Thursday, June 6, 2013

Spaghetti Limbs, Bouncy Movements: The Age of Rubber Hose

What is Rubber Hose?

What is rubber hose? Oswald the Lucky Rabbit will demonstrate for us.

The first standardized animation style to be adopted by Hollywood studios is still quite recognizable today. Rubber hose animation refers to the bouncy, rubbery way that characters were animated primarily in American cartoons during the 1920s to approximately the mid-1930s. It was not only adopted for its efficiency, but also to avoid the issue of stiffness. These cartoons featured stars with noodly limbs having little to no articulation. They had many sight gags and frequently utilized surreal plot lines. Several of these early cartoons had a good dose of adult humor (i.e: prohibition and sex jokes, mild profanity) as the Hayes Box Office Code was not fully adopted until the later half of the 1930s. Theatrical cartoons were not originally intended just for childern. Sound rubber hose cartoons also were commonly synchronized with popular music of the time. Although most were produced in black and white to keep down production costs, color began to be used in animation beginning in 1930 with the Flip the Frog short, "Fiddlesticks." It became standard by the end of the 1930s as rubber hose gave way to realism.

The Cat That Kept on Walking

Perhaps the first cartoon series to popularize the rubber hose style, was Felix the Cat, created by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. Debuting in 1919 in the short "Feline Follies", Felix was the biggest cartoon star of the silent era. The character's happy-go-lucky but short tempered personality, ability to use his wits (or magical tail) to get himself out of difficult situations, and fourth-wall jokes made him a hot commodity. So hot, in fact, that other funny animal characters modeled after him became the norm. Felix eventually became overshadowed by other series, however, due to difficulties switching over to sound. By 1930, audiences had moved on. Felix, however, would arise to popularity again when he was re-invented (made more 'kid friendly') for TV audiences in 1959. The cat may be a former shadow of his glory days, but still regularly appears on merchandising.

In 'Feline Follies' Felix is far more angular. He was designed to be cuter and easier to draw by Bill Nolan in the mid-1920s.

Some sketches of Felix's later design. 

The Fleischer Brothers

Another major Hollywood player was Fleischer Studios. Although the company eventually went under due to financial troubles in the early 1940s, its importance to the animation industry can not be stated enough. The two Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, made their first big break with the character Koko the Clown in their Out of the Inkwell series (1918-1924), which was notable for its very surreal humor (which became pretty much a norm for all rubber hose Fleisher productions) and use of the rotoscope. The Fleischers were also among the first of animation studios to experiment with musical interludes in their Song Car-tunes and Screen Songs (1924-1929), and invented the 'follow the bouncing ball' technique.

The company's first major sound cartoon character was Bimbo the Dog (1930), a rather foolish character who often wound up in bizarre or life threatening situations and had a weakness for attractive women. Speaking of which, Bimbo would quickly become eclipsed by his girlfriend, Betty Boop, who was modeled off of the popular flapper persona of the time. After Betty Boop's cartoons were forced to tone down their innuendos and humor by the Hayes Code, she in turn was eclipsed by another star: Popeye the Sailor, who first appeared as a guest character in 1934. In this regard, Fleischer Studios was rather unique, as their biggest stars were not funny animals, but human characters.

Betty Boop and Bimbo in 'Snow White' (1933). It's perhaps the best example of how bizarrely creative rubber hose animation could be at times. 

"I yam what I yam."

Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks

Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks first entered the animation business in 1921 when they opened their Laugh-O-Grams Studio located in Kansas City. However after facing financial difficulties, the two men left for Hollywood. Here Disney and Iwerks continued to produce their successful shorts, The Alice Comedies until 1927, which featured the adventures of a live-action girl (portrayed by Virginia Davis) in 'Cartoon-land.' Alice was then replaced by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who proved to be even more successful, but Disney lost the rights to the character after less than a year, due to conflicting interests with producer Charles Mintz.

