Friday, August 31, 2012

Check It Out: THE UPA JOLLY FROLICS COLLECTION (Part The Last - I Promise)






Paul Julian took one of his few directorial credits (while also doing his usual work as designer and colorist) on the 1955 entry Baby Boogie.  Ann Whitfield provides the voice of a little girl asking one of the most loaded questions a parent can hear:  "Where do babies come from?"


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The Jaywalker was released by Columbia pictures the same year (1955) as The Man With The Golden Arm.  Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak are nowhere to be seen -- not even Arnold Stang.  But like Otto Preminger's film, Robert Cannon also tells a Shocking Story of a Pitiless Addiction.  There's even a great jazz score, this time by bandleader Billy May.  May the tale of Milton Muffet stand as a warning to the ages . . .


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Based on a short story by the writer Percival Wilde, The Rise of Duton Lang is the story of a French scientist whose career would be more successful if he devoted less time to eating.  It's also the story of the fellow telling the story while cadging drinks off an American tourist.  He's not quite as successful as usual . . .


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Trees/Jamaica Daddy was the first of four UPA cartoons featuring the characters of Hamilton Ham (a world-traveling shape-shifter) and Hattie, a sweet little girl in a straw hat.  It was also the last of the studios cartoons to be nominated for an Oscar.  Within two years of its release in 1958, UPA, following the poor performance of its first feature-length film, 1001 Arabian Nights (featuring Mr. Magoo), was sold by Stephen Bosustow to producer Henry Sapirstein.  Sapirstein led the company away from the dwindling theatrical market and into television (except for the very nice 1963 film Gay Purr-ee, featuring great voice work by Judy Garland and Robert Goulet), resulting in two well-received television specials (Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and Uncle Sam Magoo, both for NBC), a syndicated Mr. Magoo series that didn't do as well, a syndicated series based on the Dick Tracy comic strip (not a big success, and hardly an artistic triumph, but at least free of Warren Beatty and Madonna), and The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo for NBC, which was cancelled after one season.  About this time, UPA dropped out of animation altogether and became the American distributor for Toho Studio's giant-monster epics, which they continued to be until at least, I think, the film Godzilla 2000.  This relationship with Toho allowed Sapirstein to get American distribution rights to a Bond rip-off called Key of Keys.  Sapirstein handed it over to Woody Allen, who applied a new English soundtrack, some songs by The Lovin' Spoonful, and a new title; What's Up, Tiger Lily?  Since then, the company has drifted through various corporate hands, landing most recently in the animation division of Dreamworks, which is a subsidiary of Paramount, which is a subsidiary of . . .  Not a happy ending, exactly, but at least we have some beautifully restored memories.


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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Check It Out: THE UPA JOLLY FROLICS COLLECTION (Part Two)








John Hubley was essentially forced out of UPA, along with writer Phil Eastman, in 1952, after the former refused to testify in front of HUAC about his, or others, alleged Communist ties (that this ritual resembled the show trials that were a regular part of life in the Soviet Union never seemed to occur to the idiots running the committe).  This changed the dynamics of the company somewhat, and the dominant director at the company became Robert Cannon, whose career had started at Warner Brothers, where he worked frequently with Chuck Jones (Jones and Cannon were responsible for, if nothing else, the mind-blowing entry The Dover Boys).  Cannon won the studio their first Oscar (for Gerald McBoing Boing), and he continued to produce gentle comedies about daily life and ordinary people, including this one, Willie The Kid, where the hero makes The West safe for women and children -- and then goes in to take his nap . . .


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I first heard Ludwig Bemelmans' 1940 children's book Madeline when my Kindergarten teacher read it to the class.  If Seinfeld was the sitcom About Nothing, then Madeline does the same for kids literature and is all the more charming for it.  The closest thing to a Big Event in the book is the title character's bout of appendicitis.  The rest is simply the minor happenings in the lives of some convent-school girls in Paris, twelve little girls in two straight lines . . .


