Percy Crosby Was a Genius

Over on Facebook, Jim Engel was talking about Skippy. That inspired me to scan my 1935 original strip–which I lucked upon years ago at a surprisingly reasonable price–to share with Jim. And as long as I’m at it…

skippy

 

The Cantinflas Chronicles Revisited

In a small-but-satisfying way, some of the most fun I ever had writing anything was collaborating with my pal Kip Williams on a piece for Animato in 1997 about the animated cartoons of Cantinflas. With a new (live-action) biopic of the Mexican comedy great out, it’s as good a time as any to revisit our article. It’s been available on this site for years, but here’s a version that’s a million times better than that one–or the original print version–because it includes the cartoons themselves. (Thank you, YouTube.)


The Cantinflas Chronicles

(For this issue’s column, Harry joins forces with a co-author, fellow obscure-cartoon fanatic Kip Williams.)

Until now, this column has been plenty busy covering weird, forgotten cartoons produced in the United States over the past seventy years. This issue, however, we go south of the border to take a look at the animated efforts of Mexico’s greatest film comedian, Mario Moreno (1911-1993) — better known as Cantinflas.

If we gringos remember Cantinflas at all, it’s most likely for his supporting role as Passepartout in Mike Todd’s 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days, or perhaps for his one U.S. starring vehicle, 1960′s Pepe. (The latter film failed to give the Mexican comedian a toehold in the U.S. market, despite being quite possibly the most celebrity-packed film of all time; the cast featured Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Jack Lemmon, Greer Garson, Andre Previn, Tony Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr., Janet Leigh, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Shirley Jones, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Hedda Hopper, Ernie Kovacs, Edward G. Robinson, Ann B. Davis, Debbie Reynolds, Cesar Romero, Joey Bishop, Bobby Darin, Billie Burke, and Jay “Dennis the Menace” North, among others.)

In Mexico, however, Cantinflas was an enduring superstar from the 1930s until the 1980s. And just like a lot of U.S comedians — Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges Jerry Lewis — he lent his visage and schtick to an animated series, which was variously known as Cantinflas Show, Amigo and Friends, or Cantinflas y Sus Amigos. At least those are the titles it goes by on the Spanish-language cable channel Univision, which currently airs Cantinflas cartoons as part of a Saturday morning grab-bag called La Loca Pinata.

We know nothing about the background of these shorts, and aren’t even sure when they were made (the humor and general atmosphere suggests that they’re products of the early 1970s). Most of the films make some pretense at being vaguely educational: Cantinflas usually learns some facts about world history or culture, and often delivers a moral at cartoon’s end. The titles tend to be generic enough that you can figure them out without any knowledge of Spanish — “En El Japon,” “Romeo y Julia,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Madrid,” “Einstein,” and the like.

So are these films merely pedagogical little dramas? Far from it. The cartoon Cantinflas — an appealing, monkey-face little dude — smokes, chases girls, and drifts through history, usually with no visible means of support. Unlike his fellow time travelers Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Cantinflas is just there, with no explanation of just how he bounces from century to century and continent to continent (often more than once during the course of a single six-minute cartoon).

The cartoons’ Fleischer-like obsession with the female figure is perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic. Even when Cantinflas is busy learning about whatever country or century he finds himself in, he’s never too busy to flirt with anything in (or occasionally out of) a skirt. Abstraction of the feminine body tends toward a pipelike torso and plenty of cleavage; female faces are usually reduced to stylized, wide-eyed make-up and almost nothing else, like a Kewpie doll. There’s a fair amount of toplessness, tempered by absence of nipples.

As that suggests, these cartoons — like all the best ones — seem to have been made to tickle the funny bone of their own creators. It’s easy to imagine that they were popular with Mexican kids, but they never pander to an adult’s idea of what a child might find entertaining. And although they were presumably produced for whatever the Mexican equivalent of Saturday morning television is, they don’t have the mass-produced feel of nearly all U.S. TV animation — the artwork is limited but often quite lively, with loose, likable character designs. (Those of us without much knowledge of the Mexican cartooning tradition will probably be reminded of the work of Sergio Aragones.)

The cartoons we describe above might be deemed Cantinflas Classic. Others in the series – later ones, apparently — were produced by a couple of Yanquis known as Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, and if you’re familiar with any H-B product of the late 1970s and early 1980s, you can pretty much envision what they’re like. Cantinflas still looks more or less like himself, but both the comedian and the films have a tired look. There’s no raunchy humor, and the quirky artwork of the earlier films is replaced by standard-issue H-B character designs. It’s a little like the difference between an Otto Messmer Felix the Cat silent cartoon and a Joe Oriolo Felix of the 1960s.

