smoking holes illo

smoking holes illo

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Classic Cartoon: SPOOKS (1932)

Anthropomorphic amphibian Flip the Frog, braving a stormy night on horseback, seeks refuge in a creepy old house haunted by a bunch of living skeletons. After enduring enjoying their gracious hospitality, Flip is (literally) sized-up by his skeletal host, who decides to add him to their permanent collection...

I love this cartoon. Stylistically, it's something of a happy medium between the sunny, happy-go-lucky, increasingly-slick work being done by fellow Hollywood cartoon factories Disney (which was focusing on Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies at this time) and Warner Brothers (via Leon Schlesinger, back when the studio's lone cartoon star was Bosko the Talk-ink Kid, years before the debuts of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny) --and the darker, earthier and more surreal cartoons of New York-based Fleischer Studios (home of Betty Boop, silent-era cartoon star Koko the Clown, and --in another couple of years-- Popeye). While not as out-and-out funny as the best early sound cartoons from Fleischer (which, for my money, made the most consistently-entertaining cartoons of the silent and early-sound era), Spooks, infused throughout with its own brand of macabre goofiness, comes pretty darn close. Design-wise, everything looks really good, and while Flip doesn't have a particularly strong personality (he basically just reacts to things), he and his macabre surroundings have an overall jaunty charm.

Best known as Walt Disney's creative right-hand man in the early days of the studio, Ub Iwerks worked as the studio's top animator from their first silent cartoons through the initial transition to talkies, creating the look of Mickey Mouse, and animating several shorts, including Plane Crazy (1928), Steamboat Willie (1928) and The Skeleton Dance (1928), essentially alone. However, Iwerks wanted some autonomy, so took an offer from money man Pat Powers and left Disney to form his own studio, producing cartoon shorts that were distributed by MGM (and later, independently).

From 1930-36 (plus another couple of years as an independent contractor), he animated and/or supervised the shorts produced by his small studio... as well as doing some mechanical tinkering, which resulted in his invention of the first multi-plane animation camera. He assembled a small but very impressive group of animation talent, including  Fleischer Studios greats Grim Natwick (creator of Betty Boop), Al Eugster, Berny Wolf and James 'Shamus' Culhane (later director of some of the very best Woody Woodpecker cartoons for Walter Lantz in the 1940s), up-and-comer Irv Spence (later a top animator at MGM in the 1940s-50s and at Hanna-Barbera afterward), as well as future Looney Tunes heavy-hitters Frank Tashlin, Ben 'Bugs' Hardaway, music composer Carl Stalling, and a young, wet-behind-the-ears Chuck Jones, long before he started directing. Unfortunately, Iwerks was less interested in developing strong characters and stories than he was with the technical end of things, so his studio ultimately faltered after a few years, and he eventually went back to work for Walt Disney. Well worth your time is the feature-length documentary, The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story (1999), which covers his interesting life and career in some depth.

Growing up, the Flip the Frog series, and the other Iwerks Studio cartoons, were largely unknown to me. This is probably due to the fact that they were no longer part of MGM's cartoon library --in effect, "orphaned" films-- and with a good chunk of them being filmed in black & white, they were of less interest to the people programming children's television in the U.S. during the 1970s. My first taste of Iwerks was the color one-shot, Balloon Land (1935), which got shown in the early 1980s on both Matinee at the Bijou on PBS and the cult film showcase, Night Flight, on USA Network. Around that same time, I found Leonard Maltin's still-indispensable book, Of Mice and Magic: A History of  American Animated Cartoons, in my high school library, which had a chapter on the Iwerks Studio, with a bunch of tantalizing stills from various shorts. It would still be several years before I finally got to see (via DVD) more than just a couple of these cartoons, or any of those starring their would-be star characters, Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper, but they were worth the wait. Check out all these wonderfully crazy, cartoony drawings from Spooks!

"Many toons enter... this evil house... but few depart aliiiive!"
"I'm Tom Bone-debt for Motel Styx, and we'll leave the fright on for ya!"
"Soon you will come to knowwww... when the pullet fits the bone..."
Dance, Kate Moss, dance!
Tour Neverland Ranch!
"Sure, I'm impressed, but I still don't understand... why do you call this the 'Stairway to Heaven'?"
"Clara Bow's in there? Really?"

Now that you've gotten a taste, why not indulge fully:

YouTube and other streaming sources are all well and good, but if you're like me (as frightening a concept as that might seem), having a hard copy of "the good stuff" is optimal, or at least a download, for that day when streaming licenses run out or so-and-so's YouTube account gets taken down. Image Entertainment released two volumes of Ub Iwerks shorts, as part of Blackhawk Films' Cartoons That Time Forgot series, though way back in 1999, during the early days of DVD. Spooks, and the other Flip the Frog shorts were part of The Ub Iwerks Collection Volume 2. Unfortunately, the discs are out-of-print these days, though Amazon offers downloads for purchase, and the old discs themselves can still be found used at Amazon Marketplace, eBay and similar venues (fairly expensive, but sometimes a good deal can still be found).

Rest assured, we haven't seen the last of Iwerksville...

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