The Authors Note: This post was written by Devon Baxter and Charlie Judkins. Some of the Krazy Kats presented here are from sourced from a camcorder taping from an Asifa-Hollywood retrospective screening, so please excuse the video quality and audience reactions.
Last week, I gave a vague hint about today’s installment, which is my special 100th post: respected Golden Age animators many readers associate with other studios set within a studio that is under-discussed. Now, here’s a question: what do Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Manny Gould, Dick Huemer, Sid Marcus, Art Davis, Emery Hawkins, Ray Patterson, and Preston Blair have in common? The answer—during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, each of these artists all worked at the Charles Mintz studio, an outfit whose animated films, such as Krazy Kat, Toby the Pup, and Scrappy, have lacked general exposure in this current generation. With the help of guest contributor Charlie Judkins, we hope to shed the light on the Mintz studio, with examples of their work in various titles. The Mintz posts will be broken down into small, different chapters— this week will focus on the early sound period from 1929 to 1931.
Beginning in 1927, up and coming NY area animators Ben Harrison and Manny Gould took over the production of Margaret Winkler’s Krazy Kat series, which Bill Nolan had been producing since 1925. While many of Harrison and Gould’s young employees remembered them as slave drivers who demanded lightning fast work, free overtime and pinched pennies in order to produce the cartoons for only $900 a film, several talented assistants developed here into full fledged animator/directors, principally Art Davis, Sid Marcus and Al Rose. Future greats such as Dave Tendlar, Berny Wolf and Shamus Culhane also cut their teeth working here as inkers.
In late 1929, producer Charles Mintz negotiated a deal with Columbia Pictures to adapt Krazy Kat to sound. Their first sound release, Ratskin, was released on August 15, 1929. As Shamus Culhane, then an inker, remembered it in his book, Talking Animals and Other People:
“All of the youngsters at Krazy Kat were enchanted by the Disney cartoons, but Harrison and Gould steadfastly depreciated the use of sound as a passing fancy. However, in 1929, a full year after Steamboat Willie was released, the two producers sprang a surprise upon the staff. With an air of great excitement, Harrison rigged up the projector and called the staff together for a screening.
Krazy Kat with sound was a disaster. The film was the usual insipid story and the gags were to match. The sound track sounded like a tornado in a boiler factory. When the cat blinked, somebody struck a cowbell. When she walked, her footsteps were accented by a bass drum. It was sheer cacophony!”
Later that year, Friz Freleng, previously an animator on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Disney and George Winkler in California, helped his colleagues Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising on a sound cartoon featuring their character Bosko. As he waited for the capital from Harman and Ising’s pilot film to materialize from various distributors, and to gain income for his family back in Kansas City, Freleng decided to move to New York to work at the Mintz studio, and took animator Ben Clopton along with him.
During his time in New York, Freleng wasn’t enthusiastic about the Mintz operation. In a September 1929 letter to Harman and Ising, Freleng wrote with indignation: “We’ve done so much gripeing [sic] that our fazes [sic] have grown that way…In case you ever want to write – we don’t give a damn if you don’t, we also hope you don’t.” Freleng met animator Art Davis at Mintz, and was given a young assistant, Harry Love—both of whom would become artists at Warners with Freleng later on. Evidently, Freleng was also disenchanted with the improvisational method of planning animation, as was the norm in the East Coast. When he learned that the Mintz studio didn’t use exposure sheets, Freleng obtained bookkeeping paper from a stationary store to use in its place.
Freleng’s animation on the Krazy Kat series appears in their third sound release, Port Whines, released October 1929. Freleng brought along his unique drawing/timing from the Oswald series, during the scenes of a sailor hen performing smoke ring stunts. His animation on the series impressed the staff, including Art Davis. In later years, Freleng felt that Davis’ animation was superior compared to the others. Shamus Culhane shared Freleng’s respect for Davis, recalling that Davis was considered “a much better draftsman than his employers.” For Port Whines, Davis animates most of the shots of the pirate captain and the Chinese cook, including the vibrant fight at the film’s finale. Though Davis’ animation for the early sound Mintz Krazy Kats is relatively loose, the movement is fluid and weighted, with quick, but subtle shifts in facial expressions.
Their fifth sound release, Farm Relief, released December 1929, has more extended sequences by Freleng and Davis. Freleng handles the introduction of the “blind pig” (Prohibition-era slang for a speakeasy), convincing a cow to test his moonshine at his makeshift operation. Freleng also animates the inebriated cow arriving at the barn, recruiting the other animals, and Davis animates the following scenes of the barnyard crowd rushing for the liquor, including the horse galloping away, in a drunken rampage. Freleng animates the lamb drinking a shot of liquor, which transforms him into a lion, enveloping his mouth into the camera—a carryover from his earlier animation for Disney.
Davis is given the extended sequence of Krazy, the animals—and the piano, too—singing Tell Taylor’s 1908 tune “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” Here, Davis’ work shows clear influence from his mentor Dick Huemer, whose animation generally contained the same sort of excessively detailed facial expression, strong posing, and—perhaps most famously—characters featuring sleepy, half-closed eyes. Davis—who in-betweened for Dick Huemer on and off at Fleischer’s from 1922 to 1926—had known and admired Huemer since Davis began his career as an errand boy at the Barre-Bowers studio in the summer of 1918. It’s unclear which animator handled the cow milking and hen laying gags in the opening of the cartoon. The same artist animates the drunken cow stumbling back to the barn and the risqué gag of Krazy milking the wrong animal at the end; he tends to draw the characters with oval-shaped “boggle eyes” and his movement is close to Davis’, but isn’t as loose.On January 1930, Harman and Ising met with producer Leon Schlesinger and settled a contract for their Looney Tunes series, which led to Freleng and Clopton’s departure from New York. By February 1930, Mintz decided to move his operation to the West Coast, accommodating most of the staff with a private railroad car. The penny-pinching aspect of the Harrison/Gould management extended to their cross-country ride to the West; an Indianapolis Star blurb from March 9, 1930, indicated that the animators were expected to continue working in the railroad car. By April, a different series was underway for the studio, with their new character Toby the Pup. The next month, Mintz signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures for a series with Toby, while still producing his Krazy Kat series for Columbia. Dick Huemer and Sid Marcus left Max Fleischer’s studio in New York during the same period, and the two joined the Mintz staff to animate on the Toby cartoons, with Art Davis working alongside them.
In Toby’s first cartoon in the series, The Museum (released August 1930), there are some recognizable scenes by Marcus and Davis. Davis animates the scenes of Toby being scolded by his lion boss and being handed cleaning supplies. The movement is similar to his fight scene in Port Whines; their arms swing and stretch, with the same timing and sense of volume. Davis also uses a nice touch as the lion points his finger in a punitive manner, while also inhaling and exhaling to hold back any further temperament. Sid Marcus animates the various scenes of Toby mopping the floor, along with the gags of dusting the statues, clipping their toenails and brushing their teeth. (Examples of Marcus’ recognizable style can be seen in his earlier work for Fleischer, such as the entirety of the Screen Song Bedelia and the whole “St. Louis Blues” number for the Talkartoon Hot Dog, both released in early 1930.) Davis animates the final scenes of Toby and his lion boss at the end of the film.
Shortly after the Mintz studio moved to the West Coast, Krazy took on a cuter look in his cartoons, presumably to match Disney’s Mickey Mouse. After Dick Huemer’s arrival at the studio, Manny Gould and Ben Harrison, who worked closely with him producing Mutt and Jeff cartoons from 1924-26, seemed to pick up some of Huemer’s sense of extreme facial expression. One particularly good example is the final sequence in this excerpt from Taken for a Ride (released in January 1931) of Krazy singing a weepy rendition of Howard Johnson’s 1915 composition “M-O- T-H- E-R,” to a pair of gangster gorillas, animated by Gould.
The seventh Toby cartoon, The Milkman, released February 1931, seems to be largely animated by Huemer and Marcus. Huemer animates the opening scenes of Toby watering his milk supply up until the vignette close-up of Toby stopping his milk wagon horse (0:22-1:19), and Marcus handles the following scenes, starting with Toby tossing the milk bottle to his first customer to seeing his horse asleep (1:19-3:10). Huemer animates an extensive sequence of Toby evading a thunderstorm, up until the long shot of the barn animals dancing to Wilbur Sweatman’s “Down Home Rag” (3:10-4:57). The barnyard orchestra, including the mice banging on one player’s toenails like a xylophone (4:57-5:17) is Marcus’ work; the preceding scene of the cow with a skirt (4:57-5:17) might be his, as well. Toby dancing with a buxom pig (5:33-6:05) is Huemer’s, while the ending scenes, from the banjo player up until Toby with the dancing tobacco (6:20-6:41) is Marcus.
The Toby the Pup series discontinued after twelve cartoons. While reviewers enjoyed Toby’s cartoons, Dick Huemer recalled that Mintz and RKO disliked them. (As of this writing, the Toby series is still relatively scarce, with only four other surviving titles.) In effect, RKO purchased a half-ownership deal with the Van Beuren Corporation in New York, which included the studio’s Aesop’s Fables, arguably much stranger than the Mintz product. Mintz needed a new character for the studio. Thus, the trio of animators behind Toby developed a series of cartoons for Columbia, featuring a little boy named Scrappy—which will be covered in our next installment.
Future “animator identification” posts Charlie and I will be collaborating on—with information as valuable as the content for today’s post—might be best doled out like precious gems, published intermittently as we see fit. Hope you’ve all enjoyed reading, and be sure to look out for more.
Next week will profile a Warners animator, from Friz Freleng’s unit, who also drew funny animal comics, mostly for Benjamin Sangor.
Here’s to 100 posts, folks!
(Thanks to Jerry Beck, Frank Young, Dave Gerstein, Steve Stanchfield and Michael Barrier for their help.)