Herewith, capsule reviews of four Cantinflas animated extravaganzas. Take note that Kip speaks only some Spanish, and Harry’s knowledge of the language is so rudimentary that he has trouble following Speedy Gonzales cartoons. Would we like these cartoons more or less if we always knew exactly what was going on? We may never know.

MUSEO ANTROPOLOGICO

Cantinflas watches as a female tour guide escorts a group of tourists through exhibits featuring the pre-Columbian history of his land, starting with stylized indios carving their stone gods. There’s a nudie cutie who seems to be modelling, but they ignore her: the natives carve gods, and Cantinflas idolizes himself. The tourists are duly impressed by the ancient gods, all except for an obvious Yankee who keeps saying “I don’t believe it.” Each time he does, Cantinflas gives the idol a “Lights, Camera: Action!” cue, and another whammy is put on the doubting gringo. It’s a mere inconvenience when a divine rain shrinks his clothes, but when the god of the dead reduces him to a skeleton, his doubtfulness becomes truly inexplicable. When he’s still unconvinced by a rain of fishes, the agriculture god pulls out the big weapon: _salsa picante_ on a taco turns the doubting skeleton into a flaming believer, and when he bows to the old gods, another rain restores him. His clothes are still shrunk: for humility? Cantinflas delivers some moral, but the real lesson here is: REVERE THE ANCIENT ONES! OR ELSE!

– K.W.

CLEOPATRA

The title barely hints at the ground this short epic covers: beginning in the fog of England, we see the start of the Suffragist movement, jumping ahead to the “mod” scene of London’s Carnaby Street where Cantinflas (here’s an archetypal 1960s joke) just can’t tell the girls from the boys, because they parade about in near-identical pairs. A brief detour to the Garden of Eden, where little big-nosed Adam succumbs to kewpie-cute (and naked) Eve’s apple while the angel is lighting his sword. Now we finally cut to Egypt, where Cleopatra, with an ultra-stylized birdish face that denotes ultimate femininity in this series, parades her beauty, and bathes (naked, of course) in leche de burra. Cantinflas drinks a little from an ewer, and sprouts big ears. Taking a break from Asterix, Julio Cesar enters and is promptly smitten with Cleo’s minimalist features. He woos her on a barge, scrubs her back in the bath, and gives her horsie rides until he collapses. It doesn’t take Sigmundo Freud to see why Caesar promptly sails away. His place is taken by Marco Antonio. Regretfully, my Spanish is not up to the task of translating the complex moral Cantinflas gives us, so I don’t know what I have learned from this cartoon, but it’s a real favorite of mine.

–K.W.

NAVIDAD

This holiday mini-special has it all: Music, merriment, tradition, tobacco products, and a much healthier dose of religion than you’d see in a stateside production. As Cantinflas trudges through the snow, Santa passes by; Cantinflas, mistaking him for a cab driver, hops a ride on his sleigh. We then segue into a series of Christmassy interludes starring Cantinflas and a troupe of toy-like, brightly garbed children — the general effect is one of Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride gone haywire. They chirp festive songs, bash open a pinata, and engage in the Mexican ritual of taking a figurine of the Virgin Mary from house to house, seeking shelter. An adorable, well-scrubbed Baby Jesus makes a cameo appearance; Cantinflas serenades him on the trumpet. Towards the end, Santa reappears to parcel out gifts to the boys and girls, so Cantinflas puts out the cigarette he’s been smoking and feigns goo-goo noises in order to get a present. The kids then form a choir to sing a snippet of the Hallelujah Chorus, and the cartoon closes with Cantinflas’s heartfelt, bilingual seasons’ greetings: “Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas, and Happy New York! (sic)”

–H.M.

