14 October 2010

Lost Laugh-O-Grams Found—And Shown

"Alice isn't Alice." Those three words recently marked the start of an exciting series of discoveries for me and others. But what could they mean?

Like a lot of cartoon researchers, I've long been disappointed that more of Walt Disney's 1920s Kansas City animation didn't seem to survive. Recently, though, colleagues and I have turned up some exciting discoveries—some of which, I'm pleased to announce, are about to reach public eyes after a long, long absence.

First, a bit of background. Until recently, it was believed that only four of Disney's Laugh-O-Grams fairy tale cartoons still existed: Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Cinderella, and The Four Musicians of Bremen (all 1922). It was also conventional wisdom that the fairy tales had been a series of six, released only in the United States—and perhaps only in part; for soon after buying the series from Disney, non-theatrical distributor Pictorial Clubs of Tennessee filed for bankruptcy.

But Pictorial Clubs had shady sister companies in different states. Some, it turns out, continued to distribute Laugh-O-Grams years later; all seven of them, not six. Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer (both 1922), two titles traditionally misremembered as one and the same, were actually different shorts. A 1922 press release, discovered by researcher Michael Barrier, announced that the series would include both titles; John Kenworthy noted the two titles listed as separate, completed cartoons among Laugh-O-Gram Films' bankruptcy records.

As the sound era dawned, the seven fairy tales changed owners. As early as 1991, J. P. Storm and M. Dreßler's pivotal German study Im Reich der Micky Maus included German release information for a 1929 Disney cartoon series entitled "Wuppy"; in his Animated Film Encyclopedia (2000), Graham Webb revealed an American equivalent alternately titled "Whoopee Sketches" and "Peter the Puss." Bollman and Grant were credited as producers for the New York-based Sound Film Distributing Corp.; in England, Wardour Films distributed the reels theatrically.

Webb was the first to verify that these Whoopee/Peter titles were Laugh-O-Grams retrofitted with soundtracks—with "Peter the Puss" being a new name for Disney's Julius the Cat (or his Laugh-O-Gram prototype). The Whoopee/Peter title "Grandma Steps Out" turned up in the collection of David Wyatt, and was clearly Disney's Little Red Riding Hood. Webb tagged Disney's Cinderella (1922) as the Whoopee/Peter "The Slipper-y Kid," Goldie Locks and the Three Bears (1922) as "The Peroxide Kid," and Puss in Boots as "The K-O Kid."

But there were more Whoopee/Peter titles than there were Laugh-O-Gram fairy tales. Some records suggested 12 Whoopee cartoons were released; nine made it to Germany, and Storm/Dreßler and Webb collectively found title listings for ten. Would we ever actually see the films to conclusively identify them all?

"Alice isn't Alice." In 2005, researcher Cole Johnson told me about having screened a misidentified cartoon at the Museum of Modern Art. Though tagged as Disney's Alice and the Three Bears (1924)—as it had been since its acquisition, decades before—this cartoon didn't feature a live-action Alice, as was SOP for the Alice Comedies. Instead Alice was animated. Or was it Alice? Cole believed we were seeing Goldie Locks, and the print title, "The Peroxide Kid," guaranteed it. Exceptional find, Cole.

Where one retitled print existed, might there be more? Sure enough. In time, MoMA proved to possess other previously unprovenanced reels that, when inspected, revealed Whoopee and/or Peter main titles. Now the discoveries, and confirmed identifications, flew thick and fast. Two Whoopee Sketches, "Rural Romeo" and "Egg-Splosion," turned out not to be Disney shorts. As for those that were, we already knew "Grandma" was Red Riding Hood and "Peroxide" Goldie Locks; now "The Four Jazz Boys" was confirmed as Bremen, while helpful MoMA staffers found for me that "The Cat's Whiskers" matched Disney's Puss in Boots.