Neither of the men were discouraged. Iwerks drew up Mickey Mouse for Walt, and Disney decided to synchronize the third Mickey cartoon with sound (Steamboat Willie, 1928) and let's just say the rest is history. Shortly after, Disney began producing Silly Symphonies, which relied less on dialogue and more on musical interludes to tell various stories, many of which were based off of popular childern's stories or fairytales. The Silly Symphonies were stand alone shorts and became the first major Hollywood cartoons to utilize Technicolor beginning in 1932, with "Flowers and Trees".  

Disney may have lost his rabbit, but his mouse ended up doing better anyway.

 Ub Iwerks's 'Hell's Bells' (1929) shows how Disney mastered synchronizing sound to its cartoons.    

However, Ub Iwerks would later leave Disney for a period of time, due to conflicting interests with Walt and feeling overburdened with work. On his own, Ub was less successful, but still managed to produce some memorable series, such as Flip the Frog (1930-1933) and Willie Whooper (1933-1934). Ultimately, Iwerks lost finical support and did contract work for other studios before making amends with Walt and returning to Disney. To this day, Iwerks remains largely overlooked for his enormous contributions to animation.

Ub Iwerks's expresses his dissatisfaction at Disney in this drawing.  
Oswald, Walter Lantz, & Charles Mintz

Meanwhile...what happened to Disney's Oswald the Lucky Rabbit? Charles Mintz ultimately ended up handing over the character to Walter Lantz at Universal Studios. Walter Lantz long had been in the animation industry, beginning in 1924 when he made his half cartoon / live-action Dinky Doodle series at Bray Studios. Lantz's Oswald, by Mintz's demand, was far more cheaply produced than Disney's version. Initially, Lantz put Bill Nolan in charge of the Oswald shorts. Nolan's Oswald was the most surreal version of the character and also included a young Tex Avery on its staff. After his Pooch the Pup failed to garner audience's attention, Lantz would take over the Oswald series himself. Lantz's version of Oswald changed the character even further from his original incarnation. The rabbit largely lost his mischievous streak, was aged down, and given a more childlike persona.

Walter Lantz's 'cuter' version of Oswald.

Charles Mintz likewise went on to produce several series for Columbia Pictures before he passed away in 1940. Although not the first to adapt the comic-strip character Krazy Kat to animated form (there were numerous earlier attempts), Mintz's version is perhaps the best known. Mintz inherited Krazy Kat's film rights from Winkler Pictures in 1929. His Krazy Kat was the first to utilize sound and ran for ten years, but was criticized for being to much like Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse, and unlike the original strips. Mintz also hired three former Fleshier animators (Sid Marcus, Art Davis, and Dick Huemer) in 1930. The first project given to the men was to create another funny animal character. Toby the Pup was the ill-fated result. The series only generated 13 shorts, half of which are lost today. Perhaps, this was because Toby failed to stand out from the crowd, resembling Fleischer's Bimbo, and even starring in a cartoon suspiciously similar to Disney's Steamboat Willie. However, Toby's cartoons were expertly crafted and are highly sought out by collectors today.

Fortunately, the threesome did manage to hit the nail with their next project, Scrappy, which managed to run for just as long as the Krazy Kat cartoons. Scrappy, although largely forgotten today, was rather unlike any other popular cartoon series of the 1930s in a few ways. Instead of an animal, its star was an average human boy. (Well, average expect for the fact Scrappy had a massive head.) Scrappy was frequently about Great Depression related problems, but put in a humorous light. Likewise, his cartoons were one of the very few series made at the time that focused on a child's perspective of the world.

The first and most famous Scrappy short, "Yelp Wanted" (1931).