SUPER AGENTE 777

Years before Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Cantinflas starred in his own racy James Bond parody. As the film opens in swinging London, our hero accidentally makes a pass at a kilted Scotsman. Next, he spots a couple of sexy British policewomen and introduces himself as a Mexican secret agent. Instantly swoony, the lady cops cry — in English — “Mexico! The land of romance!” and plaster him with smooches. (Except for that line, these British law enforcers speak mostly in what seems to be a mocking approximation of Cockney-accented Spanish.) From there on, the plot gets increasingly difficult to discern. Senor Flas and a ravishing, purple-haired female spy get sent to Paris, apparently on a mission to discover what happened to the Venus de Milo’s arms. They visit the Lido and the Louvre and discuss French culture and Greek art; one suspects that this is mostly an excuse to show dancing girls and topless statues. Eventually, Cantinflas finds Venus’s arms and reassembles her — it turns out that she’s swinging a baseball bat. The triumphant agent says something suggestive to his co-spy — just what, I’m not sure, but he assures her that it’s “muy carnale.” She responds by shouting “Darling!” and jumping him, and this confusing but amusing spoof irises out.

–H.M.

 

My Work, Elsewhere

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on anything like a regular basis–which means that it’s been a long time since I’ve reported on my doings, workwise. I think I forgot to mention that I joined the staff of TIME in 2012. I know I didn’t write about deciding to leave the staff of TIME in May of this year.

At the moment, I’m writing about technology for Technologizer–a site which I’m pretty sure will always be willing to have me, since I started it. But in less than three weeks, I’m starting a new job as technology editor for Fast Company, a magazine and website I’ve long admired. I’m pretty excited about it.

I also believe that I never formally mentioned that Scrappyland, which I started ten years ago and then let fester, is no longer festering. It’s now a blog, and while I don’t write there as much as I might in an ideal world, I’ve had lots and lots of things to say about Scrappy over the last couple of years, with more to come.

 

Jack Kirby Draws Jack Ruby

The May, 1967 issue of Esquire–this was during the period when it was edited by Harold Hayes and was probably the best magazine in the history of magazines–featured an article by Garry Wills and Ovid Demaris about Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald. That piece, published after Ruby’s death in January 1967, was complemented by something remarkable: “46 Hours and 36 Minutes in the Life of Jack Ruby,” a three-page comic strip beginning with Ruby learning of JFK’s assassination and ending with him shooting Oswald. The strip was written and drawn by Jack Kirby, inked by Chic Stone and annotated with references to the Warren Commission hearings.

Giving Kirby the assignment was a stroke of genius–despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it was so atypical. There’s virtually no action–the shooting of Oswald takes place in the next-to-last panel–and even though Esquire‘s pages were roughly twice as large as those of a comic book, everything is broken into tiny, cramped panels, each with a caption, and mostly depicting a scene in its entirety.

Ruby looks like a dissipated, angry version of Kirby’s later creation, Goody Rickels. He’s a small man who thinks he’s big, and other than brooding over the president’s assassination and killing Lee Harvey Oswald, he spends most of the three pages doing things such as ordering cold cuts, placing advertising for his club, going for a swim, demonstrating something called a “Twistaboard,” and having a Coke.

If you’re reading the story in 2014 and are familiar with the comics Kirby was drawing for Marvel in 1967, his association with heroic fantasy somehow makes the details of the crime depicted in “46 Hours and 36 Minutes in the Life of Jack Ruby” even more shockingly banal, and therefore more powerful. But it must have been potent stuff in 1967, even if you didn’t know who Jack Kirby was and were not a reader of Fantastic Four.

Anyhow, here’s the strip. It’s available elsewhere on the web, but I didn’t know about it until I happened to buy the issue at an antique store. It should be famous. Maybe it is, and I somehow didn’t know.

kirby1

kirby2

kirby3

 

The Noble Approach

What's Opera, Doc? art from The Noble Approach

First, an apology: It’s taken far too long for me to shower praise on The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design, by my friend Tod Polson. It’s not just the best animation book of 2013; it’s among the most memorable ones on the subject, period.

Back when I hung out with Maurice — from the early 1990s until a few days before his death in 2001 — he frequently talked about the book which he was going to write. He did provide notes behind which Tod drew on, but they weren’t anywhere near enough to complete the book. So Tod drew on his own deep knowledge of Maurice’s approach, which he learned as one of the young “Noble Boys” who worked with Maurice at Chuck Jones Productions and elsewhere in the 1990s. He also interviewed others who Noble mentored, and quotes extensively from interviews with Maurice (including, I’m honored to say, the one I did). Essentially, he put together a jigsaw puzzle for which Maurice had only left a few pieces behind. And it works.

