In the summer of 1993, I (on behalf of Asifa Hollywood) got involved with organizing the Ojai Animation Festival, a short-lived but wonderful weekend out of town, that attracted many from the Hollywood community for a series of talks, screenings and previews of forthcoming animation. It was there I met Ginny Swift, of the Ojai Film Society which partnered with us to put the event on.
Ginny was the widow of animator Howard Swift and was quite involved with his latter work as an independent commercial animator. Though Swift ended his career animating on staff for Hanna Barbera in the 60s, 70s and into the 80s, he began it at the Disney studio in the 1930s. He was picked off the Disney picket lines to join the group Frank Tashlin was assembling at Screen Gems (Columbia) where he went from animator to director during the wartime years.
When Screen Gems closed in 1946, Swift teamed with producer Charles Chaplin (aka Charlie Chaplin) to create Swift-Chaplin Productions to make industrial films and ultimately animated commercials for the new world of television. At one point early in the festival planning, I had asked Ginny about some of her experiences working with Howard. She immediately began telling me about their working with Columbia Pictures producer Sam Katzman to do the flying animation of Superman.
Little did Ginny know, I was a big fan of those Saturday matinee serials, and was quite familiar with Sam Katzman’s films – and his ultra low budgets. She had just answered one of my Holy Grail questions: Who did the animation in those Columbia serials? Now we know: Howard Swift – the man who animated half of “Pink Elephants On Parade” in Dumbo, part of “Dance of The Hours” in Fantasia, directed the Fox & Crow, the short-lived L’il Abner and the ill-fated Flippy cartoons for Columbia.
Apparently, Superman was supposed to fly in some way similar, but inferior, to the Lydecker’s expert effects in Republic’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Or at least they tried…
It didn’t work. Someone, most likely director Spencer Bennet, recalled some tricks used back in the silent era – replace the human Superman with an animated one. A cartoon animated one. At the eleventh hour Swift was called in to the set and helped stage the shots so they had the “backplate” for Superman to fly over. In retrospect, Swift did an incredible job – but the kids didn’t buy it. It was an obvious cheat. Despite advertising that promied this wasn’t a cartoon… it was a cartoon.
However Superman was so popular, actor Kirk Alyn so appealing and the serial was so successful – it seemed no one really cared. Audiences went along with it. In fact, they demanded a sequel.
First, here’s a clip of the animation from Superman (1948):
Katzman knew he had something here – a low cost way to do special effects he couldn’t begin to afford. The producer kept Swift busy for the next few years. In 1949, Katzman produced a serial based on the aviation comic strip Bruce Gentry. Tom Neal starred and was threatened throughout fifteen chapters by mysterious flying discs – the discs provided by Howard Swift:
In 1950, Katzman came through with a sequel, Atom Man Vs. Superman. This one was better in several ways, not the least of which was casting Lyle Talbot as Luthor. This time they knew they were going to use animation, so the planning was better, and Katzman seemed to give Swift a few more bucks to give the cartoon effects more shading and nuance – barely. Katzman saved a few bucks, however, by re-using all the Bruce Gentry flying saucer footage as Luthor’s secret atomic weapons.
In 1951, Katzman brought to the screen the infamous Captain Video – the first TV-to-movie adaptation ever. A perfect place to use Swift for space ships and other outer space effect shots… here’s a small sample:
Years later, while researching Glenar Productions paperwork in the Asifa-Hollywood archive (Glenar was an animation camera service in Hollywood), I found these papers relating to Howard Swift’s work on the Captain Video serial. Below, part of an exposure sheet; below that, the work order for two sequences “Pan of Rocket” and “Truck in on Planet”.
As serials waned in the 1950s, Swift was used less and less… his final bits for Katzman were in The Lost Planet (1953) – for cliffhangers like this:
As funky as these effects are, Katzman and Swift were actually way ahead of their time. Today when Spiderman swings over Manhattan, or when Superman, Green Lantern, Thor and Iron Man fly into action, the live action actors are replaced by CG animation. Same idea – newer techniques.
If it were up to me, I’d turn them into two-dimensional cartoons – just like the old days. It’s a lot more fun.