Archive for February, 2010

13
Feb
10

Yes. Virginia, there is an Alice

It occurrs to me that I’ve been neglecting to mention Disney cartoons in my blog. It’s time I remedied that.

When you think of Alice and Disney, “Alice in Wonderland” probably immediately comes to mind. Yet there is another Alice associated with Disney–a real-life Alice that predated her animated namesake and even predated the debut of some celebrated rodent with an alliterative name.

The “Alice” that is the subject of this post is the star of Disney’s 1920’s creation, “The Alice Comedies.” These were a series of silent shorts featuring a live juvenile actress who interacted with animated characters.

The actress in question was Virginia Davis McGhee, who passed away at the age of 90 in 2009. Disney released the films featuring Virginia under the general title, “Alice in Cartoonland.”

Walt Disney had seen the “Out of the Inkwell” cartoons of Max and Dave Fleischer, which featured animated characters interacting in the real world. The Fleischer brothers’ cartoons gave Disney the idea to create a series of cartoons which reversed the idea behind the “Out of the Inkwell” series by placing a real person in animated settings.

Disney filmed the short “Alice’s Wonderland” featuring Virginia performing in front of a billboard with a white cloth draped over it in a vacant lot. Often, Disney would recruit neighborhood children and other passersby to participate in the productions. The cast and crew often had to hide if the police approached because Disney had no permit to film the features. Disney told Virginia, who had previous modeling and acting experience, which expressions to project in the various scenes. Cartoon artists added animated characters to the scenes after the cameras filmed Virginia’s performances.

Disney originally filmed “The Alice Comedies” in Kansas City, MO, where he was based at the time and where the Davis family lived. Due to financial difficulties he faced in Kansas City, Disney was forced to leave for California and ended up in Hollywood. As it turned out, Virginia Davis faced health problems and doctors advised her parents that she needed to be in a climate warmer and drier than the one in Kansas City. The “warmer, drier climate” in this case turned out to be Hollywood, CA and when the Davises arrived there, Disney continued filming “The Alice Comedies.” An animated cat named Julius started appearing in the shorts with Virginia and the cat proved to be more popular than Virginia. Disney thus proposed a cut in pay for Virginia, which her mother rejected, so Virginia ended her involvement in the cartoons in 1924. It was not until 1928 that Mickey Mouse would make his debut.

Three other actresses played the role of Alice after Virginia’s departure and there were a total of 56 “Alice” shorts. McGhee appeared as Alice in over a dozen of these films. The end of her association with “The Alice Comedies” did not signal the end of Virginia’s involvement with Disney cartoons, however. In 1940, McGhee did voice over work for the film, “Pinocchio.”

I have attached a link to the short, “Alice Gets in Dutch” from Youtube. My reference information comes from an article about Alice Davis McGhee which appeared in the August 21, 2009 edition of The New York Times.

11
Feb
10

Of (Animated) Mice and Cats

Throughout animation history, there have been cartoons which played on the theme of cats and mice being natural adversaries. Animation also gives us at least two examples of cats and mice peacefully coexisting.  Some cartoons featuring cats and mice as enemies had the mice as protagonists and the cats as antagonists, while others reversed the relationship.

Some of the earliest examples of the  feline/rodent conflict in cartoons come in the form of the “Tom and Jerry” shorts. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera created, wrote and directed “Tom and Jerry” cartoons for Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) from 1940 to 1958. In the 1960’s, MGM had outside studios that produced the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. These included Rembrandt Films (Gene Dietch) from 1961 until 1962 and Sib Tower (Chuck Jones) from 1963 until 1967. Hanna  Barbera produced “Tom and Jerry” cartoons from 1975 until 1977 and from 1990 until 1993, with Filmation Studios handling production  from 1980 until 1982. “Tom and Jerry” cartoons all had one main theme–Tom trying desperately to end Jerry’s existence and the chaos that resulted from the hapless cat’s pursuit of his sworn enemy. Tom was never successful in carrying out his mission due to Jerry’s superior intellect and resourcefulness. Tom and Jerry were usually mute, although Tom spoke on very rare occasions. The duo also accomplished the feat of  winning more Oscars than any other cartoon not a part of the Disney franchise.

Famous Studios came up with their own cat-and-mouse team in 1947 in the form of “Herman and Katnip.” Herman and Katnip made most of their appearances together. Unlike the usually silent Tom and Jerry, Herman and Katnip had the power of speech. Arnold Stang, who would later be the voice of the title character in Hanna Barbera’s “Top Cat”, was the voice of Herman, while Syd Raymond, who voiced Famous Studio characters such as Baby Huey and Buzzy the Crow, was the voice of Katnip. Like their predecessors, Tom and Jerry, Herman and Katnip followed the theme of Katnip constantly pursuing Herman with the intent to maim and exterminate  his rodent co-star.  Much like Tom, Katnip never successfully captured Herman because Herman was always able to outsmart Katnip. To the extent that either Herman or Katnip could be considered a protagonist, the nod would definitely have to go to Herman.

Leonardo Productions got into the cat-and-mouse act in 1963 with their “Klondike Kat” shorts, which were filler cartoons for several other cartoons, most notably “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.”  Klondike, in contrast to Tom and Katnip, was the protagonist in his cartoons.  His nemesis was the cheese-stealing mouse Savoir Faire who, according to his catch phrase (which he always uttered in a French accent), was “everywhere.”  Klondike,  stationed at Fort Frazzle, had Major Minor as his commanding officer.  The other main cast member of “Klondike Kat” was Savoir Faire’s canine sidekick, Malemutt.   The vocal cast for “Klondike Kat” included Mort Marshall (Klondike), Sandy Becker (Savoir Faire), and Kenny Delmar (Major Minor).  Malemutt was Male-mute. 

Marshall’s other vocal credits included The Trix Rabbit and Stanley Livingstone in “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.”  Becker was a well-known local children’s show host in the New York City area whose other vocal credits included Ruffled Feathers and Sgt. Okey Homa on “Go Go Gophers” (the former was the gopher who spoke in a “language” made up primarily of random sounds) and Mr. Wizard the Lizard from the “Tooter Turtle” shorts on “The King and Odie” (a.k.a., “King Leonardo and His Short Subjects”).   While Delmar was not the voice of Warner Brothers’ Foghorn Leghorn character, his Senator Claghorn character was the inspiration for Foghorn’s voice.  Cartoon characters whom Delmar voiced included Colonel Kit Coyote from “Go Go Gophers” and various characters who appeared on “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales”,  such as Baldy Eagle, Yakety Yak, The Hunter (a bloodhound who was a detective), Flunky (the aforementioned Stanley Livingstone’s hired hand) and Commander McBragg.

No discussion of the cats-and-mice-as-adversaries theme in cartoons would be complete without mentioning the relationship between Hanna Barbera’s Pixie and Dixie and their feline tormentor, Mr. Jinks.  The three characters were  part of TV’s first successful animated program, “The Huckelberry Hound Show”, in 1958.  Pixie, Dixie, and Mr. Jinks were, obviously, similar to Tom and Jerry, who Hanna and Barbera had created for MGM.  Mr. Jinks hated those meeses to pieces and they often got the better of Mr. Jinks by thinking one step ahead of him.  A couple of voice artist legends, Don Messick and Daws Butler, provided the voices for the characters in this cartoon.  Messick was the voice of Pixie, while Butler voiced both Dixie and Mr. Jinks.

I mentioned earlier that there are two examples of cartoons where mice did not constantly have to defend themselves from cats attacking them.  I should point out it’s possible there are  other cartoons which feature harmonious relationships between cats and mice, but the ones I am going to discuss are the ones that immediately come to mind.  The first of these is “Snooper (the cat) and Blabber (the mouse, sometimes called, “Blabber Mouse”).”  Snooper and Blabber had a detective agency and always wore trench coats and hats.  Daws Butler voiced both characters.  “Snooper and Blabber” was one of the segments on “The Quick Draw McGraw Show” (which also had “Auggie Doggie and Doggie Daddy” as a segment).

It is, perhaps, no accident that “Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse” bore a resemblance to Batman and Robin.  The resemblance likely comes about because cartoonist Bob Kane created both sets of superheroes.  Kane created “Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse” for Trans-Artist Productions in 1960.  Both Courageous and Minute and Batman and Robin had cities they defended (the former kept Empire City safe while the latter kept the peace in Gotham City).  Batman and Robin had the Batmobile and the Batcave; Courageous and Minute had the Catmobile and the Catcave.    Courageous, unlike Batman, did not have a utility belt with a variety of weapons.  However, Courageous had a Catgun which could produce anything he needed to do his duty.   The same person provided the voices of both Courageous and Minute, but just who that person was is speculative.  Some sources say it was Bob McFadden, who provided the voice of both Milton the Monster and Frankenberry.  Others say it was Dal McKennon who, among other characters, was at one time the voice of Gumby.

I have attached clips from YouTube of some of the cartoons mentioned here.  Unfortunately, I could not find a clip of “Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse”–you’ll just have to take my word for it that it existed.  Sources of information for this entry were Don Markstein’s Toonopedia web site and The Internet Movie Database.