Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Script Tease

One thing I forgot to mention in my post on The A-Team is that reading a script by Stephen J. Cannell is often more fun than seeing it onscreen. Cannell is one of those writers who knows that a movie or TV script has to read excitingly -- it's all that executives or actors have to go on before accepting it, after all. So his scripts are filled with entertaining stage directions that hype the action: "We are in the back of the laundry with Mr. Lee as he pulls off his skull cap and traditional dress and sure as shit, you guessed it! It’s Hannibal Smith again!" And unless the actor delivering Cannell's dialogue is really good -- e.g. James Garner in The Rockford Files -- the dialogue often seems snappier on the page than on the screen, as in this excerpt from the pilot script of The A-Team (which George Peppard kind of throws away in the pilot itself -- but then, when you're in a show with Mr. T, you're not going to be at your best in the occasional quiet scene...

AMY: And what about you, John ‘Hannibal’ Smith? Where do you come from?
HANNIBAL: Actually, I’m a rancher.
AMY: A rancher? As in rope ‘em an’ brand ‘em?
HANNIBAL: Got over two hundred acres and more head a’cow than people can drink milk. I mis ridin’ out t’the north forty on Sunday mornings... sitting on top of ol’ Topper, just lookin’ out across my spread. A place I call home.
Amy looks at him a beat, then the corner of her mouth curls.
AMY: You’re not a rancher. That’s all bull.
Hannibal looks at her and shrugs.
HANNIBAL (wistfully): It’s nice though.

It's often fun to look at a shooting script just to see what kind of stage directions the writer puts in; sometimes the stage directions are the writer's chance to sneak in little "personal" bits that no one will see, making up for the fact that the final dialogue and story might include contributions from many other people. To go up many artistic notches from The A-Team -- not that I'll hear a word against that show -- the screemplay of Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, written by Broadway playwright Samson Raphaelson (The Jazz Singer, Accent on Youth), has the kind of "commentative" stage directions -- using similes to describe the action or describing the inner feelings of characters -- common in playscripts of the era:

Gaston reaches for his watch, discovers it is missing. He gives Lily a look of admiration and astonishment. Lily smiles triumphantly, opens her purse, lifts out the watch, hands it to him. He takes it with a bow.

LILY: It was five minutes slow, but I regulated it for you.

They bow to each other like two Chinese mandarins.

GASTON (tenderly): I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter.

Lily almost leaps out of her chair. She raises her skirt; her hand searches for the garter. It is missing. Gaston takes the garter out of his breast pocket, shows it to her, kisses it, puts it back, and buttons his coat. Lily is delighted. This is the highest compliment ever paid to her. She slides into his lap, embraces him.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004


So why did Animaniacs fall from the height of its popularity to the depths of weekend programming on Nickelodeon? Ironically, it all started with a move that promised to make the show more, not less, important. Read any piece on Animaniacs from its years on Fox, and you’ll see it described as the second-most popular kids’ show on TV. The most popular was a very different type of kids’ show, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, that also happened to be on Fox. It was the success of Power Rangers that would indirectly lead to Animaniacs being taken off the Fox network. Warner Brothers, which was already planning to start its own network, didn't like the fact that Animaniacs was getting second-class treatment compared to Power Rangers. So they decided to remove it to the new WB network --but since the show had another year to run on Fox, it ran another year with no new episodes except four half-hours cobbled together from "leftover" material (i.e. material that mostly wasn't good enough to get into the first 65 episodes).

Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Kids, recalled that losing Animaniacs was the biggest disappointment in her years at the network, but it was even more disastrous for Animaniacs: at a time when it should have been solidifying and building its popularity, it went a year with almost nothing but reruns, and then moved to a new, little-watched network. And even though Animaniacs was supposed to be the flagship show of the WB's kids' lineup, it didn't work out that way.

The problem was that the WB needed Animaniacs to be more than a good show, or a popular show. Animaniacs was expected to be one of the anchors of a new network, the key to drawing in young viewers. And the WB sold its entire Saturday morning lineup to advertisers on that basis: that they would be sure to pull in the little kids who buy action figures and burping dolls. What happened instead was that Animaniacs pulled in good numbers (for a network that wasn't even seen in a lot of areas), but diffuse numbers: some little kids, some big kids, some college kids, some adults. That wasn't what the advertisers had paid for. In other words, what had been an advantage for Animaniacs on Fox on weekday afternoons -- its adult appeal -- was a huge disadvantage for it on the WB on Saturday mornings. This also applied to some of the WB's other cartoons, such as Superman and Batman; their failure to be exclusively for little kids eventually drove off the demographics-obsessed advertisers and caused them to give way to shows like Pokemon, which appealed almost exclusively to little kids (plus the occasional adult on a bad drug trip).

By the time the show moved to the WB, certain members of the original Animaniacs team were either gone or less involved than they had been. Stoner and Arons moved on after the initial run, and were replaced as producers by Peter Hastings and Rusty Mills. Some of the changes in the show’s focus might be traced to this change in management. Stoner’s work as a producer reflected her work as a writer: a balance of dialogue and rapid-fire visual gags. Hastings, one of the creators of Pinky and the Brain, had specialized in episodes that were heavy on dialogue and plot, and when he started producing Animaniacs, his episodes tended to be more talk-heavy than Stoner's, and much, much heavier on meta-humor and self-referentiality (there was even an entire segment, "The Please Please Please Get a Life Foundation," about the show's Internet fans -- a funny segment, but evidence of how much the show had become about itself, rather than anything else). Perhaps on the WB's orders, most of the supporting characters were retired or restricted to one or two more cartoons, depriving the show of the variety it had had in the Fox years. Animaniacs had finally started to become what its detractors had falsely said it was in the Fox years: A self-referential, self-indulgent cartoon about cartoons.

And most problematically of all, the visuals became very dull. This was sometimes blamed, unfairly, on the overseas studio -- it's true that the overseas animators can sometimes mess things up, but the lack of visual imagination started with the actual staging of the scenes, which became static and slow, without the quick visual flourishes and fast pacing of the first 65 episodes. Some of this may be due to over-scripting. In the early song sequences like the famous "Yakko's World," there's just a song and a basic setting, allowing the director and storyboard artist to work out what the character should be doing from moment to moment. In the song sequences from the WB years, every scene is heavily scripted, and the script is followed point-by-point, so that instead of an imaginative staging of the song, it's just cutting from one static scene to another. Again, if you say that Animaniacs was just "illustrated radio" in the Fox years, you'd be wrong. You wouldn't be far wrong in applying the term to some of these later episodes.

By the time Hastings left, Animaniacs had fallen into such a rut that it was doing almost nothing but movie parodies, and not terribly good ones either ("Cutie and the Beast," "Jokahontas"). There were a few good episodes from the WB years -- notably a longish cartoon written by Tom Minton, called "Back in Style," which returned to the show's original idea of using the Warners to parody various trends in animation history. But all in all, most of the later episodes come off as a big disappointent, for the writing and the visuals. The last-ditch attempt to save Animaniacs was the direct-to-video movie Wakko’s Wish, which was even more disappointingly written and tried to increase the show's little-kid appeal with a heavy dose of sentimentality.

Next time (probably not tomorrow, though): Pinky and the Brain, the spinoff, and the ill-fated Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain.


Lest you think that I like every old Broadway play or musical, I really can't find anything good to say about Tomorrow the World, by James Gow and Arnaud d'Usseau, even though I liked it well enough when I first read it many years ago. This play opened in 1943 and ran 500 performances (qualifying it as a substantial success), followed by a movie version which I haven't seen. The authors were two Hollywood screenwriters who had teamed up to conquer Broadway, and the cast was headed by Ralph Bellamy, who had also fled unsatisfying movie jobs and come to New York, where he would be a leading dramatic actor for many years.

Tomorrow the World is an ultra-topical play, a product of a time when it didn't take years to get a movie or play "greenlit," and when plays and movies could therefore deal with current issues while they were still current. The issue in Tomorrow the World is: when we win the war (remember, this was after Stalingrad), what do we do with the Germans? Can Germans who supported Hitler be reconciled to democratic values? Do they even deserve that chance? And so on. These issues are dealt with in Broadway's standard format: one set, a living room; three acts, each in one uninterrupted scene; ten characters. The lead character is Michael Frame, a scientist at a midwestern university who seems to be working on some kind of top-secret government project. Michael is a liberal, a freethinker (raises his daughter "as though she were a grown-up person"), and, as a widower, is about to marry a freethinking Jewish woman named Leona (Shirley Booth) who is "principal of the Experimental School." After the death of his old philosopher buddy and brother-in-law Karl Bruckner, the play's offstage version of the standard Victim of Fascism character, Michael brings over Karl's orphaned son, Emil, to stay with him. Alas, Emil turns out to be a Nazi, and not just your standard garden-variety Nazi, but a brainwashed robot Nazi who looks, talks and acts like an extra for the crowd scenes in Triumph of the Will:

You drank beer and read philosophy with my father. It was that which gave Germany trouble. Too many people drank beer and read philosophy. We Germans were soft. We forgot our great destiny. Then Der Fuhrer came. He gave us back our courage. With Der Fuhrer to show us the way, it is our position to conquer the world. You will find out that I speak the truth.

Please keep in mind that the above lines are supposed to be spoken by a twelve-year old boy (played by an actor named "Skippy" Homeier). Anyway, Emil doesn't respond well to Michael's sensitive liberal approach to child-rearing and deprogramming. He tries to stir up trouble in the house by exploiting the jealousy Michael's sister Jessie (Dorothy Sands) feels about his impending marriage. When a dog is barking all night, Emil kills it. And when he fears that Michael's daughter Pat might give away his plans to spy on Michael's top-secret project, he bashes her over the head with a brass book-end. This, you'll be surprised to hear, makes Michael consider sending Emil away. But Michael, finally abandoning his progressive spare-the-rod policy, tries to strangle Emil. After this display breaks him down, they finally find "the chink in his Nazi armor" -- the fact that, even though he tried to kill Pat, he actually likes her -- and, after getting him to break down in tears and question Nazi doctrine, they agree to let him stay in the house and get on with the process of deprogramming. Personally, I think even the most freethinking college professor might have second thoughts about letting his daughter share a house with a twelve-year-old boy who tried to kill her. But Pat still thinks Emil is okay, even though "You bopped me on the bean," so everything's fine. Oh, did I mention that the college janitor, a German-American, turns out to be a Nazi spy?

