The 1966-67 season marked the end of an era.
It would be the last season since 1916-17 – starting with Bray’s Paramount Pictograph – that Paramount would regularly release a series of cartoon shorts to movie theaters. It would be the end of the line with their association with Max Fleischer’s former studio, an exclusive distribution arrangement that started in 1927-28.
The Paramount in-house studio in 1966 was a remnant of that Fleischer operation, the last strands of Famous Studios… animators Al Eugster, Nick Tafuri and Morey Reden, the last bits of glue to that earlier era.
Shamus Culhane, himself an animator at Fleischers in the early 30s, a directing animator on Mr. Bug and Fleischer’s Popeye in the early 40s, was now steering the ship. To his credit, there are a handful of films – a last gasp – that were noble efforts to achieve something of quality. Unfortunately, an uncaring parent studio and the economics of the changing industry were against him. But at least he had a little fun.
First off, Culhane made some pleasing changes to the existing Honey Halfwitch series. Shari Lewis was now gone, and a real little girl (identity unknown) takes over the voicing. Instead of an enchanted forest, Honey and her cousin Maggie now live in a house atop a skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan. Dante Barbetta, Dave Uninas and Howard Beckerman did a pleasing re-design of the characters and settings. Howard Post is still credited for the stories, and even these are more creative than the previous entries. A child-drawing “Paper Witch” comes to life in one, a magic broom goes berserk in another, Honey concocts private rain clouds – These shorts held potential and proved that Culhane could sustain a regular character if given “half” a chance.
Culhane was determined to break with the past and to that end he created three new “series” of shorts. It’s hard to see what exactly differentiates the trio, none of them lasted long – but at a glance it seems the “Fractured Fables” were initially planned to be the series of children’s POV shorts – drawn in child scrawl, narrated by a little boy; The “Merry Makers” were perhaps to house the character series – Hard Hat and Fall Guy, Bosco and Buddy Boy, et al; and the “Go-Go Toons” to present miscellaneous ideas and new experiments.
The first of the Culhane Fractured Fables was a perhaps the biggest success the director achieved at his studio. Apparently the short actually made a profit for the studio, and Culhane declarers it, in his book, “…one of the best pictures I ever produced”! My Daddy The Astronaut is a delightful little film – exactly the kind of “product” Culhane was striving for his new Paramount Studio to turn out. He followed it up with two sequels before his time was up.
In the few existent Culhane Go-Go Toons its clear these films were aimed at modern audiences and he wanted this series to satirize contemporary ideas. But first, Culhane tried to cash-in on the current (1966-67) Superhero/nostalgia fad with The Space Squid. At present, no print of this cartoon is known to exist, but based on a long forgotten interview with Culhane – and the existing musical cue sheet (below) – the cartoon was a space adventure, supposedly done straight. Perhaps Culhane recalled the Fleischer’ Superman cartoons in production when he worked there in the 1940s and was trying a 60s re-vamp. The cue sheet (below) promises giant squid, an Octo-Man, rockets and a “Space Command”. Sounds good to me.
The Plumber is the stand-out here. A simple idea, in pantomime, with designs by Cliff Roberts and Howard Beckerman, the film is a little fable of rags to riches to rags. Well told, visually delightful. I own a Technicolor print myself, and the color really dazzles in this film – Television broadcast and You Tube viewings don’t do it justice.
Keep The Cool, Baby was probably a title they handed to the sales department as an example of the kind of contemporary feel they hoped the cartoons would evoke. This film, in particular, is far from the hippie spectacular one might hope for (that would come a few months later in Bakshi’s Marvin Digs) – this one is an old-fashioned comedy about a spider having a hard time catching his prey. The story was concocted by Culhane and Ruth Kneitel (Seymour’s widow and Max Fleischer’s daughter) – and the graphics, both character design and backdrops, are aesthetically pleasing in a modern vogue.
The “Merry Makers” series seems to be for “character” films. Bosco (the elephant) and Buddy Boy (a fox) star in two entries – the first, Think Or Sink, with a story by Jim Tyer (originally written for a Flebus comic book story, published in a Pines Publications Terrytoon comic book ten years earlier) is strikingly contemporary in character design (by Hal Silvermintz) and tone. The film was even submitted and accepted into competition at the International Annecy Animation Festival that year.
Culhane was also quite proud of obtaining outside work for his studio – subcontracting the Marvel Super Hero cartoons of Thor from Grantray-Lawrence and producer Steve Krantz. If you look carefully, an occasional “Pow!”, “Bam!” sound effect visual in the late Paramount theatricals were reused from the Thor cartoons.With the super hero craze in full bloom, Culhane recruited pitches from noted Marvel Comics creator Jim Steranko (as outlined in Jim Korkis’ Animation Anecdotes #130):
(Jim Steranko) “was briefly going to have an animated series called “Super Agent X” produced at Paramount. “It was one of the presentations I gave them for a series and it was going to be produced but then Paramount cartoon studios (in New York) folded up right at the critical point and the series was just killed, along with many other projects that I had there. I had a number of shows like ‘Johnny and the Genii’. Oh, I don’t know. There were many,” said Steranko.
Gulf and Western (a manufacturing conglomerate) bought Paramount Pictures in October 1966, and the company suits spent 1967 thoroughly going over the company – and found little need for an animation studio. The profits were just not there. According to Culhane’s autobiography, Shamus put up a vigorous defense for keeping the studio – but the handwriting was on the wall. He resigned (or was fired, as some accounts have it) at the height of the summer of love – joining Steve Krantz (producer of the Thor cartoons) as executive producer on the syndicated Rocket Robin Hood.
Culhane compared his tenure at Paramount to what Frank Tashlin did at Screen Gems in the 1940s and what Gene Deitch did at Terrytoons in the 1950s. I would agree with that assessment. Each one was a unique moment in Hollywood Studio animation history, when a somewhat-creative visionary took the reigns of a studio operation and pursued new ideas, allowed talent to flourish, and pushed some artistic experimentation over established commercial considerations.I tend to believe Culhane’s account of having resigned the studio before it completely closed. The studio still had to honor its contractual commitment to the theatre exhibitors for the advertised seven Go-Go Toons and six Fractured Fables before closing the doors. Word of Culhane’s departure spread among the New York animation community – and Ralph Bakshi decided to investigate.
Burt Hanft met with Ralph and hired him on the spot. Ralph was a coming off his successful career at Terrytoons, loaded with energy and with a successful series (Mighty Heroes) he created/directed for CBS under his belt. Hanft essentially gave Bakshi the same mandate he had given Culhane – get us to television. But first finish the shorts Paramount had promised to theaters. Outside of finishing Culhane’s The Opera Caper (now completely redesigned by Bakshi – see Culhane’s books for images from the original designs), Ralph had free reign to make four new shorts.“Super Basher and Bop”, Ralph’s super-hero spoof, was given a shot in The Fuz, and The Mini-Squirts has fun with the idea of two kids enacting adult situations. The most interesting short, historically, is Marvin Digs, Ralph’s only “Go-Go Toon”. As Ralph would go on to do Fritz The Cat and other feature cartoons exploring the current youth scene, Marvin Digs is our first glimpse of Ralph as social commentator – taking on the counter-culture of 1967 in a way no other animated film did during that era (notable exceptions from DePatie-Freleng include a Roland and Ratfink Hearts and Flowers and a Pink Panther, Psychedelic Pink). A snapshot of the ‘generation gap’ issues of the day, Marvin Digs represents what might have been if Paramount didn’t immediately shut its doors.
And thus it did. After completing the final contracted-for “Fractured Fable”, Mouse Trek, Ralph got the word. Let everyone go. It was over.
It’s too bad – Ralph had several interesting projects in the hopper. He experimented with an animated version of radio’s The Bickersons (see below), using the radio broadcasts for the voice track! He was also drawing up a Mad Magazine/Laugh-in type animated sketch comedy, The Pow Show, when Paramount gave him the signal to shut the place down.
Paramount was now out of the animation production business.
So here they are – the 28 cartoon shorts of 1967, the total mentioned in the clipping at the top by Mario Ghio, Executive-in-charge of Short Subjects for Paramount Pictures at that time.
The 28th cartoon on this list was another independent pick-up – this time from John Hubley, illustrating two Herb Alpert recordings. This film, Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass Double Feature (with animation by Bill Littlejohn and Rod Scribner!), won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short of 1966 – a final high note to cap Paramount’s historic role in the distribution (and production) of animated shorts.
ALTER EGOTIST (4/67) Harrington/Crane. When Cousin Maggie forbids Honey from playing with “real kids”, Honey brings a mischievous drawing, “Paperwitch”, to life.
CLEAN SWEEP (6/67) Harrington/Crane. Cousin Maggie and Honey change their look in order to take a busted magic broom to a fix-it shop.
HIGH BUT NOT DRY (8/67) Harrington/Dressler. Left to water the ragweed and toad stools, Honey uses magic to make it rain – but soon cannot control it.
BROTHER BAT (8/67) Harrington/Dressler. When Cousin Maggie goes to the store, Fraidy Bat stops by for a visit.
Six (6) NUDNIK cartoons
WHO NEEDS NUDNIK Gene Deitch. Everything Nudnik does annoys a house wife.
NUDNIK ON THE BEACH Gene Deitch. Nudnik has a awful day at the beach – but wins a surf competition.
GOOD NEIGHBOR NUDNIK Gene Deitch. Handy man Nudnik lives on an empty lot on a block filled with rich homes.
NUDNIK ON A SHOESTRING Gene Deitch. In need of a new shoelace, Nudnik explores a department store.
NUDNIK’S NUDNICKEL Gene Deitch. Nudnik finds a nickel – and that’s when his problems really begin.
I REMEMBER NUDNIK Gene Deitch. Nudnik lives in a downtown storage warehouse – and otherwise has a perfectly miserable day.
Seven (7) GO-GO TOONS
THE SPACE SQUID (1/67) Culhane. A “lost” cartoon. Supposedly a sci-fi “adventure”, perhaps to tie-into the pop-art, super hero craze at the time. My guess: it’s something like a combination of Johnny Cypher and Rocket Robin Hood.
THE SQUAW PATH (5/67) Culhane/Eugster/Beckerman. A tribal medicine man (and marriage broker) tries to fix up Geronimo with a new wife.
THE PLUMBER (5/67) Culhane/Beckerman. A plumber blows a tune through plumbing pipes and becomes a musical superstar.
A BRIDGE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (10/67) Harriton/Crane. On a bridge under construction, Hard Hat shows Fall Guy the ropes on his new job as a construction worker.
THE OPERA CAPER (11/67) Culhane/Crane/Bakshi. Two crooks attempt to kidnap a famous opera singer.
KEEP THE COOL, BABY (11/67) Harriton/Crane (written by Ruth Kneitel & Shamus Culhane). A spider gets outsmarted by clever worm.
MARVIN DIGS (12/67) Bakshi/Crane. Marvin and his hippie friends help his dad paint the house.
Four (4) MERRY MAKER Cartoons
THINK OR SINK (3/67) Culhane/Eugster. Bosco the elephant explains to a psychiatrist why he believes he can walk on water.
HALT WHO GROWS THERE? (5/67) Culhane. Hard Hat and Fall Guy try to stop a fast growing plant from taking over a construction site.
FROM ORBIT TO OBIT (6/67) Culhane. Another cartoon which seems to be missing. Anyone have a print?
FORGET ME NUTS (8/67) Buddy Boy gets Bosco The Elephant a job working inside a computer.
Six (6) FRACTURED FABLES
MY DADDY THE ASTRONAUT (4/67) Culhane/Eugster. Drawn in stick figure child art, a boy talks about his astronaut father.
THE STUCK-UP WOLF (9/67) Harriton/Eugster. Drawn in stick figure child art, a boy tells the story of “Red Robbin” Hood”.
THE STUBBORN COWBOY (10/67) Harriton/Eugster. Drawn in stick figure child art, a boy tells the story of a cowboy who won’t listen to advice.
THE FUZ (12/67) Bakshi/Crane. Superheroes Super Basher and Bop rescue Poopsie from the “fuzz” that’s following her around.
THE MINI SQUIRTS (12/67) Bakshi/Crane. The typical life of a modern married couple, as enacted by little boy and little girl.
MOUSE TREK (12/67) Bakshi/Crane. An Earth cat is abducted by alien cats who bring him to a planet terrorized by a giant mouse.
One (1) Special Release
HERB ALPERT AND THE TIJUNA BRASS DOUBLE FEATURE (12/66) John Hubley. Animation to illustrate the songs Tijuana Taxi and Spanish Flea. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Cartoon of 1966.
NEXT WEEK: 1968 and Beyond…
(Special Thanks to Ken Layton and Mike Kazaleh for their assistance)