Warner Brothers Gets Looney

When most people think of Looney Tunes, they think of the likes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Tweety Bird. However, the series's history goes all the way back to 1929. After seeing the success of Disney and others, Warner Brothers decided that they should jump into the fray and use animation as a way to promote their musical library. The company hired the duo Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, who formally worked for Disney and Mintz, to create them a star to rival the fame of funny animals belonging to other companies. Harman and Ising went the other route at first, with Bosko, a caricature of an African American boy. Although Bosko may not be very politically correct in some regards today, he was a generally positive character who was capable of solving his own problems. (Harman and Ising also replaced his stereotypical 'blackface' voice, with a falsetto one in later cartoons). Bosko's series was so popular that his creators quickly abandoned their Mickey look-alike, Foxy, after only three cartoons. Harman and Ising's other, less frequently featured characters created for Warner Bros were Piggy (a short lived replacement for Foxy), and the one-shots, Goopy Gear and Freddy the Freshman.

Bosko was Warner Brother's first cartoon hit.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the Warner Brothers staff, Harman and Ising left the company in 1933 and took the rights of Bosko with them. After a dispute over budget costs with Leon Schlesinger, the two left for MGM. The company attempted to deal with their major loss in the meantime by producing cartoons staring Buddy up until 1935. Buddy was basically a bland, whitewashed version of Bosko and is largely forgotten today. After Buddy failed to appease audiences, long time employee Friz Freleng directed the cartoon, "I Haven't Got a Hat." It introduced the studio's meant-to-be new star, Beans the Cat. However, a certain stuttering pig stole the show, and Beans was retired after only nine cartoons. The pig's name? Porky, of course.

Paul Terry and Van Beuren

Paul Terry had a very long career in animation, spanning from 1915 all the way up to 1955. Like many early animators, Terry began work as a newspaper cartoonist, and became inspired to bring his work to life after seeing Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914). In 1916, he was offered a job at the Bray Studios, were many of the other people in this article also began their careers. Here, Terry created his most enduring character, Farmer Al Falfa, a cranky and bumbling old man, who often fell victim to ridicule of the antics of barnyard animals or while trying to impress women. Terry's early work was of exceptional quality for its time. He pioneered the usage of cels in order to speed up production and keep costs down, and even a young Walt Disney admired his work.

However, Terry was unhappy with his tenure at Bray Studios and left after producing only 11 cartoons.  In 1920, he entered a partnership with Amadee J. Van Beuren. Here the two began a series called, Aesop's Film Fables, which stared Farmer Al Alfa and a wide menagerie of cartoon animals. Initially, each cartoon would end with a moral that often had little to do with the rest of the film (which became sort of a running joke). While the series was popular early on, the production costs of the studio began to slide and Terry's work began to look less refined in comparison to other cartoons of the period. In 1928 Terry directed "Dinner Time", the first sound cartoon, released a month before Disney's "Steamboat Willie." However, "Dinner Time" was widely dismissed by critics (and Disney himself) due to its cruder animation and poorly synchronized sound. Ultimately, Terry and Van Beuren split their relations in 1929 and Terry would go on to create cheaply produced, but often fondly remembered series such as Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle.  

The sad thing about Paul Terry is that he made high quality shorts early on, but then resorted to producing cheaper cartoons in order to survive. 

 On its own, Van Beuren Studios did not last as long. The first series the studio made stared Waffles the Cat and Don the Dog, who came off as generic funny animals, with little personality of their own, and acted as vehicles to take the audiences on odd adventures to far off lands. They were quickly replaced by Tom and Jerry (1931-1933), which tended to come off as a low budget version of Bray Studio's earlier Mutt and Jeff cartoons (1916-1925). Pretty soon, Van Beuren realized that in order to stay competitive, they would have to increase the quality of their cartoons. Eventually, Cubby Bear (1933-1934) emerged as the company's new star, before he too was replaced in order to make way for Hollywood's newest novelty, color cartoons. This reflects American animation's next phase: an age of 'Technicolor Realism' pioneered by Disney.

Although a bit of a Mickey Mouse ripoff, Cubby Bear was definitely an improvement over Van Beuren's Tom and Jerry (No not the more famous cat and mouse duo.) 

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