Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Guilty Pleasure

A guilty pleasure is something that's not good (or good for you) but that you like anyway. I have to admit that early Van Beuren sound cartoons are a guilty pleasure of mine. No one would compare them to the animation produced by the best of American studios, but they are the definition of the word "quirky." While occasionally, there are well drawn or animated scenes, the majority of them are clumsy, but they are clumsy in a way that provokes amazement, disbelief and most of all, laughter.

Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean Animation has now collected the complete Van Beuren Tom and Jerry. These are not the cat and mouse cartoons that most associate with the character names, they are a human, Mutt and Jeff-like pair who starred in cartoons from 1931 to 1933. Because of the name confusion, when the cartoons were released to the home movie market, they were renamed Dick and Larry. The Van Beuren studio went out of business in 1936, so the cartoons became orphans and slipped into the public domain. They have suffered from endless duping, editing and retitling until Stanchfield began restoring them.

What makes these crude cartoons entertaining is their randomness. There is little logic in the cartoons from 1931 and '32 especially. Characters do things without reason, so you never know what's going to happen next. Tom and Jerry are barely developed. They seem to have different voices in every cartoon and their personalities and relationships are perfunctory at best. Often, they seem to be bystanders in their own cartoons, watching other characters carry the story and action.

However, the cartoons are driven by Gene Rodemich's jazz soundtracks and the animation, though weightless, is funny. These characters and cartoons are not believable in any sense of the word, but they amuse me. Animation is one of the least spontaneous art forms, requiring enormous planning. These cartoons come closer to being spontaneous than any others I can think of; many appear to be made up drawing by drawing, with no thought to what comes next.

Why, in Barnyard Bunk (embedded below) is there a skeleton in the outhouse? Why do ducks hatch from chicken eggs? What strange compulsion drives the mouse with the "Danger" sign? Does it matter? The walk cycles and dancing in this cartoon are ludicrous, but they make me laugh. These days, animation is either overly refined (see just about any recent feature) or barely expressive (see any recent TV animation). Funny movement seems to be a forgotten art. (Wait a minute. I'm sounding like John K. here...) When Grim Natwick said that many a cartoon was saved by a funny walk, he could have been talking about these.

And these cartoons may have been more influential than they are credited for. The cartoon Rabid Hunters looks like a warm-up for Porky's Hare Hunt, the first proto-Bugs Bunny cartoon. The Haunted Ship (one of four Waffles and Don cartoons on the set as a bonus) contains a quartet of drunk turtles singing "Sweet Adeline," and I have to wonder if that influenced Tex Avery's drunken fish singing "Moonlight Bay" in Porky's Duck Hunt.

Steve Stanchfield has searched for years to find the best prints of these cartoons, going to great lengths to restore original titles and missing footage. The gem on this set is a beautiful copy of A Swiss Trick, transferred from a 35mm original. This two disk collection contains every Tom and Jerry cartoon, liner notes and rare publicity artwork. No one but Stanchfield would have gone to the lengths he has to show off these cartoons.

This is not the first time he's laboured to revive the Van Beuren cartoons. He's also compiled the complete Cubby Bear, the complete Little King and a set of Toddle Tales and Rainbow Parade cartoons from that studio. Stanchfield has also put together sets of TV commercials, World War II propaganda films and various other collections. You can order Thunderbean collections here. I recommend them all.

If you're not familiar with Tom and Jerry, enjoy Barnyard Bunk below. The copy on the DVD set is better than this version I took from YouTube.

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