The Belvision Years.
Starting with prehistory, first there were the weekly French and Belgian comics, beginning in the 1910s. These weekly comics came in two forms; a weekly full page in a regular adult newspaper starting in the 1910s and ‘20s, and a weekly boys’ magazine that specialized in about a dozen comic-strip stories, serialized one page a week for about a year, with several other juvenile features, starting in the 1930s. After completion and some editing if needed, the finished stories of the most popular strips were collected into an album-format cartoon-art novel, usually of 46 pages.
Les Aventures de Tintin by Hergé (Georges Remi, 1907-1983) was one of the first of these, beginning in Brussels’ Le Petite Vingtième on January 10, 1929. As usual with Belgian publications, there were separate French and Dutch editions, for the Walloon (French-speaking) and Flemish (Dutch-speaking) sections of the country. Tintin gradually grew so popular that when the Nazi German occupiers closed down Le Petite Vingtième in 1940, Hergé moved it to the major newspaper Le Soir. Meanwhile the separate boy’s comic-strip magazine, Le Journal de Spirou (April 21, 1938; the Dutch edition, Robbedoes, began on October 29, 1938) started and was very popular.
After the tumult of World War II (Hergé was briefly accused of being a Nazi collaborator for continuing to produce Tintin for a Nazi-approved newspaper), Hergé was approached in 1946 by Belgian publisher Raymond Leblanc. Leblanc had just started a major publishing company, Le Lombard, and he wanted to start a rival comic-strip magazine similar to Le Journal de Spirou. He proposed that Hergé move Tintin’s adventures there to become the showpiece of Le Journal de Tintin. Hergé agreed, and Le Journal de Tintin (in Dutch, Kuifje) appeared on September 26, 1946 (published to June 29, 1993). Leblanc hired three or four other artists such as Bob de Moor (1925-1992; Mr. Barelli), Edgar Jacobs (1904-1987; Blake et Mortimer) and Jacques Martin (1921-2010; Alix) who, in addition to starting their own comics, assisted Hergé in ghosting Tintin to two full pages per week.
By the early 1950s Le Journal de Tintin and its comics were a major success. The French edition was reprinted as a French magazine, with advertising for France, which had a much larger circulation. Raymond Leblanc decided to expand into animation of the Tintin stories for the new television market. His Belvision Studios started in Brussels in 1954, 1955, or 1956, according to different sources; the studio was founded in December 1954, it began production of animation during 1955, and its first animation went on the air in 1956.
Belvision took it slowly. Leblanc hired American animator Larry Harmon to help set up the studio. Its first animation released was simple pans and zooms of Dutch cartoonist Willy Vandersteen’s Bob et Bobette strip. Belvision advanced to paper cutout stop-motion serializations of the Tintin adventures The Broken Ear and King Ottokar’s Scepter in 1957-‘58, in 104 five-minute black-&-white episodes, produced in collaboration with France’s national RTF.
The next step was in 1959 when the animation direction was taken over by Ivan Szücs and supervised by Charles Snows from Hanna-Barbera, in cel animation and color. They sped up the animation from the more leisurely European style to the tighter, faster American style. Szücs produced the Tintin novel Objective: Moon, and top Tintin magazine writer Michel Greg was brought in to write a short adaption of Tintin magazine’s funny-animal series Chlorophylle the dormouse by Raymond Macherot. (This was not related to the 1990s French TV Les Enquetes de Chlorophylle, 52 13-minute episodes made with hand-puppets and live animals, and very environmentally-conscious. It was dubbed into English and shown on British TV as The Adventures of Grady Greenspace.)
Well, briefly, Belvision continued to grow. In the early 1960s it was contracted to animate an original feature for two Americans, Norm Prescott and Fred Ladd: Pinocchio in Outer Space, directed by Belvision’s Raymond Goossens. (To digress, it was while Pinocchio in Outer Space was just beginning production that Astro Boy appeared on Japanese TV in January 1963. NBC-TV’s representative in Tokyo called it to the attention of NBC’s head office as possibly worth getting for American TV. The little robot was described as “sort of a sci-fi Pinocchio”. The NBC executives were aware of Fred Ladd’s involvement with Pinocchio in Outer Space, which made him “the expert in sci-fi Pinocchio’s” as far as NBC was concerned. The network asked him if he thought Astro Boy was worth producing for American audiences, Ladd said “yes”, and that was how Ladd and his voice team came to produce Astro Boy for NBC, which led to Gigantor and Kimba the White Lion. Meanwhile, Pinocchio in Outer Space was finished and theatrically released in 1965; in Belgium on March 25 and in America on December 22. It quickly sank out of sight in both countries.)
