An unusual post today… one of those “Things I Promised Not To Tell”. Today I will talk about how I happened to come into possession of a mint condition, one-of-a-kind 35mm print – struck in 1994, direct off the camera negative – of a 1956 Famous Studios Noveltoon “Swab The Duck” (featuring Baby Huey).
In 1993, having recently moved on from five years with Streamline Pictures, and deep into writing my book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, I was offered a job at the home office of Harvey Comics in Santa Monica, to assist the production of a new “Baby Huey Show”. The show was being produced for syndication (by Claster TV) with my good friends at Carbunkle Cartoons in Vancouver. My initial role was to assist the Producer Harvey had hired… and help facilitate the selection of older “Harveytoons” for the show.
In some ways the half-hour was a cheat – there would be one new Carbunkle cartoon, followed by a miscellaneous 50s “Harveytoon” and a 1950s Baby Huey “classic”. It would be up to me to select the cartoons to be used – and make them ready for broadcast.
Within a few weeks, the producer Harvey had hired quit the production (or was “let go” – I have no idea). I was soon asked to take her place. Cool! It was an interesting situation (I’ll leave the full details for a future “Things I Promised Not To Tell” entry), but the job entailed my being the point person between Harvey, Claster and Carbunkle. Strangley enough, I enjoyed it! I wish I had further opportunities to “produce” in this fashion.
Beyond selecting the “classic” cartoons, my two biggest contributions to getting the older cartoons ready for the show was (1) including the very first Huey cartoon, Quack-A-Doodle-Doo (1950), and (2) restoring Swab The Duck (1956) for broadcast.
Concerning the first cartoon – remember, Quack-A-Doodle-Doo was NOT in the Harvey library. It was released pre-September 1950, and was sold by Paramount to the U.M.& M. TV Corp (later NTA). I was able to prove to Claster and my bosses at Harvey that the first Huey was in public domain… and to scan a 35mm Technicolor print I had (from my personal film collection) for the show. We also needed the cartoon for the show. There were only thirteen Famous Studios Baby Huey cartoons produced between 1950 and 1959 – and the order for our new show was only 13 episodes.
Swab The Duck was another story. Back in those pre-digital, standard-def days of analog television, we were using 1-inch master tapes – of transfers made seven years earlier for a series of Worldvision VHS home videos. I reviewed them and they were fine – except for Swab The Duck. It was obvious that the grainy version on the Harvey master tape was transferred – terribly – from a 16mm print.
I showed this to my Harvey overlords – and initially they couldn’t see any difference. I needed to show them several cartoons off the master tapes for them to comprehend how bad this copy of Swab The Duck was. Then they made a momentous decision that not only worked to improve the cartoon – but taught me something I had not known until that moment. They sent me to the Paramount Pictures lot on Melrose Ave. to retrieve the original sound and picture elements!
I had not known – till then – that Paramount had all the 1950s “Harveytoon” master film materials – the Technicolor negatives. I soon learned that Harvey had bought (back in 1958) all the rights to the characters and cartoons EXCEPT the theatrical rights. That’s because Paramount was still reissuing the cartoons to theaters (the cartoon’s original audience – and Paramount’s main business in 1958). So Paramount kept all the original negatives – with the understanding that Harvey had rights to borrow these materials whenever they needed them.I delivered the materials to a local Hollywood film lab a few blocks away – and the sound track to Chace Sound in Burbank who worked to enhance the soundtrack. All we (Harvey/Claster) needed was a hi-con negative with which to make a positive film transfer to video.
I got a phone call a few days later from the lab wanting to know if “Harvey wanted a composite 35mm answer print with the order?”. I recall saying that as long as we got a nice transfer on video, that is all we really needed for our show. The minute those words came out of my mouth, I had a second thought. “How much would a composite 35mm print cost?”, I asked… The lab said it would be another $300. added to the bill.
I immediately said, “Yes. Make a print!”. Harvey had no use for a print of Swab The Duck. No one really did. But I wanted it. I figured if my bosses asked about it – if I got caught – I’d pay the $300 bucks out of my own pocket. They never did.
A week later, the lab called me to come in and look at the answer print. In theory, if there was anything wildly wrong with the picture, they would re-do it with different color timing. My friend (and fellow Paramount cartoon fan) Andrew J. Lederer accompanied me to the screening room, where we sat to watch a Baby Huey cartoon on the big screen, in a brand new print, at the lab – something that probably hasn’t happened in over 25 years. It was a religious experience. We felt the spirit of Seymour Kneitel in the room.
I still have the print to this day. I showed it as part of my Famous Studios Tribute at the Museum of Modern Art in 1995 – where I heard audible gasps at the quality of the opening titles when they came on. I ran this print over the years when it was appropriate – which wasn’t very many times. Perhaps once at The Silent Movie Theater during the Cinefamily screenings… maybe at an Asifa screening at some point…
I decided recently to get it scanned in High Def – and am happy to share it with you. Thank you Dino Everett at the USC Archive for doing it with an open aperture – full frame – so we can see the animation pegs at top, registration markings, and camera instructions that were captured on film – but unseen by theatre and television audiences… until now.
This is a raw scan – no color correction or other enhancements to make it perfect for broadcast, theatrical or physical media sale. It’s faded a little in those 29 years since it was struck. Imagine this with vivid color and you’ll have an idea of what we watched in that screening room in 1994, or at MoMA in 1995… or what theater audiences saw in Technicolor back in 1956.
About the cartoon itself… Personally I love the character of Baby Huey. He’s funny. I love Sid Raymond’s performance of the character – the oafish innocent. No attempt to use a younger actor, or to modulate Sid’s voice to sound like a child… Baby Huey has an adult man’s voice – Genius! This particular cartoon has everything down pretty solid – including Sharples’ score, and other voices by Mercer (the ducklings) and Jackson Beck (the fox). In the thick of 1950s UPA styling sweeping animation, this was one of the last Paramount cartoons to use traditional background paintings by Anton Loeb – and they are beautiful.
No one should dismiss the Paramount cartoons over their repetition. These cartoons were produced at a time when no one in the general public had any way to “repeat view” them – no television rebroadcast, not video tape or streaming services. If an idea worked once, there was no reason not to repeat it. Animated cartoons in theaters were as ephemeral as daily comic strips in the newspaper. Watched once and then forgotten. This explains why their were so many topical references during the golden age. The Paramount studio turned out a slick, professional “product” (yes, I’ll use that term). I have screened this print for audiences in theaters – and I’ve heard them laugh at some of the gags. Swab The Duck is far (very far) from the funniest cartoon ever made, but is a somewhat quintessential Famous Studios cartoon of the mid-1950s.
If you liked today’s post, I have more stories from my time at Harvey (and Nickelodeon, Disney, Streamline Pictures, etc); more “Things I Promised Not To Tell” from my so-called career. I’ll save them for future posts if the reaction to this one is positive.