Sunday, February 5, 2017

Toons and Tide

I had rather a wonderful evening spent in the company of old friends. 

This was not according to plan. Friday evenings during the winter months I typically watch a Science Fiction movie as a way of escaping the cold and snow, but after years of this I am pretty much scraping the dregs for new-to-me material. Science fiction cinema isn’t a bottomless well, after all, and before Star Wars remodeled the movie industry, the  classics of the genre could pretty much be counted on two hands.

And so this week George Pal's 1951 SF "classic" When Worlds Collide happened to me. I’d like to say it was a tough slag, but it wasn’t tough at all as I nodded off about five minutes in. 

It’s not that the frantic pace of modern films has spoiled me for the more leisurely style of movies from the past: I can fall asleep just as quickly on a modern movie as I did on this one. But I require that a film of any genre should at least pretend to make an effort to engage me with an interesting mood, character or situation. When Worlds Collide does none of these things. It’s 79 minutes of completely flat, cardboard cut-out characters doing utterly banal things while the world comes to an end. The picture begins with an airplane pilot, who obviously thinks he’s pretty clever, making smoochy-face with a dame on his lap when he should be paying attention to the controls. I did not find this charming. As I drifted in and out of consciousness over the next fifteen minutes, in which nothing at all actually happened onscreen, I noted that Wilbur's neighbor from Mister Ed had a big part. I always wondered what that guy did for work.

It was the better part of valour to fast-forward through the thing, pausing only for the interesting bits, which amounted to about five minutes of Natural Disasters, a one-minute rocket launch and the ultimate discovery, both fortuitous and ridiculously expeditious, of a habitable planet capable of ensuring the survival of the Grande Olde Human Race. Yeah, all right. 

This left me with an open hour on my schedule. I could have come back to the computer and done some work; instead I turned to YouTube, which is viewable on my television via Apple TV. 

Until recently I did not believe that YouTube was a good for much. That changed when I discovered that I could watch old Carson-era episodes of The Tonight Show and other talk shows from the ‘60s and ‘70s. If you want to know how much the culture has changed, watch talk shows. I’m now convinced the the old-style talk show died because there is no one left in the world who is as interesting or as good a conversationalist as was Orson Welles. 

Last night I decided to get more obscure, and went looking for cartoons. Not the stuff that everyone remembers well. Warner Brothers, Disney, Max Fleischer  and Hanna Barbera are all pretty well represented on DVD. What about that class of cartoon that was cheaply produced throughout the late ‘50s and ’60s and sold as packages for local stations to use as filler or to appease the after-school crowd? I thought: Felix the Cat. Linus the Lion-Hearted. Touch√© Turtle. King Leonardo. Heckle and Jeckle. Krazy Kat. Snuffy Smith. Mighty Hercules…. these were the meat and potatoes of cartoons that we watched every afternoon in the early ‘60s, and most of them I had not seen since they originally aired fifty years ago.

It turns out that all I had to do was search: there they were, all of them, and more. The hour that I had to fill turned into two hours as one by one, feeling very much the archeologist, I dug them up and marked them for later viewing.

As much as or more than the content of the cartoons themselves, which I must say was better and more entertaining than it had any right to be, given the way these things were produced, it was the intro sequences and theme songs that enchanted me once again. Seeing the old King Features cartoon logo pop out into a crown was an absolute joy. And it came as a shock that after fifty years, I still remembered the words to the theme songs. There’s the particular surrealism of Snuffy Smith’s theme:

“Uh-Uh-Oh Great Balls of Fire I’m bodacious!
Uh-Uh-Oh, Great Balls of Fire I’m a fright.
Uh-Uh-Oh Great Balls of Fire Goodness Gracious
I’m chop-chop-chop-chop-choppin with alla my might!

What does that even mean? Still, I knew it by heart, which proves that everything we experience really is stored away in our memory banks, just waiting for the right key or combination to unlock them. The theme song for Beetle Bailey is rather more sensible: 

He’s the military hero of the nation
Though he doesn’t always follow regulation. 
At the sound of reveille. 
He is here for you to see
 A certain Private by the Name of Beetle Bailey!
Beetle Bailey!!!

I wish that I could say that all of my years dropped away from me and for five minutes I was a child again — but that’s not what happened, or happens in situations like this. The years are a part of you, and cannot be shed. You do not revisit your childhood with a child’s eyes or experience.

And so I noticed things that had no meaning to me all those years ago: things like Seymour Kneitel’s name on many of the cartoons as director. This makes perfect sense, as Kneitel was one of the lead animators at the old Max Fleischer cartoon studio when it was swallowed up by Paramount. Almost a quarter-century later, Kneitel was still at Paramount, churning out these cartoons for TV featuring many of the King Features characters; and now having seen every Betty Boop and most every Popeye cartoon made by the Fleischers, I note that Kneitel’s fingerprints are visible all over these later cartoons, in the expressions on character faces, in their body movements, in certain ways that their eyes dart around. In another difference between then and now, I was able to look up Kneitel’s history on the interwebs; it always comes as a surprise to me, though there’s no reason why it should, when artists turn out to look just like Normal People, and not at all like their drawings.

I decided to widen the parameters of my archeological dig. Throughout the late ‘50s and ‘60s, almost every small-town station in the USA ran its own locally-produced Kid Show to frame these cartoons and fill out the time slot. Inevitably they were hosted by a local wag who played some kind of character, acted goofy, told stupid jokes, ran contests and introduced the cartoons. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, when I was growing up, there were two: WCCO’s Axel’s Treehouse, and channel 11’s Lunch With Casey. 

And sure enough. YouTube had a light dusting of representative episodes for both shows. It was the strangest thing to be sitting in my Library, here in the DuckHaus, wearing the fat and bones of fifty years, looking straight through a window into the past. 

Axel was TV at its most basic: the actor photographed from the chest up, standing before a crudely-painted backdrop, in the character of a cliche Norwegian type with an obnoxious clip-on moustache, playing direct to the audience, while another actor (in the part of Axel’s cat Loretta) stood just off camera, making snide falsetto comments and poking at Axel’s face with a fur-gloved hand. A few minutes of schtick, and then Axel looked into his telescope, and the cartoon began.

Lunch With Casey was more elaborate; it had a full set and featured an engineer character, Casey Jones, and his pal Roundhouse Reilly. The only things the two shows had in common were the cartoons, and the schtick. 

Nobody just “does schtick” any more, and yet I tell you a little bit of goofy schtick is more intelligent and more satisfying to the soul than what we feed kids today. In the world of now, everything in kid’s TV has to be “educational” in quotations, or “empowering” in quotations. Today we have far more sophisticated tools than were available to these small local Kid Shows of the ‘60s, tools that create the most dazzling fantasy worlds imaginable — but the content is self-important, trite and filled with generalized, secularized Magical Thinking of the most soft-headed sort.

The only “magic” in shows like Axel and Casey was simply this: a grown-up addressing the Kids At Home PERSONALLY… as an equal, not talking down to them, but speaking their language and just going where their minds took them, doing dumb comedy schtick that a kid could take to school with him the next day; comedy that did not reach an adult mind, but was hysterical to a five year old.

And what’s that on the horizon? I think it’s time for another cartoon.

— Thorn.

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