smoking holes illo

smoking holes illo

Monday, August 31, 2015

Classic Cartoon: UNDER THE COUNTER SPY (1954)

The cartoon opens with a very important message, that one would do well to bear in mind at all times:


In what begins as a parody of the popular TV series Dragnet, police detectives "Thursday" and "Al" are on spy detail... when they get a call, reporting a "498-PS" --sneaky enemy agent "The Bat" has stolen the top-secret experimental "Formula 7 3/8" from a government research lab. While evading the authorities under cover of night, The Bat reaches through the open window of a first-floor apartment and quickly stashes the ill-gotten prize on a nearby tabletop... right next to some health tonic, housed in a bottle of identical size and shape. When the threat of capture quickly passes, The Bat accidentally retrieves the wrong bottle and flees.

The next morning, a sickly-green Woody Woodpecker is barely able to muster enough strength to drag his pathetic carcass out of bed. Guess it's time to take some of his tonic! Unaware of the shenanigans that took place while he was asleep, Woody gulps down what is actually Formula 7 3/8, and suddenly gains Hercules-level physical power! After a series of "doesn't-know-his-own-strength" sight gags and superheroic feats, Woody learns that the formula's effects are temporary. 

"Tonight's episode: "D'oh!" is the Door Prize..."
"Hulk SASH!!!"
"Aw, crap! To fix this, I guess I'm gonna have to prop the rest of the building up on stilts!"
"Ah, here comes that intolerable jerk, Baby Huey... I'll settle his hash!"

He also sees a TV news report about The Bat, which also clears up why his health tonic is suddenly so ridiculously effective. Like any good law-abiding citizen, Woody tries to return the stolen formula to the authorities... but The Bat has other ideas. The malefactor sets up a false route that takes the bird, instead, to The Bat's secret hideout, inside a creepy mansion... 

Woody seems a bit unsure as to whether this is indeed the British Film Institute...

Great stuff! The Dragnet material is pretty funny, parodying the original, 1950s incarnation of the popular TV series, although the "enemy spy" plot derives more from Cold War-oriented programs, like I Led Three Lives (1953-56) and the film (and subsequent radio series) which inspired it, I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951). I love how (Joe) "Thursday" is so laconic --slouching in his swivel chair, hands in his pockets, his feet propped up on his desk-- that he answers the office phone with his foot.

The character designs and backgrounds are quite nice, if a bit more prosaic and spare than what was typically seen in the Woody Woodpecker cartoons of the 1940s. I particularly like the silhouette design of The Bat; simple and cartoony, yet menacing. He truly takes his moniker to heart. What really sells the cartoon, however, is the animation, which is very smooth, expressive and funny, overcoming any deficiencies in the toned-down, "cuter" Woody design (which was underway a few years before this particular short was made), or the somewhat-crude look of some of the minor human characters Woody interacts with in the film. On the flip side, the intentionally-limited animation of Dragnet surrogates, Thursday and Al, effectively satirizes the deliberately stiff, straightforward style of Jack Webb's TV show.

Walter Lantz
While never quite up to the level of the best of Warner Bros' Looney Tunes output, the cartoon studio of animation pioneer Walter Lantz --which began in 1929 (around the time the earliest Looney Tunes commenced) and ended as one of the very last shorts-oriented animation factories in 1972-- had a pretty good run, up to the mid-1950s. During Lantz studio's "golden" period of the 1940s and early 1950s, you can attribute most of the superior work to four animation directors in Lantz's employ: James "Shamus" Culhane (a very talented animator, who'd worked during prime periods at Fleischer, Ub Iwerks' studio, Disney and a brief stint at Warner Bros), Dick Lundy (another Disney veteran, who'd later move to MGM), Tex Avery (a short run of four cartoons, made after his successful years at both Warner Bros and MGM) and the least-recognized of the bunch, Don Patterson, the director of Under the Counter Spy.

Don Patterson, found in a detail of a large group photo of Charles Mintz Studio animation staff, circa 1933.