Of course, if "Whiskers" was Boots, then Webb had been incorrect with one title assignment. What was "The K-O Kid"? MoMA had a film element bearing that title, but it was not screenable when I did my initial research last fall. Luckily, a 1969 MoMA plot synopsis survived—and matched up point for point with a 1924 review of Jack the Giant Killer (above), which I'd located in The Educational Screen non-theatrical exhibitors' magazine. Shortly after, another print also turned up at MoMA; now elements of both have been combined and Giant Killer properly restored and preserved.

In the shuffle, one might have forgotten Jack and the Beanstalk, on which no element has yet turned up at MoMA. With luck, however, I did locate an element in a private collection last spring; once again under its Peter the Puss title, "On the Up and Up." Thus all seven Laugh-O-Gram fairy tales have now been found.

Want to see some? Sure you do. And that leads me to more good news—some will be screened, and soon. This October 31 will bring us a Halloween treat: longtime silent film scholar and fellow cartoon researcher, Serge Bromberg, is coming from Europe for MoMA's annual To Save and Project festival, and he'll be presenting a special Laugh-O-Grams program. Along with now-preserved prints of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Four Musicians of Bremen, the newly discovered Jack the Giant Killer and Goldie Locks and the Three Bears will also be shown. Serge will provide his usual stellar background info and piano accompaniment. And as icing on the cake, later Ub Iwerks cartoons will also be at the screening, including Flip the Frog's Techno-Cracked (1933) and my personal favorite, Don Quixote (1934).

Can't make it on the 31st? Come on November 4. This is one time when cartoon research has gotten great results—for Cole Johnson, Serge, the MoMA staff, and myself.

Any other points to add? Yes: together with Beanstalk in the private collection was a print of Cinderella, restoring a long-lost final scene (at right) coming after the end of Disney's current element. Looks like Cindy and Prince Charming didn't live happily ever after.

And the latest Whoopee Sketch rundown, as of now:

(Whoopee title • original title)

"Bottle of Rum" = ?
"The Cat's Whiskers" = Puss in Boots
"Egg-Splosion" = non-Disney Bill Nolan short
"The Four Jazz Boys" = Four Musicians of Bremen
"Grandma Steps Out" = Little Red Riding Hood
"The K-O Kid" = Jack the Giant Killer
"On the Up and Up" = Jack and the Beanstalk
"The Peroxide Kid" = Goldie Locks and the Three Bears
"Rural Romeo" = non-Disney Bill Nolan short
"The Slipper-y Kid" = Cinderella

Anyone got that "Bottle of Rum"? LeChuck? Jack Sparrow?... Bootleg Pete?

Special thanks to J. B. Kaufman, Tom Stathes, Timothy Susanin, Michael Barrier, Didier Ghez, Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck, and Thad Komorowski.

04 October 2010

Mystical Felix Monday: There's More?

Hey, who said it was over? At the time our Fantastic Felix Friday celebration finished up last week, an e-mail snafu had unknowingly kept me from receiving Don Oriolo's replies for two extra Felix the Cat interview questions. But the Cat always comes back—and now Don is back, too, with one of the funniest Felix anecdotes ever. All in service, of course, to Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails, Don's new book with Yoe! Studio—an exciting collection of Otto Messmer, Joe Oriolo, and Jim Tyer Felix adventures that's available now.

What, you want another adventure here? Oh, all right. But I don't want to spoil too much. So following below is "The Great Inventor" (Four Color 135, 1946), a Felix story that's not in Great Comic Book Tails. While I don't want to state the credits with certainty, I believe pages 1-13 are largely by Otto Messmer, with inks by Otto, Joe Oriolo and possibly Jack Bogle (pages 4 and 5). Pages 14-16 are—I believe—penciled by Jim Tyer and inked by Joe.

(Comic © Felix the Cat Productions; all rights reserved.)

And now I'm back with Don for those final two questions—switching to boldface interview style now!

Don, the stories in Great Comic Book Tails seem almost to be trying to top each other for wildest adventure or most outrageous fantasy scenario. What's your own favorite from among those stories? And what would you say was your dad's most outrageous Felix cartoon story?