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One of the more inventive and unpredictable directors at UPA was Ted Parmelee, who, almost back-to-back, made The Emperor's New Clothes and The Tell Tale Heart.  The former is just about the best telling of Hans Christian Andersen's story of hubris and unintentional nudism I've ever seen, pared down to the basics, visually striking, and featuring wonderful voice work by Hans Conreid, who keeps five distinct characters up in the air at once.  The last line, when the humiliated monarch yells "SHUT UP!!!" is hilarious and poignant at the same time . . .


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The Tell Tale Heart is as much the work of background and colorist Paul Julian as it is Parmelee, and his settings for this story of insanity and murder would make it unsettling even without James Mason's brilliant reading of the story.  This was, originally, going to be released in 3-D, but either the fad had passed by the time that Columbia got it into theaters, or everyone involved regained their senses and realized that it didn't need any gimmicks to scare the hell out of audiences.


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One of the unrealized ambitions of UPA president Stephen Bosustow was a feature-length film based on the works of James Thurber.  The closest that he got was this 1954 short based on the Thurber story "The Unicorn in The Garden," from Thurber's 1940 book Fables For Our Time.  It was directed by William Hurtz, normally a background artist (and later the creator of the wonderful animated credits for Jay Ward's syndicated show Fractured Flickers), and he caught the genuine charm of the story.  And, alas, the undercurrent of misogyny that was part of almost everything Thurber wrote.


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Even people who dislike it in general concede that The Man on The Flying Trapeze is visually striking.  And indeed it is, with beautiful backgrounds by Paul Julian.  Personally, I think it has a lot more going for it, including the wonderfully sad-sack hero, Wesley, voiced by Jack Mather, and a great score by Lou Maury that rings wonderful variations on the old music-hall staple.  The plot, about Wesley's sweetheart Fifi, making her way up a ladder of men towards show-biz success, is handled in a nicely off-hand manner, and with considerably more wit than , say, All About Eve.


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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Check It Out: THE UPA JOLLY FROLICS COLLECTION (part one)



I rob from the Rich and I give to the Poor
Then I rob from the Poor when the Rich need more
I rob from the Rich again, but alas --
I never give a thing to the Middle Class . . .

Robin Hood's archery skills are suspect at best, the (new) Sheriff of Nottingham is something of a klutz, and the fondness of the Merry Men for tea and crumpets have left them decidedly out-of-shape.

Robin Hoodlum was meant as something of an audition for animation studio UPA (United Productions of America) to see if they could produce theatrical shorts for Columbia Pictures, which had recently shut down their own animation studio, Screen Gems.  Within a month or two of its premiere in December of 1948, this "audition" was nominated for an Academy Award.  Not bad . . .


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UPA was required to turn out two more theatrical shorts featuring Columbia's established characters Fox and Crow, who had appeared in Robin Hoodlum, but they were also allowed to introduce a character of their own, a crotchety near-sighted gentleman that director John Hubley said was partially inspired by an uncle of is.  Quincy Magoo.  The rest is history.


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A story of the quest for gold, love, and baked beans, The Miner's Daughter was one of the first UPA cartoons that was truly theirs alone -- no Funny Animals, no borrowed characters, and sparing use of dialogue in a form was often packed wall-to-wall with verbal and visual jokes.  The plot and characters could very well derive from a B-movie starring Judy Canova, but the handling is gentle and whimsical in a way that was very much a UPA hallmark.


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Having already scored several Oscar nominations during their relatively-brief association with Columbia Pictures, UPA won the first of three for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) for their 1951 production Gerald McBoing Boing.  The story, written by Ted Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss), had started life as a comedy record narrated by popular radio and voice-over actor Harold Peary.  The story was adapted by Bill Scott and Phil Eastman (who, as P. D. Eastman, would become a very popular kids' author himself) and composer Gail Kubik, who had also scored the record, did similar duties here.  Any resemblance to a typical cartoon of the time had completely disappeared by now, although within a year or two, just about every animation studio in town would be struggling to copy UPA . . .


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Rooty Toot Toot is one of only two cartoons I can think of with a credit for choreography (the other being Ballet-Oop, also made for UPA).  Director John Hubley and his animators worked with L.A.-area dancer Olga Lunick to create dances for this mini-musical based on the old song "Frankie and Johnny" (the music was by pianist/arranger/bandleader/voice coach/songwriter Phil Moore, the lyrics by Alan Alch, and the uncredited vocals by singer Annette Warren and voice actor/singer Thorl Ravenscroft).  The story of one man, two women, and a loaded gun.  A lot of fun and not a bad argument for gun control, either . . .


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Thursday, February 2, 2012

It Can Be Done, Folks


To begin with, no hosts, so there was no requirement for clumsy banter, the sort that seems to be written by someone who has no idea how people actually talk to each other, someone who lives in a windowless basement, perhaps.

Also absent, as this was an award ceremony strictly for the actors, were musical numbers, grumpy Mittel-European directors of animated short films, or the spectacle of James Cameron declaring himself King of The Universe, or at the least the Emperor of Flatbush.

Welcome to the SAG (Screen Actors' Guild) Awards. Better dressed than the Oscars, Less boozy than the Golden Globes, and shorter than either of them. They've been around for about a decade now, and they're sequestered to basic cable, which seems about right since most of the TV shows that people talk about these days and that get nominated for awards (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.) seem to be produced for basic cable (personally, I would add The Closer as well, which is smartly written and often beautifully acted and refreshingly minus the "Hey! There's No Santa Claus" smugness-passing-for-cynicism that made The Wire so annoying).

In fact, it was because of The Closer that we were watching; Kyra Sedgwick was nominated and is currently one of my mother's favorite actresses. Also, she likes to see what the ladies are wearing, and this even was far enough off of the radar that the ladies chose to dress like grown-ups, the only disappointment being Meryl Streep, whose dress suggested she'd come straight from a performance of her new one-woman tribute to Obi-Wan-Kenobi. At least this time the shoulder pads were on her shoulders, not her hips.

And it was over in less than two hours. Nobody seemed to have been played off the stage, everybody remembered who they wanted to thank and got it over with, and they managed to get the re-run of the show off the air by midnight. Bloody Amazing.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"We return now, unfortunately . . ."

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Some more comic abuse of kids' shows -- based on the apparently universal relief that kiddie-show hosts are, in private, simmering time bombs of violence, perversion, and resentment (or at least cold-blooded ambition). And it didn't start with television, as you can see by checking out this well-known urban legends website and clicking the "radio" banner . . .

It's not a masterpiece, but there's a certain audaciousness to the way that it piles on the outrages (including mass murder) and still manages to get out the door in a little under six minutes. Extra kudos to Chris Parnell, who doesn't break character even once.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sprog!

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The Chanel 9 folks are at it again -- with their, er, distinctive version of a Nativity Play. Music is supplied by La Republica's greatest pop stars, Trudi and Mikki Disco (the latter is what must be the most painful flying harness is show-biz history), Mary and Joseph are played by Vassilos Bubo (star of some 5,000 episodes of El Amora y El Passione) and weather lady Paoula Fisch (Mary has the easiest delivery in history), and one of the Wise Men brings Holiday Cheezy Peas instead of Myrhh (they are made with brandy butter). The spirit of the season? Well, it certainly made me laugh, and that's always a good thing . . .

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Bunch of Creeps


The cover of Hal Vaughan's book Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War looks exactly like the cardboard boxes made to hold a bottle of Chanel no.5. Not a coincidence. The perfume, and control of it (and the profits) is one of the major stories in this book. It's not a pretty story, but then, very little about the life of Gabrielle Chanel was, except for the clothes . . .

And it should be said, the woman was very good at the whole dress-designing thing. A woman could don just about anything she made from, say, 1920 on and look fashionable and contemporary. She was one of the first designers to do women's sportswear, one of the first to get rid of the corset, and in the 1960's, when many of her younger colleagues were giving themselves hernias trying to cash in on the "youth" movement, she stuck to her guns and her little suits and came out of the whole business as one of the few designers whose clothes don't look like period pieces now.

About Chanel no. 5; it had Chanel's name on it, it was formulated at her request, and it was manufactured by a company called Parfums Chanel. But the majority stock-holders in the company were the Wertheimer family, owners of the largest and most prestigious perfume company in France, Bourjois (which made sense, since they put the money into the company that allowed for the mass production of Chanel's perfumes). Even with only 10% operating stock in the company and and a 2% royalty on every bottle sold, Chanel became a multi-millionaire, but she still steamed over the deal and complained that she had been "screwed" by the Wertheimers. And when the Nazis came rolling into Paris in 1940, she tried to steal the company out from under them.

It didn't work. The Wertheimers, well aware of the "aryanization" (i.e., theft) of Jewish businesses in the territories already conquered by Germany, had arranged with another French industrialist, Felix Amiot, to take control of Parfums Chanel, making it safely "Aryan" before they left for New York (after the war, it required a protracted court battle to get it back). Also, they sent an American lawyer who worked from them, H. Gregory Thomas, to Paris to get his hands on the secret formula for Chanel no. 5 and the ingredients necessary to make the stuff. Oh, and to rescue a family member who was being held as a POW. Thomas, who served in the OSS during WWII, passed around a lot of gold coins to the right parties (people in France were starting to starve under the German occupation) and accomplished what he was asked. (More successful at the "Aryanization" game was Eugene Schuller, the founder of L'Oreal Cosmetics, who stole the factories and supplies of several Jewish competitors, helping to make him one of the biggest players in the business. Having used the Nazis to get what he wanted, he then cozied up to the French Resistance as the war ground along and the occupiers lost ground, to make sure he could keep what he had stolen afterwards.)

One might also mention "Operation ModelHut" ("Operation Model Hat"). At the time, Chanel was involved with a German intelligence officer named Hans von Drinklage, who had been recruiting foreign operatives for Germany since the days of the Weimar Republic. In 1944, von Drinklage and Chanel traveled to Spain, where Chanel tried to use her connections to the British upper-crust, in particular Winston Churchill, who was a friend and the Duke of Westminster, who used to be a boyfriend, to open up talks about a "separate peace" between Germany and Great Britain. It went nowhere, but her willingness to do this, and her knowledge that there were people in the British Government that might be willing to listen, says a great deal about the circles that she traveled in.

To put it bluntly, Chanel's social circle was a bunch of creeps. Some of them were very talented, a lot of them had money and titles, but generally, they were a gang of bog-standard bigots and ignoramuses, and they had the kind of money and influence that meant that their bigoted ignorance held sway for far too long. And during the war, when people were starving in France and Poland and other occupied territories (and in Germany too, for that matter), when the ripples of death and misery radiating from the actions of the Axis powers seem to have swallowed up most of the earth, these people sat in the Ritz eating black-market goodies and sipping champagne.

And after the war, Chanel and a great many of them avoided serious consequences for their actions. In part, Chanel protected herself by paying off von Dinklage for the rest of his life to keep his mouth shut, as well as one of his SS superiors who made it known he was writing his memoirs, was in ill health, and was in need of financial assistance. She got the message -- when the memoirs appeared some years later, no mention was made of Operation ModelHut. Chanel was also protected by what she knew -- namely just how close the Duke of Windsor and his wife, Wallis Simpson, had been to Hitler and their association with various well-placed Nazi sympathizers, and also that the British government, in violation of wartime trade laws, had been paying off the German occupiers in Paris in order to keep them from laying waste to the Windsors' Paris apartment.

After the war, Chanel laid low in Switzerland for about nine years, then returned to Paris to re-open her salon as if nothing had ever happened. The Wertheimers, now back in control of Parfums Chanel and still making a fortune off of Chanel no. 5, advanced her the money for the comeback, and although the French press was hostile, there was much enthusiastic chatter from the American fashion magazines, particularly about the blue suit pictured here. When she launched herself full time back into designing the following year, The Suit became the foundation of her business. She sold them in job lots to American socialites and well-know actresses, they were ripped off from one end of Seventh Avenue to another, and yet again she was proclaimed to have Invented the Modern Woman. It was also the period when she sold her entire enterprise to the Wertheimer family, who made her a millionaire all over again in the nearly two decades that followed. The bilious anti-Semite kept getting saved by Jewish millionaires . . .



When I first started writing this, I kept looking for a good word to describe this woman. I thought of a few raw expletives, and such elevated terms as "monstrous" and "wretched. But "creep" seems a better word. It catches the playground-bully essence of the woman and her friends. I don't know if anyone of them ever stole another kid's lunch money or subjected them to a swirly, but it wouldn't surprise me . . .