Don Patterson (1909-1988) began as part of the animation staff at the Charles Mintz studio, along with his younger brother, the equally-great animator Ray Patterson, working anonymously on Krazy Kat, Scrappy and various other cartoons that were distributed by Columbia Pictures. In the late 1930s, Don was hired by Disney, animating on shorts (Boat Builders, Mickey's Trailer, The Brave Little Tailor, Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (all 1938), Donald's Garden (1942))  and features (Fantasia (1940, assisting with the Pterodactyls swooping in "The Rite of Spring", animating a torrent of ghosts and ghouls in "A Night on Bald Mountain"), Pinocchio (1941), Dumbo (1941), The Three Caballeros (1944)), moved to MGM (Tom & Jerry, Barney Bear), before going to work for Walter Lantz, where he animated on a batch of cartoons directed by Lantz himself, before rising to the position of animation director on 15 shorts, beginning with The Great Who-Dood-It in 1952, and was also responsible for the studio's only cartoon short to be filmed in 3D, Hypnotic Hick (1953). When director Tex Avery arrived at Lantz from MGM, Patterson shifted back to animator to work on Avery's quartet of shorts, and remained in that role for the remainder of his tenure at Lantz's studio, animating for directors Paul J. Smith and Alex Lovy. He also did some TV commercial work for Lantz, such as animating this energetic commercial for Kellogg's Rice Krispies:

(Credit the great cartoonist/animator, Mike Kazaleh, for  identifying Patterson as this 
commercial's primary artist. His eagle-eye for pinpointing who in the classic-era cartoon
world animated what, particularly in regards to vintage TV commercials, is semi-regularly
on display at Jerry Beck's amazing Cartoon Research blogsite. He and his peers there
have forgotten more about classic animation than you and I will ever learn.)

Here's a nice sampling of some of Don Patterson's theatrical animation work from the late-1930s through the mid-1950s, at Lantz, MGM and Disney, prior to his long TV career at Hanna-Barbera (where he animated for Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick-Draw McGraw, The Flintstones, Jonny Quest, etc, from 1959 to 1988):

Lantz probably would've had a much stronger legacy of cartoons through the balance of the 1950s, had Patterson remained as director. Instead, we got a few decent early cartoons from Lantz workhorse Paul J. Smith (himself an extremely skilled animator, but who proved to be a largely lackluster, though prolific, director) and some handsome work from Alex Lovy, who had previously guided several cartoons for Lantz from 1938-1943 (including the debut shorts of Lantz stars Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker). Before long, though, the general Lantz output became, with few exceptions, cheaper and less-inspired; essentially the same sort of bland, cookie-cutter approach taken by Hanna-Barbera on most of its TV fare a few years later, albeit with some fuller, more fluid animation. In fact, Lantz became something of a way station for theatrical animators eventually transitioning to TV work at the Hanna-Barbera cartoon factory. Patterson's films were a sort of "last hurrah" of the Lantz studio's near-greatness.

Homer Brightman
Story and gag-man Homer Brightman (1901-1988), like Patterson, spent the mid-1930s through the 1940s at Disney, beginning with devising gags for the Mickey Mouse-Donald Duck-Pluto short, Alpine Climbers (1936), and eventually contributing story and gag input to Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), the "Casey at the Bat" segment of Make Mine Music (1946), "Mickey and the Beanstalk" from Fun and Fancy Free (1947), "The Wind in the Willows" half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) and Cinderella (1950). In the 1980s, Brightman wrote a book (which I haven't read) about his Disney experiences, Life in the Mouse House, which was eventually published, posthumously, in 2014 by Theme Park Press.

 He's credited with stories/gags for 10 of Patterson's films at Lantz, and continued at the studio through the 1960s, while also doing some work at MGM in the late 1950s, for director Michael Lah's unit, making the last batch of theatrical shorts starring Tex Avery's Droopy, including the Oscar-nominated One Droopy Knight (1957). For television, he wrote for UPA's Dick Tracy (1961), the animated Bozo the Clown (1962), The New Three Stooges (1965), and the DePatie-Freleng superhero spoof, The Super Six (1966). Brightman once got to appear on TV himself, on the Walter Lantz-hosted Woody Woodpecker Show, showing young viewers a storyboard pitch for one of the Woody cartoons he wrote, To Catch a Woodpecker (1957), directed by Alex Lovy:

Helping Patterson and Brightman bring this cartoon to life was a team of three lead animators:

