Friday night movie

>> Friday, April 25, 2008

In the early 1940s, Disney's most formidable rival in animation was Max and Dave Fleischer's shop, Fleischer studios. You might have thought it would have been Warner Brothers (and they'd like you to think so, I'm sure), but until '44 the Warner cartoons were essentially subcontracted out to Leon Schlesinger, and the fact that the famous birthplace of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the lot was called the "Termite Terrace" might tell you a lot about the esteem the animators were held in (Chuck Jones wrote of Schlesinger, "Leon's sole method of determining the quality of an animated cartoon was how far it came in under budget."*).

Anyway, the Fleischers were the second-biggest game in town. This was in spite of the fact that they'd had some problems in the late 1930s and been forced to restructure, with Paramount Pictures acquiring a stake in the company. This kept the company afloat, but ended up being a disaster since part of the restructuring was that Paramount could fire the Fleischers and take over the company at will.

In 1941, Paramount had managed to get the rights to do a string of cartoons based on this new funnybook everyone was nuts about, about this guy with blue tights and a red cape who was faster than a speeding bullet, could leap tall buildings in a single bound, and was more powerful than a locomotive. Kids' stuff, and just a fad for sure, but real money to be made if you could get something in the theaters.

So here's the sorta ironic part: supposedly, the Fleischers really, really, really did not want to do Superman cartoons, but they couldn't just say "no" to Paramount (they could get fired, remember?), so when Paramount asked how much it would cost to do the films, the Fleischers high-balled the figures. Because Paramount didn't have any experience with animation, they didn't know how much a bunch of ten-minute cartoons should cost, and anyway they were kind of desperate to get the things done before the license expired or all the kids moved on to something else (remember, nobody had a clue at the time that Superman was going to be a strong franchise sixty years later, and worth gazillions of dollars). So Paramount agreed to the figure, which left the Fleischer brothers in the awkward position of having to actually make the cartoons.

So they did the movies. There were seventeen in all, about half of which were really done by the Fleischers and the others after Paramount ousted the Fleischers and took over. It's not hard to tell the difference. The Fleischers had the decency, having named an absurdly high figure to start with, to put the money on the screen, something Paramount somehow neglected to do when they actually took charge of making the movies themselves.

Tonight's Friday night movie is the second, and arguably the best, entry in the series, "The Mechanical Monsters." Superman must give a smackdown to a mad scientist who has possibly spent several billion dollars to build giant robots to steal fifty million dollars' worth of precious gems. Possibly, the mad scientist has investors. Or maybe it's just a hobby, like those guys who build battlebots.

More importantly, this is some beautiful animation. Pay attention to the "lighting," Dave Fleischer did. And enjoy the rotoscoping: for those who don't know, rotoscoping is the technique in which an animator traces the image onto the cel from photographs or individual frames of film. The technique has a little bit of a bad name because it's often been used on the quick and cheap as a shortcut (Ralph Bakshi, who is a genius, is a notable offender: despite his brilliance, he's always had a hard time with schedules and budgets, and has frequently resorted to quick-and-dirty rotoscoping to cover for being out of money). But done well, and in the Fleischer Superman cartoons it's done well, it can give a special fluidity to the animation. You'll notice rotoscoped motion in the movements of the police officers and Superman, and also in the backgrounds during the flight sequences (the Fleischers rotoscoped aerial photographs to get realistic scenery).

Another somewhat ironic thing I love about this cartoon is the way it assumes functional literacy in the audience, something you don't associate with modern cartoons at all. Quite a bit of the exposition in "Mechanical Monsters" requires you to be able to read a newspaper headline. It doesn't sound like much, but someone making this cartoon today would get yelled at if they put even that much text on the screen, and they would have to do a talking heads scene to set up the story's premise.

And then there are those awesome, iconic giant robots.

"The Mechanical Monsters" (1941):

* But the best, the very best story of Leon Schlesinger, the one that really tells you everything you need to know about the producer, is this one from Chuck Jones's memoir, Chuck Amuck:

In Tex Avery's Porky's Duck Hunt--the first Daffy Duck film (1937)--Daffy's voice was a sort of cross between a stuttering "hoo-hoo" and a spluttering laugh. Tex felt that "hoo-hoo"s could go stale with repetition and that there was a vital difference in a duck that was nutty and a duck that enjoyed being nutty. But he still needed a voice, and it was Cal Howard... who suggested that Leon Schlesinger's lisp plus Leon's absolute belief that the world owed him a living made him a perfect prototype for Daffy. Mel Blanc saw no difficulty in marrying Leon's voice to a duck, so the deed was done, and Daffy found a new voice as well as a new personality, an acquisitiveness to match Leon's.

But all unbeknownst, and only when we were into the production of the new film and incapable of retreat, did we realize the hideous, the lethal potential of the future: Leon Schlesinger was going to see this film, and--more important to our future--to hear his own voice emanating from that duck.

In order to save ourselves the embarrassment of being fired, all of us were careful to write out our resignations before that fateful day when Leon strode into our projection room and sprawled on the gilt throne he had snatched from some early Warner pseudo-De Mille film or other. The rest of us, of course, still sat on beat-up splintery church pews from an early family film. The new Daffy Duck lit up the screen at Leon's courteous command: "Roll the garbage!" The cartoon played to the studio audience, accompanied by many crickets, prayers, and silences. Then the lights went on and Leon jumped to his feet, glared around: "Jeethus Christh, that's a funny voithe! Where'd you get that voithe?"

Something to think about the next time you hear Daffy: that, my friends, is the voice of a late and mostly unlamented producer of low-budget animated shorts, Leon Schlesinger. He may be dead, but an unkind but apparently accurate impersonation of his voice will live forever....


Nathan Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 1:11:00 PM EDT  

The best part is that there's a continuity a freakin' cartoon.

Go about 3:50 in...when the robot is arriving at the jewel show. When seen from behind, it's robot #5, then cut to bullets bouncing off and it's #13, then from behind approaching the jewels...#5 again. Then it's 13 for the rest of the show.

also, at the end, I think that if I was obsessive enough to number my mechanical monsters, I'd store them in order...not just randomly toss them in the closet.

rbird Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 9:01:00 PM EDT  

hmph, i think i'll watch, Bridgette Jone's Diary.

rbird Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 9:04:00 PM EDT  

i should add this...

Eric Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 12:27:00 AM EDT  

I am shocked by the fact that somehow Renée Zellweger in pajamas didn't do anything for me. I can think of a dozen, maybe a hundred fantasies that start with "Renée Zellweger in pajamas"; granted, most of them involve my furniture and not a couch on a movie set in a romcom. Renée Zellweger in pajamas in my bed, for instance, would be a rather nice thing to go upstairs to right now, as opposed to me with a book before turning the lights out. Also, the Celine might be a dealbreaker even if the lovely Ms. Renée was wearing something less than pajamas. Anyway, one of my fundamental assumptions (about Renée Zellweger in pajamas) has been challenged, and I'm cut to the quick.

Sorry, Bird, if the classic animation didn't do it for you. But surely you knew your brother was a nerd (and an animation nerd with some interest in comics, no less) for... let's see... factoring in the part of your life I was mostly a shapeless blur, would 30 years be a fair round number, or should we go with 31? ;-)

vigoureux artiste Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 10:18:00 PM EDT  

hey nice post.. :) You have really explained rotoscoping well in this post...

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