Pinocchio in Outer Space was an original creation with no following. To Belvision, it must have seemed like a golden opportunity to get two paid years of theatrical animation experience before beginning theatrical features that had a guaranteed European fandom.
Next were two adaptations of a comic not from Le Journal de Tintin. In 1959 two French veteran cartoonists began Pilote, a French answer to the Belgian Spirou and Tintin magazines. One of the serials beginning in the first issue (October 29, 1959) was Astérix le Gaulois, written by Pilote co-editor René Goscinny and drawn by Albert Uderzo. Astérix was instantly fantastically popular throughout French-speaking Europe and Quebec. By the mid-1960s there were over a half-dozen Astérix albums that had gone into multiple printings. The then-publisher of Pilote, Dargaud, decided to animate the first of these, Astérix le Gaulois, plus the most popular in the series, Astérix et Cléopâtre. Dargaud did not have its own animation studio, so these were co-productions of Dargaud Films (which took all the credit) and Belvision with the animation actually by Belvision.
Astérix le Gaulois, 68 minutes, was directed by Belvision’s Ray Goossens and released on December 20, 1967; July 31, 1968 in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, Goscinny and Uderzo, the creators of the comic-book series, did not even know that this was being made. They were very dissatisfied with it, so they made sure that they were the co-directors of Astérix et Cléopâtre (72 minutes), released on December 19, 1968; September 24, 1969 in the U.S. Astérix le Gaulois introduced the small but cunning Gallic warrior, his beefy (don’t call him fat!) super-strong friend Obélix, the wise old Druid Panoramix (Getafix in English) who made the potion that gave Astérix super-strength, their little Gallic village on the Armorican coast (Normandy in later history) who were the only Gauls that could hold out against the conquering Roman legions of Julius Caesar, and those legions’ attempts to steal the secret of Panoramix’s potion. Astérix et Cléopâtre had Astérix and Obélix travelling to Egypt to help Cleopatra win a “friendly” bet with Julius Caesar.
Finally in 1969, Belvision released its own Tintin theatrical feature, after a decade of serialized television adaptations. Tintin et le Temple du Soleil (Tintin and the Temple of the Sun) was a combination of the 13th and 14th Tintin albums, The Seven Crystal Balls (1948) and Prisoners of the Sun (1949), a two-part story. The absent-minded scientist Professor Tryphon Tournesol (Cuthbert Calculus in the English translations of the series) is kidnapped in Belgium by modern Incas, who take him to their secret Andean temple to sacrifice him. Tintin and his friend Captain Haddock follow to rescue the Professor. The 77 minute feature, directed by Eddie Lateste, was released on December 13, 1969.
This was followed in 1972 by an original Tintin animated feature, but first there came the first Lucky Luke animated movie in 1971. Cartoonist Morris (Maurice de Bévère) had created the humorous Western about “The Man Who Shoots Faster Than His Shadow” for the Belgian Spirou magazine in 1946. In 1955, after the ninth album, Rails Across the Prairie, new Spirou staffer René Goscinny persuaded Morris that he drew better than he wrote, and the two formed a partnership by which Goscinny wrote Lucky Luke’s adventures and Morris drew them. Popularity shot upwards. After 22 more albums, Goscinny and Morris moved the series to Goscinny’s Pilote magazine in 1967.
Belvision animated Pilote’s more popular Astérix the Gaul in 1967 and 1968, and Goscinny wanted to see what could be done with Lucky Luke in animation. He wrote and directed the original story, which was released as Lucky Luke, a 71-minute movie on December 15, 1971. A wagon train of settlers crosses the featureless prairie until they see a lone daisy growing. They take that as a sign and build Daisy Town on that spot. It is immediately filled with outlaws who terrorize the settlers; the four Dalton Brothers being the worst. When Lucky Luke rides into town, the mayor and town leaders beg him to become Sheriff and clean up Daisy Town. The original story is mostly about Luke versus his regular adversaries, the Daltons, with all the other prominent characters in the series getting walk-on parts.
After other Lucky Luke animated features and TV series were made, the movie title was changed to Daisy Town in 1983, along with publication of the plot as an album drawn by Morris. (Goscinny had died in 1977.)
Tintin et le Lac aux Requins (Tintin and the Lake of Sharks) followed; 81 minutes, directed by Raymond Leblanc, released on December 13, 1972. The original story, developed by Hergé and the editor of Tintin magazine, Michel Greg (with the help of four others including Belvision’s Eddie Lateste and Goscinny’s co-editor of Pilote, Jean-Michel Charlier), was another potpourri that featured as many locations and regular characters from the series as possible. Professor Calculus, staying in a Balkan village near the Syldavia-Borduria border, has invented a matter duplicator that the villainous Rastapopoulous tries to steal. Tintin, who is Calculus’ bodyguard, stops him. Captain Haddock and Bianca Castafiore, the opera diva, also appear.
Next, Belgium’s other big comics magazine, Le Journal de Spirou, wanted to animate its biggest hit. Cartoonist Peyo (Pierre Culliford) had a long-running cartoony series about a young Medieval knight and his court’s smart-alec jester, Johan and Pirlouit. In 1958, with the ninth album, The Flute With Six Holes, Peyo introduced the little blue Schtroumpfs, who would become better-known under their later American name, the Smurfs. (Actually, the Schtroumpfs were already called Smurfs in Spirou’s Dutch edition.) The Schtroumpfs/Smurfs were an instant hit. There were a few more Johan and Pirlouit albums, but mostly Peyo wrote and drew the Schtroumpfs for the rest of his life. (Peyo died in 1992. His son and Peyo’s old collaborator, Spirou’s editor Yvan Delporte, have resumed the Johan et Pirlouit series.) In 1976 Peyo and Yvan Delporte developed the first Shtroumpf novel for animation, as The Flute With Six Schtroumpfs; called in America The Smurfs and the Magic Flute. It was 74 minutes; directed by Peyo, Jose Dutillieu, and Eddie Lateste; and released in Belgium on October 7, 1976.
In the Medieval kingdom, a flute with only six holes makes everyone who hears its music dance uncontrollably, then fall asleep. Evil Mathieu Torchesac (Matthew McCreep) steals the flute and uses it to rob people. Johan and Pirlouit go to the wizard Homnibus, who sends them magically to the forest village of the Schtroumpfs who made the flute. They help the young knight and jester to get it back.
After that, Belvision launched a series of 7-minute TV shorts showcasing other popular humorous characters in Tintin magazine: Colonel Clifton, a very British secret agent; Chick Bill, a cowboy; Spaghetti, a comic-relief Italian stereotype; Oumpah-pah, an American Indian at the time of the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s; and others. (Oumpah-pah was the comic that Goscinny & Uderzo had been doing pre-Astérix).
Mixed with this was a live-action documentary, Moi, Tintin (1976). Belvision also did the animation (mostly the Lilliputians) for a mostly live-action theatrical feature of Les Voyages de Gulliver. It was completed in 1977 but released all over Europe except in France or Belgium between 1977 and the 1980s. By the time they finished, other animation studios had started in France and Belgium, and Belvision’s monopoly of French-language animation was over.
Belvision was not the only French producer of TV animation. Dupuis Audiovisuel, a.k.a. TVA Dupuis, a spinoff of Le Journal de Spirou, animated at least its popular Schtroumpfs for TV years before Belvision made The Flute With Six Schtroumpfs in 1976. In 1959 there were seven 13-minute episodes made in black-&-white, and two in color. In 1965 Dupuis Audiovisuel edited the five black-&-white TV episodes together into the 87-minute theatrical feature, Les Aventures des Schtroumpfs, directed by Eddy Ryssack. The seven black-&-whites were the Peyo stories Les Schtroumpfs Noirs, L’Oeuf et les Schtroumpfs, Le Voleur de Schtroumpfs, Le Faux Schtroumpf, La Schtroumpf Volant, Le Schtroumpf Cet Inconnu, and Le Schtroumpf et Son Dragon; and the two color were La Schtroumpflûte and Le Schtroumpf-Robot.
Next week: Up through 1975.