Ray Abrams (1906-?) started animating at Disney in 1927, as an in-betweener on the new Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts that Disney and animator Ub Iwerks were making for Universal, and was among the staff who were subsequently lured away from Disney by producer Charles Mintz, who took possession of Oswald, and formed a new animation company to make them. Mintz was soon ousted by Universal, and the unit was given to Walter Lantz, for whom Abrams worked steadily through the late 1930s. He moved to MGM in 1940 to animate on a couple of Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising shorts, before joining Tex Avery's new MGM cartoon unit, and staying there through most of the 1940s, helping to animate some of the greatest cartoons ever made, such as Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), Who Killed Who? (1943), Northwest Hounded Police (1946) and King-Size Canary (1947). Toward the end of his time at MGM, Abrams (along with Don Patterson) helped animate a trio of good Barney Bear shorts co-directed by Preston Blair and Michael Lah: The Bear and the Bean (1948), The Bear and the Hare (1948) and Goggle Fishing Bear (1949). Abrams returned to Lantz in 1951, and worked steadily at the studio through 1965. From there, he joined Hanna-Barbera, working for them from the mid-1960s through the 1970s on such kiddie fare as Secret Squirrel, Frankenstein, Jr. & The Impossibles, The Herculoids, The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of GulliverScooby Doo, Where Are You?, The Cattanooga Cats, Scooby's Laff-A-Lympics and Captain Caveman.

Herman Cohen
Herman Cohen (1905-1988) began at the Fleischer Studios in New York City in the mid-1930s, on shorts like the Betty Boop cartoon, Judge for a Day (1935), then headed west to join Warner Bros in 1938, animating for directing team of Bugs Hardaway & Cal Dalton, and then for Friz Freleng, including the live-action/animated Porky Pig short, You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940). After the war, he was part of WB director Arthur Davis' unit, and joined Robert McKimson's stable of animators (mainly focusing on Daffy Duck and Foghorn Leghorn cartoons) when the Davis unit was dissolved. Between 1953 and 1955, Cohen alternated between Warner's and Lantz, which included his time working on Under the Counter Spy and other Don Patterson cartoons, before working full-time at Lantz in 1956. As with Homer Brightman, Cohen shifted over to the MGM cartoon department in 1957-58, animating for some of the last of the Hanna-Barbera Tom & Jerry cartoons, and the post-Tex Avery Droopy shorts directed by Michael Lah. He also animated several TV commercials, and joined the crew at UPA on their Mister Magoo feature film, 1001 Arabian Nights (1959). Subsequent TV work included animating for Jay Ward's Dudley Do-Right, a few Fractured Fairy Tales and George of the Jungle, a couple of episodes of UPA's The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas (plus a few more specials) and the theatrical feature A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), Krantz Films' Spider-Man, The Super Six and some Pink Panther theatrical shorts in 1968-69 for DePatie-Freleng, and a brief period at Filmation, animating Archie's TV Funhouse, Sabrina & The Groovie Ghoulies and Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down.

Ken Southworth
British-born Ken Southworth (1918-2007) started his professional animation career at Disney, assisting the lead animators on several cartoon shorts, as well as on the features The Three Caballeros (1944), Song of the South (1946), "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" portion of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella (1950) and Alice in Wonderland (1951).  He joined the Patterson unit at Lantz in 1953, and like Homer Brightman and Herman Cohen, moved to MGM in 1957, to work on some later Tom & Jerry shorts and the Michael Lah Droopy shorts. After animating for the notoriously awful TV cartoon series, Bucky and Pepito (1959), Southworth made the natural transition to Hanna-Barbera from 1961-on (Huck, Yogi, The Flintstones, Jonny Quest, Atom, Ant, Secret Squirrel, Space Ghost, Scooby Doo, The Harlem Globetrotters, Where's Huddles?, The Roman Holidays, Jabberjaw, Super Friends, Godzilla, Trollkins, The Smurfs, The Pirates of Dark Water, etc), plus DePatie-Freleng's The Super Six, the indie animated feature Shinbone Alley (1971), and some assorted Filmation work (Fantastic Voyage, Archie, He-Man, She-Ra, Ghostbusters, the feature film Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987), storyboarding for the Star Trek animated series, etc), remaining very active in TV animation, well into the 1990s. He was also known as an animation instructor, both in-house at Hanna-Barbera, and elsewhere. Here's a nice remembrance of Southworth from a friend, animator Ken Priebe.

