video review by
Gary Johnson

 






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IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT

Cartoons that Time Forgot
From the Van Beuren Studios

 
While the 1930s cartoons of Disney, Warner Bros., and Fleischer Studios are still well known today, many '30s cartoons have been largely forgotten. Before Terrytoons found success in the '40s with Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse cartoons, Farmer Al Falfa was their major bread winner. Before Woody Woodpecker arrived in the '40s, Walter Lantz survived with Oswald the Rabbit. Ub Iwerks gave us Flip the Frog. Columbia/Screen Gems was the home of Krazy Kat and Scappy. And MGM made time before the arrival of Tom and Jerry with their Happy Harmonies series. Even Warner Bros. struggled through the early '30s with largely forgotten characters such as Bosko and Buddy (until abandoning them for Porky Pig in 1936). Many of these 1930s cartoon characters rarely appear on television today.

Arguably the rarest of '30s cartoons are those of Van Beuren Studios. Occasionally, Van Beuren purchased the rights to recognizable characters, such as Fritz the Cat and the Little King. But many of the Van Beuren characters became lost in the ensuing decades when their cartoon titles and character names were changed for home movie and television release. Cubby Bear became Brownie Bear and a tall-short human duo named Tom and Jerry became Dick and Larry.

Thanks to a new DVD release from Image Entertainment, we can now enjoy these rarely remembered cartoons of yesteryear. "Cartoons That Time Forgot: From the Van Beuren Studios" packages together 21 of the studio's best cartoons. These cartoons were previously released in 1993 by Kino On Video as a two video set. Image Entertainment's DVD release preserves the sequencing of Kino's videos. Therefore, the first ten cartoons are preceded by the title card "The Van Beuren Rainbow Parade" while the final eleven are titled "The Odd and the Outrageous." From a chronological point of view, this sequencing is largely backwards, but it ensures that Van Beuren's most colorful and best animated cartoons--those of its "Rainbow Parade" series--receive most of the attention. That's probably a good move, for much of Van Beuren's early black-and-white output looks crude today.

Even the most ardent admirers of Van Beuren cartoons would have a hard time arguing that many Van Beuren cartoons belong on a list of the great cartoons. A recent book, Jerry Beck's The 50 Greatest Cartoons (as selected by 1,000 animation professionals), includes none from Van Beuren Studios, although "The Sunshine Makers" appears on the runners-up list. From a historical point of view, however, Van Beuren is just as interesting for its limitations and failures as for its relatively modest successes.

Van Beuren came into existence in late 1928 and it continued producing cartoons until 1936, the year that RKO abandoned Van Beuren for Walt Disney cartoons. During its alliance with Pathe and RKO, Van Beuren typically released two dozen or more cartoons almost every year, a prodigious output even by Walt Disney or Warner Bros. standards. However, throughout its existence, Van Beuren struggled to create characters that audiences would remember. While Disney had Mickey Mouse and Fleischer had Betty Boop and Popeye, in the early '30s Van Beuren survived on a nondescript series titled "Aesop's Fables" and the exploits of Tom and Jerry (no relation to MGM's cat-and-mouse combo). The Aesop's Fables cartoons originated through an association with Paul Terry (of Terrytoons fame) in the early '20s. When Amadee J. Van Beuren bought into the Aesop's Fable Studio, he changed the studio's name and soon afterwards announced that all subsequent cartoons would be filmed with sound. Paul Terry objected and left Van Beuren studio.

On Image Entertainment's "Cartoons That Time Forgot" DVD, Van Beuren's Aesop's Fables cartoons are represented by three examples, "In a Cartoon Studio" (1931), "Candy Town" (1933?), and "Opening Night" (1933). For cartoon lovers familiar with Fleischer studio surrealism, these cartoons should prove to be a surprise. They contain some of the same elements long cherished by Fleischer devotees: in "In a Cartoon Studio," the heroine's entrance into a cartoon studio resembles Bimbo's nightmarish journey in Fleischer's "Bimbo's Initiation." She first gets escorted down a long hallway, through a seemingly interminable series of doors, until a door explodes in an avalanche of paper. Interestingly, "In a Cartoon Studio" actually predates "Bimbo's Initiation" by several weeks and makes a convincing case that Van Beuren's output may actually have provided inspiration for Fleischer artists. (Interestingly, the two studios faced one another on the same street.) "Candy Town" (one of Van Beuren's all-time best black-and-white cartoons) shows two tabby cats in a rowboat on a romantic moonlit night when a flight of stairs descends from the heavens and the moon asks the tabbies to come on up. They soon find themselves in a land of candy and pastries, which the tabbies proceed to gorge upon until a bottle of caster oil and a spoon chase them back home.