Somewhere within this mishmash of hysteria and really bad parenting are some interesting issues: the question of what kind of people we're fighting, of whether "de-Nazification" is possible ("If you and I can't turn one little boy into a human being, then God help the world when this war is won, and we have to deal with twelve million of them!"). And the play presents one of the last gasps of the progressivism of '30s and early '40s Broadway, only to dismiss it as inadequate: Michael's humanistic liberal principles and progressive child-rearing techniques are far less useful than giving Emil a really good thrashing. This was in fact a common theme of plays and movies during WWII: when you're fighting the Nazis, nice guys finish last. (See the movie The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp for an infinitely better treatment of this theme.) Progressive Broadway plays were few and far between in the period after WWII, and this is often attributed to the Red Scare; that's true to a certain extent, but it's also true that the experience of WWII had made it much harder to accept a play where all the evil in the world is blamed on greedy capitalists (The Little Foxes) or insufficiently fun-loving people (You Can't Take it With You). Tomorrow the World may be a ridiculous portrayal of the Nazi evil, but like a lot of Broadway plays at the time, it at least acknowledges the existence of a more difficult-to-solve evil than that of Mister Mister or Regina Giddens -- and once Broadway had gone in that direction, it couldn't go back.

In summary: don't read Tomorrow the World unless you have the appropriate medication handy. But if you're looking for a cultural artifact from Wartime Broadway, you might want to skim through it. It's in Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, second series (1939-1945), edited by John Gassner. As you can tell, the definition of "Best" seems to be a very loose one.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Ethel Merman

Romy asks, in response to a post about Cole Porter's Something For the Boys, what Ethel Merman's best film performances are. Truth to tell, apart from Call Me Madam, there isn't a lot of Merman on film. She was too much of an outsize personality for film, and she couldn't really learn to tone her performances down for the camera; in Call Me Madam she's clearly still playing to the back of a theatre, rather than to the camera. But Fox is releasing a DVD of Alexander's Ragtime Band, from 1938; she has a supporting role, but it shows her off in her prime as a singer. By the time of Call Me Madam, or even her stage performance in Annie Get Your Gun, Merman's singing had gotten more unstintingly loud and more reliant on little much-parodied tricks like "scooping" instead of hitting a note dead-on ("But a little thing like that couldn't stop me NO-OW"). Some of this was simply a shrewd method of hiding the fact that her voice wasn't everything it had been, and it worked -- Merman kept on singing well for many years. But in the '30s, she was a more straightforward singer, more willing to sing softly, and generally less like a Merman parodists. Some examples of her best singing can be found on old recordings from the '30s and early '40s -- CDs with a selection of these include this excellent collection of Cole Porter original cast recordings, including Merman's recordings of songs from Panama Hattie.


I've written before about the development of Animaniacs, so I'll make this short: it was developed in 1991-2 by the same team that was working on Tiny Toons. Tom Ruegger and Sherri Stoner were the producers; Rich Arons, Tiny Toons’ busiest director, was the animation producer. One of the few Animaniacs staffers who had not worked on Tiny Toons was Paul Rugg, a member of the ACME Theatre troupe (a L.A. improv group).

The main characters of the show were the Warner Brothers and their Sister Dot, three early "inkblot" characters of indeterminate specias who had been locked in the studio water tower for 65 years. (The name wasn't the only reference to the studio; the show was filled with references to WB, the WB logo, etc. It was a bit crass, but it was part of the smart corporate strategy that WB adopted around the mid-'80s, of celebrating its corporate legacy and emphasizing all the cool stuff it had done in the past -- this was the exact opposite of what WB did in the '70s, when it ditched everything connected with its past, including the WB logo.) They were vaguely based on Tom Ruegger's three mischievous sons, though they were mostly reminiscent of the Marx Brothers: three weirdos with differing personalities who came together to drive pompous people round the bend.

An interesting document from the development of the show is the Animaniacs "Bible", a description of the show for freelance contributors. Comparing the Bible to the show that finally premiered in September 1993, we see that the Warners' characters changed quite a bit by the time the show was actually produced: in the finished product, with their personalities shaped in large part by Paul Rugg (who wrote more scripts for them than anyone else), they were far less like hyperactive kids and more like old-style comedians, with many references to their past life as early cartoon characters, including a wonderful wraparound in one episode where they are shown working with various comedians of the past: Fanny Brice, George Burns, and Milton Berle, who didn't like their dropping anvils on his head.

The original intention was to have the Warners as the hosts of the show, but this was abandoned in favor of a totally flexible format: the producers created the first season of 65 episodes by making dozens of short cartoons along with dozens of Rocky and Bullwinkle-style filler segments (including one, "Good Idea/Bad Idea," that featured Mr. Skullhead, a character who originated on Tiny Toons), and then mixing and matching them into half-hour episodes. Some episodes would have just a couple of short cartoons; others would have up to a dozen different segments. It was possibly the loosest format ever used in a cartoon series, and it allowed for the creation of a wide variety of characters who could star in their own short cartoons. These included:

- Pinky and the Brain. The show's most successful supporting characters; you probably know about them. Their design was vaguely based on two WB staffers, writer Tom Minton (Brain) and Eddie Fitzgerald, who also inspired Pinky's trademark cry of "Narf!"
- Slappy Squirrel. Written by and starring the voice of Sherri Stoner, this series of cartoons was based around the idea that a cartoon star of the '30s had grown old; she still defeats cartoon villains, but with an air of world-weariness because she's seen every gag in the book, and she teaches the art of cartoon violence to her nephew Skippy. This concept, and the coloring of the two characters (she's grey, the kid is brown) was loosely inspired by the Robert McKimson Bugs Bunny cartoon "Rabbit's Kin," where Bugs teaches a young rabbit how to beat up on a villain.
- Mindy and Buttons. This was basically a knockoff of the Roger Rabbit/Baby Herman cartoons; when Disney decided -- due to rights squabbles between itself and Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment -- that it didn't want to make any more Roger Rabbit cartoons, Spielberg transferred the concept to Animaniacs. There were some good Mindy/Buttons cartoons, including one (written by Stoner) done entirely in French. But it was a limited concept that really would have needed more than a TV budget, even a big one, to make it work.
- Rita and Runt. The primary purpose of this series, about a stray cat and a dumb dog (who doesn't realize she's a cat) looking for a home, was to give Spielberg's friend Bernadette Peters a part. Unfortunately neither the songs nor the scripts were usually up to the standards of the series; it was just too sentimental for a show that usually didn't do sentiment. But there were some fine cartoons in this series, usually when they did an all-out musical ("Les Miseranimals," a visually spectacular cartoon) or just went for pure comedy ("Phranken-Runt," where every scene is stolen by the animation of a clumsy giant mouse named Mr. Squeak).
- Goodfeathers. Written by Deanna Oliver, this series re-cast the characters from Goodfellas as pigeons. It began promisingly, with a strong New York flavor to the stories and a funny spoof of the making of Hitchcock's The Birds, but it eventually became just a bunch of generic stories (a character has the hiccups, a character is in a bad mood) with mostly weak gags.
- Chicken Boo. Also written by Deanna Oliver, this series was unexpectedly successful; it was just the same thing over and over, but the sheer weirdness of it -- the fact that no one recognizes the great ballet dancer or general as just a clucking chicken in disguise -- made it work, and introduced "He's a chicken, I tell you, a giant chicken" as a popular catchphrase.

From the start, Animaniacs showed a harder edge than its predecessor. In place of prosocial messages, it had a recurring segment, “The Wheel of Morality,” that mocked the tacked-on public service announcements of shows like He-Man or Inspector Gadget. In place of characters who grew and learned, Animaniacs presented characters who never saw any need for self-examination. And, most importantly and controversially, Animaniacs made few attempts to make its characters conventionally likable. Unlike Tiny Toons and almost every kids’ cartoon show of the ‘80s (Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse being the most notable exception), Animaniacs almost never presented its characters with moral dilemmas or opportunities to Do The Right Thing. Its characters were almost completely amoral and self-centred; the Warners never helped anyone unless they could get some entertainment out of it (In the cartoon “Hooked on a Ceiling,” they explain their decision to help Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel: “We’re not doing it for the sake of art, and we’re not doing it for the sake of money. No. We’re doing it because we like painting naked people!”), Slappy Squirrel destroyed two film critics’ homes for giving her a bad review, and the Brain was the traditional villain of kids’ cartoondom - an evil genius with dreams of world domination - somehow transformed into the hero.

This was part of Animaniacs' break with the world of '80s Saturday Morning cartoons, a world to which even Tiny Toons had belonged to some extent. In the kiddie-cartoon world, there was an absolute dividing line between good guys and bad guys. The good guys could only behave badly if they were going to learn a lesson from it by the end of the episode. On Animaniacs, the good guys often behaved very badly indeed; Brain was an aspiring dictator and yet we were expected to root for him, while Slappy gleefully acted without provocation and was never chastized for this.

Yet to say, as some did, that the characters of Animaniacs were simply “mean” is to miss the point that they were almost always going up against people who were annoying, arrogant, or condescending, the kind of people who gave the Warners a hard time just because they're kids, and the Warners' adversaries were the kind of adults who like to flaunt their power over kids (the antagonists often called the Warners "snotty little children" or something like that). Part of the theme of Animaniacs, then, was that of characters banding together against a hostile world, a traditional theme in comedy and one that resonates very strongly with children. Because of this underlying theme, viewers didn’t need to see the Warners acting “morally” to know that they were worth rooting for; they were worth rooting for because of what they represented: Children fighting back against the things children hate having to put up with - condescention, authoritarian rules, stupid questions.