I love "Felix Pulls Through" (Felix the Cat 13, 1950)! I remember my father penciling and inking it like it was yesterday... I was fascinated when Felix threw the magnetic ore into the air and the cannonballs and weaponry were attracted to it, thereby veering away from Felix. I totally remember when my father drew the cluster of cannonballs all stuck together; I watched with baited breath as he inked it, and I could see it coming to life. As soon as he inked around the little reflective windows that he left white, the whole scene popped; that stuck in my head to this day! That's how I ink reflections, too.
Regarding Felix animated on the screen, I loved Master Cylinder, King of the Moon (1959)—when Master Cylinder established himself as king, it was so bizarre; that a character named after the working business of an auto brake system was crowned king of the moon. Why? I had these battles with my father all the time. His answer was, "Why not?"

So what was the most outrageous situation Felix ever got you into? These things tend to happen when he crosses our paths.

Well, it's funny you should mention that, David. About 12 years ago (seems like yesterday!) my mother got involved in investing in an "amusement" park in Palm City, Florida. The object was to have more "intellectual" exhibits for children—and to do away with traditional amusement rides, et cetera. It was more like an outdoor library than an amusement park!
And the whole construction of the park was running years over schedule; it was not looking good. Well, one of the things that my mother donated—along with the usual bricks with family members' names etched into them—was a version of "Where's Waldo?"... or rather "Where's Felix?" Yup, you heard it... I designed—and the park council produced—seven solid brass Felix statues, painted black and white. They were amazingly heavy and each one stood about three feet tall. They were actually pretty cool... but by the time they were ready, I was getting very skeptical about the plan. The principals in the park, called "Gift Gardens" after someone named Gift, were constantly bickering and replacing each other with even less efficient people. You have to understand that they actually built this thing. It was probably about 10 to 15 acres with a brand new high masonry wall around the whole bit.
The park opened without fanfare; and as I walked past the "Where's Felix" section—a nicely landscaped plot of land about thirty feet square—and looked around, I saw no press; just a handful of people and a bunch of bizarre exhibits. Whatever kids were there walked along the path with glazed looks on their faces. "Where are the rides?" I said to myself. "This does not look good."
To make a long story short: the park opened one day, and was locked tighter than a sardine can the next day! I was like, "What the heck?" It started with good intentions, but was built by do-gooders raising money from local retired people, and it also felt like maybe they did it as some kind of tax shelter scam. I was livid. I went back that afternoon and there was already graffiti on the beautiful eight-foot wall. "Okay," I said, "this confirms my suspicions; this park is going to be looted and destroyed in a matter of days." No security... it was completely abandoned.
I thought back; how would Errol Flynn get over this wall in Robin Hood? Oh, yeah... there's a ladder over there...

You saved the statues.

Yeah, you got it; I climbed over the wall, and I carried those ridiculously heavy statues from one side of the park to the front wall. One by one I placed the rescued Felix statues on the top of the wall. I was exhausted... but these were our Felix statues; we paid for them plus plus plus... and the park owners had abandoned the place. I was upset to say the least.
In any event, today those statues live in my studio and the homes of a couple of my nephews. Boy, the things we do for that Wonderful Wonderful Cat!

I'll say! Truth is stranger than fiction.

Glad to have you h— uh, glad to have you here again, Don. And speaking of strangeness; to finish off this blogpost in style, it's time to share a true Felix oddity with readers. Dating from 1924, "Since Felix Has Been Shingled" was among the earliest Felix spinoff tunes; and is rare enough that until very recently, I wasn't aware it had been recorded.
But times change. Rarities are rediscovered. And now—thanks to collector David Moore—here's England's own Clarkson Rose with the story of our favorite cat... being forced to get a lady's hairdo. Maybe fiction is stranger.

Felix has been walking since the day that he was born
And so to keep him home at nights we had to have him shorn;
We did not like to 'bob' him; he didn't look the part;
So we went and had him shingled and it nearly broke his heart.

Now Felix is shingled he won't go out of doors;
He lies on a cushion and snores, and snores, and snores.
He's canceled engagements which he'd made by the score
Since Felix has been shingled he won't walk anymore.