Van Beuren also provided large doses of surrealism in a Tom and Jerry cartoon titled "Wot a Night" (1931). Our heroes are taxi cab drivers who take a fare to an isolated mansion. When the customers, a pair of goggle-eyed loons with lurching gaits and bobbing heads, run off without paying, Tom and Jerry follow them up the hill and soon find themselves surrounded by skeletons and ghosts.

The scenarios for each of these cartoons are filled with possibilities, but the cartoons themselves provide mixed results. In cost saving measures, gags get looped so they repeat three or four times--even when the looping makes no sense. In "In a Cartoon Studio," we see a series of animals drawing cartoons as if part of an assembly line process. Each draws an arm or leg and passes on the drawing to the next animator to add another appendage; however, in order for the animation to loop and reduce the number of animation cels, the drawings become blank after the handoffs. Cost-cutting measures like this one frequently had the effect of blunting the comedy in Van Beuren cartoons.

In addition, while Fleischer utilized great jazz musicians such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, musical accompaniment in Van Beuren cartoons was frequently forgettable. In "Wot A Night" we get a great set up for the musical number: Tom and Jerry happen upon a group of skeletons in a dark passageway. But when the skeletons start singing a minstrel song, they do so while sitting down. While Fleischer made songs the center pieces of their cartoons--such as the rotoscoped images of Cab Calloway as a ghost singing "Minnie the Moocher" in the Betty Boop cartoon "Snow White"--Van Beuren considered music as just another throwaway gag. In another Tom and Jerry cartoon, "The Tuba Tooter" (1932), Van Beuren utilized music with better results. This time, a tuba player arrives home after a sea voyage and the entire town celebrates. Tom and Jerry start singing and soon a cat and a mouse, a bird and several sausages, and a fish and a cheese all join in one after another. We even get a slightly racy scene worthy of a Betty Boop cartoon, where two women, dressed only in slips, do a can-can.

The can-can dancers come as something of a surprise because their animation style is strikingly different than the rest of the cartoon. Jarring changes in style happened frequently in the early '30s cartoons from Van Beuren. In "Christmas Night" (1933), the animation varies from painterly backgrounds to simple stick figure characters. And in "Piano Tooners" (1932) (Tom and Jerry again), one of the main characters, a fat lady opera singer, is drawn in crude shapes that change from one scene to the next. However, "Candy Town" looks marvelous, with consistently drawn lead characters and detailed backgrounds.

In 1934 Van Beuren Studio addressed the problem of inconsistent animation quality by bringing in a director with the highest credentials--Burt Gillett, who had directed Walt Disney's Academy-award-winning "Three Little Pigs." And from the moment he arrived, the visual style of Van Beuren cartoons improved by several fold. Compare the opening scene of "The Tuba Tooter" (1932), where a ship is carried by crudely-drawn ocean waves, with the opening scene of "Molly-Moo Cow and Robinson Crusoe" (1936), where Molly is washed to shore by beautifully-realized waves: the difference can be measured in light years.

While on a visual level Gillett ensured that Van Beuren output was comparable with Disney or Warner Bros., the studio still struggled for recognizable characters capable of winning audience attention. Their struggles are best represented by Molly-Moo Cow. That's right: a cow as a lead character. Molly is pleasant to watch, but she's as bland a character as you'll ever want to meet. Ultimately, Van Beuren looked for an established property. They purchased the rights to Felix the Cat, a popular cartoon character of the silent era, and the Toonerville Trolley, a popular comic strip by Fontaine Fox. However, disappointingly, they interpreted Felix as a bland goody two-shoes character (with a perky kid's voice) who little resembled the mischievous character of his silent-era days.

