Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Short Lived Theatrical Cartoons that Had A Lasting Impact

Not all cartoons are instant hits. For certain reasons, some characters fade into the obscurity of time. During the Golden Age of Animation (1930 - early 1960s), theatrical shorts featuring funny animals were all the craze. Several later-to-be-famous animators initially had trouble standing out of the crowd or establishing successful series. Below are five cartoon characters that never managed to be widely successful, but are never the less important to the history of animation.

1. Foxy (1931, 3 shorts)

It's Mickey and Minnie Mouse! ....No, wait.

Early on, the Looney Tunes had a hard time competing with the likes of Disney and the Fleisher Brothers. Their first mildly successful star was Bosko, who is rarely seen today due to being a caricature of an African American boy. He was created primarily to showcase popular songs in the Warner Bros. library, and to be animated in synchronization to the music.

In 1931, ex-Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising drew up a new potential star, Foxy. The series's first cartoon, "Lady Play Your Mandolin", was the first cartoon in the Merrie Melodies canon. Foxy and his girlfriend looked almost identical to Mickey and Minnie Mouse, save for their bushy tails and pointed ears. Foxy was far more boisterous than Mickey however. He had a noticeably deeper voice and was shorter tempered. His second cartoon "Smile Darn Ya Smile" is notable for having its theme tune featured in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Foxy's last cartoon, "One More Time", was his best. It featured an original story with Foxy as a traffic cop in a crime ridden city.

Just smile, dagnabbit!

Foxy was retired in less than a year. His failure to be unique enough from other cartoons at the time taught Warner Bros an important lesson: Don't copy other companies if you want to stand out. He was later replaced by Porky Pig (1935), and other more popular Looney Tunes characters soon followed. Foxy and Roxy would later appear, along with Goopy Geer, as guest stars in the Tiny Toon Adventures episode, "Two Tone Town",  in 1992. They also acted as the basis for the main characters in the Animaniacs (1993).  

2. Pooch the Pup (1932 - 1933, 13 shorts)

This was the cartoon that was meant to save Lantz's studio.

Walter Lantz is best remembered today for Woody Woodpecker and Chilly Willy. His studio at Universal was actually established many years earlier, in 1929, when he inherited Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks) from Charles Mintz. While Oswald continued to be successful enough to keep Lantz's staff busy, Walter wanted to create his own original character in hopes of striking gold. Thus, he put Bill Nolan in charge of the Oswald cartoons and began to direct a new series, Pooch the Pup.

Pooch the Pup did not have too much personality of his own. He was sort of the everyman character common at the time, acting as a vehicle for sight gags and Hollywood parodies. Pooch's appearance would change drastically over his ill fated career, perhaps in an attempt to try to save the character. In his earlier cartoons, Pooch was depicted as a small white terrier. Lantz would later redraw him to be more generic, resembling his own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and, even more so, Fleischer Studios's Bimbo. Currently, only two of his cartoons have been released on video so far, "King Klunk" and "She Done Him Right", making him practically invisible to audiences today. Although Pooch never became popular, Lantz and his crew (including a young Tex Avery) gained valuable experience while working on the series and would move on to create bigger, better things.

Pooch's best known cartoon is a parody of King Kong.

3. Gabby Goat (1937, 3 shorts)

Porky Pig's original comedic foil.

As mentioned earlier, Porky Pig was Warner Brother's first run away hit cartoon character. In 1937, Bob Clampett created Porky a sidekick for the cartoon "Porky and Gabby" (which is notable for being directed by Ub Iwerks). Gabby Goat, voiced by storyboard artist Cal Howard, was a very temperamental and grumpy character whose personality constantly clashed with Porky's mild manners.  Despite his constant complaining about others, Gabby proved to be very incompetent, often causing his own problems. Gabby's second cartoon, "Porky's Bedtime Story", was the first Looney Tunes short to be directed by Clampett and was successful enough to be remade in 1944, as "Tick Tock Tuckered" (with Daffy Duck instead of Gabby). Gabby's final appearance was in "Get Quick Rich Porky", although it was originally planned for him to appear in "Porky's Party" (1938).

Gabby's last cartoon.

Gabby Goat was scrapped because audiences failed to find him funny. Some were even offended by his abrasive nature. Daffy Duck was used as his replacement and would later go on to become Bugs Bunny's rival. Apparently, Gabby is rumored to be returning on The Looney Tunes Show, but that is yet to be confirmed.

4. The Fox and the Crow (1941 - 1950, 24 shorts)

An uppity Englishman encounters a smart arse con artist. What could possibly go wrong?