Maurice NobleSo this book isn’t exactly the same one which Maurice would have written if he’d completed it, but that’s O.K. It’s wonderful. And some of what’s good about it likely wouldn’t have been part of a 100-percent Noble version, such as the biographical section near the start, which takes us from his youth through his work at Disney, Warner, and elsewhere all the way to his final years as an √©minence grise.

The book is presented as advice to those who wish to create animation, but it’s equally satisfying if all you’re looking is insight into what made Noble’s collaborations with Chuck Jones so special. For animation fans, it’s not necessarily even all that clear what a layout artist does; this book explains what Maurice did, and how it involved so much more than drawing backgrounds. His work helped set the mood; it influenced the humor and led to specific gags; it was a custom job each time, tailored to the needs of each film.

This is the best in-depth insider look ever published at how the Warner shorts were made from the perspective of someone who was there — it’s a far better read than Chuck Jones’ own Chuck Amuck and Chuck Reducks. And even though the book isn’t actually by Maurice, it does a perfect job of telling us what he did, and why.

Maurice had so many interests, and could talk entertainingly about so many subjects, that I spent surprisingly little time with him talking about animated cartoons. So for all the instances in which the book brought back pleasant memories, it also taught me things about his work which I didn’t know. For example, I wasn’t aware that he sometimes began by writing about what he hoped to accomplish with his layouts. The Noble Approach includes some of his longhand notes, as well as vintage photographs and a profusion of choice artwork from Warner and Disney as well as lesser-known stuff like his work on industrial films.

The Noble Approach is not the last book that anyone will ever need to write about Maurice Noble and his art. It’s a how-to which aims to put Maurice’s philosophies and techniques on paper, not an appraisal of his work. So it doesn’t explain why the best cartoons which Jones and Noble worked on together — mostly in the mid-1950s — or why, later on, even before the Warner studio closed, their partnership didn’t always result in magic.

It seems obvious to me that their work benefited from the tension present when both Jones and Noble were deeply and intellectually emotionally invested in a project; later on, when Jones handed over so much responsibility to Noble that Maurice sometimes got a co-director credit, Maurice’s designs no longer served to support the needs of a strong director, which is what he always said he was trying to do all along. When the most striking thing about a cartoon is the design, rather than the characters and storytelling — as is true of many later Jones/Noble films — something’s wrong. (The Dot and the Line is one exception, in part because it really was a tale told through design.)

Anyhow, objectivity was never the goal of this particular book. Tod has pulled off a spectacular feat. Reading this book made me smile in exactly the same way I did when I spent time with Maurice.

What’s Opera Doc? art at the top from The Noble Approach. Photo of Maurice Noble by me, taken in 2000 after we had lunch together in LA’s Chinatown; I think that’s Maurice’s leftovers in the bag he’s clutching.)

 

It’s a Dean Martin Marshmallow World Christmas

I’m not sure if this is my favorite song of the season, but as my wife will tell you, I never tire of hearing it. And Dean Martin apparently never tired of singing it — with Frank, with Beverly Sills, with girls in Santa suits, in front of a group of young people, and often while smoking…

BONUS MATERIAL

Two guys unknown to me channeling Dean and Frank:

And a somebody’s reconstruction of what it would have looked like if Darlene Love — whose version of the song remains definitive — had sung it on TV:

 

The Art of the Cartoon-Character QSL Card

I don’t know much about QSL cards, but I do know this: ham-radio operators have swapped them for many decades as a way of recording where their signals reach. The custom spread to CB radio, and cards with cartoony caricatures of the operators in question became popular. In some cases, the cards just used unauthorized versions of well-known characters. These are some of those cards. I believe they date from the 1970s.

Most of these were done by a person or organization known as Runnin Bare. I love ‘em — especially how they make everyone from Porky Pig to Blondie look kind of like a trucker.

card-porky2

card-porky

card-roadrunner''

card-daffy

card-donald

card-figaro

card-pinoke

card-huck

card-tramp

card-pebbles

card-magoo2

card-magoo3

card-magoo

card-woody

card-casper

card-annie

card-speedy

card-dagwood

card-abner2

card-abner

card-popeye

There seems to have been a long tradition of using famous characters on QSL cards — here, borrowed from an eBay auction, is a 1934 example.

card-mickey

 

The people of the 1980s, they were different from you and me. (I bought this photo at an antique store but have no idea what it depicts.)

Donkey Kong

 

Adam West, it turns out, isn’t as good a singer as Batman.

 

From the Nixon Agnew Committee’s Nixon Yearbook 1968.

nixon