Some of this lack of redeeming social value can be traced to the influence of Ren and Stimpy, which was already very strongly felt in the later episodes of Tiny Toons. But in other ways, Animaniacs was a regressive show, and particularly in its visual style, which was even more heavily influenced than Tiny Toons by the cartoon sequences in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

One of the big talking points about Animaniacs was its unusually large number of “adult” references, but this wasn't really the key to its success. After all, one of the most frequent criticisms of Tiny Toons was that it depended on references, rather than humor; some scenes would consist mostly of celebrity caricatures, presented as though the sight of a celebrity on a kids’ show was funny in and of itself. And truth to tell, what made Animaniacs funny didn’t usually have much to do with the vaunted cultural references. There were exceptions, of course; Rugg’s “The Warners 65th Anniversary Special,” which told the story of the Warners from 1929 to 1994, derived much of its appeal from the satire of many years of entertainment and cultural history.

But much of the time, the references amounted to little more than name-dropping. The limitations of its time slot meant that Animaniacs couldn’t usually attack or satirize celebrities (Jerry Lewis, as re-imagined and voiced by Rugg, was an exception), so references to entertainers and politicians were usually just throwaways, or breathers in between the real jokes. The appeal of a line like Dot’s “who do you think should play me? Valerie Bertinelli?” has little to do with humor and much more to do with the incongruity of saying such a thing in a tough situation (the Warners have a way of changing the subject to pop culture at a time when anyone else would be worried at confronting Death or Satan or Ivan Boesky or the other villains they faced).

Every show has its detractors (except outright flops, which have nothing to detract from). But one thing about Animaniacs is that after it became a success, and a cult phenomenon -- as I've said, in that first year it may have had the biggest online cult I've ever seen for a "kids'" cartoon show -- it also got some of the nastiest denunciations from hardcore animation buffs.

Timing may have had something to do with this. Animaniacs debuted less than a year after Nickelodeon’s infamous firing of John Kricfalusi from Ren and Stimpy. Appearing when it did, Animaniacs looked like the ultimate example of bland corporate cartoon-making: Talky, script-dominated, heavy on pop-culture jokes. The symbol of the forces that were out to crush John K. or whoever. Indeed, an article in the now-defunct journal “Wild Cartoon Kingdom” denounced Animaniacs despite the upfront admission of the author (Kricfalusi, writing under the pen-name “Tom Paine”) that he hadn’t actually watched the show before sitting down to write.

Actually, a lot of criticisms of Animaniacs gave at least the impression that the writer hadn’t watched the show in advance; some of the negative descriptions of the show had only the vaguest resemblance to what actually happened onscreen. For example, the show was accused of being self-referential and conscious of its own wackines. But in fact, in those first 65 episodes, Animaniacs clearly made attempts to keep the characters talking to each other, rather than the audience. Several of the characters, notably Pinky and the Brain, never broke the fourth wall at all. The Warners might occasionally get a line like “Don’t you love it when we sing the plot?” but most of the time, they did not talk to the camera or comment on their own jokes. (This was to change in the later episodes, and would be a big part of why the later episodes weren't as good.)

But some of the faults were real enough. One of the most commonly-made charges against Animaniacs, that it simply ripped off classic humor while adding nothing original of its own, had its foundation in a number of Animaniacs cartoons that played more like ripoffs than homages. The earliest example of this was “Yakko’s Universe,” a Randy Rogel song that was well-liked enough to be used in two episodes - except that it was almost point-for-point the same song as the “Universe Song” in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Sometimes Animaniacs could give the impression that the writers were taking the dubious route pioneered by Hanna-Barbera in The Flintstones or Top Cat, taking older comedy and rehashing it for an audience of children who hadn’t seen the originals.

On the other hand, this kind of rehashing was far less common on Animaniacs than some of its critics believed. A more typical example would be “King Yakko,” one of the show’s few full-length half-hour stories. This episode, written by Peter Hastings and directed by Alfred Gimeno, is quite patently based on the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Yet having established the connection to Duck Soup, Hastings and Gimeno carefully avoid taking anything else from the movie; there are no gags or lines borrowed from Duck Soup in this episode (unless “This means war” counts as a direct quote), and only one explicitly Marxian moment, when Wakko imitates Harpo’s famous “leg hang.” Unlike Tiny Toons’ “A Night in Kokomo,” which paid dubious tribute to the Marx Brothers by re-using many of their famous routines, “King Yakko” is a genuine tribute: An attempt to capture the spirit of the Marx Brothers without slavishly copying them.

The show also matched the imagination of the writing with visual imagination, especially in the staging of the songs. (The show had a lot of songs, which supposedly started as a ploy to get more money -- a writer who got a song onto the show would get royalties for it -- but which soon became a central part of the show's appeal.) A song like "The Senses," the best song from the first season, doesn't look like it had a lot of "scripting"; it mostly takes place on a kind of "bare stage" with various props, and much of the fun of the sequence is the way it segues from one visual point to another without introducing many new backgrounds. The first song sequence, "The Monkey Song," does a superb job of introducing all the major characters by having them run in and out of the shot, do little things in the background, etc.; it's a dizzyingly fast, beautifully-staged cartoon.

Next time: Animaniacs, the WB years. (It'll be a lot shorter, I promise.)

Sunday, June 27, 2004


After its success in syndication, Tiny Toons produced 35 more episodes for the Fox network, spread out over two seasons. Sherri Stoner was promoted to producer for these episodes, and she started to bring in her improv friends to write episodes; writers who would work on the follow-up project, Animaniacs included the Groundlings' Peter Hastings (who was the live-action reference for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, to Stoner's Belle) and Deanna Oliver. Paul Dini also wrote and story-edited a bunch of these episodes.

If you look at comments by online Tiny Toons fans, it seems like these later episodes were considered a disappointment. I don't agree. Tiny Toons in the first 65 episodes had produced some fine short cartoons and half-hour episodes, but a lot of duds. The duds fell into two categories: traditional Saturday-Morning cartoon stories disguised as Tiny Toons episodes, and failed attempts to mimic classic cartoons. Despite the hype about a return to the classic style, Tiny Toons had written scripts, a sensibility shaped as much by Hanna-Barbera and the Groundlings as by Looney Tunes, and a tendency to mock rather than accept cartoon conventions. That's not a recipe for a return to the old style; it's a new style, and when that style was applied to old WB cartoon plots -- hunting stories, for example, or a junior version of "One Froggy Evening" or "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" -- the result made you want to turn off the TV and watch the originals. "Hollywood Plucky" worked because it wasn't an attempt to recreate "Hollywood Daffy"; it applied a similar concept to the more meta-humorous, sketch-comedy-influenced style of Sherri Stoner's writing.

When the show tried to create something similar to the earlier cartoons, say, in the cartoons with Calamity Coyote and Li'l Beeper (who really had no personalities beyond what they took from the originals), it didn't work; it just pointed up how far this show was from the style of the Golden Age of animation. It was at its best when it stood on its own, and that's what started to happen in the later episodes, with more of an emphasis on original characters: one of the best short cartoons, "The Amazing Three," focused on the show's female characters, who were very different from the old characters simply by virtue of being female; this cartoon, by the way, was co-written by Arleen Sorkin, later to become the voice of Batman's Harley Quinn. And with other characters, the show started to emphasize their own individual characteristics rather than their similarities to the great characters of the past; there were still some episodes where Buster Bunny acted like Bugs (including a very funny Stoner-penned cartoon called "Ruffled Ruffee," where Buster pulls a Long Haired Hare on a Raffi-like singer), but more episodes where he acted like a nervous, neurotic kid, simultaneously attracted to Babs and in competition with her.

One thing that Tiny Toons dealt with only fitfully was the challenge posed by the success of Ren and Stimpy. This show, with its popular success and the enormous respect it commanded within the industry, changed the way TV cartoons were written and the way they looked, and it was obviously a very different writing process (artist-centred) and look (retro-Hanna-Barbera combined with a dollop of gross-out humor) than that of Tiny Toons. Only one Tiny Toons episode really tried to go all-out for the Ren and Stimpy style; this was an episode called "Hog Wild Hamton," written by Paul Dini and Bob Carrau and directed by Rich Arons. This episode had a fairly standard plot -- Hamton throws a disastrous party while his parents are out of town. But the entire half-hour was heavily influenced by the style and tone of Ren and Stimpy. The artists were encouraged to add visual gags, many of which were staged with Kricfalusi-style closeups and pauses; one gag, involving someone eating cake very messily, was done in extreme close-up with the cake splattering in slow-motion. Dialogue was de-emphasized in favor of visuals; the Tiny Toons style of rapid-fire gags was replaced with a more "cartoony" style of individual gags developed and drawn-out. (The difference, I suppose, between a writer thinking up a bunch of gags and an artist examining the visual possibilities in a particular gag.) Some of the secondary characters had R&S style designs and movement, like a bunch of military men with rectangular heads and long wagging tongues. The whole episode -- a very funny episode, by the way -- was an attempt to "get with the times" when it came to animated TV cartoons. But it was as far as Tiny Toons would ever go with this style; most of the other episodes reverted to the writer-driven, gags-piled-on-gags style that would characterize all the WB TV cartoons. Whether this was because "Hog Wild Hamton" didn't seem like the way to go, or because "the writers had all the power" and wouldn't give the artists the authority to make stuff up, the decision not to go all the way with the R&S style probably helped WB in the long run; at a time when the airwaves were clogged with bad R&S imitators, the later episodes of Tiny Toons and the early episodes of Animaniacs actually stood out from the crowd because they weren't doing Kricfalusi lite.