Of the Felix the Cat cartoons on Image Entertainment's DVD, "Felix the Cat and the Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs" (1935) and "Bold King Cole" (1935) are visually stunning. But Felix is frequently the least interesting part of these cartoons. In "Felix the Cat and the Goose" we get a hint of the old Felix. He paces back and forth on a pier after pirates have stolen his goose until suddenly he has a brain storm: his tail becomes an exclamation point, which he then uses like a match to light a cannon. His body becomes a cannonball. Soon he's soaring across the ocean and onto the pirate ship. In "Bold King Cole" his head lights up like a light bulb after lightning strikes. With a twist of his nose, the light can be turned on and off. These visually sumptuous cartoons would have benefited with more imaginative surprises like these.

The Toonerville Trolley cartoons were some of the last cartoons produced by Van Beuren, and they look incredible, with backgrounds that resemble watercolor paintings. The characters in the Toonerville series certainly aren't bland. They include the powerful Katrinka (a female with a Swedish accent who frequently saves the day), the Skipper (the cantankerous trolley conductor), and the "terrible tempered Mr. Bang" (a frequent trolley customer). In one of the more imaginative Toonerville episodes, "Trolley Ahoy" (1936), the trolley line lacks electricity, so Katrinka attaches a sail boat mast to the top of the trolley. The Skipper then merrily sails the trolley to town. While the Toonerville cartoons are frequently stunning visually, most Van Beuren imagination went into the animation and not the stories. As a result, the gags in the Toonerville cartoons are so slight that they hardly seem to exist at all.

This problem affected almost all the Van Beuren "Rainbow Parade" cartoons. In a "Waif's Welcome" (1936), for example, the story establishes an excellent opportunity for painting distorted and funny images of a boy's guilt (precipitated when a little brat causes an orphan boy to be kicked out in the cold for acts he didn't commit). However, the brat's guilt remains generic and not particularly memorable, and thus the cartoon becomes pleasant but undistinguished.

In at least one instance, Van Beuren Studios created an unqualified masterpiece. That cartoon is "The Sunshine Makers" (1935). It depicts an age old battle of good vs. evil. Wait no. It's not good vs. evil. It's happy vs. sad. It's this confusion between good/happy and evil/sad that makes this movie so fun to watch today: the good/happy dwarves mount a large scale military operation upon the evil/sad gremlins. Catapults and cannons send bottles of sunshine flying into the gloomy camp, where the bottles explode and unleash happy thoughts on the gloomy Guses. An afflicted gloomy gremlin immediately does a little jig while singing "tra-la, la-la, la-la, la-la; tra-la, la-la, la-la." Soon the happy dwarves swarm into the gloomy camp, where they force feed sunshine down the throats of the gloomy gremlins. "I don't wanna be happy. I wanna be sad!" pleads a gloomy gremlin.

Coming several years before Walt Disney made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "The Sunshine Makers" paved the way for Disney's more famous group of dwarves. Both cartoons feature dwarves who sing while marching to work in single file. Milk producer Borden's was so impressed by this tale of a happiness-inducing white liquid that they subsequently purchased the rights to "The Sunshine Makers" and slapped "This entertainment brought to you by Borden's" on the titles--apparently without considering the story's arguably fascist undertones.

Following in a military tradition, another Van Beuren cartoon, "Cupid Gets His Man" (1936), pits a platoon of dutiful cupids against a wisecracking man (patterned after W.C. Fields) and a crotchety woman. Not surprisingly, it's also one of Van Beuren's best cartoons.

The copy of "The Sunshine Makers" included on this DVD is well-worn. Many of the animation's details have been obliterated. The other cartoons are in good condition; however, by no means are they pristine. You'll see scratches and, if you step through frames, you'll even see a few fingerprints. But the colors in most cases are still vibrant.

For fans of '30s animated cartoons, "Cartoons That Time Forgot" is a fascinating introduction to one of history's less heralded studios. Few viewers will likely become convinced that Van Beuren deserves mention as one of the great studios; however, the history of Van Beuren as represented by the cartoons on this DVD is fascinating.

 


Cartoons That Time Forgot: From the Van Beuren Studios is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The disc contains 21 cartoons. Suggested retail price: $29.99.