Felix caused great jealousy amongst the other Toms,
But since he has been shingled now, they wag their to's and froms.
He rivals them no longer among the lady cats;
He never spends his ev'nings now in other people's flats.

Now Felix is shingled he won't go out of doors;
He won't trim his whiskers, he's left off his plus fours;
The Sheik of the Tabbies in the good old days of yore
Since Felix has been shingled he won't sheik anymore.

Felix rivaled Owen Nares when he made his bow
But Felix now is owing hairs; meow! meow! meow!
Don't forget to visit my sister (brother?) blogs from last week's Fantastic Felix Friday:


Thanks Craig, and thanks Don!

24 September 2010

Fantastic Felix Friday: Behind the Scenes

Rowr! It's been awhile since Felix the Cat prowled Ramapith's ivy-covered halls. But the feisty feline always comes back. This week I'm honored to help promote him in a new project for which I was a consulting researcher: Craig Yoe's and Don Oriolo's Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails. We're all calling today "Fantastic Felix Friday" and many of us collaborators are blogging about the book—time to do my bit.

Lots of us know Felix from his classic cartoons—both the vintage Otto Messmer head-trips of the 1920s and the famous Joe Oriolo Professor/Rock Bottom battles of the 1950s. Many of us know Felix's comic strip exploits, too—in which Otto and Joe again played central roles, drawing blissful dailies and Sundays for many a decade. But there's never been a really solid collection of Felix's comic book adventures. However—the times, they are a-changing! Thanks to both the Oriolo company archives and various collectors' holdings, Craig and Don (son of Joe) have put together this lavish, in-depth look at the first ten years of Felix made for magazines.

When Felix's original comic book stories kicked off in 1946, he wasn't quite the same cat that he'd been twenty years earlier on-screen. His catty resourcefulness remained, but in other ways he had become more human than feline. Felix lived in a house now; paid his bills (or tried to!) and generally coexisted with people as a peer, not a pet.
But if Felix's animal nature had declined, his propensity for fantasy was wilder and woolier than ever before. This was the Felix who not only visited Toyland and various Oz-like domains—but permanently owned a magic carpet, enabling him to go back to them again and again. This was the Felix who discovered that when you cooked vegetables, giant vegetables would one day catch you and try to cook you, too.

Eyes downward, readers, and you'll find "Starbust" (Four Color 135, 1946), the opening story in the new book. Dig that Art Deco star on Page 1—and don't you just love how this actually becomes a story about escaping the star? Nobody but Felix got into adventures this wacky. Nobody else dared.
Pages 1, 2, 4, 6, and 9-16 appear to me to be drawn by Otto Messmer, with inks mostly by Messmer but sometimes by Joe Oriolo (the extra-wide cut in Felix's pie-eye on Page 4, Pic 2 suggests Oriolo in this period, as do images of Felix with a round back to his head rather than the usual cowlick).
Pages 3 and 5 are by Jim Tyer—dig the classic Tyer bum and sheriff designs!—and 7 and 8 appear to me to be Messmer and Tyer working together.

But let's see what you think. Then join me after the jump for an even more special Felician feature... (Comic © Felix the Cat Productions, all rights reserved.)

Welcome back. (Nice comic, huh?) I've got Don Oriolo with me today—son of Joe, Don began life scampering around his dad's and "Uncle Otto's" drawing boards; not a bad place to start out! I thought I'd interview Don for "Fantastic Felix Friday" to get some inside dope about the stories in Great Comic Book Tails—and about some other long-simmering Felix mysteries.
I'll switch to boldface for proper interview technique and let's get going!

Glad to have you here, Don! Hm, where to begin? Most Felix comic book stories were drawn by Otto Messmer and your dad, Joe Oriolo. But for the first couple of years at Dell, super-screwy cartoonist Jim Tyer—best known for his distinctive, outrageous style at Terrytoons and Fleischer—was also a contributor. Did you meet Tyer when he worked with your dad? Did Joe or Otto have any special memories of him?

Hi, David... first of all, let me say it's always a pleasure to talk with you, and I'm continuously amazed at your knowledge of all things Felix. Yes; Jim, or Mr. Tyer as I called him, was one of the Fleischer guys that my father and Otto worked with during those wondrous Fleischer and Famous Studios days. My father loved to have barbecues, and the Fleischer "family" was always there. I know both my father and Otto admired Jim's talent. Jim also worked on a couple of Trans-Lux [Felix TV] episodes.

The Felix stories in this book come from a transitional period when Felix's supporting cast was changing. We see Flub the dog, Inky and Winky, and Pokey the pig, but only in relatively brief parts. On the other hand, we also get a brief cameo from a crook who's clearly a Rock Bottom ancestor (in the story "Seeds and Proceeds"). When your dad added Rock and the Professor to the cast, how did it come about? They were almost never in the comics, so did Trans-Lux request that the cast be filled out especially for TV?

That's exactly how it happened. Trans Lux wanted more ancillary characters... so my father reached back to Butch who became Rock Bottom.

You mean Butch the bully from the 1950s-era newspaper strips, right?

Yes. Butch was sort of a predecessor of Rock... minor changes, of course. "Rock Bottom" was a name that just popped out of my father's head; a typical punnish play on words that the Popeye guys always toyed with. Poindexter was the last name of my father's lawyer, Emmett Poindexter. Pokey the pig was also called Starvin' Marvin...
The Professor was an an amalgam of various "professorial" characters that appeared in the comics and strips through the years. I think one of the most brilliant off-the-cuff design concepts was the button on Poindexter's lab coat... I always asked my father what that button did, and I always got the runaround. I think he only used it a couple of times in the series.

Many of the Great Comic Book Tails show Felix with his Magic Carpet—and a very unmagic travel bag. Your dad made the decision to combine them, creating the famous Magic Bag. But had the Carpet been your dad's creation too? What motivated the decision to change two into one?

Yes, it was my father's. My father was fascinated with the Arabian Nights and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). He would always tell me, my brother and sister stories of flying carpets and time machines. I was always imagining that one of the Persian rugs in our house could fly me anywhere in the universe—and in my playtime imagination, it did. The Magic Bag was an element created to give an easy way out in the five-minute [TV] episodes... it replaced the piercing of the fourth wall in simpler terms for a series with such a limited budget.

Felix's Carpet was this big, clunky looking thing...

It was the way both my dad and Otto drew rugs—tassels and all. Those guys never thought about taking the easy way out when they were doing the strips or comic books. They always went the extra mile with the backgrounds.

Fairy tales and fantastic travel are a recurring theme in these Felix comics adventures—gotta love the kingdom of Vegeteria and the other kooky places Felix visits. Did your dad or "Uncle Otto" ever tell you why this theme became so crucial for Felix? Was any inspiration from L. Frank Baum (Oz) or Johnny Gruelle (Raggedy Ann) involved? Your dad worked on Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy (1941) at Fleischer [illustration at left]...

Raggedy Ann was loved by both my dad and Otto. My dad also eventually did lots of design work for Joe Raposo of Sesame Street fame [songwriter for Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1976)]. Otto drew a mean Raggedy Ann, also. The Fleischer theory was that everything was alive... even vegetables danced along with the streetlamps and talking doorknobs. My father read everything Baum ever wrote. I wish I still had those old books.

Speaking of fantastic travel, your dad introduced Vavoom, the noisy little Inuit who was a spiritual successor to many of the earlier eccentric characters Felix had met on his travels. Can you tell me a little about how Vavoom originated?

I had a little drawing board next to my father... I was home sick one day from school, and as my father was doing the daily Felix strip, I sneezed. He flew off his chair. I thought "Wow, I have a powerful magic sneeze!" So I "force-sneezed" at my father who flew backwards, and stumbled down the stairs as I continued to "sneeze" at him. Not long after that he designed a character loosely called Sneezy. When they were deciding on the cast of the Felix TV series, he brought that character up; Trans-Lux liked the character, but said "You can't have him promote unhealthy, sickly behavior!" After which my father changed his name to Vavoom, after the Jackie Gleason phrase—va-va-va-voom!