Still, the influence of Ren and Stimpy, and the residual influence of "Hog Wild Hamton," was seen in the later Fox episodes of Tiny Toons and in the first season of Animaniacs, as the show's visuals became more confident and interesting within the basic writer-driven style: more willing to depart from the basic character model or from the basic "reality" of the background, and go into flights of animated fancy. Ren and Stimpy layout artist Chris Savino, one of the few R&S artists who ever said anything good about Tiny Toons in public, analyzed it like this:

Warner Bros -- they're putting out some pretty good stuff... Warner Bros is kinda following suit in some of their visual antics with the Tiny Toons. Tiny Toons used to be really dialogue heavy and then the writers saw what was going on with Spumco, because the animation field is really close-knit and if you work with somebody at one studio, you're bound to work with them somewhere else and everybody knows each other. So when they saw Ren and Stimpy, they were like ``oh wow, let's try this'' so they got their writers to do it this way and there is a lot more visual goings on.

Another characteristic of the later episodes of Tiny Toons is their increased use of meta-humor; instead of the occasional, Tex-Avery-style breaking of the fourth wall, whole segments or even whole half-hours would be built around the idea that these characters knew they were on a TV show. One of the best episodes, "Thirteensomething" (written by Sherri Stoner and directed by Jon McClenahan, who also animated several key scenes), was about Babs Bunny quitting her job on "Tiny Toons" to try and get a job on a "human" show. This kind of meta-humor would hurt Animaniacs when it started doing that sort of thing rather late in its run. But with Tiny Toons, it actually helped, because it further helped to liberate the show from the need to mimic the classic cartoons; the characters were increasingly portrayed as stars in their own right, rather than pupils of older characters -- and that freed the writers up to use jokes that might have been too talky or too postmodern for a traditional cartoon but which worked perfectly in the context of the developing WB TV style.

While writing and producing the last episodes of Tiny Toons, the staff was also in the process of developing Animaniacs, the show that would take Tiny Toons' time slot (and cause production to be halted on Tiny Toons despite its continued popularity). This was actually referred to in one of the last Tiny Toons episodes produced, "Two-Tone Town," written by Deanna Oliver. In it, WB is developing a new show called "Acme Oop!" which Buster fears will take Tiny Toons' time slot; the show -- and the time slot -- is finally given to three obscure characters from the early years of Looney Tunes, Foxy, Roxy, and Goopy Geer, who have the generic "inkblot" design that was used for the Warners on Animaniacs. The episode works on its own terms as a funny story about Buster and Babs helping old cartoon characters (there was a similar story in the first season, "Fields of Honey," involving PC-ized versions of early WB stars Bosko and Honey), and it also works as a commentary on changing tastes in cartoons, and it's also a big in-joke. This is what Tiny Toons and WB TV animation were doing by this time: not just doing Saturday Morning stories with a few jokes for the grown-ups, but doing stories and jokes that actually worked on multiple levels. It also has some of the flaws of Tiny Toons: every time there's a joke involving a classic WB cartoon trope -- like Buster dressing in drag -- it's painfully obvious that the staging and physical acting of the characters doesn't measure up to more visually-oriented cartoons. Still, anyone who thinks Tiny Toons had no visual imagination isn't necessarily looking very closely; moments like Buster's eyes changing color and design as he gets worried, or his facial expression as he opens a sound-effects box to create cartoon sound effects, are funny for the drawing, not the writing.

Closing note: There was at least one attempt to create a spinoff of Tiny Toons: an episode called "Take Elmyra, Please," was to be a pilot for a spinoff about Elmyra and her family. It was a time when, inspired by The Simpsons, everybody was trying to create an animated sitcom about a weird family; this one had some funny moments but had absolutely no interesting characters apart from Elmyra, who was too obnoxious to carry a series (this was before Family Guy proved that a show could sort of succeed with uninteresting characters and an obnoxious lead). The show wasn't picked up, but a follow-up script, "Grandma's Dead," was produced as part of Tiny Toons. Also, there were another couple of episodes about a family of fleas that seemed calculated to lead to a spinoff, although they didn't (and didn't deserve to). Plucky briefly got his own show, "The Plucky Duck Show," but only one original episode was produced, the superb "The Return of Batduck" ("Remember Aloysius Radiator-Elbows?"). Everything else was recycled materian from Tiny Toons, and Plucky never did get any more original episodes produced for his show.

Tomorrow: Animaniacs, part 1.

Saturday, June 26, 2004


All Hollywood projects can be described as "[successful thing] meets [other successful thing]." The description for Tiny Toon Adventures could have been "Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets DuckTales." The decision to make Tiny Toons was influenced by two then-recent successes. Roger Rabbit was the first movie to acknowledge the nostalgia element in cartoon fandom. What I mean by that is that cartoons had usually been thought of as "timeless"; the repackaging of Warner Brothers cartoons -- for television and in compilation films -- usually presented the cartoons as belonging to no particular time or place, endlessly recyclable entertainment aimed mostly at kids. Roger Rabbit, with its '40s setting, presented classic cartoon characters as belonging specifically to that period, part of a genre that had vanished just like the film noir genre to which Bob Hoskins' Eddie Valiant belongs. It acknowledged that cartoon fans weren't necessarily kids, and that what made the old cartoons great were the elements that had been sucked out of them by TV broadcasting (the violence, the political incorrectness). DuckTales, a show that premiered in 1987, was Disney's attempt to "go retro" by reviving popular old characters and placing them in situations similar to those that they had faced in the cartoons (or, in this case, in Carl Barks' comic books), while still retaining the sensibility of the '80s Saturday Morning cartoon. Its success proved that a TV show could split the difference between nostalgia and the necessity to appeal to today's kids -- and that combination was what made Tiny Toons a success.

Tiny Toons was of course the idea of Steven Spielberg, who was looking for another cartoon nostalgia project to follow Roger Rabbit. The basic idea was taken from Roger Rabbit: cartoon characters, or "toons," are not just ink-and-paint creations but actors, who have to learn their trade just like every other actor; the characters of Tiny Toons are young cartoon characters who are learning the art of cartoon trickery and violence -- with the original Warner Brothers cartoon characters as their teachers. Each character was reminiscent of a classic WB character, sometimes in unusual ways; Elmer Fudd's pupil was Elmyra Duff, a girl who mostly wanted to hug animals instead of shoot them, while Montana Max, a loudmouthed rich kid, was sort of a distant relation of Yosemite Sam. My favorite equivalent: an African-American girl, Mary Melody, who was similar in design to So White from Bob Clampett's Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves (this was never openly acknowledged on the show, because that cartoon is unoffically banned from the airwaves and home video). You're probably familiar with the main characters, Buster Bunny, Babs Bunny, Plucky Duck, Hamton Pig ("I react to characters funnier than I am"), and so on.

The show was hyped as a return to the spirit of classic WB cartoons. It wasn't, but it was closer than, say, many of the Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons that WB tried in the '80s. Some of the things Tiny Toons had going for it included the look of the thing; design in cartoon TV shows tended to be either very literal or very stylized (today almost everything is very stylized); Tiny Toons went for a kind of "simplified realistic" look in the backgrounds, similar to the look of the opening cartoon in Roger Rabbit. The pacing was faster than almost any daytime cartoon show of the era, and the timing of the gags, often a weak point in TV cartoons, was unusually sharp, perhaps thanks to the enlisting of old-school WB animators like Tom Ray and Norm McCabe to work on the timing sheets. When Tiny Toons is at its best, it offers up lots of gags, one after the other, with minimal wait time between them and with the payoff movements occurring exactly where they need to to get the laugh; if you can find a VHS of the made-for-video movie "How I Spent My Vacation" (probably the best thing the show ever did), watch the scene where Hamton tries to pry Plucky away from him using a crowbar, then the jaws of life, and so on. Each gag is funny in itself, but it's the piling of gag on gag that makes it work; it's the opposite approach to the Ren and Stimpy approach, which was essentially to slow down at important gag points so the gag would "read" better.

The weaknesses of Tiny Toons, and with the WB TV division in general, starts with the fact that the gags get by mostly on speed and timing; the drawing is rarely exceptional and the characters usually stay on-model (when they go off-model it tends to be because of an accident overseas, not because the animators are willing to distort for comic effect as the classic animators often did). The show had a large budget and the amount of movement the characters engaged in was a revelation after years of limited animation -- but the movements aren't usually very characterful; there was some attempt at physical characterization -- Plucky's insouciant hand-waving at moments of overconfidence -- but not the kind of instantly-recognizable characteristic movements you get from Ren or even from Homer Simpson in the early years of that show. Tiny Toons also changed its visual style heavily depending on which overseas studio was handling the animation, suggesting that there wasn't enough of a guiding hand in shaping an overall visual style for the show.

The writing of Tiny Toons was supervised by the producer, Tom Ruegger, whom Jean MacCurdy (the head of WB's new TV animation division) had worked with at Hanna-Barbera. Ruegger was in the usual mold of a TV cartoon producer -- some drawing, some writing, but primarily called upon for administration -- whose most notable credit at H-B was A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, which got a lot of grief for using kiddie versions of the Scooby-Doo characters but which was, from my point of view, the best incarnation of those characters since the original (which, admittedly, wasn't very good to begin with). After years of putting Scooby into bad fantasy scenarios -- "The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo," and such -- Pup adopted the mystery format of the original show, and simultaneously used and mocked that format, sending up the conventions and characters of Scooby-Doo at the same time that it paid tribute to them. That's essentially what Tiny Toons became: instead of an attempt to recreate the style of WB cartoons, it was often an in-jokey re-examination of that style, openly explaining the conventions and playing off our pre-knowledge of those conventions. One episode had a plot point built around the convention that a character can walk on air if he or she doesn't look down.

The writing was always a point of controversy. Ruegger and MacCurdy made two very good, very important hires: Paul Dini, who Ruegger had worked with at Filmation, and Sherri Stoner, a Groundlings comedienne (and then-girlfriend of another improv comic, M.D. Sweeney) who had been the live-action reference model for Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Both writers clearly welcomed the chance to write in pop-culture jokes, current slang, the occasional risque jokes -- the sort of thing that used to be common in cartoons but which had been pushed out by the desire to make every cartoon "timeless." This, again, makes Tiny Toons different from Ren and Stimpy, which premiered a year later. Ren and Stimpy was conceived in reaction to the cartoons of the previous 20-30 years, and was deliberately "retro" in feel -- a throwback, in look and in cultural references, to the TV cartoons of the '50s and early '60s. A Tiny Toons episode by Dini or Stoner is a cultural time-capsule of the early '90s; it is "retro" in its determination to be current. Stoner's best early script for the show, "Hollywood Plucky," has a few points of similarity to the cartoon "Hollywood Daffy" (to be specific, it has the basic setup of Daffy/Plucky trying to get into a Hollywood studio, though it doesn't take any jokes from the original), but it's as much a festival of 1990 pop culture as "Hollywood Daffy" was a cavalcade of the stars of 1946.

But if those writers did well on the show and at WB Animation in general, others clearly didn't. Some writers and artists were apparently brought in from other projects (including Ralph Bakshi's short-lived but influential Adventures of Mighty Mouse) on the belief that Tiny Toons would be artist-driven, visually-oriented cartoons like those of the classic era, and felt betrayed that the show turned into a typical writer-driven show with the directors reduced to traffic managers. Bob Camp, one of the disgruntled Tiny Toons artists who left to work on Ren and Stimpy, recalled:

We had this real strong mutual hate going on between us. The producers castrated the directors so they didn't have any power. The writers had all the power and none of the talent. You couldn't change things, it was all scripted out. The writers were writing sight gags, which is something you need to work physically by drawing- not by some guy at a typewriter who doesn't know how to draw.

I've dealt elsewhere with the writer vs. storyboard issue and I don't want to go into it again; the more important point is not that Tiny Toons was scripted, but that it was scripted in a way that was often hard to distinguish from the Saturday Morning cartoons of the '80s. With many lesser episodes of Tiny Toons, if you take away the big budget and the full orchestra on the soundtrack, you have a script that could have been done at Filmation: young heroes, a creepy villain, a moral or environmental lesson, a happy ending. Little bits of cartoon violence (within the limitations of the TV censors -- nobody was allowed to be shot with a gun, for example) were thrown in, but a lot of it is basically a continuation of the '80s Dark Age of Cartoons, rather than an antidote to it. On the other hand, the "artist-driven" cartoons weren't always better (Eddie Fitzgerald, the inspiration for Pinky on Animaniacs and another writer/artist who later went to Ren and Stimpy, wrote and directed a takeoff of "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" which, he reportedly instructed the animators, was to look as much as possible like the original, except with Plucky instead of Daffy). And the best work on the show was being done by the best scriptwriters, particularly Stoner and Dini. The idea that if you don't draw, you can't write cartoons is practically dogma now, but I don't think it makes much more sense than saying that if you can't photograph a movie you can't write it either.

Tiny Toons was one of those shows where 65 episodes were produced at once for daily viewing. The 65 episodes premiered in syndication, and the show was a big success; it was even referenced in a Seinfeld episode, although the reference (in the episode "The Contest") showed that the writer, Larry David, had probably never watched a Tiny Toons episode in his life.

Random note to close this off: The show was originally to be called Tiny Tunes, but WB, influenced by the success of the term "Toon" in Roger Rabbit, apparently wanted that word to be in there, so it became Tiny Toons and then Tiny Toon Adventures.

Coming in part 2: Tiny Toons, the Fox years.

EDIT: The original version of this post mistakenly said that DuckTales premiered in 1989. Thanks to "DarthGonzo" for the correction.

A Dire Warning To Sane People

For the next week I'm mostly going to be writing about one topic: the Warner Brothers TV cartoons of the '90s. Specifically, the comedy cartoons. Warner Brothers' action stuff, like Batman, has been written about elsewhere, but Tiny Toons, which was just as successful and influential in its own way, has not been. I'm going to try and give some history/analysis for some of these shows, particularly Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Freakazoid, as well as some of the flops that helped seal the doom of WB's TV cartoon division (remember Histeria?). I'll be back to discussing other topics next week, I promise.

Friday, June 25, 2004


Like I said, the Kim Criswell CD "The Lorelei" is out of print, but used copies can be ordered from the Amazon listing. Like a lot of the discs John McGlinn made for EMI, in that brief period when the sales of McGlinn's Show Boat had convinced them that there was lots more money to be made in recordings of old musicals (this delusion lasted about four or five years), it's a mixed bag. On the one hand, you get songs like Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and Rodgers and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind" in their original orchestrations. Most of these arrangements are by Hans Spialek, whose Mitteleuropan, classical-oriented style makes the songs sound very different from the way they sound in the jazzier, brassier arrangements we're all used to. (An example of the "new" style in Broadway orchestration can be heard in the great Don Walker's charts for "The Leader of a Big-Time Band," which has the '40s sound down in a way that Spialek or Robert Russell Bennett didn't.)

On the other hand, McGlinn, for all his excellent work in finding and editing the old scores and orchestrations, is kind of a dull stick as a conductor, with a tendency toward plodding rhythm and a sort of uniform orchestral sound (I can't really describe it in the limited space, but if you listen to all the tracks on this disc they tend to sound the same, with no instrumental colors really standing out). And Criswell, selected by McGlinn and EMI to perform Ethel Merman-type material, has the kind of ear-piercing head-voice belt that was really made more for modern Broadway theatres, with amplification and rock acoustics, than for the old-style stuff. (She settled in London after making these recordings and has performed and recorded quite a bit there.) Still worth the money.

Thursday, June 24, 2004


In honor of the upcoming release of De-Lovely, I thought I'd write a bit about a Cole Porter show that probably won't be mentioned much in the movie, even though it was a big hit: Something For the Boys (1943). This was Porter's fifth and last show with his favorite interpreter of his songs, Ethel Merman. It was a major production with a heavyweight team: not only Merman and Porter, but producer Michael Todd (a future Mr. Elizabeth Taylor and producer of Around the World in 80 Days) director Hassard Short (Lady in the Dark), and scriptwriters Herbert and Dorothy Fields. The plot involves three cousins who inherit a ranch in San Antonio, Texas, which happens to be near an army base; Merman's character falls in love with a sergeant (Bill Johnson, later the star of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream; he had one of those wonderful, big, well-produced baritone voices that you almost never hear in a musical nowadays), and complications ensue when the ranch is mistaken for a brothel. The plot isn't much, but it combines the stuff that you need in a musical comedy, like romance, an unusual setting, and a bit of risque humor, with the things that were on people's minds in 1943, like patriotism and the military. This show opened just before Oklahoma! did, so it's kind of a perfect example of the kind of show Oklahoma! helped to do away with; Ethan Mordden has a good summary of Boys in his book on Rodgers and Hammerstein, noting how Boys combines all the elements of a late-'30s early-'40s musical comedy: a big star, an almost nonexistent plot, topical references, and lots of schtick.

Basically, the format of Something For the Boys shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who's seen a movie musical from around the same time. There's a simple plot that's tailored to its performers, and the songs are written not to further the plot or characterization, but to fill "spots": here's the spot for a love song, here's a spot for a beguine-flavored torch song, here's the spot for an army song ("I'm in Love With a Soldier Boy," sung by Betty Garrett, who was also Merman's understudy). But when a movie musical does this kind of thing, we accept it because we can actually see it with the performers for whom the material was intended; the material works because its raison d'etre, the particular performers, are preserved for us. A show like Something For the Boys makes no sense without Ethel Merman and it wasn't supposed to. Again, this comes back to the most important point about musicals before Oklahoma!: musicals were not franchises then. They weren't blockbusters. Something For the Boys ran 422 performances, an excellent run at the time. Only a few years later, that would have been considered a disappointment. The example of Rodgers and Hammerstein, along with changing economics, meant that producers of musicals were looking for three or four-year hits, not one-year hits. And that means that a show had to be tight enough, sensible enough, "integrated" enough to make sense without a star. Three years later, when Ethel Merman returned to Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, it was a show that needed her star power but could get along with another star. But try and put, say, Mary Martin in Something For the Boys and it wouldn't work; the comedy is built around Merman's straight-talking wisecracker character, and the songs are Merman specialties. This show isn't unrevivable, exactly; like a lot of shows of its era, if you approach it in the same spirit in which you'd approach an old movie musical, the comedy can be pretty good and the plot is considerably less stupid than, say, Rent. But in a sense, reviving a show like this is pointless, and that's the big difference between the pre- and post-Oklahoma! era. Oklahoma! was written to stand on its own, to last a long time. Something For the Boys was written to entertain people for a year and then when it's over, it's really over, and Cole and Ethel and all the others move on to next year's show.

Well, that's a lot about what kind of show this was, and not much about what kind of score Porter wrote. Like I said, it's a catalogue of song formats familiar from other Porter shows. There's the scene-setting chorus ("See That You're Born in Texas"), the torch song ("He's a Right Guy"), the slangy uptempo romantic duet ("Hey, Good-Lookin'"), the ballad for the hero ("Could it Be You?"), the eleven o'clocker ("By the Mississinewah") and, my favorite kind of traditional musical comedy number, the mock-gospel number, "There's a Happy Land in the Sky." (Gospel numbers were a major staple of Broadway musical comedy; think of Porter's "Blow, Gabriel Blow," or "Brotherhood of Man" in Loesser's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I think the last good example of the genre was "See the Light" in 70 Girls 70 by Kander and Ebb, in 1971.) The score didn't produce any hits, though I think this was partly due to a musician's strike that prevented the recording of singles from the show.

I said in an earlier post that Porter changed his style to suit the times, and the sound of the early '40s comes through in this score; one song, "The Leader of a Big-Time Band," is a tribute to what was then hot in popular music:

In the old days, when a maid desired to wed,
Any man who'd foot the bill could fill the bed.
But today the guy who's sure to win her hand
Is the leader of a big-time band.
Even gals who go for wrestlers quit 'em quick
When they meet some guy who sings and swings a stick.
For of late the only date they long to land
Is the leader of a big-time band.
When they hear Harry James
Make with the lips,
The most Colonial dames
Fracture their hips.
So if thee would like to be in great demand,
Be the leader of a big-time band.

Merman never recorded this song, but it's so closely tailored to her particular style -- especially with the sustained notes at the ends of lines, with a higher note near the end of the refrain to show off the Merman lungs at full capacity -- that it's hard to sing it without coming off as a Merman impersonator.

At this time Porter had purged his style of much of the sophistication for which he became famous in the '30s: no more references to high living, no more jokes about his society friends, simpler harmonies and song structures. His lyrics still have all the craftsmanship and rhyming skill we'd expect from him, of course, but simpler, more populist, more in line with then-prevalent tastes in pop songwriting:

When my baby goes to town,
Does my baby knock 'em down!
When she saunters by on Broadway,
Lookin' oh, so serene,
People stare in such an awed way
You'd think she was a queen.
When my baby's had her stroll,
I see her home, God bless her soul,
And in her front parlor, nice and warm,
Does she convince me she's in perfect form!
When my baby goes to town.

There was no cast album for Boys, and Merman didn't record singles, so getting to hear the songs is difficult, but not impossible. There was a cast recording, with piano accompaniment, from a production by San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon, probably the leading company when it comes to doing staged readings of pre-Oklahoma! musicals. There is a radio-broadcast recording of the original cast performing much of the score, albeit in poor sound. Garrett, in Merman's role, recorded "By the Mississinewah" with original-cast member Paula Laurence (who also made a recording of the title number, though Merman sang it in the show). And Kim Criswell performs "He's a Right Guy" and "Leader of a Big-Time Band" on an EMI CD -- now out of print, I think -- with the original orchestrations, conducted by John McGlinn with his usual stolid, reverence-for-a-classic approach (which still beats conductors who think that the best way to perform songs like these is to rearrange them beyond recognition).

By Strauss

What a great piece of music Johann Strauss's Emperor Waltz (op. 437) is. Like a lot of Strauss's best waltzes, it's not necessarily appropriate for dancing: the march introduction is very long, and the waltz itself contains so many changes of mood that you find yourself standing still and waiting in anticipation for what's coming next. I'm not saying you can't dance to it, but as David Hamilton wrote, a Strauss waltz is as much about dancing as it is for dancing.

The best article I've ever read on the Emperor is Hamilton's "The Secret Life of a Waltz," published in High Fidelity -- I can't find the date of publication at the moment, but I will. He analyzes the piece section-by-section, explaining the structure, the different characteristics of each section, the way the themes are brought together in the coda, and Strauss's tricks of linking themes together -- for example, the first waltz tune is adapted from the opening waltz tune. He also notes important details about Strauss's orchestration, in particular the use of the snare drum, which is used as much more than just a rhythm-setter; it's used for its coloristic effects (creating a military atmosphere in the march and then carrying that atmosphere over into the waltz sequences, giving it that "imperial" feeling), and a conductor who lets the strings drown out the snare drum, as many do, isn't doing justice to the piece.

Hamilton also mentions some recordings of the waltz, including those by Bernstein, Klemperer, and Furtwangler, and Reiner. Myself, I think if I could pick just one recording of this piece, it would be Klemperer's. Except for the introductory march, it's not slow, but like a lot of Klemperer performances, it's tough, unsentimental, a little astringent. These may sound like bizarre things to want in a Strauss waltz, but after all the kitschy, soupy, start-and-stop performances of Strauss, Klemperer's approach is kind of a breath of fresh air. He plays the waltz tunes more or less straight, without a lot of rubato; instead of going for a string-heavy balance, he lets the other instruments cut through and make a big, sometimes downright disturbing impact; the all-important snare drum is so loud that it can practically knock you out of your seat, and the trumpet fanfares in the coda sound like Mahler. It's not a performance that offers a lot of "charm," in other words, but it's a performance that emphasizes just what a great and original piece of music this is. Unfortunately, having said all that, I find it's unavailable on CD. A version that is available is the one by Harnoncourt, which takes a somewhat similar approach, if a bit more sentimental and without the awesome impact of that snare drum. Other good recordings of the Emperor I've heard include Ferenc Fricsay's recording with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (also out of print, darn it), and Bernstein's (out of... you guessed it).

I must admit I've never heard a Vienna Philharmonic recording of this piece that impressed me as much as these, though that may be because most of the Vienna recordings I've heard are conducted by Willi Boskovsky, a superb violinist -- he was the longtime concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic -- but, as a conductor, the epitome of the soup-and-swoon school of Strauss conducting, smothering everything in "traditional" rubato and equally traditional string-heavy balances. Other, earlier VPO recordings are better; Josef Krips turns in a nice performance on an old Decca LP from the '50s. (Of course, Krips was a conductor who was known for being somewhat ashamed of performing Strauss waltzes; when someone wrote an article about his abilities as a Strauss conductor, Krips was so furious that his comment on the writer's death was "God has punished him and his family for what he did to me.") But the Viennese approach to Strauss always seems too sentimental to me, oddly enough. I suppose that what I like best in Strauss is the stuff that's least traditionally Viennese about him -- he was, by the standards of other composers of Viennese light music, fairly unsentimental and blessed with a cheeky sense of humour. Die Fledermaus is probably the least typical Viennese operetta ever written, with its French-derived plot about marital infidelity, and its almost complete lack of sentimentality (the only sentimental number, "Bruderlein und Schwesterlein," is sung by a character who has zero interest in love and brotherhood and is mostly concerned with revenge). By the middle of the 20th century, however, the act of performing Strauss in Vienna became kind of a nostalgia rite, an act of longing for the Good Old Days, or as John Culshaw acidly put it, "highly coloured memories of the days of the Habsburg Empire and dear old Franz Josef." And so Strauss performances started to be souped up and schmaltzed up, becoming not so much about dancing as about the time and place in which they were composed.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

No One You Know Lives Twice, Mister

Next time some superannuated Boomer tries to tell you how cool the '60s were, sit him or her down to watch The Pleasure Seekers. But only if it's someone you dislike.

This is a semi-remake of Three Coins in the Fountain, by the same director, Jean Negulesco. It carries over a few things from the earlier hit: three women in a picturesque location (Spain this time) have romantic complications; one of them tries to hook a man by pretending to be interested in the local art and architecture; a nice older man (Brian Keith, who, unlike Clifton Webb in the original, is not saddled with a fatal disease). What makes this movie so unintentionally ridiculous is that it takes this very old-fashioned story and tries to graft "up-to-date" elements onto it. So unlike the women in Three Coins, the characters in The Pleasure Seekers actually talk about who they have and haven't gone to bed with; one of them is at least considering trying to seduce her married boss away from his wife; there are some dismal attempts to write hip dialogue ("Oh, baby, you're such a drag"). The equivalent today would be remaking The Breakfast Club with the characters saying "word" and "don't go there" a lot.

Everything about the film is a testament to what was wrong with Hollywood movies in 1964, from the mostly static camera -- Negulesco was one of those directors who apparently believed that the best way to shoot in CinemaScope was to set the camera down and photograph characters talking to each other from opposite ends of the frame -- to the bad back-projection, to the bad post-dubbing of dialogue in the outdoor scenes. There's the confusion about genre and audience: some of it seems to be aimed solely at a "youth" audience, other parts of it seem aimed at Hollywood's then-vanishing general audience; there are several diategic musical numbers, but it's not a musical. And then there's the sheer tackiness of the whole thing, which reflects the tackiness of mainstream pop culture in 1964, a culture that had no confidence in the formulas that used to work but had found nothing to replace them (and in many respects, still hasn't). As an example of the tackiness, suffice it to say that there's a party scene where the guests are dancing to a really bad Bossa Nova arrangement of Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon."

The three women this time around are three young actresses who seemed at the time to be headed for Big Things: Ann-Margret (who gets the three musical numbers, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn at their blandest), Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin. None of them really became huge movie stars, mostly because they were unlucky enough to emerge at the time when American movies were going into their worst-ever drought for women's roles. In the '60s, movie heroines were mostly eye candy: beautifully dressed and made-up, but otherwise pointless; it became common in this era to cast models or beauty-pageant contestants in major movies, because in these movies it wasn't necessary to have a leading lady who could act. In the movies of the '70s, women were still extraneous to the plot, but they were no longer beautifully dressed or made up, because the New American Cinema got rid of the old costume and makeup departments. This really wasn't much of an improvement.

Anyway, there are a lot of actresses in '60s movies who could have become big stars in another era. Ann-Margret certainly became famous, but she really didn't get to be a full-fledged movie star; there were a couple of bad movies in 1966 where she was the sole star (remember "The Swinger?"), but in most of her movies she was essentially a supporting actress. Even ten years earlier, she would almost certainly have been a big star in movie musicals. Pamela Tiffin really should have been a star; in 1961 she was wonderful in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three as a ditzy Southern belle ("You can tell daddy I'm off to the U.S.S.R. -- that's short for Russia"). Wilder spoke highly of Tiffin's talent and intelligence. But she mostly wound up cast in bad youth movies (For Those Who Think Young) or minor parts in big movies (a nice turn as a bikini-clad Lolita type in Harper with Paul Newman), and she eventually wound up in Europe, playing thankless roles in bad international co-productions. And while I'm not the biggest Carol Lynley fan, I don't doubt that she too would have done better a decade earlier. There are other actresses from this era who could have been major stars if they'd started earlier; Paula Prentiss is one, Angie Dickinson another. It just so happened that Hollywood and to some extent England had embarked on two decades during which women were mostly decorations, targets, or altogether absent from movies. I wonder if that's one reason for the increased popularity of foreign-language films in the '60s: to see a beautiful actress in a really good part, you had to go to an Ingmar Bergman movie.

I Love To Singa, cont.

To follow up on the list of cartoons scheduled for the next Looney Tunes Golden Collection (due in November), here's how the cartoons will probably be arranged on the four discs, and my brief descriptions of each cartoon:

Disc 1
Bugs Bunny
- "The Hare-Brained Hypnotist" (directed by Friz Freleng - 1942): Elmer tries to hunt Bugs using hypnotism.
- "Little Red Riding Rabbit" (Friz Freleng - 1944): Little Red Riding Hood brings Bugs as a present for her Grandma, and the Big Bad Wolf, disguised as Grandma, wants to eat Bugs. Contains the classic line "Hey, Grandma, that's an awful big nose for you... TA HAVE!!!" as well as Freleng's trademark "door gag," which just consists of Bugs and the Wolf running in and out of doors in a static shot, and which absolutely kills every time.
- "Stage Door Cartoon" (Freleng - 1944): Elmer chases Bugs into a vaudeville theatre.
- "Hare Conditioned" (Chuck Jones - 1945): Bugs battles an obsequious department-store manager who wants to have him stuffed for the taxidermy department.
- "Rhapsody Rabbit" (Freleng - 1946): Bugs tries to play Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody on the piano but is interrupted by a mouse. One of the all-time greats, with the comedy not only timed to the music but inspired by the music, with a visual gag to compliment each new difficulty in the piano piece.
- "The Big Snooze" (Bob Clampett - 1946): Elmer tries to quit cartoons to get some "west and wewaxation." In retaliation, Bugs invades Elmer's dream and gives him a mind-blowing nightmare. Clampett's last cartoon for the studio; some of it may have been finished, uncredited, by Art Davis.
- "Slick Hare" (Freleng - 1947): Humphrey Bogart tells waiter Elmer Fudd that he wants fried rabbit for dinner, or else.
- "Bugs Bunny Rides Again" (Freleng - 1948): Bugs has a Western showdown with Yosemite Sam.
- "Gorilla My Dreams" (Robert McKimson - 1948): Bugs is adopted by a pair of gorillas.
- "Bunny Hugged" (Jones - 1951): Bugs has a wrestling match against "The Crusher." ("Duh, I was just passin' by, just passin' by...")
- "French Rarebit" (McKimson - 1951): Two French chefs fight over the right to cook Bugs.
- "Baby Buggy Bunny" (Jones - 1954): Bugs finds what he thinks is a baby, but it's actually Baby Face Finster, a tiny crook who just robbed a bank.
- "Hyde And Hare" (Freleng - 1955): Bugs goes to the home of Dr. Jekyll.
- "Broom-Stick Bunny" (Jones - 1956): Bugs goes trick or treating disguised as a witch. Witch Hazel sees him and is horrified to find that she is no longer "the ugliest one of all." June Foray voices Witch Hazel for the first time; in her first appearance, in the equally good "Bewitched Bunny," she was voiced by Bea Benaderet. It was also around this time that Foray took over Granny in the Tweety/Sylvester cartoons from Benaderet.
- "What's Opera, Doc?" (Jones - 1957): Bugs and Elmer act out their usual schtick in the form of a Wagnerian opera.
Disc 2
The Best of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote
I don't think I need to run down the individual plots. :) Suffice it to say that this is the eleven Road Runner cartoons made from 1952 to 1958. The "golden age" of this team, basically. The cartoons are:
- "Beep Beep" (Jones - 1952): The one with the chase through the mine shaft.
- "Going! Going! Gosh!" (Jones - 1952): The one where the Coyote dresses as a hitchhiking woman.
- "Zipping Along" (Jones - 1953): The one where the Coyote tries hypnotism.
- "Stop, Look and Hasten!" (Jones - 1954): The one with the Burmese Tiger Trap.
- "Ready, Set, Zoom!" (Jones - 1955): The one with the female Road-Runner costume.
- "Guided Muscle" (Jones - 1955): The one with the tarring and feathering machine.
- "Gee Whiz-z-z-" (Jones - 1956): The one with the ACME Bat-Man costume.
- "There They Go-Go-Go!" (Jones - 1956): The one with the ladder that breaks in half.
- "Scrambled Aches" (Jones - 1957): The one with the ACME steamroller.
- "Zoom and Bored" (Jones - 1957): The one with the ACME harpoon gun.
- "Whoa, Be-Gone!" (Jones - 1958): The one with the Coyote's attempt to slide down a rope via a wheel on his helmet.

Porky and Daffy (part 1)
- "Porky In Wackyland" (Clampett - 1938): Porky goes to Wackyland in search of the elusive Do-Do. There was a color remake of this cartoon in 1949, using most of the same animation but in color and with a new ending; this remake, "Dough For the Do-Do," is on the first Golden Collection set.
- "Old Glory" (Jones - 1939): In one of WB's few serious cartoons, Porky learns the true meaning behind the Pledge of Allegiance.
- "Book Revue" (Clampett - 1946): The last and greatest "Books come to life" cartoon. Featuring Daffy Duck's amazing Danny Kaye routine, and the famous wild take where he turns into a giant eyeball.
- "Show Biz Bugs" (Freleng - 1957): Daffy is jealous of Bugs' greater popularity, and does everything he can to upstage Bugs or bump him off.

Disc 3
Sylvester and Tweety
- "Kitty Kornered" (Clampett - 1946): Porky tries to put out his cats for the night, including Sylvester, but instead they team up to make him think that Martians are invading.
- "Tweety Pie" (Freleng - 1947): First Tweety/Sylvester teamup (though Sylvester is called Thomas in this one). Won an Oscar.
- "Back Alley Op-Roar" (Freleng - 1948): Sylvester won't stop singing outside of Elmer's house. One of the funniest cartoons ever; but then, I could say that about almost any of Freleng's "musical" cartoons.
- "Bad Ol' Putty Tat" (Freleng - 1949): Sylvester tries to catch Tweety, eventually chasing him onto a badminton court.
- "All a Bir-r-r-rd" (Freleng - 1950): Tweety on a train.
- "Room And Bird" (Freleng - 1951): Tweety in a hotel.
- "Tweet Tweet Tweety" (Freleng - 1951): Tweety in the park.
- "A Bird In A Guilty Cage" (Freleng - 1952): Tweety in a department store. Features a great, wonderfully-animated scene with Sylvester trying on a series of hats.
- "Ain't She Tweet" (Freleng - 1952): Sylvester tries to get through a yard full of bulldogs to catch Tweety.
- "Gift Wrapped" (Freleng - 1952): Sylvester tries to catch Tweety at Christmastime.
- "Snow Business" (Freleng - 1953): Tweety and Sylvester are stranded in a cabin during a snowstorm, along with a mouse who's so hungry he decides to try to eat Sylvester. The scene where the mouse tries to chew on Sylvester's tale is funny and disturbing too.

Porky and Daffy (part 2)
- "You Ought to Be in Pictures" (Freleng - 1940): In a combination of live-action and animation, Daffy convinces Porky to quit his job and try and break into feature films.
- "Duck Soup To Nuts" (Freleng - 1944): Porky unsuccessfully hunts Daffy, who gives Porky a bunch of sob stories.
- "Baby Bottleneck" (Clampett - 1946): A satire of the Baby Boom: the stork is so overworked by the increased demand for babies that Porky and Daffy take over the baby business, producing babies on an assembly-line. Features extensive use of the song "Powerhouse."
- "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" (Clampett - 1946): Daffy dreams that he's "Duck Twacy." "NEON NOODLE! AAAAGGH!"

Disc 4
- "I Love To Singa" (Tex Avery - 1936): A young owl, "Owl Jolson," only wants to sing jazz.
- "Have You Got Any Castles?" (Frank Tashlin - 1938): An earlier example of the "Books come to life" cartoon.
- "Katnip Kollege" (Cal Dalton & Ben Hardaway - 1938): A musical short set at a college where cats are learning "Swingology."
- "Hollywood Steps Out" (Avery - 1941): A series of gags featuring famous Hollywood stars (including a running gag with Clark Gable pursuing a mysterious lady).
- "The Heckling Hare" (Avery - 1941): A big dumb dog goes looking for Bugs Bunny.
- "Tortoise Beats Hare" (Avery - 1941): The first matchup of Bugs and Cecil Turtle.
- "The Dover Boys at Pimento University or 'The Rivals of Roquefort Hall'" (Jones - 1942): Chuck Jones' first truly great cartoon, a simply insane and hilarious sendup of the "Rover Boys" series of boys' fiction. It was also hugely influential on UPA cartoons (Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoing-Boing) with its all-human cast, stylized backgrounds, and stylized movement, with characters popping abruptly from pose to pose. Features the thrice-repeated line "Unhand her, Dan Backslide!"
- "The Hep Cat" (Clampett - 1942): A playboy cat tries to woo a cute girl cat, with disastrous results.
- "Corny Concerto" (Clampett - 1943): A spoof of Fantasia, hosted by Elmer Fudd and featuring two segments with Johann Strauss music: a hunting segment with Bugs and Porky and an "ugly duckling" story with a duck who looks like a younger version of Daffy.
- "Rabbit Transit" (Freleng - 1947): Bugs races Cecil Turtle for the third and last time.
- "Mouse Wreckers" (Jones - 1948): Hubie and Bertie play mind games on Claude Cat.
- "Bear For Punishment" (Jones - 1951): Junyer Bear and Mama Bear celebrate father's day, driving Papa Bear crazy. Features a final scene with some great animation by Ken Harris, including Junyer reading his poem "My Pa."
- "Cheese Chasers" (Jones - 1951): The last and greatest Hubie and Bertie cartoon. Hubie and Bertie eat so much cheese that they get sick of the stuff. Without cheese, there's nothing left for them to live for, so they try to get Claude Cat to eat them and put them out of their misery.
- "One Froggy Evening" (Jones - 1955): A construction worker finds a singing frog.
- "Three Little Bops" (Freleng - 1957): A jazz retelling of "The Three Little Pigs," narrated in song by Stan Freberg.

Monday, June 21, 2004

That Stupid Bird

Follow-up to my previous post about Peanuts: today the official website reprints the 1970 strip where Woodstock's name was first revealed. Woodstock had been in the strip, unnamed, for several years, but he started to be a full-fledged sidekick for Snoopy around 1969 or 1970. Before that, Snoopy had a lot of bird friends who played cards and such in his house, but they were bigger and more realistically bird-like than Woodstock. The first appearance of the Woodstock design, though it wasn't the same character, may have been the "bird-hippie" Snoopy met around 1967. (Snoopy: "I don't understand what he's complaining about -- nobody understands my generation either.")

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Heh, heh, heh... mule.

Rented the season 4 DVD set of The Simpsons. At one point I thought this was the best season of the show; based on the reviews, everyone else seems to -- but I'm surprised to find that a lot of the episodes don't hold up as well as I remembered. This was the season when Al Jean and Mike Reiss, the showrunners, started making the show increasingly crazy and going beyond the bounds of physical reality (e.g. Leonard Nimoy dissolving as though he's actually Mr. Spock). That's not a problem. What is a problem is that the jokes by this time are coming so fast, and the writers go in for so many movie parodies, flashbacks, and fantasies, that the actual storytelling is often quite disappointing. The next-to-last episode of the season, "Marge in Chains," has an interesting story idea -- Marge goes to prison -- but it's so smothered in irrelevant jokes that we don't get any real story or character development; it's just the rudimentary, basic elements of the plot, there to string together the jokes. In a way, it's like Family Guy, the only different being that on Family Guy the jokes are bad and the characters are not worth watching (and Stewie is an inferior ripoff of Brain from Pinky and the Brain -- damn, it feels good to say that). Not that The Simpsons could ever be as bad as Family Guy, but the basic problem, of favoring jokes over storytelling, makes a lot of these episodes feel vaguely unsatisfying to me, including the episode that is often cited as the best ever, "Last Exit To Springfield" (which the writers more or less admit, on the commentary, is just a collection of bits taken from various movies). Note also that a lot of these episodes came up short and had to be padded out with long couch gags and re-used animation, a sign that there wasn't enough story for 22 minutes.

The best episodes from this season are the ones with more of the character and story interest that co-creators James L. Brooks and Sam Simon tried to put into the show in the first three seasons: episodes like "Homer the Heretic," "Mr. Plow," and "Lisa's First Word." This last one is particularly nice to watch because it's almost all based on realistic stuff -- Bart acting like a real kid, doing things that real kids do. The Simpsons today can do funny jokes, but it can't necessarily organize the jokes around a theme or a particular style, with the result that you can watch a current Simpsons episode, enjoy it, but have no particular recollection of what it was about. The best of these early episodes feel very complete and satisfying, like a good sitcom episode should; the current Simpsons, like Jean and Reiss's The Critic, is more of a string of jokes, more a vaudeville routine than a three-act play -- and the fourth season is where that started. The fourth season is very funny, yes, but I think I prefer the first three seasons and also the fifth season, during which Brooks asked the new showrunner (David Mirkin) to make the stories a little stronger.

Speaking of Brooks, one of the surprises of the Simpsons DVD commentaries is how involved he was in the early years of the show. I always thought of his function as being in-name-only; it was his production company, he assigned Sam Simon (one of his Taxi writers) to make Matt Groening's Tracy Ulman Show characters into a series. Turns out that Brooks was highly involved in choosing stories, setting the tone of the show, and writing key emotional scenes that the young Harvard wise guys couldn't necessarily write. Brooks wrote much of the famous "Lisa's Substitute" episode, including the "You are Lisa Simpson" moment, and he wrote the scene in the fourth-season "Homer's Triple Bypass" where Homer says goodbye to Bart and Lisa. Maybe that's what the show needs now: more writing by Jim Brooks.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

I Love To Singa!

The almost-always-reliable has posted a list of the cartoons to be included on the second Looney Tunes Golden Collection. An excellent list that includes more pre-1948 cartoons than the first set and more of the lesser-known masterpieces such as Chuck Jones' "The Dover Boys" and "Cheese Chasers" and Bob Clampett's "The Hep Cat." Can't wait.


Just a couple of blog-appropriate things I found on the net recently:

- Jac Mac and Rad Boy Go!, a 1985 student film by Wes Archer (who became one of the original directors on The Simpsons and the supervising director of King of the Hill). Kind of a psychedelic take on violent anti-drunk-driving films (the films where drunk drivers are about as bad and depraved as they can possibly be), with two brain-dead teenagers meeting their doom, the film has been acknowledged by Mike Judge as an influence on Beavis and Butt-head, and its look and style has influenced others in both independent and studio animation; there was even a Tiny Toons episode about drunk driving, called "One Beer," that I recall as having a few similarities (though since that episode is the one that ends with the writers acknowledging how embarrassed they are about having done it, it's really not fair to analyze it).

"Jac Mac" was shown a few times on TV on the cable show Night Flight; the downloaded version above looks like it might have come from an old TV tape, and it's not the best quality, but it does give you an idea of its impact.

- "The Sexist Pig Role Model," by Lynne Farr, is about working for Jay Tarses, showrunner of The Bob Newhart Show. Tarses was unique, sort of the great self-hating sitcom writer of his generation. He and his writing partner, Tom Patchett, started on Bob Newhart when it was kind of a bland, unexceptional piece of "quality TV" (a lot of the MTM sitcoms, like the early Bob Newhart episodes and especially Rhoda, now come off this way), but when they took over as showrunners, they overhauled it, making it more and more crazy and, as Farr points out, developing Bob's wife Emily into a far more interesting character. Patchett and Tarses also created an MTM sitcom starring Tony Randall as a judge, which lasted two years. By this time Tarses was basically tired of the conventional three-camera sitcom ("How often can you get Bob over to the damn door?" he said once); Hugh Wilson recalled that Tarses hated laugh tracks so much that he was "out to get them."

Tarses, whose daughter later became a network programmer, spent the rest of his career creating quirky, risky, critically-acclaimed comedies that flopped. (Patchett split up with Tarses after their most famous critically-acclaimed flop, Buffalo Bill with Dabney Coleman, and wound up co-creating Alf.) Often Tarses would do something that would later find its way into a successful show by somebody else; The Larry Sanders Show has certain similarities to Buffalo Bill, while Ally McBeal owes a debt to Tarses's The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. And so on. The article characterizes him very well, for better and for worse.

Those Endearing Young Charms

I don't have a lot to write about today, so I will follow up my previous post about who-animated-what in an Warner Brothers cartoon by doing the same thing for another cartoon. I promise not to do this too often, but I wanted to try to do one on my own, as opposed to leeching off Greg Duffell's work.

The cartoon is Show Biz Bugs, a Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1957, directed by Friz Freleng. It was a Bugs-Daffy teaming where Daffy is jealous of Bugs' popularity and trying to either outdo him or bump him off; this was a concept that would be used in the prime-time Bugs Bunny Show, and which unfortunately would take over Daffy's character to the point of ruining him. (Up to 1954 or so, Daffy had been getting angrier and more frustrated, but could still become a winner, or a crazy duck, or a con man, if the director preferred it that way. By the late '50s, he was just angry and greedy all the time; by the early '60s, he was basically a villain.)

The cartoon is very funny, as Freleng's cartoons usually are, because of his superb sense of timing; I saw it on the big screen once and it got some of the biggest laughs of the night, in a program that included a bunch of classics. Freleng knew exactly how long a pause should be, when to cut, how long to hold a character in a particular pose, for maximum comic effect. Show Biz Bugs will be released on DVD on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2.

At this time, Freleng had three animators in his unit. Gerry Chiniquy, Freleng's favorite animator, had been with him in the '40s and then left to work outside of animation; Freleng brought Chiniquy back in the mid-'50s when the Warners animation studio re-opened after a brief shutdown. By this time, Chiniquy's animation style had changed, partly in response to lower budgets but partly, I think, in response to the new vogue for "limited" animation (which, because of the influence of the UPA studio, was considered more artistic than old-fashioned fluid animation). His style from this point on is easy to identify: "Jerky" rather than fluid body motion, a lot of repeated drawings. Chiniquy animates the opening scene of Show Biz Bugs, and watch Daffy: he strikes a pose, and sort of jerks his body from one drawing to another instead of moving with any fluidity.

The next scene, with Daffy outside the dressing-room, is animated by Virgil Ross. Ross animated for Tex Avery and Bob Clampett in the early '40s; his style didn't really fit in with the Clampett unit, and he moved to the Freleng unit, where he stayed until the studio shut down. His animation is fluid, graceful, emphasizing the likability of characters like Bugs; he's particularly identifiable by a habit of having a character sort of bend down and tilt to one side while talking. His way of drawing Daffy seems closer to the '40s model than the others; Daffy's design had changed quite a bit by the late '50s, but Ross kept drawing the smaller, longer-beaked early Daffy.

The long dance sequence that follows is animated by Gerry Chiniquy. He often did dance and musical sequences, and the style is quite close to his animation for the famous "This is It" opening of the Bugs Bunny Show.

The scene with Daffy and the pigeons seems to have been animated by Art Davis, though I'm not completely sure, and it Might be Chiniquy. Hard to tell.

The sawing-in-half sequence is Art Davis. He had been a director at Columbia and Warner Brothers, but when his unit was shut down, he stayed at Warners, stopped directing, and animated for Freleng for many years. His movement is more fluid than Chiniquy's and his drawing for Bugs seems different (more "streamlined" for want of a better word) than Chiniquy or Ross. He also has what someone called a "looser" animation style than the others, going in for slightly more extreme poses and exaggerated movements, as much as Freleng would allow for (Freleng didn't like "extreme" animation).

Daffy saying "hmm, I can get rid of the rabbit and it'll look like an accident" is Virgil Ross. The subsequent xylophone sequence, with the famous "Endearing Young Charms" gag (which writer Warren Foster had previously used in the Private Snafu cartoon Booby Traps and the Bugs/Yosemite Sam scuffle Ballot Box Bunny) is Art Davis.

Finally, the entire closing scene is Virgil Ross: the old-school drawing of Daffy is one clue, as is the positioning of Bugs' ears (Ross had a trick of characterizing Bugs when he wasn't speaking by positioning his ears in unusual ways, one ear slightly down, ears farther apart than usual, and so on).

And that's all, folks.