Raymond Jacobs
Background/layout artist Raymond Jacobs (1906-2013) also began at Disney, moving to California from New York in 1937. He began learning animation on the job there, working anonymously on the "soup" and "building a bed" scenes that were ultimately deleted from the final release of Snow White (1937), onward through Fantasia (1940) and Disney's other early features, expanding to focus on background art and animation layout, eventually working on many instructional and propaganda films for the U.S. armed forced during World War II. Post-war, he alternated between the Disney and Walter Lantz studios throughout the 1950s. At Lantz, he was usually credited with "Set Design", though also sometimes as "Background Artist". From 1960 onward, Jacobs worked in TV animation, first providing layout (and some stories) for King Features'/Al Brodax Popeye cartoons, a lot of 1960s work for Filmation (Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Groovie Ghoulies, Archie's TV Funnies) and Ken Snyder's Hot Wheels show, before settling in at Hanna-Barbera (Scooby Doo, Super Friends, These Are the Days, The New Tom & Jerry Show, Jabberjaw, Dynomutt, Godzilla, The Smurfs, etc), where he continued until retirement in the mid-1980s.

Jacobs' collaborator on the backgrounds for this short, Art Landy (1909-1977), followed a similar career path, starting at Disney in the late 1930s, and moving to Lantz in the early 1950s. Unlike Jacobs, however, Landy stuck largely to theatricals, retiring from the business in the late 1960s. Here are a few examples of his paintings, done outside of his animation work.

Dallas McKennon
Actor Dallas McKennon (1919-2009) does some uncredited voice work here, doing the heavy lifting as both Thursday and Al, and as Woody's quasi-inner voice/narrator. According to his own, autobiographical story, McKennon began (after some local Portland, Oregon TV work) as a live-action film extra, as a result of an on-location casting call for the Anthony Mann western, Bend of the River (1952), which ultimately scored him a short dialogue scene with the film's star, James Stewart. Through some fortuitous networking, McKennon ended up doing his first cartoon voice work for Walt Disney soon afterward (and he would do a lot of it, including a lot of work for Disneyland park attractions), as well as a plethora of voices for Walter Lantz.

Later, McKennon would be the voice of Gumby (from the 1960s, onward, as well as Pokey, Prickle, and others), Filmation's Archie (and Mr. Weatherbee), Q.T. Hush (and his dog, Shamus), both Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse, etc. He was also (uncredited) the movie theater projectionist attacked by William Castle's The Tingler (1959). and the short order cook who, with Tippi Hedren and other onlookers, yells out to warn the ill-fated smoker about the flow of gasoline pooling at his feet in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). McKennon was seen a lot on live-action TV, as well: first as kid show host Captain Jet on Los Angeles TV in the early 1950s; a part on the 1953 Dragnet episode, "The Big Lover"; appearances on a few popular '60s sitcoms (My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, My Favorite Martian) and dramas (The Untouchables, Ben Casey, a recurring part as Medical Examiner Dr. Tom Blaney on 87th Precinct); and particularly in westerns (Gunsmoke, Sugarfoot, Colt .45, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Big Valley, The Rifleman, The Virginian, many others), including a regular role as "Cincinnatus" on Daniel Boone.

Grace Stafford
Grace Stafford (1903-1992), wife of Walter Lantz, provides Woody's trademark laugh. Otherwise, in this and some of the other Patterson-directed shorts (and several that Lantz himself directed, just prior to Patterson's arrival), Woody is largely a mute, pantomime character, though Stafford's newly-minted Woody voice would be heard more and more often, and was the voice for the character until the 1980s. She first spoke as the famous cartoon bird in the animated segment of Woody demonstrating the principles of rocket travel in George Pal's feature, Destination Moon (1950), which kicked off the 1950s sci-fi movie craze. Prior to this, she performed in several of her husband's earlier cartoons, including Andy Panda in Meatless Tuesday (1943) and Andy's girlfriend, Miranda, in Scrappy Birthday (1949). Before she met Lantz, she was an actress in live-action films, such as Dr. Socrates (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936) and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Incidentally, Stafford's first husband was film actor Tom Keene (a.k.a. Richard Powers, a.k.a. Geroge Duryea), who had starred in King Vidor's Our Daily Bread (1934), many B westerns, and later played his final screen role, as military man Col. Edwards, in Ed Wood's cult classic, Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959).

Clarence Wheeler (1885-1966) got his start in radio in the early 1930s, as orchestra leader and music director for Chicago's WBBM. Moving to Hollywood, he began composing for animated shorts, beginning with a trio of latter-day Ub Iwerks shorts in 1938 (Beauty Shoppe, Baby Checkers and A Busy Day) starring Gran-Pop Monkey, and leading to some of Columbia Studios' Color Rhapsodies cartoons, as well as an experiment, in a form of a couple animated newsreels: Broken Treaties (1941) and How War Came (1941). Wheeler then graduated to scoring some live-action features, albeit programmers for the low-budget Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in the early 1940s, such as Dangerous Lady (1941), The Miracle Kid (1941) and Too Many Women (1942), as well as the Shirley Temple feature, Miss Andy Rooney (1942, famous for featuring Miss Temple's first screen kiss) for indie producer Edward Small, and work on a couple of Columbia's Blondie series, Blondie's Holiday (1947) and Blondie's Anniversary (1947). During this time, Wheeler was tapped by producer George Pal to provide music for some of his Puppetoon shorts at Paramount, mainly those involving Pal's character Jasper, though also the highly-regarded John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946) and Together in the Weather (1946). He also scored Hugh Harmon's lavish cartoon sales film short, Easy Does It (1946) for Stokely Van Camp Foods, a couple of the short-lived Jerky Journeys cartoon travelogue-spoof shorts for Republic, and the theme music for the first (barely) animated cartoon series made for television, the original Crusader Rabbit, in 1948-49. He then joined Walter Lantz in 1951, and remained there until his death in 1966.

If you poke around the major streaming services, you might have a decent chance at running across Under the Counter Spy, but in lieu of that, here are some further entertaining screen shots from it:

"Be sure not to miss our next exciting episode, 'Love Me or Cleave Me' ~ or ~ 'Bye Bye Birdie'!"
Jack Webb in Decline and Fall... of a Birdwatcher (1968)
"Brainnnnnnssssss... morrrre brainnnnnnnsssss..."
"Dammit, WHY do my hands always suddenly fuse together to form a volatile high-explosive at the least-opportune times?!?"
"Cripes! They take Palm Sunday seriously around here!"
The terms of their divorce settlement were extreme, to say the least...
"Oh no! The Bat's a SCANNER!!!"
Framed for a crime he's ABOUT TO commit...
Woody finds out what happens when he succeeds in angering the Magic 8-Ball...
"Thanks for delivering the laxative, son... we couldn't have held out much longer."
Woody is serenely oblivious to his lewd visual metaphor...
The latest sharp drop on Wall Street nearly left Woody flat broke!
Plagued by low self-esteem issues, Woody seeks solace in self-actualizing signage.
"You're quite right, Mini-Me... once again, I stupidly  forgot to align my molecular structure with that of the wall!"

I first saw the cartoon as part of the regular Woody Woodpecker cartoon package that circulated on local TV stations into the late-1970s/early-1980s. They were repackaged for syndication in 1987, with a newly-animated show intro, but the opening credits for the original cartoons were edited out and the prints used were, by and large, substandard. By the early 1990s, the vintage antics of Woody, Chilly Willy, Andy Panda and the rest of the Walter Lantz cast of characters had disappeared from most TV markets in the U.S. The last I saw of them was in a brief run (less than a year) of the 1987 package on Cartoon Network in the mid/late-1990s, then still in its classics-focused early days. I would guess at least a generation or two has little-to-no knowledge of Lantz or his characters, other than perhaps a vague recognition of Woody from T-shirts, or from the barely-shown-in-the-U.S. revival of new made-for-TV cartoons in 1999 (really nice intro sequence animation there, by the way).

Fortunately, Under the Counter Spy, as well as all but one of Don Patterson's 14 Woody Woodpecker cartoons, can be found on DVD in the 3-disc Woody Woodpecker & Friends Classic Cartoon Collection - Vol. 2; Patterson's first, The Great Who Dood It (1952), is included in Vol. 1. Both collections are still widely available (and relatively inexpensive) through the usual online vendors. His final directorial effort at Lantz, the one-shot cartoon, Flea for Two (1955), only got a DVD release via Vol. 10 of the long out-of-print Columbia House series, Woody Woodpecker & Friends in 2002, and was only available for purchase as part of their "book-of-the-month club" subscription format.

The cartoon closes with a funny parody of the famous Mark VII logo that closed every Dragnet show: