A Good Hobbit Is Hard To Break. The November 1977 Rankin-Bass animated television special based on Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” had animation done by TopCraft (a Japanese company that later re-formed as Studio Ghibli). Writer Romeo Muller won a Peabody for his adaptation. Producer Arthur Rankin Jr. said at the time, “The response to the show speaks for itself. Romeo Muller who adapted the book did a spectacular job, giving us a beginning, a middle and an end and characters you can relate to. I believe we will satisfy even the most avid cultist. Tolkien provided excellent physical descriptions of the hobbits, elves and dragons that people his work and in every instance we have followed his descriptions to the letter….down to the color of a character’s beard or his belt buckle, the size of his sword, even to the laces on his shoes.”
Spider-Man’s Secret Identity. Did you know that in the book “Wired” about the life and death of John Belushi, author Bob Woodward revealed that actress/director Penny Marshall called Jeffrey Katzenberg “Spiderman” because of “his looks, his intensity and efficiency?”
Tom and Jerry Escape. In 1978, one hundred and thrity-seven Tom and Jerry cartoons were liberated from MGM’s vaults and were released to local television stations. Why weren’t they released earlier? “Management has always said, ‘Stay away from those; they’re classics’,” explained Ed Montanus, Senior Vice President of MGM-TV, “but financial considerations have a tendency to overcome emotional considerations.” As to the complaints of violence in the cartoons, Montanus responded, “I grew up with Tom and Jerry. I don’t think I’m demented. My kids aren’t demented. I think if we lose our sense of humor, we’ve had it.”
He-Man’s Secret Origin. Arthur Nadel, at one time Executive Vice President of Filmation, revealed the secret story behind their popular He-Man character. “The He-Man toys existed but there was no story about who He-Man was,” claimed Nadel. “We created the story that He-Man was a child of an American woman astronaut and a king who lived on another planet. She landed there, met the king, fell in love and was married. Prince Adam was their child.” (Remind me sometime to tell you the story of the live action game show pilot filmed at Filmation called “Origins” that dealt with the origin of words and phrases and used animation because I was a participant on that pilot and won. However, since the show never sold I never received my $10,000 just AFTRA scale. While I have copies of my appearances on game shows “The Gong Show”, “The Dating Game”, “Family Feud” and “Camoflague”, since the pilot never aired I do not have a copy of “Origins”.)
Tarzoon. In 1976, the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs brought a plagiarism suit against the animated French feature, “Tarzoon, Shame of the Jungle” (1975). A fifteen minute “pilot” had been shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974. Boris Szulzinger, co-director and head of Valisa Films, stated that “We say that our production is an original work in which there are elements of parody and that we did not use the Tarzan myth to make our animated film. Picha’s creations (Picha was a Belgian cartoonist and also the co-director/scenarist for the film) are sufficiently rich to prove that he has no need to steal other people’s ideas.” A French court did indeed determine it was a legitmate parody. In 1978, the film was imported into the United States by International Harmony and Stuart S. Shapiro and released with an “X” rating. After little success in theaters, it was re-edited to an “R” version with new dubbing from performers like Bill Murray, John Belushi, Christopher Guest and Johnny Weismuller Jr. in the lead role.
Terry Gilliam. In the mid 1970s animator Terry Gilliam explained how he developed his unique approach to animation. “I think one guy influenced me without knowing it was what’s-his-name? Is it Stan Brackage or Vanderbeak? I saw this one terrible underground cartoon he made. This was fifteen years ago. It was terrible. He was using all these bits of newspapers and clippings and cutouts, and there was this thing with Nixon talking a foot came out of his mouth, or he started eating his own foot or something. He put his foot in his mouth, anyway. I remember the fact that is was cut outs using just ‘found’ things and making it move. I think when I actually started doing some animation, that was the first thing I went to because I remembered it. It was great to work that way. You don’t have to do all that terrible Disney cel nonsense. I don’t like animation. It’s incredibly boring and tedious and anything I can do to short cut it is fine.”
Happy Apple. Frank Nissen, the director of animation for Nelvana’s “A Cosmic Christmas” (1977) stated in 1979, “Animators have a sense of whimsy. They can play with reality. They can make an apple falling out of a tree into an angry apple or a happy apple. They can make a dragon friendly or horrible. An animator can deal with things that go beyond reality, but it comes from observing life, and knowing how people express certain things—what they do when they’re sad, when they’re surprised and happy. Animators have to do their homework if they’re going to bring eloquence to their work. You may want to make a happy teacup dancing. You have to know dancing, happiness….and teacups.”
Where’s Flash Gordon? Between the 1930s Buster Crabbe serials (not-to-mention a short lived German TV show in the 1950s) and being revived by Filmation in 1979, Flash Gordon has been hard to find beyond his long-running comic strip. He appeared in one made-for-television animated hour, an ABC Saturday Superstar Movie The Man Who Hated Laughter (1972) which featured a plethora of King Features’ characters including Popeye and Flash Gordon. In fact, this was the first time that characters like Steve Canyon, The Phantom, Tim Tyler and Flash appeared in animation. Bob McFadden was the voice of all the male characters except Popeye and Wimpy (done by Jack Mercer). There was also a surrogate animated Flash Gordon in Tommytoons’ The Final Frontier (1975) that seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth. Of course, in Yellow Submarine, when Ringo and Fred pass through a hall of heroes, one of those heroes is Flash Gordon done in the style of the legendary artist, Al Williamson.