fails is in its lack of explanation about what made Mickey Mouse work so well with audiences when the first sound cartoon debuted. Consider the following: Disney’s first commercial success was with the “Alice in Cartoonland” series, the basis for which was a flip of Max Fleischer’s already established  “Out of the Inkwell” shorts. I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t as popular as the Ko-Ko cartoons or the Felix shorts or Paul Terry’s Fable cartoons in the 1920s.
His second series, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” was another rubber-hosed animal cartoon. The ones I’ve been able to see are not terribly well written. Where was the legendary Disney story touch that became so important just a few years later? Oswald lacks any real character. I think it’s also fair to say that Oswald didn’t go to the top of the animation world, either.
So with all of these “experts” blathering on in this documentary, why didn’t anyone explain why “Steamboat Willie” was a hit? Was it Mickey? Was it the soundtrack? Remember Disney had made several other Mickey cartoons and had failed to get distribution as silent shorts. What made this one so different? What captured the attention of critics and writers who saw something in Mickey Mouse that they hadn’t seen in an animated character before?
I contend the use of sound, which was very good for its time, and the timing of the release so early in the sound revolution. He was in the right place at the right time with a product audiences liked.
A thorny point with Disney is how the public was presented with the notion that Disney essentially did everything. It would have been an important part of this story to address that idea by looking at some key figures at the studio whose contributions made the films successful. Instead the documentary perpetuated this cult of personality that Disney did everything with that omission. Did Disney instinctively understand branding or was it just ego?
            A crucial part of Disney’s story is his collaboration and friendship with Ub Iwerks, the animator and designer whose work was essential to the success of Mickey Mouse. Iwerks became disillusioned and left Disney to form his own studio in 1930. The documentary speaks of the importance of loyalty for Disney but it doesn’t address the relationship between the two men, especially when Iwerks was rehired about ten years later.
            The documentary never really explains why Disney entered the live -action film field. It doesn’t tell the viewers the animated short cartoons that built the company continued until 1956 nor does it explain what, if any, involvement Disney had with them. Was he sad or nostalgic when the shorts stopped production?
            Several remarks made by Professor Sarah Nilsen of the University of Vermont irked me. In an early part of the film, he said that Disney, flush with money from a graphic arts job, would frequently go to the movies.  On screen accompanying her comments were scenes from the 1919 Fleischer short “The Tantalizing Fly. Nilsen intoned that Disney knew he could do much animation better than what he was watching.
            This segment infers the Fleischer short was a poor piece of work, which it is not. It artfully mixes live action and animation, and was the style that Disney used for a later series of cartoons.
            Later in the film, Nilsen speaks of Disney in the 1920s being a young man in a field dominated by “old men” who used crude gags in their cartoons. Disney was born in 1901. His contemporaries included Walter Lantz (1899), Paul Terry (1887) and Max Fleischer (1883). Please don’t let facts stand in the way of a good assumption.
            At the end of the film, despite a lengthy running time and the contributions from “experts,” Disney remains largely an enigma. While many of the major points of Disney’s life were presented, the documentary fails to dig a little deeper to show a more complete picture.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Talking with R.O. Blechman

It was a privilege to speak with a guy whose work I've admired for years.

STOCKBRIDGE — You may not know his name, but if you've watched television or read The New Yorker, the New York Times or the Huffington Post, you've seen — and will recognize — his work. 

R.O. Blechman's distinctive squiggly line is featured in a new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum called "R.O. Blechman: The Inquiring Line" through June 30.

Blechman has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonist Society, won an Emmy in 1984 as the director of the PBS animated special "The Soldier's Tale" and has been featured in a exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, among other honors.

Blechman has also done a series of children's books, and has collected many of his cartoons in the book "Talking Lines."

In his statements made at the opening of the exhibit, Blechman marveled the exhibition even existed.

"A museum for a Saturday Evening Post illustrator? That's important. Me in that museum? That's fantastic," he said. 

The exhibit features a wide selection of original examples of Blechman's work from New Yorker covers to advertising work. Some of his animated productions play on a monitor.

Perhaps no two artists could have such different style as Blechman and Rockwell. Blechman said growing up in New York City in the 1930s and '40s, his world didn't resemble the warm images of small town America there were the herald of Rockwell's most famous work. 

He came to appreciate Rockwell more, he added, when the painter's liberal politics came through in later paintings in the 1960s. Blechman also said that he really rediscovered Rockwell when his mother and father-in-law moved to Stockbridge and he visited the predecessor to the current museum.

"It was a revelation ... that guy could really paint, really paint and he could design," Blechman said. 

Blechman described himself as a self-taught artist who did some cartooning for his college newspaper. After graduating from college and serving in the military, he drew what would now be called a "graphic novel," "The Juggler of Our Lady" in 1953. Published by Henry Holt, the book was huge success, which Blechman said actually negatively affected his growth as an artist. 

First love is animation

Ask him what his favorite medium has been and he answers it before this writer could finish the question.

"Animation," he said snapping his finger for emphasis. 

The medium combines his interests of telling stories and illustration, he explained.

He has an idea for an animated feature that he would love to produce.

Animation was the first step in his career as a professional artist. He began as a storyboard artist for acclaimed animator John Hubley who was impressed with "The Juggler of Our Lady." Blechman wanted to animate, but he said, "I could not draw in those days." 

"The Juggler of Our Lady" was later made into a cartoon as a collaboration between Blechman and directors Gene Deitch and Al Kouzel. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominated the production as best animated film.

He was pleased with the results and later turned down an opportunity to remake the story in color with animation director Chuck Jones. Today, he expressed his regret not to have worked with Jones, but said with a laugh he wouldn't rate his mistakes. 

Blechman is still busy working, but he admitted, "I've lost projects because I'm told [my style] is old fashioned." 

He added that while more realistic illustration may be of favor now, he believes the pendulum will swing back to more idiosyncratic styles.

"[Johann Sebastian] Bach was lost for 150 years," he noted. "Illustration will come back."

Although he expressed concern for the future of two-dimensional animation, he is no Luddite, though. Of digital techniques he said, "I love the stuff. It can be well used if you have eye [for design]."

Digital techniques can enhance hand-painted art, Blechman said. For him an understanding of design is essential no matter what medium is used.

"If you have an eye, the hand will follow," he said.

His own squiggly line is part of his design, which he admits was sometimes a challenge for his animation staff when he operated an animation studio. The Ink Tank produced numerous television commercials including a memorable one for Alka Seltzer in which a man and his stomach argue for his love of spicy foods.

"[My drawing style] was very difficult to animate, but I was fortunate enough to deal with two animators who took to it as if it was their own," Blechman said.

On his Emmy Award-winning production "The Soldier's Tale," Blechman recalled the best animators "supplemented, not just complemented" his designs.

Blechman was effusive in his praise for the late animator Tissa David who worked at his studio starting in the 1970s, calling her a "great animator, an animated filmmaker." He said he could look at a scene in real life and "animated in her mind."

The most obvious question this writer reserved toward the end of the interview: how he did develop his own distinctive drawing style?

He admitted that is both natural and designed. 

"My stuff was so stiff and dead," he said. The non-straight line work "loosens" his compositions.

After decades of drawing in this style, Blechman said, "Now it's natural. I don't even think twice," he said. 

For more information on the Norman Rockwell Museum or this exhibition, visit

© 2013 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, April 29, 2013

More art from Inertron

I meant to post these two pieces of art from my fanzine Inertron. The first is a comic page by my fellow UMass student Scott Paauw. My caricature is wearing striped pants! Others depicted in the strip include Steven Cohen, Michael Moyle and Kevin Roy, all members of the UMass Science Fiction Society. This is the original complete with glue stains and white-out.

This piece is from the great artist Allen Kosnowski, who was a contributor for several issues. Allen is still working and you can see his current creations at his website.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The cover of my first edition of Inertron

A fanzine made me what I am today – for better or worse.

Perhaps I can trace my desire to write back to my love of reading and my visit with noted children’s writer and environmentalist Thornton W. Burgess when I was in first grade.

Perhaps it was the good grades I received on reports I wrote in the sixth grade.

Perhaps it was in the eighth grade, when my English teacher assigned me to be the editor of a “literary” magazine.

My late father, faced with the realization I was not going to be a high school industrial arts teacher, asked me, “What made you want to be a writer?” With his tone of voice he might as well said, “dump picker” or “hobo.”

Years later when I sold an interview to USA Today, for their editorial section, a story that was read by more than two million people, the old man was still unimpressed.

And yet it was my mother and father who aided my writing career by helping me with my fanzine Inertron.

And Inertron, a fanzine that never had a print run of more than 100 copies, in many ways, made me the writer that I am today.

I came to loving horror films late in the day. My mother didn’t want me to see them, as she didn’t want me to read superhero comics – thank you Dr. Wertham. Subsequently as a kid, I freaked out whenever I was exposed to any film with a horror element.

Living in Montgomery Alabama in 1962, I went to kiddie matinees with my younger brother Patrick. They were run on Saturdays on a continual showing and we walked into the conclusion of “Voyage to the Seventh Planet” with the giant brain with one eye, the alien monster of the story. Gobsmacked, I promptly turned around and marched with my little brother in tow and waited two hours for my parent’s return outside of the theater.

I lost my movie-going privileges for years because of my actions.

It wasn’t until junior high school when I decided that I needed to come to grips with this phobia and started watching horror movies on television. I started realizing that actors such as Boris Karloff, whom I came to love, also appeared in non-horror films, so I watched those as well as I found them. Before long I was interested in a variety of films.

I was pretty much alone in my pursuits at Granby (Mass.) Junior Senior High School. My brother liked a lot of things I liked, but I quickly realized that comic books and monster movies were not the norm. I had learned that prattling about Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing at school was not something I should do. I had enough problems being the new kid in a small town.

This was before the kind of fandom we know today. Before “fans” were seen as an important demographic group for marketers. Before anyone would have willingly or proudly called themselves a “nerd” or a “geek.”

Fandom was truly underground. Being a movie fan was acceptable, but seeking out films that most movie fans just seemed to tolerate at best was something else.

Horror, science fiction and fantasy were seen as marginal genres, bordering ¬– if not crossing the line – on juvenile entertainment.

Somehow I found out about fanzines. Perhaps it was through Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and the first one I ordered was Photon #18 in 1969.

I was smitten beyond belief. Photon was well written, had illustrations by Richard Corben, and Dave Ludwig and featured as a bonus a movie still – a copy of a “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi.

This all for $1.

It underscored that I was certainly not alone in my interests, which was actually quite comforting.

A magazine I could buy in the newsstand that had the same fannish spirit was Larry Ivie’s Monsters and Heroes. A quick search of the Internet reveals little about Ivie, who was clearly a fan, but also a pretty accomplished artist. Ivie featured a story about young people who made their own movies – MADE THEIR OWN MOVIES ?! – that also blew my mind.

Could non-professionals do such things – publish their own magazines and make their own movies? Apparently the answer was “yes” and I suspected that some of these people were not much older than I was.

Please understand that being a film fan dedicated to a particular type of movie that didn’t get much serious attention from the mainstream press wasn’t an easy proposition in the era before home video. If you didn’t live in an area with a group of movie theaters, or television stations that elected to buy packages of films with your type of movie included or art house theaters that would bring back older films, then being a fan of such entertainment was difficult.

Fanzines, in my mind, were the first great step in the democratization of being a serious film fan. Since the establishment press didn’t cover these movies, the fans did through their own publications.

For example, there is no one on the planet that has done more in advancing the movies made by Hammer Films than Richard Klemensen and his “Little Shoppe of Horrors.” Dick has done an incredible job presenting interviews with the filmmakers and analysis of the films.

And Hammer movies were never the ones that would receive much attention in the mainstream.

The idea that I as a callow youth could make my opinion known about movies – and other pop culture subjects – was intoxicating.

So in 1970, I assembled some high school friends at my house – I believe I was 15 years old – handed out assignments for various reviews, which they obligingly finished. Looking back, I’m amazed they contributed. I’m also amazed that I didn’t wind up being seen as any greater freak that I know some kids viewed me.

I hit up my teachers at school to be “patrons” – today I don’t recalled what that meant and my mom helped me with typing.

My mom enjoyed movies, but she had a real aversion to horror films. She told me that as a young woman her favorite actor was Spenser Tracy and she never got over his performance in the glossy MGM version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The thing that stopped so many would-be fanzine publishers didn’t stop me. I wasn’t worried about the cost of printing as I had my own printing press, so to speak.

My dad had retired from the Air Force and entered teaching. He was a character with a capital “C” and rather than waiting his turn in the print shop of the school, he bought his own A.B. Dick Spirit Duplicator to run off hand-outs for his students.

Forgotten about today, the spirit duplicator supplanted the mimeograph in school across the country. You typed on special carbon masters that produced the page who wanted to print. As paper passed through the machine a special alcohol would cover the page and dissolve enough of the carbon to leave the imprint on the paper.

Now I wanted to make Inertron look like a “real” magazine so I wanted to print on both sides, a daunting proposition as I had to make sure the page was dry before I could run it through the machine again otherwise it would become translucent.

For a cover, I decided to do a silkscreen of Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. Again, my father was instrumental in helping me reach my goal as it had taught me how to silkscreen.

The result was a magazine that sold for 35 cents. I managed to sell some at school and placed copies on consignment at a hippie bookstore in nearby Amherst. I sold one copy there.

I was undaunted, though and decided to keep publishing. For some reason lost to me now, I decided to go digest size. Perhaps I thought I could save on paper.

“Inertron,” was the substance in an anti-gravity backpack that allowed Buck Rogers in the original comic strip to fly. My mom had brought me a huge hardcover collection the comic strip for Christmas one year and I was struck with the word, so I stole it.

I have no copies of Inertron #2 left, but I do have the spirit masters. My cover feature was a story on Fu Manchu and I used a shot of Christopher Lee in the role that I received through the Christopher Lee Fan Club. I did use either photocopy or offset for my cover, an improvement.

This time, though, my friends didn’t help and my right hand was my brother Patrick, who shared many of my interests and had those of his own.

I submitted review copies to other fanzines and was elated when Gary Svehla, the editor of what was known then as Gore Creatures but what is published now as Midnight Marquee.

Gore Creatures was everything I wanted my ‘zine to be. It was well written and all offset printed. It featured great artists, such as Bill Nelson, Dave Ludwig, Mark Gelotte and Steve Karchin.

To say I was anxious to see what he said and I was over the moon when I read, “Amazing! Nostalgia works in strange ways. I love Inertron for a very strange reason. It reminds me of the early ditto issues of GC, only it’s better! The ‘zine is very informative and friendly and I think it can go far. I strongly recommend it.” Thanks, Gary!

Could that have been better? No. Orders started coming in and I decided I wanted to continue.

Getting this form back seems to make everything I had done "official."

Issue #3 came out in 1972 – my senior year in high school. My brother did the cover, a pen and ink drawing of Christopher Lee as Dracula.

The third issue was significant for the addition of Kevin Shinnick as a writer. He was a great contributor and made me think of myself more as an editor. Kevin contributed an interview with fellow fanzine editor/publisher Bill George, which was the first interview we printed.

Although more of the issue was offset, I still used dad’s ditto machine. Working with the masters was not fun. If you spotted a typo you could take a sharp blade and scrape the carbon off that spot and then correct it. Luckily for me my late mother did most of the typing.

My parents had little tolerance for the material that clearly enthralled me and yet they supported this enterprise, as did my moviemaking, which started in high school. My dad went to a local camera shop and brought home a wonderful Bolex Super 8 camera and turned it over to me. I wanted to make live action films, but quickly realized I had a very shallow talent pool for actors. Instead I turned to stop motion animation. I recorded sound tracks on our reel-to-reel recorder and would sync the projector and the audio up as best I could.

In issue three, I started a series of articles that I dubbed “The Anti-Rip-off Page.” A reader and contributor, Ed Learner, had had a bad experience ordering items from the Cadillac of monster film magazines Castle of Frankenstein. So had I. It became a popular feature and appeared in each subsequent issue.

I also started printing movie stills from my small collection as “fold-outs.” It was as close as I could get to Photon’s bonus still.

I soon realized that having a good interview with a well-known figure from fantasy, science fiction or horror could boost the standing of your magazine and somehow I snagged a big one – Flash Gordon himself, Buster Crabbe for issue four in late 1972.

I had learned that Crabbe lived in Rye, N.Y. and had managed to find an address. He graciously consented to a telephone interview. In those days you could buy a microphone that you attach to your phone with a suction cup and tape a conversation onto a cassette recorder. I still have the original tape.

I sat in the kitchen nervously tapping my foot as I talked with him.

At that time, Crabbe was riding a wave of nostalgia that brought attention again to performers such as Buffalo Bob Smith of “Howdy Doody” fame and Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger himself.

It was the first time that the childhood heroes of the Baby Boomers saw they had a second or third career as college students rediscovered them.

Clarence Linden “Buster” Crabbe came to prominence in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics as a gold-medal winning swimmer. His athletic fame was translated into a contract with Paramount Pictures.

Crabbe was a utility player at Paramount. He was handsome and had a great physique, something which was played up in his first starring role as a Tarzan-like hero in “King of the Jungle” in 1933. He was never deemed by Paramount brass, though, as anyone who was “A” film material.

Instead Crabbe found himself as a supporting player or as the lead in program pictures. Perhaps his most prominent role for many people was in the W.C. Fields comedy, “You’re Telling Me.”

His place, though, in cinema history was assured with the success of the three “Flash Gordon” serial in which Crabbe played the comic strip hero. Serials were deemed as entertainment for children and other not so demanding audiences, but the Flash Gordon serials received a prominence that few serials reached.

After his contract with Paramount ran out in 1940, he found a new home at PRC, the lowest of the low budget studios where Crabbe made westerns and jungle adventure films.

In the 1950s, Crabbe made numerous appearances on television and had his own successful series, “Capt. Gallant of the Foreign Legion.”

Acting took a back seat starting in the 1950s, when Crabbe became involved with several profitable businesses – a swimming camp, an affiliation with a pool company and work as a stockbroker.

Crabbe had made his final film, a comedy titled “The Comeback Trail,” in which he played a retired cowboy. He was clearly enthusiastic about the film, which received scant theatrical release and has yet to appear on home video.

He died in 1983.

One thing I learned at the tender age I conducted this interview is just because a statement about an actor or director is made in a book by a film historian that doesn’t mean it’s true. Crabbe refuted two “facts” that were stated about him.

Also in my ignorance, I sort of had an idea that if you worked in a genre of film – such a serials or low budget Westerns – you knew other people who worked in similar films. That wasn’t necessarily the case.

Here is the interview:

Since you were an Olympic champion I was wondering what your opinions were of this year’s Olympics [1972 in Munich, Germany].

“Well, I think it was very poorly handled, much to be desired management wise. I certainly didn’t agree with taking the Gold Medal away from the youngster Demanche who won the 400 meters, he’s the one who had the asthmatic condition with the pill. I think it’s inexcusable that two boys were sleeping when they were supposed to be up for the preliminaries and that began with, I feel, the coach’s and management’s fault, not the athletes’.

“The basketball was certainly an all fouled-up affair and if I had anything to do with the Montreal Olympics in 1976 I certainly would take a wary eye at what might happen before they spent a lot of money preparing for the 1976 Olympic Games.”

There is a new book out entitled “Heroes, Heavies and Sagebrush” that claims your first movie was “Island of Lost Souls” with Charles Laughton. Is that true?

“No, I was not in that film at all. My first was ‘King of the Jungle,’ a Tarzan-like picture Paramount made and released in 1933. I don’t know where that ‘Island of Lost Souls’ came from.”

I was wondering if that had been any rivalry between you and Johnny Weissmuller?

“Sure there was.”

When you were both Tarzan?

“Well, no. I never considered myself a Tarzan. I thought you were talking about the competitive days. You know he’s older than I am and I started off as a kid racing him. After the ’28 [Olympic] games he retired from swimming and started in the movies in 1930.”

Did you make up your own Tarzan yell?

“No. The Tarzan yell, which was learned by a lot of kids – the original Tarzan yell, the one Weissmuller did – was the brainwork of my wife’s father, a fellow named Tom Held, who was a cutter at MGM. They didn’t know what kid of yell they were going to do and believe it or not, it turned out to be not one voice. The original Tarzan yell was three – a baritone, a tenor and a hog caller. Then Weissmuller learned it and every kid in the neighborhood learned the Tarzan call, too. So they used it ever since, but originally it was three voices, three separate voices all melted together.”

I know that you worked with W.C. Fields on a picture.

“Oh yes, I worked on two.”

Do you have any stories of him?

“He was just as he was on the screen. As a matter of fact, this nostalgic thing has been a plus for his films. Box office-wise his films drew, but he wasn’t a big tremendous box office star. I would hazard this: that the Fields pictures are doing better now than when they were first released 30 or 40 years ago.”

Do you ever get tired of being recognized as Flash Gordon?

“Well, no. You know, you didn’t have the coverage in the old days in the middle ‘30s and early ‘40s, you didn’t have the coverage you do now with television. Not that many people recognized me. More people recognize me now even though I’m older, as having played Flash Gordon than in the ‘30s and ‘40s, I think. They run the things on television and let’s say it plays to two million people. A serial that played to two million people might have taken two years to do it.”

You were one of the top Western stars. Who were your favorite cowboy stars?

“Well, Tom Mix. I used to see him as a kid. I thought he was really tops – Col. Tim McCoy, too. I liked [Wild Bill] Elliot very much in fact. You know, nothing fancy in dress and what not.”

I was just reading Jim Harmon and Don Glut’s new book, “the Great Serial Heroes,” that you were offered the role of Superman first in the serial which eventually starred Kirk Alyn. Is this true?

“No, that’s not true.”

I heard that you’ve finished a new movie with Chuck McCann in it.

“Well it’s a thing called 'Comeback Trail,' and the deal is that it is supposed to be previewed now. It was made a year and a half ago, but they have been stalling on the cutting. However, I think that it’s going to be a very funny Western, a semblance to a Western, take it or leave it – it’s in a Western locale.

[Note: 'The Comeback Trail' never received a wide theatrical release and is not readily available on home video.]

“The plot is about a couple of fellows, Chuck McCann and Bob Staats, who are producers of skin flicks, horrible skin flicks and they have to do something to make some money because they owe a lot of money.

“In checking over the bills they owe they come across an item of insurance and Chuck wants to know what this $12,000 worth of insurance is about. Bob explains that when you make a film, you’ve got to insure it in case anything happens, you know, if the negative film is destroyed by fire or some such thing.

“The wheels begin to roll and they decide to make a Western film and instead of taking a young fellow whom they could develop into a Western star, they pick an old fellow for a reason.

“They’re going to make him do all of his own stunts, all his own falls off of horses ad infinitum, hoping to bring on a heart attack and have him drop dead on the set so they can collect the insurance.

“They insure the film for $2 million and go about finding the fellow and it turns out to be me.

“All during the film we go along telling our story, you see it’s a film within a film – you see us actually getting ready to shoot the scenes for the film – it bounces back and they never do succeed in putting me away, so to speak.

“That’s the story. It’s a funny picture, a real funny picture. These fellows are good; they work well together like a Laurel and Hardy team. I think that after the film is shown and I’ve only seen a couple of days work and some cuts – I’ve never seen even a rough cut of it – but watching the fellow work together and whatnot I really think that they have a chance of getting to be a comedy team a la Laurel and Hardy.”

Other than your Flash Gordon role, which role is your favorite?

“Well, I like the 'Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion' – that was 65 films we made for television in 1954 and ‘56– because my son was in it. I enjoyed making that series. He was with me all the time and that was kind of fun.”

Speaking of that series, some people would condemn it today because its supposed excess of violence would be detrimental to Saturday morning viewers.

“Oh that is so very wrong! Take a look at what they have on the screen now! This is tame compared to what’s going on now! Look at cowboy pictures that they make now. Look at pictures Clint Eastwood and people like that make! Blood and thunder! This, they looked down upon 25 and 30 years ago. No, we don’t even hold a candle to what’s going on, Too much violence? That’s asinine.”

Well, it was bothering me because I was raised on your Foreign Legion show and the old Lone Ranger series.

Sure, they were a lot of fun. If they try tried to shoot you and they weren’t successful you shot them, you know, it was one of those things. But violence wise we don’t even compare.”

Which role have you enjoyed most in life: that of an athlete, movie star or a businessman?

“I never really considered myself a movie star. One of the reasons for that is that I never had a top grade triple A script and a top grade triple A director and producer. I never had the chance to work with a real big director in the business. The result is that I made action pictures, which turned out to be fortunate for me. The Billy the Kid Westerns, all the Westerns I did for Paramount, the serials I made and the other action things stood me in good stead because when television came along they sort of resurrected me, so to speak.

“But I always considered myself, when I was a college student and before that, as a fair to middling swimmer and I go for the physical fitness type of thing, That’s why I’m involved in the Masters Swimming program now, which is for guys and gals who aren’t so young anymore.

I was reading a book by William K. Everson who said that your career, like that of W.C. Fields’ Paramount career, was mismanaged by the studio.

“I think that they could have really done something with it had they put on their thinking caps and brought me along. They took me dripping wet of out of a swimming pool.’

“Now don’t misunderstand me, I had a year in law school and wasn’t a dummy who came out of left field or anything like that. I think with a little bit of grooming and the right kind of coaching then I might have been able to do something, but that’s over the hill now.

“I was there a long time at Paramount and I did what I was told – you know body and soul belonging to Paramount Studios. The type of comedy that Fields did, I don’t think they appreciated. I think that they could have done a better job promoting him – tours and things. Maybe he turned them down, I don’t know, maybe he said the hell with them – “I don’t want to go on the road “ – but I kind of doubt this because he came off vaudeville back east here. I think the man has a point particularly in regard to W.C. Fields.”

Well, he mentioned in the book that they gave you a fairly good starting picture, “King of the Jungle.”

“King of the Jungle” was fine, but it was the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” type of thing. The word got out around the studio that regardless of my background – you know, college and a year of law school – that “he looks fine if you’ve got a life guard part, you strip him down and put him in a G-string, he’s okay, don’t give him any dialogue.” This is what I had to live down the first two or three years there.”

Would you like to do more films after this last one?

“Oh yeah, sure, I’d like to work in a movie. Of course, I’d have to be a character [actor] now. I love to play heavies. I had more fun playing the heavy than the lead by far. Love to play the real nasty guy.”

My brother did a drawing of Crabbe for the cover and I had a very timely piece of luck. Famous Monsters was offering a free classified ad to fans and in the 100th anniversary issue, they ran mine for Inertron # 4. Suddenly I was even more on the radar and received orders for Inertron and fanzines to review.

Inertron #4 was also the first all offset issue and I felt that I had made a quantum leap in quality. If course it was still crude by almost any standard, but I shared the desire of every fanzine editor I ever knew to constantly try to improve the look and content of the ‘sine.

It was the better part of two years later that I produced by fifth issue. I blamed the delay on college.

“Well, here it is 1974 and I am way behind my schedule for this magazine. A fanzine editor’s life can be a frustrating one. One wants to work on the up-coming ish, but there’s always a test or a paper that needs your immediate attention. This semester at the University of Massachusetts, I was teaching a course in the history of the American Movie. The students got one credit and I got $150 and a lot of experience. No wonder some professors go nuts! College students can be a trying lot to an instructor,” I wrote in my column at the end of the issue.

I was now attracting some fine writers such as Jim Doherty, Steve Bashaw and John Antosiewicz, as well as continuing with Kevin Shinnick.

I was also being asked to contribute to other fanzines, something, which deepened my confidence.

The sixth and final issue of my fanzine was published in 1975 and I wrote as an introduction, “You are holding in your hand the product of much sweat, worry, money and joy. This sixth issue has been the most rewarding and yet the most frustrating INT I’ve published.”

I continued, “ You remember that I had said that the nest issue of INT would be ready by Halloween of ’74. This statement was made because of an agreement that had been made with a local printer. However when it came time to begin printing, he changed the price that we agreed on and then states that he would do the work when he felt like it.

“Not having the money to go out to another printer and get the ‘zine done, I waited until now – tax refund times! This waiting time has resulted in things: a better issue of INT and a decision not to lose money on the ‘zine anymore. The next issue of INT will be out in September and will cost $1.25. However I’m really going to make sure that your get your money’s worth.”

More on my cunning plan to continue publishing will follow.

The sixth issue featured an interview I conducted with William M. Gaines, the legendary publisher of EC Comics and MAD magazine. Gaines was great to me and even sent a note of encouragement.

Michael Moyle drew this caricature of William Gaines for me.

The Gaines piece was the first time I took something from my fanzine and was able to make a professional sale. The local alternative weekly, The Valley Advocate, published an edited version and I was very pleased to have broken into being a professional writer.

This note from Gaines made my day. I wound up interviewing him twice more over the years.

I tried something different visually with the film reviews and asked a talented artist, Michael Moyle, at UMass help me design the page with a number of monster caricatures.

So by the time I had published this sixth and last issue, I had several interviews with noted figures under my belt, I was starting to play around with the use of graphics and collaborating with an artist and had learned of the advantage of taking something that had appeared in one publications, revamping it to make a sale in another – all valuable lessons for my life ahead.

I was about to learn another: when to pull the plug.

I had decided to make my fanzine a break-even operation and thought what I would do is to solicit advance orders for the regular edition and send out a mini-zine free every month. I didn’t get the orders I needed and dropped the whole idea.

In the latter part of 1976, after graduation, I sent our to a number of regular readers a newsletter that I thought, again, if the reaction to is was positive I would get back to what is now called self-publishing.

I wrote, “So where have I been and why haven’t I kept in touch with folks and published Half Pint and Inertron? Well, I’ll tell you. The response to the last issue of Inertron was less than encouraging. People just didn’t; comment, much less contribute and except for a few hardy souls there were no advance orders for the next issue of Inertron. This confirmed my suspicions that people would not pay more than $1 for my zine and I, quite frankly, let my other interests take the limelight.”

Those interests were primarily finding a job.

I had, by this time, started researching the Fleischer Studios and went back to fanzines with articles about their animated cartoons, first in Mindrot (later Animania) and then in Animato, which my business partner and I bought in 1992. With professional distribution, Animato was part of the all-too-brief heyday of small press publications on film and pop culture, many of which paid its contributors. This era was undermined by the decline of independent distributors and, in my case with Animation Planet, my successor to Animato, the bubble bursting in the animation art field, my primarily advertising base.

Once again I had to call it quits and walk away without too much regret.

I admire the people today who publish magazines such as Phantom of the Movies VideoZone and Shock Cinema and buy them faithfully. They have the spirit of the fanzines I loved so much in a professional package.

So much of what I became professionally was due to my experience with what it is now considered a quaint curio of the pre-Internet era. I still buy amateur and independent publications when I see them and I tip my hat to anyone who is willing to create a physical artifact and out it into the marketplace.

©2013 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, February 17, 2013

This is the first part of a draft of my chapter on the silent cartoons of Max Fleischer.

In just a few short years, Max Fleischer went from being a hired hand at the Bray Studios to the head of not just his own studio, but of a releasing company, which expanded and then imploded under its own weight.

It must have been a heady ride for Max and his brother Dave. Breaking off from Bray in 1921, by August, 1926 Max’s Red Seal Pictures Corp. announced how it was releasing a series of live-action comedies as well as the Out of the Inkwell cartoons, the “Ko-Ko Song Car-tunes,” newsreels, the “Animated Hair Cartoons,” and many more shorts.

Red Seal had 22 exchanges throughout the country and did not rely on the states rights method of getting their films into theaters.
But, as fast as the rise was to the top, the ride down was equally quick. By November 1926, Max had lost control of Red Seal and was soon an employee in his own company.

How did the film industry, audiences and critics view animation in the 1920s? An interesting perspective is provided by “The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23” edited by Robert E. Sherwood, a prominent critic of the time whose reviews appeared in “Life” and the New York Herald.
Sherwood introduced his chapter on the year’s short subjects by writing, “It is unfortunate that this book must necessarily be devoted to consideration of feature pictures (of five or more reels in length), with insufficient consideration of short subjects: comedies, scenics, animated cartoons, news reels and travel pictures. I do not hold with the notion that a one or two reel film is not better than ‘filler,’ and may dismissed as such. Many of the best pictures that have been compressed into brief form.

“I don’t want to ignore that short subjects and yet I am painfully aware of the fact that it is utterly impossible for an one writer to comment authoritatively on this tremendously wide field. There are so many hundreds of short subjects and their release schedules so uncertain, that I have been unable to cover them with any great degree of accuracy.

“However there have been certain producers whose one- and two reel products have stood out from the rest …”
Sherwood then details how Buster Keaton was the leader of the shorts performers and writes later in the essay, “Foremost among the animated cartoons have been Paul Terry’s ‘Aesop’s Fables’ and Pat Sullivan’s ‘Felix the Cat.’ The romantic adventures of Mutt and Jeff have been discontinued, but Max Fleischer’s ‘Out of the Inkwell’ goes on.”

It’s vital to assess cartoons from 1920 until the mid-1950s understanding several important points. Exhibitors competed with one another. In this era in which chain theaters are alike, it’s difficult to imagine that theater owners were considered showmen who cared deeply about what they presented in their theaters and how they presented it.

As they had done in vaudeville, owners of movie theaters assembled elements of features and shorts that they believed would attract and satisfy their audience. They did so by building programs. Many of these programs were assembled for both adults and children.
Cartoons were among those building blocks. Just like comic strips were a selling point for newspapers during that time, the right cartoon series could contribute to a theater’s success.

That’s why the trade papers of the day actually paid attention to short subjects and to animated cartoons.
Film Daily, for instance frequently noted how the larger New York theaters were programmed by announcing that a particular house had certain live acts or performances – many larger theaters had more than just an organist or pianist during the silent era, but a full band. These notices carried which specific feature was shown with which shorts. The goal was to give other theaters owners in smaller markets an idea of what was happening in the larger communities. Max’s cartoons were part of that mix in some of the best-known venues in the city.
Contributing mightily to the success of an animated cartoon series was how it was being distributed. Even if a producer made the best series from an artistic viewpoint, it did him little good if he couldn’t get his product into theaters.

There were two basic ways to distribute a motion picture. Several of the major studios owned theater chains that featured their own product. Many independent producers needed a middleman to get bookings. One of the most common approaches for them was to sell their films through the state rights system. Essentially, a producer would franchise his product to a booker who had a territory. That booker would seek theaters to show the films he represented.

Max used this system and, in a Film Daily trade ad on Aug. 6, 1922, announced he was “seeking territories through state rights distribution” for his “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons, “a marvel of comedy creations.”

In 1921, Warner Brothers had distributed the Fleischer product. It wasn’t long that Max attracted the attention of Margaret Winkler, an important player in the history of American animation. In an industry dominated by men, Winkler was a pioneer – the first woman to produce and distribute animated cartoons.

Besides distributing the Out of the Inkwell shorts, Winkler also distributed Pat Sullivan’s “Felix” shorts and Walt Disney’s “Alice in Cartoonland” films. Marrying producer Charles Mintz, Winkler eventually turned more of the business over to him, according to Donald Crafton in his landmark book “Before Mickey.”

In the Nov. 3 1922 edition of Film Daily, it was reported that Winkler, had “secured the second series of Max Fleischer’s 13 single reel ‘Out of the Inkwell’ comedies for distribution in the United States and Canada.” A few days after that the paper announced that Winkler had a distributor lined up for both the Ko-Ko and the Felix cartoons for the greater New York area.

The Out of the Inkwell shorts were being seen and reviewed well. Film Daily’s reviewer noted in its March 18, 1923 edition, “This one of Max Fleischer’s ‘Inkwell’ comedies shows the little imp from the inkwell annoying the artist who is trying to sleep. To punish the imp, he draws a high cliff and puts the little clown on its pinnacle so that he cannot get down. The clown goes to sleep and dreams – wild cartoon dreams of a giant and a cave and other things and the artist goes to sleep and dreams that the imp is chasing him all over the city in his pajamas. There are numerous laughs and the reel should have no difficulty in amusing your folks.”

Max’s interests during this early success were growing, though, beyond the animated short.

It may initially be difficult today to understand just how large a media star Albert Einstein was in the 1920s, but the nature of his fame certainly explained why an independent film producer would gamble on releasing a documentary that explained Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Considering that Dr. Stephen Hawking has made appearances on episodes of “Star Trek The Next Generation” and “The Big Bang Theory,” a film on Einstein’s best-known work shouldn’t seem too much a stretch to a contemporary audience.

Producer Edwin Miles Fadiman bought the rights to a German documentary on the subject, which he turned over to Max and Professor Garrett P. Service for re-editing and the addition of title cards. Service was a journalist turned scientist who had written many popular books on astronomical topics. Like Max, he also had a connection to Popular Science. Service had been lauded as a writer who could translate science to appeal to “the man on the street.”

The two men completed two versions: a two reel short and a four-reel feature titled “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.”
On Dec. 8, 1922 Film Daily reported Max would complete his editing work that week for the feature. Max’s interest in the film grew as he was named an “officer and director” in Premiere Productions, which produced the film.

Some people have claimed that this was Max’s first animated feature film as it was released early in February 1923. The film is almost all live-action footage designed to illustrate the points of the theory, although Max did produce some limited animation.

The film – apparently the 40-minute version – actually received a three-week run at Rivoli Theater in New York City, according to Moving Picture World. Fadiman then released the film through his Premiere Productions and boasted in a trade ad that he had signed contracts for runs at Sid Grauman’s theaters in Los Angeles, McVicker’s Theater in Chicago and “booked solid over the Marcus Loew Circuit.”

The review by C.S. Sewell in Moving Picture World noted, “because of the large amount of newspaper publicity accorded this revolutionary theory considerable interest was aroused in the average person’s mind as to what it was all about.

“The film translated into non-scientific terms and with easily understood illustrations of the different points is a commendable effort to satisfy this curiosity.”

Essentially, the movie was an exploitation film, which took advantage of the stir in the press about the theory.

Sewell wrote the four-reel version is “a little more complicated and carries the explanation a little further, which is intended for school and colleges.”

As movie trade reviewers would do, Sewell also discussed the box office potential for the films. “So out of the ordinary is this film that is furnishes no definite basis of comparison with any other from a showman’s standpoint and it would appear to be a question for each individual exhibitor to decide as to whether it will appeal to his patrons.”

“Rush,” the reviewer from Variety, certainly had another view of the film. The critic wrote, “The picture occupying just 40 minutes and doesn’t hold for that stretch of time. What inspired them to book it into the Broadway film house is a mystery. A title quotes Einstein as saying that only 12 scientists in the world are capable of understanding the theory. That ought to be enough to keep it from boring a mixed lay assemblage if Valentino and Swanson fans and the army of women who do their popular science reading in May Manton and the Butterick publications.

“The film isn’t even illuminating in a popular way. It doesn’t explain anything that wasn’t already clear. It seems a waste of footage to create elaborate and intricate diagrams to demonstrate that if you step off the earth’s surface there is no such thing as east and west; that there is no meaning to the conception of large and small unless you establish some fixed standard of comparison and that fast and slow don’t mean a thing except in relation to something else. It’s just a labored exposition of the obvious. The picture toils through a morass of these elemental matters and then gets down to the obtuse substance of Einstein’s theories.

“The conception of bent space and bent light rays is illustrated by elaborate diagram, but they give no enlightenment. They use up an immense footage to demonstrate that if a man walks toward the stern of a moving boat at the boat’s exact speed forward, he is standing still in relation to the shore, but moving backward in relation to the boat itself. A title would have covered that. But when they come to deal with that bending of light they merely declare the principle and let it go at that.

“The diagrams are extremely ingenious to elucidate obvious things but when they get Einstein into the rarefied atmosphere of pure scientific reasoning they are baffling and the spectator is befogged. The thing is meaningless and gets down to the mere juggling of words. They establish the meaning of the yardstick of ‘time space’ and then describe the mysterious ‘fourth dimension.’ If the three known dimensions are up and down, right and left, and near and far, the fourth is ‘sooner or later.’

“The whole thing is about as clear and useful as this description of it, and it will probably bore the film fan stiff.”

I have seen several prints of the film at several different times but they have always been the two-reel version of the film. It’s possible the four-reel version has not survived.

I tend to agree with “Rush,” more than Sewell in a contemporary assessment of the film. It’s not the engaging film to watch and I’ve never seen it with a musical accompaniment, which certainly adds a certain burden to it. What does fascinate me about the film is its earnest effort to explain this theory for the masses. There is a certain democratization at work, but of course, with the real motive being to make money about a subject that is in the news.

Later in 1923, another documentary on which Max worked was released, “Adventures in the Far North.” Max apparently edited the film which was initially released as a five-reeler – about 50 minutes – but later trimmed to a four-reel version.

According to a Sept. 13, 1923 review in Variety, the film was “ a consistent digest of the travels of Captain [F.E.] and Mrs. Kleinschmidt through the inner passage to Alaska, which extended over a distance of 5,000 miles from Seattle and return … The trip was made on a former submarine chase which Capt. Kleinschmidt now calls the ‘Silver Screen,’ with him supervising the work of several camera men who made the picture. The trip began in May 1922 and lasted seven months … Scenes in Glacier Bay show the breaking up of a 40-foot sea wall and the huge waves caused by the collapse, the capture of a school of whales and the disposition of their carcasses at the whaling station … A thrilling is where Capt. Kleinschmidt, his wife and a cameraman are adrift on an ice floe and [are] forced to seek refuge on the top of a giant iceberg.”

Kleinschmidt was a veteran documentary filmmaker who had risen to some prominence in 1914 when his film “Arctic Hunt” was shown to members of Congress, according to Moving Picture World, “who were then legislating or trying to legislate upon Alaskan affairs. The captain’s information in motion pictures was greatly valued by the legislators, who freely declared that nothing less than a trip to a long residence in the territory could have supplied them with the facts recorded by the captain’s pictures.”

Max’s daughter Ruth recounted to me how a sequence involving Kleinschmidt capturing a polar bear cub, but relenting and returning it to the mother was a section of the film that Max had deliberately included.

Film Daily’s review of May 14, 1923 noted that sequence. “By far the most interesting of all, though, are the pictures of a huge white polar bear swimming with her young offspring hanging on. Remarkable are the shots showing the efforts to rope in the young bear and the frantic attempts of the mother to battle off the captors and her eventual content when the little bear is allowed to go free.”
The Film Daily review concluded, “The picture is worthy of exhibition anywhere and should be heartily received.”

Considering Max’s pride in his work in the Signal Corps in World War I producing instructional films, one might draw the conclusion that these films spoke to his love of science. Perhaps, as well, they added a greater legitimacy to his career than the animated adventures of Ko-Ko.

Max’s career as an editor of non-fiction footage took an interesting turn in October 1925 when Moving Picture World announced that he had signed a contract with Urban-Kineto Corp. to be “editor in chief” of two new films series for the company, “Reelviews” and “Searchlights.”
“Reelviews” appears to have been a newsreel series and the story reported that “Fleischer will have a staff of cameramen, reaching around the world, ready at a moment’s notice to go out and take the needed scenes” – undoubtedly a bit of press release hyperbole.

Charles Urban’s company produced non-fiction short subjects, one of which, “Nature’s Handiwork” secured a favorable mention in a New York Times movie column in February 1921.

According to an essay written by Luke McKernan, Urban was a film pioneer who had built a large library of stock footage. He was also a proponent of color film technology and had a vision for a film-based encyclopedia that would be sold to schools.

Although he did have two theatrical series of short subjects, Urban’s plans did not succeed and in August 1925, a former investor C.M. Bortman bought the assets of the company, which included 2 million feet of footage.

In the summer of 1925, Max’s feature film “Evolution” was released theatrically. Although a trade ad described it as “an Urban-Kineto production edited by Max Fleischer,” it was released by Red Seal, the new company headed at the time by Fadiman to distribute the Fleischer product.

The film is comprised of stock footage with some animation by Willis O’Brien from his 1918 film “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.”

The trade ad from Red Seal was breathless: “ Everybody is talking ‘Evolution;’ Everybody wants to see ‘Evolution’ … A front page story in five absorbing reels.”

Whether or not the film was a sincere reflection of Max’s considerable interest in science is not known. What is definite is that the trade review in Moving Picture World was published on July 25, 1925 is the name recognition of the subject. The review was published just four days after John Scopes, a teacher in Tennessee had lost a court case due to his presenting the theory of evolution in his class, an action against state law.

The nation was obsessed with what became to be known as “the Monkey Trial” and “Evolution,” like “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity,” was in the purest definition an exploitation film.

It proved to be a well-received exploitation film. Moving Picture World reported, “The New York critics hailed the film enthusiastically. Harriette Underhill, in the Herald-Tribune, declared, ‘Don’t miss it whatever you do. We sat through it twice.’

“The Sun reviewer declares that ‘Evolution’ is ‘an absorbing picture tracing the ascent of man. Your beliefs, pro or con, do not prevent your enjoyment of an exhibition presenting in pictorial forms the beliefs and deductions of the best known scientists of the world. A wave of applause swept over the audience.’

“‘Absorbing, timely and well-done,’ says Rose Pelswick in the Journal. Quinn Martin in The World called it, “Unusually interesting and instructive as well’ is the verdict of the Post…

‘The Times put is official stamp of approval on it with ‘the audience applauded ‘Evolution,’ which proved interesting as a means of popularizing an abstract question.’ ‘Applauded for almost a minute,’ recorded the Telegraph.”

The film uses the stock footage to show the development of the earth, the links between various animals and fossil remains of dinosaurs and early man. It’s final title card walked the line that divided the nation on the issue; “Some call it evolution, others the work of God.”

During his work on these feature films, Max was producing the Out of the Inkwell cartoons and his involvement with Fadiman led to the creation of Red Seal, a company that would allow Max to distribute his own product. Film Daily reported on Oct. 26, 1923, “Red Seal Pictures Corp. has been formed with Edwin Miles Fadiman, president and general manager; Harold Rodner, vice-president and Max Fleischer, treasurer. ‘Unusual and distinctive pictures’ are promised by the organization which will release via the state right market.”
Later that year, Film Daily noted, “ Fleischer Closes Foreign Deals – ‘Out of the Inkwell’ cartoons have been sold by Max Fleischer for China, South Africa, Australia, Poland and England.”

The quality of the animated shorts didn’t seem to suffer during this time of business re-organization and expansion. The trade reviews were still positive for the Inkwell shorts.

In the Dec. 2, 1923 edition of Film Daily, “Shadows” was given the following review: “Once again the imp from the inkwell becomes involved, this time with the shadows of his own figure. The result is a completely different set of difficulties, chiefly the result of Fleischer's making silhouettes of animals with his figures. These animals annoy the imp and trouble him to such an extent that finally after being chased and crushed he becomes so bewildered that he is glad to jump back into the inkwell. Very laughable, very amusing.”

The first “Song Car-tune,” also reviewed a rave from the Film Daily reviewer on Feb. 24, 1924. “Here’s a new idea in song reels, presented by Charles K. Harris, the music publisher who is responsible for the songs and Max Fleischer whose animated cartoons skip nimbly from word to word of the song and lend much charm and some laughs. There is no picturization of the action described in the song – simply the words which run along the screen in large single-line type that moves slowly from right to left in time to the music and on which the tiny cartoon figures dance. The songs included are ‘Mother, Mother, Mother, Pin a Rose on Me,’ ‘Come Take a Trip in My Airship’ and ‘Goodbye. My Lady Love.’”

What would become known as the “Follow the Bouncing Ball” cartoons grew out of the convention in theaters of the time of sing-alongs with the theater’s musicians performing a well-known song and the lyrics would be projected on the screen on glass slides.

“A Trip to Mars” (April 13, 1924, Film Daily) received this reaction: “Max Fleischer continues to inject originality and novelty into his cartoon numbers. His latest, ‘A Trip to Mars,’ on the Rivoli program last week, is a clever and amusing number that shows the. Cartoonist at his best and with his pen clown performing a series of comedy tricks that will amuse and entertain any audience. The clown is sent, via a sky-rocket, to Mars where Fleischer installs all sorts of grotesque, imaginary beings. The artist appears in his film as usual and makes a flying trip to Mars himself through means of trick photography. This is an A-l cartoon number, a good novelty and quite amusing.”

The reviewer is right. “A Trip to Mars” is a fun cartoon tackling a science fiction subject not frequently seen in the movies of the 1920s.

Contemporary critics saw the Felix cartoons as the most popular animated cartoons of the era and interestingly Felix was often compared to Charles Chaplin – in fact Chapin appears in “Felix in Hollywood” in 1923. If Felix was Chaplin, then Ko-Ko was certainly the animated equivalent of Buster Keaton. Keaton’s comedies were known for their innovative sight gags and the Ko-Ko shorts pushed the boundaries of their format.

One could say that the typical Ko-Ko short was a contest of wills between the creator and the creation. If the shorts were formulaic in that sense, they were not formulaic in how they fulfilled that format. The Fleischer staff was willing to take chances by using different styles of animation and special effects. Other animation studios took notice.

Walter Lantz’s “Dinky Doodles” series at Bray was as close as an imitation of the Ko-Ko cartoons as one could find, even with Lantz himself as the human star.

Disney’s “Alice in Cartoonland” shorts reversed the Ko-Ko format. Instead of a carton character entering a human world, a human is in a cartoon world. Although in one early short, “Alice’s Spooky Adventure (1923), there is a reason given for this interaction – the little girl dreams it – in subsequent cartoons audiences just had to accept it. The other significant different is the Ko-Ko cartoons were technically superior to the Alice shorts.

© 2013 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, January 28, 2013

Rob Schneider was a gentleman and someone I could talk to for a long time as he really is a student of comedy.

Rob Schneider is more than a successful comedian. Speak to him for just a few minutes and you realize he is a true historian of comedy.

The former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, who has starred and co-starred in a string of popular movies will be performing at the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee for two shows on Dec. 28.

Among Schneider's credits are films such as "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo," "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo," "The Hot Chick," "The Animal," "You Don't Mess With The Zohan," "The Benchwarmers," "50 First Dates" and "The Longest Yard."

Schneider explained to Reminder Publications that he has been doing more stand-up comedy in the last few years in part because the late George Carlin inspired him. Schneider started out as a stand-up comic, but said, "I never got to the place where I thought my stand-up was great. I never conquered it."

When he saw Chris Rock perform, he decided to get back on the road.

"It feels good," he said, but readily admitted that traveling was tiring.

He said the difference is now — since there has been a 20-year gap in performing live — "I feel I can take the audience further and talk about things that interest me."

Schneider also enjoys the freedom of performing live on stage, a freedom that he didn't find during his recent television series, "Rob." A mid-season replacement series, "Rob" was based on one part of Schneider's life: his marriage to Mexican television producer Patricia Azarcoya Arce.

Although the show attracted 11 million viewers a week, it was cancelled.

Like all television shows, network execs tried to tweak the comedy.

"It's frustrating to get notes from people who don't know as much about comedy as you do," Schneider said.

He is philosophical about the cancellation, though.

"It's their money, it's their stage. You're just renting it," he said.

The show did give him the opportunity to work with one of his comedic heroes, Cheech Marin. Half of the legendary comedy team of Cheech and Chong, Schneider remembered the joy he had as a child listening to their comedy albums. Marin, he added, has "a lot of charisma and is very funny."

Marin, Schneider explained, like many successful comic performers has been typecast.

"Very few people can break [a typecast]," Schneider said. "You're stuck, but it's a good stuck. At least you're being cast."

Despite his less than pleasant experience with a television series, Schneider is looking at another potential show, this one based on a hit Australian series called "Mother and Son." The premise is about a man who cares for his aging mother who may or may not be suffering with dementia.

Some of the Schneider's film work has been in starring roles, while others have been co-starring. In "Judge Dredd," Schneider's character did a spot-on impersonation of Sylvester Stallone to the action star's face and Schneider recalled Stallone telling him, "You better be funny or you're dead."

His association and friendship with Adam Sandler has been without any death threats.

"Adam just gives me the opportunity of playing different ethnic guys," Schneider said.

Currently Schneider is working on an animated feature, "Norm of the North," playing a polar bear Norm. He is enjoying the work as he said it allows him to "really create."

Since he and his wife are recent parents, he is interested in finding work such as this assignment that keeps him closer to home.

Schneider believes that there is a renaissance of comedy going on today and has a theory that when the economy has its problems, the arts flourish. He noted that after WWII, Great Britain was having problems returning to its pre-war conditions.

"There was a feeling things were not going to get better for the English," he said.

In reaction to what was happening, came the very successful comedies starring Sir Alec Guinness from the Ealing Studio, Schneider noted. Post-war Great Britain gave birth to Monty Python, which Schneider said "was the high water mark for comedy in the 20th century."

Schneider sees performers such as Louis C.K. as part of that renaissance born out of our own problems.

He said that he would like to produce a television series on the history of comedy. Considering his busy personal and professional schedule, Schneider added, "Eventually."

© 2013 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Olive A. "Sue" Dobbs 1924 to 2013

My mom and me when I was probably two years old.

What my brother and I have gone through in the past several weeks is in the big picture nothing special. Every second of every day someone loses a parent.

It’s the hope of most people that they do not have to go through this event until they are in their middle age, but too many of us face such a loss when much younger.

My mom died in the morning of Jan. 9 at the age of 88. I’ve written about my father from time to time, but in our family there was no one more important in many ways than my mom.

She and my father, Gordon L. Dobbs, had a relationship, that least to me seemed pretty typical of the time during which they were young: my father had the career and my mom stayed home. It’s fair to say, though, what my dad wanted for his life could not have been possible without my mom.

My dad died in 1996 and while his death was a blow to me, there wasn’t the more profound sense of finality until my mom passed. Now, my brother and I are the oldest in our small family. Will our kids look to us as we looked to our parents? I doubt it. It’s a different time and place and we are all different people.

My mom came from pioneer stock and hers is a very American story. For instance, her great-maternal grandfather was a Dutch shipping heir who secretly left his vessel in San Francisco harbor when he learned of a plot against his life. He went into the gold fields of northern California and met a young Bavarian woman who had come to America with her sister. Her sister was married and the brother-in-law knew what a commodity he had in gold country: a single young woman. The Dutchman, as my grandmother Edith Gage would say, married this girl to keep her from living the life of a prostitute.

There is much more to this story and to others in my mom’s history. I know relatively little about my father’s family, although I now have a book on the Dobbs side that I will read.

My mom grew up in small towns and communities in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California where the Feather River played a prominent role cutting a zigzag through the mountain canyons. Her father, Shirley Gage, came from a hardscrabble family in Texas and my mom used to say that he was born a century too late. He was an outdoorsman who spent much his life working hard jobs: lumber and mining. He loved to fish and hunt and there are many family photos showing him in the woods.

Although my mother said she never thought her family was poor as a child growing up in the Depression, she spent considerable time living with her mother’s family in Oroville, Ca., simply because her dad was having trouble earning enough money or finding a place for his small family – my mom was an only child – to live.

Mom in Oroville with a favorite doll.

Oroville was a big city compared to the hamlets here she lived. Her maternal grandfather, Emil Kessler, who was often described to me as “bantam rooster,” adored her. Emil was from Switzerland and had a well-known temper. He had nasty nicknames for many people, but for my mom he was a pushover.

When she was born, she was named for one of my grandmother’s brothers, Oliver. Her birth name was Olive Adell Gage. My great-grandfather, though, looked at her and declared, “She isn’t an Olive; she’s a Sue.”

From that moment on, the only people who called her “Olive” either didn’t know her well or was referring her in an official sense. She was “Sue” for the rest of her life.

Following graduation from Greenville (Ca.) High School in 1942, my mom attended a secretarial college in Chico, Ca., where she met my father who was training to be an Army Air Corp pilot. They were married in 1944. Days later, my father shipped out to Europe commanding a B-17.

My mother not long after her marriage.

My dad stayed in the Air Force for 26 years. He flew bombers over Korea as well and, after a serious injury, could no longer fly but switched to the maintenance side. He ended his career at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam.

My mom sat out three wars, the last of which with two kids. That was not an easy thing to do. I never heard her complain. I never heard a regret.

If there were issues at that time, I never knew. My parents wrote frequently to one another but those letters were destroyed. I came across several as we cleaned out her home, but I didn’t look at them. It would have been an invasion of their privacy.

My mom also supported my father in his vocation as a furniture maker. My admiration for my father’s skills is immense. He could look at an antique, make a few measurements and notes and reproduce it. These skills, along with what he accomplished in the Air Force and as a high school teacher, have long put my own ambition into perspective.

He couldn’t have done it without my mom, though and he knew it. When my brother and I was moving a piece of furniture he built late in his life, there was an inscription on the back written by my dad in marker. It detailed how my mom saved his life and made things, such as the furniture, possible.

Here is my father in his crowded shop in the basement of our home at 104 Navajo Road in Springfield, Mass. in the early 1960s.

My parents were not perfect and neither was their relationship, but they gave my brother and me a great childhood. My dad never understood my interest in movies, but bought a wonder Super 8mm Bolex camera for me to make my own films.

My mother, although a movie fan as a kid, never appreciated my love of horror moves, but she gladly typed the printing masters for my fanzine Inertron.

Although my dad did have a plan for me – I was to be a schoolteacher – he only gave a small amount of resistance to me bring a writer. He never cared for my choice, although my mom said he was proud of me. I hope so.

My mom had much artistic talent, although she always downplayed it. She was a shy woman who made friendships for life. Although not a churchgoer, she read many books on religion and spirituality and was intrigued by true mysteries of the universe.

Mom was one of biggest animal lovers I ever know, aside from my dad who often declared he would rather be around animals than people.

We had a small farm in Granby, Mass., and my mom loved her herd of goats. My brother Patrick, a very talent photographer, took this photo.

They were both museum people and book people who held education very dear. In high school, I would be quizzed about how I did on a test and once I revealed the mark, if it didn’t meet Mom’s standards, she would reel off the names of my friends and asked what grade they received. She could be tough.

My mind is a jumble right now as memories come flooding back. Mourning is a surreal activity. One moment everything is fine, while the next is a mess. I know that I will think of her, as I’ve thought of my father, every week for the rest of my life.