For years, Felix studio founder Pat Sullivan claimed to have created Felix. Later, his estate continued to control the character—and as long as they did, Sullivan continued to get the credit. I'm not going to get into the issue of Felix's creation right now—but we both know Messmer might never have gotten any due had your dad not acquired permanent Felix rights from Sullivan's heirs. How did this come about?

Pat Sullivan, the nephew [of studio founder Pat Sullivan] traded 50% of the stock to my father for his creating and selling the pilot of the Trans-Lux Felix TV series. I bought all of the remaining stock from the stockholders through the years.

Speaking of the TV series, it's time for one of those existential questions. Sometimes the Professor is Felix's sworn enemy, battling with him for Magic Bag possession. But at other times, the Professor is Felix's boss, hiring him as lab help or to babysit Poindexter. How did your Dad explain the Professor's varying roles as bad guy and good guy?

It's sort of the same concept as Bluto being friendly to Popeye in a couple of episodes. It just happened by way of scripts that were churned out in hours. Don't forget they were doing a few episodes a week. They didn't overthink anything or analyze anything because there was nothing to analyze. They were creating what is our history now—and didn't think of the ramifications!

In the 1950s, Felix's nephews Inky and Winky became especially popular for awhile, even getting a comic book of their own. But as longtime Felix fans know, the kittens have an oddity attached to them. The comics called them Inky and Dinky; the merchandise called them Inky and Winky, especially later on. Can you tell us why this was?

My father just liked the name Winky better... and the word "dinky" had a connotation of being insignificant at the time; it didn't sound positive to my father. I remember his having that conversation with me as a child.

Felix is a bit of a rascal—known to nab the occasional fish or down the occasional martini. It's part of what makes him human. But in the 1950s, for awhile we saw less of this. What restrictions did Trans-Lux put on Felix's mischief?

They wanted a "younger" show. That's why Jack Mercer [voice of Felix and all other male characters on the show] spoke in slow deliberate tones. Felix was to be everybody's best friend—who could solve any problem anyone had, even if it meant taking the easy way out with the Magic Bag.

One more newspaper strip question. For awhile in the 1940s, Messmer's Felix daily featured nothing but battles between Felix and Skiddoo the mouse—day-in, day-out. Did Messmer or Oriolo ever tell you why the strip went through this period? Did it have to do with King Features' decisions?

A lot of the writing on those strips were off the cuff mental streaming of Otto and my dad. Mice worked with cats—and Farmer Gray!—so why not with Felix? It was a way of getting a running gag in a time when they were expected to churn out a script a day.

Some stories in Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails come from Dell Comics editions; others come from Toby Press, which took over publication in 1951. Why did Felix make the move from Dell to Toby?

I think Dell was winding down with their commitment to publish the Felix comics and Toby was very, very interested in carrying on. I personally really like the Toby Press days—though it was one almost-interchangeable comics community as I saw it as a kid. My father was always going to one or all of the offices on a weekly basis. I was happy because he always came home with a bag full of comics. I was like a pig in—well, you know what I mean. I was a very happy kid!

And I've been very happy to have you here, Don!

That almost wraps up our Felix goodies for today—but not quite! This wouldn't be a Ramapith blogpost without an extra-esoteric turn-of-the-century pop tune. In the earlier-referenced Greatest Comic Book Tails story "Seeds and Proceeds," vegetable-grower Felix discovers super seeds that create incredible plant growth. "Burbank should see this," Felix grins. Huh? This unusual pop culture ref is a shout-out to Luther Burbank (1849-1926), pioneer horticulturalist—a man who may be little-remembered by the general public today, but to whom every gourmet and naturalist owes a debt of gratitude.

Let's finish things off with "Burbank the Wizard" (1911), an earlier tribute to "the world's greatest farmer" by singer/comedian Murray K. Hill...

And don't forget to visit the other Fantastic Felix Friday bloggers! We've all joined together today to create a web-wide Felix maelstrom of mirth: