Monday, January 31, 2011

Is This By Dan Gordon?

Update: In comments it's suggested that this might be by a different comics great, Jack Bradbury.


There have been some good posts on cartoonist Dan Gordon lately, including this one from John Kricfalusi and this one from Thad K. Having seen those, I'm wondering if this could be another Dan Gordon story.

It's from Little Archie # 5, an issue that used a number of artists (including Bill Vigoda) to do the half of the stories that Bob Bolling wasn't doing himself, and there's this one four-page story that looks very different from the rest of the comic -- and is much more exuberant and cartoony than the Bolling or Vigoda material. Dan Gordon was very briefly at MLJ/Archie working on Super Duck -- also in a different style from anyone else. This might be his tryout on "Little Archie"; it might not be him, but adjusting for the difference in house style, it could have come from the guy who did "Cookie" and most famously "SuperKatt". Take a look:

Whoever it is, it might have been nice if he had stuck around on this title. I'm a big Bob Bolling fan, but pure comedy isn't really his thing; even his slapstick stories have a subdued, melancholy feel to them. Supplementing his work with a more laugh-out-loud funny cartoonist would have been an ideal arrangement. Instead the other artists (some of whom are very hard to identify) left the title by # 8 and it became entirely shared between Bolling and Dexter Taylor.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How To Understand This Terrible New Road Runner Disc

I've sort of given up on Warner Bros. DVD releases of its cartoons: I accept that we're not going to get much of value until a) Blu-Ray becomes popular enough to spawn some Looney Tunes collections in that format, or b) That elusive Censored 11 set finally becomes a reality. (There's also online streaming, but frankly, while I want to see more older material in that format, I want to own good-quality copies, and always will. But that's another post.) But I had to say something about This Road Runner/Coyote DVD they're releasing, where the selection is so bad that it seems like a joke. And, who knows, maybe it'll turn out to be another list of cartoons that was prematurely leaked, except the corrected version almost always turns out to be worse than the leaked list.

Update: The list has been confirmed as real. Good lord.

Anyway, the list that TV Shows On DVD has consists entirely of Road Runner cartoons from after the original studio shut down, meaning: Rudy Larriva shorts, made-for-the-web cartoons (the "New 2010 Roadrunner" ones), Chuck Jones' two TV cartoons, Larry Doyle's Road Runner opus, and finally the two that I can actually enjoy watching again, "Chariots of Fur" and "Little Go Beep."

The conspiracy theorist in me wants to think that this is a way of making the upcoming "Looney Tunes Show" look good by comparison -- if kids are watching these cartoons, the CGI Road Runners Cartoon Network is preparing will look brilliant. I should add that I have no idea how good or bad "The Looney Tunes Show" will be, and wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be all right. Point is, it would still look worse by comparison with a bigger-budget pre-1964 cartoon.

The sensible side of me just thinks that maybe they're still hoping to save the "real" cartoons for when the home video market comes back. Or that this batch of cartoons was put together before the home video department agreed to include fullscreen options for the cartoons, and that the Larrivas were considered more "expendable" when it comes to cutting off the top and bottom. I don't know. I just know it's not much of a list.

One thing: though the Larriva years are evidence to the contrary, later on it seems like Road Runner cartoons managed to achieve adequacy more often than other types of Looney Tunes revival cartoons. "Chariots of Fur," which kicked off the series of Chuck Jones Productions cartoons, isn't up to the pre-1964 cartoons but is one of Jones' better late films. "Little Go Beep" turned out to be perhaps the best of the Kathleen Helppie-Shipley productions, and even "Whizzard of Ow" is one of the more tolerable Larry Doyle shorts. Maybe because the formula is so simple, or because it's one of the few series that doesn't lose anything from Mel Blanc's death, Road Runners seem to be the easiest to make in an acceptable way.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Professionalization of Voice Acting

Well, time for another post full of probably incorrect assumptions, but a shorter one. I've always meant to mention this, but to my surprise I can't find an animation-related post where I brought this up: I've always wondered why Tedd Pierce and Michael Maltese, two Warner Brothers cartoon writers who also did voice acting, more or less stopped acting after about 1951. They continued to write cartoons for the studio, but Pierce's last known voice job at the studio -- maybe there's a later one I didn't notice and didn't make it onto IMDB -- was in 1951, and so was Maltese's. It's particularly surprising in the case of Pierce because he was a really good, versatile voice actor who performed in other people's cartoons (like the Babbit and Catsello cartoons), not just his own.

Thinking about this, I recalled that Tex Avery was another cartoonist/performer who didn't do much voice work after about 1950. So it may have been an actual trend at the time, toward a more professional approach to the art of voice acting. Thanks to Mel Blanc and others, voice acting had already become much more of a profession than it had been in the early days of sound cartoons, when voices were as likely to be performed by an animator or writer as by a full-time actor. In the late '40s into the '50s, it seems like the studios shifted even more strongly toward hiring professional actors for everything. So if there was a small male part at Warner Brothers that Mel Blanc wasn't doing, it might have gone to Pierce or Maltese in the '40s -- but in the '50s, it would have gone to Stan Freberg or, later, Daws Butler. Just as in Avery cartoons, the parts he once did himself probably went to Butler or Don Messick in the '50s.

This isn't a trend that lasted, since the non-professional voice actor actually came back -- mostly in TV animation. (Bill Scott didn't get to do much voice work at Warners or UPA, though he did get to do the funny-animal voices in the UPA cartoon sequence in the movie The Girl Next Door. But in television, he became as prolific an actor as he was a writer.) I just wanted to make a note that there does appear to have been an "actors act, writers write" idea in the later years of theatrical short cartoons.

Here's my favorite Mike Maltese voice job, in 1948's "A Feather in His Hare" (though the first sounds the character utters are not from Maltese but Mel Blanc, who was called upon to do the screaming).

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Art of the Orchestrator

Update: This post is sort of an example of why one shouldn't post in too much of a hurry -- the post is likely to contain some assumptions that haven't really been thought through. Noel Katz explains in comments why the post below is probably based on incorrect assumptions.


Speaking of musicals, again: orchestration has always been one of the aspects of musical theatre that I've been most interested in. I always used to look at the cast album to see who the orchestrator was, and formed a very vague idea of what different orchestrators' "sounds" were. I later found out that the idea was even more vague than I knew, since nearly all orchestrators had to use uncredited help, sometimes just for incidental music, but sometimes for major numbers. Steven Suskin's recent book "The Sound of Broadway Music" was the first to give a comprehensive idea of who orchestrated what on each show, which finally made it possible to discuss individual styles with any accuracy.

What the book doesn't fully explain -- it spends some time on that, but maybe not as much as I hoped -- is how much actual composing an orchestrator does. If you listen to a song on a demo recording, before the orchestration is done, and then listen to the final version, there's often a lot of musical material that the composer didn't put into the melody or the accompaniment. Bits of orchestral commentary between the stanzas, countermelodies, even quotations from other composers (the orchestrator of A Little Night Music, Jonathan Tunick, threw in a quote from Rosenkavalier as an in-joke near the end of the first act). Some of the additional musical ideas in these arrangements probably come from others -- the dance arranger, or the composer's assistant, and maybe sometimes even the composer himself. (Sometimes it's the conductor: on Li'l Abner the conductor, Lehman Engel, got a credit for "musical continuity" for writing everything except the actual tunes.) But at least part of an orchestrator's job seems to be adding to the song, rather than just arranging it as it appears in the rough piano version.

Here's a random example, just because a piano demo happens to exist. This song from Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle is supposed to be sung by an uptight nurse pretending, unconvincingly, to be a French seductress and trying to seduce a mental patient who's pretending to be a doctor. It was that kind of show. I don't think much of the song except for one line: "I like your, 'ow you say, imperturbable perspicacity." Though that one line is so good it makes the whole song worthwhile.

CPWM 2 - kewego
Mots-clés : cpwm one

And here's the song in the orchestrated version by Don Walker. Walker is probably my favorite Broadway orchestrator, even though many songs he's credited with were actually ghosted by others. (He took on so many shows in the '50s that he adopted a "factory" system, hiring multiple assistants and farming multiple numbers out to them. By the '60s, his assistants were off doing their own shows, and he reduced his workload.) He started with a reputation as a jazzy orchestrator, and mostly did musical comedies in the '40s and '50s, but what he loved best was lush, romantic shows that allowed him to conjure up a unique sound-world: among his favorite jobs were Carousel, Most Happy Fella and She Loves Me.

Anyone Can Whistle was Walker's only show for Sondheim, and he apparently thought that the score was needlessly complicated. The former Walker assistants who orchestrated Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum felt the same way: Irwin Kostal is quoted in The Sound of Broadway Music that Sondheim nearly ruined "Love, I Hear" by giving him a sketch with pointlessly complex accompaniment and insisting that all his accompaniment ideas be used in the orchestration. (Luckily, Leonard Bernstein heard the arrangement during previews and bawled Sondheim out for it, shaming him into changing it: "Who do you think you are? Me?") By the time Sondheim emerged as a successful composer with Company he had improved a lot as a composer, or at least figured out how to make his clever ideas feel organic to the song. His later success as a composer naturally reflects back on his early work, but I don't think Anyone Can Whistle is as good a score as many that were being written in the early '60s.

In the case of the Whistle number, anyway, Walker and the dance arranger (who I'm assuming is responsible for some of the ideas in the dance breaks at least) don't change much about the music. It's more a question of trying to liven it up and support two performers who aren't really singers (Lee Remick and Harry Guardino), finding different "fills" and decorations for each stanza, to give each repetition the feeling of being somehow different in color and tone from the one that came before it. The overall effect is to make Sondheim's music sound more conventionally Broadway, but that's what this number needs to make it work.

The other thing about Walker's work here is how he pulls off a very strange choice of instrumentation. Forum was one of a few shows without violins, but Walker here went his trainees one better and also cut out violas -- the string section consists of five cellos, plus a bass. He handles this so well that you hardly notice the absence of higher string instruments, but it gives a subconscious dark, creepy feel to the whole show.

CPWM 1 - kewego
Mots-clés : cpwm one

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Liv Ullmann Sings!

The latest find at is from Richard Rodgers' last musical, I Remember Mama. This was a natural subject for a musical, and since Rodgers and Hammerstein actually produced the John Van Druten play, they must have at least considered doing it as a musical.

The show got poor reviews and ran into lots of trouble out of town (leading to the firing of Martin Charnin as both lyricist and director), and this Tony performance certainly suggests it was not a very good show. It's not just that it's old-fashioned, but it's rote old-fashioned, going through all the tricks of the Rodgers and Hammerstein style musical -- the chirpy line delivery, the broad gestures, the device of having a dialogue interlude that gives a new context to the song when it's repeated. (Mama sings that you can achieve anything by giving "a little bit more"; in dialogue, the family works out a way to get extra money by doing just that; in a reprise of the same song, they celebrate their success in giving a little bit more.) The style of the show appears to have been somewhere between Annie, which the lyricist and book writer had just done, and The Sound of Music.

Liv Ullmann was the star, and she doesn't seem as bad as the reviews suggested. There have been lots of non-singing movie stars who did musicals, and she's by no means the worst; she actually tries to sing the notes. And at least she's the one acting, instead of just gesturing.

The other redeeming feature is Rodgers' music. His work in the last decade of life shows a definite falling-off in inspiration (few people have ever written a great musical after the age of 70, unfortunately). This is not a melody to compare with anything he wrote from the '20s through the '60s, and it feels like the composer imitating himself. But the musical style is still so unmistakably Rodgers, so right for the situation, that I almost feel like it would work better as an instrumental, without the drab, imitation-Hammerstein lyrics. (These lyrics are by Ray Jessel, a TV writer and Broadway composer-lyricist who was brought in to write with Rodgers after Charnin was fired.) The lyrics try to lecture us on never giving up hope and striving, but the music sells the idea much better than the words do.