Not many people remember Columbia's Screen Gems cartoons, which is understandable because many of them were very bland and low budget in comparison to the output of other studios from the same time. However, Frank Tashlin managed to give the studio its saving grace. He created Fauntleroy Fox and Crawford Crow as a comedic duo for the cartoon, "The Fox and The Sour Grapes". The short proved to very successful, so much so in fact, that the Fox and the Crow soon became Columbia's biggest stars. Animator Chuck Jones was particularly impressed. He used the short as an inspiration for his Roadrunner and Willie Coyote cartoons. The fox's hellbent intent to steal the grapes and his wacky schemes certainly reflected in the coyote's personality. The short was also one of the first to use creative blackout gags.

Tashlin's "The Fox and the Sour Grapes." 

The next twenty shorts, while somewhat variable in quality, managed to be entertaining enough. (Perhaps this was because Tashlin did not return to direct, leaving Bob Wickersham mostly at helm.) The series's strength came from its leads with opposing personalities. While Fauntleroy remained as gullible and cheerful as ever, his refined personality could just as easily break down into maniac rage after being pestered by Crawford. Crawford Crow would not always win in every cartoon, though, which made the the series very funny and unpredictable. Arguably, the best cartoons from this point of the characters's career were "Woodsman Spare the Tree" (1942), "Room and Board" (1944), and "Unsure Runts" (1946).

Yet, the success of The Fox and the Crow was not enough to save the Screen Gems cartoons. Eventually, the studio was shut down in 1946 and Columbia replaced it with a new studio established by Disney strikers, UPA. The Fox and the Crow was handed over to UPA in order to test its abilities. UPA took the bold approach of using stylized, limited animated animation contrasted with detailed backgrounds for their cartoons, launching the 'cartoon modern' era, which remains influential to this day. Long-time veteran John Hubley directed all three The Fox and the Crow shorts that UPA produced for Columbia, "Robin Hoodlum" (1948), "The Magic Fluke" (1949)", and "Punchy de Leon" (1950). UPA's venture proved to be fruitful. Their first two The Fox and the Crow shorts were even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. However, the duo was ultimately abandoned by UPA, in favor of using their own non-antromorpic characters. The Fox and the Crow was left to the comic book realm, were it persisted for several more years, until 1968. Truly it is a shame that these short lived but very influential cartoons remain rather obscure to the general public today and all have yet to be been released to home video.

Hubley's "Punchy de Leon."

5. Screwy Squirrel (1944 - 1946, 5 shorts)

He's the nuttiest cartoon character ever created!

After co-creating Bugs Bunny and making several other contributions to Warner Brothers, Tex Avery left the company in 1942 establishing his own cartoon studio at MGM. He made several innovative one shot cartoons characterized by positively zany, fast-paced humor, some of which would probably alarm more conservative parents today. He meet his biggest success with the cartoon, "Red Hot Riding Hood" (whose protagonist would later be the model for Jessica Rabbit), and his Droopy Dog series, notable for its deadpan witticism. In hopes of replicating his success with wacky cartoon animals like he did at Warner Brothers, Avery came up with the idea of a literally insane character for the cartoon "Screwball Squirrel."

Screwy Squirrel was about the most anti-Disney a cartoon could get in the early 1940s. Screwy was loud, brash, and could be quite violent at times. He often antagonized Meathead and other dogs with little to no provocation. In his debut, he even beats up a stereotypically cute squirrel, stating to the audience, "You wouldn't have liked that cartoon anyway." Screwy was often very unpredictable and frequently broke through the fourth wall. In "Happy-Go-Nutty," Screwy's cell door is left open and he walks out, looking around the mental ward. However, he then closes the door and saws his way out. For his last three cartoons, "Big Heel-Watha", "The Screwy Truant" and "Lonesome Lenny," the squirrel was redesigned to look even goofier and given a more lanky appearance. The later was particularly notable for being a parody of George and Lenny, from Of Mice and Men. It also ended with the implication that Screwy was crushed to death by the dull witted dog based off Lenny. ("I used to have a little friend, but he don't move no more.")

Screwy Squirrel being, well, screwy.

Screwy Squirrel was killed off as joke, because Avery apparently wasn't that fond of him. He was ultimately abandoned in favor of Avery's other, slightly more sane characters. However, Screwy has gained somewhat of a cult following recently. This is likely due to changing tastes in humor over the years and the fact that the character's cartoons played frequently on Cartoon Network for a while. As an April Fool's Day joke in 1997, Cartoon Network even ran the short, "Happy-Go-Nutty," twenty-four seven. Screwy was also mentioned in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and acted as a template for the character Slappy Squirrel on the Animaniacs